Note: This site has long been too dormant and been dormant too long. I may change that or I may not not. But going on week seven cooped out with the COVID-19 emergency, I’ve started wondering what I want to do with the rest of my life. And as a result I’ve been pounding keyboards with some of the stuff in my head — most of which gets deleted. Writing has always been a passion and equally a pain. It’s something I know I am good at, but for too often don’t have the patience. Few stories flow from me. They have to be dragged out, and then endure ridiculous tinkering. But more than a year after my last post, I posted to Facebook this little window into a few weeks of one childhood summer that I banged out relatively effortlessly a cou0ple early mornings ago, and definitely wanted to port it here to live and perhaps to breathe a breath of life into this comatose old blog rather than just leave it to disappear from a social media platform. Anyway, here it is…
It was the early 1970s. I was at my grandmother’s house in Carbon Hill, Alabama, for a part of the summer. Just me and her. I was six. Maybe seven. Carbon Hill is a small town in the northwestern part of the state, outside of the larger town of Jasper, which I read once had the distinction once of being the top coal producer in the entire world. Grandma had a dusty little wooden house with a coal-burning stove in the kitchen that sat near the the crossroads of two strips of asphalt.
The nearest building was across one of the roads that had once housed her flower and gift shop shop, but now stood empty. The next nearest was the small church down one the other road aways, at which my grandma used to teach Sunday school in a damp dirt-floored basement underneath the pulpit. During a different summer visit, I sat in that basement with my cousins and Grandma going on with some story about David, transfixed at a large hornet might have been the size of my eyeball that flew to a s midair stop and hovered so beautifully in the open basement doorway. I couldn’t decide if the hornet was afraid to come in or was just taking its time figuring out which one of us it was going to sting, until finally grandma got fed up with me staring at it dumbstruck and slammed the door shut.
The nearest neighbor was my great aunt Nellie up a nearby dirt road who I visited even though Grandma didn’t seem to keen on it. Aunt Nellie was sweet and gave me Milky Way candy bars and told me to mind her sister Ola and that she loved and missed Lyndell. That confused me at first because everyone who knew my mom called her Casey, which is how I learned the difference between birth names and stage names.
The room I slept in was in the rear of the house near the screened-in back porch. It had wood paneling and a ceiling fan in the center and bare floors and a large down bed with down pillows and a down comforter all positioned at an angle that when you’d fall in it would almost fully swallow you up. The bedding gave the room a deep, dense, and absolutely wondrous musty smell that has never left my nose, nor will I ever hope the day comes when it does.
Above the room’s ceiling and under the roof in one of the corners was a beehive so very large and active that you could hear endless droning of its workers day or night. So loud was it that often it seemed they were either in the room or on the verge of breaking through, but I never was freaked out by it. For that I can thank my best friend back in Van Nuys who was allergic and would run crying a mile like a baby in the opposite direction of where a single honeybee minding its own business might be. His embarrassing tantrums were a great lesson in how not to act around bees, most of which I’d encountered in my life had much better things to do than sting you. In fact, the incessant buzzing coupled to that thick aroma would often conspire to lull me off to sleep even when swaddled almost to suffocation in the humid-hot nights.
To the west of the house was a creek (which grandma pronounced “crick”) full of crawdads and the occasional cottonmouth. Behind the house was a chicken coop, and beyond that were towering sunflowers and corn stalks as far as I could see. There were also masses of beans growing somewhere, but their location I don’t recall. I only know they existed because of the many evenings spent shelling bushels of them on the front porch with grandma, done so under a bare bulb porch light that drew skies full of noisy flying things from the next county. Under the light stood a large bowl of water, and in the mornings it would be full of a fair percentage of those winged creatures who had the misfortune to land in it.
As a child of six or seven what terrified me weren’t the bees or the bugs or the critters in the crick. I became petrified by the black panthers I’d overhear grandma talking about on the phone and how there was no stopping them and they were coming to get all of us. I had no idea at the time or for years to come that she was frightened by the militant activist group so often in the news of the day. From my Jungle Book mentality all I figured she was talking about was a legion of bloodthirsty Bagheeras lurking out there somewhere in the darkness.
And damned if on one of those steam-soaked nights when something made a noise louder than the beehive and startled me from sleep, instead of my room the following morning, Grandma found me sprawled out on the backporch couch, garden hoe gripped tight in my hands from the vigil I’d stood in the dark, guarding over the house and the hens and beyond it the impenetrable sea of sunflowers and corn, where every whisper of the wind and sway of a stalk was a deadly black panther to which I’d defiantly stomp my weapon to keep them at bay and away from my grandma.
When she woke me frowning at my location, I told her what I had been keeping watch for, and Grandma gave me a sideways look stared out into the field and walked back into the kitchen wondering aloud where I’d gotten such a silly idea like that.