Uncle Hank and the Cold Potato Part II

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Daddy’s brother, Uncle Virgil, dropped in on the New Years party that had turned into an Arkansawyer wake for Hank Williams. Naturally, the story had to be retold about the time he had shown up at Ma Dale’s and eaten two whole fried chickens all by himself, with biscuits and corn on the cob and buttermilk to drink. Uncle Virgil stood five-foot-five and weighed about 120 pounds but he was a legendary eater.

He claimed he hadn’t come to eat this time but Pa and Uncle Charley snuck out back to wring the necks of a couple more fryers and Mom and Aunt Opal, the quiet sister, plucked the hens clean after dipping them in the scalding water kept heating in a big boiler sitting on one of the stoves on the back porch.

Aunt Eunice, Uncle Virgil’s wife, was too pregnant to help in the kitchen so she sat in a rocker and told funny stories. She wasn’t a Dale or even the wife of one, being Mom’s sister-in-law but Ozark hospitality didn’t care. Her boys, Jimmy and Billy, disappeared out the back door taking Roger with them.

The older boys played baseball in the stubble of a cornfield but they let the smaller ones who could hold a bat play, too. Both Robert and John would later go on to have Major League tryouts as pitchers but neither ever played professional ball. The older girls took over the front bedroom and talked about clothes, and babies and boys between bouts of helping out in the kitchen. Kay shuttled between the bigger girls and us littles, both groups probably boring the socks off her.

The friends and neighbors and shirt-tail relatives that showed up were welcomed, even if they did push the mid-day meal back a couple of hours. Everyone wanted to talk about the man I kept thinking of as Uncle Hank and his music.

Hank Williams was a tragic figure, dead at twenty-nine after a hard life, poor health and bad habits. There wasn’t anyone there over the age of fifteen who did not understand poverty, pain, bad luck, bad choices and country music. They mentioned his son, Hank Jr., who was just about my age and whom I would later meet, in the late 60’s, and tell him about the New Years party where I thought his father must be a relative of mine since everyone I knew cried so hard when he died.

The radio played Hank Williams tunes all day and the adults sometimes sang along, especially when they played, “I Saw the Light.” My own favorite Hank Williams song at the time, “Kawliga,” about a lonesome wooden Indian came on frequently, too. I also liked the nonsense sound of “Jambalaya” and the one about howling at the moon. Nearly sixty years later, I still know the words of most Hank Williams tunes.

The front porch and living room became where people sat and talked about “Uncle Hank”. The cane-bottom chairs were arrayed across the wide front porch with the older people given preference for seating. But Pa and Uncle Charlie and a few other of the old men preferred to “hunker”, sitting on their own heels. Pocket knives came out and mounds of “whittlin’s” grew around the old men as sticks and small chunks of wood disappeared. The whittlings were carried inside and dumped into the steel box used to store kindling for wood fires.

Ma Dale and my mom and aunts cooked on a big kerosene stove in the kitchen and another older wood-fired oven sitting next to the more modern appliance. Ma tested the heat in the ovens by seeing how fast the hair on the back of her arm would curl, even though the kerosene stove had a built-in thermometer. Pa Dale and my Daddy had cut up logs from the little ten-acre woods behind Pa’s farm back in the fall and they were stored on and under the back porch.

Some of the boys who got pulled away from the baseball game to carry the wood inside to fire the oven complained about spiders. Ma scoffed. “It’s winter, the spiders are all asleep,” she said. Still, sticks and wedges of wood were thoroughly thumped against the ground or the porch to dislodge any sleeping spiders. It would be bad luck for an Arkansawyer to burn up a spider in a cookfire, everyone agreed. I took it to heart and have always been careful not to kill a spider unless it was necessary.

Two or three older kids were detailed to pump and carry water and were kept busy at this task. The pump was on the back porch, too, along with a small bucket that always had to be kept full of water in case the pump lost its vacuum and needed to be primed.

The line at the old two-holer outhouse behind the chicken coop grew and a few people trekked the quarter-mile to the next farmhouse to use an inside toilet rather than risk splinters after a long uncomfortable wait. If you weren’t moving around much, it got cold outside just standing because it was, after all, January and only a week before the place had had one of Missouri’s chief weather-related joys: a Christmas icestorm.

The heat from the kitchen and the coal-burning stove in the living room and a bright if mild winter sun led to piles of coats and scarves and sweaters in the front bedroom. We littles wanted to play in such an inviting and colorful assemblage but we were told that we couldn’t so we had a pillow fight with the bigger girls instead.

Anyone who couldn’t wait for the meal to be ready was given a slice of raw potato, peeled and washed, to gnaw on. Aunt Ava passed out pieces of “tater” to all us littles and we nibbled and crunched and chewed and wondered why no one ever served this delicious treat except when dinner was going to be late. I can still taste the sharp, slightly bitter tang that got sweeter as you munched away.

The radio stayed on in the living room while we ate dinner in every room of the house. It wasn’t a particularly cold day for early January but too cold for us kids to eat outside on the back porch like we did in warmer weather so we ate in the extra bedroom with planks laid across the feather bed to serve as a table. A few months before, Mom and Dad and I had slept in that same bed.

We finally had chicken and biscuits, gravy and potatoes, corn and peas, collard greens and bread and butter pickles, apple cobbler and gingerbread cake — the meal went on for hours that first day until we littles were tucked away on pallets in the back bedroom a few hours after sunset.

But not before each of us had a small helping of ham and black-eyed peas, even if we hated black-eyed peas, for luck in the new year.

Better luck than poor Uncle Hank had, anyway.

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