Rabbits

The rabbit was not living up to it’s image on the lawnmower throttle.

Wesley just chased a lethargic rabbit halfway around the garden and up the fence line behind the barn. The rabbit was not living up to it’s image on the lawnmower throttle. He must have doubted Wesley’s accuracy with the bamboo javelin he had poised for throwing. It looked a bit like a Road Runner cartoon in slow motion.

I have seen rabbits run a lot faster. Like the time we were working in the hayfield and had just stopped to get a drink of water to keep from dying from exhaustion in the sweltering heat. Up sprang a little rabbit. My brother jumped up chased him halfway across the hayfield before catching him in dive. He was parallel with the ground, arms stretched out in front of him. The rest of us watched cooly from the shade of the truck and sipped the ice cold water from little dixie cups. Zach panted triumphantly back to the truck and held out a tiny rabbit that was visibly throbbing from adrenaline and fear.

“You boys ain’t tired if you can still catch rabbits.” Pop said as he stirred us back to work, as if I had been out there chasing rabbits along with Zach.

Not surprisingly, the best rabbit story I can offer comes from my Dad. Back during the Reagan administration, my parents and Uncle Tony were setting on the front porch of the house were I was raised. Dad was leaning against the column and drinking a Pepsi from a glass bottle when someone noticed a rabbit out next to the kudzu. That’s about thirty yards away, depending on the last time the grass was cut. Kudzu can grow about a yard a day. Uncle Tony tried to hit the rabbit with a rock, but he missed. Which is not surprising since his glasses are as thick as mine. The rabbit tensed up and sat frozen while Dad took the last swig of his drink. Then he held onto the post with one hand and leaned out into the front yard and casually lobbed the empty glass bottle over a crepe myrtle tree in the general direction of the rabbit. The bottle struck the rabbit square in the head and killed it graveyard dead.

I’ve never intentionally killed a rabbit. Even when I was conned into going hunting in the back yard with Dad and Zach. I don’t remember what exactly we were hunting, but I jumped a rabbit in the sage patch and watched him bounce away while I held my shotgun on my shoulder.

“Hey, there goes a rabbit.” I said proudly.

“Why didn’t you shoot it?” My Dad laughed.

Now that I have a garden, I can relate a lot more to Farmer Brown and Elmer Fudd than Peter Rabbit and Bugs Bunny. I’m almost ready to start intentionally killing rabbits. I’ve taken the first step by giving Wesley a slingshot and a sack of marbles.

Thanks for reading, sharing, and for your continued Support.

Zane Wells

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 Great Train Robbery

by Perry Wells

edited by Zane Wells

Sometime in the 30’s, my grandfather and some of his first cousins decided to rob a mail train. It was during the Great Depression and times were hard, but for the life of me I cannot figure out why they wanted to rob a mail train. I would have chosen a payroll train, or perhaps a bank, or even a Brinks truck, but certainly not a mail train.

Being that none of them had any experience at robbing a train (mail train or any other kind), they planned to go up on the mountain overlooking our small settlement and practice their first robbery.

Among their supplies were, or should I say all of their supplies were; a Model T Ford, a tote sack full of dynamite, and a gallon of white lighting. It was a good half hour trip from the sawmill where our would-be robbers worked to the mountain top, so the whiskey was the first supply to be put to use.

My grandfather, being the ringleader of our would be bandit gang, assigned jobs to the other members. Dynamite man, fuse man, look out man, and getaway car driver. Pity the poor getaway car driver.

Now the only thing on the mountain that resembled a mail train was a huge boulder. With the whiskey having full control of the situation, enter dynamite. The dynamite was placed under one corner of the boulder, being intended to simulate a boxcar, and a four inch fuse was lit.

With the whiskey having effect on all the member’s abilities to run, the dynamite exploded the simulated boxcar boulder into enough rocks and dust to fill a literal boxcar. When the smoke cleared and the bandit gang could see and hear, the poor getaway car driver had a two ton rock riding shotgun with him.

With this failed practice robbery run, our gang’s attempt to rob a mail train was effectively ended. Especially when their wives found out.

Barbecue, Barbeque, BBQ

It’s that time of year. Barbecue season. I’ve always struggled with how to spell that, but WordPress autocorrect just informed me that the proper spelling was “Barbecue”. I bet they won’t tell that to Golden Rule Barbeque in Irondale, which has been around at least hundred years longer than autocorrect. They probably won’t tell Fat Man’s Bar B Que in Pell City either. Or Full Moon Bar-B-Que. Anyway, I’m still not sure how to spell it, because I “ain’t never eat no” BBQ that WordPress cooked. But even if I can’t spell it, I can define it. At least I’ll give it a try. Defining barbecue is like defining women. You’ll excite half the people and offend the rest.

First off, barbecue is a noun. I think it’s pork. Mainly Boston Butt’s, but if you want to throw some ribs on the grill while we’re waiting for the butts to get done I’ll still eat them and call it barbecue. I eat so many ribs one year when I was a boy that it was several years before I had another one. If you want to get deep and go to the root meaning of the word barbecue, it means “cooking a whole hog on a wood fired grill”. Which is where we get the term, “Whole Hog.” Which means that you go all out doing something. I’ll use it in a sentence so you’ll understand it better.

“Zane is taking this writing thing seriously, I heard he’s going whole hog and trying to write a book.”

Barbecue also has to have some sauce. My Uncle Johnny was always the self appointed grill master at all of our family get togethers in the summer. Not without good reason though, he is an excellent cook. He would crupper up his own sauce recipe using Kraft Original as a base. “Cattleman’s tastes too much like ketchup, don’t use it.” He would say. When the meat was done, he would pull it apart or chop it up, put it in a deep pan and pour enough sauce over it that it would  almost simmer and bubble as it sat on the grill. He always made two pans, one regular and one hot. He liked it hot. He didn’t have any teeth and chewed tobacco. I don’t think that affected his taste buds though. Once he ate breakfast with us and drank the tomato juice out of the serving plate. I watched him in wonder as he slurped the juice, set the plate down and lick his lips. He sat there a moment enjoying his draught. Then he said,”There was a bad tomato in there.”  Anyone with taste buds that sharp wouldn’t have been inhibited by tobacco juice. Anyway, Uncle Johnny liked his barbecue hot. He liked everything hot. He made gravy so hot one time that the cats wouldn’t eat it. As a kid, my mom would warn me about the hot pan of barbecue. “It’s hot baby, you won’t like it.” I grew up thinking that the hot pan of barbecue was going to burn through my esophagus. When I was finally old enough to fix my own plate, I tried some. It was delicious.

I’ve rambled a little bit here. We were defining Barbecue and I’ve already offended all the Texans and Carolinians. It’s probably just easier to tell you what barbecue ain’t, and that’s hamburger and hot dogs. You’re supposed to fry hamburgers in an iron skillet and roast weenies in the fall around a fire. If you get invited to a barbecue and they’re cooking hamburgers and hot dogs, I’m sorry, but those people have misled you. I’m sure they’re nice people and all, but I wouldn’t let them watch my kids if I were you, next thing you know they’ll have them playing soccer or something crazy like that. 

A Barbecue (see how I capitalized it) is also defined as a sacred feast for Southerners, where pork is cooked on a wood fired grill outside. This feast usually lasts about three days.

In general, we had about four or five Barbecues a year. We did have the official family reunion at my Great Uncle Freddie’s on the river, and sometimes we barbecued there. But all the same people came to the barbecues at my Aunt Edna’s, just up the hill from Pop’s, on Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day. And whenever Pop deemed it was angood time to have a Barbecue.  Since the location, menu, and people were the same each time, the only way that I could tell a difference in all of those holidays was that we shot bottle rockets on the Fourth of July. To me, these summer holidays were simply Barbecues.

The Barbecue would start on Friday night. “We’ll serve dinner on Sunday at noon.” Pop would say. Up until then, we feasted. We might have a fish fry while the barbecue was slow cooking. Somebody might through some Cornish game hens on the grill and eat them while we were waiting on the main course. One time my Uncle James put a Boston Butt on the grill and then left. He come back about six or five hours later and his meat was about half gone. He singled Uncle Johnny out, “You done eat all my barbecue Johnny.”

“I can’t eat t’at James, I ain’t got no teeth!” Uncle Johnny retorted.

“Yeah, but you kin bite a railroad rail in two with them gums of yores.”

Barbecuing a whole hog is a lot of work, but man is it worth it. There is nothing like slicing the meat off of a hog and eating it around the grill. All it needs is a little bit of salt.

This is the grill that Pop & Uncle Johnny used throughout my childhood. You can see the front peice is on the ground. You can cook whole hogs or just use the grill to cook Boston Butts and ribs. 

When Sunday finally rolled around, we would eat, not just barbecue, but we had a buffet of sides that was five tables long under Aunt Edna’s carport. It was also about fifty yards from the grill. I’m not writing about sides though, I’m writing about barbecue.

When I close my eyes and work up a hankering for barbecue, I still see my family sitting outside around a humongous oak tree. Many of them have passed on now.  I envision myself as a little boy with thick glasses walking to the grill down by the tree line. They were pine trees. Uncle Johnny pulls the front of the grill open to throw a couple of pieces of hickory wood on the fire. Sparks fly everywhere. I walk in front of all the old men sitting around the grill and ask Uncle Johnny to dip me out some of barbecue on my bun. “No sir, I’ll have the regular.” I say. I take a bite of that barbecue sandwich, and blink to get the smoke out of my eyes. That’s really how I define Barbecue.

That giant oak tree finally died and they had to cut it down before it fell on Aunt Edna’s house. I’m sure they used some of that wood for a barbecue. Uncle Johnny showed my brother how to barbecue a coon’s age ago. He wanted to pass it on to the next generation. Although Zach learned on the other grill, I feel like he mastered this one. I’m going to get one of these someday. 

Since I’ve moved to Virginia, I haven’t been to a proper Barbecue in over a decade. Perhaps that’s why I’ve expanded my definition of barbecue to include Brisket, chicken, and dry rub. I even like that old nasty vinegar stuff they try to pass as barbecue down in the Carolinas. No matter what barbecue I try, nothing is quite the same as those summer Barbecues of my childhood in the blazing Alabama heat. It’s hard to capture that whole experience in a restaurant. 

It seems like every year when the weather changes I get invited to someone’s place for a barbecue. I’ve learned to be polite and go, but I know it’s going to be hamburgers and hot dogs.

The Tinker Suit

We stopped at Smith’s and got some of that orange peanut candy that tastes like rubber.

I was two years old when Brant Douglas Reynolds, my Mom’s dad, died of a heart attack on Thanksgiving Day in 1989. My memories of him are few and a little vague. I remember riding in the back of his 1968 Ford Ranger that rotted to the ground from neglect after his death. I remember him bringing me Oreo cookies. I remember going to the cow sale with him. We stopped at Smith’s and got some of that orange peanut candy that tastes like rubber. I remember going into his work shed and seeing all of his power tools.  I remember his blue tractor. And I remember being at his viewing after he died. “Dan Dan is asleep.” I said to Mom as she held me on her hip so that I could peer into his casket.

Years later as a teenager, I changed the strings on his 1972 Martin D-18. Gram had bought it new for him from Fretted Instruments with the income tax return that year. You’d have thought that you bought him a brand new pickup truck. I could tell that he cared for the guitar because he had looped the strings through the hole in the tuning peg twice before winding it, a step that I always skip because it takes longer and isn’t really necessary, but it looks nice. That extra step said something about the thoroughness of his personality, as I took those old strings off it was almost like he was talking to me. I think he’d be happy to know that I play guitar, but he’d be happier to know that I preach the same Gospel that he and the Apostle Peter preached.

I heard that he had a 1959 Les Paul in the 1960’s. The Holy Grail of guitars. He had to trade it for a car. I’d like to at least see a picture of that guitar. Perhaps it wasn’t a 1959, and it’s better to just remember it that way. I use this story to convince my wife to let me have multiple guitars, I hope it pays off one day.

I don’t know how well he played guitar, or sang. I  don’t remember. I vaguely remember him at church preaching and playing guitar. But you do a lot of sleeping at church when you’re two years old, so these memories are sort of dreamy. He was taken away early in my life and looking back I can see how his absence impacted me. I’m sure things would have been different if he were still alive today, I can’t say that they would be better. Or worse. But they’d be different. 

Rev. Roger Lewis, a close friend to “Tinker” as my grandfather was known, was traveling for Thanksgiving when he heard news of my Tinker’s death. He didn’t have a suit with him and felt terrible about going to the viewing in casual clothes. Til this day, he keeps a suit of dress clothes in his vehicle whenever he is going out of town overnight, just in case of an emergency. He calls it his Tinker Suit. I hope that it doesn’t get much use.

Testimony Service

Testimony service was time set aside in each church service intended to give the saints an opportunity to stand and share what the Lord had done for them during the week.

I grew up in the latter part of the 20th Century and as a result, I was able to experience a few things that didn’t carry over into the 21st Century. Things like reading the newspaper everyday, taking pictures on film, and handwriting letters to send in the mail to the girl that you met at youth camp. Some things from that era I fondly remember, like three liter Cokes, and some things I am grateful to leave behind like long distance phone bills and dial up internet. Then there are somethings that I remember with mixed emotions, like testimony service.

 

Saddler

After a while our back yard looked like the bombing range.

My brother had a hound dog when we were kids. It was a Blue Tick and Walker mix. He had a big spot on his back the looked like a saddle, so Zach named him Saddler. I don’t think I ever saw that dog get tired. He was also strong as a freight train. He used to break his chain every other day. Zach finally got a him a logging chain. He didn’t break that chain, he just started dragging his doghouse around the back yard. When he started dragging the homemade wooden doghouse to the front yard Zach had to drive a three foot steel stake into the ground and chain him to that. That did the trick for a while, but then Saddler tried to tunnel his way out. Zach had to relocate Saddler ever other week because he dug so many holes. After a while our back yard looked like the bombing range.

For the most part though, Saddler ran free. He ran all over the town. He once brought home a ham from the store. I’m pretty sure that he just walked in and got it out of the meat case, but getting it out of the dumpster would have been a more impressive feat. He also brought home a bowling ball bag, complete with a 15 lb bowling ball.

The street that led to Jared and Creed’s house was lined on both sides with dogs. We pedaled our bikes furiously passed a Chow, then a whole pack of Pit Bulls (I never slowed down long enough to count them), and finally a monstrous Great Dane. I remember getting bit by a Pit Bull named Sheba, which makes her sound meaner than she was. She was also black, which made her appear more sinister than she was. This gamut of dogs struck fear in an eight year old heart. The fact that I was willing to overcome this fear is a testiment to the friendship that I shared with Jared and Creed.

When Zach got Saddler, I was no longer afraid. I have a strong feeling that Saddler may have killed the Chow. Perhaps this is why Saddler gained a reputation on our street. Saddler was not inherently mean, but I never saw him shy away from a fight. Even if he wasn’t provoked. One day Zach was playing in the woods behind our house that served as a barrier to a large cotton field. The lady who owned the Great Dane was walking him on a leash. Saddler couldn’t resist the temptation and Zach wasn’t fast enough to catch him. Zach watched from the cover of the forest as Saddler chased the Great Dane around the slightly overweight lady who was screaming and hollering. Eventually Saddler, after he had had enough fun, ran back to Zach who rushed through the woods back to the house.

It must have been Saturday, because Dad answered the door when the exasperated lady called to complain about Saddler. “Your dog viciously attacked me!” Perhaps it would have been courteous if Zach would have explained the situation to Dad, but how was he to know that the lady was coming to complain? Zach listened from the living room and snickered as Dad used a bit of diplomacy and a dash of humor to smooth the situation over.Even so, I don’t think that lady lasted too long in the community.

Zach eventually let Uncle James take Saddler coon hunting. He fought the all other dogs in order to get to tree the coon first. Once Saddler had been coon hunting, he didn’t want to do anything else. After a while Zach ended up selling Saddler to Uncle James, who hunted with him for a long time. Sometimes creatures are just born to do something, and Saddler was born to tree coons. We tried to make him a pet, but he was a hunter. Sometimes you just have to let things be what they are, you’ll waste your energy trying to change them.

Liars and Lies I’ve Been Told

Since the majority of the history in rural towns is oral, my goal is to give you a few tools to help you differentiate between what’s fact and what’s oral fiction.

I’ve spent much of my life sorting out which of the stories given to me as a child were true and which were not. It’s not as easy as you’d think, because much of the time the truth can be more outrageous than any liar’s tale. For instance, my Great Grandfather, Daniel Webster Wells, used to catch catfish out of the Coosa River that were four feet long. I know this is true, because I have pictures. I know that I shot my neighbor with a BB Gun too, as I got a terrible spanking for that. But there are some stories that I haven’t quite been able to verify. It’s these tales that make you wonder, not because of the bizarre content, but because of the source.  Some people are fun to listen to, but not very credible. In the harshest terms, they are liars. There are so many types of liars that it’s almost not fair to group them all in the same category, but God isn’t fair, he’s just, and he decided that all liars shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone. I do not condone lying, but this is not a sermon, it’s more of a essay on the different types of liars. Since the majority of the history in rural towns is oral, my goal is to give you a few tools to help you differentiate between what’s fact and what’s oral fiction.

Some liars are habitual, and lie for lying’s sake. Jerry Clower said, “Some folks would rather climb a tree and tell a lie before they’d stand on the ground and tell the truth.” These liars have no motive for lying other than it’s just what they do. I had one of these type of liars tell me that there was a family who adopted a child from another country and they were having a hard time with the child because in the former country, yes meant no, and no meant yes. The same person also told me about an infant sitting on their mother’s lap as she was sewing. At some point the child cried out and the mother picked up the baby and held it on her shoulder, patting it’s back. The child instantly let out a gasp, but didn’t cry anymore, but the mother missed her sewing needle. Fifteen years later, the child now a young lady, complained of a pimple on her back. When her mother went to squeeze the pimple the needle shot out of the girls back. I know from experience that these habitual liars get mad when you don’t believe them.

My favorite type of liars are the entertaining liars, they lie because they have an audience. They don’t tend to get mad if you don’t believe them as long as you are entertained by the tale. Most of the entertaining liars I’ve met could have made honest careers as fiction writers. I had a liar of this ilk tell me that as he was driving to my house, he saw a prominent citizen in our community on his roof, dressed as Santa Claus, reading the newspaper while sitting on the chimney, apparently using the restroom. Now that’s pretty funny and outrageous, but if you knew the citizen, you would have found yourself wondering if it was true. Another time, the same talebearer told me that he had heard someone call in to the classic rock station and give the following testimony. “I love the Lord, and I’m thankful that he’s given me a sound mind. I appreciate the uplifting music that y’all play, it really blesses me. I just want the Lord to make me humble and (h)umble.” Of course, we knew who he was lying about, and it was funny, but also not unbelievable. You have to be careful with these entertaining liars, or you will establish their credibility by believing and repeating their lies.

Once, my brother, cousin, and I were building a fence at my grandmother’s place. There was a withered old man with a tracheotomy and cowboy hat who came out to watch us as we built the fence beside his residence. I’m not sure how we got on the subject, but as Zach carried the heavy post driver over to the next post, the old man stated that he had “once picked up a syrup mill by himself.” Now Zach, never been one to “enjoy a good lie”, was not about to let this slide, having recently spent a whole day making sorghum syrup. He dropped the post driver and said, “They ain’t no way you picked up a syrup mill by yourself.”

My cousin, who was quite a story teller in his own right, tried to calm Zach down and let it be, hoping to draw out more of the tale. “Just let him alone Zach, maybe he did.” And then to the old man, “How much did that syrup mill weigh?”

“He ain’t picked up no syrup mill Anthony.” I suppose liars don’t like to be called out, and soon the old man went back inside leaving us to our work.

Some liars will not retreat as easily when faced with the truth. I place these in the category of the ignorant liar, which is someone who doesn’t let their lack of knowledge keep them from teaching. These proud liars will be able to dominate any conversation on any subject with their wealth of knowledge. Some folks call them “Know-it-Alls”. Once I remember a conversation with a man about construction of a building in Childersburg, AL being halted after Indian artifacts were found during the initial excavation.

“I shouldn’t wonder that they found some Indian pottery, you can dig just about anywhere around here and find Indian pottery and arrowheads.”  He said. This was true enough, I used to find arrowheads all the time in the cotton fields behind my house, but he took it further and capped his statement with, “Childersburg is the oldest city.”

I asked him incredulously, “You mean in the Coosa Valley? Or the State of Alabama?”

“Naw! Childersburg is the oldest city in the world!” He said arrogantly.

What makes these particular liars so annoying is that you can’t convince them of what is true. When you argue with a fool, you always lose.

Calling a liar in many cases will get you nowhere. Sometimes it’s best to keep your mouth shut. If someone is lying they’ll eventually trip over one of their own lies. If I feel like I’m being told a lie, I like to ask verifying questions. A liar will never disappoint you when you ask for details. It helps if you can remember these details and then ask again a month or so later. If you’re lucky, they’ll start in on a fresh set of details that contradicted the set from last month. Even better they’ll be unsuccessful in trying to remember the set that they gave you last month.

The last type of liar I’d like to mention would be the exaggerator. What might start out as embellishment, will turn into a full blown lie. I’ve been with people that are recounting a story of which I was an eye witness, and I find myself frowning because I don’t remember it that way. Or someone will tell a lie about something that they didn’t do and then say, “Ask Zane, he was there.” Which is another lie.

My mom was babysitting a child once who told her of all of the things that he’d stolen. My mother was disappointed and admonished the child that it wasn’t good to steal. He replied, “Aw, I’s just lying.” You don’t have to teach children how to lie, you’re supposed to teach them not to lie. If you are a liar though, you show your children how to lie. This is why lying runs in the family. There was a time when it was a shameful to lie, and people knew it was wrong. That must have been a long time ago.

 

Practical Jokes

“There is a fine line between a good practical joke and all out meanness.”

There is a fine line between a good practical joke and all out meanness. The line is determined by whomever is on the receiving end of the joke. This has always made practical jokes a gamble, albeit an enticing gamble for a mischievous boy. A good practical joke on a sibling could be enjoyed by all, but adults have a finicky sense of humor sometimes, especially if they have been “gotten” by a child. I could only tell when I had crossed the line from good humor over to blatant meanness after the joke had been played, because I always got whooped for meanness.

My grandmother, Nonna, took me to the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga when I was eight or nine. It seemed like it took forever to get there. I don’t know if it was the distance or the Southern Gospel AM radio station that she listened to, WURL, where you are loved. It was worth the wait, because the aquarium was pretty amazing. I still have vivid memories of all of those fish. Nonna let me pick out something from the gift shop, I got a rubber copperhead snake that was about five inches long, which was quite a monster when paired with the 3 3/4″ GI Joe action figures that I took with me everywhere. There was a time in my life that I did not of observe the sacred ritual of the Sunday afternoon nap. Instead, I had the option to “play quietly” as my parents slept between church services. It was one of these afternoons that, on a whim, I put my rubber snake in the salt shaker. My parents, like all good Southerners, were quite fond of salt. Our salt shaker, not the fancy decorative type that people collect, was a solid utilitarian piece resembling a plastic coffee cup with a slightly domed screw-on lid. It was possibly the most used kitchen utensil getting only slightly less use than the sweet tea pitcher. I had to scrunch the snake down a bit since it was taller than the shaker, but eventually I was able to keep it in as I screwed the lid back in place. It took about a month before the salt needed to be refilled, and I had forgotten all about hiding the snake. Dad happened to be the person that noticed that the salt was low, and when he unscrewed the lid, the rubber copperhead sprung out of the shaker. Dad hollered and threw the salt shaker across the kitchen table, spreading the last of the salt all over the kitchen. I was thankful to be in the bathroom at that particular moment, or I would have gotten a spanking. I waited until Dad had calmed down a little bit before coming to survey the fruit of my forgotten labor. I mark this incident as the introduction to my work as a practical joker.

Every Fourth of July and New Years Ever, Zach and I would beg Dad to buy us a brick of bottle rockets. Sometimes we got whistlers and Roman Candles, but in my book, nothing comes close to a bottle rocket. At first, we would try to light our fireworks with those pitiful incense sticks that they give away when you make your purchase at the fireworks stand, but eventually we came to trust in the BIC cigarette lighter. We would nearly burn our thumbs off shooting those bottle rockets into the air, or at each other. Zach once bounced a whistler off my face. Every once in a while you would try to light the fuse and the fuse would come off in your hand. You can still light these fuse and they’ll spit and sputter just like a live firecracker fuse, but without any explosion. Once, while Mom was standing by the stove, cooking something delicious, I lit a fuse and threw it on the kitchen tile. “Watch out Mom!” She scrambled to get to the other side of the kitchen. After the fuse fizzled out and there was no explosion, she was not amused. Not only did I get a whipping, but Zach got to shoot the rest of the bottle rockets without me.

In the third grade, I had a friend named Kevin Boozer. He was a good deal shorter than me, wore a letterman style jacket and had neatly combed blond hair. We were buddies until he moved away abruptly and I never saw him again. We used to talk on the phone after school, and I was surprised to hear him swear like a sailor. Our desks, the table style desks with detached chairs and an open drawer underneath, were arranged in a U and Kevin sat directly across from me. I don’t know how I was able to be so stealthy, but one day as Mrs. Wright was teaching, I crept under the desks and tied Kevin’s shoelaces together. By and by, Kevin raised his hand to be excused to the restroom. This being a mild distraction from the lesson, everyone stared at Kevin as Mrs. Wright gave him permission only after making sure that it was an emergency. His first step was fine, but as he took his second step the laces went taught and he fell face first in front of the entire class. Mrs. Wright stifled a laugh. I had to take a note home to my Mom, who did not stifle her laughter. Despite this injury, Kevin and I remained friends.

One Halloween, Jared and Creed had each received a realistic rubber mask for their costumes. One mask was a gorilla and the other of an old man. Zach and Creed about gave Mom a heart attack when they looked into the kitchen window while wearing these masks.

As an adult, I’ve become a bit more mellow with practical jokes, but only a bit. I was a new hire at my current job a few years ago when I decided to wrap the Christmas Tree in toilet paper. The lady who had spent so much time decorating the tree was furious and took all of the toilet paper, wadded it up and threw it on the desk of the man who she thought had committed the offence. The man, who was out of the office at the time and didn’t know about the tree, did not realize that this was a counterattack, but took it as an unprovoked attack. This set off a chain of retaliations against the two, who didn’t need much provoking to get at each other anyway. I didn’t say anything for a few years, I’ve learned that anonymity is the best policy when playing a practical joke.

Humor, like language, is handed down from one generation to another. Since my recent ancestors struggled in life to provide for themselves, they could do little in the way of inheritance for their great grandchildren. Frankly they were poor. But they were rich in humor. Humor is the closest connection that I have with some of my forefathers. My Uncle Doss loved a good practical joke. He once found a pair of false teeth in the river while he was fishing. After he boiled them in the wash pot, he wore them proudly. That’s not a joke, I’m just letting you know what kind of person he was.

Uncle Doss was my Dad’s Grandmother’s Uncle. I’ll write this filler sentence while you reason that out in your mind. Uncle Doss lived in rural Alabama in the first part of the twentieth century. In a time were the South was still reeling from Reconstruction. There were no streetlights to light the dirt roads and fewer cars than horses and buggies traveling on those same dirt roads. It was a time when superstition abounded. The Black community in Uncle Doss’s time and place were not only superstitious, but also very religious. Each Sunday they would get up early and walk together in large groups through the winding dirt roads through the woods on their way to church. They would spend the entire day at church, having diner between services and returning in a group late in the evening. Knowing this routine, Uncle Doss decided one Sunday evening to lay in wait unseen on one of the embankments that the road had carved into the side of a hill. This way he could dangle a piece of white wrapping paper by a string from about ten feet above the road while making eerie noises as the wind blew the paper to frighten the faithful parishioners on their way home from church. Uncle Doss tied the six foot string to his overall galluses and sat down by a tree on the embankment high above the road to wait for the home bound worshipers to pass. He did not take into account that church would go longer due to a special service, and as he was waiting, he fell into a deep sleep. When he was aroused by the night noises of the dark forest, the first thing he saw was the spectral wrapping paper floating in the wind. He got up and ran in fright, now fully awake and petrified with fear. Looking over his shoulder, he saw to his dismay that the ghost was chasing him. “I ran until the briar patch stopped me.” He later recounted. Sometimes a failed practical joke is funnier than it’s intended end.

Like you, I’ve been involved in too many practical jokes to recount here, and even if I did, most of them would not be funny. All out meanness is never funny, and a practical joke is only funny if nothing gets hurt, except for pride.

 

 

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.

 

Support

Your patronage is greatly appreciated.

$5.00