Bessie Junn lived in a hollow in the woods next to a ravine that runs past the orchard. There’s a chinked log cabin on the Junn place, still in real good shape, that’s one of the oldest buildings still standing here in Scott County. Maybe 1860′s. There’s a real nice barn there, too, of unknown age. I suppose Jocleta would know. Next time I talk to her, maybe I’ll ask. Our barn is 1919 and seems to be ‘way more modern-looking than Junn’s.
There’s a house, too, where Bessie lived, sometimes alone, and sometimes with her adult son, Eddie. In its recent condition it looked very much how I remember the Clampett house on the original TV sitcom series, “The Beverly Hillbillies.” Its current condition is minus the front porch roof. It’s a frame house with no running water and clapboard sides entirely grayed by decades of weathering without benefit of a coat of paint, just like the Clampett’s. But as far as I can tell from all my decades of digging in this neighborhood, nobody’s likely to strike oil with a poorly-aimed shot at a possum.
Which is funny, because I don’t think they had a lot of possum in this part of Minnesota in the olden days, but now, here in the newen days, we do. Maybe it’s worth another shot at one.
The house may have looked very Clampett, but Bessie looked like a clone of Grannie Clampett herself as played by Irene Ryan on the TV show. (Actually, in real life, I think Grannie was a clone of Bessie, but it works either way.) Her face was weathered, and her silver hair was done up in a tight bun on top of the back of her head. The time I saw it un-bunned, it streamed all the way to her fanny. She talked in a voice that had a ‘way up high pitch at the same time it was raspy, and she sing-songed it and lilted it the way contented hens do when they’re pecking around a barnyard. If you had a nice talk with her, you’d have to notice how her high cheeks had a young girl-y quality and that, while she complained about the weather and farming, it was always with a kind of a grin that acknowledged how humorous it is that farming is impossible. When she’d recount an episode from this morning’s activities, she’d have her head back just a little bit, her face glowing with reminiscent amusement, the crow’s feet scrunched at the outside corners of her eyes due to the smile taking up more space than there was room for, a faraway dreaminess in her eyes, and she’d tell it as if it had happened many long lost years ago. Any time I was with her I just soaked it all in, because it was always evident she was a rare treat, indeed.
Bessie loved flowers. Every day she’d walk to the end of her long, straight, curved, over hill, corner, down-the-dale driveway and wait by the mail box for the mail carrier to bring her the bulbs she’d ordered from Holland and Michigan. I saw her wait a long time some days. She planted them in every spare location in that hollow, save for the fact that she had a generous, well-kept, good-looking lawn.
What a peaceful place.
From time to time she’d drive her weathered red FarmAll tractor the three miles into town for supplies, toting an old square galvanized wash tub tied on the back to put the goods in, and she sat good, straight, and upright like she was pulling the proudest float in a parade. Part Cherokee Indian, she had come up from Oklahoma (they say she came up on the train) as a mail-order bride sold through the Sears catalog and married Joe Junn, the man who had ordered her. There had been several Junn generations on the place before Joe. But he died fairly early and left her and the two children, Jocleta and Eddie.
Well, we were just city boys, back in the early ’70′s, when we showed up to be a thorn in Bessie’s side. Not that we tried to be. But thorns is thorns.
Just to show you how much Bessie liked her privacy, here’s something I just heard for the first time last week (as of this writing, which is bound to age some). Verna, Bessie’s nearest next-door neighbor and probably in her mid-eighties now, lived only a couple hundred yards from Bessie’s place for, I’d guess, over 50 years. So I was talking to Verna about this or that over at Bessie’s place her flowers, I suppose, and it came out when I said, ” you know ,” that Verna didn’t know. She’s never been over there. Ever.
No. It wasn’t the flowers, excuse me. It was the visit with the Junn relatives over at the homestead after Eddie’s funeral last year, that’s what it was, and I was just saying about the bluing they used to color the plaster walls. You know, in the olden days they put it in laundry to make the whites so white they were blue-white. And of course, you don’t know, do you. Well, they did. They used bluing in laundry and instead of paint on the plaster. It made a sky blue, baby blue wall. Very pleasant. I had seen it years ago in Bessie’s house, but the last time I was in there for the visit with the relatives after Eddie died, I didn’t see it. Of course, Bessie had died some years before.
But it was a shocker that Verna had never been there. I thought they were friends, you know, with Earl (Verna’s husband) helping Bessie a lot and all that. We came in 1971, and Earl and Verna had already been Junn’s neighbors for thirty years or so.
But back to the driveway. Someone had given Bessie’s long gravel driveway the designation of a county road. The county installed a green and white reflective street sign that says “Bessie Drive.”* I hear they sometimes do that so they can plow it in the winter as a service for someone who needs it. And maybe the designation was only for part of the way in, but in order to get back out, you had to plow the whole thing. So, if that’s what the case was, it was a public nicety that ought to be congratulated. So I hereby congratulate Scott County for it, which is awful big of me, because we all know they haven’t done me any favors.
Well, anyway, at least one time I know about, a big yellow Scott County plow truck went in there plowing snow with his blue light blinking, and Bessie chased him out with a shotgun. The shotgun part is no big deal. She chased us guys around with that thing often enough. But wouldn’t you think you’d be happy if somebody was plowing you out for free?
Sure, I remember the time in 1980 (because that’s when we planted the trees we call the 1980′s) when we were setting up to plant apple trees with the rows butting up against Bessie’s driveway. The driveway is the land line, and, since you have to turn around at the end of the tree rows, and since we figured to turn around without driving onto her driveway, we were staking well back on our property. It was a lot of work; a project, you know. Measuring, stretching wires for a straight line, pounding pipes in at row ends, and doing it again at the other end. In those days we marked where every tree would go with a lath marker, and we were planting 2,000 trees. So we come the next morning, and stakes are strewn all over the place. Not all of them, of course, but a healthy portion. She must have been lit! We call that day “Bessie’s Stake Out,” because she was laying in wait for us with the shotgun when we got there. After she railed at us for a while, during which time the only intelligible words were “dirty devils,” most certainly meaning us, the whole thing diffused, and we got back to work, laughing ’til it hurt. We tried to do our best Bessie mimics, but, from that day to this day, all any of us can do is squawk like Daffy Duck and pepper it with a bunch of dirty devils. Which, after all, is a pretty good Bessie.
I still don’t get what got her about us planting the trees there. I mean, it was 1980, and we had been planting trees since 1971 along one or another of the common boundaries between us and her. In review, we did that in 1971, 1973, wow. I guess, after all, that those are the only ones we did near the land line. Those other plantings, like 1975 and 1976, didn’t even come close to her place, even though they were on land that did. And the ’74′s were far away, off on the other side of the property. Wow. Maybe when she saw us coming in 1980 she thought we were just never gonna stop.
Now, our mother, whose name was Mildred-but-everybody-called-her-Mid, had some ladies from church out to visit at the orchard one day. They were from the church where we grew up in Minneapolis or the one after that, I don’t know anymore.
We called her Midge, just to tease her. We got that from ladies who would call from time to time, ladies who didn’t know her and couldn’t possibly be expected to know that Mid was a name, who asked if Midge was in. We derived great joy from it. Later on, when we got awful, we called her Midgie.
So Midge drives her van full of these church ladies from our place over to Bessie’s to visit, taking a route that had never been successfully attempted by any of us and I don’t know who thought it up, but Mother is no farm-and-orchard driver. She drove in there in the crease between the two knolls that leads to the hollow, and you just can’t do that. The sidehill on that east knoll leaks. Well, so does the west one, I guess, and that crease is just soaking wet unless there’s a drought, which there often is, but which there wasn’t.
Remarkably, she made it all the way through the part where you’re supposed to get stuck, but got hung up just when she was climbing up onto Bessie’s for-real driveway from the side, and that’s as far as she went, getting the van hung up at a goofy pitch.
Well, Bessie comes upon them, shotgun-free, I guess, and this time they were the dirty devils. Bessie had the Daffy Duck quack going and, from Mother’s account, the only surviving phrase beyond dirty devils was “you shitty old city ladies.” From which, of course, we derived even greater joy over the years. (Thank you, Bessie.) So one of these church ladies climbs out of the tilted van and totally ignores the tirade, saying, “Oh, what wonderful flowers you have!” So Bessie gives them a two-hour tour of her extensive plantings, bubbling with warmth and friendliness.
And that’s how she was. She never meant any harm. But she was back in that hollow all by herself, and I suppose it’s a threat and a real intrusion when somebody stops by to say hi. We wouldn’t see her for months at a time, but we got used to having her go from alarming to charming and back to alarming, like she’d never seen us before. She was just that way.
That’s why, when we invited her to come to a sweet corn party at the orchard one weekend, we didn’t know what to think when Bessie emerged from her cross-property hike through the apples trees and approached the party with an uprightly-held, oversized butcher knife in her fisted right hand. Your eyes kind of went to the knife first before you noticed she had a fistful of cut flowers from her gardens, holding them upright in her left hand. So you could say she was well-balanced, but we didn’t know if she was coming to kill us or kiss us. Turns out the knife was for cutting the corn off the cob, because her teeth weren’t up to it.
There were more dirty devils around than just us and the church ladies. You’d hear about them every fall and again in springtime, whenever a person might be plowing or disking. You’d be hearing the din of a laboring tractor and then the scraping/screech of implement steel against fieldstone, and then you’d immediately hear garbled cursing and an unmistakable “dirty devil!” and more garbled cursing before it went back to just the din of the tractor. Bessie had taught Eddie well, and you could always tell which one of them it was, even from a half-mile away. They didn’t keep any secrets about rocks in corn or bean fields.
The original tree of the apple we call ‘Bessie Junn’ got its start not far from Bessie’s driveway, up on the highest ground, from where you can see the tree-tops of Bessie’s Hollow. It grows a big-sized, unrefined, old-looking, cosmetically challenged, dull-colored maroon apple. It’s the only apple I’ve ever seen that could give rise to speculation that it had been crossed with a pomegranate. It russets and cracks. The flower end is stunningly oversized. It’s an out-of-place, wild-looking, jumbo piece of fruit.
But wild-looking is only a hint of how wild that thing is on the inside. It is an acid powerhouse. To use Karl Berggreen’s descriptive phraseology, it’ll peel your face back. (When Karl demonstrates “peel your face back” with sign language, he “as if” grabs a fist-full from under his chin like it’s someone else’s arm coming from behind, and then he slowly pulls the mask up past the forehead and back across the scalp.) We’re talkin’ serious acid.
It’s not sour, and you’ve heard me say that before about acid apples. They’re not lemons. But this Bessie Junn is something else, I’ll tell you. It’ll burn both sides of your tongue like it’s going to eat right through it. It’s the kind of burn your throat gets when you chug a very cold carbonated beverage ‘way past when you would normally stop and say “aaaaahhhhhhh.” Using Haralson as a standard of acidity, I’d estimate Bessie Junn at 5x. Just outlandish.
Now, I wouldn’t expect folks to vote Bessie Junn as the national favorite. Out of 270 million people, though, I’d expect a tenth of one percent to think it’s a blast. I’ve done the figures, and that leaves 2,700 people who can’t wait to try this one. And I’ve already found some of them.
Of course, we haven’t planted an outrageous number of Bessie Junn trees for the remaining 269,xxx,xxx of them.
But here’s something interesting. The acid onslaught is what you get at harvest time. Gradually it diffuses so that after a while, maybe a month or so, it’s just as tame as any other apple. It doesn’t mean any harm. It’s just that way.
*I’ve used the word “driveway” a number of times here, and the street sign says “Bessie Drive.” Neither is technically correct, in Bessie’s case, because she always used to walk to her mailbox. She didn’t drive to it.