The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Place On Peters Creek and Beyond, Part 2 of 8

By William J. Sowder © 1992

Issue: January, 1992

"Through The Eyes Of A Young Boy and The Heart Of An Old Man"

The house Nannie chose looked like many other farmhouses in Roanoke Valley - that almost Eden lying between the Blue Ridge to the south and the Alleghenies to the north. It was a two-story L-shaped clapboard with nine rooms including an unfinished attic. It nestled on the leeside of a small knoll. It was an attractive house, the kind that can always hold one more. As a matter of fact I know that it held at least two more: my brother Bobby and I were both born there.

From the front porch you cold see a large, lush meadow with Peter's Creek meandering quietly through as if it had no place in particular to go and invited you to come along if you wished to. It was spring-fed, and you could smell the mint that grew profusely on its banks. It was lazy and didn't mind being dammed, fished, or swam in. It seemed to have as much fun as you did - splashing, rippling, bubbling, humming, gurgling, murmuring, muttering... It wasn't deep enough to drown you without your making the greatest effort, yet it was deep enough for you to think it cold. I never saw it in flood. Even the swimming hole beneath the ancient willow tree was never more than six feet deep. It was, however, deep enough to furnish my mother and father an argument that lasted the rest of their lives. Shortly after they were married in 1912, they were swimming in the creek, and Dad offered to teach her to dive. Unfortunately, he failed to tell her to extend her arms above her head. The result was a large bump on her head and untold rage. After that when they were fussing and Dad was losing, he would say, "Now extend your arms..."

In back of the house was an ancient apple orchard that had spent its better days bearing York apples - perhaps the most versatile of all. You can fry them, bake them, turn them into apple juice, apple butter, cider, brandy, vinegar, sauce. The old orchard was still full of fight. It produced a good crop of nubbins - fine bait for a shoebox rabbit trap. Then, too, once a year in the early spring, the trees offered living proof that being old can be beautiful; they looked like little old ladies all dressed up in white for Easter.

The two-story barn stood at a little distance from the orchard. It was the center of a cluster of smaller outbuildings: the springhouse, hen house, the smokehouse, the ever-present privy located near enough to the woodhouse to bring a couple of sticks of kindling on the way back. What held the barn and its satellites together was their color; all of them had weathered to a beautiful Confederate gray. Bobby and I spent no end of time in the barn drawn there by the rich mingling of odors; hay and corn, alfalfa, oats, bran, horses, leather saddles, horse apples, cow chips. A number of maverick hens had built hard-to-find nests, which gave Bobby and me a sense of Easter every day. Also four cats made a living killing rats. Another intruder, which I never got used to, was a large blacksnake that competed with the cats.

There were also owls hooting and pigeons cooing. The major occupants, though, were two of the sweetest beings that ever lived, Bessie the cow and Old Nell, a dappled gray mare for all occasions. She plowed the garden and on wash days dragged a large sled from the creek to the house, pulled up stumps, pulled the buggy as well as the farm wagon. She did it all with a quiet joy that made Bobby and me love her. We would lead her by her mane to the high step at the barn door and climb aboard. Sometimes it would take three or four tries, but there she stood with the patience of Job. With me holding to her mane and Bobby holding on to me, she plodded through the meadow, stopping now and then to graze, until finally we ended up in the middle of the creek. There she would drink and then snort and shake her head as if she was thinking, "Boys, this is just right." It was.

One of my Uncle George's greatest pleasures was exercising his hold over Bobby and me. He was just enough older than we were to establish his complete authority, an authority enhanced by a gravely voice that sounded like he was cracking English walnuts with his teeth. Using it he commanded Bobby and me to go behind the barn for instructions that would lead us to manhood, namely to smoke, hunt, and fish. In those days beginning smokers had three choices: dried corn silk, Indian cigars, and dried rabbit tobacco - the gray-brown leaves that grew from rabbit pellets. All three had in common two major disadvantages. It was impossible to keep them lit, and when you did they bit off the tip of your tongue. Rabbit tobacco could also be chewed but I had no luck with it. No matter how much I tried to salivate, there was no suption. Seeing that Bobby and I were making no progress, my uncle suddenly took out of his pants pockets a duck. It was, he explained proudly, a Chesterfield, the strongest of all cigarettes. That wasn't all. At the tip end of the duck was a red smear. "Lipstick," he said nonchalantly, and began to blow smoke out of his nose. He tried to blow smoke rings but couldn't. Then he offered Bobby a puff but he politely declined. Big Ike, I accepted and made the mistake of inhaling; a coughing fit resulted, the duck landing in a patch of pig weed. Out of evil sometimes comes good, they say. I am a living example. Since that day I have never had the least desire to smoke. Anything.

For my uncle as well as my father, one of the greatest attractions of the Place was its supply of small game - rabbits, quail, squirrels, occasionally wild turkey, pheasants, ducks and geese. The old fields on the Place and other nearby farms had remained fallow for years, their main crop broom sedge. The fields and the apple orchard seemed to make an agreement; the trees would help feed the large population of wildlife, rabbits in particular, and broom sedge would help shelter them. Indeed, the old fence line between the orchard and the meadow was virtually a grand hotel for the most loved of all game birds - the quail. Wildly tangled honeysuckle, poison ivy, thorn bushes provided shelter from the blazing sun and deep winter cold. Here were privacy and protection where they could build highways and cozy little dens, nice communities at peace where they could relax, recuperate, mate.

Added to their comfort were dwarf cedars and scrub oaks, under-grown pine, and all kinds of berries: Black and blue, raspberries, wild strawberries, sumac, wild grapes - a gourmet's delight. Often the wild rose would make its way across a long-ago rusted barbwire fence to offer its fine shelter. Across Peter's Creek were magnificent stands of oak, hickory, conifers and chestnuts - to be wiped out in the late twenties. These woods supported large colonies of squirrels as well as coons, foxes, and an occasional deer or bear.

As hunters, the second step on the way to manhood, we had the land and the game on it and, as we shall see shortly, the dog to hunt it. What we didn't have was the guns. My brother carried a fairly old Daisy BB, one of my uncle's. It would shoot pretty good, but unfortunately Bobby had no money to buy lead BB shot. He had to depend on small, round sand pebbles which he had picked up from the water-pump drainage area. I had my uncle's hand-me-down Remmington single-shot rimfire twenty-two. After firing it I had to free the casing with a pocket knife. My uncle carried a single-shot Winchester that was much older than he was.

The dog was Pip. He was an English pointer. He was brave, intelligent, handsome. He was a dog who tolerated no foolishness. For example, we could never get him to chase rabbits or squirrels. Undignified. He kept his distance and made you keep yours. He had powerful legs and a trim coiled-spring of a body perfectly tuned to what he was created for; quail. Always he moved gracefully and never more so than when we approached a covey hidden near the fence line, the old fence itself out of sight in a mass of tangled underbrush. It was as if he were creeping slowly on air, could hardly bear to put his feet on the ground when of a sudden he froze: his majestic head held high, his tail straight out, his right front leg bent to an L and a fast takeoff; the definition of concentrated power. Someone moved, four quail whirred up, we fired, and Pip whipped through the underbrush. Then nothing but my uncle breathing hard and pointing out mistakes, none of them his. In a short time we were ready for action: it was more of the same - the same setting, the same hunters, the same results. After the fourth or fifth time, I forget which, when Pip came back to where we were waiting for him, he did not stop. He did not glance in our direction. He moved on past. Like all true nobility, he was patient to a fault, but once the patience wore out, he was immovable. Pip was headed for home, and all the threats, entreaties, and cussing in the world would not stop him. He was gone with the wind, leaving us with indelible memories of his magnificent performance and our clothes full of beggar lice, Spanish needles, burrs, and chiggers - and no desire at all to learn to fish.