(Editor’s note: Biology. Physics. Chemistry. — farm style. Very boyhood, intense, funny, and gross. The image of Grandma with the fightin’ groundhog is absolutely classic. You can’t make this stuff up.)
Fall butchering was a Druid carnival. The bladder from the hog was cut loose and thrown to Truman and me. We put a hollow stick in the urethra, blew the bladder up like a balloon, and tied it off. We kicked it all over the hillside pasture, fell down, got up laughing and ran after our “pigskin.”
We rode the snow down the hill behind the house on sleds that were old pieces of metal roofing. One summer we camped out in a shelter we built of boxes holding up that metal roofing. A pregnant cat crawled in with us and aborted her kittens in slimy looking bags—we were stunned and ignorant of what was happening.
The bottom land was, in addition to being our camping and recreation area, a cow and horse pasture where we invented the game of Frisbee. Cows’ semi-liquid poops dried hard in thin disc shapes and were perfect for tossing.
We learned to swim in the Big Coal River, which winds along the edge of our farm. Grandma, who couldn’t swim, was our life guard. Truman yelled, “Did you hear that?” He was knocking two pieces of coal together under the water. No, I didn’t hear it. “Go under and listen.” It was magical! The loud knocking noise seemed to be inside my ears.
Our physics lesson continued on the railroad track — we put our ears against the rail and listened to an approaching train before we could hear it through the air. As the train approached we put pennies on the track and got them back thin and flattened. We noticed that in cold weather the spaces between the rails were much farther apart than in the hot sun of summer when they almost touched. A few years later science teachers taught me what I had already learned by experiment, that sound waves travel faster in liquids than in gases, and still faster in solids, and that metals expand on heating and contract when cold.
Aw, Grandma. I see her herding and milking the cows, churning the milk into butter and stirring hot, thick, satin brown apple butter in a large copper pot over a wood fire. She stirred the apple butter with a long-handled wood paddle with holes to allow the liquid to pass through. To pick berries, she dressed up in a garb that covered every part of her body. Her face barely peeked out of an Arab looking head wrap through a swarm of gnats trying to get at her blood. Picking berries was slow, hot and miserable for me, but Grandma could go all morning, picking two water buckets full of berries without giving in to the heat and bugs.
On one of our berry picking forays up Thomas Branch, the dogs treed a groundhog.
Grandma picked up a piece of wood and knocked the groundhog from the limb it was clinging to. Thinking it was dead, she picked it up by the tail and we started toward home. The animal wasn’t dead! It was “playing possum.” The dogs barked at it but stayed a safe distance from the snarling, vicious growl. I was looking eyeball-to-eyeball at an animal that had every survival alarm turned on, ready to fight for its very life.
Grandma didn’t pay any attention to the life and death noises as she carried the groundhog to the house where she finished clubbing it to death, skinned and gutted it, and cooked it for dinner.