Most of the time I can make coffee in the dark, barely conscious. But yesterday, I started to brew it with three scoops instead of two, and today, when I walked over to fill my mug, I found that I had brewed up a nice big pot of hot water.
I’ve got a bad case of “Harold” on my mind.
Harold and his wife, Louise, live only a few miles from our place here in the longleaf pine woods of northwest Florida. He helps Buck with a variety of projects, and watches over things when we’re out of town. He knows this forest, with its pines and hardwoods, spring-fed creek, deer, turkey, coyotes and at least one wild hog, like the back of his scarred up hand.
Harold doesn’t have much formal education, but Buck says he is “smart as a tree full of owls.” He is also one of the world’s great storytellers.
Harold is a man whose back-country vernacular hasn’t been homogenized into standardized bland. His stories are not regurgitated from the watered-down stuff of the Internet, but dramatic, front-porch originals wrenched from the heart, guts and bowels of his own hard-working life as a farmer and heavy equipment operator for logging companies in the south.
Some of you blog old-timers, 2003 or 2004 vintage, might remember the Harold story I’m going to reprise today. I’ve been holding back all the Harold stories to whittle on and develop for a life in the wider world.
But Harold hasn’t been well. And now, he’s had a Premonition.
Snakes and Snails and Puppy Dog Tails
“Boys are made of snakes and snails and puppy dog tails. Girls are made of sugar and spice and all things nice.” (childhood singsong)
Harold came in from the deer woods and knocked on our front door just as Buck and I were revving up our laptops in preparation for the stock market opening bell.
“Didn’t see a thang, nary even a track or a scrape.” I handed him his usual mug of coffee, and he sat down heavily in the dining room chair I had pulled up close in anticipation that he would tell us a tale or two before leaving.
I went out to the garage to put a load of towels in the washing machine, stopped by the coffee pot for another cup, eased past Harold and Buck, and slipped into my black swivel desk chair at the writing table. Harold was already in full story-telling mode.
He and Louise had been over in Alabama at their hunting camp. Some nearby target shooters and someone trying out their New Year’s Eve fireworks had messed up their hunt. That sparked off a whole set of memories, mainly of childhood games and adolescent misdeeds.
He and Buck talked about the various types of fireworks, legal and “un,” that a boy could get hold of around here fifty years ago. From the little bitty one inch long ones with a short fuse that don’t do anything but make noise, to cherry bombs that blow up a mail box.
Sipping my coffee, I thought about how girls would never do any such foolishness as that. We had our own foolishness, but it was quieter and almost never got us into trouble.
Harold told us about the time he and some of his friends, all about ten years old, had several packages of the itty bitty poppers. They would keep them hidden under a galvanized bucket, and when a car drove by, pull one out, light it real fast and toss it under the car. No damage, but a satisfyingly loud “POP!” Then they would run to the back yard, returning seconds later for a repeat performance on another car.
They hoarded those little poppers like gold.
One day some young boys from across the street came over to Harold’s house and he shared a couple of his poppers with them. “They didn’t have nothin’,” Harold said, suddenly serious. “Course, none of us had nothin’, but at least we had them little firecrackers to play with.”
One of the boys lit a fuse, jumping and dancing with delight when it popped on the sidewalk. Harold lifted up the edge of his bucket to fetch out another one for one of the boys. The boy lit the fuse quickly and got so excited he tossed it away. It landed right under the edge of Harold’s bucket, which was still tilted up. Harold started to chuckle as he told this part.
Well, that action lit up some of the other fuses, and the bucket took on a life of its own, popping and dancing off down the sidewalk. Harold was laughing so hard by now, he almost seemed to be crying, arms pinwheeling around as he illustrated how that bucket full of firecrackers jumped and bucked all around.
This led him to recall the pranks of teenagers in his neighborhood, long after he and Louise had set up housekeeping in rural Escambia County, Florida. He told about some of the local boys who would blow up mailboxes with cherry bombs or come through an area taking a baseball bat to the galvanized metal boxes.
He talked about old man Purdue, whose mail box was a frequent target for awhile. “He didn’t bother nobody unless he got raggedy drunk; then he got plum ugly. But if you called his wife, Miss Lucille, she would come get him.”
Anyway, old man Purdue finally had enough, and hatched up a plan to take care of those boys. According to Harold, he emptied out his shot gun and filled it with rock salt. Then he found a spot behind some bushes near his mailbox. It took three nights of waiting, then “here they come.” The boys swung their baseball bats into his newest mailbox, laughing as they smashed it to the ground. He waited until they were finished and just starting to head on down the road. Then he rose up from his hiding place and blasted the south end of the north traveling boys with the rock salt in his shotgun.
Old man Purdue went around to the hospital emergency room where one of the boys was getting bandaged, and told his father what he had done and why. According to Harold’s story, the father made his son apologize to the old man, and drop his pants for a couple of lashings from the father’s own belt, bandages notwithstanding.
The whole business sounded brutal, and I winced listening to it. But the young man in question went a few rounds with Harold, too, for conduct unbecoming a gentleman, and yet the two became friends later in life as the unruly boy matured into a grown man.
Harold and the boy, now middle-aged, were crying together at the boy’s mother’s wake earlier this week, his father long gone.
Harold said the boy’s mother was “the goodest old soul you ever seen.”