Fading to black

skilletTHE TWELVE-YEAR-OLD boy walked into the kitchen on a warm summer day. It was time for breakfast — eggs and grits and ham steaks or bacon. A coffee percolator on the counter plucked away, but he didn’t drink coffee, not way back then.

The only way to get into the kitchen unless you entered through the long screened porch from the back yard was from the dining room, so he entered from the dining room.

The first thing one encountered was the old refrigerator immediately to the left. Just beyond that was a heavy, antique table covered with oilcloth. That table abutted a casement window that opened to the yard where things also were eaten at times, dinners and watermelon and apple pie.

New ImageHe was sitting at that very table one evening with his grandmother when he heard the harp music coming through the window.

He was a bit older than 12 when that spooky thing happened, and the source of the harp solo was never explained to anyone’s satisfaction.

To the right was a fireplace which was always lit on winter mornings, but this being summer, school vacation, up from Florida, there was no fire. And just beyond the table was a wall-to-wall counter, left to right, and cabinets above.

Lemonade, and tea too, would be made on the left side of that counter. Glancing toward the right, you’d see a sink and beyond that the stove where cornbread, which was wonderful with red-eye gravy, was cooked in a cast-iron skillet.

An eternal fixture on the left side of that counter was a heavy, gray ceramic jar open at the top. That jar was always full of salt that you pinched and sprinkled with your fingers.

Above the sink was another window, one that looked out not at the yard but toward a pasture for Hereford cows and the one, happy bull. That was when the boy was 12. Later, that pasture was turned into a grove of pine trees, when the government started paying farmers to take it easy.

Back to the kitchen. The wooden walls were shiplapped, as were the walls in the entire house, and there was a nice-sized pantry just to the right before you walked out the door to the screened porch. The kitchen floors were linoleum.

After breakfast on a summer morning, there were a number of  options for a 12-year-old boy. Here’s a good one:

He left the dirty dishes for Willie the maid, and walked out the kitchen door, continued about five feet to the screened porch door, and stepped down to concrete steps. There were plenty of cats, sometimes up to 25.

Granny liked cats.

revolverAbout five years later, the boy turned a .32-caliber, chrome-plated, Smith & Wesson revolver on one of those cats, a mangy, sickly one who was suffering. Gunning down a cat is not a pleasant experience, even if it’s best for the cat in the long haul.

But that came later. Today is a sunny summer morning, and the boy walked straight ahead, passing the small building on the left that had been his sister’s playhouse and then a larger building, also on the left, where his father had written short stories after World War Two. Then there was a gate.

Stepping down about foot on the other side of the gate, there were dirt ruts of a road heading left. It was a good route to walk because it was not public. It was private, though people from far and wide would come, knock on the door, ask permission, and then drive down that road to fish in the pond,

On this summer day, the boy aimed for that pond. The dirt road separated the pasture on the left — the same one visible through the window above the sink in the kitchen — from a grove of pecan trees on the right. The farm made money from cotton, corn, peanuts, beef and pecans.

The walk to the pond was not long, maybe a quarter mile, and the pond was somewhat sunken. You had to walk down an incline to the pond’s shore. The word pond is misleading.

It was a large lake though it was called a pond, and it was surrounded by towering cypress trees, many of which grew in the water itself, providing shade. Here is the experience of the pond: silence, at times broken by bird songs.

boatAn old rowboat rested on the water’s edge.

A man with silver hair and wrinkles, though far fewer wrinkles than many his age, awoke, and there was a beautiful Mexican at his side. He popped a Hershey’s Kiss in his mouth, bit down, smiled, and was soon asleep again.

Granny’s farm

AS MENTIONED a time or three, I spent much of my youth at Granny’s house, actually living there full-time my first six years.

It was my grandfather’s house too, but he died when I was 12, so I associate the house primarily with my grandmother, my mother’s mother.

The whole lot of us — me, my older sister, my mother and father — lived on the farm right after World War II. I wonder what my grandparents thought of that, having daughter come home with a family in tow.

Fortunately, there were three bedrooms in the big, clapboard house, which was built around 1890 by Granny’s father, a fabulously wealthy farmer who was named Dard Moree.

After moving to Jacksonville, Florida, just before I started the Second Grade, we returned often to visit. My mother was an only child, you see, and you know how that goes. Powerful parental connections.

I often think of this place and those days that were so different.

One of my favorite pastimes was to take walks. This was a 500-acre farm, mind you, and the house was set more or less in the northeast quadrant. Usually, I would take these walks alone, and there were two ways to go. Forward from the house was one, and behind the house was the other.

* * * *

SETTING OUT

pumpLet’s go forward first. The house faced a dirt road that went from the Five Points General Store a few miles to the right to the bustling metropolis of Sylvester, Georgia, to the left, passing first through a few inconsequential settlements and one gas station.

Walking off the front porch, crossing that road (which today is a paved highway) you were facing a field that sloped downward to a narrow creek about a quarter mile away. I don’t remember much ever being in that field, sometimes a horse, but we didn’t do horses. We did cows.

The creek ran, more or less, parallel to the dirt road above and, as is often the case, the creek had trees lining its edges. It was a very small creek that you could leap across or step over using stones or confused tree roots.

Greenery of all sorts loves a good creek.

So I would walk down to the creek just because it was cool in the summer, which is the season I spent most time there after moving to Florida, and there were minnows to watch. Turtles too at times.

And the sound of the water, which was incredibly clear, passing over and around those confused tree roots and stones.

It was simply a fine place to be.

That was the forward walk, a pretty simple proposition, but it sits well in my memory, and I wish I could do it again, but I cannot.

Then there’s the backward walk.

* * * *

GOING THE OTHER WAY

At a right angle to the dirt road, there was a set of two parallel ruts formed by tires of pickups and tractors (We had Ford tractors.) that formed an even simpler road that ran along the house’s left side, going behind, and continued to the pond and beyond to plenty of corn.

cowAs you walked along these tire ruts, there was a large grove of pecan trees to the right, plus the really humongous chicken house (abandoned when we left), plus a storage/tractor shed.

On the left was a field that usually contained Hereford cows. They grazed there, but they also hung out under the pecans because there was no fence. I say cows, but there always was one bull because, well, you know.

Like Route 1, this consisted of about a quarter mile too. Then, if you continued ahead, you’d come to a broad expanse of corn rows that went on and on. You can get lost in a corn field, you know, but not forever.

But just before the corn started and the pecan grove ended, you could angle down to the left, heading northwest on your walk, down what was usually a broad gully that ended at the pond, which was named Wavering.

* * * *

BABY IN A TREE

This pond, it seems, has been there for centuries. Local lore has it — and maybe it’s true — that a last battle between nasty “old” white men and noble “Native Americans” took place on the shores of Waving Pond.

babyNot so much a battle as a rout, it is said — the “Native Americans” fared badly — and that those Indians hightailed it out of there so fast that a baby was left behind hanging from a tree limb.

According to the story, the baby was adopted and raised by a loving, white family to be a good Christian who ate at a pine table with forks and knives and napkins and good manners.

And that is the story.

* * * *

WATER AND CYPRESS

The pond is about two acres, which is to say very large, a lake, actually. You cannot see from one end to the other, but that’s due more to the proliferation of towering cypress trees than it is to sheer distance.

There was always a rowboat waiting there, pulled out of the water and tied with a rope, and two oars. I traveled many a day in that boat, looking over the rail into the murky water where lurked snakes, turtles and fish.

My mother swam there in the 1920s and 1930s, diving from a board nailed high on a cypress tree. But I never jumped into those dark waters.

You never knew what you could encounter.

I’m not sure anyone knew the pond’s source, the overgrowth and trees made it difficult to pinpoint one, but I did my best to find it. There were arms of water that would veer off at certain points, but you could only go so far in that rowboat before you were blocked by fallen limbs.

There were other places to walk on Granny’s farm, of course. Just going out into the pecan grove to scoop fallen nuts was good eating, and there was a third walk, also across the dirt road — but farther to the right — that would take you to huge fields of peanuts and cotton that had truck ruts through the middle that made for fine walking in summer’s sun.

* * * *

CAP BAITING A HOOK

But before leaving Wavering Pond, here’s the only photo I can find of it. I tossed so much when I left Houston, too much. This is Cap, who was Granny’s handyman for decades and all through my childhood.

He and his wife, Willie, our maid, lived in a mighty humble house provided by my grandparents just across the road and down a bit. He’s baiting a fishhook on the edge of Wavering Pond.

Cap loved whisky and never uttered a word more than necessary. He died when I was in my mid-20s. My father found him on the floor. I have no clue how old Cap was. Regrettably, we took him for granted.

Cap was the in-between generation, between Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement, between President Grant and President Johnson.

And he liked to fish in Wavering Pond.

cap

Chickens never change

FOR MOST OF the first six years of my life I lived with chickens, thousands of chickens.

There were two enormous chicken houses, one on either side of Granny’s home, there in southwest Georgia where my parents hauled me shortly after birth, down from Atlanta. I recall those chicken houses as about the size of a football field, each of them, but I doubt they were that big. But they were huge. Believe me.

chickenNow you don’t want thousands of chickens — they were Rhode Island Reds for those of you who know chickens — living too close to where you eat and sleep. Chickens are noisy, vicious and their personal hygiene is nonexistent.

So they were off far enough, out there on one side in the grove of pecan trees and out on the other side in a pasture where cows grazed. The cows were Herefords for those of you who know cows.

Those two huge chicken houses could not have been cheap, and we were not rich, to put it mildly. The chicken farmer was my father, and I’m guessing he got a loan after the war ended, something like the G.I. Bill, which was for education. But he already had a degree before the war.

Perhaps there was another bill to construct chicken houses.

cowThe endeavor did not last more than four or five years. One night burglars ran off with a big chunk of those chickens. The number 500 sticks in my mind, but I could be wrong. I remember the sheriff in the kitchen the morning after, asking questions.

Never found the chickens, of course. They all look alike.

We had started out with 2,000 or so, and 500 left a sizable gap.

I don’t recall my father actually selling chickens. What I remember is selling eggs, lots and lots of eggs. We had little egg scales on which you place an egg to determine if it’s small, medium or large. I haven’t seen one of those scales in decades. It would be a nice conversation piece, or you could just weigh your eggs.

By the time I was 7 and entering the Second Grade, we were in Jacksonville, Florida, my father having given up on chickens and freelance writing to return to the newspaper business. However, those massive chicken houses remained on either side of my grandparents’ home for a long, long time, empty.

One day they vanished.

Years passed, and I never heard a chicken, which was okay by me. They are nasty, stupid critters, almost as dumb as bunnies. Being a former farm boy, I also — like chickens and cows — know rabbits.

Flash forward a good piece of time. I wake every morning now to the sound of chickens in the distance. There are barking dogs too and the occasional bray of burros, but it’s the chickens that stand out.

Chickens never change.

And they’re on their best behavior when fried.