Papa Possum

Papa Possum - Storyteller


On my Daddy's side I come from a long line of Florida timber people, sawyers, sawfilers, cabinetmakers and Florida farmers... My Daddy's family moved to Florida in 1835! My daddy was born in a sawmill camp, as his Daddy was and I was the first in my line born in a hospital - The old Army hospital in Tallahassee in 1948. On my Mama's side I came from a line of Florida turpentiners and early construction people - My Mama's family moved to Florida sometime before 1780. Daddy's family moved out of South Carolina because they refused to pay taxes on the liquid sprits they were making. Yes I am a Florida Cracker and am damn proud of that heritage.


I grew up fishing and hunting and mushing my toes in the mud, swimming in sinkholes and running the sand & clay roads of North Florida. Some of my family still lived in Cracker houses with tin roofs, dogtrots and outhouses when I was young. A couple still made low bush lightening and one uncle said he made two kinds of whiskey - drinking whiskey and selling whiskey. I got married in a little country church my granddaddy, sawyer, carpenter, reformed alcoholic, helped build and preached in way back in the woods, where they baptized in a nearby spring fed lake. 


Now as Papa Possum, I gather stories about my family and am writing them into an anthology... They were big families (My Dad's Dad had 12 brothers and sisters and my Mom's mother had 12 brother's and sisters) so there are lots of anecdotes. There were even two brothers that married two sisters and it was a double wedding - different families so our family tree did split - so we have double cousins. Try to explain that one to county registry folks! Me, Yes, I am guilty of maybe embellishing here and there but only for a good laugh... and I tell these stories pontificating between a tune or two about Florida when & wherever folks will let me. I did a couple of performances up in Tennessee & Kentucky not too long ago and they did not throw me out! Those folks in Baxter, TN, now want me to whistle when I do their show next year, seems they like my whistling, too!   


Les Strawn

Aka Papa Possum

37 Daytona Street

Miramar Beach, FL 32550









Snuff dipping was a common pastime in the south.  It is not as popular as it once was but my wife tells me that both of her grandmothers dipped. She couldn't remember whether they dipped 'Bitter Dental Snuff' or 'Dental Sweet Snuff'. If you read the story I wrote about Aunt Nora and about Mr. Scott you know about them so dipping is no secret to you. There are still a lot of people who dip. The famous ad goes, "Put a little between your cheek and gums.' Me, I would rather chew on a cow pie. The old saying goes, “You can always tell a level headed snuff dipper because the juice runs out of both corners of their mouth!”

My grandfather dipped Copenhagen Snuff just like Mr. Scott. Sometimes he would use a spit-cup or he would use whatever was handy. Watch your Coke can faithfully, guard it like a bulldog guards a new bone. You ain’t lived until you get a mouthful of those leavin’s because it will keep your stomach churning for days. It is an absolute necessity to spit while you are dipping. The side of his and yours, too, if he rode with you, automobile and truck was a testimony to this fact and was always streaked with his latest tribute. The birds that spot cars had nothing on him. This was long before that trendy bumper sticker came along that became popular in all of your Southern gift shops, you know the one that says, "Pass With Care: Tobacco Chewer!" Yes he was and years before that slogan was ever thought of, but we should have painted it on the back of all of his vehicles ... in big letters in neon orange paint!

My great-grandmother Hale was the most disliked woman in the family. Friends, now she was hell to live with. I am not making this up and will swear this on the Stars and Bars. During the middle 1950's she was living with my Grandfather and Grandmother in Tallahassee. She made it a living nightmare for everyone within earshot even though she called herself a pious church going widow. She made it real clear to everybody that would listen that she did not like the use of tobacco products or demon whiskey, both of which my Grandfather paid homage to. It had killed her husband even though he was ninety-seven when he died and this did cause some tense moments between my grandfather and everybody else. She also did not like dirty children and noise. This made it difficult for us youngun's. My grandma kept us while my Mama worked. Sometimes she had us taking several baths a day and when she bathed us we heard, “Cleanliness is next to Godliness,” every time. Frankly, I am not sure her elevator went all the way to the penthouse. My Daddy always said she just never knew what a full load of bricks looked like.

One Sunday in 1958, I remember the year well because it was June and I had just turned the big one -oh, yep, I was ten years old. We were at my grandfather's beach house. It was located on Ochlocknee Bay about thirty-five miles or so south of Tallahassee. She had to go to church and was not about to go to the little church down there at the coast with a bunch of strangers. She had to go to her church in Tallahassee. I told you she was a stubborn one and pitched a conniption fit to get back to Tallahassee.

You should have seen great-grandma. She was dressed to the nines. She had on stockings, long dress and gloves. The ensemble was complete with a cute little hat with flowers and netting. Everything was gleaming in the sun, yes friends and neighbors everything was a spotless white! This wasn't unusual however; this is the way she dressed for church every Sunday. Even the bible was wrapped in a fancy white linen case complete with lace. This old girl was ready. Of course in those days all the ladies did dress up to go to church in the south, including the hat. Today, this one just happened to be brand new. What floored me was that we were in Florida, it was hot, the humidity was probably hovering around ninety percent, Tallahassee was a long drive, and none of our cars in those days had air-conditioning.

We loaded up in my granddaddy's 1956 Desoto; I loved that car. I say we, there was my Dad, and he was going to drive, my granddaddy, my great-grandma, and I. Granddaddy was shotgun and I was sitting behind Dad.

We were tooling along fine. The windows were open and the wind was blowing through. Great-grandma was reading her bible and I was quiet as a church mouse because I knew she didn't like me much anyway. I knew I could cut loose on the way back to the coast as great-grandma was going to walk the short one plus block home from the church to the house after service and wouldn't be riding back with us.

Granddaddy had already been fishing that morning and had sampled some bonded spirits an old drinking buddy of his had dropped off the night before and was about two-thirds asleep and about two-thirds drunk in the front seat when he realized he had a powerful need to spit from that big ole wad of Copenhagen he had in his mouth. That is when all Hell broke loose.

His window was not rolled all the way down and just about a fourth of the way up. He turned his head and he let her rip. His load splattered. It spattered all over him, the windows, the inside of the car and ... all over grandma sitting in the back seat ... Her white dress and her brand new hat! God, forbid, he even got some on her frilly white laced bible cover. It was a glorious mess!

I had been looking out the other window when I heard grandma yell, "HENRY THOMAS HALE, HENRY THOMAS HALE, you are going hell!"

I jumped around; because it scared me, but my Dad started laughing, he was having a laughing fit when he realized what had happened. He was laughing so hard he couldn't keep the car on the road and had to pull over on the shoulder.

It was quite a sight. Here was very fat drunk old man with the nastiest pocket-handkerchief you have ever perceived trying to clean up this over dressed little old lady and attempting to mop up his noxious spew. When the car finally stopped my granddaddy had rolled out his inebriated three hundred pound frame and was attempting to help this skinny raving old lady, she was pushing him away and yelling at him at the same time. I stayed where I was at frozen in fear, trying to become invisible, she was so mad she really did frighten this 10-year-old, speechless, if you can believe that. Me being speechless I mean. I had seen her tirades before and they were not pretty. Mostly I heard, “Henry, Henry, what are you doing?” “Henry, get that nasty rag away from me!” Dad finally got himself and the situation under control. As I stated before, it was truly a glorious mess.

We rode the rest of the way to Tallahassee with the stinging words of the gospel. They were pointedly aimed at a man that I knew was forever condemned to burn in the hellfire’s of damnation forevermore. I know I heard all of the prophets from the bible mentioned at least once and some more than once. She told him many times that morning where he would be spending eternity and I knew that it must have been a certainty. All because of the temptations of tobacco and that demon rum!

My dad tried to maintain a poker face all the way back to town but every time he surveyed the damage to the interior of the car, or something about a smell was mentioned, or he got to listening to something grandma said, I could hear him snicker out loud. Every time he'd snicker she'd go off on another tirade. The smell was acute. To ride in a hot car on a Florida June morning with the smell of Copenhagen, whiskey, and spit is a treat that has to be experienced to be appreciated. It is one of those smells I will never forget and is indelibly etched in my olfactory memory.

I just maintained my silence. I am sure you will agree that a ten-year-old is much better off just being seen, try to blend in with the upholstery, and not being heard. If I could have crawled under that seat I would have. It was the only time I ever recall hearing the old lady cuss, I will say that for her, she was mean as hell but she never cussed. It was only that one word and that one time.

Every now and then she would glare over at me and give me some preaching too. Now I didn't do nothing and I didn't say nothing! A couple times she fired off in my direction, " And you, you little heathen, you are gonna grow up just like him!" - That just made my Dad snicker more.

She never did forgive my Dad for laughing, she didn't make it to church that day, and she took it out on the whole family the rest of the week. My granddaddy really caught hell. Sometime shortly after this incident she went to Jacksonville, FL, and moved in with my Uncle Curtis, my granddaddy's brother, and never did return to Tallahassee. Who knows maybe dipping Copenhagen Snuff saved the family from something worse after all. I never saw her again.

To this very day, however, I still cannot stand the smell of Copenhagen Snuff. It reminds me of that long ride on in a hot car on a sweltering Florida summer day and it still turns my stomach.

Les Strawn
April 13, 2005


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