Over the year I have written much about my hometown of Beloved, Kentucky and the folks that live there. Folks like my Cousin Peanut, Birdy Sue Poovey, Brother Woodrow Budder and his wife (Peanut's sister) sister Hazel Nutt Budder, Annie Pankey and Bottlecap Bobby D. Clark.
My favorite has been Uncle Billy Gilbert. He is a genuine man of the mountains, a true gentleman, ageless and forever. Her is a composite of many of my favorite people; my Daddy, Uncle Bert Hollen, Great Uncles Bill Arnett, Jimmy Arnett, Chester Napier, distant cousins like Nels Lipps and many others who I remember, but names that I have forgotten.
Some of Uncle Billy is who I hope I become as I grow older... wise, loved and respected (but not alone in my old age. I want Oh My Darlin' to be by my side always).
This is a compilation of pieces I have written, mostly about Uncle Billy. some day soon I will add all the other pieces about Beloved together in one place.
Where is Beloved? It is up on Route 66 in Clay County, Kentucky, close to Peabody, not terrible far from Double Creek, Little Creek and Gilbert's Creek. It is just around the corner from Brigadoon, Narnia, Oz, Mayberry, Avalon, El Dorado, Hogwarts and Shangri-La. It is a precious place in my memory, a place that cried to me just as the hills cry out to those who are from the mountains.
This first piece is one of the few pieces I've written about Uncle Billy before Aunt Del passes away. I'll write more someday.
Morning At The Gilbert Place
Del Gilbert woke easily, well before the sun was up. Her husband, Billy would be up soon. He patted her shoulder as she rolled to the edge of their bed and sat up. Most mornings he would lay in bed and spend a few moments in quiet prayer as he prepared for his day. His day would start fast and go steady till their noon meal. He would be back in the fields soon after and would finally stumble in, dog tired just before dark to eat a bite, sip on some iced tea on the porch and listen to the radio till bed time. Most folks called him "Uncle Billy" and he was what folks call "a good ol' boy".
There was a pretty good chance that one or more neighbor would wander by and stop for some sweet tea and conversation in the early evenin' hours. Though their home was off the beaten path and at the end of a road that wandered deep into a holler, it sometimes seemed like Grand Central Station to Del.
Del quickly made biscuits and pushed the pan into the oven. Bacon and ham soon fell into a fryin' pan and the little cabin tucked into the holler was smellin' wonderful. Grits bubbled and steamed on the back burner right beside a little pan filled with warm water in which she put a quart jar of maple syrup to warm. Billy liked maple syrup in his grits and his own sourwood honey on his biscuits.
Five bee gums (hives for the Yankee folks) sat a little further back in the holler and were just about ready to be robbed of the season's bounty of sourwood honey. The sourwood trees had been just beautiful this year with all the rain. Their limbs had hung low, laden with white, fragrant flowers that they could smell from their front porch... or anywhere else in their humble cabin when the windows were open.
The bees worked those trees steady for weeks. Their buzzin' created a hum around the trees that was magical. It seemed like the whole hillside was alive an' singin' glory an' hallelujahs to the Good Lord above when the Sourwoods were bloomin'. Del often took a chair out close to the trees on a nice day and sat in the shade, listenin' to that hum as she pieced quilts or peeled taters for dinner.
The biscuits came out of the oven and Del cracked eggs into a little pan shined up with just a dab of bacon grease... made the eggs taste good an made her cleanin' the pan easier with a slick of grease in the bottom. Billy ate two and she had one, all over easy. Since her layin' hens were goin' great guns, she fried up a few more. Maybe Billy would want another for breakfast. Maybe he would put a cold fried egg on his plate for dinner. Maybe one of the neighbors would stop for coffee and have a biscuit stuffed with a fried egg to gossip over.
"Better come on, ol' man. This breakfast is coolin' quick an' I am 'bout ready to toss it out for the dogs" she called.
"I hear ye. I hear ye. A feller cain't even get his boots laced 'round here. You threaten me every day with throwin' my breakfast to the dogs. It ain't happened in 48 years and I don't reckon you'll start now." Billy chuckled.
Del grinned and sat the plate of eggs on the table. She wiped her hands on the dish towel that hung on her shoulder, folded it and laid it by the sink. Billy and Del sat, joined hands and bowed their heads.
"Now Lord, we ain't got much to brag about. What we got is from You and we are humbled by the bounty of this little patch of ground you have given us here in this holler. We don't rightly know what we have done to deserve all we have been blessed with, don't reckon our blessin's come from what we deserve, but what You grace us with. For that and for this table we give You thanks, Lord. Watch over us and them we love this day. Bless our country, our President, them that govern and us that live free. Be with the boys that guard and protect in the Armed Forces. Bless the Governor of Kentucky and those folks we have elected to guide our state, the local folks. Lord, give 'em some wisdom... give them government folks a lot of wisdom, Lord. I just don't know about them folks sometimes. Get 'em off their high horses an' back down to earth." Billy prays.
Del squeezes Billy's hand and he chuckles; "Sorry I went on so, Lord. Help us as we go about our work today. Help us to be humble and to know You are God. Thanks for your son, Jesus. I'm prayin' all this in His Mighty name. Amen."
They squeeze each others hand, Billy leans over, as he does every day and kisses Del. This is a custom he started their first day of marriage as Del sat cryin' over burned biscuits an' crispy eggs. He leaned over that mornin', kissed her, told her every thing looked wonderful and ate every bite. From that day till this he would kiss her before his first bite.
Breakfast is soon over. Billy grabs the bowl of scraps Del has prepared and crumbles a biscuit into the bowl. He is out the back door and into the barn to begin his day. Del sits back down an' pours a cup of coffee. them dishes ain't goin' nowhere. She listens as Billy calls his ol' Sooner dog. Sooner has been sleepin' under the front porch but soon is up, has a good shake and trots - side aways over to eat his breakfast as Billy throws cracked corn to the chickens.
Sooner will follow Billy from chore to chore all day long. When Billy begins to work, Sooner will go round and round a few time and drop like he was dead to the ground... one eye openin' occasionally to make sure Billy is there. At noon, man and dog will head back to the house.
That's the way it happens most days. It is a simple life, a good life. It is, as they know, a blessed life.
The oddest things can make a feller remember times past. It can be something as simple as a smell or as complex as a series of happenin's that can make an' ol' mind wander down paths forgotten for so long that weeds have done growed up in the way.
It was early evenin'. Not quite twilight just yet. The birds was still carryin' on around in the holly bush that growed by Uncle Billy's bedroom window. They didn't bother him much durin' the day. He did, however, take exception to them bein' his wake up call ever' mornin' at the crack o' dawn. Now an' agin a Junebug would fly by, buzzin' and strokin' to keep it's hardshell body afloat in the warm evenin' breezes.
The day had been spent in the woods. It was mushroom time and folks in these parts loved them sponge mushrooms. In town, there in Beloved, they called 'em morels, but folks round the hills an' hollers out in the country 'round about Beloved jus' called 'em sponges...or maybe spikes if they was them long thin pointy ones.
When folks found a good spot, they kept it secret like for as long as they could. Didn't want no one comin' in on your sponge spot if ya could keep it a secret. Most folks knew they was to be found around dead wood. Old orchards were a wonderful spot to hunt 'em. A feller could find 'em by the bucketful in the remains of an old orchard.
In front of Uncle Billy was a galvanized bucket full of the rewards of his day. Them sponges were big. He didn't go out right away, he always waited a day or two and was always rewarded with big mushrooms.
As he sat pickin' through 'em, he brushed dirt from each one and laid it out on an ol' dish towel he had layin' on the worn boards of the porch. He bent over to lay a handful on the dishtowel an' as he was a raisin' up, something in between two logs caught his eye.
Now, when folks have a log cabin, it is right handy to use the chinks between the logs to store things. They was a butcher knife kept in a chink out the back door. When ya brought a mess o' green onions from the garden it was used to trim 'em up before they was brought inside. Uncle Billy kept a couple old cotton rags in chinks here on the porch for gnat smokes if the bitin' bugs got outta hand.
Today he saw somethin' he hadn't noticed before. In between two logs, lower than he would put things, somethin' caught his eye. He reached for it and gently pulled it into the light. His hand trembled just a mite as he looked at an old set of tortoise shell hair combs.
He sat back and he almost stumbled into the memories the combs revealed. In his mind's eye he saw Aunt Del, sittin on that porch long after the day's work was done. They would sit an' talk, have one last cup o'
coffee or maybe some sassafras tea with a little sourwood honey in it. Neither one of 'em would talk much. Mostly they enjoyed the quiet of the early evenin'.
As Aunt Del sat she would take the hair pins out of her hair and lay 'em in her lap. Her apron would fill with the handful of pins that held her hair in the tight bun she wore all the time.
Uncle Billy sat back and saw her again, unwinding her hair to it's full length. If she stood it would go near to the floor. In the evenin' she would have a big ol' brush in her apron pocket. She would take that comb out and brush through her hair agin an' agin. He closed his eyes an' he could just see her sittin in the rocker, brushin' her hair.
It had been many years since it was the rich auburn it was the day he first saw her over to church. Back then, years ago, she wore it long and hangin' down her back.
First time he really noticed her, she sat in church with a couple other youngin's. Her hair threw gold off'n it as she flipped it over the back of the pew. He had sat and jus' watched her laugh an' talk to some of the other gals as they waited for the mornin's singin' to start. She looked back and her dark eyes flashed bright when she saw Billy. Her lips broke to a grin and lashes lowered as she blushed. He had got caught lookin'. He blushed in turn.
It took him a while to find a reason to talk to her. He knew from that day in church that she was the only one for him. She had been too. For a week o' Sundays he jus' sat in the back o' the church and caught glimpses as often as he could without gettin' caught. Once he talked to her for the first time, he got up a head o' steam and never quit.
Uncle Billy never stopped watchin' Aunt Del. She was the apple o' his eye. She would always ask him what he was a lookin' at when she brushed her hair. He would always tell her he was a watchin' some young auburn headed gal throwin' her head back like a young colt, her hair a swingin' this way an' that. Now, she never let him see cause she would always turn her head and brush, but a smile crept onto her lips ever' time he said that.
Uncle Billy sat and held the tortoise shell combs and looked deeper. When Aunt Del finished brushin', she would plait the long, heavy hank o' hair and wind it into a bun. Hair pins would pin it in place for another day. Then she would place one comb into the hair on either side of her head. Her brush would go into her apron pocket an' she would sit back and sigh...each night it was the same...a sigh to indicate her day was done.
Uncle Billy came back to the present day and wondered why she had left her combs there in the chink o' the logs. Why hadn't she had them on that day several years back? He had searched the house for 'em after Aunt Del died. Some of the women folks had come to help get things ready an' had asked for 'em to fix up Aunt Del's hair.
His work worn hand wiped a tear from his eye an' he sat back. Then he would have give anything he had that day to be able to place them in her hair as he said the last goodbye. Today he was more glad that he had not found 'em. He reckoned Aunt Del hadn't wanted 'em to be found. Tears flowed agin his will an' he had to get his ol' red hanky out and wipe his nose an' eyes more than once.
Old Dog came over to check on his master, eyes seemin' to be full o' worry. "Don't worry 'bout me, Old Dog. I am a just gettin' soft in my old age, now. Don't go a worryin' 'bout me." he said with a gentle smile.
He put the sponge mushrooms back into the bucket and sat back. For the rest of the evenin' he sat and rocked, lookin' out at the hills he loved. His eyes caught ever' movement, from the hummin'bird suckin' nectar out a' the four o'clocks to the lightnin' bugs as they danced up out of the grass to fly and court each other in that age old ritual of twilight.
As the smoky fog came down the hillside to cover the holler, he sat and looked out. In his hands, held tight were two tortoise shell combs. His eyes looked, but his mind was focused on an auburn haired gal back yonder.
Neighbor Beater Tomatos
Now, I just don't know how folks are where you might be from, but in Beloved, Kentucky, folks are serious about their tomatoes. Tomatos, or tomaters or just plain ol' 'maters they may be, but raisin' them wonderful red fruits is a passion in Beloved.
Uncle Billy Gilbert always worked hard to try to be the first to have ripe tomatoes. He would start seeds inside with mason jars over the seedlin's. Them seedlin's would be transplanted out to cold frames as soon as the weather got passable and then into a garden when chance of frost passed.
Other folks had theories, secrets and special seeds saved from one year to the next. No one talked much about how they did it...if they won.
Whichever lucky citizen was the first with a ripe tomatoe would show up with the lovely fruit in downtown Beloved with a smile and the prize to be shown off to all who would stop to look.
In Beloved word would get 'round and everyone would stop to look.
Cousin Peanut tried year after year to be the first with a "mater" but his tendency to forget his garden made him an unlikely candidate for the glory that would be heaped upon the victor. Folks felt bad every year when Cousin Peanut would show up to see the winning tomatoe. He would stand and stare for the longest time. Sister Hazel Budder, the preacher's wife and Cousin Peanut's sister knew when he left he would shed a quiet tear. Cousin Peanut was almost always an "also ran" in about anything he ever tried.
'Cept that one year.
Folks started early with their seedlin's under glass as usual. Uncle Billy Gilbert actually showed Cousin Peanut how to start a little ol' "mason jar greenhouse". Cousin Peanut put out his seedlin's ahead of a lot of folks. Then promptly went back to his old ways of not tendin' the garden much. His Daddy, Vergie was bad sick and his Mama, Mz. Chappell wasn't much better.
That was why Uncle Billy called a nephew of his that worked at the agricultural school at University of Kentucky. He told that nephew, Johnny Gilbert, what he wanted to do...asked if they was tomatos growin' in the greenhouse and if Johnny would help. Of course Johnny said yes and the famous "Mater Caper" was hatched.
A few nights later Johnny showed up in Beloved. After dark him and Uncle Billy snuck over to Booger Holler where the Chappells lived, dug up Peanut's sorry ol' scraggly tomato vines and replaced them with beautiful vines laden with little green fruit.
Cousin Peanut made a haphazard inspection of the garden a day or two later on his way to the little ol' shack out back an' was amazed that his vines were covered with baby tomatos! He went everywhere braggin' about them little green marbles!
Then promptly forgot them again.
A week or so later, Johnny made another trip and took a secret ride with Uncle Billy over to Booger Holler. Tomato vines were traded and transplanted again. Cousin Peanut found that his vines had grown and his tomato crop was even better. My oh my how that boy did crow! Even though Vergie couldn't get out to the garden, Cousin Peanut told him about every little tomater! As Vergie an' Mz. Chappell sat in the house together, they would smile and beam at the sudden success of their wayward boy.
The secret gardening trips continued for weeks.
Then Vergie got the pneumonia and Peanut forgot about his tomato plants. Vergie didn't last long before he gave it up an' died. He was to be buried in the Chappell graveyard up on the mountain under a sycamore tree overlookin' the little farm he loved.
When Uncle Billy heard that Vergie had died he drove his truck over to the Peabody Post Office an' called Johnny. The night before the funeral Johnny an' Uncle Billy made one more night time raid on Cousin Peanut's garden.
The funeral was held at Booger Holler Holiness Church. Brother Woodrow Budder preached a funeral sermon to beat the band. Folks expected no less, seein' as how Vergie was Brother Woodrow's Daddy-in-Law.
Vergie's casket was carried up the side of the mountain by six strong mountain men. The crowd stood quiet like as final prayers were said and Vergie's boy Chester read the 23rd Psalm. It was a lovely service and the day was glorious up on that hillside. The sun warmed the bodies if not the hearts of the folks gathered to say goodbye one last time.
As folks walked together down the hill they visited and talked quietly. When they got to the bottom of the hill each an' every man jack of 'em stopped an' didn't go another step.
Finally, the Chappell family came down. Mz. Chappell was holdin' on to a couple of her youngin's an' a snifflin' an' such. She was the first to walk through the crowd. She asked what everyone was a doin'. They all pointed to Cousin Peanut's weedy ol' garden patch.
"Peanut, come here, son." Mz. Chappell called.
Peanut made his way through the crowd and looked into his garden. There in the weeds was one beautiful tomato vine, curled perfectly around itself an' up a wood stake.
Hangin' from that vine was not one, but two beautiful, perfectly round, red-ripe tomatoes. Peanut reverently picked each and held them in the air for all to see. The crowd sighed "aaahhh" in unison as Cousin Peanut grinned. Everyone knew what this meant. Cousin Peanut had not just the first, but the first AND second ripe tomato in Beloved. He had braggin' rights for a year!
Folks offered right then and there to take Peanut to town. Someone found a basket full of biscuits in their car and emptied out the biscuits so Cousin Peanut would have a proper way to display his prize.
Folks left quickly, followin' the truck that carried the champion an' his fruits to the braggin' bench in downtown Beloved. Uncle Billy helped Mz. Chappell an' some of the ladies of the church carry in the bowls of food that friends an' family would gather to eat later.
As he went out for a big ol' bowl of potato salad, Mz. Chappell followed him out.
"They ain't no more, Mz. Chappell. This here is the rest of it." Uncle Billy said.
"I ain't here for carryin' no food. I know what you did."
Uncle Billy looked up the mountain, "I don't reckon I know what you are talkin' about."
"We both do. I seen you an' your nephew in that garden late at night more than once. Do you think it is right, Billy? It is cheatin', after all." she said quietly.
Uncle Billy grinned a little, "Nah, ain't no more cheatin' than all the other tricks we all try. They came out of his garden an' he ain't the one that claimed they was the first. I don't believe the good Lord is gonna bar the door or pull the latch string in from Heaven's gate for this one."
Mz. Chappell smiled, snickered and slapped Uncle Billy, "I almost shot you'uns the first time I seen you out there."
"Wouldn't 'a been the first time I was shot at." he said with his orneriest grin.
Cousin Peanut sat on that bench for days showin' off them tomatoes. No one ever knew how good they tasted. He left 'em in that basket till they was right rotten.
His picture ran in the Manchester Enterprise.
Funny thing was, when Cousin Peanut talks about that year, it ain't never the year his Daddy died. It is always the year he had the first tomatos.
One of the problems with bein' an older man in a small community is the older women, or more specific, the older women what think a feller needs another wife. Uncle Billy has his share of "women friends" as folks call 'em.
He hardly has a week go by without one of the ladies of the Booger Holler Holiness Church stoppin' by with a hot pie...knowin' he has a weakness for pie in general an' berry pies in particular. They drive up, get out of their ol' cars and start a bellerin', "Bill, oh Bill! Y'all home? Howdy in the house." or somethin' like that.
Well, first off, anybody what knows Uncle Billy knows he don't take to folks callin' him Bill. His Daddy named him Billy and he has been Billy from day one. If he is in a feisty mood he'll plain tell folks, "Name's Billy".
He don't mind visitors, he just don't want the church ladies to come a courtin'. He's heard 'em talkin' 'bout how he needs a woman to take care o' him since Aunt Del died. They took him on as a project, kinda like makin' a quilt for a new baby. Them women folks saw he was alone and they just don't like it one bit. No one bothered to ask his opinion.
Ms. Hazel was the worst o' the bunch. She set her mind on marryin' up with Uncle Billy and she was after him like a chicken after a junebug. "Bill, O Bi-illl" she called when she stopped by. "Bill, I was a makin' pies an' thought of you just a sittin' here by your lonesome all the time. What with no woman-folks around to take care of you. I thought y'all might like a little sweetnin'. Oh Bill..." That was the words out a her mouth ever' time she stopped.
Uncle Billy was sittin' out in the barn workin' on a chair he was a makin' for Roscoe Collins over on Little Creek. Roscoe already had two of Uncle Billy's chairs an' wanted two more to sit out on his porch. Said they sat better than store bought chairs when a feller was takin' it easy in the evenin'.
When Uncle Billy heard Ms. Hazel callin' he jumped up an' looked our through a crack in the logs of the barn. He had been meanin' to re-chink them logs, but today he was mighty glad for the clay that had fallen out.
"Oh Lordy, it is Ms. Hazel, Old Dog. She's got another pie." he looked to Old Dog for support, but Old Dog was a sleepin'. "You ain't no help a-tall."
Uncle Billy looked around. There was only the one door to get out. He had thought of makin' another door in the back of his workshop to get into the barn without goin' out and back in through the big barn doors, but there was never much need...till now. He was like a cornered rat in a corn crib. He scrambled 'round an' round lookin' for some relief.
Finally he looked up into the hayloft. There was sweet escape. Without a second thought he grabbed ahold of a plank and pulled his way into the top of the barn and hid behind a tall stack of hay bales.
When Ms. Hazel stuck her head in the door and called, "Oh Bill, Mr. Bi-iilll." she saw no one and would have gone on, leavin' the pie in the kitchen with a note she had already written. Old Dog, however had turned traitor. Old Dog had woke up an' was sittin' an' starin' straight up into the hayloft where Uncle Billy had made good his escape.
"Bill, are you up there?" Ms. Hazel called. Old Dog wagged his betrayin' tail and stared up into the hayloft ...and barked! Old Dog barked! It was as if to say, "Here he is, hidin' like a treed coon. Shoot 'em down, shoot 'em down."
Uncle Billy sheepishly looked down. Hidin' was one thing, hidin' when a feller was caught was 'nother. "Lo. Ms. Hazel. It's Billy, not Bill, mam."
"Oh Bill, I am right proud I caught ye. I have a blackberry pie I made. When it came out to the oven I thought of y'all sittin' here all alone. Why don't ya come on down an' we'll have us a piece?"
"Much obliged, Ms. Hazel, but I reckon I'll be up here for a right smart while."
"Why's that, Bill?"
"Well mam, y'all never lived on a farm, have ye?"
Ms. Hazel laughed, "No sir, but I wouldn't mind a farm."
Uncle Billy grinned a little, "Well mam, I reckon I better keep on lookin' 'round up here. They is a snake up here somewhere. One o' them hoop snakes."
"Hoop snake?" Ms Hazel asked weakly as she stepped back a step.
"Yes mam. A hoop snake has been gettin' into the chickens an' eatin' the eggs. I reckon it is eatin' near a dozen a night."
"Hoop snake?" she asked as she stepped out the door and looked around.
"They is the worstest kind, Ms. Hazel. They don't crawl like mos' snakes."
"No mam. When they want to travel fast the get hold of their tail with their teeth and make a round circle...a hoop like. Then them things can roll down a hill like nothin' I have seen a whole herd of 'em rollin' after a young deer. I reckon they could run down a youngin' or old folks like us." Uncle Billy added this a little too gleefully as he looked down from the hayloft.
"What do they do when they run a feller down?"
"Well, they eat 'em I reckon. I ain't never stayed around to see. When a critter is caught and starts to squealin', I usually get gone." As Uncle Billy spoke, he took out his Case knife an' rubbed it agin the log close by. It made a sad squealin' noise. He looked back into the hayloft innocently.
Ms. Hazel heard the sound and looked around the farmyard with eyes big as dinner plates. Then Ms. Hazel remembered something she had to do in Beloved and told Uncle Billy she would put the pie on the kitchen table. Her leavin' was faster than it had ever been.
As her car pulled away, Uncle Billy climbed down from the hayloft chucklin'. He stood in the yard and watched the dust fly from Ms. Hazel's ol' car as she made her way as fast as the dirt road would let her.
That very afternoon Uncle Billy cut in a back door from his workshop into the barn. He also made sure to oil the rusty hinges of the door leadin' out into the field back of the barn. He didn't use it often, but a feller never knew when it might come in handy.
Old dog slept on the porch that night...not at the foot of Uncle Billy's bed.
Sunday Carry In Dinner
Sunday afternoons are a right lazy time in the summer round 'bout Beloved, Kentucky. Most folks belong to the local churches and still believe that Sunday is a day of rest. This is more important in a mountain community because the farmers and miners usually work long hours six days a week. That there is the reason that Knuckles Dollar Store and the Henny Penny over in Manchester, the county seat is always closed on Sunday.
Booger Holler Holiness Church had a carry in dinner after Sunday services and folks sat an' talked for a long while. Sister Hazel Burns had brought some of her prize winnin' pies and made a beeline for Uncle Billy with a slice of pie.
Now, don't get confused here. Sister Hazel Burns is a spinster, ain't never been married. Folks around Booger Holler knowed she thought it was a sin that Uncle Billy was still unattached several years after Aunt Del passed on. Don't get her confused with Sister Hazel Budder who is the pastor's wife. Brother Woodrow and Sister Hazel Budder were close to Uncle Billy and did all they could to keep Sister Hazel from sinkin' her teeth into that prize apple.
"Brother Bill, I want you'ns to try this here pie an' tell me what do you think of it." Sister Hazel always called him Bill. His name was Billy and there was nothin' that offended him like callin' him Bill. 'Course, bein' from the hills, Sister Hazel made it "Bee-ull".
"Name's Billy, Sister Burns."
"OK, OK, just try the pie." she said as she shoved a big piece of what appeared to be apple pie in front of him and laid a fork down by it.
Uncle Billy knew she weren't gonna shut up till he gave up so he picked up the fork and took a big bite off the point of that slice. Now this weren't no chore, for ever'one in the community knew Sister Hazel Burns made the finest pies a feller would want to dump into an empty mouth.
The pie crust was light and flaky. Sister Hazel used Crisco and swore by it. She also made sure she handled the crust as little as possible. Keepin' it cool was her secret to flaky crusts.
Uncle Billy smiled when he took a bite and said, "Sister Hazel, I don't reckon I had me enough to give y'all a good opinion. I better take another bite."
He bit several more times. A covey of church ladies gathered around Sister Hazel, some wipin' their hands on their aprons as they waited for Uncle Billy's judgement.
"Well, mam, I do believe that is one of the best apple pies I have ever had. Ye done good, sister. My tongue pret' near beat my face to death wantin' 'nother bite. Jes' don't let it go to yer head. It was mighty fine, but I don't want sinful pride raisin' it's head here in the church basement." Several of the menfolks and two of the ladies said "amen" in agreement.
Sister Hazel Burns laughed and fanned herself with her apron. "Bill, I swan, I don't rightly know what to say," she grinned slyly and giggled like a youngin', "I have done fooled ye."
"Ya have? How's that?"
"There ain't nary an apple in that there pie."
"There ain't?" Uncle Billy took another bite, "Sure tastes like apples to me. What is it? Quince? Pear?"
"No sir, it ain't even fruit. There ain't been an apple in a mile o' that pie. Hit is a mock apple pie."
"Mock Apple, well I do declare. It is good, though Sister Hazel. What is in it?"
At this point, Sister Hazel Budder came out with a tray and paper plates of little ol' slices so's ever'body could take a taste. Folks gathered 'round and took plates and commenced to taste the mock apple pie.
Sister Hazel was in her own pond a quackin' now. "Hit is Ritz crackers. That is all hit is."
Folks went on an' on about that there Ritz pie. Sister Hazel gave the recipe out agin an' agin.
Finally Uncle Billy spoke up, "Sister Hazel, y'all know that mock apple pie was named for the mock turtle, dont ya?"
"Well, I have heard of it...what do they use fer mock turtle, beef or pork?"
"Oh no mam, neither one. The mock turtle ain't beef or pork. It is a type of actual turtle, y'know."
Sister Hazel blinked an' looked at Uncle Billy, "It is? Well I sure didn't know that one."
Uncle Billy had drawn a crowd with this. Many knew where he was goin' with his statement and drew up chairs. Others smiled and grinned behind their hands.
"Yes, mam. The mock turtle ain't one that is easy to cook. They is right stringy. That is why it is so uncommon on the dinner table. They grow right big and folks say they nest up in the willer trees. They have legs longer than most turtles, y'see. The big 'uns have legs two, maybe three foot long...and them legs is double jointed ta boot. That is how they can crawl into the willer trees. An' they have right long necks too. They can sit on the bottom of the pond or river and snake that ol' neck up an' look at ya without comin' to the surface. That's why folks don't catch 'em much."
Sister Hazel Burns listened for a right smart while. "They don't come up? But why in the world do they call 'em 'mock' turtles?"
"Well, mam, they is called mock turtles for the same reason the mockin' bird has that name. They can make calls an' squeeks an' carryin's on like other critters."
He went on, "One day I was sittin' on the bank of the Red Bird River - up route 66 an' was fishin' for catfish. An ol' mock turtle saw me when he stuck that ol' snakey head up for a little bit o' air and ye know what that sorry thing did? It started meowin' like a cat. 'Meow, Meow' it said. I got m'self up an' looked and looked for a little ol' lost kitten. Mr. Mock Turtle went on down an' had the hunk o' chicken liver I was usin' as bait for his lunch. There's a right smart bunch of 'em in the Red Bird River."
"Later he started cheepin' like a little ol' bird what had fallen outta his nest. I commenced to lookin' an' he had another bite o' chicken liver. That ol' mock turtle did a squirrel, a couple of coons a fightin' an' a snipe before I caught on."
"Gee-oh, I do declare. The country is sure a different place from the city. It is amazin' what I don't know" sister Hazel sat down in a fold up chair. "I don't reckon I'll ever learn all 'bout the country."
"They is one other thing about mock turtles folks need to know if they is gonna hunt 'em."
"What is that Brother Bill?"
Uncle Billy looked at Sister Hazel and looked up to the side at Hap Collins and winked, "The mock turtle has them long legs and sharp claws. I tol' ye they can climb into willer trees. When times is hard and the crick is down they go a climbin' into trees to rob nests o' eggs. If they get real desperate they can jump down outta the trees and wrap them long legs 'round unsuspectin' critters, even folks!"
Sister Hazel said a little wobbly voiced, "They do? Even folks?"
"Yessum, they do! Other times they come up outta the muddy river after folks, grabbin' at they's feet an' ankles. You'uns know what they do iffn they get hold of ye?"
Sister Hazel, three of the womenfolks and eight youngin's that were listenin' shook their heads "no".
Uncle Billy looked right serious at Sister Hazel and said, "They pull yer leg...jus' like I'm a doin' right now."
Sunday Carry In Dinner
Sam Hounchell sat in the shade of a big old sycamore tree, glad his old bones and the cane he walked with kept him from movin' tables and carryin' food. Several other old men sat with him and watched as church folks scurried here and yonder loaded down with food
Sam kept up a runnin' conversation, almost like a radio announcer calling a ball game. The other men, not much for talkin' listened and smiled as they watched.
"Lordy, will y'all looky at the tables out yonder under the maple trees. They are plumb full of food. I don't know if the preacher will be able to get done preachin' before his tongue starts a beatin' his lips to death if he smells all this here good food. Mama used to say they wasn't nothin' better than a dinner on the grounds here at Booger Holler Holiness Church.
The Women's Missionary League have set up four o' them foldin' tables. Ever' one of 'em is plumb full. Why don't you'uns walk over an' take a look with me. Now keep your hands to your own self. One thing I don't stand for is youngin's stickin' dirty ol' hands into the food.
Looky there, that first table has all the salads an' such. There is three kinds o' tomatoes! Big ol' Better Boy beef steak tomatoes, regular slicin' ones an a big ol bowl o' them little tommy-toes. I like them best. See there, someone has sliced some o' them tommy-toes with onions an' poured I-talian dressin' on em. Mmm, fresh from the garden green onions, sliced bell peppers, banana peppers, cucumbers sliced both ways an some in vinegar with onions sliced thin enough to read a paper through. There is some of Sister Hazel Budder's layered salad an' beside it home made slaw. I hope that is Sis Carpenter's slaw. She makes her own dressin' don't you know. Oh, right there, big wedges of iceberg lettuce an' fresh made Roquefort dressin'. I know someone is gonna have killted lettuce, they just don't want it to sit too long, so they have to make it up hot an' fresh. They is no place on earth with better fresh vegetables than right here in Beloved, Kentucky, sure enough.
Well, I better move on to the table with meats an such before I get full from lookin'. There, I knew they would be fried chicken. I see 7 different kinds of fried chicken. See that bowl there? It's Sister Delly's chicken. She has a batter recipe I would give my right arm for. It is a big secret though. She won the County Fair with it 10 years runnin' before they retired her chicken an' made her the Fried Chicken Queen a year or two ago. Oh, Looky, looky...Uncle Billy has baked a whole country ham an' sliced it up right thin. Them is the beaten biscuits he makes sittin' there. Since his wife died he has been makin' 'em with her recipe. Chicken an' dumplins AND squirrel dumplins. There is a city ham for folks don't like country ham. Cain't 'magine who that would be though. Oops, almost missed the chicken fried steak an the big ol' bowl o' milk gravy sittin' by it. Whew, looky at the plate o' sliced beef roast.
Wait a minute, see there on the end? That kettle with them boiled hot dogs in it? Can you imagine? Don't even think about eatin' one o' them hot dogs. Yessir, I know it is terrible to bring hot dogs to a spread like this, but they is another reason ... Peanut Chappell brought 'em. Y'all don't want a thing he had hold of. Just you take my word for it.
Well, come on now, we got two tables to go. Green beans, fresh from the garden an' cooked long an' slow with ham pieces. Some folk still use salted jowl or fatback. I like them beans best. Gee oh, a bean pot full of baked beans. Now, them is good eatin'. Course over there is a big pan o' baked beans with bacon on top. Mashed taters with country gravy, sweet taters with mushmellers on top, sweet tater casserole, fried Irish taters, tater salads...four tater salads, one with bacon in it. Green bean casserole, ham an' tater casserole, squash casserole an' stuffed zucchini boats. Pickled beets, pickles o' ever' description. Little ones, sliced ones, big ones, pickled eggs, pickled baloney, pickled okra, even pickled green beans.
Well, better get a look at that there dee-sert table 'cause it will empty first. Chocolate cake, carrot cake, that there Mexican Fruit Cake Sister Budder makes an' ever'one has to have the recipe each year. She comes with copies run off on the mimeo machine 'cause she knows folks will ask. Apple pies, mock apple pies, apple pan dowdie, apple cobbler, peach cobbler, blackberry cobbler, blueberry cobbler, peach pies an' fresh, sweet peaches peeled an' sliced. Pecan pie, shoofly pie, sugar pie, lemon pie, vinegar pie. Strawberry shortcake with real whipped cream. There it is. Looky yonder in the middle, a home made chocolate pie. I don't know who brings that 'un, but I am gonna cut me a piece now an' get the recipe before I leave this here church today.
Well, fellers, we done missed the card table set up with home made bread, biscuits, cornbread, Mexican cornbread with hot peppers an' cheese in 'er, big ol' yeast rolls, them twisty crescent rolls, bread sticks with butter an' garlic powder sprinkled on top. I reckon that's my diet, missin' the bread table!! Don't you'uns go spreadin that I am on a diet. I just am a watchin' what I eat.
Oh, Lordy, we best go in an' start a prayin' for our sinful ways right now, cause I just got some gluttony flung on me!!!"
The old men finished their inspection of the tables and returned to the shade of the sycamore tree to wait for the prayer, each mind plannin' what they would fill their plates with.
Grandma's House Restaurant
Roscoe Collins opened the letter he had pulled out of the mailbox. He had lived in Hamilton, Ohio for many years but still missed home and enjoyed the letters from his sister Tootie May. Roscoe sat in his easy chair, pulled his glasses out of his pocket and began to read.
I don’t reckon you have heard, but me and Cousin Peanut went into business together back in the fall. It ain’t much, but if you drive into the middle of town and stop at what used to be Lucinda Pigg’s old house – you know the one, white with all the gingerbread trim all over and the big ol’ wrap around porch – anyway, stop in there and see us.
Y’see, we have started up a restaurant we call “Grandma’s House”. It is home cookin’ at it’s finest. We started talkin’ about it back last year an’ just went for it when the realtor, Joshua White, put the ol’ Pigg place up for sale. Lots o’ folks laugh at that name an' think we made it up, but Mrs. Pigg’s Grandma gave the land that Oneida Institute was built on.
When you come in the door a music box plays a few lines of “Over the river and through the woods”. We searched and searched to find old dinette sets from the 50s for folks to sit at. There is three rooms with three or four dinettes in each room. ‘Course, we have a counter for one at a time an’ folks wantin’ to get in an’ out fast. Family pictures line the walls an’ in the winter we have a wood cookin’ stove goin’ all the time for a little warmth an’ for heatin’ the coffee pot till someone wants a little more coffee. Most days there is a big ol’ pot of beans simmerin’ there an' you can dip your own an' grab some cornbread.
We hired Emma Sams, May Stevens and Elizabeth Collins to wait on folks. They wear dresses an’ aprons just like our Grandmas used to wear. They have nets on their ol’ heads an’ Emma chomps on her gum cause she thinks waitresses should do that. They say stuff like, “Tell Grandma what y’all want” an’ all. Yep, it sure is corny, but folks seem to like it right well.
Sister Sally Arnett does all the cookin’ along with Miss Bess. It is family style. You order your main dish separate an’ the rest comes to your table in big bowls for sharin’. You can always get soup beans an’ cornbread. Most days you can get fried baloney or fried ham sandwiches as well.
Monday is meat loaf or chicken an’ dumplin’s night, Tuesday is fried chicken or pot roast, Wednesday is steak fry night’. Bout all of Beloved is in Grandma’s House before or after church an’ choir practice on Wednesday night. Thursday is fried chicken, chicken pot pie, country ham or fried pork chops. Friday night is all you can eat fish fry. There is the best fried walleye or lake perch you ever eat that night with hand rolled hush puppies an’ hand chopped slaw. Saturday all day we have fried baloney AND fried green tomater sandwiches. Miss Bess slices Parmesan cheese right thin on the top just before it is done fryin’. Put that on some home made bread an’ your tongue will ‘bout beat your face to death getting’ to that! They will have burgoo on the wood stove you can dish up yourself an’ biscuits right there in the hot box. Real butter an’ molasses make that a real meal.
Sunday begins on Saturday for Uncle Jimmy Arnett as he starts the barbecue pit an’ keeps it smokin’ with apple, cherry an’ hickory wood all weekend. He smokes some beef brisket, pork loin, chicken halves an’ plenty of ribs long an’ slow. He has hand ground pork sausage from Uncle Billy Gilbert he smokes a little before Miss Bess fries it for Sunday Brunch – along with eggs any style, sausage gravy, biscuits so light they tie strings to them to keep ‘em off the ceiling an’ on your plate. Grits, bacon, red eye gravy, hot fruit an’ a ton of other stuff that will make you groan when you see it comin’ to your table.
Family style means green beans cooked slow with ham, pinto beans, greens, stewed tomaters, fried okra, mashed, fried, boiled new, home fried or baked potatoes, three or four types of corn, includin’ corn on the cob all year round. Your choice of breads, jams, jellies, molasses an’ always real butter.
When you push away from the table, we want you to know you been to Grandma’s House” to eat. Y’all come an’ bring an appetite. Tell May I sent you an’ she’ll give you one of her mason jars with the best sweet tea in the south…on the house.
Well, that is all for now, dear brother. come when you can. We miss you.
Roscoe smiled as he folded the letter back up. "I reckon I'm gonna have to make a trip home. Yep, I think I'm goin' home this weekend" he said to himself.
Uncle Billy sat at his shavehorse for a long while, just to be out of the house on the first day of June. It was cool, cooler than it should be on a June day and he had pulled a flannel shirt over the thin denim shirt he was wearin'. Together they were enough.
The morning had been brisk and Uncle Billy started a fire in the wood stove. There was always a bucket full of shavin's from his barn beside the stove and as it lit you could smell the scent of several woods giving up their particular odor...cedar, maple, a little apple and lots of sassafras.
His shavin's were on everybody's list of things to take home when they stopped by to see him. He kept paper sacks full of shavin's in a box out the back porch door. End o' the sack were tied with twine and the sacks were tight as a tick - filled with aromatic shavin's Uncle Billy recommended to start any fire.
For that reason he always kept a piece of wood around just to piddle with. Sometimes he didn't make a thing on that ol' shavehorse. He'd just sit yonder with drawknife in hand and feel the blade slide down the length of a piece of maple. The curl of wood started almost like magic and would follow the drawknife as it slid to the end. Sometimes he'd just make shavin's. Funny how folks want shavin's.
The aroma of the wood always snuck out as the drawknife slid through the grain. No matter how dry, it gave up the sweet smell God gave it beneath Uncle Billy's careworn hands.
Earlier in the mornin' Uncle Billy, coffee mug in hand, left the warmth of the kitchen to step out and smell the clean air of the holler he lived in. Old Dog pushed through the screen door right behind him.
Just out the back door he stood and saw a doe stopping at the branch to drink. He kept a salt block there for the deer to lick. He never hunted there, though. Said it weren't fittin' to trick 'em into stoppin' near the house and then goin' after 'em.
The dogwoods were almost done with their bloomin' and the redbuds were long bloomed out. A few bees flew in the early mornin' mist. The mist was so think in the holler that the bees would be damp to the touch if ya caught 'em. Birds had been singin' for more than an hour. Uncle Billy always kept his window cracked a bit for fresh air. "Them dang birds" was his first comment most mornin's lately. They had nested in a holly tree just outside his window.
As he looked up the mountain he spied a big old patch of sassafras that he didn't realize was so close. A feller can't miss it if ya know what to look for. It has three "gloves" for leaves - a right hand glove, left hand glove and mitten. There is a sock too - a leaf that has no split or "thumb".
"Reckon I'll have to get me some sassafrass root for tea later today" he said to Old Dog. It will be just a short walk to the trees. Not hard for an old man or old dog.
He headed for the barn to put out his maddock for later. Uncle Billy sat down his coffee mug and pulled out the maddock and a saw to cut the saplings into lengths he could use on his shavehorse. Thinking of the sassafras saplings made him think of the fine sticks he put up in the winter. He pulled one out and reached for his spectacles.
As he looked over the stick he sat down on the shavehorse. It was natural for one leg to swing over and to sit at it. The stick almost fell in place in the clamp and his foot pushed gently on the bottom of the lever to clamp the stick.
Uncle Billy sat at his shavehorse for a long while, just to be out of the house on the first day of June. He looked at the stick for a while, listened to Old Dog snufflin' round the barn for that groundhog what was gettin' into the barn. "Get 'em Old Dog" he encouraged.
Finally he picked up his drawknife. The edge was clean and sharp like a straight razor. He wiped it with an oily rag and took both handles into his hands. The blade bit and he pulled ...real slow like. The aroma of sassafras oils released into the darkness of the barn made his stop for a moment. There is something magical when a man takes tools in hand and touches wood. It is earthy and elemental. It brings man into a circle of creation that no other creature will ever know. It changes a man when he crafts wood, or iron, or glass. It draws him and calls to him.
Uncle Billy knew all this, though he would call it "horsefeathers" if you flapped your ol' jaws about it to him. It was something ya just didn't talk about. A feller just did it.
"Yessir, I reckon I'll dig me a couple of sassafras roots today. Them saplin's will make good sticks to work." His drawknife moved on, the wood curled behind it and followed the blade to the end.
Uncle Billy woke about 5:30 as he always did. He hadn't used the old wind up "Big Ben" alarm clock for years. Aunt Del used to use it when there was a holiday to cook for or if it was calfin' time. She would set it every couple of hours to get up and check on the mama cow. These days Uncle Billy had his internal alarm set from scores of years of farm work. Funny how even though a feller didn't need to get up his body woke up at the same ol' time, day after day.
As he lay there in the same ol' brass bed he had slept in since him and Aunt Del had taken up housekeepin', he heard the rain fallin' onto the tin roof. The sound made a constant drummin' that would lull him right back to sleep if he weren't careful.
"It must be a rainin' hard for them birds not to be stirrin'" he thought. There was a big holly bush outside his open window and usually the birds nestin' in it would sing "good mornin'" to him 'bout this time each day.
Every now an' agin thunder crashed up over the hills surroundin' the holler where his ramblin' cabin sat. It weren't no big ol' storm. Just one that pleasantly rumbled and flashed just to keep things lively. The rain was constant, though.
When he reached across the bed for a pillow to prop himself up, Old Dog's tail started thumpin' in time to the rain. Old Dog looked up without movin' his sorry head. That dog knew the easiest way to do anything. No wasted motion for him.
"Old Dog, I reckon we'uns might just lay her for a while yet. I don't figure y'all will want to get yer sorry ol' backside wet doin' yer business in the rain."
Old Dog thumped his tail harder as if to agree. Other than that tail there weren't a muscle movin.
Uncle Billy pulled the quilts up closer to his neck and put his specs back on the side table. He reckoned he'd close his eyes for just a bit longer.
At 6:45 his eyes opened and he sat up quickly. "Well, we have done slept all day. Why'd ya let me lay here this long? I'm gonna have to get shet of ya if'n I can't depend on ya to wake me." He rubbed Old Dog's head hard as he chuckled.
Now, years ago Aunt Del would bring Uncle Billy a washpan full of hot water, a wahsrag and a towel. He'd wash up right there in the bedroom so he wouldn't have to parade through the cabin half dressed. That offended Aunt Del's manners, ya see. These days they was a bathroom an' Uncle Billy was by himself an' didn't much worry 'bout offendin' Old Dog's manners so he strolled into the bathroom in his drawers.
He remembered coffee and wandered into the kitchen to start a pot... then back to wash up. He carefully lathered his face with his shavebrush and shaved with the same straight razor he had used for years. Wasn't a day went by that he didn't shave. It were just the proper thing to do.
A couple of eggs fried in bacon grease, storebought biscuits in the oven and a little ham meat fried just before the eggs an' Uncle Billy was set. He added some jelly an' butter to his biscuits. He still had mason jars full of jellies and perserves Aunt Del put up several years ago. He would have sweetnin' till the day he died, he reckoned.
Everything was carried out to the porch an' Uncle Billy settled in to eat an' watch the rain. Now an' agin a truck or ol' car would wander by and Uncle Billy would throw up a hand. He would holler a greetin' if he knew the folks.
Hap Collins stopped in the road and leaned over to roll the window down, "How in the world are ye, Uncle Billy?"
Uncle Billy got up and walked to the end of the porch with his ever present coffee cup. "Fine as frog hair, Hap. You?"
"Gettin' by, gettin' by."
"Ever'one OK over to your place?"
"Yessir, Uncle Billy. They is doin' fine. Mama is mighty poorly, though. We are a goin' over to London to see her come Saturday, I reckon."
"Tell her howdy for me. Tell her I might come a courtin'."
Hap laughed, "Now that would perk her up, I gar-untee. I don't know if I'd be a wantin' ye as a Daddy, though. I've seen ye at the supper table. Mama might starve."
"Yessir, she might just. Why don't ya come on up for w while? I got coffee made."
The invite was sincere and was always offeredto friend, family ro stranger by Uncle Billy.
"Cain't right now, Uncle Billy. I got to get the youngin's an' go over to town for a while. How 'bout I stop with the ol' woman later tonight?
"I'll be here. Y'all drive safe, now"
"I will you an' Old Dog stay out the rain."
Uncle Billy looked over his shoulder...Old Dog was up on the hill, doin' his business. "I ain't goin' out for sure and I'd bet that is the only time Old Dog gets hisself wet."
"Bye, Uncle Billy"
Uncle Billy settled back in. Old Dog came up onto the porch, walked to the end and shook hisself and walked over to fall in a heap at Uncle Billy's feet. Uncle Billy reached into the chink between the logs to his right and pulled out a couple of cedar sticks. His Case knife was already open. He looked the blade over and was satisfied it was sharp enough.
Blade hit wood and a long curl of wood ran from the blade to the end. He looked up for just a second, "Old Dog, let's us jus' sit here and rest our bones today."
Old Dog's tail thumped his agreement.
Most folks around Beloved, Kentucky knew Billy Gilbert at Uncle Billy. Though his son lived off in another state, he was the unofficial patriarch of his hometown. A 75 year old force to be reckoned with.
He lived alone up a holler over on Little Gilbert's Creek since his wife Dell slipped away home to Heaven five years ago. Uncle Billy was the wise man that men went to when they didn't understand their women, needed an ear to listen or a shoulder to cry on... though mountain men did not cry. Keep that straight!
The July morning was already hot when he rose up from bed. It was still dark but his internal clock was most likely an old wind up Big Ben just like the one that sat on the table beside his bed. He wound it regularly but never set an alarm on it. The internal Big Ben had been working just fine for many years.
His old dog Sooner sat up at the foot of the bed, yawned and stretched before going to the door to wait. Uncle Billy put on his britches, buckled his belt and slipped on his shirt before going to open the door and let Sooner out. The old man and old dog had a routine that varied little from day to day.
In the kitchen there was one of them fancy coffee pots stuffed back in the corner of the counter that was seldom used. It had been a gift from his son, Bill to Dell several years back. Uncle Billy didn't mess with it, however. He preferred his coffee boiled in a pot like he had been drinking it for over 50 years.
As he waited for the coffee to boil he put some country bacon in a pan to fry. It was thick, peppered with the rind still on one side. The smell brought Sooner to the kitchen door, his nose pushed to the screen and inhaling deep. Uncle Billy laughed and opened the door. Sooner's bowl was already full and waiting for him.
"Old dog, we are gonna go up into the hill today. The sourwood is bloomin' an' I have been seein' bees goin' up the mountain from them trees." he said to Sooner, as if the dog understood. Sooner raised his head from the bowl and looked for a moment before returning to his meal.
"We need to follow some of them bees and see if we can get some idea where they are goin'. I know there is a bee tree up there somewhere before the ridge. I've sat and walked the ridge for several days and don't see arry a bee on the top of the hill. They have got to be somewhere on this side of that hill."
He absently turned the bacon as he stared off through a window. His mind was already walking that hillside, remembering each path as he thought of the sourwood and the bees that were as thick as the blooms on the trees. Sourwood trees were late bloomers and their fragrance would turn a woods into some sort of heaven as you walked up on them.
Sourwood honey was a prize in the mountains and much sought after by locals and city folks alike. The seven hives in the backyard had already been relieved of the wildflower honey in the honey supers just as soon as the sourwood started to bloom. Uncle Billy always did his first extracting just as the sourwood bloomed so the next honey in the hives would be sourwood honey.
Seven hundred and thirty seven one pound jars of mountain wildflower honey sat on the shelves over in his honey house, waiting to be sold. Most good years he could expect at least one honey super from each hive full of sourwood honey. That was about fifty pounds per hive, maybe three hundred and fifty jars of sourwood honey that would soon line the shelves that waited empty.
His studying on the sourwood honey led him to the refrigerator and to a can of biscuits. Dell would skin him if she knew he was making store bought biscuits. She swore "nary a can of store bought biscuits will ever come in this house.". They never did while she was alive.
Uncle Billy didn't have the talent or the time to make the big ol' cathead biscuits that his wife had made. Though they were a poor substitute, a hot store bought biscuit with real butter from a neighbor and some sourwood honey sounded pretty good to him.
Before long the biscuits were out of the oven and two eggs were frying in an old cast iron skillet. The first couple years after Dell died his eggs ate fine but weren't too pretty to look at. When a man lives alone he has plenty of time to study on good lookin' eggs as well as other things in life. the eggs that Uncle Billy slid onto his plate were just a good as any mountain woman would ever want to fry.
"Old dog, we are gonna do some bee linin' today when we go up on the hillside. I'll bet we find that ol' bee tree today. I sure would like to get a couple more bee gums goin' down here. We'll find them ol' bees yet." he said between bites of breakfast.
That was a man that didn't like for moss to grow under his feet. He always was working on one thing or another. He made and sold brooms, plain ones for local folks, fancy ones with unique handles for tourists and visitors, walking sticks, wooden whistles, whirlygigs and gee-gaws. He had a still in the barn where he cooked down sassafras to make a concentrate he bottled and sold for tea.
When he walked the woods he would walk with a hoe. It was good protection when he walked up on a snake and was needed when digging for ginseng. He had a couple pounds hanging in the barn drying. Maybe as he was bee lining he would walk up on some more.
Gettin' dishes redded up is not an easy chore for most menfolks. When a feller lives alone it is easy to do the simple things, like washin' a mug you drank out of, or maybe swipin' at the plate you ate off with a little water, soap an' a dishrag. Gettin' ready for company comin' meant makin' sure dishes was clean an' spotless.
Well sir, Uncle Billy had been dreadin' the time it was gonna take to wash them dishes, but he didn't want his boy, Will to come an' him an' his wife seein' dusty dishes an' start that racket about comin' to live with them. He had heard it too many times.
"Daddy, we know y'all love it here, but we love you. It is a lonely life here alone on this farm with just that ol' sooner dog to keep you company. We have decided to make a room for you in the basement. It's a walk-out basement, all finished, don't ya know. We'll take your bed an' some of the quilts Mama made an' fix it up right nice."
"Yes, Father Billy, it will be lovely. The grandchildren will love to have you there. You can play with them all the time. You can watch television with them and even with us. I know you will just adore the Ed Sullivan Show. Why, you will be right there and it will be wonderful for all of us. It will give William and I opportunity to spend time with friends more often too."
Uncle Billy hated it when his daughter-in-law called him Father Billy. Made him feel like some kind of priest or somethin'. He weren't too fond of her an' her high falootin' ways anyhow. Called Will "William". That woman could make "William" sound like she was cussin' sometimes.
Well, they was comin' an' he was glad for that. It were proper for a boy to come home to see his folks. It was a long time since Will had been home. He reckoned it had been over two years since they had come down to see him. Will wrote often enough, but since they weren't no phone lines in these parts, it was hard to talk to each other.
His grandkids weren't allowed to do the things kids should do. They was always dressed too good to play in the creek or run the mountains like Will and his brother Johnny had done. They brought books an' read the whole dang time they was there. Readin' was good, but a youngin' needed some fresh air.
The dishes was washed an' the beds made with fresh sheets. Uncle Billy had aired the quilts for the day an' they smelled fresh with mountain air an' the hint of cedars that grew beside the clothes line.
For good measure he had gone over to Dobson's an' bought a little candy an' some storebought cookies. They liked that soft sugar-stick candy right good an' the lil ol girl, Margaret took to them mushmeller peanuts. He didn't know why they called her Margaret. Not Mag, Maggie or even Marge...just Margaret. The boy was supposed to be named after him, but that boy's name was William III. Uncle Billy's name was jus' plain ol Billy. Not William or even Bill but Billy, an' he tol' folks so.
Well sir, he dusted right good an' swept the whole house out. The winders was open an' he had got some sourwood flowers off the sourwood trees in the hillside above the cabin. It was sourwood time an' the hills was jus' full o' bees just a buzzin' round them sourwood blossoms. It were a magical time. The air was sweet with the smell an' the bees just never quit. He wished he could take them youngin's up into the hill to let them sit with him an' jus' watch the bees a workin'.
Their mother wouldn't even let that happen. She would jus' have a fit it it were even mentioned. He could hear her now, "Bees are dangerous. We don't want our children rushed to the hospital with thousands of bee bites" she would say.
"Bee bites!" he grumbled to himself. "I'll give her bee bites. She is the reason Will don't come home. He loves this place. He gets rested in jus' the short time they're here. I can see it in his face, Old Dog. She is jus' leachin' the mountain out of him an' he don't know it."
Old Dog looked up from where he lay an' his big ol' tail thumped in agreement a couple of times before he dropped his head back onto the floor. Old Dog agreed with most ever' thing Uncle Billy said. They was two halves to one man, or so Uncle Billy said.
Old Dog was also too dusty an' was always losin' hair all round the house, acordin' to his daughter-in-law. He would be given to a neighbor to live the rest of his days in the country if Uncle Billy came to live with them. He needed to be in the country, was their reasonin'. Old Dog would jus' pine away for the hills they said.
Funny how they saw that 'bout Old Dog an' not Uncle Billy.
Ever' thing was ready an' the house was sweet with fresh mountain air an' sourwood blooms. Uncle Billy sat on the porch swing with a mug of his strong, black coffee in his hand an' waited for them to come up the creek.
Will always started a honkin' that horn when he got to the curve in the creek. Them kids would be a hollerin' out the winders an' carryin' on any time now. 'Course the daughter-in-law thought that was a terrible thing, but that was one time Will had a little of the mountain backbone he was born with. He always did honk that ol' horn to beat the band.
"Traffic through Cincinnati mus' be terrible, cause they was usual here by now." Uncle Billy thought as he sat round 'bout 2:00. "It can sure slow a feller down is what Will always says."
At 5:00 Uncle Billy got a little worried an' walked around the farm a little to get the kinks outta his bones. Old Dog an' him looked over ever' plant an' fence in the farmyard as he waited.
At 6:00 he decided he better not wait supper an' had a fried baloney an' tomater sandwich with a little mayo on 'er.
Uncle Billy normal didn't stay up till 9:30, but he figured they might have had problems. At 10:00 he went over to Hap Collins an' Hap drove with him to the Post Office over to Goose Rock. It was a long drive, but the Postmaster, S. B. Lipps, had one of the only phones anywhere other than in Manchester. It was a party line an' S.B. had to get on the line an' tell Sister Hazel Budder that Uncle Billy needed to make a call to his boy to see if he was all right.
Will answered right off an' tol' Uncle Billy that his wife, the daughter-in-law, didn't want to expose herself to all that pollen from them trees blooming on the hillside. "They are a terrible allergy producing bother." were her exact words.
He said work was pretty busy these days, anyway and the children were in summer sports, Little League and swimming team. It just wasn't fair to ask them to give up their sports to drive down and just sit in that cabin. If he could get television it might be different for them.
Uncle Billy listened an' tol' Will to take care an' write soon.
As Hap drove him home he seemed to age a year for ever' mile they drove. He almost seemed to bend over with his age as the road took them from Goose Creek back home. He fell asleep an' leaned his ol' gray head on the cool window of the truck.
Hap woke him when they got back to the farm an' Uncle Billy reached out his hand, as he always did when he saw Hap. The two men looked at each other an' Hap saw a tear fall down from the tired blue eyes.
Only time Hap ever saw Uncle Billy cry in public was the evenin' Aunt Del died an' Uncle Billy walked all the way up the road to ask him to go into town an' get Charlie White, the undertaker. He stood at the foot of Hap's steps that night an' cried like a baby, too upset to tell Hap what had happened. 'Course, Hap knowed it was Aunt Del when Uncle Billy showed up a' walkin'.
Uncle Billy looked him in the eye an' tried to say somethin', anythin'. He shook his head an' turned away, "Times change, Hap. Times change."
"They sure do, Uncle Billy. They sure do."
Uncle Billy turned an' waved over his shoulder as he went into the dark cabin.
Comes The Fair
A County Fair isn't something that springs up overnight in the hills of Eastern Kentucky. It is more like a covey of quails, sneakin' through the back roads an' wanderin' in when folks are asleep or lookin' the other way. Maybe it is the gypsy nature of Carney folks that causes this quiet entrance. Not like a circus with all the fanfare, parades an' carryin' on. Piece by piece, truck by truck they come from all directions to settle into the fairgrounds close the Beloved, Kentucky.
At night you can hear the heavy grumble of diesel trucks as they pull the Tilt-A Whirl or maybe a Merry-Go-Round into the gates, free an' open to the public for anyone to watch. Shame is no one stops to see the wonder of a fair bein' born. Listen close an' hear the old pickup pullin' Collin's Famous Racing Pigs. As it turns a corner the pigs are jostled from their rest and squeal their indignation. They are stars and athletes after all. They need their sleep.
At night folks can hear the rustling clank of chains as machinery is tightened an' moved to place. Stop if y'all will an' see a Ferris Wheel borned right before your eyes in a matter of hours. First it is just a flatbed platform, waiting for birth an' then with the help of strong men it rises from that bed to the blue Appalachian sky, just waitin' to take youngin's up an' show them the glory of the surroundin' hills. If they take time to look, that is. Most likely they will only have eyes for their darlin's an' never see the hills filled with holly, rhododendron, sassafras, hickory an' red oak trees just up yonder.
The Carney folks get in early, set up their village of tents an' travel trailers. They become a village within our village of Beloved. Soon enough the Fair Board an'; all the volunteers will descend on the fairgrounds an' begin the magic. Folks from round here will begin to come with baked goods, baskets of the best of the harvest an' a whole rainbow of displays.
Soon enough the 4H youngin's an' their families will pull in with cattle, goats, sheep, pigs, poultry an' rabbits. The barns will fill with the laughter of families separated by just a generation or two come together to watch their brood compete just as their Mamas an Daddies, Aunts an' Uncles did years back. Some folks will stay in the same barms with their livestock that their Great Grandpas built, that their Grandparents showed sheep or cattle in. They bring cots an' clothes in trunks to settle in for the glorious week of County Fair.
You come too, they'll make room for you.
County Fair Part One
"County Fair days in Clay County", folks jus' plain ol' light up when they hear them words. Womenfolks have been puttin' away canned goods all summer just tryin' to get one of them blue ribbons. They fuss over the way every cucumber spear looks as they pack jars for picklin'. They carefully pour hot jelly into jars so no foam appears. They look like they got somethin' wrong with 'em as they shake an' jiggle jelly before it gels...tryin' to get bubbles out.
Uncle Billy walks Old Dog out to the truck and loads him into the front seat. Old Dog knows they are a goin' to the fair. His tail ain't stopped thumpin' for near two days.
The back of the truck is loaded with a cot, an ol' ladderback chair, a couple quilts and Uncle Billy's shave horse. They is a suitcase in the front with his clothes for the week. He has been goin' to the fair as long as he can remember. He has stayed the week at the fair for more years than he cares to count.
He stops an' studies the back o' the truck for just a while an' realizes he don't have no wood to work with at the fair. He always takes his shavehorse an' makes brooms an' milk stools each day in the exposition barn. Back in the back Uncle Billy an several other ol' fellers will set up their cots in stalls what once were used for calves before the cow barn was expanded. 'Lectric fans sit in the winders an' keep a breeze a goin' day an' night for to cool them ol' fellers. They sit around in the evenin' an' talk up a storm. If they was a prize fer jawin', one of them fellers would git it, that is for sure.
Uncle Billy's stride is long as he makes his way to his work room in the barn. He carefully selects about 50 sassafras sticks for brooms an' half agin as many for legs for his milk stools he will make. He already threw some lil' ol' maple logs from the woodpile into the back of the truck for the seats o' the stools. Folks buy them as fast as he can make them. Some folks know he donates all the money to the Oneida Institute for youngin's what cain't afford to pay their way.
As he is walkin' out he grabs his oilcan an' an Arkansas whetstone. Them drawknives is gonna get dull usin' 'em as often as he will this week.
He grins as he throws the sticks in the back an' reaches for the ol' truck door. There is nothin' better than a county fair. He can jus' smell the food now. French fries with a load of vinegar on 'em, them big ol' crispy waffles an' some cotton candy for sure. He eats one of them ol' sausage sammiches 'bout ever' day. 'Course, for supper he goes over to the dinner tent an' has whatever the Eastern Star ladies has fixed for the daily special. Usual Monday is fried chicken, Tuesday is chicken an' dumplin's. Wednesday is that I-talian night an' he don't eat none o' that ol' spaghetti. He jus' don' favor it none at all.
As he drives he cain't help but grin. They is nothin' better than County Fair. The horse show starts that evenin' an' goes through Sunday. It always has been Friday to Sunday an' is the highlight o' the weekend. The 4H judgin' starts Monday early with the rabbits an' poultry.
Next weekend will be a busy time for Uncle Billy. He has auctioned the 4H animals for years. They is new auctioneers 'round the county, but no one has done the 4H auction for near 50 years. He loves workin' the crowd, tryin' to git as much for them animals as he can. It ain't above Uncle Billy to shame folks into raisin' a bid. A load o' youngin's from 'round Beloved went to college with 4H money thanks to the shamin' of Uncle Billy. He reckoned he was gonna have to turn it over to someone one of these days, but as long as he is able, he was gonna do 'er.
The man at the back gate saw Uncle Billy through the windshield an' waved him through. He pulled up an' rolled his window down, "How's it lookin', Joe?"
"Lookin' right good, Uncle Billy. I reckon that Sizemore boy might win with that big ol steer he brung in. You seen it?"
"Yessir, I did. It is as fine a steer as I have seen. How 're the sheep an' goats comin' in? I heard them boys over on Martin's Creek ever' one has an entry this year."
"That is a fact. They all look good. Their Daddy would whup ever' one of 'em if they didn't keep them animals up good. He won I don' know how many ribbons an' trophies in his day."
"Well now, he did from what I recollect. Well I better get on."
"Have a good time this year, Uncle Billy"
"Y'all can bet on that one."
Uncle Billy grinned as he drove into the fairgrounds. He pulls up to the exhibition barn an they is half a dozen youngin's see him an' come runnin'. They have his cot an 'bout ever' thing else in his stall before him an' Ol' Dog can get out. They are a grinnin' as hard as he is.
He rubs the burr headed Arnett boy with his big ol' hand like he has done ever' year. "That's for luck." Uncle Billy tells the boy. It must have worked 'cause last year he won for best of show with his market turkeys.
Uncle Billy looked over the hurry scurry of the fairgrounds and his grin got even bigger, "Yessir, they is nothin' better than a county fair."
The Other Side of The Fair
Saturday morning started fast for Junebug Burns. He was up early to get his sheep ready for the Clay County Fair. He had been in 4H for a couple of years now. At 13 he thought he might be goin' to his last fair as a 4Her this year. Truth be told, he stayed in 4H all through High School.
Junebug's Mama had called to him at about 6:00 a.m. an' told him he better get a move on or his Daddy wouldn't be a takin' him to the fair till later in the day. The mornin' was cool in the holler where they lived. The creek that ran down the holler kept the nights cool an' the days humid in summer.
He was up an' dressed right quick. A white tee shirt, ol' denims an' some P.F. Flyers was all a feller needed at the fair till judgin' day. His Mama had made sure he had enough shirts, drawers an' clean socks. she said no boy o' hers was gonna stink, even though they was a stayin' in the sheep barn all week.
Lordy, he better hurry. If his Daddy got on the tractor he would have wait an' go that evenin'. On top o' that he'd have chores to do all day instead o' bein' at the fair.
He ran out to the barn while his Mama was cookin' breakfast. As he went out the front door onto the porch he could hardly see the tobaccer field down the way for the fog. That fog was heavy on the barn as he reached it, swirlin' around it an' makin' it look like it was stuck off by itself. He could'nt see em, but he heard the chickens a carryin' on an' his sister's banty rooster crowin' like it was cock o' the walk.
As the big ol' door swung open, his sheep started callin' to him somethin' fierce. All the bleatin' made him smile a big smile. These were the best two sheep in all the 4H group. Well, that's what he thought. His Daddy weren't one to throw around words an he said they was good stock. That there was as good as a ribbon to Junebug.
He got his cane an' opened the pen. Them sheep was out an' into the barnyard quicker than greens through a duck. He walked behind an' beside them as he herded them toward the truck. His Daddy already had a ramp up to the back o' the truck. It took just a shake to get 'em in an' close the back end o' the pickup. They was big wooden slat sides on the truck that folks would build to haul livestock in pickup trucks. Junebug had put plenty o' straw on the bed o' the truck. He handed in some hay for the sheep to eat as they traveled.
One thing can be said o' Junebug's Mama. She weren't lettin' her menfolks go to the fair hungry. Her table was an old harvest table made o' poplar by her Grandad. The two long sides folded down when not in use an' could be pushed agin the wall to make room in the kitchen.
Today it were covered with a red an' white checked oilcloth tablecloth. Five plates sat on the table an' cloth napkins were by each plate. The plates was what folks call carnival glass an' had been won at the County Fair over several years by Junebug's Daddy when they first took up housekeepin'. The days before the Clay County Fair were always right special 'cause the carnival glass dishes would come out. They was a warm gold color, almost opaque.
The forks an' knives an' spoons was in each drinkin' glass like always. Mama always set the table like that. When folks was done they put their forks an' all right back in them glasses an' set 'em over on the sideboard for washin'.
In the middle o' that red an' white oilcloth was more food than a feller could shake a stick at. They was a big platter o' fried eggs, a bowl o' grits an' some fresh churned butter to dab on top. Down by Junebug's Mama's chair was Bob White Syrup an' some buckwheat flapjacks. A big ol' bowl held thick home cured hickory smoked bacon, sausages an' a little ham meat. They was two kinds o' gravy on the table; milk gravy an' red-eye gravy made from the grease off that ham.
Junebug's Daddy grabbed his Mama's hand, an' Junebug an' his two sisters joined the family circle as his Daddy prayed for the food:
"Dear Lord, I am right grateful for all the food sittin' before us, Lord. Y'all have done right by us from day one an' for that I thank thee. I give thanks for this farm an' for the crops. That rain the other day was appreciated, Lord Jesus, but I ain't gonna squawk none if y'all care to give us another one. I'd ask y'all to watch over they youngin's an' keep 'em healthy. Bless my Mam, dear Lord, cause she has taken the palsy something terrible. She is a shakin' so bad that she cain't hardly hold a glass o' milk. Now, Lord, y'all know I don't like to ask no favors or want special treatment for us, but if y'all see fit, jus' bless ol' Junebug with a champion this year. He has worked hard on them sheep an' done a right good job. Amen."
Junebug had opened his eyes when his Daddy started talkin' to the Lord about him. His eyes was as big as hen eggs when his Daddy bragged on him to the Lord Jesus. Junebug couldn't believe it. Them must be good sheep if his Daddy was a askin' the Lord to bless him.
He didn't stop grinnin' as he filled...an' emptied his plate. That grin stayed on his face as they rode to town an' even when they unloaded the sheep into their pen.
He had a sleepin' bag an' a suitcase with him that he put in the pen next to his sheep. A dozen other boys had done the same around him. At the other end o' the barn the girls was layin' out their beds an so on in pens next to their sheep. A couple of parents was there too, all set up in stalls in between for the rest o' the week. They were the 4H sponsors this year an' would ride herd on the youngin's in each barn.
Junebug hugged his Daddy an started to turn back to the barn.
"Ain't you a forgettin' somethin'?" his Daddy asked.
"I don't reckon."
"You ain't asked me for any spendin' money."
"Well sir, I saved a right smart bit this year. I thought I would do 'er on my own."
"Good man, Junebug. That makes me proud o' ye." His Daddy sounded real funny when he said that. Sort o' like he was chokin' or somethin'.
He hugged Junebug agin an' walked to the truck. "I'll be here Wednesday for the judgin', son."
"OK, Daddy. I'll be a seein' y'all then."
As his Daddy drove away, Junebug stuck his hands in his pockets. He felt somethin' in the left pocket where he kept his Case knife. When he pulled it out he saw the $10 his Daddy had slipped in as he was a huggin' him.
That grin crept to his face again. It didn't leave most o' the day.
Junebug spent all day workin' in the sheep barn the first day o' the fair. The 4H sponsors wanted to make sure the barn looked good as folks went through. There were always chores to do. Junebug swept the lanes between the sheep pens over and over to make sure no one stepped in anythin'. He helped haul about a thousand wheelbarrows of sawdust to scatter on them lanes too.
The fellers what was doin' the sheep shearin' wasn't comin' till the next day, so Junebug had plenty of time in the evenin' to walk around with his cousins an' friends an' look the fair over. He had one of them cotton candys right off. He went over to the Methodist Church booth an' got some chicken an' noodles like he promised his Mama. He knew some o' them ol' ladies would tell on him if he didn't try to eat right.
Him an' Eddie Carpenter walked down through the rides an' into the sideshow area. They were right strange things there, sure enough. Last year he paid a quarter to see the biggest rat in the whole wide world. That feller talkin' 'bout it kept on hollerin' about it all week till Junebug had to take a look. After he paid his quarter he climbed up some stairs an' looked down into a pen with a big ol' rat lookin' thing. He sure didn't want to see that in his Daddy's corn crib. (His science teacher later told him it weren't a rat but a capybara. Junebug looked it up in an encyclopedia an' sure enough it was!)
Well, Eddie an' Junebug stopped in front of a tent that had a sign said, "Zambina the Gorilla Woman". The feller out front told them that Zambina was the missin' link. Them boys had to see that missin' link woman. They paid their quarter an' went inside a dark tent with a bunch o' other folks.
When the lights came on the man from out front was standin' on the stage with a nice lookin' red headed woman in some kind o' zebra skin with grass stuck in her hair an' all. Junebug looked real close. He thought the feller looked an awful lot like the man with the giant rat last year.
That feller tol' the folks that Zambina was the missin' link again an' said when she was put in a hypnotic trance she "regressed through the various and sundry stages of evolution to her ancient ancestor, the giant ape...known today in modern science as the gorilla.". Eddie giggled an' said she was really one of them orang-o-tangies cause she was redheaded an' all. Junebug tol' him to hush cause the feller said it had to be absolute silent.
"Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, I am about to perform a feat of hypnotism and cause Zambina to regress back through millions of years of evolution. Please be silent, because I cannot be responsible for what might happen if her primitive urges get the best of her psyche. Quiet now as I begin..."
The feller paused an' the woman stepped into a big ol' cage with iron bars. He locked her in an' put the key in his pocket. Junebug's eyes got real big as he saw her standin' in that ol' cage. He poked Eddie and pointed. Eddie was as white as a sheet. This show had to be the real thing.
"Zambina," the feller whispered right loud, "Think gorilla. Think Gorilla, Zambina. Gorilla, Zambina"
He whispered an' muttered this over an' over. Then it some kind o' scary music started up an smoke was a risin' all round. Funny lights started a flickerin' an' Zambina started changin'. She humped over right funny an' her arms an' face gor real hairy. She got bigger an' bigger till she looked like one o' them gorillas, for sure. Finally she was a full time, real for sure gorilla!
Then some woman screamed an' all heck broke loose. Zambina broke out of her trance when that woman done screamed. That gorilla lady broke open that ol' cage an' jumped out. She looked around an' saw that talkin' feller that tranced her. She grabbed him an started beatin' on him an' carryin' on somethin' terrible. Man, oh man.
'Bout that time Eddie Carpenter got scared an' ran out the flap as a big ol' man with a shotgun came it. He fired it in the air an Zambina froze as she was pickin' up the hypnotizin' feller. The big man pointed the shotgun at Zambina and she dropped the feller to the ground.
Junebug looked up at the top o' the tent an' noticed it didn't have a hole in it from the shotgun blast! He turned to watch what was a goin' on.
The shotgun man walked calm like toward Zambina, callin' her name an pointin' the gun at her. He got a whip off a chair in the front an' cracked it a couple o' times an' Zambina hunkered down like an' ol' cur dog. Folks started cheerin'. Junebug reckoned they knew that feller had saved their sorry lives.
Both them fellers got Zambina in the cage an' locked it back. The hypnotizin' feller tol' the folks the show was over since Zambina was stuck as a gorilla till they got her calmed down. As Junebug left he saw the movie projector high in the tent an' figured it must a been part o' the way Zambina changed. 'Course, he weren't gonna tell Eddie that. Sorry friend he was, runnin' off like that.
When Junebug got back to the sheep barn, Eddie was already tellin' ever'one there about Zambina. That show as gonna make some cash over the weekend. Junebug threw in his two cents here an' there, but didn't say much. It was Eddie's story after all.
Junebug saw Zambina's transformation three times that week. He later recognized Zambina walkin' around in regular clothes. He said howdy to her an' winked.
Zambina grinned, winked an' held her finger to her lips. Junebug made a zippin' motion over his lips an giggled as he walked toward the rides back on the back lot.
County Fair Part Two
The Clay County Fair was goin' full tilt. Sunday was always a good day at the fair. Folks still came to the fair after church dressed in their "Sunday go to meetin'" clothes. Little ol' girls had on their dresses, white socks an' either black patent shoes or saddle oxfords. Boys had their cowlicks pressed down with a little luck an' a lot o' spit. Their shirts were pressed white and their shoes shined. Mamas and Dads herded youngin's almost as good as the 4Hers in the barns did their animals.
Uncle Billy sat outside the exhibition hall takin' it all in. He had made brooms an' a few milk stools all weekend till Sunday. He never worked on Sunday. Never did, never would. He didn't sell any of his brooms on Sunday either, though he didn't fault others if they wanted to work or buy an' sell. It was just his personal beliefs was all.
They had a church service on the fairgrounds for all the folks what were missin' church by bein' there an' tendin' their animals or booths. Uncle Billy always led the singin' with his deep bass voice.
A couple years back a collection was taken up to buy some o' them Broadman Hymnals. Each an' ever' one was stamped "Fairgrounds Church Meeting" on the front in gold letters. Inside each one was the name of the folks what donated it.
The preachers around the community took turns doin' the service an' this year it was Brother Harley Davidson's turn. The preacher would always appoint someone to fill his pulpit while he preached at the fairgrounds. Brother Harley was from the Church of God. He asked Jesse Gilbert to fill in for him. Jesse was home from college an' was goin' to make a preacher when he got out.
Uncle Billy watched the parade of folks as they walked 'round the grounds, hands full of this an that, stuffed animals, painted canes, waffles an' cotton candy. More than once a feller would stop an' pass the time o' day with Uncle Billy. They talked about all the important things o' the day...the weather, cattle prices, which youngin' was gonna take the grand champion steer this year. Now that was a hot topic.
When it got dark folks would start comin' round an' settlin' in around Uncle Billy an' Homer Wilson. Both them fellers was storytellers an' ever'one wanted to get as close as they could to hear all them fellers had to tell.
They did a round robin, tellin' a story then sittin' down whilst lookin' at the other, almost darin' 'em to beat that one. Folks was as quiet as the dead, jus' wantin' to hear what they said. It usually went on for two or three hours, goin' from short funny jokes an' such to longer stories an' maybe a scary one or two.
Homer Wilson said, "Now, that is the way I heerd it, an' I reckon fur as I knowed it was true enough." He sat down an' looked to Uncle Billy who stood an' looked over the crowd...
"Now, let me see here. That reminds me o' the time...."
County Fair Midweek
Uncle Billy sat on his shavehorse and inspected the sassafras stick clamped in the jaws of the bench. It was dried well and was straight. The bark was still on it an' would mostly stay that way. Folks at the fair didn't much want a good kitchen broom or house broom. They wanted somethin' pretty to hang on a wall or some such thing. He thought it was nonsense, but the fancy ones sold, so he weren't gonna raise much fuss.
He set his drawknife aside. It was too big for shavin the sassafras stick. He only wanted to take the rough off the bark an' maybe have a few places the wood would peek through. Folks liked that real good. He picked up a spokeshave and set it to the rough bark of the stick.
Folks standin' an' watchin' smelled the sassafras as soon as he took the first stroke. Several of the youngin's took deep sniffs real loud. Uncle Billy chuckled an' looked up.
"Y'all like that smell don't ye?"
Course, the youngin's nodded their heads to beat the band. Nothin' smelled better than fresh sassafras. Uncle Billy set the stick he was workin' on aside an' picked up one that was rougher an' not fit for makin' a broom handle. He kept a couple o' sticks like that layin' round for just such an occasion.
"Let me give you'uns somethin' to carry round an' snort on for a while." he said as he picked up his drawknife an' slid it quickly down the stick. The fragrance filled the area around him with the sweet smell of sassafras. He quickly made a small pile of shavin's and handed a couple to each youngin'. In the back o' the group was a little ol' girl with blond hair an' brown eyes. She was a grinnin but hid behind her mama as Uncle Billy approached.
"Come here, darlin'. I got a special one for you."
She timidly walked closer an' Uncle Billy took a long curl o' sassafras an' dangled it from her ear like an earring.
"What 'bout the other ear?" she asked.
Uncle Billy laughed right hard when she spoke up. "Here ye are, darlin'. One for the other ear. Gal's gotta look good for the fair."
She felt each one as if to be sure they were in just the right place and grinned. Uncle Billy handed out the rest o' the shavin's. More than one grownup reached out a hand for their own shavin'.
As folks left Uncle Billy went back to work on the broom handle.
Later in the evenin' he stopped to get a bite to eat. As he was headin' over to the Clay County Pork Producers booth to get a big ol' grilled and butter-flied pork chop he saw that little ol' gal walkin' with her mama.
When she saw Uncle Billy she grinned an' pulled back her hair from her ears. Right there, danglin' from each ear was a long curl of the finest red sassafras the mountains o' Kentucky ever did grow.
Uncle Billy chuckled an' hollered out, "Are you a flirtin' with me? I'm too old for you now!"
Don't ye know, that little ol' girl grinned, blushed an' ran to catch up with her mama as fast as she could.
The Sweetest Tomatoes
The Clay County Fair was a goin' full tilt. The rides were full with long lines for all the good rides. The feller at the pony rides didn't have much to do till some proud mountain mama came along an' their youngin' started squallin' about ridin' a pony. He would perk up then an' grin. He could shame a quarter from even the poorest soul for a pony ride.
The bench outside the rabbit barn was a gatherin' place of sorts for many of the older fellers at the fair. It was close to all the food vendors, but far enough away from the midway and all the loud games an' rides that a person could get a little good conversation in.
Uncle Billy sat by himself on the bench. Several fellers had come an' gone over the space of an hour. All had news to offer about which youngin' won in this or that 4H barn. The turkey judgin' was goin' on an' Uncle Billy expected a report soon from that contest.
He had spent most of the mornin' makin' brooms an' talkin' with folks. His hands had another idea right now, though. Ever' now an' again he suffered with a little arthritis. Today it was worse than it had been all week. He reckoned it was keepin' his hands wet an workin' with the broomcorn for such long periods. He sat with one hand in the other. For good measure he would rub the knuckles softly, hoping to rub the ache out.
As he sat there, he heard someone callin' his name. "Hey, Uncle Billy. Uncle Billy, over here. Here."
There was folks goin' all different directions an' Uncle Billy couldn't see where the voice was comin' from till Junebug Burns plopped himself down on the bench beside Uncle Billy. Junebug had some sheep that were going to be judged later that day an' he was right smart nervous about it. Folks were sayin' that his sheep were the best to come through the fairgrounds in a long time. Junebug hoped that was true. He could use the money from a good auction to put away for college. He wanted to go to college over to Cumberland Baptist College to study an' be a teacher. He promised anyone who listened to him that he would come back an' teach in his hometown of Beloved when he was done.
"Uncle Billy, you look right tired."
"I reckon sleepin' on a cot in a barn ain't as peaceful as I might like, Junebug. How 'bout you?"
Well sir, I just don't mind it a bit. They is so much to do here I don't sleep much anyways."
Uncle Billy chuckled, "I don't know that I would repeat that to your Mama, Junebug."
"No sir, that might be a foolish thing to do."
"How are the sheep this year, Junebug? Think you'll win it?"
Junebug sat an' studied a little while before he answered, "Well, I don't rightly know. Lots of folks have stopped by an' looked 'em over. I think I got as good a chance as anyone."
Junebug watched Uncle Billy rubbin' his hands for a second or two, "Them hands hurtin' you?"
"Yessir, some days is better than others. They hurt more in the mornin's than any other time."
"Mine don't do that none."
Uncle Billy grinned, "No sir, I reckon they won't for another 60 years or so."
"You hungry, Uncle Billy?"
"Mountain men are always hungry. You?"
Uncle Billy chuckled. He figured Junebug had spent his money on games an' was lookin' for a good meal. "Reckon you want to go over an' get somethin' to eat with me?"
"Nope, I got somethin' for you an' me to eat right here."
Junebug reached into a bag he was carryin' an' pulled out two of the prettiest red, ripe tomaters Uncle Billy had ever seen. Junebug had a salt shaker in his hand as he handed the bigger one to Uncle Billy.
"Those are nice tomaters, Junebug. I appreciate that. Nothin' better than a tomater with a little salt."
Junebug already had a mouthful as he agreed. The two sat an' ate slowly, each enjoyin' the sweet taste of the tomaters. Ever' now an' again a little juice ran down their lips. Both were quick to catch it and place it back in their mouths. The tomaters were just that good. A feller didn't want to waste a drop.
Uncle Billy chuckled, "I reckon we are both eatin like we are starved. Only thing could make these better would be sittin' in the garden eatin' 'em right off the vine."
Junebug grinned, "Onliest thing could make 'em better is you an' me sneakin' into that garden after dark an' sittin' between the rows eatin' 'em in the moonlight."
"Now, Junebug, what garden did you sneak into? Are these from someone's garden? When did you sneak out?"
"Uncle Billy, I ain't sneaked off the fairgrounds. I promised Pap I wouldn't an' I keep my promises. Just don't ask no questions."
Uncle Billy looked at Junebug for a long time. He had slowed his eatin' down at the prospect of eatin' ill gotten gains. He studied the small piece of tomater he had left for a long while. "Junebug, they don't sell tomaters here at the fair, do they?"
"No sir, they don't. Eat up, Uncle Billy. You are askin' too many questions."
Uncle Billy sat up. He knew something was wrong!
"Junebug Burns! Where did you get these tomaters?"
"Uncle Billy, here is the way it is. Ms.Hazel bugs me to death at church all the time. She tells me to stand up straight, wipes my face with spit an' a hankie if she thinks she sees a little dirt. She tells my Mama on me all the time an' I get in trouble from her carryin' on. Her tomaters was already judged an' won a blue ribbon. They was a whole basket full an' I felt like she owed me a couple."
"Ms.Hazel? Oh, Junebug, if you get caught there will be no end of this! Of all the folks to swipe tomaters from...Ms.Hazel. That woman is a thorn in my side too, Junebug. She will have out hides if she catches us. I'll have to go over to her house for a Sunday dinner to apologize. That woman wants to get her hooks in me anyway, son."
"Well, I reckon we better eat up real fast, Uncle Billy. Don't want anyone seein' us eatin' her tomaters, do we?"
With that thought, both man an' boy put the last bite of sweet, red tomater in their mouth and swallowed hard an' fast. Both grinned a little as they sat on the bench in front of the rabbit barn. Neither said anything for a long time.
"Stolen tomaters is the best."
"They are, Uncle Billy. Sneakin' in an' swipin' a tomater makes it sweeter. You said they was good."
"I reckon, boy, I reckon. Just don't tell anyone we ate Ms.Hazel's prize winnin' tomaters. Just my luck I'd have to end up marryin' the woman to end her shame."
Junebug looked at Uncle Billy with a grin that sliced from ear to ear. They shared a secret that bonded them that day. In the years to come Junebug would grow closer to the old man. Eventually he would learn to make brooms from Uncle Billy. Years later he would sit in a barn makin' brooms an' tellin' stories Uncle billy told him on days just like this one. Them tomaters changed the directions of Junebug's life.
Junebug was right. There is nothin' sweeter than a swiped tomater...
Unless it was pullin' somethin' over on Ms. Hazel. Man an' boy both enjoyed that sweet, red secret.
Junebug's Last Fair
A couple years later Junebug Burns was finally on his way with his last entry as a 4Her for the Clay County Fair. He had an Angus bull named Sneezer that most 'round Beloved, Kentucky thought was the finest bull ever raised in the hills of Kentucky. Junebug named it Sneezer when it was a calf because it would sniff at things an' then just sneeze up a fit, sort of like it was allergic to the whole world. No one ever believed that calf would grow to win a prize as a year old bull much less be the amazin' animal that it was.
Sneezer was loaded into the cattle trailer an' was pushin' against the side with powerful shoulders. Junebug could hear the metal of the trailer groanin'. He grinned and knocked on the side of the trailer, whisperin' for Sneezer to stop that an' be on good behavior. That bull was like a big ol' puppy dog with Junebug. Folks said Junebug could probably teach it to dance if he took a mind to. With just that one whisper ol' Sneezer relaxed an' stood still. It was like he was a waitin' to get to the fair an show off in front of all them folks.
In the back of the pickup was a cot, a duffel full of clothes, two hat boxes with Stetson straw hats, a trunk of gear an' several buckets an' bags full of this an' that. Most 4Hers lived at the fair for the week. Junebug was sure goin' to be there an' enjoy his last fair. He had shavin' cream to use when someone fell asleep as well as a new whoopee cushion ordered from the back of a Superman comic book. It was goin' to be a great week.
The wallet in his pocket was full of cash this year. Junebug had saved for a year so he would have the money to do whatever he wanted to do this year. He was goin' to go out with a bang. Him an' Sneezer would have the best year ever.
Junebug Burns was one of the first to get to the cattle barn at the fairgrounds. Carney folks had started arriving midweek and the midway was setup as Junebug's truck pulled into the gates of the grounds with ol' Sneezer in the cattle trailer. Sneezer was the only animal in the trailer an' filled it from side to side. Junebug just knew he was goin' to do well this year. His last had to be his best.
As he unloaded his gear he headed into the back of the cattle barn. The stalls an' such in the back had bigger bars for the big steers an' bulls. Some of them big ol' Angus an' Bramas could lean on a lightweight gate an' bend it sure enough. The small stall next to the great big stall reserved for Sneezer was Junebug's home for the next week. Cot, mattress, clothes trunk an' tack box all went into the stall. When it was organized to Junebug's liking, he took one more look around to make sure it would meet the critical eye of Mr. Jim Mosley, the 4H advisor for the cattle barn.
Mr. Mosely was a former Marine an' ran the barn like a boot camp barracks. "Keep it clean, beds made, tack put away, clothes stored an' the poop scooped up." was Mr. Mosley's mantra. Junebug had started the rumor two years ago that Mr. Mosely had them words tattooed on his backside. Joey Hoskins had the misfortune to believe Junebug enough that he asked Mr. Mosely about the alleged tattoo. After Joey Hoskins was dressed down like a new recruit, Drill Sergent Mosley came lookin' for Junebug to chew on him for a while. There was never a plug of burley tobaccer that was chewed any harder than that boy. 4Hers learned that you just didn't spread rumors about the cattle barn advisor.
In private Mr. Mosely shared the story with several of his buddies an' they all had a good laugh. Uncle Billy Gilbert offered to pay for it if Jim Mosley would offer up his backside to the tattoo needle. Jim Mosley graciously declined. He did, however have his wife write the words back yonder with a fine point magic marker. Late one night he walked into Junebug's stall where he lay reading, dropped his drawers an' showed the magic words in all their glory. He never said a word an' walked away proudly afterward. Junebug just sat in teenage awe...not daring to laugh or make a sound. He felt it was some kind of "rite of passage" for Mr. Mosley to share that moment with him.
When all was ready in his stall, Junebug made the over-sized stall ready for Sneezer. Fresh water in the big bucket, the portable manger hangin' from the side rail full of hay an' a few oats to make Sneezer feel welcome. The dirt floor was well covered with straw, an' a grain shovel an' pitchfork stood at attention outside the stall, ready for the whims of nature to fall...ahem. Nearby was a wheelbarrow ready to haul any "whims" outside to the compost pile.
With the gentle hand of a farm boy who loved his animals an' the quiet voice of a practiced handler, Junebug backed Sneezer out of the cattle trailer. Cattle don't take much to walkin' backwards, so it was a testament to the trust Sneezer had that he slowly walked back an' out of the trailer with no hesitation. 'Course, Junebug had worked with the bull hundreds an' thousands of times over the last several years. The pair paused an' Junebug patted Sneezer on the nose. Sneezer responded by lickin' out an' almost slappin' the boy's face with his big warm tongue. Junebug laughed an' put his face to the bull's as they stood for only a moment. They then walked through the door of the barn an' into the stall.
After about an hour of brushing an' combing, Junebug was satisfied. It was several days till the cattle judgin' an' the bulls were very last, so there was no real need to have the bull combed an' fluffed quite yet. Junebug reminded Sneezer that there would be plenty of company an' they both had to look real good this year.
Before he left the barn he took out the wooden sign his Daddy had routed out for him on a solid piece of cherry wood an' hung it over the gate of the stall. It said, "Thanks to the Farmers and Mercantile Bank for buying my Champion Steer last year." Junebug had also showed a steer the previous year along with a Jersey heifer. The steer had given Junebug a Champion ribbon an' had provided a nice amount of cash to go toward his college funds. Sneezer had come in as a Champion last year as a two year old but did not win Grand Champion. Junebug had not auctioned off Sneezer as a two year old since he wanted to enter him as a three year old - the last year that Junebug an' Sneezer would be eligible. After this year Junebug would be off to college an' Sneezer would be out to pasture to sire dozens of offspring in the hills an' hollers around Beloved.
A quick trip through the produce barn told him Miss Hazel hadn't put out her entry yet. There was a tradition that had to be kept. One or two of Miss Hazel's prize tomaters always came up missin' each year after the judgin'. Junebug an' Uncle Billy Gilbert would celebrate Miss Hazel's victory an' toast to her success with a little salt an' a wonderful, sinful red globe in hand. Junebug Burns figured Miss Hazel deserved this for all the chasin' of Uncle Billy she did each year. Since Aunt Del had died, Miss Hazel had made it her life's goal to end up with Billy Gilbert. 'Course, the fact she called him "Bill" instead of "Billy" told most folks she didn't know a thing about him an was about as likely to get him as a fish was to get fleas.
Down at the end of the midway was a big tent, worn lookin' if folks got too close in the day, but full of mystery at night as the barker would call to the crowd to come see Zambina the Gorilla Lady. Zambina had become a pal of Junebug's an' he looked forward to talkin' with her over hot black coffee early one mornin' before the "rubes" showed up. Junebug liked it that Zambina called folks "rubes" an' shared stories of the road, circuses an' countless county fairs with him. She had showed him all the secrets of the "Gorilla Lady" show several years ago when he was a young pup. He had looked on with wide eyes as each secret was revealed to him. True to his promise, sworn on the shrunken head of a monkey, Junebug had never revealed the secrets to even his best friend. Zambina was a late riser since she had late night shows, so he went on by an' down the way.
The roll of money in his pocket called to him. The promise of food an' games an' fun seemed just a flip of a switch away. Come dark tomorrow night an' this quiet patch of dust an' grass would become incandescent magic. The sights an' sounds would pull at the wallets of even the most stingy. Junebug was lookin' for the tattoo tent. His Daddy had told him he could get one small tattoo. Although he wasn't a Marine an' probably didn't deserve it, he had considered "semper fi" to honor Mr. Mosley. Instead he would follow Eddie Carpenter's lead an' get a simple cross tattooed just to the side of his hipbone where it could be hidden by jeans or underwear.
It was goin' to be a good year at the fair. Junebug just knew it. After findin' the tattoo tent, he went back to the middle of the fairgrounds, picked out a bench an' sat down with his Case knife to whittle an' wait for friends.
Marie Lawson sat in the room that was her living room and bedroom. It was the only room in the house she kept heated all winter. The room was also the room that her Great Great Grandpa built first when he homesteaded this here little holler in the hills of eastern Kentucky. The outside of this part of the house was logs, but the inside had been covered with layer after layer of newspapers stuck to the walls with home made flour paste. Marie's Mama had gotten snooty, or at least that's what folks said when she sent away to the Sears and Roebuck an' ordered wallpaper to go over those layers of newspaper.
The fireplace in front of her had a coal grate burning warm and a big ol' pot simmered close to the coal fire. Inside was a thick soup Marie was cookin'. She had started with a little bacon grease to coat the pot an' to brown the deer meat giver to her by Hap Ledford. Some soup bone stock had gone in next 'long with a couple quart jars of her prize winnin' home canned tomatoes. Over to the side of the coal grate was quarts of other home canned vegetables from Marie's garden waitin' their turn to go into the soup pot. A salt celler an' pepper mill stood guard over the event, waitin' to step in now an' again to add the right taste to the proceedin's.
Marie enjoyed sittin' in her rockin' chair every Wednesday in winter an' makin' soup. It was an all day process. Folks just don't want to hurry good soup. It needs to steep an' blend in a slow an' steady dance of tastes.
Right now she was a' peelin' taters that she would leave sit in water till time to throw them in. They was still nice an' firm with few eyes in them just yet. Later in the winter she would go to the root celler an' scrounge through the ol' wizzled taters to find a few that looked an' felt good to the touch in the darkness of the root cellar.
Later in the day, 'bout the time she added the quart jar of sweet corn, Marie took time to darn a sock that had worn at the heel. Her darnin' egg was placed in the heel an' she carefully pulled tread back an' forth along the thin threads left in the heel. Back an' forth, back an' forth, over an' under, her thread filled in line after line of the heel till it was near good as new.
Although there was a basket with quiltin' pieces layin' next to her rocker, Marie determined it was time for a short nap. She laid her darnin' egg an' sock in the basket an' folded her hands in her lap. Her Mama used to say that "idle hands was the Devil's playground". She still missed her Mama to this day, but was glad to have the peace an' solitude to do what she wanted. She didn't happen to agree with that piece of theology an' proved it by takin' naps most every day.
Lunchtime was called by her ol' dog scratchin' at the door wantin' to eat. She had spoiled that ol' dog by feedin' it three times a day, but it was good company. It knew better than to get too close to her soup pot or the fixin's waitin' to go in. A couple biscuits filled with country ham an' a little spoon of her muscadine grape jelly to grease it down was sittin' on a plate with a glass of cold milk. When it was this cold she didn't need to put the milk in her Frigidaire to cool it down, she just left it on the back porch after she was done milkin' an' covered it with a clean dish towel.
Her ol' dog, Luke didn't know, but she didn't ever feed him exactly what she was eatin'. She kept her food scraps in a bowl an' brought it with her when she sat down. As she ate her biscuits an' ham, she would reach in an get a little scrap from the scrap bowl an' feed it to Luke.
"Well, Lukie, time to add the beans an' taters." Marie told her dog. She had already added corn, okra, peas an' carrots. The green beans an' taters was always the last in the pot. She sat an' stared at the coal grate as the soup pot simmered. As she sat, she could swear the flames made odd things as she watched, pictures in the burnin' fire. Pictures an' faces an' places Marie had only dreamed of would appear as she gazed an' daydreamed.
Later in the evenin', Marie doled out the hot soup into Mason jars she would seal an' take to the shut ins an' sick around her hometown of Beloved, Kentucky. She sat aside a small portion to go into her own Frigidaire for her own use. Twenty-seven jars later an' she poured one little bit into a coffee cup. Quickly she sipped on the soup as she checked the seal on each jar. She wiped each with her dish towel an' set them upside down so they would seal. Most folks would eat the soup right away, but if they was a reason it could not be eat, it was still good for a long while, sealed like it was.
About six o'clock, Uncle Billy Gilbert an' Sister Hazel Budder, the preacher's wife would stop by to pick her up for Wednesday Night Prayer Meetin' at Booger Holler Holiness Church. Uncle Billy had stopped to pick up Sister Hazel just down the street so folks wouldn't talk as him an' Marie delivered her soup on the way to church. They left an hour early every Wednesday night just to deliver a bite to eat to the folks in Beloved who might not have or be able to do for themselves.
Marie would arrive at church just like everyone else. She didn't ever say a word about her day long venture. She never told folks or bragged about the good she did. Uncle Billy never even said much about pickin' Marie up. They just did it. No need for braggin'. No need to talk about it. It was just what they did.
Years later, when folks talked about the saints they had known, two names always came up. Uncle Billy Gilbert for the many things he did over the years for any an' everyone in the community...an' Marie Lawson. When they talked about Marie, they always called her "the soup lady, Marie". Funny thing, no one could mention her without pausin' an' sayin', "she sure knew how to make good soup."
Christmas In The Holler
Christmas Eve Service was always wonderful at the Booger Holler Holiness Church. Sister Hazel Budder, the wife of Pastor Woodrow Budder was in charge of the choir and they had practiced since summer on the songs they sang on Christmas Eve. The Church was decorated just right and aromatic cedar trees were trimmed and lighted to get everyone in the mood.
Brother Woodrow reminded folks the reason for the season in a short message of 'bout five minutes at the end of the singin'. Ms. Hazel invited Uncle Billy Gilbert to come over to her house for Christmas Dinner. Since Aunt Del died Ms. Hazel had done set her hopes on Uncle Billy.
He thanked her, but said he was goin' to stay home. Other folks invited him without the hidden desires Ms. Hazel had and he would smile and turn them down too. He told folks Old Dog needed company tomorrow. 'Course, they invited Old Dog then, but Uncle Billy Gilbert just would smile and say no.
Christmas Morning in Beloved was glorious. There was just enough snow to make a white Christmas like a greeting card in the little town. Annie Pankey's store, Pankey's Hankies, had the window lighted an' her Santa collection called to hearts young and old to stop an' look. The Baptist Church had it's bells playin' Christmas Carols quietly all morning. Folks that lived in town got out and swept the sidewalks, just as an excuse to visit with each other. The wonderful smells of Christmas dinners cooking filled the cold mountain air.
Up in the holler, Uncle Billy an' Old Dog got up early, as usual. He put a pot of coffee on after he let Old Dog out. He sliced a piece of fruitcake, laced with rum that his son Bill sent him. Bill had tried to get him to come up north for Christmas. His son meant well, but that boy's wife just didn't have goodwill in her voice as she fussed in the background of that call. He declined graciously. He just wished Bill would come home one Christmas an' bring the grandkids to spend Christmas day with him.
He stirred the fire when he got up and now he added some coal to make it burn long and slow. Some folks didn't like the smell of a coal fire, but Uncle Billy Gilbert knew the smell was the heart of the hills. Coal was the heart, the lifeblood and the burden of the mountains.
Later in the morning, him an' Old Dog dozed in front of the fire. He planned on goin' for a walk in the hills sometime during the afternoon. Plenty of day left for that.
All around Beloved folks were celebrating Christmas with their families. Customs were a little different, but the basics were the same, family, cheer, the joy of giving and little ones gathered close to see what Santa left.
Meals were served and bellies filled as the day past all too quickly. Belts slipped to the next notch and quite a few folks sat and dozed while company droned on about work, family or common woes.
Hap Ledford sat for a while studyin' on something after an early Christmas dinner. Evelyn could tell something was on his mind and she asked him what was in his head.
"Would you mind if I didn't help with the dishes an' went down to take Uncle Billy a little plate or something?"
"My goodness, Hap, I was waitin' for you to ask. I have several things ready for you to take. I baked him a loaf of sour dough bread like he likes an' sliced him a couple of pounds of that country ham. You know how he likes his country ham he cures, but won't hardly keep one for himself. You go on an' spend some time with him. Tell him we all love him."
Hap grinned as she walked from the kitchen with a cardboard box filled with bread, country ham, and some of her prize winnin' strawberry jelly. He thought Evelyn didn't see him as he stopped in the shed an' put a quart jar of his elderberry wine in the box. She was standin' inside the door watchin' through the window, grinnin' like a possum over roadkill.
Roscoe Collins was sittin' by his wood stove in the chair Uncle Billy had made him back in the summer. Roscoe swore that them store bought chairs just didn't feel near as good as a chair Uncle Billy crafted. He wondered out loud what Uncle Billy was doin' on Christmas Day an' Rhoda was out of the kitchen, through the covey of Grand kids an' lookin' at him with her dark black eyes.
"Why don't you get out of that chair an' go see? You know the chair I mean, Roscoe. The one you asked Uncle Billy to make. The one he wouldn't take a dime for."
It didn't take him long to get his coat an' head for the door. Rhoda handed him a grocery bag filled with turkey, oyster dressing an' half of the stack cake she made. That cake was wonderful, seven layers with jam between each layer. For good measure she sent Uncle Billy a whole vinegar pie. Men needed a little sweetnin' this time of year.
Henry Kay Snoddy didn't need no proddin' over to Bear Rump. Orvina an' him had planned for this visit. Orvina hadn't slept good so she begged out an' sent Henry Kay with some fried chicken, city ham, sweet potato casserole an' a big bowl of home grown greasy beans. Uncle Billy had give her the seed for the beans.
Daw Collins was already on the road as was Junebug Burns an' his Daddy. Each had boxes an' bags of holiday treats. Junebug had made potato candy an' fudge with his Mama an' made sure that most of it went to Uncle Billy who had never told on him for swipin' Ms. Hazel's prize winning tomatoes.
By the time Junebug got there the big livin' room of Uncle Billy's house was near full with men an' boys, all on an errand of love on Christmas. Uncle Billy answered the door an' his faded blue eyes filled with tears as he saw Junebug standin' with an open container of potato candy.
"Thought you might want a little o' my candy I made." Junebug grinned.
"Get in here, boy, or I'll be a tellin' on you."
Uncle Billy had opened all the boxes, bowls and covered plates as he placed them on the table. He got out every plate an' saucer he had along with all the forks, knives and' spoons in the house.
He spoke loudly, "Fellers, I know I can't eat all this before it goes bad. Now y'all are gonna have to help me before I let you leave. Henry Kay, I'll vouch for you with Orvina, so just you stay right there. If you don't mind, boys, I better say a word of grace."
The men an' boys stood, took of caps an' hand an' bowed their heads.
"Lord, I thank you much for the fellers that came away from hearth an' home to bring some Christmas cheer to this ol servant of yours. They humble me, Father with their love. The wives, Mamas and families they left to stop by fill my heart right good with their generous spirit. 'Course, Lord, these is mountain folks an' You expect no less from us. Now, I thank Ye for the food, the love shown to each other an' the men that stand here, shoulder to shoulder. We have all stood beside each other before, balin' hay, puttin' up tobbacer, bowin' heads in church or lodge. This is my family, Lord. I am humbled an' blessed by their sorry ol' hides. Amen...Oh, an' Lord, keep Henry Kay out of hot water with Orvina for stayin' so long. Amen"
Men an' boys grinned through the tears that Uncle Billy's prayer brought. The lined up, oldest first down through the youngin's an' took plates an' feasted as only men together can do.
No one noticed that Uncle Billy waited till every guest was served before he went to the cupboard an' got a bowl. Every saucer an' plate was used. He filled his bowl with a little of everything, not wantin' to hurt any feelin's. When he went into the big room, no one had to get out of his chair, folks just knew it was his an' saved it for him.
Ol' Dog was a layin' by it, tail a thumpin' as Uncle Billy sat. That dog knew that Christmas dinner was goin' to be fed to him, one scrap at a time by Uncle Billy's hand. Ol' Dog had him trained that way.
There is nothin' better than men gathered together to eat, laugh an' talk. That ol cabin hadn't heard as much joy in a while. Uncle Billy sat an' grinned as he just listened an' watched each face. It was a good Christmas. He wished Aunt Del were there an' a secret tear fell when no one noticed.
There was a knock at the door an' Junebug went to answer. A covered dish was left on the porch in front of the door an' Junebug saw Ms. Hazel's car drivin' away. He took the dish an' the note with it to Uncle Billy.
The note said, "Bill, I just know you are forgotten an' lonely in that cold empty cabin. Here is a little something to fill your sad, empty belly. Don't be too proud to stop in later tonight for a visit."
Uncle Billy grinned. He hated to be called Bill. His name was Billy, given to him by his Daddy. Ms. Hazel never would understand. He was alone since Aunt Del died, but never lonely. He was never sad and obviously could never be forgotten by all the folks that loved him.
The cabin wasn't cold or empty, nor was his heart. It was filled with gladness of a life well spent.
Daw Collins came over about then an' started on a huntin' story Uncle Billy knew he would have to put in his two cents about.
Men an' boys gathered closer as their grand ol' storyteller cleared his throat an' said, "Now, Daw, you left your part in all that out. Here is how I remember it."
Uncle Billy and That Old Dog
If I close my eyes even now,
I can still yet see them.
Sittin' yonder on that cabin porch
Unchanged, unmarked by time somehow.
Rugged cabin, hand hewn logs
Sittin' on the edge of the hill.
There's Uncle Billy, plain and simple
One hand restin' on that ol' dog.
They'd end up there 'bout every day,
Tired old man and worn out dog.
Always quiet, nary a word
Except the words he had to say.
Now and again the rocker'd creak,
Eyes would fade and head would droop.
Dog would moan and chase dream rabbits
Uncle Billy'd slumber and take a peek.
Did they hunt again together in an interwoven dream?
Man and dog, both young and virile.
Uncle Billy'd sigh, old dog whimpered
Were they resting by a remembered stream.
Tired, worn cabin by the edge of the wood
Worn out man and tired old dog.
They'd leave this life, this care , this toil
To forever hunt their dreams...if they could.
Time and Mortality
The old man sat on his porch quiet in the dusk
Examining his mortality like a treasured pocket watch.
Carefully turning it over and over in his hand
Feeling the weight of the watch chain,
Opening the back to see the inscription
Secrets known and read only by him.
Watching the hands go round the dial
Seeing his face in the face of the watch
Knowing some not so distant day
The watch would tick for the last time.
As the hands climbed toward midnight
He wound the watch once again
Looked at the time once more, satisfied
And put his mortality back for another day.
Old, feeling ancient,
He sits on his porch
Rests on his porch swing
Grizzled brown mountain cur
Curled up by his side.
Weary, bleary, rheumy
Eyes fixed on the road.
Watching, patiently waiting
Sitting so quiet, so very still
The soft, rythmic snoring
Of his worn little dog
Is the only sound to hear.
Way down yonder,
Far piece down the road
The sound of an engine
The dust rising from the road
Beat up old Ford truck
Shakes, rattles, rolls
Comes closer, closer
Slow, passes by.
Old man, most ancient
Throws up a hand
Nod, touch of the hat.
Truck rumbles and gone.
Old, feeling ancient,
He sits on his porch
Rests on his porch swing
Grizzled brown mountain cur
Curled up by his side.
Weary, bleary, rheumy
Eyes fixed on the road.
Watching, patiently waiting
Fly Away Home
(Note: this is an Uncle Billy piece, not the ending that I wrote later and which is below, but an Uncle Billy piece none the less)
Dusty road along a creek,
Chewed up dog layin’ on a porch,
Tin roof bright in the summer sun
Ancient logs daubed with mud.
Poplar plank porch worn smooth,
Sanded by passin’ of a thousand feet,
Th’ rockin’ of a hundred chairs
Tappin’ of a thousand toes.
Old man sittin’ there rockin’,
Shoulders planed down by toil,
Face sandblasted by a hard-scrabble life.
Yet eyes clear ‘neath craggy brow.
Call comes, “Fly away, Fly away home".
To green isles, rocky hills,
Ancestral shores as craggy as th’ ol’ man’s brow.
Callin’ him to his ancestral islands.
Icy blue eyes look backward through generations,
Back through tales of fairies and selkies.
Back to buried memories of ancestral hearths and peat fires,
Smokey memories, the sweet incense of a hidden history.
That ancient memory calls him home,
To a place he has never been,
To a people he has never known.
“Come home, Come home, Fly away home.”
Old eyes close and weep,
He sees a place his feet have never walked,
Hears songs his ears have never heard.
Old heart yearns for a home unknown.
Come away, come away, come away home,
Leprechauns laugh and beckon,
Red haired lasses wink and smile.
Rocks and rills cry out his name.
Old heart yearns as he rocks and slows, sighs,
His spirit reaches out,
His mind leaps across oceans,
Feet tap to the songs of pipes.
Old head nods, worn face smiles,
Rockin’ chair slows, stops.
Tired heart yearns…and stops.
Spirit rises, soars, flies away home.
Chewed up dog looks up,
Whines and watches his master go.
Old head drops, ears lift, listens.
Listens for pipes an’ a call, “Home dog, home.”
An old man lays quiet in a cold room. The only heat in this ancient log cabin is a coal grate in a connecting room. Visitors and city folks might call the place rustic or perhaps even rambling. The old man and his weary dog call it home. "A place to get in out of the cold" is his usual description.
It is a collection of rooms added on one at a time by several generations. Old man and dog rest in the lower bedroom, cabin actually, as that part was the first cabin built and that stood alone on that spot for many years.
It is small and simple and also has a coal grate that has not often been used. A Great Granddad built the original cabin when he moved his family up the holler to avoid another raid by Yankee soldiers seeking to destroy a local salt mine and keep Confederate soldiers from buying salt.
The parlor is simply another cabin built a few years later. It was laid out and logs were stacked fifteen feet from the first cabin. A dogtrot of plank wood connected the two cabins and became a second bedroom for several generations of kin. Along the full length of these structures is a shotgun kitchen, it is filled with stove, tables, Hoosier cabinets and a hand pump for water. A plastic tablecloth covers the kitchen table, washed off so many times the pattern has disappeared.
The fire has been banked and ashes dumped into a bucket. The careful red flames flicker slowly and occasionally light up a corner where visitors might see peeling wallpaper... and underneath layers of newspapers and Sears & Roebuck catalog pages carefully glued on the walls by womenfolks intent on keeping the winter wind out.
Snow covers the ground all around the cabin. Footprints come and go from the cabin to the barn. Footprints that themselves seem weary and worn. Footprints of an old man and an ancient dog who faithfully follows his master as he has for more than fifteen years. A milk cow and a couple pigs sleep in the barn, their breath collecting as ice crystals on their snouts. Their bodies and the muck around them steam in the cold night.
Though nearly a foot deep, no attempt has been made to shovel the snow. It really isn't necessary in the barnyard or around the cabin. Deep snow is a good insulator for the cabin and safer footing for the old man than patches of ice would be. His 1969 Ford truck sits safely in an outbuilding, untouched by the winter weather.
A single path goes over to the smokehouse that is full of hams, bacon, side meat, ham hocks and cloth-sleeved sausage, all butchered, cut, cured and smoked by the old man who rests fitfully in the cold bedroom yonder. The smell of burnt apple wood and hickory is sweet and ashy in the chilled night air. The snow shows evidence of the door being opened once and shut as a survey was taken of this smoky meat, as if to assure the owner that all was well, supplies were taken in and safe. He could weather any storm.
A similar path leads to the side of a hill, where there is a root celler, full of Irish taters, sweet taters, apples, beets, turnips and cabbages all covered with straw to insulate and keep rot away. Rough shelves are filled with all sorts of canned goods, fruit, kraut, beans, tomaters, pickles and jellies. Here and there are jars of home canned meats like sausages fried, placed into jars and processed. Chicken, beef and deer meat are clearly marked as to when they were processed and canned. All are lined up in Mason jars that sparkle in the moonlight.
Not all are products of the old man's hands. Many are from neighbors and well meaning widow women who have had their eye on the man since he lost his wife years ago. Another brief survey is evident and the last trail leads back to the cabin.
Inside an old man lays quiet in a cold room. He listens to the short crackles of embers as they fight to stay alive till morning. His old dog raises its head to listen for strangers who won't come in this snowy weather. Satisfied, he lowers his head to his paws and closes rheumy eyes.
On the bed, the man watches as memories play on his eyelids, memories of youth and vigor, of running free through the hills, chasing rabbits with his dog, now a pup in his mind's eye, up a holler and through miles of brush. He dreams of friends, youthful and smiling, waving at him from a forgotten porch, laughing at a joke he just can't catch in his memories. He tastes hot meals, sips sweet tea and basks in the remembered warmth of summers long past. Secretly, he savors his first taste of moonshine once more. A gentle smile crosses his lips as his mind lingers over his first kiss.
As he drifts between this world and the promise of sleep. He dreams of a little ol' dark head mountain gal he teased in a one room school, who he watched grow into a beautiful woman. He smiles gently as he remembers their first kiss, their wedding day, their many days together in this cabin.
A tear slides through a series of wrinkles as he remembers once more her passing on, her promise to wait for him on the other side of the Jordan. In that moment, his spirit decides, his body reluctantly obeys and takes one last breath. The room stills.
As if a signal has been sent out, the embers seem to glow less. In his sleep the old dog hears his master call and lets loose of the old bone of life and lopes along into forever. He sees someone standing on the far bank of a river and without hesitation he jumps in and begins to swim.
On the other side of the river, a young man waits beside a beautiful woman who is smiling bright as day. The dog pulls himself out of that river and shakes his years away like water collected in his fur. He is young, made new.
The new dog, man and wife turn once more, look over Jordan and smile a sad smile, knowing others will soon follow. They turn and see a city, bright and inviting. They step forward together and walk toward Heaven and home.