POST 13: Country Mouse

For all of the trash-talkin' I can sometimes do about North Carolina, it actually holds a special place in my heart. In the recent New York Times bestseller The Help (a true must, must read), author Kathryn Stockett describes it best when discussing her love-hate relationship with her native Mississippi - "Mississippi is like my mother. I am allowed to complain about her all I want, but God help the person that raises an ill word about her around me, unless she is their mother too." And that's how I feel about my Carolina roots. I worked hard in my teens and early adult years to rid myself (or at least disguise) my thick, drawn out southern accent. As the years pass I'm more apt to let it fall out of my mouth unchecked, not as comfortably as I'd like but more comfortably than before. Another step toward learning to feel good in my own skin, I suppose.

North Carolina has many things wrong with it. For starters, industry is slow and it's hard for people to find any work at all, much less work that pays a decent wage. I know some people who live in North Carolina but work in other states like South Carolina and even Georgia. They travel out of state to work during the week and come home on weekends to be with their families. Why they don't just move all together I don't understand. The same reason mosquitoes are attracted to Bug Zappers? like moths to the flame?

Columbus County, where I grew up, is the fifth poorest county in North Carolina. It neighbors Robeson County which is the numero uno poorest county in the state. North Carolina is a poor state overall though certainly not the poorest. That title belongs to Ms. Stockett's sweet Mississippi.

Our neighborhood was a small one and every adult in it was unemployed either by force or by choice. Our street was a small two lane road that seldom got any thru-traffic so we kids had the unheard of luxury of organizing bike races or kick ball games and holding them right in the middle of the road. The school year went by in a flurry of activity between school and neighborhood shenanigans, and summers vacillated between slow and dull to high speed and invigorating. Summer days were spent catching craw fish from nearby ditches and swimming in local fishing holes, riding bikes and just basically spending time covered in sweat and earth. I feel fortunate that my summers were almost, dare I say... ideal. Kids just don't get those kinds of summers anymore.

One of my all-time favorite movies is The Sandlot. Although it takes place in an era different from the 80s I grew up in, there are a lot of similarities. Watching that movie transports me to that sweet time in my life when lemonade on the porch wasn't just for nostalgic commercials; cartoons were for Saturday mornings; and kids began their school year with a farmer's tan and enough mosquito bites to play connect-the-dots. Of all the rotten things that might have happened in my life, my childhood summers were not one of them. Summers were pure magic.

But my cheery fondness doesn't stop with summers. While summers were oppressively hot - hot enough to melt road pavement into a putty I could pinch off in my fingers - fall was a refreshing break. Autumnal memories are almost as sweet for me as summer ones. Maybe they'd be sweeter if it hadn't been for the pesky inconvenience of school. Summers were great for fresh catfish and field peas and vine ripe tomatoes. Fall meant eating pecans right off of the tree and in a family that did not grow up with central air conditioning, it meant my grandmother spent longer hours in the kitchen making stews and cakes and other goodies synonymous with cool breezes and leaves of bright red and orange that crunch underfoot. All of my happiest childhood memories can be summed up in two words - Summer and Fall.

Winter and spring however were just unpleasant little pit stops to get to my two favorite seasons. What's wrong with winter and spring? Well, I'm glad you asked. Winters in North Carolina mean no snow. None. Okay, well, maybe on rare occasion we would get two or three inches that always melt by noon, and that wasn't even every year. Winter also means darkness falls sometimes as early as five o'clock in the evening and shorter days mean more time indoors. Boring. Spring weather wasn't so bad but the dawn of spring just makes you itch for the freedom of summer. At least in North Carolina we get out from school in May - a nice benefit of growing up in place that still gives a gentle nod to it's roots as tobacco country when children got out in May to help their families with the arduous tobacco season. My own grandparents managed a tobacco farm for years. After the pack house would be full to the brim with harvested tobacco, they would take the remaining leaves and string them up in their house to cure for the remainder of the season. Like I mentioned in an earlier post, the smell of tobacco is one of my favorite smells. I know to love tobacco is a faux paus in today's society, but I do. I am instantly endeared to any man who smokes a pipe or chews Red Man tobacco.

To combat winter boredom, we came up with all kinds of ridiculous games. However, none was more ridiculous and dangerous than "B.B. Hide-and-Seek." Truthfully, I'm almost afraid to share the rules of engagement for fear that my grandmother might appear out of the corner of my eye and yell at me to go pick my own switch so she can "tan my legs." I know some of my friends are reading this and thinking, "What in the world is she talking about?" Just go with it. I'll explain it to you later when I whip out my 'Dictionary of Southern Euphemisms and Expressions, Vol. 1.'

First let me say that I do not recommend this game to anyone and if I caught my own son playing this I would Freak. Out. Basically, the rules were simple: Cover yourself in as many layers of clothing as possible; Split into two teams; Take your B.B. gun into the woods and hide; When you see someone from the opposite team walk by, shoot them with your B.B. gun. Appalling. I think this is a great story to illustrate just how little supervision I had growing up. I remember putting on three pairs of jeans, three shirts, two sweaters, a heavy coat, gloves, boots, a scarf and whatever else I could find to cover all traces of my skin and then loading my little Daisy B.B. gun with a carton of tiny metal projectiles and heading for the cover of the woods behind our house to wait for the appearance of an equally overly bundled mass to waddle by and then an unsuspecting Pap! - right in the leg with a copper B.B. It didn't hurt, it just more or less jolted you for a moment. I know. Awful. Thankfully, no one was ever injured by this foolish game. At most, one of us would hobble away with a whimper and retreat to the safety of an overgrown hedge or tree trunk.

Aside from this horrific game, we played more innocent ones. I can recall times of mud-pie making, relay races, and pick-up basketball games. We hardly had enough neighborhood kids to play a decent game of baseball but we never hesitated to use the ever handy, "Ghost Man." "Ghost Man on second!" We played outside, running and imagining, using our muscles and brains, all day long. We were governed by no one, free as birds. We laughed and made all kinds of mischief so that each lady in the neighborhood could be heard at any one time yelling from her front porch,"You kids get outta my dogwood tree!" "You kids get from out behind my garden!" "You kids leave that poor dog alone!" "I'm tellin' you kids for the LAST TIME! Don't touch my water hose!"

I have some pretty tender snapshots in my mind of the things we kids did together. Some of them I am ashamed of, like the time we broke into the house of the Mexican migrant laborers who lived down the street to watch some very questionable television and eat all of their snack food. That was wrong. There was also the time I discovered how chittlins were made. Gag. I have never again touched another chittlin ever since I saw Ms. Bellamy hosing out pig intestines in her front yard, cleaning those thin fleshy tubes of their pig poop and then laying them in a big metal wash tub to be cut up and fried. Sound tasty? You're crazy.

Finding things to do as a child was as easy as stepping outside. Outside of the four walls of our trailer, anything was possible. Where my spirit was deprived and broken, spending time among trees and and fresh air was cathartic. When I played basketball, I didn't think about my mother. When I rode my bike, I didn't wonder about food or clothing. When I laid in the grass and watched clouds pass overhead, I could forget about the ugliness that might have occurred just hours before.

Feeling and smelling rich dirt between my fingers, tasting my own sweat as it beaded up on my tanned face, eating banana sandwiches and drinking Coke from glass bottles - that's the stuff any child would be happy to have in their life. Watermelon slices chilling in the ice chest. A whole truck bed full of freshly picked corn so tasty and sweet that you ate it raw as soon as you shucked it (after you picked out the corn worms, of course). Sitting on the front porch in the evenings watching heat lightening and listening to the faint rumble of distant thunder in awe at the backdrop of purples and pinks as the sun sets to a downpour of summer rain.

There aren't many things I'd like to pass on to my children from my own childhood. In fact there are many things I am bound and determined not to pass on just as sure as I live and breathe. But there are a few things, just a few, that I hold as dear to me as treasure.

I'd love to watch my son's face in the glow of a few fireflies. I'd love to see him fish for crawdads or run into the house after playing unseen for hours covered in a healthy layer of filth and grime, childish innocence and wonder. I hope one day when he goes through his own memory vault, he can pull more happy memories that involve things that come from the earth than things that come from plastic packages. I hope one day I'll look back at my career as a parent and be proud that I left the bad and carried on the good. I hope when he grows up and someone asks him about his own childhood, his eyes will get hazy for just a moment recalling his own sweet memories of what it means to be a child of summer.