There was an old-fashioned ciderhouse somewhere down in North Florida, about a 45 minute drive from the matchbox we used to live in. I don't remember the name of it, and don't know if it still exists anymore. I can't imagine it does, at least not the way it used to. The press itself was a huge granite monster, powered by a gentle old mare. If you were little enough, and excited enough, the elderly couple who ran the place would let you ride her for a couple of spins around the grooved dirt circle.
The old cedar shingled barn was so old, Spanish moss had started growing on the walls. It smelled impossibly of apples, like some alchemy-minded forest spirit had distilled, and then spilled, a vial of the very essence of the fruit.
In the weeks of fall when it actually got cool enough to have a fire, everybody in the area would make sure they did, so as not to waste the fireplace they'd planned the whole living room around. The whole county would smell pleasantly, faintly, of woodsmoke. If you could find somewhere with something besides slash pine, it was like being instantly transported three hundred miles North.
"The smoky weeks" are what my little sister called them, and we would always make a trip to the ciderhouse, for fresh-pressed cider so cheap you could drink it all afternoon on a shoestring budget, so pure you couldn't take any home because it'd have gone over within a day or two. It was cloudy, unprocessed, and naturally sweet.
The raw cider invariable splashed from the old glass jugs it came in, and the wide mouthed mason jars you were supposed to drink it out of. I'm convinced that the rickety picnic tables were actually held together by decades of air hardened apple-based epoxy. The tabletops themselves were so sticky that if you made the mistake of putting a jug or a jar down, you'd have to pry it up again. I saw at least one handle break off of a jug in the attempt.
All of this was good fun, though - just some of the things that made the place charming. The whole thing, especially as kids, had this incredibly engaging atmosphere. It was so out of the ordinary, it was unlike even the summers we spent staying with the Amish when Mom and Dad had had enough of our bullshit for the year.
Though there were outbuildings and a whole apple orchard to explore, it was the cider kept us, sometimes literally, glued to our seats.
Well, actually, it wasn't the cider. Don't get me wrong, it was good cider. But...
It was so sweet, thousands of bees would swarm to collect the sticky residue left on all of the tables, and crawl into your mouth after the fresh cider.
Yes, into your mouth. You had to learn the trick to cupping your free hand over your mouth, and the mouth of the mason jar. And you had to have a light touch to shoo them away from the rim of the glass, or fish them out without getting stung.
And you had to have a strong uvula to avoid immediately throwing up when a few got into your mouth and started crawling around on your teeth and the roof of your mouth. If you heaved, the contractions and fast movement of your gorge and tongue would usually goad them into stinging.
Invariably, twenty minutes was about all we could take before someone would abandon their mason jar and go bolting towards the car, pursued by scores of fat, black and yellow venombags. No matter how cold it was, the car windows had to stay down to suck any hitchhikers out on the way home, and Mom always seemed to find a couple in the laundry over the next week, sometimes still alive.
Any time nostalgia for days gone by threatens to take over, I remind myself of those bees.