By Rolland Love
Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of Rolland Love’s memoir Born Dead on a Winter’s Night, which will be serialized and posted every Sunday morning throughout August and September. For more stories by Rolland Love, visit www.ozarkstories.com. Chapters 1-4, Chapters 9-12, Chapters 13-16, Chapters 17-20, Chapters 21-24, Chapters 25-28, & Chapters 29-30.
Eating Poison Ivy
The summer I was six years old I was in the woods behind our house with my friend Tommy. He was one year older than me and always seemed to know more than I did. We were out looking for morel mushrooms; it was after a rain and the sun had peeked through the clouds, so Dad said we might find some. Dad knew everything when it came to dealing with the outdoors: when the trees and wildflowers would bloom, when the birds would have chicks, and almost everything written about in the Farmer’s Almanac. We ate a lot of morels mixed with scrambled eggs. Sautéed in garlic butter, the combination had a taste like eating raw corn.
Along the way to mushrooms, we ran across a poison ivy vine growing up the side of an oak tree.
“I heard if you eat poison ivy you’ll never get it again,” Tommy said.
I grabbed a leaf and put it in my mouth. My tongue started to itch, my eyes watered and my throat clogged up, so I couldn’t swallow.
We raced to the house, I told my mother what I had done and she put a teakettle of water on the stove so I could breathe in the steam. It was a miserable couple of days with blisters in my mouth. I was lucky to be alive, because poison ivy does the same to your insides as it does to your skin. I don’t recommend it but I’ll tell you what—I was never affected by poison ivy again.
When my grandpa heard about what I had done, being a man of few words, he said, “Poison Ivy is grown in the garden of hell.”
“Tell you what, Son,” Dad said. “Next time you want to do something stupid, hit yourself in the head with a hammer.” Dad didn’t talk rough often, but when he did you got the meaning.
When I was a kid I used to sit at the kitchen table while my mother cooked. That’s when she shared her stories. Most were centered around growing up in the Ozark Mountains. Fishing and camping with family and friends at Jacks Fork and Current Rivers was a big source of entertainment during the summer. Come winter a lot of people play cards and board games like Monopoly. There was one trip where our family, neighbors, grandpa and grandma and dog Trouser all camped at the river for seven days. We hauled four bales of straw along, and spread it out on a gravel bar close to the water that’s where we slept. Nine people and one dog under the stars lulled to sleep by the distant sound of a hoot owl and whippoorwills.
One day while we were there mom was swimming in front of the campsite and she started to scream as she scrambled to get out of the water. A dead snake, cottonmouth no less had drifted down the river and wrapped it’s slithery body around mom’s neck. She told that story so many times she even told it to me twice and of course I was there.
Mom was a wonderful storyteller and had a great personality. She was good as gold but had a bit of a rowdy side when she was younger. Like the Halloween night she went with some kids to the cemetery and made whaling sounds to scared people as they came past. The sheriff Brian Jenkins didn’t take kindly to the prank because with reports from some of the older folks in town boys in the group turned over a couple Outhouses “privy’s” as well.
What interested me most were stories she told about relatives we had who lived in Germany and suffered terribly during World War II. She used to ship hard to find items like sugar, soap, coffee, clothing and shoes before the war broke out in1939 then after it was over in 1946. She used to read some of the letters she received from my Aunt and Uncle. Sometimes she would cry and not make it all the way to the end.
The first day mom got word the war was over and it was okay to send packages again she packed up half-dozen boxes of goods and when I went with her to the post office it seemed like her world had changed totally for the better from troubled times.
Mom loved to bake. She baked a lot of apple and pumpkin pies, cakes where mostly chocolate at my request, which I could eat hot out of the oven.
The big treat came on Sunday after church when Mom stirred up the mix for vanilla ice cream and I turned the crank on the wooden freezer. To top it off was warm, homemade chocolate syrup with walnuts sprinkled on top.
We harvested enough walnuts in the fall to fill half dozen gunnysacks. We dumped them in the road in front of our house. The green outer shells would be knocked off as people drove up and down the road. After hulling, we gathered the walnuts, sat at a table in the back yard and crack them with a hammer and pick out the nutmeat.
There was no electricity in our neck of the woods until the early 1940s. Kerosene lamps provided light once the sun went down. When I close my eyes and think back, I can see the thick yellow flame dancing inside glass mantles. The outlines of everyone in the room cast dark shadows on the walls. The smell of burning oil permeated the air. After the dishes were cleaned and put away Mom and Dad usually got out a deck of cards and played a few hands of Pitch, sometimes called High Low Jack or All Fours before going to bed. Trouser and I curled up on the sofa with a blanket and drift off to sleep. Next thing I knew it was morning. I had no memory of Dad carrying me to bed. My wakeup call was a rooster crowing from the barnyard. A Rhode Island Red Dad bought at the sale barn for 25 cents. The new bird looked just like the one I hooked.
I heard Don Roberts one of the boy’s a year younger than me ask Bill Brown who taught a class about farming if rooster was needed to get eggs?
“Nope, he said. “But there are a couple of other reasons to consider keeping a rooster around. A rooster helps protect the hens and they are bolder. Especially when exploring the barnyard. They fertilize the eggs. While you don’t need a rooster to get eggs, you do if you want to hatch your own chicks.
Rendering a Hog at Grandpa’s Farm
“Best not let your Grandpa tell scary stories before bedtime,” Mom said as I hurried out the door.
“OK, Mom. I won’t.” I waved over my shoulder as I climbed on my bike and peddled down a gravel road toward Grandpa’s cabin.
“Come in,” Grandpa hollered when I walked up on the porch and opened the creaky wooden door. He was sitting in a rocking chair with his back to me stoking the fire. Brightly colored sparks danced up the chimney.
“How’d you know it was me?” I asked.
“I’m an old river rat,” he grumbled. “Got eyes in the back of my head. Close the air hole.”
I shut the door. The lock clicked. Something was wrong. Grandpa usually jumped up and hugged me at the door. A strong steamy odor, like a trace of vinegar, cut through the smell of wood smoke and tickled my nose. A yellow flame in a kerosene lamp on the kitchen table made the knotty pine walls look like the knots were moving.
I hung my coat on a nail and looked at the sparkling glass eyes in Grandpa’s trophies. They seemed to watch me as I crossed the room. He’d had some of them almost fifty years. I slumped into a brown leather chair beside the stone fireplace and looked up at the stuffed deer head above the mantel. A ghost of the shiver I’d felt the day I touched the dead deer’s cold wet nose came back to visit me.
“What time we getting up in the morning?” I asked.
Grandpa laid his pipe on a table beside the rocking chair and groaned. “Five o’clock sounds about right. Time I fix breakfast, time we get ourselves fed, it’ll be daylight.”
I figured even though Grandpa probably wanted to turn in early because butchering a hog was a hard day’s work, he would still tell me a scary story first—the way he always did. Then I would sleep on the rollaway bed in his room. That way if I had a bad dream, he would be close.
Instead, he said, “You best sleep out here by the fire tonight. I’d just keep you awake tossing and turning.”
“You won’t bother me none, Grandpa.” I looked at a bobcat hide nailed to the wall behind the couch.
Grandpa gave me a vacant stare as if he had not heard what I said. He looked around the room. “I’ve been thinking about getting rid of all these hides and mounts.”
“What about the big buck?” I asked, pointing to the deer head with a ten-point rack.
“Him, too. Don’t want nothing dead and gone around me anymore.”
I pointed at the crow on top of the gun case in the corner of the room and grinned. “Blackie, too?”
“All of it,” he snapped. “You want it? Take it.”
I scooted my chair closer to the fireplace and watched Grandpa out of the corner of my eye as he rocked in his chair. It scared me that he was not his old self. “Is something wrong?”
He got up from the rocker and looked at me with pale, watery eyes. “Don’t mean to scare you. It’s just right now my mind is troubled. I’ll be OK. Don’t worry your cotton-top head about it none.”
“OK.” I looked away.
“I’m plumb tuckered out. Going to turn in early. You’ll sleep better out here. You won’t have to hear me snoring like a train.”
I forced a smile. “Yeah, you’re probably right. I’ll read the book you gave me about storytelling. If I can’t hear a story, I can read about how to tell one.”
He patted my shoulder. “You’re a good boy, looking’ after your old grandpa.” He shuffled toward the bedroom. It was the first time I noticed how stooped over he had gotten. “If you get scared in the night, you can come sleep with me,” he said as he disappeared into the darkness.
“I’ll be OK, I think.”
I tossed a cedar log on the fire and stared at the dancing flames. I turned a setscrew on the base of the kerosene lamp Grandpa had brought in from the kitchen and raised the wick so the flame burned brighter. I got up and walked around the room to look at the mounts and hides on the cabin walls. I wanted to assure myself once again that everything was dead, in case they chased me in a nightmare during the night.
Wrapping a wool blanket around my shoulders, I sat in Grandpa’s rocker and stared at the fire until I drifted off to sleep. The next thing I knew, Grandpa was patting me on the arm.
“I’ve got breakfast ready,” he said. He tossed a pine tree branch on the glowing bed of coals, and the dry needles burst into flame. “It’s a crispy cool morning. Good day for butchering’ a hog.”
“How long have you been awake?” I stood, stretched my arms over my head, and yawned.
“Hour or so, I guess. Went out and started a fire under the scalding vat. Takes awhile to get the water boiling.”
I sat at the table. Grandpa had fixed my favorite breakfast, eggs and frog legs. I forked a pair of legs onto my plate, along with a scoop of scrambled eggs.
“You feeling better today?” I asked after I gnawed the last bit of meat off the bone.
Grandpa frowned. He looked at me through bushy white eyebrows. “Been sleeping uneasy.”
I sopped up the last of the scrambled eggs on my plate with a piece of bread. “What’s wrong?”
Grandpa washed down the last bite of sausage with a gulp of black coffee. He got up from the table and motioned for me to follow him out the door.
It was so cold I could see my breath when we left the cabin. The sun rising over the top of the barn cast a golden glow on the frost-covered ground as it shone through the red and yellow leaves on the maple trees. The cock-a-doodle-doo of a rooster sitting on a fence post broke the morning silence. I hoped more than anything it would be a good day for Grandpa.
Grandpa looked up at the clear blue sky and smiled. “Mother Nature’s a good one ain’t she?”
“Looks like everything’s turned to gold,” I said. A falling yellow leaf drifted in front of me as we walked through the gate by the chicken house and out into the feedlot where we would be butchering the hog.
Grandpa leaned the .22 rifle against the fence and walked over to the black metal scalding vat where red and yellow flames lapped up the sides. A wisp of steam rising from the bubbling, boiling water signaled that it was time to kill the hog. The smell of wood smoke hung in the air and sparkling frost covered the ground. We walked over to a long wooden table where a pulley was tied to a tree limb. A rope dangled. After Grandpa shot the hog, we would use the contraption to lift the carcass into the air, swing it over and lower it into the boiling water to loosen the bristles.
Grandpa picked up a knife with a deer horn handle and dragged the blade back and forth across a sharpening stone. He feathered the edge with his thumb to check it for sharpness and laid it on the table in front of me. “Knife needs to be razor sharp to scrape off the hair.”
I frowned. “I know, Grandpa. I’ve helped butcher before. Remember?”
He nodded. “I know you have. It’s time to shoot the hog.”
He walked across the barn lot and stopped in front of the fat sow. He shouldered the rifle the way he always had in the past, only this time, instead of pulling the trigger, Grandpa lowered the rifle and circled the hog as if he might ask her for a dance.
I walked up beside him. “What’s the matter?”
He shouldered the rifle again as if he were going shoot the hog, and I backed up. He stood there so long that the sow waddled off toward the corner of the fence.
Grandpa lowered the rifle, walked over to the bench under the oak tree by the rendering press and sat.
“What’s the matter, Grandpa?”
He lowered his head and stared at the ground. “Don’t tell another soul what I’m about to say. People will think I’m crazy. They don’t need much excuse to put an old man like me away.”
“I don’t think you’re crazy, Grandpa. I love you. You’re the smartest person I know.”
He smiled. “Been having a terrible dream.” He pulled a bandanna from the hip pocket of his bib overalls and wiped his mouth.
“It’ll be OK, Grandpa. I have scary dreams too.”
He leaned back against the trunk of to an oak tree. “In my dream, someone outside my bedroom window calls my name. I walk outside the house and follow the sound of footsteps to the river’s edge.”
I swallowed a lump in my throat.
“I’m surrounded by wild animals. They’re all staring at me with shiny glass eyes.”
“It’s just a dream. That’s all.”
Grandpa laid his shaky hand on my arm. “Every night I walk farther out into water.”
“What does it mean?”
He shook his head and handed me the rifle. “Take it. I can’t kill the hog. You have to shoot her if she’s meat on the table.”
The only things I’d ever shot was a squirrel and a couple of rabbits. Something was different about shooting an animal I helped raise.
“Do we for sure need the meat, Grandpa?”
“Be a long winter without any sausage. No ham for Christmas dinner.” He patted me on the shoulder and gave me a way out of my misery. “We can get your Dad. He’ll shoot her. He gets half of the meat, you know.”
I wanted to say OK. The words were on the tip of my tongue. Instead, I walked over to the hog and shouldered the rifle. Like Grandpa, I stood there and could not pull the trigger.
“It’s OK,” Grandpa said. “Let’s go get your dad.”
Tommy had shot a hog, and sure as the world, he would hear I chickened out. I moved in closer to face my fear, laid my cheek on the gunstock, and picked a spot between the sow’s eyes where a little brown clot of mud was stuck to the white hair. I took a deep breath, let it out slowly and squeezed the trigger. Instead of the hog going down after the sharp crack of the .22 shell, the beast just stood there and stared at me. I had completely missed. My stomach churned.
Grandpa hurried over and grabbed the rifle. He ejected the empty cartridge, bolted in another shell and handed it back to me. “Best go on with your job.” He patted me on the back. “A man needs to finish what he starts.”
He walked away, leaving me with my hands trembling.
I moved in close and shouldered the rifle again. I took a slow, deep breath. I aimed at the mud spot again and squeezed the trigger. The crack of the exploding shell echoed loudly. The hog looked at me and blinked as if nothing had happened. I felt faint, and my legs went weak. I could not shoot again. The old sow staggered to the right, back to the left, slumped to the ground and rolled over on her side.
“Good shot, son,” Grandpa said, as he ran his fingers back through his thinning white hair. “Wasn’t your fault you missed the first time. She moved her head as you pulled the trigger. That happened to me once when I was your age.”
He walked over and looked into my eyes. “You finished what you started. That makes me proud. Let’s swing her into the scalding vat and get on with the butcherin’.
After the day was done and we had a winter supply of meat in the smoke house. I went to bed that night thinking about how lucky I was to have a Grandpa who knew stuff and showed me things.
The other thing I was happy about was at breakfast he told me I had a unique mind. He said he himself was a constant thinker. He believed lots of people are and just don’t want to show it.
Ozark Mountains Outhouse “privy”
Grandpa was on his way to the outhouse one stormy might when a bolt of lightning struck the tin roof and the little white building burned down before his eyes. I know it’s true because my grandma told the story to everyone who would listen and she was a God fearin’ woman who would never tell a lie and would walk out of the room if a lie was being told.
The outhouse structure sometimes called a ‘privy’, which everybody in the Ozarks had at least one of before indoor plumbing and electricity came along.
During the course of my youth and the times I frequented the little white building located a few hundred feet away from our farmhouse, I had some unusual experiences. Even though a few were traumatic and troublesome at the time, they seem funny now.
When I was about seven years old I sneaked a .22 rifle cartridge out of my dad’s hunting coat, took a wooden match from a box in the kitchen and headed for the outhouse to create a fireworks display. I laid the shell on the wooden seat, struck the match and when the flame touched the metal casing there was a loud explosion.
Moments later I shoved open the heavy oak door, stumbled outside and ran toward my mother who was working in the garden. My final words
before I fell onto the ground were “I’m blind.” What happened was when I looked down at my thumb and saw the brass shell casing sticking out of the nail that had been blown there by the explosion and saw blood dripping onto my bare leg, I fainted. When my mother poured water on my face I came around and realized I could still see even though things looked blurry. Dad pulled the brass casing from my thumb with a pair of pliers and I fainted again.
When I was about ten years old during a bitter cold winter day I slammed the wooden door shut and the hook on the outside fell into the latch, I was trapped until grandpa came to use the privy. He almost had a heart attack when he opened the door and I knocked him down as I rushed outside to escape.
There were spiders and snakes in the summer who liked to share the outhouse with us humans and once a opossum was waiting inside because the door had blown shut when he was seeking shelter on a winters day. As slow as those critters are generally, he didn’t waste any time scrambling out the door.
Of all things the building had a tin roof so when it was very hot in the summer like the temperature hovering around 100 degrees on the outside, it would be at least 120 degrees inside the outhouse. There would of course be the smell and the flies and the occasional mouse running across the floor to escape when you opened the door. Needless to say visits were postponed and short as possible.
Here’s a little history and additional information about the outhouse that might come in handy if you’re ever in a situation where you must use one even though you probably won’t be, you just never know.
The basic design for the outdoor toilet hasn’t changed for hundreds of years. It’s just a shack sitting over a pit in the ground. The inside has a bench with holes cut into it. Generally there’s a bucket of lime and a scoopful is poured in before you leave the area.
Until as recently as the 1930’s every American household had at least one and sometimes two or more outhouses. Then they began to disappear with the advent of indoor plumbing. During the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) built a least a couple million or more pit privies.
I heard more jokes about outhouses than anything I can remember. Strange as it might seem outhouses were the center of attention Halloween night. Rowdy boys would tip them over and on occasion Tookie Brooks, a classmate who was always getting in trouble fell into the hole during the process, a dangerous and smelly experience. Most people kept a close eye on their privies during Halloween and would even fire a shotgun up into the air if they saw people sneak around who seemed up to no good.
Because of having a large family, Grandpa had two outhouses side by side. One had a crescent moon cut into the door and the other a sunburst. The reason for the symbols being they would provide light and ventilation, and the moon, or Luna, is an ancient symbol for women, while a sunburst stood for men. These symbols started being used back at a time when very few people knew how to read.
Once a new Sears, Roebuck and Company arrived the old version found a place in the outhouse to be used as toilet paper.
Author’s Note: This is a collection of memories that Rolland Love has written about moments or events, both public or private that took place in his life from birth until he entered college. The assertions made in the work are understood to be factual. Born Dead on a Winter’s Night is based on Love’s experiences growing up in the Ozark Mountains; however, this is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
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