Saturday, March 2, 2013

A Feat Of Arms

I have mentioned my short career as an Axman in the sand hills of the Florida panhandle, and that one of our vehicles was an Army surplus Dodge truck with a tandem-wheeled trailer.

On the back of the truck body was a heavy steel swivel hitch that the trailer tongue dropped into and was locked. Across one side of this hitch, the side toward the cab, was welded a steel H-beam which supported the front end of the logs. Together, this beam and the swivel hitch actually comprised the "front end" of the trailer, since it was the point about which the trailer and its load of logs pivoted when the truck made a turn. According to my boss, Bob Hicks, the beam and hitch together weighed around five hundred pounds.

One Saturday afternoon Bob and I took the Dodge truck over to Prine's sawmill, on the eastern edge of Chipley, to exchange the beam and hitch for a better unit. By the time we got there the mill had shut down for the weekend, and no one was around to operate the little crane by which the unit was to be lifted off the truck. There were, however, several of the mill workers still standing about, and Bob offered to pay them to help lift the unit off the truck manually, to which they agreed.

After removing the bolts which secured it to the body, two or three of the men got on one end, and two or three on the other, and they strained and grunted, and grunted and strained, but the beam and hitch did not move. They took a breather, then tried again, but to no avail.

During this time Horace Wilkes, a character well known around town, had been standing off to one side, watching. Horace was shorter than most of the other men, but had an awesome physique. His arms were about the size of a small log, and he often won money betting on his feats of strength.

Seeing that the men were not equal to the task, he told them to move out of the way, and he climbed up onto the truck runner beams on which the cross beam and hitch rested. He stooped down and, placing his hands under the bottom of the cross beam, took a long deep breath, and began to apply an upward pull on the beam.

At first the other men did not believe that he would actually try to lift the beam, but then it could be seen that he was executing a very controlled and calculated effort.

Moments passed with no apparent result. More moments passed, and it was observed that Horace's biceps had almost doubled in size, his nostrils were flaring, and water dripped from his face. The men had been amused when he began, but had now become a little uneasy. They wanted to stop this foolish endeavor, but none dared break the silence lest that should have some detrimental effect on Horace.

Suddenly, the beam and hitch were seen to lift slightly, with Horace increasing his effort as his appearance now became truly fearsome.

A few more moments passed as the beam was lifted to the level of his knees. Then he made a supreme effort and, as the men swung out of the way, pitched the beam and hitch to the ground. As soon as the beam cleared his hands the men approached from either side to catch him should he fall.

He did not fall, but accepted their assitance in helping him from the truck and over to a resting place where he sat for several minutes, not in any apparent state of exhaustion but apparently excercising a controlled routine of winding down. Within half an hour he appeared none the worse for his experience.

Bob gave him fifty dollars.

Training For The Olympics

In the recent post about my short career as an Axman I mentioned that at night and on week ends we kept our work horse stabled in an enclosure by a nearby pond. It was a rather large, naturally formed pond, deep, and ringed all around by large water oaks whose limbs reached far out over the water.

Every now and then, when there was not much for me to do, I would wander off down to the pond for a little while. I enjoyed walking out over the water on the limbs, and it could be done safely as there were many others to hold to.

One day while I was standing on one of these limbs, over what I knew to be deep water, I decided that I should learn to swim. I had often watched others swimming, and I reasoned that if I jumped off into water over my head, and kept my wits, and did what I had seen others do, I must surely make progress back toward the shore.

I rehearsed for a few moments what I thought to be the appropriate strokes, and decided that when I first hit the water I would let myself go under and bob up, then start swimming. I rehearsed the procedure once more in my mind, then stood up and jumped off. Everything went exactly as I had predicted, and I have been swimming ever since.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Into The Wild Blue Yonder

During my Junior year in high school I decided that I wanted to become a radio operator in the United States Air Force.

At that time the Air Force was accepting only high school graduates, but I had learned that the high school requirement would be waived if one passed a special audition for the Air Force bands.

I had no real desire to be in a military band, but if I had to enter the Air Force as a musician I would do so, then wrangle a transfer to radio operator's school. So at the end of my junior year I said goodbye to school and set my sights on the Air Force.

I knew that there was a band at the Air Force base near Panama City, about fifty miles south of my hometown of Chipley, Florida. So a couple of weeks into June I set out at around noon one day for Tyndall Field. From home I went over the hill, down around the back of the school, and south along the street that ran in front of the school, following it across town to where it meets the Panama City highway. From there I hitch-hiked to Panama City and on out to Tyndall Field.

II arrived there at about 3 o'clock. After a short search I found the band's headquarters, and informed the sergeant on duty that I planned to enlist in the Air Force, and had come to audition for the Air Force bands. He questioned me at some length, I suppose to determine if I were for real, and finally summoned the band director, who questioned me some more and then asked on what instrument did I wish to audition. I replied, "drums, tuba, baritone horn and trombone." He instructed an aide to fetch those instruments, then told me to proceed when ready.

I did pretty much the standard workout on drum, baritone and trombone, but on the tuba I played the first trumpet part on the "Washington Grays March". Those familiar with that number will remember that not only is it a bit technical, but it is in five and six flats. When I finished, the director studied me for a moment, then wrote out a note and slipped into an envelope. He handed the envelope to me, with the instruction to give it to the Air Force recruiter. Arriving there, I presented the note to the recruiting sergeant. He read it, then looked up and asked when did I wish to enlist. I replied, "As soon as possible."

A few days later I completed processing at the Jacksonville induction center, and on the morning of June 19, 1953, was sworn in as Airman Basic James V. Lewis AF14489908. At around 6:00 pm that afternoon I and a dozen other inductees boarded the train for Lackland Air Force Base (Texas) and basic training, with acting Airman Third Class Cruz of Miami in charge.

Basic training was a bit rough, but I decided that if a million others had completed it, so could I. Near the end we were given career qualification tests. I made high scores, including dit dah dit dah dit, so I was confident that I would be able to achieve my objective.   At the classification interview I glibly informed the sergeant that I planned to attend radio operator school, whereupon I was informed, "No, Lewis, you secured your enlistment by auditioning for the Air Force bands, and that is where you will serve."

That is how I ended up, near the end of September 1953,  in the 604th Air Force Band at Maxwell AFB, Alabama, reported to Chief Warrant Officer Charles Vesely, and was promptly handed off to First Sergeant Cedric Smith of Tennessee.


Sunday, February 17, 2013

An Ax Man

There is on TV these days a show called "Ax Men", about guys in the logging industry. It is on rather a grand scale, with operations enhanced by the evolution in machinery and equipment. Watching it brought back memories of my own brief career as an "ax man".

When school let out at the end of May, 1948, I got a summer job with Bob Hicks, our neighbor across the street. I was coming up on my fourteenth birthday.

Bob was around forty-five or fifty years old, and was self-employed in the logging business. Once or twice I had ridden with him down to the sand hills of the Florida panhandle, between Wausau and Lynn Haven and west of the Panama City highway, to get a load of logs. During those trips I gained some knowledge of his operations.

I often went across to Bob’s house on Saturday night to listen to the Grand Ole' Opry, and had got to be on quite friendly terms with him. One night I asked if he might be able to use me during the summer. In an oblique reference to my slight stature he asked what task did I think I might be able to perform. I replied that I knew that I could take care of the work horse that was used to pull the logs out to the high ground. He asked if I could drive a truck. I could not, but I said that I could, except that I was not old enough to get a driver's license.

After pondering over it for a while he said that he thought he could use me, and that I could start the next day if the two dollars per day that he could pay was satisfactory. I thought that quite satisfactory, because in the logging business back then many grown men with experience made only three dollars a day.

By the time the sun came up the next morning we were in the woods at the site of Bob’s current operations, about thirty miles south of Chipley and six or eight miles east of the Panama City highway.

As soon as we arrived at the site Bob went to check on the horse. This animal was considerably larger than the average farm horse, its height being such that I, standing straight, could not see across its back. It was a deep reddish brown in color, with a large black mane and tail. It was a gentle horse, and when called would follow one about until patted on the neck and told to stay. It was corraled at night and on weekends in a large circular pen made by nailing pine sapling poles to trees. Bob told me to watch while he harnessed it for work, so that thereafter I could do that in the mornings while he and the men attended to other preparations for the day's work. It would also be my job to water and feed the horse at the end of the day.

* * *

In converting a standing tree into logs, the first operation is to notch it at the bottom on the side facing the direction in which it is to be felled. Notching is generally done with the ax, although occasionally, on a very large tree, the notch is cut with the saw. Once the notch is properly cut the tree is saw-cut from the opposite side, at the level of the notch. As the cut reaches the notch the tree will begin to fall in the direction for which the notch was cut. A skilled person can notch a tree so that the top of its trunk will hit a mark made on the ground.

Bob had not yet acquired any of the chain saws such as are used today for cutting timber. All cutting was done with the ax and a cross-cut saw. A cross-cut saw is a large saw about six feet long, with an upright handle on each end. After a tree is felled, and all the limbs are trimmed off, the trunk is notch lightly at intervals such that the logs will be of a length suitable for hauling. Then the cross-cut saw is placed across the trunk at the first notch, and, with a man at each end, is pulled back and forth, alternately by one and then the other, until the trunk is cut through.

As the sawing continues the saw begins to get hot, from friction, and gradually begins to bind as the metal expands. When this occurs it is necessary to apply a lubricant of some sort. In those days kerosene was the universal remedy. In application, a large coke bottle is filled about three- quarters full, and the opening plugged with green pine needles, the kerosene being applied as needed by shaking the bottle over the saw.

After the tree is cut into logs the men select another tree some distance away, fell it in the opposite direction, and repeat the process while the logs just cut are pulled out to the loading ramp by whatever means is used, in our case the horse.

The truck will already have been parked at the loading ramp in the approximate position for loading. As the logs are brought up they are placed side by side so that all the big ends are at one end, lined up evenly, with the small ends pointed toward the rear of the truck body. The truck is then eased into the exact loading position, and two timber skid poles are placed, one end on the ground and the other end on the truck body.

A long steel "loading" chain, each end fastened to the truck body at appropriate points, is placed on the ground, and a log is rolled over it far enough so that the chain can be thrown back over the log and the truck body to the opposite side of the truck. In the meantime the horse will have been placed in position, and now the loading chain is connected to his harness and he is led away from the truck body, pulling the chain up and over the body, with the result that the log is rolled up the skids and onto the far side of the truck body. The process is repeated until the truck is loaded with as many logs as can be safely hauled. My job during loading operations was to mind the horse, and lead him foward when all was in readiness for the log to be rolled up onto the body of the truck.

When the truck is fully loaded, the logs are secured to the truck body with steel chains and a lock-down apparatus. The load is then ready for transport to its destination, in our case the J. T. Prine sawmill in Chipley.

* * *

Bob had realized, of course, that I could not really drive a truck, and, as time permitted, would take me out to a straight section of the logging road and let me practice, giving me useful pointers as to how and when I should do this or that. This was valuable and free instruction, and I paid close attention for I was anxious to demonstrate that I could be entrusted with the vehicles.

Bob used two trucks in his logging operation. One was a 1935 single-axle, one-and-a-half-ton Ford with the gear shift lever on the floor. The motor was started by turning the ignition key and pressing a starter button. It could also be started by engaging the front end of the crankshaft, through an opening below the hood, with a long crank, by which the motor was turned manually until it fired off. I could crank the truck by this method, and did so a couple of times. On one try, however, I did not follow through properly and the motor kicked back. This effort almost cost me a broken arm, and I did not try it again.

The other truck was a large Army suplus Dodge truck with a trailer unit, most likely used during World War II to pull heavy artillery pieces. It stood high off the ground, and could negotiate the roughest terrain. It was a 4-wheel drive vehicle, and both the front and rear wheels carried large "Jeep" type tires. It was thus ideal for hauling logs out of Florida’s sand hills. The rear wheels of the truck, and the wheels on the trailer unit, were dual wheels, so the truck was a ten wheeler. It was surprisingly easy to drive, after Bob had put me through some paces with it, and I could never decide whether I liked it or the Ford better.

After Bob was satisfied that I could be trusted with the vehicles he would let me take them around through the trees and pull into position at the loading ramp, and after a while this became another one of my regular jobs.

At the time I joined the crew the practice was to get a truck loaded as quickly as possible, and Bob would then deliver the load to the sawmill. I had been observing operations, and a little while after being entrusted with the vehicles I began to think about how we might increase the delivery rate to the sawmill. I could not drive on the public roads, because I was too young to obtain a driver’s license. However, I came up with a scheme that would put my driving capabilities to good use:

Everyone would work first to produce as many logs as could be hauled out in    two days, Then the first truck would be loaded, and Bob would depart on the delivery.

The rest of us would load the second truck as quickly as possible, and I would take that load out so as to have it at the highway by the time Bob returned to meet me there. We would then exchange vehicles, he returning to the sawmill with the loaded truck, and I returning to the work site with the empty truck.

This would shorten by one-third the distance, and by one-half the time, required for him to make a delivery.


To my surprise Bob readily agreed to try the idea. It worked out so well that the practice was adopted as standard procedure.

* * *

As I said earlier, it was my job at the end of the day to put the horse up for the night. This consisted of removing his harness, taking him for water at a large pond some distance away, then filling his box with feed, and finally, rubbing him down with a "curry" comb while he ate. Bob was particular about the horse, and I and it were always relieved of duty early enough that it could be attended to properly before sundown.

It was my habit to remove from the horse all the harness except the bridle, then hop up and ride him to the pond for water. One afternoon we had started for the pond when the horse, for some reason, became spooked and began to gallop down the trail that led out of the woods. In the process I dropped the bridle reins and they landed up behind the horse's ears, far out of my reach. The farther we went the faster he galloped, mane and tail flying in the breeze.

I was riding bare back, of course, and, as the horse was so large, my legs were not long enough for my feet to get any hold under the his belly. I was thus in a precarious position that was getting worse by the minute. On and on we went, the horse now completely out of control, and traveling so fast that I could barely duck in time to escape overhanging tree limbs.

Then, as suddenly as when he had bolted, the horse began to slow down, and gradually came to a halt. After a minute or so he snorted in his familiar fashion, and swished his tale a time or two. I decided that the adventure was over, and very gently slid forward until I could snare the reins, then eased back to my position and turned the horse toward the job site. The better part of an hour passed before the site came into view.

That experience makes a good little story, but at the time I was very scared, more so than on any occasion before or since.

Except for that incident I had a most enjoyabe summer as a young Ax Man.

*** End

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Turpentine Still

In the late spring of 1942 our family moved from the house in the cemetery to an old house by a turpentine still, about two miles northeast of Chipley and a half mile or so north of the road that goes east from Chipley to Campbellton. We moved there because Holly, my stepfather, had taken a job chipping boxes for a Mr. Cook, who was either the owner or manager of the turpentine operations.  The house went with the job.

The turpentine operations involved the still and considerable timber acreage -  land heavily forested with pine trees, which at the time was given over to the production of the pine sap from which turpentine and its derivative products were made.  The turpentine was produced by the boiling and distillation of the pine sap, hence the term "still".

At some distance from the still was a group of simple frame houses that had been erected years before to house the timber workers and their families. These houses were quite small, were constructed of rough, unfinished lumber, and sat on wooden blocks cut from large trees. In place of normal windows the houses had rectangular openings in the walls. The "windows" were closed by pulling in wooden shutters which hung on hinges. There were no screens. It was to one of those houses that we moved.
Worker's house near the turpentine still.
Not long after we moved to this place a neighbor from across the street came over one Saturday night and got Holly to go over to his place to hear the new song that Roy Acuff was singing on the radio. The song was "WABASH CANNON BALL".
That man had a big Indian motorcycle which he kept parked on the front porch. That was the first motorcycle that I ever saw, and I was always fascinated by it. I can picture it now exactly as it appeared then.
Chipping boxes consisted of cutting slanted gashes on the face of pine trees so that their sap would run down the tree and into a retangular tin cup or "box" at the base of the tree. The proper name for the sap from pine trees is resin, but country folk called it "rosin".

The slanted gashes were made with a curved cutting tool designed for the purpose.  The first gashes on a tree would be made by chipping, using a short staff which had the cutting tool on one end, and a rounded solid steel weight on the other end, which helped to carry the chipping action through. Thus the term "chipping".   After the gashes had been made to a height almost to one's shoulder, it was necessary to use a long slender pole with the cutting tool attached to the end. This was called "pulling" boxes. Still, one in this line of work was said to be "chipping boxes".

Chipping Boxes
A worker engaged to chip boxes would be given a territory containing an estimated number of "boxes", and would be paid a certain salary per month to properly work the boxes. "Working the boxes" included placement of the boxes, chipping the gashes, collecting the rosin and depositing it in barrels, and assisting with the loading of the barrels onto flatbed trucks.  The worker operated alone and set his own schedule, but was subject to random inspection by the timber owner or his superintendent.   The average pay for such workers was around seven to ten dollars per week.

The first chipping of a tree began with single left and right slanted cuts about a foot above the ground.  Additional cuts would be made later, directly above the first ones. I don't recall how many cuts might be made in a particular season, but it took several years to obtain the full yield from a tree.

The worker would go through all of his territory chipping the gashes, then return to his starting point to begin emptying any boxes that may have filled from previous cuts, using a small paddle to scoop the rosin from the box into a large bucket which was flat on one side so as to be carried easily. When the bucket was filled it would be emptied into a huge barrel made of wood staves. When a barrel was filled it would be sealed with a wooden lid and a plug, a large flatbed truck would be driven around, two wooden pole runners would be laid from the ground to the truck body, and the barrels would be rolled up onto the bed of the truck.

When the truck was fully loaded the barrels would be taken to town and placed on a platform at the L & N railroad station for shipment to to a turpentine still, where the rosin (resin) would be boiled and distilled into the liquid called turpentine, a liquid spirits similar to kerosene. The distillation process yielded other products known as "naval stores", so called because in earlier times they were used as preservative and maintenance agents on wooden ships.

Loading platform at railroad station in Chipley, FL.
I often accompanied Holly on his rounds chipping boxes. He always took time as he went along to explain this or that to me, but I often had to run to catch up with him because he kept a lively pace except for a few minutes' rest every hour or so. In the early mornings we would now and then see a 'possum still hanging by its tail from a tree limb.

A Terpentine Still

Boiling down the sap.
(The Cook still vat was much larger)

Mr. Cook's operation differed from the usual in that his barrels of rosin were hauled drectly to his own still. One by-product of the operations at his still was much sought after by the families living in the company houses. That was the pine chips that fell into the cups during the chipping operation. It was not deemed economical to remove the chips during the collection of the rosin, so at the still they were "boiled down" along with the rosin and became impregnated with the hot liquid resin. Then they were dipped from the vat with a long-handled wire basket and dropped into neat little piles on a concrete slab where they were allowed to cool. A small handfull of such chips was an instant fire starter.
Mr. Cook paid his workers in company "scrip", which was paper money printed in various denominations under the company name. It resembled the play money used in the game of Monopoly. He also maintained a "commissary", which was a company-owned store stocked with a variety of groceries, staple goods, clothing and miscellaneous items. Whenever a new worker was hired, an account in his name was opened at the commissary, and groceries, clothing and other items purchased there by the worker were charged to his account which was payble in scrip. The worker could also exchange his scrip for cash.

I recall visiting the commissary once. It was housed in a rough frame building that was nestled in among the other buildings in the operations yard. The whole scene rather resembled the little village in the TV program "Border Town".

Once a week Mr. Cook would load a pickup truck with flour, meal, whiteside meat, potatoes, and one or two other staples, and drive around among the houses where the workers lived, dispensing the week's groceries to their wives. He would make a note of whatever the wives purchased, and add the amount to the worker's account back at the commissary. I recall his stopping at our house once. He ask Mama, "How much meat do you need?" Mama said, "Five pounds". He pulled out a big slab of whiteside, marked off a measure of it with a long knife and said, "That's about five pounds". Flour and meal were measured in similar eyeball fashion.

It was generally thought that Mr. Cook made those grocery runs through the workers' quarters as a courtesy to the wives, but I always felt that his reason for doing so was to insure that a worker's family at least had groceries before the balance of his pay was lost to liquor and other vices.

Our house, like the others, was nestled among tall pine trees. As warm weather approached, the scent of pine needles filled the air, and the smell of resin from the "still" permeated the area. The hoot owls began to make their peculiar calls in the evening toward sundown. As the wives began to prepare "supper", the tantalizing aroma of hoecakes, hashbrowns and whiteside meat would drift lazily through the quarters on the light evening breeze. It was an authentic 'down South' setting.

After the sun went down behind the tall pine trees it would get dark quickly, and in early summer the forest fairly sparkled with the pinpoint lights of "June bugs". On a moonlit night the tall pines would cast long shadows, and it was great fun to imagine Indians darting among the trees.
We lived near the turpentine still only a few months, but it was one of the most memorable periods of my childhood. I enjoyed almost total freedom, since my only chore was to keep plenty of wood on hand for the cook stove and fireplace.  I enjoyed wandering around the "still" area and observing operations, but I was always under the watchful eye of the workers, who saw to it that I did not get too close to the huge open vat that contained the boiling resin. As an added measure of insurance I had already meditated at length on the consequences of such carelesness.
The dynamo.

It was here that I first became aware of machinery, because of a small electric motor, called a "dynamo", that was used to start a large diesel engine. The dynamo was connected to the crank of the large engine, and turned the engine over until its cylinders compressed injected diesel fuel to the point that it was ignited by the heat generated by the compression.

Very interesting to one aged seven and a half.


James V. Lewis
 ca 1941-42

Sunday, July 8, 2012

What The South Is

Early in the spring of 1946, sometime before Easter, our family moved to an old house five or six miles south of Chipley, about a mile west of the road from Chipley to Panama City, and east across the swamp from the little community of Duncan where lived Uncle John and Aunt Nellie at the time, and where was located the Duncan elementary school to which I transferred, again in the fourth grade. Mama had separated from my stepfather the previous year, so the family now consisted of Mama and we kids.

The house into which we moved was an old wooden clapboard house, typical of the sort provided to tenant farmers. Mama rented the house for five dollars per month.

Soon after we moved there Mama acquired a milk cow. The cow was generally black in color, but with splotches of white. She gave a considerable amount of milk daily, and continued to do so for as long as we had her. There must be a knack to milking a cow. Mama could extract a pail of milk rather quickly, but I could never get anything to come out. I was hindered, perhaps, by not being on friendly terms with the cow's heels.

Rather than confining her to a fenced area, we generally let the cow roam the woods freely so that she might feed on the good grass available in the swamps and meadows. Mama tied a bell around her neck so that we could locate her. In the evening at milking time we could hear the bell tinkling and would usually find the cow not too far away from the house. One evening, however, we could not find her, though we searched and called until far into the night.

The next morning Mama roused me very early and sent me off to search for our missing cow. I was to go back down the lane and over to the Panama City highway, and look along the highway going south until I came to the first dirt road. If I hadn't found her by then I was to go down that road searching for her.

I started out that way but didn't find the old cow anywhere along the Panama City highway, so I turned down the first dirt road, which ran eastward from the highway and on around by the Peel place. I remember that because Mr. Peel had a pretty daughter.

After about a half mile, though, another dirt road butted into the one I was on. Mama hadn't said anything about that road, so I had to decide which way to go. The new road that I had run into ran to the south, and was borderd on both sides with a thick growth of tall pine trees, such that the limbs almost met each other over the road.

There is something about such a road in the South. It looked so inviting that I figured the cow probably went that way if she had got over this far, so I turned down it, not knowing where it led to but figuring that I could always come back if I didn't find her after a while. It was still early in the morning, for not more than an hour or two had passed since I started out. So I was in no particular hurry, but just ambled along, taking in everything as I went, because this was new territory to me. I had gone perhaps a mile down this road when I noticed an old shanty set back a little off the road. I made a mental note to check it out if I came back that way.

I continued on down the road, and after another mile or so came to a clearing on the east side. I stopped and looked out across it, and could see, at quite some distance, what appeared to be an expansive wooded area of different character than the pine woods along the road. So I went that way. When I reached the wooded area I could see that it was actually a very large meadow with an abundance of grass. The odds were pretty good that our cow was somewhere in that meadow.

Woods and meadows are a great place for contemplation, and daydreaming as well, for one is entirely alone and the mind can wander freely in all directions. So I roamed about here and there, fancying this or that circumstance according to how the mood hit me, and continued to be in no particular hurry. I passed a good many hours in this fashion.

After a while I began to get hungry, and could tell by the shadows made by the tree trunks that it was noon or later. That brought me back to reality and I decided that it might be best to look for the cow with a little more purpose. So I began to swing back and forth in a wide zigzag pattern, moving ever more deeply into the woods. I never had any doubt that the cow was somewhere in that meadow.

From time to time I would stop for a moment to listen for her bell. By and by I heard a faint tinkle. I went on, stopping more often now to listen. After a while the tinkling got loud enough that I could discern the direction from which it came. There was no doubt that it was the bell on our cow. Almost every cow bell has its own distinctive sound, and if you listen to one with a little application you come to recognize it when you hear it.

After about ten minutes or so of homing in on the bell I spotted the cow in a low grassy bottom. I had brought a halter with me, and after petting her for a few minutes I put it on her and began to pull her along. I wanted to get back home, now, and get something to eat.

I had more or less lost track of how I had got to where I was, but remembering which way the shadows fell when I was coming in, and making allowance for the sun being where it now was, I was able to backtrack generally in the proper direction. Within an hour or so I came back out to the road not too far from where I had left it. I could tell from the sun which way to turn down the road toward home. The idea come to me later on that if the sun had not been shining that day my odyssey might have been a bit more extended.

So we went on back toward home, but not making any great time. I didn't want to walk the cow too fast, so I let her set the pace and stop whenever she wanted to.

It was nearing sundown when we approached the shanty that I had passed in the morning. White wisps of smoke floated up from its chimney, which meant that the preparation of supper was in progress. As we got a little closer I could hear an old blues tune being played on what sounded like a steel guitar. We came up even with the shanty, and I could see an old colored man sitting on the floor of the porch, with his feet resting on the ground and a small flat top guitar laying on his lap.

I never could pass on by any performance on a guitar, so I swung off the road toward the porch and said "Howdy, Uncle." In those days one called an old colored man "Uncle", and he answered to it as though it were a title that he had spent his whole life working up to. He let off on his playing and said, "Yassuh, Cap'n."

I said to him that he sure was making good music, just like blue steel, and asked if I could listen to him play a little. He said "Yassuh, it sho' be pleas'n to me when white folks like my kind o' playin, and yo' sho' is welkum," and he started back playing again.

By that time I was in a position to examine his guitar more closely. The frets had been removed from the neck, and the strings raised by the placement of pennies under the bridge. The old darkey was using the broken off neck of a soda pop bottle, slipped over the middle finger of his left hand, to slide up and down the strings.

That was what gave the instrument the tonal characteristic that we around Chipley referred to in those days as a 'steel guitar' sound. Actually, it was the sound of a dobro guitar. The steel guitar is a similar but more sophisticated instrument, and produces a more elegant sound.

The old 'Uncle' was singing now, in a loose, rambling style, and was getting into some downright mean blues stuff. Every now and then he would twist the bottle neck slightly one way or the other, producing a somewhat minor chord sound, and press it downward a little now and then to warp the ends of the notes up higher. At the end of every verse or so he would slide the bottle neck slightly back and forth over its home position, producing a wavy, mournful sound. Taken all together, he was pulling a lot of real music out of that old guitar.

He played a good many different tunes, all of them being what we called 'blues'. Every once in a while he would look off into the woods across the road, and it was as though his mind was not with us then but had gone back to some Saturday night shindig a hundred years ago. At those times my mind sort of went along with him.

After a while he closed the session on a long, fade out note, and said "Lawd, Cap'n, dis ol' man done played out, but I'se sho enjoyed yo' comp'ny." That was his way of telling me that I had best be getting on home. I had no idea as to what the time might be, but I could tell by the feel of the night that it was getting very late.

I knew that I had dilly-dallied around too much, and Mama would be worrying about where I was. So I wrapped the cow's halter rope around my wrist and set off down the road, considerably more in earnest now. The cow seemed to be in a more objective mood as well, because she wasn't too interested in munching along the way any more. I kept us moving steadily forward, but not too fast for the cow.

It was quite some distance back to the dirt road from which I had turned off to the present one, and from there I still had to get over to the Panama highway and back up it to the road that cut over to the lane that went in to the house. It was almost pitch black, and no cars passed us except one or two after we had turned up on the Panama highway.

Finally, after what seemed like about forty miles of hoofing it, we turned up the lane to the house. When we got to the top of the rise I could hear Mama calling, "Co o o o ah Cow". I knew that she was putting out a sounder for me, and doing it that way because the sound carried farther. So I answered her back in the same manner. She stopped then, because she knew that I was on my way in.

She came outside when I got to the house, and we put the cow in her stall. Mama said that she had better milk her, because she had gone a day and night without it and it wasn't good to let a cow that was giving milk go like that. I stayed with her until she finished the milking, and then we went in and she warmed up some supper for me. That was about the best supper I ever ate.

Though I was tired, and very glad to be back home with my feet under the table, something from that little adventure has remained with me over the years:

If anyone wants to know what is the South, just take them down a dirt road through tall pine trees one evening about sundown, with the pine scent floating lightly upon soft breezes, to where an old colored Uncle sits playing the blues on a five-dollar guitar.

That is the South.




Sunday, April 15, 2012

A Barn Raising

Yesterday (the 14th of April, 2012) was a beautiful Spring day.  I set in place the last stringer (joist) on my daughter's pool deck.  This construction work in the outdoors, and at this particular time of year, reminded me of a similar situation some sixty-eight years ago

At the time my family lived about twenty-five miles southwest of Chipley, Florida, on Mr. Dempsey Brock's sharecropper place.  It was located three or four miles south of Hinson's Cross Roads, on the road to Millers Ferry over Holmes Creek.  Our house was at the north end of a large, elliptical-shaped lake known, appropriately, as Brock Pond, and was accessed by a lane up from the main road

Over across the main road, and about a quarter of a mile eastward from where the lane from our house met the road, lived the Ben Body family.  Ben and his wife were about the same age as Mama, and had four children,  three girls and a boy, the boy being the youngest.  The oldest girl was a few years older than me, while the next oldest was about my age, and the three of us chummed around a lot, particularly down around the big pond where we had our own private hiding places.
Ben's daddy was dead.  His mother was a very old woman, but preferred to live by herself in the old family house across the road from Ben.  I remember it because it really was an old farm house, and there were lots of old things in it.

Ben had built with his own hands the house in which he and his family lived, and in the spring of the year that we moved to the Brock place he set about to build a barn.  He had already had all the lumber cut from some of his own timber.

So one Saturday morning in early April my stepfather Holly took Mama and we children, and went over to help Ben put up the framing for his barn.

As we approached his place the aroma of freshly brewed coffee floated out toward the road to meet us.  Beyond their house, and over to the right, we could see Ben and his family seated at a long table near the site where the barn was to be erected, so we went on over and joined them, taking seats at the table while Ben's wife set out large tin mugs of the hot, black coffee which had been brewed from freshly roasted beans.
The sun was just then rising above the trees, and cast long shafts of light through the lingering morning haze.  The air tingled with the brisk freshnesss of spring, and the trees rustled softly under the caress of a light breeze faintly scented with the fragrant bouquet of a dozen different aromas.  In this atmosphere an hour or so was spent in casual conversation between the grownups, while the children concocted certain adventures to be pursued during the day.

At length, after the social amenities had been sufficiently observed, Holly and Ben set to work, the first objective being to lay out the corners so that the building would be square.  We kids all watched with keen interest but could not fathom the intricacies of the method, and were greatly relieved when Holly and Ben announced the completion of the task to their mutual satisfaction.
Next, they commenced to set the blocks upon which would rest the heavy sills that would support the floor joists.  These blocks were about two feet in diameter, and had been cut from large oak trees.  One was placed at each corner, with three or four being placed between each corner block along the sill lines, and another three or four along a line down the middle for the sill upon which the floor joists would be joined.

Then they began placing the heavy sills upon the blocks, which was time consuming because each one had to be notched at each end so that all could be securely joined together.  And so they continued, taking a short break now and then, until the sills were placed and all the floor joists had been joined.
By this time Mama and Ben's wife had prepared a sumptuous dinner, so work was put aside for an hour or two while we feasted, and Holly and Ben enjoyed an extended rest while they discussed the finer points of getting a successful crop to harvest.  In due time the subject was exhausted and they returned to the task at hand.

We kids, our interest in the project having waned somewhat, turned to our little adventures, taking time now and then to run down to the road to see whether an automobile might come by.  And so we passed a pleasant and carefree afternoon while Holly and Ben labored diligently on the barn.
By sundown all the framing and bracing had been joined, and the little structure was declared sufficiently secure in its standing to await the continuance of the work on the morrow.

So ended a beautiful day, and after a final serving of hot, black coffee, the children having the option of lighter refreshments, we said good night to Ben and his family, and in the dusky twilight ambled leisurely down the road and back up the lane to our house.

Over the years I have often recalled the occasion just described, for it was an experience reminiscent of pioneer days, and for me it was the very last opportunity for such.

 The event described above took place in April, 1944, about three months before my tenth birthday, and about two months before the Allied landing on Normandy (D-Day).