Two Pair Beats A Full House

This was an early childhood memory while living on a rural farm

 

 

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These are articles, stories and accounts of my life, as I recall them, and are copywrited. Unauthorized use will be pursued at my determination, to the degree that I am inclined. Any hard feeling caused by memories that don't match yours are unfortunate and you'll just have to get over it! Feel free to contact me if you have a request for their use. I am not writing for prose or poetry, but just to tell a story. Neither do I try to be politically correct. I consider that an act of cowardice, trying to placate the uninformed, ignorant of history folks that are filled with ego and braggadocios, demanding that their perspective be the prevalent one.


Summers in southern Michigan were not that hard to endure as I recall, and the summer of ‘49 would be one of my earliest recollections of childhood and for the most part those memories were pleasant. I spent the bulk of my childhood playing on and around the farm that was owned by my grandfather Burr Clark, a dawn to dusk dairy farmer who’s calloused hands were always able to find a piece of hard candy in one of his bib overhaul pockets. He was slightly rotund and jovial old man, but lacked nothing in quickness, as even an as seven year old boy, I had often marveled at his ability to catch a chicken by the head, break it’s neck and leave it lying on the ground while barely alarming the other hens in the vicinity. I instantly knew what was Grandma was serving at dinner that evening.

He continually had a ready smile beneath a fully brimmed straw hat and perspiration would always gather at the base of his round wire rimmed glasses that were held in place by a full 180 degree wrap around at each ear ending with a small amount of tape to protect the rear of each jaw. For several summers now, I would take two carrots that were from our own garden and a plastic glass of cold well water and walk into an adjacent field whenever he was cutting alfalfa. I recall that he owned a tractor, but most often in the adjacent fields he would use a horse drawn sickle mower pulled by two of my Uncle Arza’s draft horses Jenny, a sorrel roan with a straw colored mane and Pepper, a speckled black beauty with a coal black mane.

I would walk out into the field far enough that Grandpa would be able to see me, and when he was at a turn in the circling pattern where he was headed in my direction, he would get as close as he was going to get on that path and pull up the horses and wave for me to come to his side. As I was approaching, being careful not to spill any of Grandpa cold water, he would tie off the reins to the sickle bar control lever, remove his hat and wipe the sweat from his forehead with a red paisley bandana from his left rear overhaul pocket, clean the sweat from his glasses, and without folding it, place the bandana back in his hip pocket. As I continued in his direction with the cold drink and carrots, he would flash that loving smile that only a Grandfather owns, and pretend he had forgotten to bring any hard candy in any of his pockets, but I knew better, even at seven years of age, that he could be counted on for many things, especially in remembering to stock his pocket with candy.

I had to remember to pass to the right of Jennie, because to go down the left side past Pepper would put me danger of contacting the shearing blades of the sickle bar, and I also knew to cut Jennie a wide path to the right as she seemed to have an affinity for little boy ears, and it only took one time to imprint my brain regarding taking an evasive maneuver, and making the pass successfully, I was eager to retrieve my ‘compensation’ for bringing my Grandpa a drink of cold water and a carrot for each of the horses. The searing smell of the new cut hay could be perceived halfway down your nose and into your throat, and as I approached the tall steel wheel on the left side of the mower, I placed one hand on each of two steel spikes on the wheels perimeter, and looking up at him with anticipation, I noticed that he had already reached down into the center of the front bib of his overhauls and retrieved two pieces of the translucent golden paper wrapped butterscotch hard candies. My favorite! He always had butterscotch candies when he was in the fields.

He would wait until we had chatted for a few moments, then would pause until I had walked far enough to clear the sickle bar before I would hear him shout ‘giddyup’ to the horses and begin to hear the systematic clanking of the sickle blades as they worked thru the cutting bars to cut the hay. As we distanced ourselves in the field, I would eventually hear him bark out ‘gee’ to get the horses turning to the right and they would start pulling down that row until the clacking sound of the mower blades would subside to a minimal hum in the distance at about the same time I reached the house.

When walking back from the field that was south of the house, particularly the eastern section, you could not really see where we lived, as we actually lived in the basement of what was a foundation for a house and three sides of it were recessed in the ground, only the western side being open to the outside. However, it was not hard to know which way to travel as the remnant odor of the one-hole outhouse made it clear when you were approaching the edge of our property. We had indoor plumbing for two years now, but I suspect that Dad had not taken the time to cover it over, in the event that we might need it as a backup, but the stink could be quite pervasive during some times of the summer.

On account of the fact that it was summer and every day was a work day on the farm, I had no idea what day or even what week it was, only that we had little time left before school would begin. The following morning I asked my Mom if I might go up the road to the Smith family farm and play with my friends Clem and Clarence. Clem was actually my own age, but his brother Clarence had failed the second grade, so we did our studies together, but all of us were in the same one room schoolhouse located on Cedar Lake road.

The Cedar Lake road was a narrow dirt road that crossed Jewell Road, the paved road that the Smith family and our family lived on, and if you stood out by the dirt road in front of the school, you would only be able to see three houses, The Smiths house, across the way, the Love’s family farm home to the south, and the house that my Uncle Arza lived in was in the distant north direction. We lived one mile from Clem and Clarence, and it was another ½ mile to the school from their house.

This school was in the country, heated only by a wooden fireplace and there were a total of 21 students and all were taught by Ms. Gertrude. We all brought in firewood, when required, before we left school in the afternoon. There was a two-hole outhouse for the boys and one for the girls as well. We had what seemed to be a very tall flagpole and every morning we raised the flag outside the school and said the allegiance to the flag as soon as the rope was tied off. The long handled water pump was situated behind the school building, and the tallest student got to ring the school bell that was attached to the roof at the front of the building, similar to a church.

If it was during the early parts of the summer and I was going to play with the Smith brothers, I would be asked to carry a small feed bag folded up and tucked into my belt. I had to be home before dark on those occasions and would keep an eye out for wild asparagus and rhubarb, always found alongside the road, and it widened our food assortment. Mom was happy to feed us the asparagus and I was happy to eat rhubarb pie even though it was often quite tart and difficult to eat quickly.

It was now late in the summer, so the asparagus and rhubarb were out of season, so I took along an older feedbag to collect some of the brown beer bottles that were in plentiful supply along the paved road, and maybe a box turtle or garter snake, and frogs were often seen as I crossed the small creek that separated my Grandpa’s farm land from the neighbors. The beer bottles were worth two cents each and could be counted on to accumulate into a ‘stash of cash’ that might net a set of bubblegum baseball cards or a decoder ring and I had recently had my eye on a red paisley handkerchief just like my Grandpa had.

School was to start in one week, about the second week in September, so I had asked to stay the night at Clem’s and Clarence’s house, and given permission, I was excited to make the one mile trek, but being barefoot I knew enough to get an early start so I could walk on the asphalt road before it got too hot. I had just gotten my new church shoes, so my old church shoes were now this years school shoes, and last years school shoes were torn and worn out and were too small to continue to using. Because of the gravel along side the edge of the paved road, you would like to walk shoeless on the asphalt road or the grass, but in the early morning the grass would be wet making it easier to get cuts in between your toes.

Clem and Clarence’s’ father Harry Smith had eleven kids prior to marrying Louise, and they had five children, one of which died in childbirth, leaving the Smith household with a total of fifteen kids, thirteen of which were still at home and eleven of them were part of the 21 kids that attended the one room school house. Four additional families each had two kids at the school and Jimmy Peach and I were the remaining two students. There were no students in the third and tenth grade.

I don’t remember knowing anything about football at that time, but the Smiths were enthusiastic about baseball and basketball, and had enough family members that they could whip up a good contest in either sport and have enough players to make a game out of it. Basketball was easier to get a group together and the hoop, fashioned from the lowered third section of a hickory barrel originally used to ship ten-penny nails, was mounted on the West side of the dairy barn. At the time, it seemed to be mounted way more than ten feet in the air, and because there was a slight grade to the South, few of us would shoot from the North side of the court because if you missed the ‘hoop’ and were unable to retrieve it right away, the ball would roll down past the corn crib and continue past the feed lot until it went just to the left of where the cattails congregated, and over the bank and into the usually slow flowing creek that flowed down thru the Smith’s farm and into Coon Lake several miles away.

Old man Smith would get really pissed of if we let the ball get into the creek, but Clem confided in me that it was a rubber basketball, and their name and address was written on the side and they always seemed to get it back inside a week, because someone fishing or boating on Coon Lake would bring it around and put it in their oversize mailbox.

This particular day, we played basketball most of the morning, with the participants varying depending on who was able to maintain their enthusiasm and could work the time in between their assigned chores, but there was always Clem, Clarence and me. One of the older girls, one of Harries daughters, was a pretty good shooter and was tall as well, so we all wanted to be on her team for that reason in addition to one other reason. You did not want her to knock you on your ass. I was too young or dumb at the time to understand all the differences between girls and boys, but was later to learn that if you were guarding her or trying to block a shot and you happened to touch one of her breasts, she would flat take a swing at you with the intent of putting your dick in the dirt, an understandable attitude when living with eight brothers, I suppose.

The baseball events were more fun for everyone, as it seemed to be enjoyed by the entire family, even Harry and Louise would occasionally watch or join in. The Smith home had a circular style driveway, and the part of the driveway nearest the door on the side porch, where you entered the kitchen was considered home plate, and probably explained the assortment of plywood panels attached to the porch posts. The pitchers ‘mound’ was just to the left of the dog house located in the center of the driveway, and if you happened to hit a slow grounder towards the short stop, you often had to fight their cur dog, still chained to a stake, for the ball. First base was a large white rock that was about two feet in diameter and protruded up from the yard about eighteen inches that had their street address hand painted in black numbers. Second and third base varied, depending on what was laying around the yard on any particular day, usually a garbage can lid or a gunny sack. No one wore any shoes, but we all had hardened soles from being barefoot all summer and running from base to base was not an issue, but if you had to chase that slow ground ball up third base line, you had better be on the lookout for dog shit.

We had been playing baseball late in the afternoon when Harry comes up the driveway, passes the big rock at first base like normal, but scared the hell out of Clem as he was standing on the gunny sack at second base staring out into the pasture and did not see the truck until Harry was right behind him at the same time he laid on the horn. Startled, Clem attempted to run, but after the first two steps, he was still in the same spot, as the gunny sack was sliding on the dusty driveway, devoid of traction. The horn had pissed off the dog, the rest of us were howling with laughter as Clem was having a hard time getting out of the way of Harry’s pickup, while Louise, having just exited the kitchen, was cursing at the top of her lungs at the old man for interrupting the ball game and making so much dust in the yard.

In about the same time as it took for the dust to settle from Harry’s arrival, the tempers and laughter had both subsided, somewhat enhanced by the fact that Harry had said that he had a surprise for everyone. Louise, probably because she had a hint as to what the surprise was going to be, told all of us to head on into the kitchen, and in doing so, the less than appealing, but more common aroma of the agricultural outside was quickly transformed into the much more appealing scent of burning wood and home cooking.

Harry produced a brown cardboard box about twice the size of a lunch pail, still sealed shut by the wide brown shipping tape, and reaching down and pulling a large bowie knife from the holster on the inside of his left well worn Wellington boot, Harry slowly and deftly cut away the tape, leaving all the edges of the cardboard straight and without tears. Now on display, was a dark brown wooden box with a large circular dial behind a piece of glass surrounded by a chrome ring and a pair of knobs about the size of a field onion on either side of the large dial. Even after seeing the electrical cord, I was unable to offer a hint about what it was, and no one else spoke, so I assumed that they knew no more than I did. Harry plugged it in to an electrical cord that was dangling down from the kitchen ceiling just above the kitchen table, twisted one of the smaller knobs and music came from an opening at each end of the box.

It was a radio. I had never seen a radio before today, and it amazed me to no end. Even at a young age, I was fairly mechanically inclined, but I was completely at a loss to explain how sound could come from within a wooden box, and no visible moving parts. As we continued to marvel at the music, it was determined that there were only two stations available. There was one talking station and one music station. The talking station was practically static free, but the music station was preferred by all of us at the kitchen table, especially Louise and the older girls.

Commenting that dinner was almost ready, Louise told the kids to take their place, and a rapid shuffle began immediately as each kid took an assumed position on one of the two long sides of the table. The kitchen table was just a very long picnic table with a bench seat at each side, a large, sturdy chair at the far end, and a standard kitchen chair at the end of the table nearest the porch entrance. As each assigned seat was filled, I was left standing alone off to one side of the table, next to the cast iron wood burning stove of huge proportions that was very hot, apparently having been cooking for most of the afternoon. As soon as we entered the house from playing ball, the heat was apparent right away, but I was now becoming acutely aware of the smell of fried chicken, and looking around I saw home made biscuits with browned tops, green beans scattered with bacon, and at the very right side of the stove top sat two large pans of what I was sure was peach cobbler. One of the older girls had set two loaves of freshly cooked bread on the table and Harry sliced it as I watched. One older brother had been sent to the root cellar and returned with a new tub of recently hand churned butter.

They obviously were not prepared to have company for dinner very often, and Louise asked another of the older brothers to bring in an end table from the living room, and it was situated off to the side of the table that Clem and Clarence were sitting at, and I ate my dinner sitting on the floor, making sure to clean my plate as was being expected from each of the other kids, as I anxiously awaited that peach cobbler.

Dinner was simple, but there was lots of food and little talking as we were all intent on listening to this new fangled radio box. As we were about done with the peach cobbler, the radio announcer said that they were about to play the newest song by some guy named Hank Williams, and the announcement was quickly followed by a crooning and soulful melody about a whippoorwill and the guy feeling ‘so lonesome he could die’. The sisters were all swooning and Harry and Louise got up from the table and shared a short dance until the song finished.

While they were dancing, I looked across the floor, and just inside the entrance door to the kitchen from the porch, I noticed a huge pile of shoes that looked like it was all the boy’s shoes in the house, along with assorted small pieces of cardboard both inside and nearby this array of shoes. The sole of every shoe that I saw had a hole in the bottom. Most were the high top, laced up style, but another unusual thing I noticed was the two old shoe boxes at the far end of the stack of shoes that had square pieces cut out of them. Then I put it all together. I had noticed with little concern that Clem and Clarence had shared a pair of shoes the previous year in school, and I now figured out that when they had worn their shoes to the point of having holes in the soles, that they cut pieces of the cardboard box and inserted them inside the shoe.

With fifteen kids and two adults, it doesn’t take long to figure out that sleeping was a pretty tight scene at night in the Smith’s house, so on the rare occasion that I was allowed to sleep over in the warmer summer months, I was assigned to the ‘cabin’ along with Clem, Clarence and one of the older brothers.

The “cabin’ was actually the corn crib, located between the dairy barn and the equipment shed. It was about six feet wide, eight feet tall and about twenty feet long, for the distinct purpose of drying corn before being fed to the livestock and was constructed with four inch horizontal slats on about seven inch centers running the entire length and a hip roof with an eighteen inch overhang to help keep out rain. The entire inside was lined with chicken wire to keep out critters.

Well, most of the critters anyway.

Rats were a well known inhabitant around any farm, and were not particularly worrisome, but the older brother was entrusted to carry a knife along when we went out for the night, and as soon as we got inside the corn crib, he would place it on a foot long piece of wood nailed to the jamb post just inside the latch side of the door. Each of the boys an assortment of burlap feed bags that they stacked on top of each other to sleep on. Clem and Clarence would each share some of theirs for me to sleep on, but that prick of an older brother would keep his entire allotment for himself. We were all longer than the burlap feed bags, so we stacked them all on top of each other and curled up our legs to get most of our bodies on the top of the bags. By morning we found it nice to put at least one bag on the top to keep warm until called in to breakfast.

After shooting the bull and dreaming of being a baseball player, a cowboy or a truck driver, we would eventually fall asleep, but this particular night I was slow to get to sleep as all I could think about was the realization that I had two pairs of shoes, none of which had holes in the soles, and in this entire house full of boys, they did not appear to have four shoes without holes in the soles.