Friday, June 17, 2011

Folklife Fridays: Is that a chigger?

I have to admit that summer in the South isn't perfect.

There are the numerous snakes, gnats, mosquitoes, and other UFO's that plague us during these sultry months. One of the nastiest ones, chiggers, can't be seen with the naked eye, which is probably a good thing. If they were as big as an ant, it would surely mean instant death to anything they were able to climb on and sink into.

My siblings and I spent every warm day of our youth playing outside, in the woods and fields, usually barefooted. We all had chigger bites from the time school ended until the cold weather ran them back in the ground. Sometimes, our brown naked legs would look like the Appalachian foothills on a miniature scale.

The beautiful butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa, grows wild in our area. I have always loved it but we were afraid to get near it because it was also a favorite of chiggers. Its common name in this area is chigger weed, so I guess my mom was right when she warned us to stay away from it.

We used various remedies to rid ourselves of chiggers and the itching that accompanied them. Snuff juice, always readily available, was probably used the most. Mama bought something called 'poison soap' for us to bathe our legs in, and it seemed to help, at least temporarily. Baking soda and water could be made into a paste that would stick to the bumps.

The only true cures were time and autumn.

Several years ago, we were living on a farm in Tennessee. Some new people moved in a house near us, and we quickly became friends. They were from way, way above the Mason-Dixon line, clueless concerning chiggers. The man came to visit us one late afternoon and asked to speak with Hub privately. He wanted to know what was causing his private parts to break out in bumps and itch so bad.

My lil' ole sister has always loved to fish, and happily sits quietly and patiently for hours waiting for the red and white bobber to disappear. A few years back, she spent a fine afternoon on a grassy bank, happy that the fish were biting and the breeze was fresh. She caught a lot more than a few fish. Next morning, she woke up to a rear end covered with innumerable chigger bites and an itch that lasted for the rest of the summer.

On July 4, 1970, Hub's family got together to celebrate Independence Day. They lived in Wright, a little community built along the river, beautiful with its lush vegetation. It was a good year for blackberries and they were at their peak that day. It was suggested that we could have cobbler after supper if someone would go and pick some blackberries. Well, I have never been one to turn down a blackberry cobbler, so we got a bucket and found some choice brambles growing in Miss Lonia's pasture. It didn't take long to pick about a quart of the black, juicy berries.

Oh. Did I mention that I was entering my eighth month of pregnancy? I was skinny all over except my belly, which looked like I was hiding a twenty-pound watermelon. The next morning when I woke up, I knew instantly that something didn't feel right. Raising my nightgown to expose the before mentioned belly, I discovered it was covered with chigger bites, far too many to count.

Our little rental house had a window air-conditioner, and I spent the next few days standing in front of it with my maternity (yes, we wore maternity clothes back then) top pulled up so the cold air could blow directly on my big belly. It helped as long as I was standing there. I went to the OB/Gyn for my regular visit after a couple of days. It was the only time I have ever had a doctor to laugh out loud at my condition.

Powdered sulfur applied to the feet and ankles seems to prevent them. When I get one occasionally, I dab a little nail polish on it, although the experts say that all that does is remind you not to scratch. I suspect there are as many chiggers now as there ever was. I am just much, much more careful about invading their space now.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Folklife Friday: Baptizing in the Creek

My friend, Shellie Rushing Tomlinson, the Belle of All Things Southern, had a cute story about river baptizing in her "All Things Southern" newsletter this week (

It got me to thinking about some baptisms that I witnessed in my long-gone and wasted youth.

We were not a church-going family on a regular basis, but we did go occasionally for strictly social purposes. I was a pure heathen; church to me was a totally fun event that was temporarily interrupted by a sermon. Most of this church going took place in the summer, when annual revival meetings where held. This summer-time holiness tradition began before the days of cars and pickup trucks, when people walked or rode wagons to church. It had to be after the crops were laid by. In the little church we randomly attended, you didn't mess with tradition.

Some years, a large tent would be erected in a pasture nearby for those who wouldn't be caught dead near a church house. A visiting evangelist would proclaim the good news while tired farmers stood just outside the light created by a bare bulb on an extension cord, smoking and listening. Sometimes, they listened well.

A community wide baptism service was held the Sunday afternoon following the revival services for the new converts. We lived in the Appalachian foothills near the Tennessee River. It seemed that between every ridge there was a hollow with a creek making its way to the ocean via the river. Horse Creek, Second Creek, White's Creek, and branches off them provided good swimming holes, which could be easily turned into a baptistry by simply removing the beer cans and spraying for insects. I was baptized in White's Creek in a dry year when the preacher struggled to immerse a healthy 5'9" woman in water that barely covered her knees. The rain-blessed years were different; then people could find a shoulder deep spot where the dunking was easy.

My dad had a niece who attended one of those churches where they jumped and ran, shouting the whole time, and it was rumored they handled snakes, although I never witnessed this personally. We never went there because my mom thought it was a little too traumatic for small children. The niece and her husband were on the list to be baptized one Sunday afternoon, so it behooved us to go, inasmuch that kin was respected regardless of their choices. The service was held in a spring-fed bend of Horse Creek, which was a lot bigger and a lot deeper than White's Creek.

The minute it started, my ten-year old brain surmised that something different was taking place here. There was lots of music, including guitars and french harps, unlike the one out-of-tune piano at the other place. There was several candidates for baptism lined up on the bank, waiting. The men removed their wallets from their pants and rolled the legs up to their knees. The women pinned the front and back of their skirts between their legs, an effort to prevent them from flashing the crowd while they were in the water. When the singing stopped, they dutifully filed in and waited their turn.

Did I mention it was a hot, HOT summer day? The kind of day where the humidity sucks sweat and energy out your pores as a special treat for the mosquitoes. The crowd pressing on the usually quiet creek bank was steaming, some babies crying, mothers slapping at bugs and keeping an eye out for water moccasins. The service seemed to go on and on, and my skinny legs were tired of standing still. Just when I thought I couldn't possibly stand there one more minute, the action picked up considerably.

When my cousin was prayed over and came up out of that cold water, well, she just went crazy. She began frantically splashing the water, going under and up again, falling back in the water like she was doing a back flip off a diving board. When her head was above the water, she would give a good shout before going back under. The crowd just went wild.

Someone, possibly her mother, yelled, "Get her, she is going to drown!"

Others said she was "in the spirit" and began praising the Lord for it, extra loud to make sure He could hear it through the mayhem.

My dad leaned over to my mom and whispered, "Somebody better get her out of there!"

About the same time, someone standing behind us proclaimed that she could not drown if she was in the spirit. They were certain.

My lil' ole sister looked up at me with her big brown eyes like she expected ME to do something!

After a few more minutes of hysterical wetness, she gathered some dignity and walked out, her long skirt billowing in the water like a jellyfish. The red-faced preacher reached for the next person waiting in line.

I thought it was just fascinating. Up until then, I was ignorant of the fact that you could legally have fun while you were in a church service. It looked to me like she just saw a hot-day opportunity too good to pass up and took full advantage of it. If it happened today, I might just jump in there with her.

Unfortunately, I didn't have my trusty digital camera fifty years ago. The photos are from Foxfire 7, a whole book in the Foxfire series dedicated to religious heritage traditions. I highly recommend it.