A Trip to Beech Bend Park

A similar ride at HersheyPark
A similar ride at HersheyPark

Anyone who grew up in middle Tennessee or southern Kentucky is familiar with Beech Bend Park. In my childhood it was the nearest amusement park and also had a raceway. Beech Bend is where I learned that amusement park rides don’t agree with me.

This would have been in the late ’60s, I guess. I don’t remember the exact year, but I know I was not yet 12 years old. Daddy’s boss at Clarksville Base, Earl, was a college-educated engineer from somewhere in the midwest. He thought a lot of Daddy, and occassionally our family would socialize with his family. His wife was a little uptown for Mother’s tastes, but she knew better than to offend the boss’s wife. Their daughter Ruth Ann was a year younger than me. I thought she was a whiner and disliked her pretty much, but I’d been brought up to be polite, so we would play together every now and then. We all went to First Baptist Church as well.

Earl invited us to go with his family to Beech Bend Park on a Saturday. We dressed up in our best clothes that weren’t quite for church, and Daddy wore his new grey Stetson hat, sor of a pork-pie hat as I recall. The boss and family picked us up in their brand-new Cadillace, and we set off for the park.

I made it fine as long as I stuck to the carousel, the bumper cars, and the little-kiddie train which wove around a track. We ate hot dogs and cotton candy, and it was a fun day.

Then Ruth Ann cajoled me into getting into one of those spinning cup-and-saucer rides with her. I knew immediately this was a mistake. Everything whirled around, my stomach and my head went different directions, and I felt really dizzy. When the ride finally stopped I managed to walk over to my parents and try to look normal.

“Are you all right?” Daddy asked me, in Ruth Ann’s hearing. “Fine,” I said with clenched teeth over the rising nausea. I was determined to hold on.

We got into the Cadillac and set out for home. I felt worse and worse, really carsick. I was sitting in the back between Daddy and Mother. “Daddy, I’m going to be sick,” I whispered to him.

“Baby doll, you can’t be sick in this new car,” he said.

“I’m going to throw up, NOW,” I said.

“Well, get sick in this, then,” Daddy said, and handed me his new Stetson hat. I threw up in it. His boss immediately knew something was wrong–it was hard to miss. So he pulled over, and I was sick some more by the side of the road. And Daddy threw away his new hat.

Ever since then I’ve avoided amusement park rides. Disney World holds no appeal for me!


The Mystery of Owls

Growing up on a farm, I was familiar with the sound of owls calling at night.  Most owls really don’t hoot, in my experience.  Screech owls were the most frightening–they sounded332px-171_Barn_Owl[1] like a woman screaming in the woods.  Many a night I heard them shrieking to one another in the distance.

We had a tobacco barn that was about two stories high, at least.  It was used for firing dark tobacco.  There were beams running across from one side wall to the opposite wall, spaced so racks of tobacco could be hung to dry.  When it had dried enough, Daddy would build a smouldering fire with sawdust and keep it going for days, firing the tobacco.  Climbing up in the barn was perilous work but had to be done.  Usually the younger and stronger ones did that and hung the tobacco.

In the spring and summer the tobacco barn was empty, and that’s when the barn owl came to hunt mice, and sometimes just to perch.  One day Daddy called me to come with him and “see something special.”  We trudged down the rocky dirt road to the tobacco barn, trailed by my dog, Dusty.  I named him that because he was the exact color of that dirt road.

Daddy opened the smaller door within the big doors so we could go in, letting a little daylight in to the shady, cool interior.  “Look up in that corner,” he said.  There was a huge barn owl.  It slowly turned its head and stared down at us with yellow eyes.  Dusty was nosing around the dirt floor of the barn, and the owl watched him intently.  Then it spread its wings and flew out through an open hatch on the side wall.  It seemed to fly in slow motion, as if you could see every feather moving precisely.

When I saw this Audubon print it reminded me of that owl.  I can see why owls were Athena’s bird and associated with wisdom.  That level stare implies knowledge and intuition beyond what we know.

Country Ham for Easter

Smokehouse in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Smokehouse in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

I have been hunting for a recipe for this, through all my white trash cookbooks.  I have not found a thing, not in the Cracker Barrel cookbooks, or Miss Daisy Celebrates Tennessee, or even my mother’s Sunday School class cookbook from the ’80s.  So I will try to remember what I saw, and write it down for you.

Pap, Daddy’s father, loved country ham, and he liked it boiled.  So that’s what Mother did for Easter.  The ham had been cured by storing it in a salt pack (buried in salt in a bin) and then it was smoked in the smokehouse for several days.  All this was done in the fall after the frost came, and in the early winter.

The ham was left to hang in the smokehouse and dry until wanted.  You could also put it back in the salt, as I recall, but I couldn’t swear to that.

When it was time to consider cooking it, Mother took it out and plunged a knife close to the bone, bringing it out to smell.  This is how she could tell if the ham was good or had spoiled.  If it smelled good, then she went to the next stage.

The country ham was soaked in a lard can full of water for a couple of hours, to get some of the salt out of it.  When that was over, Mother built a fire in the back yard.  The ham went back into a clean lard can which was filled with water up to a few inches from the rim.  She put the lid on, and hefted the heavy load onto the fire.  The ham cooked in the lard can for up to four hours.  I’m not sure how she decided when to take it off the fire.

When she removed it, she immediately wrapped the can in quilts and left it.  The ham continued cooking for some hours.

End result?  Sweet, moist, smoky country ham, not salty, very tender.

The New York Times article today made me remember this process!  Thanks to them for helping me recall how you cook a real country ham!

P.S.  Pap loved this.  He said Mother cooked the best ham he ever had.

Recipe: Gingerbread with Sorghum Molasses

Sorghum Molasses Pie

When I was a child we waited in anticipation every fall for sorghum molasses to come on the market.  Mother and Daddy were convinced the only appropriate sorghum molasses came from Benton County, Tennessee.  Even then, one had to read the label closely to make sure corn syrup had not been added.

Sorghum is a grain.  To make molasses, the canes are ground in a mill and the juice runs out.  In the old days, a mule walked around and around in a circle to make the mill turn.  The juice is cooked, not unlike maple syrup, and the byproducts skimmed off the top.  Sorghum-making is a skilled craft.  The byproducts used to be put in cattle feed.

But we wanted sorghum for two purposes:  Daddy ate it with hot biscuits and butter, and I made gingerbread.  How to explain how sorghum tastes?  It’s lighter and wilder than the only acceptable substitute, Brer Rabbit Molasses.  Dark Karo syrup is your syrup of last resort, too sweet, and it doesn’t have that wildflower/grain taste that sorghum does.  But these are dark times we’re living in, so we do the best we can.

Here is Mother’s gingerbread recipe with sorghum molasses.  Substitute as you must….

Ginger Bread

1 cup sorghum molasses

4 tablespoons shortening (butter or Crisco)

1 cup buttermilk

Mix together the above.

Sift together dry ingredients:

2 1/2 cups flour

2 teaspoons ginger (the dry powder, for you foodies who peel the root)

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 3/4 teaspoons baking soda

Mix dry and wet ingredients together.  Bake at 350 degrees for 20 to 30 minutes.

Dogwood Winter

This spring is a bit out of control, too early, too much, too warm too soon. The last few days we’ve had a cooler spell here in New York, which reminded me of the “winters” Mother taught me about.

Spring in Tennessee normally comes in an orderly, predictable fashion. Usually it starts in February with the forsythia and crocuses blooming. By March spring is well under way, with gradually warmer periods interspersed with cool spells. The redbuds bloom, then the dogwoods. Finally, in April the blackberry bushes flower.

Cool spells tend to come right when these bloom, and apparently this was always so. Mother and my aunts and uncles all referred to “redbud winter,” “dogwood winter,” and “blackberry winter” as if these were known dates on the calendar. I suppose to a farming community they nearly were.

I guess this is dogwood winter we’re having now in New York, if such a thing exists up here. Everything is out of sync this year. The Bradford pears (stinky, showy things) burst into bloom two weeks ago, along with the Japanese magnolias, which were nipped by the cold and have turned brown. Yet the dogwoods have not bloomed. So I hope they were spared the cold and will open soon.

Sometimes I feel very far from the farm. I’m glad to be working with my brain instead of my back, and God help anyone who had to depend on me to raise food! But I miss the patterns of planting, cultivating, and harvesting. There’s no seasonality to working on a computer. But even here spring intrudes, bursting out along the parkways, in yards, in the scattering of woods.  It’s time to think about planting.  It’s time to grow.

Family History: What’s Buried

When I was working for a nonprofit organization in New York City our diversity task
force brought in a consultant to do sensitivity exercises.  The consultant had us all stand in a line.  First she called out statements that, if they applied to you, you were to take a step back:  Person of color, ancestors came through Ellis Island, parents didn’t go to college, parents spoke a language other than English.  Then she made statements that  required you to step forward.  Most of these I don’t remember; one had to do with having a graduate degree.  I just remember that the Chief Operating Officer and I ended up by the window, while most of the rest were huddled in the back of the room.  I had never viewed  myself as privileged before.

I come from a very large family which none of us knew much about until recently.  Mother and Daddy both were born and raised in a small farming community in Montgomery County, Tennessee. Daddy was a Jones, Mother was a Bowers.  My cousins on the Jones side liked to joke that it was a wonder we weren’t all idiots, since there were Joneses and Bowerses on both sides of our family trees.   My parents went through the Great Depression, and told me that sometimes they had nothing but biscuits and sawmill gravy to eat.  Neither graduated from high school.

Mostly my relatives were tenant farmers or blue-collar workers.  No one had gone to college before my generation.  To me it was a point of pride that we had apparently been in Montgomery County forever without making much of a mark on it.  We didn’t have any
glorious Civil War history to recount and apparently were too poor to own slaves.

I thought of myself as an educated, liberal person over the years, having no heritage of slavery, lynching or Jim Crow atrocities to live down.  I also thought I came from a humble
background and, along with my sisters and brother, had managed to pull myself
up into the middle class.  Meanwhile, my cousins Bobby Bowers and Greg Jones had been digging into the genealogy of the Bowers family.  In December 2006 they  printed “The Descendants of Nathaniel Bowers, Rev., and Hannah Smith.”  My sister Sherrie sent me a copy, and I began picking my way through 12 generations of Bowerses.

Turns out my parents were distant enough as cousins to escape any incest jokes.  However, most of my other assumptions were not particularly true.  There had been  land, and perhaps education.  Nathaniel Bowers was a preacher and was born in Connecticut (date unknown).  His wife was born in 1683.  His grandson James fought in the Revolutionary War (with the rank of Capt.) and received a pension, moving to  Montgomery County from New Jersey around 1820.  James owned 400 acres of land—a war land grant?

During the Civil War, Corporal John Claiborne Bowers was sent home with malaria the
day before the surrender of Fort Donelson to the Union army, so he avoided
going to prison camp with the rest of the Confederate soldiers.  Yet he had been there, so he may have fought.  Family lore said he was paid to fight by a more affluent neighbor, which was common at the time. His widow received a Confederate Army pension.

The genealogy book noted births, deaths, pensions, deeds, census data, and even a
newspaper account of an apparent multiple murder including the husband of one
of the Bowerses in 1878.  The question of slave ownership was never raised.  Nothing
explained how the land had gone away.

I emailed Cousin Bobby about it, and he said he didn’t look into slave ownership.  But what he did find out changed my view of our family history forever. Education, property, Revolutionary and Civil War veterans—not what I thought I knew.  And still a lot of
buried history.

Blooming Grove

Dogwoods by Albert Bierstadt

            The white clapboard church is barely set back from the asphalt road, an old cemetery on one side, the raw red brick parsonage on the other.  The church is small and spare, with only a steeple for adornment.

            My car pulls into the small parking lot, spitting gravel and dust as it halts.  There are battered pickup trucks, washed and polished sedans, a couple of jacked-up muscle cars.  It is already hot, although it is not yet 11 in the morning.  The air is thick with humidity, a dense wall almost too thick to breathe.

            The men stand outside by the front porch, smoking and talking.  Their faces are sun-reddened.  They wear short-sleeved shirts and ties, and have removed their dark suit jackets in the heat.  They will put them on to go in the church, then take them off again and fold them carefully before the sermon starts. 

            I go up the worn concrete steps into the vestibule, suddenly dark and a little cooler, and emerge into the sanctuary.  The old, dark wood floors are muffled with runners of faded red carpet on the aisles.  The pews are old, dark wood as well, hard and slippery from generations of churchgoers.

            The white walls are bare.  There is no cross on the wall or statues in niches.  There are only a bare wooden pulpit, a small choir loft, a slightly out-of-tune upright piano, and a communion table—the altar, we call it—with a vase of flowers left over from a funeral, beginning to wilt.

            The sanctuary smells of dusty carpet, furniture polish, the wilting flowers, and people beginning to sweat as the room fills.  The women’s polyester flowered dresses are bright against their husbands’ Sunday suits.  I fan myself with a paper fan on a wooden stick.  It is printed with a scene of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.  He is kneeling in a white robe and praying, pinned  in a beam of white light like a deer in the headlights.

            Then the preacher comes in, the choir loft fills with my aunts and uncles and cousins and neighbors, and the service begins.  The preacher cannot stir me.  I am impervious to his thin, nasal voice; the mistakes in his grammar gall me.  His collar is too big.  My heart is harder than stone, it oozes contempt like the asphalt road outside oozes tar.

            But I am undone all the same.  It is the old country hymns, sung by untrained voices.  My uncles, my aunts, my cousins, my neighbors sing harmony without effort or thought, singing a melancholy song their parents sang to them.  They sing, “O come, angel band, come and around me stand/O bear me away on your snow white wings/ To my immortal home.”

            And I am borne away on those wings, out the back door of the church, into the green graveyard.  Ancient cedar trees shade the graves; the breeze whispers through the branches.  My grandparents are there, and my great-grandparents, and my great-great grandparents.  The old, grey stones are worn and crooked.  They are simple, no fancy carvings, no weeping Victorian angels.  They sink into the mossy graves.   There is no room for anyone else.  The past owns this place.