LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — When I was growing up there in the head of Blair Branch, what little Christmas shopping to be done in our family had already been completed in mid November courtesy of the Spiegel’s mail order catalog. In fact, said catalog, had already served its end utility in our outhouse by this time of year. If you hadn’t mailed your order to Chicago before Thanksgiving, chances were good that the package contents would be used for birthday presents in the coming year.
In other words, by the first of December it was way too late to be aggravating Mom about what you wanted Santa Claus to bring. Which meant it was high time to start pestering my Uncles, Willie Adams and Stevie Craft, about what they ought to be making me for Christmas. Uncle Stevie could whittle all manner of stick figurines, toy guns and knives, as well as make water pistols and pop-guns out of sections of elderberry bushes that he hollowed out and fitted with pieces of harder wood. He also made whistles from sections of paw-paw limbs and once made me a paw-paw “Indian flute.”
Somehow or other he would manage to get the bark to loosen on a foot-long section of paw-paw that was about an inch in diameter so that he could slip the solid wood core out. He whittled one side somewhat flat and tapered the wood in such a precise way that he could slip it back into the hollow bark, lay it on the mantel and let it dry for several days until it hardened and the bark re-adhered. Then, using his pocket knife, he cut little note holes in the bark that covered the section he had whittled on. When you blew though the tapered end you could make musical notes by covering the appropriate holes with your fingers.
I never did learn to plan a tune on it, but Uncle Stevie could play “Old Sally Goodin,” “Billy in the Low Ground,” “Camptown Races,” “Ole Dan Tucker,” and several dozen other traditional fiddle tunes. He was also a master fiddler, an instrument that baffles me to this day, but I loved to hear him play the homemade flutes as well.
Uncle Willie’s specialty was sling shots. If he was in the woods and happened upon a forked Y-shaped dogwood, sourwood, or ironwood limb of a certain size he would “harvest” it for use as a sling-shot prong. Any time a vehicle had a tire blow out, we would procure the inner tube so that it could be cut in strips to make slingshot rubbers. Not just any old inner tube would work. Tubes that were made before WWII worked best because they were made from real rubber of which there was a vast shortage during the war.
Inner tubes made after the war contained so much synthetic material that they wouldn’t stretch like the real McCoy. Suffice to say that the older the better when it came to using inner tubes to make slingshot rubbers. I’m not sure which company made them but the best ones were red and very hard to find.
Any time a pair of leather shoes wore out, meaning after they had been re-heeled and half-soled half a dozen times, and the uppers had pretty much rotted, we cut the tongues out to use for slingshot pouches.
The ends of the strips of good rubber were attached to each end of the shoe tongue and the other ends were attached to the tips of the Y-shaped prong. The bottom of the Y was the slingshot handle.
You grasped the handle with one hand, placed a pebble in the pouch with the other, pulled it back as far as you could reach or as far as the rubbers would stretch and let it fly. When Uncle Willie made a sling shot it was both a lethal weapon and a work of art. You could take one glance at a sling shot and tell if Uncle Willie had made it. His oldest son, my cousin the late Arlie Adams, also made extraordinary fine sling shots.
No blackbird, house sparrow, crow, ground squirrel, barn rat or mouse was safe if Uncle Willie had a sling shot in his back pocket. But Mom always told me that if she ever caught me shooting at a bird, my sling shot would make fine kindling after she gave me a switching. The only exception was crows and starlings, and only if they were in the act of pulling up sweet corn planted and sprouting in the garden.