Possums, Ghosts, and UFOs
My favorite time of year in the Ozarks hills was always the spring (“green-up time” we called it) and we could look forward to squirrel hunting, fishing, swimming in the creek, and the myriad things we had to do besides chores when school was out for the summer. The fall had its own attractions, however, when the leaves had turned to a riot of golden yellow and blazing red, the weather was cooler but with plenty of Indian summer sun, harvest was finished, and we could look forward to possum hunting when the first frosts came and the persimmons were ripe.
Even after the oats and wheat had been harvested and threshed, the field corn gathered and the stalks cut and made into tall conical shocks, there were fall chores to be done on the farm. Some were fun—such as hog killing time—but the one that we really detested (that is an understatement—we hated it) was cutting a winter supply of firewood for the cast iron kitchen range and wood stove in the living room of our little house.
Every Ozark farm had a “woodlot”—an acre or two of trees left when the farm was originally cleared—to furnish a supply of firewood. Unfortunately, most of the trees in the Ozarks are hardwood; white oak, blackjack, burr oak, and the like, which is hard to saw and even harder to split. Those hardwood trees made good, long-burning firewood, but getting them cut down, sawed up, and split was a real muscle builder.
We had never heard of chain saws in those days. Our tools were a two-man crosscut saw that we called a “misery whip,” a good sharp double-bitted axe, a post maul, and a couple of steel wedges. Dad would notch the base of the selected trees to control its direction of fall then, once we were into our early teens and had put on some muscle, Richard and I would go to work with that danged cross-cut to fall the tree. When it was down, Dad would trim the limbs off with the axe and pile the brush for later burning while Richard and I sawed the tree into stove lengths.
We would cut wood in the fall after it had gotten cold because it was much too hot for that kind of work in the summer. On frosty mornings we would go to the woods in our sheepskin coats but after a few minutes on that saw we would have to peel them off and, if the sun was shining, after a while our shirts, too. It was onerous, sweaty work and it took a lot of passes of the crosscut to get through a log that was a foot and a half in diameter.
We bickered constantly, of course. I would accuse Richard of not pulling his share and he would accuse me of “riding” the saw (putting on extra pressure when he was pulling it back his way). We grew up fighting constantly but never came to blows in the woods because Dad was there and getting into a fistfight instead of working could result in a licking for each of us.
The worst licking Dad gave was out in the woods. At home, when it was in order, he would use either his leather belt (if he wasn’t wearing overalls and had one on) or his razor strop which was also flat and really did not sting very bad (the real punishment was simply the ignominy of getting a licking) but out in the woods it was something else.
The Ozark underbrush includes a plant we called the buckberry bush. It grows rather like spires with long and very limber limbs about as thick as a lead pencil. There would be leaves and red berries all along the shoots. I do not recall that the berries were good for anything unless the birds ate them as they were bitter as gall.
When a licking was in order (I am happy to say that was not very often for Richard and me), Dad would simply and without a word cut a buckberry shoot for or five feet long, run it through his closed fist to remove the leaves and berries, and wield it like a buggy whip. When he was really mad that little limber buckberry limb would really whistle through the air and would wrap itself clear around your legs, leaving neat red welts that stung for quite a while. It was better if Dad was only aggravated—the buckberry did not sing much and only stung for a little while. If we happened to be wearing long underwear, it did not hurt much at all but we would let out a yelp anyway.