|Conrad and Richard going fishing|
Youngsters today would be at a loss to amuse themselves without their cellphones, computers, and televisions. Several years ago some of the first reality programing on television was done by PBS, Frontier House in 2002. The premise was to place a few families in the “wilderness” where they would have to live like pioneers. I hate reality programing, but watching these families come undone was fascinating. It certainly showed the disconnect between our roots and our now. The 1930s Ozarks were not that far from the pioneers.
Our amusements were naive and simple but I do not recall that us kids ever lacked for something interesting to do. We never heard of Little League and, back in those country hills, there were no Boy Scout Troops. Richard and I did have a tattered copy of the Boy Scout Manual that we learned a lot of useful things from, but mostly all we lacked was enough time to do all the things we would like to do. I do not remember ever being bored.
During the hot summer a principal activity was to go to the creek, do some fishing, and have a swim. There were no game wardens in the hills until later years and our tackle was very simple. We had seen pictures of rods and reels in the Sears Roebuck wish book but no one had one. Instead, for a quarter at Grandpa’s store we could buy a complete fishing line. It was ten or twelve feet of green line, a small sinker, a long-shank hook just right for small catfish and perch, and a cork bobber. Such a “store bought” fishing line came wound on a little wood frame that fitted very snugly in a back pocket of those bib overalls.
Bait for the little catfish and sunperch in Maze Creek was no problem. We often dug big worms from the rotting manure pile behind the barn. An ideal bait can to carry them in was either a Sir Walter Raleigh or Prince Albert empty flat tobacco tin. That, too, fitted snugly in a back pocket.
If we had not taken time to dig worms or did not find some right away, we could always catch some grasshoppers in the pasture on Bertha Beck’s farm on our way to the creek. A perfect receptacle for those was that button pocket on the bib of our overalls. Of course sometime we forgot and left some in there later which did not make Mother very happy when our overalls showed up in the laundry.
Neither was a fishing pole a problem. Along the creek bank there was lots of underbrush from which we could cut a fairly straight pol seven or eight feet long. Willow made a good fishin’ pole and there were others that were nice and limber, too. We always cut a fresh pole each time because a dry pole gets brittle and might break just when you had a big one on. That was never a problem because in small Maze Creek a “big” catfish might be seven inches long and most of the sunperch were smaller than your hand. We kept everything we caught even if they were hardly bigger than a pumpkin see.
We would put the fish we caught on a stringer (a switch cut from a bush) and keep them fresh in the water, then carry them proudly home and spend maybe an hour tediously cleaning them. My mother would roll them in yellow cornmeal and fry them in a black iron skillet. Some of them hardly made two bites, but they were delicious.
A more major source of meat for the family table, especially in early summer when the young were almost grown, was squirrels and rabbits. About the time we moved into that little house south of Bona, when I was about eleven and Richard thirteen, Dad bough a little Remington 22-caliber squirrel rifle. It was a dandy—a slim little single-shot rifle with a rolling block breech and a barrel about thirty-two inches long. When we used long rifle shells (we used shorts for practice because they were cheaper) that little rifle was remarkably accurate up to forty or fifty years, which was about as far as you could see the eye of a squirrel.
Richard and I both quickly became very proficient with that little rifle. One of our target practice competitions was to stick a row of kitchen matches in the bark of a down long, then, from fifteen or twenty yards, see who could light the most matches without knocking them out of the log. The trick was to shoot so that the bullet just missed the head of the match, but came close enough that the air friction would ignite the phosphorous on the tip of the match.
When hunting rabbits with that little twenty-two, we did not feel bad when we hit on in the body. After all, a rabbit can run pretty fast and it takes a pretty good shot to hit him anywhere on the run. We never considered using a shotgun for either rabbits or squirrels for three reasons: One, it was not sporting, two the scattered shot spoils some of the meat, and three, we were not allowed to carry Dad’s single-shot 12-guage shotgun until we were older. Apparently Dad felt that shotguns were too dangerous for youngsters. If we had accidentally shot ourselves in the foot with the twenty-two it would only make a small hole but a shotgun was potential disaster.
It goes without saying that most parents aren’t going to hand their child a 22 rifle and tell them to go amuse themselves. And of course, my grandfather had taught his boys how to handle a gun safely. The gun wasn’t a toy, although honing their shooting skills would soon come in handy in preserving my dad’s and uncle’s lives, as it did for some many of the greatest generation. It also put food on the table.