Part Five - The Smith Place

TheMarshall family lived one half mile south of us. Kenneth Marshall was a boy about my age. Two cousins, Keith and Lyman Harris, lived one mile south of our place. Our nearest neighbor, Bill Paul, who lived across the road from us, had a son, Pat, who was about my age. We all went to the same school and became very good friends. Our house was about fifty yards from the road. There was a bridge on the road in front of the house across a small creek, which then ran south between our house and the road for a short distance before it turned east to form the boundary of our farm. The house was built on the point of high ground thus formed by the creek. So our yard was bounded on two sides by a rather high, steep bank. Willis and I decided to dig a cave into this bank. We started by digging a tunnel about three feet each way and about eight feet back into the bank. Then we started the room. We kept digging until the room was about eight feet square and high enough to stand up in. By this time, the digging had ceased to be fun, and had become work. Then, too, we realized that the Harris boys, Pat Paul and Kenneth Marshall were spending as much time enjoying the cave as we were and they had not done any of the work. We took a page from Tom Sawyer’s book. We formed a club. We called it the Knotty Six Club. It was a secret organization with password, handshake and all that. As the name implies, there were six of us in the club. The cave was designated as the clubhouse and was soon found to be too small to accommodate six boys adequately, either for eating or sleeping, so enlargement was necessary. When we all got together to dig, we had fun doing it. When Willis and Kenneth Marshall graduated from grade school about two years later and broke up the club, the clubhouse had been expanded to two rooms, each thirteen feet long, five feet high and eight feet wide. Note that eight plus five equals thirteen. In order to fool our sisters and the other dumb girls in the neighborhood, we decided thirteen was our lucky number. Our flag was designed with thirteen well concealed figures sewn on it and was tied to the staff with thirteen bow knots. The door to the outside entrance was constructed with six boards, each representing a member of the club. The boards were fastened together with thirteen nails.

     At that time Japan was buying scrap from the United States, so we found we could sell iron to the junk dealer in Burr Oak for three dollars per ton. We could get three cents per pound for brass and five cents per pound for aluminum. So whenever a member could get his Dad to let him use a team and wagon we would go around to all the farms in the country and gather any junk we could find. We finally gathered and sold enough junk to have twelve dollars and change in the treasury. One day we were about five miles from home and found an old steam engine parked in a fence corner. We went to the house and asked the man what he would take for the steamer. He said he would sell it to us for ten dollars. We went home and talked to Dad about buying it. He wasn’t too excited about the idea of us trying to take it apart and haul it into town. He finally agreed to let us try, and said that since there was a considerable amount of brass in it, he thought we could make something on the deal. We tore the engine apart, separated the brass and iron, and when we got it to Burr Oak we sold the whole thing for twenty-eight dollars. With twenty-eight dollars in our treasury we were rich, so we celebrated by getting our parents to let us spend the night in the clubhouse and do our own cooking. Keith and Lyman Harris were appointed to go to town to get the groceries. Since Lyman was treasurer and Keith’s Dad had agreed to furnish transportation, it was agreed that they were the ones to go. While they were getting the groceries, the other four of us dug a fireplace in the end of one of the rooms. While two of us dug the chimney hole up from the fireplace, the other two were digging down from the top of the bank. As we were limited on engineering skill, the two holes did not exactly meet so there was a jog in the chimney hole, but it still worked OK.

     I don’t remember the menu for that feast, but I expect whatever it was was either over- or under- cooked and seasoned to a great extent with ashes and clay. But, as I remember it, we had a wonderful time. Late that summer, before school started, we tried to get enough in the treasury to take a fishing trip up to the Republican River the next summer.

     We discovered Willard Harris had a draw with timber on it in his pasture. He wanted this ground cleared and planted to grass so he could graze more stock. He told us we could have the firewood if we cut it and cleaned out and burned the brush so he could plant grass. We cut four wagonloads of wood and sawed it into stove lengths. Then we went into town and sold it for two dollars and fifty cents a load. The next spring we were able to gather and sell more iron. By July, we had about thirty-six dollars in our treasury. Our parents would not let us go without a grown-up to go with us, so we coaxed Dad until he consented to go if we would go the last week in August. So all was arranged, and we obtained permission from a farmer on the Republican to camp on his place. On August 24, my birthday, we all piled into the old red Buick and were off for high adventure. We camped on the river for a week. We left home in the middle of the afternoon and were going up near Guide Rock, Nebraska, to camp, so we arrived at our campsite in early evening. Dad went down the river some distance and marked out the location for the latrine, then went some distance above camp and marked where the well was to be located. He assigned two boys to dig at each location. Then he returned to the campsite with the other two boys to erect the tent and prepare the cooking fire. Then we all went to the river and strung some trotlines. While Dad prepared supper, we boys were kept busy at camp chores, such as carrying water, cutting wood, peeling potatoes and making beds. But we were having a very good time doing it. By the time supper was prepared darkness had settled, and we ate by the light of the campfire. After a couple of hours Dad said it was time for us to check the lines and remove any fish we had caught and rebait the hooks as necessary. We had not caught any fish, but several hooks needed new bait. The moon had not yet come up, and it was very dark and frightening to be wading in the river. When the sun went down it was much cooler on the river, and after we waded in the cold water our clothes got wet and we were very glad to get back to the fire.

     When we were getting ready for bed, Dad said the lines would have to be checked every two hours during the night. He decided that he would take two boys with him each time to check the lines. We were sleeping two people to each tent, so we were already paired off. Pat Paul and I were the first to accompany him at 11 p.m., which made our turn come again at 5 in the morning. We caught no fish until they made a check at 3 a.m. They had caught two catfish large enough to keep. When we checked the lines at five, we had three more large catfish, so we had fried cornbread and catfish for breakfast. It was an unforgettable meal for a bunch of farm boys who had probably only tasted fish three or four times in their lives.

     We spent the days just walking on the riverbanks or hiking back up into the bluffs along the river. Much of the afternoons we spent sleeping in the sun, as we sat up at the campfire and talked until late every night, and then our sleep was interrupted at least once each night to check the trot lines. We would pull the lines up on the bank each morning, and not put them back in the river until evening, so it wasn’t necessary to check them during the day.

     Most nights we caught enough fish for our breakfast, so we had all the fish we wanted without fishing during the day.

     One day we were walking on the bluff back aways from the river, where we found a den hole in the rim rock. It was obvious from the condition of the ground around the hole that it was being lived in. Dad said he thought it was a badger hole. We all wanted to see the badger, so the next morning Dad roused us all before daybreak to check and pull the lines. After we had gone back to camp and had a breakfast of bread and butter with a cup of coffee, we went back up to the rim rock where we had seen the den. Dad concealed us in some rocks a distance from the hole. Just as it was light enough to see, the old badger came into sight with three babies following. For some time, they played on the rock just as house cats might. Before full daylight, they went in the hole and we went back to camp for our delayed breakfast.

     The last day we stayed, Dad said he would have a surprise for us for supper. He went to the farmer’s house soon after breakfast that morning and soon returned with a large chicken hen. He removed the head and feet from the hen and removed the offal but did not remove the skin and feathers. After washing the inside of the cavity carefully, he stuffed it with potatoes, celery, carrots and seasoning. Then he made a thick paste from yellow clay and water in which he rolled the hen. When he finished he had a big mud ball with the hen in the center. He dug a slight depression where our fire had been and put the mud ball in it. Then he built the fire up again and kept it going until evening. When he removed the mud ball from the fire, the mud had dried and become hard. He broke the mud open, much as one would break a nut. As the baked mud was peeled off it took skin and feathers with it. As I think back, I believe that was the best roast chicken I ever tasted. That fall, after school started, and the inevitable assignment was made to write a five- hundred-word essay on “How I Spent My Summer,” the teacher received six versions of the week we spent on the Republican.

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Oneafternoon during the fall of that year Pat, one of the Knotty Six, and I decided we were hungry and would have a cookout in the cave. We knew if we asked our parents, they would not be overly enthusiastic concerning the idea and that likely we would be told to wait for supper. So we went to our house and lifted a loaf of Mama’s fresh bread, went to the storm cellar and got milk and butter, which we stashed in the cave. Then we went down to the grove back of Paul’s house and fashioned a snare to catch a rabbit. Honest, now, it wasn’t our fault that one of Mrs. Paul’s big Rhode Island Red hens got herself caught by the snare, which broke her neck when it jerked her off the ground. As she was already dead and we were in trouble if caught, we decided to destroy the evidence by eating it. We were just country boys, but we had heard somewhere about habeas corpus. So we took the old hen down under the bridge in front of our house and picked and cleaned her. We built a fire and placed the old hen on a spit over the fire to roast. Our dog helped us as best she could by disposing of the head, feet and entrails, but that still left the feathers as evidence. We decided that the best way to dispose of these was with fire. And then, too, we needed fire to roast the chicken, and cutting wood was no fun. So we put the feathers on the fire under the hen. Anyone who has ever smelled burning feathers will never forget the odor. Now this is where Providence took a hand. The breeze was moving directly from under the bridge through Mama’s kitchen window, and Bill Paul had decided to drag the road that day. At about the same time Bill crossed the bridge with the road drag, Mama smelled the feathers burning and came out in the front yard to investigate. By this time Bill had proceeded about fifty yards beyond the bridge, when he saw Mother in the yard and stopped to speak to her. We could hear their conversation very well. She told him she had smelled feathers burning, and he said he thought he smelled smoke as he crossed the bridge. Bill tied his team and came back to investigate. But before he got there we had covered the fire with dirt, got the old hen and sneaked up the creek and into the cave. As there was considerable weeds and underbrush growing on the bank on both sides of the bridge, Bill did not take the time to investigate thoroughly but checked under the bridge by leaning over the banister and looking under as best he could. When he got back to his team, he hollered to tell Mama that it looked like some hobo had camped under the bridge last night, and she apparently was satisfied with this explanation. The hen was not cooked very well, but we ate what we could. The bread and butter was good, if a little gritty from clay sifting down from the roof. At supper that night Mama was very anxious about my appetite. She seemed very concerned that I might be “coming down with something.” It seemed that in her experience that was the only thing that ever spoiled one of her kids’ appetites. It never occurred to me then, but I know now that when she spent hours baking six loaves of bread and had six loaves of bread when she removed them from the oven to cool, she would notice there were only five loaves when she put them away. Several years later I heard Slim telling someone about this incident, which made me know I hadn’t fooled Mama much. But at least she didn’t, on this occasion, see fit to “have Will talk to me.”

     One winter while we lived there the Baer-Primo [22] heavyweight bout was held. I remember this fight because it was the first program I ever heard over the radio. A family who lived about three miles from our place got a radio just before the fight was scheduled, and they invited us to come to their house to listen to the fight. We walked the three miles up there after supper and then walked home in the night. Radios were not very common there at that time, as there were twenty-five or thirty people gathered there that night to hear the fight. I was very disappointed, as I could not understand what the announcer was saying because of all the static and noise the radio made. The radio had several dials, and all of them had to be adjusted correctly for good reception. Because of changing interference and conditions it was necessary to change the setting of one or more of the dials continuously, so most of the time the sound was so garbled that it was not understandable. If there had not been so many other children there to play with, the night would have been a total loss.

     It was at this gathering that the first chivaree I ever attended was planned. The couple were married a few days before and were spending the week in Kansas City. The time of their return was supposed to be secret, but someone had found out when they were to return and where they planned to live. About eleven o'clock on the night they returned, everyone gathered at the pre-designated spot some distance from their house. Everyone brought something to make noise with. After everyone was assembled, they moved quietly up to the house. On a given signal several shotguns were fired into the air. Those who didn't have guns made as much noise as they could with what they had. Immediately following the assault with noise, several of the men went into the house and brought the young couple out, using only what force was necessary to accomplish this end. Earlier that evening some of the men had hauled two large loads of hay and spread it in the road at the foot of a hill across the road. Then with burlap bags they made what appeared to be a board fence across the road in front of the hay. The newlyweds were put into an old buggy, the staves of which were tied up so they would not catch the ground, and so that the buggy would go only straight ahead. Then the buggy was headed down the hill and given a good shove. It took the newlyweds down the hill at a good speed, went through the fence, and was stopped by the hay. After the bride and groom were extracted from the hay, and vice versa, everyone went to the house, where the women had set out a pot luck spread. While everyone's attention was occupied with the food, the newlyweds changed into clothes more befitting the occasion. Then someone got out the fiddle and banjo, the furniture was moved from the largest room of the house, the jug passed a few times, then the dancing started. It lasted until the wee hours of the morning before everyone went home.

     During the latter part of the summer, a small twister had come through the schoolyard. It did not damage the school building as it was closed and shuttered for the summer. However, it moved the boys' privy to the point that only one of the three holes could be used. This made for a long line at recess and, on occasion, even caused some of the boys to be late to class. The girls' privy was moved so that one corner sort of settled into the pit, causing the whole building to lean at a precarious angle. Because of the danger of the whole thing sliding into the pit, the teacher ruled that only one person at a time could use it, again causing long lines of that side of the school ground. We are inclined to think that the school money problem is peculiar to the present time. This is not so. Both of these appendages were rendered structurally unsound, and new ones were vitally needed. The board agreed to this fact but insisted the money for new johns was not available. The board called for volunteers to rebuild the houses. It being fall and the busiest time of year for rural families, no one had time to volunteer until after Christmas. Many of the parents, leaning more toward the Victorian moral standards, emphatically insisted that something had to be done immediately. It was finally decided that a “box supper” would raise enough money if everyone would participate to get the job done. So I attended my first “box supper” at Halloween time that year. While I am sure most people know what a “box supper” is, I am going to try to explain it anyway. It is sort of like a Rose Bowl parade, except the floats range from eighteen inches square to four by six inches, most being the exact size of a shoebox. Each young lady, combining artistic skill and culinary ability, packs a lunch for two into a decorated box, the only requirement being that the name of the person packing the box be placed inside, where it can be found when the box is opened. No one but the lady who packed the box is supposed to know who the box belonged to. After all the boxes are secreted into the schoolhouse in a plain, brown wrapper they are placed on the teacher's desk and the plain wrapper removed. The ingenuity used in decorating some of the boxes is very surprising. There were always several boxes decorated with Kewpie dolls with large crepe paper skirts. Always there was one box, belonging to the more risqué young lady, with a very frilly garter worked into the overall pattern of the decoration.

     After the boxes are assembled they are auctioned off to the highest bidder. The young man buying the box is privileged to eat supper with the young lady who packed it. There is much speculation among the men as to which box was packed by which girl. As is reasonable, the box with the garter on top always contained the worst food and brought the highest bid. When I was fifteen I couldn't figure out why. Mama pointed out two boxes to me, gave me a quarter and said I should bid on them. The first of the two auctioned off sold for five dollars. I didn't get it. I watched to see whose box it was. it was eaten by Cartha and her father. I ate with a little, fat girl with pimples. I think this was when I started to realize that you get what you pay for.

     The older ladies, who had traded some romantic ideas for practicality, did not pack fancy boxes but brought good, substantial pies, which were usually bought by their husbands and found their way to the Sunday dinner table. As it was for a worthy cause, everyone enjoyed the supper and the dance which followed and were very proud when, a few weeks later, the two little white houses, like wooden soldiers, stood guarding the back corners of the schoolyard.

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Ourhouse was near the southwest corner of the section. There was a well in the yard near the house. It furnished water only during wet seasons. The water from this well was of very poor quality, as it contained a high concentration of limestone. Mother said, at times it was almost thick enough to eat with a fork. Much of the time, we had to haul water from a well located in our pasture near the center of the section. This was quite a task as we had several head of hogs, chickens, turkeys, geese and calves, which could not be driven to the well. And, too, all of the water for house use had to be hauled from the well in the pasture. A high-wheeled wagon equipped with four fifty-gallon oak barrels was used for this purpose. Sometimes, during the hot, dry months, it was necessary to make the two-mile round trip daily. At other times, the load might last two days. During the winter, when snow and ice covered the ground, the wagon pulled hard and was hard to control, so Dad made a bobsled (a sled with four runners or a wagon with runners instead of wheels.) The bobsled would accept a standard wagon box to be used for a water wagon.

     The year I was in the fifth grade, Dad had finished the bobsled about the first of December. The shop was in a lean-to on the side of the granary. I noticed Dad was spending a lot of time in the shop. On checking, I found that he had some oak lumber, which he had smoothed carefully on both sides with a hand plane. When I asked him what he was making, he said he wouldn't tell me and that I was to stay away from the shop and not be snooping around.

     As some of the other kids in school said they were getting sleds for Christmas, I had made it known that I wanted a sled for Christmas. On Christmas morning, sure enough, I had a sled under the tree. Dad had spent all his spare time for a month making it, and Mama had painted decorations of red and green on it and then varnished it, and it was a beautiful thing. But I was disappointed because it was “homemade” and all the other kids would have store-bought sleds. When we returned to school after New Year's Day, when asked, I would admit I got a sled for Christmas, but I didn't tell anyone it was homemade, and I had decided I just wouldn't go to any sledding parties that year because I was ashamed of my sled.

     Soon after we returned to school there came a good snow. The temperature had been between twenty-five degrees and thirty degrees for several days before the snow and there was very little wind, so the snow did not drift or melt and freeze into ice but remained just right for sledding. On Friday evening after supper all the kids in the neighborhood planned to meet on a certain hill in Marshall's pasture for a sledding party. I had decided I wasn't going, as if I did, I would have to take my sled and everyone would know it was homemade. But Mama insisted I go and take my sled. When we arrived, nearly everyone else was there and had a big fire in a steel drum and was having a very good time, coasting down the hill on their sleds. I spent the first few minutes by the fire, and had decided not to try to ride my sled down the hill, as I was convinced that everyone else's sled would go farther and faster than mine. Then I heard the most popular little girl in school talking about how pretty my sled was. When she was told who it belonged to, she came and asked if she could ride it down the hill with me. Be assured I changed my mind about that sled immediately. It turned out that my sled was the fastest one there, and before the evening ended everyone wanted to ride my sled. When we got home, I told Mama and Dad about the good time we had with my sled. They were pleased, and we were happy. Years later, I tried to apologize to Dad for the way I had felt about the sled. He said he understood as he had had a similar incident when he was a little boy concerning a pair of shoes. Later that winter, we organized a sleigh ride. We took Dad's team and the bobsled (water sled), filled the box with hay, and all the neighborhood kids piled in and we were off. Mrs. Dickens' children were in the group. She asked that we stop in her house to warm. She served us cocoa and cookies. The Dickenses were one of the more wealthy families in the neighborhood.

     They lived in a big, yellow stucco house on the hill. In retrospect, I wonder if my whole life was not or should not have been affected by the flagrant display of the advantages and human comfort afforded by wealth.

     After we left the Dickenses' place, we delivered the other kids to their homes and went home, tended the horses and went to bed happy.

     In the following days, after careful thought, I decided that wealth and happiness were synonymous. To check my reasoning one evening, I explained it to Mother and concluded with my decision. She asked if I could remember the story told in the poem “The Mansion Over the Way.” When I said I did and briefly told it, she explained the poem to me. As I remember, this was when I first began to realize what happiness was and what I had that money could not furnish. I have come to realize that as a child I was what would be described today as under-privileged. But then I had no way to figure this for myself and no one told me, so I spent a very happy childhood.

     Willis rode the six miles to high school with a neighbor girl who had a car. On his graduation day, he arrived home about 4:30 p.m. and was to return to school at 7:30 p.m. for his graduation exercises. When he got home, the water barrels were empty, so he and I were sent to get a load of water. Laurence that day had bought a team of horses with harness. This team was in their stalls with the harness on, so Willis and I decided to use them to haul the water as time would be required to catch and harness another team. We hitched the new team, a gray and a bay, to the water wagon and started to the well. Being in a hurry, we started out with the team trotting. After we had gone a short distance, the bay mare started coughing and heaving, so we stopped to see what was wrong. Going the mile to the well, we learned that she was so wind broken she could not walk fast for a hundred yards without being out of breath. We finally got to the well and pumped the barrels full of water. We both mounted the wagon to start home, but when the team started, the bay mare started to pull as she should but the gray would not even tighten the tugs. She was the balkingest horse I had ever seen. We tried to lead her to no avail. Then we tried whipping her, but she would not move. Finally, we unhooked the team and tried to lead them away from the wagon, but the gray just refused to move. Finally, we started back to the house leading the bay and left the gray standing at the wagon tongue. When the bay was led away, the gray realized she was unhitched, so she followed us. We took them home and put them in the barn. After Willis was fed, dressed and sent on his way to graduation, Mother and I caught and harnessed the other team and hauled the water.

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22. Max Baer and Primo Carnera fought in New York for the heavyweight boxing title on June 14, 1934. (That would have been summer, rather than winter.) Baer won by a knockout in the 11th round. Return

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