By SKIP TUCKER, Alabama Daily News Featured Columnist
A cottonwood tree resembles a pecan tree the way CNN’s Bully Jim Acosta resembles a gentleman.
A difference between Acosta and a cottonwood is that cottonwood has done at least one useful thing. Logs of it were used for a fort that repelled an army for 13 days in February, 1836. The Spanish word for cottonwood is Alamo. Unlike Acosta, it can come in handy.
Like when it helped provide comeuppance for a northern engineer who chanced, during a longpast Thanksgiving week, to insult not just the South but also the legendary D.T.
He therefore became not a mere yankee, to be pitied and ignored, but a Damned Yankee – a DY – who, like Acosta, acted despicably and earned a lesson in manners.
Running a-foul of D.T. was a mistake. Running a-foul of D.T. on his own turf laid wide a path to tragedy akin to the Spanish mistake at the Alamo.
The victim was an engineer come to Walker County to plan and plot a path for a slurry line for the coal company that employed D.T., who was chosen to assist him.
The Damn Yankee was bright, schooled, impeccably outfitted and completely self-absorbed. He was an ‘hole.
First day, with aching condescension, he explained to D.T. and his associate, Flick, that he knew woods and hills and most everything in or on them just short, maybe, of God’s own knowledge.
He also pointed out with a chuckle that Southerners in general and the boys in particular were to him as useful as a sparrow’s poot. He was glad for their company but he was the Pathfinder, and worked unhampered. And, just like that, it became D.T. versus the DY.
So into Walker County backwoods they stepped. Half-hour in, the compass went wonky (as concealed magnets will cause a compass to do). The water, as well as the lunch, mysteriously had gone missing (due to the fact they were consumed by D.T. and Flick that very morning before setting out).
The engineer, upon learning this, made a noise that might’ve resembled an elk straining to pass a porcupine.
A merry chase ensued, hours spent up hill and down. Finally, they led the exhausted DY back to headquarters. He was unhappy, but D.T. felt parity as yet was unachieved.
Next day, the DY, though contemptuous, showed grit and ability and kept schedule.
D.T.’s Machiavellian mind struggled to come up with something the engineer would recall often and without fondness, but kept coming up empty. He was on the verge of despair when the Damn Yankee himself came up with a stroke of disingenius.
As the sun lowered and they hiked toward headquarters, he stopped suddenly, awestruck.
“Is that a wild pecan tree?” he asked softly, pointing though the failing light to a young cottonwood in a grove full of them. Flick started to snicker but was stopped by the wide smile that crossed D.T.’s face.
“Why, sure,” said D.T carefully. “Sure it is.”
As noted, it’s a stretch to put cottonwood tree and pecan tree in the same sentence, except to say one is no wise the other.
Our Hero couldn’t believe the smartest engineer in the world, replete with woodslore, hadn’t a clue. While it’s true a cottonwood bears drooping grapelike seedpod clusters, it’d take the wildest and weirdest flight of fancy, or a very peculiar mushroom, to see them as small green pecans.
“Really?” the man said. “You mean they grow wild out here and anyone can pick them, free?” D.T. paused to make sure he wasn’t the one about to be snookered and tooken, saw the poor man was in earnest, and breathed out a sigh of pure joy.
“Why, sure,” he said. “Sure you can. We get tired of them down here. Oh, we pick some every once in a while to make a pie or candy or something, but nobody cares about them.”
“Not even at Thanksgiving?” he almost moaned.
“Not even Christmas,” D.T said solemnly.
“You know how much a pound of pecans costs back home?” said the DY. D.T. said he didn’t. The DY said he wasn’t quite sure either, but he knew they were expensive. Supremely expensive. Then he asked the question D.T. yearned to hear.
“You mean I can pick all I want and take them home, no charge?” D.T. thought he saw the fool drool.
“Hell,” said D.T. “We’ll help you.” He and Flick started filling their pockets. So did the engineer. Next day they brought wheelbarrows and flashlights. After the line was laid for the slurry they picked pecans in earnest, for two days.
Having thought it through, however, D.T. detected a flaw.
“Listen,” he said. “One thing about picking a green pecan is that the meat doesn’t form inside the shell until it’s dried out complete. You open one now, it’s ruined. All you get is pulp. The pulp creates the meat.” The DY nodded in understanding.
Next day, they helped ship home the engineer’s suitcases and gear and went back to the trees. They worked their butts off, hauling barrowsful of cottonwood bolls. They filled his car trunk until it would barely close. Then then the back seat, then the passenger side, right up to the windows. They spent hours.
Finally, it was time for to go. Tired but happy, the Damned Yankee climbed into his car full of green cottonwood bolls. Profuse with thanks, he stopped to crank down his window.
“I’ll never forget you two,” he called, waving goodbye.
“That’s the smartest thing he’s said since he got here,” D.T. said to Flick.
“Completely dry, or they’re ruined,” he called to the Damn Yankee, waving him out of sight.
“He’s gonna be mad as hell when he opens the pecan shell,” said Flick.
“Not him,” D.T. said. “He’ll think he opened the pecans too soon and he’ll probably be back down here next year for more.”
A flash of sympathy zapped Flick. “Maybe we ought to let him know,” he said. D.T. looked at his companion, slapped him on the back, and smiled.
“You must be outta your cotton-picking mind,” he said.On his way home to his family, D.T. stopped by his favorite little bakery for a fresh baked pecan pie made with fresh picked Alabama pecans. Also, he bought a bag of them, unshelled.
After all, November is pecan harvest time in Alabama.
(Next week: A Christmas Story.)