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by Frank Shortt
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‘Rabbit Tobacco’, or ‘Life Everlasting’ is an unusual plant that grows in the southeastern regions
of the United States. It grows profusely in Southwestern Virginia so my siblings and I had to figure out some use for it. The name
‘Rabbit Tobacco’ suggested to us that it would be good for smoking in the absence of tobacco, which we couldn’t afford. Grandma Shortt,
part Cherokee, told us it was used by the Cherokees for lung problems, such as asthma. She smoked it quite frequently and didn’t seem
to mind if one of her grandkids joined her.
The leaf of Rabbit Tobacco when dry is dark brown
on one side and a light gray on the other. After drying, it will disintegrate into smaller particles when rubbed in the palms of both
hands. This makes it roll-able in the brown paper scraps that we used to roll it in to smoke it. These papers were already on hand
as we used the grocery sacks that mom brought from the Farm Bureau on Saturdays. This was shopping day for most of the residents in
our neighborhood. Sometimes we used home-made corncob pipes.
Our nearest neighbors in the early
fifties were the Stilwell family. We lived probably two hundred yards from them just above Grassy Creek in Buchanan County, Virginia.
There were four of the Stilwell children; Jerelene, Hobart, Albert and Fay. Our favorite pastime, when not doing chores, was to play
in the waters of the creek. We caught frogs, horny heads (a small fish in the creeks of Virginia), water dogs and whatever else came
within our reach. We dammed up the creek for swimming, and ended with only enough water to dog paddle or to have one of our numerous
Our method of baptism was somewhat unorthodox. Our elected minister would take the
intended Baptist by the shoulders, lean him or her over backward into the water while saying these words:
“I baptize this brother/sister in the name of the goose, take him to the bottom and turn him loose!”
To our way of thinking, this was all in fun, and I’m sure that God has forgiven us for misusing His Word by deviating from the right
One Saturday, in the heat of summer, my sisters Lula and Ruthann, my brothers,
Wendell, E.L. and I found the opportune time to go down by the creek to smoke some Rabbit tobacco which we had stashed away
for this opportunity.
“Hey y’all, let’s go play down by the old Ira Chambers barn,” Wendell and
Lula was a little reluctant, being the careful sister. The other younger ones came
willingly just to be with the ‘bigger kids’.
“We can have lot’s of fun while mom and dad ain’t
Off we went for a Saturday morning adventure.
and dad were shopping at the Farm Bureau in Richlands, Virginia. Albert, Hobart and Fay’s parents had gone shopping to Tazwell as
they said the groceries were much cheaper up there. We always believed that they thought they were a step above the Shortts and therefore
wanted to go to the bigger town just to be ‘highfalutin’. We had some strange thoughts back then. Anyhow, my oldest sister, Frances,
was left in charge of the little Shortts and Jerelene was left in charge of the little Stilwells.
“Hey Hobie, why don’t you and Albert come down and play with us at the creek bottom?”
told them because we didn’t want to spill the beans at first. “We can catch some crawdads and hornie heads and all kinds of things,”
After a little hollering up to the Stilwell house, we were able to coax the three
younger Stilwells down to the old building that Ira Chambers had used for a barn. This was to be our smoking place. That ‘barn’ proved
to be a place where lots of childhood memories resided.
Hobart, Albert and Faye had never been
in on our debauchery, so it took quite some time to cajole them into joining us. In fact, they had never smoked anything in their
lives. They were probably the most disciplined children in our neighborhood. Not to say that the Shortt children were not disciplined.
It was just that they were naturally inclined to be good children.
I remember one time down at
the old Grimsleyville School, Mr. Edwards, our teacher at the time, had gone out to the porch to talk to a parent. All the students
began to ‘act up’, that is, all except the Stillwell boys. We all tried to outdo each other in our shenanigans. Some of the older
boys even began throwing things around the room at whichever target they chose, the blackboard being the main target. When Mr. Edwards
returned to the room we became quiet as little mice. Too late!! He gave us a lecture about self-discipline reminding us that it was
quite an embarrassment to the whole class that we had made such a racket in front of a parent. Then came the punishment!! He was determined
to spank every person in the room!! I knew I had it coming but Hobart and Albert were innocent. As a result, the whole class was spanked,
that is, except Hobart and Albert because the whole class agreed to tell Mr. Edwards that the two boys were innocent.
“Oh, come on, you little chickens! Bok, Bok, Bok!” One of the Shortts egged the Stillwells on.
“No, we’d better not smoke, mom will whale the daylights out of us,” Albert replied. He was usually spokesman for his two other siblings
who were unusually quiet.
“It won’t hurt you, it’s not even real tobacco. Who’s gonna smell it
on you? You can eat some onions if you’re scared of your mom smelling it.” I told them.
was a favorite trick of mine. Mom usually smelled the tobacco anyhow. I had been walloped, called tobacco worm, and all kinds of denigrating
names all to no avail.
The Stillwell children took their turns on the ‘rabbit tobacco’ cigarette,
hacking and wheezing all the while. The smaller Shortt children were not doing much better. None of us realized how much danger we
were placing ourselves in. That old barn was dry as a desert bone and had leftover straw and hay lying around.
Frances, or Jerelene must have seen the smoke coming out the cracks and ran down to the creek bottom to put an end to our smoking
“What in the world are you kids up to?” our babysitters exclaimed. That old barn looked
as though it was burning to the ground!”
We did not realize it at the time but they probably
saved our lives. After spankings all around and promises to never do that again, we walked softly for a few days knowing that our
older sisters had something to hold over our heads. They could get quite a bit of work out of the younger siblings with just any means
of ‘black-mailing’ them.
None of the Stillwell children ever smoked again. The Shortt children
were a little more adventuresome and tried just plain rolled up brown paper bags, smoke vine, grape vine, corn silks, and whatever
else would burn slowly. Eventually, to our parent’s chagrin, some of us continued to smoke tobacco for a lot of our adult lives.
None of the Shortt siblings smoke today.