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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The Cow Sale

One of my only surviving and most vivid memories of my grandfather Tinker Reynolds is of him taking me in his old blue Ford Ranger to the Cow Sale in Ashville, Alabama. I’m only assuming it was Ashville, I could not have been more than two year old. I’m pretty sure Dan-Dan, which is what we called him, wore a plaid shirt that day. We stopped at the grocery store and I picked out some of those nasty orange circus peanuts and probably a Grapico. It seemed like Dan-Dan knew everyone at the cow sale, talking and laughing with old men who were similarly dressed.

I didn’t go to the cow sale again until I was grown and living in Virginia. It was always fun, and the food at the little cafeteria was good. It got even more fun when I was able to start taking my son Wesley, who never wanted to leave. We would call my dad after each trip, and Wesley would give him the highlights of the sale, always most excited about the bulls. “Poppy, there was a big ole’ bull with really looong horns!” Poppy would laugh and we would talk about going to the cow sale next time he was in town. We never got the chance.

There are some things that are more easily introduced by a grandfather. Such is the cow sale. I still enjoy taking Wesley to the Cow Sale, but I am an outsider and it shows. I’m not wearing boots or a denim shirt. My hat is wrong, and I show up at the wrong time. But Wesley doesn’t realize this yet, he’s just making memories.

If there is someone that you need to make memories with, or perhaps more importantly, if there is someone that needs to make memories with you, I know just the place. More than likely, there is a livestock auction within driving distance of where you live. Just show up and act like you know what you’re doing, but be sure not to make any sudden movements during the bidding

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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.

Chicken Auction

Eclectic, Alabama. That’s a real place. I don’t remember there being anything like a gas station or flea market that would make it look like a town.  I’ve only been there once and that was to go to the Chicken Auction. That’s the only thing I remember about Eclectic. 

After driving from Tallassee, AL a good little ways out in the woods, you came upon a hand painted sign that read Chicken Auction. We went once, Dad, Lindsay and me. It was basically a chicken house with boat carpet covering the dirt floors. But They had really put some thought into decorating. There were automobile bench seats bolted to the ground and a concession stand in the back. The floors were slightlty sloped to give it a theater feel. There were probably close to seventy people there that night. 

The auctioneer sat in a homemade stand that, if you used a bit of imagination, looked like a pulpit, complete with a microphone and Peavey speaker left over from the 70s. In fact the whole operation sort of reminded me of a church. In front of the pulpit people stood in a line to sell their chickens, rabbits, guineas, and exotic birds. They even sold eggs. The line strecthed outside through a door in the side of the building. 

The auctioneer wore overalls and a collared white shirt. He had snow white hair peaking from underneath his baseball cap. He only took the hat off during the opening prayer in which he prayed for the evening’s proceedings and for several sick parishoners who couldn’t be there that night. Then he started in on anouncements.  He had the Old Southern accent, where the letter ‘R’ is only pronounced at the beginning of a word. 

“This Satu’d’y is the Confederate Flag Parade in Wetumpka. Please come out and bring yow’uh Confederate Flag. If you do not have a Confederate Flag, they’uh will be a venduh they’uh way’uh you can pu’chase one.”

After these preliminaries were out of the way, he began to call each person by name and they would step up and present their merchandise. 

“Jerry Dale, you have a nice Banty Trio here. Who’ll give me $15?.” 

From then on, his auctioneering abilities began to come through, and he went from talking slow, even for a Southerner, to a rapid machine gun speed of syllables. I could still understand him though.

Dad and I were having a great time and we almost went to the concession stand and bought some popcorn. You get caught up in the moment when you’re enjoying yourself. I always thought that the chicken auction would have been a great place to take angirknout on a date. It was a cultural experience tonsay the least, and Dad and I were were taking it in. My sister, however, was not really impressed. But you can’t expect everyone to be cultured. 

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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