Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Spitting of Tobacco

When I was young, I thought the only living creatures that spit tobacco were grasshoppers. My brother Bill and I would catch them and hold them so their wings were closed, then look them in the eye and say, "Spit some tobacco or I'll kill you." Now I don't know where that came from, and though there wasn't any killing involved, the words certainly sounded violent. Eventually, the grasshoppers would exude a brownish-colored liquid from their mouths and then we would let them go. I found out later that people can also spit tobacco when we visited one of my father's co-workers in West Virginia.

We had traveled to the Shenandoah Valley the day before and stayed overnight at one of those forerunners of the strip motel, the small one-room cottage. When we left early the next morning and traveled up into the mountains, my father told us that soon we would be going through a cloud. Bill and I were excited about that prospect. However, when we actually passed through the cloud we were a bit disappointed because it looked just like fog. We did feel as though we had done something extraordinary, as driving through a cloud sounded like something ordinary people just didn't do.

We drove for several hours through valleys and steep mountains, and finally reached Harmon, West Virginia, in early afternoon. When we found the family we were looking for, their house was one of several small bungaloes crowded together at the summit of a mountain. The houses couldn't have been any closer to the road, and there was junk everywhere around them. The people who lived in the houses were all related, and the grandparents resided with the family we were visiting. The house had unfinished wood floors, and not a lot of furniture. The grandmother sat in a rocking chair in the center of the room, and obviously was the matriarch of the family. Not long after introductions, my brother and I were shocked to notice the grandmother spit into a coffee can sitting on the floor next to her chair. It happened so suddenly and her aim was so accurate that we couldn't believe our eyes. We looked at our mother and saw that warning look only she could give, meaning we were to keep quiet. This, of course, only enhanced the curiosity and surprise we were feeling, and the next time the grandmother spat into the can, Bill and I had to go outside because we were taken with fits of giggles. We stayed outside until Mom and Dad were ready to leave, and as soon as we got into the car, we started asking questions. Mom told us the grandmother was using snuff and that's why she was spitting into the can. She also said this was a fairly common practice among older women in some areas of the country.

I haven't seen any women chewing since, just men. Everyone seems to know or know of a woman who chewed at one time or another, though. I don't know if this was common practice in other areas of the country, or was just particular to Appalachia.

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