Monday, February 28, 2011

The house on the highway, Part 3

One time when I was very little, and we were in the living room-dining room area of the house, my brother and I were given beagle puppies as gifts. Mine came right at me, putting its front paws up on me and trying desperately to lick me, while I drew my face back. My mother was a few feet in front of me, leaning down and grinning. I could see the other dog going after my brother, and him looking uncertain. He was pretty little, still wearing a diaper. He was pulling himself to his feet, leaning on something for support. He was turned away from the dog but his head was partly turned back, looking more toward me and our mother than at the dog. My mother later said the dog kept trying to lick his wet diaper. They decided that we were really too young for the dogs, and after a while they were kept in a dog house on the other side of the gravel driveway, off to the side quite a bit, in the direction of town.

Sometime in the 1960s, my parents got a small horse for us, and we took it to the farm in the car. It stood there, on the floor in front of the back seat. We tried to talk to it and keep it calm, if I remember correctly. My father tried to teach my brother and me to ride, but it was a slow process, eventually abandoned. We had to take turns, too, with just one of us being on the horse at a time. I remember one time, out in the pasture, at night, my brother was sitting on the horse and my father was talking to him and trying to hold the horse steady. I was standing a ways off behind them, watching, feeling kind of bored since I had nothing to do at the moment. I had already been on the horse for a while myself, I think, but now I had nothing to do but wait. All of a sudden the horse took off running, and my father was standing there, holding my brother in the air by the back of his pants. It was a strange sight, surprising and amusing, especially when talked about later. I marvelled some, too, that my father was strong enough to do that, to hold my brother out there like that with one hand, like my brother was a toy. I'm not sure what became of the horse, or whether we eventually got it back or not. That may have been the last attempt at riding it.

My grandparents had a very large metal barrel out near the fence, on the town side of the path to the chicken house, on our side of the fence, in a mostly barren area, where they burned trash. I watched them do it sometimes. The adults would stand around and talk to each other, and keep an eye on it. One time there was a large plastic tub, wider than it was tall, that used to contain ice cream. It was a cloudy plastic, partly transparent, and may have been a half gallon, though it seems bigger than that, perhaps even a gallon. I kept an eye on it, being intensely curious about what would happen. It wasn't made of anything normal, like wood or paper, and I couldn't imagine what would happen to it. Would it even burn? I watched the fire get closer to it, and burn things behind it and then beside it, but still nothing was happening to it. It just stayed as it was. Then, all of a sudden, it it seemed to collapse in on itself, going in from the sides, folding over into a much smaller thing, full of rounded folds and wrinkles, then collapsing still more and turning darker, finally catching fire. I had no idea it would act like that, but now I knew. It was fascinating. I remarked on it to my mother, I think, and maybe to one of the men, too.

Another time, years later, the fire was left unattended. The adults, which would have included my mother and father and grandmother, and maybe Charley, went back to the house. I was still out in the area with my brother, though, playing. It may have been the early to mid 1960s. The fire got out of the barrel, drifting up and out on one or more burning pieces, and started burning the sparse grass. I discussed it with my brother. The fire was slowly making its way toward the building where sometimes baby chicks were kept. I didn't know if the fire would end there, when it ran out of grass, or might possibly catch the building on fire. I was nervously arguing that maybe it was alright, that maybe they intended for it to happen and didn't care, that nothing bad was going to happen, but my brother thought differently, and kept saying that we should tell someone. I think we had stomped on part of it, that had been going the other direction, putting a lot of it on that side out. I didn't want to believe that the adults would have created a situation where something bad might happen, and that it would be left to us, the kids, to save the day. I finally went back to the house and nervously told them, that the fire had gotten out of the barrel, drifted out on the wind, and was burning the grass and was heading for the chicken house. They were very surprised, and I had to repeat it a time or two. Then we all went back out to the area. My brother was still stamping at it, and maybe hitting it with something. The fire had died down some as it approached the chicken house, but was still slowly heading for it. They quickly went to work and put it out.

A bread truck used to come by sometimes, perhaps every week or so, and my grandmother would look at what he had, while the driver talked to her. He brought in a display of the items in a bunch of shelves on something on wheels. It didn't seem like a cart, it was more of a display case. One time I saw that he had a strange cake. I was fascinated by it, I had never had anything like it. I was told it was a coconut cake. The cake was finally bought, by either my grandmother or mother, and I was served a piece. I was too worried by the strangeness of it to eat much of the icing, though.

We sometimes had ice cream too, that my mother bought at the store. Back in those days we generally just had one flavor, chocolate I think. One day my mother brought home a different flavor, vanilla I think. I was baffled and very suspicious of it. My mother kept insisting it was ice cream, just a different flavor. It didn't look like ice cream to me. I finally tried it though, and it was very good. It's possible I could have the flavors reversed, but I don't think so.

The house had a party line phone, which meant that the phone number was shared with several neighbors, and each neighbor had a distinctive ring. When the phone would ring, the adults would listen to see if it was for this house. I was told what our ring was, but I never learned it, it seemed too hard, and I was too afraid of getting it wrong. It was possible to listen in to a neighbor's call if you picked up the phone, but you weren't supposed to, and I never did. It was also possible to pick up the phone to call someone, and find it already in use. In that case you had to hang up and try again later, or ask the people using it to hang up so you could make a call.

We were told to stay away from the phone during a storm. They knew of someone whose phone was hit by lightning and it blew it off the wall.

It rained, and stormed, in Missouri a lot. I was told that if the farmers didn't get rain for two weeks, they considered it a drought. Sometimes it stormed very bad, with lots of thunder and lightning. The thunder was very loud, with tremendous sharp crashes that would shake the house. We sometimes also worried about tornadoes.

One time in the mid 1960s my brother and I tried to grow a plant from a potato chunk. My grandmother helped us set it up. After a few days it was doing very well, and eventually had a nice sized plant. We decided to try to color the leaves and stems then. We had heard that putting ink or maybe food colors, or something like that, in the water would cause it to be taken up by the plant and make the plant partly that color. Unfortunately we used the wrong thing, and put water colors or maybe even some tempera paint in the water. Evidently it was too thick and clogged the plant's veins, and it wilted and died, even though I tried putting different water in it at one point.

My brother and I sometimes played hide and seek. Sometimes we played outside, among the bushes in the area toward the fence that had the chickens on the other side. A lot of times we played inside, though, hiding in different areas of the house. We were still doing it when our sister was old enough to play with us, in the mid 1960s. One time I hid in the small, square closet of the bedroom that was near the kitchen (the closet was on the side toward the kitchen, too), and pulled clothes and towels and washcloths out of the shelves and drawers there until they completely covered me and lay in a jumbled mess all around me. They looked in a few times, not seeing me. They looked all over the house for me, and finally came back to the closet, and stood there looking in at the mess, talking with each other. My brother finally said that he couldn't imagine anyone being under that. They finally moved off, still discussing me and where I might be. I could hear my mother sometimes talking too. My brother said they couldn't find me. He didn't know where I went, but I didn't seem to be in the house. I finally got out and went to them, and explained where I had been.

Sometimes they took me out walking in the fields, in the paths that ran by them, and I saw the plants growing. Some of the plants were things like turnips or radishes, and my grandfather or another person would temporarily move some of the dirt away to see how they were doing. Sometimes a lot of men were quickly working at harvesting them, going along the rows, pulling turnips out of the ground, maybe sometimes potatoes too. One time they let me do it for a while, and I found it was very hard to pull the turnips out. I was very little, but I felt I should be strong enough, but it felt very hard to do, and I was much slower than the men at it. The men were so fast it was shocking, almost scary. I didn't do it for very long. I felt I should be strong enough, even though I knew I was just a little kid, and it bothered me that they could do it so easily, and it was so hard for me.

One time, when I was walking out in the fields with my father, we walked for a long time, and we came to an area where we were going through heavy mud, because it had rained earlier. I guess the ground in the other areas was stiffer, and maybe in some places had some grass, so it wasn't too bad to walk through. Here, though, I left big footprints, and the mud clung to my shoes, probably rubber galoshes, and then more mud clung over that, while the mud on the ground sucked at my feet when I tried to lift them out. It got harder and harder. I was very little, and it was very tiring, and I fell further and further behind. My father kept on walking, while talking to me some. Finally he stopped and turned around, quite a ways ahead of me, and looked back at me where I stood glued to the ground. He said something about the mud being heavy, wasn't it, and walked back to me. I think he may have picked me up and carried me for a while after that.

One time my grandmother made a picnic, and she took us in the pasture, down the dirt road and then to the left of the barn. We came to a tree with branches that spread out particularly in one direction, the direction away from town, and roots that spread out that way, too. My grandmother put a sheet on the ground and we had the picnic there, under the branches. A little ways off I could see an animal path, a narrow irregular trail worn through the grass, that I think the sheep had made, that led off in the direction away from town. It felt very pleasant out there.

In the mid 1960s, when we stayed there at the farm again, I used to take long walks on the uneven dirt road that led out to the barn. Sometimes it was very cold, with the wind blowing strongly in my face, so cold and hard it hurt my skin. One time I turned around and tried walking backwards for a little while, a few feet, but it was awkward and I was still cold, so I gave it up and started walking normally again. There wasn't a lot to do on the farm, and the walk helped to keep me occupied for a while.

In the walk, I tended to go out to the barn, sometimes around it maybe, then head away from town, going past the tree where we had had the picnic, near the animal path, sometimes maybe even along it for a while, going out far, to where a barbed wire fence finally crossed the area, then going along the fence back in the direction of the highway.

I finally found at the corner of the fence, where a section of land rose just before the corner and then dipped down on a small slope, a place there on the slope where some moss was growing. I had read that moss grew on the north side of a slope, and had been looking for an example of it. I guessed that the slope must face north, since it had moss on it, though I had no independent verification for it. On the raised area I also one time found something else I had been looking for. I had read about a type of fungus that looked something like a small irregular dark rock, even kind of spongy looking, and finally saw such a thing there. If it was stepped on, a cloud of spores was supposed to be released. I stared at it for a while. If it was the fungus, I wasn't sure it was a good idea to release the spores. I also didn't want to badly damage it or kill it, just to check to see what it was.

I finally went ahead and stepped on it. I had to know if it was the fungus, and not something else. It squashed almost flat, like stepping on a sponge, and a dark cloud came from it. I quickly moved away, trying not to breathe, unsure of whether the spores were harmful. The book hadn't said anything about whether they were or not. The fungus seemed to mostly restore its shape when I took my foot off, so maybe I hadn't damaged it too bad. I left the area quickly, though, and worried about the spores for a long time afterward.

One time in the mid 1960s, in the winter when the pond had ice on it, my brother and I walked around it looking at it, and walked on the ice, keeping fairly close to the edge, where it was shallow and where we could presumably get out if the ice broke. The ice really was not thick enough. It had lots of cracks, basically where it was actually split but still jammed together, and it creaked and moved and even shifted some while we walked over it, all around the pond, within a few feet of the shore. It was slippery, too, and one or both of us fell down on it. I'm pretty sure that I did, but I'm not sure that he did. Our mother had strongly warned us not to get on the ice, that it might break and we might fall in and get killed. I was talking about it when I got back, including walking on the ice near the edge of it. She looked at me horrified, and was warning us again, and saying you didn't go on the ice did you? Even though I had just said that we did, she didn't seem to want to believe it, too horrified at the thought. This was the first pond, because it was in the area where the house was, whereas the rest of the ponds were not.

Sometimes in the summer the adults would set off firecrackers, sometimes putting them under cans and then running away. A few times they were also put in holes in the old stump that was at the side of the tree that had the swing. The explosions would blow off pieces of wood, usually not very much, though. My brother and I got to set off some of the firecrackers ourselves when we were older, in the 1960s.

Sometimes they had other types of fireworks, too, including things on little sticks that shot up into the sky. We also had sparklers, that we could wave around making patterns in the air, and little things that when lit slowly grew into little worm-like things that twisted and moved, and cherry bombs that we could make explode by throwing them hard at the ground.

When my brother and I first rode bicycles, we used training wheels. Eventually, when we were older, we tried to learn to ride without them. Our father helped us sometimes, holding the bicycle and then pushing it along to get it going. When it was going at a fair rate of speed it was easy to keep it upright, but when it was going slower it was more difficult, and I found it almost impossible to actually start it going. He had removed the top bar from the frame, making it easier to get on it, but I still found it very difficult to ride unassisted.

We sometimes used the slope beside the farm house to practice. The bicycle would get rolling fast fairly quickly, so the awkward early part didn't last long. However the rest was also a bit awkward, as we were going over lumpy grass and slightly uneven ground, and were going pretty fast pretty quickly. It was difficult to control it under those conditions, and I had to keep looking at the ground to avoid the worst areas, then had to stop before hitting the wire fence, or without hitting it too hard. Stopping meant putting my legs down and walking it to a stop.

One time, I was paying too much attention to the ground, and ran into one of the trees, hitting the handlebar and my knuckles on it, which hurt. I had seen it at the last minute, but was unable to avoid it. The grassy slope was too uncertain for me to feel safe making sharp turns on, and I wasn't sure I could do it and still maintain my balance.

The line of trees there, widely separated, were of at least two types, maybe more. I don't know what types they were, though I remember being told what some of them were. One time I found a rotten acorn on the slope, so I guess at least one of them was an oak. At least two of them, I think, had odd twisted little pods for seeds, which corkscrewed through the air as they fell, landing farther from the tree than they otherwise would have done.

One time, when there was a lot of snow on the ground, we made a huge snow fort, with the help of the adults, including my father. We used Uncle Doc's crutches from the garage for supports. He used them when he was recovering from the stroke he got back when he was 70, but he hadn't needed them for a long time. We were finishing it up when it got to be time to go in for supper. We talked about how we could go out and play in it the next day, and what we might do. Somehow we didn't, though, and spent most of the day inside. I'm not sure we ever did anything with it again, though it weighed on my mind.

We also had a small log fort that was out in one of the pastures, on the side toward town. It was built one summer in the early 1960s, again with help from the adults, including I think farm hands in this case. Unlike the snow fort, the log fort was very low. The next year when we went back, we were told not to go in it, that it might have snakes. Sometimes when I was in that pasture, I looked wistfully at it, from a distance, at it out there in the grass, partly overgrown by it. I could sometimes see a farmhand riding a machine harvesting, or at least cutting down, whatever was growing in the pasture, but of course he couldn't do it where the logs were, so the grass there didn't get cut.

A neighbor on the town side was a woman farmer. Her name was Pauline. Sometimes when we were out walking in the fields, she would come over and talk to who was with us, generally my mother and/or grandmother; sometimes someone else was there too, or instead, and sometimes she talked a little to my brother and me. She was somewhat heavyset and always wore overalls, and always seemed cheerful. Later, when we were back in Arizona, she sent us a book about art, showing things famous artists had done (my brother and I were interested in art). She also sent us a very large decorated stein, with a forest scene.

Sometimes my grandmother would make doughnuts, and we would help her. She would make the dough and then roll it out, sprinkling flour on it to keep it from sticking. She would use drinking glasses to cut the doughnuts out with, and then clean ketchup bottles to cut the holes out with (ketchup bottles were made of glass in those days). She would show us how to do it and we would then try it. The ends of the glasses and ketchup bottles had to be spun in the flour on the table, or the dough would start sticking to them and not want to come out. This was particularly awkward with the ketchup bottles, as the doughnut hole was much harder to get out if it got stuck, particularly if three or more were in there. Then she would fry the doughnuts in a frying pan, with lots of white Crisco. They were very good.

She also made candy sometimes, with Hershey's Cocoa. After cooking, it was poured onto plates which had been heavily greased with margarine, and then it had to cool. It was very soft when still warm, but got harder as it cooled, finally getting very hard, especially after a day or two. It was very good, and I wanted to keep on eating it. It was hard to stop.

She also made pies, sometimes round ones and sometimes long rectangular cobblers. Cherry was the most frequent flavor, but she also sometimes did apple and I think even peach.

She liked to make doorstops, too, both round and rectangular. I think she used metal coffee cans or other food containers for the round ones, filling them with something for the weight, and sewing cloth around them. The rectangular ones I think were large wood blocks, pieces that had been cut from fence-post size wood, that she had covered with cloth.

In the 1960s she also made some yarns dolls for us, showing us how to do it. She would get a big bunch of yarn, cut a lot of strands to a particular length, around 12-14 inches, then fold it over. She would then tie off the top part for the head, then tie off strands for the arms, waist, and legs.

She also made toy horses for us to ride, with old stuffed socks for the heads and broomsticks for the body.

My grandmother had some ferns that she kept in the house. My mother talked about how when she was little she liked to slide her fingers along the stems, popping the leaves off. She showed us and we tried it. It was fun, with kind of an odd feeling when they just popped right off. I felt kind of guilty doing it, since it must have been damaging the plants. We did several strands, but then we were told to stop, because if we did too much it might kill the plants. I eventually went back, though, and popped the leaves off all the stems. I felt bad doing it, but it just seemed so fascinating that it was hard to stop. Afterward, my mother was saying, "Why did you do that? I told you not to. They're going to die now." I was hoping that maybe the ferns might grow some more leaves, but she said they wouldn't, that they would die. I still hoped that somehow they would live. I remember the ferns being there in the pots afterwards, for days, with just the green stems, but I don't remember them getting more leaves.

Much, much later, in Arizona, I bought several plants for my grandmother's yard, and over time filled up her house with artificial plants, most of them silk flowers, given to her for Christmas and Mother's Day and her birthday. They were everywhere, in an explosion of color. A person who saw them remarked that someone must love her very much.

Her name was Lola Pearl Rice, and she sometimes said that she was an Albert, and talked about her family, and them moving to Missouri from Iowa.

I called her Mom, instead of Grandma, because Mom is what my mother called her. My mother tried and tried to get me to stop, giving me one arguement after another, but I refused, insisting that she called her Mom, so that was what I was going to call her. My mother said that she called her that because she was her mother, but she was my grandmother. She said that I didn't call her father Daddy. Of course I didn't, Daddy was my father. Mom, however, was Mom. She could not convince me otherwise.

My grandmother was Mom, but my mother was Mommy, so there was no confusion in the names. And so it remained that way, forever.

One time, after she had moved to Arizona, near us, she told me that the neighborhood children called her Grandma Rice. So she did eventually get called Grandma after all, even if not by her grandchildren.

In the 1960s, when we would stay there at the farm for a month at the end of the summer, and then when we moved back for a while in the mid 1960s, I spent a lot of time reading books that I found there. I read some fairy tale books and children's stories, and also some old books my mother had had when she was young, including school books, and some Nancy Drew and Kay Tracey books. I liked Kay Tracey a lot more than Nancy Drew. My favorite Kay Tracey book was "Beneath the Crimson Brier Bush."

My mother showed us some of her old dolls, too. One was a fairly large one, that closed its eyes when laid down. When its eyes were open, though, they had a disturbing feature. My mother already knew about it, and was smiling and telling us to look at the eyes. The eyes seemed to be looking at you no matter where you were, like they were following you around. They didn't actually move, it was an illusion caused by how they were made. The colored part was somewhat sparkling and was dished, with clear plastic or glass over it. It was kind of creepy to feel like the doll was watching you.

She also had some old teddy bears, that were very stiff, and had movable arms and legs, like regular dolls.

There were a lot of little figures of various kinds in the square closet of the bedroom by the kitchen, a lot of them very old. There were more of them back on the upper shelves of the short hallway with the red curtain. Some of them may have been ceramic elves, but most of them were other things, some of them Oriental, and even some native girls. Some seemed related to movies or cartoons. One figure was a very odd Donald Duck. It had the traditional sailor cap and coat, but it had a small head with a long narrow bill. The head sat on a too-long skinny neck, with a big round stomach under it.

I never played with the little figures. We were cautioned not to, we were just to look at them. They seemed very strange to me, anyway. Most of them didn't look like toys, and those that might have been, looked like they were so old they weren't really toys anymore, just keepsakes.

We had a lot of toys of our own, though. When I was little, I used to play a lot with jigsaw puzzles. They were wooden with large pieces, and I would put them together over and over again. One of them had a big rabbit in the lower portion of it. Another one was of the United States, back when it had 48 states, and there were other puzzles. I had several. I kept them in a box, I think. When I got older, I was given puzzles with more pieces, but I still did the old ones, too. My mother used to help me, and we would talk about the puzzles and what was in them.

I had lots of other toys too, including wooden blocks, Lincoln Logs, white plastic Block City Blocks, stuffed toys, various metal or wood toys, a large metal top that hummed when pumped with its twisted metal rod, and many other things. Later on I was given a large stuffed panda bear that I called Joe Bear. My brother was given a similar one, but a different color. We also had large stuffed dog toys with the legs out to the sides, that we liked to sit and lay on. We had lots of coloring books too, and I would spend a lot of time coloring them, sometimes with my mother helping me.

My mother would read to us a lot, at bedtime and other times. We had a lot of children's books, Little Golden Books, Tell-A-Tale books, and others. Sometimes my mother would play a game with us when she would say, "I am the giant, great and still, who sits upon the pillow hill." She later said that she did it when she was tired.

Continued in Part 4.

The house on the highway, Part 1
The house on the highway, Part 2
The house on the highway, Part 3
The house on the highway, Part 4
The house on the highway, Part 5
The house on the highway, Part 6 - Some things I missed

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