(I have had a request to run again this article that was written several years ago—I’m sure it will be new to many of you.)
A screech owl called last night at bedtime, its thin, quavering notes floating out on the evening stillness. It got me to thinking of Old Ed and the booby owls.
Ed appeared on our porch the evening after we had moved, many years ago, to an isolated old farm in Jackson County. He had come to look over his new neighbors who had moved to the old Davis farm that had been vacant for years.
Neighbors were few and far between in that area, and Old Ed lived in the most desolate place of all—a little shack deep in the woods beyond our farm. There he stood, grinning shyly, a weather-beaten old man topped with gray hair and dressed in dirty bib overalls and gum boots.
We invited him in for a cup of coffee, which he accepted. After the first sip, he smiled and said, “‘Tis better than water, hain’t it?” This remark was repeated with glee among us, but we really didn’t know how it was with Old Ed.
He became a daily visitor after that, always eating a meal with us. Ed was a bachelor in his late sixties. He was a bashful, yet friendly, and much lonelier than we realized at the time. His only love and constant companion was Betty, a mixed breed beagle that followed him everywhere and lay at his feet in plain adoration.
He worked some on neighboring farms doing odd jobs when available—shucking corn or cutting fodder. He had worked for some time for fifty cents an hour, and one of the farmers there told him one day, “Ed, you’ve been working good this summer, so I’m going to give you 75 cents an hour.
Ed hitched up the galluses on his overalls, spit a gob of tobacco juice out of the corner of his mouth and blurted, “No-siree-bob, and you hain’t a-doing it neither—if I hain’t worth fifty cents an hour, I hain’t worth nuthin’!”
The first time he saw me hang laundry out on the line, he was plainly shocked. “You’re a’ruinin’ them kid’s clothes a’warshin’ them like that. Jist warshes all the color out of them. Look at my overalls,” he said, hooking hi thumbs around the straps proudly. “When I git a new pair of overalls, I put them on and wear them out—they hain’t never warshed.”
There was no doubt about that. When the wind was right, you could smell Old Ed before he came in sight.
We bought a flock of laying hens from him, and the first time they saw me hang wet sheets on the clothesline, they panicked and ran for the woods, squawking and flapping their wings. I guess the sight was as strange to them as it was to Old Ed.
Yet he continued to visit, with Betty at his heels. He had to pass through a patch of thick woods on his way to our house where many hoot owls roosted. Ed was leery of the “booby” owls, and hated to pass through there. But he would brave the owls in order to make his daily visit. He was fond of our children, and when they would amuse him he would slap his leg and roar, “Well, bust my pitcher!”
One day he came to visit and for the first time, Betty wasn’t tagging along. He said Betty was sick and wouldn’t eat. The next day he sobbed like a child when he told us that Betty had died. Seemed as if the heart went out of Old Ed then. He drooped around and lost his zest for living.
We had a severe cold spell in February that year, and one frigid day Old Ed failed to visit. Another day passed and Criss hitched up our team of black mares to go see about him. He found Ed down with pneumonia, barely able to keep a fire going and unable to bring in more firewood. Criss brought in more wood and water, then with tears in his eyes told me about Ed’s living conditions.
He had a bed made of poles laced with grass rope and stuffed with gunny sacks. A horse collar and harness hung on the wall above a rickety table. A battered dresser and a worn out chair made up the rest of the furniture. There was no food in the house. We hadn’t dreamed he was so terribly poor. That one meal a day he ate with us was all the food he had.
Criss made a trip each day with the horses, taking care of him until he recovered. Then he took him to a lawyer to apply for his veteran’s benefits—Ed was a WW1 veteran. I’ll never forget the first check he received. It was about a ten-mile hike to the grocery store, and Ed came back with a bulging gunny sack on his back. Every five or six feet there was a discarded banana peeling. Old Ed was living high on the hog.
We moved back to Clay County soon after that, and later we heard that Ed’s health had gone downhill. After a severe illness, he was admitted to the VA hospital in Huntington. He lived there the remainder of his days.
We saw him one time after he went to the hospital to live and he seemed happy as he described the good food and pretty nurses. And he was safe from the booby owls.
(Viola Hanshaw from our own community of Ovapa said an older gentleman asked if the hooting of an owl in the daytime was an omen –does anyone know?)
Alyce Faye Bragg can be reached at <email@example.com or 2556 Summers Fork Road, Ovapa, WV 25150.
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