Sunday, April 24, 2011

A Scent of Wood

In those days we filled scratch pads with tales of our daily adventures loosely copied from Mark Twain and charred around the edges with Diamond kitchen matches to give them what we thought was an antique look of truth. Like many other boys of that time, we lived and breathed the pages and chapters from Mr Twain’s two most well known books, going as far as calling each by the names Tom and Huck. Our heads were filled with images of runaway slaves, corn likker, whitewashed fences and dead cats, and there weren’t many summer nights when we didn’t sneak out bedroom windows to reenact or reinvent episodes from those two favorite books.

The setting was far from Twain’s Hannibal, Missouri, but like that dreamed-of river port, our town too was nestled against the mighty Mississippi and gave our play-like Tom ’n Huck games an aura of authenticity. But despite the proximity of that muddy brown and mile-wide twist of river, most of our play was centered around the neighborhood we knew as well as any river pilot knew his channels. We had the small clubhouse in Kermon’s backyard for those times we wanted to smoke a corncob pipe stuffed with tobacco from my daddy’s big red tin of Sir Walter Raleigh, and we had the pitch black tunnels and spaces in the lumber yard for the nights we explored secret grottoes built of stacked lumber. Our friend was Ol’ Charley the nightwatchman, to our eyes someone possibly like Jim in Huckleberry Finn.

The lumber yard was a defining presence rising amidst the streets and houses of the neighborhood. Seldom quiet, it screeched and moaned, sometimes humming in tones that grew to be relaxing when heard day after day. On those days when the mill was shaping oak or knotty pine planks the air was torn by woody screams, by choked gargles of knots and hard wood cut apart by whirring sawtoothed steel. On milling days sawdust flowed through giant vents spurting unending rivers of pale orange chips and dust into bulk carriers, hauled away several times a day by company trucks. The best part was the smell of fresh-cut wood that passed through window screens and left rooms smelling of woods, a fragrance that lingered in the air long after the mill had shut down for the night.

The boyish games we messed around with, the pranks and Tom Sawyer scenes played out were as most boyhood games harmless, never raising alarm with parents or other adults. But in any child’s life accidents lurk between the cracks and when they pop out everything screeches to a halt and frightened faces turn toward home.

Deep in a Huck Finn fantasy, carving swords out of short lengths of pilfered white pine, we sat in a scratchy nest of cut and dried sugar cane stalks in Popee’s next door lot. The lumber mill across the road hummed in familiar notes and the July sun painted hot crosshatches on the yellowed sugar cane turning it to crinkled gold. Two boys at one moment on an imaginary Mississippi raft, and the next plunged back into real time, both staring down at the disappearing milky blue of my old blue jeans as a sudden red tide spread across the top of my leg, a pocketknife gash smiling wide.

“Quick, rub some stump water on it!” I stupidly blurted out, calling up some backcountry medical lore from Tom Sawyer.

“That ain’t gon’ do no good,” Kermon said. “Less you got some warts on your leg.”

We both looked down at the gaping cut, mesmerized by the pulsing blood. A minute passed and Kermon said, “I reckon we better forget the stump water and have your mama fix that.”

The fat scar is still there on my leg, lifelong souvenir of a sharp new pocketknife in my ten year-old hands.


  1. What a delightful trip back down memory lane for you!! Knowing Mama as well as you, she did not take you to the emergency room as any mama would today, but she stopped the bleeding, put some iodine on it and it burned like the devil. That sting was enough to say, "don't ever think about doing something like this again!", although she didn't say it. You with a scar on your leg and me with a scar on my head and neither of us are dead from not going to the emergency room.

  2. Aaahh, those were the days, my friend. Fortunately a lot of the trauma of boyhood falls away with age and one is left with moments of such clarity that some episodes are still happening in the mind. The past as present. And the trick when writing about them is not to get too mire in the nostalgia of it all. Humor is a good tool to blunt oversweetness and so is a good slash across the (reader's) thigh with a sharp knife.

    Wonderful job of capturing a time and place.


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America