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The beginning of a series of short stories, called “Back Home.”
(Compiled as told by his children and grandchildren.)
written by Robbie L. Rogers
Papaw, my white headed grandfather was a very important person; he was to me and especially to the many country people he served as a rural-route mail man in Arkansas. He treated his job with respect and care knowing he was delivering mail and the latest news to those who could get nothing otherwise; and, his fine government job allowed us to have more than enough during the hard times of the great depression years. To us Papaw's patrons lived in far away places, some as remote as twenty miles. In those days many did not have electricity and drove only horse and wagon, few had money for the extravagance of automobiles. For that matter the expensive vehicles were not often able to traverse the muddy back roads. Papaw would proudly bring goodies home from grateful families along his rural mail route. They gave him pies, smoked ham, sausage, venison, cat fish, or all matter of objects which he would triumphantly display or eat with relish on Sunday.
Papaw put off getting a car as long as he could. The Post Office finally threatened him with the loose of his route if he did not accept progress and change to motorized delivery. He came home from his first day of delivering with the new car feeling dejected. His old horse had known the route from box to box and he was free to either watch the birds and trees or sleep; quite a deference from that to manhandling the cursed automobile that seemed to have a mind of its own in following deep ruts in muddy roads.
Papaw‘s first car had candles for head lights. On long days he came home late squinting through at the night through the measly candle light that illuminated mere feet ahead of him. Often the country roads he traveled were virtually tree covered tunnels into an enchanted world. Now he had to grapple with the unwieldy car. The back roads were always horrendous with little or no maintenance, many times he had to be pulled from huge mud holes with ruts so deep you would have the sensation the car would soon turn over. His last car to use in mail delivery was a black 1941 Chevrolet.
Occasionally Papaw allowed us to go on his route. We would bring back terrapins turtles or such from our exciting trips. Plenty of wildlife romped along the edges of the road, fields and woods as he delivered mail. With his automobile he had to hurry and contend with an ever expanding route, never stopping long to talk or enjoy the things he had grown so fond of. The car made his route grow even longer and more demanding. Where once he serviced less than a hundred families progress soon pushed him into delivering mail to hundreds of new families that he did not know, traveling almost one hundred miles on some days. Nevertheless, he was much loved and his influence expanded with his route size. Yet, he lamented about not being able to get to know all his customers like he used to.
Friends and relatives alike came to visit Papaw and Mamaw on Sunday. Some came from faraway places like Hornerville and Carro's Corner, a long distance in those days. The boys made home made ice cream and ate watermelon when we could get it from Papaw's garden. The men stayed busy playing Checkers, Rook, Carrom, Pitch, Horse Shoes, just anything to stay out of the women's hair. They played right up until the dinner time. The woman always pouted because the men would not stop until the games were over. We boys stood around watching the men as they made each move or played their hand triumphantly. Someday we hoped to play with them, although we sensed that day would never come until we became them, and they sadly were gone.
Mamaw, Claudia Lou Sommers Barnett, Papaw’s wife was a very forgiving woman, never angry at the "boys" as she called them, fussing only out of duty or unless she caught them in the mischief of stealing special dill pickles as we were always want to do. I suspected there was always a grin underneath that stern face when we were caught. She made enough dill pickles to feed all us kids and a neighborhood too. It was just a game, to sneak and get them when she was not supposedly looking.
She loved her family and always carried photos of her children around in her purse for two reasons. To show anybody who asked about them and to keep from losing them in case of a fire at home; but, alas one day her purse was stolen while on a trip into town, the only crime we knew to tell about. She was proud of her kitchen with its massive iron and nickel plated Mayflower wood burning stove and an indoor pump which flowed freely into the big sheet steel sink. It was her territory and she made the light green walls and cabinets shine with elbow grease from her constant washing which she carried out even during preparation for the robust meals.
Papaw wore khaki twill pants with shirts and suspenders, and one piece underwear, or BVD's. He shaved with a Regal straight razor looking into the kitchen window, dabbing himself with a styptic stick to relive bleeding, although often he would resort to sticking paper all over his face because he cut himself so often the styptic would not work fast enough. It was a good indication as to how his disposition for the day would be.
When the wagon came around with ice for the ice box Papaw taught us how to find the free chunks of ice to gnaw on that hide beneath the edges of the canvas covering the big blocks the man delivered. What a treat it was during the hot summer months, especially when we were forbidden to hike to a nearby creek for swim.
Papaw never allowed us to drink coffee, which he dearly loved, because it would make us "ride stumps," something we could never understand. He felt he must set a good example, teaching us the correct way to do things, like eating sunny side up eggs, insisting we take off the top of the yoke, sopping it up with a piece of bread. Then he put butter on it, smashing the entire concoction with a fork. His favorite was Mamaw's cornbread. Sometimes he ate it alone while drinking milk. He always said grace at the table, "Father, thank you for this food, bless a portion of it for the use of our body, feed our soul on Your love, in Christ's name we pray, Amen."
We begged him to tell stories when supper was done, but he was always willing and we gathered around him in anticipation. He would never tell stories in the house. The men and women were there and the crowd of youngsters, although very quite, would sometimes erupt with laughter or screams causing quite a stir. Papaw's stories were all different, though mostly about Lucas, who was white and his best friend, Bones, who was black. The two healthy youngsters, age 11 and 12, grew up in south Arkansas. They were not aware of the problems that existed between races elsewhere, there were not enough people in their part of the rural south for them to know the difference, and their world was their own anyway.
Papaw also told stories about the Land of Jotunheim where animals talked, music was in the air, leprechauns danced and magic was all around. Years later I realized many of his tales and beliefs about the little people and the circular woods he called Jotunheim came from his Irish traditions. Sometimes he told ghost stories too, about haunted houses and spooky things; however, the ghosts were always boys dressed up in sheets, wind blowing, or something explainable, like a Hoot Owl in the night or a playful Raccoon who had found his way inside an attic. There were also stories of cowboys and Indians, the Circle "C" ranch with cook Sing-Lo and Billy West, the owner, and of the good guys fighting the bad guys, always making things better.
Papaw's stories taught us the real value of life and of being a good person, faithful to our beliefs and strong in convictions. His stories gave us special insights in the way others lived and thought. His imagination taught us that life was not always fair, but if we struggled with our circumstances and kept our convictions we could do no better, and it was about all God could expect of us.
Papaw never chewed tobacco or smoked but he often ate his favorite peppermint candy and a lump of fresh coconut together when he could get it. He usually sat reading in his comfortable green cane-backed rocking chair with the big arms. He especially devoured the Saturday Evening Post, folding it lengthwise into columns as he read with us at his feet waiting. He also loved the Grit newspaper funnies, reading them to us after he was through, although sometimes he fell asleep, snoring, we sneaked away so as not to disturb him; he did tend to be a bit grouchy if we waked him. Mamaw warned us to let him sleep, for he needed it.
The big porch went across the entire front of the brown clapboard house; but, he always sat in the screened-in half of it. It was properly decorated with Mamaw's ferns, several swing seats and gliders and flowers during the warmer times of the year, a happy place for many a child. Sometimes we would sit on his lap, or his good leg; but, when his leg started shaking we would have to get down, for he was getting old. We sat close to him so he could pat us on our head or shoulder, reaching down for each one, neighbor kids and all. Sometimes he would stand to impart excitement during a particular exciting story, although he never stood very long because he needed to rest from his hard work. If the weather was nice we would go to the big "story stump" in the back yard, gathering around like a theater, patiently waiting for him to begin.
There was a haphazard brick wall running from the right side of the backyard of the house. It ran to the chicken yard and pigpen, on top of it ran a homemade trough carrying water into and out of little dams to a series of watering tanks and pots for the live stock, including the barn which stood nearby. The imaginative contraption was fed from the rusty old hand pump which used to be the only source for water, in fact it tasted better than what now came out of the pump inside the kitchen. The barn was to the right of the brick wall, grape vines, asparagus fern, and Snow-on-the-mountain flowers bloomed along the pathway beside it, taking comfort from the cool water spillage. He had fruit trees in the chicken yard, next to it billy goats were kept.
The women, including neighbors, gathered the fruit, peeling them for canning. He kept billy goats around the trees except for the times when the women were there to keep us kids out, but we knew how to outsmart the ornery critters and had our belly full of peaches, plums, and apples when we wanted to.
On the left was a small fish pond in the backyard, there Papaw kept his gold fish, and once unbeknownst to him a catfish and a snapping turtle that Uncle Larry placed there. It was full of big Lilly pads snails and cat-tails, plenty deep enough so the fish could survive the winter months. The two outsiders that Uncle Larry had introduced soon ate Papaw's prized gold fish. One day Papaw and Mamaw had a fat catfish for supper, marveling at how it managed to get in there all by itself.
We loved to dangle our feet in the cool water and nearly ever kid in the neighborhood eventually fell in the fish pond, sometimes on purpose. We loved to watch the fish swim as we sat underneath the big weeping willow tree, peering into the water. One day Uncle Larry stuck his feet into the pond forgetting about the old snapping turtle who seemed to have disappeared completely under the leaves and lily pads. Suddenly the turtle seemed to recognize a special toe, and it latched on Larry’s until Papaw saved the day by prying it loose.
His fish pond and the garage was about the only thing we were not supposed to get into or if we did we would incur his wrath, and he certainly had that when needed. He protected his territory like an old mother hen with chicks and we knew it. On special occasions he would consent to give us short tours into his private domain in the garage, showing off his prized wood lathe and the hundreds of hand-made billy clubs. He made them from the select wood he received from mail carriers, such as himself, from all over the world. He probably had the finest collection of exotic wood in all of Arkansas without knowing it.
I suspected he also had some prized whiskey hidden away in his garage, being from Scott-Irish decency. Sometimes when he came out of the garage there seemed to be a faint odor which was not quite masked by his peppermint candy. Although Mamaw never let on I suspected she knew of his special stash. Papaw was always the boss around the house because that was the way she wanted it; but, she would never have allowed whiskey in the house as their stern religious beliefs would not permit it. Even though the county we lived in was dry I am sure that some of the good thinking patrons on Papaw's route saw to it that he was well supplied for his meager consumption.
Papaw's farm was close to the eastern settlement. The neighbors close by placed their kitchen waste in buckets on posts behind their homes. Papaw would collect the pig "slop" for his pigs. It was considered a honor to tag along carrying the empty bucket as he poured the rank smelling stuff inside until we could no longer handle the weight of it. He would "help" us carry the bucket until it was filled. Then we carried it home and watched the fruition of our labors eagerly become consumed by the gleeful pigs. To this day I have a warm feeling when I smell the putrid odor of pig slop.
Papaw always kept a cow or two and we loved going with him to collect the milk. He squirted milk directly from the cow's tit into our mouth, something Mamaw did not approve of. Usually he squirted it into the milk pail and used a cup to dip us out a big gulp, leaving a thick white mustache from the rich cream.
Aunt Marie always ran from the cows and Papaw would fuss at her for being afraid of what he considered to be such docile animals. He could never understand why she felt as though they were chasing her. Often he would use the horse to plow his crops. I once attempted to guide the furrows behind the leather reigns feeling the power I was harnessed behind as it pulled me in the way it wanted to go. His horses were usually very slow unless Cousin Wayne was on the back. That being the case they would often run under the big Hickory tree limbs knocking him off. One particularly old handsome horse was part Clydesdale with big feet. “Bigfoot” could pull the heaviest loads we had ever seen. Papaw bought him to pull the rocks into the gully trying to stop the erosion after the hard "gully washing" rains. He often hitched up "big foot" for us, simply telling us to be careful. We raced away leaving him smiling at the barn. His docile old horse pulled the home made manure sleigh he allowed us to use at a steady clip steering clear of the deep gullies where snakes were often hiding in the briar patches; we peered into them safely from the sled, expecting to see one any moment, but never did.
Papaw raised rabbits, chicken, ducks, geese, cows, and pigs, butchering and selling the meat. He allowed us to have pets among the menagerie but never to witness the killing part. He sent us away, far enough not to hear the squealing animals or see the tears of anguish I know he shed as he slaughtered them. He placed all the butchered hogs and smoked meat parts for both storage and smoking into his smoke house. The women stuffed home made cloth casings with sausage, adding brown sugar to some, occasionally giving us lumps of sugar while we watched longingly.
Papaw was a good man, a man commanding the respect of hundreds of adults, and a special friend to many children, spending a lot of cherished time with us all. As good as he was he also had a high temper and a lot of faults, but if you do enough good, as he did, the bad is short remembered, as well as the good is long. When he died the preacher said the little children always waved to Papaw as he drove down the street, and any one who took time to love the little children was special, such was Papaw.
My heart seemed to rip open as we rode in what seemed to be a mile-long funeral procession though the rural Arkansas country side to Papaw's final resting place. I was amazed at how all the cars stopped and the people got out, with heads bowed, and their hats in their hand to show their respect for Papaw as we passed. Back then people always knew who had died and who was being buried.
No one could ever take Papaw's place, and the times he belonged to are gone forever. As I walk the hills of my childhood days I remember, wishing we could have brought more of him and his life style into today’s turmoil. Today our very heartbeat can be taken away in a moment by the drug crazed society we founded during the same progress my grandfather tried so hard to forestall. The wars, the lose of life, the destruction of families and the values he imparted are now all but gone. Along with them a little white haired kindly old gentleman who simply only wanted to ride behind his wagon delivering mail to those who loved him and took the time to listen to his stories about the good in life, they too are all gone.
Such is progress I suppose, but I wonder as I walk, wishing for what used to be. I wonder what could have been if there had been no progress and no wars. I wonder what it would be like if we could still walk beside kindly white haired gentlemen who loved the little folk.
Yes, I wonder? I pick up a slender stick and whittle a sharp point on it like Papaw taught us to do and I think of the past. Sticking the sharp point into an over ripe red persimmon I lift it over my shoulder and fling it at the trunk of the tree with a splat! In glee I walk on... remembering. I always suspected Papaw turned a blind eye from some of the antics Wayne and I often did. As he got older I think he too got pleasure from letting us get by with things that others in the past would not have been allowed to. Like to time we snuck out his old 8 gauge shotgun along with two shells. One for me and one for Wayne. Wayne shot first and it fell apart in two pieces. I was scared we had destroyed it. Instead Wayne said that was what happened any time you shot the cursed things. It knocked me plum on my rump, but I held on to the two pieces triumphantly.
I see kids running through the large pine trees and I remember when Wayne or I used to climb up to the top of the trees when they were saplings while the other one would chop it down, enjoying the thrilling ride down, but not the abrupt stop when it hit the ground. Though we never got hurt it was a wonder. I look across the hills and I can still feel the stomach ache from eating green apple from Papaws trees.
What will happen with the youngsters of today? They are living in a time with the greatest potential of mankind and yet it is also the most dangerous. How will they rise to the occasion. My mother told of the time she saw her first airplane. She ran and hide under the porch of the old farm house on Alice Street. Today like it is everywhere, the population has exploded. Even though the house still stands, there are no pastures or barnyards, no fruit trees, no fields of corn, or even a gully to hide and play cowboys and Indians in.
Part of my character came from places and times such as I now hear echoing in my ear as I look at what once was, trying to overlook what has happened to my paradise of the past. What would Papaw think of what progress birthed? In many ways I am glad he missed seeing it happen. I turn away. This was his world and this is mine and there are many good stories and things to tell my grandchildren. I owe a lot to Papaw. A lot of people who still remember him and his ways do too. He was from another time and another place, but he lives on in our hearts. Those of us who remember still.