Episodes in Wayne County, Tennessee

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In a past column I commented on my boyhood living with an aunt and uncle in Waynesboro, Tennessee, and how the place was a child’s paradise. Years ago, I barely mentioned a town about 12 miles away, Clifton, where my maternal grandparents, Daddy and Momma Hughes, lived. I would often spend a few days visiting them. Clifton was on a bluff overlooking the Tennessee River, and my grandparents’ house was the only one in Clifton that had indoor plumbing.
Daddy Hughes was vert strict. Only women, girls, and young boys were allowed to relieve themselves on the indoor toilet. Older male children and men were required to use the outdoor 3-holer. I never asked why, but I assume it was to conserve water in the cistern. Daddy Hughes was very religious. He forbade consumption of alcoholic drinks on the premises. And on Sundays, fishing and contact sports of any kind were forbidden, including softball. The only outdoor games permitted were croquet and horse shoe pitching. Following breakfast every morning, guests assembled in the parlor and Daddy Hughes would teach a Sunday School lesson.
Downtown Clifton consisted of one street, along which were about six stores and a bank. Daddy Hughes was a banker. Frequently chickens, hogs, and occasionally a cow or two could be seen in downtown Clifton. Excursion boats would pass by from time to time, and would sound their horns if they planned on landing. When we heard a landing was planned, my friends and I would go to the hilltop where the visitors would pass and stare at the Yankees in their fancy attire. They would walk the street, and were obviously fascinated by the typical southern country town, which resembled many depicted in western movies.
My friends and I spent a good bit of time swimming and fishing in the river. Quite a few men were mussel fisherman. The mussels harvested were sold to the local button factory. Their catches were dumped into a large vat of boiling water, which caused the mussels to open.  When sufficiently cool the mussel men would separate their catch according to species, load their catches and leave the mussel meat that would ultimately be fed to hogs. My friends and I would with our hands dig through the mussel meat searching for pearls. Those we found were irregular In shape and were called “slug pearls.” Despite their shape, they could be sold for three dollars per ounce to excursion boats.
With one exception, all my experiences in Clifton were enjoyable. That one occurred one morning when I was walking toward town and was approached by a black man, who said, Boy, I’m gonna cut yore throat if I can find my pocket knife.” I scurried as fast as I could to the house and told Daddy Hughes about the incident. He called the sheriff and told him what happened. There were fewer than a dozen black residents in Clifton, and the perpetrator was quickly apprehended. I was required to attend the hearing, and to tell the judge what happened. The judge asked the accused, “Why on earth did you threaten that boy?” The man responded, “Your Honor, I just wanted to see how fast he could run.”
The judge said, “I ought to lock you up for being so stupid, but if you will apologize to the boy and give him twenty dollars, I will sentence you to three years probation. And if you ever again show up in my court room, you’ll spend time behind bars. Do you understand?”
“Your Honor, you will never see me before you again, but I do have a problem. I don’t have twenty dollars to give this boy now, but I’ll get it somehow.” At which, someone in the room said, “I’ll give the young man twenty dollars, He deserves it.”
Bob Mount is a Professor Emeritus with the Department of Zoology and Entomology at Auburn University. He is also chairman of the Opelika Order of Geezers, well-known local think tank and political clearing house. He writes about birds, snakes, turtles, bugs and assorted conservation topics.

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