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Tacoma, Washington, United States

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

A Wondrous Place to Grow UP

On a small farm, the barn is a source of both work and amusement for growing boys—mostly the former.  One of the best things about a barn is the hayloft.  Our cousins and we could while away hours at a time up there.  There was always some baled hay that we could use to build “secret” caves and the main part of the loft usually had lots of loose hay.

Up along the ridgepole of a barn there would be a trolley on a track that was used to bring in the loose hay in piles.  It was equipped with long ropes and made a perfect place to practice gymnastics.  A frequent competition involved climbing up the end wall of the barn then come swinging down on the hay-rope to drop and land in a pile of hay.  The idea was to see who could go the highest and swing the farthest.  I did not much care for the long drop but I was always bound and determined to climb just as high and swing just as far as Richard, James Lowell, and Claude Todd—all of whom were roughly two years older than me.  Somehow, I survived.
Con Frieze's hand drawn directions for making a whistle and a panther call.

While I was on the subject of the things we made for ourselves in lieu of store-bought toys, I should have mentioned the whistles that we used to make to signal each other in the woods.  One was a whistle that we could make from a small maple limb in the spring or early summer when the trees were full of sap and new growth.
A maple whistle is fairly easy—if you know how.  You select a green limb about three quarters of an inch in diameter and cut a straight section about six inches long.  One end was trimmed at a slant for a mouthpiece and a notch cut through the bark an inch from that end.  The bark was then loosened by gently tapping it all along and all around to bruise it but not crack it, then the bark could be slipped right off the wood in one tube.

You then cut away most of the wood from the notch to about half an inch from the other end.  When the damp bark is slipped back on you have a perfectly good one-not “flute,” the pitch being dependent on the length and diameter of the whistle.  I used to try to make a longer one so I could cut some finger holes to have different notes but it was next to impossible to get the bark off a longer one in one piece without cracking it.

Another good noisemaker we sometimes made was a “panther call” made from a short section of green elder.  Elder grows with a thin shell around pith in the middle.  Using a piece about three inches long and three-eighths of an inch in one end.

The last step is to very carefully taper the sidewalls just a little at the end opposite the remaining pith.  The two halves can then be placed together and held between the heels of cupped hands.  You then stick the thing into your mouth and blow.  Opening and closing your cupped fingers can produce an eerie, almost blood-curdling, quavering squall that can be heard for a mile or more.

There were no panthers or cougars in the Ozark hills in the thirties, but there had been in pioneer days.  One time two of the older school boys created quite a commotion in that part of Dade County for a couple of days using those “panther calls.”  They each made one, then in the evening went to an isolated area of thick underbrush down along the Little Sac River northwest of Bona that was called “the cane brakes.”  After dark they separated about half a mile apart and started calling back and forth with their gizmos.

It was a blood-curdling sound, indeed, in the dark of the night.  The story quickloly went around the next day that panthers had come back to the Ozark hills of Dade County.  Those who had heard it swore that it was a cougar and his mate calling back and forth.

Plans were made around Bona to get up an armed posse to hunt the panthers down before they started killing farm animals.  At that point the perpetrators decided to admit that it was all a hoax because one of them might have gotten himself shot if they tried it another night.

(No, neither Richard and I, nor our cousins were involved—although we might well have been had we thought of it first!)

So, you see, Hard Times notwithstanding, there was always plenty of things for us boys to do even though we lacked Little League, the Boy Scouts, soccer, movies, or television.  We never felt that we were underprivileged.  Those Ozark hills were, indeed, a beautiful and wondrous place for growing up.  All that was needed was a fishin’ line, squirrel rifle, a pocket knife honed sharp, and a good imagination.

At least one store-bought toy of my father's childhood survived.  He still had it when he passed away at age 80 in 2002 so it must have been important to him.  Trix, whom I always thought was Pluto from the Disney cartoons, is a WaKourva push button puppet collapsing dog.  I even found an identical one on the Internet which was good since other than the name Trix, there are no markings or manufacturer.  I discovered that WaKourva was a Swiss toy manufacturer which raises more questions than it answers about how Trix ended up in Bona, MO.  Once more I wish I'd asked my father more questions.