column By: Charlie Maggard | September, 20
Dawn was starting to show in the east as the old work truck turned onto a rugged two-track mountain trail. As we bounced along, I noticed the leafless tree limbs against the gray horizon looked eerily like the spooky setting in a black-and-white “B” horror movie. A few flakes of snow flittered past the headlights.
I was doing my best to stay seated on a metal toolbox in the back of the swaying and bouncing 1949 model panel delivery/plumbing truck. Our two English setters, Belle and Fannie, were lying at my feet. The little heater didn’t do much to knock down the chill. Neither did the uninsulated walls of the truck.
After about a half mile, the rough road finally ended at a little creek. I braced myself for the cold winter blast that would flood the truck when the doors were opened. The dogs were sitting up and anxious to get started hunting. I was anxious to try out my new 20-gauge pump shotgun, an Ithaca Model 37.
Having read every outdoor magazine in the drugstore’s magazine rack and in the school library, I was sure that the improved cylinder bore would be deadly on quail. No. 8 shot was the favorite to use on quail and dove in those days. My dilemma was that the hardware store was out of no. 8s in 20-gauge. They only had no. 6s, and I was sure that a bobwhite could easily fly through their open pattern. But there are times when you have to make the best of it. I was just happy to be going hunting.
While we waited for more daylight, Dad poured two cups of coffee from a Thermos for himself and Uncle Roy.
“It might get real nasty today,” said Roy.
Dad responded, “It might.”
As it got lighter, I could see a small gray house up the valley. We finally opened the doors of the truck and prepared for the hunt. It was cold and quiet as we put on our heavy canvas hunting coats and put shotgun shells into the pockets and the shell loops. Dad whistled for the dogs as we crossed the little footbridge that spanned the small creek. We made our way up the footpath toward the house. The windows were illuminated with the soft orange glow from kerosene lamps inside. Electricity had not yet reached these hidden valleys.
The front door opened, and an elderly man stepped onto the front porch and said, “I saw ya drive up to the bridge. Couldn’t figure who was coming to visit us.” Without missing a breath he added, “Looks like you fellers want to hunt a bit.”
Dad nodded. “We wanted to get permission to hunt here. Is it OK?”
“You bettcha’. My name’s Frank Hankins,” he said as he extended his weathered hand to each of us. We each introduced ourselves in return.
“Whatcha’ huntin’ fer, rabbits?”
“We are more interested in quail, but we have been inclined to bust a rabbit or two if they happened to get in our way,” Dad replied.
“There are some quail up the valley and across that ridge behind ya on the old Johnson farm. It’s all growed up in weeds now. It ain’t been farmed for several years.”
A portly woman walked out onto the porch. Frank introduced her as his wife.
“I just put a pot of coffee on the stove if y’all want a cup,” she said. Dad thanked her but declined.
She said, “Well, y’all stop by on yore way back. It’ll still be hot. It’ll probably rain or snow on ya, so stop on by to warm up a bit.”
In those days, country people were always polite. They were ready to share their food no matter how little they had to offer. They always invited you to spend the night, too. It was considered good manners to do so. When they offered, they meant it.
The dogs were already working the fencerow around the little garden as we started up the valley. Frank yelled, “Shoot a couple of rabbits for me.”
Uncle Roy responded, “We’ll do that.”
The dogs worked the valley over pretty good but couldn’t find anything. A fox squirrel scolded us as we passed under a big hickory tree. Too bad squirrel season was over, or I would have put him in a stewpot. We crossed a little trickle of water, called a “branch” in that part of the country. A screech owl sailed off a limb of an old locust tree and disappeared into the woods. I almost drew down on it thinking that it was a grouse, but I realized its wings didn’t make the Brrrrrrr sound of a quail or grouse. Quail were just called birds by dedicated quail hunters or buds by Uncle Roy with his deep Southern drawl. We didn’t go quail hunting. We went bird hunting. The dogs were bird dogs not quail dogs.
“Looks like the buds are holding tight this morning,” Uncle Roy said.
“Yeah, it’s a little too wet this morning,” Dad replied.
Belle and Fannie started working the fallow field on the other side of the fence. The snow had changed to a light, drizzling rain. I was just wet enough to be irritated. I was getting bored with the bird hunting and started working every likely patch of weeds or briars trying to kick out a rabbit.
Working a fencerow, I heard Dad and Uncle Roy shooting. As I turned toward them, I saw a quail flying over an old apple tree right in front of me. It was like a slow motion scene, indelibly etched in my mind even though the bird had turned on the afterburners. I swung my gun in front of it and pulled the trigger. A cloud of feathers drifted in the air as the bird folded and hit the ground a short distance away. I looked around, but there was no witness to the beautiful shot that I had just made. Dad and Uncle Roy were about 100 yards away with the dogs.
Somewhat disappointed, I picked up the bird and deposited it into the game pouch on my coat and made my way down to Dad. The dogs were retrieving their birds. Dad had gotten one and Uncle Roy had busted two with his ancient 16-gauge Lefever double barrel.
Dad said to me, “You should have been here. They were in this fence corner. You missed out.”
I pulled the quail from my game pouch. “No I didn’t,” I boasted.
There had been only about a dozen birds in the covey, and we had taken four of them. We decided not to hunt the singles but to leave them for “seed.” Dad called the dogs off, and we worked our way over the ridge toward the old Johnson farm.
The rain was starting to fall quite a bit harder as we worked toward the abandoned farmhouse. We stepped up onto the rickety porch to get out of the rain. Dad and Roy sat on a couple of well-used chairs and discussed our hunting strategy.
There were no doors or windows left on the old house. They were probably scavenged long ago for improvements on other houses. Nothing went to waste in those days. I explored the three rooms of what was known as a “shotgun-style” house The name came from being able to look in the front door and see out the back door; in theory, the shot from a shell fired from the front door could travel straight through to the back. The main or “front” room was bare except for some leaves and debris that had blown in. From the scat on the floor, it was evident that many different critters had used the old house as a shelter, too. In a corner I found an old “Edgeworth” smoking tobacco tin in remarkable condition partially covered by leaves. I put it in my coat pocket for later use as a can for worms when I would go fishing.
The middle “bedroom” was also bare except for a small broken table. The walls had been covered with corrugated paper from boxes and newsprint as insulation from winter’s cold. A single window illuminated the room. I read some of the old news articles. The paper was dated 1937. A calendar on the wall was from 1941.
In the kitchen were the remnants of a small cast-iron stove. I couldn’t imagine how a meal could be cooked on its two-plate top. I wonder if they had any kids? I picked up a rusty, yellowish tin from a wobbly shelf. The lithographed lettering said “Arbuckles’ Finest Coffee” in bold letters. For some unknown reason, I placed it back upon the shelf. I was amazed that someone had built a house and farmed this ridge top. As I returned to the porch, I noticed the old rose bushes and apple trees in the front yard. I wondered what it looked like in its glory days.
After an hour the rain stopped, and we decided to make our way back to the truck. I had been looking at those old rose bushes that the weeds had grown up through. It was the perfect habitat for rabbits on a rainy day. I walked over and kicked the mass of dead vegetation, and two rabbits bolted out going in different directions. I swung on the right one and rolled it, and Uncle Roy shot the other. The dogs just looked at us as if to say, “Hey! Are we hunting birds here or what?” I collected the rabbits and gave Uncle Roy his. When it came to rabbits, I was the retriever.
It was raining lightly again as we worked down the ridge. Belle went on point with Fannie backing her. We readied ourselves for the covey flush. The birds boiled out in a loud roar and in every direction. We all fired a fusillade of several shots, and not one feather fell. We had all missed. Belle watched the birds fly into the woods at the bottom of the hill. She slowly turned her head back toward us and stared.
Uncle Roy said, “Jim, I think we’ve just been cussed out by yer bud dawg.”
I swear she was shaking her head as she sauntered off down the hill.
Suddenly the rain came pouring down. We headed on toward Frank’s place. As we crossed the fence, Frank was on the porch waiting for us.
“Come on in and get yesselfs warmed up a bit.”
We took off heavy rain-soaked coats and muddy boots. The dogs curled up together on the dry porch. Steam curled up from their wet fur as they shivered. Steam also rose from us in the cold air. The temperature was falling fast, and the rain was now mixed with snow. We accepted Frank’s invitation to share the warmth of their fireplace.
Entering the small frame house, I marveled at its spartan starkness. The rush of warm air from the fireplace was very what we needed. The house was also a shotgun-style with only three rooms with a minimum of furnishings. Their bed had been moved into the living room for the winter for the warmth from the fireplace. The little house appeared to be very comfortable, though.
Ever the dreamer, I again started to imagine pioneering settlers building the small house and clearing the fields to make a new life for themselves. This was a humble abode that had served generations well. It provided shelter and comfort; what else could anyone need? As we gathered around the fireplace to warm ourselves, Mrs. Hankins came in and asked, “Are ya ready fer that coffee now?”
Some kitchen chairs were brought into the living room for us to sit on. She brought in three mugs of coffee for the adults. I was very much aware of the aroma of coffee, cornbread and something else. It all smelled wonderful. Mrs. Hankins almost pleadingly asked, “Would y’all stay and have supper with us? We don’t git much company these days, and I’ve fixed aplenty.”
It sounded pretty good to me, and I looked at Dad. Uncle Roy, ever the Southern charmer, beat us to the answer by saying, “Ma’am, we would be honored to have dinner with y’all.”
Mrs. Hankins could hardly contain her joy at having company. She said, “We heered ya shootin up there. Did ya git anythang?”
“Yes,” Dad answered. “We got some rabbits for you and Frank and some birds, too.”
She clapped her hands together with excitement and said, “Oh Lord, that’s wonderful. We ain’t had fried rabbit fer quite a spell.”
Dad turned to me and asked me to get the rabbits and birds from the coats and clean them. Mrs. Hankins brought me a big enameled dishpan to put the cleaned game in. On the back porch was an old pump. The water from it was so cold that it would make your teeth hurt. The porch wasn’t much warmer than the water. I was sure thankful that I had put on two pairs of wool socks that morning or my feet would have frozen to the old linoleum flooring.
I cleaned the rabbits and quail in record time. I washed everything in the cold water and then took the dishpan full of game into the kitchen for Mrs. Hankins. I was thinking that fried rabbit sounded awfully tasty.
She herded me back into the living room with the men. We sat around the fireplace watching the dancing flames. As I sat on the floor warming my cold feet, Frank started reminiscing about his younger days of hunting and farming. He didn’t do much farming anymore. A neighbor would come over and plow a field for him so he could plant a little corn for livestock feed. He still had a milk cow and a couple of pigs. They have their little garden plot to raise vegetables, and they had a few fruit trees.
“Ma would put up the vegetables for winter, and we would hole up the taters, beets in holes in the ground lined with straw,” he said.
He talked about his family and how they had all moved away and seldom visited. As he talked, it was obvious that they did not get many visitors. They relied on a friend from church to take them to town once in a while. Frank stood up and took down an ancient single shot shotgun from the pegs above the fireplace.
“It’s a Belknap. Ever heard of ’em?” He handed the gun to Uncle Roy.
“Sure have,” Uncle Roy answered. “They were sold by the Bluegrass Hardware company, weren’t they? It’s a 16-gauge, too.”
“Yep,” Frank responded. “It’s a good ’un, an’ I kilt my share of squirrels ’n rabbits with it and some raccoons. It shoots real tight, too.”
He had a wishful look in his eyes and shook his head.
“I don’t git to hunt no more. I ain’t got no more shoots fer it. Ain’t got the money to buy any these days either. They’s just too ’spensive.”
The conversation went on for quite awhile. The drone of the conversation and warmth of the fire had me starting to nod off for a nap. Mrs. Hankins came into the room and said, “Y’all wash up now. Supper’s on the table. Bring your chairs and cups, too.”
We followed her into the kitchen. Two kerosene lamps on the massive table lit the room. The chairs around the ancient oak table were a mismatched assortment. In the middle of the table was a large covered bowl. The aroma of a pone of cornbread filled the room. It had been baked in a hot cast-iron skillet, so it had a thick, brown, crunchy crust. I was looking forward to the fried rabbit or rabbit stew or whatever.
A glass of milk was by my plate.
Then she announced, “I shore hope y’all like turnips,” as she removed the lid from the bowl. “I cooked them with a big chunk of fatback.”
The word ricocheted around the walls of my skull.
Humans don’t eat turnips! Wait a minute . . . Where’s the fried rabbit? This can’t be happening!
I was about to panic and struggled to keep my cool. I was trapped. I looked across the table at my dad, and he just nodded as if to say, “It’s OK.”
I had always heard that turnips were not fit for human consumption and at times even poisonous. My friends wouldn’t lie to me . . .
My mom never fixed turnips, and she always curled up her nose at the thought of them.
Why didn’t God create turnip termites to eat the all the turnips in the world, like they did in Li’l Abner?
Uncle Roy said, “Turnips – I love them. I haven’t had any in years.”
I wondered if he ever had any at all. I was suspicious of him. He didn’t say anything about eating them. It’s a conspiracy, and he is in on it!
Then Dad said, “I really like turnips, too. They are always good on a cold winter day. I like to pour the turnip juice over my cornbread.”
Yuck! This can’t be happening. Why is he staring at me?
Mrs. Hankins said, “Pap, you ask a blessin’ on the food.” I was also asking a blessing for God to change the turnips to fried rabbit or something nonpoisonous. But God didn’t hear me.
Mrs. Hankins was standing beside me, and she picked up my plate. She scooped up a big ladle of quartered turnips and poured them onto my plate. She also put a slice of the crusty cornbread on it. My mind was racing as what to do. I would look at the turnips then at my dad. I was careful not to make a face showing my displeasure. My parents had raised me to respect my elders and to be grateful for anything that I was given, especially food. They never mentioned turnips, though.
I did not want to embarrass my dad. I kept my composure trying to hatch a plan on how to eat the foul turnips. I figured I would take a mouthful of cornbread and then a tiny bit of turnip and then wash it all down with milk. Yes, that should camouflage the putrid taste. Uncle Roy, Dad and Frank all had taken a big ladle. Frank started mashing the turnips with his fork. “With my poor old teeth, I’ve got to smash ’em up to eat ’em.”
Dad was pouring the turnip juice over his crumbled cornbread. They were slurping and smacking their lips as if they were eating soup or biscuits and gravy. I glanced around the table and noticed that no one was grabbing their throat and gasping for air or on the floor writhing in convulsions either. I was aware that Mrs. Hankins was still beside me. I could feel her eyes looking down on me.
Uncle Roy said, “These turnips are really great, probably the best I ever ate.”
Dad chimed in, “They are really mild, almost sweet. Some turnips have a strong taste. The cornbread is excellent, too.”
I think everyone was waiting for me to add my opinion.
Dad looked at me and said, “They’re really good, Son. You like pepper, so put some pepper on them,” as he handed the pepper shaker to me. I covered the turnips in black thinking that might neutralize the poison.
Times up. I couldn’t stall any longer. I had already eaten half my cornbread and drunk most of my milk. I finally took my fork and cut one of the shining, glistening quarters of Satan’s putrid fruit in half.
I brought a piece up to my mouth. I was surprised at the pungent aroma, a different, almost sweet smell and peppery, of course. I popped the piece into my mouth and bit down.
Hey! That wasn’t too bad.
As I chewed the piece, I became aware that everyone was watching me. I had to say something.
“These are the best turnips I’ve ever eaten in my life.” I wasn’t lying either. They were the only turnips that I had ever eaten.
Dad smiled and Uncle Roy exclaimed, “Mighty tasty, aren’t they?”
Mrs. Hankins put her huge arms around me and gave me a big hug. I survived, and I even had a second helping of the terrible turnips.
We sat around the table and talked for several hours. Mrs. Hankins was savoring the fried rabbit that she was going to fix the next day. They couldn’t thank us enough for the rabbits and birds. They reminisced about the hard and the good times of the past. We finally realized that it was getting late. We had made new friends that we would visit again. As we put on our heavy hunting coats, Uncle Roy called for Frank to hold out his hands. Uncle Roy gave him all of his remaining 16-gauge shotgun shells and said, “Now you can go hunting again.”
Tears welled up in Frank’s eyes, and he struggled for words. He said, “Thank you all so much. We really enjoyed having ya come and visit, and we hope that you’ll come back.”
“We will,” Dad said, pointing to the ridge. “There are still some birds over there.”
The ground was now covered with a beautiful dusting of white. The snow swirled around us as we walked down the path to the truck.
Dad put his arm around me and said, “I’m proud of you, Son.”
I was happy, too . . . because the turnips didn’t kill me. I was proud that I was able to meet a wonderful elderly couple and share in their simple lifestyle. And I knew that they enjoyed the rabbits and quail.