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by Frank Shortt
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2017 Spectator Ron - The Spectator All Rights Reserved
I knew it was coming sooner or later just as surely as late July and early August rolled around.
The odor of freshly ripe berries had started to drift into the open windows, mom had begun her yearly ritual of getting her berry
pot out of the cupboard and sterilizing it for what was about to occur.
"Better get to
sleep early tonight," mom called down to Wendell and I as we were ducking under the covers to read one of our favorite comic books
by the light of flashlight. "
"Raspberries are ripe and we're going to need all we can pick and
can this year, money is pretty scarce. Looks like it will be an early winter since the leaves are starting to turn already!"
Wendell and I just looked at each other with sorrowful faces, knowing there was nothing we could do but try to get some sleep. We
knew we'd be called at around 5:30 a.m. to get our other chores done before being sent off to Grandpa's lower pasture to pick the
raspberries. Such was the lot of the poorer class of Appalachia in the 1940's and 50's.
enough, just as we already knew, we were shocked awake next morning by mom's voice saying, "up and at 'em boys, we can't wait 'til
someone else gets up there and gets the first pickin".
We both hit the floor about the same time,
put on our bibbed overalls, our oldest long sleeved shirts, and the thickest socks we had. We seemed to think that somehow the copperhead
snakes wouldn't be able to penetrate our britches' legs and the thick socks too. I believe we were just fooling ourselves. Our rough
Wolverine brogans went on last.
After the cow was milked, the wood box filled, and all the water
buckets brimmed, we began the ritual of trying to find the lard buckets we used to pick berries. After locating them in the darkest
corner of the basement, where black widows lurked, we took them to mom to be washed and scalded. We never did understand why mom insisted
on scalding the buckets when we knew that she would thoroughly wash the berries before canning them or making them into jam.
The path to the berry patch was probably the roughest trail ever known to mankind. That particular hillside was overloaded with jagged
rocks, crooked snags and sharp stumps left sticking up by whoever cleared the path to begin with. That was not the greatest danger!
We always walked very carefully by all the brush piles, the larger rocks, any hole near the path, or anywhere else we thought a copperhead
might be lurking. I have actually had these wily beasts strike at me several times, barely missing my body but grazing my pant legs.
I was told that they were blind in August, known far and wide in Appalachia as "dog days". The old timers used to say it was because
this was the season that they were shedding their old skins to be replaced by a shiny new one. Who is to say what the real reason
After reaching the berry patch, the prospect of actually picking any berries was barricaded
by the thickness of the patch itself. We had to manually tramp out a pathway to where the best berries lurked and then clear out an
area large enough to be able to fit two of us while picking. We felt safer working close together in case one of us saw a snake. If
one of us heard a rustling in the bushes, we would make tracks out of there until we would gain the courage to reenter the briar patch.
I am surprised we ever picked any berries because of our great fear of snakes. One eye had to be constantly cocked to the thickest
part of the briar patch to assure that the wily serpents did not sneak up on us. We always seemed to be able to fill our buckets though.
We sang up all the songs we knew to help pass the time, not to mention, to assuage our fear. Our harmony was not too bad as we knew
every hymn in the old church hymnbook.
"Don't you think we ought to be heading home?" I suggested,
after we had been at the picking until it was approaching sundown. Only an hour, or so, of daylight remained. The path through the
woods would be growing dark by now!
"Our buckets ain't full yet, Wendell replied, you know we'll
get skinned alive if we don't bring enough berries home after being here all day. They'll say we were just playin' around all day".
We still had to go home and chop firewood, milk the cow and carry in the water before we could
go to bed. Many nights we chopped firewood by lantern or flashlight, one of us holding the light and the other chopping the wood.
Same went for the milking and carrying the water. It is a wonder we didn't cut our toes off or something worse. The actual reason
I wanted to go home before it got too dark to see was because of my healthy fear of copperheads. As shadows continued falling reluctantly,
and cautiously, we began our descent to home.
"Wendell, are you afraid?" I asked nervously!
"Not very much" he timidly replied.
I knew deep inside that he was just as nervous, or more so
than me. We had discussed our fears before this.
"Wendell, what is that stretched across the
"Wow! It looks like the biggest copperhead I've ever seen around here," he whispered.
Wendell reached over beside the path, picking up the largest pole he could handle. Approaching
carefully, he came down on the serpent as powerfully as his young muscles would allow. At this we skedaddled!
The reptile did not move when struck! This was unusual for a snake. They usually would writhe around and thrash about until they died.
I was only afforded a quick glance as we skirted quickly around it. To my surprise, it was only a sycamore branch! Every tree root
and fallen branch became a snake after that and we treaded our path very carefully.
I never did
tell Wendell that it was a sycamore branch!
We reached home just at sundown. Mom was a little
upset about us not getting what she thought was a reasonable amount of berries. After we explained that we had to vacate the patch
several times because we thought copperheads were coming after us, she cooled down, and said,
"Well, you'd better get your other chores done", which we had to do before we could eat supper.
There were still copperheads to contend with as this was the time they crawled around. We lit the carbide light that dad used in the
truck mine to prevent cutting our toes off. Flashlights were a luxury then.
I have often wondered
why mom didn't worry her head off after sending us off by ourselves to pick berries in a snake infested field. I guess she had so
many children that she didn't have time to dwell on the safety of any one child. Survival was not easy then.
The only consolation I can derive out of all the huge amounts of berries I picked before finally leaving to join the Air Force was;
the jam was the best jam I have ever eaten or ever hope to eat.
I wonder how a modern kid would
react if his mother told him to get a lard bucket, walk almost a mile up a steep hillside infested with snakes of all kinds, and require
him to bring back a bucket full of berries?
He would call the authorities and have his mom locked
up as a lunatic!