Walking Betsy – A 20-Mile Hike

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Betsy, our brown and white milk cow, balked at climbing into the back of our rented early 1930’s truck. Despite my 13-year-old brother’s sweaty and frustrated efforts to get the stubborn female to go up the wooden ramp, the family cow only dug her hooves more obstinately into the dirt and bellowed out protesting sounds.

Finally my brother, a dark-haired, lanky kid, snorted in disgust and said to our father, “No way Betsy’s going to ride on this truck. What’s next?” He cast a withering glance at the animal, which was now contentedly munching on some St. Augustine grass.

Our father removed his hat, pulled a bandana from his extra-large overalls, and wiped perspiration from brown hair that needed a trim badly. He studied the cow, and then he studied his older son. He stared into the distance eastward toward the invisible site of their new town of residence, where father had a new managerial position with one of a chain of Suwannee grocery stores dotting northwest Florida, southern Alabama, and southwest Georgia.

“Well, let’s see. You’re 13 and in dandy shape. You feel up to a 20-mile walk? Your Boy Scout training should be helpful.”

My brother gaped at our father as if the elder man had lost his mind.

“You mean you want me to drag this blasted animal all the way to Marianna on foot on a hot day like this?”

“Do you have a better suggestion?” our father countered. “Look, I’ll meet you several times with water and food. You can take rest stops when you need them. The trip shouldn’t take more than seven or eight hours.”

My brother stared disconsolately at his father, frowned at Betsy, and kicked at the ground. “And I had wanted to spend some of the day fishing with you,” he mumbled dejectedly.

Our father draped his arm around my brother’s shoulders. “We’ll have plenty of other times for that,” he encouraged. “Plenty of time for the bass, the trout, the speckled perch, and the catfish!”

So the situation being resolved and it being only mid morning, my brother haltered old Betsy for the 20-mile hike to Marianna in the Florida Panhandle over a dusty path that revealed much use by persons whose only transportation in those Depression times was their two feet. The narrow path paralleled the two-lane U. S. 90 connecting the east coast with the west coast from Jacksonville, Florida to Los Angeles, California. This major southern artery was completed in 1926. The early June sun shone brightly but with clouds quickly gathering, and the weatherman had predicted the possibility of isolated showers as humidity increased and the temperature rose. My brother wore a large straw hat with a wide brim that shaded his head and eyes from the sharp glare of the sun’s rays.

By the time he and Betsy had reached the outskirts of our old hometown Chipley, he had become sickened by the amount of trash littering the roadside. Tossed away paper products, bottles, and metal cans lay everywhere. Broken glass and sharp edged cans created hazards to the pedestrians, especially the barefooted ones. These were the days before litter laws were enacted.

They had only reached the Chipley city limits when the wind increased and the sky grew darker with rain-threatening clouds. Suddenly the sky burst forth with a downpour, drenching my brother before he could coax a skittish Betsy under a large oak that had seen at least a century of rain and sunshine. Here they waited out the brief shower.

Shortly after resuming their trek, a mammoth-sized canine of undetermined breed sprang seemingly from out of nowhere barking ferociously and snapping at old Betsy’s hind legs. The dog’s attack sent Betsy into a panicky state, which required all of my brother’s strength to calm the terrified cow. When the canine continued to bite at Betsy’s legs, my brother scooped up a palm-sized stone and hurled it at the attacking dog. Luckily the weapon connected, and with a surprised, painful yelp the animal spun away toward a field of shoulder-high, green and golden corn.

“Crazy dog!” my brother yelled. “Get out of here!” The animal stopped at the edge of the corn field, looked back briefly and barked, then disappeared between two rows of harvest-ready corn.

The end of that ordeal required a few minutes of rest to recuperate. My brother pulled a mashed pack of Camels from his overalls, extracted a cigarette, and lit it with a match from a box in his overalls. As he inhaled, he felt calm spread through him. He had been smoking already for six years and had slowly become addicted to the chemicals, especially the nicotine, in the tobacco. Our father, an avid smoker himself, suspected my brother of having taken up the habit but had never confronted him with the knowledge.

My brother first tried cigarettes when he was only six. He was visiting an uncle’s dairy, where on occasion he rode on the rump of a horse behind the cowboys herding the dairy cows. The men offered the boy cigarettes, thinking perhaps they could discourage him from taking up the habit when the smoke led to fits of coughing; but, on the contrary, the plan had the opposite effect, and my brother had been smoking ever since the episode. (In his late seventies he would develop emphysema and heart and arterial problems that were attributed to his smoking. At that point he stopped the habit, but the damage had already been done.)

After completing his cigarette, my brother gathered up Betsy’s tether and he and Betsy continued their journey to their new home. As they plodded along, he daydreamed about a refreshing drink of ice-cold water or soft drink and then diving into the icy water at Blue Springs, a popular swimming and picnicking site near his new home in Marianna. He would be entering the seventh grade in the fall. Although he felt sad about leaving behind old friends, he looked forward to making new ones.

As he daydreamed, he grew slowly aware of an elderly woman wearing a sun bonnet and carrying a walking cane as she approached a metal mail box. finding the box empty, she sagged and might have fallen if my brother hadn’t jumped forward and supported her.

“Are you okay, Ma’am?” he asked, alarmed.

“I think so,” the pale woman almost whispered. “I was just expecting an important letter that didn’t come. Oh, well.” She sighed and smiled weakly at her rescuer.

He eyed her solicitously. “It must have been very important if it upset you so much-that is, you not receiving it.”

“Oh, yes-you see–I was expecting to receive news of my sister’s plans to come stay with me. It is so lonely being by my self since my husband passed away. I would be most grateful if you could walk me back to my porch. There is a cold pitcher of lemonade waiting to be shared.”

He hesitated, thinking of the long distance still ahead with Betsy. Seeing the pleading in the elderly woman’s eyes, he said, “I will be happy to, and I am kind of thirsty. Betsy could use some water, too.”

“Fine. You just bring her along,” she said gratefully.

A few minutes later my brother sat comfortably in a rocking chair with an ice-cold glass of lemonade while Betsy stood below the porch lapping thirstily from a bucket of cool well water.

The elderly woman retrieved a hand fan with floral designs and began to lazily fan herself.

“The weather is so unfriendly,” she remarked, “but someday it will get much hotter. My generation, or your generation, will not see the changes, but one day the ice caps will melt from the heat. Animals and people will suffer. Coast lines will wash away from rising seas. Oh, those will be dark days if men don’t change their ways and stop doing the things that make the earth warmer.”

She shuddered and fumbled for her glass of lemonade. My brother leaned forward to assist her. The next moment he almost strangled on his lemonade as Betsy, alarmed by a backfiring late 1920’s black truck passing the house, bolted with a high-pitched squeal and high-kicked her way down the road.

Shocked and dismayed, my brother stumbled down the porch steps after the berserk cow. Only as the backfiring truck disappeared from sight did he manage to catch up with Betsy, who had grown calm and stood lazily grazing. Breathing in short gasps, he grabbed up the bovine’s tether.

In relief he encouraged Betsy. “It’s okay, Betsy. You’re fine. Let’s be on our way.” He turned and waved to the old woman looking concerned from her porch. She sadly waved back. Then my brother, struggling to hold on to the milk cow’s leash, drew another Camel from his half-empty pack and fumbled with a box of matches. He struck three matches before he could light his cigarette and inhaled gratefully while he still held tightly to Betsy’s tether.

Halfway through their journey our father approached from Chipley in the black truck. Our two-year old pet half-bull, half-bird, black and white dog and I, a hyper child almost seven years younger than my brother, rode with him. We had brought food and drink. Parking in the shade of a pecan tree, Dad unpacked water, sodas, and ham and cheese sandwiches.

While we ate, Betsy munched on fodder father had also brought, her tail whisking lazily. I ran about exploring the surroundings, petted Betsy, and squealed as she licked me with a tongue coated with food grains. Pal sniffed at Betsy’s legs, barked a greeting at her, and then dashed off to chase a squirrel scurrying toward the safety of an oak tree.

Rows of tall golden corn stood brightly in the fields. Overhead, only a few clouds broke up the brilliant blue of the June sky. A balmy breeze fluttered the tree leaves, and a few birds sang joyfully. The setting was idyllic.

“We’re blessed, aren’t we?” our father ventured. “And we are going to be more blessed in our new home. We’ll be rich in simple things. We’ll have plenty to eat with the vegetables we’ll grow and the chickens we raise. You and your brother will have good schools to attend, and there will be better health care. With President Roosevelt in office, everything is going to get better-jobs, more money, rural electrification, better roads-it definitely will be a New Deal as he has promised.”

My brother accepted these comments without doubt, not knowing that in a few short years the world be plunged into a devastating war with Germany, Italy, and Japan and that he would be a part of that conflict. At this moment, however, he felt at peace and full of hopeful thoughts.

Finally, our father rose and looked around at the serenity of the environment, tugged affectionately at Betsy’s ears, and sighed.

“We had better be getting on. There’s some business I need to see to at the new store, but I’ll meet you again, probably near Cottondale.” To me he said, “Let’s go, Buck.” Buck was a nickname he had tagged me with. He whistled for Pal, who hopped quickly into the back of the truck with a farewell bark at Betsy and my brother.

My brother knew that Cottondale, a small crossroads town, was only about seven miles from Marianna. When he reached that point, he would be two-thirds of the way through his journey.

“Okay, Dad. I’ll get Betsy to Marianna safely. And, Dad, you drive safely, too.” This was prophetic, as he soon would learn.

Our father gave my brother a brief embrace, climbed into the truck with me and Pal, and rattled away, waving as he did so.

Shortly after, finishing his Royal Crown cola, my brother retrieved Betsy’s tether and commanded, “Let’s go, Betsy. We have a long way to go yet.”

Betsy mooed in protest and shook her head.

“Come on, Betsy,” he snapped. “Quit stalling.”

The milk cow continued to balk. This spot was too pleasant she seemed to communicate to the flustered boy.

My brother tied a carrot to a tree branch and thrust it in front of Betsy’s nose. At the same time he drew her lead taut. This time Betsy yielded and, eying the “bribe,” began following my appeased brother down the roadside again.

In the early afternoon they passed through the last town before Marianna. At this point, Cottondale, one could turn south toward Panama City, a growing town on the Gulf of Mexico some fifty miles away down a graveled highway. We as a family would visit this place often from Marianna. Also, in a few short years, the city would become a shipbuilding site for Liberty ships that would be used in the global war that was coming.

However, at the present time, his thoughts focused on getting through the last third of his journey, but first he decided it was time for another rest and smoke stop. As he squatted and lazily inhaled on his cigarette in the welcomed shade of an aging live oak thickly bearded with silver Spanish moss, a late model sedan stopped at the Cottondale intersection before turning east toward Marianna. A family of two adults and two children sat chatting.

My brother’s attention was immediately drawn to the attractive girl, who watched him curiously. Maybe she thought it was amusing to see him with an old cow. My brother took admiring note of the strikingly pretty dark-haired brunette. Her gleaming, dark brown eyes emitted intelligence and humor. Suddenly she motioned to the driver, perhaps her father, to stop.

She eyed him mischievously from her backseat position.

“What are you doing with that old cow?” she laughed.

“Walking her to my new home,” he said, standing up awkwardly. He had hastily doused his Camel.

“Where’s home?”

When he told her, she laughed again. “That’s where we’re going! We live there. What’s your name?”

He told her.

“Well, we’d offer you a ride if you didn’t have that cow. How far have you walked her?”

“All the way from Chipley-about thirteen miles!” He removed his straw hat and wiped his forehead with a piece of cloth from his overalls.

“We have to go,” the girl’s mother said. “You have that party to attend.”

The attractive brunette sighed as she remembered the affair. She smiled at my fidgeting brother.

“When you get settled in your new home, perhaps we’ll see each other again. By the way, where will you be living?”

When he told her, she exclaimed, “Why we’ll be next door to each other! Isn’t that a coincidence? Well, until we meet again. Bye.”

Their car pulled away. The girl waved through the back window. Awkwardly but pleased he waved back. After the car disappeared from sight, my brother sighed and turned back to his bovine charge. Up to this point, he had shown little interest in girls. After all, he was only thirteen. Instead, his interests had been in sports, the Scouts, and fishing. Girls were most further from his mind. But he had lately felt changes stirring in him that confused and disturbed him.

“Okay, Betsy, let’s go.” This time she came readily, if ploddingly, while he, with some difficulty, indulged in another cigarette.

Late in the afternoon, as the hot June sun slowly angled downward toward its western bed, the two travelers came upon a scene so unexpected that it startled my brother.

On the side of the highway at a side- road intersection, two vehicles sat, the front of one smashed in and the passenger side of the other badly crushed. What startled my brother was seeing our father crawling around on the ground.

My brother quickly tied Betsy to a fence post and sped to our father’s aid. “Dad! What happened? Are you hurt? What are you looking for?”

His father suddenly exclaimed, “Here they are. Hallelujah!” He cheerfully held up a pair of eyeglasses. “They got knocked off in the crash!” My brother helped our father stand. “Let’s see how that other driver fared. He came out of that side road without stopping and hit me broadside!”

The other driver, a gray-bearded man sitting on the running board of his car, slouched over with his head in his hands.

He glanced up as they approached with anxious looks. He had a nose bleed and a large lump on his forehead.

“What happened?” he mumbled.

` “I was driving back from Marianna when you pulled out of that side road and hit my truck,” our father explained. “Can we help you?”

The other driver shook his head. My brother stared doubtfully. Then our father said, “You go on ahead with Betsy. There’s a house over there. I’ll ask to see if they have a phone and call a wrecker and your mom. She’ll come to pick me up. We’ll get the injured driver to the hospital.”

Again my brother hesitated.

“Do as I say, son. Your grandfather and grandmother are already there having supper prepared.”

My brother took one last glance at the man on the running board and strode back to where Betsy was tied. For a welcomed change, he received no protest from Betsy. Perhaps she sensed the trek was near its end and yearned for her new shelter.

In the late afternoon, as the sun poised in brilliant hues of red and gold on the horizon, they reached the outskirts of Marianna, which was named after two daughters of a rich pioneer of the area. While my brother was exhausted, hot, perspiring, hungry, and thirsty, Betsy seemed unaffected by the day’s journey. She tugged strongly against his tight hold on her tether. As the two passed a herd of cattle, there was a chorus of lows from the cows, to which Betsy mooed back in acknowledgment.

My brother pulled his bovine charge over to a fence and tethered her. “Let’s rest, Betsy. I need to smoke and catch my breath. He settled wearily against a tall, slender pine tree and studied his surroundings. He lit another Camel, inhaled the pungent but aromatic fumes, and contemplated the family’s cow.

Sighing and stretching his legs out before him, he said, “Betsy, you have been one big headache. You could have made things a lot easier if you’d just climbed in the back of that truck this morning. What a wasted day!”

He paused while he studied the placid animal. “But you’re our cow. You give us milk, and that counts for a lot. In spite of your orneriness, I guess I liked having you to hike with.”

In response Betsy swung her head around and brushed him affectionately with her nose and wetly licked his head.

My brother thought about the recent era. They lived in the middle of the country’s greatest depression, from which America was slowly beginning to recover under the establishment of recovery programs urged by the great political and humanitarian will of President Roosevelt.

Many Americans still felt the weight of hard economic times, including our family, but with our father’s management promotions, conditions had grown better for them. Many individuals still searched desperately for work, while others sought financial relief through national, work-relief programs such as the Work Projects Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Through agencies like these, beautification projects bloomed, new roads met the increase in car and truck growth, and other local, state, and national needs saw completion.

While our family scraped by with bare necessities, it survived with homemade or less expensive bought clothing; we planted and cultivated a large vegetable garden in our backyard that provided ample tomatoes, corn, potatoes, string beans, lettuce, and other nourishing edibles. In addition, we had plenty of fresh milk generously provided by Betsy, chickens, and eggs.

For entertainment the family gathered around the radio to listen to popular dramas, comedies, sports, and music; we went swimming in the municipal pool, enjoyed roller skating, spent Saturdays at the movies at the small, local cinema, hand churned ice creams with fresh peach, strawberry, banana, and other delectable flavors, and went on picnics. We also found pleasure in various card games like bridge, checkers, Monopoly, and Chinese checkers. Fishing and hunting provided further diversions for some members of the family. Overall, the times were rich in simple offerings.

Since my brother had become a Boy Scout, he had earned several merit badges for completing various projects as he aspired toward the coveted Eagle Scout rank. Because he was making this twenty-mile hike with Betsy, he had decided to apply for a merit badge in hiking.

By the time he reached the family’s new home, my exhausted brother tended to Betsy’s needs with my eager help and then trudged into a busy, cheerful, aromatic kitchen where our maternal grandmother and a black woman prepared fried chicken, field peas, mashed potatoes, and other enzyme-agitating foods. Tantalized by the aroma of everything, he kissed our grandmother on the cheek. I hung about eagerly to hear his story of the hike with Betsy and tried to grab a chicken leg, for which I received a gentle smack on the hand by our grandmother.

“I expect you’re quite hungry,” she said to my brother, continuing with her chores. “Go get washed up. We’ll eat shortly.”

She sighed and brushed back a wisp of cotton-white hair. My brother rushed off to take a bath.

Later the whole family-all six of us-gathered at the dining room table with its ample choices of meat, vegetables, and salads. Our maternal grandfather blessed the food and thanked God for safely watching over my brother and his hike with Betsy and for bringing our father and the other driver through the car accident with only minor injuries.

write by Christopher

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