Old Mack’s Tales

Apple Jack

The 15 year old lad rode the freight trains and thumbed across the country aimlessly.  Eventually, he arrived in eastern Tennessee.  While walking down Market Street in Johnson City, he spied a sign painted on the marquee suspended by chains from the side of a warehouse:  “McKinney’s Produce”.  Under the marquee, blocking all but a few feet of the sidewalk, were produce bins.  Behind them, wearing a white, knee-length apron, stood an elderly man; his head as bald and almost as red as the Delicious Apples in the bin.

“Howdy,” said the lad.  “You wouldn’t happen to know a man named Claude McKinney, would you?”

“Sure do, Sonny.  His brother Roy owns this store.  Claude drives a truck for him.”

“Is he around?”

“Nope.  He lit out yesterday, headed for Michigan to pick up a load of apples.”

“Shucks,” said the lad.  “Does he live around here?”

“Nope.  Lives in White County.  That’s west of here.  ‘Bout half way between Knoxville and Nashville.  Little place called ‘Doyle,’ near the Caney Fork River.  He usually stops there on his way back with a load.  His son, Charles Lee, lives there with his momma.  She and Claude are divorced, I reckon.  But she lets him stay overnight to visit, provided he’s sober.”

The lad thanked the old man, turned on his heel and headed west.  He had no trouble catching rides.  Truckers and bus drivers picked him up to have someone to tell their troubles to.

The boy’s homing instincts were sharp as a pigeon’s.  The following day he hitched a ride on the back of a mule-drawn wagon driven by an elderly black man.  They came to a fork in the road.  A sign on a gas station: “Doyle, Tennessee.  Gas, Groceries, Pool Hall and U.S. Post Office.”  The boy jumped down and flipped a coin to help him decide which fork to take.  It told him to go left.

The country was spooky.  Small patches planted in corn, already picked, offered some sun and warmth in an otherwise dark and chilly pine forest.  It was late November on the high plateau of Middle Tennessee and the mornings were frosty.  Following directions from locals, the boy found the cabin occupied by Claude McKinney’s former mother-in-law, Granny West.

After a bit of scrutinizing, the old woman invited the boy into the cabin.  As she held open the screen door for him to enter she said: “Your daddy ain’t here.  Your grandpa died this morning and Claude took Edna and the children to North Carolina to bury him.”

Everyone was in a high emotional state when the boy’s father, Edna and the children returned home.  How they all seemed to know him on sight was a mystery to the boy, until he caught sight of himself and his father in the mirror.

After supper his father told him he was going to Michigan the next morning and asked if he’d like to come along.  The boy said he would.

The boy kept his mouth shut until his father turned the truck north towards Louisville.  He didn’t know how to address the man.  He’d only heard his mom refer to his missing father as “Mack.”  His older sister told him that their father’s given name was “Claude.”  He didn’t feel comfortable calling the man “dad,” or “father,” having just met him.  When prodded to talk, he simply answered questions.

“She’s just fine, lives in San Francisco,” he said in response to a question about his mother.

“She got married last year to a motor cycle rider,” was his answer to a vague question about his sister.

The boy mainly bragged about his own exploits, such as camping and fishing on the Yuba River up in the Sierra Nevada all that previous summer.  He talked about the job he’d had, taking a log cabin apart and sawing the logs into fireplace lengths.

On a straight stretch of road his father pulled out the throttle knob, hiked up his trouser leg and swung his leg over by the shift lever.  There was a raised, livid scar on his shin.  “Split the damned thing with an axe while logging,” the man said.

“That must have hurt like hell,” the boy said.

“Truth is I didn’t feel a thing.  I was shit faced at the time.  But I swore off since then.”

His father’s singing nearly drove his son nuts.  “Candy Kisses” and “Walking the Floor Over You” seemed the only songs he knew and were repeated whenever the boy was silent.  When his father got sleepy, he pulled out the throttle, stood on the running board with his head in the freezing wind and kept on driving.

After 18 hours on the road, they pulled into a diner and ate chicken-fried steaks with the trimmings.  After eating they drove into Benton Harbor, where they stopped at a wholesale supplier and bought sugar.  The boy was lugging a hundred-pound sack of sugar out to the truck; his father carried one sack in each hand by their ears and swung them easily onto the bed.  With the bags of sugar lined up lengthwise in the center of the stake-body truck, they drove on to an apple orchard near Grand Rapids.  The boy asked what the sugar was for.  “Apple Sauce,” his father said with a grin.

With the help of the grower and his sons, the boy and his father picked up windfall Macintosh apples and they filled the bed of the truck with four hundred bushels of them.  After raising the tail gate, they loaded ten boxes of Red Delicious and were about ready to head south when his father thumped the tires with his black jack and discovered an inside dual tire flat.

The grower carried some timber planks out from his barn; his sons carried a large hydraulic jack.  While the boy watched, his father replaced the flat with the spare and tightened the lug nuts; he was impressed with his father’s strength.

It was Thanksgiving Day when they headed south.  The first diner they found open that day was in Indianapolis; they ate turkey with dressing, gravy and all the trimmings for breakfast.

His father drove east from Nashville, stopping at the courthouse squares in Sparta, Crossville, Rockwood and Harriman to peddle the apples from the back of the truck.  When there were only enough apples left to cover the sugar sacks, he drove north into the hills on the Kentucky border.

The red clay roads into those piney woods were sloppy gumbo, but his father found the stills and sold his sugar to the moonshiners.  At the fist still a few armed men came out to the road to meet them.  “Howdy, Apple Jack!” they shouted, “How be ya?”

When they rolled into Johnson City with the remainder of the apples, mostly the Red Delicious, the boy met his uncles Roy and Jim.  Their features and his own were as alike as apples; they only differed in age and the weather wrinkles around their eyes.


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