The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Real Thing

By John Hassell Yeatts © 1984

Issue: June, 1984

It all began one exceptionally warm spring afternoon when the boy, returning from school, decided to look for sprouted chestnuts in the big orchard across from Mayberry Store. He wandered upon four men who were home from the mines and celebrating life and fresh air. All of them were wearing shiny black shoes, dark pants, held by wide colorful suspenders, striped shirts and fancy arm bands just above their elbows. One of them was drinking a clear liquid from a half gallon fruit jar, and the others were laughing and jabbering like an excited bunch of school boys. One called, "Come here boy," and handing him a shiny quarter said, "How about you going down to the store and getting us a couple of bottles of strawberry pop to put out the fire in this here jar. You can keep the change." Even though the lad didn't know what pop was, nor how much it cost, the prospect of receiving change inspired him into a fast trot toward the store.

At the store, to his wild-eyed discovery and amazement he readily saw several square crates, stacked one upon another, and filled with a variety of colored liquids; amber, orange, purple, red and pink. The afternoon sun streaming through the windows of the darkened store shone through the bottles and caused the boy's heart to commence to pound and leap like a young rabbit's. He had simply never seen anything like it; the drinks having been added since his last visit. "A bottle of pop you say? What flavor?" the storekeeper questioned following the boy's meek and squeaky request. "Ever drink a pop lad?" he wanted to know. "It's not fer me sir and it's 2 bottles of strawberry" the boy replied. "It's fer some men who said I could keep the change," he answered, extending the quarter. "Well you're getting quite a reward, three whole nickels." the merchant said extending the change to the lad before pulling two tall slender pink bottles from the crate. "You're certain now he didn't say dopes? Most men like to drink the dopes or Coca Cola as they're called." The boy answered, "No sir, Pop." He then spent one of his nickels for some black chocolate candy, and clutching his small tan bag of candy, the bottles of pop, and his remaining two nickels, he made his way up the bank, across the rail fence and into the woods to rejoin the men. He found them seemingly even happier than when he had left. They didn't even fuss about his failure to get the bottles opened. "No problem," one said as he quickly opened a big knife from his pocket and cut away at the cap on one bottle. The boy stood entranced as he listened to "swish" and watched what appeared to be smoke rising from the bottle. Then he offered some of his candy to the fellows, but only one man accepted. Another one patted him on the head and asked if he didn't think his mama was expecting him home "about now."

Well sir, that boy could get little on his mind except the crates of pop and the sound of that bottle being opened, until he finally fell asleep that night. Upon awakening the next day, he began to develop a mental hankering and physical craving for a "dope" that was, perhaps, greater than anything he had ever experienced in his 8 year life. But then he decided that bottled drinks were probably only for grown men and that it might be years and years before he could sample one. This, of course, only increased his terrible craving for a bottle of the amber liquid. During subsequent trips for his mama to the store, he watched with unmatched envy as the local loafers would swill their "dopes", and he listened to all their comments about the drinks. He was soon seductively hooked upon a beverage that he had never tasted.

Then there came the Saturday in late May when the Mayberry Baseball Team's challenge to the Hopkins Boys and the Central Academy Team had been accepted. The game was scheduled that afternoon in the pasture field right behind the store. The boy's ma said he could go. "I don't have any money Mammy," the boy cajoled. "Money? The game's free" she answered. "How come you and Pa never give me more than a puny nickel about once or twice a month?" he whined. "Why your pa thinks that you're a regular spendthrift son. He says a nickel can burn a hole in your pocket quicker 'n a hot poker," she replied. "And I'm afraid he's right. What other boy do you know who can't keep a penny in his pockets past sundown?" But the wheels of temptation and sin were already spinning inside the boy's tousled head. He thought he just might steal some dadburned eggs and trade them at the store.

Soon after lunch that day, he was sputtering and soaping, and shivering in the creek behind the house as he took his first bath of the spring outside the family kitchen. He hummed and rubbed and blotted until his goose bumps were reasonably dry and he then struggled with his new short underwear in the grass. He finally donned his knee socks, white blouse and his new blue serge knickers. Then he stopped off at the barn where he soon found six brown eggs. He placed three in each of his knicker legs and hoped to heaven that he could get them to the store without disaster. His ma peered into both his ears, scrutinized his skinny neck and his elbows, but ignored his covered knees. He had counted on their exclusion in his diabolical scheme. "Well you look and smell clean, son. But roach that stubborn hair back. I'll declare I sometimes just about forget the color of your eyes. You certainly need a cow lick. I never saw hair that wouldn't grow any way but over a boy's forehead." Then she kissed him on the cheek and asked, "How come you're walking so tired like" Hadn't you better set and rest awhile in the swing?" "No ma, I've got to git a going if I'm going to see all of that ball game," he answered as he backed through the screen door admitting a new swarm of flies into the kitchen.

So here he was, moseying across the foot log and up the sandy road and beginning to experience his first pangs of conscience for stealing. He had been taught that stealing was even worse than lying. He had fairly well conquered his conscience on lying and it didn't bother him so much anymore. In fact he considered himself a pretty good liar since he was seldom caught at it. But this was his first theft and it was different. It began like a mild heart burn, but in a minute or so it was plaguing his whole insides, as he walked along like a boy in a trance. Then he heard it. A Model T Ford coming around the bend from Bell Spur way. So he instinctively climbed the bank as he was accustomed to doing to avoid some of the dangers of a "runaway" automobile and something in his pants leg broke. He could feel the wet albumen of one or more eggs soaking down his high socks. His spirit was also crushed. Logic instantly told him that it was only because they were stolen eggs. But even so, he managed to mutter a few curses as he climbed across the fence and into the woods. To his relief, upon dropping his knickers, he discovered that only one egg was broken, and that at 1¢ each he still had the price of a "dope." He placed the eggs in his visored cap and mopped and cleaned his leg and pants as best he could with some young and tender chestnut leaves.

He arrived at the store with one wet and smeared sock, pieces of green leaves extending from the leg band of his knickers and some yellow yolk visible on his blue knickers. Furthermore he wore the expression of a drifter who had just been caught red-handed robbing the hen house. The merchant smiled with amusement and insight as he counted the eggs from the boy's cap and heard his, almost, whisper, "I wanta dope." Someone was calling for a poke of stud and some snuff, so the merchant handed the boy a room-temperature bottle and pointed to the opener attached to the counter. The lad had seen it done, but it was a new experience for him. He pulled and tugged, finally hearing a spew and swish which caused him to pull harried on the bottle. The foam poured forth down the counter and onto the floor and both his feet. So in defense of his purchase he raised the bottle getting it on his blouse and chin, and gulped long and hard at its contents. When he paused to catch his breath, he found it a little hard to do. His eyes and nose were running, his ears were ringing and his stomach swelling. Quick thoughts of it being his punishment were banished by the realization that he was about to emit a mighty belch, something he had been taught to never do in public. He hurriedly sat his bottle down on the counter and exited upon the wooden walk connecting the old and new stores. There he sorta strolled along the walk sounding somewhat like the horn of an Essix 6 and experiencing very comforting relief. When his burping fit was over he returned to the store to find the remainder of his "dope" gone. "I thought that you had finished or that it had gotten the best of you," the kindly merchant explained. "I emptied the little bit left. Bumblebees, you know get inside the bottles and raise an awful fuss," he added.

The crestfallen lad emerged from the store mumbling and cursing under his breath. "What was that boy saying?" one farmer asked. "Search me. I couldn't make it out but it sounded like he was fussing about the 'damned bumbles'," another answered. The boy's dejection lifted upon hearing the sound of cheering from the cow pasture, and he made his way in that direction. He was wishing he had some change to buy a glass of lemonade from the zinc washing tub that he knew would be waiting in the shade of the big walnut tree, behind home plate.