Copyright
Sam Elmore

CRIME DON'T PAY


(Perhaps the title should read: "crime don't pay---if you ain't any good at it".)

Most farmers around where we lived, in our category of "working on halves", had only one money crop; cotton. Other crops were planted and harvested which brought in a small amount of income, either in outright sale for cash, or in barter for other commodities which we couldn't grow.

Food crops for the family, as well as for the livestock were, of necessity I suppose, secondary in importance to the cotton crop. We planted what we called "mule corn" or "field corn" for the livestock, and a different kind of corn for family eating.

We also planted a few rows of pop-corn each year, because my parents believed in that old adage about "all work and no play---". Other crops consisted of fruits and vegetables, including peanuts, watermelons, canteloupes, and the standard variety of garden vegetables for eating fresh, in season, and to can for use during the winter.

During the great depression of the 30's, the absence of hard cash was not readily perceived by us youngsters; primarily because we'd never had any money anyway, and the stock market crash of '29 didn't seem to alter that situation much either way. However, the grown-ups were certainly concerned about bringing in enough money to clothe us adequately for the various seasons, and for school wear.

The fact that we ate wonderfully well, during the worst of the depression times, is a tribute to the hard work and know-how of our parents. Today, a millionaire could not buy the kind of home-cured, hickory-smoked, ham that my Papa put in the smoke-house every year. There's no one around who can prepare them the way Papa did, and no amount of money can change that.

So, there you have the setting...hard-working parents raising a house full of well-fed youngsters with love and affection; kids so busy soppin' red-eye gravy with cat-head biscuits, that we didn't recognize that there was a depression.

With that description of a happy home life, one might well ask the question: 'With such good raising, why would three young boys turn to stealing?'. Good question. The primary reason was--wa'al, let me be totally honest with you about that; big brother Barge got us two younger ones started down that lamentable path of criminal activity.

Papa grew those perfectly round, dark green, Stone Mountain watermelons. I've never tasted a watermelon that had the unique flavor and texture of the Stone Mountain variety. He would mark an 'X' on a few select melons in each crop. From them, he saved the seed for planting the following year.

To keep the sun from burning his select melons, and crows from pecking them after they got ripe, he would cover them with brush-tops. We knew better than to mess with one of Papa's marked melons. We got all the watermelon we wanted to eat anyway, so we were never even tempted to bust one of his seed melons.

It was the simple fact that one of our uncles did not raise the Stone Mountain variety of melons that got our "crime wave" kicked off. He grew a different kind of watermelon; long, slender ones, with green and white stripes. Papa called 'em "rattlesnake" melons. They were pretty good eatin', but not as good as Papa's.

Barge (nick-named Todd) was the oldest of us three boys on the tail end of the family, and he (admittedly) knew pretty much all that needed to be known--about anything. In his own words, there ain't no use of you two boys doin' any thinking; I'll take care of that for all three of us.

Our uncle's place was just a little piece from ours and, over a period of time, we had worn a trail between them, traipsing barefooted back and forth. We constantly trusted our keen sense of smell to inform us if an oven door was opened anywhere, and fresh tea-cakes or baked sweet taters were taken out.

One day, we had given up on anybody baking any goodies that we could cadge and, since it had been almost an hour-and-a-half since we'd finished eating a big dinner, Todd declared that we were gon' starve to death 'fore supper, if we didn't find something to eat--fast. (When Baucum had finally pushed himself back from the dinner table a little while ago, he'd said: "I'm so full, I ain't gon' eat again for two months.")

However, me'n Baucum had been sort of 'brain-washed' to follow Todd's lead in these matters, so we just nodded our heads when he declared that we had to find food--fast. Since we were on the 'uncle end' of our well-travelled path, Todd deemed that it was our uncle's responsibility to supply the provender needed to keep us alive until suppertime. Since we were standing about fifteen feet from the man's water-melon patch at the time he deemed it, Todd didn't have to put his thinking process into overdrive.

Grabbing up a "rattlesnake" melon, the three of us took off like guinea hens for the plum thicket, out behind our uncles barn. We all had our Barlow pocketknives with us, but Todd just whopped the melon with the edge of his hand and busted it open. We ate the heart of the melon, Todd opined: "that ought-a hold us", and we went on about our business, leaving the rind laying on the ground in the plum thicket.

Whenever we ate a watermelon at home, we always threw the rind in the hog trough; but we were on the outlaw trail that day, and didn't want to risk capture by taking the rind to our uncle's hog-pen (almost thirty-five feet from the plum thicket.)

Later that evening, the three of us boys were kneeling in the dirt yard in front of our house, playing marvels. Papa had him a dip of snuff, and was rocking on the front porch; just abiding until Mama hollered supper-time. We didn't know another soul was on the place, until Papa said "come on up, and grab a chair."

We looked up, and there was our uncle Wordie, just sitting down in a rocker alongside Papa. Me and Baucum quickly looked over at Todd, because our bellies were still bloated with stolen watermelon and we felt guilty about stealin' it--more so, now that the 'victim' was settin' on our front porch. Todd gritted his teeth, cut his eyes hard at us, and shook his head; that meant 'keep ye' mouth shut, and don't say nothing.'

We continued to play our game, but kept our ears tuned to every word that was said, up on the porch. First, they talked about the weather, then about crops, then about the "dad-gum guv-uh-mint", until us boys were lulled into a sense of 'we got away with it'. Just then, our uncle asked Papa if he'd had any problems with people stealing his watermelons. Papa said:

"Shoot, naw; if anybody wants 'em, they welcome to 'em. Why? Has somebody been messin' around your patch?"

"Yeah. Somebody stole one-a my best melons today sometime, while I shuckin' corn in the barn--left the rind layin' in my plum thicket."

"Wa'al, I be dogged. Now who would do a sorry thang like that, when all they gotta do is ask?".

"I don't know, Abb; but I got a good idy I can find out who done it--they left some pretty distinctive foot-prints in my melon patch."

That's when I knew we was done for. We'd been in his patch barefooted, naturally; and I've got a couple of toes on each foot that's sort-of growed together. There wasn't any doubt in my mind that we was 'busted.'

It took the longest time, but eventually, that comment about a 'distinctive foot-print' penetrated through Todd and Baucum's thick skulls. They both whirled around and stared down at my bare feet, with their mouthes gapped open. I had already tried to pull my bare feet up inside of my britches legs, but I hadn't done too good a job of it. We just froze where we was, and waited for doom to come crashin' down on us.

"Abb, me and you both got more melons than the hogs'll eat, and we ain't never begrudged nobody nothing. What hurts more than anythang though is, whoever done it, stole one of the only two yeller-meated melons I had."

That was all it took. Baucum had carried a ton of guilt around on his shoulders for several hours already, but he couldn't stand to be falsely accused. Before me or Barge could do a thing, 'the baby' jumped up and blurted:

"That wadn't no yeller-meated watermelon we stole--it uz a RED 'un!"

(If us three boys had elected to indulge in a life of crime, we'd have starved to death before we were thirteen-year-old.)