First a little caveat to my kin and other children of the coal region: This post contains graphic descriptions of events that you most likely have safely buried deep within your psyche. It is recommended that you have a Xanax at the ready and an appoitment with your therapist within the next two days. Crack a Yuengling and read at your own risk.
It is my fond belief that we, as human beings, all suffer from some level of mental illness. It manifests itself in many different ways - some of us sing Karaoke, some vote Republican, some eat meat with jiggly things still on it - but we all have it to some degree. Mine seems to display itself in a vast array of oddities, one of which is the feature of this post. I bring you...
The isn't just some general madness. No, this is a madness very particular to folks living in the coal regions of PA. It is a seasonal display and it revolves around a tiny little thing know as the huckleberry. For those of you not in the know, a huckleberry is very similar to a blueberry except where a blueberry might be like this "O" a huckleberry, in size comparison, is like this ".". And where blueberries are cultivated on bushes this high "-", huckleberries grow on bushes this high "_". They grow wild all over the mountains in this area and have long been a part of the local diet. Many moons ago, when there were still active miners in these parts, they would drag their little children up to the mountain tops and force them to pick, pick, pick for hours and hours and then take the huckleberries to town and sell them for enough money for pop to buy a brewskie on his way home from work the next night.
It's a lovely little tradition that has been slowly dying out with each generation and the more available knowledge of child labor and abuse laws but still, it lingers. I remember going huckleberry picking as a child. Since the berries really come ripe in July, it was usually sweltering hot. And my mom would dress us in the double-knit polyester outfits that were all the rage for the discriminating 70's child. Wicking action? Forget it. We would all hoof it "up da pole line" because the pole line was the easiest way to get "up da mountain".
Sometimes, as a special treat, my grandmother would come along. She ran a bar and was a real pistol. I remember how she used to call us "Goddam sons-of-bitches". Golly, those were the days.
Anyway, when we found the right spot, everyone was put to work picking berries. We would pick and pick and pick for hours in the sweltering heat on the mountaintop. If you were lucky, after about 3 hours of picking, you had enough huckleberries to cover the bottom of a plastic yogurt cup. It's not that you weren't working hard. It's just that it's so freaking hot, and you're just a kid, and your other friends don't have to pick huckleberries because they have a pool, and you didn't mean to spill them but you just set the cup down for a minute to scratch you leg and you accidentally knocked it over, and you only ate a couple, and you don't even like pie anyway! So when the grown-ups were done picking and they called all the children in from the bushes, and it was time to settle accounts with the Lord, and you produced your yogurt cup with about 37 huckleberries which isn't even enough to put on your cereal everyone knows that, you knew you were going to hear it from Grandmother. "What the hell were you doing the whole time? Scratchin' yer ass?" And you hung your head in shame and lagged at the end of the line back "down da mountain".
And every person you talk to in this area can tell you that exact same story.
So this is THE MADNESS and, unfortunately, I had a flare up today. Because, you know, I have nothing better to do with my time. So I grabbed a 2 quart pitcher and a 2 quart Coleman cooler - hey, I was feeling lucky - and headed "up da pole line".
There are several symptoms you can look for to determine if a body is suffering from THE MADNESS as opposed to a less bizarre malady. I will explain some of them forthwith.
The Glow is a symptom displayed by that picker that thinks to herself "I could use a little color to my skin. Maybe I'll go pick some huckleberries and get a little sun." The picker, clad in shorts and a tanktop, then spends the better part of a day that would kill a camel, on a sunny montain top. Closer to the sun. Out of the shade. With little or no sunscreen. And while fuschia is not the color she intended to don, it is, in fact, the color she got.
This is the dead legs sensation that the picker will have after squatting for hours on end. First, you loose circulation, and feeling, below the knee. Next, it's below the hip. Before you know it, you've got two dead legs that you can't feel or walk on. All you can do is wait it out until that old familiar pain begins, signaling the return of the blood to your long forgotten limbs. If you're lucky, there's no permanent damage.
The Picker's Two Step
Also know as Ants in the Pants. Inevitably, all pickers will succumb to this unfortunate fate sooner or later. It is the nature of the beast. Or beasts. Beasties, more appropraitely. The picker is in a really good patch of berries which, coincidentally, would also happen to be a really good patch of red ants if that's what one was picking. The problem is, because the picker is suffering from Picker's Leg (see above) s/he does not notice the red ants until they are, in fact, in the pants. It's a drag to have happen to you but really funny to watch happen to someone else. One caution here, no matter how much they bite you, no matter how bad it itches, don't take your mace - which you brought along to ward off any curious bears or curious men - and spray your hiney. It might seem like a good idea when you are in the throes of Ants in the Pants but you do not want to do this. I once had the opportunity to be on the outskirts of a mace cloud and, trust me, if yo spray your hiney with that, it will have you crying for your mother.
Pickin' on Negro Spritiuals
This symptom mainly shows up in folks who are picking solo and actually comes in two forms, the first simply being talking to one's self. The other, more dangerous form , is making up songs - specifically negro spirituals. Now, I don't want to offend anybody so I hope I'm not being politically incorrect by calling them "negro spirituals". I only refer to them this way because that's what they call some of the songs in our church hymnal and, really, the church wouldn't say it if it was offensive, right? Anyway, when a body is out in the wilderness alone, picking little berries for an extended period of time, the mind often wanders south and begins to draw similarites with the pickers of cotton. So, you see, it's not that far of a leap to then break into spontaneous song about the ordeal. It really is a strange little occurance but, to be sure, the source of some real gems. As a matter of fact, during the course of my picking today, I made up such hits as "Huckleberry Pickin' For The Lord", "Swing Low, Sweet Coleman Cooler", "Hallelujia, Ah Gost A Quart!" and "I Found The Lord At The Psycho Ward." On that last one I was moving a little more to the blues genre. Still, my favorite had to be "Send Down Your Angels With A Big Fat Mortgage Payoff". It staggers the mind just to think of all the good songs lost up in those hills. Maybe someone could get a grant to go record them on site like that project they did in Appalachia.
The huckleberry picker that has spent hours on the mountain will have a distinct...gait. Part of this comes from Picker's Leg - some people will just not wait for circulation to start up again. The other part of this particular phenomenon is due to the fact that the person just spent several hours alternating between a very, very deep squat and then bending over at the waist while the legs are straight. Neither position, by the way, is recommended for anyone, ever. The very, very deep squat resultes in very, very overstretched Achillies tendons which lets the feet kind of flop about at whim. The other more unfortunate part of the very, very deep squat it that the pickers internal organs have all slowly seeped out the butt and are now in the seat of the picker's pants, causing the picker to walk in the manner of a toddler with a very full diaper.
Not to be confused with Pickin' And A-Grinnin' which is a different disorder entirely. Picker's Grin is the look on the picker's face after having come down from "da mountain". It's a goofy, weary smile and the eyes are glossed over with a far away look in them. It is often accompanied with the repeated phrase 'I got enough for a pie. I got enough for a pie."
Well, I have to say that I am showing all of these symptoms in varying degrees (I think all the ants may finally be gone) after my little foary into the berry patch today. The circulation had finally returned to my extremeties however, I think my back isn't going to be the same for days, years even. I'm still working my internal organs back through...um, nevermind.
At least I have a happy little 2 quart Coleman cooler full to the frim with fresh huckleberries. Enough for two pies!
If only I liked pie.