Sunday, April 25, 2010

Hauling Smoke

In my younger days I tried numerous professions. One of the hardest jobs I ever had was delivering coal from a train station to homes in Boston. The hours were long, the coal was heavy and the work paid very poorly.

After about a month, I decided to go into business for myself hauling smoke instead. It weighed less and I figured it would pay better. I’d noticed that on particularly cold winter days, the smoke from the coal-burning stoves and fireplaces didn’t just hover over the rooftops – it froze solid. It blocked sunlight and made the short, dark days of winter even darker for people living in those houses. I would walk from building to building and offer to clear away the smoke for a fee. Folks paid readily.

To clear the air, I would climb onto a roof with a ladder, saw out a block of smoke, tie a rope around it and pull it into my cart. Then I wrapped the block in a wet sheet. The sheet would freeze in the winter air, sealing in the carboniferous cloud should any start dripping off, and add enough weight to keep the block from floating away. I would continue in this manner until the roof was clear, and then move on to the next building. When the cart was full I would take the blocks to a lumber mill, where I packed them in sawdust for shipping. I sold most of the blocks to the army. They bought a lot of smoke to make jerky.

This worked fine until spring, when the Army switched to canned beef. The thaw also made it too difficult to saw the clouds effectively. I didn’t quit, though. I took old barrels and attached them to the tops of the chimneys in order to fill them. When I had enough to load a rail car, I shipped them to Tennessee. There they were purchased by a certain whiskey manufacturer I knew who liked to age his whiskey in smoke-cured barrels.

Of course, once the barrels were opened a lot of the smoke escaped, but the prevailing winds blew the cloud east into the Appalachians. Much of it remains there to this day. I’m sure you’ve heard of the “Smokey Mountains.” Now you know how they got that name.

copyright ©2010 Laurie J. Anderson, all rights reserved.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Banjo Vine

Very few people know this, but not too long ago banjos were not made, but grew wild up in the mountains.

I first learned this on a trip to Nuckollsville, where I stopped to sell some Wizard Water©. I was hoping to hire a local musician to entertain the crowd in between pitches, and I was directed to a cabin just outside town. The fellow named Bryson who lived there said he couldn’t help me, though, because it was “too early in the season.” I asked him what he meant, and he said “Well, the banjos ain’t ripe yet.” Then he pointed to a clearing in back of the cabin. There lay all manner of miniature banjos, attached to a trailing vine that wound all over the yard. None of them were bigger than your fist, and all the necks were green, where they grew out of the vine.

“When do you think they’ll be ripe?” was all I could think to say.

“Oh, long about June,” he replied. “But most of my crop is spoken for. I promised it to a mail order company.”

“About how many do you plan to produce?”

“That depends,” he replied. “on how many get et by beetles first.”

“Well,” I said, “we may be able to help each other.” I proceeded to demonstrate the wonders of Wizard Water©. I put a drop on one of the immature instruments. Within minutes it had grown into a full-sized banjo.

“I’ll take a case of that stuff,” said Bryson. “if you’re willing to put my payment on account until I get paid for the crop.”

“I’m afraid I’ll be out of town by then,” I told him, “but I’ll trade you a half-dozen bottles for this full-grown banjo and your services.”

The deal was struck, and I had a seasoned player and a slightly green instrument for the next two days. I paid him at the end of that time, but warned him not to over-water his crop. “Just a drop is probably all you need,” I said. “Whatever you do, don’t water the roots!”

He didn’t listen. Two months later, Sears, Roebuck & Co. was suddenly offering the instrument by mail order for fifty cents each, when the standard price was at least $1.75. The countryside was overrun with cheap banjos. Banjo clubs popped up all over the country, and banjo orchestras began to show up in some of the larger cities.

I stopped by the town on my way to Dahlonega and paid Bryson a visit. His property was covered by the vine; banjos were stacked in piles higher than his cabin.

“I wisht I’d listened to you, Doc,” he moaned when he saw me. “This here’s too much work, and the price the mail order company will pay just keeps going down.”

“Supply and demand,” I replied, “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Not long after that, a fire swept through the area. Bryson’s crop was totally destroyed, and the Knuckollsville banjo craze was over. Bryson took up gold mining.

I still have that first instrument, though I don't play it. It continued to sprout vines, and I made the mistake of leaving it leaning against the house, where it took root. Now it twines around the porch posts, and occasionally sprouts an instrument or two. I have no plans to go into production, though, as I am too busy selling Wizard Water©. Anyone who wants to pick a banjo, come on by the back porch.

copyright ©2010 Laurie J. Anderson, all rights reserved.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

A Hunting Aid

I once had a fine hunting dog, but since the patent medicine business was keeping me very busy I sold him to a couple backwoodsmen I know -- Jim-Bob and Joe-Bob from Buzzard Mountain. They came to me about a week later and said they wanted their money back.

“What for?” I asked. “That’s the best hunting dog in three states. He’s treed everything from raccoons to alligators.”

“Well he’s no good at duck-hunting,” said Jim-Bob. “We want our money back so we can get a smaller dog. Maybe one of them Mexican chihuahuas.”

“A chihuahua?” I asked, “For duck-hunting?”

“Yep,” said Joe-Bob. “We can barely get your dog up in the air. We figure we can throw a chihuahua much higher.”

“You don’t want a dog for that,” I said. “Everyone knows cats are better at catching birds. I’m happy to refund your money, but I happen to have a half-dozen trained birding cats that will save you a trip to Mexico.”

“We don’t need a half-dozen; just one,” said Joe-Bob.

“You say that now,” I replied, “but the next time you startle a flock of mallards, you’re going to wish you had a few spare cats. I will even include a bottle of Wizard Water© to strengthen your throwing arms.”

That said, they exchanged the dog for six young felines and a bottle of my elixir. The dog seemed none the worse for wear, except it refused to go near ponds.

When I recently returned to Buzzard Mountain, Joe-Bob informed me that the cats had not caught a single duck.

“We ain’t upset, though,” he added. “They’re too good at keeping crows off our corn. Jim-Bob thought he’d feed them some of that Wizard Water©, and danged if it didn’t improve their leaping ability. You never seen so many cats leaping so high above a field of corn, just a-swattin’ crows out of the air left and right.”

“Well that’s wonderful, gentlemen,” I said. “I know you will put the corn they save to good use. I was prepared to help you if the cats didn’t work out for their original purpose, though. My mother-in-law has acquired one of those Mexican dogs you spoke of, and you are right – they are perfectly suited for duck-hunting. Hers is especially good at clamping on to something with its jaws and not letting go. For a small fee, I will to loan it to you.”

The boys declined my offer, but only because they were too busy with their farm. I will check with them next fall, though, when the geese fly south.

copyright ©2010 Laurie J. Anderson, all rights reserved.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

An Instrument of Note

The largest stringed instrument I ever saw belonged to a church in Blowing Rock, North Carolina. The church was small and could not afford to haul an organ from the lowlands up the mountain roads, so instead the members commissioned a local woodcarver to make them an extra-large dulcimer. It was about as big as a regular church organ, with over four dozen strings , and it took half the church choir to play.

Now it’s a little-known fact that the more strings an instrument has, the more weight it will gain over time, due to the accumulation of notes that get caught in the strings. This dulcimer was too heavy to shake out on a regular basis, and after a year it became so crammed full of notes that even the male choir members could barely play it.

I was in the town at this point, and the choir director asked me if my Wondrous Wizard Water© could strengthen weak finger muscles so the men could play the church dulcimer.

“Certainly,” I said, “it helps strengthen anything you care to use it on.”

He bought two cases of Wizard Water© , which I thought was a wise investment. I learned later that he gave most of it to the choir, and what little was left he added to a whitewash that was painted on the church exterior.

A few months later a tornado ripped through that town. It flattened buildings on both sides of the church but -- except for some broken windows -- the church itself was left miraculously (I would say wondrously) intact. The only thing lost was the dulcimer. Church members said they found it in a field six miles away, split into its component parts – a banjo, a mandolin, a fiddle and a washtub bass. They recognized it because some of their sheet music was stuck in the strings. Taking this as a sign, a few members used the parts to form a gospel string band. Nowadays that church’s services are among the liveliest east of the Mississippi, and they get a good crowd at funerals, too.

“A bunch of separate string instruments are a lot easier to play than the single large dulcimer,” the choir director told me. “We don’t get in each other’s way as often.”

“Of course it’s easier, I replied. “You’ve got Wizard Water© to keep your musicians’ fingers strong and limber!”

“And,” I added, “the wind most thoroughly cleaned out those strings.”

copyright ©2010 Laurie J. Anderson, all rights reserved.