Whitesburg KY

Hot classroom was better than hot job

Unlike many kids today, I couldn’t wait for classes to start back when I was a schoolboy. And I used to pray for snow, not so much to get a day off in mid-winter but to make the school year last as long as possible into warm weather.

Summer was not a vacation when I was growing up in Letcher County in the head of Blair Branch back in the ’50s and early ’60s.

Anything but! Labor camp would be a more accurate description. Summers meant hoeing several acres of vegetable gardens and field corn, picking strawberries, picking blackberries, picking beans, and canning from daylight until dark.

You don’t know what hard work is unless you’ve spent all day chopping cabbage with an empty tin can turned upside with the top edges sharpened where it had been opened. And I’m talking washtubs full of said chopped cabbage, carrots, beans and whatnot.

Try sitting on the edge of the porch and spending the day stringing and breaking up a couple bushels of beans if you really want to learn about work. I have arthritis in both hands now and I blame it on the beans of my youth.

My mom must have had at least a dozen recipes for canned relish, which she put up in lots of seven quarts at a time because that’s how many jars the canner held. And she figured we ought to have at least 100 quarts each of kraut, tomatoes, strawberries, blackberries, corn, pickles, apples and peaches, and at least 200 quarts of beans and a like number of mixed veggies for soup. And then there were the blackberry, raspberry, and strawberry jams, apple butter, peach preserves and jellies out the kahooty. We dried beans and apples by the bushels, and there’s no room in the column to describe that process.

We stored at least 25 bushels of potatoes in a “‘tater hole” lined with straw and cornstalks, and put another 20 or so bushels in an upstairs room where they wouldn’t freeze so we could eat on them all winter. Two bushels or so of onions were kept in the same room along with sweet potatoes and pears.

The orchard was over a quarter mile from the house, way up on the side of a steep mountain, and the blackberries and raspberries were more than half a mile up.

And we didn’t have just one garden. We had at least eight in any given growing season. The largest one (four acres) was a mile and a half away. And they all had names — Nan’s garden, Jim’s garden, Ted’s garden, Stevie’s place, the Big Rock garden, the Little Rock garden, the Creed Place, Mander’s Place and Ike’s Bottom; the latter of which was the aforementioned mile and a half away and consisted of four big acres. Everything that grew in them had to be picked and packed to the house.

Guess who did most of the gathering and packing? I do have three younger brothers and they did help — some.

When Dad went to the grocery store during the summer he bought sugar and salt in 50- pound bags, usually two of each this time of year. Baking soda, gallons of vinegar, pickling spice, and quart jar caps were bought by the gross. Lard, meal and flour were often on the list in 25-pound quantities. He’d buy half a gallon of ice cream, a carton of Kool-Aid mix , a can of Eight O’Clock coffee and a pack of Kern’s cinnamon rolls if any money was left over. And that was about it for the weekly run to the A&P or to Basil Hall’s Grocery in Whitesburg.

Actually, now that I think about it, most of the time Dad would trade produce for all those staples and leave the store with cash in his pocket. There were other bills to be paid.

On Saturdays we would load his pickup with mostly beans, tomatoes, sweet corn and maybe cabbage and go peddling doorto door. It wasn’t unusual to make three or four hauls in one day to town folk or retirees along the way who wanted to can beans or whatever but didn’t have room or the get-up-and-go to grow their own gardens. I must admit that I loved those peddling trips because Dad’s customers loved to see him coming and, invariably, they’d offer us a soda pop or some other refreshment or sweet delicacy and I’d come home all sugared up.

But come early August I’d be counting the days until school started. Christmas in August and maybe even better than Christmas was what I thought about school starting back.

I especially remember a very special teacher from sixth-grade whose name was Willie J. Back. He’d bring in little paper funeral home fans with those little tongue-depressor handles and pass them out at Blair Branch Grade School so that he and we could fan ourselves. The school building was shaded by two huge sycamores, but was wired so that you couldn’t run an electric fan and have the lights on at the same time without blowing a fuse. And it got terribly hot in August and September with oiled pine floors and a hot tin roof.

Mr. Back always wore a white shirt, and he would be sweating until his shirt was wet as he went from blackboard to blackboard doing arithmetic for grades 6, 7 and 8 all at the same time. I might mention here that we only had 25 students in the three combined grades and Mr. Back was a genius at keeping us all on the same learning curve.

On hot afternoons in August he’d find some excuse to take us all outside to sit on the merrygo round in the shade or lean against the sycamore trees or even perch up in the lower limbs of the trees to talk about geography, history or anything else he believed it important that adolescents know about.

And he’d say, “I’m sorry that it’s so hot, children, but we have to press on.”

And I’d stick up my hand up in the air and he’d call on me and I’d say, “It ain’t nearly as hot here as it is down in that bottom where we could be picking beans.”

Mr. Back would laugh out loud and slap his leg and shake his head. He knew for sure that most of us were more than glad to be back in school.

Leave a Reply