The crimson sky blazed behind the mountains and the shadows stretched and blackened as the autumn sun sank below the distant horizon. The afterglow of sunset softened the edges of every tree, rock, and ridge, and the evening took on a surreal, magical aura. It was an enchanted time of day, at an enchanted time of year. Black specters in the sky were simply the crows leaving the cornfields that stretched below our house, to fly to an undisclosed roosting spot with other crows from other fields. Their cawing cries reaching out to their latent kinfolk. The few clouds were just golden lace stretched across the sky above the colorful landscape.
I stood and soaked it in. At an early age I learned that autumn was my favorite time of year. Living outside of Marion, North Carolina, at the end of a single lane dirt road, now called Bungalow Drive, I was a free-range kid. All of us were. We had a river, a mountain, and open fields and woods for several miles below the single wide trailer we lived in at the time. At the end of all that was the Marion airport, and then Lake James.
We were poor, I now know, but in some ways we were rich too. We owned all the outdoors as far as we could hike or climb. We had an entire river to swim in. I had trees and small cliffs to climb. We had hunting for rabbits, squirrels, and doves. We had fishing for trout, white bass, walleye, and catfish. Most of all, we had freedom. We had chores to do, but after that, it was out and gone until the darkness drove us back.
Life was good.
Autumn brought the school year too. That cut into my free range time, but it was a necessary evil, I guess. We all did our time at Pleasant Gardens Elementary, then came home to run and play. I hated the homework. It kept me from being out in the great outdoors. Mom had to just about beat me to make me do it. I made good grades, but under duress.
By the time I was ten years old, Pop had gotten Roy a 20-guage single shot shotgun, and I had inherited Roy’s previous gun, a single shot .410 with a full choke. We hunted up and down the river in the trees along the edge that bordered the corn fields and cow pastures and separated them from the Catawba river. There were hickory trees along the river in several spots, and when the nuts were ripe, the squirrels couldn’t resist them, and we couldn’t resist the squirrels. We became pretty good hunters on those excursions and often contributed to the dinner pot with our kills.
We learned how to skin squirrels at an early age and were not squeamish about it at all. Pop gave us a pocket knife at an early age too, and we learned to use it, and use it well. My mom made the best squirrel dumplings I’ve ever had and I liked them with salt and a good sprinkling of pepper. Add a few big homemade biscuits and it was on. It was very much worth the effort to go after them. Of course, we never matched Pop’s stealthiest or accuracy, but we did our part.
Once we spotted a huge bull frog sitting in the mud next to the river, and it was not long after Roy had gotten the 20-guage. We weren’t fully aware of the power of the gun yet. We sneaked quietly up to the bank above the frog and looked straight down on it from a distance of about ten feet. I had the gun and I took great care in sighting and putting the bead right in the center of the frog. When I squeezed the trigger and recovered from the kick, all I found where the frog had been, was a hole about four inches in diameter and about five inches deep. Hmmm. Where’d that frog go?
Along with guns and knives, we also built our own weapons, though I doubt we could have killed anything with them. Pop seemed to have an endless supply of builder’s twine, and we had an endless supply of straight saplings about an inch in diameter. We discovered that certain of these saplings were very stiff and springy and if we carved the ends right with our pocket knives, that we could use building twine for the string and make a pretty decent bow. We could collect dried reeds from the edges of the fields and a few weed patches for arrows and shoot them with some degree of accuracy at short ranges. The saplings, being green, would eventually lose their springiness and the bow would no longer shoot very far. Sometimes they would break if we pulled them back too far. We thought we were Indians, I guess.
The corn field below the house was a favorite playground once the stalks went above head high. We would sneak in and out and play hide and seek among the rows. Often we just walked through looking at animal tracks and tried to identify what animal left which tracks. Rabbit and raccoon tracks were easy. Squirrels would occasionally leave a track or two next to a small mud puddle in the soft red clay. The most exciting, and sometimes scary, tracks were of the big bobcat that lived there on the mountain. He was king of the hill and he and we all knew it. Sometimes his tracks looked far too fresh for comfort.
Roy and I went running into the corn on one occasion and a leaf hit me in the eye. It scratched my eye pretty severely and that hurt for days. On another occasion I discovered that the corn was ripe but still soft and juicy, and I ate two or three ears of the raw field corn. It was pretty good and sweeter that you’d think. Mr. Laughridge never knew. He always let the corn dry out and then ran a combine through it to harvest and shell the corn. Once he had harvested it, we could walk through and find whole and partial ears and even a pile here and there that had been spilt when the combine filled the truck.
It was then that we would see the occasional deer track. Deer weren’t very populous around there at that time, but there were a few, and the offer of free corn would bring them to the field, apparently only at night. I don’t recall having seen a deer there, only their tracks in the field and the road above it.
Pop showed me how to use a round stick and make fake deer tracks, and I was able to fool a few people with them, or maybe they pretended to be fooled, but it was fun trying.
The road that skirted the base of the mountain went down to the cornfield and then up by the spring where we got our water, then across the hump of the corner of the mountain. Finally, it went out to Mr. Tyler’s fence and turned up the hill toward the ridge and came out up on Airport road. I never went all the way to the top of that one, but Mr. Tyler had a road that went all the way to the top and came out behind his house.
Between the two roads was a deep little valley full of ferns and a trickle of a spring. I loved the smell of the ferns, the moss, and the damp earth. Sometimes I could be found there just lying in the hollow soaking up the smell of the forest and listening to the sound of the spring trickling across the rocks. I thought it must be a small piece of heaven on earth. Even on the hottest days of summer that little valley was cool and refreshing. I kept it to myself.
My grandfather owned a significant portion of the front side of that mountain. By front side I mean the side facing the river that we lived on. We called it Grandpa’s Mountain, when we called it anything at all. I don’t know the real name to this day. We had a kid’s paradise there on the front of that hill.
About a hundred yards along the base of the mountain was a big, old walnut tree. There was also a damp seep coming out of the mountain near it, so it had plenty of water and nutrients. Most years that tree had a good crop of walnuts. Sometimes we’d gather some up and crack and eat the goody out of them. The taste of black walnuts is addictive to me. I love the flavor cooked into a cake of some kind.
One year Roy and I used Pop’s router to cut our names into a piece of plywood each. We didn’t do a bad job with the router considering, but the plywood seemed pretty plain and needed something. We came up with the idea of gathering up some walnut husks, since they were freshly fallen and still full of the black, black juice that fills the husks and turns black as they die after falling off the tree. We took the wettest and blackest of the husks and rubbed the plywood down front, back, and down into the letters of our names, then wiped all the excess off with a dry rag to leave the nameplates stained a deep rich brown that really highlighted the wood grain. We were quite impressed with ourselves, and to our surprise Pop seemed pretty impressed with our stain idea as well. Eventually the stain faded since it didn’t have chemicals to preserve it, or a coat of varnish to protect it, but it was still a pretty cool experiment.
The river ran through our front yard, and through our young lives. The Catawba was always right there. We learned to swim in the progressively deep pool in front of our trailer. We waded through the shoals looking for crawdads. We fished it from the big rock above our house to the lower end of Tyler’s fields. It was a big part of our world for those years we lived there.
In autumn there wasn’t much we could do in the river. The water turned cold as soon as the first chill breezes started blowing across the water. It originated in a bunch of springs up on Black Mountain, just inside the McDowell County line, and flowed, with other creeks from other springs joining it as it came down to Old Fort and on down to us. Once the days cooled off a bit, there was nothing to warm the water between the source springs and our house several miles downstream.
Several times in the late summer or early fall the river flooded. Twice our trailer was right above the river bank and the water was up dangerously. The first time, it was literally flowing past our back doorstep. We watched huge trees and drifts of brush, along with other people’s belongings being carried by, just out of reach of our back steps, then disappearing on downstream past the back of the Dolphin Fish Camp.
The second time was much more frightening. The river just kept coming closer and closer. It came to the back steps, then to the pillars under the trailer, then underneath the trailer. By the time we bailed out and left, it was flowing through underneath even with the bottom edge of the trailer and the top of the steps. I remember Pop carrying us up the hill out of the water to the car. Funny thing is, I can’t remember where we stayed until the water went down.
After that flood, Pop had a dozer come in and grade a step in the side of the base of the mountain, and had the Trailer moved up on the step, above the reach of the river. The next time the river got out of its banks, we watched it from a safe distance.
The river was a source of adventure, fun, and danger and in our time there it wore a pretty significant path through my memories. I remember it with fondness. I have other stories about the river that can wait for another time.
The sky faded to black, and the first stars appeared. “Star light, star bright, I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight.” An old, old rhyme from a long time ago. Sometimes I wish I could go back. I scratch my dog’s ears and turn toward the house, and put my memories to bed for a time.
© James L. Frady
September 6th, 2017