by BETTY MACDONALD
MY BABY had sun baths, vegetables, meat, and cod-liver oil. My neighbors on the Coast viewed these practices in the same light as charms and asafetida bags. Even though I showed Mrs. Kettle the printed instruction in the government bulletins I had sent for, she was convinced that it was just some more crooked work on the part of “ them politicians” and would bring my baby to an early grave. Her babies and her children’s babies — in fact all the babies she had ever had anything to do with — had been fed pork gravy, mashed potatoes, pickles, and beer. And they had “fits.” The number of “fits” (actually convulsions) a child survived was the measuring stick of the father’s virility, the mother’s knowledge of dietetics, and the child’s superior physique.
The Kettles sat around their fire in the evening and Maw would say, “Let’s see — was it Charlie or Mervin that had seventeen fits in one day? God, was that a day! ” She’d sigh reminiscently and the children would urge her on. “ Maw, tell about the time Elwin was blue in the face for two hours.”
Maw would begin. “Let’s see, Elwin was most a year old and I was well along in the family way with Ernest. It was a real hot night and Elwin had had summer complaint bad all day. He was fretful and I took him up right after supper and was rockin’ him in the kitchen when all of a sudden he stiffened out and begun to foam and get blue and I seen he was in a fit, so I put a wet rag on his head and pretty soon he come out of it. He was all right for about an hour. Then he got another one — then another — then finally he got one so bad I got scairt and sent Paw for the doctor, but the car had four flat tires —”
“I’d been meanin’ to fikth them tireth all week,” Paw would interrupt.
“Then Elwin turned kinda blue and his eyes rolled back and he looked awful and I thought he was dyin’ and I begin to bawl, but Paw filled the washtub with real hot water and he dumped Elwin in clothes and all, and just kep’ his head outta the water, and after a long while he begun to come out of it. God, was that kid limp! Just like a rag doll. And white! He looked just like a hunk of sowbelly.”
Once I glanced at Elwin to see how he reacted to this unflattering description; but like many younger children in a large family, he was merely delighted to be the center of attention. Elbows on knees, chin propped in his dirty hands, his large blue eyes gazing at Maw through the shock of hair hanging over his face, he would sit like a dog waiting for a bone.
Maw concluded: “ Well, I finally got that kid ready for bed and then I looked at the kitchen clock” — all heads would turn toward the kitchen clock on the shelf over the sink— “and holy smoke! that kid had been in that fit for two hours.”
At this, Elwin would straighten up and look proudly at the assemblage. “ Well, folks, look at what I growed up into!” He would stand and turn around several times and his family would look and all agree that Elwin was a fine specimen — and to think he had been blue for two hours!
One summer morning I pushed Anne’s crib onto the front porch and put Anne without any clothes in it for her sun bath. Mrs. Kettle came through the orchard just then to borrow some eggs because her chickens had taken to laying in the deep forest down by the creek. When she saw the baby she was horrified.
“You ain’t gonta leave that kid out here, are you?” she asked incredulously.
“Of course I am,” I said. “She has a sun bath every morning.”
Mrs. Kettle said, “Joe’s wife has a baby just two days older’n that one and he’d make two of her. She don’t give him no sun baths.” She poked disapprovingly at Anne’s fat, firm, dimpled back. “Yup, Jennie’s baby would make two of that one.”
A week later I had an opportunity to compare Jennie’s baby with Anne. Bob hired her husband, Joe, to work for us for a few days. He arrived about ten o’clock with Jeanie and Georgie, their big white baby.
Jeanie was a beautiful girl, nineteen, with soft brown hair, dancing eyes, and dimples; Georgie was eight months old and looked as if he had been molded out of dough. He was certainly large and rolling in fat, as Mrs. Kettle had said, but he was logy and fretful. Every time he squeaked, Jeanie ripped open the front of her dress and nursed him. She fed him six times between ten and five, and when she wasn’t nursing him she was tossing him in the air, jiggling, tickling, bouncing, and shaking him.
She kept up a torrential flow of local gossip. I was eager for Bob’s reaction to Jeanie. She was lovely to look at, but Bob preferred gaps in the conversation to interesting tidbits about his fellow farmers.
For luncheon we had Bob’s favorite Spanish omelet, cheese biscuits, and Italian lettuce with Roquefort dressing. We also had Jeanie’s account of her sister’s wedding. “Maw was determined that Helen have a regular wedding and wear Maw’s white satin wedding dress, and Maw had to spend more on the corset than on the food, and even then she had to put her knee in the middle of Helen’s back to lace it tight enough so the dress would go on, and the house looked real pretty and they had the Babdist preacher and was all set, but Maw had made Paw take a bath and the bathroom’s off the parlor and Paw had forgot to bring down his suit and my God! all the people was there, and the preacher, and Helen standin’ in the door hardly able to breathe and waitin’ for Paw, and in he come out of the bathroom in his long underwear and God! I thought I’d split and my Aunt Gertie swatted my backside, but even the preacher laughed —”
I looked at Bob. He sat mesmerized, fork poised above his sagging omelet, the untouched cheese biscuit cooling on his plate.
When I gave Anne her vegetables, cod-liver oil, and applesauce, Jeanie was horrified. She said, “I think you’re takin’ a awful chanct, kid. Georgie don’t get nothin’ but my milk, a bite of potato and gravy once in a while, and sometimes a little candy. Look how big and fat he is.”
I asked Jeanie if Georgie had ever had a fit. She said, “No, he ain’t had one yet, but I guess he will. All kids have fits.”
The day was warm and muggy, but Georgie had on knitted bootees, shirt, diaper, flannel petticoat, white petticoat, dress, knitted jacket — and when Jeanie took him out of doors she put a blanket over his large white head!
Babies in that region were exposed to the air as little as possible. When one was taken out, even on hot summer days, he was always bundled up like an Eskimo; his bedroom, usually shared with several other people, was filled with its original quota of air and sealed tight against any intruding drafts. The baby went where his mother went. When she had coffee, he got some; when she had beer, so did the baby. He spent many of his happiest hours in movies, at dances, or being passed from lap to lap in some warm, gossipy kitchen.
That was a great country for babies. People were always having them. More often than not the babies were illegitimate, dirty, runny-nosed, and smelly — sometimes not bright — but they were fondled and loved just the same. Even the men who were so brutal to their wives, and usually so cruel to animals, were not at all ashamed of loving babies. They stopped and admired other people’s, and took their own, drooling and wet, with them when they went calling. Even the Indian men liked their babies — and that took depth of feeling, for an Indian baby could be smelled for half a mile.
Anne, with her red curls and fat, dimpled, rosy cheeks, drew an admiring crowd wherever we took her and it was only my strong will that kept her from developing a fondness for pickles, beer, coffee, and “fits.”
ON summer days while I was out of doors weeding in the garden, picking fruit, gathering vegetables, or hanging out a washing, I could hear the short, sharp “Toot!” or “Toot, toot!” or “Toot, toot, toot!” from the logging camp nearest us. These toots were the signals given by the whistle punk to direct the operations of the skidder in bringing in the logs. It was a cheerful sound and made a pleasant break in the great blanket of silence which hung over the mountains on summer days. Occasionally, though, the whistle would give a long, mournful wail which lasted for several minutes and meant that a man had been hurt or killed. This sound crept up my back with icy fingers and made me vow I would never let Bob work in the woods as did many of the other farmers.
All the Kettle boys worked in the woods. They told me gruesome tales of crushed legs and smashed hands, of high riggers falling from the tops of great trees, fallers being killed by falling limbs, and logging-truck drivers tipping over their trucks and being killed.
The logging camp whose whistle I could hear was a very large concern. They “ran three sides” — which meant they had three great skidders to which ran three railroad spurs so that they could log three mountains at a time. Bob had several very good friends among the loggers. There were Blondie and Red (both since killed in accidents in the woods), who ran sides for this logging company. They were actually superintendents. They were both unmarried, very quiet, terrific drinkers, and painfully shy. There was also Cecil, who was six feet, seven inches tall, and was considered the best faller in the country. He also was unmarried, very quiet, a terrific drinker, and painfully shy.
Whenever one of these three got drunk enough, he might drive up to see us. Once Blondie decided he would like an eggnog and came up to ask me if I would make it. Of course I said that I would — whereupon he went out to his car and returned with a water bucket of eggs, a gallon of cream, and a gallon of whiskey.
I said, “Do you want me to make enough for the whole camp, Blondie?”
“Oh, no, Betty,” he said. “ I had kind of a headache and thought an eggnog would taste good. I thought I might as well bring enough stuff for us all to have one.”
Sometimes Red would bring steaks for me to cook. They were invariably two inches thick and each one was large enough for six hungry people. Red always brought two apiece. The day after one such occasion, I took one of the steaks to Mrs. Hicks and two to Mrs. Kettle. Then I had to stand helplessly by and watch each good lady place the beautiful tender steaks in a cold skillet over a slow fire with lots of chopped onion and carrots. I knew that by dinnertime all the juice would be drawn out and the steaks would be gray and chewy like pieces of thick, wet blanket.
Once I suggested to Mrs. Kettle that steak put into a very hot pan and cooked over a hot fire was more tender and kept its juices. She said, “Not for me, lady. I’ve et steaks cooked that way in restaurants and they was all bloody. We likes our meat cooked through. Clean through!”
One time Blondie took Bob and me to a poker game at a company house. We watched for a while; then Blondie took out a huge roll of bills, peeled off fifty dollars, and said mildly to the banker, “She wants to sit in a hand.” I drew to an inside straight, made it, and won seventy-two dollars. They all groaned when I showed them what I had done, and several left in disgust; whereupon Bob took my place and lost all but three of my seventy-two dollars.
Late that summer, when there was already beginning to be a tingly feeling of fall in the air, Blondie invited us to visit the logging camp and to see his side in action. I left Anne with Mrs. Hicks, and Bob and I drove through the mountains to the camp where they were logging. On the way we passed barren, ugly hills which had once been beautiful green mountains, and saw mile after mile of slashings— ugly, dry as tinder, and inexcusable. The small companies were careless and wasteful in their logging, but their attempts at destruction were feeble and unimportant compared to the wholesale devastation Blondie’s company left in its wake.
The size of the camp surprised me. It was like a small town. There were stores, bunkhouses, mess halls, equipment sheds, shower houses, and offices on one side of the road. On the other were forty or fifty company houses for married men and their families. All the buildings were painted brown with white trimmings, and many of the houses had white picket fences around their yards.
Blondie was waiting for us and introduced us to the general superintendent, the timekeeper, and several other officials. Then we climbed aboard the train and rode up into the mountains. The train was a long string of flat cars which hauled logs from the woods to the mill on the coast. We stood on the steps of the cab while the loggers rode on the cars.
The skidder was a very large steam donkey engine run by oil and mounted on track. A man in the cab of the skidder took the signals from the whistle punk — “Back up easy”; “Hold everything”; and “Highball.” I watched the chokermen and the hook tender fasten the chokers on a log as the hook tender yelled signals to the whistle punk. “Whoo!” shouted the hook tender. The whistle punk snapped his clacker which was connected to the skidder by an electric wire, and the whistle went “Toot!” The man in the cab let out a little more cable or backed up or did whatever else was called for.
When the chokers had been fastened and everything was ready, the chokermen and the hook tender scrambled back out of the way, and the hook tender yelled, “Whoo, whoo, whoo!” The whistle punk clacked three times, the skidder answered, “Toot, toot, toot!” and the great log was jerked into the air, where it swung and swayed for a few minutes. Then away it high-balled toward the skidder and the train. It was exciting to watch, but I was scared to death when Blondie insisted that I take the electric signal from the whistle punk and operate it myself.
I was so nervous that I signaled “High-ball” when the hook tender wanted a little slack and the chokers were not set. The men down by the log shouted, and Blondie grabbed the clacker and signaled “Hold everything.” I could hear the loggers shouting, “Well, of all the goddamned, sniveling little—” Blondie called out, “Watch the language, fellows. There’s a lady here.” I was much embarrassed and was glad to leave before the loggers could scramble up to find out “ what in hell was going on.” As we walked up the road to the train, I could hear the muted but fervent cursing of the men when they learned that “a woman” had been monkeying with the whistle.
The next day as I worked in my garden I heard the familiar “Toot, toot!” from the logging camp. I thought complacently, “A little too much line — “jerk her back a foot or so.” They must have followed my directions, for in a few minutes I heard “Toot, toot, toot!” and knew that another giant of the forest was being skidded through the woods — that it would soon be loaded on a car and before night would be floating in the bay. Later I heard the mournful wail of the whistle signaling an accident: my distress was even more acute than before, because now I knew more of the men and had been shown some of the dangers.
Two weeks later I discovered that the call had been for our friend Cecil, who had been hit on the head by a falling limb. He came to see us when he got out of the hospital, his head still swathed in bandages. “Cracked my head like an egg,” he told us cheerfully. “That limb hit me so hard on the head it drove my feet six inches into the ground, they tell me. All I remember is shouting ‘Timbah!’ and then waking up in the hospital with a helluva headache.”
They had patched his head with silver plates, and except for a continuous headache he was as good as new — but his logging days were over.
Bob was so enthusiastic about logging, loggers, camp life, and logging terms that he asked Cecil if he would show him how to fall an enormous cedar at the back of our place. So one morning, armed with Cecil’s double-bitted falling axe, with its narrow, deadly sharp blades, and Cecil’s falling saw, which was so sharp and delicately set that they handled it like a soap bubble, they set out. For a while I heard the ring of the axe blows, then pounding, then the even rasping of the saw. Then Bob yelled for me to come.
I didn’t want to go at all. If both of us got clunked on the head by falling limbs, who would go for help? Who would care for the baby? Anyway, this job was especially dangerous because the tree had a bad lean. The shouting continued, however, so I hiked out.
I found them both standing on springboards which had been inserted in opposite sides of the trunk of the tree about live feet from the ground — these were used in order to make the cuts above the swollen base of the tree. In one side of the tree a deep cut had been made with the axe — the saw was almost through. The tree was swaying and groaning horribly.
I thought it would be an excellent idea if they both got off those springboards and came back to the house and let the next storm take down the tree, but they laughed hearty man-laughs at me and continued to saw. They took the saw out and began chopping vigorously — then they both jumped down. Cecil shouted “Timbah!” and Bob echoed, “Timba-a-a-h!” and with a sound like the indrawn breath of a giant the tree fell. It fell between two virgin firs, and parallel to the road, so that it was easily accessible for sawing and hauling. It fell, in fact, to the inch where Cecil had said it would. He was a wizard, but he had his broken skull to prove who was really boss.
I WAS all right at flushing game, Bob decided, but at retrieving I was a washout. This ineptitude was due to my nearsightedness and not to any lack of coöperation on my part, I might add. So when Bob bought Sport I uncovered another weak spot in my character.
“This dog,” Bob dramatically informed me, as he gingerly untied the large, curly-haired, mahoganycolored dog which he had roped in the back of the truck, “is a thoroughbred Chesapeake retriever, has a pedigree, is a wonderful hunting dog, and is very, very vicious.” Then, with what I considered an overdose of caution, he secured the dog to the feed-room door with a hawser large enough to anchor a man-o’-war. During all this the vicious dog regarded us stonily with pale-green eyes and didn’t twitch a muscle.
Bob added, as he made a large detour around Sport to get his feed pails, “He has bitten almost everyone in town; but I understand dogs, and if I take all the care of him, keep him tied up, and just use him for hunting, I think it will be safe enough.” The dog trainer went importantly off to the chicken house, and Sport and I looked at each other. He had on a handsome studded collar with a name tag, but from a safe distance I couldn’t make out the name, and when I received only the cold, pale-green stare for my friendly overtures of “Here, boy,” and “Old fellah,” I started on my evening chores leaving Sport to brood.
During dinner that night Bob told me how, when I was in the hospital, he and the doctor had been discussing hunting and the doctor had told him about Sport. The doctor didn’t finally make up his mind to part with the dog until it had bitten two postmen and three delivery boys. Bob talked about building a dog yard with eight-foot wire, the steady nerves it takes to train dogs, the heinous crime of treating dogs like pampered human beings, — here I surreptitiously placed my napkin over the puppy who was lounging in my lap, — and other firm, manly things concerning discipline and hunting; and then he left for the Hickses’ to see about borrowing the team for disking.
Later, remembering I had not fed my ducklings and forgetting about Sport, I heedlessly rushed into the feed room and was scooping up chick feed when I felt a nudge at the back of my knees. I turned, and there was Sport the vicious, Sport the terrible, offering me his large, feathery paw. We solemnly shook hands and I learned that, though his name was Sport, he never wagged his tail, was dignified and really very shy. Throwing caution to the winds, I untied the rope and took him with me to feed the ducks. There I decided to test out the hunting theory to see if it was as ridiculous as the danger theory. I threw Sport a stick to retrieve and he lolloped after it, then tore down to the edge of the orchard and buried it under the plum tree.
I confess that I hugged him for this, because now there were two of us who seemed to have had no vocational guidance.
When I heard Bob’s car in the drive, I removed Sport from behind Stove and tied him in the feed room, and that was the way things were. Sport knew that I knew that he was neither vicious nor a sport, but we decided to let Bob dream on.
Bob, Sport, and I went hunting in the fall. Great sport for Bob and Sport; all work and no credit for me. The procedure was for us to start up the road with Sport disappearing into the woods at intervals supposedly to flush a covey of quail or some grouse. He would crash around like a bulldozer for a while and then appear all smiles and minus anything at which to shoot except, himself; and shooting him proved a stronger and stronger temptation as the day wore on. At last I would cut through the brush, and flush some grouse, which always left the ground just in front of me with a roar of wings that scared me so much that I would fall over a log into some blackberry vines. Bob would take aim and fire and usually get one or two birds, which always fell in a dense thicket.
Wallowing in, bent double in an attempt to see the birds, with Sport rushing between my legs and back and forth just in front of me, I would inadvertently stumble on the first grouse. Usually the other one was only a few feet away. Thoroughly scratched by blackberries and stinging from nettles and small, whipping twigs, I would reach for the first grouse. Invariably Sport would see it too and, snapping it up, would bound off to find Bob. I could hear Bob praising and patting him as I crawled under a log with the salal snagging my cheeks and with blackberries wrapping themselves around my legs. Emerging at last,
I would give Sport a dirty look while Bob calmly and without comment took my grouse and stowed it in his hunting jacket.
Bob really tried to train Sport. Every afternoon for a week or so during the early summer he worked on him. Through my open kitchen windows I could hear violent disagreement between the Dog Trainer and the Hunter. From the kitchen it sounded as though Sport wanted to sit heavily on his tail and shake hands, but Bob wanted him to take cover, or uncover, or do something quite different. “Damnation! How can anything be so dumb?” screamed the exasperated trainer as Sport eagerly offered the other pawr.
His breed, color, build, and pedigree said that Sport was a hunting dog. He wasn’t — he was a friendly dog. He loved companionship, warm fires, the baby, and me. He preferred chocolates to dog biscuits or meat and he was passionately fond of music. The Hickses had a battery radio, and when I walked down there and Birdie tuned in a musical program, Sport would elbow his way into the house, lie directly in front of the radio, and moan softly.
I still bear the emotional scars of the first time I heard Sport howl. It was the first night of the harvest moon and I was lying contentedly in bed watching the silvery moonlight on the pond when suddenly the quiet air was ripped to shreds by the most terrifying noise. It sounded as though a freighter had gone aground on the front porch and was giving a long, hoarse shout for help; it sounded like an ape man roaring for his mate; it sounded like the death call of an elephant.
It woke Bob from a sound sleep and sent him flying for his gun. Just as he reached the window it came again — louder, more terrifying. Bob thrust his head and shoulders through the open window; then he burst into roars of laughter. “Come here, Betty,” he said. I went over to the window, and there below us, sitting in a shimmering pool of moonlight, was Sport, looking as self-conscious and embarrassed as only a Chesapeake who had built up a terrible reputation of fierceness could look when he was caught wallowing in moonlight and howling for love.
THE most outstanding social event to which we were invited was Mrs. Kettle’s birthday dinner. We were the only outsiders asked, which was a singular honor; it was a Kettle gathering on Kettle soil and our first introduction to the tribe en masse.
One hot July morning Mr. Kettle and Elwin drove up to the house to borrow some egg mash. I invited them in for a cup of coffee but Paw refused. He said, “Thure would like to, but you thee it’th Maw’th birthday tomorrow and Elwin and I are trying to get a little help with the haying tho we will be free to thelebrate. Do you thuppothe that Bob could thpare uth a little time?”
I said, “Bob has a lot of things to do and I know that he won’t be able to help. What about the other boys? Can’t they help? ”
Elwin said, “Haw, haw, haw! Help with the haying? They gotta work in the woods.”
Paw said, “Thath the way it goeth. The boyth won’t help and the old lady can’t do it all alone.”
I said, “I thought you and Elwin were going to do the haying.”
Elwin said, “I gotta get my car fixed before Saturday.”
Paw said, “Mr. Olthon cut our hay latht year and Maw raked and thtacked it — I wath havin’ tumble trouble with my back — but theein’ ath how tomorra ith Maw’th birthday we thought we would give a little thupper party for her and we want you folkth to come but she’ll be tho bithy she won’t have a chanth to help with the hayin’.”
I repeated again firmly, “I know that Bob won’t have time to help with the haying.”
“Well, tha’th too bad,” said Paw. “But don’t forgit to come to the thupper.”
“I won’t,” I said. “What time?”
“Oh, ‘bout four-thirty,” said Paw. “And by the way, everybody ith bringin’ a little thumthin’ to the party. You know — thort of picnic thtyle.”
“I’ll bring the birthday cake,” I said. That evidently satisfied Paw, for he and Elwin took their egg mash and left. (They came up in September to solicit help with that same hay.)
I was not an expert cakemaker, but decided to make up in size for what the cake would undoubtedly lack in quality. None of my recipe books contained any directions for anything over two layers, so I doubled and tripled, and before evening I had the big, heavy square foundation layer done.
The next day was hazy but warm — a perfect day for a party and a perfect morning to bake the rest of the cake, which by noon was finished and frosted pink, white, and blue. It was poisonousbut festive-looking, and as a final corny touch I lettered Happy Birthday on one side in red cinnamon drops and stuck an American flag on the top. Bob drove to town for a pair of silk stockings and a birthday card. At four o’clock on the dot we loaded the cake and set off.
The farther down the mountain we drove, the hotter it grew, until by the time we arrived at the Kettles’ it was stifling. Their yard was seething with cars, because all fifteen children with their husbands, wives, children, and in-laws were there. Mrs. Kettle was bright-eyed in a clean pink housedress which was missing the top two buttons in the front, so that as she greeted us I noticed that her large white breasts bobbed to the surface like dumplings in a stew. I handed her our present and she kissed me, unwrapped the package, and said, “Well, thank God, I don’t have to wear them damn lizzie stockins no more.”
She directed me to put the cake on the front porch, where we were to eat. I carried it through the dark front hall and out the seldom used front door and set it with a thump on the long table of boards which had been set up on sawhorses and covered with a pink crepe-paper tablecloth anchored with rocks. Almost all the chicken droppings had been scraped from the floor and railing, and the lilac bushes cast cool shadows across the table. Two flypaper curls had been suspended from the ceiling; already they were dotted with flies and swayed and quivered as more hit and stuck.
The little flag on my cake drooped as the icing grew warm and soft, and the Happy Birthday seemed about to slide off, so I moved the cake further into the shade before returning to the hot kitchen and the mobs of guests. As I left the porch I noted that the outhouse was going to be present at supper. When I went to the kitchen I suggested that someone put up some sort of temporary door on the outhouse. Mrs. Kettle said, “It’s a good idea, but I don’t think you’ll get any of the men to do it for you. Go shout at ‘em. They’re on the back porch.”
I shouted, but the men were busy drinking blackberry wine, dandelion wine, moonshine, and beer and comparing notes on guns and hunting. The only answer I got to my request was a look of annoyance from Bob. We women drank coffee while we made potato salad, cut the meat loaf, opened pickles, and sliced bread. It was stifling in the crowded kitchen, but we had to build up the fire to bake the rolls and boil the fresh coffee. I opened the door to the parlor, hoping to release a crosscurrent of air, but so many children immediately crowded into this new area that Mrs. Kettle got up, firmly shooed them out, and locked the door. The sanctity of the parlor was to be preserved even on her birthday.
The children raced from the kitchen, through the hall, out the front door, off the porch, around the house, up onto the back porch, and through the kitchen again. They dodged under hot platters, stuck their fingers in the jam and got whacked, rolled on the floor with the dogs, came to get their panties unbuttoned or buttoned, and tattled. The big rocker by the stove held a succession of mothers suckling babies, while the other chairs supported the ample behinds of helpers and cooks. The talk was about sex, logging, sex, cooking, sex, sewing, sex, salaries, sex, fits, and just plain sex. Every four-letter word I had ever heard and many I had never heard were employed singly and in unusual combinations. Mrs. Kettle laughed occasionally but she was plainly embarrassed, as was I. We cut up the potatoes and hard-boiled eggs and talked about canning. We were both relieved when the enormous granite coffeepot finally began to boil and it was time to set the table and carry out the food.
Everyone on the back porch was by that time quite drunk, and voices had become loud and somewhat quarrelsome. A small boy, a little bully who had been causing a great deal of unhappiness among the younger children, came screaming up from the barnyard, where he had been chased but unfortunately not eaten by an old sow. Maw sent Elwin to fetch Mr. Kettle from the barn and we all filed out to the porch for supper.
When everyone was seated, I suggested that we sing “Happy Birthday.” This was a mistake, I realized too late, for they followed “Happy Birthday” with “Show Me the Way to Go Home” and the dirty version of “Little Red Wing.” Maw interrupted this last by banging on the table with her fork and demanding quiet. Everyone cheered and said, “’At’s tellin’ ‘em, Maw!” and began passing food.
Elwin had said that Paw would be right up, but we were eating ice cream before he appeared. To protect him from the flies, he had put on and pulled well down over his eyes a black straw hat of Mrs. Kettle’s. From its crown bobbed a large pink rose. To shield him from drafts Mr. Kettle had thrust his arms into a jade-green knitted coat dress with a full pleated skirt. The skirt must have interfered with the milking, for he had taken a deep hem in it with horse blanket pins — it gave the effect of a ballet skirt. He also wore a black work shirt, dungarees, hip boots, and was smoking a cigar. Choking in an effort to control my laughter until the others had seen the joke, I glanced at Bob, but he shook his head at me warningly.
Amazed, I looked around the table — not one soul seemed to think there was anything unusual in Paw’s dress. He clumped around the table, smiling happily at everyone, and climbed into the chair beside Mrs. Kettle by swinging one manurey boot carelessly over that end of the table. She said only, “You’ve took so long with the milking your coffee’s cold, Paw. Helen, that there’s the knitted dress Myrt sent me from New York. Ugly color, ain’t it?”
After supper the men returned to the back porch, we women put the food away and washed the dishes, and Bob and I left just as a sizable fight started over who had stolen what from whose car. The cake was a great success.
WE seldom went to the movies, for two very sound reasons: (1) it meant driving seventy miles — thirtyfive miles going and coming; (2) we had to get up at four o’clock the next morning. In addition, Bob complained that his legs were too long for comfort in any theater seat; he always slept through everything but the news; and I had become so biased that no matter how melodramatic the plot, I watched only to see if the heroine did any work or if she seemed to have all the conveniences of modern life. If she didn’t work and seemed to have plenty of opportunity to take steamy, fragrant baths, I lost all interest in the plot. Under such circumstances, I didn’t give a damn who got the man.
But a county fair is another matter. To me a fair is the ultimate in entertainment, with something of interest for everyone, all the time in the world to enjoy it, and so many delightful smells — popcorn, coffee, molasses candy, and wet sawdust. Our county fair was held in late September, and by the opening day the dust was ankle deep. It had to be hosed down every morning, and the pathways had a pleasant spring rain smell. We attended the fair in true farmer style. I packed dozens of diapers, several bottles, blankets and pillows so that the baby could take a nap in the truck, mosquito netting to keep off the flies, and extra old shoes for the trip through the animal pens.
It was chilly and foggy in the mountains, but the town was flooded with bright sunshine and whipped by salty breezes. Despite the early hour, there were many other cars and trucks on the road, and when we turned into the fairgrounds we found as much activity as though it were late afternoon. We parked the truck under a large Balm of Gilead tree near the restaurant, I divested Anne of her knitted leggings, put on my old shoes, and we were ready.
The first thing, of course, was to have a cup of coffee and some fresh, homemade doughnuts. At stools along the counter on either side of us were other farmers and their wives and children. The other babies were being given sips of coffee and bites of the hot, greasy doughnuts. I felt hard and niggardly as I ate and drank, with Anne’s round blue eyes following each sip and bite like those of a puppy. After the coffee we went to the poultry show — of course we thought that some of the White Leghorns that had won blue ribbons weren’t a bit better than our own hens.
Bob was interested in the Australorps — black chickens which were supposed to lay as well as the White Leghorn and to be as fine a table bird as the Rhode Island Red or Barred Rock. It sounded too good to be true, but the farmer who exhibited swore that they were the most remarkable discovery since electricity. From the poultry houses we went to the pig pens, which were more pleasant early in the morning — then to the sheep, goats, and rabbits. By this time Anne was getting sleepy, so I took her back to our car and left Bob with instructions to meet me at the restaurant at noon. I fastened Anne to the seat of the car with a blanket under and over her and pinned to the upholstery, stretched the mosquito netting from the back of the seat to the steering wheel, and she immediately and obligingly went to sleep.
I spent the rest of the morning in the canning and fancywork exhibits. I felt a surge of pride when I saw that Birdie Hicks had won blue ribbons on all her canning and that Mrs. Kettle’s quilts were prominently displayed. There were some really beautiful hooked and braided rugs and some perfectly hideous ones made of fringed gunny sacks and coated with yarn forced through the mesh and tied in knots. I remembered seeing instructions for these rugs in one of the farm magazines. There was a pen-and-ink drawing of the rug, showing it with a nap of about four inches. Underneath it I read, “There is beauty in even the common grain sack.” There is, too, but not when it has been disfigured with yarny knots.
There were other ingenious uses for everyday objects. There was a Sears, Roebuck catalogue painfully twisted and shellacked and tied with a red cord. The white card beneath it said, “An inexpensive doorstop.” There were catsup bottles made into bud vases, clothespins decorated with crepe-paper butterflies for use as curtain holder-backers, crocheted bags for silverware, bouquets of crepe paper and velvet flowers, an enormous funeral set piece of white organdy gardenias and dark-green oilcloth leaves with Rest in Peace spelled out in white pipe cleaners, embroidered pictures, burned-wood matchboxes, and fancy pillows by the hundreds. The pillows embraced every sentiment from “Frankie and Johnny Were Lovers” in black beads on a cerise satin background to the Twenty-Third Psalm in white on black velvet. It was an impressive exhibit of what loneliness can do to people.
At noon Bob and I met at the restaurant building and had a large turkey dinner. The day gave promise of being very hot by then, but we stuffed down heavy dressing with giblet gravy, slabs of white and dark meat, pickled beets, and pumpkin pie. A friendly, red-cheeked woman behind the counter heated Anne’s bottle and her vegetables, and I fed and changed her on a robe spread under the Balm of Gilead tree.
We were thus occupied when Mrs. Kettle waddled up. She had on a large blue sunbonnet and a clean starched blue housedress and looked like the picture of the grandmother in the maple syrup advertisements. She sat down thankfully on the robe, kicked off her shoes, and said, “Keeerist, but my feet hurt. We been up here sence about eight and I haven’t set down once.” Mrs. Kettle and I rested under the tree until after two; then we wandered through the school exhibits, the forestry service display, and the farm machinery. At three we had more coffee, and at threethirty Bob and I left for home.
THE well at the back of our place dried up in June; the spring at the foot of the orchard disappeared during the summer; and in August and September we carried water from a spring in a valley eighteen hundred feet from the house if we cut across the burn, or a mile and a half if we used the road. I was really glad when the orchard spring dried up, for it meant that Bob hauled the water in the truck in ten-gallon cans and I didn’t have to feel guilty if he caught me washing my face more than twice a day.
Bob was so parsimonious with the water when he was carrying it that one would think we had pitched camp in a dry coulee instead of being permanently settled in some of the wettest country in the world.
“I have to have more water!” was my perpetual cry.
“More water?” Bob would shout. “More water! I just carried up two buckets.”
“I know you did,” I would explain patiently. “Two buckets equal five gallons, and the stove reservoir holds five gallons. In addition, I made coffee and boiled you two eggs, made cereal for the baby, and wet my parched lips twice. The water is gone.”
With set mouth Bob would go down through the orchard and get two more bucketfuls. These would see me through the first tub of the baby’s washing. There were still the rinsings, the baby’s bath, the luncheon tea, the luncheon dishes, the floor scrubbing, the canning, the dinner, and the dinner dishes — not to mention occasional hair washings, baths, and face washings. For these I carried the water myself.
I estimated that I carried a minimum of sixteen buckets of water a day — sixteen ten-quart buckets or 160 quarts a day; 58,400 quarts a year; 116,800 pounds a year. Is it surprising that my hands were almost dragging on the ground and my shoulders sagged at the sight of anything wet? Or that I was tortured by mirages of gushing faucets and flushing toilets? I could not. believe it when Bob announced casually one fall morning, “We’re going to start laying the pipe for the water system tomorrow.”
“We?” I asked, missing the point entirely. “Who’s we?”
“Jeff the moonshiner is going to help me install the water system — set up the tank and bury the pipe.”
Evidently Bob expected dissent from me. He needn’t have worried. If he had told me that they were releasing the homicidal ward from the nearest asylum to help install a water system for us, I wouldn’t have uttered a protesting sound. Water from a tap — dripping, swishing, plentiful, wet water! No price, no sacrifice, was too great. Bob jumped into the truck and went down to get Jeff’.
Fall was a wonderful time up there in the mountains. The sun got up at six languorously and stayed shrouded with sleep until about nine. Fall and school were still closely linked in my mind, and I could almost feel the pinch of new school shoes when I saw the first red leaf, heard the first hoarse shouts of foghorns. I remembered the last fall, when we had driven along the valley road one morning early and had seen the children, scrubbed and clutching their lunch boxes, waiting at each gate. I wondered if we should still be on the farm when Anne started to school. While I was absorbed in this reverie Bob returned with Jeff.
Jeff was a tall, tobacco-colored, lithe man with an Old World courtesy of manner, a voice so liquid and soft he could have bottled it and sold it for soothing syrup, a Southern drawl, and light yellow eyes which saw in the dark and which spotted every exit in a room before he crossed the threshold. He and Bob came in for a cup of coffee. He tilted back in a kitchen chair, fingering the gun in his coat pocket and flashing his big white teeth.
Burying eighteen hundred feet of pipe proved to be a slow, strenuous project. Oddly enough it was most difficult on the burn, where the ground was netted with the tough, resilient roots of Oregon grape, salal, blackberry, alder, and hazelnut. Bob and Jeff inched their way along, digging, chopping, sawing, and sweating.
The six-hundred-gallon water tank arrived, knocked down and looking disappointingly like a bundle of fagots. Bob and Jeff spent a day in the woods finding four straight poles to support the platform for the tank. I scanned the bathroom fixture division of the Sears, Roebuck catalogue, but found it difficult to settle down to the details when running water was still in the mirage department. My rhododendrons were thriving and blooming, so Bob picked that corner as the only place where he could add on a bathroom. Did I care? Not a whit — I jerked them up and put them by the woodshed. We were all out for water.
The presence of Jeff at the ranch did not pass unnoticed. First Mrs. Hicks drove up to find out why he was there. She said, “Saw that moonshiner’s car on the road this morning — that it over there by the chicken house?”
“Yes,” I said. “He’s helping Bob bury the pipe and install the water system.”
She said, “Sure he isn’t looking for a new location?”
I said unconvincingly, “He’s the only person in the country we could get to help with the pipe-laying. He’s a good worker and we are glad to have him.”
“He’s a moonshiner,” said Birdie Hicks. “And having him up here don’t do your reputation any good.”
I let the subject drop there and we had tea. But as I watched her self-righteous back go down the lane to her car, I knew I could expect no quarter from Birdie Hicks. If we became involved with moonshiners, we could expect to be reported on — it was her duty.
ONE day I decided to walk down to the Kettles’ to see what their reaction was to our having Jeff up at the ranch. In the baby buggy I put Anne, a bucket of extra eggs, and half a chocolate cake. With Sport and the puppy racing fore and aft we started down. It was a delightful walk and our cheeks were rosy and our spirits high as we trundled up to the Kettles’ porch.
I was startled out of my intent maneuvering of the buggy wheels around axles, stray fenders, car parts, and tools by a terrified roar from Paw Kettle in the barnyard. I turned just in time to see him streak out of the milk house and into the barn. Then the water tower, which was on a platform about thirty feet high and supported by four straddled spindly legs, gave a great groan and collapsed with a splintering crash on the milk-house roof.
A geyser of water flooded the barnyard and frightened an old Chester White sow and her pigs so that they went right through the discarded bedspring which was part of the barnyard fence and disappeared into the oat field. I jerked the buggy out of range of the small pieces of the wooden tank that sailed through the air and the splats of water that landed with smoky puffs in the dusty driveway.
After a time things quieted down and Paw came sidling cautiously out of the barn. Elwin called from under his car, “Hey, Paw, you dropped something! Haw, haw, haw!”
Maw shuffled down from the back porch and for a while they stood and looked; then Paw whispered, “The damn thing almotht got me! It almotht got me!”
Maw said, “For godsake, what happened?”
Mr. Kettle looked belligerently at the hole in the milk-house roof and at the shattered tank. " All I wanted wath a little pieth of two-by-four. How would I know the bugger’d collapth?”
Mrs. Kettle said, “Paw, what was you doing?”
Mr. Kettle said, “I needed a little pieth of two-byfour for the apple bin and I thought the other legth could hold her all right. I only took a pieth about a foot long from that leg by the milk houth.”
Maw said, “ Well, I’ll be damned. It was only a little piece you took out of the water tank support? What in hell did you think would hold it up —air?” She started back toward the house.
I went with her. We left Paw still muttering, “It wath only about a foot long. Only a little pieth.”
Elwin was crowing delightedly, “I knowed what would happen when I seen the old fool sawin’. Haw, haw, haw!”
Two cups of coffee later, Bob came to get Anne and me. There was no mention of Jeff.
Mr. Kettle was at the back door before seven the next morning. “I heard you wath inthtalling a water thythtem,” he said as he scrambled off his wagon and adroitly intercepted Bob’s intended escape through the orchard. “And I wondered if perhapth you had a few hundred feet of old pipe you wathn’t going to uthe, thome extra fittingth or thome lumber [preferably four thirty-foot four-by-fours to support a new water tower] and then I heard Jeff wath up here with you and I wondered if you could thpare me a few dayth with the haying. We’re awful late thith year but the boyth won’t help and Maw and I can’t —”
Before he could finish and before Bob could make his usual courteous excuses, Jeff vaulted lightly over the fence he was mending, walked over, and stood directly in front of Paw and said in his soft, caressing voice, “You whinin’, snivelin’ old beggah. Why don’t you gather up some of youh worthless sons, go out in the woods and cut some poles, and buy your pipe!“
Paw, not at all nonplused, thought this over for a moment and then said, “Well, I tell you, Jeff, the cream check wath pretty thmall thith month and I jutht thought that perhapth Bob had thome old pipe or perhapth he had ordered too much and I wouldn’t want to thee it wathted when I got a good uthe for it.” Jeff said, “Aw, get out of my way you, you maggot gut!” Paw went scuttling back to the wagon but he waved cheerfully as he drove out of the yard and I knew he would be up the next day for something else.
At last our water tower was finished except for the water. To the casual outside eye it was just a very sturdy, well-constructed platform on which rested a round wooden water tank. To me it was lovelier than the Taj Mahal and gave me a pleasant, progressive feeling when I approached the ranch from either road and saw its blatant newness towering skyward.
When the pipe was all buried, the engine was started; and one bright fall morning I heard the musical splash and gulp of water being pumped into the tank. The tank was scrubbed and drained and then filled. I returned to the kitchen to find that the faucet in the sink had been left open and water was an inch deep all over the floor. I didn’t care — it was in the house and available. From then on, when I felt blue, all I had to do to cheer up was to turn the faucet, and there was the water, a little muddy, but wet and handy.
The day we got our water I rushed down to tell Mrs. Kettle and incidentally to find out what she was doing since the collapse of their water tower. What they were doing for water was evident long before I reached the house, for, sitting on an ordinary kitchen stepladder at the site of the old tower, was a fiftygallon wooden barrel into which the ram was busily pumping thousands of gallons of water. The barnyard was awash and a white Peking duck and her ducklings were paddling in and out of the tool house. The old sow who had disappeared in the oat field the day of the crash had made a lovely wallow just outside the milk-house door, and little waves lapped against the old wagons and discarded furniture as she shifted her weight from side to side.
Mrs. Kettle was futilely sweeping mud out of the milk-house door, but every time the old sow or one of her litter moved, a fresh wave was washed in. I called to Maw from the edge of the flood and she stopped sweeping long enough to call out, “There’s some pitch in the woodbox. Put the coffeepot on and I’ll be right up.”
When she finally came in, flushed and discouraged, she said, “You know, that mess down there is only one of the thousands I’ve been in ever since I met Paw. He’s good and all that, but he ain’t got system.”Which was where she was wrong, of course, for Paw had the perfect system for getting out of any and all work.
I hadn’t the heart to mention our water system.
When we first bargained with Jeff about the water, I was foolish enough to think that when the pipe was buried he would be completely divorced from us and we could actually and truthfully deny any knowledge of his activities. Of course, that was not to be. Jeff continued to eat most of his meals with us; we enjoyed his company, for he was a charming and intelligent man, despite his illiteracy.
At breakfast one morning, Jeff presented me with a ten-gallon charred oak keg of aged whiskey. He said, “This ain’t rectified stuff— this was aged by swingin’ in a tree.” The whiskey was as smooth as oil and fullflavored. Jeff rubbed some between his fingers, then smelled it — his way of testing it, for he himself did not drink. “In a couple of years, that would really be good drinkin’ liquor,” he said solemnly.
I was very grateful but felt much the same as a person who has been presented with a time bomb. I didn’t know where to put it. I toyed with the idea of burying it under the carrots in the root cellar, but that seemed so obvious. If I were a Federal, that would be the first place I should look. Then I thought of the feed room, but that again was the obvious hiding place of a farmer. Then the pantry, the bedrooms, the cellar. In desperation I put it in the outhouse and decided that if the Federals came I would go out there and sit until they had gone!
Jeff priced his whiskey at $12.00 a gallon, but some people paid $13.50 and some only $7.00. It depended on the customer. The whiskey was sold in gallon jugs only— the customer to bring an empty jug to exchange for a full one. Jeff never sold whiskey to Indians. This was not from any respect for the Federal law. It was merely that he didn’t like Indians. The Indians weren’t good to their women, a heinous crime in Jeff’s eyes, and they had often found his caches and stolen his whiskey.
A ROOT cellar was originally a storage place for root vegetables such as carrots, potatoes, rutabagas, beets, and turnips. Actually it used to be an earthen pit where the vegetables were buried against the winter freeze. Root cellars in our district were more elaborate affairs — built to store fruit and vegetables in winter, milk and cream and butter in summer. Our first root cellar was a poorly constructed house next to the feed room. It had shelves and bins of sorts and a dirt floor.
During the second spring and summer Bob built a new one: tunneled into the bank near the driveway, it was constructed like a mine shaft, timbered on top and on the sides, lined with double walls filled with sawdust, and with a door that would have done credit to a bank vault. It was a sturdy thing and had a floor of white sand. Bob built shelves for my canned fruit, screening shelves for the winter pears, bins for apples and potatoes, racks for squashes, cabbages, pumpkins, and my wrapped green tomatoes, and bins of clean sand for celery and carrots. There were also spaces for crocks of pickles, and cupboards for storing milk, butter, cheeses, and lard.
All that storing, storing, storing against the winter should have given me a feeling of warmth and security. It didn’t. I felt much more as if I were being prepared for the tomb. I had spent so much of the first winter in gooseflesh that it took me the next spring and summer to get my skin to lie down flat again. Preparing to go through the whole thing again, no matter how much we had to eat, left me cold. Cold and lonely.
The root cellar began where the pressure cooker left off. I canned my last quart of corn, emptied the pressure cooker, dried it, put it away in the pantry. Then it was time to start digging potatoes. I love to dig potatoes. To me it is an exciting occupation, especially when the soil is ideal and each hill yields large, middlesized, and small ones. Our potato crop that second fall was so huge that we kept track of the potatoes in each hill and called excitedly to each other as we broke the record with new hills. The potatoes ran up to twelve inches in length and six inches in breadth; they were free from scab, and cooked to a dry white fluff. We had five tons, of which the most perfect were laid aside for seed, the largest put in a bin for baking, and about three tons of mediums sacked and sold.
A month after the potatoes, we dug the carrots, beets, rutabagas, celery root, and parsnips. Between the potatoes and these root vegetables came the apples, pears, squashes, pumpkins, and green tomatoes. We left the cabbage, Swiss chard, broccoli, and kale in the garden along with the winter spinach, then several inches high, and a fall planting of early peas, but not the celery. Leaving that in the ground made it pithy and bitter, so along in October we lifted out the celery, being careful to take along lots of damp earth, and buried it in layers in a special dark, damp corner. It kept beautifully.
In September we had bought a cider press. I gathered buckets and buckets of windfall apples and set them outside the feed room, where Bob squashed them into cider for vinegar and cider to drink. I made one five-gallon crock of cherry-leaf sweet pickles and one five-gallon crock of garlic dill pickles. I found a wild plum tree down at the edge of the big burn loaded with hard green plums which Mrs. Hicks said made wonderful olives. I intended to experiment with perhaps a pint or two, but Bob got wind of it and came staggering in with a washtub of plums. They were the size of jumbo green olives and as hard as bullets. I made a five-gallon crock and gave the rest to Mrs. Hicks. Five gallons of this, fifty quarts of that — two hundred jars of everything. “At this rate we’ll have to hire a fulltime worker just to unscrew jar lids,” I muttered to myself.
Then it was time for the butchering. Earlier in the fall I had begged Bob to take over the feeding of the pigs because I was becoming too fond of Gertrude and Elmer and did not wish to go through the winter bursting into tears every time I fried the breakfast ham or bacon. Bob thought this was pretty silly of me at first. Then he took to telling me of little incidents where the pigs showed great intelligence or affection, and the next I knew, Jeff was feeding the pigs.
The day of the butchering I took the baby and walked down to Mrs. Kettle’s. That they too had been butchering I could tell from a heap of entrails in the driveway opposite the kitchen door. The entrails hadn’t really begun to smell bad —just very entrailly — but the flies were like a black undulating cloth thrown over the gray shiny pile, and the back porch was heaped with cut meat which even my cursory glance revealed to be dotted with little clumps of fly eggs. It was not appetizing, but it didn’t bother the Kettles, as I could tell from the smell of roast pork coming from the kitchen.
Mrs. Kettle had just made a fresh pot of coffee and had baked a coffee cake, and in spite of the butchering, the entrails, and the fly eggs, I was soon sitting at the kitchen table, eating and drinking with good appetite.
“A year ago my stomach would have rebelled actively at first sight of the entrails,” I reflected dreamily. I had come a long way in a year, but was I climbing upward toward some sort of well-balanced maturity or sliding downhill into a slothful indifference? I asked Bob about it after dinner, but he merely looked at me quizzically and went to bed without answering.