Culture of the Grapevine Swing
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The Spectator
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 by Frank Shortt
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Every boy, or girl, who has ever read Edgar Rice Burrough’s books about Tarzan the Ape Man, or have seen movies about him, tend to want to emulate him. The Shortt children were no exemption!

The grapevines that grow profusely in the forests of Virginia are called ‘possum grapes’ by the old timers. It was common to see opossums sitting in the trees during sultry autumn evenings, where the vines had enwrapped themselves around the limbs, stuffing themselves with the ripened grapes. Another way to tell if the grapes were ripe was in the fecal droppings of grape eating animals. The fruit, if one could pick enough of the small grapes, made wonderfully tasting preserves.

As soon as warm weather approached after a severe Appalachian winter, children there tended to find many things to do in the forests. Snow and ice had prevented them from foraging there during the harsh winters. Climbing trees, making tree houses, riding Rhododendron bushes from the top of a hill all the way to the bottom without touching the ground was a game of much skill and danger. These activities also provided the exercise needed to keep the hillbilly children slender and healthy. But, the greatest thrill of all was to play Tarzan, and to do this, the ever-handy grapevines provided the swings needed to travel from one tree to another or just to swing out freely in the breeze.

Dad had often told us about an incident that occurred when he was a boy. He and some other boys prepared a grapevine swing to have some summer fun. The idea was to swing out as far as possible over an open downhill space and then allow the grapevine to return to the starting position. After the boys had swung out a few times, when dad’s turn came, he confidently grabbed the vine not knowing that the entwining ends in the top of the tree had begun to loosen. As he swung out, the vine pulled out slightly and on his return trip he was flung into the hosting tree, a hickory, I believe. Doctors were almost impossible to get to when dad was a young man and the cost would have been too much for Grandpa’s growing family. As a result, dad suffered partial deafness in one ear until he was able to financially visit a hearing doctor who prescribed a hearing aid, thus relieving the handicap. Lo and behold, this also happened to me as a youngster. Instead of deafness, I always had a slight ringing in my left ear, as well as, when I would turn my head to the left, I would always hear a cracking in my neck.

One morning, dad and I were walking out toward the pigpen to feed the hogs, dad carrying his ever ready 4/10 shotgun/rifle combo just in case he happened upon a squirrel which would provide some protein for his growing family.

Each time I would turn my head, to acknowledge what he was saying, my neck would go ‘pop’! “What is wrong with your neck, Frankie?” I had not told him when the accident occurred as I would have received a severe tongue-lashing, or worse yet, a thrashing. Instead, he laid his hand on my neck, not saying a word, and suddenly a warm feeling flowed through the affected part relieving it instantly. We continued our walk without the incessant popping of my neck. I did not completely understand this at the time, being young and naïve, but later it dawned on me that a miracle had occurred.

On a warm summer day in June or July, some of us neighborhood children of Shortt Gap got together at the Shortt house. We were all coming up with things we could do. Some said, “Let’s go down to the creek and make a swimming hole.” Others said, “Why don’t we go to the cave and play cowboys?” The one that prevailed was, “Let’s go play Tarzan and swing on grapevine swings!” So grabbing dads little Boy Scout hatchet, off we went to the area above Grandma’s house where the grapevines were the thickest.

Upon arrival, we chose a thick vine which would allow us to swing out over a cow-trail style dirt road that zigzagged up the hill. This road was used by coal trucks to go up to the mine tipple to convey coal to the railroad connection. There were many deep ruts filled with mud and dirty water as there had been rain recently. So in essence, we would have to swing out over three branches of the road and back to the bank where the tree abided. Swinging out that far provided us a welcome relief from the summer heat and humidity as the wind whistled through our hair. Each child, both male and female, had their turns and everything was going well until my sister Lula had another turn. She let loose off the bank with a hearty “Uh-u-uh-u-uhuuuu” Tarzan yell! Just as she arrived at the farthest point, the upper entwining vines pulled loose just enough to leave her stranded about fifteen to twenty feet from the ground. We were all dumbfounded as to what to do.

Some cried, “Hang on Lu!” Knowing full well she could not hang on for very long. She was skinny as a fence post and probably the smallest girl there. “Let go,” my older sister Frances cried! We’ll get down below and try to break your fall!”

Lula just couldn’t hang on any longer! She let go, expecting the worst, as there were jagged rocks protruding up from where the coal trucks had exposed them by going over and over them with heavy loads of coal. 

We arrived shouting, “are you alright, Lu? You ain’t dead, are you?”

As we helped her up out of the mudhole that she had landed in she cried, “I think I broke my toe!”

 Thank God, she had landed in the softest part of the mud and had sunk into it breaking her fall.

Did this stop our swinging on grapevines and playing Tarzan? No, it takes more than a little fall to stop children from pursuing their favorite pastimes, especially mountain children. I often wonder if the children in our old neighborhood, who still have trees around, continue to swing on the ready-made swings called grapevine swings?