As the saying goes, "We didn't have two quarters to rub together." But there always seemed to be a pot of red beans on the stove, fried taters three times a day, laying hens and fryers in the yard, hogs fattening in a pen, a couple of milk cows and a few calves in the pasture. My grandmother bartered butter and eggs for flour, salt and sugar so at least we ate good.
All of my childhood memories are not good. I didn't realize they were bad until I was grown. One was sitting in the shade of a mesquite tree the summer before I started to school watching my family chop cotton in boiling Texas heat while I entertained myself by catching ants and feeding them to doodlebugs (Antlions).
When I think about it, folks were tough as saddle leather back then. The temperature would be over a hundred degrees and here they were in long sleeve shirts, overalls, high top shoes and a straw hat..men and women! If you don't think that takes some doing, just step outside your air conditioned den when the temperature is only in the high nineties and work for thirty minutes.
In the fall it was common practice to let school out to pick cotton. Everyone old enough to pay attention grabbed a sack and headed for the patch, yours truly included. These sacks were from ten to twelve feet long ano the wagon. The weight was recorded in the farmer's book as well as in the pickers. Very important come Saturday at noon. Payday! At two bits a hundred I could count on about a dollar and a half to my part for a weeks work. Mother and Daddy could pick a bale a day together, sixteen hundred pounds, in good cotton. How about ten hours of hard work for $4.00 for two people? That money paid for new overalls and shoes for me. Mother, a wonderful seamstress, made my shirts from flour sacks but she bought material to make dresses for my little sisters. This work was seasonal and only lasted two or three weeks.
Hog killing time came after first frost and a fun event, at least for me. Neighbors would show up early to help. The men set about bringing a couple of barrels of water to a roiling boil while the women visited and caught up on all the gossip.
One very important member of the hog killing crew was a black man named Jim. He was the "sticker." Now the next part of the letter is not for the squeamish or faint of heart but it was necessary. One of the hogs selected for butchering would be herded in to a small pen. Jim's two tools of his trade were a ten pound sledge and a large butcher knife. He used the sledge to stun the hog and then with a much practiced maneuver, "stick" the hog in the jugular vein. He was so good at this there would not be a drop of blood on the knife, it happened so quick! As soon as the hog had bled most of life fluid, he would be hoisted out of the pen. A single tree would be inserted in to the two hind legs, spreading them apart. The single tree was then attached to a pulley, the hog raised in the air and dunked in one of the boiling drums of water. Timing was critical here. If the hog was immersed too long, the meat would start to cook. The hot water loosened the hair so it could be scraped off. After scraping, the hog was opened up and the viscera emptied in to a #3 wash tub. One or two of the men took the liver, heart and other usable organs and set them aside. Since we didn't have refrigeration, these goodies would be cooked by the women that night to feed the crew. There were usually ten to fifteen neighbors plus a dozen kids.
The kids ganged up according to age groups and entertained themselves with games. Some of the older boys helped with the butchering and smoking. My grandfather was recognized in the community as the best sausage maker and ham smoker. This process started as soon as possible, again no refrigeration. I can still taste that mouth watering sugar cured ham and bacon.
Depending on how many hogs were processed, the work could go on in to the night with light from kerosene lanterns. But eat! My goodness! The men were served first at the large table, kids grabbed a plate full of food and ate standing up or squatted on haunches. Ladies ate last and did up the dishes. There was always plenty of perishable food left over to send home with the folks that helped. Jim received hams, bacon and sausage for his contribution. Within a day or two, this process would be repeated at a neighbor's house so we all looked forward to hog killing time.
My grandmother prepared the lunch I carried in a Brer Rabbit syrup can. She would make home made yeast rising bread and always made some rolls larger than others to go in my lunch. Lunch would be a thick slice of ham inside one of the rolls, a fried pie and if I was lucky, an apple or orange. I watched some of the town kids eating bologna on store bought light bread. One day one of the boys in my class offered to trade his bologna for the ham and I didn't hesitate. Some might say I got cheated but heck, I could have ham three times a day if I wanted but bologna and light bread were rare at my house. My dad had a favorite saying about trading. "If you can't have a ham, take a sandwich."
Chores took up a goodly part of my days in the summer. There were cows to milk, eggs to gather, chickens to feed, a garden that needed constant attention and kindling to chop. For entertainment we had a battery powered radio to listen to Jack Benny, Edgar Bergen and other shows. Cards were not allowed but dominoes were very popular and by the time I was eight, I could take a hand at the grownups table. Forty-two parties were held on Saturday nights. We would have four or five tables, a pot luck covered dish supper, and lots of kids to play hide-and-seek or Annie Over. Once in a while, we would have music. My grandmother played piano, there would be a guitar, fiddle and mandolin. No dancing allowed so she would go through a Baptist Hymnal picking out songs. One of my favorites then and today is "THE OLD RUGGED CROSS."