Making cherry shooters a fond childhood memory

Published 9:08 am Wednesday, May 2, 2012

by James D. “Archie” Howell

It’s late spring; school is not yet out for summer recess.

My long-sleeved shirts are now short sleeved, thanks to my mother’s work on her foot treadle sewing machine. Trees are midway through their sprouting, growing, fruiting cycle. Crops are thin green lines across plowed earth. It’s bare feet time on the farm.

Along a backfield path is a large square fenced area of trees and bramble. Livestock is not permitted in this area, and it is rarely cleaned up. On the path side of this woodsy patch, against the fence, is a marvel of the natural world — a wild cherry tree. It’s the only one I know about on our farm.

New cherries are abundant this time of year, and it’s time for cherry shooters.

My siblings and I search along ditch banks and marshy areas for large patches of reeds. It’s the same when we’re searching for fishing poles.

This time, a couple are chosen and cut down with a knife and transported back to the house. There, a section of the reed, about four inches long is cut out and the hollow middle cleaned out with a smaller section or a piece of wire. This will be the barrel.

Another section, a little shorter, with the solid part of the reed joint left in place, is cut and trimmed to fit inside the barrel. This will become the plunger. That’s the basics.

A reed cap is cut for the plunger to prevent it from moving too far into the barrel and to be more comfortable when struck with the palm.

A green cherry is placed in the barrel and shoved into place, just short of the end, by the plunger. Another green cherry is placed in the barrel and when the plunger is shoved rapidly into the barrel, air pressure forces the first cherry to shoot out at whatever the target happens to be. That’s a “cherry shooter”.

The barrel reed cannot be too large or too small; it has to be just right to work. The plunger has to be just the right length. It has to be green cherries; ripe cherries are too mushy.

The shooter will work just as well using spitballs (paper wads chewed up), but that’s just nasty. All shooters are banned from school.

Part of the overall fun is the challenge of climbing that slick barked tree and sliding out on a limb far enough to grasp a cluster of cherries, without falling or breaking the limb. The smell of green bark and green leaves sticks to my clothes long after the harvesting is done. It’s a victory of the sweetest kind.

For that relatively short time, when the cherries are fat, but not ripe, and reeds are abundant, there’s fun to be had. It seems to be a lot of work for a little pleasure, but fun is fun, and there’s never too much of that on the farm.

There’s another use for that fenced-in woods plot in our backfield. It’s a slave cemetery. Descendants of those buried show up at our house and request permission to clean up the graves.

They usually work for a day or two, always cleaning up the southeast corner inside the fence. They show up every year or two, the interval increasing with time’s passing. Eventually they stop coming and the need for remembrance disappears, also.

Today the wild cherry tree, along with the fence and most of the trees and bushes, is gone. The gravesite is a part of a front yard. The residents, in all likelihood, are not aware of the former use of the land. There’s no fault to be found, no blame to be levied, no reparations or obligations implied or required. It’s just a part of my heritage.

In early summer, I slip back to those days of cherry shooters. I can feel the slippery bark of the tree and smell the sharp fruity smell of a handful of green cherries. I can hear the “pop” as yet another missile is fired at an unsuspecting target.

Time dries tears and erases memories and few, other than my self, remember the cemetery. Soon I’ll be gone also and there will be no one that remembers.

James D. “Archie” Howell is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at