Sorghum Syrup

My brother has asked me to write about the time we made sorghum syrup.

“I wasn’t there.” I told him.

“Yes you were,” He said, a little hurt.

“I know that I wasn’t there Zach.”

“You were too! You helped me load the cane in the mill. That mule almost kicked you in the head. We drank the juice straight from the tap.”

“That was you and someone else.”

“You was there Zane! We went with Pop. Twice!”

I wasn’t there, but I don’t think that discredits me from being able to take you there. After all, Mark wasn’t there and we count his book as Gospel. This is not a work of fiction, although I was not a firsthand witness. Either that or it was such a bad experience that I’ve suppressed it in my memory.

Most of the time when Pop picked us boys up we were going to work. There were a few occasions where Pop picked us up for an event that maybe he found entertaining, like a parade, or making syrup. No matter what mask of entertainment these activities donned, Zach and I had been around enough to see through the thin disguise and identify work. Alas, we hadn’t much say in the matter. So when Pop picked us up to make Sorghum Syrup, we were not under the illusion that we were going to merely observe the process of making syrup. We were going to be very much involved in that process.

Sorghum is a naturally growing plant in the South. If you cultivate enough of it, you can make sorghum syrup. I think it yields about three gallons to the acre. Sorghum syrup is a very thick and dark syrup with an acquired taste. There is a process for getting the syrup from the plants. First you need to gather the plants, or cane. Then you put the whole cane into a mill, which presses out the juice. You cook the juice which gives you syrup. As long as the syrup doesn’t burn, you can mix it with equal parts butter and put it on your biscuits and it’s delicious. Well I think it’s delicious, but I also eat Lengua and Cabeza at the Taco Truck. Zach thought it tasted like burnt motor oil.

The process sounds pretty straightforward, until you find out that you have to manually load the cane, or even worse be the mill engine. Fortunately, someone had already gathered the stalks into a trailer. All we had to do was feed it to the mill. Do you remember in Sunday School when you learned about the blinded Samson grinding at the mill? That’s what Zach had to do. At first there was a mule hitched to the mill walking in circles, but it almost kicked Zach’s brains out while he was feeding cane to the mill. In the end Zach ended up walking in circles to power the mill like a medieval serf. They did let him drink some of the pure sweet juice that was running out of a tap on the side of the mill.

This juice flowed through an open channel over a heated metal plate a few yards long. By the time it made it to the end of the line it was sufficiently cooked enough to be canned. They used what looked like old coffee cans to package the syrup. I’m sure it was great fun to Pop and all the old men that were sitting around at the end of the line talking and laughing while Zach worked like a borrowed mule. At the end of the day Zach was exhausted and grimy with sweat and dust after doing the work of a mule. As a token of their gratitude, the old men in charge gave him a can of syrup. I think I ate most of that syrup, but I know that I wasn’t there.

The Liar’s Bench

Does your local gas station have a bench out front?

Back when I was in the hay and fence building business with Pop, we would often stop for fuel and refreshments at Watson’s Grocery in Vandiver. There were a couple of good reasons for that. First, the base of operations, or “Barn”, was located half a mile from the store. Second, and perhaps more important, Watson’s Grocery was the only store in town.

We often frequented the store at the crack of dawn when working men filled trucks with diesel and filled cups with black coffee, and while old retired men sat on a bench outside to fill everyone’s ears with their good natured banter. My Dad told me that was called the Liar’s Bench. He said it in an official way, as if it were an elected office.

Anyone could sit on the bench, but not everyone could operate from the office of the bench. Similar to how having your picture taken sitting in your congressman’s big leather desk chair does not give you authority to lower taxes. In order to fill the office of Liar’s Bench, and not merely occupy a seat in front of a gas station, I believe that there were a set of unwritten requirements. It seemed like you needed to be an old man. You had more credibility (if indeed there was any credibility on the Liar’s Bench) if you were retired. It also didn’t hurt to have a nickname, like Jitter, or Buddy. If you couldn’t swing a nickname, an informal prefix like “Big” would do.

You also had duties, you couldn’t just sit and not talk. You had to be willing to engage every person you saw come to the store with a chiding remark about getting a late start or something like that, but not in a mean manner. You had to have a laugh rate of at least 90%. If the customers were clearly out of towners, it was ok to just nod your head at them. When people came out of the store you had to engage them again, this time with a heartfelt inquiry about their family, like “How’s ye mom’n’em?” This is when you found out who was in the hospital, who got fired, who got arrested, who had a heart attack and important things like that.

Above all, you had to be an entertaining talker to occupy a place on the bench. Some of the best hunting and fishing lies were told there along with ancient jokes. Every once in a while you meet people that can read the phone book in an entertaining way. Such were the men of the bench. As Jerry Clower said, “They didn’t tell funny stories, they told stories funny.” I found myself grinning and chuckling just overhearing these men talk.

I think they became great talkers because they didn’t sit on the bench to seek solitude, they sat on the bench because they wanted to talk to someone. Perhaps it was loneliness that got those old men up at the crack of dawn to sit in front of a convenience store and stare like puppies at the work trucks pulling in to fill up. They’d brag about being retired when they saw the weary looks of the working men on Mondays, but I think there was something in them that wished they could pile in the truck and go to work. Just like there was something in those working men that wished that could sit on the bench and waste the day away.

These worlds met briefly each morning and communed together at the Liar’s Bench. It was the Roman Forum of the community. A place where the local news and gossip were disseminated. I strongly doubt there were many original ideas, or great breakthroughs in ingenuity ever developed on the bench. But you might get a different answer if you drive out to Vandiver and ask one of the men who currently hold down a seat on the Liar’s Bench.

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Fencing

It has rained a lot here this week, which brings back fond memories of not hauling hay. Rain was welcome any time during the summer, but was often a harbinger of hard labor in the fall and winter, because it’s easier to drive fence posts into the rain softened ground. I don’t know how they found Pop, but they did, people who needed a barbed wire fence built through a swamp and over a mountain.

For those who may not be experienced, building a barbed wire fence involves driving a six foot T-Post into the ground with a “post driver”. Which is two foot length of rusty four inch steel pipe with about 30 lbs of steel welded to the end and uneven handles six inch handles welded to the sides. Its a two man operation, one man (me) holds the post still with both hands, and the other man (my brother) hoists the post driver over the steadily held post and lets it drop, setting the post into the ground. Then the second man commences to pick up the post driver and slam it down onto the post, driving it down into the ground until your post reaches the desired height. If you are strong, like my brother was, you can drive a post in about three slams.

The quality of your fences depends on the primitiveness of your post driver. You need to avoid any post drivers with paint, that are store bought, that can be picked up with one hand, and pose no risk of head injury. People who have these kind of tools probably want to sell you an invisible fence. No, a post driver needs be pitted and rusty, and so heavy that you have to use both hands, even if you’re strong as half an acre of garlic. All of your tools need to have at the very least, a thin layer of rust on them. Judging by the tools that were available to us, we were professionals.

I don’t really want to describe stringing barbed wire. I would advise you to use gloves.

I don’t know how many miles of fence that we built when I was a kid, but I know we walked the whole way. Sometimes over mountains and through bushes “Where a rabbit wouldn’t go.” We were building a fence at a place very much like this, with a branch, or creek, running through it one day when it dawned on me that I did not have a lunch and it wasn’t likely that we were going home for lunch. Fortunately, Pop had packed enough lunch to share, two sleeves of Ritz crackers and a sack of oranges. It’s important to note that up until that day, I didn’t even drink orange juice with pulp, much less eat oranges. You’ll try most anything when you’re really hungry though, and I ate my orange quietly, and I enjoyed it. Hard work can give you an appetite like nothing else can.

It is in human nature to pretend to be an expert on any particular task, no matter who menial, that you have been hired to do, especially if you are around someone who has no experience in that particular task. This assumed expertise makes one bold when handing out advice and offering constructive criticism for someone else’s work. I guess at more than one point in my life my soul source of income was derived while I was employed building fences. I was a professional fencer. I have thought often times of putting this on my resume, but I don’t like to brag. I do however do a thorough inspection of any fence that I come across.

Pop’s Hat

I had to draw the line when he told that drinking too much cold water while you were working was bad for you.

Pop was always getting on to us for not wearing hats while we were working outside. And he was right too. It’s not too hard to catch a sun stroke working in the blistering Alabama heat, and more than once I remember getting a splitting headache because I had forgotten my hat. You get all dizzy and your vision kind of goes black, it’s just a whole lot easier to wear a hat. Pop also believed that you should wear long sleeves to keep yourself cooler in the summer. He was probably right about that, but I never tried that. I had to draw the line when he told that drinking too much cold water while you were working was bad for you.

Pop didn’t just tell us all that, he lived it. Pop never forgot his hat. There are probably people that have never seen him without a hat. He usually wears those mesh back trucker style hats in the summer, and full on cotton baseball cap in the winter. He wears them perched on top of his head. I have often wondered how they staid on.

Pop used to get Zach and me up at the crack of dawn to deliver hay. We’d get up early to beat the heat in the barn. Sometimes we’d make several trips from the barn to the client. sometimes it was a horse farm, sometimes a hardware shop, sometimes just a customer who needed to feed their cows, and even construction company. Now construction companies are not particular about the quality of the hay they get, since they only need it to spread for erosion control after they’ve planted grass. The horse customers are extremely particular, but that’s a different story. You could bale up a briar patch and sell it the construction companies and they wouldn’t care. Pop called that kind of hay mulch hay. Which I’m not sure is the proper term, but it get the point across.

One morning Pop had us load up a trailer and truck full of mulch hay to take to a construction company on the outskirts of Birmingham. Pop drove, Zach road by the window and I sat in the middle. That’s what I got for being the smallest. It didn’t matter how early we got to this place, it seemed like it was always scalding hot in the metal trailer where we had to unload that scratchy mulch hay. Once we got finished and piled in the truck, hot and sweaty, Pop rolled the window down for us. He always preferred the breeze over the air conditioner, and he wouldn’t let you run the AC with the window down. Which makes sense, but I’d rather have run that air conditioner. Pop had just merged onto highway 280 when a big 18 wheeler flew past us and Pop’s precariously perched hat almost went with it. He took both hands off of the wheel and grabbed his hat and socked it back down on his head. It’s a wonder that we didn’t have a big wreck, make the news and turn Vulcan’s light red all in a flash. After the smoke had cleared, Pop looked over at Zach and me, smiled, turned on the AC, and rolled up the window.

 

Uncle Dave

To describe My Great Uncle Dave Reynolds would be hard because the description fits so many other men of that generation.

To describe My Great Uncle Dave Reynolds would be hard because the description fits so many other men of his generation. He wore overalls, a collared shirt, a cap with a mesh back, and work boots. He drove a single cab pickup truck, and was a farmer. Sounds pretty stereotypical, but it’s true. He should have worn glasses all of the time, but mostly he kept them in a soft case in his shirt pocket. In his old age, Uncle Dave became hard of hearing and had to walk with a cane. I’ve heard rumors that used the cane to correct smart mouthed teenagers at Uncle Raymond’s gas station pool hall, but I didn’t witness it. However, I was sure to not smart off around him no matter how deaf he was. I think his vision might have been going as well at the end of his life, and he was bad about pulling out in front of traffic and driving really slow. I also remember some complaints that he had nearly run cars off the road while he was on his way to sell watermelons in front of the High School, or at the gas station in the neighboring town. He would drop the tailgate, put up a canopy and take a nap in a folding lawn chair until someone pulled over to buy a watermelon.

Uncle Dave was the third of ten children. He was almost named for his father, David Reeves Reynolds, but his parents decided to name him Dave Ray Reynolds. Dave was raised not far from McGraw’s Ferry on the Coosa River, where his father was a sharecropper. Mr. Reynolds also worked across the River at the gunpowder plant during the second world war. One day after returning home from work Mr. Reynolds asked young Dave why he hadn’t plowed very much.

“That mule was getting tired and I stopped him Daddy.” Dave said, thinking that his father would understand. A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast: but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel. Mr. Reynolds must have not put as much stock in that passage as he did in,“Chasten thy son while there is hope, and let not thy soul spare for his crying”, and he about beat Dave to death for not having plowed enough.

The next day Mr. Reynold’s came home from work and found Dave sitting on the plow in the field with the mule laying down.

“I didn’t stop him today Daddy. He stopped himself.” Uncle Dave had plowed the mule to death.

I didn’t spend too much time with my Uncle Dave and many of my memories come from Easter Dinner at his house. Most of the extended family would make their way to Uncle Dave’s house after church on Easter Sunday, and we would have a massive spread of food outside: Ham, fried chicken, dressing, green beans, deviled eggs, man I’m making myself hungry! Once after the blessing was asked for the food, Uncle Dave put his hat back on and said, “Amen and dig in!” After everyone had eaten, all the young children would wait inside the house while the adults would hide the Easter eggs in the cow pasture. The little kids were hoisted over the barbed wire fence first to get a head start, then the rest of us would climb through the fence being careful not to tear our pretty new Easter clothes, and join in the hunt.  I would sometimes pass over the dyed boiled eggs in search of the prize eggs with money inside. I think for meanness the adults would sometime stick a prize egg in a cow patty. After all of the prize eggs were accounted for and pictures were taken, we would play softball in the cow pasture using paper plates as bases. The game would usually wrap up after a foul ball dented a car parked next to the fence.

Uncle Dave sometimes attended our church on Sunday morning, the United Pentecostal Church that his mother had attended since the ‘50s, and his brother and my grandfather Brant Douglas Reynolds, had served as pastor. I don’t think their father ever attended this church. The story goes that once as my grandfather was trying to invite him, and Mr. David Reynolds said, “Tinker, I’m four things: a Baptist, a Democrat, a Mason, and a Klansman, and that’s how I’ll die.” I’m pretty sure he died that way too.

For a short time, there was a restaurant in Vincent called Yo Mamma’s, and Uncle Dave was a faithful patron, dining there several times a week. He always ordered catfish. This became part of his routine even after the restaurant changed hands. He would also frequent the Huddle House in the neighboring town. One day Dad and I were eating there and Uncle Dave came in and sat down in the booth behind us. After Uncle Dave ordered a young man walked by and Uncle Dave spoke to him.

“Charles Ray! How you doing?” ask Uncle Dave.

“My name ain’t Charles Ray.” The young man said. This simple fact did not seem to bother Uncle Dave, because he was hard of hearing.

”Charles Ray, how’s ye’ mom an’em doing?” Uncle Dave pressed.

“I don’t know who Charles Ray is.” The man said, a little flustered.

“Huh?” said Uncle Dave interrupted the man before he could finish explaining that Uncle Dave had him mistaken for someone else.

“Old Charles Ray.” Uncle Dave said wistfully with a chuckle as the man sidled off.

After this short interaction, I wondered how much Uncle Dave had heard when we had just spoken to him. Uncle Dave probably spent the rest of the day thinking that he had talked to Charles Ray and wondering what Charles Ray had said back.

It seems like the family were always worried about Uncle Dave because he was so much older than many of the brothers and sisters, and he had fought some battles with his health some time before I was born. In spite of their worry he outlived many of his younger siblings by decades. I think about Uncle Dave every time I see an old single cab Ford Truck going well under the speed limit. He set his own pace in life and didn’t get too worked up about anyone else’s agenda. I think we could all benefit from Uncle Dave’s philosophy by slowing down our busy lifestyles. Just keep your glasses on and don’t pull out in front of anyone or run anybody off the road.

 

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Hauling Hay, My Introduction to Work

“I haven’t found many things more disconcerting than picking up a bale of hay only to feel a snake crawl down your leg.”

The first job I ever had was Hauling Hay with Pop, my paternal grandfather. We called him Pop, but everyone else called him Slim. Or Slee-um, as we were in rural Alabama. Hardly anyone knew him by his real name, Dan Theo Wells. He was tough and strong, and I never heard anyone say a bad word about him, and if they did they would have been lying. I don’t remember exactly when I started working in the hay field with Pop, but I think it was sometime around the 1st or 2nd grade. I earned $5.00 per hour driving the manual transmission truck since I was not big enough to pick up a bale of hay.

Hauling hay, for those not familiar with this worthy vocation, involves a tractor with three or four different attachments, the cutter, the rake and the baler, and a truck and trailer to gather the finished product. You usually let the hay grow about a foot and a half then wait for a dry day and you cut it with the cutter, which is similar to a lawnmower but causes the hay to lay flat instead of being strewn all over the field. Then you allow the hay to dry for about a day before you rake it into windrows. If the hay isn’t sufficiently dried, you’ll need a fourth tractor attachment called a fluffer.  The final step before you can load hay on the truck and trailer involves running the baler along the windrow where it compacts the hay into a square bundle about 18”x 36” and binds it with two strands of baling twine. Square bales of hay can weigh anywhere from 40-75 lbs depending on what type of hay, how wet, or how many fire ant beds are in it. Fire ants have a peculiar strategy of holding their fire until they have enough troops on the ground for an entire regiment to fire a volley. You learn to notice if you feel anything crawling on you before they have a chance to take aim. You also learn to kick hay over before you pick it up to carry it to the truck. Other animals can take to the refuge of a square bale in the field or barn, field mice, rabbits, and worst of all, snakes. I haven’t found many things more disconcerting than picking up a bale of hay only to feel a snake crawl down your leg.

As I got older I graduated from the air conditioned cab of the truck to the position of stacker. I would stand on the trailer or truck and stack each bale of hay in an alternating pattern five bales high, so in the end the stack would have 20 bales each. Then I would tie down each stack with a rope so they wouldn’t fall over on the high. If you’ve ever had to restack a load of hay because someone stacked it poorly in the beginning then you will know how important the job of stacker is. And if you’ve ever stood 20 feet high in a barn in an Alabama August with dust flying as your big brother throws bale after bale of hay up for you to stack you will know how uncomfortable the job of stacker is.

Once I moved up to stacker, Pop would have Henry McGloughlin drive. I don’t know how old Henry was, but I remember going to his funeral once I was in High School. Henry wore overalls, had the same glasses since 1978, and chewed tobacco. The tobacco juice ran out both sides of his mouth, which made it a little awkward if you lost your Styrofoam cup at the community water keg, you didn’t want to have to drink after Big Henry.  Henry also had an allergy to deodorant, I think, so you didn’t want to have to ride in the middle of the truck when Henry was driving either.

One of the nice things about being the stacker was you didn’t have to walk on the uneven ground.  You could just ride on the trailer as the truck pulled you across the rough hayfields. Eventually, I gained enough strength and height to walk alongside the moving truck, picking up the bales and stacking them from the ground, only getting on the trailer to straighten and firm up the loose bales. My brother was so strong that once he threw a bale clean over the loaded trailer and onto my head on the other side of the truck, knocking me down.

We not only would load the hay in the field and unload it in the barn, we also delivered hay, which meant we loaded it our barn, or chicken house, and unloaded it in someone else’s barn. Pop was not just feeding his cattle, he was running a hay business. We delivered to people with cows, people with horses, people with all manner of livestock, construction companies, and even the county for building roads. What this meant was early mornings loading the trailer while the barn was cool and then a long drive to our delivery location. Pop was not much of a talker and we hardly listened to the radio when on these long trips. It was not an awkward silence, I think Pop was enjoying spending time with his grandsons, and I cherish the memories of those long truck rides with him.

Sometimes we would spend the night with Pop so to get an early start before the sun came up, beating the Alabama heat as best as we could. This often meant eating a bowl of cereal at Pop’s or on special occasions, going to a restaurant and getting a biscuit.

We had some cousins that would occasionally work with us, but never on a consistent basis. Pop said they “was a different breed”. What I think he meant was they were lazy, and wild. They had not enough of the strong work ethic that Pop was so steadily instilling in us. I remember the last time that they worked for us, one of them hit me in the head with a rock. I told Pop and I never worked with those particular cousins again. One of them turned out just like Pop said he would, “Sorry.” He said it like it tasted bad in his mouth.

I had another cousin that was a chronic complainer and hated working in the hayfield. One day my Dad said to him, “You are Slim Wells’ grandson, this is not just what you do, it’s who you are. You don’t just haul the hay, you are in the hay business. It’s who we are, get over it.”

In all of the years of working with Pop, whether we were delivering a load of hay or planting potatoes, quitting was never an option. Even if we were doing something as uncomfortable as castrating bulls, leaving the job never crossed my mind. I’m thankful for the work ethic that I gathered from Pop. Pop also helped build my confidence.  He never made me think that I couldn’t do something, he just told me to do it. I also thought he was the strongest person I had ever met.  I believe that he got a much needed confidence boost when he was drafted into the Army.

Pop was also a champion of education and was so proud of my brother Zach and me when we graduated high school and went to college. I often wonder how different he would have been if he didn’t have to drop out of school in order to help make ends meet around the house. Pop was extremely mechanically inclined and could fix just about anything. Perhaps he would have been an engineer. One thing he was not was a patient teacher, but he “learned” me a lot of things in his own way.

The older I got the more I could anticipate what Pop was trying to say. Perhaps it was from years of trying to decipher his hand signals while backing the truck, or from his tractor across the field. He didn’t say it much but he told me I love you in a lot of different ways, from getting me jobs, to creating work so that I could have some spending money when I went to college.

The only real regret that I have from working with Pop is the one time I refused to retrieve the truck from about half a mile away. It wasn’t so much the distance, but the difficult truck. The White Truck as we called it, an ancient F-150 that had a tricky transmission. The fact that it was a standard made no difference as that was all I knew how to drive until I was about 13 and we loaded a customer’s truck in the field. I hopped in the cab to pull the truck up and didn’t know how to stop it sense there was no clutch. The deal with the White Truck was that I could never get it started, I always dumped the clutch, and it was embarrassing. On this day, we had just finished loading the trailer and needed to go get the White Truck for some reason, I don’t rightly remember. At any rate, I told Pop that I didn’t want to go get the truck, and he got up and went to get it himself.

It wasn’t very long after that event that I was riding in the middle seat of the truck with Pop driving and Zach in the passenger seat, we were delivering a load of hay. I noticed that Pop’s right hand was shaking as he had firm grip on the steering wheel. I didn’t say anything about it, but a few weeks later Pop let us know that he had been to the doctor and had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. From that day on I noticed a gradual decline in Pop’s range of motion and his face became more and more grave.

After I was grown I chanced to watch some old VHS tapes of Pop leading me around on one of his mules. I must have been about two years old in the video and Pop was as fit and peppy as I ever remembered him in the hayfield. It wasn’t for nothing that they called him Slim, he was around 6’1” and lean but muscular. In this video Pop was beaming with joy, you could tell that he was showing off his grandchildren. It’s hard to believe that he is the same man since Parkinson’s has taken a toll on him.

Now that I’m grown and work a sedentary office job, I often reminisce about working with Pop. I’m glad that he taught me about work and I hope that I am able to instill a work ethic into my children, although they may not have the opportunity to work on a farm. Work is more enjoyable when you love the people that you are working with. I remember one Sunday morning around 6:00am Pop, Dad, Zach and I were about to unload around 1,000 bales of hay before church for Mr. Terry LaDuke, the local blacksmith. Zach and I were still wiping the sleep out of our eyes and quietly grumbling about having to work on the Lord’s Day, although, I don’t remember us grumbling much while hunting after church on the Lord’s Day. Mr. LaDuke said in sarcastic manner, “Boys, this is quality time.” And it was.

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