By Jonas Hollon – ca. 1985
Most folks recognize the phrase “Over the river and through the woods…” as the beginning of a nostalgic poem about Thanksgiving Day. The poem romanticizes the joys of going over the river and through some pretty dense woods, not to mention some fairly wide half-frozen creeks to spend the holiday at Grandmother’s house. (I often wondered where Grandpap was. Reckon he was dead?) It said something about hurrahing for the fun and the pumpkin pie, and the pudding being done. Actually, I never did like the taste nor the texture of pumpkin pie, nor pudding either, for that matter. All that fun was well and good for city younguns, but to us bumpkins, Thanksgiving was not really all that wonderful. In order for us to survive, my family tended several acres of corn each year and we had the exalted privilege of cutting and shocking that corn during late September, often by the light of a harvest moon, the beauty of which has been over stressed in story and song. To people nowadays that might seem like it was bushels of fun but, let me tell you, it was not. They would not think so either if they had had to go to school all day, come home, change into their work clothes, do their evening chores, eat a hurried supper, and head for the cornfield with a sharp corn cutting knife in their hands and red bandannas tied around their necks to keep the sharp edged corn blades from sawing their heads off. As the corn was cut, it was placed in large shocks and tied with a grapevine or a tall stalk of corn. There it was left to the elements and rodents and woolly worms until that now yearned for holiday, Thanksgiving.
Some of the more fortunate kids in the community got to go rabbit hunting with their fathers and older brothers on Thanksgiving Day. Afterwards, they would brag for weeks about how their bone-poor hound dogs had chased a poor frightened rabbit up and down the overgrown hillsides until some brave hunter shredded it with a handful of buckshot from a double-barrelled shotgun.
Since Pa was definitely a firm believer in a youngun’s right to work, whether it wanted to or not, we didn’t get to have all that much fun at our house during the Thanksgiving holiday. Unless it was raining, we had to brave the frosty morning air and follow our breath as we plodded through the naked woods to the river bottoms, where an army of cold foddershocks stood in long brown rows waiting for us. When the work began, we would take an armload of fodder, place it on the frozen ground, and kneel down on our knees and would strip the ears of corn, nubbins and all, from the stalks. Once the corn was pulled and tossed into the appropriate pile, nubbins in the cow feed pile and good sound corn in another, the fodder was tied into smaller bundles and placed in larger shocks which later were carried or hauled to the barn to be used for feed.
Remaining in a kneeling position for hours at a time allowed the toes of our shoes to freeze and point upwards to the leaden sky when we got up to stretch a bit. Of course, if the shoe toes were frozen, you can imagine how our real toes fared. They were stiff as pokers. This grueling work would continue all day long while the booms of shotguns and the resonant barks of hungry hound dogs resounded from the hills and fields around us. When the work day ended, we limped home to do our evening chores. Yet at least we were thankful that the “holiday” was over, and we would get to spend the next day near the warmth of a potbellied stove in the center of the buzzing schoolroom.
I remember one Thanksgiving Day in particular, because Brother and I didn’t have to go to the cornfield. We were too young. In fact, Brother didn’t even know what Thanksgiving was all about. The day before Thanksgiving we had been allowed to walk all the way to the post office which was located on the side of the river where we lived. At that time there was a three-span steel bridge linking our community to the other part of the world. As we crossed the bridge, Brother and I were amazed at how large and strong it was. Of course we had to be careful not to fall through some good-sized holes where the floor planks had rotted away and the elected county officials had conveniently forgotten to replace them. I remember that we stuck our heads out over the rusting guardrails and spit big globs and watched as they drifted down and splattered on the clear water 50 feet below. We liked to do that so well that we spit ourselves dry before continuing on to get the mail. We were so awed by the bridge that we promised ourselves that we would build us one the next day across the creek which trickled through the center of our garden.
Thanksgiving Day dawned bright and clear and the ground was frozen hard as a bone when Brother and I, with a gooseneck hoe in hand, stood surveying the site we had chosen on which to build our bridge. Satisfied that this was the perfect spot, we went to the barn and found a fairly flat sawmill slab long enough to reach across the creek and dragged it to our purposed location. Then we set to work preparing the foundation for our bridge. We found out that gooseneck hoes didn’t make much headway with frozen ground, but that was the best that we had. The mattock’s handle was broken and Pa had somehow never got around to making a new one. The shovel was worn so thin that we were afraid to use it, and we couldn’t find the “sproutin’ ” hoe anywhere.
We went to work digging and grunting like our lived depended on it. Finally we chipped out a place on each side of the creek which we thought would be good enough to hold our “bridge” securely. To our dismay, when we managed to get the slab into place, it wasn’t at all level and one side didn’t even fit into the hole. After I tiptoed across the unsteady slab to the other side and looked the situation over, I told Brother that we would simply have to do some more digging.
By this time Brother was getting tired and had lost much of his zeal to become a great bridge engineer. When I resumed digging, he just piddled around whacking at some dried corn stalks and pretending they were great redwood trees plunging to earth. He always dreamed of going to “Californey,” although he had only a vague idea where it was. Soon losing interest in the timber industry, he squatted beside me, as I tried to level the troublesome end of the bridge.
When Brother decided to be a pain, he could be a pain, and at that time he had decided to be one. When I would raise my hoe to strike a lick, Brother would toss a big rock right in the hole. When the hoe struck the rock sparks would fly and the jolt would jar my elbows good. I warned him several times to stop, but he kept right on. Finally, I picked up one of his rocks and bounced it off his noggin and he stopped bothering me long enough to cry a spell.
Peace didn’t reign long. Brother came back and when I would dig a lick, he would wrap me with one of his downed “redwood trees.” I ran him off and warned him that I’d beat the tar out of him if he fooled with me one
bit. Directly he returned and sat down on the other side of the “river.” Every time I started to hit a lick, just as the hoe started down, Brother would stick his big fuzzy head right in the way.
“Stop that!” I shouted. “Make me,” Brother countered. I drew back for another try. Brother stuck his head
right in the path of my hoe. “I’ll bust you,” I warned, my patience wearing
rather thin. “Dare you,” Brother teased confidently. I tried again, only to stop a fraction of an inch from
his head. “Anybody that’d take a dare would kill a hog an’
eat its hair,” Brother needled. “Now, datdimmit, you’d better stop it, or I’ll whack
you!” I threatened.
“No you won’t. Pa’d whup you good. Ha, ha.”
I came down hard with another lick. Brother confidently stuck his head right in the way. I made good my threat. With a dull thud, the hoe struck him squarely on top of the head. Luckily for him, and me, I had dulled the hoe quite a bit when I hit the rock he had tossed into the hole. Still, blood and hair flew every which way, and Brother took off screaming like a wounded pig. As he scampered toward the house, screaming and taking steps at least six feet part, I tossed my hoe to the ground and sprinted off towards high timber yelling, “I told you I’d do it!”
The blow cut a four-inch gash right across Brother’s skull. For once Grandma, who had come to our house for Thanksgiving instead of our going to hers, came in handy. She was known throughout the area for her ability to stop blood. She raked a handful or two of soot from the chimney and mixed it with some hog grease, then smeared it on Brother’s half-scalped head. It stopped the bleeding, but for the rest of his life after the wound healed poor Brother carried an ugly, black scar across his head.
I hid out in the dense pine thicket behind the barn for the rest of the day. Once I got up the nerve to sneak to the house and peep through the window and saw Brother sitting comfortably on Ma’s lap while she tenderly fed him big bites of chicken and dumplings. A saucer sitting near Ma’s elbow contained small bits and pieces of a ravaged pumpkin pie. Every now and then, Ma would touch Brother’s greasy head, part his hair carefully and say something to him. I don’t know whether she was soothing him, or telling him how I was going to catch it when she got hold of me. I decided to run away from home, but changed my mind later on. I didn’t get any chicken and dumplings, no pudding, nor pumpkin pie, and when Pa came in from the cornfield, I didn’t have anything to be thankful for, except maybe that the razor strap made more noise than pain. The bridge remained unfinished.
Jonas Hollon was a long-time contributor to The Beattyville Enterprise and The Three Forks Tradition newspapers in Beattyville, Lee County, Kentucky. His articles are published in The Explorer from time to time.
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