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

Mr. Lee

Every old man needs a younger man in order to carry out their plans.

I was a teenager before Pop started hanging out with Mr. Lee. They were both retired and needed each other. Their idea of playing usually meant work for me and especially Dad. Every old man needs a younger man in order to carry out their plans. And to more or less babysit them.

Mr. Ronnie Lee was a tall man, maybe 6’2″. And about 160 lbs if I’m being generous. He wore glasses and-like so many other old men-a mesh backed hat that sat on top of his head. I have a hard time visualizing Mr. Lee without a hat. He also always had a cigarette.

“I can’t tell you how many times an old man with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth has saved my bacon.”

Bo

Mr. Lee had a saw mill and a planer. I remember helping dad plane enough saw-cut lumber to panel the inside walls of the lake house Mr. Lee had built. It was interesting work and typical of the type of stuff that Dad did for Mr. Lee.

“How do you want me to do this Mr. Lee?” Dad would ask as he was about to tackle whatever oddball task Mr. Lee had assigned.

“You do it just any old way you want to Perry.” Mr. Lee would say through his nose, his mouth being occupied by a cigarette. “Just however you think is best.”

Dad would commence work upon the task at hand with purpose. Dad would be knee deep into the work when Mr. Lee would come back around and check on progress.

After looking around for a moment Mr. Lee would remark, “I don’t know if I’d have done it that way Perry.” Much to the frustration of my Dad.

This story has become part of my family’s literary reference library; a readymade punchline to be quoted like ancient Greek mythology.

The Southern Simile

Do you have a favorite Southern saying?

You could hardly call me a well traveled man. I have been to Washington D.C. though, and that’s got to count for something. In the course of my limited travels I have taken note that Southerners, especially those who have traveled less than even me, are unique communicators. They have ways of describing things that are marvelously effective. In short, Southerners are masters of simile. 

For instance, “Heavy as a widow’s heart”. Instead of giving an exact measurement, you get an idea of something with an unfathomable weight that also speaks to your emotions. Most of the Southern story tellers I know have enough of these pithy descriptions to sink a ship. It’s usually this aspect of their tales that draw the greatest reaction from a listener. I’ve done my best to curate a short list of my favorite similes to help those who might want to exercise the poetic nature of language.

-Ugly as pootin’ in church. It doesn’t get much uglier than that.

-Mean as a snake.

Mean as a striped lizard. Be sure to pronounce striped with two syllables.

-Broke as a convict.

-High as a cat’s tail.

-Nervous as a cat in a room full of rockers.

-Colder than a mother-in-law’s love. To be fair, my Mother-in-law is great.

-Cold as a well rope.

-Hot as blue blazes.

-Crooked as a dog’s leg.

-Naked as a jay bird.

Strong as half an acre of garlic.

Tough as woodpecker lips.

-Goofy as an eight day clock.

Crazy as an outhouse rat.

-Poor as Job’s turkey.

-Wild as a team of goats. This is something that you say about children.

-Screaming like a coon hunter.

Slow as molasses.

-Rough as a cob. Takes on a new meaning given the fact that corn cobs were once used as toilet paper.

Hang in there like a hair in a biscuit. 

-Dark as a sack of black cats. 

Pretty as a pair of new shoes.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of similes, they sometimes only come to me when I need them. I’m sure some are coming to you right now and I’d like to hear them.

Thank you for reading. If it made you laugh, or cry, or remember someone that you love please share this with a friend. -Zane Wells

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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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Spring Water

On the winding road to Nonna and Pop’s house, just after you crossed the railroad tracks, there is an iron pipe that sticks out from beneath the parking lot of an ancient store and gushes crystal clear spring water. Dad would stop there occasionally when we were rambling and we’d drink with cupped hands out of that rusty cast iron pipe. The water was always freezing cold, and on a hot day there was nothing that could compare in taste.

HR Justice Store. The spring is on the opposite side.

I remember going to that store, the HR Justice Store, with my Dan-Dan, but for most of my life the store has set empty. A memorial of time past. I do remember that the store had hardwood floor, and a there was an old man behind a counter who talked with my grandfather. I was too young to pay attention to what kind of merchandise the store stocked, I only remember that they carried Grapico. I think it was once a genuine general store.

Until today, I’ve never really thought about where that water came from, I just new that it was good to drink. Long after the store had shut down, folks would still go there to fill up old milk jugs with the refreshing water flowing out of the pipe. It seems strange now to think of doing that, especially in a world where many people only ever drink water out of a plastic bottle. If you close your eyes and think hard, you can remember a time when buying bottled water at the grocery store seemed ridiculous. And maybe it still is, but we’ve just gotten used to it. It makes me wonder what else we’ve gotten used to.

Playing Church

My brother and I used to play church. He’d stand the toy box up on it’s side and use it as a pulpit. I would receive the offering, testify, and say amen whenever he was preaching. It was just me and the pastor for a long time. Eventually, after many prayer meetings, our church grew and our little sister Lindsay was able to help out with the music ministry. Pastor had his hands full with these two saints. He’d often have to tell us what to do and when to do it. “Alright Sister Lindsay, that’s enough singing. Brother Zane is going to come receive the offering now.

Sometimes we’d have revivals, and our cousins would come over. Zach would baptize anyone who wanted to baptized in the same toy box that was the pulpit. Sometimes he would baptize anyone who didn’t want to be baptized too. “No! No! I don’t want to be babatized!” our cousin Daniel protested.

“Hold your nose!” Zach said. ” I baptize you in the name of Jesus for the remission of your sins!”

Church was, and still is, a big part of our lives, and our play reflected that. I’m getting to watch my kids play church now in very much the same way that we did yesterday when I was young. Miriam, ever the songbird, sings constantly. She won’t be bothered by not knowing the words, she’ll make up her own lyrics as she strums along on a hopelessly out of tune guitar.

Going to Aunt Lindsay’s

Going to Aunt Lindsay’s

Going to Aunt Lindsay’s in my soul!

She hasn’t realized that all music isn’t church music. And if she ever sees anyone singing on video, regardless the setting, she will comment, “That’s a different church.”

Wesley protests when something isn’t just so. “Miriam, you can’t sing that anymore. The conference is over!” He measures his weeks by the church days, hoping for Sunday School the most. From time to time we go to a “different” church for a special service or something like that. He is very concerned that the different church teaches the “whole Bible and not just part of it”, and he will ask me to make sure.

Wesley and Miriam on their way to church.

Really not much has changed as we’ve matured. We’re just not playing anymore, but actually doing it. I’ve traded my broom for a real guitar. Zach really never stopped preaching, and today pastors Christ Temple Pentecostal Church in Jena, Louisiana, although he doesn’t usually baptize people against their will. Lindsay never stopped singing, now she just knows the right words. I pray that my kids never stop either.

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Playgrounds

The playground at Vincent Elementary School, like many things in the town of Vincent, was outdated and probably homemade. There was a one hundred percent chance of getting a splinter if you dared to climb onto the fort that I think was made partly from discarded shipping pallets from the papermill, and partly from untreated scrap lumber. The wood peeled and splintered into long grey and black, sword-like splinters that laid in wait for a child who was running for their life while playing a dangerous game of tag. If you made it to the top of the wooden structure without a splinter, or without stepping on a rotten or missing board, you had the option to slide down a rusty pole, which took a moderate amount of skill, or a shiny metal slide that had been preheating in the sun for the better half of the day. It was hot enough through my blue jeans, I feel sorry for the kids who wore shorts. Aside from the swings, this rickety homespun wooden structure attracted the most children during our recesses. That it was the furthest from the shade tree where the teachers sat may have contributed to it’s popularity.

But you had to walk through an otherworldly section of playground to get to the fort. A place where they didn’t even bother spreading pea gravel underneath the equipment and left the hardened red clay. The pea gravel, we had been told, was there to cushion any falls. It was here you could find odd contraptions probably designed by someone’s Dad who was free from the safety constraints and regulations placed on modern playground designers. There was a telephone pole with a spiral staircase of used tires screwed to the side, winding upward a good ten feet. There were heavy equipment tires laying on their sides, big enough to fit half a dozen kids inside. There were half buried tractor tires sticking up out of the ground like small gateways, big enough for three to climb inside if one of you was nimble enough to shimmy up the inside. The tires were my favorite part of the playground, even if they did leave me covered in black smut. Red spray paint let every child know that what resembled abandoned lumber and building materials had once been a piece of the playground but was now off limits.

Relics of playground equipment still holding up since the late sixties, such as metal monkey bars nearly a dozen feet high, were not off limits. In the very center of the playground rose a green cylindrical monkey bar tower that in my childhood mind was the pinnacle of the playground. Perched atop this stately steel keep one could watch the traffic amble by on Highway 231. You probably could have watched the traffic go by from the ground, but it would not have been as romantic.

I remember watching a kid fall down from the top of the green tower and land on his head. I was so thankful that the pea gravel was there to catch him. He held his head for a few moments as the teachers ran over to him. We all watched the teachers take care of him until somebody rounded the rest of us up and marched us back inside. The next time we went to recess there was red paint on the green tower. When the kid finally came back to school a week or so later, he was wearing a red bicycle helmet.

Within the next two years, the old playground was torn down and scrapped. A new colorful plastic, and much shorter, playground was installed and thick brown mulch was spread underneath. The new playground was a bit starchy and uncomfortable, like ill fitting church clothes. It was nice because it was new, but I sure did miss those tires.

 

 

 

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.

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.