Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Hens, eggs and Uncle Buck

Much of the time when I post stories or poems they tend to be warm or even bittersweet. Today I have a story on my mind that is not so much of either. It is a story of childhood, of the harshness of nature and the love of a kind and gentle Uncle that had a terrible task.

When I was a boy I loved wanderin' around my Grandma and Grandpa Hollen's farm. The smokehouse was dark and full of mystery. It smelled of old corn meal, salted meats an' oiled tools. The barn was down a path, just a little further than the smokehouse, but off limits till I was a bit older. When  I was finally old enough to go there I would climb the steps of that log barn, look down the square openings to the mangers below where the two mules, Joe and Dick would eat hay. It was wonderful place to explore.

Between the smokehouse and log barn was my Grandpa's orchard. The trees were ancient, low and
gnarly an' the apples sometimes just as gnarly as the parent tree. They were, however, most wonderful to a little boy who could go out and pull one from a branch an' eat it right there on the spot. Grandma would patiently gather the apples, peel and slice and make fried apples, canned apples, apple sauce or maybe dry them and later make fried apple pies in her cast iron skillet.

The branches had been twisted and formed low so fruit was easy to harvest. I always thought Grandpa or maybe my Uncle Buck (his real name was Bert, but he was always Uncle Buck to me) shaped and nursed them trees in the ol' orchard to that shape just for us to play on. The trees grew together with age and for a little boy it was hard to tell where one tree ended and another began. It was a paradise made for little boys an' my brother and I played there sometimes for hours.

When the sun would start to set it became mysterious an' scary. There were secrets in the orchard too. Secrets I didn't know till I was a grown man. Secrets mostly forgotten by all but me an' one or two older relatives. Secrets not evil, but sad. That, however, is a story for another day.

Behind the smokehouse was the hen house. It was sort of a lean-to that was attached to the back of the smokehouse. Grandma would open the door, step in an' gather eggs in the folds of her apron. If I was there she would give me an egg or two to carefully carry inside an' place in the big bowl that all the eggs were placed in.

The chickens roamed the farm, only goin' into the hen house at night. Grandma fed them in the yard between the house an' the smokehouse each day. A big ol' tractor tire had been cut in half an' she would pour the dishwater into it. Them chickens would rush for that water to find tidbits of food that had fallen into the dishpan. A few hens an' the rooster would fly into the apple trees to roost. I loved to hear the big ol' red rooster startin' to wake up an' crowin' back in the orchard.

Most of the hens nested in the hen house. Now an' again one would start nestin' in the weeds an' it was my job to watch an' find their nests. Young hens would lay eggs in a nest in the weeds an' just leave it. Critters would often get the eggs an' sometimes folks had egg suckin' dogs that would rob ever' nest they could find. Occasionally an ol' hen would nest long enough for chicks to hatch an' out of the weeds a hen would stroll one day with little ol' yellow chicks right behind like some sort of parade.

When I found a nest with chicks I would tell Uncle Buck so he could get the nest an' take the hen to the hen house. Chicks didn't live long out wanderin' around in the weeds. Uncle Buck could put the hen an' chicks on one end so she couldn't get out while they grew up.

One summer day I was playin' at the end of the orchard, climbin' one of the low limbs an' playin' Tarzan. As I surveyed my domain I heard a quiet "peep" an' searched the grass below. I saw a nest an' an ol' hen an' realized I had missed her nest. I went to get Uncle Buck an' he followed me back to the nest.

He shoo shoo-ee'd the hen off an' started to pick up the eggs. He stopped an' knelt down for a closer look. I bent over to see what he was lookin at. The eggs were hatchin' an a couple chicks were strugglin', not yet out of their shells. Uncle Buck was right quiet like an' told me to go into the smokehouse an' get a basket for him.

I was sort of surprised but did as he asked. Normally he would just gather nest an' all in his hands, carry it to the hen house with the ol' hen cluckin' an worryin' right behind him.  This time he gathered the eggs an' chicks up one by one an' laid them in that basket. I asked him what he was doin' an' he said he had to do somethin'. Told me to go to the house.

Then he walked down the hill to the creek - named Little Creek an' headed toward Red Bird River. I followed him an' he kept sayin', "Stevie, go on back now. I don't want you to see this."

I followed him anyway an' when he got to the river he walked downstream a way an' knelt down. He sat the basket on the ground an' I realized he was gonna drown them chicks. I started cryin' an' ran to him, beggin' him not to drown them. I cried an' he took me in one arm, sat me on his knee an' showed me the basket.

When Uncle Buck got upset or mad he would stutter a little as he did now, "I di-didn't want you to s-see this, Stevie. Them flies have done blowed these eggs as the chicks would b-break a little hole. That damn hen left them too much an' the flies blowed them eggs."

I looked an' saw that the chicks were covered in fly larvae... maggots. Uncle Buck didn't want them to suffer an' be eat up alive. I stared an' cried. I asked him if I could pray for them an' he said yes. I don't remember my exact words but it was something like, "God, I am sad them chicks are hurt an' mad at them flies. I am sad Uncle Buck has to do what he has to do, so take care of these chicks an' help me an' Uncle Buck get over bein' sad an' cryin'. Amen"

Uncle Buck told me to go stand where Little Creek ran into Red Bird River. He walked further downstream an' knelt again. Carefully he laid each egg into the deep water. I sort of figured it was like a burial at sea an' told him so when he walked back to me.

He didn't say nothin' as we turned to walk back to the house. I reached up an' took his hand. He carried the basket in his other hand as we stepped from stone to stone in the creek. He held my hand the whole way an' helped me in the "slippy" places.

When we got to the little dirt road that led up to the house I pulled on his hand, "I reckon we had to do that, didn't we,Uncle Buck?"

"Yessir, we did, Stevie."

"I love you Uncle Buck."

Uncle Buck just grinned that bashful grin he had. My Daddy's family was never much for sayin' that mushy stuff. Instead he tucked that basket under his arm an' rubbed my ol' burr haircut real good. Uncle Buck was my favorite.

Many years later I sat by his bed as he breathed his last few breaths. I held his hand for a long time. I don't know that he was aware I was there, that I held his hand, but I did. I leaned over an' whispered to him, "I love you Uncle Buck.". As he was takin' those last few breaths tears rolled down his cheeks.

I'm told that happens a lot in those last few minutes, just a natural thing an' he probably didn't even know I was there. Didn't matter to me. I stood an' held his hand an' remembered all the times I spent with him. Memories of eatin' watermelon right in the rows of the garden, goin' swimmin' an' jumpin' off his arms as he threw me up an' into the river.

An' I remembered holdin' his hand as we walked home that terrible day. I don't remember ever sayin' that to him before that day. I don't know how many times in my life I told him that. Only thing I remember now are those two times

Those two summer days, the first time and last time I said, "I love you Uncle Buck".