Archive for September, 2010

On the Way to Millington

September 25, 2010

The only thing worse than going to Millington, is having to drive the 1987 four wheel drive red pickup truck to get there.  I hate that truck and the feeling is mutual.  It teases me.  I turn the key, the engine cranks up, but just let me put it in gear.  It chokes, sputters and dies. I curse. It laughs and we start all over again.  The truck and I usually ignore each other.  It sits in the driveway, its back to me and I tip toe around it.   Today we had to go together to rescue the only person who loves both of us, Bruce.

Millington is on the other side of White Hall, nearer to Free Union, but this side of Pea Vine Hollow.  That’s where the dump truck broke down.  That’s when Bruce called and said, “You need to bring the Four Wheel Drive to Millington.”

“Can’t I just bring the tool box in my car?”

“You can’t pull the dump truck out of the ditch with your car.”

“You didn’t say you were in a ditch. You said you broke down. How’d you get in a ditch?”

“I was going to try to drive it home, see how far I could get.  It’s been overheating. I reached for the cell to call you and the road gave way under the front wheel.  They’re putting in a culvert up here and the dirt is soft. I think the dump truck blew a head gasket. I can’t get it to cool down and hold water.  It steams up and blows the water out.   There are two cars behind me that can’t get out and you’re twenty five miles away.  Can you just get in the truck and come on?”

“I hate that truck.  I hate it.  It won’t run for me.”

“If you drove it more often, you’d get used to it.  Just crank it up, pump the accelerator three times, put it in gear and take off.  It’s easy,” he says.

“It’s easy for you. Where are the keys?” I ask.

“I think they’re in the garage.”

I stomp out to the garage and dig around in the desk until I find the key.  I climb behind the wheel, turn the key, pump the accelerator three times, put the truck in gear, and it cuts off.  I repeat the process, holding my breath, imagining people behind Bruce, blowing horns, cursing him, calling tow trucks or County cops.  The truck starts.  I pump the gas, put it in gear and it sputters, then shuts off.  I pound the steering wheel, then the dash.

“Dammit, you’re going to start, and we’re going to drive to Millington and pull Bruce out of a ditch.  You need to listen to me and follow directions.  I know you hate me, but this is important.  Please start.  I’m not asking for me.  I’m asking for him.”

It takes two more tries and when I  finally get the thing in gear, I peel out of the driveway.  The truck runs on regular, as cheap-as-it-comes gas.  When I’m driving it, I run on part fear and part adrenaline.   There are several ways to get to Millington.  One is mostly straight, but longer.  The other is on a winding road that runs past Beaver Creek Dam.  Bruce is in trouble, so I choose the short cut.  There’s play in the steering of the truck, a lot of play.  I don’t consider the play until I turn onto the winding road leading to White Hall.  Sweat breaks out on my forehead and I roll the window down.  There’s no air conditioning and the heat runs full blast winter and summer.  Hot flashes, an excellent heater, curves in the road, play in the steering, and nervousness don’t mix.  My nausea as well as my hate for the truck grows.

This is a drive that I would usually enjoy.  The scenery is all old barns, blue mountains, split rail fences and wildflowers.  I carry my camera with me all the time.  Generally, I’d pull over to the side of the road several times and take photos.  No time, no place wide enough to pull over, and no creative energy keep me driving.

Out of White Hall, Garth Road is a bit straighter and I’m more familiar with the route.  I’m calming down and know that Millington is just up the road.  I turn left toward Free Union and pass the old farm houses I recognize.  A left onto Wesley Chapel Road leads me closer to Pea Vine Hollow.  Bruce is almost close enough to walk to now.  The paved road changes to gravel and I get to a Y in the road.  Not sure which way to go, I open the cell and call. 

“Bear right at the Y and I’m about three quarters of a mile on the left.  I’m walking down the driveway to meet you.”

I breathe a sigh of relief when I see his blue clad figure walking toward me.  I want to turn off the truck and jump out right then, but pull into the driveway and follow him to the dump truck.  It’s sitting precariously, the front passenger wheel at an odd angle.  It almost looks as if the axle is broken.  “No it’s just way over in the ditch,” Bruce says.

I get out of the truck, my job done, and walk to the shoulder.  “Where are you going?” he asks.  “I can’t pull it out by myself.  Do you want to drive the pick up or the dump truck?”

“Neither,” I say.  “I’ve done my part.”

Bruce shakes his head and chuckles at me.  “Which one do you want to drive?” he asks again.

The dump truck looks too much like it will tip over, so I choose my enemy. I pull myself behind the wheel and  Bruce reaches in and turns the key to start it.  The truck starts right up.  He looks at me and smiles.  

“It starts just fine,” I say.  “It’s when I put it in gear that it acts up.”

Bruce turns, hooks the chain to both trucks, locks the hubs on the four wheel drive, puts it in gear for me and pulls himself into the dump truck.  He has much more confidence in me than I have in myself.

He points for me to pull off, and I put the pickup in drive.  It behaves and I push down on the accelerator.  I feel the chain tighten and the truck groans.  I push on the gas a little more and feel the tires grab.  The truck takes off and the dump truck comes with it.  Bruce motions for me to stop. He unhooks the chain.

“Drive down to the church,” he says. “Pull over and wait for me.”

Wesley Chapel is about two miles down the road.  I pull into the parking lot and Bruce pulls in beside me.  The dump truck is smoking, dripping oil and water. 

“Motor’s gone,” he says, dropping the hood.  “Oil’s all over the engine.”  He flips open his cell phone and calls my Step Father who has a low boy trailer.  He’s not sure where to come, so Bruce offers to meet him at Free Union and lead him to the Chapel.  There’s a big sign in the parking lot warning owners of equipment and vehicles not to park there or towing will result. 

I prepare for such occurrences.  I have my camera, two books to read and a Little Debbie snack cake.  I offer to sit with the dump truck.  Wandering out to the cemetery, I begin to take some photos.  Bruce calls to me before he gets in the pickup.  “Do you have your cell phone in your pocket?”

“I have it,” I call back.

“If it gets dark, get in the truck,” he says.

“I will,” I assure him.

I wander the cemetery for awhile and find an old white gravestone with a lamb sculpted on top.  It’s the grave of a boy, Charles Edward Morris. He was born May 10, 1950, and died May 14, 1962.  Charles was twelve years old.  The sky behind the marker is little boy blue with puffy white clouds, reminding me of a sheep.  I kneel down and point the camera so that stone, sky and clouds are in my view.

As the sun sets, the horizon turns shades of pink, orange, yellow and gold.  I think this is a beautiful place to be buried, with the mountains in the distance and the sun painting a different picture each night before the moon and stars come out.  I sit quietly and watch as the canvas changes, streaks of color brightening, fusing, spreading out again, fading and finally disappearing to shades of gray as the sun disappears.

I hear the truck in the distance and the men return to load the dump truck onto the trailer.  Bruce and I climb into the pickup for the ride home.  He drives. 

“You know, just beyond where we were tonight, there’s a place called Fox Mountain.  I’ve never been there until today,” he says.  “Before the truck broke down, I thought, I’m going to have to bring Train over here so she can take some pictures.  You’d love it.”

“We’ll have to bring the car over this weekend,” I say.

“No, we’d have to bring the truck.  The road’s too rough.  We’d drag the bottom out of the car.”

I roll my eyes and sigh.  “I hate this truck,” I say.

“Sure served its purpose tonight.”

“I guess,” I say.  “doesn’t make it any more fun to drive.  It just doesn’t like me.”

“Maybe the two of you should spend more time together, get to know each other,” Bruce says.  I can tell he’s smiling, laughing at me.

“I’ll go to Fox Mountain with you in the truck this weekend if you drive,” I say.

Bruce chuckles, pats the seat for me to slide over closer to him, and says, “See, I told you the two of you would  get used to each other.” 

I wonder which one of us he’s talking to.

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Apple Butter

September 9, 2010

It happens every year, and still, it sneaks up on me.  Each September I watch my husband prepare, so it shouldn’t surprise me, but it always does.  I go out to the porch to water my geraniums and hear the crack and splinter of wood under axe.  The air is still and hot, not very conducive to splitting wood.  My awareness shifts, and  I know he’s down behind the garage, sweating  and stretching his muscles,  dividing  lengths of branch and limb into halves and quarters.   The pieces are piling up into a small mountain beside him.  That’s when I remember. It’s almost apple butter time.   I love the spicy thickness of it when spooned onto a hot buttered biscuit, but I dread making it.   It’s my husband’s family tradition, not mine, and it’s hard work.

In another week or so, I’ll overhear the telephone conversation Bruce has with his eighty-three year old father.  “I’m thinking the week of October twenty-third.  You got plans that weekend?—Ok, put it down and we’ll shoot for that.—No I got plenty wood.  You just make sure the stand is in good shape and get the kettle out and clean it up.  We don’t have to patch any holes in it do we? –Alright, We’ll call Ben and see if he can come home from school that weekend.  We need all the help we can get.”

Next, I’ll hear him scratching around in the attic, banging his head and cursing.  He’ll call me to the stairs that fold out of the ceiling and he’ll be bent over up there, feeding the long handled wooden stirring paddle down the steps to me.  Next will come the glass canning jars and rings stored in wooden apple boxes.  I’ll stack them in the hallway.   The upstairs is unbearable this time of year. There’s little ventilation, and the air is thick, but the temperature doesn’t seem to bother Bruce when he’s on a mission. He drips sweat, but smiles.

He’s already scoped out the apple orchards, anticipating the exact moment of perfect ripeness.  He has marked his internal calendar with the date for harvesting.   The weather should be cooler then, and with four of us working, gathering fifteen to twenty bushels of Stamen or Winesap  apples will only take most of an afternoon.  Of course, we’ll have to clean out the bed of the pick up truck before we leave so the wooden apple crates will slide in side by side until there’s no more room. After the bed is full, we stack them.  Four of us no longer fit in the cab of the truck, so we’ll have to leave room for Ryan on the back.  He’s the smallest.

Picking the apples is the fun part.  I can sneak away, pull out my camera, take photos of the knotty trees, their branches hanging low with rust colored fruit.  I catch Ryan in the act of throwing an apple at his brother’s back and Ben’s scowl when he turns.  Bruce laughs, half an apple in his hand, juice running off his chin. He wipes it with the sleeve of his shirt.   He admonishes, “Get back to work.  We’ll never get finished at this rate.”

In the week prior to the big day, peeling coring and slicing ensues.  The basement of my in-law’s house boasts an assembly line of apple preparation.  Wooden orchard crates filled with a combination of winesaps and stamen line the floor.  Hand crank peelers and corers are clamped to tables. I can close my eyes and hear the sounds,  the snap of apple skin breaking, the whir of the blade spiraling through the apple as juice runs, the plunk of cores landing in five gallon plastic buckets, the murmur of voices remembering generations of tradition passed down.

“My Mama used this same knife. It has a nice curve to the blade, perfect for the shape of an apple.  Her hands were small, like mine.”

“Your Granddaddy took the peelings and a little bit of cider vinegar and scrubbed the inside of the apple butter kettle with them every year.  He worked that mixture around until the inside of the kettle shined like a new penny.”

“We weren’t choosy about what kind of apples we used way back then.  We used what we could find and pick up under the trees.  No difference in taste as far as I can see.  That mix years ago might have even been a bit better than what we make today.”

“My hand is tired, can I go watch tv now?”

“Of course you can, this work is hard on a little fella.”

I want to join the little fella, my back and shoulders are tired, the apple skins have stained my hands and I’m sticky from my fingers to my elbows.  There are ten full boxes left.  What are we going to do with all this apple butter?   I’m content with one or two jars a season. Not Bruce, he’s content with no less than a farm table full of quart and pint jars.

 My mother-in-law forgoes the fancy machines for a sharp paring knife. She has a rhythm to her peeling and the wooden handle of the knife feels familiar to her hand.  Her peelings are skin thin and spiral into the bucket in one long piece.  These along with the cores, stems and seeds are treats for the cows.  

  Apples are sliced thin and the raw pieces are put in plastic bags in a cool corner of the room.  The night before we make the apple butter, they’ll be washed.  We will cook on Saturday.  By Friday night there are six or seven, thirty-gallon plastic bags of apples, waiting.

Apple butter making starts early.  The fire is built under the pot at four o’clock in the morning.  It’s dark and cold when we slip from between warm bed covers, put on clothes in layers and drive the three miles to my in-law’s farm.  The firewood is stacked on the trailer behind our pickup. The jars and metal rings, clean and shiny, are packed in boxes. New rubber ringed lids are the  only things we haven’t recycled. They are new.  A wash tub holds five pound sacks of sugar, tiny bottles of cinnamon and clove oil, a jug of apple cider, canning funnels, long handled wooden spoons, metal dippers and some clean dish towels.  Ryan, who’s been excited all week about the event, grumbles and mumbles as he drags himself out of the truck and into one of Grandma’s extra beds until after sunrise.

The men heft the forty gallon copper apple butter kettle into the cast iron stand, pour in the jug of cider, add one plastic bag of apples and build a fire under the kettle.  The apples must be stirred non-stop from beginning to end, otherwise they stick to the kettle and burn.

The wooden stir paddle is old, fashioned by hand out of pine with wooden pegs holding it together.  It’s been passed down through generations, repaired as necessary, and stored across the rafters in the attic for safe keeping between apple butter makings.   The handle is eight feet long, the paddle attached to its end at a ninety degree angle is two feet long, one inch thick.  It is a flat, bowling pin shaped piece of wood with holes drilled through to allow the apple butter passage.  The corners at the bottom of the paddle are rounded to conform to the sides of the kettle.  Stirring “twice around the outside and through the middle once” keeps the apple butter from sticking.   Some people drop three or four pennies into the pot.  Tradition says it keeps the butter from sticking, or brings good luck. 

Bruce’s Daddy doesn’t believe in using pennies.  “It scratches the copper finish on the pot,” he says.  “Besides, pennies are dirty.”

People come and go all day long, relatives, neighbors, and some townsfolk who’ve gotten wind of the event.  Even a few dogs drop by to see what’s going on.  They are apt to lie in a spot of sun, dozing.  Some of the older men do the same thing.  Visitors take turns stirring, along with members of the family, while others sit around on apple boxes or stumps and tell stories.  Everyone has a different recipe or way of making apple butter.  Each family adheres to its own set of rules and ingredients. 

The women spend the day keeping the stirrers fed.  No one comes in to eat at the kitchen table.  Food is set up outdoors, drinks and sweet tea are kept cold in coolers.  If the men really wanted to help prepare the food they could. There’s no rule, it’s just that men tend to stay as far away from the house and as close to the kettle as they can.  Men say they don’t gossip, but tractors, farmland and machinery carry secrets. Women know.

Bruce’s Daddy makes the decisions about when to add more apples as the others “cook down”, when to season the apple butter, and when it’s thick enough to pull the fire out.  It has to pass the spoon and plate test.  If it doesn’t run when you tilt the plate or spoon, it’s ready. Somewhere close to five o’clock in the evening, the apple butter is thick and dark enough to put in jars. 

It is ladled into large pots at the kettle and brought to the basement for jarring.  The lids are already immersed in boiling water and the jars have been “hotted.”  Bruce’s Mama pours boiling water from the kettle over them. The water is emptied from the jars and apple butter is funneled into them.  A  lid is removed from the pot of boiling water, placed on top of the jar,  and the ring is screwed on tight.  The full Mason jar gets a swift wipe with the dishcloth and is set on the farm table to seal.  When every bit of the apple butter is jarred there is about twenty gallons (all quart and pint jars).  After the clean up, we sit around the woodstove in the basement and listen to the “pop” of the jars as they seal.  The jars are divided evenly between the workers.  We usually consume two to three quarts during a winter.  The other twenty-odd jars are given as gifts. 

I walked out onto the porch today, watering can in hand, giving my geraniums a drink.  I heard the familiar crack and thunk of wood being split.   It’s the fifth of September.  Apples are hanging on the trees up the road and Bruce is getting ready.  Three miles to the east of us, his Daddy is standing in the shed eyeing the copper kettle.  He’s expecting a phone call in the next week or so.  Tradition demands it.