The following is reprinted from March 2012.
It was in the first week in June many years ago. School was out until the first week of September, and if the tobacco harvest ran later than average, the start of school would be pushed back to allow farm children to continue working in tobacco fields until the crop was harvested. I have known the delayed school opening to be two weeks.
It was a glorious time for farm boys like me who had been confined to classrooms for nine months. Our bodies were in school, but our hearts were on the farm. Free at last, at least for three months, which would pass all too soon, the first thing we did was to take off our shoes, throw them in the closet, and go bare-footed. At first the bottoms of our feet were tender and sensitive, but after a few days, they had grown tough, and we could walk over rocks, briers, gravel and even pieces of broken glass without feeling pain.
Freedom came with a price. It was a time of hard work, mending fences, hauling hay, cleaning out horse and cow stalls, and spreading stuff in the fields. And the hardest and most important of all was working in the tobacco fields. It was hard work, but still much better than sitting in a classroom all day.
There was fun to be had in farm work, and somewhat of a challenge, as we boys were beginning to feel our manhood, trying to keep up with the men as we all worked side-by-side. That’s where I learned the value of teamwork. That’s where I found to be true a wise saying from my daddy, “Two men working together can do more work than four men working alone.”
Even with all of the work and chores to be done, there was plenty of time for good clean fun. There were the Saturday afternoon baseball games beside the tobacco barns, pitching horseshoes with real horseshoes that had once been on horses’ hooves, lining up corncobs and empty tin cans on a fence and shooting them with air rifles (and that’s why farm boys became such good sharpshooters in the military), and going fishing in nearby Fishing Creek and in the Roanoke River. (That was before Kerr Lake and Lake Gaston were created.) It was a special thing to be sitting under the tobacco barn shed in the dark of night with only the light of a kerosene lantern and the fire burning in the barn flue curing the tobacco when the haunting call of a whippoorwill close by broke the night stillness. The next day we would find the scratch marks in a sandy spot where the whippoorwill performed its dance.
It was a good time to be alive back then, even though life was harder, harder on the country folks than city people in general, but the earthly rural pleasures outweighed the hardships. The young people worked hard, went to bed early, got up early, respected their parents and other grown-ups, were strong and healthy, and that’s why farm boys made such good soldiers in the military.
One day, Percy was mowing pasture with a mowing machine pulled by a pair of buckskin mules. Suddenly, a hen bobwhite quail burst into the air just a few feet ahead of the mowing machine blade. If you looked quickly enough at a flushed quail, you could tell if it was a hen or a rooster as it flew up and away. If you could glimpse a white spot on its head, it was a rooster. If you didn’t see white, it was a hen. That’s how Percy knew it was a hen quail. He pulled back on the reins, bringing the mules to a stop. He got off the mower and found a nest with 12 small, white eggs in it. He knew that quail would not return to her nest because all of the protective grass was mowed down.
I took off my cap and carefully put the quail eggs in it. That morning, in the corner of our barn, I had seen a chicken hen trying to sit on an empty nest. Hurrying so as to keep the quail eggs from cooling down, I went into the barn and gently put those little eggs under the chicken.
A chicken egg is at least five times larger than a quail egg, so I didn’t know if the chicken would accept those tiny eggs, But the next day and the next and the next, I saw her faithfully sitting on the nest. Then one day when I went to check on her, I found only an empty nest and little white eggshells. I began to search for her and finally found the chicken sitting beside the water trough. I gently raised her a couple of inches, and my heart was glad to see 12 tiny brown, newly hatched baby quail huddled under her.
I have never seen a hen that was more devoted and protective of baby chicks as was that mother hen of her adopted babies. If another chicken, a dog, or even a person came too close, that old hen would bristle her feathers and charge the intruder. But there was something the mother hen didn’t know.
A deer fawn grows up faster than a calf. A bobcat kitten grows up faster than a house cat kitten. A wolf cub grows up faster than a puppy dog. In other words, nature causes wild creatures to grow up faster than domestic animals’ babies. Those quail grew up much faster than baby chickens and would soon break the old hen’s heart.
–Continued next week.–