The Changing of the Guards

The Changing of the Guards

A Story by Fabian G. Franklin
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Autobiographical

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            Three years before John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas Texas, I was born in a hospital near the center of North Carolina. We call this area the piedmont. Home was actually more in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. The Civil Rights movement was about to break into full stride and the times were fearful and turbulent. White folks thought the black folks wanted another civil war to kill off the rebel stragglers that the yankees had missed a hundred years before. Or worse, that the black males might take a liking to white females and the entire mixed up mutt of European descent might become tainted with blood of African ancestry.

 Groups like the Ku Klux Klan who went to Baptist church on Sunday morning and burned crosses in front yards of suspected black sympathizers at night went marching down southern main street USA carrying guns in broad daylight. Martin Luther King Jr. had yet to give his “I have a dream speech” and, had he tried in rural North Carolina to voice such an opinion, the dream would have quickly become a nightmare. But the nightmares were only just beginning. It would be less than three months after Dr. King’s speech at the Lincoln memorial that JFK would slump forward dead in his limousine, a bullet in his brain.

 At the age of six I remember sitting on a sawhorse to add my forty pounds of weight or so to the log. My older bothers used a draw saw to cut the logs into sections. For those who do not know what a draw saw is, it is a saw manned by two people who draw it back and forth by sheer physical strength until the log is cut through. This will make a strong man sweat, even in winter. After the logs are sawed, they still have to be split into firewood with a double edged axe. We used to say the wood warms twice, once in the cutting and splitting and once in the woodstove.

Our woodstove was large and square, made of cast iron and lined with firebricks. The outside was enameled a chocolate brown color and gave it the appearance of a modern convenience. It was not. A cast handle was used to churn the ashes from the grate in the front of the stove by sliding support rods from side to side. A second handle opened or locked the grate doors in the bottom of the burning area. An ash pan made of heavy tin caught the ashes below the ash box door. A vent in the door allowed extra draft for more oxygen to reach the flame.

I was often given the chore, when the fire burned low, of emptying the ash pan. More often than not, it contained live coals and was hot as the surface of Venus. I burned my little hands more than once on the pan and my elbows often on the stovepipe. My favorite thing about the stove was the pot of boiling water that always sat there. This was used to humidify, make instant coffee or, God willing that we had sugar, hot cocoa. I can taste the chocolate yet.

Our water did not come from a faucet that one twists to gain instant access to the county or town’s seemingly endless supply. We carried water from a spring about seventy-five yards from our back door. We walked down a wooded path with empty buckets and carried them back, hopefully full. I say hopefully because when you are seven or eight years old and you meet a rattlesnake or a copperhead on the path from the spring, you are often inclined to slosh a little water out with your quickening retreat towards home.

I loved the spring. There were always fascinating sights and sounds in the woods on the trek to and from there. There were woodpeckers and wood hens, groundhogs and chipmunks, squirrels and rabbits. The spring itself flowed from a natural rock formation hollowed out to a depth of about three feet. An aluminum dipper hung from a spike driven into the rock just inside the enclosure. The water was always ice cold, even on the hottest day of summer, and tasted so fresh and pure that bottled water of today cannot compare. Just inside the mossy surface of the spring was a thatched panel of sorts about four inches across. It looked innocent enough; in fact, it looked like nothing but the surrounding rock and moss. A hinge was attached to the top of this little flap however and inside lived a trapdoor spider.

While the name of the spider is quite obvious, let me here give a little more description of this in-spring resident. The spider was brown and hairy with numerous eyes that I never took the time to count, suffice it to say, there were more than two. Trapdoors do not build webs but are nocturnal hunters. They catch everything from crayfish to baby mice. Think of a pet tarantula that is not a pet. This particular spider had the unnerving habit of coming out to greet me when I reached for the dipper to get a drink. I was never bitten because the spider and I shared a mutual fear and respect for one another. My daddy would say, “Aw, they ain’t poisoness, even if you got bit.” I was lucky enough to never put to test my father’s knowledge of arachnids.

Another uninvited summer guest was the cottonmouth water moccasin who sometimes went bathing in our drinking water. He was another story. If I was afraid of the spider, I was terrified of the cottonmouth. And, with good reason I might add. They are one of the deadly species that haunted my childhood in dreams as well as waking hours.

 We stored our drinking water in a ten gallon stainless steel milk container. My dad had ingeniously inverted the container and attached a push button spigot to the outside. This tank sat next to our kitchen sink on the counter. I have seen ball lightning bounce from the container to the floor before burning out in wisps of ozone. The old hardwood floor still bears the char burnt witness in its panels.

There were seven of us kids at home, the oldest daughter having married and moved away before I could remember. But I remember my cousins visiting from Washington State and thinking they had come to a place close to Tarzan’s home on the Saturday afternoon movie. We all carried water to fill the kitchen cistern and another sixty gallons to fill mother’s washtubs. The tubs sat on a square steel rack outside the kitchen window. I remember mother’s hands raw and red in the winter and our clothes frozen hard as boards on the clothesline. I used to punch the frozen jeans and towels playing pretend outside that I was Smoking Joe Frazier who would become the undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the World in 1970.

With no running water in the house you are probably wondering about hygiene and bathroom facilities. Our toilet or “outhouse” stood at the bottom of a hill about sixty feet from the house. Every year we had to move the little wooden building, dig a new “toilet hole” and bury the old one. The hole we had to dig for this was about six feet deep and three feet wide by four feet long. We dug it with a mattock weighing about six pounds, a pick; about ten pounds, and a shovel. Even wearing leather gloves for the job, this would leave one with blisters that lasted a week. We poured kerosene or turpentine into the hole during the summer months to reduce the breeding maggots that thrived there.

When it came time to cut the grass in early spring, we didn’t have to worry about the price of gasoline. Our mower was a fabulous contraption. The blades were attached to gears which were in turn attached to the wheels of the mower. No gasoline required. The blades were spiral and numbered about six forming a round roller appearance. If the blades dulled, we had to sharpen them with a file by hand. It would take several hours to sharpen the mower. Woe to the one who tried to cut grass with a dull mower. You would push your guts out for a haircut that looked better on Alfalfa; a member of Our Gang and later, The Little Rascals who always had a sprout sticking up from the back of his head that he proudly called his “personality”. If one left such sprouts all over the lawn one would have to sharpen the blades and mow the whole yard over again.

Our family raised chickens and we had about a hundred or so of various breeds. Most of them were “Rhode Island Reds” because these were good layers and eggs were a protein staple in our diet. A German Shepherd named Choya would round up the chickens into the lot where they roosted in the trees. Periodically, we sheared the pinions from one wing on the hens to keep them from flying away. The roosters stayed wherever the hens were. We slaughtered our own chickens and after they were beheaded with a hatchet (I had the duty of burying the chicken heads) they were dumped into a tub of boiling water to loosen the feathers. We then plucked the feathers and gutted the chickens for mother to fry or make “chicken and dumplings” with.

Farming was a necessity of survival. My family grew green beans, potatoes, corn, beets, turnips, lettuce, cabbage, squash and at times, even peanuts and strawberries. My siblings and I would go blackberry picking in the summer and rub turpentine around the cuffs of our long-sleeved shirts and britches to repel ticks and chiggers. A chigger is a tiny red bug that burrows under the skin and itches like nobody’s business. Mom would freeze a lot of the blackberries we would pick and come winter, we would have blackberry pie or dumplings; which my mom always called “Family Pie” with rich cream or fresh milk from our neighbor’s cows.

I hoed so much corn and beans in the summer that I looked more like a Mexican kid than a southern white boy. My skin today has the texture of leather. But these were simple times when sex was taboo and sunshine with fresh air was still good for you. A bunch of the kids I knew were dreading going back to school in the fall but I was looking forward to getting out of the fields for awhile.

 I’m not saying that I never had any fun. My dad would often take me fishing on top of Lookout Dam and I would scoot to the top on my butt and try not to look down. It was a good fifty feet drop to the solid concrete below. My dad was an excellent fisherman and he never failed to catch fish, even when the fish weren’t “biting”. I swear the man could have thrown an empty hook in the water and pulled out a crappie just on God’s blessing. I spent many long hours under the back porch light scaling and cleaning up fish to fry for supper the next night.

 Dad always favored the long pointed floats and floating line usually used by trout fishermen. That may have been part of his secret. At the end of along day, wearied from work and sunburn, dad would grin at me and say, “boy, why don’t we go fishing tomorrow. He died in 1984 of lung cancer from smoking cigarettes. I still miss him every day.

My oldest brother went off to answer Uncle Sam’s call in 1969 and I would write him letters to a strange faraway land called Viet Nam. He would send me weird looking money and pictures of this unusual place. I would wonder why we Americans were there. I still wonder why. A man named Bob Dylan would change my outlook on the world’s many faces and go on to write a song called “The Changing of the Guards” but I knew it was all “Blowing in the Wind”. I had grown up with heroes on television like “The Lone Ranger” and “Tarzan”. But there aren’t many heroes left today.

I saw the first man walk on the moon. I’ve seen the fall of the Berlin wall and the death of Communism in the Soviet Union. I have viewed pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope that amaze and intrigue me beyond the depths of my intellect. I have seen a cowboy actor become President of the United States and an action hero actor become governor of California. I know I should be proud to live in the “land of the free and the home of the brave”. And I truly am proud and hopeful for the future of our great nation. But sometimes I fear for the youth of America. In this new age of technology and terrorism, global finance and global warming I do hope and believe in this new generation. But I also see the weight of the burden they must bear in the changing of the guards.

 

 

 

 

           

 

 


© 2017 Fabian G. Franklin



Author's Note

Fabian G. Franklin
If you click on the small photo you can see my mom in my youth. My dad built our block house and those are the wash tubs where she scrubbed our laundry by hand. we were hard scrabble and dirt poor. The dog is Choya, our loyal German Shepherd...110 lbs of love and a young boy's best friend. In the far background you can make out our neighbor's barn. They raised sugarcane and cooked it in a huge stone vat to make molasses. We bought molasses from them and milk fresh from the cow from our other neighbors...the cream would still be on top to make butter from.

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Added on October 2, 2017
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Author

Fabian G. Franklin
Fabian G. Franklin

Boone, NC



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