Thursday, December 27, 2007
Otis Jackson, Blitchton, Florida
Looking for Otis, we boys hurried down the back steps from the kitchen, past the long-handled well pump at the wash stand, near the low dome of the cistern, and entered a place even more removed from the green lawns and manicured shrubs of Gainesville and Ocala than the dwelling house. We walked on hot, dry sand among weathered, never-painted wooden buildings, each of which had its own special use and smell and charm. There was no grass in the yard — just snowy sand which Otis swept free of leaves with a brush broom he made by binding twigs together. Dr. Blitch had always insisted that the yard have no grass growing, and no debris, in order to protect the house from possible wildfires.
The first outbuilding was an open-fronted shed with a huge, iron cauldron set into a rough masonry base next to a long, deep shelf. All three of us boys could have climbed into that black iron vessel with room to spare. The pot played a role in the cleaning of pigs after slaughter — which reminds me that I once attended a hog killing at Blitchton, probably when I was ten or eleven years old. It was a cold morning. As always when something important was to be done, Negroes appeared from all quarters of the compass to help with the work. Their families had lived in the area, for the most part, since slavery days. Now they farmed their own land or lived as sharecroppers and made extra money – or sometimes got paid in meat or other edibles as Dr. Blitch had often been paid -- doing work for my family.
THE OLD BLITCHTON STORE
THE BLITCHTON SCHOOL
The plump, uneasy pig was in a large pen. People leaned or sat on the surrounding board fence, visible puffs of breath coming from their noses and mouths into the cold air. The pig probably expected food, but Landis – wearing, like my father, khaki pants tucked into high boots laced up the front -- went to the fence close to the animal, aimed a .22 rifle carefully at its head, and fired. The pig dropped instantly to the ground, rolling onto its side, senseless, legs quivering. In the same second, Lorraine, a young colored man who worked regularly at Blitchton, jumped from the top of the fence, a much-honed knife in his hand, and ran to the pig, plunging the knife into its throat and slashing. Blood poured from the gash onto the earth, and squirted up onto Lorraine’s arms and trousers. The Negroes on the fence laughed and hooted, while Lorraine danced backwards, shaking his hands and his head, cussing under his breath.
In spite of my empathy with all animals, the primitive spectacle fascinated me more than it appalled me. This was where our pork roasts and bacon and sausage came from. It had to be done so we could all eat, and it was less gruesome than when Daddy tied chickens by their feet to a bowed over sweetgum sapling in our back yard and cut off their heads with a butcher knife.
The dead hog was dragged from the pen, and the next thing I remember is its carcass being plunged into the hot water of the big black cauldron. Then it was put on a table and scraped free of bristles. The next phase would be skinning, and then butchering, at which point the pig began to look like food. There was a building where parts were ground up and seasoned with salt and pepper and sage and forced into sausage casings, except for the ground meat that would be used for fresh sausage patties. The sausages, belly, and hams, were taken to the fired-up smokehouse to hang until cured to smoky richness.
At the end of the day some meat was distributed, money was paid, and what in the morning had been a snuffling pig had become pork, and at nightfall its fragrance rose over many homes among the pine trees, oaks, and cabbage palms.
The slaughter of the pig was not the only such activity I saw at Blitchton. Once I watched Daddy and Landis kill a sheep, then hang it up by its hind legs and skin it. Blitchton had lots of sheep in those days. We had a sheepskin rug in our den, and lamb chops in our freezer.
Also on the unpleasant side was the branding of cattle, and the castration of calves and young pigs with giant pincers — all attended with a swirling of excited horses and dust and shouting men and squealing victims wrested to the ground. At least the pain in each case was momentary, and after the glowing brand had been pressed quickly to the hide, or the pincers snapped shut, the men would roll away or jump back and the animal would jump to its feet, shake its head, and run away, shake its head again, and soon behave as if nothing had happened.
As we boys continued our search for Otis, we looked up over to our right at the tower with a windmill on top which pumped water from a well for use in the house. Later it was blown over by a hurricane and never replaced. We peered into a small, low, sweet-smelling shed where chicken feed was stored. The chicken house itself was not far away, low, tin-roofed, walled in part with chicken wire. From inside came an unending low cackling and other tones of chicken talk, occasionally accentuated with loud squawking of irritation or alarm. Although the chicken house had its own fenced yard, probably to protect the chickens from hawks and foxes and wild dogs, there were always some chickens running loose all over the place. I remember Gramma, a container of chicken feed held to her waist, wading out into an excited, swirling, hopping sea of chickens, broadcasting seeds in every direction.
GRAMMA FEEDING THE CHICKENS - AROUND 1900
My favorite outbuilding was the smokehouse. Like most of the structures, its door was secured with a latch made of a short piece of smooth wood which swiveled on a nail, but unlike the other buildings scattered behind the main house it was thoroughly sealed. We would invariably open the door and peek inside. Even if the smokehouse were empty, its dark interior was impregnated with an incredibly wonderful smell which came from scores of years of smoldering hickory wood and darkening hams and bacon and links of sausage – the temple of a perfume so heavenly as to bring doubt into the mind of the most devout vegetarian.
By then we probably would have encountered Otis, but if not, we would go on toward the barn, which was vastly larger than the other buildings put together. Like the other buildings, it was built of rough, unpainted lumber roofed with rust covered corrugated metal. It combined stables for horses and mules with stalls for cows and a space for the shelter for farm machinery. A large fenced corral was overshadowed by a gigantic pecan tree whose nuts in season sprinkled the ground over a huge area.
In one part of the barn the milking was done. In another part great quantities of hay and dried corn were stored – so much loose hay that my cousins and I would leap from the ladder which led to the loft down into the soft, sweet-smelling hill of grass – and end up itching for a long time afterward. Up in the loft area there was a hand-operated device for stripping dried corn from the cob. A central passageway on the ground floor led along the stalls where horses and cows came up to their troughs to eat feed served up from a heavy wooden scoop. Much of the wood — the troughs, the scoop, the posts of the stalls, the door handles and latches, had been worn smooth and shiny over the years until it looked more like polished stone than something made from trees.
There were other buildings, further out. On the side of Gramma’s house opposite from Landis’s house was a big garage which held the tractor and other big machinery, as well as an impressive collection of license plates nailed to the wall, probably going back to the first automobile Dr. Blitch acquired.
Way out beyond the barn, on the other side of a pasture, was the place where cane syrup was made. From here come some of my favorite memories of Blitchton. In the autumn, a huge field of sugar cane would be cut and brought next to the syrup shed. As when animals were slaughtered, the occasion brought numerous colored people from their homes around the area to assist in the work. I gather that Gramma and Landis employed a few of them full time — for example to work as cowboys or to help with housework and cooking and laundry — but I think most of them got paid for helping with seasonal events like harvesting and the pig butchering.
Anyway, a lot of people turned out for cane grinding, including us who drove from Gainesville, and it was more like a festive holiday than a chore. The cane grinding mechanism consisted of two big upright steel rollers turned by a tractor engine linked to the machinery of the rollers by an endless belt. In older days or poorer farms the motive power was supplied by a mule walking in a large circle around and around rollers at the end of a long pole. The cane juice gushed from the rollers and was channeled into large galvanized metal tubs with a loose handle on each side. It would take two men to carry each tub over to the cooking vat in the mostly open shed. The vat was a long, bathtub-like container — only much longer than a bathtub — set into a bed of bricks and stone above a space for the wood fire which could be seen glowing and crackling brightly through the access hole at one end. The tubs of juice would be dumped into the vat until it was full, and the heat of the fire would very slowly simmer it down to the right consistency.
MOTHER AT A CANE GRINDING, 1927 (MY BROTHER RILEY TOLD ME THAT GRAMMA, EVEN THOUGH SHE WOULDN'T ALLOW ONE DROP OF ALCOHOL IN HER HOUSE, SOLD THE PRESSED CANE STALKS TO MOONSHINERS.)
Fresh squeezed sugar cane juice is almost sickeningly sweet. Pale, foamy, watery, it did not invite more than a sip — although my cousin, Sim, inadvertently took a bath in it when he backed into one of the tubs full of juice and sat down up to his neck in it. But once cooked down to a certain dark thickness it makes a most delicious syrup, as we would find by sticking pieces of cane stalk into the cooking vat and sampling the contents. I especially liked to collect the foam that rose to the top of the simmering syrup; it became thick, almost like candy, as it cooled on the piece of cane stalk. It was not, however, supposed to be part of the syrup, and men with wire skimmers kept clearing the top of the syrup of foam, bees, flies, and miscellaneous debris until it was time to drain the finished product from the vat. It ended up being funneled into bottles (some of which I think had begun as liquor or soft drink bottles), which were capped and for the most part labeled because they were to be sold to grocers. We always had unlabeled bottles at home. Everybody at the cane grinding took home syrup one way or another, and the rest went off to market. No pancake or waffle, or cornbread or biscuit for dessert would have been imaginable without that syrup. Daddy said that in the old days the black field workers would often bring their lunch in a bucket (called a syrup bucket — half a gallon or so in size, shiny metal, with an inset lid and a wire handle), with cane syrup in the bottom of the bucket, a drinking glass upside down in the syrup, and a piece of cornbread on top of the glass. Cane syrup, like sweet mixed pickles from Cairo (“Kayro”), Georgia, is something I’ve tried to have with me at all times, even when living in Washington State or England. I’ve always used cane syrup not only for pancakes and such, but also, along with catchup, mustard, and a little Worcester sauce, to improve canned pork and beans.
I feel compelled to explain to those unfortunate enough not to know the real thing that sugar cane syrup is not dark and strong like molasses, and bears no resemblance to the mixtures sold as “cane syrup” in supermarkets, and cannot be replaced by brown sugar. Molasses was to us was a strong-tasting, iron-flavored oddity from the north. The true cane syrup of Florida and Georgia is a little thinner than most honey but thick enough for fine control when pouring over a waffle. When you hold a good bottle up to the sky you see light through it. But it has to be the right amount of light. Little light or no light coming through the bottle means that the juice was cooked too long; too much light means that it is thin, cooked too little, or even adulterated with water or corn syrup. You can also tell a good batch by the way it moves about in the bottle when you tilt it back and forth: Leisurely, clinging to the glass, is good. Quickly means watery. Sluggishly means too thick and strong-tasting.
Back to our arrival at Blitchton and search for Otis. (Do you detect that I’m easily distracted by food?) We would usually meet him long before we even got to the barn, much less clear out at the gate which separated the home area and its outbuildings from the pastures and syrup shed beyond. When he came into view we would shout, “Otis! Otis!” and run toward him. It seems to me he was always carrying a bucket in one hand, with his other hand held out from his body for counterbalance. The lower part of his wizened black face was covered with white frost of whiskers, and his head was topped with that crumpled, stained Stetson hat. Otis was about Gramma’s age, getting old, a little stooped, his cheeks and lips drawn if he weren’t wearing his false teeth. When he saw us he would smile and put down whatever he was carrying — and he was never not carrying something — and hug us when we ran up to him. Considering that we saw him only a few times a year, and then usually for one day at a time, we were as fond of him and as eager to see him as if we had lived with him for years, and he was said to be very fond of us. We were much more enthusiastic about visiting him than Gramma or our cousins next door, although we liked them too.
I’ll tell Otis’s history soon, but for now I’ll stay with our being with him.
I don’t remember much conversation with Otis. He was probably not much practiced in conversation. Mostly we just followed him around and watched him do things and, theoretically, helped him do them. Feeding chickens was fun, but going into the henhouse and collecting eggs was more interesting. There was something miraculous about finding fresh, warm eggs in the straw of the nests, and I was intrigued by the glistening white china eggs that were put in some of the nests. (As I recall, Gramma was often involved with the chickens, her other special area being a very large fenced garden of vegetables, flowers, and fruit trees across the rutted road from the windmill.) Other high points were feeding the cows and horses from inside the barn, and milking the cow, a skill I never acquired. The best part of that was when Otis (or my cousin Sim, who often did the milking) would point an udder toward the waiting cat and squirt milk in its mouth — more or less in its mouth, anyway.
At Gramma’s kitchen door was the slop bucket, where peelings, and scrapings from dinner plates, stale bread, and milk, and all manner of edible garbage were collected for the pigs which lived in the field across the paved road from the house. Otis would take up the pungent bucket in one hand, throw out his other arm, and trudge around the house to the road with a group of children in tow — usually cousins Ann and Sim would have joined us by now — who contributed by carrying corn on the cob and other fairly clean and dry forms of nourishment.
The main reason that feeding the pigs was so exhilarating was the extreme excitement of the pigs when Otis called them. Otis would shout, high-pitched, “Soo pig! Soo pig!” and from all over that field pigs would come galloping like bulky race horses, heeling to forty-five degree angles in the turns, bumping one another, squealing so loudly that it hurt my ears. Otis and would lean over the fence and dump the bucket into the trough and onto the heads of the crowding, nudging, grunting, shrilly shrieking diners, and the rest of us would happily toss in our bits.
I visited Otis’s little wooden house only a few times, and I wish I could remember more about it. I don’t want to fill in with imagination. A bed covered with a patchwork quilt took up a third of the space, I think, and there was a chair or two and a table. A sweater and a worn leather jacket hung on hooks. There was a mirror on the wall, and on a chest of drawers under it were a basin and a straight razor. Some of the cigars and candy we gave Otis for Christmas might be visible. Gordon remembers a collection of presidential campaign buttons, as well as other pins or badges. Under the bed Otis kept a lightning bolt he had found in a tree that had been struck in a storm. It protected against lightning. He said there was always a lightning bolt in or under a tree after lightning struck. The “bolts” he showed us were metal. He also sometimes saw blue lights in the woods at night and followed them, but never caught up with them.
How I wish now that I had learned more about Otis. I wonder what he did to pass his time when he was not working, what he thought, how he felt about things, whether he really had no friends outside my family, and if so, why. Otis’s story became much more important to me when I grew up and he was gone — buried in the Blitch family cemetery under a tombstone which read, “Well done, good and faithful servant” — than when I was a child and he was just a curious feature of my own life.
Otis Jackson was a black man with a small frame, bent with age, white-mustached, always wearing suspenders and, while working, a worn Stetson hat of the kind my father wore to go to church. Under the hat was a mostly bald head with sparse, tiny curls of gray hair. His destiny intersected that of my family at a turpentine camp many years before I ever saw him. My grandfather, as State Prison Physician, would tour the prisons and related facilities. Otis was a convict who had been leased by the State with others to work at the turpentine facility. The collection of pine tree sap for the manufacture of turpentine was a major industry in Florida at that time. Cups were attached to tree trunks for gathering the sticky sap that oozed from a slash in the bark. The sticky contents of the cups were collected and stored in wooden barrels to be processed into turpentine.
Anyway, Otis was working at a turpentine camp shortly after the turn of the century. He was young, imprisoned for killing a man. I think Daddy said that Otis had been working as a security guard when it happened. My mother said something about self-defense. Doctor Blitch found that Otis Jackson’s feet were in terrible shape, aggravated by walking in pine tree sap with inadequate shoes. That led to my grandfather having Otis released to his care.
And so Otis Jackson came to live at Blitchton when my father was a young boy — probably about 1906 or 1907 – and never left. My father said Otis was probably his best friend when Daddy was growing up. For some time Otis lived in a cabin on the outskirts of the collection of buildings that was the home area, and then, at some point before Mother married Daddy in 1927, he moved into “Liza’s house” not far behind and to the side of the Blitch home. Liza had been a cook, and when she was gone Otis inherited the house. If he was over seventy when we knew him, he’d been living alone in that cabin for half a century.
Otis lived in the room of the house which had a fireplace — the other room being used for storage. It was basically a place for sleeping. He ate all of his meals and did a lot of sitting in the large kitchen area of the Blitch house. I remember that when he was not sitting in there, and Gramma wanted him, she’d go onto the back porch and call in a loud, shrill voice, “O-tis! O-tis!” from the back porch, prolonging the “O”, accent on the “t”. His work was restricted to the areas immediately around the house — feeding chickens and livestock, milking the cow, sweeping the yard, cranking the corn machine, and things of that kind. When I knew him he did not do field work or other heavy labor, although in the past he had worked side by side with my father and others in the fields, sometimes wielding the “snake stick” to kill a rattler disturbed by the farm machinery. And of course he did no house work, which was the province of several women. Mother said that while he had jobs to do, he was “pretty much his own boss” in deciding what to do, and where to be, and when. If he was not working, eating, sleeping, or relaxing in his house or the kitchen, he was most likely to be hunting. Mother told me he’d always loved hunting, and that Dr. Blitch gave him a shotgun not long after Otis came to live at Blitchton.
DADDY WITH HIS DOGS
Once Otis took me with him squirrel hunting. We went down to a pond in the hammock woods, Otis cradling his venerable shotgun under his arm. He told me to lie down on my back and watch the treetops. He lay down next to me and told me to just stay still and wait. Which reminds me that I cannot specifically remember anything else that Otis ever said. That’s mostly due to lost memories, but probably also because there was not much conversation. We watched the boughs of the hickories and oaks until a squirrel appeared, and Otis quietly but quickly pointed his shotgun to the sky, braced it against his shoulder, and fired. A squirrel came tumbling down through the leaves and plopped limply onto the ground. Back at the house, Otis showed me how to skin a squirrel, like pulling a sweater off over its head.
Otis never showed any desire to leave Blitchton, even for trips, even after Doctor Blitch, to whom he was devoted, passed away. He apparently never became attached to anyone outside my family. While he would go up to the store to buy tobacco, he didn’t spend much time there. On Sunday mornings he would put on a tie and a suit and go to church, where the other Negroes always addressed him respectfully as “Mister Otis.”
THE BLITCHTON CHURCH
At Christmas we, and Landis’s family, and Gramma, would give him things like sweaters and tobacco. Almost everything he had — from quilts to shirts and overalls to his shotgun and rifle and ammunition — were bought and given to him, rather than bought with money paid to him. Otis was simply indifferent to money and to the outer world. It was absolutely impossible to picture him anywhere but at Blitchton. The idea of Otis working at a gas station, or as a janitor in some city building, or at Morrison’s cafeteria as a waiter, or as a porter on the Orange Blossom Special, or in any of the other jobs which black men tended to have in those days, was frightening. It was as if Blitchton itself were a bubble from a former century which had somehow survived past its time, floating on the surface of the Twentieth Century with Otis and his cabin and Gramma and her house protected inside, until finally the bubble popped and all was gone except for the tombstones in the sandy family cemetery, surrounded by an ancient rusting metal fence.
This concludes the Blitchton chapter, but there will be more about Blitchton and my relatives there in future chapters.