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Southern Story

Stovepipe Potatoes

Southern Story3

Stovepipe Potatoes

By J. D. Cummins

Michael O'Brian drove over a pothole in the highway. The right front wheel came off his old Model-T truck. The truck pulled to the right. There was no door on the passenger side to stop his son Shane from falling out. Michael wrestled the truck to a stop, just short of plunging into the swamp.


In the fall of 1937, it seemed like the depression would never end. The O'Brian's lived in a poor section of New Orleans, in a "shotgun house" like many in the neighborhood. In early spring, Michael had gone out in the country, selling seed corn to farmers who had eaten their seed to keep from starving. He got little cash, but promissory notes for bushels of corn to be picked in the fall.

The whole family went fishing in the bayous. The fish were cleaned and stored in buckets of brine. The fish heads supplemented their regular diet of red beans and rice, with fish heads and rice. They traded buckets of fish for dry rice and beans at a country store or at local farms. When tomatoes were ripe, Michael and Shane picked tomatoes for some of the farmers, and hauled them to the cannery, for baskets of tomatoes they could take home for his wife Mabel to can. They knew when the meter reader came, and went out to remove the jumper that bypassed the meter before opening the gate for him. Electricity was too expensive.

When it was time to harvest potatoes, man and boy picked up potatoes for a share of the crop. They took the potatoes home to make "stovepipe potatoes." After the potatoes were sorted into best and culls, they took a "croaker sack" and poured a few good potatoes into the bottom. Then Michael put a piece of stovepipe down the center, and Shane held it in place while Michael poured good potatoes around it. Next he poured the culls down the pipe. Michael removed the pipe and poured good potatoes over the top. Mabel sewed the sack closed, and the sacks were loaded onto the truck.

They parked the truck on the side of the highway and used a hand painted sign to advertise their potatoes to passers-by. After they sold all the potatoes they started home. It had been a good day, and Michael started singing:

"At the bar, at the bar,

where I smoked my first cigar.

Then the nickels and dimes rolled away.

Rolled away!

Shane was embarrassed. He knew his mother would have a fit if she heard him sing that song, but he didn't know why.

"At the bar, at the bar.

It was there by chance,

I tore my Sunday pants.

Now I wear them for every day.

For every day!

That was when the wheel came off and Michael struggled to hold the truck on the road. He got it stopped on the side of the road, and found Shane struggling to get out of the swamp and up the slope onto the roadside. The boy had some scrapes and bruises, but nothing broken.

Michael had to wade out into the swamp to retrieve the tire and wheel. After a long search of the grass along the road he found the castellated nut that had spun off the end of the axel. He jacked up the axel and cleaned up the thread so the nut would screw on. In the scrap box he found a piece of baling wire, that made a good substitute for the missing cotter pin.

After the wheel was replaced, he sat down to rest. He realized he was still shaking from the accident that might have killed his son.

A duck flew down to swim on the swamp, looking for insects or minnows. Michael quietly reached behind the seat and lifted out his eight-gage shotgun. It was an old gun, with a rubber band cut from an inner tube to substitute for the broken spring. Pieces of the gun were held together by friction tape and baling wire.

He drew a bead on the duck, as it bobbed below the surface in search of food. When he pulled the trigger, the gun went off with a boom, and flew into three pieces, missing the duck, which flew away with loud quacks. And that was his last shell.

They got back in the truck and started down the road toward home, with Shane pressed against his Dad in fear of that missing door, which had already spilled him into the swamp. Again Michael started singing:

"At the cross, at the cross,

where I first saw the light…."