Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Another Squirrel Tale

In the last few days I was reminded about the fox squirrels down home around my hometown of Beloved. Accordin' to what I've read they are the largest squirrels in North America, maybe the whole doggone world, I reckon.

Though I don't often tell stories on myself, the reminder has done thrown me back to a story from my misspent youth. I was about eleven or twelve when it happened, don't you know. It was fall an' the leaves was beautiful, red, yellow an' orange all over the mountainsides.

Daddy an' Mama had left me to visit with Grandma an' Uncle Buck for a week or two up on Double Creek. I remember it like it was yesterday. They had left brother Mike with Mama's sister, Aunt Geneva's for a while an' handed me off to Grandma an' Uncle Buck. I had hardly got out of the back seat of the car when Daddy took off. I heard Mama say, "I ain't give him his clothes yet." Daddy, bein' the lovin' parent that he was stopped long enough for Mama to toss that cardboard box of clothes toward me. Well, actually she tossed them into the weeds. They was off like they was bein' chased by a devil. It weren't a devil though. It was only me chasin' 'em an' throwin' rocks. Sigh. Good memories.

I got settled in at Grandma's house an' commenced to wander the woods. Ever' day I would sit an' listen to the birds, the sounds risin' from other cabins further up Double Creek. I also heard the barkin' of hundreds of them ol' fox squirrels. All over the ridge of the mountain they ran, up an' down the dry branches, climbin' the oaks for the acorns they hadn't grabbed an' hidden yet.

The gray squirrels was up there too, but agin the fox squirrel gangs they stood little chance cause they was so much smaller. They got by with stealth an' bein' sneaky. The fox squirrels survived by muscle an' strength.

Well now, my Grandma made about the best fried squirrel an' squirrel dumplin's the world has ever seen. We was sittin' at the table one day an' I asked Grandma if she would fix some squirrel dumplin's an' she said if Uncle Buck would shoot some she would. He grinned that crooked grin of his an' said "Sure nuff. We'll go tomorrow".

The next mornin' Uncle Buck woke me early an' told me to get dressed. I met him at his ol' pickup truck an' we was off. He drove us way up to the mouth of Double Creek before we stopped. He said he didn't want to get them fox squirrels close to the house riled up, y'see.

When we got out I grabbed my 22 rifle. Daddy had always said a feller needed to learn to shoot squirrel with a 22. Shotgun pellets tore the meat up too much. Uncle Buck took a minute to grab a big ol' army backpack which he shouldered an' then he picked up a 30-06 rifle out from behind the truck seat. I sort of figured he was afraid we might see a bear or maybe a panther or some such.

I didn't know exactly what he had in that backpack for it seemed to be awful heavy as he shouldered it. We climbed the mountain real quiet like. It was a right smart piece up to the top. We had to stop several times for Uncle Buck to rest. I just figured he was a'gettin' old. Heck, he was about 33 at the time. Ancient, as far as I was concerned.

We snuck along the ridge for quite a while till I heard that familiar bark of a fox squirrel. Uncle Buck shushed me an' took the backpack off his shoulders. I watched an' was sorta surprised when he took out a big ol' grapplin' hook, a big ol' long coil of heavy rope, about 30 feet of log chain an' a come along.

We left his supplies by a huge oak tree, about eight feet 'round an' commenced sneakin up on that fox squirrel. As we tippy toed our way closer, I kept seein' stumps along the way that looked almost like a beaver had chewed the tree down. I whispered to Uncle Buck my opinion about the stumps an' he whispered "Nah, it is that fox squirrel what did that.".

Now,I won't lie. I was lookin' forward to the hunt till he said that. It was at that moment that we came out of some tall sweet grasses an' saw it right 'bout 50 yards away. It was huge! It had a tail must-a been five or six yards long! Each back leg had hams that was as big as a full grown hog. It had to be 25 or 30 hands tall. It was way bigger than their ol' mule an' he was eighteen an' a half hands tall at the withers.

Uncle Buck handed me the 30-06, tol' me to creep over to a hickory tree, put my back to it, aim the rifle an' fire. I did just that, not knowin' where Uncle Buck went to. That rifle went off "Balooie" an' it threw me plumb on my back an' into the weeds. As I laid there stunned dumb as a rock I heard a terrible barkin' an screechin' goin' on. Trees was a fallin' all 'round an' Uncle Buck was a whoopin' an' hollerin' to beat the band. "You hit it! You got him!!"

I got up, brushed myself off just in time to see Uncle Buck throw that grapplin' hook. It landed in the scruff of that fox squirrel's neck. 'Course it was tied to that big ol' rope an' the rope was tied to the log chain an' he was a' tighten' it up with the come along. The log chain was wrapped aroun' the biggest white oak on the ridge. Uncle Buck waited till the rope an' chain was pulled tight by the carryin' on of that squirrel. He then ran up the chain, up the rope an' onto the back of that terrible thing!

I wasn't too bad scared till it turned an' bared its fangs at me an' barked loud, like it was a callin' others to help it. That was when Uncle Buck pulled out a long leather belt an' leaned down to wrap that belt around the muzzle of that dang fox squirrel so it wouldn't bite him or me or call to the herd of fox squirrel livin' on the mountain. I heard the rumblin' an trampin' of other fox squirrels comin' toward us till Uncle Buck wrapped that belt around the muzzle. When it stopped a' callin' the others stopped, listened an' went back to their business.

I won't plump up the story an' tell y'all lies about that day. I'd rather eat fried chicken than lie to y'all. It was a battle, though. Uncle Buck wrassled an' rode that thing up an' down the hollers, round the hill as it knocked over tree after tree, pulled some up by the roots, big ol' trees, a hundred foot tall or more. It would toss them toward its own back tryin to hit Uncle Buck. Just to give you an idea of how bad the battle was, Uncle Buck was able to log that mountain for three years just by cuttin' up the trees that fox squirrel had torn out or knocked over.

It pulled that big ol' white oak out by the roots an' as it wallered its way down the mountain it made a wide an' straight swatch down the hillside. It was such a straight swatch of clear mountainside that the Rural Electric Company was able to use that path to put up them big ol' electric towers along the path an' bring electric to 700 families up an' down the Red Bird River, thanks to my Uncle Buck an' that fox squirrel.

By the time they was down from the mouth of Double Creek an' to the bottom of the hill folks had heard the carryin' on' an' had gathered at Grandma's house to wait. As Uncle Buck came into view a' ridin' that gigantic squirrel they commenced to clappin' an' cheerin'. They was gonna be enough squirrel meat to feed more than a dozen families for the winter.

Finally Uncle Buck knew it was time to stop before that squirrel tore up my Great Aunt Maggie's cabin what was right across the creek an' which was bein' slapped by that fox squirrel's tail. He took out a little ol' ball peen hammer from his pocket an' tapped that fox squirrel right between the ears. It fell over deader than a door knuckle. They have a soft spot between the ears like a lot of folks have, don't ye know.

Ever' one gathered round the carcass and before you knew it they was hams an' squirrel bacon salted an' hanging in smokehouses up an' down the holler. They was a grindin' squirrel sausage, addin' salt, sage an' other spices. The backstrap was given to Grandma an' with the help of five or six other womenfolks she started a fire an set on it her big ol' copper pot that she usually made apple butter in. the youngins, includin' me hauled over 300 gallons of spring water to fill that copper pot. When it was boilin' they threw in the backstrap chunks, salt and other secret ingredients, Eleven secret herbs an' spices in all.

That pot simmered an' cooked for hours. The womenfolks sat an' worked on quilt pieces while they waited. The menfolks skinned out the fox squirrel an' since the hide was too big for Grandma's barn alone, they scraped it, cut it into pieces, salted it an' nailed it to the sides of fourteen barns to cure. It looked like ever' barn in the holler had a red fur coat on that fall. When they was a' gradin' their 'baccer crops, tyin' hands an' puttin' 'em into the 'baccer presses they didn't hardly need a fire in the woodstoves. Them pieces of that fox squirrel's hide kept them barns that warm.

Finally, Grandma said it was time for the dumplin's. Man, oh man, did them women hurry and grab flour, salt an' all the fixin's. Some made drop dumplin's, other rolled them out. Grandma supervised after she made her own an' tossed 'em in. She used her long apple butter stirrer to make sure the dumplin's didn't stick together.

It didn't take long for the dumplin's to be done. Grandma's was so light they had to put a fish net over the top of the kettle to keep them from floatin' off.

My cousin, Peanut heard they was gonna be some dumplin's fed to folks an' he showed up with the whole Chappell Clan; Vergie an' Mizz Chappell, Brother Woodrow Budder and Peanut's sister, Sister Hazel Nutt Budder, Peanut's brothers Wally Nutt Chappell, Ol' Hickory Nutt Chappell, Cornelius Nutt Chappell (we called him Corny Nutt).

They was Nutts all over the place.

Plates an' bowls was brought from all up an' down Double Creek. Folks ate with forks, spoons an' even their fingers. Long saplin's were laid out that was sharpened to a point an' with a barb to spear the extra light dumplin's as they drifted up from the broth an' skyward. "My, oh my, oh my" was all a feller could say. It was some kind of mountain feast.

Most folks was so full an' worn out from the eatin', the preparin' an' the storytellin, singin', the playin' of fiddles, guitars, bannjers an' other instruments that many stayed right there at Grandma an' Uncle Buck's place. Must'a been fifty or so that slept in the hay loft.

Hundreds of eggs, dozens of slabs of bacon an' fourteen hams was brought the next mornin' as the womenfolks made breakfast. The men cleaned up the mess from the day before an' started boilin' the bones to make broth an' then to clean the bones up good. For years fellers played fox squirrel bone whistles, youngin's rode on stick ponies made from longer bones. One feller asked for the big bones an' made a honeymoon cabin for him an' his new bride. Grandma used the skull of that critter as a hen house for years.

Yessir, that was a fine visit with Grandma and my Uncle Buck.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgiving Prodigal

Thanksgiving was a quiet day for Billy Gilbert. Since his wife Del died he mostly spent Thanksgiving alone. It wasn't that he didn't have folks who invited him to come be with them, he had turned down half a dozen invites for Thanksgiving this year. Around the little mountain town of Beloved, Kentucky everyone knew "Uncle Billy" Gilbert. He had an abundance of friends, neighbors and kin within a few miles.

Uncle Billy was also sought after by just about ever' older woman in the community. Hazel Williams led the pack. She had proclaimed about a year after Aunt Del Gilbert passed that "William Gilbert Senior was gonna be her man one of these days".

When Uncle Billy heard that second or third hand he just laughed, shook his head an' said, "That ain't ever gonna happen, y'all. No one could ever fill Del's place, especially not Hazel Williams. She don't even know my proper name, for goodness sakes."

Her statement just rubbed him the wrong way for a whole bunch of reasons. First an' foremost was the plain ol' fact he weren't interested in her or any other woman. He was 78 years old, set in his ways, content with life an' just not lookin'.

Mostly Hazel was plain ol' aggravatin'. She was the worst gossip that lived in Beloved, nosy, a busybody an' not much of a cook. She would drop by his ol' farm up the little holler to pay a "social call" an' to check on "poor ol' Bill" way too often for Uncle Billy. He got to parkin' his truck in the barn just so she would think he was gone an' leave him alone. Now an' again she would catch him out in the barnyard or on the porch. She would get out without an invite, stroll up an' take over his time, stayin' for hours if he couldn't think of anythin' to get up an' go do.

An' he hated that she called him "Bill" or "William". That weren't his name. No one called him Bill an' never was he William! His name was simply Billy Gilbert. That was his given name. Actually since his son was born he was Billy Gilbert Senior. He was Uncle Billy an' his son became "Little Billy" or for many it was "Little Bill". When he got older Little Billy had asked to be called Will instead of Little Billy. It made sense to have their names a bit different an most folks did call him Will, though some of the older kinfolks still referred to him as Little Billy.

Uncle Billy had told Hazel that his name wasn't Bill or William a thousand times. He suspected she was just uppity an' thought Billy was too common a name.

Well anyway, Uncle Billy had plenty of invites, he just preferred to be alone on Thanksgiving. Actually he was only alone Thanksgiving afternoon. By evenin' his ol' cabin became the meetin' place for a dozen men an' boys who always showed up with plates full of leftovers from their family feast.

It had started spontaneously several years before, two years or so after Aunt Del had passed. Folks got worried that Uncle Billy was spendin' Thanksgiving alone an' more than a dozen men an' boys showed up carryin' plates an' bowls prepared by wives wantin' to make sure the ol' man of the holler had some good food in his belly. They all spent the evenin' sittin' around, sharin' leftovers, tellin' stories an' enjoyin' the good company of men raised together.

That had become an unofficial custom for many of the fellers in the community. By evenin' they would kiss their wives an' family goodbye an' make their way to the little holler where Uncle Billy lived. They would have hands full of good food as they headed in the door of the ol' cabin. No one knocked, they all just went in. They were expected.

Uncle Billy stirred a huge pot of soup beans as he thought of the get together that would happen later that night. He had already made two cast iron skillets of regular cornbread an' two skillets of cracklin' bread (cornbread with cracklin's baked in). He would make a couple more skillets of cornbread before all them boys got there later. That was what he had made himself the first year an' it had become a tradition. Actually, he hadn't made soup beans the second year an' fellers asked him where the soup beans was!

As he stirred the soup beans he heard the screen door slap as it shut. Strange that someone was there that early. He really hoped it wasn't ol' Hazel Williams.. She snuck around an' would show up on Thanksgivin' now an' again. He wiped his hands on a dishrag an' turned to see who had come in.

Imagine his surprise when his son walked into the long kitchen an' just stood for a minute. Y'see, since Will had married Jennifer he didn't come home much. They lived in Akron, Ohio where Will was a veterinarian. They had a fine home up there an' Jennifer didn't think much of the mountains. Didn't think much of the home place where Will was raised. to her Will was William, though it wasn't his name at all. His diplomas said, "Billy Gilbert, Jr", the big sign outside the vet clinic had "Billy Gilbert, Jr, DVM" but she called him William, never Will, Billy or even Bill.

Oh, and she was always Jennifer. Never Jen, Jenny or any other nickname. She made it clear the first time Uncle Billy called her Jenny that her name was Jennifer.

Uncle Billy stood in shock for a minute, not know what to say, what to do. He nodded at Will, "Hullo youngin'. How you been?"

Will stood quiet for a bit, "Howdy, Pappy. Them some soup beans?"

"Yep, they are. You wantin' some?"

"Wouldn't mind a bowl, Pap. Any cracklin' bread?" Will asked.

"Better believe it. You allowed to have some?" his Daddy asked with a grin. Uncle Billy knew Wil snuck a bite of good ol' mountain food when he could. Jennifer didn't approve, of course. She didn't approve of lard, bacon grease, soup beans, corn bread, fatback, bacon, ham, fried chicken or most of what Will ate growin' up in the mountains. Because of Jennifer, Will's diet was almost that of a vegetarian with only a little fish or chicken thrown in.

That was all it took. Uncle Billy didn't know why Will was there, but knew somethin' was wrong. His boy just didn't come 'round on holidays, didn't come round much at all. Jennifer didn't like the mountains, didn't like the little holler, didn't seem to like mountain folks. Strange that she would marry a mountain boy. she did her best to wring the mountains out of Will.

Will grabbed the back of an ol' ladderback chair that sat by the table an' dropped into it with his eyes already wet. "Oh Pappy, she left me. Jennifer up an' moved out. I went to a convention to get some continuing education classes an' when I got back she had mostly cleaned the house out. Most of the furniture was gone. Divorce papers were on the kitchen counter an' a letter."

"Son, didn't you know? Had things been that bad?"

"Pap", Will looked up into his Daddy's blue eyes. His eyes were the same shade of dark blue, his features a younger reflection of the older man. "Pap, I thought things were OK. Jennifer was never much of romance, huggin' or warmth. I thought things were OK. She left me for a lawyer, Pappy. He was the one who drew up the divorce papers!"

His Daddy didn't know what to say. He just pulled out another chair an' sat down, waitin'. He knew Will wasn't done. "Pappy, she took all our bank account. She took the car, took most of the furniture, even my basketball signed by Adolph Rupp! She is askin' for half of my retirement fund. She couldn't take that without the courts or she would have drained it too. She wants the house to be sold and wants half of the proceeds. I don't know what I'm going to do."

Uncle Billy stood, went over to his son and wrapped his arms around his boy's shoulders. Will cried hard as he leaned into his Daddy. "I don't know either, son, but I'll help you any way I can."

"Can I stay for a while? I can't go home right now. I don't want to go home right now."

"Of course. You know you don't have to ask."

"Oh Pappy, I haven't been much of a son." Will cried. "I am so sorry. I was to worried about pleasing her that I stayed away, I pushed you away."

"Yep, you did. No doubt, you did."

"I am so sorry, Pappy. So very sorry. Will you forgive me?"

"Son, Will, Billy Boy, I already have. No need to even ask."

"Why Daddy? Why would you forgive me already?"

"Do you remember the story of the Prodigal Son? I know y'all don't go to church, but do you remember when I read it to you, when you learned about it in Sunday School?" Uncle Billy asked.

"Of course I do. But I am not the Prodigal. I didn't ask for my part an go away to some foreign country and waste it. I haven't come back asking to be your servant." Will was a bit indignant, thinking his Daddy was being a little judgmental at the wrong time.

"Of course not. That ain't the point at all. Y'see, that Daddy forgave his son before he ever showed up, walkin' toward home. It is a Daddy's nature to love his youngin's in spite of what they do, of what they are. A good Daddy forgives, loves an' waits, not because of what they do, but in spite of anything they do. He loves them because they are his."

"Oh." was all Will could say.

"Now Will, I need to go down the road to Hap's to make a couple calls or we'll have a dozen or more fellers comin' in after while. I need to tell them not to come this year. Me an' you will sit, eat some soup beans an' cracklin' bread an' just visit."

As Uncle Billy got up he hugged Will once more, went over an' turned down the soup beans to a simmer. "Stir these a couple times while I'm gone. Don't want our supper to burn."

Will sat for just a minute before he stood up, "Pappy, don't make them calls. I want those men to come over. I need them to come over. I need to laugh, to hug the necks of a few cousins and old friends. I need to be around mountain folks right now."

"You sure, Will? What if they ask questions? What if they get nosy? What you gonna tell them?"

"I'm sure, Pap. After all, wasn't there a feast at the end of that story? I'll just tell them the truth. I'll tell them the Prodigal Vet has come home." Will laughed.

"That's fine, boy, but I ain't killin' my cow."

Friday, October 31, 2014

Little Ol' Towns

They ain't much very special 
About little ol' towns
Hidin' deep in the mountains
Not much business around.

Why, they can't even afford 
A single stoplight in some
They roll up their sidewalks
Before the sun ever sets.
Folks still sit out on porches
Ol' men whittle an' wait
Drinkin' sody pop an' Moonpies 
Chewin', spittin' to boot.

They tell lies, swap knives

Laugh at their own jokes
Their wives still are pesterin'
While they sit a' jesterin'

Women still gossip over coffee,
Tea and a fresh baked crumb cake
They rant, rave an' rail on
At the messes their husbands make.

Ornery youngin's wander yards,
 Back alleys an' half empty streets
Prankin' an yankin' a little gal's hair
Hootin' an' hollerin', fillin' the air.

It ain't much of a place
To raise youngin's ye know
Ain't even no movies
Not many places to go.

Yet as they talk of their town
The place they was raised
Folks get all misty, red eyed an'
Weepy, rememberin' how it was.



Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Foggy mornin' in the mountains

The fog is thick, as if the clouds dropped down to wrap misty arms around the mountains an' fill the hollers to the brim. Darkness latches onto the fog an' pushes hard agin the on-comin' day.

The thick damp mist muffles the sounds of dawn. Birds are feather fluffed an' quiet, waitin' for the sun that still hides behind the clouds. Roosters wander out of the hen house damp an' bedraggled, not willin' yet to crow an' call in the dawn.

Big Ben clocks ring harsh in the not yet day, unwindin' as they cry "rise an' shine". Ol' men reach out an' lift the clock to stare with sleep sandy eyes, seein' it ain't yet sunrise, thinkin' Big Ben must be lyin', must be wrong.

But mantle clocks an' that big ol' number 18 sized pocket watch, coin silver case an' 17 jewel sure both speak the same truth. Mornin' has come, no sun has risen, but mornin' has come home to the hills.

As they rise up, womenfolks sit on the side of the bed, gatherin' their long hair into buns, pullin' strands tight an' under tortoise shell combs. Aprons on, they head for the kitchens to throw kindlin' into cook stoves, light a fire, wash up an' get breakfast together.

The menfolks are more verbal as they stand, groan moanin' an' unsteady with mornin' aches to pull on overalls, drag on worn out socks and slowly tie up scuffed brogans. In cabins up an' down the creek they wander to the kitchen, wash up in the pans of water warm an' waitin' for them, grab a sup of water from the dipper before they lift the pail, head for the well to draw fresh water an' then to the barn to feed the mules, milk the cows an' begin the day's work.

It is mornin' in the mountains, hidden by the fog, not delayed.

Monday, June 02, 2014

Mornin' in the Mountains

Though dawn is still far away
Old eyes blink once, twice, open.
Nothing stirs in the early darkness
Big Ben alarm clock steadily ticks
Counting time, keepin' the beat
Keepin' a steady pace, onward till morn.
The yellowed newspapers pasted tight
Against the walls are still unseen
Old news, oxymoron long forgotten
Now keeps out the wind an' cold.
Deep feather bed is a sleepy nest
Quilts are hand stitched security
Pulled chin high an' held tight
Against the day, the morn, the dawn.
Then high on the hill, just there
A lone robin wakes, shakes an' sings
Inside a blink, a yawn an' ol' leg creaks.
Ol' dog's long vigil held on the floor
Curled nose to tail on a braided rag rug.
Them creakin' bones made ol' dog stir
Tail thumpin' 'gainst ancient chestnut
Hand hewn, sandstone smoothed puncheon floor.
Deep in a holler, down the creek
An ol' ramblin' cabin sits quiet like
Coiled tight like a spring, waitin'
For the ol' Big Ben to ringle jangle
Mornin'! Good mornin', Get up an' go.
Soon lights will lighten, brighten windows
Push through the humid darkness
Coffee, boiled long, strong, aroma thick
Will seep through every door,
Curl in every corner, warmin' hearth an' heart
It is mornin' in the mountains.