Folklore, ‘witchcraft’ played role in childhood
Willis Webb

A recent discussion on folklore surprised me with a turn toward witchcraft, which I’d never considered in any way except that it was ... witchcraft. Perhaps old wives tales but not folklore.

In the era in which I was raised, old wives tales and folklore certainly played a role in my upbringing.

This was not an uncommon bent for the 1940s- 50s, particularly by farm and ranch folks with a tendency toward home remedies. Rural folks, of necessity, considered themselves to be self-reliant.

Living in a rural setting in the 1930s, 40s and even into the 50s meant not going “ to town” shopping more than once a week and some only went once a month. It would have to be a real emergency to make that difficult trip over dirt (in our case, clay) roads the six or seven miles to Teague. Fortunately, at age eight, our family migrated to the city (Teague, population 3,000) and became acquainted with running water and indoor toilets.

But, even though we had easy access to doctors, home remedies were still a significant part of our daily lives. Somewhere early in my life I was introduced to what I now, about half-teasingly and halfseriously, refer to as the East Texas Miracle Drug — Camphophenique. That oily liquid was applied to anything from mosquito bites to serious cuts and bruises.

Pr ior to my acquaintance with that miracle medicine, I was introduced to any number of home remedies. One memorable mixture was to treat a sprained ankle: clay mixed with vinegar and applied as a cast of sorts. Of course, I was told that I had to sit down and not do anything to “break” the clay cast. I suspect that was more important to the healing of the ankle than either the clay or the vinegar.

A treatment for chicken pox struck my six-year-old mind as crazy and a little scary (I didn’t know about weird or witchcraft at that age). This event occurred while we still lived on the farm. It involved roosting chickens which requires a little explanation before any description of the treatment.

Living out in the country, it was not uncommon for a farmer or rancher’s flock of chickens to be “free-ranging.” That meant they were mostly on their own to feed themselves although my parents fed them a few times a week so that they developed a sense of home base. Only hens with a new batch of chicks got the benefit of chicken coops. The non-parental (for the time being) hens and the roosters “roosted” at night where they felt safest, which was in trees because that would be secure enough against prowling foxes, bobcats and other predators. Bobcats can climb trees but, unlike the chickens, can’t fly from limb to limb or tree to tree.

Of course, if threatened seriously enough, chickens could sound the alarm with a cacophony of squawks that would rouse one of my parents to step outside and that was usually enough to send the predator scurrying. Now, here comes the “remedy” for chicken pox.

My younger brother and I both “came down” with the affliction almost simultaneously. Grandmother came to our house and told Mother they needed to treat us.

We waited for the chickens to roost (no pun intended). Then Grandmother instr ucted my brother and me to stand under the heav iest- populated tree. When we were in position and still, she and Mom used long cane fishing poles to make the chickens fly out of the tree over our heads to “cure” the chicken pox.

Sure enough, the chicken pox sores disappeared…in a couple of days. I don’t remember feeling any better after those chickens f lew over our heads but I was grateful for no mid- air accidents.

You can make up your own mind whether that exercise was witchcraft, an old wives tale or folklore.

I’m going for folklore, a noble term.

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2011-09-01 digital edition

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