Story telling must have been hereditary in our clan for Aunt Flora, Mama’s older sister and Doug’s mama, told outlandish yarns as lessons to warn Doug and me to be careful. For example, when she found us playing in the weeds around an old abandoned chimney at the edge of the pasture, she cautioned us about snakes that lived in the loose bricks of chimneys. She told us a story about a girl near our age that had gotten into the habit of eating her dinner outside in the corner of the chimney. The mother thought nothing was unusual about the little girl’s eating outside to escape the heat of the kitchen. The father, on the other hand, questioned why his daughter was always absent from the dinner table. One day he followed her to see what these outings were all about. He caught the little girl sitting cross-legged with her plate in her lap sharing her meal with a snake. She would take a bite from her spoon and give the snake a bite from the same spoon. The father, being either outraged that she was sharing good food with a snake or fearful for his daughter’s life (Aunt Flora never made that point clear), took a hoe and killed the snake. The little girl became ill soon afterward and died herself within a week.
Aunt Flora never explained how the story related to the dangers of us playing around the old chimney. Maybe she forgot to change the ending of an earlier story meant to invoke sympathy for the death of the little girl and her friend the snake. Nevertheless, Doug and I discussed the story at length and concluded that the little girl died from snake poison because she didn’t wipe the spoon before she took a bite after letting the snake have his bite. That the moral could have been that the little girl’s death could have been caused from a broken heart over her daddy killing her snake never occurred to us boys, though we wondered more than once how a snake with no lips could eat from a spoon. It really didn’t matter much because neither of us planned to share our dinner with a snake anyhow.
Mama made up stories to answer the endless questions posed by the inquisitive mind of a five-year old boy. Like the time I asked where knives, forks, and spoons came from. Without batting an eye Mama told me that God made them and put them in a freshwater spring where man could find them; taking these God-made originals, man simply made copies and sold them at the store. Her answer satisfied the question but I suspected even then that no matter what object I asked about I would have gotten a similar answer. Nevertheless, children in the South were taught to respect their elders by saying Sir and Ma’am and never question what we were told. Consequently, I never questioned the forks-from-the-spring explanation. However, if she ever saw doubt on my face after one of her explanations, she’d always remind me that if she told me that a rooster dipped snuff, then I should check under his wing. That’s where I would find his can of Tube Rose.
Wondering why a rooster would prefer one brand of snuff to another, Doug and I decided to compare Tube Rose to Garrett – the two brands Aunt Flora dipped. We collected enough for comparison by shaking out a whole lot of discarded jars and cans, went into the woods behind the beehives, and filled our lips – Doug dipped one brand and I the other. We learned that both burned our mouths like all get-out and the juice of either should never be swallowed. During the lesson we got dizzy then sick, real sick. We stayed sick until supper.
Most countrywomen in Sand Flat, Mis’sippi, dipped snuff and Aunt Flora’s high usage made up for those that didn’t. The two jars she bought at the first of the month never lasted. God bless her heart, she tried to stretch her snuff until the end of the month but never quite made it. Instead of driving twenty-five miles to town, she’d drive the shorter five miles to the store in Long Creek to buy enough snuff to last until her regular first-of-the month visit to town. The Long Creek store opened from eleven in the morning to one in the afternoon weekdays so to get her snuff and have time to cook dinner, she had to drive fast.
If Aunt Flora went anywhere Doug and I would beg and whine until she let us ride with her. She wasn’t a bad driver but riding with her had drawbacks. Sitting on the passenger side opposite the driver offered a front and side view of road side scenes and plenty of cool air, but the risk of the door opening on a curve was very real – the car door latch was only reliable in that it reliably didn’t stay latched. Rounding a sharp curve could cause the door to open, sending an unsuspecting passenger sliding off the car seat and into the ditch. The back seat had only a side view, was hot, and had the risk of snuff juice blowing back in your face when Aunt Flora chose to spit. The ride could be called an adventure I suppose, maybe down right dangerous, but Doug and I went anyway. Obviously, we fought over the right to sit in the front seat.
We didn’t know it then but the passengers were not the only ones taking risks during those trips for snuff. We learned the ultimate lesson when Aunt Flora died of cancer before she reached fifty. Except for that one time dip in back of the beehives neither Doug nor I ever used tobacco.
But we did help each other with chores. Doug and I learned early-on that the two of us working together could finish a job quicker leaving us time to play; except for the one time I helped him run up their cows.
Our cows were trained compared to their cows. Towards evening our cows would eat their way to the middle of the pasture and begin moving slowly towards the gate that opened to the lot containing the holding pens and barn. My job was to open the gate and count the cows and check their general condition as they walked along the fenced passage to the lot. An easy chore taking about 30 minutes. However, the cows belonging to Doug and Aunt Flora never came to the barn without being driven. Doug had to search their pasture for each cow and drive it to the barn and pen it up before going back to get another one. Doug didn’t have any more cows than we did but getting them into the barn took him hours every night. One evening after I finished penning up our cows, Doug said if I wanted to, we could ride Earl bare back down in the pasture to get his cows.
Doug knew that I would jump at the chance because I had wanted to ride that donkey ever since they got him. Doug wanted to ride him too but knew Aunt Flora would say no because the donkey didn’t belong to them but they did have possession and that was good enough for Doug. He had claimed ownership ever since Aunt Flora had caught the donkey eating her flowers out next to the road and had Doug put him in a stall to feed him until the rightful owner came for him. After agreeing to help Doug with his cows and ensuring that Aunt Flora was busy preparing supper, we snuck down to the barn to get Earl. Tying a rope to his halter we mounted Earl and rode to the pasture to search for cows. Doug rode in front (after all Earl was his donkey) and I rode behind holding onto his waist.
All went well until Doug decided we should go faster. Doug lifted and pulled forward on the rope-rein to signal Earl to go faster. Earl continued at his leisurely trot. Doug hollered at Earl, whipping him, and calling him names. Earl acted like he didn’t understand a word Doug had said. For that matter I didn’t understand most of the words Doug called Earl but I had heard Papa use some of them under his breath when he was mad. Desperate, Doug told me to kick Earl in the flanks with my heel to try to speed him up. I did but I shouldn’t have.
I kicked the donkey in the flanks, Earl jumped, dropped to his knees throwing Doug over his head, bucked me off his read-end, kicking me in the belly and chest while I was in mid-air, and tromped Doug under his hoofs as he ran towards God-knows where. We never saw Earl again.
And if getting hurt wasn’t enough, Aunt Flora whipped Doug for losing the donkey and Mama whipped me for being with Doug when he lost the donkey. I never helped Doug go for his cows after that one time.
But I do tell everybody the story of how we lost Earl the donkey during the great cow roundup. My passion is telling stories about my childhood adventures with Doug and about my life with Mama, Aunt Flora, and Papa. Storytelling may well be hereditary in our family; I had to have gotten it from somewhere.
The author is Mr. Ellis Ulmer Speed, a 1970 engineering graduate of Mississippi State University. He currently works for the Defense Technology Security Administration in Alexandria, Virginia.
His e-mail address is Ellis.Speed@dtsa.policy.osd.mil
© 2003, Ellis Ulmer Speed, All Rights Reserved