Crossing Bridge by Horseback. . . by One o’the Nine

I’ve been busy this week changing out the winter closets to spring and summer, and generally doing some spring cleaning. Because of the change in schedule, I will be offering a few guest columns as and when possible, including this, one from my collection of stories first published in a Florida community newspaper in the late 1980’s as a weekly column co-written by two of my uncles and called “One o’the Nine.” This one appeared August 6, 1987.


009_9-2Children that live in the city today think that life on the farm is boring, but I can assure you that life was not boring when I was a boy growing up on the farm in the early thirties. We had to work too hard for life to be boring, and–another thing–we found things to do to entertain ourselves, such as taking an old bucket lid and nailing a handle on it and pushing it along for mile after mile. We even found excitement in our work.

I remember once Papa told my younger brother and me to go across the creek and bring some cows back across from the other side. We saddled the horse and a mule. My brother had to ride the mule; after all he was the youngest. We rode the horse and mule down to the creek bridge. Now we didn’t know the county road department had torn the old wooden bridge down to replace it with a new cement one. All there was left of the old bridge was two sills about fifteen inches wide. My brother said, “Oh me! We will have to ride two miles to find a place where we can get across.”

There were steep banks along the creek, making it impossible to cross on horses in most places. I told my brother, “I’m going to ride Old Georgia across the sill of the bridge.” He assured me that I was afraid to do it. Old Georgia was a very gentle horse and would go almost any place you aimed her head. I aimed it at the narrow sill and began to ease her across. I know this is hard to believe but it really is true. Old Georgia made it about half way across before one of her back feet slipped off the sill. I eased down from her back and stood on the sill in front of her holding the bridle reins in my hands and pleaded, “Don’t fall, don’t fall!” It was at least ten or twelve feet to the bottom of the creek and it was almost dry except for the soft mud. Suddenly, without warning, her other foot slipped and she fell flat on her back and the saddle stuck in the mud with all four of her feet straight up in the air. She groaned and tried to turn over, but she was buried too deep in the mud.

I was lucky that day. Thee was a black man about a hundred yards away on a bulldozer watching. He came running down to see if it had killed her. After seeing she was alright, he brought a big grass rope and the bulldozer, and after tying her feet with the rope he took the bulldozer and pulled her out. Other than being a little shook up and muddy, she was alright.

When Old Georgia fell off the bridge sill, the mule that my brother was riding threw him off in the road ditch and ran to the house as fast as she could run. It seems as though the mule was saying, “Brother, if you think I’m going to follow that, you have another thought coming.” I cleaned the mud from the saddlle and climbed upon Old Georgia’s back and rode her home.

About twenty years later my younger brother lived in Vero Beach and was talking to a black man one day. When my brother told him where he grew up, the man said, “about twenty years ago I was building a bridge in that area and I saw a white boy ride a horse across a bridge sill.” I don’t expect you to believe this, but it is true. It was the same black man that had taken the bulldozer and pulled Old Georgia out of the creek.

Boring? No, life was never boring on Papa’s farm when I was a boy.

Postscript: A bridge sill is the supporting structure, in the case of this bridge near my grandpa’s farm, made of wood. There was never a dare this uncle wouldn’t take, and this was one of the more dangerous ones. Somehow, he always managed to stay out of trouble though no one ever understood quite how or why. He grew up to become a southern Baptist minister after he grew up, which gave him another audience for his country stories and provided fodder for new ones.

A Cheap Country “High” . . . by One o’the Nine

In this story by One o’the Nine, one of my father’s eight brothers, you will learn how syrup is made from sugar cane. I manage to get a bottle once in awhile when I visit my brother who’s still living in Florida on the “old homeplace.” He makes and bottles it the same old-fashioned way, with the same grinding mill, boiling off method. He makes the day a big community event every year around Thanksgiving. Sometimes he hires a country band to come by to play and sing, and people come from miles around to sit around and watch the syrup cooking, or tell stories and listen to old-fashioned blue grass and country music.


009_9-2I imagine that only a few people born after the thirties know what cane skimmings are, or where they come from, and velvet beans are also an almost forgotten item that was once a vegetable crop for north Florida farmers. When I was a boy on the farm at the age of about fifteen, one of my older brothers and I had an unforgetful experience with cane skimmings and velvet beans.

During the ’30’s and ’40’s, we grew about three or four acres of sugar cane to be used in making syrup. Syrup and biscuit was a big item in our diet during those years. We had two cane mills and two eighty gallon kettles used in grinding cane and making syrup. It usually took us at least two weeks of steady grinding to get all the sugar cane convered to syrup Our day began at 4:30 in the morning and ran until 9:30 or 10 at night. I remember grinding cane early in the morning when it was so cold the juice wouldn’t separate from the cane. We would build large litered knot fires around the piles of cane to warm it up enough so the juice became liquid and the cane stalks could be run through the mill without crumbling.

In the process of syrup making the cane juice is boiled to evaporate most of the water leaving a liquid sugar, or syrup. When the juice begins to boil, all the trash and impurities associated with cane juice comes to the top and has to be skimmed off and put in barrels until it can be disposed of, usually by feeding it to the livestock. It doesn’t take cane skimmings long to ferment since there is a fair amount of sugar left in them.

One Saturday, about three weeks after cane grinding was over, Papa and Mama went to town and left my older brother and me to pick velvet beans for the next year’s seed. I had never tried to drink fermented cane skimmings before, but I had heard that you could get quite drunk on them. Well, this Saturday I went to the syrup house for something and smelled the sour cane mash and decided I would try drinking some. So I drove a nail in the bottom of the barrel and drew out about a pint bottle full.

There were bees, bugs, frogs, and lots of other things floating on the top, but the bottom was clear and good. After I pulled the nail out of the barrel and filled my bottle I reared back and took a big swig. I was really surprised because it tasted kind of sweet and didn’t burn at all. I drank most of the bottle and then refilled it, then plugged the hole with the nail to keep the barrel from emptying. I put the pint bottle in my back overalls pocket and went to get some croker sacks to put velvet beans in.

On the way my older brother saw the bottle in my pocket and wanted to know what I had in it. I lied and told him I had a bottle of water to carry to the velvet bean field. My brother somehow knew I was lying and began a scuffle to get the bottle. I was afraid if I told him he would tell Papa and I would get my behind tanned, so I quickly reasoned if I could get him to drink some then he wouldn’t tell. I told him I had the cane skimmings and they tasted gooood. He took a swig from the bottle and licked his lips, then drained the bottle.

We then went back to the barrel and filled two more bottles and headed for the velvet bean field. We picked about a peck of beans and then we drank all the skimmings in our bottles. We were both feeling tipsy by this time, so we sat down and leaned against a big pine stump that stood in the field. We both went to sleep and didn’t wake up until almost sundown. We hurried home with our few beans and drumped them on top of the pile in the storehouse that we had previously picked.

The Lord was watching over us I know because Papa and Mama didn’t get back from town until after dark, so Papa didn’t get to see the small amount of beans we picked. I don’t believe he ever knew we got on a cheap drunk on cane skimmings. Neither of us ever drank any cane skimmings again.

Postscript: Should you wonder what “litered” wood is, it comes from the trunk, limbs and roots of pine heartwood, and most likely has been charred and dried out by fast traveling wood fires. It’s very heavy as all the light sapwood has rotted or burned away. The beauty of it is that it lights easily even when it’s damp, so it’s great for starting fires quickly, and then piling on slower burning woods.

The older brother in the story was my father, which means this incident would have taken place not long before he ran away from home to marry the girl who would become my mother. Making syrup was a yearly event. Everyone in the family pitched in to help out. I fed the cane stalks into the mill to squeeze the juice into pails, or sometimes Daddy let me skim for awhile. Would you like to see syrup making in session? In spite of the work the long day was fun. Neighbors stopped by to have a cup of cane juice or to watch and talk, maybe buy a few bottles of syrup to take home. The aroma in the air was sublime in spite of the stickiness that collected in your hair, and at the end of the day there was enough syrup to share and last until the next cane grinding, same time, same place, next year. And guess what Mama always made for supper whenever we finally got home? Yup! Pancakes and sausages newly made cane syrup!

My Photographer Beginnings

When I was a child of about ten with a big brother away serving in the Air Force in the vastness of worlds unknown to me, I dreamed of having a camera of my own. I’d seen such wonderful photographs in Mrs. Guthrie’s NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC magazines in her classroom at school, and I wanted to do that — travel the world taking intriguing photographs of people and places and things. Even though I had no money, I knew I didn’t want one of those mundane little brownies I’d seen in the homes of my friends and extended family either. I wanted one I’d seen who knows where, a folding camera similar to the one here. Nothing less would do to accomplish my dream of being a great photographer, and — being the determined type — I turned to my brother in the big world “out there” for help.

There was not a camera like that to be had in the small town closest to where I lived — at least as far as I knew — but my brother found one in Wyoming that he thought might work quite well. So during the summertime I worked and saved all the money I could from helping in neighbor’s tobacco harvests. I saved about $30, my take-home for the entire summer period that began in May and ended just as school was beginning in early September. I sent him my money and the next time he came home on leave, he brought me my beautiful Ansco folding camera that is probably a collector’s item now, and I’m so sorry I don’t have it anymore. In actuality it didn’t do anything more than a simple and cheap Brownie box model would have, but boy did it look impressive! As and when I was able to overcome the additional problem of finding money to buy film rolls, I made many, many photographs documenting the years that followed.

This is the mule I rode bareback by enticing him with Spanish moss (he was gullible enough to eat anything!) to sidle up alongside the wooden fence, so that I could climb the fence and hop over onto his back. I didn’t need a bridle either, as I could embed my fingers into his  mane well enough to ride him around the lot. If he was outside the confines of his lot, it was imperative that he be bridled and saddled, because he was prone to run like a wild stallion straight towards the  highway about half a mile away.

Though not exactly NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC quality, this is a snapshot of the brother (about 19 at the time and home on leave from the Air Force who found and bought the camera for me) trying to “drive” Old Jack backwards. Old Jack was notorious for his stubborness, and to get him to turn away from the lot fence if it wasn’t his idea was practically impossible. For those who may not know these things, a mule is the male offspring of a male donkey and a female horse. Females of the ilk, called “hinnys” or “jennies,” are from a female donkey and male horse. Both are usually, though not always, sterile. There! Probably more than you ever wanted to know but you know it now all the same!

Over the years I photographed many moments of life in the country with that dinky but pretty looking camera, many of which have survived and need desperately to be organized and labeled and otherwise documented for posterity of whatever excuse I can think up. There are also, alas, many unphotographed moments that remain only in memory — some of the most memorable from then and now can only be shared through written or spoken words — not photographs. More on that little problem later. (To be continued.)