By CL Bledsoe
When I was a kid, I thought lunch meat was a separate kind of meat — like beef or chicken. It was a pinkish processed meat product that tasted like salt and abandoned dreams. They sold it at the IGA in town, one of three grocery stores in my hometown, if you counted Little Hays over by the Shell Superstop gas station in the center of town. Lunch meat was the cheapest and therefore the kind Dad would get when he was in a sandwich kind of mood. He’d keep it in his cooler with his Budweisers, and when the ice would melt under the Arkansas sun as we waded the rice fields to cut or repair levees, the package would end up swimming. We’d park under a tree and drain the water from the pack, slap the processed ham onto white bread from a mushed loaf Dad kept in the front seat, and choke the stuff down. We ate it dry because mayonnaise didn’t last in a hot truck, and mustard was a little too fancy for our blood.
Dad also kept a box of Saltine crackers in the cab. It, like the bread and everything else, collected a layer of dirt from the open windows until the outside was brown. They were usually stale because of their age and the fact that we just twisted the sleeves closed. Maybe it was that or the open windows, but they usually tasted like dust. We’d spread potted meat on them or spear Vienna sausages from a can with our pocket knives and then wipe those clean on a pant leg, never wondering how we didn’t die from food poisoning. Woe betides any bacteria that were foolish enough to wander into our systems, made strong by the peck of dust we regularly consumed. To be honest, I preferred the Vienna sausages, which tasted like a raw hotdog, sort of, to the potted meat, but the lunchmeat was still the worst.
This was lunch, summer days when we drove out to check the fields. On special days, when the hankering for something that tasted decent got to us, we’d go to Hamlin’s Market. Hamlin was basically the market, a liquor store, a tire place, and a Riceland dryer on the side of highway 64. An awning stretched out from the front of the store over a gas pump that hadn’t worked in years, held up by bent poles I always feared would give out on my head. The place was run by Aunt Mildred, an elderly woman who was no relation to us. Most of the shelves were empty, but they sold sandwiches made from identifiable kinds of meat and sometimes hot lunches. If he was in a good mood, sometimes Dad would let me get a piece of candy before we headed back out to the rice fields.
* * *
The bulk of our rice fields were closest to Hamlin, an hour drive from home, the way Dad drove. Two things about Hamlin enthralled me. The first was the Hamlin Flying Service, which was a tiny airstrip on the side of the highway in between a couple rice fields. I never saw more than one or two crop-dusters there, but that was enough. Every time we went to set up an appointment for spraying, I would ask Dad if I could ride in the plane.
“Ask him,” he’d say. But I didn’t have the courage.
Once, he asked, and Mr. Hess patiently explained that there wasn’t room unless I wanted to sit on the payload and get dumped into a field.
“That sound like fun?” he asked.
It actually did.
“We could just fly,” I said. “Away. We could go anywhere.”
“We mostly just fly over fields,” Mr. Hess said.
The second place I loved to go was Frank’s Liquor, which was across from a tire place, right at the turnoff we’d take off 64 to get to Brushy Lake, where we had a stock pond, a rice field, usually a milo field, and sometimes kept cattle. Frank was an older, heavy set man. He was disabled and hardly rose from his seat. When he did, he had a big cane. But his store was the closest thing to a museum I’d ever seen. Near the door, there were tables full of glass bottles shaped like animals, people, buildings. There were wolf and bear bottles, ones shaped like celebrities. I loved to look at them, the intricacies of their details. I once asked my Dad if I could have one, and Mr. Frank piped in.
“I can’t sell to a minor,” he said.
I hadn’t realized the bottles held liquor.
“I just want the bottles,” I said. “I won’t drink them.”
“You can’t be coming in here, acting like that,” Mr. Frank told me. “I shouldn’t be letting you in here at all.”
I shut up about it before he banned me entirely. Then, there’d be nothing to look at but rows of levees, flashing by as we eased along the highway.
* * *
We set fires sometimes to burn the chaff off a field and replenish the soil with ash. This field out near Hamlin was usually a rice field, but had lain fallow. The wind changed and pushed the fire back toward the road. We pulled up alongside the well, and Dad and my brother Mike got out with their shovels, which was all we had and what we knew how to use best. I got to drive the truck up the road a bit and park it away, which I managed without running it into a ditch. Dad implied that he wanted me to stay there, but he didn’t actually say it, so I grabbed my shovel and hoofed it back to them.
They stood in between the well and the fire, shoveling darkening soil into the flames. Dad told me to get back to the road, but I was already throwing dirt like my brother.
The fire seemed to be aiming right for us, burning up the grass and seemingly the very soil. We shoveled. The blades of our shovels bit into the dirt, and we threw it onto the fire and then smoldering dirt.
Maybe it was five minutes; maybe it was an hour. When the flames — much higher-seeming, I’m sure, to my short height than they really were — finally died down, my brother and Dad watched the last bits of smoldering grass. I remembered to breathe and started coughing from the smoke. I don’t know what I thought should be happening now — some kind of celebration — but they just stood and watched until the field was blackened ash, then we went back to the truck and headed to the next field.