I suppose all of us have childhood memories -- memories that stay with us through the years. I certainly do. In fact, there is one childhood memory that stands out in my mind.
It was way back in nineteen and sixty-four. I was in the fourth grade and we were leaving school early for the Christmas holidays. The reason we were getting out of school early was because it was doing something it rarely did in Louisiana -- it was snowing. I watched the snow falling from the window of the bus on the ride home. I was holding a set of Chinese checkers I had received as a gift at our school gift exchange.
I was excited for the snow and the Christmas present and for what I knew was taking place at home. My folks were busy butchering a hog and, when we children came into the house, the wonderful smell of fresh pork frying on the stove met us at the door.
In those days we scalded and scraped our hogs in order to have cracklings. As a general rule, not much of the hog was wasted. The head was boiled so that the jowls and other meaty parts could be used to make hog's head cheese, which we called, "souse."
In the South, hog's head cheese is made differently. It is a combination of meat and fat and odd scraps run through a grinder and then pressed into a container where vinegar is poured over it for flavor and to, "cut the fat" as my mother used to say. After the souse had firmed up, it was cut into slices and eaten cold. It was not considered a breakfast food as it is in some parts of the country, nor was it ever served hot. The vinegar made it sour, which Southerners prefer in some of their dishes, including all things barbecue.
Mother was busy working in the kitchen when we came in. She had prepared a small bowl of head cheese for her mother.
"Sammy," she said, "Take this bowl up to Mamaw's house and give it to her."
Mamaw lived next door to us, so I headed out the door with the bowl of head cheese. I was about halfway to Mamaw's house (which was uphill from our place) when I slipped in the snow and fell. Somehow I managed to hold onto the bowl as I went down and kept from dropping it. Mamaw was tickled to get the souse.
"Thank you, Sammy, and tell Retha thanks for the souse."
"Yes, Ma'am, I will," I said.
"Are you ready for some fireworks tonight?" she asked.
"Yes'm," I said.
"Well, I think everybody is going to be here," she said.
That was music to my ears as I loved watching fireworks and I knew several of our uncles always bought a lot of firecrackers, cherry bombs, Roman candles and bottle rockets. We all participated in lighting firecrackers and Roman candles and sparklers. It wasn't uncommon for one of the children to have a firecracker go off in their hands. For that reason, younger children weren't allowed to set off cherry bombs. Those things could blow your hand off or at least maim you for life. We used to set them off in neighbors' mailboxes. They could do some awesome damage.
We always had a big meal at our house the night of fireworks and so did my grandmother at her house. The children ate at whichever house they chose and all of us cousins ran around after supper setting off firecrackers and generally having a great time.
Aunts and uncles from both sides of the family visited together as the children played, until it came time for the adult men to start with the real fireworks. Don't get me wrong -- it wasn't anything like Christmas or New Year's displays nowadays where towns and cities set off thousands of dollars' worth of fireworks in an evening. But, to a young boy's eyes, there was nothing in the world as exciting as watching my uncles, older brothers and cousins setting off rockets in our backyard during the Christmas holidays.
That year my older brother Dennis threw a lit package of Black Cat firecrackers up on the roof of our house and, as they exploded, the firecrackers jumped into the air and came down in front of our porch where one of the firecrackers exploded right beside Dennis's ear. The explosion really hurt his ear and I think he had trouble with it for years after that.
It was that year too when I had a bad experience myself and, I have to admit, I have only myself to blame for it. You see, back then we had these little explosive balls that went off when you threw them down on the sidewalk. You had to throw them pretty hard to set them off. They worked better if you threw them onto a hard surface instead of the bare ground. Well, I happened to find one of these little balls in the yard and without realizing just what it was I put it in my mouth and bit it.
Pow! It went off between my teeth and rattled me to the core. In a sudden flash of insight, I realized how utterly stupid I had been. Of course, there was the searing pain in my mouth to drive home the idea that I was some kind of an outstanding idiot. The teeth on the right side of my mouth ached horribly the rest of that evening. My lips and face were literally numb for several weeks afterward. I was too embarrassed to tell anyone what I had done. I just made my way to the bathroom and washed my face the best I could. I had a terrible toothache but I kept that to myself.
And now it comes to me that it has only taken fifty-six years for me to rake up the courage to admit to such a dumb mistake. But that memory is still fresh after all these years.
Sam Byrnes is a Gentry area resident and a regular contributor to the Eagle Observer. He may be contacted by email at [email protected] Opinions expressed are those of the author.