This story was finished about 1990 shortly before my dad died. It is a fanciful account of one day in the life of two boys in Muscogee. Yet the story is based on actual events.
The lighter-than-air period at NAS Pensacola ran from mid-1915 through 1921. During this period, 63 Dirigible Pilots and 15 Balloon Pilots were qualified.
I suspect all of these events actually occurred; I’m just not sure they all occurred on the same day as in the story.
It had been a hot night. I lay wide awake. Listening. I thought I had heard a noise. Then, there it was again. The soft, easy call of a bob white. It sounded real close, like it might be in the vegetable garden just outside my window. Then it sounded again, but this time there was a flaw in it. I opened the window and looked out. The eastern sky way down low was turning pink, but there wasn't enough light yet to see clearly. Then a low whistle floated across the garden, and a pair of hands reached over the picket fence, and a head popped up. A sprig of red hair sticking up at the back of the head told me it was Zack. In a loud whisper he said to come on out. Closing the window and jumping into my overalls I slipped out the back door.
Zack grabbed my hand and started pulling me along. "Follow me," he whispered. We opened the back gate real easy so as not to make any noise. It had a chain attached to an old iron kettle full of rocks. When you opened the gate the chain pulled the kettle up and when you let go the kettle fell back to the ground pulling the gate shut as it went. When the kettle eased to the ground again, Zack motioned me and started trotting down the hill.
When we got to the hard road he stopped and grinned, his freckles becoming visible in the early morning light. I must have looked puzzled. He pointed toward the ground. “Automobile tracks,” he said.
I looked and there they were, the unmistakable print of rubber tires. I had seen them once before so I knew they were real. I asked how he knew they were there. "It came through last night about nine o'clock, but your folks made you go to bed so early you didn't hear it. It made plenty of noise though. I heard it coming across the river bridge. It was moving fast. The two big lanterns on its front were bouncing up and down as it hit the end of the bridge. When it passed my house it had a trail of dust nearly a mile long behind it and I could see a red light shining on its tail end. Boy. You should have heard it - I bet it went a mile every minute." Zack was grinning real hard now. He had one up on me. There was no doubt about it.
I studied the dirt rings on Zack's neck and tried to imagine what the automobile must have looked like trailing dust and throwing light all over the road ahead of it. We followed the tracks on up to the top of the hill being very careful not to ruin them by stepping on them, Zack glorying all the time about being the first to see this rare sight. The sun was peeking up now and I knew that breakfast would be ready soon so I told Zack to wait for me to eat and I would be right back.
At breakfast I told my Dad about the tire tracks. He smiled. "Yeah, I heard it pass about nine last night. You were already asleep." Then he told me the State had renewed the cattle dipping law and this was our day to dip so I had better take the old cow up to the vat and run her through. This suited me just fine. Zack and me could take the hard road up there and walk in the tire tracks.
I tied the old cow's halter rope around my waist and she swayed patiently along behind me as we headed for the dipping vat. By the time we reached the sand beds the tracks were real sharp. While we were studying them, Zack yelled out, "Look. There's raccoon tracks and look, she had some babies following her. And they go right across the tire tracks. Must have been made just this morning." Zack straightened up. "They lead over to that ditch there. Let's have a look."
I tied the old cow to a pine sapling and we sneaked over and took a look. They were all there - the old mama with her three babies. She was feeling around the edge of the water with her front paws and while we watched, she caught a frog and popped it in her mouth as the little ones were jumping all around her trying to get some of it and making funny little clicking noises.
We watched them for a while then went on to the dipping vat and put the old cow in the chute and I got over the fence and led her up to the entrance and took the rope off and tried to coax her in but she balked. Zack got behind her and pushed, but that just made her sit down. I told him to twist her tail. That got her up. She tried to jump across the vat but landed with a belly buster about halfway, splashing dip all over me. She swam the rest of the way and staggered out swishing her tail and shaking herself. I swung open the gate of the holding pen and she clamored down the ramp and began rubbing against the pine trees and running around through the underbrush.
While I was watching her and wondering what was wrong, my skin, still wet from the dip, began to itch and burn. There was nothing around to wash it off with so I said to Zack, "Let's get down to the creek. This stuff's eating me up." As we were running Zack hollered, "What about the cow?"
“She'll be home by milking time. Come on."
I pulled my shirt off so when we got there all I had to do was slip out of my overalls and jump in. I hit the water in a spray of rainbows. The burn and itch stopped as soon as I started rubbing the sand from the creek bottom on my skin.
We took a different trail back to the public road and had just gone a little way when we saw a big pile of pine straw just off the trail. Zack was curious and went over to take a look. He had just started to taking some pine straw off to see what was under it when out jumped a great big old sow and some squealing baby pigs. The piglets charged right between Zack's legs and before he could do much more than dance around and flap his arms the big pig bowled him over and stood snorting as the piglets circled back and disappeared under the straw pile. When Zack finally got his wits back and began screaming the old sow must have thought it was her babies because she ran back toward them. That gave Zack a chance to scramble up the nearest pine tree. His face was as white as hawk meat. I started laughing at him and the old sow took out after me. I had a head start and made it up another tree before she hit it with her head and nearly shook me down again. She let out another snort and trotted back toward Zack who was now so high up the pine I could only see his rear end and the soles of his feet.
Shortly, a quiet set in and we began talking through the pine needles to each other while the old sow went from tree to tree grunting and pawing the ground until her babies began to squeal, then she went back and crawled under the straw with them. We decided that this was a good time for us to leave so we slid down to the ground as quietly as we could, eased past the old sow and headed for the road again.
When we got back and found that a horse and wagon had partly ruined our tracks we decided to go on as far as Pierce's Hill anyway and had gone just a little piece when the wagon tracks turned off on a side road and left our tracks in good shape, but when we got to the top of the hill a bunch of old man Pierce's goats were all over the road messing up the tracks. Then we decided to go on down to the railroad crossing at the bottom of the hill and go back home on the railroad tracks which was shorter than going all the way back down the road.
It was getting pretty warm now. The rails were too hot for our bare feet so we climbed down to the pig trail between the railroad and the ditch. The ditch was full of water so we had to walk on the pig trail. I was walking ahead of Zack when he said to wait up.
I stopped and looked back. He was pointing to the other side of the ditch at a small water snake that had a frog in its mouth. The frog was so big that its front and back legs were sticking out of each side of the snake's mouth. As we watched, the little snake turned it around so he had its mouth headed down his gullet and then he started to squeeze. Zack said he bet that little snake would never be able to swallow that frog. It was kicking its hind legs trying to get loose but the snake held on and, little by little, the frog was disappearing as the snake kept squeezing. I looked at Zack. His red hair was stuck to his forehead with sweat and his mouth was working up and down as he watched the snake squeeze and inch its jaws around the frog. Finally the hind legs disappeared. Zack took a long, deep breath like he was tired. I don't know which one had worked the hardest, Zack or the little snake.
It was real hot now as we continued on down the pig trail. The hard packed dirt was burning our bare feet. The path finally headed down across the ditch. When we got in the ditch, the cool water felt so good on our bare feet we decided to walk on down it for a while. There were minnows darting here and there and frogs jumping in and swimming away as we splashed along kicking the cool water ahead of us. Sometimes the small trees on each side met to make a complete cover over the stream like we were in an arbor. Then we came out into the open.
There was one path cut in the embankment leading up to the railroad and another that went up the other side of the ditch that led through some tall bushes that formed a kind of tunnel so low someone would have to crawl on all fours to get through. And straight ahead the ditch widened and got deep and flowed under a short trestle and on down to the creek on the other side. There were lots of pig tracks on both trails leading both ways. We decided to take the one like a tunnel on the left rather than tackle the hot railroad again.
After crawling a short distance the bushes got shorter so we could stand up. We were surprised to see a large, deep pool that could not be seen from the tracks. The banks were caked with mud like the pond had been dug out and at the upper end water boiled up from a big spring. The trail led around it and continued on up the hill. While I was standing in the trail drinking in this unexpected scene, Zack walked down to the water's edge and picked up a small object and turned around to show me a small squirming alligator. It was letting out some loud chirping sounds and Zack was jumping up and down laughing to beat the band and didn't see the old mama slither off the opposite bank and head across the pond for him. I yelled and pointed. He looked and we both took off up the trail. I stopped at what seemed a safe distance and looked back. Zack pulled up a second later, pale and panting. I pointed to his hand. He still had the squalling baby gator clutched in his fist. He took one look and dropped it like a hot coal and it hit the ground, feet flying, and scrambled back toward the pond throwing dirt every which way. I started laughing and Zack took on a sheepish grin and sat down on a rock to catch his breath.
There were big rocks all around. The further up the trail I looked the bigger they got. The trail wound through them as we went on up but before getting to the top, the trail forked and went over a ridge and down into a valley. At the bottom, in a clearing, a small deer was drinking from a pool at the foot of a sheer bluff that seemed to be almost solid rock. About half way up to the top a small stream flowed out making a waterfall that fell into the pool. This was strange territory for us. We had never seen this place before. As we were taking it all in, the little deer, a doe, looked up and saw us and whirled around and darted up the trail to disappear on the other side among the tall trees and underbrush. Zack looked at me. "Did you see that? Let's go on down to the bottom and look around."
At the bottom the trail was muddy and wet. All around the pool there were tracks; deer, possum, coon, rabbit, wild turkeys, some big cat tracks.
"Bobcat," Zack said pointing to the cat tracks. "I know. My dad showed me some before."
Dragon flies crisscrossed the pool. Honey bees, dirt daubers, and wasps flitted all around the edge drinking and gathering mud and buzzing loudly. We looked up the face of the bluff and along the top huge magnolias hung out over the edge and sweet gum and bay trees, too. The stream of water from the pool crossed the path and continued on down towards the railroad. Thick titi trees grew next to it bordered by big patches of gall berries. I looked at all this, a strange feeling came over me. I was suddenly uneasy, feeling like eyes were staring at me. I looked at Zack. He was staring in the direction of the disappearing stream. Then suddenly he turned to me. “Let's go."
We went back on up where the trail forked and on up the ridge to the top of the bluff where we had seen the big trees. There were lots of dim trails and tracks going in all directions. Taking the most used one we climbed to the top where it leveled off. There were the big trees and scattered beneath them huge rocks, some of them higher than our heads and as big across and as wide as a two horse wagon. The magnolias were in full bloom, their sweet scent filling the air. And patches of huckleberry bushes hid between the rocks, crawling with bees gathering pollen from the blossoms. Zack was wandering around with his head up looking at the magnolia blooms and stepped on a black snake that was sleeping in the sun. He let out a screech that echoed several times down through the little valley. The snake ran right over my feet. I couldn't move. I just stood there with goose bumps and cold chills up my back and neck while Zack leaped around like a coon dog trying to catch blow flies. He never did decide which way to run. After settling down, I noticed a line of bees going and coming from an old dead tree right on the edge of the cliff top. I showed it to Zack.
"Bee tree," he said, going over for a good look.
We saw that there was a hole about half way up to the top with bees all around it. Zack said we had to remember how to get back to this place so we could come back with our dads to get the honey.
We decided it was time to head for home and were fixing to leave when Zack spotted a fresh pile of red sand next to one of the big rocks. We went over for a closer look. There was a hole dug under the rock. Zack said it was a gopher hole and pulled off his shirt and covered it. Then he began to stomp his feet in the sand. I didn't know what he was up to but in a few minutes there was a scratching sound and the shirt was being pushed up off of the hole. In a flash, he reached under it and pulled out a big gopher by his front feet. It was the biggest one I had ever seen.
"Boy, oh, boy. My mom will make some of the best gumbo you ever tasted out of this fellow."
I asked him to explain to me about putting the shirt over the hole to make this critter come to the top so he could grab it. He explained that darkening the hole with his shirt and stomping his feet made the gopher think it was night and one of his own kind was at his front door so he came out to greet him. Some story, I thought, but then there was the gopher for proof. Now all we had to do was carry that heavy critter home.
Before long Zack began complaining about the heat. His face got red and he had sweat so much the dirt rings he always seemed to have around his neck had washed away. He kept getting farther behind. Finally, he stopped and took off one of his overall suspenders and tied it around the critter's leg, turned him over on his hard shell back, and started dragging him like a sled. But that only slowed him down more and I was getting hungry so I went back and we made a loop in his suspender and put a stick through it so we could both pull it to make better time.
When we got to the hard road we had to take turns carrying him because he would not slide on the dirt like he did on the grass. We got to my house just as the mill whistle blew for noon break. Zack said he could carry his prize now so I went on up to the gate and he went on down to his house near the river.
As I opened our gate, my mom called out to wash my hands and come to dinner. At the dinner table I told my mom all about our trip but left out the part about getting the dip all over me. My little brother who was only three listened with wide eyes. Mom had a good laugh about the way Zack had fooled the gopher out of his hole.
After dinner I took my little brother down to the hard road and showed him the automobile tracks and told him how it came roaring across the bridge at night with those blinking lanterns on its front end and how it had passed our house in a cloud of dust a mile long. He came over and asked me to hold his hand and would not turn me loose. I never knew him to do this except when he was afraid so I asked him what he was afraid of. He asked in a whisper if it would come back and get him.
“Will what come back to get you?" I asked.
"The automobile," he whispered.
I laughed and told him there was nothing to be afraid of. When we got back to the house Mom called out that it was time for his nap. I was kind of tired myself and sat down in one of the big cane rocking chairs on the front porch next to his room. Before Mom could get him to bed he had told her this scary tale about the great big automobile that came roaring across the river bridge last night with its big bright eyes blinking and its mile long dust tail. Some story. I went sound asleep in the rocking chair and did not wake up until the afternoon sun got down low enough to shine under the porch roof into my eyes.
Coming up with a start, I rubbed my eyes and blinked. Then I remembered it was time to get busy chopping and bringing in the stove wood, feeding the chickens and gathering the eggs. I was loading the last arm load of wood when Zack climbed up on top of the fence and watched me take it in. I said I'd be back in a minute. After I put the ax away, we went out behind the barn yard to one of our favorite places - a patch of short green grass where we could lie on our backs and watch the buzzards come in to roost in the tall dead trees way out in the middle of the swamp. They were sailing in long loops and circles way out over the river looking like small specks of black. Then one by one they closed their wings and came plummeting down faster and faster until I thought surely they would hit the ground this time. Then they would spread their wings to slow down, making a whump and a hiss as the wind caught their wings and whistled through their feathers. Then they came to a flapping halt as they lit on the high tree limbs.
They were still coming in when we heard loud voices talking. We jumped up looking all around but nobody was in sight. Then this clear voice said, "There's the town. We're almost over it."
Looking up we saw this great big orange ball with a basket hanging under it drifting towards us just over the tree tops. As it got closer, I saw two men leaning over the edge of the basket and could see that it was tied to the big ball with ropes. The western sky was turning red now and it made the round ball look like it was red hot. I looked at Zack. His green eyes were as big and round as the ball. I heard one of the men say, "It won't be long now. We better get the hook ready."
They were almost over us now. We could see that there were bags hanging by ropes from the edge of the basket. The men looked down at us and waved. We both stood there like salt pillars. My mouth was so dry I had to lick my lips several times before it would close. And my neck hurt from looking up. It was almost dark now but I could tell the ball was getting lower all the time. I looked up at the house. The lamp was lit and my dad was home but the sun still shown on the big ball as it disappeared over the tree tops.
Zack had left without saying a word. I was flabbergasted. I couldn't believe what had just passed. I started to climb the cow lot fence, but felt too weak so I walked around to the back gate. I could hardly make it up the steps I was shaking so bad. There was no water in the water bucket to wash my hands with so I had to draw some from the well. It was all I could do to wind it up.
In the dining room the rest of the family were already seated. My dad asked me if I was all right and before I could answer my mom got up and came over and felt of my forehead like she does when I am sick and asked if I had eaten any berries, fruit, or leaves of any kind while we were out in the woods today. When I said no, she helped my plate with my favorite, black-eyed peas and rice, but it made my stomach churn to smell it. I took a bite but it would not go down. I laid my fork down and said that I wasn't hungry and wanted to go to bed so I was excused.
I went to bed, but couldn't go to sleep, couldn't get that big flying ball out of my mind. After a while my dad came in and sat on the side of my bed and felt my stomach and asked if it hurt. I told him about the big ball floating in the air carrying two men in a basket tied to it. He went in and talked to Mom. I heard him say, "This is more serious than I thought."
They talked for a few minutes and he came in with the lamp and put it on the trunk next to my bed and Mom came in with a big spoon and held it over the lamp chimney. Then I knew what it was. I jumped up and said, "That's castor oil and I'm not taking it."
She didn't say a word, just nodded at dad and he held me while she forced my mouth open and poured it down my throat. I was crying, and mad, and hurt. Dad said, "I hate to have to do this but it had to be done."
Mom came over and gave me a gentle hug and pulled the sheet up to my chin saying for me to get a good night's sleep so I would feel better in the morning. Then just as they were leaving there was a big commotion outside our front gate then a hard knock at the door. My dad went out.
There was some loud talking for a while then he came back with two men in blue suits with shiny brass buttons and caps like the one grandpa was wearing in the picture of him when he was a sea captain. They had wide pins with different colored thread wrapped around them and some shiny brass letters that said U.S.N. Dad took the lamp and told me to come with them out to the parlor where he introduced me. One was Lieutenant Sam Moore and the other one was Chief Dunn.
Lieutenant Moore said, "I hear you saw a big ball with a basket hanging from it about sundown."
I was speechless but nodded.
"When it passed over you, did it seem to be losing altitude?"
I said that I did not know if it was losing anything but it was just above the tree tops when it passed our house and was getting lower all the time.
He smiled and asked what direction it was going.
I pointed toward Jennies Creek and my dad said, "North."
Then the lieutenant said to Chief Dunn, "That's our balloon all right. They can't be very far from here."
Dad volunteered to show them the road and asked if I could come along. They nodded yes. I ran and pulled my overalls on over my night shirt and beat them out the front gate.
There was a great, big, long automobile painted a bright red with ladders fastened on each side and all kinds of stuff piled up in it. Lieutenant Moore said to my dad, "This is the fire truck we use in case of emergency."
It must have been very heavy. The back wheels were sunk in the soft dirt making some beautiful tracks. We all got in and went down the hill past Zack's house and up the road toward Jennies Creek. After passing the graveyard the road got crooked and sandy so Chief Dunn slowed down.
I was standing on the floor boards looking through the front window glass. The two lanterns on the front made the road as light as day. I was checking all the tracks. There were tracks all over the place. When we passed by Uncle Ben's I thought I heard a shout but was not sure. Then I noticed some boot tracks. There were two sets of them. One was very unusual, a long and then a short step like maybe whoever made it had a limp. A little further on they disappeared into the woods.
Lieutenant Moore said to me, "Do you think they would have made it past here?"
I said, "No. I don't think they could have made it past Uncle Ben's place."
My dad explained to him that Uncle Ben was an old darky that lived back a ways that had several acres of land just off the road so we turned around and went back. When we got close to his turn off I saw the boot tracks again. When we got there a man was standing in the middle of the road waving for us to stop. Chief Dunn said excitedly, "That's Olsen."
After greeting him they asked where Booth was. He explained that they had landed in a pine tree at the edge of a corn field and Booth fell and sprained his ankle while climbing down. And after securing the balloon they walked to the road and down this far before his ankle bothered him too much to go on and he was at a house just down the lane. When we got there he was sitting on the gallery with his boot off and his foot up. He was in great pain and his ankle was badly swollen. They decided to take him on back to the hospital in Pensacola and come back later for the balloon.
On the way back Olsen and Booth told us about how they had frightened the wits out of Uncle Ben and his wife. "They thought we had dropped in on them from heaven. They wanted to know whose turn it was to go."
When we passed Zack's house it was all dark. I know he was sound asleep.
When I finally crawled into bed I felt dead tired but very happy. It had been a good day. Heck, it had been the best day of my life. I was drifting off to sleep thinking about the prize tracks I had to show Zack tomorrow. And what a story I had to tell about riding all over the county in a big red automobile. Then I thought I heard a gurgling noise. I was wide awake. Pushing the curtains back and looking out I saw the eastern sky way down low was a fiery red. There was no noise or anything unusual out in the garden but there was an uneasy rumbling feeling way down in the bottom of my stomach.