By: Randy Tucker
The single blade had been sharpened to a razor thin point. The razor analogy was an accurate one; it was the sharpest knife I’ve ever used.
My grandfather, Forrest Everett Tucker, was born in rural Lee County, Arkansas in 1912, on a small cotton farm near the L’Anguille River a tributary of the St. Francis that eventually fed the mighty Mississippi on Arkansas’ eastern border.
A cotton and watermelon farmer by trade, and a hunter by choice, he only had an elementary education, but he could do things I’d never seen before. As his only grandson, our adventures were epic in my early years before my dad was transferred, from Blytheville AFB 100 miles north of grandpa Tucker’s and grandma Sally’s farm, to Travis Air Force Base in distant central California on the opposite side of the continent.
Grandpa taught me to live off the land at a young age. Rabbits, squirrels, doves, bobwhite quail, and even raccoon were delivered to my grandma Sally’s kitchen where she created wondrous meals, meals that would be considered child abuse in our soft, modern age since her main ingredients were lard, bacon fat, cornmeal, prodigious amounts of salt, and a steady dose of love. Mix in a few collards, maybe some of grandpa’s corn, their homemade hominy, fresh tomatoes and beans through the warm months, and equally tasty home canned varieties through the mild winter, and you had a feast.
Grandpa had a 20-gauge Harrington Richardson shotgun, which I now own, that he used to bring in all those varieties of game from the mid-south woods. What I remember most, however, is that knife and when he taught me how to field dress whatever we were hunting.
The first technique I learned was “Shirt and pants,” used on squirrels and rabbits. Make a little cut in the belly of the rodent, pull both ways and the hide comes off evenly, like a shirt and a pair of pants.
Fishing the backwaters of the L’Anguille brought out that knife again as we’d catch a mess of cats, as he called those big blues and channel catfish we pulled in, or his favorite, crappie, by the dozen from farm ponds and smaller, locally named streams. Brim, buffalo, and bass were all on the menu as well. All of our fish were scaled and cleaned by grandpa’s knife.
Game and fish aside, grandpa also used the knife to cut his watermelon. His one-acre watermelon patch brought him pride, and often more money than his entire cotton crop. Though he had 35 acres of red dirt cotton fields, his one-acre watermelon patch brought in a lot of income.
When the crop was ready, we’d load melons into his narrow box, Ford pickup and drive the back roads to the hidden houses dotting Lee County. We’d pull up to some isolated house, many little more than shacks without electric power or indoor plumbing, he’d honk the horn, and people would appear hesitantly at the door.
The hesitation would quickly disappear, “Hello Mr. Tucker,” the old timers, youngsters, and people in between would say in that friendly, yet formal address that made the old South a unique area of the country.
They always had one question, “These melons sweet Mr. Tucker?”
My grandpa answered them sometimes, but more often he would take a melon he’d cut earlier, whip out that razor sharp pocketknife, and slice off a sample for them.
No one ever turned us down. He was almost always paid in silver coins, old ones, Barber quarters, standing liberty quarters, walking liberty half dollars, and Mercury dimes. Melons didn’t cost much; he’d sell big 35 to 40-pound monsters for 50 cents.
In just an hour or so we’d empty the truck of several hundred pounds of melons. Back at the house, I’d put the coins in a metal box, and if time permitted, we’d head back to the field to pick and deliver a second load.
Grandpa would stop at one of the many little country stores scattered along the highway in those days and buy me an RC Cola. With the windows open, my arm on the door, and an RC in my left hand, I felt like the king of the world.
Those days only lasted three summers, then my family moved to California. But grandpa continued to be the watermelon king of Lee County until he passed during my senior year at the University of Wyoming.
Barbecue grills were common in that area of Arkansas, even back in the early 60s, but the addition of a propane fish fryer in later years brought incredible cuisine to the table with just a little dowsing of corn meal and a bit of salt.
On our honeymoon trip, I took my wife Sue back to Arkansas and introduced her to Southern hospitality. We received a “cabin” as a wedding present by grandma Sally’s brother, uncle Brook’s Jones and his wife, aunt Sugar. She was a caterer and ran a florist business in nearby Mariana. The cabin was the largest home Sue and I lived in for the first 10 years of our lives together.
I spent the entire week interpreting what my relatives said to Sue, as she couldn’t understand much of that deep southern drawl. They referred to her as that “little ol’ Yankee girl.”
The people are gone, but the memories of a different time remain. A time with a slower pace and a friendlier feel, when a man’s pocketknife was his moniker.
We never figured out who made the knife, though a little research indicates it was probably a Schrade, a precursor to the Uncle Henry brand, lacking a defining logo. It may have once held an image on the blade, but a lifetime of sharpening has erased its identity – but not its ability to evoke a fond past.
Randy Tucker is a retired history teacher and freelance writer from western Wyoming. He has a lifetime of experience in farming, ranching, hunting and fishing in the shadow of the Wind River Mountains. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.