The Two-Inch Rule

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My great Uncle Bud was my grandma’s little brother. He was in WW2 and that part of him stood out in the tiny town of Burnham Maine, where anything that stood out was chopped off. Only no one dared.

His hair was cut flat on top and his hands trembled when he held a chesterfield gingerly between tobacco stained fingers. One hundred and thirty pounds of wiry alcoholism. Every night the show began, in Maine the kitchen table was congress, the place everyone approached with hungry fear. His plate was meat and potato’s, true to his Irish-English lineage, the mashed vegetables covered black with pepper. You saw no white. On the left was a liter of Jim Beam whiskey and on the other left, a gallon glass jar of red and green hot tomato peppers. I heard his ass actually fell out and he learned to stuff it back in.

You didn’t speak at Uncle Bud’s table if you hadn’t actually killed a Jap or some other foreign bastard. If you did, you got only one look, it was a head tilt sideways as the cigarette smoke drifted over his thin fingers and past his piercing eyes jumping through dirty glasses. More than once I saw one of my cousins follow his pointed finger to go alone to their bedroom. He would follow later.

I only saw kindness from my great uncle Bud once. Sort of. My Grandmother had dragged me to his house, which sat directly below my great grandmothers house on a hill. Her house was built by Jesus, we all assumed and was later proven. I stayed with my great-grandmother only one night that I can remember, and of that, I remember breakfast the next morning. It was corn flakes with strawberry’s and milk. The box set on her perfect table like a Norman Rockwell painting. The bowl was perfect, the milk cold in a glass pitcher, the strawberry’s cut exactly like the front of the cereal box's picture. She served the perfect breakfast and I ate it alone. She left to read her bible in her bedroom. It was years later before I learned how the Seventh-Day Adventists were directly responsible for breakfast cereal we all know and love in America today. You see, the Adventist religious health message started the Post and General Mills obsession with meatless meal choices in Battle Creek Michigan, as the carpenter Jesus was returning in 1844. They were sure of it, the world needed to follow the law of Moses, and wheat was holy. It was also profitable.

This day, my grandmother decided her brother would take me fiddleheadin’and Mr. WW2 wasn’t happy about it. To those not from the north, or Maine to be exact, wild ferns grow all over the deep Maine woods, in damp and dark areas especially. They are true Mainers. When they are below two inches tall, they look just like the head of a fiddle but far more tasty with butter, salt and vinegar. You boil them up and if your lucky to have some venison in your freezer, well then, it’s a party. You gather a few pounds then stop by the one store, in the one factory, one river town, and pick up a pound of butter and a case of beer. It’s what you do. If the fiddleheads don’t get cooked, well, at least you got beer.

He said nothing and just drove. Around mile ten he said something derogatory and just plain rude about my mother, his niece. Being ten years old, I just stared ahead as the road turned into dirt and the ride became even more uncomfortable. I followed him into the Maine jungle. To this day I still don’t know where we were, but he did. For the first time ever I saw his spindly legs come alive. Maybe he thought Japs were waiting for us. Maybe. Finally after a few miles in the dense overgrowth, he stopped.

“This here, this is what we lookin’ fo,” he said, holding a small olive green fern top between those long stained fingers. In Maine, you don’t pronounce the “R” of any word. He spun the picked plant in his fingers, it’s base was a slight shade of maroon red, that seeped into the green leaving it a brownish green. There were thousands of them, they hide like forest faeries in the weeds and behind trees, two or three to a bunch. He showed me how to pluck them, you snapped them quickly before they knew what was happening. I relished in delight that I could do it right. Snap.

I filled a gallon bucket in no time and he seemed to take notice. Suddenly I felt a strong hand on my shoulder. His other hand quickly jammed into my bucket, and produced one of my fiddleheads.

“Don’t go a pickin’ ones this long, these will kill ya, there ain’t no more like these in there are they-a?” He was as serious as a heart attack. The Jap killer took no prisoners.

I shook my head no.

I took my bucket and kept looking, while my heart beat out of my chest. My bucket contained more of the murderous plants, I would say about twenty-five percent, enough to kill all my family and most of the town. Thus began a ten year old desperate attempt to rid the bucket of the little killers.

“See hee-ya,” Uncle Bud mumbled holding a freshly pucked fiddelhead, his long finger held out to the end of my nose.

“Two inch rule. Only pick ‘em if they- a this long or less.” The little fiddlehead held along side his second, twisted stained knuckle. “Two inch rule.”

I plucked and plunked fiddleheads into my bucket, grabbing the killers out and tossing them as quick as I could, sweat dripping off my forehead.

What if I missed a long one? I would be a killer. Maybe I should come clean and just tell him.

I glanced over at Uncle Bud bent over a patch of ferns and decided I better not. Finally I could see no more in the overflowing bucket, but I just knew there was at least one in there. Had to be. I had to tell him, but nope, he killed Japs for less.

A man becomes a man but standing up to himself.

I watched my great uncle finally stand up, “I think we got enough, yer bucket full over there?”

I nodded, not ready to stand up.

“Well come on then,” and we were off for butter and beer.

The drive back was solemn, the bucket of premeditated murdering fern heads gloating at me from deep inside it.

What if there is only ONE, would it infect the others? Maybe I should ask.

Nope, not gonna happen. We unloaded the buckets of fiddleheads and I kept an eye on mine, it was the least I could do, maybe I could dump it out before he noticed, but he grabbed the wire handle of my bucket along with a case of beer and trudged into the house. On the congress table they went, my bucket mixed in with his. My stomach was in knots.

I was gonna burn for show-a. They will find the bodies of the towns people.

He dumped the buckets out on the table. With tears in my eyes I finally stood up and told him the truth. I tried to be tough, to say it like a joke. You can’t joke in congress. I laughed.

Then I got the look.

As the world stopped, and I figured I was a goner, the asshole laughed. In fact, it was the only time I ever saw him smile, a big smile that if you didn’t know any better, would never have guessed the man wearing it could kill a Jap. No way. He laughed and pointed at the big pile of fresh fiddleheads as only a Mainer can do, “Oh, yeah boy, I see ya got a few in they-a, ain’t nothing at all, they just don’t taste as good,” and he preceded to toss any fiddleheads he felt broke his two inch rule.

I grew two inches that day and I learned something.

Two inches. That’s all you get with some people. Three inches is way too commie and one don’t get the job done.