My bare feet like the ground, the damp cool of the grass on these July days so hot it’s like a blackiron door was left open to some over-stoked boiler room and waves of heat issue forth and shove you back and make it hard to breathe.
Even the sandy lane up the hill from Waterhole Branch under the shade of these venerable liveoaks feels good on my feet. My heel and toes make footprints as I go along behind my dog Bobby, who tears off kicking up sand chasing after some hapless squirrel minding its own business with an acorn or two.
I’ve been going barefoot since Spring and the soles of my feet are no longer tender. At first, every sticker and briar and sharp rock I came down on would get a good Millport cussing. And then I’d look more carefully where I stepped, trying to dodge the hazards.
Then I spied it, a rusty nail. I bent and picked it up. I thought maybe I’d toss it in the underbrush up ahead where the iron could keep leaching into the ground with this humid season’s rainfall, and I wondered do the roots of plants like the taste of a rusty nail. And I would learn later, back in my cabin at my computer screen, that iron deficiency in the soil causes a condition called iron chlorosis and that simple iron spikes driven in the ground near trees can “bring back a lush, green color” to its foliage.
So I will definitely take the nail back outside when I’m done with it. Push it down point-first into the dark and soft loamy soil in the azalea hedge near the tall white oak that got hit by lightning last week.
Hmmm? My farming kin never mentioned plants with anemia as I was growing up.
Back in Lamar County, Alabama, in the 1950s we were, however, warned on a daily basis to watch out for stepping on a nail. “You bare-footed young’uns better watch out down at the barn. All kinda nails in them boards. Rusty, too. You’ll get lockjaw.” But we never listened.
And I’m sure my grandmother didn’t forget her rusty-nail mantra on the day of the big corncob war. Must’ve been five or six cousins and a neighbor kid or two in that battle royal down at Pa Estes’s barn. Everybody had collected from around the feeding trough and the corn crib a good supply of corncobs. Back pockets and front pockets of our cut-off blue jeans bulged with ammunition. One corncob broken in half would yield two blistering side-arm chances to sting somebody’s neck or sunburned back.
We advanced and retreated, sneaked and hid, all around the barn and in the stalls and cribs and hayloft. Some devious little foot soldiers would drag a whole 8-inch corncob through a fresh cowpatty before slinging it at their target.
When I saw Jimmy Dale Vail’s head poke up into the hayloft and I hummed my last half-cob at him and missed, there was only one choice for me. Jump. Hit the ground running before he so much as mounted the top rung of that ladder into the loft. Jimmy Dale was a devious combat veteran. There would be green stink in his arsenal. And he had one hell of a pitching arm.
Without a second’s delay, I launched into the blue from the high gable door from where I’d loaded-up and thrown-down countless bales of hay at my grandfather’s direction. I was airborne and in the clear. Or so I thought, until the ball of my right foot landed smack in the middle of a rusty nail poking up about an inch through a broken piece of plank.
My scream of pain drew no pity from Jimmy Dale. His fouled corncob caught me on the back of my neck and might have stung me like a hornet, except all my senses were high-jacked by the bloody little hole in my foot. I didn’t even feel Jimmy Dale’s bullseye shot as I writhed and lifted my foot off the nail while all my foes big-eyed me and held their fire.
Good thing. ‘Cause my grandmother didn’t show me any mercy. “I’ve told you blessed kids, and told you ‘til I’m just plum hoarse and blue in the face. But did ye listen? No. Well, I reckon you’ll listen the next time,” she said. And made me bite down on a wooden spoon handle so in case I got lockjaw from the tetanus infection, at least I could be fed soft food through the slit between my teeth as I died a horrible death, all the while watching the bright red line of infection crawl from the wound site up my leg to my heart.
She also made me soak my foot in a pan of kerosene—or coal oil, as we called it then when it was used for lanterns and lamps—and she told me again how maybe I’d learn to listen to her. “Or at least open your eyes and look where you are stepping.” I didn’t tell her I wasn’t stepping, that I landed full force like some paratrooper without a chute. “You’re lucky it went between the bones or you’d be a cripple for life. Maybe one-legged.” If I should live, that is.
When my Uncle Gizz delivered me to Doctor Mize at his clinic in Millport, the doctor said I would not die, nor have to slurp cream corn through a fat straw. He said I would have to keep a plain white sock and shoe on my foot until it healed some. It was summer and I didn’t want to wear a shoe. I was mad and it left me with a long lasting grudge for rusty nails.
But I have put away the fears of my youth, and I didn’t even recoil when I almost landed my foot on the old nail this morning. Of course, the nail was on its side in the sand and totally benign, no threat at all.
So I welcomed it inside the cabin with me for a photo op and to keep me company while I walked my feet back some sixty years to a time when a rusty nail was a more likely enemy than a cottonmouth moccasin, but now looks good as a keepsake on my desk.
Hmmm? I do have some iron pills I could sprinkle by the azaleas. Maybe I’ll rest the chanced-upon nail on my bookshelf as a talisman, a reminder of surviving cowpatties and lockjaw when I was young. But then William Faulkner advised writers to never let the truth stand in the way of a good story. So I’m thinking this very nail might be the one that was, ah, hammered into an oak board and turned up like a booby trap on some dusty corncob battlefield…Now where’s that tiny scar?