About Me

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Tacoma, Washington, United States

Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Family Increases

Another big event early in 1936 was the birth of my little sister Sandra.  Since it had been ten years since Rex was born, I expect that she may have been a bit of a surprise to Mother and Dad.
“All we children were “spring lambs”.  Richard was born in April of 1920, me on March 3rd of 1922, Rex in May of 1926, and now Sandra on March 22nd in 1936.
It seemed like Mother had gone around pregnant for a long time but finally she knew the time had come.  Sandra would be born at home just like the rest of us had been.  On a Saturday they sent us three boys off to Grandma’s house to stay the night.
Early Sunday morning, my Aunt Alice (she was an old maid living at home with Grandma and Grandpa) woke us and told us that we had a little baby sister.  Alice said that we could go home and see our new sister after breakfast.  I slipped away and walked the quarter mile home.
Mother was lying in bed looking pale and tired and the baby was in a basket behind the bed.  I sidled around there, pulled back the blanket, and looked at the little pink face.  Mother said, “Well, Connie, what do you think of her?  Who does she look like?”
Now newborn babies have always looked about the same to me—wizened little red faces and their eyes screwed shut.  This one did not look much different to me so I thought I would sort of make a joke of it.  I said diffidently, “Well—I guess she sort of look like a little monkey!”
Mother seemed a little put out for a second but then she laughed.  Guess I should have said that she looked like a cute little monkey—which she did.  In fact, when I looked close, she looked most like my Grandma Stanley and my mother and she would resemble them even more in later years.  She is short and round like they were and, when she walks she sort of trots like Grandma did.
I was pleased as punch when I got in on naming our new sister.  Dave wanted to call her Dean because one of our cousins was married to a girl named Dean whom Dad admired.  They talked about a lot of names that did not sound right to me.  In some book I had read about a girl named Sandra and I liked that.  I suggested that and they wound up naming her Sandra Dean.
We all adored little Sandra Dean.  We had a little red child’s rocking chair that all of us had used when we were tots.  I recall that the back bow was worn down from our turning it upside down and pushing it around the floor playing “choo-choo” when we were learning to walk.
I never learned to change Sandra’s diapers but when she cried I would sit in that little red chair and rock her while I sang cowboy songs.  It worked because she would stop crying and lie in my arms looking solemnly at me with her blue eyes until she fell asleep.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

"I went down in the river to pray, studying about that good old way"

Those years of 1935 and 1936 when I was thirteen and fourteen were very pivotal years in my young life.  Events seemed to occur at an accelerating pace.  With puberty my voice cracked then deepened so that I no long sang boy soprano at church but could handle the baritone and even some of the bass parts.
I moved up into the “big room” at Bona School into the ninth grade.  Under the tutelage of J. B. Mitchell, I was doing very well indeed.  I always liked school and was never tardy.  I was also never absent except for that time in Arcola when I had diphtheria, then a few days early in 1936 when I came down with yellow jaundice.  I guess it was a form of hepatitis.  I still remember how very sick I was.  My skin got yellow and my eyeballs turned brown for a while.  It stayed with me for the rest of my life, too.  In the Navy and afterward, when I listed childhood diseases I had, they would stamp “Yellow Jaundice” on my health record and I still am not allowed to donate blood.
My grades were always good and there was no subject that I disliked or that was hard for me.  Regardless of the subject, I was nearly always at the top of my class.  It may have been partily because Richard was also a top student and I was determined not to allow him to outdo m e.  Whatever the reason, I always felt foolish if I failed to get 100 percent on any examination.

The only other student in my class of seventeen at Bona School that came close to me was a slip of a girl, Mary Neil.  She was one of Cook Neil’s several daughters.  They lived in a shack just down the hill from the church on the west side of Bona.
I did not particularly like Mary Neil.  She had straw colored blonde hair, was not particularly pretty, and could be snippy if not downright nasty at times.  I respected her, however, because she was smart as a whip.
Almost invariably when there was a bell-down it would be Mary and me that were the last two up there.  I felt foolish on the occasions when she spelled me down.  I never heard in later years, but I expect that Mary Neil got a scholarship and went on to be a teacher.

It was in 1935 that I got baptized and joined the Bona Church.  I am not sure to this day why I did that.  I was much too young to make that decision but, at the time, with several of my contemporaries going forward and joining the church, it seemed like the thing to do.
It happened during one of the series of revival meetings held by the gentle minister I described back in Chapter 4.  Since I cannot recall his name I will call him “Brother Thompson” because that could well have been it.
I did not really feel any sudden calling but I was there one evening when Brother Thompson preached a good sermon aimed at we younger people.  There in the soft yellow light of the acetylene fixtures, Thompson’s deep voice was almost hypnotic and he could be very persuasive.  During the invitational hymn at the end, my cousin Mary Catherine, Claude Todd (the two of them later married and he is not an elder in the Bona Church), Clarence Lee King, and some others went forward.  On an impulse, I got up and went with them.
It is regrettable that no one took a picture at our baptizing the following Sunday afternoon.  It is not done in an open stream any more.  These days Bona Church as a baptism tank in the church.  In those days, however, it was done in a river or creek just as Christ was baptized two thousand years ago.  The Church of Christ believed only in total immersion and members criticized Methodists and others that simply sprinkled a little water symbolically.
Our baptizing took place in a deep pool of the branch on my Uncle Claud’s farm.  Fortunately, it was in the summer so the little creek was fairly warm.  All we boys had on clean overalls and the girls wore print dresses.  Brother Thompson was wearing the first set of waders that I ever saw.  I figured that was all right as he was already baptized and he had to be in the water the whole time.  No point in his getting his preaching suit wet either.
There was not much to it.  All the people who had come to observe lined up along the bank and we baptizes got in a line.  One by one we waded out to the preacher who was standing in waist dep water.  He positioned us sidewise in front of him, said in that solemn deep voice, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”  Then he ducked us backward under the water and raised us back up.
When I waded ashore and was congratulated by people, to tell the truth I did not feel any different.  I expect that I went right on committing my little sins and I know that the other boys did also.  About the only difference was that we were now church members and could take communion.  Sometimes we were called upon to serve communion or help take up the collection.
My ideas about religion have gone through a long evolution over the years and I do not attend any church regularly now.  I will not go into that as it could be a whole separate book.  Let it suffice to say that I firmly believe in the Creator and Almighty and I believe I am on good terms with Him.  I sort of facetiously refer to Him as “The Boss” once in a while but I am sincere and He knows that.  Whatever power it is “up” there certainly took care of Richard and me during a shooting war and He hasn’t done bad by us in peace.  I will have more to say about that later.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Model T and the Washing Machine

Times were hard enough that in the spring of 1935 my father finally had to break down and register for a WPA job.  He was adamant that he would not take any Relief handouts but he did get a job on the road crew.  He and Bill Simmons ran the rock crusher for a while then he got a job with the contractor that was building a new bridge over the Little Sac (pronounced “sock”) River between Bona and Fair Play.  After that he helped build a smaller bridge over Maze Creek between Bona and Dadeville where there had been a shallow ford.
That spring it seemed almost like prosperity to us with some cash money coming in.  Unfortunately, it sort of went to Dad’s head and resulted in one of the rare times that I saw my mother sit down and cry.
Dad got paid one week and went off to Greenfield or maybe Springfield with one of my uncles.  He took Richard along with them.  Prohibition had been repealed not long before and I suspect that Dad had a few beers and his wages were burning a hole in his pocket.  We had not owned a car for two or three years.
Late in the afternoon I was fooling around in the yard with Rex and Mother was, as usual, in the kitchen.  We heard a car coming and a 1927 Model T Ford touring car with Dad driving and Richard whooping in the seat beside him came wheeling into the barnlot.
“It’s ours!” Richard yelled as Dad wheeled the car around in a circle.  “We got a car!”
Mother had come out onto the south back porch facing the barn and Rex and I had raced around to that side of the house.  We boys were dancing in glee but then I caught sight of my mother’s face.  She was not happy.  Her face sort of crumpled and she sank down to sit on the edge of the porch.  Then she dropped her face into her apron over work-roughened hands—freshly red from the scrub board in the galvanized wash tub—and quietly cried.
It was appalling.  One thing I do not like to see is anyone cry, especially a grown woman and especially if it happened to my mother.  I went to her and put my arm around her shaking shoulders.  “What’s the matter, Mama?  Ain’t you happy about the car?”
Even in her grief, she answered automatically, “Don’t say ain’t!”  Then she sobbed, “Oh, Connie, there are so many things that we need.  We don’t need a car!  We need some decent clothes.  I was even hoping that your father would get me one of those washing machines.”

There was a big lump in my throat.  My instinct had been to run and see the car up close and Rex was already on the way to the barn lot, but the joy had gone out of it.  I thought of all the long hours I had seen my mother bent over a scrub board and laundry tub every week, then wringing out the wet clothes by hand and hanging them on the line to dry.  I also thought about all the long hours she spent in that kitchen every day without running water and with only the wood-burning stove to cook on.
Dad did not neglect Mother—he did everything he could for her.  He had installed a sink in the kitchen counter with a drain pipe that went outside so she would not have to carry waste water and throw it out the door.  He had built cupboards for her and a little clothes closet in the corner of the one bedroom.  He had always worked his fingers to the bone for us.
At the age of 39, Dad’s hands were already rough and beginning to be gnarled from hard labor and shucking corn.  He took great pride in an honest day’s work and got great satisfaction from what he accomplished whether there was money in it or not.  He was just an honest old country boy that did not have much in the way of business sense—especially after he had a couple of beers.
I wanted desperately to comfort my mother but I was at a loss what to say or do.  I just patted her shoulder clumsily and, I think, said something like “Don’t cry, Mama—please.  Things will get better, you’ll see!”
She looked up at me gratefully, smiled through her tears and squeezed my hand.  “I know, Con’rd,” she said softly.  “He means well—really he does, and his heart is pure gold.  He takes good care of us.  I should not be selfish.”
She dried her eyes with her apron then quickly got up and went into the house while I trotted down to the barnlot to inspect the Model T.  In a very few days both Richard and I had learned to drive that old car.
I do not know what conversation transpired between my mother and father but she accepted the car.  I do know that after a couple more months of working on the bridge job, Dad came back from Springfield on day with a brand new Maytag gasoline-powered washing machine in the back seat for Mother.  She used it until we left the Ozarks and her hands were not so red and chapped after that, nor did she complain of backaches.  It would be a real museum antique today, but it was pure luxury for my mother.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Making Hay in the Depression

Chapter 9

Baling, Baptizing, and Sister Sandra

It was in the fall of 1934 when they started upgrading the road through Bona from Dadeville from a rocky little country road to a graveled farm-to-market road.  The work was done under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s WPA program.
I knew that “WPA” stood for Works Progress Administration and was financed by the government to help recovery form the Depression, but my father had a different name for it.  He said it stood for “Whistle, Piss, and Argue” because that is what the lazybones who signed up for it mostly did while they leaned on a shovel instead of putting in an honest day’s work.
My father would not sign up for the WPA work at first because it was necessary to sign up for Relief before a man could get a WPA job and Dad was not about to take any charity.  He only wanted what he earned.
Dad was fond of telling a WPA joke about an old lady who wanted someone to come and mow her yard because she was a widow and a cripple.  The man she talked to asked her how many holes there were in her outhouse.  She said it was a two-holer so he sent eight men and two lawn mowers to do the job.  When the old lady asked the foreman that dropped the men off why so many, he said, “Well, you have a two-holer.  I had to bring enough men that we can have two coming, two going, two sitting, and two mowing!”
Hard Times were in full swing with money scarce to non-existent  but Dad held out for quite a while.  We got by the winter fairly well partly because the WPA rented a half acre beside the road by our barnlot on which to park their bulldozer and road grader equipment at night during the time they were working on the stretch of road south of Bona.
The bulldozer was a very primitive diesel machine that had no glow plugs or electric starter.  On cold mornings the operator had a hard time getting it going.  I sometimes would go down there and watch him start it before I left for school as I was always interested in anything in the way of machinery.
What the dozer drive had to do was to keep a blowtorch on hand.  He would heat the cylinder heads of the engine with the blowtorch then he had to crank the engine by inserting a steel bar in a big flywheel to turn the engine over.  Compared to that, starting our pump house putt-putt was a lead pipe cinch.
When that old engine finally started it made a heck of a racket.  I could hear it almost all the way to school—which was a mile and a quarter.
WPA farm-to-market roadwork

Grading, gravelling, and making ditches along the road was a great improvement.  It had been simply a little rocky land bordered by rusty barbed wire fence with overgrown fencerows of weeds and brush and vine-covered stubby poles supporting the single bare telephone wire.  It was dusty during the hot summers and in winter it became a quagmire of mud when it rained—which was not often during the drought years.  It was often full of ruts and pot holes—which we called “chug holes” because a wagon or car wheel would go “ker-chug” in them.
The crews graded new ditches, prepared the roadbed with river gravel, then surfaced it with crushed rock.  We called that “chat” because that was the sound it made when a shovel full was thrown onto the roadbed.  Up until then the road had been sort of maintained by the neighborhood men using an old horse-drawn road grader that sat rusting away on the edge of the ball field on the south edge of Bona.
It was the very depths of Hard Times in the Ozarks by the spring of 1935.  The drought went on seemingly endlessly.  Crops withered and pastures turned brown in the early summer except for the jimson weeds, polkberry, and Canadian thistles.  Wells and springs were low and the creeks and rivers ran slow and sluggish with dingy water that, as the saying went, was “too thick to drink and too thin to plow.”
The price of eggs bottomed out at nine cents a dozen.  Gasoline was ten cents a gallon for low test and twelve cents for high test ethyl.  That sounds ridiculous now but in those days it was enough when the average farm hand made a dollar a day—fi he could find a job.
It was in 1935 that I got my first paying job.  One of the neighbors, Ben Long (father of pretty little Betty Lou), had a tractor-powered hay baler.  At haying time Ben would tour from farm to farm and bale hay for a share.  He had a crew of two for the baler and the farm owner would arrange for a crew to bring the hay to the stationary baler.  Ben was the loader at the baler and he had one man to tie the wires on the bales and one to buck the bales off the tailboard and into stacks for later transportation to the barn.
I had not yet reached my full height by six inches and was not very heavy but my muscles were farm tough.  When I hit Ben up for the job of bucking bales, he looked me over doubtfully and said, “You reckon you could keep up all day?  Timothy bales run sixty or seventy pounds and alfalfa will go seventy or eighty.”
“I can keep up.  I’ve plowed with a walking plow all day more than once.  Give me a change and I’ll show you.  How much you pay the bucker?”
“Fifty cents a day—that’s what I pay.  Some of them black boys  I get from around Dadeville ain’t worth half that.”  He eyed my small frame again and finally said, “All right, I’ll give you a try—but if you give out on me before quittin’ time, I’ll have to get me someone else.”
“Won’t give out—you’ll see.”

The job dang near killed me the first couple of days.  I used a hay hook in each hand to snag the square bales off the chute then had to carry and stack them away from the baling machine.  Between bales, I had to take the bale separation block back up to the loader then, on the way back, push the two wires for the next bale back through to the tier who sat on a stool on the other side.

The first day was the real killer.  I had not gotten into the swing of the routine.  To make matters worse, we were baling alfalfa for my Uncle Claud and I think Ben deliberately screwed the machine down to pack around eighty pounds into each bale.  They also seemed to get heavier as the day went on, especially when the stack got high enough that I had to swing the bales up as high as my head to the top course of the stack.
Ben kept that old rig going at a good clip all day with very few times out for a drink and a breather except for the lunch hour when Aunt Virge fed us a huge fried chicken dinner with all the trimmings and plenty of her fat light bread buns slathered with lots of hand churned butter.
At times during the day I would see Ben looking slyly at me sidewise with a half-smile on his tanned face and that made me more determined than ever to not holler “uncle” and give up.  My back ached and my hands blistered but I kept plugging away.
Ben killed the engine on the tractor just before sunset.  /by then my fanny was dragging so bad that it was wiping my tracks out behind me.  As I hung my hay hooks on the side of the baler, Ben came up and clapped a hand on my sagging shoulder.  “Well, boy—I didn’t think you would last more than an hour but you done it!”
As I was inspecting the blisters on my hands, some of which had broken, Ben handed me two quarters and said, “Better get you a pair of gloves, boy.  The job is yours.  It will be mite easier tomorrow.  We’ll be baling timothy over at Duane King’s place and the bales will be lighter.  See you in the mornin’.”
I drug my sore body the two miles home, aching all over; however, I was one proud young man when I displayed my two quarters at the supper table.  It was nearly the most money that I had ever had at one time.  I noticed that Richard eyed the two quarters then sat staring off into space thinking.
“Well,” Richard said later, “you get fifty cents for grunt work.  How much does the guy get that sits and ties the wires?”
“Seventy-five cents.”
“uh-huh—and he gets to sit down alongside the baler all day, too.”  There was a bemused expression on Richard’s freckled face when I left to go to Grandpa’s store and spend a quarter on a pair of canvas work gloves.
The next day, Richard went along with me when I hiked across the fields to the baler at Duane King’s place.  He spent part of the morning just wandering around watching the wire tier.  During a break, Richard told Ben that he could tie wires if Ben should nee someone.  A day or two later the tier did not show up and Richard had the job.  He had out-smarted me again. 
We spent the rest of the haying season on that baler crew, me bucking all those bales and Richard sitting in the shade of the baler making half again as much as I was getting.  Bending those wires made his hangs strong, but the muscle I put on meant that soon I could hold my own in a fight with him.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Fish Fry!

One of our favorite Ozark activities was a good catfish fry.  Once in a while Dad would get together with a couple of uncles or cousins and set out trotlines.  They would fish overnight, then the next day we would have a fish fry right there on the bank of the river.  The catfishing was usually good just about the time that field corn was ripening but was still soft and tender enough for good roasting ears to have with the catfish.
When a fish fry was in the works for the next day, we boys would be sent to a branch with a minnow seine and a small milk can in which to put the bait.  While we did that, the adult men would go down to the river and get the trotline set out.

Seining minnows was a two-man operation.  The minnow seine was a fine mesh net about thirty inches wide and six feet long strung between two poles we called “brails.”  At a deep pook in the branch, we would shuck off our clothes and, one on each end, drag the seine across the pool holding the brails upright and keeping the bottom of the seine dragging on the creek bed.
At the far side of the pool on a gravel bar, we would bring the seine up with a scooping motion and carry it onto the gravel to sort the minnows from the small catfish and sunperch.  Those we thre back so we could fish for them later with a hook and line.  It was not fair to keep seined little catfish and perch and, anyway, we would have all the catfish we could eat the next day.
Someone would then come and get us in one of the old Model T fords and we would go bait the four or five trotlines that had been strung across fishing holes in the Little Sac River.

A trotline is long heavy twine or cord that could be strung from bank to bank and tied to tree roots.  The hooks were on droplines about eighteen inches long tied at three or four foot intervals.  Near each end of the trotline a big rock would be tied for weight to get the trotline down close to the bottom where the catfish would be feeding.

We boys would sometimes wade and set a trotline or two when we were fishing by ourselves and could not borrow a flat-bottomed boat, but the men liked to fish in deeper water so they always used a boat.  The boats, which they usually made themselves, were shallow-draft flat-bottomed skiffs square on each end.  They were usually propelled simply with a push pole since the river was never very deep.
There were other ways to fish for big catfish, some of which were not legal although we never worried about that since there was rarely a game warden around and we did not worry about getting fishing licenses like you have to do now.
One way was “noodling,” which is catching fish with your hands.  Noodling was done in the spring when the female catfish went into holes in the bank to spawn, or sometimes you could corner a fish in a hollow log in the river.  I once watched my father take an 18-pound catfish out of a submerged follow log using a baled hay hook.
Twenty-five pound Ozark catfish

Noodling was usually done along a clay cutbank along the river where the water was waist to shoulder deep along the bottom of the bank.  The noodler waded along, feeling with hands and feet for a catfish hole.  When he found a fish, the noodle simply reached in and got his fingers into the gills and mouth (a catfish does not have teeth).
Never liked noodling myself—I was always fearful that I would stick my hand or foot into a hole in the bank and find an old water moccasin in there!  Water moccasin bit would make you mighty sick and the bite of a cottonmouth can kill a man in short order.

Another way to catch catfish—illegal even then, but they had to catch yuou at it first—was using fish traps.  Dad never fooled with fish traps that I know of, but old Henry Asbell kept some set out most of the time.  (Henry also made illegal homebrew, bottles o which he kept in a gunny sack in the cool spring on the bluff below his house.  Know that for a fact because Gene Asbell and I used to swipe a bottle once in a while.)

To get back to a fish fry, I recall one that we went on one time with Henry and Maude Asbell and their two kids, Evelyn (Richard’s age) and Gene who was a year younger than me.  Usually only the men and boys would camp out on the river bank to run the trotlines two or three times during the night; however, this time it was a warm clear summer’s night so both families camped on the riverbank.

Dad and Henry made a fire pit by proppy an old steel cultivator wheel on some rocks.  The wheel was used as a grate on which to set the coffee pot and frying pans.  (Actually, I liked it better when the men and boys camped without females in the spring when the lambs and hogs were being castrated.  On those occasions our supper would be “mountain oysters.”  They usually brought along some homebrew, too, and we were allowed to sip some to have with the fries although I never liked the taste of Henry’s homebrew much.  I guess the ladies did not like the thought of eating testicles as we never had them at home.  They sure were good, though, when they were split, dipped in batter, and fried golden brown—better than white meat of a chicken.)

On this particular fishing trip with the Asbells, we were camped on the riverbank under solme big sycamore trees right beside a cornfield.  (Come to think about it, it was hard not to camp by a cornfield because so much of it was grown then.  Nowadays, there are not so many cornfields.  After WWII, Ozark farmers discovered fescue grass, plowed their cornfields under, and some of them got filthy rich raising beef cattle.  Back then, however, no one was getting rich—we barely had “a pot to pee in and a window to throw it out of” as the saying went.  Brother Richard used to say even the snakes were so poor that they didn’t have a pit to hiss in much less a window.)

I do not recall what we might have had for supper that night (the catfish would come the next day) but we never went hungry.  We children did get hungry during the night, however.  It was hard to sleep on a quilt pallet on the ground, too, so in the middle of the night we got up quietly, built up the fire a little, and put on a pot of water.  Evelyn picked and shucked some tender ears of corn out of the field.  When one of the adults woke they found Richard, Evelyn, Gene, and me sitting around the fire stuffing ourselves with corn on the cob.

To this day I think there is nothing much better than a big Missouri channel catfish filleted, dipped in batter, rolled in yellow cornmeal (white will not do but don’t ask me why), and fried golden brown over an open fire.  We called the fillets “kitty cat pieces” because they did not have bones for a cat to choke on.  Personally, I liked the center piece where you could strip the mean off the backbone with your teeth but it was all delicious—a far cry from pond raised fish and the little catfish they skin and cook whole.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Spelunking, part 2

Richard and I found another cave—one far more practical—that summer by accident.  In fact, we found it because of one of our interminable fights.
It was a very hot summer afternoon.  Richard and I had been assigned the chore of hoeing weeds in the kitchen garden—the “truck patch.”  We each had a hoe and were chopping away at the endless chore.  I never did figure out why weeds grow so much better than things like tomatoes, onions, watermelons, cantaloupes, and other good stuff—even eggplant—but they sure do.
The sun was beating down and I was wishing that I had been smart enough to put on my clodhopper shoes even if it was summer.  The dry dirt and sand rocks were hot enough to almost burn my feet through the calluses.  Richard had put on his shoes.  Each of us were wearing just overalls with no shirts and we had on our battered straw hats.

With a totally monotonous job like hoeing weeds, you had plenty of time to think about things.  I always went off into a fantasy world daydreaming about things I would like to be.  I was an avid reader of dime pulp magazines about the west, WWI flying aces, and the like so I always had plenty of things to dream up.
Old Richard, on the other hand, seemed to spend a lot of time thinking up ways to get my goat.  It always delighted him to make me mad.  Along with my reddish hair, I had inherited a quick trigger temper and could really fly off the handle at times.
This particular day, just as I was getting on the tail of a red German triplane with the Hisso engine of my Spad roaring and my machine guns chattering, Richard jerked me back to that dusty Ozark garden, “Hey numb nut, you tried getting into ol’ Mary Catherine’s pants lately?”
I could feel my face and ears turning red under the straw hat.  Unfortunately, he knew about one time some years before when I had got caught “playing house” with our cousin.  The fact was that, even though I had thought about it from time to time, I had not had the chance to try anything with her recently.
“You just shut up about Mary Catherine!  Ain’t done nothin’ with her!”
“Maybe not lately,” he went on relentlessly, and obviously enjoying my discomfort, “but I know you have tried more than once.  Got caught, too, didn’t you?!”
He leaped back nimbly when I took a swing at him with my hoe and jeered, “Well, wouldn’t make no difference even if you did get into her pants.  Your little old dinkus is so small that she would even feel it!”
My temper exploded—just as he intended.  “You shut up!”
I took a wild swing at hime with my hoe.  He simply ducked, chuckling gleefully.  My hands were sweaty and I lost my grip on the hoe.  It went flying across the garden and twanged against the hogwire fence.
I scooped up a large clod of the dry hard red earth.  My arm and my aim were good and the clod took Richard right in the pit of the stomach.  He let out an “OOF!”  and fell down.
My anger evaporated as quickly as it had come and I thought I might have really hurt him.  I stepped toward his recumbent and silent form.
“Jeeze,” I said contritely, “I didn’t mean to hurt you!”
Of course I had simply knocked the wind out of Richard.  He made a sudden lunge for my ankles.  “You little sonamabitch,” he gasped, “I’ll get you for that!”
I dance away from him, feeling a sudden flush of fear.  Richard was still a bit bigger than me, and he sometimes got the better of me in combat.  He came up off the ground, his blue eyes slitted with anger.  His hoe was still in his left hand.
I knew the time had come to bail out so I turned tail and ran.  I lost my straw hat as I sailed over the hog-wire fence and shot across the county road toward a patch of brush on Bertha Beck’s farm.  As I dived for cover, I could hear his shoes hit the road and knew he was right behind me.
We were both familiar with that brush patch form trapping rabbits and I knew it would not conceal me for long.  I weaved my way through and out into a wheat field beyond, running for my very life.
Maze Creek was about a half mile away and I headed in that direction, my bare feet scattering grasshoppers as I fled across fields and pastures, vaulting barbed wire fences as I went.  I could hear Richard’s clodhoppers pounding in pursuit.  I was glad of that because, barefoot, I could outrun him and I knew I was gaining on him.
Richard was nearly a hundred yards behind when I reached the trees and brush along the creek, but he was coming on strong.  I cut to my left past our favorite swimming hole that we called the “Big Rock Hole” because there was a large boulder at the edge of a deep pool where we could dive.  Unfortunately, there were sharp flintrocks along the base of the low sheer cliff that bordered the bend in the creek.  I hit one that was sharp as an Indian arrowhead and cut the instep of one foot.
Now I was in trouble.  I knew Richard could catch me easily if I was hobbling on a sore foot.  I could not see even a brush pile that would offer cover for me to go to ground.  Just up the creek a way I saw a mat of wild grapevine growing up the face of the sheer cliff.  I hobbled to it and desperately squeezed my way between the vines and the rock. 
Just as I heard Richard’s footsteps pounding along the creek bank, there was suddenly no rock against my shoulder and I fell sideways into empty space.  Richard went on past heading upstream.
I rolled over and looked around.  I was in a dimly-lit cavern about three feet high and four feet wide, the walls of damp limestone.  It led back into the cliff.
As usual, I had a few kitchen matches in the bib of my overalls.  Cautiously, I inched forward, alert for any possible snake.  After a slight bend, the cave opened out.  I struck a match and found myself in a “room” about ten feet across and high enough that I could stand up.  I saw only two small openings down low before the match went out.
I lit another match and crawled across to one of the openings down against the dirt floor of the cave and, lying on my belly, peered into the hole.  Panic set in—the light of the match was reflected by two beady amber eyes!
Both the case and my sore foot momentarily forgotten, I rolled over then shot headfirst out of the cave, plunging straight through the mat of vines and rolled toward the creek on the rocky ground.  Richard was sauntering back down the creek bank—apparently having given up the chase.  He halted in amazement when I came flying out of apparently a solid rock cliff and exclaimed, “Where in the world did you come from?”
My words came out in a machine gun sputter, “You win.  I hurt my foot and I can’t run anymore and I found a real cave in there only there is an animal in there, too!”
His anger and the chase forgotten, Richard parted the vines and peered into the low dark opening.  “Hey,” he said, “there really is a cave in there!  Got any matches on you?”
I fumbled at my pockets.  “No—used the only ones I had.”
“What did you see in there?”
“Well, there is a room in there not far back but there is a little hole down low and I saw two yellow eyes looking back at me.  There is an animal denned in there!”
“Shoot,” he said scornfully, “probably only a possum or a coon—maybe just a rabbit.  Wouldn’t hurt you.”
“Well, you go see if you want.  I ain’t goin’ back in there without a proper light and the twenty-two.”
Richard squatted there, a calculating look in his blue eyes and chewing reflectively on his lower lip.  “Never heard anyone say anything about a cave along here—bet not many know about it.  We’ll keep it a secret so don’t you tell anyone about it.”
He carefully re-arranged the vines to conceal the opening.  “We can come back later and chase out or kill whatever is in there.  It will make a dandy hideout.”
He got to his feet.  “Come on now, bird brain.  We got to bet back to hoeing them weeds.”

Friday, June 24, 2016

Spelunking, Ozark Style

My father was quite correct.  It was not all that hard on us boys because it was simply our way of life.  We vaguely recalled the better days in Kansas City with some regret, but now things were the way they were and everyone was in the same boat.  Oh, we paged through the Sears Roebuck catalogue in the outhouse often enough looking at bicycles, air rifles, and stuff like that, but they were as far out of reach as the moon so we did our wishing (we always referred to the catalogue as “the wish book”) and went about our business.

Business we had plenty of, as I have mentioned before.  We made our own fun and we had the whole countryside in which to roam and explore looking for new territories and caves.

I recall one early spring Saturday when Richard and I went exploring not long after we moved into that little house south of Bona.  It was early enough in the year that we were still wearing our winter shoes—and wishing it was warm enough to shed them.  This particular day we were looking for the big cave spring that was the origin of Maze Creek.  We had heard that it went back into the hillside.  There was a story that some high school boys from Dadeville had gone back into the cave a half miles or more and did not find the end.  Since there were a lot of passages, the boys had strung binder twine as they went so they could find their way out.  They had to stop when they came to the end of the big ball of twine.

A mile or so east of the Bona-Dadeville road up Maze Creek, we found a large pool of water outside the cave.  There was quite an opening in the limestone cliff where the cold clear water came from underground.  It was perhaps four feet high and eight or ten across.  The water filled it from side to side however.  It was a cold day and we did not fancy going wading in the knew-deep water.

After dinking around a bit, I was ready to start home, but Richard demurred.  “No, dang it,” he said.  “I know there has to be a dry entrance around here somewhere.”

“How you know?”

“Well, that’s what I heard—keep looking around, dummy.”

On the north side of the pool we found a possibility.  There at the base of the bluff was a low arched opening in the grey limestone.  It was only a foot or so high in the middle and perhaps four feet wide.  Richard got a long willow branch and poked it back into the dark opening.

“Hey,” he exclaimed, “this has gotta be it.  Can’t feel anything back in there and it gets higher!  You got any matches on you?”

I fished three kitchen matches from the pencil pocket on the bib of my overalls.  Richard snatched them and said, “Con on—we can squeeze under there as easy as pie.”

Side by side, we wriggled under the rock on our bellies.  Sure enough, three or four feet back there was room to raise our heads.  Richard lit a match.  In the dim yellow light, we could see a cavern perhaps it barely showed in the weak light of the match.

Richard squirmed forward.  “Hey, wait a minute,” I said.  “We got no good light.  Besides, there may be animals in there!”

“Shee-it,” he retorted, ‘don’t be such a skeerdy cat.  If there was it would only be a possum or a skunk—be more scared of you than you of it!”

I prudently remained where I was.  Richard stood up as the match went out , then lit another on the seat of his overalls.  On the far side of the chamber there was a pile of fallen rock.  He moved forward to peer over it.

“Hey—this has gotta be it!  There is a passage back behind there!”

The match went out and Dick lit the third and last one.  “You’re right, though.  We need a good light—lantern and flashlight.  Maybe ought to bring the twenty-two in case of snakes and a ball of binder twine to unroll behind us.”

When the match went out, we scrunched our way back out the low opening and dusted off our clothes.

“Hot dog,” Richard said, “that is one dandy cave!  We’ll come back next Saturday!”

On the way home I thought about the snakes my brother had mentioned.  The Ozarks had plenty of snakes of various kinds—some harmless and some having quite deadly poison.  The poison ones were the water moccasins and cottonmouths along the rivers, the copperheads, and spread-heads (an Ozark version of a cobra) in the hills, and an occasional rattlesnake.

There were a lot of harmless snakes—the blue racer, the blacksnake, and the common carter snake that was so harmless that I used to sometime carry a small one in my pocket with which to scare the girls.  There were other garden snakes that I do not at the moment recall.

Come the following Saturday, after we had finished the morning chores, Richard was hot to trot to go explore that cave.  I, however, raised some practical questions.

“How we gonna get away from here with a lantern, flashlight, the twenty-two, and a ball of binder twine?  Dad isn’t home, but Mother is and she’d know what we were up to for sure.  You think she’s gonna let us go explore an old cave?  Nosirree—she gonna put her foot down for sure!”

He sat on the edge of a barn manger, swinging his legs and chewing on a wheat straw while his blue eyes gazed calculatingly into the distance.  Finally, he spat out the straw.

“Tell you what,” he said as he slid from his perch, “the flashlight is in the bedroom and the twenty-two is leaning by the kitchen door.  Coal oil lantern is in the smokehouse so that’s no problem. 

“We’ll go up to the house.  When we get in the kitchen, I’ll get Mother’s attention and you just set the rifle out on the back porch while her back is turned.  We’ll ask if we can go off in the woods.  She won’t have any reason to turn us down that I know of.

“When she says it’s all right, I’ll go and pick up the rifle on the way—she won’t care about that anyway.  Got some shells in my pocket.  Meanwhile, you say you left your knife in the bedroom.  I’ll cut around the house and you hand the flashlight out the window.  She won’t see me on that side and I can go by the barn and pick up a ball of binder twine.

“After you give me the flashlight, go out to the smokehouse, put the lantern in a gunny sack, then you can go out the back window away from the house.  Cut across the kaffier corn patch and meet me in Dead Dog Hollow.  Come on!”

I could not see any flaw offhand in Richard’s plan right off so I did not object.  I just went along with it, wondering when and if I was going to get the dirty end of the stick again.

My fears were groundless this time.  It worked just fine.  When we got to the kitchen, we announced that the chores were all done.  Richard had even taken an extra armload of cookstove wood in with him.  When we asked if we could go to the woods, Mother just said, “Oh, I don’t see why not.  Just be home in time for the evening chores.”

Richard, meanwhile, was messing around the kitchen counter while I edged over to the little rifle by the door.  He hit the dishpan and a little soapy water splashed out on the floor.

“No look what you’ve done,” Mother scolded.  “I swear you boys are as clumsy as a bull in a china store—get me the mop!”

While that was going on, I quietly eased open the screen door and set the rifle onto the porch.  Richard got the mop then picked up the little rifle as he went out.  I called out, “Wait a minute—I got to get my knife!”

He was under the window when I got to the bedroom.  I handed hi the three-cell flashlight, then went through the kitchen and out to the smokehouse.  I made sure the lantern had kerosene in it, found a gunny sack, lowered it out the rear window, and hopped out.

Keeping low, with the smokehouse between me and the kitchen, I went through the kaffir corn patch and a grove of small persimmon trees to the little hollow beyond.  We called it “Dead Dog Hollow” because one time our Aunt Alice had a little dog that turned to sucking eggs.  No one can abide an egg-sucking dog so my father took the dog out in the woods and shot it.  He buried the dog there in the hollow in a little dirt cave that Dick and I had dug.

Richard was there, a ball of binder twine bulging the bib of his over alls.  We put everything except the rifle into the gunny sack with the lantern then kept to the woods past the woodlot and over the next hill until we were out of sight of the house.

When we arrived at the cave, Richard took the flashlight and the rifle.  I lighted the lantern and slid it ahead of me through the low opening.  Richard had already gone in and was shining the flashlight around the cavern.

It was, indeed, a dandy cave.  There were a couple of shiny small stalactites on one wall and there was a dark low opening beside the rock fall.  We tried it but it did not go anywhere so we tied the end of the binder twine to a rock and started climbing over the rock fall toward a larger opening.

It looked very promising.  Beyond the pile of rocks there was the opening of a tunnel about four feet high and with a nice dry dirt floor.  Short of it, however, we froze because there was a sudden bussing sound in the silence of the cave.  The hairs on the nape of my neck prickled and I said, “Whut wuz that?!”

Old Richard did not linger.  He hissed “Rattlesnake!” and knocked me over as he scrambled back across the rocks toward the entrance.  I dropped the lantern, retrieved it, and was close on his heels.  In the dim light we did not take time to try to spot where the snake might be.  We literally threw the rifle, flashlight, and lantern through the low opening and dived through there like grease through a goose.

After we got our breath, we agree that we would wait until summer to explore that old cave after the snakes were out of their winter hibernation.

We sort of ran the plan in reverse to get the stuff back in place at home.  The glass globe of the lantern got cracked either when I dropped it when the snake rattled or else when I slung it out of the cave ahead of me.  We had a few cents of rabbit money so we replaced it before Dad needed to use the lantern.  I think the globe only cost us twelve cents at Grandpa’s store.

Richard and I never got around to another try at that cave but I did get into it one more time.  A few weeks or months later, and I do not remember the details clearly, there was a bunch of us up there one afternoon.  Leslie Beck was there and some others that included Claude and Billy Todd.
I do not recall why we were there, nor do I recall why I happened to have a torch in the back pocket of my overalls.  The torch was made out of a baking powder can and a hole punched in the top.  I had used a strip of gunny sack for a wick and had filled the can with coal oil.  Probably had been using it to heat a piece of baling wire to make a stem of a corncob pipe.
Anyway, we were there (I can’t remember if Richard was with us) and someone proposed that we go into the cave.  Leslie, who was the oldest, said he would lead the way.  We scrunched through the narrow entrance and then lit my kerosene torch which was the only light we had.  Leslie took the torch and lead the way with three or four of us younger boys following close behind.  It was a very satisfying adventure at first.
We went over the rock pile and along the tunnel beyond.  There were a couple of side tunnels so I used a piece of rock to scratch markers on the mail tunnel since we had not found the roll of binder twine that Richard and I had left in there before.
The tunnel intersected the stream of water somewhere along the line but we could wade across and there was dry dirt on the far side.  Unfortunately, the second time we crossed the underground stream, Leslie tripped and fell into the water—torch and all!  All of a sudden we were plunged into stygian blackness deep in that cave.
No one panicked.  Leslie fished the torch out of the water and we spent several minutes wringing out the wick and trying to get it re-lit.  We had several matches between us.
It was to no avail.  On the second to last match the wick caught for a moment, but it quickly died into nothing but a red ember.  The blackness of the cave was almost suffocating.  I was starting to feel more than a little apprehensive and I’m sure some of the other were also.
Billy Todd said in a low voice, “You reckon we can find our way back?”
Leslie, as the leader, rose to the occasion.  “Sure we can.  We just feel our way back the way we came.”
That did not work.  Twice we came to where there was more than one tunnel branching off and, in the total darkness, we could not find the scratches I had made on the way in.  We were definitely lost.
The second time we came to a passage with water in it someone, maybe crazy Leslie, had an idea.  “The water comes out of the cave—let’s just follow it.”
There was a distinct current so the idea worked fine.  We got wet because in places the roof of the tunnel came down and we had to crawl under with water up to our chins, but after a couple of turns we could see daylight ahead and we came wading out into the sunlight.  I heaved a sigh of relief and had no further desire to explore that particular cave any further.