Southern Folks: Autumn, miracles, magic and crawdads

Bill Stamps
Bill Stamps

It was that time of the year. Autumn. A little more wind. Cooler weather. Two more years and a historic new decade, the '60s, would kick in. My two younger brothers and I were living with my mother in the country in Middle Tennessee just a few miles south of Columbia. I was 10.

Blind Remus told me, "Boy, you better be careful a' dem cottonmouths. Dey can swim upstream faster dan you can swim down. Dey bites you, and dat's it. Dey's sneaky, so watch out!"

photo Bill Stamps

Mr. Remus was an old black man who lived down the road from me. He was a bootlegger. I worked for him sometimes. He and I were friends. Out of respect, I had asked if he minded me catching crawdads out behind his house. His little bit of land ran down to the creek behind his very small, three-room shack.

Somewhere between the last day of summer and a few weeks into fall, several weeks before the leaves color up and the sun's not as warm, more than a few country boys have taken off their socks and shoes, rolled up their jeans and braved the creek's changing temperature to hunt for crawdads. In New Orleans, they call them crayfish.

They're not fish. They look kinda like a miniature lobster. Claws too. They're little, around 5 or 6 inches long, but they can pinch the devil out of you. They scoot back under rocks in the creek bed.

All you do is turn the rocks over and see if you see one. Then grab him. If you hustle, you can catch enough of them to make a decent meal. They don't taste a bit like lobster, but they're good.

Like any other respectable-tasting Southern meal, you fry them in a black iron skillet with plenty of grease - a big spoon of lard. I don't guess Marcus Welby, M.D., would have approved, but we weren't going for what's good for your health. In those days, if it tasted real good, that was all the "good for you" required.

Growing up out in the country, I never heard anybody refer to calories or cholesterol counts. Nobody said anything about clogged valves or arteries. Belching had nothing to do with an infected digestive tract. It just meant you were ready for a second helping.

Seems like there were plenty of old people who lived for a long time brought up on heaping servings of fried meat and chicken, biscuits and sausage gravy, salt-and-Elvis-peppered vegetables and sugar-sweetened iced tea. Not only did those folks have longevity, but old as they were, they could run circles around you.

I can't help but think that, nowadays, the additives, pesticides and chemicals they use are what kills us. Back then, even if you did die a little younger, you died happy. That's really the best way to check out of this world: Happy.

My grandmother, Miz Lena, used to refer to a person's constitution. She'd say, "They's plenty a' things that can kill yuh, if yuh don't have a strong constitution." For a good while, I thought she was referring to being an American. I guess, in a sense, we were both correct. The America that I know is strong.

I must have caught 30 crawdads. Mr. Remus and I had a pact. Anything I caught out back of his house, we split. That worked for me. Every so often, he cooked for us.

Mr. Remus could certainly cook up some perch, but I'm pretty sure crawdads were his specialty. He used to gravel-laugh a little and say, "Boy, between da Lord and me, dey is magic dat happen every day. Magic be like a little merkul." He was saying miracle.

I paid keen attention to him standing over that black, wood-burning stove. I sat in my assigned chair and marveled at his culinary skills. If you'd peeked through the kitchen window at him, you wouldn't have thought he was blind, the way he moved around.

For him, everything in his little house had a purpose and a designated spot. Anything he needed was in a particular place and just a few steps away.

Mr. Remus set out his cooking utensils on the counter behind him. A table fork, a couple of big silver spoons and a small butcher knife. Big, bargain-size containers of McCormick pepper and Morton salt were the only seasonings he used.

He had what he called a "cooking rag" draped over his shoulder. He wiped his brow, rubbed his hands together and said, "Awright den, let's git dis show on da road."

Mr. Remus, stirring the beans, said, "Boy, pull open dat door on da stove, and pitch in a couple a' dem cedar woods. Dat handle is hot. Use yuh one a' dem pieces of kindlin' to pull up on da latch. I let you be part of da magic."

I was thrilled. When you're a kid, just hearing the word "magic" is magical.

Mr. Remus had been blind since childhood. He, like most Southern black people back then, was raised poor. He never received any special tutoring, much less learn how to read in Braille. He found his way around by touch. He saw with his hands.

In a small and organized stack, sitting on a chipped wooden table by the front door, were several newspapers. Most of them were dated back a few weeks. Mr. Remus asked me to read them to him. I did the best I could.

He gave me his commentary on some of the articles. He always made sense to me. I'm ashamed to say that I couldn't believe how smart he was. In those days, the stereotypical thinking, conveyed to us all, was that black people weren't intelligent. Different times. Cruel people.

Mr. Remus had two or three things going on at the same time. Potatoes boiling on one lid of the stove, the cornbread he was reheating in a skillet on the back burner and a tin pot of simmering pinto beans. The crawdads were popping in the grease. He pinched the cornbread, stuck his finger in the beans and could tell when they were ready.

We sat across the table from one another. The table was pushed up next to a window that looked out toward the creek. There were several 1- and 2-quart Mason jars filled with molasses, jams and vegetables lined up in a long row across the back length of the table. He identified the content of the jars by wrapping rubber bands around them.

Mr. Remus didn't say grace before the meal. He gave his thanks as he ate it. He'd look up, happy-chuckle and say, "Thank you, Lord, fo' deese beans. Dey sho is good." A couple of minutes later, he thanked God for the cornbread and so on. I hollered out my thanks for the beans as well. After I said, "They sho is good," Mr. Remus said, "Dey sho is." We both laughed big.

While we ate, he told me about trees and birds, the importance of wood, how to catch a big catfish and stories passed onto him about the days of slavery. His face made different expressions, depending on the story he told.

Toward the end of the meal, I asked Mr. Remus when he was going to perform his magic.

He sat up straight and looked over my way, cleared his throat and quietly said, "Boy, you is square in da magic right now. Da Lord's magic is everywhere and all around us."

He pointed up to the ceiling and continued, "It was da Lord put dem crawdaddies in da creek. Den you pull dem out and you sharin' dem wiff me. Den da Lord help me cook dem crawdaddies. Him up dere, and me down here and kain't see. Den, you and me, we cleans our plates, 'cause it taste so good. Dat's a merkul. Dat's da magic of life. Don't you nevah fogit dat."

I haven't forgotten. I truly believe that, with a little help from the man upstairs, every one of us performs some kind of magic every day. Blind Remus was right. Magic is everywhere and all around us. Life's a miracle.

Bill Stamps spent four decades in the entertainment business before moving from Los Angeles to Cleveland, Tennessee. Contact him at or through Facebook.

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