Tater Tots and other Tall Tales

Pappaw Peacock at the Air and Space Museum explaining a missile he helped build.

Pappaw Peacock at the Air and Space Museum explaining a missile he helped build.

 

Growing up, I thought I was weird.

Now I know I’m weird.

Just kidding, sort of.

I thought I was weird because I didn’t understand where my love of and ability for writing came from.

My parents always encouraged my writing and reading. My mom wrote in a journal often about Sunday school or a Bible study lesson. She was as good as any Southern woman at turning a story about going to the grocery store into a three part play with intermission. But I didn’t know where my love for poetry or my gift of spinning an imaginative tale came from until I was older and spent a great deal of time with my Pappaw Peacock. Pappaw, is what I call my Grandfather. Peacock is my dad’s side of the family’s last name if you aren’t aware. I didn’t just decide to call my grandparent a colorful bird.

My Pappaw Peacock was always a source of wonder to me. He still is. He grew up on a farm in Southern Alabama with a flock of brothers and sisters and a flock of real chickens right outside their door. He grew up poor and in a time where entertainment was really what you made of what you had.

Contrary to what some people may believe about the South and farmers in general, my Pappaw is a certified rocket scientist. He earned his Electrical Engineering degree and served in the United States Air Force. He’s worked on missiles and things my dad likes to say he can neither confirm nor deny.

But he’s always been a storyteller.

When my Pappaw joined the military he had never had beef before. He’d grown up almost strictly vegetarian because his family couldn’t afford to eat the chickens they raised. He had his first steak in Hawaii and he’s loved meat ever since. This six foot four country bumpkin got a lot of flack, but he never minded. In fact, he liked to perpetuate the stereotype. Pappaw has never lied, no. He just spun some mighty tall tales for his fellow soldier.

And for his grandkids.

In fact, do you know how tater tots grow?

You’re thinking to yourself that tater tots don’t grow, right? Well, that just shows how much you know! You’re not a farmer, are you? Well, surely not a potato farmer! That’s right, tater tots come from potatoes, us Southerners aren’t that backward! We know that! You plant potatoes and you get tater tots. Right? Good, we agree. Well, let me tell you how.

 

My Pappaw set me on his knee and I felt like Jack who’d climbed up the bean stalk in the land of the giants. But Pappaw was perfect for hugging. His arms could completely encircle me and I’d never felt safer. His long fingers could cover the entirety of his face and they were certainly quick. You see, they had to be because he had to snatch falling biscuits before they hit the floor or the chickens would peck up through the floor boards and get em! Anyway, my Pappaw would look at me straight in the eye and nod sagely, “You wanna know how tater tots grow?”

I didn’t even have to consider the question. I’d nearly rock myself right out of his lap with how hard I would nod my head.

“Well, I’ll tell you.” Pappaw would lean in despite how hunkered it made his whole frame. He’d curl up so that it was just the two of you. The secret of growing tater tots was just for you. A smile would play on his lips, but there was no hint of laughter on his voice. The growth of tater tots was serious business. “Well Larn,” he’d always start. I loved the way my grandparents, extended family, and relatives would say my name. I was never LOR-EN, to them. I was either LAR-EN or LARN. To this day I prefer it as such.

Anyway, he’d take what I knew and bend it, just enough.

“Well Larn, you know we would go out and plow the fields, plant potatoes, and water the field. Then you wait. But, in Southern Alabama it gets so hot!” I could agree to that. Looking out the window you could see the heat raising off the roads and the crunchy grass in the backyard. Take one step out the back door and sweat would trickle down your back. Sometimes, it would be so humid that you’d walk from the house to your car and think to yourself ‘I’m sweating already?’ but it’s not sweat making your arms and face slick, it’s the humidity. Southern Alabama has its own brand of hot and its hotter-than-the-hinges-on-the-gates-of-hell hot. So Southern Alabama was the perfect place to grow tater tots, he would say.

“Your Uncle Billy and I would go out there with baskets. We’d have these huge baskets and we would go down between the two hills. Now, you have to grow tater tots on hills. The potatoes grow on in the side of the hill so that it’s easy to catch em.” Five, six, seven years old and my brow would begin to wrinkle here. Potatoes on hills? Why? “On the hottest day you go out and stand at the bottom of the hill with your basket. It’s so hot that even the ground is hot. The potatoes get hot. And, well, you ever have popcorn?” There I went shaking my whole body in affirmation. “The potatoes would get hot just like corn. And when they got really hot- POP!” His wide hand simulated an explosion. “The potatoes explode out of the side of the hill and tater tots come raining down. You have to run with your basket and make sure you catch all of them. They come out steaming hot!”

My mouth hung open with my eyes wide, and I sat there calculating the new respect I had for my grandfather. As soon as I regained my ability to think I would jump down and pull on one of the man’s long lanky arms. “I wanna grow tater tots! I wanna go catch them!” And the best thing was, my parents would stay mum on the stories. I grew up until sometime in Elementary school believing tater tots pop out of hot Southern Alabama hills.

 

Oh, did you know my Pappaw has one leg shorter than the other? “Oh well, you see it’s something common in Southern Alabama,” he would say to the other men in uniform on the long bus rides. “Alabama isn’t flat like Mississipi or Arkansas. It’s all hills.” For me, this story would come as we were driving from pasture to pasture to move the cows he raised. He would ask me if I knew why we had to move the cows. And just as seriously as he told those men in the Air Force he’d say, “Gotta move the cows so that the legs on one side of their body don’t grow longer or shorter than the other.”

To which there would be a reply of general disbelief.

Remember, Pappaw was a learned man. He was smart as a whip. Where you thought he’d smile and give up the tale, he’d shake his head firmly and continue on with the seriousness of a born and raised farmer. “Cows don’t move very much at all. They stay on one pasture on the side of a hill and they stand upright. On one side, the legs are long to keep them up. On the other side the legs are stunted from the higher incline keeping them shorter. But if you move the cows around, switching sides, they grow to be even.” How can you dispute this logic? My Pappaw tells this story with the sage nod of a wise man.

“Unfortunately,” his voice would lower and the corners of his mouth would droop. “I grew up on a hill. Our home was right there on Peacock Hill my whole life. I moved the cows, but we never moved. Standing on hills all day my legs grew differently. My right leg is shorter than the left.” For the men in the Air Force he would walk with a limp when he wasn’t in his shoes for a good day or so. When you asked about where the limp went while in his shoes he’d just explain that he had a block of wood in one shoe to even the two out. Once again, logical. For us kids he always stuck with the wood in his shoes. I remember peering into the boats of shoes he wore and frowning at the darkness inside. No wood. Of course, Pappaw would explain, his shoes are made with the wood inside the shoe so it’s more comfortable. So logical!

Tall tales, while wildly exaggerated and purely for the fun of it, are my Pappaw’s favorite pastime. He tells his tales to entertain. The glint in his eye that he gets as he spins a tale is the same sort of flutter in my chest I get as I write out a new story. It’s in the blood.

Now, have I ever told you about the Wild Man of Alabama? Ah, I guess that will have to wait til next time.

Thanks for reading. And have a great weekend!

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