By John Hassell Yeatts © 1983
Issue: September, 1983
The year was 1927 when we began to hear our parents and other folks around the stores in the tri-county area talking about the threatening blight that was stealing in from the Southern Appalachians and was predicted to devastate our beloved chestnut orchards. Many families in and around Mayberry were lucky to get their hands on $200.00 cash dollars each year. Much of that, of course, came from chestnuts. And we young bucks who prided ourselves on buying our winter shoes and overalls with chestnut money and “due bills” at the local stores were, to say the least, becoming dismayed.
True to the prophecy of the agriculture colleges and the forest rangers the blight did, indeed come. And it swept through the Mayberry mountains almost with the speed of a forest fire. The Stock Market hadn’t yet collapsed, but the old timers seemed to “feel it in their bones” that this devilish blight was some kind of omen of hard times to come. And they were right. They came.
It was along about then that a hard-working, respected and well-liked man “across the Knobs” by the name of Jonah Puckett - called Joan - received the dreadful news from his doctor that he had cancer. And in 1927 there was little hope for one with his type of cancer. He lived in a small, neat cottage with his comely wife and an assortment of small children who were about to learn the meaning of death to their chestnuts as well as to one in their family.
One bright spot, however; that autumn there came into the Mayberry community a new school teacher from “below the mountain” named Stella Hodges (now Stella Strock as featured elsewhere in this publication). She was pretty of face and figure and she had a mind as sharp as a number 3 needle. She radiated love and warmth like the big old long stoves which heated the big 20x20 school rooms. She taught us songs and new amusing rounds to be sung and she taught us scripture. To this day this writer’s night stand contains a Moroccan-bound New Testament inscribed with her name attesting to the fact that this one had earned these volumes of scripture by memorizing a rather long and complicated Catechism. But I remember her best, perhaps, for the Thanksgiving visit the whole school made to Mr. and Mrs. Puckett’s cottage.
Some of us having grown weary of dressing in thread-bare bath robes, beads and rooster tails and smearing ox-blood shoe polish on our faces attempting to resemble Plymouth Indians, suggested a change. We suggested with dispensing with the usual Thanksgiving program and instead provide some much needed food to the Puckett family. Miss Stella, as we lovingly called her, thought it was a great idea. So we did. Each pupil at Mayberry School showed up on Wednesday morning bearing gifts. The squalling of trussed up chickens, ducks and turkeys combined with the chatter of excited children made school practically an impossibility that day. We offered up some prayers for the Puckett family and ourselves, sang some songs, threw some spit-balls at the girls and finally got through in the morning.
Then we gathered up our offerings of food and stuff and headed out across the Knobs. There were 25 pound pumpkins, bags of shelled corn, half-gallon mason jars of pork, beef and fruits, some clothing and a small amount of cash. And of course, the live poultry in which we boys delighted in harassing into squalls and squawks. A good listener on the Buffalo could certainly have tracked that entourage across the Knobs. Stella, bless her heart, didn’t want to put a damper on the enthusiasm so she was uncommonly tolerant that day. Not one scolding or lecture.
The Puckett family hadn’t been “warned” of the approaching gang, and I shall never forget some of the facial expressions of the children peeping around corners and out of windows and open doors on that warm November afternoon. And I shall remember, always, the expressions of surprise and appreciation on Mr. and Mrs. Puckett’s faces. But of more importance, I shall always carry in my heart the lesson Miss Stella allowed us to teach ourselves that day of sharing and knowing together the true meaning of being “Good Neighbors.”