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The Village Idiot

Passing through an opossum

Jack Deatherage, Jr.

"Says so in the scriptures."
Sergeant Obadiah Hakeswill (via Bernard Cornwell’s "Sharpe" novels)

(5/2014) The Scriptures (if I ever get around to writing them) will likely begin with, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men." -John Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton, 1834 -1902). Of course, he was wrong.

Power attracts the corrupt and corruptible. Incorruptible people have no need of power outside of themselves and thus, do not seek it. Incorruptible people do rarely have outside power thrust upon them and may well use it for the brief time they serve. However, they shed power as soon as they are able.

The second entry to The Scriptures may be, "It helps if the seeds have passed through a ‘possum before you try to sprout them." –an immigrant homesteading in Oklahoma, advising me on how to sprout America’s "wild" persimmon seeds.

I was first discovered by the American persimmon as I tramped through Topper’s wood with Middle Brother in the fall of 1964. We were living in Ike Kemper’s old farmhouse at the end of a long dirt lane off Topper Road, which was, in those days, gravel on dirt. The Topper brothers, owners of the farm between Kemper’s house and today’s Orchard Road, were our cousins so trespassing didn’t seem much a crime. Besides, little boys know no boundaries until taught them by adults. With no adults in sight, we were free to roam "the wild". (Other than a few brief stays at Grandfather Cool’s little farm south of Emmitsburg, we’d mostly been suburban children living on an Air Force base in Florida, or in a ‘burb on the edge of Columbus Ohio so everything around Kemper’s homestead was "the wild".)

Wiggling through a barbed wire fence, we exited the wood and found ourselves in Topper’s cow pasture with two strange trees trying vainly to overshadow us. I can’t describe the trees today other than they were leafless and dangling small yellow/orange fruits the like of which we’d not seen before. We picked a few of the fruits and ran back through the wood to ask Mom what they were. (Another entry in The Scriptures might be: A child, late getting home, will claim the excuse of having been lost, while the child needing something from a parent always knows which direction home is.) In those days, Mom knew just about everything worth knowing. (As I approach my 60th year, I realize she probably still does. Maybe she should write her own Scriptures?)

I’m sure Mom scolded us as we slammed through the kitchen door tracking mud, leaf mold and various "hitch hikers" from wood and field into the house she struggled to keep clean and orderly while it was occupied by six children under the age of 11, at least two of which were wilding boy kids. (Last Brother had been born that June so he was only able to make noise and noxious odors.) What I remember of that moment was Mom looking at the fruits we eagerly presented her. Her face lit with a smile. We’d, within seconds, learn it was her sly smile.

"Those are persimmons. They are very good to eat. Try them."

Oh woman, thy name is treachery!

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised she’d set us up. After all, she was the parent who’d walked us hand in hand to school and abandoned us to the evil ones!

I learned what an implosion was that day. I didn’t know the word yet, but I sure as hell knew what the physical manifestation of it felt like. The persimmons weren’t ripe, as Mom well knew. She also knew what would happen when we bit into the tempting little fruits. It seemed our faces were being sucked into our mouths as the astringent flesh caused a puckering I hope to never experience again. We thought we’d been poisoned (not that Mom wouldn’t have been justified then and certainly not a decade or so later, but still!) We couldn’t even cry out for help so strongly did the tissues of our mouths react to those nasty little fruits! And to our horror, Mom cackled with laughter!

"You aren’t going to die! It will wear off in a little bit." She managed to tell us through her tears of mirth as we sobbed in panic. It did wear off, just as the effects of a taste of alum eventually allowed my mouth to work properly when she offered it to me one day in Ohio when I was particularly vocal, or she’d reached the end of some rope she kept talking about.

Being boys, as soon as we were able to speak again we were daring each other to take another taste of persimmon. Mom suggested we toss out the fruits and wait another month until a couple hard frosts had kissed the nasty things and ripened them. Then we could go back and pick as many persimmons as we could reach and they’d be fit to eat. She promised, and such were our attention spans we forgot her little joke and went back outside to do something we probably got spanked for later.

Life seemed to come in spurts in those years. While in Columbus Ohio, Mom baked bread almost every week and for one season she took to building delights from flour and butter as she came upon a series of recipes on puff pastries and such. Her extended run of dough building has left deeply laid memories that reveal today’s commercial offerings of croissants, éclairs, doughnuts and fritters as sad, pale, flavorless pretenders by comparison. So too did the summer and fall of 1964 leave me jaded to commercial jellies and jams.

Gifted a bushel each of Grandfather Cool’s Concord grapes and some variety of crab apple, Mom made jellies of them to accompany those she’d made earlier from the wild raspberries, blackberries and elderberries the three oldest Deatherage kids had gathered along the wood’s edge. To those delights she added persimmon jelly, which quickly became a household favorite.

We moved before the next harvest of persimmons was possible and I was in my twenties before another wild persimmon tree found me drunk along some back road over to Taneytown. It’s fruits were tiny and mostly dried. I ate them anyhow.

The latest dried fruits (hazed with wild yeast beasts that love such fruit and are unlikely to have ever been touched by pesticides) were sent to me by the Oklahomans to start a sourdough and prove, once more, my inability to nurture wild yeast into a bread. Not that I’m concerned. I’ll acquire the skill when life demands. Until then, I’m interested in sprouting, planting and growing persimmon trees.

The Oklahomans are also years ahead of me in experimenting with making fruit wine from American persimmons! The Okies are ahead of me in everything worth knowing and doing!

"Hurry little one." They call to me. "Life awaits and you have lagged so far behind!"

So it will say in The Scriptures, eventually.

Read other articles by Jack Deatherage, Jr.