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Commentary: Tiger's Lunch: The Ozark spirit survives heat and drought

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 6, 2012 - Tiger is visiting my wife and me for a few days near the Jacks Fork River in southern Missouri. Our foster grandson matches his mom’s hillbilly free spirit.

Tiger has survived his decade in the Ozarks following birth shortly after 9-11-01. His mom lived with us for a couple of years well before Tiger was on the scene. We’ve kept in touch with her, inspired by this evolving family of independent souls.

The stream’s so low this incredibly hot summer we can’t float downstream in boats to cool off as usual, just find deep holes for swimming. We met in a nearby town, and Tiger hopped into our car ready to go. His tackle bag was as big as his backpack, but neither weighed more than a pound or so. He just ran around in shorts, rarely a T-shirt or shoes, all day and night.

Luckily his mother wisely gave us a generous sack of his favorite snacks: ramen noodles, a package of beef jerky, a bag of fake fried onion rings, "smart" popcorn, and potato chips tasting like reconstituted turnips. His mini-computer could do most everything Cathy’s i-Pad does and had enough war games to keep Tiger blowing up stuff in rare moments of quiet as we drove to our little cabin.

The supply of junk food must have been a cryptic warning that being grandparents, albeit at one remove, would not be a piece of cake. We had a lot to learn. Ten-year-olds don’t hesitate expressing opinions about everything, constantly.

For example, today at lunch the only thing Tiger wanted to eat centers on his desiccated curly pasta treat. He directs me how to fix the feast in his preferred method…

Unfortunately I make a mistake right off the bat. I boil the two cups of water in the microwave — one of our main cooking implements because we have adequate photovoltaic power in the little cabin, and firing up the propane cooking stove on a 100+ degree day didn’t make sense. Tiger — a nickname that truly represents his spirit — likes coming here to hunt snakes, despite this scorching drought.

“I never boil the water first,” Tiger explains. “I put the soup mix in the water first. That’s where the vegetables are.”

“Vegetables?” It’s a little tin foil package, maybe one teaspoon of chemical concoctions.

“They give the noodles all the flavor,” he claims.

I don’t mean to be snooty, but these noodles need a lot more than what’s in that tiny tinfoil envelope to have any flavor or food value. I survived on them myself when they first found their way across the great Pacific as an exotic goodie in the 1970s.

We put the noodles into the hot water and nuke it again, for a minute this time. Tiger directs me to bring the bowl onto the kitchen counter, then carefully reaches down, pinches and pulls out a long strand of golden noodles, which he carefully maneuvers down his throat as if it were a wiggly worm.

“Not done yet!” He turns around and pops the bowl back into the oven.

I find it nearly impossible to look at him and not remember his mom who tested my patience during her last years of high school. She managed to graduate. That was the good part. My wife Cathy may have had an even harder time serving as a foster parent because she’s a “scrubby Dutch” woman from south St. Louis who appreciates order and cleanliness.

A friend back then asked us once how we were getting along with our foster daughter. A mixed, muffled reply.

“Well, is she still in school? Is she free of drugs? Is she still not pregnant?” We answered yes to all three queries.

“Sounds like you’re batting a thousand. You’re doing just fine…”

Most of the time we were able to answer in the positive to all these, and other, vital topics.

At 17, a teenager can “emancipate” his or herself from parental control. We had little choice and supported her petition to the court.

She was doing her best to be an adult. She was forming a new family, one that lasted for a while, then morphed. We tried to help her through the following divorce, various boyfriends and Tiger’s earliest years.

“Still not done,” Tiger declares after a second two-minute burst of microwaves. Besides ramen noodles the chef told me his other culinary feat involves cooking fried eggs without the yokes, which he explains “taste yucky” and aren’t good for you anyway.

“Mom lets me have a cup of coffee,” Tiger explained on the first morning at the cabin, then proceeded to add a tablespoon of hot chocolate mix and four of sugar to his cup of joe. The last morning he let it out that at his father’s house he was allowed no coffee. During the endless four days he was with us, Tiger never quite finished off a cup of this preferred beverage.

His mom had somewhat similar problems while finishing high school, but we learned to give a lot of leeway in the kitchen and let her set her own hours most of the time.

We had one other foster daughter long term also at the end of her high school years. From both girls, we learned the best we could do was not establish a demanding set of expectation, but rather make their probable last years of education as trouble free as possible and stay out of their ways, within limits. Both had parents who had encountered rough spots during these girls’ middle school years. Both basically had decent upbringings as children and had done nothing wrong themselves. The foster care program and several great state social workers were there to help these girls through tough teenage years.

Tiger is a good student, especially of arithmetic and reptiles. He has little interest in cooking despite Cathy explaining how it impresses the girls. No interest there yet; hunting and fishing is everything. His dad teaches him well.

One afternoon while driving back from our swimming hole, Tiger started snacking on our “emergency supplies” - trail-mix gorp he found by the front seat. He would pour out a handful and throw the dried cranberries and raisins out the window, eating nuts and chocolate as we drove down the gravel road. He understood that was wasteful and agreed to give me “the junky fruit.”

Was I like this for my grandparents? Maybe it’s just as well I don’t remember, though I surely gave both my parents plenty of grey hair and ulcers. How can one atone for being a wild child? By helping out kids who need a break?

Later in the visit we brought Tiger with us to a friend’s house, with a swimming pool, near town. A godsend. Both friends told Cathy they’re wiped out after their grandkids visit, and they have at least one parent along.

Finally, after four rounds in the microwave, Tiger pronounces the ramen noodles as finally ready. He sits down at the table where we had been waiting for Cath to come back from errands. Eating the whole bowl of noodles one pinch at a time, he finishes his lunch with gusto in about a minute.

“Aren’t you going to drink the soup?”

“No, it’s too yucky. Are you finally ready for a snake hunt?”

No contest, it did look sort of yucky and I pour the broth into the compost bucket. Somehow I rally. We decide to walk down to one of the greatest swimming holes anywhere if the trail isn’t too grown up and full of seed ticks.

Later, walking back from the two acre plus swimming hole by Jam Up Cave, Tiger satisfies his appetite by eating raw sassafras leaves, which he claims are better than any root beer.

Tiger turns over most of the rotting logs he passes in his reptile search. No luck whatsoever. Too hot. The critters must be hunkered down in deep woods near creeks and rivers.

The forest lays deadly still this late afternoon. White oaks have lost their luster as their leaves turn grayish. Hickory nuts are already falling, a month or so early. Everything waits for rain. Begs silently for it.

The river has energized Tiger. Marching uphill, he whacks saplings with his stick to show them who’s boss. At four feet and 70 pounds, Tiger does not let the heat or anything slow him down.

The sassafras leaves also renew his energies and fill up his 10-year-old belly till we get to the top of the hill. He wants to get his fishing gear and come back downhill to catch one of the longnose gar we had seen schooling and playing in bright sunlight by high rocky bluffs.

“You gotta be lucky to catch the gar,” Tiger says. “You never know what they’ll bite on. Sometimes you throw it right in front of their snoot and they’ll just swim away. But I caught a big’un on a jig once. There’s some monsters in the river yet.”

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