The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Drunkard's Bush

By J. Carlton Smith © 1990

Issue: March, 1990

Each spring I sit on my porch and enjoy the eye catching beauty of the many plants and shrubs that bloom in my yard. Most all of them have a history. The snowball and lilac came from my grandfather Smith's home. The flowering quince and bridal wreath came from my Robertson grandparent's home. Aunt Bea gave me the mock orange and iris. The white rambling rose came from my great-great grandmother Charity Kallam's flower garden. There are many others that are memorials to departed friends. There is one that has a story to tell. It always brings a smile and a chuckle when I see it bloom.

There were eight children in my family. We grew up on a hillside farm that joined the Mayo River and Paw Paw Creek during the great depression. These streams always beckoned and enticed us, but there seemed little time for fun as there was so much work to be done on the farm.

The years that followed the great depression were hard and everyone had to do what they could to help out as there was no money to hire help. My first job was to care for my younger brother and sisters while the rest of the family worked. When I grew older I was given the job of waterboy. This was before electricity and refrigeration. There was no ice to cool the water so it had to be carried to the workers often. This was the type of chores that were given children until they were older and strong enough to do harder work.

As a large family we worked and played together. Usually large families are happy families as they have someone to play with and talk to. We have fond memories of these days so spent.

These family activities of work and play continued as we grew up. Then one Christmas my oldest brother got a bicycle. No one was ever prouder of anything. He began to go to the houses of neighborhood boys who had bicycles and they would ride around the area and sometimes to the small towns nearby.

Times gradually grew a little better and some of the older boys, better identified as young men, were able to buy used cars. In most cases even if they had a car they did not have much money to buy gas. Back then you seldom saw one person in a car. Several would get together to pool their money to go to some of the places of entertainment such as movies, stage shows and fairs and circuses that came occasionally to the nearby towns.

One Saturday evening my brother left to go to meet some of his friends. If we had worked hard and got most of our work done, our daddy would let us have Saturday evening off to do something we would like to do. Night came and my brother did not return home. Needless to say, our mama did not sleep any that night as she was waiting for him to come home.

Early the next day she had my daddy go to look for him. He went to a neighbor's house who had several boys near his age to look for him. He wasn't there but one of the boys said he was with a man who lived up the road about a mile further the last time he saw him.

My dad went to this neighbor's house and my brother was there. He was sorry that he caused the family worry but felt he was old enough to be on his own as he was almost grown.

This is the explanation he gave. He and some of the boys and young men had gotten together and bought gas for one of them that had a car. There was a special movie they wanted to see in Martinsville, Virginia, about 20 miles away. After the movie the car owner and some of the other boys took some girls they had met home. There was no room in the car for my brother and the other man. They would have to hitch hike home.

It had grown late and there were few cars on the road. They caught one ride for a short distance, but had to walk the rest of the way home. It seemed that they would never get home. It was near day and the roosters were crowing when they finally came to the other man's house. Both were exhausted. The man asked my brother to spend the night and he was so tired he decided he would.

This family were distant cousins as most of families in the area are related to my family. The family had the reputation of liking strong drink and over indulging often. We felt disgraced that my brother had been with one of them and spent the night. I think my brother felt a little bad about this also.

As my dad and brother were leaving, the head of the household pulled up a sprout and put it in the back of the pickup. He said, "This is the prettiest flower you ever saw. My wife paid a lot of money for it."

Several days later I found a dried up stick with a root on it in the truck. Upon inquiry I learned it was supposed to be a flower. I believe in giving everything a chance, so I planted it never dreaming it would live, but live it did and has flourished ever since against great odds.

The Drunkard's Bush was planted at our yard's edge along the road. A few years later the road was widened and regraded. The grading machines pushed the road bank up against our yard. All the shrubs and plants along our road edge were covered up and destroyed. The Drunkard's Bush was covered up and we thought we had seen the last of it.

My brother looked so happy and I could see a grin upon his face every time he looked in that direction. He thought with the bush gone, he could live down this youthful episode and it would be forgotten.

Spring came. One day while walking along the edge of the yard near the road, I saw some strange plants coming through the earth. I watched them daily and in a few days I was able to make an excited announcement to the family. Not only had the Drunkard's Bush come back but had brought a large family with him. This is an example that sometimes when we think we have hidden things never to be seen again, they make a sudden and unexpected appearance.

As I had said before, the shrub we called the Drunkard's Bush had survived against great odds. The real name of the bush was ornamental or bristly locust. Anyone who has had to contend with other members of this tribe know they are hardy survivors. The more common varieties to this area are honey locust, known as honey shuck because of the long black pods that are edible at maturity. Some folk make a beverage using the pods called locust beer. The black locust is valued as fence posts. The ornamental locust is just a shrub growing only a few feet tall.

Yes, plants and shrubs have a history. What a story they could tell if they could talk! Now you can see why I smile and chuckle when I see the Drunkard's Bush bloom. It certainly brings back fond memories. You have heard the old saying, "It takes a lot of living to make a home." I would like to add to that, "A lot of wonderful memories make a happy life."