cotton mouths, summer 1950's
by: Russ Lancaster
"Whose got matches," Kent Hicks asked?
That got us searching our pockets. Matches meant something good was coming. We were the young boys of the Washington Avenue neighborhood, the ones I write about so often.
Kent was our leader and whatever he said, we did. He knew much more about things than we did.
We were down on the Eastern end of Charlotte Street, past the First Baptist Church and close to Raleigh Street. It was sometime in the early 1950's in late summer.
Kent had spied an "Indian Cigar" tree and he was telling us about the treat that awaited us. It looked like the same tree he used to call a Catalpa Tree but now it was an Indian Cigar Tree.
We used to get Catalpa worms off this same tree to go fishing. Kent often told us the best way to catch fish was to grab a catalpa worm, bite its head off and turn it inside out. We believed most of what Kent told us but never did we bite the head off one of those ugly monsters. He would have to set "that" example himself.
But today, that same old Catalpa tree looked a little different. It sure enough had some long green things hanging off it that could pass for cigars. Kent told us they WERE cigars.... Indian Cigars. And they were free!! All we had to do was pick them and light them.
They were several inches long and deep green in color. Kent looked for the older ones, the ones that had started turning a little brown. He explained they would be easier to light.
We picked enough for each of us to have a go at it. Martin Brown, David Lee Smith, George Glenn, Donald Harris, Johnny Hamrick and I were all there. There were a few more that I have probably left out, but I remember those guys in particular that day.
One of us produced a pocketful of kitchen matches, those big old long, thick matches with the red and white sulfur end. The kind of match that would strike on anything.
We lit up right there on the sidewalk across from Mr. Tyner's house. It didn't matter right then that he was a Sunday School teacher. It wasn't Sunday and we boys intended to smoke like grown ups.
The smoke was bitter as we puffed our first puffs and thank goodness we didn't inhale (at least I didn't). My mouth began to feel hot and as if filled with cotton. About 5 puffs was all I could go. All our mouths began to feel as if full of cotton and we soon quit yet we all agreed how GREAT it had been. That the taste was sooooo... good! We all lied!!!
We each stuffed our pockets with three or four more to take home and smoke later though I doubt many of them made it all the way home. Mine did, however. I had to impress my sister with my new found free smokes. I don't remember if she ever tried one but I do remember smoking a piece of one to impress her.... and she didn't tell on me!!
As I grew into a man, I told the story of the Indian Cigar tree to many doubting Yankees. They all looked at me like I wasn't being truthful so I actually took time to look up the facts. I was correct in thinking the Catalpa Tree and the Indian Cigar tree were one and the same. I even learned the name Catalpa was derived from the Catawba Indians and some Southern boy like me not pronouncing the name correctly thus the official name of Catalpa rather than Catawba.
I have had some folks tell me that the tree received the name "Indian Cigar Tree" because the Natives used to smoke the bean pods for a hallucinogenic effect. That was the first time I realized what the cigars hanging from the tree were - bean pods. I never found out for sure about the hallucinogenic effect because my mouth would become too dry before I could ever smoke enough to have effected me..... just luck, I guess.
I remember years later telling my son, and later my daughters of the Indian Cigar tree there on Charlotte Street in Hamlet. I even showed it to them all those years later but doubt if any of them ever tried smoking one. Maybe my son... just maybe.
So, if you still live in Hamlet or ever visit there again.... walk down Charlotte Street past the First Baptist Church and right there by the sidewalk you may just see that old Indian Cigar tree still standing. If you see it, I surely would like a photo to put right here with this story.
Otherwise, I just have to use my imagination to see it standing there and telling me why... I remember Hamlet.
This section is to honor the works of Russ Lancaster who started the “I Remember Hamlet” web site years ago. Without his pioneering the web at that time we might not have gathered all these memories of our Hamlet, NC. We thank you Russ for what you started in 1996, may you Rest in Peace. Russ was kind enough to let me download his web site before he took it down. Thank you Russ.
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