Monthly Archives: September 2014

Journey Out to the Fire Tower and Run With the Devil

Back in those storied days of the late seventies, we had an ancient fire tower out in the county, which was the ultimate destination on all those nights of strip-cruising and bowling-alley-sitting. The fire tower really belonged to the county kids, though, and you can imagine their anger and disdain when the feather haired, smart ass suburbanites with their shiny smart ass Camaros and dolled-up smart ass girls (me) rolled up and took over the prime spot for the keg and bonfire. Many a fight resulted, and a lot of other nefarious (we thought) activities took place there too, causing some of the smart asses, both male and female (not me), to burst into tears of shame and remorse at the Smart Ass Youth Rallies sponsored by our Smart Ass Suburbanite Church, which we all attended. These outbursts naturally attracted the attention of the smug, smart ass suburbanite parents, who tried to get the fire tower torn down or locked up. Never happened, though, thank Eddie, cuz it was also the scene of some of the most memorable events and fun times of our smart assed, long lamented youth.

My fire tower career started in ninth grade. You may recall that as a ninth grade band nerd, I first served as a (inappropriate slang)-blocker for the majorette, riding silently in the back seat of the cool senior’s Camaro, upholding my sworn duty of preventing the dude from driving that long road through the piney woods. By January, I had gotten my braces off and was no longer a (inappropriate slang)-blocker, but had been promoted to shotgun. I required no blocker of any kind. I could take care of myself,  thank you very much, and the fire tower, steeped as it was in mystery, drama, and excitement, called to me like a siren.

Only the most foolhardy and risk-seeking actually climbed the rickety tower once we got out there. Mainly, it was just the most testosterone-maddened boys, a couple of the um….best girl-softball-players, and me. The steps were rotting, and the bravest of the dudes went first, testing each step for the rest of us. Sometimes we would have to skip over a step, which being only 5’3″, was absolutely terrifying and stupid of me and I could have fallen to my death at any minute. I have wondered many times what caused me to do such a crazy, risky thing, and I can only come up with one answer – I wanted to impress the boys. That’s right – I risked my life for male attention. Let’s let that sink in for a minute.

******

And after I came to this conclusion, I realized something even worse – those boys didn’t give a damn if I could climb the tower or not. So the bottom line is that I risked my life for nothing. Nice.

*******

Two things happened at the very same time that I started fire towering – in January, 1978, Journey’s Infinity came out, and in February….wait for it…..wait for it….you know it…..Van Halen, Van Halen dropped like an A-bomb on the suburbs. We had a lot of fantastic music then, as you know, and as I’ve talked about ad infinitum, but it’s these two albums that take me back to the tower, and that I imagine playing in the background as I make that dangerous climb over and over in my mind. We were ready to run with the devil, all of us fire towerers, and this song was our fuel.

And of course, this is what you listened to once you ditched your blocker…

Fire tower

Sittin’ up there, so smug, feathers still perfect. What a smart ass. 😉

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A Summer of Pilgrimage, Part II: The Old Home Place

I’ve talked a lot about my Cajun granny and the swamp, and about my seventeen cousins and our lives up in Jackson, but I’ve been hiding something from you. Something about the Scotch-Irish side of my family – my mother’s side. I know you are shocked and disappointed in me, but you will understand when I say one simple word…

Plantation.

In the years following the war, and you know which one I’m talking about, they tried to keep it going as one large enterprise. I know this sounds like a page out of the “Gone With the Wind” playbook, but go right ahead and picture women, old men, and children in tattered clothes trying to maintain a decaying house, a few livestock, and a garden. So a generation or two later when there were enough men, they divided up the land, gave each male member of the vast, extended family a chunk, and I mean a big chunk, because the original plantation covered a good portion of the county, and the family began breaking apart to run their own farms.

They used the lumber from the “out buildings” to build their own small farm houses. The big old plantation house was still standing when my mother was a child in the thirties, but after the war, and this time I mean WWII, they finally tore it down because it was too old and enormous and run-down and they couldn’t afford the repairs. They say there are pictures of it somewhere, but I’ve never seen them. The cousins and I used to hike back up into the woods for miles, all across Great Uncle Royce’s land, then Great Uncle Herbert’s land, etc., and go play around at the patch of rubble and dirt that everyone called “the old home place”. Then we would go to the creepy old family cemetery and hide behind the gravestones and scare each other.

My mother was the baby of her large family – she’s eighty now, and is the only one left of seven brothers and sisters. Some of the cousins are gone too. We don’t go “down home” that much anymore, now that almost everyone is gone. But for her eightieth birthday this summer, I took her down. Someone else, not even family, owns her Daddy’s little used-plantation-lumber farm house now, so we couldn’t go inside, and you can’t get down to the old home place or the family cemetery without a four wheeler, so all we got to do was drive by places – the farm house, her school, the church, and the general vicinity of the old home place.

Here’s a picture of the farm house where my mother grew up and where I played as a child. House is on the left; smoke house is on the right. There were also fields, gardens, pastures, a hen house, a well, an outhouse, a barn with a hayloft, etc. To the right behind the smoke house, one mule pasture away, is a clear, rocky creek that I used to swim in as a kid.

Farm

If you want to get a pretty clear image of what Mississippi looked like in the old days, you gotta watch “O Brother Where Art Thou?”, because they did a remarkable job of recreating the atmosphere. The clothes, the accents, the music, the food, the extreme, slightly ominous religiosity, the bizarre and deeply entrenched racism, the overall weirdness, and the look of the land itself – all of it is absolutely spot-on. Here’s a fine example…

I might have played this song before, but I’m playing it again because it was my Paw Paw’s favorite song. When the crops would fail, he would take the train out of McComb-city, as he called it, to New Orleans, about an hour away, to work on the docks and live in a Creole boarding house, sending money home each week. He loved trains…

My cousins and I used to spend weeks on the farm in the summer, helping to pick and shell peas and butter beans, canning vegetables and making jam and so on. The little Baptist church would have a week-long revival every summer, with a lot of singing and eating. We sang in “parts” – the men taking one part, the women the other. I would get mad at my cousins when they wouldn’t sing their parts right. I took it seriously, you see, and sang my part with all my might. Here’s one of the songs we sang over and over, “I’ll Have a New Body”, performed here by the great Hank Williams. The cousins and I would practice singing our parts while we were hiking to the old home place…

Mama is the little one.

Mama is the little one.

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