Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Ink Wells and Butter Churning

When my kids complained about school I would wax eloquently about how I had to walk ten miles to school through rain and snow and hail. Of course, they would roll their eyes in profound disbelief. But I was carrying on a tradition. When my sister and I would complain about school, my father would grace us with stories of riding his horse to school in rain and snow and hail. We would roll our eyes in profound disbelief.  

But then….

During my teenage years, my parents would take us to visit my father’s parents in Antlers, Oklahoma (near the Kiamichi mountains where the Pushmataha Indians lived. I always like the way that rolls off your tongue. Kiamiche. Pushmataha.) On one visit, he loaded up Sally, my sister, and me in the car, and drove down a winding dirt road through the forest. After about six or seven miles, we stopped at a small building. We got out of a car, and he walked up to a railing and said, “This is where I used to hitch my horse.”

It was a one-room school house. It was unused and run down at the time we visited. Dad then walked to a stone well and looked in. “This is where Polly and I would meet and sip water out of the ladle together. I wonder what ever happened to her.”

Sally and I stood there a bit awestruck. He actually did ride a horse to school. A well? Polly? Our father liked a girl named Polly?

The front door was locked – but we found a back window that could be pushed open. I scampered in and fumbled my way to the back door and unlocked it. Trespassing in a one-room school house. My father wandered around the old desks haphazardly lined up in shaky rows.

“This was my desk at first. Then I was moved to this side of the room and sat in the back row. Then finally I was promoted to the third row.” He eased himself behind one of the desks.

The room had six or seven rows of desks. They were all chair-desk combinations with ink-well holes. The desks were all scratched and scarred. I saw my father slowly rub his hand across the desk.

This almost didn’t compute. One-room school house – horses, it all just didn’t fit into our world of driving to school, football games, detention, and band practice. And it was odd watching the nostalgia washing across my father.

He dropped out of the one-room school in the seventh grade. Then at fifteen he lied about his age and joined the Army – and finally ended up becoming the youngest Master Sergeant in the Army at that time. Somewhere along the way, he took correspondence courses and got his high school degree.

He ended up doing okay for himself. He became the Personnel Director for a large city, then became the Director of Public Works for another city, and ended up being the City Manager in a couple of mid-size cities. Somewhere in there, he ended up as an executive for both the National and the International City Manager’s Association. I remember him flying to Washington for meetings with the Vice-President regarding national funding for cities.

He died a few years ago.

But all of this stirred other memories as well. I remember visiting his parents on their farm. My grandmother would cook such fantastic meals and desserts. On a wood stove. She would know precisely where to place her baked goods in the oven. It seems that different parts of the oven had different heat ranges. She knew what kind of logs to stoke the oven with to get the temperatures that she wanted. 
She taught me how to churn butter. I would sit on the front porch jamming that handle up and down into the wooden churning apparatus. 

One thing I didn’t like was the two-holer that served as a bathroom in the back yard. 

Sometimes my grandfather would take me into the farming area out back. I would walk along behind him and watch as he would come across a few rattlesnakes. He would simply shove them with his foot and tell them to get out of the way…as if they were wayward pets. I never saw a snake strike at him. 

Evening entertainment for my grandparents was sitting on the front porch in rocking chairs with the radio on. Sometimes, on eventful nights, guests would come over and they would sit around playing dominoes.

A different time. A calmer time.

My parents finally moved them out of the farm into town. They had that new-fangled indoor plumbing and gas stove. They didn’t like it, but finally accepted it.

Daily I sit in my office and look out my window onto the traffic below, complete with cars honking and a siren or two. Around me the lights come on like magic, and within my fingertips I can communicate with almost anyone in the world. I look at the problems I face on a daily basis, and they seem artificial when I think of those past times. My grandfather would sniff the air, and say we were in for some rain tomorrow. Today I have to utilize the Weather Channel or online forecasts for this information. My grandparents were poor rural farmers, and learned how to make do. The way I ‘make do’ today is to insure I have a computer and a car and air conditioning in my house.

I can imagine sitting with my grandfather discussing philosophy and politics and how my 401K is doing and how the damn dishwasher is acting up. I can see him pause from shucking the corn, lighting up his pipe, and remarking,  “Julie is gonna’ calve anytime. So I better bed her down pretty good tonight, and check on her early in the morning.”

 I suspect his priorities would be straighter than mine.


  1. When I think of all they had to do without our modern conveniences and how pressed for time I am, I am humbled. Thanks for reminding me.

  2. Nice, Jerry. I, too, remember a simpler time like that.

  3. I think many of us have a hankerin' for simpler times these days, times we may only have heard about or seen on The Waltons. My life is relatively simple, and even it is way too complicated and stressful to me.

    I used to visit my step-grandmother's farm outside of Stephenville, Texas (remember, I asked you about that and your wife), and we had to use the outhouse. I went in one morning and damn near stepped on a rattle snake. Scared the crap out of me. I peed in a pot after that!

  4. Aw. I want to know your Grandpa! It's funny how our perceptions of "hardship" have evolved. Nowadays, I'm struggling to understand someone who doesn't have an email address.

    The times....they are a-changing...

  5. I wish I could have been alive to see a time like this. I always say that if I had a time machine, I would go back to Little House on the Prairie times. Sometimes I dream about giving up my phone, internet, television--but then I realize that would be incredibly inconvenient not only to me, but to my loved ones as well.

    Maybe some day I can convince everyone I love to move to a commune and we can give it up together. :)

  6. What a wonderful post. Ironic I found your post. Just today while walking my dog I was thinking of a simple life and how it sounded so wonderful...(but like you, I MUST have my computer...) I often wish we could trade talent or trinkets instead of using money.

    I enjoy the way you write...I will be following you and check in again...

  7. People were closer to nature when we were free from pollution and the crazy idea that bigger is better. Today we have these conglomerate mega farms that replace the family farm. As we synthesize our natural world we loose a connection with the earth. The back-to-the-earth movement of the 1970's was short-lived but is sometimes seeming to make a resurgence from time to time. Give me country over city any day. Excellent piece Gent!

  8. I think having fewer choices and more fundamental requirements for living contributed to good mental health. I know many people now who have been forced to simplify their lives and although they'd love to have a good job again they report that in some ways they are happier.

    My uncle took me to his one-room schoolhouse in North Dakota. Red, called Cozy Corner, utterly abandoned but with primers still littering the floor.

  9. Oh this post brought back soo many memories of my grandparents. The wood stove, the outhouse and just the simplicity of it all.

    Thanks Jerry, that was wonderful.

  10. Maube they were better times - at least everyone looked out for each other. That's what I remember most from my childhood.
    My children think I'm ancient because I lived in a time when there were no emails and mobile phones!!

  11. There is no way for a product of the burbs to read this post and not feel envy. You write with a fine eye for detail.

  12. Thank You grandpa for writing all those experiences of you because some day Madison and Audei can sit and read all the and live your life as I am doing it right now, I always wonder how your childhood/teenager times were and now I can sit and share this with our little boy. How I wish we can visit all those places that you mention in your stories. Love you Grandpa.

  13. The best part of being older, one has the pleasant memories of times spent. As time goes on...life comes down to the experiences and memories....what we're left with in the end. Enjoy life to the fullest every day!

    Layla of L.A.