Grit, Cloverine Salve, and Muskrat Hides
The morning of January 30, 1952, was penetratingly cold on Bowen Creek, a small settlement located twenty-three miles southeast of Huntington, West Virginia. The temperature was seven degrees, and my brother Philip and I had to walk with our heads down to keep the snow and ice pellets from assaulting us in the face during our brisk walk down Bowen Creek Road. We were on a mission.
We had attempted all sorts of ways to make some extra spending money, for times were hard, making it difficult for Mother and Daddy to come up with even pennies to give away. Besides, there was a short supply of entertainment, so Philip and I were gullible and fell for all the get-rich-quick schemes advertised in magazines. We sold Grit, a weekly newspaper, popular in rural areas during much of the twentieth century; peddled tins of Cloverine Salve among our neighbors from time to time, with the hope of winning some eye-catching prize pictured in the company’s advertisements; and more than once, we aggravated our neighbors by asking them to purchase at least one box of Christmas cards, so that they, in turn, ended up sending identical cards to one another during the Yultide season. But they all felt as though they had done a good deed, helping the local entrepreneurs, so what was the harm in sending and receiving look-alike greetings? After all, it was the thought that counted. There was one occasion when the two of us worked all day turning hay for a thrifty neighbor to prevent it from molding. Philip made $1.50, and I was paid $1.00. The neighbor whispered in my ear that he paid Philip $1.50 because he was older. Well, I had worked just as hard, got just as hungry, and sweated just like Philip. So, what our neighbor didn’t realize when he whispered in my ear was that he deflated my ego, stomped my self-esteem into the dirt, and set my blood to boiling, all in one fell swoop.
When none of these ventures panned out, Philip came up with this brainy idea that we could make buckets of money selling animal hides. He had a couple of hounds, so it wasn’t long till we had opossum, raccoon, rabbit, and groundhog hides tacked to the outside walls of the few shacks that dotted our seventy-eight acre farm. In addition to tacking them to our rough-lumbered buildings, we also pulled some of the pelts over hide stretchers to dry them as well. We managed to sell a few of the furs at giveaway prices. However, the rest remained tacked to the buildings and on the stretchers, where the fur eventually loosed itself from the hardened skins, and drifted away on the West Virginia winds.
Philip used what little money we made from selling the hides to buy several rusted steel traps from Ed Gibson who lived at the head of a hollow about half a mile down Bowen Creek. He paid fifteen cents for the ones that were badly rusted and twenty-five for those that appeared to be a little more substantial. Despite their look, each one worked, so we went to setting all our traps at strategic locations up and down Bowen Creek, with the hopes of catching an ample supply of muskrats to offset the losses on all our other failed endeavors. Not only did we intend to sell all the hides from our catch, we had heard that some families on Bowen Creek would actually eat all the muskrats they could get their hungry hands on. Although our family didn’t eat them, we would gladly sell their carcasses to any family who wanted to use them for nourishment.
Philip and I would never have stuck our heads outside the warmth of our Appalachian home on Bowen Creek so early on that brutal morning, had it not been for the need to check our traps for possible yield. Of course, we were well-dressed for the occasion: woolen caps with fleece-lined ear muffs; warm underwear; flannel shirts; bibbed overalls; woolen socks; heavy woolen mackinaw coats; brogan shoes; black rubber, four-buckle arctic boots; and brown jersey gloves. All we needed was a dog sled and a few Siberian Huskies, and we were ready to compete in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska.
We had followed the meandering creek for one-and-a-half miles, checking our traps. Once we reached the place where the creek had gouged its way in the form of a horseshoe around a large field, our last traps were set at the far end of this horseshoe bend. At some point in the bend, Philip had crossed the ice-covered creek. He eventually situated himself on a high bank, opposite from where I was standing on the lower bank of the creek. At the exact point where Philip was standing, the bank had eroded, causing the place where he was standing to stick out past the bank that had eaten away, causing him to be in a perilous situation. Suddenly, the bank gave way! Down went Philip and the bank upon which he stood, like an avalanche onto the ice-covered creek. Both he and the heavy earth hit the ice with great force, and the water beneath was deep. The ice itself was weak, causing Philip to break through and completely submersing him in those frigid January waters. At first I thought he was trapped, so I panicked. But he suddenly bobbed out of the water, broken chunks of ice floating all around him, and he gasped loudly for air. I stretched out my arm and body as far as I could, making every effort to reach him so that I could help him out of the freezing water. But it was impossible without me ending up in the water along with Philip. Something had to be done, and it had to be done soon. I looked around for something—anything—I might use for Philip to hold onto in order for me to pull him out. Suddenly, I spotted an old crooked tree limb that was lodged in the earth on my side of the creek. It was small enough in diameter that I could break it in half yet still be long enough for me to be able to reach it out to Philip to catch hold of. Fortunately, he still had his wits about him and had the ability to catch hold so that I could pull him out of the water. Once he was safe, his body shook violently, and his teeth chattered uncontrollably. We had to get out of there and try to make it home as fast as we could. Since he was completely soaked through his heavy winter garb, the only thing I could do for him at that point was to take off my own warm mackinaw coat and give it to him. With that, we headed back up Bowen Creek at a much faster pace than we had made earlier, moseying along and checking our traps.
When we arrived back at the house, I was freezing from not having a coat on, but Philip was a lot colder. His teeth were still snapping and popping, out of control. Once inside, however, he soon warmed up and was back to his old self again, barking out orders for me to make a pot of coffee, warm up a can of chicken noodle soup, and make him a fried bologna sandwich with mustard, because he was starving to death. And when his pangs of hunger had been soothed, Philip started making plans for the following summer. He said the two us, along with Jimmy and Billy Napier, would dam up the creek in the head of the hollow on Mother and Daddy’s seventy-eight acre hillside farm on Bowen Creek. That way, we would have a nice place to go swimming on hot summer days, just like people did in the big city of Huntington, West Virginia. My brother was always thinking ahead and making life interesting there in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains. I wish he was still around so we could talk about life being simple and good and we didn’t have anything to worry about other than whether or not we had muskrats in our rusty old traps.
©2013 By David Lee Thompson