The Divvy Up

When I was a kid in rural North Carolina in the 60s we had a , so to speak, summer gang of boys that hung together out of boredom. The size varied from 5 to 10 but 5 was usually the minimum, the ‘quorum’ number if you will, before we did ‘the divvy up’. The ages of the boys  ranged from about 8 to 14 (the age by which boys began to want to talk to other older boys about girls).

Members floated in and out. Of course there was no real member roster or name but nonetheless the adults knew us as ‘them middlins’ apparently in reference to our middle range of ages, and the younger kids knew us as the ‘big boys’ as opposed to the ‘older boys who were older and bigger than the ‘big boys’.

My grandfather had a tiny old barn at the edge of his garden. It had a dirt floored stall with generations of moldy straw and cow dung, a partitioned off slat floored area, and a small hayloft accessible by two wooden boards and a rafter by which you pulled yourself up the rest of the way to the loft. In the partitioned off area was an old beat up table with a ‘lazy susan’ type tabletop. When we boys were numerous enough one of us would call for the ‘divvy up’.

We’d tramp across the garden to the barn, usually beating defenseless vegetables with twigs if it was growing season and no adults were watching us. The first order of business was often the communal pee-in. We would all pee in the stall which rarely ever had a cow or goat. The pee-in had its own rules. You started all faced towards the south wall of the stall, shoulder to shoulder. I can’t say why we started with a pee-in. Maybe it was a vestigial need to mark our territory, maybe a slightly disturbing way to bond. Regardless we pretty much always started the ‘divvy up’ with a pee-in. My grandfather would raise hell often about the smell of human pee in his stall. Apparently it is easily distinguished from the smell of cow or pony pee.

Bladders emptied, we moved on to the partitioned area of the barn and stood around the lazy susan table. Then the oldest (usually Darrow Smith) would say, ‘divvy up, empty your pockets’. We would take all the contents of our front pockets out and place them on the table in front of us. Just to make sure no one was holding out, one of the boys would be tasked to ‘check them pockets’ and pat us down for contents unshared. I can’t imagine anyone allowing someone else to pat their pockets or dig into them nowadays but there wasn’t nearly as much ‘personal space’ back in those days. Now the contents of a young ‘middlin’ boy’s pockets were meager but diverse. There were often pennies, nickels and far less common, dimes and quarters. Those were immediately pushed to the center of the table for future use which I will discuss later. The other contents could be half eaten candy bars or honey buns, quartz rocks, plastic ‘army men’, a slingshot, ball bearings (for the sling shot), cough drops, magnifying glass, pocket knife, shoelaces, eye glasses, marbles, playing cards, tops, chewing gum sticks, …..well most anything less than a foot long. Young boys were prone to spend a good portion of their day picking things up and pocketing them. Upon reflection it is pretty remarkable how much stuff a boy could cram into his pockets.

When the kid doing the pocket inspections was satisfied that all the front pockets were emptied (note that the back pockets were off limit) then it was time for ‘take backs’. During the take back each kid was allowed to protect one or two items from the ‘divvy up’. It might be his pocket knife or a prized marble or his eye glasses or his slingshot or something that you might figure would be of no value to anyone. In fact the ‘take back’ contents would make an interesting study in how different humans value different things. You would take back your prized possession and put it back into your pocket. Then began the ‘spin’. One of the boys would slowly start spinning the table so that all the boys could examine the objects. During the spin you could note an object you might like to trade for and make an offer at the end but most importantly the gang was supposed to look for objects from which to create an adventure or game for the day. For example honey bun crumbs, a sling shot, a magnifying glass, chewing gum, playing cards, and shoelaces might result in trying to bait squirrels to shoot with the slingshot after looking for squirrel tracks with the magnifying glass and dangling hunks of honey buns from shoelaces. The order of sling shot shooters would be determined by a high card draw and the person who hit a squirrel would get the chewing gum. The trick was to use as much of the divvy up as possible in the day’s adventures/expeditions.

The coinage in the middle was ‘dope money’. No not drugs, but in rural piedmont North Carolina in the 60s, soda pop like Cocoa Cola or Pepsi or Cheerwine, or Sun Drop or RC Cola and snack cakes and candy bars and crackers were often called ‘dope’. I had no idea back then why but would discover in later years that it derived from the term ‘dope wagon’ the name used for the wheeled snack cart that delivered snacks for sale to cotton mill workers. The cart was called the ‘dope wagon’ because at one time Coca Cola actually contained trace amounts of ‘dope’ i.e. Cocaine. Well with the coins pushed to the middle the gang would buy ‘dope’ or soda and snacks, at Mo Hartsell’s country store at the end of our adventure. If there was enough for everyone to have their own soda pop then we might but usually there wasn’t or if there was we preferred to share sodas and buy more other stuff. It was quite normal that a couple sodas and a couple ‘honey buns’ would be shared. In those days we thought nothing of passing around a bottle of soda and a snack cake although no one wanted to finish off the last few drops in the bottle because of ‘back wash’.

The age differences were not terribly important beyond the differences in size and strength since testosterone hadn’t begun to reshape our bodies and minds quite yet. We weren’t really aware of any differences in wealth or social status yet. We weren’t competing for girls yet, Generosity, sharing and backing down were common place and natural to us. In some ways we were living a pleasing albeit almost socialistic existence, sharing, unconscious of status, in innocent awe of simple things. However the signs of paradise lost did creep in. The older the boys got, or the more clever they were, they began to make sure that they divested themselves of coinage before ‘the divvy up’. They began to make sure that they did not carry with them things that might be consumed or used up by the daily adventure or they voted against adventures that used up their resources. The success of the ‘divvy up’ skewed towards the introduction of new, younger, more naïve kids who were thrilled to think they contributed a thing or a coin to the group. The boy who checked the pockets would sometimes deliberately miss an object not given over and would later use his deliberate passing over as leverage for a favor from the kid who held back. The poor kid that got the closest to the last sip of the soda bottle was often the same kid over and over again, the kid that was the shyest and least vocal.

Our kids’ Garden of Eden,  had in it some of the same snakes that are present in the grownup world of community effort. Still, it was a pleasing period of our lives and an indication of how community cooperation can make shared scarce wealth provide more value than any individual in the group could provide themselves. I miss the ‘divvy up’ or maybe I just miss my childhood.


Enjoy this blog? Please spread the word :)