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by Frank Shortt
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I knew it was coming sooner or later just as surely as late July and early August rolled
around. The odor of freshly ripe berries had started to drift into the open windows, mom had begun her yearly ritual of getting her
berry pot out of the cupboard and sterilizing it for what was about to occur.
to sleep early tonight,” mom called down to my brother Wendell and I as we were ducking under the covers to read one of our favorite
comic books by the light of flashlight.
“Raspberries are ripe and we’re going to need all
we can pick and can this year, money is pretty scarce. Looks like it will be an early winter since the leaves are starting to turn
Wendell and I just looked at each other with sorrowful faces, knowing there was
nothing we could do but try to get some sleep. We knew we’d be called at about 5:30 a.m. to get our other chores done before being
sent off to Grandpa’s lower pasture to pick the raspberries. Such is the lot of the poorer class of Appalachia.
Sure enough, just as we thought, we were shocked awake next morning by mom’s voice saying,
“Up and at ‘em boys, we can’t wait ‘til someone else gets up there and gets the first pickin’!”
We both hit the floor about the same time, put on our bibbed overalls, our oldest long sleeved shirt, and the thickest socks we had.
We seemed to think that somehow the copperhead snakes wouldn’t be able to penetrate our britches’ legs and the thick socks too. I
believe we were just fooling ourselves. Our rough brogans went on last. We finally grumbled our way up to breakfast.
After the cow was milked, the wood box filled, and all the water buckets filled, we began the ritual of trying to find the lard buckets
we used to pick berries. After locating them in the darkest corner of the basement, we took them to mom to be washed and scalded.
We never did understand why mom insisted on scalding the buckets when we knew that she would thoroughly wash the berries before canning
them or making them into jam.
The path to the berry patch was probably the roughest trail
ever known to mankind. That particular hillside was overloaded with jagged rocks, crooked snags and sharp stumps left sticking up
by whoever cleared the path to begin with. That was not the greatest danger! We always walked very carefully by all the brush piles,
the larger rocks, any hole near the path, or anywhere else we thought a copperhead might be lurking. I have actually had these wily
beasts strike at me several times, barely missing my body but grazing my pant legs. I was told that they were blind in August, known
far and wide in Appalachia as ‘dog days’.” The old timers used to say it was because this was the season that they were shedding their
old skins to be replaced by a shiny new one. Who’s to say what the real reason was.
reaching the berry patch, the prospect of actually picking any berries was barricaded by the thickness of the patch itself. We had
to manually tramp out a pathway to where the best berries lurked and then clear out an area large enough to be able to fit two of
us while picking. We felt safer working close together in case one of us saw a snake. If either heard a rustling in the bushes, we’d
make tracks out of there until we would gain the courage to reenter the briar patch. I’m surprised we ever got any berries as much
as we were afraid of the snakes. We always seemed to be able to fill our buckets.
you think we ought to be heading home?” I suggested, after we had been at the picking until it was almost dark.
“Our buckets ain’t full yet, Wendell replied, you know we’ll get skinned alive if we don’t bring enough berries home after being here
all day. They’ll say we were just playin’ all day!”
We still had to trudge home, chop wood,
milk the cow, and carry in water before we could go to bed. Many nights we chopped the wood by lantern or flashlight, one of us holding
the light and the other chopping the wood. The same went for milking and carrying water. It’s a wonder we didn’t cut our toes off
or something worse. The actual reason I wanted to go home before it got too dark to see was because of my healthy fear of copperheads.
We reached home just as darkness fell. Mom was a little upset about us not getting what
she thought was a reasonable amount of berries. After we explained that we had to vacate the patch several times because we thought
snakes were coming after us, she cooled down and said,
“Well, you’d better get your other
jobs done.” These we had to do before we could eat supper.
I have often wondered why mom
didn’t worry her head off after sending us off by ourselves to pick those berries in a snake infested field. I guess she had so many
children that she didn’t have time to dwell on the safety of any one child.*
The only consolation
I can derive out of all the huge amounts of berries I had to pick before finally leaving to join the Air Force was; the jam and jelly
made from them were the best I have ever eaten or ever hope to eat.
I wonder how a modern
kid would react if his mother told him to get a lard bucket, walk almost a mile up a steep hillside infested with snakes of all kinds
and require him to bring back a bucket full of berries. He’d call the authorities and have his mom locked up for a lunatic.
*I remember one time when we were playing down by the creek in Shortt Gap. A sudden change in the weather had melted what snow was
left on the ground. In fact, it was uncannily warm. We had a favorite flat rock up a ways from the creek that we loved to sit upon
and sun ourselves. Just as one of us got near the top, the shout went up, “Snake!”
had decided to sun himself at our favorite spot.
Mom came running down to the creek
with dad’s over and under 410/22 shotgun/rifle combination. She clipped the snake’s head off just as pretty as you please and went
back up the hill to resume what she had been doing. We kids were duly and truly impressed!