A boy, a rake and making memories

Published 8:57 pm Tuesday, October 9, 2012

With the leaves turning colors and starting to fall off trees, I am reminded of my boyhood days spent at my maternal grandparents’ home in Pensacola, Fla., particularly burning piles of leaves.
Before we could burn those leaves, they had to be raked into piles. Guess who did the raking? That’s right — me. I don’t recall my sisters, both younger than me, raking leaves. My grandfather explained to me at a young age, 6 or 7, that raking leaves was fun because you could burn them once they had been raked into piles. I took him at his word.
After all, this was the same man who convinced me that coconuts were monkey eggs — and your grandfather would not lie to you, would he? Look at a coconut closely. There are three areas that look like a face — two eyes and a nose. When you are just a year or two out of kindergarten, it makes sense that a coconut would be a monkey egg. What doesn’t make sense is trying to hatch a monkey egg.
So, when I was a boy, raking leaves was fun. As I got older, I found that raking leaves was more like work than fun.
I guess the enjoyment of being able to burn piles of leaves, run from the smoke that seemed to come after me and sort of play with fire made the work required to rake leaves worth it. I did not know it at the time, but raking leaves exposed me to sweat equity. For a little sweat and a blister or two on my hands, I got to burn leaves.
An added benefit to burning leaves in my grandparents’ yard — a huge yard, by the way — was that several pecans that had fallen from the pecan trees and had been raked into the piles of leaves would explode. Those explosions were exciting for two reasons: the noise created and the fact that those pecans were toasted.
If I acted quickly enough, I could remove an exploded pecan and enjoy its toasted flavor before it was consumed by the fire instead of me. Some toasted pecans made their way to my stomach. Others burned because I could not retrieve them from the fire.
So, at an early age I learned that hard work could provide rewards, if you were fast enough to pull them from the fire. The same way that shelling butter beans would leave my thumbs green and sore, but the payoff was eating those butter beans, after they had simmered in the pot with some seasoning meat, with some hot cracklin’ bread and sliced tomatoes just pulled from the vine.
Living in the city, I am prohibited from burning leaves. So, if you folks in the country come home one Saturday afternoon after a trip to town and see a strange man raking leaves into piles and burning them, don’t worry. It’s just me going back in time — with or without pecans getting roasted in those piles of burning leaves.
Mike Voss covers the city of Washington for the Washington Daily News. When he was about 10, he learned about the greatest invention — an automatic butter-bean sheller.

About Mike Voss

Mike Voss is the contributing editor at the Washington Daily News. He has a daughter and four grandchildren. Except for nearly six years he worked at the Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Va., in the early to mid-1990s, he has been at the Daily News since April 1986.
Journalism awards:
• Pulitzer Prize for Meritorious Public Service, 1990.
• Society of Professional Journalists: Sigma Delta Chi Award, Bronze Medallion.
• Associated Press Managing Editors’ Public Service Award.
• Investigative Reporters & Editors’ Award.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Public Service Award, 1989.
• North Carolina Press Association, Second Place, Investigative Reporting, 1990.
All those were for the articles he and Betty Gray wrote about the city’s contaminated water system in 1989-1990.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Investigative Reporting, 1991.
• North Carolina Press Association, Third Place, General News Reporting, 2005.
• North Carolina Press Association, Second Place, Lighter Columns, 2006.
Recently learned he will receive another award.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Lighter Columns, 2010.
4. Lectured at or served on seminar panels at journalism schools at UNC-Chapel Hill, University of Maryland, Columbia University, Mary Washington University and Francis Marion University.

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