It was near the end of March 1958 and spring was in the air. The mornings still had a slight chill and after we shared a plate of pancakes and bacon, my dog Cookie and I began our morning ritual of walking the perimeter of the farm. The fragrant smell of pine sap filled the air from the tall pines that I always loved watching sway in the wind. All the birds were feeding and building nests. You could hear many songs from bluebirds, robins, Baltimore Orioles, and the Carolina Wren. You could hear the ducks coming in for a morning swim in our pond. This would be our home for a lifetime; the farm Granddaddy built.
When Granddaddy bought this land in 1945 the war had just ended. Timber had to be cut in order to make a road to access the farm. It was a massive undertaking requiring many men with two-handled saws and mules dragging the trees away to be milled for timber to build the houses and barns. A creek ran through the farm and they had to build a plank bridge to connect with the other farms. Granddaddy started in late September in hopes of getting a spring crop in the ground. The fall work was not unpleasant, but winter was coming, and cabins had to be built as well as a packhouse for the cows and horses.
The winds were like tiny fingers searching for an open button or hands without gloves. Granddaddy built bonfires around the farm so the workers could stop and warm themselves. Daddy and his brothers, all young boys, dropped out of school to help build the farm.
The winter that year was bitterly cold, the creek froze over, and they had to melt the ice and snow on the wood stove for water. The fire in the stove burned around the clock with a big pot of beef stew simmering, but it was so cold inside you could see your breath when you talked. The plank cabin had been built in haste and icicles hung from the rafters. The ground was hard, frozen, and treacherous to walk on. The snow was not much better and would crunch loudly beneath your feet. It was often a long and dangerous walk to the creek for water as you had to carry a pail and axe to break up the ice. Putting the jagged chunks in the wooden pail was a challenge with hands that were cold and numb, without feeling. Frostbite was a common occurrence resulting in missing fingers and toes. The winds were like tiny fingers searching for an open button or hands without gloves. Granddaddy built bonfires around the farm so the workers could stop and warm themselves. Daddy and his brothers, all young boys, dropped out of school to help build the farm. They worked alongside the men cutting trees and blowing up the stumps that were too big to dig up with dynamite. The youngest brother carried big metal canisters on a wagon filled with hot coffee mixed with a little moonshine and hard biscuits to ward off the hunger.
By February the farm was taking shape and the land divided into fields for tobacco, corn, cotton, and gardens so that they could feed themselves and be self-sufficient. The barns were up, and Granddaddy bought two cows for milk, hogs and a couple of mules. The chicken coops would be up soon and there would be eggs to eat. Breakfast was a big event and my Aunt Edda May was loved by all for her bacon, ham, eggs, and stacks of pancakes. She started the wood stove when it was still dark, and everyone would migrate to the big house from the tenant shacks to a warm fire and the smells of breakfast cooking.
Once the packhouse was up Granddaddy had his prized possession brought to the farm, a jet-black gelding that was full of spirit and pride. He had his wife’s horse brought as well, a snow-white mare. He was seen often headed out to ride the farm stopping to help, to give advice and encouragement. He felt pride swell up in him. The farm was nearly finished, and they would be able to put a crop in the ground. When that was done everyone would take a pause, some to go see their families, others would retire to the cabins to write letters home.
Granddaddy was excited that his wife was coming, and they would ride the farms, all five of them, on horseback. The brothers would go to Myrtle Beach hoping to meet a future wife. During one trip my Daddy met a beautiful lady named Aileen. She worked at a café near the pier and had her eye on Daddy always keeping his coffee cup filled. He was hitchhiking to town with Uncle Frank for a few weeks and he hoped to see her. When Granddaddy’s wife, Pola, arrived they rode out to one of the smaller farms built for the sons and planted a Live Oak knowing that it would outlive many generations of the family and be a testament to our strength as a family.
It was a warm September in 2029 and my grandson was taking me to see the farm one last time. I was seventy-seven and I knew that now was the time to see it one last time. The family tried to discourage me from going there, telling me it was not the same and it would break my heart. The dirt road to the old farm was now a four-lane corridor built so that Myrtle Beach could receive even more tourists. The self-driving car was quite disturbing to me, but at my age, it was better than me driving. It was when I saw the Walmart and a red light that I knew the world I grew up in was gone like the setting sun at the end of a summer day.
As we got closer to the old farm there was a large entrance with a sign spelling out The Farm, as if I needed a sign to know where I grew up. There were paved streets with sidewalks and the little white church where I fell in love with Gospel music was now the realtor’s office. They left the plank bridge standing, rebuilding it like a covered bridge from Vermont and not like the deep south open sided bridges.
As we reached the place where my home once stood there was a morning fog over the fields and forest. I could picture in my mind the deer drinking near the creek with the tall pines swaying in the breeze making that whispering sound. I could see the dew on the freshly plowed fields and hear the chickens cackling for someone to come get the eggs and my dog, Cookie, running to greet me. They had built a small park near an open field and in its center was the old oak tree that I used to climb, the one my Grandparents planted together many years ago. As I grew closer the fog was melting with the morning sun giving me a clear view of the park. What I saw broke my spirit. I knew that my time of being had past and something new had taken its place. I knew that I had found Apollyon, the destroyer from ancient times, literally the keeper of the bottomless pit.
Out of hundreds of acres of land that made up the five farms in 1945 only one tree was still left standing. I hung my head and my grandson helped me back to the car. I stopped to see if I could see the forest, and fields thinking memories of my old dog by the creek would emerge, but all I could see was the last tree and that was all that was left of my life, one large solitary tree blocking the sunlight, yet it was The Last Tree. Perhaps I too was the last one standing, a single man large and unbent yet forgotten.
Point Of View
I have lived long enough to see my Granddaddy’s farm become my Daddy’s farm and my childhood home. After we moved to the city it sat there empty for many years. It was always a place to go back to yet, in the end, the memories had become like the morning mist on a creek with only shadows and ghosts walking the fields. In time it will stop being at all, soon to be forgotten with no one coming to walk the fields, yet I wonder if that shimmering by the creek was a ripple in the veil where I might find my Daddy and my dogs walking the fields. I would love to hear one more time Daddy saying this is good dirt and the corn will grow well here then let the soil sift through his fingers.