Sunday, March 22, 2009

Norman James - The Little Shack on the Prairie - Part 3


The little creek that flowed through “our” place, close behind the barn, was the focus of much of our activity. In the spring we would fish in it for perch. In summer we would wade and swim in it, or paddle about on it using washtubs for boats. We floated toy boats in it. We caught crawdads. When the flow ceased in the heat
of summer, we would seine the pools of standing water. In our nets we found many interesting life forms that inhabited the muddy creek bottom. When the creek was completely dry, we ran the length of it in games of Cowboys and Indians. In winter it would sometimes have ice of sufficient thickness to support our weight for
play. We had no skates, of course, but we could run and slide on the ice. I fell down a lot.

For all it meant to us as a place for fun, our creek was not without hazards. Snapping turtles lurked there, and, though none of us was ever bitten, they constituted an unknown threat beneath the murky water. Cotton-mouth water moccasins were sometimes seen, although they never seemed enough of a danger to inhibit our play. There may have been copperheads, too, since they are usually found near streams, but I never saw one as long as we lived there.

There was a sandy spot on the creek bank north of our house where the digging was easy, and redworms that were nearly a foot long and as big as a pencil could be dug up there. Near this spot there was a large elm tree that shaded a bend in the stream. We called it “The Big Tree”. This was at the widest and deepest spot on the
creek as it crossed our property, and where we did most of our fishing.

These were the years of the Great Depression, the worst depression (so far, but hold your breath) in our nation’s history. The economic depression was made even worse for the farmers of this area by several years of severe drought, and by invasions of grasshoppers.

Record-breaking temperatures marked the summers of the mid-1930’s. Dust from the great dust bowl of the panhandle appeared in the western sky as a light-brown haze. It seemed to me that summer was just an interminable series of blazing hot days. We grasped at any sign of rain, no matter how slight: a large, dark cloud was watched hopefully; the cry of the raincrow was occasionally heard with hope, but the raincrow lied.

Whirlwinds, which are miniature tornados, were frequent. We made a game of trying to get inside one before it dissipated. An amazing sight is a whirlwind going through a dry cornfield. The long leaves are carried high into the air.

One particular night Dad was unable to sleep because of the heat. He got up, found a gunny sack and cut it open so it formed a single sheet of burlap. He then wet it and hung it outside the south window, which was beside the bed where he and Mother slept. The idea was that the evaporation of water would cool the breeze coming through the window. It did not work, unfortunately, because there wasn’t enough breeze to penetrate the wet burlap.

There were many stories of the damage that grasshoppers inflicted on crops, and other stories, possibly exaggerated, of how, after the crops were consumed, the hungry insects would eat fence posts and hoe handles. I do recall seeing stalks of corn and other plants covered with grasshoppers. One year Mother raised about a dozen turkeys for food, and as long as the turkeys lasted, they kept the grasshopper population in check on our place.

Sometime during the 30’s a dirigible balloon airship came over, perhaps 200 or 300 feet above us. It loomed large in the sky, and we were very much in awe at the size of it. As it moved from west to east, Terrence tried to run and keep up with it. I shouted at him to come back, and cried, as I was afraid it would fall on him.

Grandmother James had a neighbor named Meta Leary. She was a shy, quiet German girl, who sometimes came to visit Grandma. She hardly said anything while she was there, but Grandma was certainly up to filling in for her. My brother Gobel, when he was about 5 years old, was visiting Grandma at the same time Meta was there. Gobel's stomach suddenly rumbled loudly. He turned to Meta and said, seriously, "That's gas. It'll be coming out pretty soon." This sent Meta into a fit of laughter.

Dad didn’t work all the time, so there wasn’t always money for groceries. In those days it was common practice for poor folk to buy groceries on credit, and pay up when a crop was harvested or, in our case, when Dad came home from a pipeline job with a pocketful of money. We bought all our groceries at the White and Harper grocery store. At one time our grocery bill had reached $600, which was more than two year’s pay on WPA wages. I don’t know how much Dad made on pipeline jobs, but since he had to live in hotels and eat at restaurants, I doubt that he brought home enough at the end of each job to pay off the accrued debt. However, things were always much better, almost like a celebration, right after his return.

In the spring, we took advantage of the variety of edible wild plants that grew on our place. We gathered “greens”, the leaves of various plants such as poke, dock, and lamb’s-quarter. These were mixed together and prepared in the same way as spinach. We gathered blackberries (as well as chiggers) every summer, and wild
plums. All these things were eaten fresh, of course, but Mother also canned some for winter use. Once in a while we would eat a rabbit or other wild game that Dad or someone had shot.

Our neighbor, Clyde Brown, had a flock of sheep. When it came time to crop the lambs’ tails, he got Dad to help him. Dad brought the tails home for Mother to cook for our supper. I don’t remember whether they tasted good or bad, but it was meat. It was much like eating very long, thin chicken necks.

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