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Cornbread Chronicles: Excerpts

by Jerry Barksdale                                                                                                 

Cornbread Chronicles                                                                                                      

Mountain Valley Publishing, 2008


A Buck Don’t Buy Near The Sin It Used To    

I lay half awake in the unheated room buried deep beneath a pile of quilts. It was still dark outside.

Then I remembered it was Saturday. No school! And no picking cotton today!

The radio was playing in the kitchen. I threw back the cover, sprang from bed and ran across the cold linoleum wearing cotton “longhandles,” dashing into the warm kitchen illuminated by a coal oil lamp. Mama was bent over the wood cook stove frying sausage in a black iron skillet popping with hot grease.

“Good morning, Punk’n,” she said. “Did ya sleep well?”


Daddy sat at the kitchen table smoking Country Gentleman and sipping black coffee from a big white cup. A sack of Country Gentleman was in the bib of his overalls, the yellow drawstring dangling out. He was listening to the weather and market report on WSM out of Nashville.

“Drizzled all night,” he said. “Won’t be any pick’n today. Anyhow, I reckon we got a bale already.”

We had only one cotton trailer and that meant he would be going to the gin in Athens.

“Can I go?”

Daddy grinned and flicked ashes into a saucer with his little finger.

“Go where?”

“To the gin.”

“Aww, I dunno, you’ll hav’ta ask ya Mama.”

“Mama, please, please, please.”

She lifted the sausages from the hot skillet with a spatula, placed them on a platter and reached for eggs.

“Athens’ll be full of all kind of folks, especially since it’s Saturday and raining.”

“Please, Mama.”

“And there’ll be a bunch of loafing, no account riff-raff hanging around in front of the pool hall,” she said.

“I won’t go near ‘em. Cross my heart’n hope to die.”

“And you’re liable to wander off’n get hurt.”

“No ma’am, I’ll be real careful.”

I could feel it. She was going to let me go. My bare feet were dancing on the linoleum.

We lived on the Ellenburg Place on Bean Road in the Piney Chapel Community where we had moved the year before.

Mr. Henry Binford of Athens, who drove an ancient Pontiac with wooden spoke wheels, was a landlord and we worked the land in cotton and corn on shares. The soil was gray and worn out and didn’t yield much.

Following breakfast, Daddy milked the cow and slopped the hogs. After the drizzling rain stopped, he hooked the homemade two-wheel trailer filled with cotton to our big John Deere tractor.

Mama scoured my ears and scrubbed my face with a washcloth and dressed me in clean overalls and shirt and zip-up jacket.

“Now you be careful and mind your manners and don’t wander off.”

Daddy and I set out for Athens. I rode in the trailer, my lower body buried in warm cotton. When we reached blacktop at Elkton Road, Daddy shifted to high gear and the John Deere clucked effortlessly towards Athens.

At Yarbrough’s Gin, near Town Creek just a few blocks southwest of the square, there was a long line of cotton-filled trailers waiting to be suctioned. Daddy got in line, idled back the John Deere to a slow cluck, climbed down and lifted me from the trailer.

The noise from the gin was deafening.

“It’s gonna be awhile before I get ginned,” he said.

“Can I go up town?”

“I figured that. You heard what’che Mama said.”

“Daddy, please let me go. I’ll be real careful.”

He unzipped the bib of his faded overalls and lifted out his wallet, thumbed through the contents and handed me a wrinkled dollar bill.

“Now ya be careful and be back down heah no later than three o’clock, ya heah?”

I was seven years old and it was the first time I had been to town by myself. And I had a whole dollar to spend! I tore out up the hill, past the post office and towards the square, the dollar bill clutched tightly in my fist.

Downtown was crawling with trucks, cars and people. It was the biggest city I had ever seen. People were everywhere. All of the parking spaces had been taken and cars and trucks bumped and rattled over the brick cobblestone circling the courthouse, looking for a parking place.

Throngs of folks, black and white, moved leisurely up and down the sidewalk in no hurry, talking, laughing and looking.

At the southeast corner of the square in front of the State National Bank, a group of men loitered beneath a gnarled maple tree, some sitting on their haunches talking, smoking and spitting tobacco juice on the sidewalk.

I dodged the brown spittle and hurried north up Marion Street, weaving in and out of the slow-moving crowd, past Elmore’s Five and Dime, where the aroma of fresh popcorn wafted out the front door. I was tempted to stop and look at the toys, but didn’t. I was headed to the Ritz. At the end of the block, I paused in front of Gilbert’s Drug Store and eyed a group of men loitering in front of Booth’s Pool Hall.

They were laughing, smoking, and spitting on the sidewalks – no account riff-raff Mama had warned me about. I had promised her I wouldn’t go near the pool hall and started to cross to the opposite side of the street, but decided otherwise. I had never been this near real sin. The temptation was too great to pass.

I walked until I reached a phone booth-like concession stand near the pool hall. It was operated by Sam Robinson, a crippled man from Piney Chapel that everyone knew. I pretended to be looking for chewing gum while I took in the scene. Men were cussing and talking about women and whiskey. I was right in the middle of sin.

Then I got scared. What is someone from Ephesus Church of Christ saw me and told Mama? Worse still, what if the world ended and Jesus descended from Heaven and saw me in front of the pool hall? I wouldn’t stand a chance. I’d burn in hell for sure.

I took off running as fast as I could go, head back, expecting any moment that the sidewalk would part and the Devil would reach up and snatch me down into the bowels of hell.

I didn’t stop running until I reached the Ritz. I stood gasping for breath, looking up at the marquee. Roy Rogers was playing and in color! Hot dog! Admission was a quarter. I bought a ticket and went inside where the wonderful aroma of freshly popped corn was overwhelming. I was tempted to buy a bag, but it cost about 11 cents. I thought better of it. I had more important things to do with my money.

Although I was a member of the Lone Ranger Club and had a membership card to prove it, Roy Rogers was king of the cowboys. He could outride, outshoot, outfight, and out-sing anyone, including sissy pants Gene Autry. I had fought other boys to prove that point. Roy always fought fair, never drew first, never kidded a girl (Ugh!) and rode the smartest horse in the world, Trigger.

Inside, I looked for the bullet hole in the silver screen. Daddy said it was put there by a man who, after getting drunk and dozing off, woke to see that outlaws were about to catch Hopalong Cassidy.

Seeing that Hoppy needed help, he jumped from his seat, whipped out his pistol and fired.

I watched the movie twice and memorized every line. I exited the theater into bright sunlight and was instantly blinded by needle-like pain in my eyes. I was blind as a bat. I had sat in the dark for so long that my pupils had completely dilated. I was also famished. I walked up the sidewalk to Richter’s Meat Market where beef stew and burgers were sold. A black hog was painted on one side of the window and a white hog on the other side. The latter was for white patrons. I went in the door and took a seat on a stool at the long counter.

“What’che hav’n, honey child?” asked the waitress.

“How much is a hamburger?”

“Fifteen cents.”

I pulled the coins from my overalls and counted them. “Give me one… and a Double Cola too.”

It was my first hamburger.

She brought it out on a scarred white plate along with a Double Cola that was cold and wet. I nibbled at my burger, taking small bites, then laid it down while I slowly munched the delicious food. I wanted the experience to last forever.

Half a burger remained uneaten when the waitress suddenly swept by and scooped up the plate, apparently thinking I had finished.

“Come back,” she deadpanned and deposited a ticket on the counter.

I watched in silence, about to cry, but too embarrassed to say anything. I still had almost 50 cents to spend and it wasn’t three o’clock yet. I left Richter’s and crossed to the other side of Marion Street, avoiding walking past the pool hall, and went directly to Gilbert’s Drug Store. The only time we had ice cream at home was in the summer when Daddy went to town and bought a block of ice at Gish’s. Mama mixed the milk and vanilla and we hand-cranked it in the shade of a pecan tree in the front yard. That happened once a year after we had laid by our cotton.

I ordered a triple scoop of chocolate. It cost 15 cents. I licked the ice cream slowly, enjoying the pleasure, while I viewed comic books displayed in the front window. Then problems began. The ice cream melted faster than I could lick it and chocolate ran down my hands. The top scoop was about to topple off. I licked fast and furious, determined that no ice cream would go uneaten. And it didn’t.

I decided the next time, perhaps, two scoops would be sufficient. I still had almost 25 cents remaining. So I went to Elmore’s Five and Dime on the east side of the square, bought a bag of delicious popcorn and looked at toys, picking them up and examining each one.

An elderly woman clerk shadowed my every step. It made me nervous, but I was in no hurry. I couldn’t decide what I wanted to buy. There were too many toys to choose from. Finally, I bought a rubber ball and string attached to a wooden hand paddle. With a few pennies left, I purchased candy and bubble gum.

I looked at the courthouse clock. It was after 2. I took off running toward Yarbrough’s Gin. Daddy was rolling a smoke and waiting.

“Young’n, I began to think you ‘uz lost.”

“No sir.”

“Did ya have a good time?”

I remembered hearing the preacher once say that when people start having too much fun, they let their guard down and the Devil walks in and grabs them. If I told Daddy and Mama how much fun I had and what all I did, they might not let me go to Athens by myself again. Mama was big against sin.

I shrugged, “Aw, it was okay, I guess.”

That night I lay in bed wide awake and relived every moment of my experience, replayed the Roy Rogers movie in my mind and thought about how I narrowly escaped the clutches of the Devil.

Boy Howdy! Did I have a tale to tell my second-grade buddies at Piney Chapel.

I decided to leave out the part about running away from the Devil. They would call me chicken. Instead, I would tell them that I walked right in the front door of that ole pool hall and looked around until I was shooed out.

That would really impress them! On the other hand, what if that tale got back to Mama?

She would fan my britches with Daddy’s belt and I would never go to Athens again by myself. It gave me a lot to think about. I said my prayers and was soon asleep.

Kernels Of Truth From My Uncle Robert

 It’s been a long time since I appreciated a fine breeze on a hot summer day. Air-conditioning has spoiled me. Recently, I was chopping knee-high grass out of a friend’s corn patch. The sun was bearing down and the sharp corn leaves were cutting my arms. I straightened and mopped sweat. Just then a nice breeze rippled across the green corn and brushed my face.

I immediately flashed back to a stifling, hot July day in 1953. I was 12 years old and living on a farm near Madison Crossroads. Daddy and Uncle Robert were partners that year working Mr. Earl Digby’s redland farm. The high ground was planted in cotton and the lowland in corn.

Daddy was a good Southerner who had his priorities in order. He liked corn whiskey, quail hunting, crappie fishing and fox hunting. Uncle Robert, on the other hand, was a serious, no-nonsense man. He didn’t drink and didn’t care to be around those who did, but did enjoy fishing and hunting when he found time. He worked hard, smoked and worried a lot about feeding his wife and five children. He also was plagued with hemorrhoids. And bouncing around on the seat of a John Deere tractor all week didn’t improve his disposition.

The cotton crop had been “laid by” a few days earlier and everyone was looking forward to several days of rest. My 11-year-old cousin, David, and I were bored. We didn’t have a TV or bicycles. Of course, we could ride the jenny mules, but they had already thrown us several times and had run off, leaving us on foot. About the only thing left to do was to walk a mile or so to Ollie Reynolds’ store and sit on the bench on the front porch, eat Moon Pies and drink Double Colas, and hope that someone would come by and ask us to ride to the creek for a swim. I was sick of Moon Pies.

One hot, sticky mid-morning, we sauntered out to the back porch at David’s house and sat down. Uncle Robert, wearing overalls and khaki shirt, was leaning back against the wall in a cane-bottom chair smoking a Country Gentleman he had just rolled. Dogs and chickens were under the shade of a nearby maple tree. Nothing moved in the heat, not even a breeze.

“There ain’t not’n to do ‘round here,” David said.

“Yeah, I’m bored to death,” I replied.

Uncle Robert was silent. He finished his smoke and flipped the butt in the yard, got up and walked to the nearby well house. He emerged carrying two cotton hoes and a file. He sank to his knees and sharpened both hoes. David and I looked at each other bewildered, sensing that something wasn’t right.

Uncle Robert tested the sharp edge of the hoes with his thumb and eyed us sitting on the porch.

“You boys take these and go down yonder in the bottom and hoe that buck grass outta the corn.”

“Aw shucks! Do we have to?” I said.

“Yeah, I don’t want you boys to sit around and be bored.”

Uncle Robert wasn’t real big on free and open debate, especially with children. David and I took the hoes and headed off barefoot toward the corn patch, complaining and mouthing, but not until we were well out of Uncle Robert’s hearing.

The sweltering July sun beat down on us as we chopped and hacked knee-high buck grass and raked it to the center of the furrow. It was stifling hot in the head-high corn. Not a breeze stirred. We drank warm water from a gallon pickle jug that rested under the shade of a large oak tree, sweat stinging the sawbriar cut, between our toes. Time stood still. Later in the day, an occasional breeze kicked up and we stood on tiptoe to catch its freshness on our faces. Such a small thing, but it was heaven.

That evening, as the sun was setting, we dragged home, dog tired, our hoes resting across our shoulders. Uncle Robert was on the porch smoking a roll-your-own when we arrived.

“You boys still bored?” he asked.

“No sir!” we chimed.

“You boys learned a lesson?”

“Yes sir!”

Next morning after doing our chores, David and I headed to Reynolds Store and bought Moon Pies and Double Colas. They never tasted better.

I don’t know what lesson Uncle Robert intended to reach us, but I learned three from the experience. Leave well enough alone, appreciate a good breeze and, no matter what, never provoke a man who has hemorrhoids.

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