Country at Heart

Watermelon Thumpin'

Country at HeartOne day while purchasing watermelons, I saw a man land a good, hard thump on one — first time I’ve seen anyone do that other than us back-wood, country folks. When I impulsively thumped one, I asked myself, "What in the world are you doing?" My honest answer was, "I have no idea."

As I glanced at the stranger thumpin’ that melon, I also wondered if he knew why he thumped it. He probably didn't, because these days most watermelon buyers are clueless as to why they thump 'em. I have a sneaking suspicion, though, that watermelon thumpin’ is akin to belonging to a secret society. It's a sign that the "thumpers" know something that "non-thumpers" don't — which they probably don't, but their ego makes them think they do.

I have no idea when watermelon thumpin' started, but I do know that I saw it way back when I was a kid. I saw my dad and other farmers thump them in their patches. A thumped watermelon supposedly emits a certain sound and a certain feel to the finger. By the thump, you can determine if a melon is ripe, ready to pull, and ready to eat. Do you really believe that? Well, I don't ... not really. Those old, experienced, country farmers may know what they're doing, but I have no idea. Over the years, I simply picked up the habit.

When people thump 'em in the store, they're listening for that certain sound that they think indicates the melon is a prize pick. Since I don’t know what the “sound “ sounds like and what the “feel” feels like, instead of thumpin’ ‘em, I do several things.

First, I look the watermelon over real good. I do know this much: if a watermelon has a dark, yellowish-brown coloration on one side, it means that it laid in the field for a good little spell ... perhaps too long. If it did, it could be overripe, or in some extreme cases, just right for eating. It all depends. Actually, that one is the kind I prefer over the dark green ones. To me, those are not ripe enough to be deliciously good and sweet. Perhaps it's just tradition, but I do like to see a little yellow on the ones I buy.

Next, I simply press the watermelon on all sides. If there is a soft spot, even on a dark green one, it usually means that the melon was dropped and bruised. It can be eaten, but not that part.

Finally, if I thump the fruit, it's simply out of habit and because it is something that I want to do. I have no earthly idea what I'm looking for. So, inexperienced me, I just look at a melon and decide if it's the one I want to buy, though I will seldom buy a melon that is all green. To me, they are not as ripe, nor are they as sweet as the ones with the light yellow patch on 'em. The patch indicates that at least it did mostly ripen on the vine. The solid green ones may indicate that they didn't stay in the field long enough. I pass on those.

I'm a country girl and should have my "thump" down pat, but I don't, so if you ever see me thumping a watermelon, just know that I haven’t the foggiest idea what I'm doing. Tell me to buy the watermelon, take it home, and give it a try. If that one is a dud, maybe with the next one I'll hit the jackpot.

Photo by Fotolia/rozakov


Country at HeartI always wondered about homesteaders — not just the houses but the people who originally built them. Why did they settle in that particular place? Why was the house built where it was? Who lived there? Did they live alone or with family? How many kids? Any animals? Did they inherit the land, buy it, or did they "squat" on someone else's land?

Houses were usually built near a road and not too far away from the rest of civilization, unless someone had no choice but to build on land where their ancestors lived. Many poor families, like mine, didn't have a homestead. They rented their houses, and I do not consider renters to be homesteaders, because they do not own the land nor the house.

I think of homesteaders as people who originally settled on a parcel, built their house from the ground up, settled in and stayed there forever. That was the case with one of the property owners that I consider a homesteader, and the one whose house I think may have been built by her husband or is one that she inherited from her parents or some other relative.

To me, homesteaders are real "country": backward but rugged, hard-working, overall-wearing men and little, old, bonnet-wearing ladies with snow white hair tromping around in ground-length, calico dresses. But, of course, that description more properly fits those homesteaders from bygone centuries — with one exception. Our neighbor, Miss Munn, as we called her.

That dear soul was an older lady who lived down in the lane about three-fourths of a mile behind our house. Now to me, she was a real homesteader. She had a house that I had never seen before or since. She was somewhat eccentric, and at that time kids didn't talk to (or with) older people as they do today, but I had a million questions floating around in my mind for her. For one thing, I was curious to know who built her house and why her house was made unlike everybody else's. It had a wide, open-ended hall running the length of the center of the house. I even imagined a dog trotting right down the center of that dwelling ... and that's why it's called a "dog-trot" house.

Sadly, she lived alone in that big old house on a large parcel of land. She, like many country folks, didn't have running water, electricity, a telephone, nor indoor plumbing. She had an old fashioned, stinky outhouse just like everybody else; however, I do not believe she lacked modern conveniences due to poverty but due to her choice to live on the land like a real homesteader. Her house was well-built and well maintained. I loved walking through that wide, open hall and peering into the side rooms. I still recall an antique picture that hung on one of the bedroom walls — one that I longed to own someday.

To her credit, she had all these little kitty cats for company and entertainment ... but I don't remember any dogs. She had cows for milk and butter, a horse for plowing, chickens for eggs and for eating, and she probably had a few stray rats running throughout the house, too. At any rate, her place was self-contained. She had just about everything that she needed right on her own farm, except fabric for clothing and perhaps flour, sugar, and corn meal.

But, then again, as self-sufficient as she was, she probably ground her own meal, made her sugar from sugar cane, and grew her own wheat and pounded it into flour. Perhaps I'm stretching it a bit, but being the industrious person that she was, I wouldn't put anything past her capabilities.

Our dear, old, homesteading neighbor must have really loved her place. She never left home. She never went to town. The farthest she ventured from her homestead was our backyard to ask my dad to go up the road and "fetch" Mr. Hollis, the man who took care of her business. Other than that, she stayed put.

It was a special treat when my grandmother asked us girls to accompany her to Miss Munn's house. I was always ready to go before she got the words out of her mouth. Her place was so placid and surreal — like a dwelling from another planet. When I was there, it was like being on a voyage to a world where paranormal people live.

No doubt about it, she was a good cook and must have baked something sweet every day in her big, old-fashioned, wood-burning stove, because whenever we went there, she always gave us sweet breads made with real cow milk, and butter, and with those rich, brown, country hen eggs.

Old homesteaders are so neat. Their places are usually much larger than most houses in the community, and the lay of the land appears more prosperous than that of the average home dweller. The land is so rich, and things seem to grow on their land that don't grow on anybody else's. I do believe that those particular homesteaders are a notch above their neighbors. At least, that's the impression that I got from the two homesteads that I remember so fondly. They loved the land and their place in particular. And until they died, they stayed right in that same spot and lived just like my idea of real, bona fide homesteader.

Country road
Photo by Fotolia/Buffy 1982

Country Bridges

Country at HeartPerhaps it's a misnomer to say “country bridges” since most bridges are in the country, and if you need to cross the rivers and lakes and streams that dot the landscape, there must be a bridge to take you over, even if it's a small, crude, unstable-looking one. I suppose there are a few bridges in cities like the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. It was probably built when the area was "country" like rural Arkansas. But the bridges that I’ll refer to are the ones from my childhood. Also, I never knew those fancy, colorful, stately, covered bridges existed until years later, when I saw pictures in magazines. I never saw any in my neck of the woods.

But let's cross the bridges that really “got to me.” They are the small, insecure-looking ones that I didn't like. Occasionally, while traveling to the fields, church, or wherever we had to go, we encountered at least one. Actually, there’s a small bridge right at our little country church, but that one didn't frighten me too much. I reasoned that since it is only about twenty-five feet long, if our car had fallen into it, we probably could have easily crawled out of it. But whenever Dad drove across those other little, scrawny, rotting-looking wood bridges, I held my breath until we were completely on the other side. Then I sighed a sigh of relief. I always wondered if one day a too-heavy vehicle would attempt to cross and the bridge would give way. Of course, that was simply my irrational childish fear, and, fortunately, it never happened.

Sometimes — depending on where we were going — we came to a bridge that we had to cross on foot. While I was a little scared if we were in the car, if I had to tromp across it myself, I was a lot scared. When I walked across those bridges with the planks that looked like they had spaces between them a foot wide, and where you could see the water flowing beneath, I just didn’t want to go to the other side. And, unlike those three Billy goats on the Ugly Old Troll's bridge, I didn’t tromp across. As scared as I was, I held my breath and tiptoed across as though I thought my little, 50-pound body would crash it. I was too scared to stare down, thinking that by staring the bridge would sense my fear and collapse underneath me.

There are a few bridges that probably span a quarter of a mile, but those are normally crossed in a vehicle. And for some reason, I didn’t have too much fear when we rode across those overpasses. That’s probably because they appeared so big and strong and secure, as though even the biggest, longest, heaviest truck wouldn’t shake it.

Perhaps other country kids didn’t have that fear, but I did, and I think it’s normal. By the way, some of those same rickety bridges are still there, and when I go home, I even cross over some of them. As safe as they were then, they are still safe today.

Old wooden bridge
Photo by Fotolia/ovcerleonid

To Wave or Not

Country at HeartLet me define a "wave," then we'll go on down the road and do some waving. To me a wave is a country's person way of greeting their neighbors or anybody who drives past their place. It's a long-distance "hello" when two people are too far away to speak face-to-face, so, their arms serve as their way of saying "hi" from far away. If you are not within earshot, it's considered rude to yell, especially since it's so easy to wave, which is the polite way to speak.

Not only that, but it's not polite to honk your horn either as though you're trying to scare away a bear; however, the over-zealous waver may tap his horn lightly and holler, "hey there," or something to that effect, as long as the honk is accompanied by a hearty wave. If not, honking doesn't go over too well in our parts. About the only time it's halfway okay to honk is when a driver is not sure the person sees him. This is usually done when someone is really into whatever they're doing, but the honk is only sounded once to get them to look up.

Now, here's how the wave (the non-verbal way to speak) goes for country folks. A "speak" is different if you live in town or if you are passing by someone on the street or on the road. You simply speak. There is no need to wave. But, in the country, a "speak" is a little more demonstrative. If you're outside in your yard and your neighbor (or even a stranger drives by) usually, they wave ... and you wave back. It’s just that simple.

On rare occasions, a motorist may not wave at all. If he doesn't wave, you can still wave, though it can be a bit awkward, because the person in the yard expects the driver to lift his hand. So, if a driver doesn't extend his hand, it's okay to simply ignore him.

There also another way for country folks to speak. Those who don't want to appear snobbish may nod their head. They're the kind you don't even want to acknowledge, but if you're polite, you may half raise your hand. That's sort of like letting them know that you see them but just like them, you're just sort of half speaking back. Not so nice, huh?

Now, let's explore the wave a little further. Most country people are friendly and whenever they pass your house, usually they'll speak (wave). If they don't wave, they are no doubt distant neighbors that you may not know and that you may not expect a wave from. However, if you're real country, nine times out of ten, you'll wave. That's just the acceptable way of living and interacting with people who live somewhere in your neck of the woods ... or simply in the country. Even motorists from town will wave, because they know it is common courtesy to speak.

There is another rule for our waves. For instance, if a close neighbor waves on the way out, they usually don't wave on the way back, even if you saw them pass by an hour ago. Now if they waved in the morning and you see them pass by in the evening, it's okay to wave again. This last wave is for "good night."

Here's something else about waves. They go over better during the summer. That's because it's hot. The car windows are down, and if you are really into greetings, you'll even stick your hand out the window and flail your arm. Now, that's what I consider a real wave.

This wave may be followed by a shout. Actually, this is the wave that country folks really like. At least I know I do. This extended greeting shows that the waver is a really friendly, down-home person and more than anything he is, for the most part, sincere in his speaking. This wave makes me smile broadly or even chuckle a bit. I think to myself, "Boy, he really knows how to speak." While that may not be the case, that's the way I see it. I love a warm wave greeting, and I'm sure most country people do too.


Photo by Fotolia/johnsroad7

Summer Nights

Country at HeartIt's 1959, and we're in Southern Arkansas. There’s no electricity in our house, so there's no air conditioning, not even a fan. The only fans we may have are those flimsy paper ones we got from church (although that's highly unlikely) or the ones we made from pasteboard. That's highly likely. Actually, cardboard makes good fans, especially if that's all you've got. 

While we desperately tried to find ways to stay cool, still it& doesn't do our southern nights justice just to talk about cardboard fans, so let me share with you what else I remember. First of all, our large house had three doors and perhaps eight or ten windows. On those long, hot, humid, sweaty nights, it was safe to leave all the doors and windows wide open — as wide open as they could go. Not today, but I'm talking about over a half century ago. 

The nights were, for the most part, serene and peaceful. You may hear an occasional cricket chirp, a bull frog croak or a dog bark, but other than that the nights were relatively quiet, albeit restless. It's difficult to sleep when it’s too hot, so it was permissible for everyone to sleep in their bare minimum — as long as we didn't wear bikinis to bed. Other than that, it was fair game.

Whenever it rained, a cool breeze might blow through the house, but by the next night, chances are the humidity from the day would make it miserably hot again. The previous night's breeze would have blown all the way to Florida or somewhere, and we would be suffering from the oppressive heat all over again. 

Since summer days are awfully long, not to mention hot, many rural families sat on their porches way into the night. Actually, twilight in the country is a very pleasant and romantic time, especially after the sun has long set. In Southern Arkansas, unlike in Southern California, the hot summer nights don't instantly cool down as soon as the sun drops off the horizon to go to his bed. Our nights cool down just a "tad" bit, but for the most part, they’re still real sultry summer nights.

During the last part of summer, we looked forward to seeing our favorite little evening time insects — fireflies, aka lightning bugs. Summer just wouldn't be summer if those little dancing bugs (with lights in their tails) don't show up. We kids could hardly wait until it was dark enough to see 'em. As they flashed and dashed across the landscape, we chased them across the yard and into the fields, trying to catch as many as we could. However many we caught, we put them in jars with holes in the top. Those flies were our twinkling stars in jars and a part of our childhood summer evening entertainment.

After sitting on the porch for what seems like eternity, finally, we had to bid the darkness good night and get ready for bed. When we finally fell into bed, we'd have our little sing-alongs then say our last good nights before drifting off to sleep ... anything to make the long, hot night shorter. Sometimes, those flings helped. Sometimes they didn't, but even still, they added a bit of excitement to our long, hot summer nights.


Photo by Fotolia/歌うカメラマン

Rural Waters

Country at HeartYou haven’t seen it rain until you've lived in the wide, open countryside. Perhaps because of where I grew up, I'm partial to anything in nature from a country viewpoint. Out there, the rain comes down from heaven unhindered and in full view. For instance, where we lived, to the east of our house there was a large, long expanse of land that could be seen for at least a mile. When it rained, I would stand on the porch or in the window and watch the "show." If it rained really hard, the scene looked like a wall of wet, gray threads streaming from the sky in long, jagged lines. I just loved the sight.

My parents didn't mind us playing in the rain, because that's a kid's sport just like riding a tricycle. Actually, it doesn't do any good to tell a kid not to get wet, so we played in the rain and got as wet as ducks. My favorite little spots of rainwater are puddles. I call them little ponds, because the water collects in depressions in the earth. I went out of my way to find those small reservoirs, especially on a hot summer day. For some reason, kids are fascinated by small pools of water. Don't know why, but whenever I'd see them, I couldn't resist the urge to take my shoes off (if I was wearing any). I would put my feet together and jump with all my might as high as I could and land right smack dab in the middle of that pool. That was so much fun.

At one time, we lived on such a large body of water that I called it a lake. It really wasn't, but since I had never seen so much water, to me it was a lake.

There were rivers too (like Red River), but I never got close to them. We simply crossed over them while riding in the car.

Most country people seem to love ponds, because those are their "fishing holes." I passed on the fishing, but it's still cozy to sit on the banks of a pond. Actually, I love any body of water. Waters make the countryside what it is. The landscape is special with water, because those waters don't exist like that in the city.

To me living in the country is like having the best of both worlds. In the beautiful, wide-open countryside people depend on the elements, so it is always a joy when the rain falls, and in Southwestern Arkansas the sky "cries" a lot. That's a good thing, because if she keeps her eyes closed or wipes her tears away, then our world would be pretty dry. But when the waters fall, the ponds and lakes and rivers and brooks and springs open their mouth and "suck" in those necessary life-sustaining raindrops.

Now, I must admit that I don't really know the difference between a brook and a spring, but we called the streams of water flowing through the woods and pastures a springs. We encountered these narrow bodies of water while trudging through our vast wilderness. At that time, I noticed that water always flowed south. As a child, I didn’t understand why, but I do love seeing any water running through the woods. It is so neat to see crystal-clear water flowing, water so clear that you can see anything that lay just beneath its surface. It’s a thrill to see the water rustling and bubbling over the branches and rocks in its path. What a delightful feast for the eyes and the soul.

When we came to a spring, even if we weren't thirsty, out of habit, we took a drink. We got down on our knees, cupped our hands and allowed the cool refreshing water to flow into our little, thin fleshly cups. We'd slurp and slurp as much as we wanted, to our heart's content. Even old, shaggy Shep got his fill too. When we all finished drinking that delicious water, if it was summertime, we spent a little time frolicking barefooted in that little, un-walled river. Since spring water doesn't flow any higher than your ankles, there’s no fear of drowning and we kids had ourselves a ball. It is more than fun having your feet tickled by nature’s liquid fingers.

While heaven gives us its rain, the earth collects it in different ways, and any space in the ground naturally absorbs it. And while country people and city people share the same water, rural folks get to see water in more diverse forms and that makes us appreciate it even more.

So there you have it for the waters that we country kids enjoyed so much.


Photo by Fotolia/vadimgouida

The Sights and Sounds of Springtime Part 2

Country at HeartIn addition to the sights and sounds of springtime, I guess I should include the nice aromas that are also a part of this lovely season. Flowers are my favorites during springtime, and to me, spring just isn't spring if the air isn’t punctuated with those air perfuming honeysuckles and brightly colored roses ... Umm, umm, umm, what delicious fragrances they emit.    

When it comes to the fields and meadows, southwestern Arkansas is mostly pine and the only things they produce are needles and cones with a fragrance nowhere near that of a dainty rose. They are not nearly as beautiful as a rose either, but they are not completely unsightly. They will do. Pines are green all year, so during the spring, there's not much new about them. They simply retain their same composure. Actually, there aren't many trees that have buds that blossom into full blooms like apple and cherry trees, which as a child, I never saw.

My springtime world still had my favorite daffodils. I like those pretty, yellow flowers. Not only are they a beautiful sight for the eyes but they are so independent. They grow on their own without any care or personal attention. They only need the rain from heaven to nourish their bodies. Each spring, I could, without fail, expect the ditches along the roadside to be ablaze with yellow trumpet daffodils ... and they always were.

While I picked the daffodils that grew "wild" along the road, I also visited the florist just up the road. Our neighbor, Mrs. Brown, appeared to compete with Mother Nature in growing her blossoms. She obviously loved flowers and no doubt planted every variety that would grow in Arkansas soil. The love of her life was her own nursery with rows and rows and rows of the prettiest petals you've ever seen. I would follow her as she trumped up and down the rows, dutifully clipping stem after stem and politely handing them to me. My little beady eyes feasted on the labors of her love and the beauty that her hands had nurtured to fruition. Spring wouldn't be spring either without that fuzzy green stuff that feels like a thick cushion underneath your feet. There's just something about the soft, green grass of spring that drapes the hills and plains of the countryside  If you've never walked on nature's soothing floor, you've missed half of your life. I loved for my toes to be tickled by this delicate patch of green, and except for the road, green "fuzz" was just about everywhere I walked. There's no feeling quite like walking barefoot across the earth that has laid out the "red" carpet just for your little bony feet. Then, last but not least, at the beginning of spring, my favorite little feathery creatures paid me their annual visit. They helped make the season complete. I didn't always see them, but they'd sit on vines and on tree branches and just chirp their merry hearts out. Then, when they got tired of hanging out in that tree, they'd fly through the air like little feather airplanes ... darting to their next bush or limb. The gift of hearing is so precious, and there is no sweeter sound than birdsongs in springtime.

There is something serendipitous about living in rural America. Everything about a country spring is almost too good to be true. Of course spring comes to the city too, but this season is much more pronounced in the outlying areas. But you would have to live "there" to really appreciate the beauty and joy that springtime brings.


Photo by Fotolia/chris2766