Did you ever?

A longing look back at aspects of the mountain past


As we age, increasingly there is a tendency to look back—usually with great longing—to the world we knew in younger years. Perhaps those times of reflection involve romanticizing or reshaping reality, but by the same token there’s a sound argument to be made that nostalgia carries a goodly measure of pure joy. A widely venerated English professor and sporting scribe from yesteryear, Havilah Babcock, put matters in splendid perspective when he wrote: “Boyhood improves with age, and the more remote it is the nicer boyhood seems to become.”

Although I didn’t realize it at the time growing up in the heart of the Smokies, mine was a boyhood filled with wonder. Life had little complexity. Almost no one had money to spare but everyone made do, and somehow the era’s simpler days and simpler ways were immensely fulfilling. You raised much of what you ate, yet the fare was always satisfying and often scrumptious. Recreational activities were inexpensive and relied more on mountain ingenuity than store-bought junk. Work was hard, but because of that play was more enjoyable. In all aspects of daily life you clung to a timeless high country adage, “make do with what you’ve got,” with great tenacity. The result was lives lived with quiet satisfaction.

Looking back on those seasons in the Smokies sun, the magnetism of nostalgia draws me with irresistible force, and no aspect of remembrance has greater appeal than youthful games and recreation. What follows is a sampling of those boyhood activities. All share distinct similarities. They took place outside, required minimal “store-bought” equipment, featured appreciable physical activity, and more often than not involved no adult supervision or participation. We entertained ourselves in glorious and joyous fashion. As long as we were home for supper or at the pre-determined time all was right in the world. As we delve into these delights from yesteryear, I have to wonder—did you ever enjoy similar activities? Hopefully the answer is a resounding yes; if not, at least you can sample and savor them vicariously, or maybe even consider a brief reversion to childhood.

Playing rolly bat

For roughly seven or eight months of every year, a game of rolly bat was likely to take place any time four or five youngsters got together. All that was required was a decent-sized patch of open ground and minimal equipment. When it came to location even a pasture would do, although cow piles could pause a bit of a problem. Beyond that the game required a baseball bat, a ball, and, ideally, ball gloves. The latter were not essential and I participated in plenty of impromptu games where not all the participants were fortunate enough to have a glove. As for the ball and bat, they tended to be well worn, with one or both quite possibly both patched with tape.

The basic rules were simple, although they had minor variations according to the number of players and mutual agreements on how matters should proceed. One individual controlled the bat and ball, with the idea being to retain that control as long as possible. You tried to hit the ball, usually tossing it in the air much like a coach would do when giving infield practice to a team or hitting flies for outfielders to shag, as far as possible and away from the three or four other participants scattered about the field. If one of them caught the ball in the air, he took over as batter. Otherwise, the player who ran down the ball had an opportunity to throw it from that spot towards the place where the ball had been hit.

The batter laid his bat sideways on the ground facing the player who had the ball. That player then threw the ball towards the bat, maneuvering the throw so the ball is rolling by the time it reached ground zero. If the rolling ball hit the bat—hence the term rolly bat—the player who made the throw took over as batter.

The game involved lots of running, plenty of throwing practice, and could keep even the most active of youngsters occupied for hours on end during the summer. It was also popular as something to do after school in the spring, or as the World Series approached in early autumn. Of course it was a fine prelude to more formal activities such as Little League. I wonder if today’s youngsters even know what rolly bat is? If not, they’ve been victims of a sort of cultural deprivation.

Cane pole joys

Occasionally one still sees an angler plying a simple yet highly effective tool—the venerable cane pole. There was a time when cane poles were pretty much standard for everyday angling, especially among youngsters, and more often than not the fishing outfit was homemade. Patches of vital raw material, in the form of cane thickets, were scattered across the landscape. It took little more than gumption and a hand saw to cut down a few canes and get started on making a fishing rig.

The rather sparse foliage could be pruned away with a pocket knife, and hanging the cane from a barn rafter or lofty tree limb, small end down and weighted with a sizeable rock or cinder block, allowed it to dry, cure, and end up perfectly straight. From that point forward you just needed a piece of line a bit longer than the pole, a hook, a sinker fashioned from the lead that covered nails on tin roofs, and a bobber shaped from a cork bottle stopper. The only things involving cost were hooks (at prices around two for a nickel or five for a dime) and line.

With bait you personally procured, the door was wide open to opportunities in creek, river, pond, or lake. You could catch a wide variety of fish, including trout, bass, bream, crappie, and catfish. As a part of the bigger picture, obtaining bait was pure fun. It might involve catching nightcrawlers at night after a soft rain, digging red worms, seining minnows, grabbing spring lizards, chasing grasshoppers, or the risky proposition of raiding yellow jacket or wasp nests to get larva for bait. It was grand fun. In addition to the “I did it myself” pleasure, the end result was often a fine meal of fried fish cooked by your mother. There weren’t many compliments more satisfying, at least in my world, than having Momma comment to a neighbor while I was within earshot: “You should have seen that mess of trout Jim brought home earlier this week.”

War Games

Although the entire concept might set mental alarms blaring among folks in today’s world, various types of war games or armed conflict were exceptionally popular when I was growing up in the 1950s. It was a time when standard Saturday matinee fare in small-town theaters featured good guys versus rustlers or cowboys versus Indians as standard fare. Similarly, World War II was not that far in the rear-view mirror, while the Korean War and the Cold War were current reality.

For kids, that translated to all sorts of activities that, while carrying martial overtones, were deemed innocent fun. Time and energy were expended on building forts and hideouts. Handcrafted sling shots and a trusty Daisy Red Ryder BB gun got plenty of marksmanship practice. Bows made from hickory and arrows fashioned from river canes or various wood also figured in the picture. Pods from magnolia trees had just the right shape and heft to serve as grenades. Whenever there was a decent snowfall, forts sprang up and snowballs flew. If I could somehow call back all the hours I spent chopping down poplars for a fort that doubled as a secret clubhouse, then add to them the time spent digging a cave-like hideaway on a steep slope and protecting it off with a rock wall, there would be a year or so of life added to my earthly time span.

Grape vine glories

Wild grapes of many varieties—’possum grapes, muscadines, fox grapes, and others—are found across Appalachia. For adults as well as wildlife, they provided a welcome source of food from nature’s larder when they ripened in late summer and early fall. Who can resist the culinary glory of a cathead biscuit split open, buttered, and slathered with a heaping spoonful of fox grape jelly, or who would dare gainsay the wonders of a hull pie from wild muscadines? But for youngsters, at least in my heyday, it was the actual vines, as opposed to their fruit, that meant fun aplenty.

A hefty grape vine, thick as a big man’s wrist and tangled and twisted high up in mature hardwoods, almost begged to be severed near ground level and used as a sort of hand-held swing. Ideally the vine would be growing on a steep hillside, and when you grasped the vine and swung out over the slope, there was an appreciable element of excitement in soaring through the air above the ground. Of course, there was a certain element of danger. If the vines pulled loose from the trees, a bad fall was in the offing. Yet few red-blooded mountain youngsters ever found an element of risk anything but an invitation to adventure.

In an entirely different setting involving swimming holes, a stream-side grapevine let you swing out over the water to drop down into the water. Like all grapevine glories, this cost nothing and could bring delight for hours on end.

Fun and feasts

Certain pleasures actually combined recreation with tangible rewards. These involved gathering foods for either eating on the spot, offering on the family table, or maybe even selling for welcome pocket money. The two biggest activities of this sort involved picking blackberries in July and gathering black walnuts in October. But there were other wild feasts aplenty to be enjoyed on the spot and perhaps taken home if the item existed in sufficient abundance. A mere listing of them provides, if nothing else, an index to the vast scope of edibles afield for those with knowledge and energy. Youngsters learned from adult mentors who had lived close to the land.

With the arrival of spring came vegetables such as ramps, branch lettuce, creasy greens, sochan, dandelion greens, and poke salad, along with morels and other types of mushrooms. Mushrooms required considerable savvy. Personally, my gathering activities have always been limited to morels, or as mountain folks often called them, merkles (miracles). Beginning with sarvis (service) berries and wild strawberries, there was a steady progression of some type of ripe berry from May into fall. Among them were dewberries, raspberries, blueberries, mulberries, elderberries, huckleberries, and gooseberries.

Autumn brought wild fruits including pawpaws, maypops, persimmons, grapes, and the meat of honey locust pods. More significantly, it also saw the maturation of wild nuts. Among them, in addition to black walnuts, were hickory nuts, butternuts, hazelnuts, and beechnuts. As my Grandpa Joe sometimes said when we made squirrel hunting forays, “A fellow doesn’t ever need to be peckish in the fall woods.” Anyone with a venturesome soul— whether a youngster or a boy trapped in an old man’s body, as was the case with Grandpa—had a world of wholesome fun at their doorstep.

These are but a small sampling of adolescent pleasures from yesteryear. From sliding across icy patches or small ponds in leather shoes during the depths of winter, to tying June bugs to sewing thread for an insect drone in the summer, to digging sassafras roots for a springtime tonic, to riding big pieces of cardboard down sedge-covered hillsides on an autumn afternoon, children filled the halcyon days with a ceaseless cycle of fun. Maybe this glimpse of a world mostly lost will take you longingly back. Better still, perhaps it will encourage you to resurrect it as a part of leisure time for today’s kids. You won’t regret doing so, and it will be just as meaningful as most current organized activities and far more beneficial than hours spent in front of a computer, iPhone or television.

About the author: A native son of the Smokies, Jim Casada is a full-time freelance writer whose latest book is Fishing for Chickens: A Smokies Food Memoir. Signed, inscribed copies are available through his website (jimcasadaoutdoors.com) or can be ordered through standard on-line sources.

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