June 2023 Monthly Contest: Winner Announcement

We are excited to announce the winner of the June 2023 Chattanooga Writers’ Guild Monthly Contest is AT Pennington with the submission “Summer Camp” and runner-up is Becky Parker with the submission “Fractured Rails.”

Summer Camp

Lead white house paint flaked from my grandparent’s house like snow, but the Victorian farmhouse seemed a mansion to me.  In the summers, all the cousins would gather there for a couple of weeks. The house sat at the end of a winding dirt track, a half mile from a county road in central Virginia, on a hill overlooking a pond and a broad pasture. Wealthier kids had their summer camp with Indian names, Waunakee, Mattaponi, Iroquois, and activities like canoeing, horseback riding, and archery.  Our experiences in Granny and Granddaddy’s homeplace were richer. 

No bugle call or bell clang was needed to rouse us.  We arose from the cocoon of a feather bed at the first light of dawn. Hay, turned soil, and coffee-scented air sifted through screened windows on either side of the room.  

On late July mornings, we raced to the pond at the bottom of the hill with cane poles and baited hooks with grasshoppers or crickets abundant at our feet. As the sun crested the oak forest to the east and hunger grew, we took our mess of bass and bream to Granny, who cleaned and fried the catch for breakfast.  

Her preferred pan was a black iron skillet perched on the central fixture in the kitchen, Granny’s wood stove.  My cousins, aunts, and uncles all referred to this hulking mass of hot steel as ‘Granny’s wood stove.’ There were other lesser stoves in the universe, we knew. Granny even had an electric stove tucked in the kitchen corner at the end of the drainboard, but only Granny’s wood stove could create the fried chicken and fish, Thanksgiving turkey, biscuits, and that glorious coconut-custard pie. 

After breakfast, we followed Granddaddy to the garden where row upon row of vegetables grew.  Butterbeans and snaps were most abundant. Next was table corn, followed by onions and cabbage, and in a half-row, benefiting from the shade of a quince tree, Granddaddy grew a pampered line of cantaloupes. He called them ‘mush-melons.’ While we worked in the rows, he might take a germinated acorn from one of many pockets on his overalls and show us the tree straining to break free of the hull, the entelechy of seed.  He often picked up a hoe to work out weeds or dismember a snake.  He kept a careful eye on us lest some serpent entangled our legs or our hearts.  Granddaddy was a tall, patient man of few words; each weighed for clarity, meaning, and love before parsing his lips.  They fell on our ears gently to nurture and take root.

No one checked the time while we worked.  If we brought two buckets, without asking, we knew the task was complete when the buckets were full.  While we worked, the sun crept higher in the sky, and our shadows walked closer and closer beside us.  Proudly, we brought the produce to the kitchen porch and placed buckets brimming with the fruit of our labor in a shady corner.

Granny would have a snack laid on the kitchen table, a cookie and fresh, cold milk or saltines spread with peanut butter and cold water pumped from deep below the ground, refreshing, with a metallic tang hinting at the copper and iron it passed as it journeyed to the kitchen spigot.  Granny’s white enameled sink, mounted in the corner of the kitchen by the pantry, bore the marks of those metals. The sink was stained green and orange by oxidation.  To this day, nothing gives me a sense of place, land, and permanence like the taste of unfiltered, well water.  

Most Mondays, Granny hand filled a washing machine with buckets of scalding water, added soap flakes, a drizzle of bluing, and set the machine to dance a little two-step on the weathered floorboards of the washroom. When the machine finished its jig, and the laundry was clean, she let us hold the fabric’s ends after pressing through the wringer built on the washer. The patterns on Granny’s dresses were faded by years, and Granddaddy’s bib overalls were threadbare in places. Their clothes retained past springtime, summer breezes, crisp winter nights, and wood smoke, a complex, fresh human scent that was my grandparents’ alone, wafted, warm and damp as we gathered their clothes to be carried to the clothesline behind the house and hung high in the noonday sun.

In the midafternoon heat, Granny and Granddaddy sought the last vestiges of overnight air hidden behind drawn curtains in the living room. Granny sat in the twilight of the room and mended clothes or thumbed a magazine. Granddaddy read the newspaper, reclined on a red leather fainting couch. In a while, he crossed his arms across his chest, slipped house shoes off his long, thin feet, and napped. 

For the cousins, this was free time. Time to explore the wooded acres, creeks, beaver ponds, and sawdust piles. Time to dare one another to step into the forbidden mill house, which stood half-burned by the boiler fire that ended Granddaddy’s sawmill operation years before our birth. The long drive bands made a cat’s cradle on the ceiling, strung between idler pulleys and drive wheels. They dangled like ghosts through a blackened, broken opening that had burned through the second floor. Granddaddy never spoke of the accident that destroyed the mill, just as he never spoke of his role in the Great War. We cousins speculated and heard hints. Confirmation would have involved a confession to trespassing into the dim and derelict past, the one place we were told not to go. None of us dared confess.

These were salad days when afternoon cooking was kept to a minimum. The evening meal was often fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, sliced and bathed in sugar, vinegar, salt, and pepper.  Butterbeans and snaps, cooked earlier in the day and seasoned with bacon, would be quickly reheated in a saucepan on the electric stove, the only purpose the second-rate appliance ever had in my memory.  A leftover roast or chicken from Sunday’s big meal would join coleslaw and a biscuit or slice bread to round out supper.  

For a treat, Granny would make ‘freezer cream,’ an egg custard, thick and rich with raw, whole milk from an uncle’s dairy farm and mustard-yellow yolked eggs from the chickens cooped a short distance from the kitchen porch. Flavored with vanilla extract and a quantity of sugar, it was set on a shelf in the electric freezer to crystalize. Granny served this cold confection in a dish with strawberries, peaches, or damsons, the small tart plums growing in a small grove in front of their house.  

After supper, Granddaddy retrieved a bucket of vegetables from the corner of the porch and set it beside Granny on the glider. Granddaddy sat opposite Granny, and with pans in their laps, they stripped butterbeans, shucked corn, or nipped the ends off snaps. 

With all good intentions, we cousins helped in earnest until the lure of myriad farm kittens born perpetually under the porch wooed us to play.  These tiny creatures peeped through the floorboards and could be coaxed to show themselves by dangling cotton string down a knothole.  The string would jerk against our fingers as our quarry played.  Our game was to see who could get a tiny cat paw to pop up through the hole in the floor the fastest as it hunted about in search of cotton kitten quarry.  Once a small trust was established between kitten and kid, we led them in merry circles in the yard and laughed at the antics and acrobatics.  Discovering these tiny creatures had needle-like claws and teeth was always a shock and an affront, though bloody scratches and punctures were a small price to pay for the chance to hold a mewling ball of fluff in the palm of the hand. 

Kids and kittens soon tire.  We’d sit on the steps and lean against the porch, listening to Granny and Granddaddy talk about our parents when they were our age, reminiscing over life before electricity, running water, radio, motor carriages, and airplanes changed how the world worked. 

As the day’s last light faded, fireflies flashed their yellow beacons, and whippoorwills and katydids enlivened an otherwise silent, gathering night, and the air cooled. The beans were collected in a single pan, and speculations over how many jars might be canned.  We kids didn’t know the true worth of the harvest. We didn’t realize a pan of butterbeans could become a treasure chest, coins of more excellent value than gold to nurture body and soul.  We might have paid more attention if we had. But memories are neither the priority nor provenance of youth.  

A T Pennington taught high school English a few years before entering real estate. As a child reading Dr. Seuss, words fascinated him. He told stories to his children and wrote fiction when his career allowed. In retirement, the desire to write, to explore situations and people through fiction, has grown more insistent. He and his wife live just outside of Chattanooga, in the shadow of Lookout Mountain, Georgia.

Fractured Rails

Lately, I’ve been swimming in the memory creek. My limbs falter when I dive too deep.I see shadows and ghosts on the shoreline.Echoes of sound ping around me like sonartrying to evoke a response or recall.Flashes of color dampen the creekas I jump in the murky water;until the whole creek resonates with the brilliance of an unfragmented moment.The earth stops rotating:-Past and Future are all Present-A linear line runningparallel in my mindas I swim to the surface.

My childhood home, a shack really, was isolated on 52 acres tucked into the base of Oakdale Mountain, with panoramic views of the valley and the railroad tracks. It was accessed from the highway by a long driveway filled with ruts, lined with  luscious plum trees  and wild hedge roses, as well as a well worn foot path through the woods. 

The house was dilapidated, with wooden sides and a roof that sometimes leaked.  The porch, which  did not have any railings, was a natural spring board for my rowdy brothers. The property didn’t have an outhouse, so we sought privacy behind rocks in the woods. 

Ded and Mama, chasing vague dreams, hoboed from the bluegrass state to settle in East Tennessee.  Like sap in a sorghum tree, the rails flowed deep in his  bloodstream. He was 66 when I was born as the youngest of 11 (seven boys, 4 girls) to his third wife, who was twenty years his junior. My oldest sibling and I were twenty years apart.  I never knew my two oldest brothers, as one was fatally struck by a car at age eight, and the other, only a toddler, succumbed to Diphtheria. Ded had 15 children in all;  his namesake was killed in WW II.  

Only a few people would trek up to visit us, either afraid of the gorge sized ruts in the road, or my ded’s wrath when full in his cups; I really can’t say. He once chased off a church man at gunpoint when he came to look at a litter of puppies. When the social services’ ladies inevitably paid a visit, all of us youngins scrambled like wild fillies, and hid in the holler until the coast was clear.  The holler was also a place of safety with Mama, when Ded’s drinking went too far, and his rage too close. My ded’s meanness was legend, but life with him was the only life we knew, and to have to live with strangers was unthinkable. 

In the winter, my family depended upon coal and wood for our needs. On cold nights, one of my siblings and I would silently  follow Ded  down the path beside the railroad track, our breaths like shallow ghostly threads winding through the trail.  Ded, thin as a train rail, in his seventies, would shakily climb up on the coal car, and harshly whispered for us, “keep a look out”, as he filled gunny sacks with the precious combustible rocks. 

Years earlier, Ded used to work for the railroad, but now didn’t’ have two nickels to rub together. Some would say he was just collecting on his retirement when he entered the self-service line at the coal store, which was coincidentally only open in the dead of night.  We made several withdrawals each winter; my siblings and I taking turns as the lookout.  As far as I can recall, no one ever “blew the whistle” on Ded’s nocturnal activities.  Those jaunts to the train track, which I now know was illegal, kept us from freezing to death. 

Sometimes, my siblings and I  would be walking home from school, and the train conductor would sound the whistle, and fling out sacks filled with oranges and candy to us while we enthusiastically waved, hooped and hollered our thanks to them as the train chugged by.  We weren’t’ too big for our britches to accept charity. 

What is “charity” but another word for “love in action” after all? Before welfare subsidies came along, finding food and taking care of so many children’s needs was a grave challenge for my parents.   My first view and taste of an intact pineapple came from a trash bin. It was delicious!

Occasionally, some town folks who wished to be anonymous, would drop off garbage bags filled with gently used clothing at the foot of our driveway for us to discover.  We would lug the bags home, eagerly forage through them, and divvy up the bounty. At Thanksgiving, the Baptist church always gave us a box, filled with a ham, canned goods and oranges. Someone donated money for eye glasses for me, and another one paid for my sister to have orthodontic care.  

My parents did not own a vehicle, so we walked everywhere, except on Sunday mornings when we rode a church bus, or a family friend gave us a ride.  When Mama could afford it, she would get a taxi cab to take us back home from the grocery store.  The railroad tracks were to us girls, safer than walking on the highway; less chance of getting hit, or stalked by some crazy driver, and disappear into the mists.

My favorite time to be on the train tracks was a snowy morning. I loved making patterns in the snow and jumping from rail to rail, attempting to walk the entire length of the rails down to where it crossed to the asphalt that would take us to town. My middle sister and I would race, zig- zagging back and forth, pretending we were in the Olympics. 

Spring and summer were hard times because seed ticks would bury themselves in our skin as we walked down the leafy path to get on the tracks. After one of my brothers became seriously ill with Rocky Mountain Spotted Tick Fever; Mama insisted on us wearing bug repellant which would clash horribly with AVON perfume.  Once, wearing sandals, I stepped on a shard a glass which left a deep jagged cut. Bell bottom jeans may have been the fad in late 70’s,  but they might as well been a floor length sequined ball gown, the way that the hems dragged through the mud on a rainy day.

The walls of our living room were covered with tar from cigarette, coal and wood smoke. Mom worked to keep us clean amid such harsh surroundings. My bedroom had a large TV shell that served as a holding for all of the dirty clothes that would get washed on Saturday morning.  We used a wringer machine and would hang the clothes on the line. Our “bathtub” was a bucket filled with water from the stove. Once a scorpion was in my bathwater. I freaked out, but Mama just reached in the water with tongs and flung it in the stove.  My hero! 

My family found pleasure in the woods.  In our imaginations, the rocks morphed into a dragon’s cave; or a pirate’s treasure trove, a table for picnics with fairies and elves as honored guests.  We felt more comfortable in the woods with a bird for company than in the stuffy classrooms (including church) where we were judged for our scent, looks and lifestyle.  There were wild muscadines to pick and give to Ded to make wine. The woods were pungent with the smell of the pine trees and wild irises. Each December, my middle brother would cut down a Christmas tree in the woods, and my sisters and I would decorate it with homemade garlands and ornaments.   Many summer evenings would be spent shelling green beans while she would tell a ghost story or share a story about her childhood in Kentucky. 

Mama preferred being barefoot. She liked to sit on the porch at dusk, barefoot and sing hymns in an off key Kentucky soprano. At age 14, I sat with her one night, when her songs became wails, after my brother, age 17, who had been missing for three days was discovered to have drowned in the river. Her faith sustained her through her fractious marriage, the tragic deaths of her children, depression, forced isolation  from friends and family, and harsh living conditions.  To me, she was the queen of the mountains, with her halo of plaited hair and gingham dresses, and costume jewelry. 

Twelve years ago, at the age of 88, her spirit left to sing among the ancient pines of Oakdale Mountain. Ded, my oldest sister and five of my brothers have also crossed over the river Jordan.   When Ded died at 89; I mourned the life he could have had, if only he had given love a chance.  

Life on Oakdale Mountain was like living an episode of the  Little House on the Prairie series with many tragedies and triumphs.  It isn’t the quantity of years one has that matters, but the quality of that life. I treasure my memories, fragmented though they may be, of my time spent there.

Becky Parker resides in Tennessee. She enjoys DIY projects, glamping, traveling, spending time with family, and listening to a tall tale. Her works have been published in several publications including, Spirit Fire Review, Agape Review, Sweety Cat Press, Yellow Mama, Appalachia Bare, Lothlorien Poetry Journal, the Rye Whiskey Review, the Potato Soup Journal, the Green Shoe Sanctuary, Amaranth Journal, Spire Light, Avocet, and upcoming in North Dakota Quarterly, Mildred Haun Review and Mackenzie’s Publication. In 2022, she was nominated for the Pushcart prize by Sequoyah Cherokee Journal.

The Monthly Contests rotate through a pattern of Poetry, Fiction, and Creative Nonfiction throughout the year, with a new theme each month. Go to the 2023 Monthly Contest Series Info page to view the genre and theme for each month.

This contest is free to enter for members of the Chattanooga Writers’ Guild. To become a member, click HERE

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