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.