Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Ledbetters

My brother, John, used to be a real outdoorsman when he was younger, and he cultivated a wide group of friends from all walks of life who shared his love for hunting, fishing, and camping. Somehow he got to be friends with a man named Zeke Ledbetter, who was a real epitome of interesting Southerners.
Zeke and his family lived in the backwoods near the Alapaha River. He lived with his wife, his mother, his father, and his six sons in a rambling, ramshackle old farmhouse that had never seen a coat of paint.

One Saturday afternoon in April, John decided to pay a visit to Zeke in order to check out the spring fishing in the Alapaha. When he pulled into the dirt drive, all six boys came out to meet him. The youngest one was probably around eight years old, and the oldest was around sixteen, so it was obvious that poor Mrs. Ledbetter didn’t get much of a break between babies. On this specific day, all the boys were dressed in overalls, sans shirts and shoes, and they all had a big “chaw” of tobacco in their cheek.

They took John inside to see their daddy, which was the first time my brother had ever actually entered the house. He was a little surprised at Mrs. Ledbetter’s living room d├ęcor. Three of the four walls in the living room, which they referred to as the “front parlor,” were lined with mismatched sofas from the Early Depression era. In the far corner was an ancient monster of a corner-cabinet television.

After John and Zeke had made their helloes, Zeke took John down to the river bluff to show him how high the water had gotten from all the spring rains. The water was the color of dark tea, as usual, from all the tannic acid, but it was higher than either man could remember. They discussed how this would affect the fishing, and Zeke checked his turtle trap. There was a big angry softshell in it, which the riverman pulled out by the tail and quickly beheaded with his pocketknife.

“What you gonna do with that thing?” John asked, surprised.

“Eat it! What else?” Zeke answered as he deftly gutted the turtle and parted it from its shell.

When they got back to the house, all the boys were sitting on the couches, playing hand-held electronic games. My brother engaged the youth in conversation.

“What you boys got there?”

The oldest stepped forth and held the game out to John.

“It’s a Mr. Math. We all got one for Christmas.”

John had never seen one of these before, but its operation was very simple. The player was presented with a math problem to add two single digits together. Any six-year-old child could have done it, and my brother just happened to be an engineer. The game began with 1 + 1 = ? When you punched in the correct answer, you got a beep and were presented with a little harder problem, like 1 + 3 = ? The hardest problem John got was 9 + 8 = ? After getting ten correct answers in a row, the device played a song.

Needless to say, my brother got ten consecutive correct answers, and when the song was played in honor of his achievement, all six boys jumped off their respective sofas, with mouths agape!

“How’d you make that thing do that?!” They asked in unison.

My brother was floored. Keep in mind that these kids had had these games for four months and had played them constantly. Yet in all that time, not a single one had achieved ten correct answers in a row.
Zeke was rather surprised by John’s accomplishment, also.

“See, boys, I toldja he’s smart. That’s why the state gubmint pays him that big money to design them bridges and sitch! John, you ought ta help these boys with they mathematics. Maudie is home schoolin’ ‘em so they’ll get a proper education, but between me ‘n’ you, I don’t know how good her math skills are.”

Before John could reply, Maudie Ledbetter appeared at the living room door and announced that supper was served, and she insisted that John join them. All eleven of the group sat down to a rustic pine table that fairly groaned under the amount of food offered. There was a big platter of fried squirrel, along with sliced ham, rice, gravy, butter beans, fried corn, okra and tomatoes, cornbread muffins, buttermilk biscuits, and homemade plum jelly. No doubt the Ledbetter clan had grown and preserved all the produce, and Zeke had grown the hog and cured the ham himself. The boys had most likely supplied the squirrels.

After grace was said, one of the boys reached for the squirrel platter and grabbed some small pieces and dropped them on his plate. Grandma shot out of her chair, serving spoon in hand, and rapped the boy’s knuckles with the utensil.

“Frank Earl, you know them squirrel brains is for yore Grandpa! Now put them back! That is, unless our guest would like them. John? Are you partial to the brains?”

“No, I’m good, thanks.”

John told me later that the meal he had with the family was some of the best food he’d ever eaten. He was used to eating wild game like squirrel, and he proclaimed the vegetables perfectly seasoned and the breads light and flaky. He did, however, spend the rest of his time at the table wondering how many squirrel brains it took to make a “mess.” As adventurous as my brother was in his culinary explorations, he had never eaten brains of any sort – especially those of such miniscule proportions.

After John said his goodbyes and was about to leave, Grandma scurried out of the house and pressed a brown paper bag into his hand, telling him in a hushed voice, “Here. The old man didn’t eat all the brains, and I could tell that you fancied ‘em. Them boys, they don’t need no brains.”

It was all John could do to suppress a laugh over the irony of that last sentence. He took the package, thanked the old woman, and fed the morsels to his dog as soon as got home.