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  • Writer's pictureSteven Cornelius

Stay Out of that Water Barrel!

The two years between age eight and ten was a wild and crazy stretch for me. I had an overactive imagination, plenty of energy, and couldn’t seem to stay out of trouble. It’s a miracle that I survived those years. I rode down our barn roof on a three-wheeled cart I knocked together, using an umbrella to slow myself down (not very successfully); stirred up a nest of water moccasins and was chased across a swamp by two of them for my troubles; set the pine woods near our house on fire and took a serious beating for doing that, and generally gave my momma and daddy fits. While I was thinking up new ways to test her patience, my poor momma worked her fingers to the bone trying to keep track of about fifteen other kids swarming about our place. Because of all the distractions, I was able to fly under the radar, so to speak and get into lots of mischief. I still worked hard every day. Momma wasn’t one to let a strong back go to waste. We had a two acre garden and no tractor, so as soon as I was big enough, I became the tiller, finely chopping the middles between rows of plants, aerating the soil and removing stringy, crabgrass that seemed to sprout overnight.

I was relegated to working the middles because I behaved immaturely; I was careless with my hoe when momma asked me to work around the plants. I proved that beyond question one day when, in a fit of anger, I cut down more than a dozen cornstalks and potato plants. I learned a painful new dance right there in the garden, thanks to a limber willow switch and my momma’s strong right arm. What my nine year old brain didn’t realize at the time, was that seed cost money and we only had one chance to get a good crop started that would feed us during the cold winter months. We had also invested much work and sweat to get those plants started and growing. She really wore me out that day and I’m sure the severity of my whipping was driven as much by disappointment over the loss of food for our winter table as my piss poor attitude. I have no doubt that our neighbors about a half-mile away could hear my wailing quite clearly that day. Lessons delivered in such a manner are never forgotten. From then on, every time I raised my hoe to chop into the soil or cut down a plant, my legs and back twinged from the memory of being set on fire by that switch.

The summer I turned nine was an especially hot one, but the heat had to be endured, because we still had to put in the work. We grew almost everything put on our table, so there was little choice; work the garden or go hungry. Momma had a system that worked, so she stuck to it. When the forecast called for scorching weather, she got us up at first light every morning except Sunday, put breakfast on the table, which we gulped down like starving dogs, and then herded us into a rag tag gaggle, headed for that two acre plot. We wasted no time, quickly setting to work to get as much done as possible before the terrible heat closed in. Summer heat in the deep south is a patient beast, lurking in a burnished, silver blue sky, always just over your shoulder, building in intensity from first light until after finally easing its grip after dark. The heat waits silently while the sun climbs high overhead and then descends like an invisible blanket, smothering man and beast until we could hardly draw a breath. On one particular day, we arrived at the garden before nine AM; the humidity and heat had already climbed into the nineties. Within a quarter-hour, we were all soaked with sweat. As we worked our way up and down long leafy rows, there was no breeze stirring to offer even a hint of relief. It was like working inside a hot cast-iron skillet. Well, after two hours of grinding up and down three hundred foot long rows of potatoes, tomatoes and corn, using the corner of my hoe to break through stubborn layers of packed red clay dirt, even the hoe handle I used was wet and slick. Beads of sweat ran down my face stinging my eyes and probably dripped from the tip of my nose and earlobes.

My skinny arms ached from two hours of flailing away at uncooperative dirt and I felt in danger of melting into a stinky little sweat puddle. Somehow, I had to cool down and with no pond or stream anywhere near, my only option, born from desperation was the off limits 55 gallon metal barrel located under the eastside eave of my dad’s auto repair shop. Rainwater kept the barrel full and afternoon shade kept it nice and cool. My dad used that water to refill radiators after completing work on everything that rolled into his shop. For some reason, my dad was very particular about keeping the water in that barrel clean. He kept a lid on it, except when rain was predicted. I asked him about that one time, and he gave me a look usually reserved for the village idiot. Once I turned the corner on adulthood the lightbulb came on and I understood. Had I jumped into the water, dirty as a little pig, he would have had to skim grass, leaves, trash and mud out of it before he could fill car and truck radiators.

Daddy knew me and felt certain that sooner or later, I was sure to stray away from the straight and narrow and test the water, so to speak. In my family, when momma or daddy gave us a stern, don’t do that or stop doing that order, we listened. There was a very short timeframe and distance between them saying stop and a switch being applied to our back and legs. Nevermind the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques, if Mid-Eastern terrorists held at Guantanamo were given a good switching with a peach tree or willow limb every day by someone as skilled as my momma, they would dance and spill their guts, like I always did. Those stripes (welts) from peach tree switch bumps left on my back and legs lasted a couple of days and were an effective reminder of the consequences of not listening or showing my little ass, which I did a lot. I was a stubborn, slow learner.

Well, on this terribly hot day, desperate times called for desperate measures, so I put my hoe down, turned and lying my little ass off, said, “Momma, I need to go to the bathroom. I’ll be back in a minute.” Momma gave me a suspicious look before adding, “Don’t be gone long or I’ll wear you out.” I nodded and stepped across the gravel road toward the open double doors of my dad’s shop, listening for sounds from inside as I did so. Hearing nothing that set off my internal alarm, I slipped around the east side of the shop and quietly removed the lid covering his precious barrel. I grabbed the rim and climbed up the side, lowering myself down until only my eyes and nose were visible. I moved around in slow motion, enjoying the sensation of clear, cool water against my skin, bobbing up and down for about five minutes.

About the time I prepared to climb out of the barrel, I heard a clattering commotion inside the shop and my heart sank. That sound meant my dad was headed to the water barrel to fill the old fashioned service station swan neck bucket he kept near the back door. Before I could climb out and make a run for it, he turned the corner, headed straight for me. I saw him before he saw me and not knowing what else to do, I sucked in a deep breath and pushed against the sides of the barrel, going as deep under water as I could. My only hope was that the sun’s glare off the water’s surface would conceal me. For the first ten seconds, I kept my eyes scrunched closed, but then curiosity got the best of me, and I tilted my head back, opened my eyes wide and looked straight up at the small circle of blue sky and dark, straight edge of the shop roof. Five seconds later, my dad’s face suddenly appeared, shadowy and indistinct. He leaned forward and started to dip his radiator filling bucket into the barrel. As he bent over and saw me, I heard a distant clatter as he dropped the bucket, threw his arms straight up in the air and yelled “S**t!” I suppose you had to see things from his point of view. When he approached the barrel and looked inside, there I was three feet down in that clear, sloshing water, looking straight up, cheeks bulging like a blowfish, air bubbles escaping from my nose, my eyes bugging out from lack of oxygen. The next thing I saw was his right arm plunging down into the barrel as he grabbed my left wrist and yelled, “Come here you little ****.” He hauled me straight up out of the barrel and dropped me on the ground like a half-drowned rat, giving me a shocked, what is wrong with you look. I can guarantee that of all the things he expected to see when he walked up to that water barrel, my little round face looking up at him from three feet under the water wasn’t even remotely on his mind.

Anyway, back to my predicament. I stood there, sopping wet, water running down my back and legs, puddling around my bare feet, waiting for whatever punishment he decided to dish out. Perversely, as the water evaporated off my skin, I was suddenly cold and stood there shivering; or maybe it was just fear of what was to come. As I watched him closely, waiting to be whacked up side the head, my dad put his hands on his hips threw his head back and roared with laughter. My momma heard him laughing his head off, stopped working and walked over to the shop, saw me by the barrel, wet and scraggily as a freshly dunked stray cat and shot me a stern look. Without saying a word, she grabbed my arm and walked me back across the road and into the garden. A few seconds later momma expertly applied a very limber willow switch to my bare back and legs, providing the beat and tempo that allowed me to practice that very familiar and painful dance I knew so well, jumping up and down and howling like an old hound dog as she wore me out.

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