Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Recollections of Slack Hand

Throughout my childhood I continually met interesting people. When I say interesting, I’m not implying good or bad, just interesting. One of these people was a man known as Slack Hand. I was told that Slack Hand was distantly related to us, and I was also told not to tell anyone about it.

I asked my Granddad one time why the man was called Slack Hand, and I was told he'd been given that name because he wouldn’t strike a lick at work of any kind. Granddad went on to say that Slack Hand had better be glad that his daddy had given him his farm, otherwise he would have starved to death a long time ago. Granddad said ole Slack Hand was too lazy to work and too on’ry to steal, to which he added “he’s lazier than a cut dog.”

I first came to know Slack Hand when we were in the hog business. At one time we had upwards to 80 hogs and pigs in our ever-growing pens. For a few years we raised and sold hogs until new USDA standards made it impossible to turn a profit. We always had healthy stock but we couldn’t afford to get all the new shots that were mandated or to have the weekly inspections from an accredited inspector. This was coupled with plummeting pork prices, I recall that the last batch of hogs we sold, we only got 11 cents a pound for them, and it was costing us an average of 35 cents a pound to raise them. If we had gotten the USDA inspections and additional shots, the average price would have been more like 90 cents a pound to raise the pork. I think it was just a way to put the small family farmer out of business, we were too small to qualify for government subsidies, but too large not to have the new rules applied to us. But that’s another story for another day.

Like I mentioned, I first came to know Slack Hand during the “hog years”. We didn’t keep a boar hog on our property so we’d “rent” one off of Slack Hand. I say rent because Slack Hand would pick out a boar hog for us to use, a boar that coincided with a boar he meant to sell at the stock market within a few weeks. Since Slack Hand didn’t care for his stock at all, he liked for us to take the boar so we’d fatten it up for him so it’d weigh more when he sold it. I remember we’d have to feed the boar for a couple of weeks before it’d even have enough energy to court the ladies! This arrangement worked out for both parties though, it kept us from having the expense of keeping a boar hog year round, and it helped Slack Hand get the weight of his boar up so he’d fetch a bigger price out of it at market. By using a different boar hog every year, it also kept our stock from becoming inbred.

The most memorable thing about going to Slack Hand’s farm to pick up the boar was that when a truck would pull up, all of the different stock animals would come running toward the truck. Slack Hand didn’t have a loading chute on his place, all you had to do was open your tailgate and a bunch of hogs would jump up into the truck. Then you had to force all of the other hogs except for the boar out of the truck. I remember also how the cows would lick the tires and fenders of our truck, I guess they were trying to get at the road salt that was on the truck.

Also, at Slack Hand’s farm was the first (and only) time I have ever seen hogs eat rocks. I suppose having rocks in your belly would be better than nothing. I remember my Granddad would always complain about how Slack Hand’s stock was treated, and he said that Slack Hand was no farmer because a farmer wouldn’t treat his animals like that.

Slack Hand went out of the hog business at the same time we did, he couldn’t afford the new USDA rules either, and this was the case with most other small farmers in the region. Of course, this led to a huge glut of hogs at the market, which depressed the prices even further.

I remember after all of his hogs were sold, Slack Hand had an auction at his place. Old Slack Hand had come from a good family so there were a lot of people there, even though most of them didn’t care too much for him personally. I remember folks talking about how Slack Hand had got an auctioneer to do the auction by saying that he was in a real hard place and that if the auctioneer could help him out, he could only afford to pay him $500. Usually an auctioneer got 10 percent of the total sales for doing an auction. Well, of course the auctioneer felt sorry for old Slack Hand and told him that he’d do the auction if Slack Hand would help him out by carrying the items up to be auctioned off. That way the auctioneer wouldn’t have to pay two or three men for their help. He told Slack Hand that if the labor could be provided, then he’d do the auction as a favor to Slack Hand since he was between a rock and a hard place. The auction was advertised at all of the local stores and in the regional papers and it seemed like everyone showed up to the auction. When the time came to start, the auctioneer told Slack Hand to carry up the first lot of stuff to be sold, and Slack Hand grumbled a little bit and said his back was killing him, and he doubted he’d be able to be of much use in helping out. A few of the farmers who showed up for the sale offered to pitch in to help, and ole Slack Hand bragged on them and said they'd be a big help to the auctioneer.

After conning some men to work for free, Ole Slack Hand hollered for his wife to carry him out his easy chair to sit on during the sale. So directly here come his wife, struggling out through the yard carrying Slack Hands easy chair on her back, and he instructed her to set it right near the little stage area. And there Slack Hand sat all day long watching his neighbors carry his stuff up to the auctioneer where it was sold to the highest bidder. I remember my Granddad telling me not to stand too close to where Slack Hand sat or else I’d likely lose an eye if the straining buttons broke loose from Slack Hands shirt. I looked at his shirt and they were stretched to the max.

I remember after the auction, Old Slack Hand got out of his chair and marched over to where the cashier was stationed, and he instructed them to give him $500, they did and Slack Hand took it over to the auctioneer and settled up with him. No sooner than he done this, Slack Hand started berating the auctioneer how he should’ve got better prices out of some of his stuff. The auctioneer just shook his head in disbelief and just walked off. Slack Hand then went back to the cash stand, and asked how much they made, and someone said “so far, a little over twenty thousand”, and Slack Hand grabbed his hat, started slapping it against his sides and started dancing right there in front of the crowd that was milling around and waiting to settle up their bill. Slack Hand then hollered for his wife to carry his easy chair back into the house, and to hurry up, they was headed for town. He then cornered a neighbor and told him that they had to go to the bank, and asked if the neighbor could stick around until everyone had left and make sure that everything went okay. Slack Hand and his wife then loaded up into his truck and they took off down the road. Slack Hand had a way of getting people to do things for him, and this time was no different, everybody knew that the bank was closed this late in the evening. People talked about that for months after the sale!

The next year, Slack Hand decided to plant sweet corn and sell it at a roadside stand. He had a neighbor to plow up a field for him near the main road (again using his “I’m in a real hard place, could you help me out, argument). I remember all through the early summer we’d drive by Slack Hand’s corn patch and we’d see Slack Hand sitting in the back of his truck…in his easychair…while his wife would be hoeing in the corn! People all up the valley talked about how lazy Slack Hand was and how he worked his wife like a dog. They’d say “you know he even has her to load up his easy chair so he can sit and watch her work.”

Later that summer, Slack Hand and his wife did sell corn at their roadside stand, she would wait on customers and run back into the field to pick the corn whenever it was needed, and ole Slack Hand would sit there and talk to the people about how bad he had it and how hard he worked growing the corn. And yes, all the while he’d be sitting in his easy chair.

The following winter Slack Hand’s wife hurt her back real bad, people joked that she hurt it when hefting his easychair in and out of the truck bed. After she hurt her back she wasn’t able to stoop over and work the cornfield like she had before. So Slack Hand came up with a solution the their problem. He’d plant and sell potatoes instead of corn since potatoes took less work! He talked a neighbor into plowing the field and planting the potatoes for him, this time playing up how they were really in a hard place now that his wife couldn’t “help out” with things. Well the taters were growing good but when it came time to hill them up, ole Slack Hand couldn’t talk anyone into helping him out by doing it all for him. Everyone he asked would come up with an excuse as to why they couldn’t do it, so the news spread like wildfire up the valley when Slack Hand took to hilling up the potatoes all by himself. I remember people would drive by his potato patch just to see him doing something. He became sort of a local tourist attraction. The funniest part was that Slack Hand hoed them up while sitting in one of those little plastic chairs. He’d sit in it and hoe away. It was slow going, but every 10 minutes or so, Slack Hand would stand up and his wife would move the chair a little further up the row, Slack Hand would sit back down and continue hoeing. People at the local store would talk and say that folks ought to take a picture of him working because it was the first time that anyone ever knew him to do it. They all figured it was an unwritten sign of the apocolypse.

That was the last year Old Slack Hand ever planted anything.

A couple of months later, word reached us that Slack Hand was killed in an automobile accident. It seems he fell asleep at the wheel and ran over the hill, oddly enough, the site of his wreck was right in the old potato patch. What stuck with people, aside from hearing of Slack Hand’s death, was that his easychair was in the back of his truck at the time of his wreck, and it was thrown from the truck and had landed upright in the middle of the old potato patch. Of course, after the initial shock of the accident wore off, people told tales that they reckoned that the ghost of Old Slack Hand had sat the chair upright so he could sit in his tater patch and watch people work. People told this so much that nobody ever moved the Slack Hand’s easychair from the tater patch beside the road, and it sat there for years until it rotted to pieces.

After Slack Hand’s death, his widow sold the farm and moved to Petersburg, where she eventually remarried and lives to this day.


Denise said...

I have so enjoyed this wonderful story and all those great photographs. He was quite a character and his wife must have been a saint. I came over from The Tile Lady and I thank her for introducing me to your blog. I shall look forward to coming back.

Vera said...

Matthew, this is another good one.

The Good Life in Virginia said...

a fascinating yarn...reminds me of stories from my husband's side of the family up in letcher county kentucky.
thanks for sharing :0

tipper said...

Love the photos in this post-and especially the baptizing in the previous post.

Old Slack Hand sounds like a real character-wonder if his wife missed him?

Matthew Burns said...


The baptizing pic in the previous post was of Shirley's daddy Neely Stewart getting baptized in the Guyandotte River. All of the pics on that post are of her family (the last two are Shirley).

Shirley Stewart Burns, Ph.D. said...

Well, at the risk of sounding too harsh, as they say at home, "he wouldn't be worth the powder and lead it would take to kill him." What a horrible, horrible man...especially to take advantage of so many people...particularly, his long suffering wife. I hope she got her a decent man this time!! He's not haunting anyone... that would be too much work!

Jason Burns said...

Ha ha ha! I laughed aloud at this one! I remember a few times when YOU were in the garden with a hoe and a plastic lawn chair - and Dad called you "Slack Hand".