By RAHN ADAMS
MORGANTON, N.C. (Sept. 29, 2019) – Hell-kuh-HUNCH!
I can proudly say I never heard Grandpa utter those three dreaded syllables. But I behaved at his house so that I wouldn’t hear his mother of all curses. I’d heard all the stories, and I had been warned, mainly that if I ever did hear those words, to take cover.
Lester Clark wasn’t someone you wanted to anger, not unless you were ready to fight. Some of those stories involved him getting rowdy and ending up in the county jail. He and one of my uncles worked together and spent most lunch hours fighting. Each other. For fun. And they liked each other.
I’m not sure how Lester and Uncle Glen handled fellows they didn’t like. But my point is that Grandpa knew how to fight and wasn’t afraid to put someone in their place. I also don’t know who won most of those lunchtime brawls—Grandpa didn’t say—but I wouldn’t have bet against him. He was one tough cookie.
A tough cookie. That’s a good description. After growing up in the mountain communities of Harper’s Creek and Jonas Ridge, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy during World War II and spent most of the next two years on ships in the Pacific. One ship was a cruiser; another was a submarine chaser. He was a fireman and a cook.
Timberley knows more about her grandfather’s service record than I do. But she was surprised when I looked up his F1 classification online and said it meant he was a Fireman First Class. She had always heard that he’d been a ship’s cook. “Oh, well,” she said. “Maybe he had K.P. duty a lot—for fighting.”
If we had considered that possibility back when Grandpa was alive—he died in September 1987—we certainly would not have asked him for clarification. Oh, heck no. Besides, he was one of the best male cooks I’ve ever known who wasn’t being paid to cook. Grandpa’s country breakfasts rivaled Granny’s.
And that is saying a lot, because Granny was probably my favorite cook this side of heaven. After we moved to coastal N.C. in August 1987, we always stayed with Granny on our visits back home. She’d get up early to fix scrambled eggs, sausage patties, gravy and actual scratch biscuits, not frozen ones.
I’d have to confer with the judges (Timberley and her mother, three aunts and six cousins), but I think Granny won Top Chef honors in the Clark household for her Sunday dinners, weeknight suppers and desserts—chocolate cakes, banana pudding, fudge and pinwheel candies, and coconut “bunny” cakes.
The Clarks even had dessert at breakfast. They called it chocolate gravy, and it was one of Grandpa’s specialties. After he died, Granny made it now and then for us young folks, but the hushed comments and furtive glances around the table told me that maybe Grandpa’s chocolate gravy was just a bit better.
I’d never even heard of chocolate gravy before. The closest things to dessert at the Adams breakfast table were the marshmallows in my bowl of Lucky Charms. Like Grandpa, my father was in charge of fixing breakfast while Mom got ready for work. Dad always fried himself an egg but never offered me one.
But I learned a lot about a lot of things after Timberley and I got together and she started taking me to see her grandparents. Granny might have been the better cook all meals considered, but Grandpa spent much of his time gardening so that Granny had beans, cukes, peppers, ‘maters and ‘taters to fix us all.
He’d be cleaned up and sitting out on the porch or carport where he could smoke by the time we got to their house, usually after supper weeknights. I smoked then, too, but was kind of slipping around with it, if you know what I mean, so I didn’t have my own smokes. I’d bum a Winston off him, and we’d talk.
I’ve already said he was a tough cookie, and he was. But by the time I got to know him, he had put his rough and rowdy ways behind him. That’s what Governor Pappy O’Dan’l says about George Clooney’s character, Everett, in the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? when the Soggy Bottom Boys hit the big time.
Come to think of it, Lester Luther Clark, as a young man, surely was a lot like Ulysses Everett McGill, a good-looking guy with piercing blue eyes, dark wavy hair and an intelligence that attracted not just the ladies but also fun-loving, hard-living fellows who were looking for a friend—like my uncle Glen.
I don’t know if those two buddies kept in touch after their working days—probably not, because Glen might have given Lester heck for making chocolate gravy and growing flowers with his vegetables. As it was, Uncle Glen sent me a sympathy card when he found out I was marrying Lester’s granddaughter.
The histories of the Clarks and my Adams family intersect in the Jonas Ridge community in the Burke County mountains, where my parents lived and taught school in the early 1950s. Mom and Dad taught Timberley’s mother and maybe an aunt, and they knew about the little Clark girls’ rough and rowdy pater familias.
What Mom and Dad didn’t know then was how bona fide Lester Clark would become to their own son, who wouldn’t even be born until the end of that decade. As I’ve said before, when I finally met Lester Clark, I had long been on the lookout for a grandfather after having lost both of mine in the mid-1960s.
For the next six years I had a grandfather again, as well as another grandmother whom I grew to adore. It was a bit harder, but I learned to love Grandpa, too, though he wasn’t like my real grandfathers had been. I still miss him, despite having had to walk on egg shells around him at times when he was alive.
But, hell-kuh-hunch, he was worth it.