My Life…. Looking Back From the Future
Standing on a mountaintop looking out, can provide clarity… it just may not be the sort of clarity one might expect. As surely as the past has formed the future, so does the present form the past. I accepted some fine challenges when choosing my parents. For Mom and Dad, I am truly grateful. You gave me worthy challenges. With the future sight of the present, I recount what I see.
My grandfather had gifted his daughter and Dad a quarter acre, where the next summer Dad built the family a rather small three bedroom house.
It was perhaps the following year that I began helping Gramps; walking over the hill to the big house, perhaps a quarter mile up the road. Often when we had visited before, he would let me ride with him on the tractor, perched on the toolbox on the fender, or sometimes standing in front of him and steering. Often I would jump off to open or close a gate when we went thru. When he had baled hay, we would go out with the tractor and hayrack. He showed me how to stand on the clutch to stop the tractor. After that he would put the tractor in low and slow as I drove while he pitched hay on the hayrack. When we had a load, I stood on the clutch till the tractor stopped in the thick stubble, and he would take it out of gear and drive back. I thought I got quite good at steering and standing on the clutch.
It was a warm summer day several weeks later when I walked to his place, then out to the a field where he was finishing combining oats. Perhaps I was seven, or eight. His Alis Chalmers pulled the combine thru the last strip of standing oats, then he alongside the little Ford, which was hooked to the grain wagon…. the hayrack frame now removed and the grain box installed on the wheels. Chaff flew in the slight breeze as the auger from the combine shifted its load to the wagon.
Gramps asked if I thought I could drive the Ford behind him back to the farm. Sure, I thought, eagerly. At last a man job. He cautioned me to stay well behind him, and that he would stop to open the gate when we left the field. He started the Alis, heading for a hard packed drive. I followed slowly, letting him open a gap of about 70 feet. Then I carefully moved the throttle to match his speed. The ride was smoother on the hard pack.
When he reached the gate, Gramps got off the Alis and came around to see how I was doing. Expertly I had cut the throttle, and stood on the clutch. Only…. the tractor kept on rolling. It was slowing, but still rolling on the hard drive.
“Step on the brake!” he shouted, “Step on the brake.”
I’d heard Dad talk about brakes. He was a mechanic. Cars had brakes.
Desperate, I stood with both feet on the clutch, standing as hard as I could, and steering as straight as I could. Straight for the back of the combine. The Ford banged into the back dead center of the combine. Gramps was grumpy. He reached over and shut off the ignition.
“Why didn’t you step on the brake?”
“Where is it?”
He pointed to the foot pedal on the other side of the tractor. Ahh. So that’s what that pedal was for.
Well, obviously I wasn’t in big trouble with Gramps. He wasn’t happy about the dented combine, but I think he realized he hadn’t explained the brake to me. I was more concerned that he would tell Dad. I could be in very hot water there, as Dad was definitely handy with his anger and his belt. I sweated that for a day or two, but nothing came rolling downhill.
Gramps could be a crochety old bugger at times, but he was usually glad to see me. He always wore a hat outdoors, and so had the sunburnt look of a farmer. When I was younger I was always intrigued that indoors, the upper part of his face and head was white, the lower, brown. Gramma finally helped me put two and two together on that score. Like Dad, Gramps would have a quick temper if things weren’t going the way he wanted. Unlike Dad, he never resorted to physical violence. For that I was usually willing to work with him when he or Gramma would call the house and ask for me to be sent up.
I’d walk over the hill, and if the bull wasn’t near the barn, cut thru the pasture, the barn, and over to the milk house. That was a small building where the milk was strained before being toted to the basement of the house. After his noon meal, Gramps would take a short nap on the living room floor, then head for the milk house where he had a card table, a chair, an old wood stove, and a deck of cards. There he played solitaire until 1 pm, then would get on with is day. Redman tobacco was his choice… his spitoon was an old coffee can on the floor beside his chair. I would arrive and inspect the shelves while he finished his game. Old green tins of bag balm, a few quarts of oil, or cans of grease. Cobwebs. Lots of cobwebs. The door was usually open, and the cats wandered thru. They weren’t house cats, but were friendly enough. This was where they usually got their fresh milk.
He was not really good with kids. Like many adults then, when he talked to us it was as if we were children, not as if we were individuals. It was not something I knew how to deal with, so it just became a part of life, if a somewhat uncomfortable one. Via the grapevine, I knew he and Dad had recently had arguments over how to raise kids. Today, as we walked out the door, he eyed my feet.”New shoes, eh?”
“Mom got them for me,” I wasn’t all that fond of new shoes… the leather was stiff and hurt my feet.
“Well, come here, and I’ll spit on them for you.” I edged away, uncertain where this was going.
“Um, no, thank you. Dad would probably get mad at me.” …and I would have to clean them, wax and buff them Saturday nite, I thought.
The following year I got my introduction to “real” music. In school, of course we had music class, which was ok, but hardly any songs of interest.
Church had music sometimes, say at a high mass, which meant a longer time sitting, kneeling, and being quiet. In a way, church music was eerie. It stirred something inside… from another lifetime. But the church didn’t believe in other lifetimes. It was another conundrum that had to go on the shelf… until maybe someday I would understand more. The choir would sing, the priest would chant; afterwards adults would say, “Wasn’t the music wonderful?” and move on to another subject. Church music was… church music was… I didn’t know what it was. It was a doorway, I knew, but I didn’t know how to open that door. Another item for the shelf, and the shelf was getting full, already.
Gramps was busy that day, and asked me drive the tractor and hayrack out to current field he had baled. He introduce me to Shane, who lived down at the corner, in a ramshackled house our mailman rented out. Shane would pitched bales while I drove. He was about 16, I think, and far more outgoing than I was. I got the feeling Gramps didn’t approve of Shane.
We chatted a bit as I drove to the far field. I think had asked Gramps for work as he didn’t go to school anymore. I stopped the tractor when we reached the first of the bales, Shane jumped off, grabbed the hay hook, and waited until I brought the rack even with the first bale, and pitched it up. I set the pace at a slow walk.
As he worked, he sang. That was a revelation in itself. I didn’t know anybody who sang outside of school and church. But the most amazing part was that Shane was singing a story. A real story that made sense! And was music! The music seemed to emanate from his whole being.
I was speechless, until he had to interrupt to caution me to watch where I was driving. I had to back up from a bale I almost ran into, eased around it, stood on the clutch, and turned the tractor off.
“Sing it again,” I asked, “Sing more.”
Shane was in his element here. He sang that song about a dog again. Then another, about loosing his true love. I didn’t know what his true love was, a girl I guessed, but the singing was wonderful. As I started the tractor a few minuets later, I was intoxicated.
“Can you teach me those songs?” I begged when we headed for the barn later with a full load. So for the next few loads he sang, and I sang along with him. By the end of the afternoon I had learned two ballads, as he called them, and parts of two more.
Gramps paid Shane off, and told him he had nothing for him the next day. Shane jumped the barbed wire fence and set off across the field for his home.
“Wow,” I told Gramps excitedly, “Shane can sing real good.”
“He’s a hillbilly,” came the grumpy reply.
I didn’t know what a hillbilly was, and didn’t care. I walked home singing about an old dog. My singing didn’t match Shane’s, but I was still excited. I sang my songs to Jim and Phyllis when I got home, Jim being a year younger, and Phyllis two years younger. They thought them interesting, but didn’t want to learn them.
Shane didn’t work for Gramps again. When I hadn’t seen him for several weeks, I coaxed Mom into letting Jim and I walk to the corner where Shane lived. Rusty old cars and mattress springs antiqued the grey, dilapidated house. Ashes and partially burnt trash decorated the burn barrel in the yard, while a chickens and four or five cats lounged in the shade. Cars whizzed by on the recently blacktopped road, heading for Peoria, Pekin, or Makinaw.
Shane was home, and happy to sing. Jim wasn’t enthused about singing, got bored, and wanted to go home. Instead we explored an old nearly falling down shed with Shane. On the side, I told him I would try to get back without little brother the next time.
There wasn’t a next time. Several weeks later Mom mentioned that the people down on the corner had moved.
“You mean Shane?” I asked in dread…
“Yes, that boy you went to see.” I was devastated…. another door that seemed to open, then it was gone.
The shelf was beginning to get a real load on it.