It’s fall once again in Georgia. Gone are the high temperatures and humidity of the long Dog Days of August and September. They are replaced with cool, romantic moonlit evenings and even cooler mornings.
Fall brings with it certain rituals unlike any other season. Rituals like driving to the North Georgia mountains to view the rainbow of colors splashed across the landscape, cleaning out gutters, and, of course, raking leaves. But every fall brings something else, something unwelcome around our house: Those cursed little sweet gum balls.
In my short time on this earth, I have found that there is a purpose for most everything. Even a walking stick has a use if not but for the amusement of the children that such a strange creature, literally a stick with legs, can exist.
But sweet gum balls have no purpose and no reason for being on this planet. That is, if you ask any adult that has tried to rake up the spiky little green balls. Now if you ask the kids from the old neighborhood, they’d tell you that sweet gum balls do indeed have a purpose. A very painful purpose.
The kids from our neighborhood either lived on Flamingo Street or the Duke of Gloucester Street. Most of the kids who lived on The Duke had well-to-do parents. Okay, they were downright rich. They lived in big houses with pools, tennis courts, and had designer tree houses in the backyard.
The kids always had the best toys and bikes that money could buy. So they never had anything to do with kids from Flamingo Street. Well, almost never.
The kids from Flamingo Street were just common, everyday folks. I lived at 110 Flamingo Street with my three brothers, one sister, our parents, and a green parakeet called Chatter Box. Chatter Box liked to eat hushpuppies off Dad’s head.
The kids from Flamingo Street and The Duke had two big rivalries: the end of the summer Street Football Championship and the fall Sweet Gum War. Having lost the football championship for the second year in a row, we were determined to win the war.
Big Brother James and Older Brother Richard had decided we would have the advantage if we used homemade slingshots. They had read a book about Huck Finn and said they knew just how to make them.
We had left over surgical tubing from our giant water balloon launcher and all agreed that it would be perfect for our sweet gum ball slingshots.
Bubba Hanks, Sam — the kid with no nickname — and Goofy Steve hiked deep into the woods around the swamp behind our house. They brought back 10 V-shaped oak branches, perfect for making slingshots. But while we were making our war plans, the kids from the Duke of Gloucester were making theirs.
It seemed that Blabber Mouth Betsy had inadvertently informed them of our slingshot strategy. She really didn’t want us to lose; she just couldn’t keep a secret. She had told Candi, who was Preston Weston’s girlfriend.
To counter our attack, the kids from the Duke had decided on an ingenious strategy of their own. They were going to use tennis rackets to serve up a barrage of the little green spiky missiles our way.
Slingshots, tennis rackets, and buckets of sweet gum balls. What a great battle it was going to be. We would have been victorious if it hadn’t been for Down the Street Bully Brad and his gang.
Just as the kids from Flamingo Street were winning the war and beating the kids from the Duke back across Cripple Creek, out of nowhere, Bully Brad and his gang joined in. They too had heard of our little battle and had come very well prepared. Both teams were bombarded with tennis ball-sized dirt clods. Not your ordinary dirt clods mind you. Dirt clods packed with spiky little green sweet gum balls.
The Great Sweet Gum Ball War was called a draw due to Brad and his gang’s interference. We all ran home, and our moms cleaned and bandaged our wounds. Back then, moms were used to the sight of blood and rarely got upset, but torn shirts were another matter. If you came in with a torn shirt, it was a guarantee that Mom was gonna get upset. My mom got really upset that day.
When Brad’s first sweet gum-filled dirt clod hit me in my back, I fell down and tore my shirt. His second put a welt on my leg that made it turn black and blue for two weeks, and his third hit me right in the mouth. I still have distaste for sweet gum balls even today.
Some say sweet gum balls make for nice decorations in holiday wreaths. Others argue if you get rid of the sweet gum balls, which are actually seeds, that you’ll get rid of sweet gum trees. No sweet gum trees, no sweet gum balls on my lawn.
I’m fine with that. Matter of fact, let’s eradicate all sweet gum trees from the planet. We’ll replace them with something useful, like good old Georgia pine trees. Squirrels even like pine trees; they eat pine cones. Ever seen a squirrel eat a sweet gum ball? Nope, didn’t think so.
Pine cones also look good in holiday wreaths painted gold, silver or white. They have other uses too. Just ask anyone who lived on Flamingo Street. Green pine cones make for some great hand grenades.
Believe me, if your entire team take buckets of green pine cones to a sweet gum war, you’ll win, even if Bully Brad and his gang show up.
[Rick Ryckeley, who lives in Senoia, has been a firefighter for more than two decades and a columnist for The Citizen since 2001. His email is email@example.com.]