Monday, April 25, 2011

Survival!

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.