Above image: Sandy and Allen, turning over rocks and catching crawdads.
Some time after Grandma Emma received her divorce from Mr. Bush, the man who was a bald as an egg, this was many years before they sent her to the nursing home back when she was young and vigorous, she married Mr. Mason. We never called him Grandpa. He was always Mr. Mason.
Mr. Mason was an almost mythic figure. My father always said of him, with great fondness and respect, that he was “a man’s man,” though at the time I couldn’t puzzle out what that meant at all. I remember him as a giant with dark leathery skin; he appeared to me to have been hewn from an old log. (Which was close to being true, as you shall see.) He was always dressed in one of two outfits: denim coveralls and a pale blue workshirt for working around the farm, or a matching khaki shirt and pants for Sunday dinner and sitting with us or other company. Here are a few Mr. Mason images.
I would watch Mr. Mason get up on Sunday mornings when he and Grandma were living at Walker, WV. My bedroom that I shared with my sister was across the dining room from his bedroom, and while lying in bed in the early morning I could easily see him when he heaved himself, with a great creaking of bedsprings, up into a sitting position. Grandma would have been up for hours preparing a tremendous breakfast. He would laboriously pull his coveralls up over his long johns, which he wore year-round. Then he would sit on the edge of the bed and take a big old brown bottle of his SSS tonic and pour the first of four large tablespoonfuls of the dark liquid into a battered cooking spoon he kept by his bedside. My father laughed when I asked him about this medicine; I thought maybe Mr. Mason might be sick. He told me in later years that Mr. Mason needed the Triple S to get himself going in the morning as it had a high alcohol content. (A quick stroll over into Google-land tells me that they’re still making the tonic and you can buy it at your local Walgreens! And that yes indeed, it is 12.5 % alcohol, so that makes it 25 proof, which is higher than wine or beer by far. So after his tonic and sitting on the edge of the bed a bit longer, Mr. Mason would tug on his battered boots, go visit the outdoor privvy and come back in for breakfast. His favorite breakfast food was two boiled chicken feet that stood upright and alone in the center of his plate. They were always there when he sat down at the table. He would gnaw on these before tucking into the eggs, biscuits, ham, more chicken, gravy and all the other regular breakfast fare that Grandma always served.
One day, long before I was born, a man came by the farm and gave Mr. Mason a slice of cantaloupe. Evidently no one in this rural area of West Virginia had ever eaten a cantaloupe. The man said they grew all over down in Florida. Mr. Mason finished his slice, turned away, walked to his truck, fired it up and drove off. Three days later he was back with an entire truckload of cantaloupes, which he drove around giving to neighbors on other farms. He had driven straight down to Florida and back without stopping, which was the kind of man that Mr. Mason was.
We would sit on the porch of an evening at grandma’s. The grown-ups sat in rocking chairs and talked, and the kids — my sister and I and various cousins — lounged around on the grey-painted, wooden porch floor listening and playing. After a while, Mr. Mason would cross one leg over the other and take out his penknife. As I watched, surely with bulging eyes, Mr. Mason would slowly open his knife and draw the blade up his lower leg, shaving off long, paper-thin slices of… skin?
Mr. Mason had a wooden leg, which no one had ever told me about. I don’t remember ever seeing him strap it on in the morning when he would get dressed. Maybe he slept with it on and his long johns covered the attachment. When I was very young, I remember being very confused when he would this thing with his knife, as it looked like a real leg to me. He had made the leg himself, carving it out of a downed tree limb, and it was the same color as his tanned, leathery skin. The story of the wooden leg that my father told me in later years was that Mr. Mason had been an oilman in the early days of the West Virginia oil boom. He had been working high on a rig that began to collapse beneath him, whereupon he leapt off and hit the ground injuring his leg so badly he had to have it amputated. Mr. Mason was philosophical about this and passed along a valuable piece of information to my father which was then passed on to me: “If you’re ever high up on something that starts to fall, do not jump off, ride ‘er to the ground.” I have found this to be very useful advice both in matters of oilrigs and general life conditions. When she starts to fall, never jump, always ride ‘er to the ground.
Both their farms, at Beatrice and at Walker, were quite near small rivers and creeks. Unfortunately, creeks and rivers can become problems when they flood, a not uncommon phenomena in West Virginia at least in those days. I don’t know how many times Grandma and Mr. Mason were chased from their homes by floodwater, but it was often enough that they were pretty blasé about it. We loved playing in the creeks and rivers and would spend entire afternoons looking for crawdads under rocks and building pools and dams. The big river nearby was great for swimming and fishing, and we were allowed to go and play in it whenever we wanted. No adults tagged along to fuss around make sure we weren’t swept away.
On occasion, the members of the local Baptist church would show up, ten or twenty of them, and baptize congregants by fully immersing them in the water. They would sing the hymn, Shall We Gather By the River, over and over as the adults and children were plunged beneath the water by the preacher, to be lifted up and held as the water streamed down their beatific faces and the Holy Spirit bathed them clean of sin. We kept quiet and were respectful and even though we were young children we seemed to be aware of the spirituality of the occasion and the elemental beauty of the ritual and that ragged old hymn.
Mr. Mason was the cause of another of those adult betrayal experiences that I had as a small boy, like the doctor lying to me, though he never knew it. As I have said before, my memories were mostly happy and hopeful, and the confusion and betrayals were few, shallow, and hardly hurtful. But perhaps because of the overall happiness they were, in relation, painful, at least for a little boy.
I, like most all children, loved helping my father, and I loved helping Mr. Mason around the farm. One day, I was probably eight years old, he told me he was going to plant beans in the garden and would I help. Of course I would. He had plowed the kitchen garden, which was quite large, and he went down the long rows piling the rich dirt into mounds. I followed closely along behind him. He showed me how to take three bean seeds and plant them in the hills, equidistant from one another and then cover them with dirt. We worked our way along until we had planted the entire bean field. I don’t know how long we were at it, but I was exhausted by the end of the day. Mr. Mason told me I had done a good job.
That night we were sitting on the porch after dinner. My mom and dad were there, as was my Aunt Betty and Uncle Charlie and their son, my cousin Johnny. My sister and I liked Johnny, though he was younger and littler and the butt of many of our adventures into the hills around Grandma’s house. Everyone was in their rockers, and someone commented on how they noticed that Mr. Mason had got his beans in just that very day. Mr. Mason said, yes, he had, and he could never have done it without his very good helper. I heard this exchange and sat up straight, knowing that I was about to be singled out for praise. Then Mr. Mason continued, saying that he could have done it without the help of young Johnny!
I was stuck dumb. Mr. Mason went on to pile a few more accolades atop Johnny’s head, and all the adults chimed in about how Johnny was turning into a real little man and some day he’d be a real farmer and have his own place to grow beans and wasn’t little Johnny just the best?
No! Wait! Stop! It wasn’t Johnny! It was me! I’m the real little man, someday I would have my own farm!
That was the voice in my head, screaming at the injustice. But I somehow knew that I shouldn’t try and correct the record, that it would be disrespectful to question Mr. Mason, who obviously couldn’t tell one boy from another. And that little bastard Johnny just sat there on the porch playing with his toy cars, unaware of the angst and pain coursing through my body.
See? I told you these memories were small, inconsequential things. But I still remember them, especially these faint betrayals. This was just one more in a bagful that when taken out and lined up on the porch railing become lessons learned, necessary corrections to a child’s notions of the infallibility of adults.
Welcome to the world, Allen.