Sunday, July 3, 2011


Last evening while searching for something worthwhile on TV to listen to, I was amazed to find what I had hoped for. The clear notes of the Lord's Prayer were coming to me rendered by a rich voice that sounded like that of a mature woman. To my surprise the singer was a ten year old named Jackie Evanco

While I lay no claim to having sophisticated taste in music, during the many years spent at Houghton College I had ample opportunity to hear quality vocal music by a variety of artists. Compared to that array of talent, this struck a chord that to me was unusual. With eager anticipation I paid strict attention to the balance of the concert.

To my delight the balance of the concert was a mixture of numbers ranging from the sacred through the popular genre and down though the classics. The skill of the accompanist, David Foster, was demonstrated by his interpretation exactly as was called for, note following note in perfect harmony.

Jackie was uninhibited with the notes coming masterfully without strain or effort to reach for them. The consummate joy of singing was clearly evident. The matching of her voice and rendition blended exactly with that of Barbara Streisand's being played simultaneously on the screen. By careful listening I was unable to distinguish between the two voices. The matching of them was so exact that it was not possible to note the change between Jackie's and Barbara's rendering.

The end of each number was followed by a genuine smile, not the smirk of "I told you so." It was real happiness coming through, unmistakable by its genuineness. The seeming lack of effort or strain made listening and watching an exercise of pure enjoyment. The moments of dialogue between numbers gave the listener a glimpse into the life of this remarkable ten year-old young lady. At no point did she give the listener a moment of anything other than pure enjoyment.

My reaction was that of having heard the nearest approach to angelic song to be heard here on earth. Celestial sounds coming from the throat of a charming girl are my best description of that which I have ever experienced.

Friday, June 24, 2011


One of the most remarkable abilities remains the capacity to distinguish objects in the physical world from one another. Although it is possible to separate items from one another by odor, by feeling them through touch, by hearing the sound they emit or by other sensory means, yet seeing the image of the object remains in most settings the clearest distinguishing characteristic.

In spite of this commonality of viewing the same objects, why do different persons not see identical images? Let us examine some of the factors that result in differentiation in spite of what is obviously viewed.

Let us look for example at a red-haired lady. What others see is a person with a temper easily let loose on any provocation. Angry outbursts spew forth with little cause. A tongue that readily offers sharp barbs or nasty comments is part of the perception.

What I see is a beautiful countenance remarkable for its calm beauty. The easy smile and the calmness that attaches to every situation are observable. Placing a noticeable positive slant on the matter being talked about is the norm. A tongue that speaks kindly when describing others is calm and without bitterness,

Seeing another type of situation brings up the matter of past experience. The 1969 Grand Prix Pontiac had the reputation of being one of the muscle cars of its era. It carried a reputation for power, beauty and dependability to those who saw it. Those who purchased it widely acclaimed its qualities.

My perceptions of it as a used auto were significantly different. I experienced some doubts about it as a trailer-pulling vehicle early on. They were confirmed on the trip to Washington from New York later on as a tow truck hauled the ailing auto to a garage in Moses Lake and later at a Sears in Seattle. When a 1970 Olds showed up in a Wellsville garage later, my perceptions of used autos altered. It seemed to me to be in mint condition and to have the appearance to match it. These experiences altered my view of used autos.

When it comes to vegetables, broccoli is scorned, viewed as a weed from the the plant kingdom. To my friend it is an ungainly plant that offers little to recommend it as a source of attractive nourishment. Both the foliage and stalk have nothing to offer to a hungry individual. His preference is to avoid it at all meals.

I see broccoli as a real treat from the garden. Its tender stalk topped with a cluster of green buds offers gustatory satisfaction akin to few others. It is like green candy from the garden and the first choice on my plate. No other vegetable is as tasty and succulent as the stalks of this premier product. It really tickles my palate.

My rancher friend looks out at a hillside covered with a yellow shrub. He sees scotch broome to be a cancer on the landscape. His preference is to view the beauty of green grass covering the slopes and providing feed for his cattle. Yellow to him is a sign of caution. Hard to eradicate, it spreads quickly to the surrounding areas and can quickly take over a wide area. To him it equates to much work to eliminate this unwanted intruder.

The beauty of this prolific shrub brightens the roadsides and otherwise barren areas with a touch of gold. It requires no careful pruning or special attention to cause it to flower. The blooms last quite a long time with no attention. It blooms at summer's beginning and is a beacon of the coming season. With a light heart
I welcome this harbinger of summer.

So what you see offers the result of what you are looking for. To each person what is seen may differ when viewing the identical object. Contented is the individual who looks constantly at the bright side.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


On the evening of March 15, 2006, I was listening to Betty read to me, a pleasant time of relaxation. All at once I lost my ability to respond. Seeing me slumped in my chair and getting no response, I was aware of her calling 911. In less than five minutes the local rescue team was at our door and there followed a blur of conversation before the vehicle left for the emergency room at Providence Hospital in Everett, Washington.

At the hospital Betty gave a rundown on what had happened. The attending doctor eventually decided on an MRI. Off I went down endless corridors but soon was returned to the ER. Meantime Rev. Patrick Vance had arrived. I could hear them conversing about what could be done. The outcome didn't appear promising as the "what if''s" were considered. As I listened, Rev. Vance was considering what to say at my memorial service. That is a luxury not usually afforded the average person. That I could be listening but unable to respond never occurred to them.

As my condition remained stable, it was decided to admit me. I was transported to a hospital room to see if my condition stabilized and hoped rehab would be possible. Betty was with me every day. However my conscious awareness of what was happening to me was fragmentary and lacked coherence. My mind struggled with what was occurring and why as I was taken here and there for a variety of tests. At one point I believed that two young fellows took me to the top of a long slide and sent me zooming to the bottom. Eventually I realized I was back in my bed with Betty beside me. After six days those supervising my care determined that I would live and arranged to have me transferred to the rehabilitation unit of the hospital on Pacific Avenue.

Given a single room, I began a new regimen lasting twelve days. I progressed to bathing myself and conveying myself to the dining room for the handicapped. It became my challenge to sit at a table supervised by an attendant. With a big bib covering me to protect from spilling the food on myself or on the table. I was turned loose to ingest what I could. My right arm didn't operate as it used to do, even at reduced speed. Gradually I was able to get more food in my mouth than I was accustomed to after the stroke. To my surprise Betty arranged for my 84th birthday at my table on March 29th. Glenda was there too, as she had stayed on after Dan had left. Cami and Andy brought a decorated cupcake.

At this point in time it was deemed that I be taken for an outing with Betty being given the responsibility of operating my wheelchair. That turned out to be a difficult time as it involved going over some curbs. Up and down the entrance ramp to Anthony's Betty practiced wheeling me. Daily I would be given exercise using my walker under a variety of conditions up and down stairs. I had pulled out my catheter and was getting impatient to go home. Certain I wa s that recovery would proceed more quickly there than in the hospital. To accomplish this would require that I pass muster with a jury of the supervising woman doctor plus all others concerned. That was no easy task but my determination won out. On April 3rd I finally made it home.

The immediate concern became transportation. Our need to reach doctor appointments, get groceries and do banking became critical. Sometimes friends were helpful. We also appreciated the privilege of being picked up by the Dial-a-ride bus at our home and transported to where we needed to go. But this became difficult when the bus was scheduled to return by way of Granite Falls, Arlington and Stanwood to reach Warm Beach on the return trip. A short trip could become very long. For example, a simple stop to pick up a prescription at Safeway might end up taking all day.

As I continued to improve, it occurred to me that I could resume driving myself. When Dan was home the next time I broached the subject of his going with me to verify that my abilities to drive were still intact. He declined to be a part of this arrangement lest it result in sad misfortune. So I took the risk. I continued to do so for the next four years until January 2011 when my eyesight began to decline.Then it appeared to be the prudent thing to turn over the driving to Danny.

Keeping in touch on a personal basis has presented more of a challenge. Fewer people stop in to chat. I believe that my inability to converse fluently has been a main factor. Carrying on more than one line of conversation at a time has been responsible for this. I found that people turned to Betty to ask how doing instead of asking me directly. It I became clear that I must work must work to overcome this deficiency. Regular sessions with Jay Kelly have been most welcome as this turns out to be one on one. If a similar arrangement with some others could be worked out, I would appreciate it. However in this process in no way do I want to deprive Betty of chance to participate in talking with others. She carries on a conversation very ably.

As time went on, it became more difficult to keep productively active. Reading was more tiring because the left eye had no sight and the right eye was significantly impaired. According to the ophthalmologist, it was like a broken windshield. My attempt to use Talking Books was frustrated by receiving selections not ordered. My handwriting was illegible. That led to one alternative: Writing. Previously having authored two books, why not start writing again with the computer using larger print? This alternative was suggested by two friends from church - Cathy Main and Patti Kelly. For a year and a half I had been turning out articles almost weekly for our blog: ABC NATURE REFLECTIONS as well as participating in the bi-weekly writing class. I anticipate continuing this as long as I am able.

At this point I do not consider having completed my struggle. However I wanted to mark this as progress towards that goal.

Monday, May 23, 2011


My parents had just returned from trading at the local store in East Otto and I was asked to bring in their purchases. The term "trading" was literally used to give meaning to transactions between the customer and the storeowner where the customer was given credit for the goods being exchanged for the manufactured items being bought. Butter, eggs and other produce were priced to arrive at the difference to be paid by the purchaser.

As I laid out the items on the kitchen table, my attention was directed to a coupon attached to a product with the word "Free." It stated that the buying of that item entitled the purchaser to a free puzzle. At once my interest was aroused. The more I read about this offer the more excited I became. The puzzle would be colorfully printed on thin cardboard and could be as easily pulled apart. That really sounded like fun.

"Mother," I asked. "Can we go back to town today to get this free gift?"

"No. We've just made the trip and that takes gas to run the car." (The price of gasoline was only about ten cents per gallon at that time.)

"The next time Father goes to town, I want to go with him to pick up this puzzle. It sounds like a good deal."

When Saturday rolled around, I was ready. The coupon was filled in and I was eager to see what would be given away with the purchase of a twenty-nine cent item. When I presented the coupon to Mrs. Satterlee, she looked through the pile of papers and located the cardboard game board. It was six by eight inches in size and was stamped to pull apart easily. I thanked her before hurrying back to the car to work on it.

The pieces of the puzzle were small and the weight of the stock was too flimsy for the various pieces to hold together tightly. Tightening one side made the other side stick out. Making all of the pieces lay flat to form a perfect picture was nigh Impossible. But this was only the beginning.

In this rural community with limited resources, the relative cheapness of the product and the vigor with which puzzles were adapted to advertising all kinds of items assured their success. Soon almost every type of good had an attached puzzle or offered one for just a few cents more.

Size became an issue. They grew from twenty-five pieces to fifty to one hundred to five hundred and one thousand pieces. But the larger they grew, the longer it took to complete one. With time limitations and space to lay out the pieces a more natural limitation became the norm.

The quality of a puzzle depended upon the thickness of the pieces. The thicker the pieces, the better it held together. It was about this point that they became a separate item sold for a purpose. The Tuco line manufactured in Lockport, New York set the standard for quality. Individual pieces were die cut with a sharpness that made them easy to handle.

Experimentation as to the shape of the puzzle with the round or other total dimensions was limited. Another feature was to make an interlocking pattern that tied the pieces together. When carefully done, this method held the dimensions intact for moving the entire puzzle.

The beauty of the pictures improved greatly. Scenes from around the United States and the world increased my later recognition when later visiting the sites. The desire to camp was fostered by attractive views of that activity. Then it seemed to me to be a vision of my fondest dreams.

The thinness of the stock and the poor quality of the backing were the main defects to be found on inferior puzzles. Top notch pictures were developed that could be glued to a firm backing. To preserve the finest example of the art often led to a major project.

To assume that this activity was engaged in only by children and teenagers at this point in time would be incorrect. Soon a variety of social activities including clubs, contests and tournaments spilled out from the home settings. In fact, some rather strict rules were developed. In certain churches the Wednesday night puzzle party usurped the place of the midweek prayer service. The fact of the matter was the low cost of a social evening in these hard times.

The temptation that developed was great to spook away a single puzzle piece and thus earn the right to complete the puzzle. Who would ever think of such a maneuver as to come up with the final piece?

Monday, May 2, 2011

Rampaging Pigs and Smoked Chickens

Grandma’s pride and joy was her flock of Bantam chickens, usually three or four hens and a rooster, a cocky little fellow who announced with his shrill crow the coming of each new day. What eggs were laid appeared as miniatures with limited nutritional value.

Apparently having this little brood clucking around the yard and garden reminded her of the home in Ireland which she left as a girl of sixteen during the potato famine. She landed in Boston where she served as nanny for the children of a wealthy family. After repaying the cost of her passage, she saved money from her earnings to bring her two sisters to the United States.

One feature for which the little brown hens were noted was setting on the nest to incubate a brood of chicks. Father wanted to get started with a “real laying flock” to provide not only eggs for home use but to supplement family income. When one of the Bantam hens displayed setting behavior, father obtained some fertile eggs from another farmer’s Leghorn flock and substituted them for the pee-wees. The bantam didn’t seem to mind the substitution and may even have been elated to set on a clutch of large eggs. In this way we developed a small flock of laying hens. Father built a chicken coop and fenced yard to assure the containment of the chickens and the collection of their output.

The next spring father decided to quickly increase the flock through ordering by mail 100 baby chicks from a hatchery. One chilly day in early April, the mailman delivered a square flat box from which a persistent peeping sound emerged. Father had obtained a used brooder - a cone-like metal hood with a little oil stove in the center to keep the chicks warm. Maintaining an even temperature proved to be a problem. The oil burner, of the wick variety, had a propensity for going out, especially if we left home for any reason. As a result, most of the time, except during church services, someone had to stay home to keep checking on the chicks.

The perverse little creatures demonstrated some self-destructive habits. Whether for warmth or companionship, they tended to crowd together into a heap. Unless forcibly dispersed, the ones on the bottom were trampled and smothered to death. In retrospect, this quirk was remarkably similar to the actions of spectators at a British soccer championship meet!

Another anti-social behavior was their cannibalizing of any weak member who was ill and unable to fend for itself. Some chicks always died from these known causes as well as from unexplained sources. To guard against disease, we dissolved Walko tablets in their drinking water which turned it a lurid purple. Fortunately, this infant stage was of relatively short duration.

Mother often took weak chicks into the kitchen, placing them in a box with a hot water bottle or a jar filled with warm water and wrapped with a towel. This peeping of chicks in the kitchen was not a phenomenon confined to Easter weekend. When they became lively enough to surmount the screen barrier propped in the doorway of the kitchen and escaped to the living room, mother decreed them ready to rejoin their peers in the brooder house. Her sense of cleanliness won out over the tender heart she had towards all living creatures. A reasonable number of chicks reached maturity in spite of the numerous life-threatening hazards to which they might have fallen prey.

One morning, while we were at breakfast, the milk truck screeched to a halt in front of our house. Edwin Fleckenstein, the driver, ran up the walk and banged on the door. As soon as father opened the door, Edwin delivered the startling news: “Smoke is pouring out of your brooder house.”

Immediately father rushed to the rescue with the rest of the family in hot pursuit. Grandma and our inquisitive cat brought up the rear. As father swung open the door, billows of sooty black smoke poured out. The oil burner had started to soot up, filling the shed with oily, black particles.

Grabbing some feed bags, father smothered the sooty flames and cleared the smoke from the shed by opening all of the windows and doors. Most important of all, the chicks had survived this premature barbecue with surprisingly little harm.

But one remarkable transformation had occurred. During those few moments, the naturally White Leghorns had changed to a sooty gray tint which they retained until their feathers grew out. Father received a lot of good-natured kidding from neighbors about his white Leghorns turning a tattle-tale gray.

Father’s choice of Leghorns was due to their reputation for high egg production. Another of their characteristics was not so admirable: their prowess in flying. Keeping them fenced in was a challenge. We all soon got tired of chasing the high fliers. In spite of mother’s pleas, eventually father reduced the number of fugitives by clipping the feathers on one wing, upsetting their aerodynamic balance. Until they accepted this modification of their plumage, Irving and I were highly amused by their air-show acrobatics as they tried to scale the fence.

Feeding the chickens and collecting the eggs were chores I enjoyed. But I despised the smelly task of periodically cleaning out the hen manure and creosoting the roosts to combat lice. Every excuse or delay I could conceive of was employed, but to no avail. The acrid odors of chicken droppings and creosote I perceived as offensive assaults on my organs of smell.

Nor was cleaning the cow stable high on my scale of preferred chores, although this was a twice-a-day necessity. Getting the manure from the barnyard to the fields meant twice more dealing with the same materials. While father might help in loading the trailer, he chose to drive in the field because only he had the special knowledge of where the land was yearning for its fertilizing richness. My post was to stand on the trailer and wield the manure fork in response to father’s shouted instructions.

Winter added the heavy burden of bringing water to the cows. When the creek was frozen over, the temperatures were too bitter, or the snows were too deep to let the cows outside, I had to bring water for them to drink. From the pump in the shed attached to the house, I carried the water in pails across the road to the barn. To keep up milk production, providing them with all of the water they wanted was imperative. When I was in a special hurry, their thirst seemed insatiable.

When a cow became ill, father went to the friendly veterinarian for advice and medication, which was far cheaper than having him come and administer it.

“Brownie’s sick,” father explained when I arrived home from school, hoping for a little sledding before chores. “I’ll need your help in the barn.”

Not eagerly anticipating this change of plans, I quickly switched from my corduroys into barn jeans before joining father in the stable. Our Brown Swiss mooed and was obviously suffering.

“You hold her head,” father ordered. “Keep it pointed up so medicine will run down her throat.”

Cows, especially sick cows, never take kindly to having their heads held in awkward positions. On the first attempt, Brownie jerked her head free.

“Grab her ears and pull back,” father suggested.

My success was momentary. Just as father had inserted into her mouth the pop bottle holding the medicine, she belched mightily. This blast spewed the dark mixture into father’s face and trickled down the sleeve of my jacket.

Wiping the medicine from his face, father grunted: “Didn’t get any inside. Let’s try again.”

After two more failures, Brownie gulped and the bottle was emptied. Brownie recovered, although it remained a question how much medication went inside compared with the considerable portion which covered our hands and spattered our clothing.

Even so, holding a cow’s head was far preferable to struggling with a pig. Raising pigs provided a use for the unsalable portion of the dairy operation - skim milk and whey. Mother insisted that their pen be located across the road and down-wind from the house. As hard as father strove to build a hog-proof pen, the snooty rascals would dig beneath the fence until they could achieve freedom. Rounding up the escapee and directing it back to the pen required concerted action by all available family members. The skill displayed by the pig in finding a small hole through which to escape was equalled by its obstinate blindness to an open gate when being driven directly towards it. In the melee, another porker would get free.

In the “American Agriculturalist,” father had taken note of an advertisement by a pig breeder in Vermont who sold the Chester White breed. Their advertised fine qualities of growth rate and hardiness caused father to order a pair of this breed. When they arrived at the Railway Express office in Cattaraugus, father took me with him to help load the crate into the trailer. Upon arriving home, we turned them loose in a new pen especially constructed to contain them.

True to the description, they were a thrifty pair - devouring their food with enthusiasm. Without much to occupy their attention, they soon became bored and started to burrow under their new pen until they had created a hole large enough to squeeze through. Straight to the vegetable garden they headed. Grandma spotted their rampage and called for reinforcements. Getting them back in the pen highlighted their obstinacy. Father reinforced the pen and nailed barbed-wire around the bottom perimeter. It was little deterrent, for soon they were loose again.

After successive recaptures, father grumbled: “The ad should have said they were crossed with groundhogs!” Word spread in the neighborhood about the remarkable burrowing ability of the preacher’s fancy hogs.

To curb such tranquility-shattering scenes, father decided to “ring” the pigs. Even my kind mother failed to raise her usual objections to any actions inflicting pain. The pigs lost her support on their last foray into her tomatoes and prize dahlias. Saturday morning was designated for the process which consisted of pinching a metal clamp with sharply-pointed ends into the tender snout of the pig. The rings didn’t interfere with eating, but discouraged digging which pressed the sharp points into the sensitive portion of the pig’s nose.

Special pliers and clips in hand, father climbed into the pig pen. With knowledgeable distaste, I joined him.

“Grab him,” father said, pointing to the pig standing in the corner. I missed. Pigs were not designed with convenient hand-holds. Between us, we cornered him, hanging on to his thrashing legs as we pinned him to the ground. Grasping his head, father pinched the ring into his nose.

Blood-curdling squeals rent the air. Anticipating the second insertion, the creature redoubled its efforts to escape further pain. Only one who has been bitten by a pig or kicked by the sharp hooves of swine can appreciate how much I detested this struggle.

“It’s in!” father called. “Let him go.” Up the pig scrambled, bolting to the far end of the pen.

“Only one more to go,” father encouraged me. Disturbed by the uproar made by his companion, ringing the second pig was even more difficult than the first. “Slopping the hogs,” a very apt term for feeding them, was pleasant in contrast to “ringing” them. The expedient was effective. From that point on, the pigs stayed in their prescribed enclosure.

Cows usually gravitated to the barn at milking time in anticipation of being relieved of their load of milk. Brownie, our one Brown Swiss, was independent at this point. Instead of coming dociley like the others, she would often turn up missing. Even calling loudly, “Come boss, come boss,” had no effect. My lot was to bring her to the barn. In our small pasture of only three or four acres, hiding places for a cow would seem to have been few. But, due to the roughness of the terrain which was bisected by the meandering creek, Brownie held a decided advantage.

Once I located her, the mission was incomplete. Getting her back to the barn was another contest with the stubborn-willed bovine. Sometimes I had her right up to the barn door when she bolted for freedom. Father expressed concern that the excitement so induced inhibited her from “letting her milk down.” Of all of the cows we ever owned, she was most adept at putting her foot in the pail or kicking it over when it was almost full. Restraining her tail during milking was often necessary to avoid the deadly accuracy of that flailing whip. These antics, in conjunction with her low milk output, led father to the unpopular decision that her role would be to provide meat for the winter instead of milk.

Other farm children had horses to ride, albeit plodding draft animals instead of spirited Arabians. Some even had ponies of their own. My deprivation weighed heavily enough on me to drive me to desperate action. Father usually sold for veal the calves born to our cows. On a few occasions he retained an especially fine heifer calf for possible replacement in the dairy herd. At this particular point in time we had one such animal that was about half grown. I decided to try to train her to ride. Prudently I did not share this aspiration with my parents.

This day seemed auspicious for the attempt. Father was away. Both mother and grandmother were busy canning beans.

“Irving,” I asked, “Would you come and help me with a project?”

Past experience had made him wary. “Not now,” he demurred.

“It won’t take long,” I promised. He was still reluctant to comply with my request.

“I’ll let you use my colored pencils,” I promised. For several days he had been begging me to let him borrow them. At that, he consented.

We found the young heifer grazing behind the barn near the straw stack. As I outlined my plan, Irving stared at me.

“After I climb up on the straw stack, all you have to do is to coax the heifer next to the stack. I’ll take it from there.”

From atop the stack I waited anxiously as Irving pulled a little bunch of alfalfa and edged towards me with the heifer following. It was all going according to plan. At what seemed the opportune moment, I slid down the stack, landing directly on her back.

I was totally unprepared for the next wild moments. They resembled the bucking horse competition at a rodeo except that I had no saddle or bridle to influence the heifer’s wild activity. The valley passed in panoramic view as I was catapulted from her back to the ground.

Irving ran over to me. “Arnold, are you hurt?” he demanded.

I lay on the ground, stunned. With the breath knocked out of me, some moments passed before I could respond.

“I’m all right,” I feebly reassured him as I staggered clumsily to my feet. Then he helped to brush away some of the barnyard dirt from my soiled clothing. I limped back to the house, dreading mother’s reaction.

But she was all caring parent. Her examination revealed no broken bones, although I was bruised and sore for several days. Irving retrieved my glasses, which had been bent double at the nosepiece so one lens was on top of the other.

On the drive to the oculist, I had plenty of time to explain to father what had occurred. Fortunately Dr. Hanvey was able to restore the frames to a reasonable semblance of their former shape. This episode constituted another memorable first and last to my well-remembered experiences in the valley.

Monday, April 25, 2011


When father took appointment to the Brooklyn church in the early throes of the Great Depression, the need to supplement the meager income from the pastorate was apparent. For five people to live (father, mother, Grandma Willis, my brother Irving, and me) required more than the approximately six dollars per week paid by the church. This sum included the monetary equivalents of contributions in the form of meat, home-canned items, and whatever people could offer. When father died, I found the account books where he had meticulously recorded all such support.

At times the amount from the church was only two or three dollars instead of the targeted amount. Some of these seven years were leaner than others, the average weekly salary varying between a low of $4.35 in 1934 and a high of $7.69 in 1931. Some of this was father’s own tithe. In this he set an example for both the congregation and his family. Recognizing the poverty of most parishioners, my parents never complained. Instead, they assumed responsibility for making up, through their own efforts, whatever else was needed.

Until father attended Cleveland Bible Institute (now Malone College), he had worked for Grandfather Cook on the family farm near Elba in Genesee County. Consequently, he had a very good working knowledge of farming. Also, in his first term at Brooklyn from 1921-24, he had farmed the ten acres of land which had remained part of the parsonage property. Farming on a very small scale he integrated into the work of the pastorate.

Getting started without any savings or financial reserves was an immediate challenge. With milk selling for $1.25 to $1.50 a hundredweight, dairymen often felt they couldn’t afford the services of a veterinarian or take much time to nurse a sick cow. The alternative was often to kill the cow or sell it for the little a dairy cow would bring for beef.

One Sunday Frank Reed approached father after church. “Pastor, I have a cow with a bad foot and leg. If you want to fuss with doctorin’ her, she’s yours.”

“Thank you, Brother Reed,” father responded. “I’ll come after her tomorrow morning.”

The painful journey over the dusty road from the Reed farm to Brooklyn was agonizingly slow. The cow hobbled the two miles mainly on three legs. Anointing the hoof and leg with a nasty-looking black ointment and wrapping it in old rags, my father nursed her back to health.

Another cow we purchased for eleven dollars from a farmer in West Valley. We called her Bess, the hillside cow, as on one side the muscles supporting her udder had been damaged, causing it to hang in a lopsided manner. In addition, she had only three teats, the fourth never having developed. But she was a Jersey and gave the richest milk of any cow we ever had.

I know, for in eighth grade, when I attended East Otto Union School, part of the Ag 1 course was learning to test for butterfat. Although the other boys in the class came from farms where Holsteins produced relatively great quantities of milk, none could approach the butterfat record of old Bess. In that class I also learned the 86 parts of a cow and how to judge a good dairy animal - skills I never was called upon to use afterwards!

To compete with other farmers by producing milk didn’t make any sense. Instead, father looked for a propitious niche: products for which there was a ready demand as well as those which the family could use. The answer proved to be converting the milk into butter, buttermilk, and cottage cheese. Demand from the three outlets that developed for these products soon outpaced the modest amounts we could produce.

Community people were eager to get the “good butter” that Grandma Willis churned. We soon developed regular customers for a significant share of the output. Often I was the delivery boy, exchanging full crocks of the golden substance for empty ones.

The Jewett Store in East Otto was willing to accept butter and eggs in trade for the things that couldn’t be produced at home. The term, “trading at the store,” has transferred into the current conversation of some older people. However, it no longer carries the sense of barter or exchange for non-monetary items. Often the price calculated for our goods determined the extent to which mother could satisfy her shopping list.

The third market consisted of more affluent people who drove “clear from Buffalo,” sixty miles away, to buy, direct from the farm, butter and buttermilk that they considered to be truly outstanding. One man, who sported a big black Buick sedan, came quite regularly on alternate Saturdays. Limitations on output included the four stanchions in the small barn and forage that the small acreage could produce to feed the cows.

Without horses, the standard power source at that time, father made-do with our old 1928 Chevy auto and a homemade trailer. I learned to drive the car in the fields as father loaded hay on the trailer with a pitchfork while I maneuvered the car up to the haycocks lining the field. Lacking synchro-mesh transmission, the Chevy was not easy to shift and stalled frequently. I now realize that father’s stern shouts of instructions merely reflected his concern for what it might cost to reline the clutch. With that kind of initiation to driving, neither back roads in the United States nor those in New Zealand later intimidated me.

Work that couldn’t be done with the car, such as plowing, mowing hay, and cutting grain, father accomplished by borrowing a team and tools from neighbors in exchange for day labor for them. Gene Wing, the largest farmer in the valley, owned a Fordson tractor, a steel-wheeled back-wrenching brute to drive. However, it never was used on our few acres.

Lacking a silo to store ensilage to feed the cows during the winter, father hit upon an alternative. He planted mangel beets, not your garden variety, but a kind that grew to be two or more feet long. Growing and harvesting them entailed a lot of hard work. Often they were so embedded in the soil that at harvest time we pried them out with a shovel. We knocked some of the dirt from the roots, twisted off the leafy tops, and carried the giant beets to the earthen basement under the house. Like cordwood, we stacked them up to store for winter use.

As soon as winter weather made outside grazing impossible, one of my least-liked chores became a daily trial. Right after school, my task was to bring from the basement to the barn enough beets for the cows’ daily supply. Armed with a butcher knife, I knocked off as much of the remaining soil as possible and sliced the beets into pieces the cows could eat without danger of choking. I despised the sticky juice oozing from the cut beets and mingling with the dirt to coat my hands. Eager to not prolong the job, I sometimes cut pieces which father considered too large for the cows to eat safely.

“Arnold,” father called. “Come back and do your job right. Do you want to choke a cow on these big chunks?”

Of course I didn’t. Grudgingly I worked through the pails of cut beats, reslicing the larger portions. Doing this was messier than the original task. And I vowed to do it right next time to escape this gooey penalty.

Father seldom called on me to do the milking. I was content to abide by his decision. A few instances of my getting kicked off the three-legged milking stool by a cow who didn’t appreciate my efforts had something to do with his choice. Or it may have been my losing the precious milk when the cow put her foot into the pail. Or my father may have been convinced that he could squeeze out more of this cash-producing fluid than my best efforts would extract. I welcomed freedom from being swatted by a cow’s manure-matted tail and counted this one of my blessings.

One duty I carried out twice a day. Right after the milk was brought to the house, I turned the crank of the De Laval separator which, by centrifugal action, separated the cream from the milk. I found the job was more boring than difficult. Father declared: “Arnold you have two speeds - too fast and too slow.” Either mode, he assured me, was detrimental to extracting the maximum amount of cream. I don’t recall his ever praising me for maintaining the proper speed.

I participated in one other portion of the dairy process: churning the butter. Lacking refrigeration of any kind (we didn’t even have a spring house), we accumulated the cream in covered containers. Mother stored these in the relative coolness of the cellar until there was enough to churn.

I used a traditional churn with a dasher moved up and down by hand when the amount of cream was relatively small. For larger batches, a barrel churn was more efficient. The wooden barrel-like container, suspended on an upright frame, was turned by a handle. Whichever churn was chosen, I was the assigned motive power. Never was I entrusted with doing this alone. Grandma Willis supervised the entire operation.

Again, my problem was with the speed with which I worked the dasher or turned the barrel churn. According to grandma, it took the right amount of agitation to “make the butter come.” My turning the barrel churn too fast caused the cream to be held against the bottom by centrifugal force instead of sloshing and cascading down on itself. In time, the truth that turning the churn faster actually took longer to accomplish its purpose tempered my cranking speed.

In the churning process, gas was generated. This was released by stopping the barrel and opening the bung or cork in the top of the churn. Failing to release this pressure periodically caused the bung to pop out and splatter cream all over. With grandma’s close supervision, this seldom happened. She could tell when the butter was about “ready to come” and took over at this critical phase.

Except on very cold winter days, the churning took place in the dank cobwebby basement with a dirt floor. This transformation from a liquid to a semi-solid was carried out by the dim light of a kerosene lantern or lamp which cast eerie shadows on the rough walls. This was the setting for what then seemed at the time to be a major disaster.

“Arnold. Go down cellar and turn the churn for Grandma.” Mother’s call brought me back from reading The Shepherd of the Hills to real life on the farm.

Grandmother was waiting to supervise me as I turned the barrel churn with its monotonous swish-glug. Periodically she had me stop so she could unscrew the fastening on the lid, open the churn, and examine the contents to assess its progress. In the meantime, I held the churn steady to keep it from turning upside down.

Then it happened! After one of these inspections, I started to turn the crank. As the churn reached the upside-down position, the cover, which had apparently not been tightened properly, fell off and the entire batch of cream poured out over the earthen floor. I was too astonished to keep turning and bring it upright, so the entire contents was lost.

“Eva! Eva! Come quickly!” grandma called to mother.

From the kitchen mother appeared almost instantly. Taking in the calamity at a glance, mother rushed out to the front porch crying: “Elmer! We need you immediately.”

From where he had been mixing feed in the barn, father came dashing down into the cellar. Surveying the mess, father resorted to his habitual evaluation appropriate to such extremities: “Blessed be nothing!” he moaned. This pithy statement should not be confused with one of the Beatitudes.

Attracted by the commotion, Irving appeared down the cellar hatch to see what trouble I had brought upon myself. Into the midst of this tense family gathering stalked our three-colored cat. After surveying this unusual scene, the cat nonchalantly began to lap up the cream which was rapidly soaking into the bare earthen floor.

I felt that my moment of doom had arrived. Grandma accepted the responsibility for the mishap, but I felt father’s disapproval of my contributory negligence. This batch of cream had been unusually large, so the seriousness of this misfortune fanned out in two directions. First, customers would not get their promised butter. Second, the financial loss of three days’ production by the cows would affect necessary purchases for the family.

As I recall, we didn’t use any butter ourselves for some time until this shortage was made up. That was no sacrifice for me, as my working with the various parts of the milk process had made both the smell and sight of milk, butter or cottage cheese distasteful. To this day, I still loathe cottage cheese because of smelling it “making” on the back of the warm kitchen range.

Mercifully I was allowed no part in the final processes of butter-making, although I was familiar with the activity. The buttermilk was drained off into containers to be sold, or was fed to the pigs (to my mind, a fitting use!) The curds of butter grandma collected into one large yellow lump. Mother then took over and “worked” the butter on a board by pressing a butter paddle through it to remove any remnants of moisture. She next added a proper amount of salt, working it evenly into the plastic yellow mass. In the winter, she sometimes added butter coloring.

Selecting the appropriate earthenware butter crocks, each pre-weighed with the weight written in pencil on the bottom, she filled them with one or two pounds of the golden product. Mother often displayed a touch of artistry by creating a fancy design on the surface of the butter. After carefully covering it with waxed paper, mother took it down to the basement to cool. Finally, Cook’s butter was ready to distribute to the customers in and beyond our valley.

Monday, April 18, 2011

You Started It, Ben Franklin

Being literally earthbound did not remove my desire to become involved on a small scale with more lofty endeavors. Kites, with their ability to rise upon unseen breezes and look down from perspectives unavailable to boys, became the outlet for this urge. While kites could be bought at the Five and Dime stores for ten cents or so, this sum of money was only one reason for desiring something better. Their bows, sawed out of flimsy wood, often snapped under even modest stress. And the thin paper, printed in gaudy colors, easily ripped or disintegrated if wet. The answer was a do-it-yourself product with each kite unique in its individuality.

Materials for kite making were readily available: bamboo, brown wrapping paper, and string. In those days, carpeting often was shipped with a bamboo pole in the center to prevent creasing of the rugs in shipment. Friendly storekeepers gladly gave away these discarded shipping rods. Likewise, brown wrapping paper covered shipments of products such as mattresses and often were obtained in fairly large sheets. Twine was generally the only purchased item, unless one were willing to settle for salvaged lengths of “sugar string” tied end to end. Lines pieced together resulted in knots every few feet, increasing the risk of their pulling loose in flight.

For smaller kites, we split the bamboo from the round stalk into thinner staves. This part was the most difficult operation, as a slip of the knife sometimes gashed my hand or ruined the wood. Creating two bows of comparable strength was not easy using our rather crude tools.

After the ends of these bows were notched with a saw or knife, we bound the crossbows at their intersection to form the traditional kite shape. We pulled string taut as it passed around the four ends, to form the outside perimeter of the kite.

When the piece of paper was not large enough, we pasted two or more sections together with glue - either wallpaper paste or a home-made mixture of flour and water. Patience was required at this point to allow the paste to thoroughly dry after attaching the paper to the kite frame.

Placement of the bridle or lead string was critical to the kite’s staying aloft. Location of its two points of attachment to the vertical bow and positioning of the loop in the bridle had much to do with whether or how well the kite would fly. We spent much time making adjustments. A bow string drew the two ends of the horizontal cross-piece back about an inch or so from the center plane in a small arc. At last the kite was ready to fly if winds cooperated.

In Brooklyn valley winds generally came from the west or northwest. One of the modern kite hazards was totally missing from the scene, as no electric wires had invaded our valley. Trees constituted the major threat. In a brisk wind, the kites took off without special help. When the breeze was gentle, we ran, pulling the kites aloft to catch air currents above ground level.

Once aloft, if perfectly balanced, the kite soared and dipped to the cadence of the breezes. Sometimes a kite would dive erratically, eventually plunging to the ground in an act of self-destruction. Adjustments of bridle and bow strings usually corrected the problem. If this wasn’t successful, we attached a tail to stabilize the flight.

Don and I vied in contests to determine whose kite could fly the highest or stay up the longest. Another measure of superiority was the length of string released. The main chore was winding it all back in again in such a way that it didn’t tangle. Don constructed an efficient wooden reel with a crank for faster retrieval of the string. This was important, for winds could quickly die. Down the kite would come, necessitating our walking along and winding up the string until we reached the kite.

Seeing Don’s kite in the sky, I rode my bike over to his place. A steady western breeze made the string tug sharply.

“Can you let it out farther?” I wanted to know. “Can you use all of your string?”

Accepting the challenge, Don responded, “Lets try.”

The reel spun and the straining kite continued to climb into the clear evening air.

Watching the revolving reel, I reported: “Just a few more turns left.”

Without warning, the wind ceased as if a switch had turned off the blower. Don started cranking furiously while I tried to keep the string distributed on the reel. Our best efforts were not enough. The kite fell and so did darkness.

“Wait while I get a flashlight,” Don requested as he dashed into the house. He returned with the big six-cell Ever-ready.

“You shine the light and lift up the string while I carry the reel and wind up the string,” he ordered.

As we crossed the south meadow, the task went smoothly. Next, a dry stream bed flanked by barbed wire fences added to the difficulty. Across the Hintz property we fought our way through a patch of briars which grabbed at the string and scratched our bare arms. With deepening darkness, the beam of the flashlight was of little help in locating the string when it was suspended high in bushes and trees.

In crossing the creek, we both stumbled on slippery unseen rocks and got soaked to the waist. In the darkness, vicious mosquitoes took advantage of the fact that our hands were occupied with our task. Suddenly the string soared high in the air over the tops of the huge sugar maples lining the road by Nelligans. Resigned to the impossibility of retrieving the string in one piece, Don cut it loose.

Noting carefully the direction in which the line pointed, we ran down the road and over into the parsonage fields. By now the flashlight had ceased to even glow. Back and forth we went, searching for the string.

Something caught on my face. “Don! I’ve found it,” I cried.

Following its lead, we discovered the missing kite in the middle of our potato patch. The next morning passers-by could catch sight of the unretrieved portion of the kite string as it waved from the tops of the big maples. For weeks it offered mute evidence of setting a kite flying record in the valley.

My claim to kite fame came later. I thought that bigger would be better, so I devised two bows six feet long from a larger than usual bamboo rod. The paper was extra heavy sacking and the string a much heavier twine than the usual kite string. The kite towered over my five foot stature by more than a foot. With a brisk wind blowing, I launched my creation.

The strength of its pull quickly severed the frail cord I held, and down the monster fell. Remembering a length of new light rope I had seen in the barn, I appropriated it for this worthy cause. Fighting wildly, the kite twisted and turned, plunging to the ground. It needed a tail for stability, but the usual materials didn’t work. I ended up using binder twine with heavy iron nuts attached at intervals. Now it flew, but it tugged so mightily that I had to use leather gloves to avoid rope burns.

Even more memorable was the second occasion of its flight. Steinbar’s herd of Holsteins was grazing placidly in their pasture adjoining the parsonage meadow. As the huge kite rose into the air, the sight of this object ducking and diving over their heads was just too much. Like a scene from the wild west, they stampeded wildly through the brush, tails lifted in the air.

Observing this moving scene, father rushed excitedly to my side shouting: “Get that thing down right now”

“Why?” I asked quite innocently.

“You’ve upset Steinbar’s cows and that will affect their giving milk,” he explained.

We never learned whether at milking time there was decreased production or milkshakes. Nevertheless father forbade my flying that kite whenever the neighbor’s cows were anywhere in the vicinity. Father also insisted on the return of his rope, sending my prize kite into early retirement. I was thankful it hadn’t happened before my having set the record of flying the largest kite in the valley.

Don and I sought some variations from straight kite flying. One alternative was to fasten an object to a parachute improvised from a handkerchief and some string. We wedged this load behind the vertical bow in such a way that it could be easily dislodged by jerking the string while the kite was in the air.

Tiring of using pebbles and sticks, Don asked his sister May, “Can we use one of your small dolls?” Without enthusiasm, she agreed.

With the kite aloft again, quick tugs on the kite string freed the parachute and its load. It appeared to us a life-like miniature of pictures we had seen.

“Let’s try it with two kites,” I suggested. Don sent May to the house to bring another doll while I created a parachute from my handkerchief.

Then competition emerged. “Let’s see whose parachute comes down first,” Don called.

Up the kites went and at a signal, we both jerked. Down floated the chutes, sometimes one, sometimes the other touching ground first.

With the two kites, we enlisted Ethel to help. The two girls each put an arm over one string and walked the kite to the ground. After tucking the chute and “passenger” behind the bow, they released the kites to soar again. The other part of their task was to retrieve the parachutes. This fun had gone on for some time.

Then May cried out in fear, “The parachute isn’t opening.”

Her doll came hurtling down, striking the ground with a dull thud. Rushing over to the point of impact, May pulled the doll from where it was imbedded in the alfalfa sod.

“Ethel. Get the other doll,” she ordered. “This is much too dangerous for my dolls. We’re leaving.”

Our pleas went unheeded. Too, they were tired from doing all the chasing. “Use your own toys,” May yelled. So Tootsi-Toy trucks filled in as substitutes the rest of the afternoon.

A variation on the parachute idea was to attach a balsa-wood glider to the kite and send it up. Gliders proved more difficult to fasten to the bow than parachutes in a way which didn’t cause them to get out of adjustment and malfunction on the way down. When they glided as intended, the sight was thrilling to us. Other attempts brought destructive crashes as the balsa-wood gliders slammed into the ground and splintered. And they cost ten or fifteen hard-to-come-by pennies.

Don and I staged gliding contests to see whose craft could sail the farthest. An abandoned gravel pit on the Nelligan place proved to be the best test site. A knoll had been excavated on one side to form an almost vertical drop-off for launching. We ran down the gradual grade on the other side to retrieve the gliders and then trudged back up to do it again.

We devised a launcher, a stick with a large rubber band attached. We placed a hook on the underside of the glider near the front. With the rubber band in the hook, we drew the glider backwards until the tension was strong. Then we released the craft. It operated like a catapult.

The success rate was about fifty percent, as sometimes the glider didn’t detach and would be jerked back. At other times, in launching, the wing of the glider would hit the arm of the person holding the launcher. In either case, the launch was aborted and the glider frequently sustained damage. This activity always had one predictable outcome: much exercise for the participants.

When an occasional plane droned over our valley, we dreamed of experiencing real flying. The contrast with our kite and glider efforts made them seem puny and futile. But we never lost the dream.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Great Shades of Izaak Walton and Tom Sawyer

Running water has always held a high degree of fascination for boys. In the Brooklyn valley two small streams converged behind the parsonage. Cutting its way through the hills, the merged flow joined another stream originating south of Ashford Hollow to create Cannoiserauley Creek. In turn this became a tributary of the Cattaraugus Creek which entered Lake Erie at Sunset Bay.

The branch of the creek with which I was most involved started with springs up Bowen Hollow way. Gathering volume while traversing the Steinbar pasture, it meandered through the parsonage pasture lot and under the highway at Brooklyn Bridge. I knew every twist and turn of its course as it gurgled over the gravel bars and slipped silently through the deeper stretches.

It was Saturday! School was out for the summer. This June day seemed created for something special. I pedaled my bike over to Don’s house. “Let’s build a dam on the creek,” I urged.

“Great idea,” he agreed.

“Can you get some feed bags to fill with gravel?”

“I’ll see.”

He emerged from the granary with an armful of sacks and some binder twine. We tied these supplies to the bike carriers and hurried to the parsonage.

“Irving. Would you like to help us with the dam?”

Happy to be included, he agreed to assist.

We chose a point where the water was naturally deeper. Firm banks on both sides of the stream made impoundment of the water possible.

“Irving, you hold the bag while Don and I shovel gravel,” I ordered. From past experience we had learned how heavy bags of wet gravel could be. Filling the bags at the spot where they were to be used made the task much easier. We tied each filled bag with binder twine and pushed it tightly into place.

When Irving tired of holding the bags, we took turns encouraging him: “Just three more to go,” Don reported. “You’re too little to shovel.”

By this time it became apparent that we would be short of bags. “I’ll go ask father for some,” I offered.

When I located him, father was working on his Sunday sermons. “We’re building a dam and have run out of bags,” I explained. “Don’s grandpa gave us some, but we need five more to finish it,” I begged.

“They’re worth five cents each,” he reminded me. This was a familiar fact and frequent repetition had burned it into my consciousness.

“Don’t you have some with holes in them?” I persisted.

“Let’s go look at what are hanging over the feed box.” We sorted out five which could be fixed by tieing up the holes. Back to the creek I hurried.

“That does it,” Don said as we forced the last bag tightly into the gap to stem the flow. The porosity of the gravel didn’t totally seal off the water, but permitted some of it to seep through, obviating the need for a spillway.

Already in our bathing suits, we could scarcely wait to try out the swimming hole. Don jumped in first and I followed immediately. At the deepest point the water came only up to our waists. Although hardly deep enough for real swimming, we went through the motions.

“I’m frozen,” I admitted. We crawled up onto a warm rock. Don’s teeth chattered and his legs were covered with goose bumps as he soon joined me. Most of the flow was water from cold springs, so its temperature was far below the comfort level.

Perched on the bank in the sun, trying to warm up after submersion in the pool, I had an idea. “Let’s build a raft,” I suggested, This wasn’t a unique thought, as I had been reading Mark Twain’s narratives of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.

“Let’s get some of the old posts and boards from behind the barn,” I ventured.

Irving and Don helped me to lug them down to the creek. Armed with an old hammer and some rusty spikes, we nailed together a rough-looking replica of a raft. After laboriously shoving it into the water, I generously offered to be first aboard. After all, it had been my idea. Maneuvering it near the bank, Don and Irving tried to join me.

“Irving, get off. It’s sinking, “ I cried.

Even the combined weight of two of us made it sink. So Don and I had to take turns at being simultaneously captain and crew. After pleading in vain on the bank for “My turn,” Irving disappeared in the direction of the house.

Soon we admitted the obvious - the pool was too small to do much more than turn the raft around.

“Let’s use the raft to make a diving board,” was Don’s better idea.

After dismantling the raft, we fashioned a rude platform from which we jumped, rather than dived. With water so shallow, real diving was out of the question.

Less than a week after the building of our dam, a heavy thunderstorm charged into the valley from the west. The storm seemed to have become entangled by the hills surrounding the valley. Back and forth it raged, all of the time venting copious rain. As the final reverberation sounded and the sun came through, arcing a rainbow over Mock Hill, I hurried down to the bridge. The muddy foaming torrent had breached the center of the dam, pushing several of the sandbags downstream. In those few minutes, nature had neutralized our mighty efforts at control the stream.

“Let’s make boats after school,” I suggested to Don.

“That's OK by me,” he responded heartily.

The workshop at Pratts offered tools, shelter, and most of the needed materials. Part of a bundle of cedar shingles left over from a roof repair job provided the basic hulls for the boats. With a coping saw, we tapered the heavier end of the shingle to a point for a prow. Next, we cut out a rectangular section from the opposite end, leaving a large slot. Across this slot we stretched a heavy rubber band. A flat piece of shingle we inserted in the rubber band to serve as a paddle wheel.

When each of us had completed a boat, Don urged, “Let’s try them out.” Biking to the creek took less than five minutes. I wound the rubber bands on my boat in reverse and Don did the same.

“One. Two. Three. Start,” I called.

We each released the paddles on our boats at the same moment. Down the creek they went, paddles splashing and water gurgling. As the rubber bands lost their tension, the boats slowed to a stop.

“Mine wins,” Don exulted as his craft outdistanced mine by at least two feet. Back we went to the head of the pool to renew the battle of the boats until father called me for chores.

Somewhere I had seen an operating water wheel and thought a small one would be a fine addition to our fun. I envisioned running a variety of devices from the power it would generate. Lacking proper tools to build it, I enlisted Don’s help.

We sawed the parts for the wheel in the shop at the Pratt farm. Between the two round sides of the wheel, we nailed the slats which caught the force of the water. Confidently we carried our creation to the stream. We supported the wheel on a steel axle between two heavy stakes.

The wheel barely turned in the slow-moving water. We lacked the resources to build a flume. Too, the level of water changed frequently. Reluctantly we abandoned this ambitious project which we had tackled with great anticipation.

“Let’s go fishing,” Don responded to my question about how to spend that Saturday afternoon in July.

“Great idea! Let’s dig bait.” In dry weather, knowing where to dig was the secret of success. Don lifted an old plank next to the pig pen while I quickly sunk the spade into the rich moist soil. I grabbed two plump worms before they could escape and dropped them into the Campbell Pork and Beans can. Had we planned in advance to go fishing, I would have picked up night-crawlers from the dewy lawn the night before. That would have saved both time and the work of digging.

When the can held a reasonable supply of bait, we prepared our poles. To the simple bamboo poles, we attached fish line, bobber, and hooks. Exclusive of the pole, the rest of the outfit I had purchased for fifteen cents at Russell’s Hardware.

Exercising faith, I put the eight inch skillet in a bag along with a little lard in a jar, salt, matches, and a fork. Based on past experience, we wasted no time on the shallow stretches of water. Instead, we concentrated our efforts on deeper spots where the current carried the bait under snags and up underneath overhanging banks. About the only fish in the creek were various types of minnows and suckers, none of which grew very large.

“I’ve got one,” Don called quietly with suppressed excitement. The next moment a six-inch horned dace was flopping on the bank. This was about as large as any we caught in the creek. We fished frequently enough so I’m certain none of them ever died of old age.

While Don was busy with that one, I let my worm drift out of sight beneath the same snag. After a few tentative nibbles were telegraphed along my line, I felt a solid bite. I jerked to set the hook. With steady pressure, I kept the fish from tangling the line. Grabbing my catch, slightly smaller than Don’s, I placed it on the twine stringer along with the first one.

Two hours and five fish later, we sat down on a log which had washed up on a gravel bar. “If you’ll clean the fish, I’ll start a fire,” I offered. Gathering some dry branches and bark, I soon had flames blazing up between some rocks arranged to hold the skillet. The small fish crisped up quickly.

“They sure taste good,” Don pronounced.

“Right you are,” I chimed in.

Looking back, I admit that the time we spent fishing was quite out of proportion to what we caught. For, more often than not, the skillet came back unused. The pure joy of spending time along a murmuring stream on a summer day was beyond calculation.

Living things in and along the stream captured our interest. We watched the schools of minnows dart about a placid pool. We noted the habits of the crabs crawling and flipping about under water in search of food. Their claws sometimes pinched a finger or bare toe. Fascinating was the movement of water skippers - those long-legged insects which could walk on the water. How we wanted to learn their secret! Sometimes we startled a muskrat, who made a dive into the stream and disappeared into his burrow under the overhanging bank. Or we startled a great blue heron standing in the creek fishing.

But the water snakes received more of our attention than any of the other creatures. They preferred the sunny abutments of Brooklyn Bridge on which to coil and sun themselves. Although not venomous, they were capable of inflicting a nasty bite which could easily become infected. The standard method of capturing them was to pin them down just behind the head with the fork of a stick. By grasping the head, we could handle them without being bitten.

Due to all that my feet had endured, the soles of them were abnormally tender. While my friends ran barefoot or walked on the gravel without discomfort, these activities for me were exceedingly painful. Without shoes, my trip down to the creek was one of carefully chosen steps, avoiding rocks and thistles.

I had decided to go down to the creek to check on the dam. When almost to the swimming hole, I saw two snakes coiled right in my path. They were larger and patterned differently from the water snakes and garter snakes with which I was familiar. Instead of slithering away, their heads and bodies swayed aggressively towards my bare feet. My scalp began to prickle and my knees began to shake. So terrified was I that I fled through the pasture and didn’t stop running until I reached the house. I gave no conscious thought to where I was stepping. All of this took place without my perceiving pain in my feet. Such was the power of fear.

“Father! Mother!” I shrieked. Both of them came running.

When I had calmed down enough to tell them about the snakes, father went armed with a big hoe. I followed at a safe distance, pointing out where I had seen them. Although we searched the area, the snakes had disappeared, not be seen again.

* * * * *

“Eva. Can you do something to keep the boys quiet?” father asked.

As usual he was trying to concentrate on his evening sermon. Playing ball and engaging in active games was not considered proper for the Sabbath. But my parents did approve of taking a walk.

“Let’s go to Rockbottom,” was my request. Irving seconded the idea.

Instead of following the meanderings of the creek, we crossed Brooklyn Bridge and shortly turned left down a farm lane which led almost directly to our destination.

Here at “Rockbottom” the stream had worn a deep groove through the hills, cutting its channel down to reach several strata of grey shale. This gradual process of erosion had formed cascades and chutes smooth enough to slide down. Though a bit rough on our seats, it was an early version of the modern-day water slides. The shale was soft and flaked off to continually alter the form of these delightful cascades. At the base of the last fall, where the rock stratum ended, the force of the falling water had hollowed out a fine pool for swimming. For my brother and me, this cool shady haven was the ideal place to spend a hot Sunday afternoon.

Long before we were ready, mother called out: “Come here. It’s time to start back to the house.”

For many years I dreamed of buying the land and building a log cabin among the hemlocks on a little plateau overlooking this boyhood retreat.

A larger and more impressive version of “Rockbotttom” had been created far downstream on Cannoiserauley Creek. The family who owned this area on the creek at the terminus of a dead-end dirt road generously permitted the public to use it for picnics and recreation. The greater volume of water plus increased thickness of the strata produced higher falls and a greater variety of formations.

Under one falls, a little cave had been formed, permitting two or three people to climb up behind the falling water. One perfectly hollowed-out spot was dubbed “the bathtub.” Beneath the last cascade, hedged in on both sides by sheer shale cliffs, lay a pool of water. This was deep enough for diving and extensive enough for swimming. One deterrent was its location in this narrow defile where the sun had almost no chance to temper the chill of the spring-fed stream. In the fall, when flanked by the scarlets and yellows and lavenders of maple, poplar, and ash, I thought no scene could surpass the beauty of Cannoiserauley Falls.

* * * * *

Along the abutments of Brooklyn Bridge a large clump of elderberry bushes flourished. When they attained a stage of purple maturity, mother gathered the tiny berries, formed in a flat cluster, to make into delicious pies. Nothing in the entire world tastes like elderberry pie. But I had found another use for this plant.

“Let’s make popguns,” I suggested to Irving. He helped me cut several of the largest canes. The center of the coarse stalk contained a soft pithy substance. I removed sections of the stalk between two joints. The next step required mother’s cooperation. Taking a piece of heavy wire and the lengths of elderberry stalks, we went to the kitchen.

“Mother, may we heat our wire in the kitchen stove so we can make popguns?” we asked. Then we added, “We’ll be very careful.” Her approval was less than enthusiastic.

We inserted one end of the wire into the firebox of the kitchen range, placing it on the burning coals. When the wire glowed red-hot, I forced the heated end into the stalk which my brother was holding. The odor of burning pith filled the kitchen as repeated applications of the hot wire cleared the stalk and left a hollow tube.

I chose a dowel the right size to move freely through the tube. This acted as handle and plunger. Irving shredded newspapers into a dish pan of warm water, transforming them into a pulpy mass. This was our ammunition.

“Outside!” mother ordered. How well she knew about the wads of paper that would adhere to walls and ceilings! She shooed us through the door along with our crude weapons and ammunition.

I forced one wad of paper to the end of the tube, thus sealing it. Then I started a second wad in the open end. When I quickly pushed the plunger, the compression of air ejected the first wad out with great force and a loud “pop.” These outdoor wars were waged with little danger to the participants. A splat in the face from a soggy wad of paper was the worst consequence.

Another not-so-innocuous weapon for our hunting expeditions along the creek was the slingshot. Preston and Don had their own .22 caliber rifles. Almost all other farm boys had air rifles. But the cost of these was out of my reach. With the biblical account of David’s sling exploits I could relate. It cost nothing except my work.

Roaming the woods, I was always on the lookout for the perfectly-shaped crotch of a tree from which to fashion a sling-shot. Most boys judged hickory best for its resiliency and strength. After sawing to proper length the two forks and handle, I peeled off the bark and put it away to season.

I cut the rubber bands for the sling from old auto tubes. The stretch of this rubber far exceeded that of today’s synthetics. With strong twine I bound the two strips of rubber to the matched prongs and attached the loose ends to the leather pouch.

Out in the back yard I placed a tin can on a block of wood. Selecting a smooth round stone from my supply, I nestled it in the pouch. Pulling the rubbers bands back, I aimed through the V of the crotch. To my delight, the can went tumbling to the ground.

While slingshots were potentially lethal, the many parental admonitions about their use were effective. My revulsion to killing animals or birds made me confine my targets to inanimate objects in the pasture and along the stream.

Monday, April 4, 2011

An Explosive Situation

Except for Christmas, no day stood out on the calendar like the Fourth of July. Weeks in advance of the date, I had saved every penny and nickel towards the purchase of fireworks. With sacrificial understanding, Father supplemented my slim horde before my trip to the store. Standing first on one foot and then the other, I shuttled back and forth between the counters on which were displayed all manner of creations designed to produce sound or light or both. All of this was perfectly legal, for laws banning private display of fireworks had not then been placed upon the statute books of New York State.

I first chose several packs of firecrackers. At ten cents per pack of fifty, these were basic - producing many bangs for the money. For a real blast, I next picked out some powerful-looking cherry bombs covered with flecks of shiny dust. Then came a dozen torpedoes, which exploded when thrown vigorously against the concrete. Rockets, Roman candles, pinwheels, and fountains were relatively expensive, so I had to settle for only three items among these exciting groups. One was an aerial bomb, to be reserved for the finale. Several rolls of “Big Red” caps for my cap pistol were classified in my mind as necessities. Sparklers were for sissies, little kids, and girls.

Twice I calculated the total of the items I had selected with so much care. I added three more torpedoes, completely wiping out my savings. After I had placed them on the well-worn counter, Mrs. Satterlee confirmed the accuracy of my arithmetic and quite obligingly threw into the bag several sticks of punk to be used in lighting the fuses.

As we drove the three miles home, I peered into my bag several times, savoring in anticipation the joys to come. Daily, in advance of the Fourth, I examined my hoard like a miser counting his gold. I planned how I could make my limited collection last through the day and into the night.

In July, dawn came early to our valley. But I had been awake long before sunrise. The instant the sun peeked over Mock Hill, I threw up the window sash in my bedroom, leaned out, and aimed a torpedo at the concrete walk leading out from the porch. In my excitement, I missed completely. The torpedo fell into the wet grass. The next one struck with a modest bang. Then I hurried down to retrieve the one that missed so I could dry it out on the kitchen range before it disintegrated. The Fourth of July had exploded into a glorious day.

Breakfast this morning was an interruption to be endured. I could scarcely wait until devotions were over to get on with my plans. Out on the porch I carefully untwined my packs of firecrackers into singles. Lighting them one or two at a time stretched out the fun. I never allowed myself the luxury of lighting an entire pack at once, letting them explode like popcorn over a hot fire.

Seeking greater excitement, I placed a cherry bomb under an empty pork and beans can. After lighting the exposed fuse, I quickly withdrew to a respectful distance. With a sharp crack, it sent the can soaring high above the big elm tree by the barn. The blast had caused the bottom of the can to bulge in a convex arc.

Not content with this arrangement, I located a two-foot length of half-inch pipe which had a cap screwed on one end. Into the end of the cap I drilled a hole just large enough to push through the fuse. Recognizing some of the potential danger, I attached this crude cannon to the corner of the barn. With a firecracker attached to the fuse, I filled the open end of the pipe with old ball bearings or pebbles. Gingerly I touched the smoldering punk to the fuse, which started to sizzle. Before I could retreat very far, the device detonated with a thud. The contents of the barrel sailed far out into the meadow. The very real possibility that the pipe might shatter into jagged pieces like shrapnel never occurred to me as I repeated the experiment with several variations.

The day passed in a haze of smoke and noise. Not for anything would I show my mother my hand. One firecracker had failed to go off. After waiting what I thought to be sufficient time, I started to pick it up. Just at that instant, it exploded, singeing the hair on my right arm and burning my fingers. Fuses burned with varying speed, as I was reminded that afternoon. I lit a firecracker and was in the process of throwing it off Brooklyn Bridge. It exploded prematurely just after it left my hand. The concussion startled me. Then my whole hand tingled with pain and swelled up. I suddenly assumed a degree of caution that parental admonitions had failed to impart.

“Father, is it time to bring in the cows for milking?” I asked.

Startled that this initiative should have come from me, he pulled out his Elgin watch and stared at the time. “It’s only four o’clock. It’s over an hour too soon.” Then, recognizing the cause for my abnormal zeal, he assured me: “Don’t worry. We’ll leave in plenty of time to see the fireworks.”

The best of home displays paled beside the one exhibited at the Gowanda State Hospital on the evening of the Fourth. Free to the public, it attracted families from a wide radius. I kept Father informed about the time and was more cheerfully helpful than usual in assisting with chores. The old Chevy was not to be hurried as it covered the twenty-five miles between Brooklyn and Gowanda. Joining the lively crowd which had assembled, we spread a heavy horse blanket on the ground and took up the vigil as we waited for darkness.

A dull thud preceded the starburst in the sky which was punctuated by the blast from an aerial bomb. In glorious procession came giant pinwheels, multi-colored Roman candles, spewing fountains with varied hues, and the lighting of the skies with stars, rockets, and explosive flashes. Far too soon I realized from the crescendo of starbursts and the thunder of aerial bombs that the finale had come. The silence was almost deafening as we found our way to the parked car.

Although the hour was late when we arrived home, I insisted on shooting off the remainder of my salute to independence. My one rocket was cradled in a wooden trough propped up in the wheelbarrow. With high anticipation, I struck a match and touched it to the fuse. The rocket flared briefly, spurted feebly a dozen or so feet into the air before falling lifeless into the grass by the ditch. Having just experienced the marvelous exhibition at Gowanda, I sensed bitter disappointment.

“Off to bed now,” Father called. “Tomorrow is another day.”

That night I finally dropped off to sleep dreaming of how next year I might achieve bigger and better bangs for my buck.

* * * * *

In our rural community, work filled the long daylight hours of summer leaving the evenings short. In contrast, short days and early darkness made the winter evenings extra long. Inexpensive pastimes took a variety of forms in those Depression years.

Supper and dishes finished, we followed mother as she carried the lighted kerosene lamp into the living room. The frigid air crept in through the various cracks to remind us that the thermometer stood at ten below zero. The crackling fire in the Round Oak heater attracted father and grandma to rocking chairs close by its comforting warmth. Mother, Irving, and I gravitated to the limited circle of yellow light cast by the oil lamp.

Just as I had gotten out my arithmetic homework, mother exclaimed, “I hear something coming up the road.”

Almost in unison, we all hurried to the windows and peered through the frosted glass, blowing on it to clear a peephole. The almost full moon reflected by the snow lit up the wintry scene. Down the road from the direction of the church a car moved along at moderate speed. Behind it, clutching a big rope, sped two figures on skis. In those days, ski lifts and groomed slopes were substituted for in this manner.

“There goes one down,” mother noted. “I hope he isn’t injured.” An unseen ditch and a barbed wire fence had caused him to let go of the rope to avoid collision with them.

“He’s getting up,” father remarked as the downed skier rose to brush the snow from his clothing.

The old car had halted and backed up to retrieve the lost half of its daring crew. In a flurry of powdered snow, car and skiers resumed their moonlight tour of the countryside. After that glimpse into a daring activity, I found it difficult to concentrate on my arithmetic lesson. In my dreams that night I was weaving in and out from road to fields holding tight to a rope pulled by a speeding car. On my way to school the next morning, I noted the ski tracks along the way and dreamed the impossible dream - that I would ski - with feet and ankles like mine!

The snow which had fallen all day tapered off at nightfall. Lamplight from houses around the valley glimmered like markers on one of those illuminated maps at a National Park visitor center. Brimming milk pail in one hand and lantern in the other, father announced as he came into the kitchen, “Eva, I think we should make a call tonight.”

I turned the cream separator more willingly than usual at the prospect of going visiting. An evening of conversation with neighbors was for us a pleasant pastime but for father an integral part of his pastoral duties. Calling ahead to see if it would be convenient was not a part of social protocol, as telephones were very scarce. A visitor to the farm homes of that day was always welcome.

Supper over, father announced, “Let’s go to Steinbars.” Donning heavy jackets and boots, we followed father as he led the way, breaking trail through the knee-deep snow. By far the shortest route lay directly over the fields which lay between the two roads. As he was prone to do, father sang two verses of “The Old Rugged Cross” as we progressed towards their lighted window.

Mrs. Steinbar greeted us at the woodshed door. “Chris is still in the barn,” she explained. Father went off to lend a hand at finishing chores. Mother joined Mrs. Steinbar in the kitchen while Preston and I retired to the woodshed where mumbledypeg kept us occupied until time to leave. Carol, who was older than I, helped to keep Irving, my little brother, occupied and happy so the adults could talk.

When we went to visit Pratts and Sprowls who lived together as an extended family, Don and I often retired to another room to play the old Edison gramophone. The speaker was a large funnel-like horn from which the sounds emerged in raspy tones reproduced from cylindrical Bakelite cylinders. The speed from the hand-wound machine was not constant and the old cylinders were worn and scratched from much use. However, our enjoyment was unaffected by such details as lack of fidelity. Our favorite numbers were comic monologues delivered by a character known as Uncle Josh. We thought the jokes were hilariously funny no matter how many times we replayed them. In some ways they were forerunners of Garrison Keillor’s “News From Lake Wobegon.”

Among the popular inexpensive crafts was hooking rugs. Burlap feed bags were readily available. Designs were stamped or drawn on the burlap which was held taut on a wooden frame. The operator used a rug hook to pull appropriately colored heavy strands of yarn through the material to create a pattern or picture.

“Let’s call on Ward Bergholtz,” father suggested. “He’s been having a hard time and can’t work.” We slogged through the mud which had replaced the snow on the fields, following a lane which in earlier days had been intended as a highway.

Mildred, Ward’s wife, met us at the door and ushered us into the living room. Ward sat with his leg cushioned on a pillow. In those days the town hired farmers with teams and wagons to haul gravel to repair the roads in the spring. The gravel bank had collapsed, pinning his leg against the wagon and severely injuring his knee. Available medical care had not seemed to be of much assistance in restoring use of the leg. To occupy himself, Ward had taken up hooking rugs for a pastime.

“Let’s see what you’re working on,” mother requested.

Proudly Ward spread out a scene featuring a snow-capped peak and a stream flowing among pine trees. He had just started to work on another design depicting a ferocious lion.

“You ought to enter the large one in the contest the East Otto Grange is having,” mother encouraged him.

“I’m planning to,” he replied, visibly pleased.

After inquiring about progress in treating the knee, father offered prayer before we took our leave. Their sons, Dick and Bob, were more nearly my brother’s age, so I preferred watching Ward working on his rug to playing with the “little kids.” I wondered how a farm hand with fingers so calloused from heavy work could create such expressions of beauty.

* * * * *

“What is the world coming to?” Nellie Pratt exploded, looking up from “The Cattaraugus Times” which had just arrived in the mail. Outrage showed in both her face and her voice.

“Tell me about it,” father responded. He had stopped by for a brief call as he picked me up from playing with Don.

“The Methodist Episcopal Church has scheduled a jigsaw puzzle party to follow prayer meeting on Thursday evening.” She held up the offending article for father to read for himself.

Agreeing generally with her concerns, he remarked: “Keeping one’s mind on prayer while wondering who will win the contest would be distracting for most people. I’m sorry to see this happening. It’s another sign of the times.”

Indeed it was a sign of the times - difficult Depression days with money scarce for any type of recreational activities. The jigsaw puzzle had come into its own. Inexpensive puzzles were given away as incentives to purchase toothpaste or other products. Lockport-made Tuco puzzles, die-cut with sturdy backing and interlocking pieces, set the standard for quality.

An informal network for exchanging puzzles sprang up quite spontaneously, as the puzzle craze affected adults as much as their children. Speed in assembling a given puzzle became the criterion in judging contests. The size of the puzzles continued to grow from two hundred pieces to over a thousand. Some of these larger completed pictures were deemed too beautiful to be dumped back into a box, but instead were glued to a cardboard, framed, and decorated the walls of many a home.

While the popularity of this economical form of individual or group entertainment attained a very high level, never was a puzzle party made a part of the Thursday evening prayer service at the little Free Methodist Church in Brooklyn Valley.

Monday, March 28, 2011

A Shaky Start, But a Speedy Finish

Trudging to school one October morning, I was startled when Clair Woodard shouted a warning as he wobbled past me on a funny-looking bicycle. Catching up with him at school, I joined the others who had clustered around him to examine his new acquisition. Even in that day, the bike had an old-fashioned appearance. Its thirty inch wheels with narrow tires put the rider high in the air while the very small, springless seat offered little comfort. But he and his brother Clinton were elated to be the first at our school to have a bike, even though they had to share it.

Proud of their new acquisition, they offered the chance to ride to any who were interested. Simultaneously I was eager to try and fearful of making a fool of myself. Desire won out. “Let me try,” I begged Clair.

Holding the bike upright next to the front step of the school, Clair said: “Climb on.” The pedal shanks were so long that my feet would touch the pedals during only part of their revolution. Clair shoved, setting the machine in motion, and I pedaled away, weaving wildly across the school yard and into the road. Since I couldn’t reach the ground with my feet, it was either ride or fall. I was afraid to fall.

At the church corner, I turned east onto the pavement where the bike picked up speed. Clair and Clinton were way behind in the pursuit of their precious bike which was not equipped with brakes of any kind. This couldn’t go on forever.

“Ride into the ditch,” they shouted. Glued to the handlebars, my fingers finally responded. The left pedal caught the sod at the edge of the ditch. Over I went in a heap without one shred of dignity. Disentangling myself from the bike, I examined the places that hurt. A nasty bruise on one leg and a brush burn on my arm summed up total damages. The sturdy old bike was unscathed.

Pushing the bike back up the road, I was met by the concerned owners. Sweat running down his cheeks, Clinton exploded, “We thought you weren’t ever going to stop.” In spite of this awkward and scary start, the desire to have a bike of my own became a consuming passion. I was hooked on riding, as this was an activity where normal feet were not a requisite.

On father’s restricted income, I well knew that getting a new bike was out of the question. When I waxed eloquent on the subject of a used one, he responded: “But you have a wagon and a scooter and a tricycle.” Not only were these old, but I had practically outgrown them. How could father even compare things which were so unlike in form and function?

“Father, did you see Don’s new bike?” I inquired hopefully.

“Yes. It’s really a nice one,” he admitted. Painted a bright red and sporting twenty-six inch balloon tires and a headlight, I thought nothing could be finer.

“Will you really try to find me a used one?” I continued my ardent campaign. This he agreed to do.

After some inquiry, father heard that Roy Shaw in Cattaraugus still had his old bike after having gotten a new one for his paper route. I gave father no rest until we went to look at the retired unit.

My first view of its dusty frame and rusty fenders might have been described as interest but hardly love at first sight. The deteriorated tires were flat and the frame was broken at the crossbar. It certainly was not in mint condition. The blacksmith was able to braze the frame. Father bought two new tires and tubes. With a can of red paint, I covered its many scars. But I did have a bicycle of my own. As it turned out, it was the only one I ever owned as a boy.

* * * * *

“Mother. I’m going out to slide before I do my chores.” “Be careful,” she admonished as usual, for sledding in winter for me had proved to be a more dangerous pastime than riding a bicycle.

December days were short, leaving little opportunity for fun between the time I got home from school and daily chores. Grabbing my sled, I started for the road. A small grade descended from our house to the Brooklyn bridge. The snow, packed hard by passing vehicles, had been topped off by some freezing rain. It seemed just perfect for sliding. Holding my sled in both hands, I ran as fast as I could and then took a belly-flop, all actions calculated to gain forward momentum. I made a fast take-off.

I had failed to observe a spot part way down the hill where snow scarcely covered the pavement. When the runners hit this exposed surface, the sled stopped instantly. Inertia caused me to continue my forward movement without the sled. My face became the main point of contact, much to the detriment of my nose, forehead, chin, and teeth. Stunned for the moment, I lay sprawled in the road until the pain in my face became severe. The lenses of my glasses had shattered, cutting my face. Picking up the mangled frames, I stumbled back to the house, dragging my sled. Mother had heard me coming.

“Arnold, what did you do?” she cried.

Without waiting for an explanation, she used the limited first aid supplies available to remove bits of broken glass from my chin and cheeks, cleansed my scraped face, and applied Cloverine Salve before bandaging the area. Not one word was said about chores that evening. Since my face swelled up grotesquely, I was the center of interest when I went to school the next day. Without my glasses, doing schoolwork was difficult.
In time, all except my teeth returned to normal. The glasses had to be completely replaced, as the frames were twisted beyond repair. Although very painful, I’m sure that the physical discomfort for me was not greater than my remorse at causing my parents the financial pain for new glasses.
The Cadillac of sleds was without challenge the Flexible Flyer, due to its superior steering capability. Don had one. So did Preston and Hank. They could turn a corner with ease while my sled went into the ditch, unresponsive to my guidance. I strongly envied the owners of these maneuverable machines. Only recently, at a yard sale, I finally realized my dream of ownership. For one paltry dollar, I took title to a very old and tired specimen. It is now awaiting restoration in my basement.

* * * * *

“Come see what Dad and Grandpa are making me,” Don urged the moment I arrived for a Saturday afternoon of play. In the farm shop a new bobsled was under construction. The two sets of bobs or runners were fashioned from tough oak banded with steel to provide a durable contact surface. The rear set of runners was attached to a plank over a foot wide and eight feet long. The front set of runners was pivoted so it could be turned. The driver steered by pulling on a rope attached to the point of each runner. He steadied himself by placing his boots on a footrest at the front of the plank. A narrow handrail on each side provided a handhold for the passengers.

“Where did you get the wood?” I wanted to know.

“From trees in our woods,” Don replied. “We took them to the sawmill to be cut. When they were cured, we had the boards planed.”

“What about the irons on the runners?” I persisted.

“They’re old teeth from the hay rake. The blacksmith in East Otto shaped them for us.”

Lloyd Sprowl, Don’s father, was applying a coat of dark green paint to the plank. “It will be ready by the time the first snow comes,” he promised.

Our impatience was rewarded when an early storm dumped several inches of snow - enough to thoroughly cover the dirt road with a packed surface. Don had plenty of company breaking in the new bobs, which held six or seven children. Packed tightly, each rider held the legs of the person behind him.

“Shove off,” Don called. The last boy pushed vigorously and then attempted to hop on to the back of the moving bobsled.

Daily my desire grew to have a bobsled of my own, for with ownership went the right to steer. Without proper boards or a shop in which to work on it, I realized acquiring one wouldn’t be easy. But my eagerness could not be contained.

At supper one evening, I asked: “Father, do you think there is any way I could get a bobsled?”

To my surprise, his answer was a tentative, “I’ll keep my eyes open and do some inquiring.” In his role as pastor, father made many calls on parishioners over quite an area. A few weeks later, he announced on returning from Cattaraugus, “I heard of a bobsled which we can get for nothing if its even worth fixing.”

“Where?” I wanted to know.

“At Myrtie Freeborn’s place over on Lovers Lane. It’s one her grandchildren, Sanford and Beatrice, used to have.”

As we pulled it out from under a pile of boards in the yard, I could see it was in deplorable condition. Two of the wooden runners were split, the footrest was smashed, and the handrails were broken. I helped father load it into our old trailer to bring it home. Father located an old oak board from his small hoard which was stashed in the barn. He sawed out two new runners and had the blacksmith shape the old irons to fit. After we replaced the rails and footrest, I applied two coats of scarlet paint and spent hours trying to shine up the rusty runner irons until they shone. For me, the period of reconstruction had dragged, although I was happy with this resurrected version. Then I had to wait over a week for snow enough to pull my bobs over to show Don and to try it out. I was delighted to find my bobsled was as long as his.

Hammond Hill, rising sharply from the Pratt Homestead, was both steep and fairly long. This was prior to the time when the road department cut the grade back to its present level. It was convenient for Don to have the best sledding slope practically at his front door. In those days the road was neither sanded nor salted, although sometimes town trucks did some plowing of snow. Horse-drawn bobsled tracks firmed the surface as farmers transported loads of logs for fuel or took grain to the mill in East Otto to be ground for feed.

Two main hazards of this course were the curve at the bottom of the hill and its intersection with West Road at the same spot. Arriving at this junction at the same moment as a vehicle was an exciting and dangerous possibility. Some very close calls were inevitable, collision being avoided only by running into the ditch. Ice on the hill increased speed at the same time control diminished. Under ideal sliding conditions, we whizzed past Pratts, clattered on past the school and church, and even continued on the county road almost to Gene Wing’s place on the opposite side of the valley.

Although crude by Olympic standards, we were able to roughly determine our speeds. Stationing two adults a measured distance apart on the hill, watches carefully synchronized, we calculated approximate speed from these readings. Some of our descents were clocked at over forty miles per hour.

Sliding at night carried with it a special sense of exhilaration accompanied by increased danger, for keeping on the road became more difficult. I tried fastening a flashlight to my bobsled, but the pitifully dim beam was useless and the batteries quickly failed. Batteries did cost scarce money. Nights with a full moon were best. One advantage of night sliding was that the lights of vehicles on the highway offered better warning of their approach than during daylight.

My first attempts to devise brakes were unsuccessful. A hand-brake which forced a pointed rod into the ground created almost no response. I finally came up with loops of chain which could be dropped down over the points of the rear runners. The weight of the loaded sled plus its forward motion forced the chains back and into the icy or snowy surface, effectively slowing and stopping the bobs. However, they were useful only in an emergency. Once the chains were released, the brakes could be inactivated only by stopping the bobsled and sliding them back up out of contact. Yet, in several emergencies, they proved to be a valuable accessory for averting disaster.

For me, this innovation was of special importance as it was one feature which Don’s bobsled did not have. Our competitive urge expressed itself in numerous races down Hammond Hill. Over the long run, neither of us gained a clear winning edge. Both shared the distinction of having the fastest bobsleds in the valley.