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A good 'chaw' is worth a thousand words

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By Kes Colbert

Raymond Mercer would ease a “chaw” of  "Day's Work" from one side of his jaw to the other. He’d squint off toward the back of the Parke Theater. He’d squat down on his haunches and expertly ease a load of juice equal distance between the toes of his trail worn Red Wings. He’d peer up at Luke Finley’s dark-colored mule. He’d squint back toward the theater again, spit and slightly nod his head up and down. We all breathed a sigh of relief. He bought the animal!

Now, it wasn’t our mule mind you. Me and Ricky Gene and Hollis were way too young to take an active part in the trading. I reckon we just didn’t want Mr. Raymond to pass up that big Finley mule. And in the days before television this was our “Gunsmoke,” “Ozzie and Harriet” or “I Love Lucy.”  

They gathered up every third Monday in the parking lot north of town. As a boy it was a treat to hang around on Mule Day and watch the local farmers swap and sell the same old animals. They actually traded more knives, guns and horses than mules but that’s beside the point. They wouldn’t barter over hardly nothing until they chewed (literally) on it for a while. They’d pull a half-used roll of "Warren County Twist" or a plug of "Old Honesty" tobacco out of the front of their overalls, cut or bite off a generous portion and work it around just right before getting on with the haggling.  

Me and Ricky Gene and Hollis grew up believing it wasn’t an official “mule exchange” unless you had chewed over it first. It was like serious business necessitated a wad of tobacco and long periods of silence punctuated with rounds of expectoration. We couldn’t wait to grow up and be just like 'em.

The art of chewing reached its zenith with the men relaxing in the shade of the porch up at Woodrow Kennon’s Mercantile. We watched in fascination as Leroy Cunningham would use his thumb and first two fingers to carefully extract the perfect amount of "Mail Pouch" loose leaf tobacco out of that stand-up pack he carried in his hip pocket. He’d insert it in the left side of his jaw while not missing a beat of the yarn he was spinning about the summer it was so hot the boll weevils left the cotton and drowned themselves in the Obion River.

Mr. Cunningham could lean back on that RC Cola crate he used for a seat and shoot a stream of tobacco plumb over the top rail of Woodrow’s porch banister. Me and Ricky Gene and Hollis quickly learned to hunker down on one side or the other of Mr. Leroy. But never between him and the street. Mr. Manning was a spray spitter. He chewed "Old Kentucky Twist." It was about as dry as you could find. And strong, let me tell you! With today’s standards and cautions, they’d make you write on the label “take two aspirin before inserting.” If you were within 3 or 4 feet of Mr. Manning when he let go, you were going to get a little wet!

I was 15 the year the men's team asked me to play baseball with them. This was back when every little town worth its salt fielded a lineup. We played on Sunday afternoon and the rivalries were fierce as the pride of an entire community rode on every pitch. Now listen, there were some characters on that squad. And I can’t remember if it was Colonel James T. “Birddog” Reed, Goat Hayes or Bobby Jack Cantrell that started the plug of "Black Maria" down the dugout. I felt quite grown up as I bit off a healthy portion and clumsily “tongued” it to the side of my jaw.   

It took about three pitches and a high fly to left for my mouth to start burning. By the time David Paschall grounded out to second my head was spinning. When Jerry Williams popped up to end the inning I wasn’t sure I could find third base! You know where we are headed here. The second batter for Trenton hit a two-hop screamer right at me. I played it off my chest, picked it off the ground and threw a strike to Birddog at first to nail the runner by a step. I swallowed about half my chew on the play.

Folks, I didn’t remember much about the rest of the game. I remember the cold sweats. I remember throwing up behind the dugout. I remember the green demons and the hot flashes. And I distinctly remember seeing three baseballs coming at me when I had to bat. I thought for the first five innings of that game I was going to die. For the last four, I wanted to! Friends, if you’re studying on a career in chewing tobacco, don’t start with Maria!

Not long after that someone handed me a chew of "Beech-Nut." Hey, after a bout with that plug tobacco, this tasted like a Baby Ruth. It was 12 cents by the pack. It used to be called “scrap” tobacco but lately the companies were using the term “loose-leaf,” which sounded a whole lot better. I quit relying on what Bobby Jack or Goat might pass down the bench and started carrying my own!

We couldn’t smoke. That cut down on your wind. And I was trying to play every sport known to man. Drinking was out because Mom was almighty dead set against it. No one had ever heard of mouth ulcers or oral cancer. We were emulating our elders and enjoying life.

I chewed for 25 years. I enjoyed every one of them. And please believe me, I understand the down side of chewing better than most. And I’m not advocating anyone take up the habit. We are a little wiser now than we were in 1962. But man, there are some great benefits to chewing tobacco. It keeps down the worms, makes a good meal last longer, wards off ugly girls… I’m writing a book about it. If you remind me later, I’ll give you the details…