Big Nickel

Staying at my grandpa’s in south Georgia was a whole ‘nother world.  In fact, I don’t think you can get there from her.  You got to go somewhere else first and start all over.  I remember as a kid not wanting to go but once there I didn’t want to leave.

The house needed paint, it always did.  I don’t think it was ever painted at all.  Yes, they had electricity on the pole next to the house, but not in it.  Kerosene lamps and a wood burning stove were kept company inside the house by an ice box, with the light green paint peeling and curling off from age..  An old black man would come by once a week with his mule and wagon, selling blocks of ice covered in sawdust for twenty five cents.  Grandpa musta been a big spender ’cause he always got two blocks and gave the man an extra nickel if he would carry them into the house.

Sunday afternoons we would crunch up one of those blocks and churn our own ice cream.  Granny would bring a bottle of vanilla extract on the porch to add to the mix.

Coming from Jacksonville my brothers and I would sit in the back of the car and make long faces.  Almost as if we were being sent to reform school.  Grandpa didn’t have a TV.  They would open the kitchen window, place the radio in the sill and plug it up the fourway outlet on the light pole.  The kerosene lamp on the kitchen table would light up the room and make our silhouettes  dance on the walls behind us, as we acted out the action scenes when we listened to Gunsmoke.  Pow, pow, pow!  Milton Berle and Jack Benny would make us laugh, they were so funny.  I always felt sorry for poor old Rochester.  When George told Gracie to say “Goodnight,” well, then it was time for us to hug and kiss everyone goodnight too and off to bed.

Every room in my grandparents house was filled beds, wall to wall, our mattress slid out from under Granny and Granpa’s bed.   Even the living room was filled with beds.  The kitchen table was a 10 foot long picnic table.  During meal times, to Granny’s chagrin, Grandpa would say that it was filled with “assholes and elbows.” The windows were almost always wide open, even in winter.  The screens were mostly missing in action and hadn’t been seen in years.  Granny had indoor plumbing alright, a hand pump mounted on the counter with a broken handle.  Grandpa kept telling Granny that he was gonna fix it one of these days, he added that she didn’t need to remind him every six months neither.

When it rained, every pot in the kitchen was put to use and a couple of buckets from the barn.  I remember everyone saying they sure like to listen to the sound of rain on a tin roof.  I  often wondered where all those people were when we needed an extra hand with those buckets and pots.

After supper, on nights when we weren’t listening to the radio, we gathered on the front porch.  Granny would nod and Grandpa would wave his pipe at anyone that went past the house while he and she rocked back and forth.  My brothers and I had already had our bath in the tub on the back porch, so we weren’t allowed off the swing.  We would twist and turn, pinching and slapping each other in the back of the head when no one was looking.  Granny always played like she was deaf, but I think that was just an act.  Without a glance backwards Granny would swing her switch if she heard the slightest commotion.  It didn’t matter to her if she got the right one or not, far as she was concerned, justice was served and well deserved.

Without much coaxing, Granpa would draw on his pipe and tell us a story, while Granny rocked back and forth at the same even pace for what seemed like hours at a time, ignoring us as she shelled her butter beans or snapped her green beans for tomorrows supper.

Granpa’s stories always started out like this “I remember one time, I won’t ever forget…….”  Then he’d tell us a tale like about the time his brother owned a gas station, got robbed by a man with an axe that killed him.  He told us how when the suspect was caught, he hitched up his mule and wagon and rode every day to the courthouse in Mt. Vernon to witness the goings on.  Then he told us about driving his model A truck down the road about 25 miles to Reidsville, to the state prison to watch the execution.  Granpa’s stories were always good, we didn’t want him to be interupted, we sat on the edge of the swing, all ears.  If someone drove by the house, on their to or back from town, we’d hear a loud “Ahh ooooga!”  Granpa would wave at them with his pipe in his hand, without drawing a breath or a never you mind, kept on with his story.

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When he got to the part when the warden hit the switch on the ‘lectric chair, Granpa would reach over to the light pole by the porch and jiggle the plug so that the outside light would blink off an on.  We felt like we were there with Grandpa on the front row, watching Uncle Wiley’s killer get his.

The cemetery was just down the street.  The Sharpe’s Family Cemetery been there since 1804.  My brothers and I helped with the clean up around the old graves, doing our part.  No one questioned why we did it or tried to duck out of it.  Kids being kids we would just have to read the names on every tombstone and check out the dates.  When Grandpa told us a story about this one or that one, we felt like we knew just who he was talking about.  After the clean up, members of the family would gather in the shade and we would eat fried chicken and potato salad with Granny’s fresh baked bread.  We would sit on Grandpa’s wagon to slice up a few watermelons for dessert, then we would leave the rinds laying in the wagon till he fed them to the pigs.

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“Eat the meat and pickle the rind, save the seeds to planting time.”  I think Grandpa had a rhyme for everything.

Granpa had a Model A truck but  I think he was too tight to spring for the gas.  The truck would hold three people up front if you squeezed together real tight.  He’d say “Aw it’s alright, everybody’s kin.”  I soon discovered the real reason he took the wagon as we followed the old clay wagon ruts to town.  If he chose the wagon instead of the truck, Granny wouldn’t go.

“Ma,” lived just down the road.  I suppose she was somebody’s ma, but she wasn’t any kin to us.  Just a neighbor that had gotten on up in her years.  Her man had died and the kids had been gone so long that no one even remembered what they looked like.

Ma would come up to the house every other day or so to chat and spit snuff, rocking with Granny and to help her shell peas.  When she left she’d take a bowl of peas or fresh cut okra, maybe a few ears of corn, ya see, Grandpa had this garden in a field next to the house.  This garden was for anyone in the family that needed fresh vegtables.  Corn, tomatoes, okra, butter beans, crowder peas, field peas, yellow neck squash, no charge, help yourself.  Neighbors like old Ma would come around and Granpa treated them like family too.  Ma would always say, “I’m gonna pay ya’ll for these veggies, I surely will.  I got that money that Daddy left me hid and when I dig it up, I’ll sure see to it that you get you yours.”

When we loaded up the wagon to ride to town, Granny would stay home, she didn’t want to make that long dusty trip in the hot sun, sitting on that hard bench seat.  We stopped at old Ma’s and she would come out wearing her Sunday bonnet and the floweredee apron she saved to wear for when company come over.  She would reach into the pockets of her apron and hand Grandpa the coupons she’d been saving that she got from the mailman.  All cut out and stacked, wrapped with a rubber band,  like they was worth a small fortune.  She would hand these to my gramps and say, “Here Mr. Groves, I want to pay my way.”  To my brothers and I this seemed just like real money.  Maybe she had one in there for a free pizza.  We didn’t stop to think that there wasn’t any place to get a pizza for 50 miles or more.

Ma would get us to help her load up straw baskets of clean laundry that we would drop off at the church.  She washed and folded laundry for half the congregation.  Anytime time you went past Ma’s house there was always a half dozen sheets on the clothesline, flapping in the wind.

Granpa always loaded a couple pitchforks full of hay into the back of  his wagon.  When Ma climbed aboard we gladly let her have our seat so that we could roll and toss around in the hay, chiggers be damned.

Granpa told us that he would pay us for our work when we got to town so that we could have some money to spend.  The only rule was, we could only spend it something to eat, like candy or shaved ice.  He didn’t want Granny to know he was spoiling us rotten.  When we got to town, Ma wanted to give me a “Yankee dime” for carrying her baskets of laundry to the church.  She said she knew they was heavy, when I looked at her pitiful face, she had snuff running down both corners of her mouth.  I looked at Granpa to see if it’s alright to take money from her, he grinned and nodded his okay.  I asked her just what was a “Yankee dime?”  Grandpa had just given me a “big nickel,” (a quarter) and I was eager for more.  When I held my hand out, palm up, she just bent over and hugged me and planted a big old kiss, right on my cheek.  I could feel the snuff smearing across my face.  Granpa started laughing, he could tell I was surprised.  I felt like I had been tricked.  So a kiss is a “Yankee dime.”  I got to remember that, I won’t fall for that again.

While we were at the market in Uvalda, Grandpa got his “ears lowered” and a quart of ‘shine.  I didn’t know exactly what it was for sure, the jar looked like it was filled with water to me.  I know it made Grandpa’s face real red and I don’t think it was from any after shave.  Ma got herself some sewing needles and thread and a few other things she was needing for the house, while me an my brothers spent our big nickels.  We got some peaches and a stick of sugarcane to gnaw on and a couple of firecrackers that we wanted to save for the fourth of July celebration at the cemetery.

We dropped ma off at her house.  He goats were on the porch and chickens sitting in the window sill.  I remember riding by one day, not too long after ma died.  I guess her kids finally came home.  There were holes all in the front yard and around the house where it looked like somebody had been digging.

Grandpa’s sister Lena Bell, would come over about once a week and remind us boys that when we got back to Jacksonville to tell anybody man we saw that was looking for a wife, that she had ten acres of good growing land and needed her a husband.  She would cackle like an old hen that had just layed an egg, laughing at her own jokes.  Grandpa excused her behaviour by saving that he reckoned that she lived by herself, way too long.

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Once in a while after a rain, Grandpa would take us down to the creek to look for arrowheads.  He told us there were lots of them when he was a boy.  We’d find one or two, just enough to make us want to come back and look for more.  While we were there Grandpa would pull out that jar he got from the barber shop from it’s hiding spot, take a swig or two and then put it back in the hollow tree for safe keeping.

Almost every night the chickens would raise enough fuss to wake the dead.  The possum’s would come up out of the woods from across the creek, looking for some eggs to suck on.  To our delight, Grandpa said he was gonna show us how to build a possum trap.  He made a wooden box, that was open on one end.  On the open end, he fixed a door that would slide up and down.  Then he cut a small hole in the center of the box, just big enough for a short piece of broom stick to slide up and down.  He run a string from the far end of the box to the door.  In the middle of the box he stuck the piece of broomstick in the hole.  The broom stick had a notch so that it rested on the edge of the box and propped the sliding door up in the open position with the string resting in a groove on top of the broom stick.

Granpa reached in his overall pocket and brought out two persimmons that he had got from the wild persimmon tree down by the creek, sliced them in half and placed them in the rear of the box.  Grandpa said, “There’s nothing an ole possum likes better than an inviting slice of a fresh cut persimmon.”

When we went to bed that night my brothers and I were so full of excitement that we could barely sleep.  Granny fixed grits and eggs for breakfast and just as soon as we cleared the table, she told us to go check on her chickens and gather some eggs.  Running just as fast as our feet could fly.  Oh boy, to our amazement the broom stick was down.  Something had crawled up inside there last night and sprung our trap.  From the sound of things, what ever it was, was still inside.

Not knowing exactly what to do, we hollered for Grandpa.  He was moving kinda slow this morning, he was standing on the front porch pulling his overall straps up over his bare shoulders.  He stopped in his tracks, it looked to me like he was picking at bed bugs or something.  If I didn’t know better, I would have said that Grandpa was dragging his feet on purpose.  He laughed when he walked up on us and asked who wants to volunteer to be the brave man that tangles with a wild opossum this morning?  Hearing that kinda changed things for us.  Will they bite us?  Grandpa told us not to worry, he would do the chore, and motioned us boys to move back out of the way.   Shoot , that made us crowd around him all the more.   When he slid the door open to that box trap he took a squint and then jerked his head back so fast we almost missed it.  He dropped the box and out came a black and white skunk with its tail high in the air.  It got every one of us too.

I guess ole skunks like persimmons too.

That was the day Mom came to get us.  School was starting back the next Monday.  We didn’t want to leave. I ran to Mom to give her a hug and to ask her if she wanted a “Yankee Dime.”  Mom took one whiff of us and said,  “Phew, y’all smell like you need a bath.”  We pointed at the tub on the back of the porch and told her that we just got one, Granny even poured a can of tomato juice over our heads.  On the way home she wanted to know all about it, just why in heaven’s name did we smell so bad.

I took the lead and started out with, “Oh Mom, you should have been there, I’ll always remember this time at Grandpa’s, I won’t never forget………….

 

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