Thursday, July 12, 2007

"Country Roots and Southern Branches"

From: Mr. Bee

I was born on October of 1940; the third of what would be nine children, 5 girls and 4 boys. I was the oldest son, the first son. I was delivered by a country doctor and midwife at home. The house I was born in was a share—cropper’s shack. Dad worked for a wealthy farmer who owned a large farm in Portland, Kentucky, on what was known as Grassy Creek.

Some of my earliest and dimmest memories are of playing with the owner’s children around the farm. I was told that we moved to Newport, Kentucky when I was barely three years old. Is it possible to remember events that happened at that young age? Either it-is possible or I am remembering events that happened on occasions when we went to visit the farm after moving to Newport.

Dad worked at the Wright Plant up in Ohio at that time. It was during World War II and the Wright Plant was a defense plant, manufacturing gears and sprockets for planes, tanks and other weapons of war. The government did not draft him because he had too many children. I remember rationing and scrap drives for metals that were in short supply. Gasoline was rationed and tires were all but impossible to get, but what did that matter to someone who had no automobile?

We were poor but I didn’t know it. Everyone was in the same boat in the neighborhood we lived in so poor people didn’t stand out. Everyone’s life was difficult and we just did the best we could. There were free garden plots allocated to families with children. The garden plots were located in the east end of Newport, on land that was owned by the city and many years later become a landfill. There is a shopping mall, high school and a section of the 471 circle expressway there now.

We were fortunate enough to get a plot and everybody pitched in and helped. Nothing went to waste. What we couldn’t eat right away was put up in Mason jars and stored in the earthen floor basement of our two family house. My Aunt Fannie and Uncle Steve lived on the first floor, we lived on the second floor and some strange, old man lived in the attic by himself. He was like a hermit. Not sociable at all. Came and went without so much as a word. No one knew anything about him, not even his name.

Being the only boy for most of my life at home was not the best of circumstances. Of course, I was the only child who didn’t have to wear hand—me—downs, but I was expected to be the man of the family when Dad wasn’t around. That was a heavy responsibility at times. I protected my sisters. I had to learn to fight at an early age. I was small, skinny and had very large ears.

School was not one of my favorite things in life. I only tolerated it, knowing that my parents would have more trouble to contend with if I didn’t go everyday and at least get passing grades. It was best for my bottom and their peace of mind that I just squeaked by with D’s and E’s and some C’s.

Things were looking up! Dad got a job at the Newport Steel Rolling Mill after the War was over and they had closed the Wright Plant. He could walk to work everyday and the pay was good enough that we were soon able to afford a car, a 1937 Plymouth Coupe that had a rumble seat. It wasn’t big enough for all of our family, so needless to say, we didn’t take family excursions or vacations.

Back in the early 1950’s I spent some of my summer vacations with an Uncle who lived in Booneville, Kentucky; that’s in Owsley County. It was like going back into the past. There was no actual road leading to his house. We drove up what was a dry creek bed, very slowly, watching for places where rocks were jutting up higher than the rest of the surrounding rocks, fearing they would knock the muffler loose. It required one to take a zigzag path up the creek bed. Eventually, we left the creek bed, up a gradual rise of the right creek bank and onto what looked like an old wagon road. It was just two wheel ruts with a mound in the middle.

The house was a sight to see, sitting back in a notch cut out in the side of a mountain. The house was hardly more than a shanty constructed of loosely fitted, rough hewn, poplar boards. It had a small porch out front, and the whole thing was mounted on posts that elevated it approximately four feet off the ground. There was a barn and outhouse down a path to the left of the house. The roof was covered with sheets of metal; I think it was tin. It was rusty and reflected a red tint in the sun. There were only two rooms in the house, large rooms, one a huge kitchen, the other an even bigger bedroom. There was no kind of covering on the floor, just bare boards with large cracks between the boards. Keeping the floor clean was a simple matter of sweeping the top of the boards and letting the dirt fall between the cracks onto the ground below.

There was no electricity. Kerosene lanterns provided light. All meals were prepared on a wood-burning stove. A tank on the side held water that stayed hot as long as there was fire in the stove. Flypaper strips hung everywhere around the house. The doors, one at the front leading onto the porch and one in the back led out of the kitchen. Just outside the kitchen door was an empty, fifty-pound lard can. It was called the slop bucket. Into it went just about everything one could consider edible, even some things I didn’t consider edible. They even poured dirty dishwater into it after meals. Every evening, whoever was assigned slop bucket duty, (usually a team of two children) carried the can over to the pigpen and poured its contents into the feed trough. Never have I heard such sucking and slurping noises.

After sundown, we would sit on the porch and swap stories or just talk. We could not stay out on the porch too long. The lantern that provided light was a lure to all kinds of bugs. Hard shelled beetles, hundreds of various kinds of moths, katydids and every once in a while, a creature they called a “Grampus”. It was big and had a fearsome pair of mandibles, or as they called them, pinchers. I would later find out they were the adult form of a Dobson Fly. In the larval stage they were called “Hellgrammites” and were sought after for fish bait.

Life was primitive in the mountains, but was it ever enjoyable. I would save some money every year for that visit. For a dollar and twenty cents, I could buy a whole case of RC Cola and give everyone a rare treat. I bought my first sack of Bull Durham tobacco during one of those visits and learned to roll my own. I was also introduced to chawing baccer as they called it. Days Work, Brown’s Mule or the cheaper kind, Wild Duck twists. Some of it was sweet and tasted good for a minute or two until the ambure started to seep out the corners of your mouth. I would keep it in my mouth just long enough to become deathly ill and turn two or three shades of green around the gills.

Since there was no electricity, there was no refrigeration. Anything you wanted to keep from spoiling had better fit in the old milk can that was suspended on a rope and lowered down into the dug well which provided all the families drinking water. Only much later in life did I come to fully understand the need for a smoke—house.

If meat was going to be preserved, it had to be smoked or salted or canned. I used to think that smoking meat was just a way to make it taste better. Turns out, that wonderful smoky flavor was a bonus derived from the preservation process. Everyone had a root cellar of course, but it was only cool, not cold. Vegetables and berries and fruit could be kept for a length of time there. I gained a certain respect for the resourcefulness of rural Americans. They possessed a strength forged from hardship, nurtured by an awesome respect for God and maintained by close, family ties.

I can recall some hot, July days, when boys were boys. We explored the surrounding countryside, poking our curious noses into places they sometimes had no business being. Coming upon another man’s watermelon patch, and seeing several mature ones, just laying there, begging to be picked and eaten; we obliged, keeping a wary eye peeled for the owner and made our escape back to the house. My Uncle had his own coalmine, a small one, for his own personal use.

It was a low tunnel, not too deep into the mountain. I had occasion to go back in it, all the way to the coalface, where we used a pick to harvest a wheelbarrow full of coal for my Uncle. The floor of the mine was always covered with seep water. Its sulfur content made it smell like rotten eggs, but it was cold. We stashed our ill— gotten booty a ways back in the mine entrance, half submerged in one of the deeper pools of seep water. They lay in that water for the best part of a day, which transformed them into mouth-watering treats that we would consume under the cover of darkness. They were not as ripe as one would like, but we ate them with great gusto. Needless to say, we paid for our transgression the next day by frequent trips to the old outhouse.

Most of our days were filled with grapevine swinging, fishing, swimming, hunting and generally, just enjoying ourselves. There were times we had to work right along with the adults. Tobacco was the main money crop and it required a lot of long, hot hours of labor. I was described as a left—handed (expletive deleted) after I had broken the handles out of three tobacco, cutting knives. I was demoted to spearing the tobacco plants, after someone else cut them. The only work I found to be harder was putting up hay.

There was adventure enough to be found, enough to fill any young man’s idle hours. We held marksmanship contest with rifles, shotguns, pistols and bows and arrows. Competition ran the gambit, right down to throwing rocks and chucking horseweed spears at imaginary targets envisioned in our minds. Some things we found to do were downright dangerous; things like setting off quarter-sticks of dynamite for the forth of July and holding quick-draw competitions with hair-triggered pistols. I remember one instance when I nearly shot myself in the thigh as the front sight hung up in the holster and the hammer slipped from my thumb when it was in a half-cocked position.

One of our favorite activities was knocking bats from the air with long, cane fishing poles. We would remove the hook, leaving the lead sinker and a short length of line. Late in the evening, bats would fly around the barn, catching insects that were leaving the hayloft, where they had been hiding during the daylight hours. Twirling the sinker round and round from the tip of the cane fishing pole which we held high over our heads, the bats would detect the fast moving sinker, think it was insect prey and dive for it. If your timing was right and your aim perfect, you could slash at the bat with the whip—like action of the limber cane pole and knock a bat right out of the air.

Those were wonderful times and I have many precious memories stored away in my mind. Those adventurous days ended the summer I broke my arm acting like a squirrel. My cousin was chasing me and I ran for a Walnut tree across the creek that ran in front of the house and started climbing it. I was doing just great until I grabbed hold of a dead branch while 20 foot off the ground. The branch gave way under my weight and I went plummeting backwards out of the tree. I threw my arms behind me to break my fall. It broke my fall all right, but the impact with the ground caused a compound fracture of my left arm. The break was so clean; it was as if the bone had been sawn in two with a surgeons saw. The doctor in Jacksonville lacked the experience needed to set that kind of break; it required a specialist.

My parents had to miss work, drive down to Booneville, and get me to a bone specialist at home. They we slightly upset, to say the least. The result was eight weeks in a special cast and a moratorium on summer vacations in the mountains of Kentucky. You know what we old Hillbillies always say...

"Those were the days."

(reprint from October, 2005)