A Kids Life
Over on the Wild Side
Too many kids today, with their face stuck in a smartphone, don’t know what they are missing out on. Being a kid in the far back country, exploring places so remote you could almost believe you were the only person left alive is a singular experience not duplicated by anything man made. I don’t know that I can adequately describe the knowing that comes with finding a place to park your carcass and immersing yourself in the deep woods as they transition from day to night. You move into an area and everything about you, your movement, your noise, your scent, your very foreignness puts the whole area down, but as soon as you stop moving the woods start coming back to life. Pretty soon, if you can sit still long enough, you become just another part of the environment and if you have the patience you will get to catch a glimpse of secrets most people never discover.
The first thing to return are the tiny sounds. Then there’s a flicker of motion here and there. Pretty soon you have squirrels chattering and birds coursing through the air. A chipmunk jets across an open space with its tail jacked up straight in the air as it skitters about its business. Sit still long enough and you’re almost certain to have larger animals wander by. I’ve had deer, elk, bears, cougars, bobcats and coyotes walk within feet of me. Of them all it was only the bear that concerned me. He approached me without my knowing he was there and it wasn’t until I smelled his breath I knew he was behind me. There’s been two other times I’ve been close enough to a live bear in the wilds to smell his breath and all three were fraught with danger.
One time I had a coyote stalk up on me. I watched him notice me from about fifty yards away and slowly come up to me. He stopped mere inches beyond my boots and stared at me for several minutes. The the only thing moving on me the slow rise and fall of my chest from breathing and the occasional blink of my eyes. My clothing was mute colored rough woolens, which had hung in a bag of fresh pine limbs for several days. A full beard and felt hat broke my facial outline, everything about my clothes and person designed to blend in to the natural surroundings of the rock and log I was leaning against, yet I didn’t and he knew it. I was able to study his face and could see the cautious curiosity in his eyes. It wasn’t until some errant breeze carried my scent to him that he finally took alarm and moved off so fast it defied belief.
As the day wanes there’s a quietness to the air and it becomes very still and the woods go quiet. The light starts to change as the sun creeps towards the horizon. What during the bright of day appears as a smooth and featureless carpet of green timber becomes jagged and rough as shadows highlighting ridgelines and bluffs bring hollows and valleys into bass relief. The cobalt blue of the sky fades to a light blue as the orb of the sun stretches for the horizon. If you listen close, as their edges kiss, you can hear a faint sizzling. The light in the sky progresses through pale yellow to orange and finally red as the sun slips behind the horizon. There is a faint afterglow just before everything goes black. As your eyes adjust little pricks of light dot the velvety cover of the night sky. As full darkness hits, the dome of the night is lit by incredible displays of distant suns and galaxies ranging from a single point to broad smears of colored light.
Slowly sound returns to the woods but these are different than day time sounds. A faint rustling indicates the presence of kangaroo mice and you know by default, those master hunters of the night, owls are sure to be close by. A small deer herd wanders through the opening on their way to a favorite watering hole or mineral lick. Their movement is not some steady stream like a group of people moving down a sidewalk in a city but an uneven symphony of starts and stops. You sense more than hear the uneven sounds of their steps and jumps. The lead doe moves out in the open and hesitates for a moment. Only after she senses it is safe to do so does she traverse the opening. Slowly do the second rank does and fawns come out. Finally after they have passed, if you are paying close enough attention, you might pick up on the buck that is following their path but on a slightly different tack. Thirty minutes after the deer pass you hear an animal scream and it sounds like a woman being tortured. A cougar has just announced its supremacy of the night.
In the softness of the night air scents are easier to pick up on and it is time to train your nose. There is the faint, faint, delicate perfume of Trillium laying on top of the musty smell of decaying forest duff. Shortly it gets overridden by the heavy musky scent of a bull elk. Many a time, when hunting or hiking, smell alerts me to the presence of animals before my others senses detect them. Suddenly an oily scent assaults your nose and it completely destroys the other smells of the woods. Some skunk has just lit up a section of forest and you can only hope the gentle breeze will turn and carry it the other way.
An inky black solidness moves through darkness and brush so quietly you would swear it is only a shadow, until it gets a hint of you, then it becomes loud as a tank as a bear tears its way through the underbrush. The crashing of the bear alerts other animals and suddenly in several directions you can hear other large animals as they start and then take off to put distance between them and the unknown. It has been my observation that many animals in the wild operate on a simple premise, if it is unknown it represents danger. Distance from danger represents safety.
A hunters moon, that had been hiding behind a distant horizon, begins its ascent against the night sky and slowly climbs over the treeline. Its light washes out the star dappled night sky and casts long shadows across the forest floor and provides enough illumination for me to walk without the aid of the flashlight in my coat pocket. Four pairs of bright lights bob and bounce across the ground and it turns out to be a family of raccoons wending their across the forest floor.
Enjoying the wilds wasn’t limited to the warm weather of summer. Often I would take off during the bitter grip of old man winter to test myself against his challenges. Super warm, ultralight gear and clothing was unheard of back then. I would stuff my pockets with small bits of gear, grab a .22 and some ammo and head out.
The icy clasp of winter shutdown most sources of food so your diet would become a protein heavy meat diet. An errant spruce grouse or even a slow deer would be harvested for food. A single well placed shot from the .22 would put it down in its hoof prints. If the creeks were open (as in free of ice) a baited hook or three on a short lines could be dangled from tree limbs, letting nature do the fishing. I don’t know of many things that compare to the smell of fresh venison roasting on a stick over an open fire except for maybe a fresh trout sprinkled with salt and sandwiched between two, green willow limb, grills so you can turn it without losing the fish to the fire.
You always wanted to find something to be a heat reflector for your night camp. A rock bluff or large fallen tree could serve equally as well as a reflector but with the tree usually getting the nod for another purpose, the building of a trench fire, as all too often the ground is too hard to dig in around rock bluffs. You would kick back the snow and open up a trench beside the log through the forest duff to the hard pan below it a little longer than your height. A fire would be laid the full length of the trench. Once it had mostly burned down to just coals all the litter you had pulled back would be mounded back on top of it. Then you would cover the whole thing with some fresh tree boughs. A second course of boughs would become your blanket. It was dirty but the smoldering coals would keep you warm all night long.
Playing with the woods in the winter on its own terms was sure to put hair on your chest.
Even the best of kids can get into a spot of trouble now and again and I hate to admit it but we weren’t always the best of kids. Now listen, it’s not that we were ‘bad’ kids, it’s just that after a while you would get bored with the everyday drudgery of chores all the time and you would start looking for some excitement. Especially when we got a little older.
Indoor plumbing was getting to be a big thing but there were still a lot of outhouses dotting the countryside, some in use, some idle and a few had been converted to some other use, more about this last category a little further on. For some reason us kids got the idea it would be fun to start tipping outhouses. After we had hit several over the course of a couple of weeks word was going out that someone was up to mischief around the area but when asked about it our reply was not me, I don’t know, must be somebody else.
Some outhouses were easy and others presented a challenge. There was one guy called Sarge, I don’t know what his real name was, everyone just called him Sarge because he had been one in the war and he still acted like one always issuing orders at everyone like he had been put in charge. He was a grumpy old guy and always gave us kids, actually any kids he saw grief. No matter what, there was something wrong with what you were doing or the way you were doing it.
He had a dog that would bark at the passing of gliding owl so we knew we were going to have to come up with a good plan if we were going to be able to tip his. Ralph, a kid from two farms over came up with the idea to feed the dog a whole bunch on the concept a full dog would lie down and sleep. So we raided our folks meat lockers for some venison and snuck up on Sarge’s house. Sure enough his dog was in the yard just raising holy hell. About the time we were going to toss some meat over the fence Sarge yanks the front door open and peers out. Not seeing anything he hollers at the dog to shut up and goes back inside. We started tossing meat over the fence and the dog went from a full on bark fest to a deep throated growl, but he did start chewing on the venison like he hadn’t been fed in a month of Sundays.
We were getting to the bottom of our bag of venison and the dog isn’t showing any signs of getting full or even slowing down for that matter. We finally decided we were going to need some more meat and because it was Ralph’s idea we sent him home to get some more, besides the rest of us knew we were going to have some explaining to do when the folks discovered the meat missing out of our lockers. Because we needed thawed meat and microwave ovens hadn’t been invented yet, Ralph ran home and dove in his families refrigerator to get some meat. In his haste he mistakenly grabbed a wrap of beef rib steaks, not venison. Boy did he get his butt warmed when his dad found out about that, but that wasn’t until some time later.
The beef finished off what the venison started and by golly Sarge’s dog went over by the front porch and after licking his front paws for a bit dropped his head and appeared dead to the world. He didn’t bother to bark when we slipped around the side fence and scaled it, so we hit Sarge’s outhouse at a full run and it went over with a crash. The last we heard was the dog barking full bore as we cleared the back fence and hid in the waterway ditch.
We got a few more here and there but the fun and games of tipping outhouses was coming to an end. The next to last one we tipped over pretty much took all the fun out of it. It had been converted for use as storage for old jars a lady kept. It sounded like a china shop had been dropped when it went over and the guilt over that put our trouble making on hold for a couple of weeks. Tipping old outhouses not in use was one thing, actually destroying someone’s property went against everything we had been taught.
The straw that broke the camel’s back came when we happened to tip over an outhouse that was in use. The old boy that was using it knew about our pranks and he had a prank of his own ready for whoever was doing the deed. He got some twenty gauge shot shells loaded with rock salt and had his shotgun leaning by the back door. He even carried it out to the outhouse with him.
He was sitting in there that evening when we tipped it. I have to admit the scream coming from inside made our blood run cold and really lent wings to our feet but we couldn’t out run that rock salt. He shot at us right through the roof of the outhouse. Most of it was stopped there but enough of the salt got through to pepper us pretty good. We let out a few pretty good screams of our own when it hit so he knew somebody took a load in the ass. You can not believe how bad that stung and burned and there was almost nothing we could do about it. Red welts were raised any place we took some salt and talk about tender. Back at home we tried to wash it off and out but all that did is make it burn more as the salt dissolved faster.
A cluster of concerned citizens, parents and a deputy sheriff came to the school the next day. After running through the list of absent students and not finding any suspects they came looking through the school. They didn’t have to look very hard or long to find us because we could hardly walk, let alone sit down. We all got in trouble and got grounded and had to make restitution and all that and it was a long time before any bad that happened wasn’t blamed on us. Actually we had moved out of the country before we got out from under that cloud.
Dirt Clod Wars
I’ve made it sound like all we did growing up was work and while work was a major part of our lives we still found time for fun and games now and again. A major attraction in the late spring was dirt clod wars. Every spring the creeks would flood and when the waters receded there would be a new two or three inch layer of creek bottom deposited on the flat. The sun would dry out the mud and it would crack, usually in a perfect size to make a good throwing dirt clod. As a general rule we would be so far in the middle of nowhere that we only had our siblings to fight but one year during dirt clod season we lived near a little town and it was only a short hoof to meet the kids in town. A bunch of kids would line up on one bank and the group representing the opposing army would be on the other side of the creek and all hell would commence. A dirt clod could be employed as everything from a bullet to a mortar round depending on how hard you threw it. When one hit it would pulverize with a poofing noise into a satisfying cloud of dust.
Over the course of the few weeks in the early summer when conditions were right we probably moved a couple tons of dirt back and forth over the creek. If you told us we had to do that, there would have been some complaints about the hard work but for fun, heck we pitched in and never gave it a second thought.
Though the potential for grievous injury was present there was no maliciousness involved and a few of the unspoken rules of gentlemanly conduct dictated no head shots (at least not on purpose), if a kid wanted out they were allowed safe retreat and you didn’t ever throw a clod that had a rock in it.
As far as the actual battle you learned to take advantage of any cover that might present itself. Trees, rocks, clumps of brush or even an unlucky compatriot could all be used for cover. One Saturday afternoon the battle had been on for some time and both sides had sustained some minor causalities but nothing too serious. Little Eddie Johnson got a bloody nose and Sally took a clod to the mouth that bloodied her lip but that was the worst of it.
Our foes across the creek had strip mined their ready supply of clods and needed to move up the bank further but there was a big open spot they had to cross first to get to the new stretch of fresh ammo. We had been stockpiling clods and every time they tried to cross the open stretch we would lay down a barrage of clods that darkened the sky. In between their attempts to cross the open there would be a lull in the firing and noise that gave us a chance to resupply.
All of a sudden one of the kids on the other side let out a blood curdling scream and we watched him crumple to the ground. In a flash we dropped everything and those on our side waded the creek to get over there to find Billy Taylor out cold. He had a massive gash on the side of his head that was bleeding like mad. We couldn’t figure out how it happened, none of us had been throwing anything when he went down. A couple of us stronger boys went to pick him up to carry him home and when we moved him there was a chunk of concrete rubble about the size of a hardball under him with blood on it.
About then we heard a taunting laugh come our way off the top of the trestle. There was a spoken and firm rule you DID NOT play on the trestle because we never new when a train would be going through off schedule. Get caught up on the trestle and you’d get your ass beat so hard you couldn’t sit down for a week and parents really enforced that rule. We looked up and it was the Mofford twins. Their daddy was one of the richest men around the country and there was no way these little angels could do any wrong as far as their parents were concerned. The truth is they were these horrible vicious bullies that took advantage of their parents money and social standing and the uglier and nastier they could be the better they liked it. None of us poor kids would have anything to do with them and it irritated them to no end that their parents money couldn’t buy us or our awe. Knowing the danger it represented they went ahead and threw that piece of concrete down off the trestle and that just shows the kind of assholes they were.
It only took a spit second for all of us to agree this was something we needed to handle on our own. We grabbed Billy and got him carried home. His mother freaked out and fortunately his dad was there. We told them that Billy had fallen when we were playing down at the hardscrabble dump and hit his head. This dump was where all the heavy construction debris was dumped when they replaced a couple of bridges. I’m surprise our parents let us play there as there was broken concrete with rebar sticking out of it, old metal girders and stuff like that scattered around the place.
Anyway they took our story at face value and called the doctor to come over. We didn’t have a hospital anywhere close by back then and the doctor, though he had a little office, made a lot of house calls. He got Billy’s head cleaned up and took some stitches and about the time he was telling his folks about how if he didn’t wake up pretty soon they would need to transport him to the hospital two hours away Billy starts groaning and coming out of it. His sister was standing right there and she made darn sure to feed him the story of what happened but as groggy as he was, I mean his eyes were rolling opposite directions, I don’t know how much he understood. It must have been enough because as far as I know to this day the truth never leaked out.
After it appeared Billy was going to be going to be ok we trooped out to plan our response for the Mofford’s. We couldn’t do anything this day because they would be expecting it. One of the girls was having a dessert social at her home the next week and knowing that revenge is a dish best served cold we decided that is when we would get even. We had a date, Saturday evening. A few of us that weren’t on the invite list suddenly got a late invitation. Andy Ashford’s dad worked down at the local feed store so we arranged for him to swipe a couple of big muslin feed sacks for a few days. He went down Saturday mid day, ostensibly to visit his dad and swiped the sacks and hid them out back of the bulk yard. All week long we had been dropping hints all over the place about the party and knew the Moffords, even though not invited, would be hanging around for the simple fact their arrogance wouldn’t let them stay away.
Saturday evening rolls around and folks start showing up to drop off their kids. The main event kicked off at 8pm but everyone always showed up earlier just to mess around and play some yard games. The reason for the late hour was to give everyone a chance to get cleaned up from work and let it be dark enough the backyard decorations would look good. We made our dutiful greetings to Monica’s (the girl having the party) parents and after mingling with the other kids for a while we slipped out the back.
Andy and another boy ran down behind the feed store to get the feed bags and then we laid a trap for the Moffords. We had this scrawny little guy that was running around with us and I, for the life of me, can’t remember his name, anyway we had him linger by himself over near the trees at the edge of the little city park at the end of the street that Monica lived on. The perfect kind of target for the Moffords to victimize. It was getting on to pretty heavy dusk by this point and he dallies around a bit under the street light at the opening of the park until he knew he had been spotted by the Moffords then he beat feet for the trees in the park. The Moffords came down the road at a full run and when they hit the tree line we were on them in a flash. It only took a moment with all of us to get them tagged and bagged. Then we carried their struggling forms the two blocks over down to creek bank where Billy got hit and dumped them on the ground. One of them, I don’t know which was blubbering and carrying on, begging to be let go but it fell on deaf ears.
I suppose we went overboard on them but this had been building for a long time on the part of a lot of kids. Never saying a word to them, we left them in the bags and beat the living daylights out of them until they stopped moving and the crying was nothing more than a whimper and whine. I’ve been in some pretty hairy physical encounters over the years and I’ve had my ass handed to me a time or two but this was pretty epic. The damage ten pissed off pre-teens can do is substantial. At the very end we dumped them out of the bags and left them sobbing and moaning in the dark, and took off running.
Andy went and hid the feed bags and the rest of us met up with him and checked each other out for anything out of place before we slipped back into the party. It was completely dark by now and Monica’s dad had put up colored lights on the top of the fence around the back yard for decorations. There were a couple of white lights in the middle of the yard between the tables where the treats were being served and they cast uneven brightness and shadows all over the place. We had been gone for less than half an hour and with all the confusion, the evening darkness, lights and shadows and milling kids, none of the adults noticed we were gone. Besides it wasn’t like we were real familiar to them or anything. We slipped into the dessert line and got a dish of ice cream and our choices of the several different kinds of little cakes and treats and such. We’re all having a rollicking good time stuffing our faces with ice cream when the cops and Mr. Mofford showed up. They came into the back yard and everything just stopped. Boy was Mr. Mofford mad. He was slinging accusations all over the place and threatening everybody.
Monica’s dad told the officers there had been no trouble here, all us kids had come in and had been playing in the basement and the backyard since we arrived and for the last while everyone was having ice cream and they’re all here right now he said and he waved his arm at all of us. We just sat there with our dishes of ice cream, spoons halfway to our mouths and not a hair out of place looking as innocent as all get out.
Eventually the cops drug Mr. Mofford away telling him it didn’t look like whoever had attacked his kids came from the party and we got back to finishing our ice cream before it completely melted.
The next Monday Andy was in a lather because when he went to put the feed bags back they were missing. These were an inventory item and we knew they would eventually be missed so we went in to confess to his dad that we took them. He met us with an even look and without breaking a smile told us the next time we borrowed something to make sure all the blood was washed off it, but don’t worry he said, he had already cleaned them up and returned them to inventory.
That old man knew what was up and he never let the cat out of the bag about it.
Old men and secrets led to my brother and I getting in a whole raft of trouble another time. I don’t know what possessed my grandfather to do it but he bought us each a wrist rocket sling shot with the admonishment not to tell anyone that he’s the one that bought them for us. These things at full draw with a steel ball could do darn near as much damage as a .22 rifle. With only a few weeks practice we were deadly with them and everything from lizards to crows on the wing fell to our hunting prowess.
We were messing around down by the hay barn one day and noticed this massive bald faced hornet nest had recently been added to the structure. The hay barn was below our pasture beyond a band of lodgepole pine that was thicker than hairs on a dogs back. Up above when I wrote massive, I meant it. This nest was probably a good twenty to twenty four inches from top to bottom and had to be between twelve to fifteen inches across. My younger brother bet that he could shoot it down. I wasn’t too sure that was a good idea because I’d been nailed a time or two and when one of those hornets got a hold of you they didn’t turn loose too soon. The last time I tangled with them it took almost two weeks before all the swelling went away.
My dire warnings did little to dissuade my brother and he proceeded to have at it with some gravel. We had long ago used up all our supply of steel bearings that came with the slingshots and had been reduced to using rocks. Their uneven surface introduced all kinds of accuracy problems and he fired off several doing nothing more than causing the metal roof to clang when the rock hit. A few hornets flew out to see what was messing around but fortunately we were still out of range. He was wishing for something else to use and about then spied a crab apple tree that God had caused to grow right next to the barn in answer to his wishes.
He picks a couple of the most perfectly shaped apples off the tree and steps back to the opening of the barn and lets one fly. Dang, it actually grazed the outside of the nest and a thick cloud of bees started swarming around. My feet had already found their way up the lane looking to be as far from the disaster in the making that was happening in real time in front of me as possible and the rest of my body naturally followed along. The second apple smacked the nest right where it connected to the roof purlin and the whole thing broke free. Everything about it, even its impact with the ground, seemed to happen in slow motion. It did about a half pike and when it hit the ground and split open everything sped up to about double time. This massive cloud of really pissed off bees formed and started looking for something to extract vengeance upon. I had long ago reached the main track leading to the house and wasted no time beating feet for home. The last I saw, before I got out of sight, my dumb brother was standing there in the door way looking on in rapt fascination as the nest exploded and this legion of hornets darkened the sky. About then one of the hornets found him. His scream was the homing beacon for the whole swarm and they were on him like stink on a skunk. His first scream was choked off by the next three in rapid succession and then a streak passed me going through the pine thicket. This was a real thicket and if you were real careful and took your time you could work your way through it but you were not going to go anywhere fast. The streak turned out to be my brother and I don’t know how he was dodging among the trees and still making any forward progress but he was managing to out run me. His screams had become a continuous wail by this point. By the time I got to the house dad was swearing up a storm swatting mad bees with a rolled up magazine and mom was doctoring my brother. He swelled up with bumps and knots all over his head and back and was a real mess for a long time.
We eventually lost the wrist rockets after a, ahem, misunderstanding, that resulted in short but furious war between my brother and I. One day I was walking past the haystack behind the house when I got hit in the back by a shot rock. I turned around and there was my brother with a big assed grin on his face. I told him to knock it off or there would be trouble and as soon as I turned my back he fired another one my way. This one connected as well and I retaliated in kind. Grabbing the first rock that came to hand I turned and fired at him in one smooth motion without aiming and connected square on in the middle of his forehead. He dropped like a sack of rocks and for a moment I thought I might have killed him.
My mom happened to be looking out the kitchen window when he fell so I didn’t even have the opportunity to concoct a narrative of events that would get me out of hot water. Dad came out and carried by brother into the house then he collected both wrist rockets. When my brother came to, dad took the wrist rockets and bent them into pretzels with his bare hands in front of us. The only redeeming thing about it was my brother sported a goose egg for two days and he ended up with both eyes going black so it looked like he was wearing a raccoon mask. It took about two weeks before I could sit down comfortable.
After we lost the wrist rockets I started experimenting with a sling like David used against Goliath. Let me just tell you that you can hit yourself in the back of your own head with a rock from your own sling and knock yourself sillier than shit but that’s a whole other story.
The first I knew my Saturday plans had changed was hearing mom at the front door telling Jimmy that I couldn’t play today. He and I had made plans to explore a big ol’ barn way out in the middle of nowhere. We had found it the last weekend when we were hauling ass to get home after staying out too late. Well at least I had stayed out too late. Jimmy didn’t have a dad at his house and as long as his mom was getting “presents” from the steady stream of guys that came and went at his home she wasn’t too worried about where or what Jimmy was doing. He was a good kid in spite of his troubled home life and he had started eating over to our place quite a bit of recent. My mom was worried about him and I had overheard her talking to dad about him a couple of times. Several nights he bunked at our place when mom felt it was too late for him to walk the mile home. If you think that’s not very far, try doing it at night through a mile of dense forest full of woods monsters that come out after dark to eat wandering children. We knew the monsters had to live in the woods because we had gone down after dark with dad’s big 6 volt flood light and the .22 and couldn’t find the troll that was suppose to live under the bridge to our house.
Back to that barn, we were running full tilt through the woods when out of nowhere this open glade showed up. It kind of took us back for a moment because we had been all over that mountain side and had never found it before. Right out in the middle of the glade stood this big old barn kind of canted down on one corner with two square eyes staring out over the field from the hay loft. Some of the boards had come loose and were hanging down by a nail. Big curved sweeping marks were left on the other boards from when the wind whipped past and swung the loose boards. We snuck up on it through the tall grass and making it to the front corner unscathed we both decided to let the other one go first in peeking around the corner of the door to see what was inside.
Jimmy, “You can go first”,
Me “No, I’ll let you go, you’re my guest after all”. See I was learning some manners.
Jimmy, “No, really I don’t care if you go first”,
Me “Naw, my mom was after me to be nicer, so you can go first”
Jimmy, “No really, you go first, I think I went first last time.”
Me “Hah, that’s right, remember how you screamed like a little girl when Mr. Hanson’s dog lunged out of his shop at you?”
Jimmy “Ok, I’ll go first.” He slowly peeks around the corner of the door and then yells real loud “Ruuuuuuuuuun”.
My fight or flight instinct took over and the flight side won. Without conscious thought I got halfway back across field so fast I had to wait for my shoes to catch up to me.
When my shoes got back on my feet I turned around to see Jimmy standing at the corner of the barn bent over laughing so hard I could barely understand him hollering, “Who’s the girl now?” I was going to owe him big time.
After I could convince my feet it was safe to do so I went back to the barn. The gloom of the barn seemed to reach creepily out from the opening. The center span was open clear to the ridge pole and there were some old ropes hanging down in the open air. We bet that’s where they hung the rustlers they caught. Their ghosts probably still haunted the place. Hay lofts ran down both sides and under them were rows of stalls, some full of stuff just begging to be explored. Two or three stall gates were hanging off by one hinge. Two ladders on each side lead to the lofts and we could see a jumble of stuff up there. Across the back of the barn it looked like a full set of harness was hanging on the wall. I know at least four horse collars were hanging there. Yeah, this was going to be a place to come back to. About then this massive shape drops from the top of the barn right for us and we both darned near peed our pants. It was just a big horned owl gliding out to do his evening hunting.
Back to the present day, when I got inside from dumping the kitchen trash it was just in time to see Jimmy’s back as he walked away. “See ya” I hollered at his receding form. Mom told me to go down to the garage, dad was waiting for me down there. This didn’t bode well, it was always a real crappy job if dad didn’t tell me about it before hand. I heard the motor fire up as I was walking down the hill and slipped in the passenger side as he rolled the truck out. Through the back window I could make out picks and shovels and sledge hammers and a couple pieces of drill rod. Oh, God, we were going to the Janson place. Dad had taken on the job of breaking out the concrete slab of their old shop. They had a fire and half the shop got burned. Mr. Janson had decided to rebuild it but in the process wanted to make it bigger. Whoever had poured the original slab had done a pretty sketchy job of it. It was up to us to break out all the floor that was under the still standing side of the shop.
I was going to be holding drill steel all day, or until dad got done with the floor. This wasn’t a particularly demanding task. All I did was kneel on the ground and hold the drill steel so dad could pound away on it with a sledge hammer. After every smack I needed to rotate the bill a bit. Once we got a hole drilled I had to wiggle the bit out, move it over just a little more than the width of the bit and get ready to start all over again. Once we had a line of holes drilled I would move out of the way and dad would use the sledge on the floor to break it in pieces. We would clear the rubble away and then work on the next course.
There were four things that made the job terrible. One was the fear of every swing. It sat in the pit of my stomach like a bad bowl of green hash. I would watch dad swing the sledge back behind him. His back would arch a little and his forehand would slide down the handle to but up against his back hand. Then he wold “ummpph’ as he drove the sledge up through his swing. The head would drive for the sky then at the top of the swing it would arc over and then come rushing down, growing ever larger as it moved towards the drill steel, and me. Please don’t miss, Please don’t miss, Please don’t miss was a mantra that got chanted throughout the entire time.
Second for the first inch or so every hole I got showered by flying fragments of concrete and my protective gear consisted of squinting my eyes almost closed. I couldn’t close them all the way because then I might wobble the end of the bit and you did not want to move the bit. To do so meant that dad might miss his swing and the damage cause by a sixteen pound sledgehammer at full power, well you if you were lucky it was only a finger that you lost.
Actually this next one might have been the second worst part, I didn’t have gloves and held the drill steel barehanded. Every time the sledge hit the drill there would be a loud smack/ting noise and then the bit vibrated like mad. It felt like getting a bee sting over and over again all day long in both hands. By the end of the day my hands would be numb and they wouldn’t recover for a couple of days.
The final was, Jimmy and that barn were waiting for me and for a seven year old kid, exploring a dark and scary barn was a lot more fun than getting showered by cement bullets all day long.
It wasn’t until a lot later in life that I learned they had long handled tongs for holding drill steel to make the job safer. But that was the way of it back then, you made do with what you had and you got the job done come hell or high water.
Dad took on all kinds of jobs like this. He would pick up a salvage demolition of a house or farm structure. If there was any structural integrity to the building at all we would start at the top and work our way down. Old barns were the worst because of how tall they were and us kids were the ones that got to start stripping off roofing and peeling back the boards underneath and dropping them to the ground. No matter what type of building it was demolition was basically the reverse of construction. The roof would come off, the trusses, if it had any would come down, then the walls would be tipped over. If it was a two story house, the second story floor could come off. This could be a real chore if it was a hardwood floor because most of them where tongue and groove flooring that was blind nailed down to the sub-flooring. If you tried to take it up from the wrong side all that would happen is the hardwood strips would be torn to shreds. Once this was off it was back to dropping the walls to the first floor and everything repeated.
While us kids would be working top side dad would be going through the building and removing all the doors and stripping all the moldings and trim. There was a reason he didn’t work up high any longer and no it wasn’t because of fear. When I was eight he fell off a second story roof while putting down hot tar. It messed him up pretty bad and he ended up with a fused back. Another fall like that and if he lived through it, the docs said he was most likely going to be paralyzed from the waist down.
Once the building was a pile of boards on the ground you would grab a hammer, cats claw and crowbar and start stripping all the nails. Stripped nails went into a bucket because for one, every nail on the ground was a potential flat tire or a cow that developed bovine traumatic reticuloperitonitis. How’s that for a six dollar phrase. In the country we just called it hardware disease. Basically it was when a cow would ingest a piece of metal and it would get lodged in the reticulum (their gut).
Another reason was in those days you salvaged everything. Nails would be straightened out by rolling them across the flat of an anvil and hitting them wherever there was a high spot. Then they would get dropped in a heading tool so you could reform the heads. The final task here was sorting them by size and type.
Once you got done turning the boards from porcupines to lumber everything got sorted by size. Then any bad ends would be trimmed. Generally we would trim boards to the next dimensional size down. If you had two by ten twelve feet long and it had eight inches on the end split out, it would get cut back to ten feet long. There weren’t electric chop saws in those days so everything was trued with a steel carpenters square and the ends cut off with a hand saw.
At the very end everything left over would be burned and the pile of ash and any other debris left over would get buried in hole where the building stood.
We didn’t need to look at a calendar to tell it was Thursday, our noses would tell us. This was one of my favorite days of the week because it was baking day. Mom would turn out home made bread and pastries by the tray.
She would cut off the heels from a few loaves and us kids would get them. There is nothing, and I mean nothing, that can compare to pippin hot, homemade bread, fresh from the oven slathered with fresh, home made, sweet cream butter and our choice of home made jams. We would always be begging for more.
The baking didn’t start on Thursday though. Throughout the week we would be running the crank on the grain mill. It was a real problem back then to keep weevils out of flour and such so we only made flour a little in advance. Mom would send us out to the granary to get a tin of wheat berries. The wheat would be put through the mill on a coarse setting to crack it then run through a second time on a fine setting to get flour. If she was baking something for guests or a special occasion the flour would get run through a third time. After we had flour we got to sit at the table and run it through sifters. These were containers like a three pound coffee can with a wire screen across the bottom and arms in the bottom that worked back and forth next to the screen. There was a squeeze lever on the handle and every time it was depressed it would move the arms in the bottom and sifted flour would fall through the screen into a big bowl. A kid would develop a pretty strong grip after awhile just from running a flour sifter.
Other tasks besides milling flour was churning butter. It seemed that no matter how good you were on the butter board you couldn’t wash all the buttermilk out of the butter and it (the buttermilk) would start to go rancid after a few days and basically spoil the butter.
Salting the butter heavily could help the butter last longer as the salt would attract, then hold the water but then we had to wash the butter to get all the extra salt out before we could use it. Besides salt was sometimes in short supply and mom hated to waste it on salting butter. If we had a freezer or if it was in the middle of the winter we could freeze some ahead and it would hold for longer but no matter what we did, it wasn’t like the butter today with all the preservatives and crap done to it, it would eventually go rancid. Our solution was to just make butter every few days. I can still remember the sweet taste of licking freshly churned and lightly salted butter off my finger after wiping it across the butter board to collect the traces left behind.
Even though mom had recipes for and it was easier to make freezer jam the vast majority of the time we made cooked jam as we just couldn’t depend on being able to keep the freezer running year around. All the way from early summer through fall we would pick gallons and gallons of farmed and wild berries. Usually as soon as a particular berry season was over we would crank up the jam machine for whatever we had just harvested. The jam machine consisted of everyone in the family rolling up their sleeves and going to work.
The buckets of berries would be set on the floor next to the sink and mom would wash and sort the berries. I’ve never seen anyone as fast with her hands as mom. When we were young we would be berry mules for her, packing the trays of picked berries to the scaling station because she could pick more berries by herself than all of us kids combined so it made sense for her to pick and us to ferry the trays.
Once she had the berries washed and sorted she would hand them off to us kids to put through the Foley food mill. We would crank and crank and crank that damn thing with the scritching noise of the wire cleaning arm dragging against the perforated bottom of the mill. We did this to crush the berries and remove some of the seeds. Seeds weren’t a big problem for some berries like huckleberries and strawberries but raspberries and blackberries just had too many seeds, at least for us, unless some of the seeds were removed.
The younger kids would be measuring out the crushed berries and sugar and stuff to dad and he would run the cooking and stirring operation. He and mom would handle pouring the cooked jam into the jars. If we had new lids they would run them through a boiling water bath, canner. If we were short on lids they would pour melted paraffin onto the top of the jars to seal them. The reason they did these tasks was the danger of burns. Hot jam and melted wax would raise blisters like you wouldn’t believe and mom had a real fear about hot canners. Somewhere in her youth a kid had tipped a hot canner off a stove and later died as a result of the severe scalding they suffered.
Fruits like strawberries, raspberries, gooseberries, blackberries, blueberries, huckleberries, salmonberries, elderberries, cherries and grapes weren’t the only thing turned into jam. Apples, pears, peaches, apricots and plums all made the list too. I’ve probably missed at least half a dozen or more others that got turned into jam.
We made so much jam the shelves would be groaning under the load but this was the basis of our sweet treats throughout the year. It served duty as jam of course but it also was the base for any fruited pastries she made. It also was a big part of gifts to other folks at Christmas time. Mom would wrap the jars in ribbons and put them in a little basket along with some other treats like home made beef sausage, home made cheese, sweet cream butter blocks, bread sticks and crescent rolls. Back in those days her baskets were a big hit with folks. Now they just go down to the store and buy some mass produced replica that lacks character and taste.
I better wrap it up, these things get way too long if I don’t stop myself and I have chores waiting on me.