When the pecans are ready, the trees let you know

ANYBODY who ever learned how to finish a job of work has a scuttle of pecans to look back on. Maybe that's not the name they call it by, but it's there, someplace. Even if you aren't but 10 years old, you know when pecan-meat time is coming on. The trees tell you.

The screen porch, where you sleep in summer, has a corrugated-tin roof, and two pecan trees overhang it. So they serve notice on you: PANG! on the sheet metal over your head. Later on, you'll sleep right through it, but the first time or two - PANG! on the tin, and BLICK! the eyes are wide.

Duddle-duddle-duddle - the little football shape is wobbling down one of the tin troughs. Silence - it's in the air once more. Phop. It's in the azalea bed. You know that one day soon your mother will say, ``Before you go off anywhere in the morning, gather up a scuttle of pecans, all right?''

When she does, you set the pecan scuttle next to the back door before you go to bed.

When you wake, it's still dark, but not pitch-dark. The birds are waking up. One of them woke you up. Dawn would be such a peaceful, gentle time, if not for jaybirds.

When first light approaches, most birds stir and blink ... fluff and chirp ... resettle themselves and chirp again ... endearingly hesitant, as if they're not quite sure it's time.

With the jaybird, hesitant doesn't come into it. Soon as he can see - soon as he even thinks he can see - he is out of bed like a shot. He can't wait. Like a sergeant of marines, the jaybird is sometimes wrong but never in doubt. He grabs a good strong hold on a branch with both feet and looses on the world a cry that has in it the scalp-puckering sonic shock of a circle saw ripping into a pine knot. DAAAAAY! DAAAAAY! DAAAAAY! The effect this will have on drowsy human ears is not one of his concerns.

All right, the jaybird is one of the most beautiful creatures God ever made. But at daybreak, good-lookin' is not the main thing. Meek, mannerly, gradual, these are the sunrise virtues in a bird.

Taking up the scuttle, you go down the back steps - and catch your breath at how delicious dew-wet grass is to bare feet. By the time you've gone five steps, the radar hairs on the back of your neck tell you: You're not alone. Remembering last year and the year before, you're pretty sure; there's a pair of small bright eyes watching every move you make. From the top of the oldest pecan, old Kink-Tail is checking you out.

Peering down, motionless as the tree bark his pelt matches so exactly, the big buck squirrel is waiting to see: Are you going to go on about your business, or stop and start messing into his business?

You grin and stoop to pick up a handful of pecans. You toss them with a clatter into the scuttle.

That does the trick. You hear the scrabbling sound as Kink-Tail launches himself headfirst down the trunk of the tree. You don't look up, but you know; his battle-bent tail is fluffed as big as righteous indignation can make it.

You bend down and toss in another couple of pecans - clink! clack! Kink-Tail comes trotting along a branch above your head on sure-gripping feet, chattering all the way.

Goaded by continuing clanks and clunks, he sets in to give you some detailed information about equitable behavior and property rights. And maybe he's got a point; after all, you only live near - he lives in the tree.

You look up and grin at the old pirate. This is one of the things you really look forward to at pecan time: the vivid, bristling outrage of old Kink-Tail. You hope he lives a hundred years.

Back to work.

Now there are three ways to fill a scuttle with pecans. One is to fill it almost full. Not really full, but full enough. Say to within a half inch of the rim. This way, if anybody says you didn't fill it up, you can take the posture that to make a fuss over that little teeny bit of rim sticking up is just small-minded.

The second way is to go ahead and fill it. But just barely. Just up even with the rim. This way, there's no need to take any position about it. You did the job. It's full, isn't it?

The third way is, you can fill it up even with the rim ... and then gather up one more double handful of nuts and lay them on top of the rest. Now if you get down and squint across, you'll see pecans sticking up past the level of the rim. That's the third way to fill it. Slam full up.

Over some years, I tried out all three ways, and found out which one feels the best, and it was time well spent.

'Course, that's nothing unique. Anybody who ever learned how to finish a job of work has got a scuttle of pecans to look back on. Maybe that's not the name they call it by - but it's there, someplace.

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