A couple of miles west of my home town, Caney KS, after crossing an old iron truss bridge spanning the muddy Caney River on a narrow asphalt country road there was a crossroads. To the north the road ran a few miles and then fizzled out. To the south it turned into a sandy, rocky road that wound down into Oklahoma and a huge cattle ranch that in the sixties became infamous as “The Mullendore Ranch Murder” crime scene; a crime that is to this day unsolved. Local folklore was that “The Mullendores” had borrowed, but failed to repay, money from some thick-necked people who did not report bad debts to The Credit Bureau. Continuing on to the west the asphalt surface abruptly ended, but the road continued on as a plain dirt road that became almost impassable when muddy. It took the traveler into a region known as “The Sand Hills.”
The Sand Hills didn't beckon most of us kids to come to explore their mysteries. They were a spooky, foreign sort of place. "Sand Hill Kids" did not attend school with us, they were in a different school system. Several years earlier some older boys including my older brother Gene had found the Sand Hills a great place to steal nice, ripe watermelons from one or another of the farmers’ watermelon patches. That was a fairly common teen age summer enterprise which my brother and his friends thought was great fun until they were caught one Sunday afternoon by a shotgun-bearing "Sand-Hiller".
I was home alone when the one call brother Gene was allowed to make from the Chautauqua County jail came in. He did not sound especially penitent as he told me, his little brother, what had happened and that I should tell our Dad to come and get him out of jail. In fact, his attitude was more anger than repentance; referring to the incident he told me, “Tell Dad that some stupid old farmer pulled a shotgun on us.” Dad, in his usual wise willingness to let his kids experience the consequences of their actions so long as they were not going to be physically hurt, met with the farmer and the sheriff and then let his second youngest son spend the night in jail. After that, if not repentant, Gene was at least not willing to repeat his “sin.” The experience cooled his desire for stolen watermelons.
The Sand Hills were blessed with the right kind of soil to grow luscious cantaloupes, watermelons, and blackberries. The cantaloupes and watermelons were planted and cultivated by Sand Hill farmers. The blackberries were not planted. They grew wild in almost impenetrable thickets and in places that are also natural habitat for snakes, spiders, chiggers and ticks. Like beautiful roses, blackberries are protected from being molested by sharp thorns. No doubt thornless blackberries are being planted and cultivated these days but in the 1940’s if you wanted fresh blackberries you had to pay for them in sweat, scratches, risk of snakebite, and general discomfort. Still, fresh blackberries right off the vine are a matchless treat that, in the hands of a skilled cook can be turned into an incomparably delicious cobbler. Picking those dark-wine-colored berries, however, is a task that could well be assigned as punishment to convicts on a chain gang.
Each summer it was my duty to go with Mother to the Sand Hills on blackberry picking expeditions. She and Dad were well acquainted with a few of the Sand Hill farmers. Mother feared snakes no less than a lobster fears a pot of boiling water. Nevertheless, when it became blackberry picking season, very early in the morning, she would dress in a long-sleeved garment, cover her head with a poke bonnet, gather up several large buckets, fill a jug with ice water and off we'd go to the Sand Hills. She knew where to find all the good berry patches and they were, of course, in the most terribly inaccessible places.
It usually took most of a hot, steamy, summer morning to fill all the buckets, especially since –at least when we first began picking – we ate almost as many as we put into our buckets. I often had to chase at least one snake away from her feet with a long stick I had picked up to do just that. About the time the steamy heat became all but unbearable and my arms looked as if I had broken up a backyard cat-fight with my bare hands and arms, our buckets would be full. As “collateral damage” our fingertips and lips would be stained purple with the juicy, sweet liquid that oozes from a vine-ripened berry.
The cobbler we'd have that evening and for the next day or so carried a high price tag, but as when experiencing any of the finer things in life who can argue price when savoring ecstasy?
Geez Don, there is so much in this story from the "thick necked" farmer to the jailed brother and lesson from dad, to the snakes and blackberries. I can taste the sweetness. I also can't believe you fit all that into one page. Really really well done!!
The "thick necked" folks were apparently "mafia" types. (I have no proof, "Goodfella's" don't come looking for me.) Ah, those blackberries - I still love blackberry cobbler but I haven't had one even close to those that came from the Sand Hills. Thanks for enjoying my memories.
Don, once again another GREAT story! Having transplanted wild blackberries from a former student's father's backyard and taking them to my brother in northern Utah to plant as a "fence" between his property and the neighboring farmer's, I know only too well the thorny price paid to work with those berry plants. Your writing just "sings".