Category Archives: Autumn

MORNING HUNT

The Boy awoke to the gentle yet persistent pressure of a large hand on his shoulder.

“Time to get up,” Father whispered.

The Boy stuck his nose out from under the heavy quilt. “Yessir,” he mumbled into the dark, cold air.

The sound of Father’s receding steps indicated that he was already headed to the kitchen. Neither Father’s light tread, even in his hunting boots, nor his whisper had awakened Grandfather who continued to snore softly from the large bed on the other side of the room.

The Boy pried an eye open and lifted the thin curtain over the window beside his bed in the corner to peer outside. Frost-covered pastures stretched away to the dark, impenetrable wall of the distant, shrouded woods, all bathed in the cool, pale blue light of a nearly full moon. It looked cold outside because it was.

Reluctant to leave the warm embrace of his covers but excited about the day, he tossed aside his quilts and scurried across the cold hardwood floor of the unheated room to the warmth of the bathroom where Father had left the gas heater on. He quickly brushed his teeth and splashed cold water on his face.

Back in the bedroom, the Boy plopped down at the foot of the bed. His clothes for the morning were draped across the chair at the foot of the bed. Scooting out of his pajama bottoms, he pulled on a pair of worn khakis and two pair of socks, then stuffed his feet into his hunting boots and laced them up.

Shrugging out of his pajama top, he pulled an insulated shirt over his head, paused for a moment to consider, then slipped back into his pajama tops for added warmth before putting on a flannel shirt. With his wool jacket, cap, and gloves in hand, the Boy slipped out of the bedroom and gently closed the door on his still-sleeping grandfather.

Five steps took him through the dining room and into the delicious warmth and rich aromas of Grandmother’s kitchen. Father stood at the sink, a cup of coffee in one hand, a thin slice of apple pie in the other. As the youngest of eight children, Father still relied on his mother’s indulgence when it came to his sweet tooth.

Grandmother was at the stove tending to a cast iron skillet of scrambled eggs and sizzling sausage. The coffee pot sat warming on an eye on the back of the stove.

“Good morning, Dear,” she said with a smile and used the back of her free hand to push back a stray strand of her white hair.

“Good morning, Grandmother,” he replied and hugged her slender frame and kissed her like he did every morning. And every evening. And at every arrival and departure.

“Have a seat,” she added. “Breakfast is nearly ready.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” he said.

But first, the Boy rubbed his eyes with his knuckles and crossed the small room. “Good morning, Father,” he said and wrapped one arm around Father’s waist and hugged.

“Hey there, Boy,” Father said and setting his cup aside, pulled the Boy close with his free arm and kissed him on top of my head.

The Boy looked up into Father’s smiling face and grinned back.

The Boy draped his coat over an empty chair and sat down at the breakfast table at his usual place. Grandmother had already poured him a tall glass of cold sweetmilk. In the center of the table, a plateful of yeast rolls sat cooling under a clean dishcloth, surrounded by a saucer of pale yellow, hand-churned butter and jars of peach, pear, and fig preserves.

Father took over at the stove while Grandmother went to the pantry. Father brought the coffee pot and a plateful of eggs and sausage to the table and sat down. “Ready for some hunting?” he asked.

“Yes, Sir,” the Boy said and tried to stifle a yawn.

“I can tell.” Father chuckled and ruffled the Boy’s short hair.

Grandmother returned and Father and the Boy rose. Father held her chair, and when she was seated, they joined her. Father offered thanks, and after ‘Amen’, all three began helping their plates. Amid the soft clatter of utensils and plates, Grandmother and Father talked softly as the house slept around them, Grandfather in the back bedroom, Mother and Younger Sister in the front.

The Boy listened idly and stuffed himself on his favorite breakfast. When the last crumb was tucked away, Father leaned back and said, “That was delicious, Mother. I certainly enjoyed it.”

“I did, too,” the Boy chimed in.

“I’m so glad you did,” Grandmother replied with a smile.

The Boy took a sausage patty and tucked it into a yeast roll, then wrapped it all up in one of Grandmother’s cotton napkins and stuffed it into his pants pocket.

Father and the Boy rose and took their dishes to the sink.

“Leave them. I’ll wash up. You two get going,” Grandmother said.

Father pulled on his canvas hunting jacket, and picking up one of Grandfather’s old felt hats, kissed Grandmother good-bye. The Boy kissed her too, then pulled on his wool jacket. It had been Father’s when he was young as had the red leather cap with the fold-down earflaps lined with rabbit fur that he seated firmly on his head. The Boy treasured that cap.

With a final good-bye, Father and the Boy slipped out onto the screened back porch. Their guns, a Browning Auto-5 12-gauge shotgun for Father and a J.C. Higgins Model 36 .22 rifle for the Boy, were propped against Grandmother’s heavy, old buffet. There was a set of drawers on top where Grandmother stored seeds for her garden, and in front of the drawers were two boxes of ammunition, one of Number 2 shot for duck hunting and another holding .22 long rifle cartridges.

Father seated Grandfather’s hat on his head and dropped a handful of shotguns shells into the pocket of his hunting jacket. The Boy put the entire box of cartridges in his pocket. The ever-alert Dog must have heard their footsteps because he crawled from under the porch and extending his front paws, raised his hind end high, and stretched. With wagging of tail, he waited for them at the bottom of the steps, dancing in anticipation. Dog was a not particularly attractive dog. In fact, he was a mongrel with a thick body and short legs, mostly white with a few black and brown splotches. But what Dog lacked in breeding and aesthetic appeal, he made up for in loyalty and eagerness.

Father and the Boy buttoned up their coats against the cold and hefted their guns, checked that they were both indeed unloaded and that the Safeties were on. With guns pointed toward the ground, they descended the steps. The Boy stopped at the bottom to kneel down and pet Dog who thanked him with a cold, wet tongue to the cheek, then nuzzled the Boy’s pocket that held the sausage and yeast roll.

“Not for you,” the Boy said and stood up.

They crossed the yard with Dog bouncing around underfoot. Past the plum tree, Father handed the shotgun to the Boy to hold while he crouched and slipped between two strands of the barb wire fence that surrounded the pasture. When Father was clear, the Boy passed him the shotgun and the rifle and followed. Dog ran under the bottom strand.

The sun was just peeking through the bare limbs of the treetops in the far southeast end of the pasture, turning the frost-covered brown stubble of the pasture into a sparkling blanket. They paused here, and Father loaded two shells into the shotgun’s magazine, pulled back the bolt to chamber the first shell, then added a third into the magazine. He then rechecked the shotgun’s Safety.

The Boy removed the spring-loaded rod from the .22’s tubular magazine and, one by one, dropped in 15 cartridges, then replaced the rod and pulled back on the bolt to load the first round. Just like Father he rechecked that the Safety was on. Father was a rigorous teacher when it came to most things, firearm safety in particular.

The sun broke free of the distant trees, and its low rays turned the pasture into a benign lake of shimmering gold. Father tucked his shotgun into the crook of his right arm. The Boy paused and breathed deeply of the cold air. The scent of woodsmoke from fireplaces and kitchens on the place tickled his nose.

He folded down his cap’s rabbit fur flaps over his cold ears and tucked the rifle into the crook of his left arm, then jammed both of his now-gloved hands into his pockets. Although, he was naturally right-handed, his eyesight was so poor in his right eye, that he had turned himself into a left-handed shot.

The frosty stubble, dry, winter-brittle, and frost covered, crunched under their boots as they walked across the pasture towards the old, old forest of oak trees that ran along the east side of the place. The Boy had no idea how deep these woods went. He had never walked all the way out the other side.

As they crossed the pasture, Father and the Boy spoke rarely and then in hushed tones as if in reverence of the dawning day. Dog trotted ahead on stiff, jaunty legs, nose to the ground, running down every intriguing scent. Occasionally, Dog paused, turned, and waited as if impatient.

Eventually, they came to the edge of the wood, the immense trunks towered above, dark and solemn. Bare, brittle limbs rattled and cracked in the wind-driven, bitterly cold air. The Boy shivered as the breeze cut through his clothes. Even Dog paused before entering, perhaps like Father and the Boy, not from fear or even unease, but out of respect for something ancient and wild, primeval and seductive.

The Boy pulled off his left glove, freeing his shooting hand, and with rifle at the ready and heightened senses, all three stepped into the still dark, still shadowy world of the woods. The ground was covered with a carpet of brown, fallen leaves and mast, thousands upon thousands of acorns, food for deer, squirrel and turkey.

Father and the Boy spaced themselves about 15 feet apart and moved as quietly as possible through the sparse undergrowth. Amid the soft rustle of leaf and the occasional crunch of acorn underfoot, they cocked their ears for squirrel chatter and swept their eyes through the branches above for movement. Despite the cold, the Boy had already flipped up the flaps on his cap in order to hear better. Dog ran down every new scent he discovered whether squirrel or rabbit or ground-nesting bird.

The Boy wondered if these woods were old enough to have been here when the first white men came to clear them for farming. The trees had to be old. He knew that many of them were nearly 100 feet tall and twelve to 15 around at the base. He had read in his science book that white oaks could live to be over 300 years old. Had the Chickasaw and Choctaw Indians hunted these same woods where he and Father now hunted? He was sure they must have.

Grandmother had always kept chickens, and one day as a small boy, he had run inside with a particularly fine, large chicken feather. Grandmother had given him a strip of fabric to tie around his head, and he had thrust that feather into his headband. Then taking up the bow and arrow that she had been instrumental in him getting for his birthday that June, he had practiced slipping, silently and undetected, about the farmyard and tractor sheds and tree-lined bayou.

Now he hunted the big woods for real, not pretend, and with Father, among trees so evenly spaced that they could have been planted. But then again, every one of these old trees had a lot of roots and needed a lot of room to grow. He walked these woods in the summer too when it was an emerald world of perpetual shade, shade so complete that there was practically no undergrowth. Maybe they just grew this way.

As they moved deeper, the rising sun cast golden rays through the thick trunks creating long, dense shadows.  Waking birds, finches and sparrows began their morning songs. They came to a small sun-filled clearing, a nearly perfect circle of brown grass, dominated by the scarred, shattered carcass of one of the old trees. Struck by lightning, it had collapsed, falling to the ground in disarray. Slender saplings grew up through the broken branches, creating a small thicket. It reminded the Boy of weeds growing up through the bleached, skeletal ribs of a dead dog he had once come upon in these very woods.

“Quiet,” Father whispered. “There might be a rabbit in there.”

The Boy halted, expectant. From the corner of his eye he saw Father slowly bring the shotgun to his shoulder. The Boy stared intently at the thicket and held his breath as he eased the rifle up to his shoulder.

Ever impulsive, Dog bounded into the clearing, paused momentarily sniffing the cold morning air, and plunged into the thicket. The cottontail that Father suspected might be in the thicket erupted out of the other side, a long, low, sleek gray missile zig-zagging across the clearing, its white scut held high, Dog in furious but futile pursuit. The two charged back into the woods, the rabbit desperately seeking cover.

Father exploded in laughter, and the Boy did too. They could hear the diminishing rustle of the chase. Father paused in the warm sunlight. The Boy, his rifle back in the crook of his arm, blew his warm breath on his cold fingers.

Father said, “One winter, I was still in high school, one of the farmhands and I were out rabbit hunting. It was cold like today, maybe even colder, and we came up on a place just like this.”

Father continued. “Well, there was a rabbit hiding in that thicket too. That old boy crept right up to that thicket and when he saw that rabbit – he had a single-shot shotgun – he leaned in with that gun, couldn’t’ve been more that two or three feet from that rabbit, and pulled the trigger.”

Father was laughing so hard, that tears were starting at the corner of his eyes.

“And missed him,” Father finally choked out, still laughing.

The Boy was grinning and laughing so hard, not just at the story but at how tickled Father was at the memory, that his jaw ached.

Father wiped his eyes. “Before that rabbit could even flinch, he flipped that single-shot around and whacked that rabbit in the head with the stock.”

Father started laughing all over again. “Only rabbit we saw that day. It was so cold I couldn’t even feel my fingers or toes by the time we got back to the house. But we got a rabbit.”

They were still laughing when Dog reappeared at the edge of the clearing, tongue lolling out, defeated.

“Got away, didn’t he?” Father called out.

In response, Dog sat down panting and waited for them.

Father and the Boy crossed the clearing and Dog fell in beside the Boy. There was a log, the remnant of a downed tree, at the edge of the clearing. The Boy started to step over it.

“What did I tell you?” Father said sharply.

The Boy looked back, abashed. “Always step on a log not over it in case a snake is coiled on the other side.”

“That’s right.”

“But there won’t be any rattlers out. It’s too cold,” the Boy offered in defense of his lapse.

Father squinted that way that only he could. “Make it a habit and you’ll do it all the time. Without thinking. You won’t have to ask yourself if the snakes are out or not.”

“Yessir,” the Boy said.

He and Father stepped on, then over the log and re-entered the woods.

“Now, let’s find a good, fat squirrel for your Grandfather,” Father said.

The air was still cold, but here and there a squirrel poked its nose from its nest, drawn by hunger and the warming sun. Spaced out again, Father and the Boy continued to sweep the limbs above. They walked aimlessly among the thick, gray trunks beneath the lattice of bare limbs with no discernable pattern, deeper and deeper into the woods. The Boy savored the nip of the cold air and the relative quiet of the morning.

Eventually they were rewarded by the chatter of a squirrel calling or maybe admonishing another squirrel. The Boy followed the sound and finally spotted the squirrel. It must have been 30 feet up in the tree, plump and gray, acorn in its paws, gnawing away and chattering. Father saw it too and nodded. Slowly and quietly, the Boy raised the rifle to his left shoulder. As the gripped the stock with his left hand, he reached forward with his trigger finger and gently clicked off the Safety. Just as he did, the squirrel paused, then scampered along the limb and resettled, partially obscured by a branch.

“Still see him?” Father whispered.

“Yessir,” the Boy replied. “I can see his shoulder right above that branch.”

“Don’t shoot unless you’re sure,” Father said.

The Boy centered the blade of the front sight into notch on the rear sight and aimed so that the squirrel’s shoulder was right on top of the front blade. “I got ’im,” the Boy answered and squeezed the trigger the way Father had taught him.

There was a sharp crack. The recoil of the rifle ejected the spent cartridge and the bolt cycled back forward loading a fresh cartridge. Through it all, the Boy held his aim just as Father had taught him in case another shot was needed. It was not. The squirrel tumbled to the earth, landing with a soft thud.

Dog bounded towards the fallen squirrel. The Boy lowered his rifle, clicked the Safety back on, and started to run after Dog, fearful that Dog, more companion than retriever, might make off with the squirrel. Before Father could say a word, the Boy remembered Father’s injunction about running with a loaded rifle. With his rifle at his side, the Boy strode across the carpet of leaves and mast as quickly as possible. When the Boy got there, Dog was merely sniffing about and nudging the inert body with his wet, black nose.

The Boy lifted the squirrel by the tail. It was heavier than he expected, long and plump. His shot had broken the squirrel’s backbone right at the shoulder.

Father walked up beaming. “That may be the finest squirrel I’ve ever seen taken around here,” he said. “And that was some good shot! Why, no more’n you could see of that squirrel, I doubt I could have made that shot.”

The Boy’s chest swelled with pride for Father never praised lightly, even though he knew in his heart that Father could have easily made that shot. He handed the squirrel to Father, who hefted it.

“Nice and plump. Grandfather will be pleased,” he said. “Want me to carry him?”

“Yessir,” he said.

There was very little blood, but Father’s hunting jacket had a lined game pouch into which Father dropped the squirrel. “We got what we came for. Let’s meander on back.”

Father and the Boy walked closer together now and talked softly as they walked, while Dog ranged off in first one direction and then another. Despite their apparently aimless drifting, they soon arrived back at the clearing. The meadow was bathed in warm sunlight, and selecting a convenient limb on the downed tree, they sat.

The Boy reached into his pocket and pulled out his sausage and roll wrapped in Grandmother’s napkin. Walking in the cold morning air had made him hungry. He was unwrapping his snack and about to offer Father part of it, when Father fished his own out of his pocket.

“I’ve been sticking a piece of ham or sausage in one of your Grandmother’s rolls before heading out for the day for a long as I can remember,” Father said and took a big bite.

“Um-uh,” Father said. “That’s good.”

The Boy dug into his and agreed. They munched slowly, and Father told stories of other hunts, other days, and other dogs, but especially stories of duck hunts over on the River, the Mississippi River. The Boy loved to hear Father’s stories.

Redbirds and blue jays joined the finches and sparrows that darted across the meadow. A raucous murder of crows flew in, scattering the other birds, and lit to peck among the scrub. One particularly large crow settled into a tree along the edge of the clearing and began to chastise Father and the Boy with insistent cawing.

“Bet that rascal has been in your Grandmother’s garden and fruit trees,” Father said.

Father took his last bite and wiped his hands on Grandmother’s napkin which he stuffed back in his pocket. “You’ve never fired a shotgun, have you?” Father asked, even though he knew the answer.

“Nosir,” the Boy said. He had seen Father shoot and had pleaded, but Father had always said ‘Not yet.’

“Stand up,” Father said.

The Boy leapt up in anticipation and Father handed him the long, heavy shotgun.

“Now aim down the barrel at that crow.”

The Boy looked down the length of the barrel at the little bead on the end. “There’s no rear sight,” he said.

“Just look down that rib,” Father said, then added, “Put your left leg back a little and lean forward just a little bit.”

The Boy did as instructed, but the gun was heavy. Father must have noticed.

“Perfect,” Father said. “Now stand easy.”

The Boy lowered the heavy barrel.

“That shotgun’s going to kick when you pull the trigger. Make sure it’s snugged up tight against your shoulder,” Father said. “It’ll push you back and the barrel will rise but hold steady and the barrel will come back down.”

The Boy nodded. “Yessir.”

“And another thing. You’re shooting lefty, so that empty shell is going to be ejected right across in front of your eyes. Don’t let that bother you. It won’t hit you.”

“Yessir.”

“Now aim and fire,” Father said.

The Boy lifted the shotgun and tucked it tight against his left shoulder. With his forefinger he flicked off the Safety. He placed his left cheek against the cool wood of the stock and sighted down the rib, placing the bead squarely on the squawking crow. He squeezed the trigger.

The sound was deafening. The heavy gun slammed his shoulder back and the barrel rode up just like Father said it would. But his stance was good, and he was braced as Father had taught him. As he rocked back forward and the barrel came back down, all he saw was a cascade of tattered black feathers fluttering to the ground. The crow was completely gone.

“Wow,” he said under his breath. He was both in awe of the destructive power of the shotgun and in some way that he couldn’t describe, abashed. A living creature, even one as rapacious and irritating as a crow could be, simply no longer existed. The squirrel was one thing: that was for Grandfather who loved squirrel stew. This was another. Still, he had fired a shotgun and hit what he had aimed at.

“How’d it feel?” Father asked.

“Like getting punched in the shoulder,” he replied and clicked the Safety back on.

“You’ll get used to it. But that was a tight, heavy load for duck, not birdshot. Still, it shows you how devastating a shotgun can be. That’s a good thing to remember.”

The Boy looked over at the limb where the now-obliterated crow had been and gulped. But he was still a boy, and that thought fled from his mind as he hefted the 12-gauge. “When can we go dove hunting?” he asked, assuming that was the next logical step.

“When you learn how to shoot birds on the wing. You have to learn to aim so that your shot and the flying bird arrive at the same place at the same time. Hand me the shotgun.”

Father stood and took the gun. “Now run pick up that shell.”

Father checked that the Safety was on and took his shooting stance. With his free hand, he pointed to a spot well off to his left. “Now stand over there,” he said. “And when I say ‘Pull’, throw that shell as high and as far as you can.”

“Yessir,” the Boy said and went to the spot and cocked his arm.

“Pull,” Father shouted.

The Boy hurled the shotgun shell as hard as he could. It arced through the air, a small tumbling, red cylinder against the pale blue sky. Father traced its path with the barrel of the shotgun and pulled the trigger. Another explosion and the shotgun shell went spinning off in a different direction.

“Like that,” Father said and set the Safety as he lowered the gun.

“Wow,” the Boy said for the second time that morning. “How did you learn to do that?”

“Your Grandfather taught he. He must have told me a thousand times, ‘You don’t aim a shotgun, you point it.’ And practice. Lots of practice.”

“Is that why you don’t need sights like on a rifle, because you point it?” the Boy asked.

“Exactly.” Father nodded.

“But how do you figure out where to point the shotgun?”

Father thought for moment and finally said. “You know when we’re out in the backyard running pass routes and throwing the football?”

“Yessir.”

“How do you know where to throw the ball when I’m running a down and out route?”

“I just do,” the Boy said. “I just know how to throw it where you’ll be.”

“Do you think about it?”

“Nosir, not really. I just know.”

“But you didn’t at first, did you?”

The Boy thought for a second. “Nosir. I threw behind you all the time.”

“That’s right. But with practice you learned how to throw the football so that the ball and I got to the same place at the same time.”

The Boy was excited now. It all made sense to him. “Can I try?” he asked.

“Sure,” Father said and handed him the shotgun.

On his fourth try the Boy hit the empty shotgun shell that Father sent sailing through the air. Just like when he was learning to throw passes, he had been behind on the first three times.  Father threw one more and when he hit that one too, Father said, “Let’s stop while you’re ahead. Besides, it’s about time to head back to the house.”

They gathered up and pocketed their empty shells, then turned towards home. Dog, who had found other things to do during shotgun practice, rejoined them as they re-entered the woods. The sun was nearly directly overhead now and shone down through the skein of bare branches overhead, creating pools of brown and gold on the forest floor. Now that they were no longer hunting, the Boy picked up the occasional stick and threw it for Dog to chase.

They cleared the woods and stepped out into the pasture. It was warmer, not exactly warm, but warmer in the direct sunlight; all the frost had been burned off. Half a mile away stood Grandfather’s and Grandmother’s white, clapboarded house among the trees and outbuildings, the smokehouse and hen house. Smoke, thin wispy pillars of gray, rose into the still air from their chimney and the chimney of every other house on the place.

Dog headed to the slough that meandered though the upper pasture for a drink of water. Father and the Boy continued across the brown stubble of the pasture, talking now about the college football season. They might even be able to pick up a game on the television this afternoon.

They reached the fence, unloaded their weapons, climbed through one at a time, and crossed the yard where Grandmother’s chickens, rusty Rhode Island Reds and speckled Plymouth Rocks, clucked and cooed and pecked about in the bright sunlight. They stopped at the back steps to clean the squirrel. Grandfather must have seen them coming because he came out onto the porch shrugging into his coat.

“Let’s see what you got there,” Grandfather said.

The Boy held his trophy up high.

“Whooeee,” Grandfather said. “That looks like a good one. Got your knife on you?”

“Yessir,” the Boy answered and fished out his pocketknife.

“Good for you. A gentleman always carries a pocketknife,” Grandfather said.

Grandfather came down the steps, leaned over the Boy’s shoulder, and with his forefinger traced the first cut down the squirrel’s snow-white belly. Grandfather pulled out his Dr. Grabow pipe and pouch of Carter Hall. Soon Grandfather’s head was crowned with a blue halo of pipesmoke. The Boy drank in the rich aroma and skinned and gutted the squirrel at Grandfather’s careful instruction.

The Boy kept the tail for himself. Everything else, hide, head, and entrails he took out back followed by a cavalcade of curious chickens. He tossed it all over the back fence into the pasture. Dog nosed around but found nothing interesting. Crows soon gathered.

Returning, the Boy put the cleaned and skinned squirrel in the pan Grandmother had provided and started up the steps.

“Hope you’re looking forward to squirrel stew as much as I am,” Grandfather said.

The Boy turned and wrinkled up his nose and mouth in disgust.

Grandfather threw his head back and roared with laughter. Father too.

“Good. More for me,” Grandfather said, still laughing.

On the porch, Father and the Boy propped their guns in the corner for cleaning later and emptied their pockets of ammunition. The three of them shrugged out of their coats and entered the warmth of Grandmother’s kitchen. The Boy was the last to enter. He paused and stared off a last time across the pasture at the dark wall of the distant woods, then closed the door against winter’s cold, this day’s hunt over.

***

 

I would hunt those woods many times in the coming years, sometimes with Father, sometimes alone, always wary and alert, yet comfortable in the wild, never with any sense of fear of my surroundings or of getting lost in the big woods. I had been taught well.

In coming years, I would hunt other woods with other people, and as Father had promised, with practice I became a good wingshot. That accomplished, Father took me dove hunting as promised. But that is a story for another time.

Sometimes, I simply walked the woods, not hunting at all. And as the years went by, I hunted less and less and walked more and more. I became a Scoutmaster and avid backpacker. I hiked in the Appalachian Mountains and the Rockies too, the Sierra Nevadas and the Tetons, the Grand Canyon and southern Patagonia. I shared the things Father and Grandfather taught me with others.

Father’s birthday and deathday both come around every fall, within three weeks of each other. So, it is inevitable that as the sun begins its slow march into the southern sky and the days begin to shorten and the shadows lengthen, my mind turns more and more often to Father. When the leaves change color and the air turns sharp, I pull out William Faulkner’s The Bear and read that finest of all coming-of-age/hunting stories for the umpteenth time, and once again I can see and feel and smell the big woods that I had once trod with Father and Grandfather.

Age has slowed my step but not my ardor the wild places. I still get out there, and I still share the lessons that were handed down to me. Early one brisk morning this fall, I stood on a mountain ridge in the southern Appalachians with a Boy beside me, and it struck me as it sometimes does: I am Grandfather now.

In the low rays of morning light, the Boy and I stared out across fog-filled valleys. The surface of the fog was placid, smooth and featureless. Distant peaks rose from the fog like blue islands in calm, gray sea. It was one of those scenes of such transcendent beauty that your breath catches in your throat. I have experienced this many times, in a High Sierras meadow bathed in alpenglow or deep in the Grand Canyon with its walls bathed in the crimson of a setting sun or the intense turquoise blue of a Patagonian lake.

As so often happens at these times, I found myself thinking of Father and Grandfather and all they taught me. I found myself wishing they could be here seeing what I am seeing. And often, like that morning, I found myself speaking to them as if they, and not the Boy, were standing at my side.

“Did you say something, Grandfather?” the Boy at my shoulder asked.

“Yeah, I guess I did,” I replied.

He looked up at me and asked, “What’d you say?”

I looked at the smooth, eager face of the Boy beside me, then back across the magnificent vista stretching before us as if looking back across time to another frosty morning and whispered, “I said, ‘Thank you.’”

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Filed under Autumn, Autumn, Life, Memory, Mississippi, Mississippi Delta, Uncategorized, William Faulkner

INTO THE DELTA: Chapter 18 – Henry & Minnie

Thanksgiving Day, 1927

HENRY

Henry looked down the long table. Minnie sat at the other end and beamed, as well she should. Her auburn hair was a glowing halo. Arrayed between the two of them were the blessings of their life together. All eight of their children, even Sadie who had made it home from Greenville, and his parents sat between them: Grady, Morris Bailey, Sadie, Willye, and Father down one side, Maurice, Lucille, Dick, Jim, and Mother down the other.

Their children continued to amaze him. Eight fine children from Grady at 22 years of age all the way down to Little Jim who had just turned two. Four boys and four girls. The older ones tall, lean, alert, and intelligent, the younger ones bright and precocious. All of the girls had their mother’s wavy hair, although Maurice’s and Lucille’s was dark like his, Sadie’s and Willye’s lighter like their mother’s. Morris Bailey’s hair was wavy too, but Grady and Dick had his straight dark hair. Jim’s was straight too and would probably darken as he grew up. Interesting, he thought, how each child reflected different features of Minnie and himself. And not simply looks but personalities.

The late afternoon rays of the sun, pale and white, slanted in through the windows. The golden flicker of candles and kerosene lamps bathed everything in a warm, shimmering light that burnished the autumnal colors of the laden table: the glistening chestnut browns of baked chicken and duck, the grayish-brown butter beans and black-eyed peas, the deep greens of the snap beans and sweet pickles, the creamy golds of squash and creamed corn and one his special favorites, pickled peaches rich with cloves floating in the brine, the tarnished gold of cornbread and dressing, the russet hues of sweet potatoes. The buffet was covered with peach and blackberry cobblers; pecan, mincemeat, and apple pies; and Minnie’s special nutbread.

It had been a hard year, beyond a doubt the hardest of their lives. Not only the high water but the unseasonable cold, the days and days of overcast skies that had shattered hopes of a good cotton crop. But they had been lucky, no, blessed, to come through it as well as they had. Thousands of less fortunate farmers and their families in Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri, even Illinois, Tennessee, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Texas, had been completely flooded out. The waters hadn’t begun to recede until August, and as expected, the cotton crop had been poor.

He had never worried about his family going hungry, but there were other families on the place, farmhands who needed to be paid, and the last thing he wanted to do was have to let any of them go. But the big thing, the thing that hung over everything, was his yearly note. And thank the Lord, he had that set aside now and probably enough to begin planting next year without having to borrow money. That alone was a burden lifted. Today they would devote completely to being thankful.

He caught Minnie’s eye and smiled. She smiled back, a smile of pure, unadulterated contentment.

“Let’s bow our heads,” he said with a nod.

Each head bowed as hand reached and clutched for hand until all were joined. He thanked God for all they had and prayed for those who had less, prayed for family far away, asked God for protection and strength in the days to come and prayed that all that they did might be done in His name and to His glory.

A soft chorus of “Amens” followed his own and with a final squeeze, hands were dropped, and a happy chatter of voices erupted. Spoon clattered against bowl as plates were filled and dishes were passed. The first cool weather had arrived, and a blast of north wind rattled the windows, but inside it was warm, an embracing warmth redolent with the aroma of all the cooking that Minnie and his mother and the girls had done.

Between bites Sadie shared her experiences in Greenville as the waters rose and the levees were breached and thousands struggled day and night to keep the waters at bay and thousands who were flooded out flocked to any high ground they could find. All of the student nurses at King’s Daughters’ had rendered aid. As proud as he was of his daughter, he was even more thankful that she was back home for a few days and safe.

Morris Bailey followed with his escapades looking for George and his family, all of whom were gathered at the King place, even those working on the Mitchener place.

He leaned back in his chair and simply looked and listened. He felt like he was observing the entire tableau from some point outside of his own body. There was a sudden thickness in his throat and his eyes felt damp. How did the fifth son of a hill country farmer end up sitting at the head of this table, on this huge place so wonderfully named Friendship? What did I do to deserve something so wonderful, so precious? Nothing, nothing at all, he decided. No more than he deserved Jesus Christ’s promise of salvation. Oh, he and his family had supplied the hard work, but God in his infinite wisdom had provided the blessing.

The clatter of a utensil on the hardwood floor – Little Jim had dropped his spoon – broke into his reverie, and for this he was thankful too. It reminded him that it wasn’t just the big things. It was his two-year-old son waving his fat little arms and laughing at his lost spoon and his beautiful wife filling the little hand with her own spoon. He smiled again and picked up his fork.

 

Henry set his coffee cup and saucer on his desk and settled into his chair. He had eaten too much but had enjoyed every bite. Father, Grady, and Morris Bailey followed him, each with their own cups which they set on the edge of his desk before taking their seats.

The faint sound of female voices and clatter of crockery filtered in from the kitchen.

He slid his tin of Carter Hall across the desk and Father filled his pipe and passed the tin back.

“Have enough to eat?” he asked.

“Too stuffed to jump,” Father replied as he stuck a wooden match and bathed the bowl of tobacco in flame. Blue smoke curled around Father’s head.

“Becky’s a fine cook, and Minnie too,” his father added. “That was a feast beyond measure.”

“The girls too,” Morris Bailey said, not even looking up as he rolled his cigarette. “I saw Lucille making the pickled peaches.”

Scamp, he thought, he knows my weakness for those things.

“No two ways about it,” Father replied. “We are blessed. Especially the way this year has gone.”

Father looked at him across the desk. “That was a good idea planting more corn and hay than usual.”

“Sure was,” Grady agreed. “Corn prices were up, too.”

“And cotton prices, too. Way up, for those who could make a crop,” Morris Bailey chimed in.

They had planted their cotton late, everyone had, and were still picking. He lit his own pipe now that it was filled.

“There’s no doubt that the corn saved us,” he said. We’ll get decent cotton, but I’m glad we had an ace in the hole.”

He reached into the bottom right desk drawer and pulled out a bottle of Canadian Club whiskey that his brother Burton had given him the last time he had dropped by. God only knew where Burton got bonded whiskey during Prohibition. He had never asked.

He lifted the bottle of amber liquid. It was almost full. Minnie had a china cup with a broken handle that fit inside of her ring-shaped nutbread. As usual, she had half-filled the cup and sealed everything in a tin until the whiskey had all evaporated.

He pulled the cork and splashed a bit into each of their four cups of coffee.

All four men lifted their cups.

“Here’s to making it through another season,” he offered. “God Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, next year will be better.”

“Here. Here,” the others responded.

“Particularly if the creek don’t rise,” Father added.

He replaced the bottle in the drawer and looked up at the sound of children’s voices. Dick flashed by the window with Lucille in pursuit, squealing. No telling what that rascal had done now.

He stared into the fading light. Lights flickered from the few houses he could see, and he knew that even in the ones he couldn’t see, that the hands on the place, his place, white and colored, had plenty to eat. And plenty to be thankful for: they had weathered a challenging year too, and it had taken all of them pulling together.

Any hand on the place was welcome to use a mule, plow, and free seed from the Commissary to put in a garden. All of them did, and many kept a chicken or two. Nevertheless, Minnie’s own flocks were robust, and at her suggestion, each family were given a hen or duck to bake for Thanksgiving. So like her, and that too, gave him a sense of satisfaction. He valued the hands on the place. They worked harder than anyone, and now that he had the responsible, hard-working hands he needed, he wanted to keep them.

He turned back and looked around the room. Grady was 22 years old now, Morris Bailey 20. He idly wondered, for the umpteenth time, when he might lose one or both of them to marriage or some life other than farming. Friendship Plantation was large enough to support them all and their families should they be so blessed. Nevertheless …

Morris Bailey interrupted his wool-gathering. “Can you believe it. We’re down here fighting rising water, and up in New York they just opened a tunnel UNDER the Hudson River.”

Father leaned back and let pipe smoke drift from his mouth. “I read in the paper the other day that they figure over 27,000 square miles were under water and over 700,000 folks flooded out. No telling how many folks dead. They say at least 500, but I’ll wager it’s a whole lot more. Bodies that’ll never be found.”

The room was silent for a moment. Father shook his head slowly. “Funny thing is,” he continued, “how the world keeps on turning and other folks in other places keep on going about their lives, sometimes doing amazing things, while other folks are struggling. Always been that way, I reckon.”

“Like flying across the Atlantic Ocean solo like Lindbergh did?” Grady asked. He couldn’t help but notice the dreamy look in his son’s eyes.

“Exactly like that,” Father replied. “Why, I remember the first airplane I ever saw. Other than in pictures. Bet you and your father do too. Was 1912. Some feller landed at the Choctaw County Fair in the flimsiest looking contraption I ever saw. Sold rides. Not that I would have gone up in one of those things for love or money.”

“I would have,” Grady blurted out.

Everyone stared at the tall, serious young man.

“Maybe someday,” Grady added, then realized that all eyes were on him.

Morris Bailey opened his mouth to speak, but Grady, slightly abashed, spoke first. “But the most important thing is getting a good crop of cotton in next year.”

Everyone agreed, and he peered at his first-born wondering what he might say next.

Grady paused and continued. “It’s a hard crop, cotton. Maybe the hardest. Not like corn or hay that you mostly just plant and let grow. So many things have to go right for nearly half a year to get a good crop. So many warm, sunny days, enough but not too much rain, dry weather for picking. There’s simply so much that can go wrong. I know it makes good money for us, the best, but more than that, there is something satisfying about raising cotton. Maybe it’s the tending, the coaxing, the tilling and turning, the chopping, and finally the picking.”

“I didn’t know you could be so philosophical, Big Brother,” Morris Bailey teased.

Grady shot his brother a sharp glance.

He looked at Grady and said, “I know just what you mean, Son. You might not be able to eat cotton, but there is something deeply satisfying about bringing that crop in , about looking out over those fields when they are a blanket of white so bright in the sun that it hurts your eyes. Maybe it’s all the extra effort that makes it mean more.”

He raised his cup again. “To cotton, King Cotton. And to Friendship Plantation and the Catledges.”

And to my son the farmer, he added silently.

 

MINNIE

She was unpinning and brushing out her hair when Henry entered their bedroom.

“Tired?” he asked from the doorway.

She looked at his reflection in her mirror. “Yes, but thankful. The girls are so helpful, your mother too, of course. And Essie Mae.”

He crossed the room and placed one of his large hands on each of her shoulders. She leaned her head against his right hand and looked up at his reflection from the corner of her eyes.

“Well, it was certainly delicious. I enjoyed every bite. Thank you,” Henry said and kissed the top of her head.

She scooted to one side and he sat beside her on her seat. They looked into each other’s eyes in the mirror.

“I am headed to the bank in Sumner tomorrow. I’ll be depositing the money we will need for this year’s payment to the Fergusons,” he said softly.

“Thank goodness,” she sighed. “More to be thankful for.”

She resumed brushing out her hair, and he leaned close, inhaling deeply and sighing.

“I smell like baking,” she said. “And perspiration.”

“You smell like you, your skin and the soap you wash with. It is just you.”

She leaned away and looked into his dark, dark eyes. He read the question in her own eyes.

“Yes, it was a near run thing this season, but we are alright. Will be for another year, another crop.”

She leaned back against him, and he wrapped both arms around her, pulling her even closer.

“That’s all I wanted to know. All I need to know. I love you,” she whispered.

“I love you too,” he said and kissed her. “Of all I have for which to be thankful, I am thankful most of all for you.”

She didn’t realize she had dropped her hairbrush as wrapped both arms around him and buried her face in his shoulder.

“Oh, Henry,” she whispered. “Me too.”

Thanksgiving Day, 1927

HENRY

Henry looked down the long table. Minnie sat at the other end and beamed, as well she should. Her auburn hair was a glowing halo. Arrayed between the two of them were the blessings of their life together. All eight of their children, even Sadie who had made it home from Greenville, and his parents sat between them: Grady, Morris Bailey, Sadie, Willye, and Father down one side, Maurice, Lucille, Dick, Jim, and Mother down the other.

Their children continued to amaze him. Eight fine children from Grady at 22 years of age all the way down to Little Jim who had just turned two. Four boys and four girls. The older ones tall, lean, alert, and intelligent, the younger ones bright and precocious. All of the girls had their mother’s wavy hair, although Maurice’s and Lucille’s was dark like his, Sadie’s and Willye’s lighter like their mother’s. Morris Bailey’s hair was wavy too, but Grady and Dick had his straight dark hair. Jim’s was straight too and would probably darken as he grew up. Interesting, he thought, how each child reflected different features of Minnie and himself. And not simply looks but personalities.

The late afternoon rays of the sun, pale and white, slanted in through the windows. The golden flicker of candles and kerosene lamps bathed everything in a warm, shimmering light that burnished the autumnal colors of the laden table: the glistening chestnut browns of baked chicken and duck, the grayish-brown butter beans and black-eyed peas, the deep greens of the snap beans and sweet pickles, the creamy golds of squash and creamed corn and one his special favorites, pickled peaches rich with cloves floating in the brine, the tarnished gold of cornbread and dressing, the russet hues of sweet potatoes. The buffet was covered with peach and blackberry cobblers; pecan, mincemeat, and apple pies; and Minnie’s special nutbread.

It had been a hard year, beyond a doubt the hardest of their lives. Not only the high water but the unseasonable cold, the days and days of overcast skies that had shattered hopes of a good cotton crop. But they had been lucky, no, blessed, to come through it as well as they had. Thousands of less fortunate farmers and their families in Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri, even Illinois, Tennessee, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Texas, had been completely flooded out. The waters hadn’t begun to recede until August, and as expected, the cotton crop had been poor.

He had never worried about his family going hungry, but there were other families on the place, farmhands who needed to be paid, and the last thing he wanted to do was have to let any of them go. But the big thing, the thing that hung over everything, was his yearly note. And thank the Lord, he had that set aside now and probably enough to begin planting next year without having to borrow money. That alone was a burden lifted. Today they would devote completely to being thankful.

He caught Minnie’s eye and smiled. She smiled back, a smile of pure, unadulterated contentment.

“Let’s bow our heads,” he said with a nod.

Each head bowed as hand reached and clutched for hand until all were joined. He thanked God for all they had and prayed for those who had less, prayed for family far away, asked God for protection and strength in the days to come and prayed that all that they did might be done in His name and to His glory.

A soft chorus of “Amens” followed his own and with a final squeeze, hands were dropped, and a happy chatter of voices erupted. Spoon clattered against bowl as plates were filled and dishes were passed. The first cool weather had arrived, and a blast of north wind rattled the windows, but inside it was warm, an embracing warmth redolent with the aroma of all the cooking that Minnie and his mother and the girls had done.

Between bites Sadie shared her experiences in Greenville as the waters rose and the levees were breached and thousands struggled day and night to keep the waters at bay and thousands who were flooded out flocked to any high ground they could find. All of the student nurses at King’s Daughters’ had rendered aid. As proud as he was of his daughter, he was even more thankful that she was back home for a few days and safe.

Morris Bailey followed with his escapades looking for George and his family, all of whom were gathered at the King place, even those working on the Mitchener place.

He leaned back in his chair and simply looked and listened. He felt like he was observing the entire tableau from some point outside of his own body. There was a sudden thickness in his throat and his eyes felt damp. How did the fifth son of a hill country farmer end up sitting at the head of this table, on this huge place so wonderfully named Friendship? What did I do to deserve something so wonderful, so precious? Nothing, nothing at all, he decided. No more than he deserved Jesus Christ’s promise of salvation. Oh, he and his family had supplied the hard work, but God in his infinite wisdom had provided the blessing.

The clatter of a utensil on the hardwood floor – Little Jim had dropped his spoon – broke into his reverie, and for this he was thankful too. It reminded him that it wasn’t just the big things. It was his two-year-old son waving his fat little arms and laughing at his lost spoon and his beautiful wife filling the little hand with her own spoon. He smiled again and picked up his fork.

 

Henry set his coffee cup and saucer on his desk and settled into his chair. He had eaten too much but had enjoyed every bite. Father, Grady, and Morris Bailey followed him, each with their own cups which they set on the edge of his desk before taking their seats.

The faint sound of female voices and clatter of crockery filtered in from the kitchen.

He slid his tin of Carter Hall across the desk and Father filled his pipe and passed the tin back.

“Have enough to eat?” he asked.

“Too stuffed to jump,” Father replied as he stuck a wooden match and bathed the bowl of tobacco in flame. Blue smoke curled around Father’s head.

“Becky’s a fine cook, and Minnie too,” his father added. “That was a feast beyond measure.”

“The girls too,” Morris Bailey said, not even looking up as he rolled his cigarette. “I saw Lucille making the pickled peaches.”

Scamp, he thought, he knows my weakness for those things.

“No two ways about it,” Father replied. “We are blessed. Especially the way this year has gone.”

Father looked at him across the desk. “That was a good idea planting more corn and hay than usual.”

“Sure was,” Grady agreed. “Corn prices were up, too.”

“And cotton prices, too. Way up, for those who could make a crop,” Morris Bailey chimed in.

They had planted their cotton late, everyone had, and were still picking. He lit his own pipe now that it was filled.

“There’s no doubt that the corn saved us,” he said. We’ll get decent cotton, but I’m glad we had an ace in the hole.”

He reached into the bottom right desk drawer and pulled out a bottle of Canadian Club whiskey that his brother Burton had given him the last time he had dropped by. God only knew where Burton got bonded whiskey during Prohibition. He had never asked.

He lifted the bottle of amber liquid. It was almost full. Minnie had a china cup with a broken handle that fit inside of her ring-shaped nutbread. As usual, she had half-filled the cup and sealed everything in a tin until the whiskey had all evaporated.

He pulled the cork and splashed a bit into each of their four cups of coffee.

All four men lifted their cups.

“Here’s to making it through another season,” he offered. “God Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, next year will be better.”

“Here. Here,” the others responded.

“Particularly if the creek don’t rise,” Father added.

He replaced the bottle in the drawer and looked up at the sound of children’s voices. Dick flashed by the window with Lucille in pursuit, squealing. No telling what that rascal had done now.

He stared into the fading light. Lights flickered from the few houses he could see, and he knew that even in the ones he couldn’t see, that the hands on the place, his place, white and colored, had plenty to eat. And plenty to be thankful for: they had weathered a challenging year too, and it had taken all of them pulling together.

Any hand on the place was welcome to use a mule, plow, and free seed from the Commissary to put in a garden. All of them did, and many kept a chicken or two. Nevertheless, Minnie’s own flocks were robust, and at her suggestion, each family were given a hen or duck to bake for Thanksgiving. So like her, and that too, gave him a sense of satisfaction. He valued the hands on the place. They worked harder than anyone, and now that he had the responsible, hard-working hands he needed, he wanted to keep them.

He turned back and looked around the room. Grady was 22 years old now, Morris Bailey 20. He idly wondered, for the umpteenth time, when he might lose one or both of them to marriage or some life other than farming. Friendship Plantation was large enough to support them all and their families should they be so blessed. Nevertheless …

Morris Bailey interrupted his wool-gathering. “Can you believe it. We’re down here fighting rising water, and up in New York they just opened a tunnel UNDER the Hudson River.”

Father leaned back and let pipe smoke drift from his mouth. “I read in the paper the other day that they figure over 27,000 square miles were under water and over 700,000 folks flooded out. No telling how many folks dead. They say at least 500, but I’ll wager it’s a whole lot more. Bodies that’ll never be found.”

The room was silent for a moment. Father shook his head slowly. “Funny thing is,” he continued, “how the world keeps on turning and other folks in other places keep on going about their lives, sometimes doing amazing things, while other folks are struggling. Always been that way, I reckon.”

“Like flying across the Atlantic Ocean solo like Lindbergh did?” Grady asked. He couldn’t help but notice the dreamy look in his son’s eyes.

“Exactly like that,” Father replied. “Why, I remember the first airplane I ever saw. Other than in pictures. Bet you and your father do too. Was 1912. Some feller landed at the Choctaw County Fair in the flimsiest looking contraption I ever saw. Sold rides. Not that I would have gone up in one of those things for love or money.”

“I would have,” Grady blurted out.

Everyone stared at the tall, serious young man.

“Maybe someday,” Grady added, then realized that all eyes were on him.

Morris Bailey opened his mouth to speak, but Grady, slightly abashed, spoke first. “But the most important thing is getting a good crop of cotton in next year.”

Everyone agreed, and he peered at his first-born wondering what he might say next.

Grady paused and continued. “It’s a hard crop, cotton. Maybe the hardest. Not like corn or hay that you mostly just plant and let grow. So many things have to go right for nearly half a year to get a good crop. So many warm, sunny days, enough but not too much rain, dry weather for picking. There’s simply so much that can go wrong. I know it makes good money for us, the best, but more than that, there is something satisfying about raising cotton. Maybe it’s the tending, the coaxing, the tilling and turning, the chopping, and finally the picking.”

“I didn’t know you could be so philosophical, Big Brother,” Morris Bailey teased.

Grady shot his brother a sharp glance.

He looked at Grady and said, “I know just what you mean, Son. You might not be able to eat cotton, but there is something deeply satisfying about bringing that crop in , about looking out over those fields when they are a blanket of white so bright in the sun that it hurts your eyes. Maybe it’s all the extra effort that makes it mean more.”

He raised his cup again. “To cotton, King Cotton. And to Friendship Plantation and the Catledges.”

And to my son the farmer, he added silently.

 

MINNIE

She was unpinning and brushing out her hair when Henry entered their bedroom.

“Tired?” he asked from the doorway.

She looked at his reflection in her mirror. “Yes, but thankful. The girls are so helpful, your mother too, of course. And Essie Mae.”

He crossed the room and placed one of his large hands on each of her shoulders. She leaned her head against his right hand and looked up at his reflection from the corner of her eyes.

“Well, it was certainly delicious. I enjoyed every bite. Thank you,” Henry said and kissed the top of her head.

She scooted to one side and he sat beside her on her seat. They looked into each other’s eyes in the mirror.

“I am headed to the bank in Sumner tomorrow. I’ll be depositing the money we will need for this year’s payment to the Fergusons,” he said softly.

“Thank goodness,” she sighed. “More to be thankful for.”

She resumed brushing out her hair, and he leaned close, inhaling deeply and sighing.

“I smell like baking,” she said. “And perspiration.”

“You smell like you, your skin and the soap you wash with. It is just you.”

She leaned away and looked into his dark, dark eyes. He read the question in her own eyes.

“Yes, it was a near run thing this season, but we are alright. Will be for another year, another crop.”

She leaned back against him, and he wrapped both arms around her, pulling her even closer.

“That’s all I wanted to know. All I need to know. I love you,” she whispered.

“I love you too,” he said and kissed her. “Of all I have for which to be thankful, I am thankful most of all for you.”

She didn’t realize she had dropped her hairbrush as wrapped both arms around him and buried her face in his shoulder.

“Oh, Henry,” she whispered. “Me too.”

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Filed under America, Autumn, Autumn, Cotton farming, Delta, Mississippi, Mississippi Delta, Thanksgiving

THE TREEHOUSE

THE TREEHOUSE

The man paused to catch his breath. Rivulets of sweat streamed down his face to collect on the tip of his nose, tremble for the space of several heartbeats, then drop to the limb on which he rested astraddle, creating an ever increasing dark puddle on the rough oak bark. Climbing a tree was harder than he remembered. His abraded palms and scraped shins were testimony to that. But he had been twelve then, and now he was north of 60.
The air was still warm from the late afternoon September sun, but the first hint of dryness and autumn cool was noticeable, just like it had been when he was twelve and he and his father had hauled a few 2X4’s, some 1X6 planks, nails, and hammers into the enormous oak that dominated their front yard, spreading its branches into the neighbors’ yards on either side, out into the street, and back over their own house.
The horizontal fork, ten feet off the ground, equidistant from the massive, four-foot thick trunk, and the street, had been selected as the ideal spot. That afternoon a little platform, about four feet wide and six feet long with little two foot high walls on three sides, had been constructed, father and son working together, rare but not unheard of. There had been countless groundballs thrown in the backyard and untold pass routes run, but to build something together, that was different.
His father would surprise him again the following month, October, on a Saturday in mid-morning, by suggesting that after lunch they drive over to Ole Miss for a football game. Trips with his father, just the two of them, had been rare, and had never included a college football game, much less an Ole Miss game. The afternoon had been crystalline as only a sun-drenched October afternoon in Mississippi can be, the long, long, hot summer finally supplanted by autumn.
He had thought his father was a football genius with eyes that missed no detail: a flag was thrown in the offensive backfield and his father said “Holding”, then another was thrown during a punt return and his father said, “Another clipping penalty.” Only when the boy was older did he learn that nearly every flag in the offensive backfield was for holding and nearly every penalty on the returning team during a runback was clipping. Even then it did not matter; his father had played football and knew football. Practically everything the boy knew about football, and a lot about life, he had learned from his father.
He would see many more college football games, most with people other than his father, but this was his first and it still lived in all of its idealized, autumn-hued clarity, the precisely lined, emerald field, Ole Miss in crimson and blue, Vandy in black and gold, the rickety bleachers on the visitors’ side, the only seats available for walkups. Funny thing was, he could remember the mood and feel of the day as if the intervening years did not exist, but he not the score. Ole Miss must have won for the memory to be so wonderful.
His father was gone now, lost first to dementia, then completely gone, gone and buried, resting beside the man’s mother under a patch of ground so flat and grassy that it seemed improbable that it held their earthly remains even though he could clearly remember the sickening, hollow thump of dirtclods striking their coffins as the workers began filling the holes in which his parents now rested.
Rested, the man continued scooting out on the limb, gripping the limb desperately on occasion, the rope tied about his waist tugging gently, his goal in sight. The fork that was his destination was not as level as the one had been over 50 years ago, but the man knew how to correct that with shims. Settling into the fork, the man took hold of the rope that ran from his waist to the bundle of lumber and tools on the ground and braced himself. Hand over hand, he pulled the swaying, shifting load up into the tree and settled it across the fork, lunging for the hammer before it slipped from underneath the knotted rope, just as his father had done years before.
The treehouse had been the boy’s own personal retreat. As a man remembered the smell, the feel of Friday afternoons, no school for two days, homework deferred. Even as a man, some Friday afternoons felt almost the same. It was the smell, that first hint of dry fall leaves, that first caress of coolness in the air. It came back in a rush, unexpected, unbidden, welcomed, embraced, the feel of that last year of complete innocence when his world had been narrow, protected.
When he was twelve years old, he would race home from the junior high school – another transition being that sixth graders went to junior high that year – with the latest delivery from the Scholastic Book Services or a new treasure from the library tucked under his arm. Folding up an aluminum lawn chair, he would thrust his book inside, tie his rope to the corner of the chair, and toss the free end of the rope over the limb by the treehouse. Scrambling up the trunk, he would walk out along the broad limb to the treehouse, then pull up his chair and book and settle in among the leaves, leaves on the cusp of changing color but still holding onto summer’s green, a green now gone a little dull and tired, the long, golden rays of the setting sun slanting through them, burnishing them with hints of the colors to come.
It was peaceful, serene. The world passed beneath him unaware, unconcerned, just as it did today in the tree in his own front yard. The man pulled out the first 2X4, seven feet long, and laid it along the left side of the fork. The limb dipped a little at the far end. The man drove a 16d nail through the 2X4 and into the limb at the near end, grabbed a couple of 1X’s and scooted to the far end.
The man brought no level. Rather he decided to eyeball it like his father had done. There was a time for precision as practiced and taught him by his father, but there was an organic quality to a treehouse. It had to fit in and grow from the tree. Sliding the shim under the low end of the 2X4, he sighted along it. Level enough. He drove another 16d nail through the 2X4 and the shim and into the limb. Scooting back to the fork, he drove a couple of more nails to secure the 2X4.
The man was sweating again. The temperature hovered at that range that was absolutely perfect for a person at rest, but only at rest. A little exertion was all it took to start him sweating.
Dropping another 2X4 onto the right side of the fork, the man quickly and surely nailed it down. He quickly arrayed the pre-cut 1X6’s (all five fee long) across the fork on top of the 2X4’s.
They were new, yellow planks, not the grey, weathered ones, reclaimed from some other project that his father and he had used. As a boy he had never used a new plank, board, or nail. All had been scavenged from abandoned projects or repurposed, the nails carefully knocked straight only to frequently bend again when used. If nothing else, as a boy he had developed some pretty impressive hammering skills. At first the boy’s father had said he hammered like lightening. His momentary pride sank at the follow-up: You never strike in the same place twice.
Although true, It had been said in jest, not to be mean. His father had probably heard the same thing from his own father. The boy’s father had grinned, ruffled the boy’s short hair, and said, “Here, let me show you how.”
The man quickly lined up and nailed down the planks and was left with a mostly level, reasonably flat platform seven feet long by five feet wide. He imagined it was the same size as the one his father had built, but knowing childhood memories assumed it was larger.
The man stretched out lengthwise on the platform letting his drying sweat plaster his shirt to his chest while he stared up though the shifting leaf patterns, sun and shadow, light and dark. The greener tops of the leaves still maintaining some of their luster compared to duller lighter undersides.
Why was he doing all of this, building a treehouse of all things? The man honestly did not know. He loved his wife, even more deeply than ever, with a love too deep and committed to be attributed to habit or inertia. He had always been faithful to her despite the opportunities available to most men, having learned the difference between desire and love before he had met her.
His entire family, children, grandchildren, in-laws, nieces, and nephews were a never-ending source of wonder and joy to him. That he could be so loved by so many still filled him with amazement. He accepted it but could not understand it. Why him? He knew he did not deserve it but was thankful for it every day. No, that was not it.
But it could not be his job either. He had been reasonably successful in his career, remarkably so considering his frequent reliance on circumstance as opposed to actual planning. While his job was not perfect, he enjoyed it more than not, as much as any man wondering if he could afford to retire yet, and it paid well, meeting their needs with enough left over for the occasional indulgence.
No, it was none of those things. Maybe it was being nearer the end than the beginning. Maybe it was the loss of so many from those innocent days: parents, teachers, neighbors, Sunday School teachers, even contemporaries, people who had shaped his life, the last living touchstones with those days. The freedom and innocence could never be reclaimed, but faint glimmers like emotional memory washed over him from time to time. Like this afternoon.
Shaking his head and rising to his knees, the man laid the short 2X4’s on the deck and nailed the 1X6’s, three for each pair of 2X4’s, to them to create the kneewall (shinwall?) that would go around three sides of the platform. The boy’s father had thought that would be perfect: three walls with little 45% pieces tacked at the corners and longer uprights at the front joined by a crosspiece. And it had been perfect, perfect for the boy.
Sitting in his lawn chair with his heels resting on the corner of the low wall, the boy had read his first science fiction novel, Mission to Mercury. It was one of the last juvenile books he read, but it added fuel to the fire that the dawn of manned space flight had already lit in his heart and mind, a passion that ruled off and on for years, nearly but not quite shaping his career. He also read his first adult (in terms of not written for children as opposed to a euphemism for raunchy and steamy) novel, The Beasts of Tarzan.
No boy of his age and time had escaped the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies of the 1930’s and 40’s, and few enjoyed them more. That summer his mother had dropped him off at the hospital gift shop on her way upstairs to see his father who was recovering from routine surgery. In those days children were not allowed on the wards, and the lady who managed the bookstore lived only a few houses down the street from them.
Armed with an incredibly generous 50¢ and faced with a virgin field of comic books arrayed before him, he had eventually settled on the best four at 12¢ each. The problem had arisen as he approached the cash register. The revolving paperback rack had never in his short life caught his attention, but it did this day.
The cover had been mostly burgundy-colored, EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS across the top, THE BEASTS OF TARZAN right below. On the bottom half of the cover, Tarzan, a monkey on his shoulder and a spear in his hand, had sat astride a bull elephant with an African warrior in the foreground. The boy’s eyes had never left he book as his right hand reached out of its own volition and set the comics on the glass cabinet on the other end of which was the cash register.
He had lifted the paperback from the rack and had begun thumbing through the book. This was not a Tarzan he knew. This Tarzan was both more sophisticated and articulate and more savage than M-G-M’s Tarzan. He had been transfixed. Inside the front cover there had been a list: Tarzan of the Apes, The Return of Tarzan, The Beasts of Tarzan, The Son of Tarzan. The list went on and on, more than 20 titles. The boy had flipped back to the cover. Yes, plain as day in the top right corner, “Tarzan 3.” He had sensed rather than known that he had stumbled onto source material, and a wealth of it at that.
The decision had been difficult. The comics were a known quantity, not so the paperback. For the love of heaven, it had no pictures at all unless you counted the cover. Finally, fatefully, the boy had returned the comics to the rack and laid The Beasts of Tarzan on the shiny glass counter by the cash register. The man could not remember if he had four cents for the tax in his pocket or if his neighbor lady, the cashier, had covered for him. He knew that she would have. Neighbors did that in those days.
Slipping into the waiting room the boy had dived into The Beasts of Tarzan. It would take him a month to finish the novel. He had no idea what Stygian meant or what a denizen was, so he spent a lot of time with a dictionary. But the door to new worlds had been thrown open, and Burroughs introduced him to Africa, Barsoom, Venus, and Pellucidar.
The man smiled at the thought, memories coming unbidden yet welcome. He knew that if he rummaged around in the closet long enough, he would find that book, his name in cursive on the flyleaf with a ballpoint pen drawing of a loin-clothed Tarzan, one foot resting on a log, spear in hand, quiver and bow across his back.
The man rested, his back against the newly erected wall, his legs stretched out on the floor, ankles crossed, and listened. It was surprisingly still and quiet, little if any breeze, the leaves not even fluttering, very little birdsong. In the distance a dog barked half-heartedly, sporadically, and a solitary crow added its raucous cry on occasion. Then the man heard it. The most wonderful sound, children’s voices at play from the empty lot down the street, rising and falling, crescendo and diminuendo, words indistinct but emotions evident, laced with excitement: Tomorrow is Saturday, and we have not a worry in the world.
The man knew he could never reclaim that, knew when he started this folly that he could not, did not care. His muscles were tired. His wife would have dinner ready soon. He had called it supper as a boy.
But before that, he would climb down and settle into a comfortable chair in the living room with a tumbler of ice and a little bourbon splashed over it at his elbow. His wife’s soft, domestic clatter would drift in from the kitchen. She might even join him with a glass of wine. But until she did, he would look out through the French windows across the lawn to the tree and the tiny, plain treehouse, bathed in the light of the setting sun.
He would pick up his ereader, maybe pull up and read a little of Burroughs’ A Fighting Man of Mars, hold on to the feeling, the illusion, a little while longer, knowing it was fleeting, temporary, maybe a little childish, not really caring.
He would climb down and probably never climb up here again. Maybe his grandsons would though. Maybe they would climb up and lay claim to the treehouse, ask him for some planks and some nails to add on to it, make it their own, make it special. That would be the best, the very best.

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Autumn Musings

It is a glorious November morning, cool, with a crisp bite to the air. Crimson and vermilion and gold leaves etched against a cerulean sky flutter like tattered flags from bare, black branches.

The harvest is in. Fields that held corn and soybeans and cotton are now but corrugated rows of gray and ocher stubble. The last vegetables have been gathered from neat garden rows and are being put up for winter.

The far line of woods is a gray smudge, the bare trunks indistinct in the distance but known for what they are: tall, silent sentinels rising from a carpet of autumn’s reminder of summer’s riotous growth.

Wasp and dirt dauber nests cluster under the eaves, abandoned, the drones and workers dead, starved, willingly sacrificed to the survival of the colony, the newly impregnated queens underground, dormant until spring.

Spring and rebirth are only a promise held in abeyance through the long winter, taken on faith as the rising of the sun.  Is it that promise that brings beauty to this annual death? Or is it some deep, unvoiced appreciation of the bounty gathered in? Or is it the wonder of the thing itself, accepted for its contrasts, cool air and warming sun, bare oak trees and luxuriously verdant cedars, crunchy leaves and soft grass?

I hope it is for the thing itself, but I know that buried in the back of my mind, subsumed, dormant like the wasp queen, is the kernel of knowledge that the annual violent eruption of life will roll around, a kernel which will sprout and bloom come springtime.

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Filed under Autumn, Mississippi