It was the best fishing hole on Three Run Creek for a half mile either way. The black folks that lived and worked on Papa’s place, and their kinfolks up and down the road, knew its whereabouts, but that’s about all. Not that it was a secret, it just happened to be almost inaccessibly deep in Three Run Swamp. The creek ran in a curve against the bank creating a wash-out. Years ago, with the help of a few sticks of dynamite, my grandfather had blown it wider and deeper into what became known as the Simon Hole. It was about a quarter-mile behind Aunt Jane Day’s house.
Aunt Jane, whose parents had been slaves, lived in a ramshackle old homestead on the “Sam Place”, a piece of land Papa owned that wasn’t attached to the home place. It was about three miles away, down the rutted, dirt track known simply as “the road”. Partially hidden by trees, the house stood a ways off the road. The old woman had lived back in there for years, and though she was alone, she wasn’t forgotten. Folks up and down the road looked after her and saw to her meager needs.
One July day, we hitched the mules to that old wagon, and set out on what was to be my first fishing trip to Three Run Creek. When I say “we”, I mean Pap, who was the oldest, Rufus, Jimmy Lee, me, and James Louis. That was our gang in the summertime. Their parents lived on Papa’s place, so we spent a lot of time roaming the woods together. Anyway, we turned off the road and headed towards the old house intending to drop off a sack of purple-hull peas Mama sent her, and press on to the creek before it got too hot. Aunt Jane heard us coming and was waiting on the porch. The old wagon rattled up in the yard. Pap stopped the mules.
It was the first time I’d ever seen the mysterious old woman, and I was surprised and somewhat disappointed. Judging by all the talk I had heard, I imagined her to be biblically imposing. I don’t really know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t a six-foot tall, dried up rail of a woman, painfully thin and black as midnight. Before she said a word, my ten-year old self felt something that made me want to hold back from speaking. Pointing a gaunt finger at us, she stated flatly, “Y’all gon’ do somp’n f’me!” And pulling a short pencil from her pocket, she held it up and said, “Go fin’ a sweet gum and cut me some li’l green branches ‘bout half abig around as dis pencil … and I want ‘em dis long!” which, as she indicated, was the length of her forefinger.
We stood transfixed, baffled by these instructions. Aunt Jane broke the moment barking, “Fin’ me a sweet gum now, boys! Not a black gum, a sweet gum! Now, go … an’ make haste!” She handed Rufus a largemouth quart jar, we shrugged and grumbling quietly, headed into the woods to fill it.
An hour or so later, with the jar packed tightly with little sticks, sweaty and covered with beggar lice, we returned to the porch. She had us remove the sticks, and use our knives to scrape the thin, greenish-brown bark from half of each sprig. Finally, she had us chew the clean ends. Sweet gum is a fibrous wood, so chewing made the ends fuzz up; the more we chewed, the bigger, and fuzzier they got.
We chomped each piece until it was about the size of the tip of our little fingers. When we got one where it suited her, she stashed it in one of the old Prince Albert smoking tobacco tins she’d saved. Completely in the dark as to what was going on, we dutifully chewed on. Somehow, Aunt Jane read our minds! Without a word, she picked up one of the sticks, stuck the chewed end in her mouth until it was good and wet. Then, opening her jar of “Tube Rose” snuff, she pushed the wet end into it, and twirled it around until it was about the size of a marble. With mouths hanging open, we watched intently as she nestled the ball of snuff in her cheek. When she was satisfied, we could see only the tip end of the stick at the corner of her mouth. That done, she beamed a toothless grin at us and with a cackling laugh said gleefully, “Dees gon’ las’ t’ Chri’ma”.
We left and took the wagon on through the field as far as we could, hobbled the mules, grabbed up our poles and headed down to the creek. By that time, it was way up in the morning, and as with any sultry July day in South Alabama, the humidity was such that you could see the air. All of us were muttering about it being so late and so hot. The further we descended toward the the creek bottom, the louder the grumbling became. Some hundred yards from the creek, the breeze dropped off until it became perfectly still, which meant mosquitoes. From then on, it was stumbling, slapping, and cussing and worse, nobody remembered to bring the smoke pots. Without them, we were at the mercy of swarming blood-suckers. The heat and the being late had put pall over the trip, so all of us out of sorts. When we got to the creek, Pap didn’t slow up. Never breaking stride, he dropped his poles and bait bucket, stalked up to the bank, and leaped in. The rest of us followed a few steps behind him.
Thrashing around in the water for a while put an end to feeling sour about aunt Jane interrupting our plans for the day and before long, the notion of fishing passed. We gathered up our poles and soaking wet, the target of droves of mosquitoes, trudged back up the hill to the mules. When we passed back by her house, the old lady was sitting on the porch humming and shelling peas. Waving and calling out, we made our way on out to the road, heading home. When the rumbling old wagon reached the intersection with the road that branched off and led to the paved road, Pap pulled the mules up. He said that being as it was Saturday afternoon, there would be a ball game at the First Chance and it wasn’t but about a mile away.
Woah! For me, going to the beer joint was forbidden in the most stringent terms, so I hesitated when they all jumped up wanting to go. Getting crosswise with Papa was not wise. It wasn’t life-threatening, but his application of “butt tenderizer” was definitely not to be taken lightly. I was still considering my options when the cajoling sprang up … everybody started talking at once! Their excitement, plus the thrill of doing something forbidden, was too much. Hoping Papa wouldn’t find out, I decided to dare the devil and throw in with them. Pap turned the mules toward the paved road and whooping, we cast my fate to the wind.
As I turned to take my seat for the jolting ride to the beer joint, I felt something sticking me. Puzzled, I reached in my pocket and pulled out one of the sweet gum twigs. Looking at it for a moment, I thought about Aunt Jane, took out my Barlow and started scraping the bark off one end. Then, remembering the sublime look on her face when she got that gob of snuff situated in her cheek, I smiled, and began to chew on it, thinking. I’d been off with the boys, swimming in Three Run Creek, I’d helped put a look of happy satisfaction on Aunt Jane’s face, and that felt good. I had gone against Papa’s wishes, and I was headed to the beer joint, and that felt good too.
Looking back on that day of fun and adventure in 1952, I can see it as an omen. I learned that doing for others made me feel good. That and the thrill of breaking the rules, of going out on a limb. I think those two realizations were the spark lighting a flame, a corrupting flame, that would consume me and lead to what my Dad and many of my friends considered to be a life of wandering aimlessly from place to place playing music. Every day, I thank my Heavenly Father that He let me follow that path.