Takin’ a Lickin’

Foresters see all sorts of interesting things in the woods.  Not only trees out there, in spite of the notion that you can’t see the forest for them.

I certainly have seen my share.

Old cars and trucks, silently rusting since the ’40’s and ’50’s.  So far from a road you wonder how they got there.  Truth is that what is now a large part of the Alabama forests was open land not so many decades ago, a product of cut-out and get-out Yankee lumber tycoons from places like Chicago and New York.  Other land just worn slam-out by King Cotton, or by the calloused hands of poor White and Black folk who tried to scratch a living out of red clay.

Old house places (my daddy always called them “home places,” a more hopeful term which I rather like), chimneys askew or collapsed.  Remnant trash piles if you really look.  Blue-glass bottles, or some with faded labels of patent medicines for whatever ailed folk back in the day.  I tend to leave these things where they lie.  Seems more respectful.

Whiskey stills rusting in the creek bottoms, ax-marks still visible where revenuers busted-up the only profitable way to grow corn in hard times when a dollar was as scarce as a pleasant day in the August Alabama sun.

Weed patches, planted in containers or in neat rows in clearings.  Always a surprise, but not too frightening.  Illicit farmers tend to live and let live as long as you mind your own business and walk on by.

A meth-lab I have not seen.  Don’t want to.  Good way to get killed.

Then there was that day when my co-worker found the body.

He was just moving through, as foresters do, stopping to count and measure trees for a timber appraisal.  He happened to look down and see a human skull at his feet.  Told me later that he thought it could not be real, had to be some kind of toy, until he saw a femur.

Two deputies arrived about thirty minutes later, and we fanned-out through the brush, little expanding concentric circles in search of the rest.  “Don’t touch anything” they said.  Not a problem, that.

Scatterings.  A pelvis here, a tibia there.  Each spot marked with little colored pieces of flagging tape that foresters carry around to mark their territory like a dog marks his.

About a hundred yards out, we found more. Jeans on the ground, as if a man took them off, gave them a shake, and laid them out flat to wear again tomorrow.  A wallet still in the back pocket.  Couple of one-dollar bills and an Alabama drivers license.

“It’s Shorty.”  Other deputy nodded.  “He lived in a house trailer about a mile through these woods as the crow flies.  We’ve been out there a few times.  He and the old lady didn’t get along.  She called-in a missing person report about a year ago, three days after a real knock-down-drag-out.  Said he walked out and told her he wasn’t ever coming back.  He’d done that before, so we just filled-out a report.  I guess he was serious this time.”

I reckon so.

Another thirty yards away, the scene.  Yellow nylon rope still attached to the limb of a holly tree.  This unusual in itself, as holly rarely grows tall enough in Alabama to be considered a tree.  Didn’t need to be too tall.  His name was Shorty.

Sitting at the base, the  skeletal torso still more-or-less intact, encased in a faded flannel shirt.  Left wrist exposed, Timex watch still in place.

It still had the correct time.

I have often thought about Shorty over the years since.  I wonder what circumstances brought him to that lonely place.  I seem to recall that the deputies said something about depression and drug abuse.  One never knows in the final analysis.  People have their reasons.  Best for the living not to tarry there.

But I do know one thing about Shorty.  The man knew how to pick a watch.

John Cameron Swayze would have been proud.*


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