The Branch—The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

The branch runs close to the old house I grew up in. It is still there, though the house is long gone, torn down and replaced when I was around twelve or thirteen, with one having indoor plumbing. Yes, it still meanders along the base of the hill where the now old, but newer house still sits, and children are yet making memories along its twisty-twiney path, some of them my great-grand nieces and nephews, and cousins, both removed, second, thirds, and what-nots. It played a central role in my childhood, provided many hours of entertainment back in the dinosaur days of no internet, no cellphones, just a rotary phone whose line was shared between eight households.

When heavy rains came, the branch jumped its banks, sometimes spreading over the nearby fields my daddy had cleared for the cows to graze. It flooded the place where our road crossed it to the main road—both dirt—and we couldn’t get to the other side, sometimes for days. That could fit into both the Bad and Ugly, and Good. Much depended on which side of the branch you were on when it flooded, and whether you were a child or adult.

We lived near the road crossing, but there were two other families, plus my grandparents on my Daddy’s side, who lived farther down our side road. No one could get to town, no one could get to jobs, but us kids didn’t mind that the school bus couldn’t cross the branch to pick us up. And if one happened to be on the other side and it flooded, you couldn’t get home until it went down. Once, when I was in junior high, that happened to me. I remember Mama being on the other side of the branch when the bus pulled up. She yelled at me to go to my sister’s house, and Lord, did she have to scream loud for me to hear her over the water’s roar. Luckily, my recently married sister and her husband lived maybe half a mile (I’m not good judging distances, so it might have been more or less.) back along the school bus route, so the driver dropped me off there. I stayed at least one night, possibly two. The Good was I got to stay with my sister; the Bad and Ugly, I still had to go to school. Thank you, Sister, for providing clean clothes.

The worst of the Bad and Ugly happened when I was to be the second-grade princess in the school’s spring pageant. My cousin loaned me a formal dress, for I was to sit on stage with the other royalty—a sixth-grade boy and girl who were king and queen, and the princesses and princes, one boy and one girl, each chosen from grades one through five. I don’t remember who my prince was, but I do remember the joy in my shy, little heart at being picked as a princess. My sister, who was in fifth grade, was slated to sing with a group in the pageant. You ought to have seen how beautiful she looked in her bright yellow dress. Well, it rained the day of the pageant, which was being held at night, and all of us kids made it home from school okay, but between then and time to leave, the branch rose higher and higher until it was impossible to cross without risking life and limb. I was so disappointed, and most likely muttered a few choice curses under my breath, probably learned from my older brother, who was also Good and Bad, but not Ugly.

I forgave the branch. Like most people and things, it had its own path to follow, and its unique share of ups and downs.

The Good provided by the branch more than made up for its Bads and Uglies. My siblings, cousins—who lived just upstream—and I were in it in the spring as soon as the water warmed enough that our bare feet could comfortably wade in it. Carrying a big tin can, we searched for crawdads that often hid beneath flat rocks. Snakes sometimes hid there too. There was an art to crawdad hunting: Stand to the back of the rock you were going to raise, slowly lift it on the side farthest from you, and take a peek. Most always, a crawdad skulked there, pinchers raised in warning, but on occasion, a snake would be coiled beneath. Then it was drop the rock and run. The crawdads we caught and collected in the can containing a little water were set free after we were finished, unless a relative or neighbor had requested some to be used as fish bait. It was strictly a catch and release program, though I do recall that at least once we cooked their tails over a fire at the bluff. But the wondrous bluff is a story into itself, so I won’t go into it at this time. I don’t recall how the crawdad tails tasted—maybe like chicken?

My brother, sister, and I set out minnow jars in a deeper puddle in the branch that was fed by an underground spring. We constructed them similar to the picture above, except we used half-gallon Mason jars and screen wire for the funnel instead of a soda bottle. What we did with the captured minnows, I don’t recall, but I’ll never forget the time we hauled our jars from the water, and squiggly snakes filled the insides of the jars, and like the minnows, couldn’t escape. One of us returned to the house, fetched Mama, and she came to the rescue, breaking the jars and killing the snakes with a garden hoe.

A few times we seined the branch and caught snakes then too. I don’t know what we had set out to catch; we probably didn’t even know ourselves. It was just something fun to do that included the outdoors and water.

When the branch’s waters warmed even more, along around late May or early June, we took baths in it. We had no indoor plumbing so bathing involved heating water to a boil on the wood cook stove, pouring it and cold into a long, metal washtub, and us kids taking a bath, youngest girl to oldest, then my brother. Using the branch for this purpose was a heck of a lot easier; we grabbed a towel, wash cloth, and a bar of Ivory soap (my sister says because it floats), and waded in. I only recall us girls doing it. Either my brother stayed dirty or bathed at a different time.

When summertime’s heat and lack of rain dried up the branch, we had to result to more drastic measures on our forays to catch crawdads. They burrowed down into the mud, leaving a little hole to mark the spot. We dug a few out of their shelters, but I don’t recall often doing that. It was really more trouble than it was worth. The ones that suffered this fate at our small hands probably died. Kids can be so thoughtless and cruel.

I have a fond memory of my aunt, mother of the cousins who lived upstream, showing us how to make mud gingerbread men. At their place, the branch ran behind the house and had big slabs of flat rocks on the bank. There, we mixed dirt and water, and shaped our mud men and women. My aunt plucked the flower heads from nearby wild butter weeds, whose blooms look like black-eyed susans, but have a yellow center instead of brown, and used them to make eyes, buttons, and such for our mud people.

When fall set in, the water gradually became too cold to play in, so there was a lull in our preoccupation with it. But when winter snapped its teeth upon the water, turning it to ice, we were at it again. Wearing only our regular shoes, brother, sister, and I skated on it. We were smart enough to stay off ponds, but the branch was fair game because even if the ice gave way, at worst we would be drenched in the cold water to about our knees—maybe thighs if it were me, the smallest.

That branch, along with the woods and bluff, was our entertainment. We made our own fun, having no need of structured play time and play dates. I think we were what is now referred to as “free-range” children, no helicopter parenting for us.

Often, I think about my childhood, about the branch and how adventurous it was to explore. Seeing snakes in it, falling in it and getting hurt as well as wet, and even the leach that latched onto my leg that Mama scraped off with a knife failed to dampen its allure. After all, what kid doesn’t love playing in a branch—especially when it’s a Good branch?

©️2021 KT Workman

Featured image is of the branch, photographed by my son.

The remaining are taken from Pinterest

Pearls Before Swine / Part Three

Part three of three…

When I stepped into the house after returning the handsaw, a bolt of pain stabbed my lower belly. I crammed the hurt into that dark, crowded place deep inside that Mama couldn’t see, and tended to Sissy. I stripped the smelly clothes from her body, washed her as best I could, then pulled her favorite pink nightgown over her head, all the while talking slowly and softly. I knew she heard me. She stood when I told her to, held up her hands when I said so, but not one word passed her white lips.

Meanwhile, Mama fed thin slats of wood into the cookstove until the thing danced with heat. Sweat ran down her face and soaked the white collar of her dress, turning it pink.

“Put your sister to bed,” she said over her shoulder. “Then come get yourself cleaned up.”

I led Sissy into the little room off the kitchen, and tucked her into the bed we shared. “I’ll be back soon.” No answer from my sister. She rolled over and faced the wall, and I knew if I had looked, her eyes would still be open. “Everything’s gonna be all right. You’re just having a bad dream, and when you wake up in the morning, you won’t even remember it. Just a dream, that’s all.”

“Clara!” Mama yelled.

I wanted nothing more than to crawl into the bed next to Sissy and sleep for days. I was worn out, and my belly hurt real bad. Instead, I patted her shoulder and walked back out into the nightmare. Continue reading “Pearls Before Swine / Part Three”

Pearls Before Swine / Part Two

Part two of three…

“What’s going on here?” Mama said, running her hand over Sissy’s fat belly.

Sissy shrugged her shoulders. “I et too much, I reckon.”

“Don’t sass me, gal.” The back of Mama’s hand cracked across my sister’s face. The blow had a lot of power behind it, knocked Sissy on her butt.

“I’m sorry, Mama.” Sissy cupped her red cheek. “I won’t do it no more.” There hadn’t been any sass in Sissy’s words, but she knew better than to go against Mama. I did too. Since Daddy’d died, Mama had gotten mean and hateful.

“Now I’m gonna ask you one more time—who did this to you?”

Tears trickled down Sissy’s cheeks. She trembled. “I…I don’t know wh…what you mean.”

Mama planted her fists on her ample hips. She looked down at Sissy and shook her head. “Are you that ignorant…you really don’t know?”

Sissy said nothing, just sat on the floor with her head bent, wisps of corn-silk hair sticking to her wet face.

“Get up,” Mama ordered.

Sissy bolted to her feet, a mess of scared-shakes and sniffles.

“You’re pregnant, got a baby in your belly,” Mama said. “Now what I wanna know is what boy put his pecker inside you and got you that way.” Continue reading “Pearls Before Swine / Part Two”

Pearls Before Swine

Part one of three…

I woke in the dark to squeals and yells and thumps and bangs. From somewhere inside the house, Daddy rattled off a string of cuss words, then hollered: “Get the shotgun, Lizzy, something’s got in with the hogs!”

The awfulest commotion was going on outside. It sounded like every pig on the place was pitching a holy fit.

“What is it, Clara?” Sissy asked.

“I don’t know…” I turned back the covers.

She grabbed my arm. “Where’re you going?”

“To see what all the racket’s about.”

Sissy’s fingers dug deeper. “What if it’s the boogeyman?”

I pulled my arm away. “There ain’t no such thing, and you know it.”

My feet hit the floor, and I made a beeline for the slash of light knifing in underneath the closed door, Sissy’s night-breath a hot prickle on the back of my neck. My fingers curled around the doorknob, twisted and pushed.

Light blazed from the 100-watt bulb dangling on the end of the thick, black wire snaking down from the kitchen ceiling, briefly catching Mama and Daddy as they rushed out the back door. I chased after them, Sissy on my heels.

The lantern held high in one hand, the tail of her nightgown in the other, Mama ran neck and neck with Daddy across the back yard and through the gate.

Dewey appeared inside the bouncing circle of light. Mama let out a startled “Oh!” and Daddy a “Jesus Christ!” and we all skidded to a stop.

“Don’t you be going down there, Mr. Primrose,” Dewey said, his eyes all big and wild looking. His oily brown hair stuck out this way and that. Only one gallous of his overalls was fastened; the other flopped down over his scrawny belly. “It’s dangerous. There’s demons loose tonight.” Continue reading “Pearls Before Swine”

Surviving a Collapse

I’ve often told friends that if civilization were to collapse, I would survive. Thanks go to my parents for that. I’m sure teaching their children to be self-sufficient wasn’t what was on their minds when we were put to work gardening, canning fruits and vegetables, feeding livestock, milking cows, gathering eggs, etcetera, etcetera; the reason we were put to work was so there would be plenty to feed a bunch of growing kids. And truth be told, us kids didn’t labor long or hard. My parents did the lion’s share, especially Mama since she was left to run the farm/ranch a good part of the year while Daddy worked half the country away.

I learned how and when to plant seeds, how to take care of the plants, and how to harvest and preserve fruits and vegetables. And I learned how to cook meals from scratch—not as tasty as Mama’s, but edible.

And I wasn’t a stranger to the ranch side of our life, the taking care of cows and chickens. My parents stopped raising pigs when I was small, so I don’t remember them, though there are pictures of me and my sister with our pet pig, Red. I was told he tasted good. Yes, Red was slaughtered to feed the family.

I probably sound callous to a lot of you, but I grew up in a time and place when most people were still close to their food sources. Pigs, cattle, and chickens were harvested the same as corn, potatoes, and beans. It was just a part of life. I admit, though, that I have never killed an animal, but I know if push comes to shove, I could.

I have processed many and varied carcasses. When I was small, I helped my daddy skin squirrels and rabbits, and I remember him telling me what a good helper I was. His praise made the fried rabbit and squirrel and dumplings my mama made taste even better, knowing I had played an important part in bringing food to the table.

Then there was the time I assisted Mama with freezing some chickens, an experience that didn’t produce any good memories. Chickens are a horse of a different color, so to speak, when it comes to readying them for consumption. One has to pluck out the feathers, and before one can pluck the feathers, the chicken has to be dipped in hot water to loosen those feathers. I’m here to tell you, that is not a good smell. Add that smell to the plucking, gutting, and cutting into pieces of about twenty chickens, and even a strong stomach can turn. I didn’t eat chicken for a year or two after that.

My first husband had a hand in furthering my education. He was an avid hunter and fisherman. I learned a lot from him in regards to fishing—what made good bait and how to find it, how to recognize the best places to fish, and how to scale and cut up the catch. I learned how to skin and process deer from him. But I never hunted.

I had no problem dealing with dead animals; it’s the live ones I couldn’t deal with, not as food. But as I have learned other things, I could learn to kill. Most people could. Hunger, yours or your loved ones’, is a powerful incentive. Most of us have never known the sort of hunger that would cause us to kill an animal, with our bare hands if need be. And I pray we never do.

But it doesn’t hurt to be prepared, to have a little basic knowledge of farming and animal husbandry. Or if nothing else, own a paper book(s) on the subject. And maybe one on survival. Just in case. I don’t look for civilization to collapse, for all our modern conveniences to stop working—ever heard of an EMP attack?—but it’s somewhat comforting to know I could survive without them. What would bring me much more comfort, though, would be to know that my grandchildren could. Sadly, I can’t say that. As are most people their age, they are a product of the 21st century, willingly tethered to the Internet and their cellphones.

We have become a nation wealthy in technical knowledge, but dirt poor in everyday knowledge. Maybe along with the 3 Rs, we should be teaching our children how to plant a garden, raise livestock…and maybe skin a squirrel.

©2020 KT Workman

Image via Pixabay

Red Rover

Avery saw the small door on the back wall of the chicken house. It hadn’t been there yesterday evening when she’d gathered eggs. Or at least she hadn’t noticed it then. It was so dark underneath the roosting bars, she might have overlooked it. But she didn’t think so.

Had her daddy made the opening between the coop and adjoining shed where the feed corn was kept when she was at school?

“When did you put the door in the chicken house, Daddy?” she asked him at supper that night.

“What door?” he said around a mouthful of cornbread.

“The one in back under the roosting bars.”

He washed down the cornbread with a big drink of buttermilk, and turned his full attention on Avery. She squirmed under the gaze of his narrowed blue eyes. They always seemed to see right through her and not like what they saw: a girl, not the son he had wanted. His only child, and there’d be no more since her birth had messed up Mama’s insides so bad she couldn’t have any more kids.

“You’re seeing things, girl, there ain’t no door. Why in hell would I put a door there anyway?” Continue reading “Red Rover”

June Bug

buzzing June bug
of iridescent green
whispers softly
“come fly with me”
over rolling hills
and deep valleys
over canting barns
and garden patches
over grazing cattle
and pecking chickens
to a time and place
that slumbers gently
in my mind
of
endless summer days
and long dusty roads
cool shaded woods
and gurgling rocky streams
possum-grape vines
and blackberry thickets
an old weathered house
perched on the hill
of my distant childhood
so fondly remembered
viewed through
rose-colored lenses
of kindly Time

©️2019 KT Workman

Photo via Pixabay

The Barn

The barn was a big part of my childhood. It had always been there, and it had always been old. But long before I entered the world, the barn had once stood new and proud on a ranch/farm that would one day belong to my parents.

According to what Daddy said before he passed away, Mama bought the barn and house, and the land both occupied, while he was away working as a lumberjack in far-off California. They’d been living in a little three-room house on land owned by Daddy’s parents when the place went up for sale. Mama called Daddy and he told her to buy it. And if memory serves me correctly (Bear in mind that I am going on what others have told me; I wasn’t even born yet.), Mama moved my older siblings in, lock, stock, and barrel, all on her own. No indoor plumbing, no electricity, but to my parents and brothers and sisters, that place became home. And after I was born, it became my home as well.

I have often wondered about the family who lived there before us. And I wondered what that old barn had seen in its heyday. All I know is what it saw when it came into my family’s possession, and maybe a little of what it heard and felt.

Laughing kids playing in its rafters, building hidey-holes in the bales of hay stored there for feeding the cattle in winter. Daredevil kids scaling its gray, splintered walls to stand on top of its rusty, sheet-iron roof to look out upon the field, barn lot, and small calf-pasture surrounded by woods that stretched out as far as the eye could see.

Mama standing by the gate that led out into the field, calling the milk cow in her own unique way. I didn’t understand the soo-wees and other noises that went into it, but the milk cow did. She trotted or meandered, depending on her mood, to the wide gate made out of crossed boards and cedar poles, and Mama let her into the barn lot, then inside the barn. There, Mama had a big pan of cotton-seed hulls ready, and while the cow ate, she milked. On the ground nearby, an old pie plate awaited a few well-aimed squirts of fresh milk for the barn cats. I remember that at least on one occasion, a contrary milk cow kicked off Mama’s glasses, and she called a couple of us kids out there to help her find them.

And I remember the calves born inside that barn. In cold weather, my daddy kept a close eye on the pregnant cows, and when their times came, he herded them inside and out of the elements for the birth, and for protection the first few crucial days afterward. Sometimes the birth was difficult, and Daddy had to help by reaching inside and turning the calf so the front hooves came out first. He couldn’t save every calf in distress, and it was sad when he couldn’t. But we all rejoiced—and maybe the barn did too—when a little, wet calf took its first wobbling steps and suckled.

The barn served as protection for our food as well. In a shed separated from the main part of the barn, we laid out freshly dug potatoes on clean hay and sprinkled them with lime to keep them from absorbing moisture and rotting. One year, we had drying peanut plants hanging from the rafters. I remember sitting up amongst the hay bales cracking the hulls open and popping nuts into my mouth.

Near the barn, an old oak spread its shading limbs over the feedlot. My brother nailed a few boards to form a platform high in the oak’s sturdy branches, and we christened it “The Tree House”. I bet that old barn heard me sitting up there singing or talking to myself—two things I still do to this day—after my older siblings pushed and pulled me up into The Tree House and left me there while they went off to play. Maybe it enjoyed my singing. Maybe it laughed when I carried on conversations with imaginary friends. I’d like to think it did.

The barn is no longer there. Quite a few years ago, it was torn down before it completely collapsed, and a new one took its place. But that old barn, the smell of it—hay and manure—will stay with me for the rest of my life. Those two combined odors symbolize home to me. Security and warmth. Love and family.

A lot of people might shake their heads, and think, “Poor girl, poor children, to grow up so deprived.” But we were never deprived. We had plenty to eat, a fireplace to warm us—one side at a time—and a mother and father who put their children first in every aspect of their lives.

And we had a barn.

And it had us.

© 2019 KT Workman