Monday, May 23, 2011

THE FINAL PIECE

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.