Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Snakes, Pickups and Midnight Skinny Dipping

I was thinking about  how warm it is today, the last day of January, 2012 and thought, "A hundred years ago, I would have gone skinny dipping on a night like this." We didn't see many mild winters in the hills. Our days would be filled with chopping wood or hauling enough wood from the woodpile so we didn't have to go back that week. Snakes like woodpiles, even thought they were suppose to sleep in cold winters, even now and again, they could be spotted. If it was nice like this in mid-winter, I know we would take the pick up out to the lake and park as close to the water as the trees would allow. We would have some rocks to throw near the bank to get rid of the water snakes before we shed our cloths and took a leap off the tailgate. In the summer, this was a frequent pastime

Now, I didn't think about snakes today because I was in court, did I tell you my job was working with folks in court? That means working with attorneys too. Most of them I have met are not snakes but very nice people. Some attorneys I met, I understand all the snake and shark jokes, but most of them are about these very few that can make a profession so colorful.

Pickup truck lights were probably pretty foolish, along with rock throwing to scare away snakes, some water snakes were poisonous. It is a wonder I made it out of there with minor scrapes and cuts when night swimming. There were also close shore trout lines to check for in the bad light. But kids, you know, we were fearless. It wasn't alcohol, just our youth that rendered us invincible. Many times we could park next to boat ramps, thinking the day time traffic made it impossible for snakes to nest or hunt for food in these oil slicked areas. There was nothing else that said summer chilling like the feel of the cool black water and the beauty of the ripples that reflected the headlights as we floated on our backs while listened Joplin or Jim Morrison blasting on the eight track out of the cab of the pickup.

Magical nights filled with friends, cold water, no fear of snakes, then digging a pit to start a fire and huddle under old quilts. No sitting in front of a TV, watching DVR'ed shows because we can't stand to miss one episode of our favorite series. No sitting at a computer to see  how many points we can rack up on the latest game. Just a bunch of kids, who in adolescence graduated swim suits, modest favor over the birthday suits before we could drive trucks to the lake, talking about the next football game at the high school and loving life as we warmed our faces but froze our backs. We inhaled not only the fragrant smoke from the Ozark pines but also a passion for living fearlessly. Every single one of us could not wait to leave the Ozarks and make our way in the world of the non hillbilly.

I was one of the unlucky few that made it out. Now I recall my time but view my past best days in the Ozarks as a child views an impossible image in a make believe snow globe. These days, boat ramps are monitored, most have flood lights and cameras. Lakes are patrolled and night swimmers are fined. Fires can only be burned in designated areas inside fire pits, usually after a fee has been paid and wood purchased.

How will life change in the next 60 years? What will that generation look back upon with wonder and fondness?  My hope for this new and young generation is that they find their own way to their version of snakes, pickups and midnight fun without using a computer.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Burn Barrels and 2 cent coke bottles

Today was trash day, but not recycling. In my city we only recycle 26 times a year, but trash pick up is 52 times a year. I don't recall how often trash pick up day was when I was a kid but there are things that I do recall and it was so different! Today, a fancy tall and somewhat sealed garbage can sits in my kitchen, a part of the decoration of the room. It seems to fill over night, the plastic liner gets tied and it is tossed into a second much larger rented-from-the-city-by-the-month trash can on the carport that I also pay the city to come and dump into their truck once a week.

First of all, when I was a kid, the only recycling was in our back yard when the burn barrel got full or the compost pile accepted egg shells and tater peels with some grass clippings tossed on top. We didn't tear off a paper towel every time something spilled then toss it in the trash, we used the worn dish rag that hung over the sink to clean spills then rinsed it and put it back. Our trash can was a small paper bag that found it's home under the kitchen sink. Papaw made a small pleat at the top, folded down to keep the bag open. I can't recall what that paper bag held since we put all food into the the compost, except bones, those went to the dogs. Anything that would burn went into the burn barrels. We didn't have tissues when we had a cold, we had snot rags that were tossed in the wash and to be used until worn through.

My grandmother let nothing go to waste. Her mold soup was famous among the family. Any left overs that appeared to be going bad was put into a large pot with chicken stock, soup was on! My nephew, Jamie, hated soup days so much that he wrote a large note in crayon then taped to her  refrigerator when he was just four years old. It said, "ON POOS"! I asked him what it said as it was hard to miss the large red letters. He said with his arms defiantly crossed over his puffed up chest, his chin pointed up, and back rigid, "NO SOUP!"  Yes, she kept making it as long as she could cook.

Mamaw also canned veggies out of the garden that were heading for too ripe. When in season, she had me crawling in the bushes and climbing trees to get fruit unreachable to her for putting up jam or baking pies. I pretty much lived outside but wish I had learned how to make jam and can garden vegetables. This skill passed from each generation seemed to die as TV was born.

I don't recall  how long it took to fill a burn barrel but clearly remember the fun kids had on burn days. We would whoop around the burning barrel with feathers pulled from pillows in our hair, like we saw in cowboy movies.  The next day, ash from the barrel was spread around trees and through the grass.

After a good hard rain, kids could not wait to get into the ditches and search for soda bottles. It meant we got to buy half penny candy, yes Eloise, there really was half penny candy.  Ditches held all kinds of treasures after a storm, the most valuable was the returnable bottle. Sometimes we would even get out in the storm to begin our search and get a leg up on the competition as some adults would look for return bottles. Back then, soda bottles were used over and over again.  The big companies must have known the lengths kids would go through to return the bottles and get real financial rewards. Depending on how badly we wanted some candy, the smallest of us would climb into storm drains to excavate between limbs of trees, stray gloves and pieces of cloths torn from a neighbor's clothesline. Digging in the muck was as important to us as any dig at a major archaeological site.

What a difference a generation makes. Recycle and reuse at home was everyday life, not a poster or PSA on TV and radio. It was a part of our lives that seems lost to the world of land fills and trash barges. The burn barrel is a lost art of reduce and reuse. Cites now have burn bans for such lowbrow activities.  We have to recycle our kitchen waste, although anyone can find a "class" on how to compost if they can buy an attractive and expensive compost container, rather than have an unsightly pile in the corner of the yard that to be turned with pitch fork, a few worms tossed in for good measure.

And I know for a fact that if I saw a kid trying to climb into a storm drain today, I would pull my car over and walk him home to talk to his parents, telling him all the way how much disease and danger was down there. Although my face and walk would be stern, there would be a smile in my heart as I recalled that I was usually the sucker that squeezed through the tight opening then sloshed through the sludge and slime, risking my own health as I picked through rusted cans, tangled wires and tree limbs just to find just one of those 2 cent bottles.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Papaw was an Ozark Alien

My papaw had many hobbies. I don't know if they were really hobbies or if they were necessary to help support the family. One of these activities was harvesting honey. When I was old enough, which I recall old enough was being able to walk and talk, he let me help him harvest honey. I had seen my Papaw geared up before when I rode with him to the hives. He looked like an alien from some far away planet in his huge white bonnet, much  like my Mamaw wore in the garden. His bonnet had a net over his face that draped across his chest. He would put on long gloves and tuck his sleeves in the tops. He would then slip on his waders, usually used for fishing, only part of his overalls showed between the waders and the drape of the hat netting. I would have run screaming if I didn't see him putting on this gear, warning the world that there were aliens in the Ozarks!

The day I didn't have to wait in the truck, he gave me my own bonnet and gloves then told me to tuck my pants legs into my socks. He used what looked like a cross between a coal bucket and a magic lamp to pump smoke into the bottom of the hive box. Smoke would eventually make its way out the vent holes at the top. Being this close I was as hypnotized as the bees by the smoke, the sounds and the excitement of being able to help with his harvest.

We used honey for everything. We put it on ice cream, on pancakes, in coffee, for cooking and sometimes just ate it off a spoon. The best part was when the honey was gone, all that was left was the wax. I got to chew on the wax that was stuffed in the jar, a major treat, hillbilly candy!

After Papaw smoked the hives, he lifted off the top ever so slowly.  The bees never swarmed when he did this, maybe out of respect for my Papaw. With the top off, he would lift rectangle shaped boards that glittered with dripping gold, some bees still clinging to the honey comb. Papaw told me to never be greedy, the bees needed to keep some to survive the winters, so he never picked them clean.

As he slid the honey filled wax off  the boards, he did his best to spare any bees that insisted on coming along for the ride. It was like a ballet and I got to be a part of this dance; get smoke into the hive to calm the bees, lift honey covered boards, collect sticky comb, return the empty board. We did this dance for the bees, hive to hive until there was no more room in our containers. As we lugged the honey back to truck it amazed me that the bees were not attacking us as we took their life's work, as Papaw told me bees only lived to produce honey. They didn't try to sting us, they didn't even seem upset when they landed on our cloths and face nets. It was like they were saying hello to an old friend who brought a new friend to their homes. I wonder if the bees thought all friendly humans looked like aliens so they only stung normal looking folks.

When we got to the truck, Papaw waited a few minutes, lifting his net to put a chaw of tobacco into his cheek. I reached down and picked a long dark green blade of grass and tucked it in between my teeth. Papaw eventually lifted his face net over his head, checked all around us before he told me I could take off my gear. When the gear was tucked away, he dug into one bucket and broke off a piece of honey comb. Thick gold dripped off his fingers and onto the ground. As he handed it to me, he plucked out a bee that was buried in the goo. I stuck the entire piece into my mouth.  My teeth bit into the sealed wax capsules. Honey dripped from my chin and I looked out over the field of clover at all the hives. It was as if we had never been there. The bees were busy with their life's work again.

I kept that piece of honey comb on my headboard, usually reserved for gum. Every night I would peek at it to make sure my Mamaw hadn't found it and tossed it in the trash, it was junk to her. To me, it represented the day I joined my grandfather for the first time in becoming an Ozark alien.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Peeling 'taters and Squirrels

Today I'm cooking chili. Years before remote TV or cell phones, I helped my Mamaw prepare a hardy meal of squirrel and veggies from their garden. At times, I would go with my Papaw to hunt the squirrel, wielding a cold shotgun that would knock me off my feet so I had to lean against a tree when I took a shot. My ten year old eyes would watch his three legged dog, Drifter, tree the animal then I would track dinner with the sight just in front of it's head. It would bounce off branches as it fell to the ground, off Drifter would run, howling as he ran, to guard the kill.

Papaw would make sure it was not moving before he tossed it in the old dirty burlap bag. Even after all these years, I still haven't found a word to describe the smell of that tote. Once it felt heavy enough, we would head home. Mamaw usually had some beans picked and washed, since seven dust was used to rid bugs. After my Papaw got his coffee, with a little extra nip to warm his bones, I would skip behind him to his cure shed out back of their house.

I was expert at "field dressing" the little things by then, but we never cleaned them in the field, he wanted to use the guts for his garden. It was like surgery since certain parts has to be saved and cooked, not just the flesh. After I accomplished this, the most fun for me was working with him to tug the fur off those critters, like peeling 'taters but faster.

The reward at dinner was a platter of squirrel in the middle of their tiny worn table, small cups to spit buckshot next to our plates. All squirrel meat is dark, I loved it all. My brother, Jimbo, loved putting the tiny brains between home made biscuits then downed them in one bite.

It took all day to make an evening meal at my grandparents but involved a lot of recreation and family preparation. Now I brown store bought meat, open cans of veggies, add premixed spices then stir, dinner's ready.

Friday, January 20, 2012

I Died Last Night

I usually don't dream, or don't usually recall my dreams. Last night was an exception. I died surrounded by a couple of familiar faces, mostly strangers. My best friend was there to comfort me as a lethal dose of green stuff was admistered and I faded away. I knew I was dying and I was pretty okay with it, in the dream. For some reason, I knew there was no choice, no going back for redo, it was final and this was my last moment to take a breath. I actually thought this in my dream. My past did not flash before my eyes, I simply looked around and said, "I'm ready." As dreams go, maybe it was a nightmare. I awoke alone in a vast ocean of light waves and thought, I have the answer to the age old question, "Is this life after death?" Then in the blink of an eye, no ocean, I was in the killing place where the lethal dose was administered. WHAT? No second chances right? I had been ready to let go now these bright lights, come on!! I saw the doctor that gave that deadly vile the nudge it needed to do me in and he acted like he saw a ghost. Come on, he was suppose to be alive, I was the one that was in shock. I realized I was really alive, again.

This dream has stayed with me, not unpleasant but does it have meaning? I have no idea. Was there a message? Maybe don't eat dinner 10 minutes before bedtime?  I will ponder a bit more then call my friend and ask if she has some secret plan to bump me off. I leave you with this lesson learned as a child. Remember, always remember, don't chew tobacco indoors if you don't have a spittoon!