The neighborhood where I grew up, the hills west of Austin, Texas, has changed tremendously over the last many years. Nowadays, its green, rolling hills are filled with subdivisions of million dollar homes and trendy shopping centers, but back when I was a little kid, it was much more rural. That's not to say it was poor or even blue collar, in fact our closest neighbors were a newspaper editor and a county judge. Many people owned acreage (I grew up on 16 acres) but the land wasn't farms or ranches, it was just scenic.
However, back in the '60's, deep in the woods of cedar trees, down long dirt trails that snaked off the Ranch Roads, you could still find rickety shacks inhabited by families referred to in the local vernacular as "cedar choppers". This was probably a derogatory term, but it did refer to the way many of these people made a living; they would chop down cedar trees on their land, and sell it for firewood and fencing. Rumor had it that they were also the local source of moonshine. The houses were often doorless and windowless, and the yards were overrun with dogs and messy little children. I always found these folks a bit scary, but fascinating. Think a little Beverly Hillbillies and a lot...Deliverance.
I remember the man who ran the dump. This was before the City of Austin's sanitation department began garbage collection out our way, and once a week, Daddy had to load all of our garbage into the back of his pickup truck, and drive it out to the County Dump. I used to love riding along with him because the dump was just such a big, nasty experience - acres of giant piles of seething trash. The Dump Man lived in a rickety house on the edge of the garbage, and his entire place was filled with "perfectly good" junk he'd salvaged from other people's trash. I loved it! I can only assume that the Dump Man's had lost all olfactory perception, because that place stank!
Mama used to take me with her to visit the Egg Man, who sold her fresh eggs every week. The Egg Man lived in an ramshackle house surrounded by chickens. I always thought it was apropos that the Egg Man was the egg man, because he had a shiny bald head that looked like...an egg. He also had a bunch of peacocks, who wandered around freely, screaming and occasionally showing off their tail feathers. Once, the Egg Man gave me a peacock feather which had fallen out, and I treasured it for years. I kind of can't believe that Mama let me keep it, as who knows what kind of bugs and germs must have been on it.
But the cedar chopper family which we had the most dealings with were the Johnsons. The Johnsons were a large family who lived back in the woods not far from us. They would often be seen driving around in a dilapidated old truck, which looked very much like the one the Clampetts drove on The Beverly Hillbillies. The leader of the Johnson family was Grandma Johnson, a weathered old woman with long, grayish/yellowish hair, which blew out behind her as they drove along with the windows open. Daddy regularly bought our firewood from them, and had developed a peculiar friendship with the oldest "Johnson boy", Duane, who must have been in his twenties. I say peculiar, because there could not have been two less similar men. But Duane would often drop by our house, and though I don't remember him ever coming inside, Daddy would go out and sit with him and chat. Daddy was that kind of man, he always had a number of young people who liked to just sit and listen to him talk.
At some point, Daddy, who was not a hunter, let Duane go deer hunting on our land. I suspect Daddy felt okay about it because the Johnsons would certainly have used the deer for food, not just as a trophy to mount to the wall. The story goes that once, when I was about one, Duane pulled up and said "Mr. German, I know you've got that new baby girl, and you need to come out and see what I just shot on your land." And there, in the back of his truck, was a dead mountain lion. Which was probably a good thing, since Mama sometimes used to leave me outside on a quilt with just the German Shepherd as a nanny. Though now that I think of it, that German Shepherd may have been able to take on a mountain lion.
My favorite of all the Johnson family stories is a tale I once overheard Duane tell Daddy, which for some reason, I still often find myself thinking about. It's a really, truly disgusting story. Which might have something to do with my lifelong obsession with it.
Duane had owned some kind of souped up muscle car, which he'd been tinkering on for many years. Think The General Lee from The Dukes of Hazzard. One day, he was driving along the Ranch Road that went past our house, speeding much too fast, rounded a blind curve, and there in the middle of the road, discovered a dreadful sight. Some critter (probably a raccoon or a possum) had previously been taken out by a car, and a huge, mean ol' buzzard was chowing down on the road kill, it's belly stuffed full of all the dead goodies it had been eating. Duane was driving too fast to veer around the critter/buzzard, and had run straight into it. The buzzard had smashed through his windshield and kind of exploded all over Duane and the car, its stomach contents covering everything.
This image was a little much for a 5-year old to take, and has created in me a lifelong fear of road kill.
I don't have any memories of the Johnsons or really any of the other "Cedar Chopper" families after the late '60's or early '70's and I don't know what became of them. I guess that the area became too gentrified and they were pushed farther out into the sticks and just became run-of-the-mill rednecks. Only a couple of kids I went to school with were from what could have been considered cedar chopper families, so I'm guessing they were long gone before the big Austin Hill Country real estate boom.
But I like to think that some of those families like the Johnsons held onto their land and ended up making a killing, selling their acreage to builders and developers. And I'm sort of sorry that they're not still there, because the Johnsons would, no doubt, have made an excellent Honey Boo Boolike reality tv show!
This post was inspired by...
Prompt #2 - Tell us about a "character" in your town or neighborhood who left an impression on you.