“It’s homemade peach ice cream on sunburned lips. That’s what country is.”
Luke Bryan, What Country Is
We get in the old battered blue Ford truck, the one that sits high up off the ground so that Grandpa Dykes can clear the stumps by the pond and vault over the ditches by the plowed peanut fields. He has a nicer truck, the Chevy, cleaner and newer and sleeker and more suited for the one mile ride up the dusty dirt road to church on Sundays. As a little kid, I prefer the Ford. It says field and farm to me in a visceral way that they Chevy just can’t.
We ride, bouncing and jostling and giggling, the short distance up the road, turn right, down the driveway, through the scrubby underbrush and then fifty yards more to the little pond. The cane poles make hollow clunking noises as they bounce against the closed tailgate of the Ford. The big white pickle bucket, now half full of water and minnows, sloshes audibly. Two tackle boxes slide a few feet this way, a few feet back. We get out, gear in hand, and walk the short distance to the little dam, the path on that side of the pond well-worn. Not so the track around the other side, the best place to go for the one monster bass that I just know still circles at depth, avoiding my hook, but also the best place to meet cottonmouths lazing in the sun. We fish and fish for what seems like a summer century but is in reality only a few hours out of my young life. My life that in summer is all sunshine and wiggly worms and slimy catfish and dusty roads. All that it needs to be. Dappled happiness in the shade of those trees that bend toward the water of the pond.
We take our catch-a few pan-sized catfish, a few bright-bellied bream, no bass on this day-and climb back into the truck, smelly and sweaty and grinning and bursting with the heat of a south Georgia summertime. My Grandpa turns the Ford to the right this time, heading towards the airport. Sometimes we see Mr. “Red” Purser roar over us in his crop duster, heading out to apply some winged death to a farmer’s fields to ward off the pests. We turn left on the blacktop, and suddenly the sensations change completely. The old truck picks up speed-ha! if you can call my Grandpa doing forty-nine miles per hour on black top speed!-and the sweet cool wind through our hair and on our sunburned faces is all southern soothing. We ride a couple of miles and slide slowly off the road to the right into the parking lot of a little country store. I know what’s coming. We pile out of the truck and run into the store willy nilly, Grandpa getting out more slowly and trailing behind. He smiles, checks the sky, gets out the bright red Prince Albert can from his front shirt pocket, tamps his pipe, lights it, and eventually follows us into the coolness of the store.
Oh the sugary joy of childhood, the wonder of a candy rack stacked as high as your head, a small brown bag in your hand and the nod from Grandpa that says, “Yes, go ahead and get what you want.” Mary Janes, suckers, real bubble gum with real little comics in the wrappers, sour lemonheads and my favorite-big, bright red fireballs. So hot that they burned your tongue at first, then sweet and good, then bite-sized at the end, when you could crush them with your teeth and start on another. Plunge your hand into the coke box, down into the water that was so cold it would numb your arm up to your elbow if you fished around too long. Pull out the “Pause that Refreshes” in the little bottles that are so hard to find any more, open it on the side of the red ice box, and swig it. I would come out of that store with my little bag of candy feeling as rich as a Rockefeller. Back into the truck for the ride home.
We weren’t through when we got home, oh no. Grandpa would teach us to nail the catfish through the head to the wooden back steps or the side of the house, make the little cuts to get a piece of the skin going, and then grab it with pliers and pull back, harder, harder, until the cat was skinned. The bream were unceremoniously beheaded, gutted, and the bright silvery scales scraped off of them like so many iridescent shingles from a roof. The little buggers would always find their way onto your skin, into your hair and onto your clothes, where they would dry and only come loose later at bath time. Fresh fish from the farm pond were a wonderful dinner, especially when my Grandma cooked them up just right. Clean up, tools away, fishing tackle stowed for the next trip. Sun setting now. A thousand sounds coming from the soybean fields out front and the cows out back and the creek beyond the rise.
Hand churned peach ice cream, Grandma Dykes’s homemade “tea cakes”, fish, watermelon, and swinging on the front porch until dark and beyond, piloting a starship or throttling up a train or galloping with the Pony Express. It was all so innocent. Southern summers. Hot. Full. Rich. The things that a little boy tasted and felt and learned that helped him become a man.
Thank God I’m a country boy.
What memories make you who you are today?