My Favorite Summer
When I was nine years old, I spent the summer at my Nanny’s (my grandma) house in Pilot Mountain, North Carolina. Her house was located down a long, dusty, gravel driveway. It was a two-story, white brick home with a green tin roof. Built in the early 1800’s, the house served as a plantation home for the surrounding tobacco fields. By the time I came along, the tobacco was long gone, and only cows wandered the pastures surrounding the house.
I learned the hard way about messing with the electric fences that kept the cows in. Besides the whole, I didn’t duck low enough to miss it experience, I also attempted to jump it once and managed to get my foot caught in the barbwire, which then tripped me into the electric part. Then came the third time, when I was sent out to field to put the trash in the burn barrel, and I decided that it would be a good idea to put some freshly peeled cucumber skins on the electric fence to entice the cows to come get electrocuted. Karma.. God.. whatever you want to call it, made me quickly learn about what a terrible and mean thing I was plotting. The juices were all over my hands and the cucumber skins, so I got first hand experience on how water can conduct electricity.
I got my first wasp sting near that burn barrel in the pasture that summer. I was throwing dried up cow patties at trees, and just having fun running around when suddenly I felt like someone stuck me with a needle sized blow torch. I screamed and quickly ran to my grandma, who walked me over to my great-grandma who was sitting in a chair watching me acting like a fool. My grandma pulled my arm over to my grandma’s face and said, “Momma.. he’s been stung by a wasp.”
With that cue, my great-grandma leaned over and hocked her entire wad of snuff onto my arm. For those of you who don’t know, snuff is powdered tobacco that is held beneath your gums similar to dip. My Granny loved her Dental Mild Snuff, and as long as she wasn’t eating, she was dipping it.
The shock of having an old lady spitting a disgusting black wad of saliva and powdered tobacco all over my arm interrupted the pain. I stood there in disbelief, and I had no idea what or why that had just happened. Nanny explained that tobacco would take the sting out, but I was skeptical. I just couldn’t process how that would help. Either way, the confusion or the tobacco took the sting away, and a few minutes later I was back throwing dried up cow patties in the creek.
Nanny had one of those old satellite dishes, because you couldn’t get cable at her house. She lived way too far out. Unlike those little dishes that hang on the sides of houses today, this sucker was the size of a mid sized car and was the coolest thing I had ever seen. It was also the only form of entertainment around.
I didn’t have a portable gaming system, nor did I have my Nintendo with me. There were no laptops, smart phones, or Netflix. The only source of entertainment was the single television in the living room, which was watched on a schedule everyday. For all simplistic purposes it was something like this: Morning News – Price is Right – Noon News – Stories (Soap Operas) – Game Shows – Evening News. Needless to say, there wasn’t much enjoyment outside of the Price is Right for a kid.
I helped cook, wash dishes, and clean to pass the time. I filled the rest of my hours playing with an old cassette tape recorder I found. A hobby of mine was to listen to the radio with a cassette on record and pause, as soon as a song would begin, I’d hit the pause button to release it, and begin recording the song. If I didn’t like the song, I’d stop the tape, rewind it and repeat. By using the pause button, I eliminated that half a second delay and it also didn’t make a popping noise on the cassette. I made some pretty awesome tapes that way.
Well with this cassette recorder that I found, I accidentally discovered that I could use my cheap headphones as a microphone. One side of the headphones would work like a mic, so now I could record intros and dedications for the songs. So I spent hours recording intros for all sorts of songs, then I’d double tape the songs onto a tape with the intro and basically created my own little radio stations that existed just on a few cassettes. It was a d*mn good time.
I spent days working on my tapes, until I eventually ran out of songs. There weren’t a lot of FM radio stations available, and the ones that were played country or Christian music. Not genres that would appeal to a kid like me.
One morning after breakfast, I made my way into the pasture to play by the creek. I was throwing rocks into the creek when I discovered there were fish in the creek. I’d never paid much attention to the water before other than running or swinging across it.
I stopped throwing rocks and slowly made my way down the bank watching as the little schools of fish swam. Most were the size of minnows, but I saw a few the size of my hand. I attempted (and failed) to catch some fish by hand, and decided I needed a rod. In the tobacco barn, there were hundreds of old wooden tobacco sticks that were used to hold the crop up. The sticks were pretty much the same size of me, but were small enough to hold in my hand, not too unlike a fishing pole. I grabbed a sturdy stick and ran to the house to tell my grandma about the fish. She saw the stick and offered to find me some string, a hook, and some bait. I walked out with some sewing thread, a safety pin, and a can of corn.
I made my way back down to the creek to the spot where I watched the fish. The creek was only a few inches deep, so finding the fish wasn’t difficult. I baited up my new makeshift fishing pole and dropped the little piece of corn right down into the middle of the school. The fish scattered in every direction, no doubt startled by the sudden thump of yellow splashing down onto them. To my surprise, one fish turned back around and went straight for the bait. I pulled the stick ever so lightly and out came a tiny fish. I had actually caught a fish using corn as bait. Of course, looking back, the idea that a safety pin managed to hook the fish is even more incredible.
I did a little dance and put the fish back in the water. I got another piece of corn ready, and dropped it back into the creek. The fish weren’t quite as anxious to attack this piece like the last one, but with my unfair advantage of being able to see them, I taunted the little fish until they could no longer resist. I caught one, right after another, and then another. For hours, I walked a thirty foot section of the creek catching fish with corn, and the occasional crawdad by hand. I was having a blast.
Nanny had planned a trip to K-Mart later in the afternoon. I heard her hollering for me, so I ran up to the house to get cleaned up and ready to go to town. I guess my excitement about fishing impressed her, or maybe she just enjoyed having me out of the house, but for whatever reason, she bought me my own little box of fishing line and a little box of hooks to go along with it. I was now properly stocked to create a decent fishing pole.
I got up early the next morning to resume my fishing activities. I made my new tobacco stick rod, and took my remaining corn down to the creek. I had to walk a little further up to the creek to find the fish, but I found them and I started catching them again. I spent the whole day catching fish and using up my can of corn. It was one of the greatest days I ever had.
The following morning I was anxious to get out and begin fishing, but I needed some new bait. My grandma didn’t offer me a can of veggies this time, instead, she handed me a baggie with a few old hot dogs in it. I guess since I was a kid, I didn’t see anything strange in this. I just happily took my bag of hot dogs, grabbed my pole by the door, and scaled the electric fence out back. I maneuvered through some of the staggered cows, and sat down under the tree where the rope swing was. I tore a tiny piece of the hot dog off, about the same size as a kernel of corn, and put it on my hook. I wasn’t sure it was going to garner the same success as the corn, but I didn’t think about it much. I just did what I did best, found the fish, dropped the bait on top of them, and waited for them to eat it. I learned after just a minute or two, that fish like hot dogs as much as they like corn.
For a couple of weeks, my days were spent doing pretty much the same thing. Eat breakfast, get whatever random leftover food my grandma gave me for bait, grab my pole, and go fishing. Sometimes she’d even pack me a lunch to take down to the creek. I started exploring more of the creek, and even walked down so far that I couldn’t see the house, or the part of the pasture beside the house. It was pretty scary at first, but the creek was a good two hundred yards from the house to begin with, so it wasn’t like my grandma was able to watch me even when I was near the house.
After the first few hours, I began feeling comfortable along the creek. I decided to start exploring the woods some. I knew my uncle had an old club house in the woods somewhere, and he warned me to never go near it because it was probably full of snakes. So like a kid, I really wanted to find that club house. It took me about ten minutes to track it down, and I was really disappointed to learn all the doors had padlocks on them. Still, being able to explore in the woods successfully brought me a lot of joy. I decided to see what else I could find.
I spent the remainder of the day walking in the woods alone. I climbed a few trees, ate my lunch on an old stump, and attempted to find an old Indian burial ground that supposedly existed somewhere. I wasn’t raised in the country, so this whole experience was totally new to me. It was incredibly liberating. I was the master of my own destiny, and was fully responsible for myself. There was no homesickness or panicking. It was just me smiling and enjoying the day, deep in the woods.
When it started to get dark, I knew I needed to make my way home. I wasn’t really sure where I was, or how deep in the woods that I was. The only thing I knew was I had followed the creek on the right side, so I just needed to do the opposite to get back. It was almost pitch black by the time I saw the lights to the house. I walked in like a man. I wasn’t ever frightened, or even nervous. Nanny must have known, she didn’t have any issue with me being out so late.
I spent my remaining weeks exploring the woods from all directions. I started leaving my fishing pole at the house, and instead just took a lunch and went out to see what I could see. One morning I’d go one way, the next morning another. I found swimming holes, a little sandy islands, and even occasionally came upon an old abandoned house. One day, I came up to a busy bridge that ran above the creek and recognized it was from the main road that led towards my grandma’s house a good seven or eight miles a way.
I look back on that time now with almost disbelief. I realize how dangerous my exploration was, and how almost negligent my lack of supervision was. There were so many risk factors in those woods that it seems borderline crazy to allow a child to wander them alone and with no guidance. But you know what? I was fine. Nothing bad happened.
What did happen was I had the best time of my life. To this day, nothing has ever come as close to the freedom and feeling I got wandering the woods alone. It was peaceful, relaxing, and exciting. I learned so much about myself and nature, there was nothing but good that came out of those days in the woods.
When I look back at my childhood, it’s easy to remember the toys, games, and movies. These are things that many of us shared, because they were created for mass consumption. But when I think about the best moments, I think about the woods. A single experience that I shared with no one.
If there is a Heaven, and it turns out to be a place where you can relive some great moments, mine will be back wandering those woods and fishing with a tobacco stick.