Tuesday, August 9, 2011

On Oscar's Nob: The Firecracker Whippin'

Tommy was about seven at the time of the Firecracker Whippin’ up on Oscar’s Nob in western West Virginia. The Great Depression still hung on the nation, but being poor was normal in Appalachia. Dad was often away at the coal camp, so ma tended the farm and kept order with the remaining six children. They all had their duties and milking the cow fell to the boys. 

Tommy had many brothers and sisters—some older and younger, some living, and some already carried up to the cemetery on the hill. Their ma was only thirty-four and her eldest son was married, leaving fourteen year-old Ermil as the oldest at home.

At Ermil's side, Tommy learned his place. The boys were close, but if Ermil felt Tommy needed a whippin’, Tommy was whipped. There’s not much a boy of seven can do, except run fast, and Tommy was already fast—and clever.

It was an ordinary day. Ermil and Tommy worked then cavorted until the inky black of night fell. A summer storm kicked up, but their chores were not finished. Ma needed the milk from Pet, their big black and white Holstein. Pet was a misnomer if ever one was given. She'd tolerate being milked, and only milked--and only if she was eating. 
Thanks Internet

The barn had a lean-to shed with an open side for milking. The muck surrounding it was so deep, large rocks were sunk to their tops, creating a path for crossing. 

The tar like sky smothered the stars as well as the boys’ lantern, allowing only a pale circle to guide them. Though bolts of lightning pierced the heavens with electricity, they were too unpredictable for useful light. All inside the barn were accustomed to the crack and fire of a summer storm, and Ermil calmly pulled the milk from the teats.

For many long months, Tommy saved a firecracker given him by Uncle Limick. It was a glorious treat, better than the cigarettes Uncle was secretly persuaded to share. Tommy saved it to scare Emril.

The lightning was powerful and irresistibly loud. Ermil’s head was tucked under the cow’s belly, his attention averted. Tommy laid his firecracker on the top of the oil lantern and waited. It was quiet except the rhythmic sound of milk spraying a metal container, and erratic lightning dancing across the sky—until the firecracker warmed and then BLAM!
Out shot the cow’s foot hitting Ermil square in the chest and sending him flying out of the stall and into the oozing muck. The lantern was broken and the precious milk spilled as the enraged cow disappeared into the black. Ermil lay sprawled on his back, sunk into the muddy manure, rain pelting his face. He was certain lightning had struck. 

Tommy didn’t know where Emril had gone until a streak of lightning illuminated his brother lying deep in the muck. As Emril lay there stunned, Tommy tried desperately not to laugh, but the glory of his firecracker was too much. When Emril heard the muffled laughter, he scrambled up from the sticky mud, grabbed Tommy by the scruff, and beat him good.

No matter what, the milking had to be finished, so the boys fumbled back to the house guided only by lightning and familiar terrain, to get another lantern from Ma. Then they searched Oscar’s Nob in the pouring rain for an angry Holstein. 

To this day, over sixty-five years later, Tommy says it was worth it. 

To protect the guilty, names and certain details have been changed. I intend to add additional tales to this series, On Oscar's Nob.