Sunday, April 20, 2014

Easter Morning: Time to Fight Eggs

Michael fighting Easter eggs at Sugar Hill.
Boys didn’t really go to Easter Sunrise Services where I came from in the most rural part of western North Carolina. While moms and daughters dressed themselves in the new handmade dresses and hats they spent months sewing, the guys spent weeks gathering and coloring eggs to take to the annual Easter egg fight at Sugar Hill.

There’s not really a marker or road sign that tells you how to get to this place in northeast Cleveland County. You just have to know how to get there, and the farmers and factory workers who populate this rural area of the state have managed to gather there every Easter morning to fight eggs, to tell stories and to renew old friendships.

It’s near the tiny town of Fallston, which was known to most people as the home of the Stamey General Store and Funeral Parlor – real slogan: “We Serve You from the Cradle to the Grave” – and to me as the location of my childhood dentist, the meanest person who ever lived. He walked around all day like he was trying to birth a unicorn without using an epidural.

About three miles from downtown, there is a back road called Sugar Hill that for some unknown reason has hosted these annual Easter egg fights for more than 100 years. It sounds messy, of course, but “egg jarping” is a traditional English folk game that still survives. It even has a world championship, held every Easter morning in Peterlee, England.

No one knows when the unique contest began at Sugar Hill. Joe Stamey, the owner of the general store and funeral home, was its unofficial ambassador for decades and the guy everyone wanted to have at least one fight against. He claimed to have been at Sugar Hill every year from the 1920s until he died sometime in the 1990s.

The game is simple, really. Two competitors face off against each other, with one holding his egg tightly in the palm while the other taps the end until one of the eggs break. Then, you turn it around and do the other end. When both ends of one egg is broken, the loser surrenders his egg. Usually, two contestants will fight a half-dozen eggs before moving on. People showed up with as many as 70 or 80 dozen eggs to fight.

God only knows what people did with all those broken-ended eggs after Easter. It was hard to trust just how old some of the eggs were, but some people still pickled them to eat later. Most of them were fed to pigs back home.

Because the game is simple, it’s harder, but not impossible, to cheat. There was always someone who tried to pass off the extra-hard egg of a guinea hen as a chicken egg. Try pulling that on some of the old timers, and you would find yourself rolling in the dewy grass with a basketful of broken shells.

Every now and then, someone would show up with an elaborately decorated wooden egg that they tried to pass off as real. Someone even brought a glass egg they found at the Gay Dolphin in Myrtle Beach, S.C., but was shamed into putting it in his pocket early in the day. I always wondered if the wooden one would splinter before the glass one chipped, but it’s one of those chicken-and-egg questions that will probably never be answered.

The farmers knew how to build in their own advantages. Throughout the winter, they would feed their game chickens ground up oyster shells in the hopes that the extra calcium would produce a thicker, harder shell. Some would even breed chickens that produced hard shells or bought exotic chickens that laid light-blue eggs.

One thing you didn’t want to bring was store-bought eggs. Their soft shells were pulverized in short order and the eggs were quickly surrendered.

While some of the competitors took care to decorate their eggs, most of the people who showed up with crates of competition eggs boiled them with onion skins or some other natural dye. They were generally chocolate brown and uglier than a yard gravel.

For me, going to Sugar Hill was one of the few chances to spend time with my maternal grandparents, Harse and Mary Ethel Gales. They lived on a farm far away by our standards – practically 10 miles. Since my other grandparents lived on land nearly connected to our house, I spent more time with my dad’s folks, who had a well-used creek with a swimming hole, an apple orchard for making pies and fewer chores to do on a daily basis.

My other grandparents’ farm was small and basic. I still remember when the house got indoor plumbing. For years, they didn’t even have an outhouse. But it was our farmer’s market, a place for fresh vegetables and pure, unpasteurized milk, which we brought home in heavy glass jars and had to shake well before using because all the cream was at the top.

We made weekly trips during the summer to have lunch with them, usually on Wednesdays. They didn’t have a lot, but my grandmother would spend hours making a spread for my mom, my sisters and me. She would kill and fry a chicken, cook a little ham and serve baked macaroni and cheese. There would be lots of fresh vegetables, including my favorite, black-eye peas. It was served with squash, okra, candied yams, fresh tomatoes, sliced cucumbers, all of which they grew in the garden. For dessert, she had an egg custard, banana pudding and maybe a chocolate or lemon pie.

Sometimes it was hard to appreciate, because she had everything on the table and ready to serve at their normal lunch time of 10:30 a.m. That was six or seven hours after my grandfather got up to milk the cows and feed the other animals, but it was usually only a half hour or so after my mom was able to get me out of bed. Those lunches were always my breakfast.

On the day before Easter, I would go to the farm to spend the night. I stayed in the guest room with Henry, our mute and mentally disabled great uncle who served as their farmhand. He was sweet-spirited but mysterious to us, a Boo Radley in Oshkosh overalls and a white T-shirt.

Their farmhouse was simple, a couple of bedrooms, a sitting room and a wide front porch where my grandmother was always finding a copperhead or a blacksnake lurking in her hanging plants. There was an old barn and a new barn in the backyard, a toolshed where my grandfather hid his silver money, a natural spring and a tin dipper for drinking water and an unholy tree in the front yard where we had to cut our own switches when we misbehaved.

It’s hard to believe that they are only a couple of generations removed from my kids and their electronic-filled, suburban lifestyle. My kids, who have never known a callus, wouldn’t have survived one switching from my snuff-dipping grandmother.

They had electricity and a television, but the black-and-white screen was smaller than the one on my laptop. Whenever I stayed overnight, we were in bed by 9 and up at 4:30. My grandfather never let me milk the cows – I had weak hands and I always overslept.

On Easter mornings, however, I was up as early as them and ready to head out the door. We packed up our colored eggs in the bed of his old farm truck and head off to Sugar Hill. My memories say that it was always foggy and cold and I’m sure the drive wasn’t as long as I remember. We spent what seemed like hours fighting eggs, but still made it home in time to get dressed in a new suit for 11 a.m. church service.

I taught my kids how to fight eggs and we even went to Sugar Hill a few years ago. They look forward to renewing the tradition. My youngest, still caught up in the frenzy of March Madness, even made a double-elimination tournament bracket for our family egg-fighting battles later this afternoon.

What I love about the holiness of Easter and the coming of spring is that it a time to celebrate resurrection and rebirth, of the Risen Lord, of plants, of animals and of ancient family traditions.

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