Once Upon a Time in the Hills of Alabama

An old book of rhymes I bought for two dollars by a forgotten local Tulsa poet stirred some distant memories as I thumbed through the pages this morning. He wrote of things before my time I often could not relate directly to like when the ice man brought ice to his house, sleeping on a feather mattress or the conductor on a night train. Some of my grammar school year memories from around five decades ago will be just as unfamiliar today to any “young’un”. Even to me some seem far-fetched or made up when I tell the stories, even through they are truth or at least truth as I remember it.

Clearly I remember the old alcoholic who would buy bottles of lemon extract flavoring at the country store. Being high in alcohol content he’d be plastered from drinking it and be laying in the weeds singing within a quarter-mile from the store happily lost in his oblivion.  Eventually the store stopped selling the stuff to him.

My 5th grade teacher was Miss Pittman and as the prefix implied she had never married. At least 60 years of age, she lived in the rundown teacher dorm behind the high school with one other “old maid” female teacher. By the time I got to high school she had passed on and the dorm was torn down. I wonder how she would feel today about me recalling her as the meanest teacher I ever had!

There was Dick Butterworth who liked us kids. Weekdays he was a local laborer and on weekends he was a professional happy drunk. On Saturday when he was high on booze we kids could convince him of just about anything. Once my brother, two cousins and I had him believing there was a little man who lived in the well by the store. He had a flash light and was looking down trying to find him in the well. Thinking back I am glad here was a cinder block housing around the well or he would have fallen in!

When I was six my father, mother, little brother and I went on a Sunday to visit my Mom’s first cousin in prison where he had been sent for moon shining. Clearly I recall a bucket on a rope being lowered by from a guard tower for car keys to be placed and surrendered during the visit. And inside the fence in the outdoor family picnic area the barbed wire at the top made me uneasy even as a child. That experience probably has a little to do with why I have never been arrested and kept myself straight with the law.

There was a milk cow my grandparents had they called “ole three tit”. There should have been four on her and I never knew if the missing one was from an accident or genetics. I had been told the cow did not like kids. Being the bull-headed boy I have always been there was no problem going against what I had been told and heading to the barn at milking time. I will never forget the cow coming after me and my grandmother protecting me with a two by four she wacked the old girl with! I got in trouble but did not get hurt. My Papa (grandfather) took “ole three tit” to the cattle sale within a week or two.

Raising chickens was big business on the farm and there were two “chicken” houses longer than a football field and probably forty feet wide. In between grown ones being taken away and chicks being delivered was a few weeks where the fertilizer laden (OK chicken poop laden) sawdust on the floor was changed out. On a rainy day during such times my brother and I would hunt rats that fed on the ground corn the chickens were fed. And I mean RATS not mice! When we got one, which was not often, you’d think we had bagged big game in Africa.

A clothes pin and a piece of cardboard or playing card placed correctly could make a bicycle sound kind of like a motorcycle. At least we thought so. But to get a temporary throaty engine sound nothing worked better than tying a balloon so it interacted with the spokes. It lasted only a short while until the balloon wore through, but in those moments I felt like I was on a Harley!

Or there was George Parker who spoke with a speech impediment and dipped snuff. I saw him many times spit the nasty stuff in the top breast pocket of his overalls. That’s makes my face scrunch up even now thinking about it. Or I remember the time Bud Stansell and his wife were robbed by escaped convicts that the police caught in a cornfield within sight of my grandparent’s house. Bud’s head was bandaged up from where they had hit him and I learned a new “cuss-word” or two as he spoke his mind while the highway patrolmen loaded the prisoners up.

Memory is clear when my Dad ran a country store and after closing time some of his buddies would show up so they all could drink beer and play bluegrass music around the wood stove heater in back.  Another relic of times past is “The Lord Provides Shinebone Valley Country Store” pictured at the top.

Growing up, all I wanted was to leave the rural south behind as far as possible. As an adult I made that wish come true. I have come to realize that as a child I was witness to the last of a way of life in rural Shinbone Valley, Alabama that had not changed much in a century and a half. That old way of life is almost completely gone now. Interstates, TV, air travel and the like helped bring about rapid change that I have embraced and enjoyed. However, I will always be grateful for the unique memories I have from my childhood that for their time were as good as anything Mark Twain ever wrote about.

Don’t you wish you could take a single childhood memory
and blow it up into a bubble and live inside it forever?
Sarah Addison Allen

2 thoughts on “Once Upon a Time in the Hills of Alabama

  1. We lived in my grandmothers one bedroom home with my Dad. My Brother slept in the living room and Dad, Sis and I in another. Next to us lived Willie. He was a paraplegic who lived with his aged Mother and wore striped overalls everyday. His mode of transport was a 3-wheeled electric cart with a swing bar for steering. Willie sat many long hours under a tree in his yard greeting everyone who passed by with a wave and tabbaco stained smile. Often we ventured over to sat around him on the lawn. It was perilous as we dodged spittoon piles. I still smell the fragrance of those days. What he gave me was an appreciation as I witnessed how he drug his body on crutches and positioned his useless legs. How he managed to find and share joy with others while consciouslly giving life purpose. How he recognized pain in others, even if it was just a child, and found simple ways to soothe..and oh..Willie also gave me a strong adversion to tabbaco!

    The days on 14th Street….

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