Happy Father’s Day

HAPPY FATHER”S DAY WEEKEND!

Back in the early 1990’s when my father was in his 90’s I wrote him this thank you letter on Father’s Day to express how much I appreciated all he had done for me and to express my gratitude for passing down his outdoor heritage to me. If your dad is still with you I hope you will do the same. Wait too long and you will regret that you didn’t take the time to do it.


Dear Dad,

Happy Father’s Day!

On this special day reserved to honor fathers, I want to thank you, long overdue as it may be, for one of the most valuable gifts you have ever given me – a love of the outdoors. You dispensed it to me in small increments over many years, and I cherish every moment of its giving.

My earliest memories are of weekends when you would take time out for long strolls with me down the abandoned country road that led to the Clark River near our house. It was just you and me, and I felt important. Those long afternoon hikes down “the old back road,” as we called it, were great adventures to me.

It was here that you taught me the names of trees and the ways of animals. On these walks, you instilled in me the value of all creatures, large and small, and that they all have a place in this world in which God has blessed us to manage. College degrees would prepare me for an outdoor career, but you gave me my first training in wildlife conservation.

My next big adventure was to accompany you on blackberry picking outings. We studied birds’ nests as we picked the bounty of the land, and when I would whine for help as thorn-covered blackberry canes clung to my clothing and skin, you patiently set me free with your big, muscular hands that briers didn’t seem to bother. How I wanted to grow up to be just like you.

If fond memories have value, then I am rich. You discovered that your skinny, towheaded kid loved fishing so during warm weather; you would take me to our favorite outdoor spot, the small eddy of water below the long-forgotten dam that once had been the site of a gristmill.

The adventure started before we left home, as we always dug worms at the ‘sweet spot’ out in your garden. We packed the car the night before with our simple fishing tackle, a cast iron skillet, a hatchet, beans, and some cornmeal. I could hardly sleep the night before one of our trips. Every time I closed my eyes, I could see porcupine-quill float darting under the surface. I wondered if morning would ever come.

I have always been thankful that you didn’t start out my brother and me fishing with bass boats and fancy rods and reels. These modern trappings are far too complicated for small children, and I don’t think we would have ever enjoyed fishing as much as we did with our cane poles, hook, sinker, and float.

On these trips, you pretended to fish, but I now know you really spent the day teaching me to bait my hook, untangling my line from snarls that only a little boy can devise, and taking my ‘trophies’ off the hook.

Our shore lunch was always special. You taught me how to build a fire and the importance of eating the fish we caught. There seemed to be magic in your old black skillet, and I have never eaten better tasting fish than those you cooked. Camp beans and hoecake completed our menu, washed down with an RC or Double-Cola.

We usually sat around our campfire for a while after we ate, and you talked about things that
were important to me. We solved many of my problems during those chats, and I got a lot off my little chest spending that time with you.

Perhaps today, if more fathers were like you, children wouldn’t turn to distractions such as drugs. Thanks, Dad, for being there when your little boy needed you.

About the same time, you took the time to introduce me to shooting safety with my first BB gun.
I remember you teaching me to treat it with the same respect given to firearms. Your talks about the responsibility of gun ownership molded my behavior and have stayed with me ever since.

I remember our first early morning squirrel hunts clearly. During the first years, I only followed you, dreaming of the day when I would have my very own .22 rifle. With visions of mountain men in my head, I would stumble along, tripping over vines and stepping on sticks that would crack like a firecracker. I must have sounded like a truck coming through the woods. What patience you exercised! I am sure I messed up many hunts for you, but you smiled your way through my learning years.

When you introduced me to one of your friends as your “hunting buddy,” a rush of pride would flow through me. It gave me a much-needed feeling of self-confidence.

Your wisdom showed when I got my first ‘real’ rifle. You could have gotten me a fast-shooting autoloader with a riflescope, but you didn’t. It was an old Remington Model 33 single shot with open sights. With this rifle, you taught me that marksmanship was far more important than firepower. Besides, cartridges cost money, and we did not have a lot of that.

I remember so well the lessons you taught me about the respect we owed the game we were hunting and that the first shot should always be all that was necessary. At the same time, you taught me the importance of finding the game we shot so that we could eat it. I remember squirrel hunts where the morning was spent looking for one fallen squirrel. Good sportsmanship was something you showed me by example.

There are so many special times I need to thank you for, such as the summer nights when you would sit out in the backyard with me under that old hedge apple tree, rather than watch TV, and talk about hunting. It was here that I first leaned about game management and the role hunting played in keeping game populations healthy. In your gentle way, you instructed me in the importance of obeying game laws and taking care of the natural resources with which God blessed us.

I wonder how many fathers and sons or daughters will sit under a tree in their backyard tonight and talk about the outdoors. I am glad we didn’t miss out on those talks.

As I was growing up, I used to wonder if it was necessary to be as nice as you were to the landowners on whose land we hunted, fished or camped. I remember you always made sure we had permission to be there, even if we had been allowed before. You were so conscious of where we left the car so we wouldn’t block a road or park on a newly planted crop. We always closed the gates and were careful not to damage fences when crossing them. To drop a candy wrapper on the ground was almost a sin in your eyes. Now that I am a landowner, I appreciate what you taught me about outdoor ethics.

I owe you thanks for many more things. The best way I can say it, other than with this letter, is to pass along these same values to your grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Dad, I consider it a blessing to have had you as my father, and every time I see a fish break the surface of a mirrored lake or hear a spring gobbler or see doves flying against a sky bathed in the gold of a sitting sun, I think of you and say a silent “thank you, Dad.”

Love from a grateful son,

Wayne

The Jackknife

Back when I was a kid no one owned a pocket knife in the mountains; almost every man and boy carried a jackknife. It was a youngster’s rite of passage to be given his or, in some cases, her very own jackknife, usually a special Christmas present. It was special for several good reasons. First most families living around Tater Knob had very little money and the cost of a jackknife strained the budget. Many times a boy’s first knife was his father’s semi-worn out jackknife, when his father got a new one. Second the gift of a jackknife was a sign of reaching the age of responsibility, at least some responsibility.

The gift usually came with a stern warning from the mother about cutting off fingers, sticking out eyes, not cutting on furniture, etc., etc. From the father came the stern talks about keeping the knife sharp – every man knew “a sharp knife was safer than a dull knife”. There would be lessons about how to properly use a whet stone. Then there was the talk about keeping the knife clean, not breaking the blade, not throwing it at trees, and how it was used to do chores both around the farmstead and when trapping, hunting and fishing.

Finally, there would be the warning from both parents that the jackknife was an expensive tool and it was the new owner’s responsibility to know where the knife was at all times and to not loose it!

The age of the kid when he or she got their first jackknife was early in those days as we grew up fast as far as farm chore responsibility and going trapping and hunting was concerned. Most farm kids got their first jackkinfe by the time they were in the fourth grade, long before city kids, mama’s boys and sissies in general got a knife. The jackknife to a farm kid was, in reality, his first working tool and it was to be treated with respect.

I will never forget the beginning of the fifth grade when we spent the first hot day of school getting to know a new teacher to the community, a Miss Taylor, fresh out of college. After calling the roll, pledging alligience to the flag and praying the Lord’s Prayer, Miss Taylor introduced herself and told us that she grew up as a farm girl. Then she asked for a show of hands as to any boys who had a jackknife in their pocket. Up went the hand of almost every boy in the class. Chipmunk, Punky and I almost stood up we were so proud to be “carrying.” Our teacher smiled and told us that she was glad to have so many “men” in her class that she could count on. We smiled back with pride.

Then as the hands went down, there was one hand still up in the air. It was Jenny. “Miss Taylor, I aint’t no boy or man,” Jenny proclaimed, “but I got a jackknife. I always have a jackknife.” Miss Taylor smiled and told us she too carried a jackknife. She and Jenny became close friends that day.

While the jackknife was a working tool used for many things from cutting kindling splinters off “fat-wood” to start a fire in the cook stove on a cold morning to skinning a mink, it was also an instrument of entertainment. It was used to play the then popular game of mumbley-peg, a game we called “root-the-peg.” This game was played often during recess at school. To be skilled at winning “root-the-peg” was a much sought after title. I always had the suspension that Chipmunk and Jenny practiced in secret because they were so good at winning.

“Root-the-peg” was a game that involved doing at least 12 jackknife feats in which each, to be done successfully, ended up with the knife blade sticking in the ground so that the handle was over two fingers high. The first player took his knife through as many of the feats successfully as he could. Once he failed at a feat then a second player took a turn at using his jackknife to do as many feats successfully as possible, then a third and so on. Each round picked up with where the player stopped previously. The last player to successfully complete all 12 feats lost the game.

At the end of the game, a 3- to 4-inch wooden peg, usually cut from a small tree branch, was sharpened and stuck into the ground. Each of the winners, using his jackknife as a hammer, got a predetermined number of strikes on the peg. Usually the peg was driven into the ground up to ground level. Then with loud chants of “root pig, root,” the looser had to pull the peg out of the ground with his teeth, no help from his hands. The “root pig, root” chant heard on the school playground guaranteed the looser a large audience.

After recess, you could always spot the looser of “root-the-peg” as he would have a dirty ring around his mouth and grass in his teeth. It was more often than not Punky. In fact, he lost so many games; he had a semi-permanent dirty ring around his mouth.

Winning at “root-the-peg” was a very serious matter and most of us had many small scars on our fingers from concentrated efforts to accomplish the knife feats. I guess it was, in part, cuts such as these that led to the demise, by over protective adults, of this great game and the “carrying” of jackknives by youngsters.

Those were good days.

The Last Mountain Man

This coming Monday, April 4th, we celebrate my late dad’s 118th birthday. George N. Fears, who passed away at the age of 94, was a great dad, husband, grandfather and Christian man. He was a woodsman’s woodsman. Here is part of an interview that writer Denise Huddleston wrote about him in 1976.

“My family was living in the hills of Lincoln County Tennessee in 1904 trying to keep a-living raising crops–especially corn when the news came of the “King Cotton” crop being grown in Alabama. My daddy packed us all in a two horse covered wagon in 1906 and we made the grueling journey to Alabama settling in a three room cabin on Hurricane Creek at the base of Tater Knob Mountain. Things were a bit better for us here, yet we still had little to show for our everyday struggles. Often, I hoed crops, trapped, picked cotton, and did the chores needing to be done around the homestead until I reached the age of ten. By then both my parents had died, I started gathering ginseng, which is a root to be found on the side of the mountain. We got pert near $7 a pound for the ginseng which back then was a lot of money”, laughs the elderly Fears which to the age of 74 has managed to keep a sparkle of the excitement of life in his aging eyes.


With a look of nostalgia Mr. Fears continues saying, “I kept on hunting the wild ginseng up to when I was a young man. “At that time, men were fixing up remote ginseng camps in the mountains which grew strictly oriental roots. The plants were laid up like onion beds. I worked in a camp just under the north end of Tater Knob Mountain as the camp hunter to provide meat for our camp meals. Also, I pulled grass and weeds from around the ginseng beds, watered them and finally harvested them. We didn’t have vats to wash them in like they do today so we just cut down a tree, carved out a basin and let that be our washtub. Ground squirrels and moles became my worst enemies for they’d make quick ruin of the entire crop if they were allowed to! Yep, ginseng helped me out a good deal then and whenever I get a chance, I still like to hunt for it.”

Showing me a fine display of ginseng in his backyard, George Fears reflects back even further, “The greater part of my living between 1914 and 1940 was made by digging sang, trapping and selling furs. I had to quit school at the end of the 8th grade to help provide for younger siblings. A man back then had to live the way he knew best and those were the only things I knew how to do then. Warm summers and extremely cold winters, I’d’ be out running traps knowing that if there wasn’t a possum or coon caught in a trap there’d be no food for that day. It was a rough living and sometimes lonely, yet I sure couldn’t take a wife and expect to support her and myself both when I could barely support me most of the time. For several years, I’d be living out on the mountain alone in a tent coming in only to sell my furs and buy flour, beans and coffee, the barest essentials. I’m a good bit older now, but if I lived farther out from the city, I’d be back out on Tater Knob Mountain running traps just like before”

He continued, “Coming in from the mountains, I found myself a job in a little country store. I tended to customers and help load supplies that were to last for the next week. Most of the business was done on weekends and even then not many folks came in for the Depression was upon us all. Flour, meal, coffee and salt were the main items to be sold for people who had to raise most of their own food because they didn’t have enough money to buy it. Matter of fact, folks used to live off $5.00 worth of groceries a week. So, when I wasn’t helping in the store, I’d be out on my horse with a pack mule traveling back up into the remote coves and hollows buying hide’s, sang roots and fur from mountain folk.

In 1936 Fears, still working in the store and bartering for furs, applied to the TVA for a job which was two years in its’ coming.

“After coming off that mountain” Fears grins impishly, “I saw what I thought was the prettiest sight I’d ever seen in my life–a beautiful, young schoolteacher who I soon took to be my bride. We raised up two fine boys and I taught them the ways of the woods just as I was taught. Even today when they come visiting me, we haul off into the woods recapturing an era a long time gone”



Today, some 72 years since coming to Alabama, Mr. Fears is retired, living in a nice home raising his own ginseng, and occasionally setting his traps in the mountains. Some people may pass him by discounting him, “just an old man”, yet in his heart and soul he remembers the role he played in settling Alabama.


 

Happy Birthday, Dad. I love you… JW

REVEREND ALEXANDER

He wasn’t a large man; in fact he was only 5’4” and weighed about 135 pounds. But he was a giant to Chipmunk, Punky, Jenny and me. When he first came into our life he had seen 71 summers but the years hadn’t dampened his enthusiasm for life or the spring in his step. He wore little round wire glasses that usually sat out on his nose and, if outdoors, he always wore a well-worn fedora hat. His deep voice had an unusual quality, it was soft spoken and always caring yet it had a ring of authority about it. It was a voice that you never grew tired of. He could make subjects you weren’t necessarily interested in, interesting, a master storyteller.

The happy little man was a master with a shotgun. His well-worn J.C Higgins pump-action 16 gauge shotgun was thought to contain magic. He never missed in a dove field, when quail hunting, he usually put three birds on the ground at every covey rise and a running rabbit didn’t stand a chance. He outshot the best hunters around Tater Knob but never one time did I hear him boast.

The perky little giant was a man of God, our parents called him Reverend Alexander, we kids knew him as Brother Alexander. Our little country church was poor by most standards and I am sure that being the Shepherd of our flock kept him and his wife near the poverty line but they never complained and were always the first to step up when there was any kind of family crisis at the remote farmsteads. His pay was mostly from the fruit of the land, depending upon what season of the year it was. Vegetables during the summer, chicken and eggs in the fall, a ham or a slab of bacon during the winter and a bird dog pup or a fine tanned coon hide in the spring were just a few of his paychecks. One of his favorite dishes was groundhog and the housewife that could invite him to Sunday dinner of groundhog was the envy of the community as having the preacher eat Sunday dinner at your house was the goal of every household.

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