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.

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. 

The Store

One of the largest enterprises in my hometown, especially after the cotton gin shut down when I was in the third grade, was Smith & Sons Associated Groceries. Smith’s for short and “Smiss” if you talked like a local. Smith’s was where you went to shop for groceries if you didn’t want to drive twelve miles to Chelsea, or ten miles to Childersburg, in order to shop at those fancy grocery stores like Food World, Winn-Dixie, and Piggly-Wiggly. Smith’s was a small grocery store that had endured an expansion sometime before I was born. You could still see where the wall was knocked out to add four more aisles. Let me take you on a quick tour of the store.

The parking lot was small, only ten spaces directly in front of the door. If you weren’t lucky enough to get one of these, you had to park in the overflow parking by the ancient warehouse, where there were another ten or twelve spaces. There was only one entrance to Smith’s, a single set of electric doors. I remember them being brand new when I was a kid. These doors let the freezing outside air rush in during the winter. Immediately through the door on the right was the Blue Bell ice cream freezer. The other brands of ice cream started to show up the further you got from the door, but that’s not important. To the left there was the magazine stand. When you were standing in the entrance, you could see all the way back to the milk case on the last aisle. If you walked to the milk, you would pass all nine aisles on your left. This is what you would find in the store, if it was still open and I was still working there and you needed to know where to find something.

Aisle 1: Frozen dinners, pizzas, cool whip, cheap ice cream, and the repackaged frozen biscuits. All the taco seasonings were on a display at the end of this aisle right before you entered the meat room. On the other side of the aisle was where you would find all the cookies and junk food, and my personal favorite Keebler Danish Wedding Cookies.

Aisle 2: This aisle was capped on the meat case side opposite on the entrance side, that’s were all the Pop-Tarts were. Medicine, band aids, and stuff like that were found in the actual aisle. Aisle two was shortened because this was also were the cash registers were.

Aisle 3: Cereal was on the short side of this aisle. Coffee, the coffee grinder, and tea were on one end of the aisle. As you came toward the cash register it morphed into the fishing food; potted meat, Vienna Sausages, pork and beans, sardines, and tuna.

Aisle 4: Flour, sugar, rice, dry beans, packaged dinners.

Aisle 5: Barbecue sauce, ketchup, mayonnaise, Jello, pickles.

Aisles 5 and 6 were separated by a big wall.

Aisle 6: Toilet Paper, garbage bags, Ziploc bags, Baby food.

Aisle 7: Soap, cleaners, mouse traps.

Aisle 8: Dog and cat food, salt licks, feed.

Aisle 9: Bread & chips. On the back wall was where the milk, individual soft drinks, and beer. You had to open the door and walk in the cooler to get your eggs off of a rolling cart. There was a cardboard sign saying as much for first time visitors.

On the perimeter of the store there was a makeshift office built so as to see the entire original store, you had to go up a few stairs to get into the office. All along the right wall as you entered were the soft drinks. Once you passed the egg door along the back wall you came to an open cooler where you would find sour cream, cheese, canned whip cream, sausage, bacon, lunch meat, and the occasional fruit cake. Once you got to the next wall, you would find a stand up cooler where the pork brains, chitterlings, and beef and pork liver were found. That case also had chicken gizzards and livers. Next you came to the fruit and mushrooms. You would pass the pudding display as you walked back into the original part of the store. There was an entrance into the stockroom here, from the entrance to the front wall was the meat case. Not only did Smith’s have pretty good meat, they had a wide selection of meat. There were steaks, pig ears, chicken feet, beef tongue, pig tails, ground beef, hog maws, pig feet, chicken wings, souse meat, and even turkey necks. Not to mention the Boston butts, chicken wings, and pork ribs.

Smith’s was the first job I had that I had to pay taxes. I had been working nearly since I started elementary school and I didn’t like this paycheck robbery. It’s hard to report your earnings when you’re breaking all the child labor laws. I was preceded in my office as stock boy at Smith’s by my elder brother Zach Wells and friend Creed McDaniel. I used to walk to the store and bug them while they were working. When Zach graduated I had to wait a year or so before I was old enough to get hired.

Working in the air conditioning and even the cooler, was a big departure from hauling hay. My duties were fairly light too. The main thing I had to do was keep the milk and meat stocked, and sweep the store every night. I had other duties like hauling the empty milk crates to the big stack out by the warehouse, retrieving the buggies, cleaning the parking lot with a blower, filling propane, mopping, waxing the floor, buffing the floor, and stocking shelves.

I really enjoyed stocking the milk. For starters it was in the walk in cooler, which was a wonderful place to be in an Alabama August. While you were stocking the milk, you could see all the way to the front door and know who was coming. You could mess with people you knew when they open the door to get a gallon of milk. One time Creed and Zach were stocking the milk together and singing I Don’t Want To Close My Eyes, by Aerosmith. Some lady opened the cooler door and said, “Well keep ‘em open sugar!”  It was fun being back there, it was like a hideout. I also enjoyed jumping in the box dumpster to pack it down. The box dumpster was acquired after the EPA found out that Smith’s was burning boxes in the ditch behind the store. I never got the joy of burning boxes, but being able to jump in the box dumpster is consolation enough. I even enjoyed breaking down boxes, but the thing I enjoyed the most about working at this tiny grocery store in the middle of nowhere was talking to the regulars.

This strange variety of meat that I mentioned reflected the wide variety of clientele that Smith’s enjoyed. Nearly everyone in town came to Smith’s. There was Uncle Bill, who came in just about every day, not so much to shop, but to set down on a couple a milk crates and talk to cashiers, Mr. Newt, Mrs. Shirley Smith, and Mrs. Marie, who was Newt’s wife. Uncle Bill, was not my uncle, that’s just what everyone called him. People get nicknames that stick in small towns. Some of the regulars had names like Rubber Duck, Screwdriver, Peanut, Bargain Town, Uncle Wallace, and Studebaker. Uncle Bill called me Superman. I would like to think I got this nickname because of my bulging biceps, but more than likely it was my dark hair and thick glasses. Once as I was sacking Uncle Bill’s groceries, he admonished me to “Be careful with my cacklefruits there Superman.” He was talking about his eggs. I could spend a lifetime telling you about the regulars that came into the store. Uncle Wallace would always ask, “How you doing?”

“Pretty good”, I’d reply.

“Pooty good hard to beat.” He would say.

When you go to the grocery store, you share common ground with all of the rest of humanity in that we all have to eat. When someone came into the store, you didn’t really think about people’s political preferences, their ethnic background, or their lifestyle. I enjoyed getting to know so many people from different back grounds in our little town. For the most part, people were friendly, even if they were peculiar. One lady didn’t want us to bruise her coffee while we sacked her groceries.

If you were a customer at Smith’s, you were like family. When we asked about your family, we meant it, we weren’t just making small talk. I say we, because I worked there long enough to get to know the regulars, and had lived in the town all my life and knew everyone anyway. It did not occur to me how open and friendly we were with the customers, until I moved away and had to start doing my own grocery shopping. You don’t see this kind of relationship with the customers as much in larger grocery stores, no matter how organic the cheese and vegetables are. The grocery store was able to bridge the generation gap between me and the rest of the staff, who were old enough to be my grandparents, and these people became very dear to me. My mom used to bring us all supper, most of the time beans and cornbread, or Mexican Cornbread, which is cornbread with onions, cheese, peppers, corn and sausage mixed in. If I learned anything from working at Smith’s, it’s that food brings people together, especially at work.

Mr. Smith, who founded the store, died before I was old enough to get to work with him, but I remember him well. He wore a fedora style hat and had really thick glasses. He worked in the store until he passed away. He would just sack the groceries with his wife, Mrs. Shirley Smith. Mr. Smith had lost an eye and had a sticker with a picture of an eye that stuck to his glasses. I don’t know how old he was, but my great uncle James remembered him being old when he was a young boy. When Uncle James was a little boy, Mr. Smith asked him and his brother, “You boys been slumbering on the bed?” They looked at each other and then shook their heads to Mr. Smith. Once they were in the car, one of them asked, “How did he know that we wet the bed?” By the time I came along Mr. Smith was just working because he loved people, because he was long passed retirement age. I guess when you do what you love for a living, it’s not much like work. Mrs. Shirley Smith had a distinctive laugh and she was always laughing, calling everyone “Hun.” She smoked those big long super 120 cigarettes. She was quite a joker too. Once she told Kim, Marie and Newt’s daughter, to go warm the toilet seat up for her. Kim waited a long time until she realized that Mrs. Smith was kidding.

The person that I worked most closely with was Ray. Ray had been a mechanic and truck driver in the Marines during Vietnam.  After he got out of the service he was a truck driver until he had a near fatal accident that left him with a broken back. After numerous surgeries, rods, pins and screws, Ray was able to walk again, albeit very much hunched over forward and to the left. He looked a bit like Merle Haggard to me. Ray was not my supervisor as much as he would have liked to think he was, but he did schedule the major evening tasks like mopping, bleaching the concrete floor in the stock room, buffing the floor and weed eating the back lot. I witnessed Ray bust the passenger window of his truck with a rock slung out by the weed eater. I was glad that he was showing me how to run a weed eater, as if I had never done that, when this happened. Ray kind of mumbled when he spoke and said some words a little different.  He couldn’t say rinse, instead he’d say, “I’ll mop and you wrench.” He struggle with pronouncing propane too, “Let’s go fill ‘ease profane tanks up.”

One of other tasks was to stuff frozen biscuits into Ziploc bags. We’d each set on a milk crate, open a huge box of biscuits and repackage the biscuits. You could put two stacks on four biscuits in the bag, two biscuits sides between the stakes and one more at the top. It was all you could do to get that last one in and zip the bag. These biscuits were a hot seller in the store and another one of the things that I was specifically tasked with keeping stocked. Ray and I would talk as we sat there in our gloved hands, for those of you who were worried, and stuffed biscuits, but Ray usually had a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, sorry about that folks if your flour ever smelled like a cigarette smoke. It was during this sessions that I learned about Ray’s military service, the truck accident, Ray’s favorite things, how good Ray could cook, and various feats of might and prowess that he had accomplished and endured during his life. I mostly listened. Ray once told me about a television preacher back in the day that had got caught. “With a woman?”  I asked. “Naw. They caught with them pornogitty books.” Ray would sometime chide me about going out and partying, mainly because he knew that I didn’t. “Why don’t you get you a case of them Corollas and got out on the town?”

We could spot a first time visitor a mile off, even before they started looking for the eggs. They just had a lost look about them. Once we had a guy move to Vincent from California, I’m not sure how he found us. He was in my English class. As I was sweeping the floor one night before closing he came up to me and asked, “Where are the bagels.”

I stopped sweeping and leaned on the broom handle raising my hand getting ready to point him in the right direction. I thought for a minute, and drew a blank.

“What’s a bagel?” I asked in sincerity.

He stared back at me and fumbled to explain what a bagel was. “It’s a round bread thing that you eat for breakfast. They weren’t on the bread aisle.”

I took him to the bread aisle, still puzzling over what a bagel might look like. There were no bagels on the bread aisle.

“It’s probably over there by the frozen biscuits.” I said triumphantly, wondering why I didn’t think of that first. I lead him to the opposite side of the store. But it was no use, there were no bagels in sight. Mrs. Shirley didn’t know what a bagel was either. After I found out what a bagel was and tasted it, I realized why we didn’t have them in stock. I wonder why I didn’t just try to sell him some biscuits.

One day I remember walking into Smith’s to begin my shift only to find out that the power was out. I remember staring at the rat’s nest of wiring in the panel box and wondering why the building hadn’t burned down twenty years ago. I walked back home, there wasn’t much that I could do.

I must confess that when it comes to the state religion of Alabama, I am apostate. I understand the doctrine and can even explain it to others, but I’ve never been much of a believer, but for most of the population of Alabama, and especially the inhabitants of our little town, the rites of football were kept reverently and faithfully. Community support for the local high school football was so strong that on the Friday night home games, you could have shut down the store two hours early and no one would have noticed. Even worse was the Iron Bowl, the annual face-off between Auburn and Alabama. On Iron Bowl night, the store might as well have been closed, because everyone was at home watching the football game. I remember the cashiers blaring the radio broadcast as Eli Gold called the game. The state of Alabama shuts down during the Iron Bowl, it’s the perfect time to travel since the roads are clear. When I moved out of state I was confused at first to learn that people are actually interested in pro football. I guess that’s what happens when you have pitiful college teams.

The last time I went home, Smith’s had been sold and the name was changed. I walked in and all the people looked unfamiliar. I’m sure the change was gradual to the people who lived through it, but it was drastic when you weren’t really expecting it. Since then the store has closed it’s doors and a Dollar General has opened up not far down the street.  Although many of the staff and regulars have passed away, they live on in my memory every time I go shopping at my local fancy, but characterless grocery store.