Look on a map and you will see that the Panhandle of Florida snuggles between the Gulf of Mexico and the State of Alabama. Perdido Bay itself is shared by the two states. Florida residents who live along the bay are said to dwell in L.A. — lower Alabama, that is. The whole area is also affectionately referred to as Redneck Riviera. Jimmy Buffet’s sister even has a restaurant over on the Alabama side. (It’s Lulu’s in Orange Beach.)
The Panhandle is different from the rest of Florida in several ways: we’re less crowded, we have the most beautiful sugar white sand beaches, we’re a whole lot more laid back, we’re on Central time rather than Eastern like the rest of the state, and we have real seasons.
Last night, for example, I had gone on to bed a little early to finish reading Diana Abu-Jaber’s fine memoir, The Language of Baklava, and had opened the sliding glass door to feel the fresh air from our first true cool front so far this season. Buck came in about a half hour later, was hit by the chilly gusts blowing in through the door and said, “Hey! Who opened that pneumonia hole?” By then, I was snuggled under the covers with only my book and a cold nose peeping out.
There is a day that comes in mid-October that might pass me by were it not for Buck and our friend, Harold. It’s Planting Day, and it came this week; Thursday, to be exact. It started with a phone call from Harold to Buck: “Hey, old man. It’s just me. You figured out yet where you’re gonna get them seeds and that Triple 13? I got to have that heart cath on the 30th and I’m goin’ fishin’ up in Alabama next week if it’s the last thing I do, so I figure tomorrow’s the day. You be ready?”
Buck said he would be ready. After hanging up with Harold, he pulled out the telephone directory and began to call farm stores from Pensacola, Cantonment and Molino on the Florida side, to Robertsdale and Atmore on the Alabama side. “I’ve got to plant some deer food plots. Can you give me your prices on Triple 13, oats, wheat and rye? In the bag prices; I don’t have a way to handle them bulk.”
Triple 13 is a balanced fertilizer. The price has gone sky high — so high that some of the farm stores have quit ordering it. The best price turned out to be over in Alabama, at Trucker’s Feed and Seed in Atmore, about 45 minutes north of our gate.
Buck and Maggie took off in the black pick-up about 3:15 Wednesday afternoon to get a load of the fertilizer. When they got back, Buck dropped off the requisite number of bags at each of the four food plots, and then dropped off the rest near the big oak tree in our front yard. Next, he got on the old Case 60 horsepower tractor and disked all of the plots plus the front yard area so that it would be ready for Harold to come in with his tractor Thursday morning to apply granular fertilizer with his spreader.
Thursday morning dawned bright and early, with strong coffee in the pot and Harold at the door. “Just a little bit, Miss Beth,” he said and came in to take a seat on one of the Office Depot swivel stools at the kitchen bar. I slid a mug of coffee over to him and took a seat myself to revel in Harold’s nonstop stories and the horrible jokes which made me laugh nontheless.
Buck stood at the counter and wolfed down half a peanut butter sandwich and a glass of milk, and then he and Harold went to the woods. Buck’s job was to lift the heavy sacks of fertilizer, slice open one end and dump them into the big funnel-shaped metal spreader, which was attached to Harold’s tractor. Then Harold went up and down the disked rows, slinging out the Triple 13 evenly.
When Buck came back in, it was time for me to swing into action. He tossed me the truck key, gave me a map to Trucker’s in Atmore and a list of what I needed to pick up and the price they had agreed upon. There were only two country roads that I needed to traverse between our gate and Atmore, and they were beautiful on this day. When acres of cotton fields ready for harvest began to appear on both sides of the road, I could have kicked myself for not bringing my camera. Then I remembered my cell phone and gave it a try.
I thought about my late mother, Nettie Moore Jones, the stories she told us kids about her childhood on a Mississippi farm, and her love-hate relationship with the lovely and demanding cotton crop.
A drive like this is a great elixir for just about anything.
When I crossed the railroad tracks in Atmore, went two more blocks, turned left and drove another block to a four-way stop, I could see Truckers: a nondescript building in a decaying small town industrial area. I pulled around to the back, where Buck had told me the entrance would counter-intuitively be. It was. Just at the door, I could hear the convivial murmurs and chuckles of men enjoying their own company, sharing hunting and fishing stories from seasons past. When I stepped in, dressed in beatnik black tshirt and chinos, chopped hair and red lipstick, well, son, the room went sharply silent and the men, about seven of them, just froze in mid-sentence. Whatever they had been expecting to walk in through that door, it wasn’t me. I waggled my yellow legal pad sheet list to show my bonafides, and a young clerk fellow thawed into action, realizing I must be on a shopping errand for a hunter husband. He rang up the sale and pointed me in the direction of a metal building at the far end of the parking lot. “Go on over there. They’ll load you up.”
While a genial giant collected the seed bags on his front end loader from the warehouse and slung them one by one into the truck bed, I watched across a road so neglected the asphalt was a pearl gray. An old man struggled out of his parked car and moved crookedly, slowly up the three steps of the Veterans of Foreign Wars block building. A younger old man opened the door and took the arm of the older gentleman to help him inside. The melancholy door closed behind them, and I drove away with that heavy load.
By the time I arrived back home and barely parked the truck, Harold had opened the tailgate and was counting bags. “Did you get you any lunch on the road, Miss Beth?” Not knowing where he was angling, I hedged, “Well, not exactly, but I did get this little bag of pretzels and a Diet Coke. What do you need?”
“Well, I was hoping to get you to drive over to the plots and let me bring my slinger up real close so I can open them bags without having to carry them too far.”
Ah. “No problem, Harold. This will do me for lunch, but it’s turned hot. Just give me a minute to change out of these long pants and we’ll go.”
The day really had gotten hot. It was just past Noon on this blue sky cloudless day. At the first plot, I watched Harold maneuver 3 fifty pound bags of oats, 2 fifty pound bags of wheat, and a partial bag of rye into the spreader (he calls it his slinger). He would sooner die than ask for help, but I couldn’t help but think about his multiple hernia repairs, new pacemaker, and upcoming heart catheterization procedure and fret about whether he was pushing the envelope.
I moved on to the second of four plots, looked at Harold’s list of how many bags of which seed were to go onto each plot. He has been keeping a meticulous list for years. I got out of the truck cab and climbed into the back, pulling, tugging and shoving the bags around until the right numbers of the right ones were on the tailgate. I didn’t want Harold to catch me helping him, so I jumped back into the truck, listened to the radio and munched on pretzels while I waited for the sound of Harold’s tractor rumbling up the grassy fire line road. He came along soon enough, sidling the spreader close as he could to the tailgate.
We repeated this procedure until all the seeds were gone, then headed for the house. He never said a word about the realignment of the bags, but Harold is smarter than a tree full of owls and has never missed a detail in all the years I have known him.
Over those many years, Harold has picked tomatoes, potatoes, yellow squash, cucumbers, okra and zipper cream peas for us from his garden. He has brought us generous milk jugs full of huge, sweet blueberries from the U-Pick farm over in Seminole, Alabama. He has cut a road to our home through the storm debris of Hurricane Ivan.
And almost everything I know about storytelling, I have learned from Harold Swilley. The rest I learned — and am still learning — from Buck.
On the way back to the house, I had to stop the truck and wait for a big gopher tortoise. He wasn’t paying the least bit of attention to me. He was moving toward the friable, fragrant turned over earth, homeward bound.