Sunday, December 31, 2006

A Wonderful Time Was Enjoyed By All
On my second Christmas vacation while living at the farm, MM and my sister went to the city to my Uncle's home for Christmas, and Dad returned home to spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with me in town. We opened our presents to each other and went to my Aunt and Uncle's house for dinner. Then, after spending another night in town, Dad returned me to the farm while he went to retrieve MM and my sister. As we pulled into the barnyard, I immediately noticed things were not normal. To start, there were cars, parents, and kids all over the big yard. It soon became apparent that the cars were dropping off the kids at the farm and that I knew them all. They were all from my class at school. Before I had a chance to ask any questions, Uncle R told me to go and hitch the team to the sled we used to haul logs from the woods. As I went to do this, I passed by the cow barn entrance and saw that there were large number of kids being shown around the cows by F. I figured it must be some church outing as I saw the new young Methodist Minister and his wife there also.
I soon had the team and sled assembled and was just finishing when R came and told me to drive it around to the barnyard and F would tell me what to do. By now I was pretty certain I'd solved the mystery, it WAS a church outing including a horse-drawn sled ride. As I pulled up out front, I could see that the sled had been covered with white canvas and this further cemented my belief in the outing idea. F soon came out of the barn with the Minister, his wife, and about 12-15 of the kids and they all climbed on the sled and found places to sit for the ride. F told me to cross the road to his yard and then follow the little road that lead to our lake cottage to the southwest through the marshy woodlots. As I turned onto the cottage road, I saw that somebody had had the horse powered "snow roller" we used to pack the snow for hauling logs down the road. This, I assumed, had been done for the outing, as we didn't normally pack that road, preferring to use skiis and toboggans to haul ourselves and our equipment to the cottage for ice fishing. But, having decided that a church outing had been arranged, I just accepted it as part of the preparations.
On arriving at the cottage, I found that Mrs F and another lady were already there and had the doors cleared of snow, kerosene lamps lighted, and from the tell-tale smoke, a fire started in the main room wood furnace. I use the word furnace loosely, as it was really just a steel 55 gallon drum on a stand with a metal pan under it and a stove pipe at one end. Uncle R had affixed a hinged door and swivelling vent on the front to allow log loading and airflow adjustment. On the back end he'd made another. smaller door with an old cast iron roaster below it. This was so when the fire was out, a garden hoe could be inserted through the front door and the ashes pushed out the back into the roaster. There was also a fully stocked wood-box beside it to hold more fuel. Although rather crude, it was remarkably efficient in heating the cottage to a nice toasty level of comfort, even allowing for bare feet.
I had little time to see what was happening though, as F told me we had to return at once for another load of kids. The second load was pretty much the same as the first, and we made our way back to the cottage for a second time. This time, however, instead of telling me to go back for the remaining kids, F told me to go in and help Mrs F and the other lady prepare the cottage and he'd take the team and sled back for the rest. As I entered the cottage, my suspicions of a church outing were further confirmed when I saw that the other lady within was Mrs McClure, the Catholic Priest's live-in housekeeper. That there were two churches involved helped explain the number of kids in attendance. As I went for wood for the kitchen stove, I noticed a number of boys in the frozen marsh with axes and bow saws cutting away small dead trees and limbs, and another bunch hauling them out toward the lake. Once I had the stove going and the stovepipe and furnace flues adjusted, I went out the lake end porch door just in time to see R pulling up with a smaller load of kids and a bunch of blankets, pillows, sleeping bags, and small pieces of luggage. Upon seeing me, he called for me to help him unload the sled into the cottage where, I saw upon entering, the two women had moved all the furnishings against the walls of the main room leaving a large clear area. As I was about to deposit my load, the Minister's wife came down the steps from the open loft sleeping area and took some things from me and headed back up the stairway. As we went to the sled for another load I noticed the Minister and a large group of kids had cleared a large half-circle abutting the iced over lake.
They had also placed steel milk bottle carrying cases, which I didn't recall hauling there, in lines of four cases per line and topped them with long two inch by twelve inch planks which I also didn't recall bringing down. At the center of this half-circle, about six feet from the lake ice's edge, they'd built a very neat bonfire pile, having cut the limbs into proper sizes and gathering small dry twigs for kindling. Just as R and I finished unloading everyone's things from the sled, F arrived with his new snow machine with my aunt on behind him and towing two long toboggans loaded with big boxes. I was about to help unload them when F handed me his prized Zippo lighter and some tightly twisted strips of brown paper bags and instructed me to go get the bonfire going for the Minister. This took a bit of time, during which I heard the snow machine leave and glimpsed the sled returning to the barn as well. Just as I was satisfied with the result of my fire lighting prowess, I heard the snow machine return and looked to see, much to my surprise, Uncle R and F both on the thing and returned to the cottage. A quick calculation led me to the obvious, but unbelievable conclusion that, since "the princess" was away for the holidays, the farm was unattended for the first time in my memory. I was still struggling with this new information when my aunt called everyone to the cottage.
As we all arrived I hung back, so as not to insert myself into the church outing R and My aunt were apparently catering. Now I noticed that R and F had brought another group of wooden crates and they were full of skates. Now I was getting a clearer picture of things, it was a church skating party and sleepover. As everyone found their skates and went about putting them on, I noticed for the first time that truly all the kids were in my class at school, all thirty-odd of them. In fact, my entire class seemed present. This didn't surprise me though, as I was busy with chores during Sunday School hours, I assumed they were all in the same class there as well. Once they all were outfitted for skating fun, my aunt called me up onto the porch where the adults were gathered. As I got there, R handed me a package wrapped as a Christmas present, now I was confused. Being told to open it, I tore the wrapping off to expose a plain brown box tied with twine. I took out my Old Timer pocket knife, cut the string, and opened the box to reveal, miracle of miracles. Skates! Hockey skates! For me! I'd outgrown my old skates two years before and had spent the previous winter sharing the skates of a school friend the times I could get to the town's rink. Now I had my own!! As many things those days, they weren't new, but well cared for by R and F's nephew who'd outgrown them.
Overjoyed, I just stood there staring at them until my uncle asked if I planned to try them out. I still thought it was a church outing and asked if it was okay to go skate. My uncle's answer was "Of course you young fool!". So, on with the skates and off to where the boys had used the hay bales F had put out as boundary markers to improvise a hockey rink of sorts. When I got there they were forming up teams and it soon became clear there was a shortage of a few hockey sticks. We were in the process of figuring out who shared with who when the Minister skated up and handed me a brand new hockey stick and said R told him I'd forgotten to take it with me. As my pal who'd shared his skates with me was also without a stick, we played in relays of about ten minutes apiece using my new, wonderful, hockey stick. Another unexpected treat!
As we all grew tired, we gathered around the bonfire on the makeshift benches and saw that boxes of hot dogs, bags of buns, roasting sticks, and marshmallows had appeared. There was also an upturned wooden barrel with jars of relish, mustard, and for those wanting to "ruin" their dog, bottles of ketchup. We spent a long time roasting, slathering, and gulping hot dogs and downing the bottles of soda that had also materialized. After we were all pretty much stuffed, we went inside, where I found my sleeping bag was, for some reason, among the others. We all staked out a place to sleep, pointed to where the attached "outhouse" was, and sat around singing and listening to the stories told by the adults in our midst. My aunt and Mrs McClure kept busy filling bowl after bowl with popcorn they made over the wood stove in the wire popcorn basket. And finally, full, tired, toasty warm, and happy, we all actually went to sleep. The next morning we had breakfast of everything imaginable before taking one final turn skating. Then it was time to go as the parents would be arriving soon for rides back home.
Mrs McClure stayed with me at the farm while the adults made short work of cleaning up and putting things away. While we were together, Mr McClure clued me in as to what had happened. As a reward for all my help on the farm, they'd arranged the gifts with Dad. My aunt, ever resourceful, had done all the planning. Knowing a "mixed company" sleep-over might not set well with some parents, and wanting all my classmates there, she had first invited the Minister and his wife, then Mrs McClure. Then, once they'd accepted and offered to help as well, she approached each set of parents and started off by mentioning who the chaperones were to be. Upon hearing of their church folks' connection, all parents readily agreed. Thus was the skating party born. I also found it wasn't a church outing, but a special surprise for me as a Christmas thank you. R and F's brother, whose son had owned my skates, had come out special just to take care of the farm and milk deliveries during the party.
I can still feel their bite of those newly sharpened skates as I pushed off ever faster across the lake that night. I think every child should have at least one wonderful Christmas that stands above the rest. That was mine. Until next we meet, take care.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Happy Holidays To All Who Stop Here
I want to wish a holiday season full of peace and joy to all who visit this blog and share in my memories. This blog has not only provided me with a way to preserve a small part of who I am for my family, but has opened the door to new friendships and interests around the world. As much fun as it is to reminisce about my early years, sharing the memories brings a special happiness all its own. With a little good luck, my sporadic trips down memory lane will permit me to share even more of what I'm learning was a special childhood. Thank you all and may all life's blessings come to rest on you and yours. Mike S.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

A Little Bit About A Boy & A Bear On my second summer on the farms I was allowed much more freedom to roam about in my free time and do whatever young boys seem to do, mostly fishing and swimming. It was while fishing that this little tale began to unfold. The photos above are to illustrate the "sucker fish", which was the catalyst for the beginning of the tale. These fish live in rivers having deep pools of still water and spawn up the streams feeding the river in the spring. The other photos are of adult and young (just older than cub and on their own at last) black bears. They also show the difficulty in spotting the bears in the bush, even when you think they're watching you. The photos also illustrate the only place it's even remotely safe to observe a wild black bear, from a pretty good distance. The greater the distance away, the safer you are. On the far north border of R's farm, about six miles through the woods on a seldom used logging road that was comprised mostly of two parallel ruts, ran a fairly large stream. It seems to have gotten smaller with time, as it no longer seems so large on my occasional visits these days. It must be something in the water at my old hometown, as so many things aren't nearly as large as I remember them. The walk in to the stream seems every one of its several miles however, as the road remains mostly two ruts that deter even Jeeps from passing, so a hike in it is still. It was in this stream that the sucker fish would fight their way against the current every spring to reach the sandy-bottomed shallow water in which to lay their eggs. As this always occured at the time of spring snow melt, the current was stronger and the water deeper than normal. It was also extremely cold, which apparently wasn't a problem if you were ten-thirteen years old and had "sucker fishing fever", a common malady among the entire population of the male youth of the area. In most places, the logging road would allow a bicycle to remain upright with a lot of good balance, quick reactions, and muscles beefed up by farm labors. The spring of my second summer marked the start of my newly gained freedom, and I immediately informed my aunt of my destination and purpose in going, then departed on my first solo journey to the stream to check on the "sucker run". I'd been lectured endlessly until then about always letting somebody know where I was going, when I planned to be back, and if I was alone or with others. This wasn't merely an effort to track my movements. If you live in a wilderness area with its associated dangers, these details can mean the difference between life and death should trouble arise. I'd also been taught the dangers of some of our furry forest neighbors and what to do if I happened upon one during my travels. As luck would have it, my first trip alone was also my first solo encounter with one of the more dangerous neighbors that inhabited our woodlots. I'd just finished scouting around for a good spot to fish for suckers. A good spot is essential as you have to use an unbaited three-pronged hook to snag suckers. This means you needed a place where the fish would gather to rest a bit, and where the current was a bit weaker. The current strength was important, as you often would snag the fish by the tail and it would swim downstream away from you with the aid of the current. As I pedalled slowly along the ruts, I heard a crashing of bushes just behind me, accompanied by a series of snorts similar to those of a bull. Stopping the bike, I looked to see what a bull was doing so far from the farm, forgetting all about other critters that might be around. I was quite shocked and badly shaken by the sight of what appeared to be a huge black bear not far away. I looked at the bear as it looked at me for a few long seconds, then jumped on my bike and pedalled recklessly away from the danger. After a distance, I didn't hear any sounds of hot "bear pursuit", so I chanced a glance over my shoulder to see if the critter was gaining on me. I nearly fell off the bike laughing as I spotted the "monster bear" running as fast as it could, branches and leaves falling off it from its fall through the bushes onto the road, in the opposite direction! It was as startled and frightened as I was. I also had calmed down enough to realize that it was not a "huge" bear, but rather a small one and probably newly on its own also. I remember wondering if momma bears lectured their cubs on the dangers of the animals that lived in the "wooden dens" in the clearings. As I finally regained my composure and headed once again toward home, I decided that telling uncle R about the bear was probably not going to be in my best interests as far as returning to fish for suckers was concerned. I did visit the school library during the following week and read all I could about black bears. The ensuing week was spring vacation and I intended to be as prepared as possible to thwart any and all bear assaults should the need arise. As I was going to be far upstream from the "town" boys, I'd need to be extra careful to keep from drowning, or being eaten. As the first day of fishing arrived, I set off with my trusty pole, spare hooks, a lunch of apples, and a referee's whistle, which I'd read was a fairly good emergency bear repellant. Ah, to be young and fearless. As it turned out, all went well during the morning as I snagged, fought, landed, and released a number of fat sucker fish. It was as I was resting on a rock drying in the sun and munching an apple that I heard a terrible commotion just downstream from me. Suddenly, there it was, my bear from the previous encounter. It had to have been it I figured, how many bears could possibly fail "sneaking through bushes" lessons, as was clearly the case with this noisy interloper. Of course, if I'd been older and wiser, I'd probably have guessed the crashing entrance was meant to have the effect on my presence the whistle was meant to have on bears. At any rate, the whistle was safely on my handlebar, about twenty feet away. I decided that lesson number two of bear avoidance was in effect, stay very still and hope they don't see you. If I was older, I'd have known that the critter was well aware of me as it'd have smelled me long ago, my being upwind and all. Well, this turned into one of the best afternoons I remember ever having. As I lay on my rock watching, it soon became apparent that the fellow had also flunked basic sucker fishing as well. After a couple hours of watching the poor thing catch and lose fish after fish, and seeing no apparent threat to myself, I decided to try an experiment. I gathered up my pole and cast as far downstream as I could. It must have heard me, as it suddenly stopped not catching fish and started sitting and watching me. Too late now I figured, if it's gonna get me, so be it. As I hauled in my first sucker of the afternoon, I worked my way carefully to shore before landing it. After unhooking it, I rapped it on a rock to finish it off, and estimated the distance to the small area the bear had trampled flat. Taking the fish by the center, I drew back and threw it for all I was worth, barely getting it into the clearing. Looking back now, I realize how close I really was back then! My actions had an unexpected effect on the critter, as he disappeared into the brush immediately. Seeing this, I waited a bit, and then resumed fishing thinking it'd gone away. Soon I looked up from a cast and was surprised to see the bear had returned and was sitting there pawing my fishy present. Pretending to keep fishing, I watched as finally hunger got the best of the bear and it started eating the fish. After it finished, it just sat looking at me, so I figured why not, and got another down to it. This time there was no running away as the critter hungrily munched away. Over the next hour or so I repeated this several times over with the same result. Finally, tired, wet, and a tad chilly, I picked up my stuff & headed back. Before I left I tossed the last juicy apple to the bear and overthrew the clear spot. As the bear went in search of the latest free snack, I took my leave. I arrived home all set to relate my great bear adventure, but wisely realized this would surely be the end of sucker fishing. The rest of the week passed without my spotting the bear again, although the fish I left on rocks on the stream bank were always gone the following day and the rocks surrounded by bear tracks. I never again saw my furry fishing companion, but when I went gathering rabbits for a stew, I always took a small burlap sack and some string along. After getting a few more rabbits than we needed, I'd put two or three in the sack and tie it well off the ground from a tree limb near where we'd fished. The first few times, I returned to see if they were gone. I found the torn sacks and no rabbit bodies, but loads of bear tracks. This little game continued until I left the farm, by which time I'd figured the bear was a male, but never laid eyes on him again. I'm pretty sure he knew when I was around though. Until next time, take care.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

A Brief Lesson in Marine Engineering This little memory just popped into my head this weekend while watching efforts to recover a Fire Department air boat in a nearby town. It's a short tale with a bit of a cautionary message to any aspiring marine engineers or designers. This would fall into the "lessons learned the hard way" school of thought. The photos above show a little of the building and operating of a small "hydroplane" style boat that is fairly easy to construct and operate. Usually. When I was about to go into high school, uncle R let up a little on the chores and allowed me to do a couple jobs away from the farm to earn some pocket money. At that time, labor laws were really non-existant or loosely enforced. I was already delivering a number of daily papers every morning while my aunt delivered milk. As soon as R told me I could look for an additional part-time job for the summer if I so desired, I was off and running. By the evening of the first day of job hunting I'd secured a job in a local hot dog stand that was regionally famous for its meatball style sandwiches. These consisted of a sausage-shaped meatball in a hot dog bun with spaghetti sauce and cheese. There was also the usual variety of hamburgers, hot dogs, etc on offer. That, however, is unimportant to this story, other than the fact the stand employed another lad who was a friend of mine. This other lad lived on the lake we had our summer cottage on, only he was a bit farther down in another part of the lake and lived there year-round. He and I had known each other for years in school, although we were never close as we were a year apart in grades. As a result of his living so close to the farm and working with me, we struck up a close friendship and started spending a lot of the few free hours we had together. One thing led to another, and soon he was helping me on the farm and with my paper route in exchange for guaranteed transportation to and from town to work in the food stand. The pay wasn't high, but we had simple tastes and it included all the food we wanted to eat at work. One neat rule was that you "ate your mistakes". After work and on days off, we found ourselves spending many hours together. One thing about two young fellows with a combination of spending money, access to a machine shop, access to a garage with a woodworking shop, and free time, is that they will eventually find a way to combine all these factors to amuse themselves. We were no different. As I started spending some time at his house, we got nosing around his dad's woodshop. His dad was a truck driver and often gone for weeks at a time earning a living. This left the woodshop at our mercy. Eventually, while poking around in the stack of magazines in the shop, we stumbled across an article that detailed plans for constructing a hydroplane. What a great idea. We had a lake, woodshop, time, and ability. What a wonderful thing we'd decided to do, construct a hydroplane and use it with his dad's little outboard motor. The plans called only for things we had at hand, and we felt we were blessed with more than adequate building talent. As luck would have it, his dad had a generous supply of marine quality plywood sheets of various thicknesses. Uncle R had all the raw materials required to construct the engine mounting fittings, steering components, and other assorted metal parts in his machine shop. He even had the steering wheel of an old tractor somebody gave him hanging on the wall. My friend's dad had glue, fasteners, caulk, clamps, work benches, etcetera. We were good to go. Over the next two weeks or so, our desires, energy, talents, and a lot of trial and error, resulted in the completion of a small hydroplane similar to the one shown above. We were walking on air and filled with excitement as late one evening, having determined the craft was water worthy, we wheeled it on his dad's utility trailer across the lawn from the shop to the dock. His mom, sisters, cousins, and uncle were all there to see the launch. Actually they were simply swimming, but we took their presence as a ready-made cheering section as we manhandled the little boat to the edge of the dock and into the water. Success, it really floated. Having this good fortune buoyed our egos and we decided we'd tie it to the dock and wait until the following day, a Sunday, to add the finishing touches and give our little marvel a proper test run in the daylight. It being a Sunday, and himself in a really good mood, uncle R and F decided to come see the terrific little boat I kept going on about. As soon as morning chores were completed, we were off in the old farm truck. My pal's dad had a small aluminum fishing boat with a gas tank and ten horsepower outboard motor. Just the exact thing our creation was designed to have as the maximum sized power plant. We put the gas tank full of fuel in its holder first. Still afloat. Add driver, still good. Last touch, uncle R helped me transfer the outboard from one boat to the other. Miracle of miracles, still on top of the water with driver, fuel, and motor. What a coup this was. My friend started the motor, sat at the wheel, reached back and shifted into gear, and slowly added power. The little craft moved smartly away from the dock. Now gaining in confidence, he gradually put the boat through its paces, testing its limits and agility. Everything was a great big success. After zipping around the cove for about ten minutes he pulled up to the dock grinning from ear to ear. He gave me a quick rundown on the finer points of the handling aspects and I was aboard and off. What a sensation! This thing was a true marvel of marine construction. We spent the rest of that day playing with our new toy and showing off our expertise. All was well with the world and all things in it. Monday was a work day with no time to play on the lake. We still went to his house in late evening to admire our little vessel. On arriving at the dock, we found our boat had been joined by another, larger craft. Seems my friend's uncle had just bought a sixteen foot run-about with a forty horsepower Mercury outboard. We checked it all out, started the motor, and generally ignored our own smaller toy. The following day we both had free time after chores and decided to resume playing with our new gadget. On arriving at his house we found a note from his mom saying they'd all gone to the city and would return the following day. This set the stage for the disaster that was soon to befall us that sunny day. After playing with our boat and discovering we could operate it at its maximum limits of power easily, we started doing that most dangerous of all things for young boys to do. We started speculating and theorizing about how to get more performance from the little boat. We discussed and discarded several ideas before hitting upon the obvious solution that stared us in the face. Bigger motor, more performance, maximum fun! His uncle's boat with its slim, sleek, enticing, forty-horse Mercury was just begging us to notice it. As it was, we both hit on the idea simultaneously. A few quick calculations, completely ignoring the instructions about ten being maximum horsepower for the hydroplane, and we were all set. The motor would fit, it didn't seem much bigger than the bulky motor with less power, and we were certain it would be fine. Having convinced ourselves of our genius, we quickly made the motor swap. This was a true stroke of genius! The first thing we noticed, which would have tipped off wiser heads to a problem, was that the little boat was a tad rear-heavy. As my friend started to assume the driving position, the back of the boat crept perilously down in the water. He promptly exited the boat and we started brainstorming how to solve the problem. After a few minutes of discussion, we decided the solution was for myself to carefully hold up the rear of the boat until sufficient power was added to propel it forward. We had decided, correctly as it turns out, that once in motion the plane blades and propeller would eliminate the sinking tendency caused by the heavier motor's weight. We were true mechanical and boatbuilding whizzes! The best! Sure enough, as he started the engine and gradually added power in gear, the weight lessened on my arms from supporting the thing. As I felt it safe and let go, the little boat smoothly pulled away from the dock. Soon my pal was having the time of his life guiding our now high performance craft about the lake. After about ten minutes of watching I signalled for my turn at the helm. Seeing my signal, my friend abruptly swung the boat about to return to the dock. As he did this, he hit the waves from his own wake at an angle, allowing a large quantity of water to enter the craft. This in itself wasn't fatal to the little vessel, but my pal's inexperienced reaction was devastating in its effect. He abruptly pulled back on the throttle lever, thinking to slow down & recover control. Unfortunately, this, in combination with a sudden sloshing of water over the engine, was enough to cause a sudden stoppage of all motor activity. And yes, fifty feet from the dock, in about thirty feet of clear blue water, our little jewel found its way under the surface of the lake. My pal, wearing his bulky life preserver, slowly made his way ashore, and there we sat. Two shell-shocked young boys, with absolute knowledge that when the uncle returned we were goners. That was one of the most miserable afternoons in my memory. We were so totally devastated that we sat there long past evening chore time. When I failed to show for chores, F came seeking me out. When we told him what had happened he abruptly sat down on a lawn chair speechless. My pal's uncle had much the same reaction. Although we recovered the little boat and paid for repairing the engine, neither of us recovered enough from our mistake to resume our budding careers as marine designers. Until next time, take care.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

A Short Account of My First Money-driven Enterprise Although I worked long hours around the farms, I received no wages. I think it was assumed it was in exchange for my room and board. What I now know, is that the most valuable thing I earned there was a set of life lessons that have served me exceedingly well over the years. I did, however, wish to have some money of my own, other than what I got sporadicaly from Dad or my uncle. It was this desire for financial freedom of a sort that led to my devising many ways of generating income over the years. I've been lucky in that the very worst of my efforts and ideas have resulted in breaking even. Some have provided a good return, and most a modest return. To this day I seem to always be on the lookout for a "project" of some sort. My first effort took place in the winter of my first year on the farm and, as much as I hate to admit it, my cousin "the princess" was the inspiration. She was in her early teens and had just been "discovered" by the local boys, who came in an endless line to take her places now uncle R allowed her to go on dates. One factor of these outings seemed to be more beneficial to myself and my aunt, both chocolate junkies. All these young men arrived bearing a gift, and it was invariably the same every week, a box of chocolates. This was, in my eyes, a wonderful thing, as "the princess" didn't care for chocolate and my aunt and I would have a good supply until the next "date" arrived. It got me wondering though, what else was there suitable to give a girl? On the next few trips on the milk route with my aunt, I did some quick investigating in all the local stores. They all offered the same gifts, chocolates and flowers. The flowers were far more expensive there in winter, so the chocolates were the obvious choice of those of meager means. After running it around in my head for a bit, I settled on a plan. I would offer a treat "the princess" loved in hopes others would feel the same, or want something different. I also had observed the prices of the gifts on offer and thought I could at least equal them. The first step of my plan took me to the woodpile by the sugar house in search of the right material. I finally located a good-sized log of ash, a very hard and durable wood. Then to the workshop in back of the barn to see if I could fashion what I needed. The result was a wooden knife/spatula similar to the wooden knife pictured. Mine was a bit thinner with a fairly sharp edge. I then tested my knives on a few apples from F's storage cellar below his barn. Finding them up to the task, I proceeded to produce as many as I could get from the log. Step two involved bargaining with F and Mrs F for materials. From F I got an agreement to buy, on installments with immediate delivery to me, a quantity of McIntosh apples and honey. With Mrs F I struck a similar bargain for some jars she used for selling jams and the pretty boxes she sold the jams and jellies in. Then on to my aunt for a number of leftover bows of the type used for Christmas presents. I also got some old wrapping tissue and a bottle of glue. My operation was almost complete. The boxes, having dividers splitting them into four equal parts were perfect, that, and that they were in pinks, reds, and yellows. Into each box I placed three juicy, red apples, each wrapped in tissue. Then I added one of the small jars about three-fourths full of fresh honey. Lastly, I added a wooden knife to slice the apple and spread the honey along with five paper napkins appropriated from my aunt's picnic supply chest. Then on went the box lid with a pretty bow glued in the center and tied nicely with white string "borrowed" from my aunt. Once I had fifteen of these packages ready to sell, I figured up all my expenses for the whole of my materials and arrived at a sum of $2.25 per box for the fifteen initial boxes. Then I added in fifty cents for the store owner and seventy-five cents for me. After discussing this with my aunt and Mrs F, they smiled and said it was a good idea, all the while exchanging those looks with each other that said I was a cute but silly eight-year-old boy with daydreams. This made me even more determined than ever to succeed. So, the next morning I loaded all fifteen of my "gift" boxes in the station wagon to distribute while on the milk run. My aunt was confused when I said I didn't want to go to the grocery stores to display my goods, directing her instead to the drug store of the first town on our route. After a bit of haggling and receiving even more bemused smiles, I managed to talk all the drug stores, general stores, and most importantly, beer stores, to display my boxes , one opened for display, beside their candy boxes. The next day, much to my aunt's amazement, all of my boxes, even the display boxes were sold. It seems I figured rightly that folks wanted something different, many liked apple slices and honey, and my most important calculation, it had been payday when I first displayed them. I knew from my friends that many of their fathers stopped in the beer stores payday on the way home and most got something for their moms as well. This was probably to mitigate the anger received from the moms over the beer purchase. Whatever the reason for the success, I was elated, the store owners were happy for a quick profit for almost no work, and I was planning how many boxes to place the next week. I figured that by only putting them out on paydays and special days, they'd seem more special. As I'd bought a fair quantity of materials and figured all my costs into the first fifteen boxes, it was a long time before all the sales weren't pure profit beyond the store's cut. I continued this into the late spring when I put it on hold until the next winter, when people were again cooped up in their houses and looking for something special. I think the most satisfying part was when I went to the local bank with my profits and asked, very business-like, to speak to the bank manager. He, like my aunt and others had, treated me to a bemused smile when I said I wanted to open an account. I'll never forget the look on his face, after he explained how I needed at least one dollar to open an account and asked me in a condescending manner if I had that much and ended calling me "little fella", when I pushed $312.50 across his desk and asked if this was "enough". I got my bank account and gained a bit of self esteem for being able to show people I could really do things. I'm not sure what course my life would've taken had this venture been a big flop. Thankfully, it proved to me that careful planning and attention to little things about people's behavior pays dividends. Until the next time, take care.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Harvesting Pie Filling As I mentioned earlier, F had apple orchards and scattered apple trees on his farm which were grown, tended and harvested like any of the other crops. This harvest, we generally had only two to three weeks to complete due to the weather. It was also important to get the fruit before it fell from the tree and got damaged or eaten by the local wildlife. Photos above show some farm trucks as we had, which were an extremely important part of harvesting and marketing the apples. The top is an advertisement for a truck like F's 1947 GMC 4400, the "new truck" until 1957. Next is R's main truck which he used until getting the "new truck" in 1957. F didn't feel the need for a new truck until around 1964 or so. R's truck, which I drove the most, was a 1936 International Harvester. He also had an "old truck", a Model T Ford, on which I first learned to drive something other than horses and tractors. The Model T was rather worn out and used only on the farms, as it was somewhat of a road hazard. Next is a picture of apples ready to be picked, and finally, an example of a cider press similar to ours. This press gave myself and F a real workout every evening after picking was done for the day. Since we had so many trees and so few of us, this was one of the few times outside help would be employed. The other time was to rake the blueberries in our small blueberry barren. During her milk deliveries, my aunt would leave notices at the local schools advertising for apple pickers. Mostly they would be teens and some men and women from the Indian Lands. Many of my biological relatives and I met this way for the first time. Although most of the Indians worked in the mills and woods or fishing, a large number still pursued more traditional lifestyles, and would pick apples, potatos, or rake berries for added income between seasons. Every day during picking weeks, F and I would go to the local high schools and pick up those teens who signed up to work. By doing so they'd be excused from school for the day. The same was true of bean pickers and potato pickers as the need for added help arose. R would take my cousin and go to the Indian Lands Catholic Church to pick up those Indians who signed up. Today you'd be fined for riding all those folks in the back of a stake-bed truck with no seats, or for hiring the teens without state permission. We had four main orchard areas and a number of scattered trees that were harvested. I'm not sure how many trees F had total, but it was a lot. Though not as big as most orchards today, I'd guess that every grove had about 75-100 trees in rows of six abreast. Apples and hay covered most of the cultivated areas of the farms, the garden areas were small in comparison. There were probably thirty scattered areas as well, with 1-10 trees in each. Mostly we grew McIntosh and Rome Beauties as they were, and are today still, highly marketable because of their versatility. They're good plain, in pies, applesauce, cider, etc. After arriving at the farm, the pickers would be driven to the areas they were to pick. There they'd be given a shoulder sack of canvas in which to place the apples, which left their hands free. They'd also get what we called "apple ladders", these were simple, narrow, wooden ladders that R, F, and I built and repaired during the spring when the ground was too soft and muddy for doing much other than chores like that. The ladders fit into the trees very well and had canvas "caps" atop the side rails to prevent injury to the trees. This style ladder is still in use today by many orchards that hand pick their crops. As the sacks were filled, they'd be emptied carefully into bushel baskets placed on the ground beside the trucks. Each basket was assigned to the picker who was filling it and, when full, would be tallied by my cousin or I and loaded onto the truck. This was really one of the few times I ever saw the "princess" do anything useful around the farms. At the end of the day, the pickers would wait while the trucks were off-loaded into F's barn. The trucks would then load them up and return them to where they were picked up in the morning. This would progress seven days a week until the harvest was completed. After we had eaten supper, F and I would take his truck to the orchard with empty baskets and gather all the "drops", those apples that had fallen to the ground. These were destined for the cider press to be chopped up and then crushed for their sweet juice. After all the drops had been pressed, F would strain the juice through cheesecloth into milk cans for later bottling. As he did this, it was my task to shovel all the apple remains into buckets and feed the pigs with it. After the day's apples were harvested, my aunt and F's wife would go to the apple barn in the evening and sort them by type, size, and quality. In the afternoons Mrs F would open the little store in the city, after having used the milk delivery vehicle to transport the sorted apples. She'd only take some though, since most were destined for wholesalers in the south of the state who would send a big semi-trailer to pick up the harvest. All told, this time, like so many other periods on the farms, was a hectic flurry of activity from start to finish. There is one final note to this tale though, concerning the trees set aside for our personal use. These were the trees deemed to have the best fruit of all the scattered stands of apple trees. I was introduced to this idea of separate trees my first year there by my uncle on the Thursday night just before the harvest started. I came in from my chores to find R in the pantry lettering crude signs to place in one of the scattered groves that was next to a dirt road frequented by local teens on weekend nights. After completing the signs, he took me, along with the signs, fence posts, 2 picking ladders, and a section of snow fence to the trees I mentioned. He proceeded to fence off the entire grove of about 10 trees, one of the larger scattered groups, except the three big trees closest to the road. These he isolated by running the fence behind them. He also allowed plenty of room at the ends of the fence for easy access to the main group of trees, and left the ladders under these trees in plain sight. Then he proceeded to post the signs directly in front of the three trees he'd isolated. The next night being Friday, the usual group of teens were parked by the trees on the dirt road doing what teens with vehicles do everywhere. Saturday morning R took me to the grove to show me how effective his signs, which he'd been posting for several years, were in protecting the apples destined for our own use. To my surprise, his plan had worked much better than he'd hoped for, as there were a larger than usual number of teens there the night before. The apples meant for us, some of the best McIntosh apples on the farm, were untouched. The poor quality apples and crabapples were pretty much picked through. His plan was simple, his sign in front of the three good trees simply said, "Feel free to pick all the apples you can use, but please only pick the apples from these three trees. The rest of the grove has mostly apples so bad we feed them to the pigs." This went on until the three "good" trees were ready to be harvested. Meanwhile, the other trees were picked almost bare by the various teens parking there at night. Sure enough, he'd gotten human nature right, the teens had picked the apples they were told NOT to pick and left the good ones for us. Hard to believe such a simple trick would work, but I guess it's the old concept of "forbidden fruit tasting best." I've always remembered how that trick worked every year I was on the farm, each year bringing a new bunch of apple "thieves" unwilling to believe it when told the truth about the apples. Until next we meet. Take care..

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The Very short, Very Sweet End of the Syrup Tale As promised, here's the end of the sap to sugar story of my youth on the farm. Although no photos are any longer available to me at this time, these are VERY similar to our operation, especially the exterior view of the sugar house in the snow by the forest. The photos from top are as follows, jars of syrup of varying thickness and sweetness. A typical bottle as we used to sell, finished syrup being drained from the boiling pans to be left to cool and then bottled. Sap/syrup at a full boil, nearly ready to be drawn down from the pan, a very similar interior as we had. Lastly, similar two pan operation like ours at the boil and the aforementioned sugar house. The only thing missing is the huge wood pile. As F would arrive with the first of the sap, he and R would pour it into large wooden barrels used for that purpose only. These eight barrels were on a long rack along the west wall of the sugar house. The barrels were on their sides with a hole at the top through which the sap was poured, there was a tap at the bottom front to draw out the sap when it needed to be transfered to the boiling pan. Not until after four or five of the barrels were full of sap would the boiling begin, so as not to run out of sap while the pan was hot. although I watched R boiling several times, I was usually occupied with gathering sap and firewood for the operation and doing the many things R had no time for while boiling. He would only come to the house once a day to bathe, eat, and get a couple of hours sleep before going back to boiling. F watched over the sugar house at those times. As the sap turned to syrup it was drawn down and more sap added to the pan. R would vary the times and heat depending on the desired result. Although my aunt and Mrs F would bottle most of the syrup for sale at various locations that had ordered syrup, some was always saved in mason jars as in the photo and put in the cellar for our use through the coming year. I don't recall a time when we had no syrup, it was taken for granted by this foolish boy, as was fresh honey, milk, eggs, and butter. How nice it would be to have those things so available now. Instead, we travel to several local farms that specialize in one or two of these commodities here. I don't recall all the places we sent syrup, but gallons of it were trucked in clear gallon bottles to the two local hotels for their yearly supply. Now the hotels are no longer, just another memory of a wonderful time in my life. The smell of boiling sap in the air, mixed with wood smoke, is like no other in the world. Toward the end of the sap, R would shut down one of the pans and start boiling the sap down further to make the thicker syrup for our own use on ice cream,then maple candies, and a bit of maple sugar at the very last. All of these we kept and savored all year long, usually after a sumptious Sunday dinner. There are things I can reproduce today using locally available products. I love pork roast glazed with maple syrup, pork chops with a light coating of syrup, and my favorite, breakfast link pork sausages with pancakes drenched in pure maple syrup. I don't have these treats often though, usually just when in a particularly quiet mood on a warm Sunday afternoon, even the pancakes. Probably as that's when my aunt would make them for me as a special treat after an unusually hard working week. I'll never forget the elation I felt when , after seeing baked beans, which I can't eat, being placed on the table, and steeling myself for leftovers for me. Then my aunt would appear with pancakes and sausages drowned in maple syrup just for me. Another great memory of that magical time. Until next time, take care.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

A Short Tale of Trees, Bees, and Treats First, this post will not be the whole story of the maple sap gathering. I've left the converting of the sap to maple syrup, maple candy, and maple sugar for a later post which will follow fairly soon. I was going to include it all in one story, but photo uploading conspired against me and I had to trim the story to fit the photos. So, on to the explanation of the photos we have got. If all works well, they'll be in the proper order. First, a typical maple tree tap of the type we used to gather sap from the trees. A hole was drilled into the tree and the tap inserted. The center of the tap is hollow, forming a tube-like opening through which the sap flows. The hook is to secure the sap pail to the tree. Then toboggans of the type I used to haul the sap cans on while emptying the sap buckets. Now a sap gathering pail attached to a tree, cleaning the sap pails in summer to be ready for the sap harvest, and an example of pails on the trees in the forest in late winter-early spring. Then on to bee matters. First we have a section of a stackable hive showing the removable trays from which honey & comb is gathered. Next, a comb section removed from a hive, a stack of portable hives with the top section tilted to see inside. Now a set of hives showing typical placement in a field, lastly, a stack of hives ready to be placed around the farm fields. We'll start with the trees part of the sweets story. I was much more involved with this aspect of farm work as R ran the "sugar house" each spring, an added task for several weeks that meant longer and harder hours than usual in order to extract a sweet bounty from the farm's multitude of scattered maple trees. The North American sugar maple tree has a unique quality to its yearly life cycle. After leafing out and growing all summer, the tree sends its sap to its roots every fall to protect the tree from freezing and splitting open. Then, after standing dormant all winter, the tree is activated by changing temperatures heralding spring and warmer weather, in which to resume growing. As this happens, toward the last days of winter and early spring, the sap again rises through the tree bringing nutrients to the limbs. Part of this nutrient mix in the maple tree is sugar, which is carried diluted in the sap. This is the bounty sought every spring by producers of maple syrup and all the related tasty treats. The sap is sweet enough to make a tasty treat of a handful of fresh snow when taken straight from the tree. To get this sap, the trees are tapped as described above and pails hung. Then, every day at sunset or soon after, but before temperatures dropped too much, somebody would take several clean milk cans on two toboggans tied in tandem and gather the fresh sap. The somebody in those years being me, of course. Nowaday the bigger syrup producers have tubes running from tree to tree, and then to the sugar house for boiling down. We had literally hundreds of trees we tapped, and gathering by hand was a long and wearing process, repeated daily for three to four weeks every year, depending on how long the sap was running. A normal day would encompass four to five hours every evening of sap gathering. As I was the one going through the woods tree to tree and emptying the pails, F would go along the woods trails with his pride and joy, one of the first snow machines made in the early fifties. Prior to his purchasing it, the gathering was done with horse and sled. As my milk cans got fuller and heavier, I'd work my way out to the trail and exchange them for fresh cans. F would then take the full cans on a sled behind his machine to the sugar house where they were emptied into holding barrels to await boiling. He'd then return to a point further along the trail to await my re-emergence with yet more of the precious liquid. So you won't think I slaved away steadily, I'll admit to taking a short breather every few trees and scooping up a handful of snow, dousing it with sap, and resting while eating my crude sno-cone style treat. I also carried with me extra pails and a "shoulder yoke, such as is seen even now in places, to carry the two pails on a wooden pole-like device across my neck and shoulders back to the toboggan. This was still quite an effort trudging through the snow with my sweet burden. I don't know the specific amount of sap needed to make a gallon of syrup, but it's a lot, as the sugar house had an unquenchable thirst for the stuff once boiling started. It was all we, and the trees, could do to keep up with the demand since the sugar house boiled down sap twenty-four hours a day every day until the gathering was done and the last ounce of sweetness extracted. Then it would be cleaned and left to sit until the next spring, when it all would be repeated. I think I much prefer the modern method of sugar production, almost all sap gathering is automatic. We'll go a little bit more into the sugar house operation in the next post. For now, I'd like to switch gears to another spring ritual, bee hive distribution. Honey gathering was done almost all summer and the bees tended to by F, which meant I had little to do with it. This was fine by me as, although not fearful of being stung, why expose yourself was my feeling then and now. As much as I love honey, I'd go without if it meant I'd have to handle the bee end of the deal. I much prefer to handle the part that involves dipping slices of fresh-picked apples into the stuff and savoring every bite. But, when lifting was involved, usually I was too. Contrary to popular belief, bees do not hibernate during the cold months. They instead go into the center of the hive and, along with consuming the store of honey left for them for the winter, they form a dense pack with their bodies. The heat generated by this pack can reach temperatures up to 80F\27C at the center, thus protecting the bees on the coldest days. Of course, we helped them out a little bit also. Every fall F and I would go around the fields and gather up the stacks of hives and move them to a lean-to type structure that was open on the south side only. In this way, the hives always got the warming benefits of the sun and little of the cold north and west winds. This not only protected the bees, but it reduced the amount of honey they'd need for the winter to generate heat and lessened weathering's detrimental effects on the hives. Then again each spring, F and I would return the hives to the various spots F had decided to place them for the summer. F was very up on bees and crop cross-pollination science. I say science, for it takes a scientific knowledge of things to get one of God's creatures to help grow his plants. Every year he'd figure out the best way to place the hives for maximum effect. The one constant was the four section stack hand carried through the woods to the small blueberry barren and another smaller hive carried in to the big berry thicket. The others were placed in hayfields, gardens, apple orchards, and in the wood lots. Then, throughout the summer, F would gather fresh honey and honeycomb both for us and to sell in his produce store in the small city. This ensured that we always had bee's wax for my aunt to make candles and seal canning jars, and more importantly fresh honey for our toast, for topping hand-cranked ice cream, and as a vegetable and apple dip. This would be alternated with thick maple syrup saved aside for our use after F had taken the rest to sell. Every time I think of how hard life must have been then, I end up dwelling more on the delicious treats that always seemed to be so plentiful. It's then that I'd gladly trade an honest day of hard labor helping run the farm and all its many operations and demands for just one of my aunts meals, followed by pie & ice cream on the big veranda listening to my uncle's Red Sox game on the battery radio. Take care until the next time we can spend a few minutes roaming the corridors of my memory.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Cold Storage Cave As I alluded to earlier, we used a cave that had been "enhanced" by opening it up some, while letting it remain basically a cave, to store some foods. Although the cellar, as we called it, stayed about 28F-32F (-2C-0C) year around, it wasn't actually cold enough overall to freeze food effectively. The main reason was that there were many drafts and more than a few "warm spots" which we had to avoid. Every winter, after the farm pond had sufficiently thick ice, we would spend one or more long weekends "harvesting" ice for the cave. This was done in part by use of the ice cutting and handling tools pictured above. The other photos show a remarkably similar heavy object/stump pulling hoist rig such as the one we had, and a wood stove similar to the two in the kitchen and one in the pantry, although the pantry stove was much wider with more oven and surface space. The rig was used to lift heavy stones from fields onto and off of the farm wagon, pulling stumps, and lifting ice blocks from the pond. This was accomplished by positioning the hoist over the object to be moved and utilizing heavy ropes and block and tackle assemblies. Although crude, these rigs allowed the slightest of men or boys to lift extremely heavy objects with ease, using the principles of mechanical advantage. Prior to "re-icing" the cellar, everything in it was removed and the place thoroughly cleaned. Then the floor panels, which were set on 4X4 beams to allow drainage, were reinstalled. Then the walls were lined floor to ceiling with hay bales, which provided insulation. Only then was the cellar ready to add new ice. The hoist and ice tools were moved to the pond, which generally had ice over a meter thick and ideal for our purposes. The first thing done was to create a pilot hole in the center of the pond from which the ice removal progressed toward the edges. After this hole was cut, a larger square was cut with holes drilled at the four corners and one on the side opposite the pilot hole. The purpose of the pilot hole was as much to allow a place to cut from and allow the ice tongs in, as to center the operation. Now the hoist was wheeled over the block to be removed and the tongs inserted into the holes on the sides as far as they would go. Uncle R had his own measuring method, which consisted of marking the blocks at two "axe handles" long by one "axe handle" wide. This worked out to a rectangle of ice roughly two meters long, one meter wide, one meter thick, and extremely heavy. So heavy in fact, that the farm wagon could carry only one at a time to the cellar entrance without fear of damage to the wagon. Getting the ice onto the wagon took a combination of moving the wagon and team into place as close as possible followed by R and F hoisting and manhandling the block into place to be lowered to the wagon bed. Once in the bed, it was held in place by iron pegs that fit into the "ice rails" installed to run in parallel from the front to the rear of the wagon bed. The operation then moved to the cellar and the "tricky" part, as R would say. The west side of the cellar had one of the two doors leading to it, the other being on the south side and accessing the food pantry off the kitchen. Once there, the ice block was slid back in the wagon using block and tackle installed above the door. Prior to cutting, a specially designed three-rail ramp had been installed leading at about a forty-five degree angle through a short earthen "hallway" to the cellar floor. A block and tackle was used to lower the blocks slowly down the ramps until they settled on the floor. The floor was sturdy and level enough to allow the blocks to be slid and hoisted into their final spots. The room held four blocks along each side lengthwise, two regular and one half size on the north end, and two regular on the south end to allow for access from the pantry. These were stacked three blocks high. When completed, the west side door was fully blocked off by hay and ice and the "hall" filled with smaller blocks of ice to help prevent heat intrusion from the door. The pantry door was "insulated" by virtue of its being wood and approximately four inches thick, with a sheet steel surface on the cellar side. While not perfect, all these elements managed to accomplish the desired ends, a large, cold, reliable space for long-term storage of semi-perishable items, and short-term storage for perishable items. When the room was ready, we'd restore the items which had been removed according to how soon we'd need access to the various items. The semi-perishable goods were generally home-canned foods and butter, along with other items I can't recall well enough to inventory. Barrels of potatos, corn, apples, and root vegetables were long-term also. Shorter lived things were mostly homemade sausage, raw fresh meats, eggs, and some fish. Many things, like fish, were kept on ice in addition to the cold of the room. Perishable things were mostly ground meat and dairy products. My aunt knew from long experience what would keep for how long and be useable, and directed the stowing of cellar goods like a plump, apron-clad general. As the year wore on between seasons, the cellar was a constant source of amazement to me. I'd often ask to be allowed to take a flashlight or lantern down to retrieve needed things, simply so as to see how much the ice had melted since my last foray. It never receded appreciably on any of those occasions. I did, however, always manage to snag a juicy apple or two for my future snacking pleasure. We didn't have much in the way of candy, chips, or other denizens of todays cupboard shelves, and we were much healthier as a result. Our "treats" were apples, rhubarb, and maple sap flavored snow in spring. Nowadays I consider those things treats. I don't know where R and F got their cellar knowledge, other than from their dad. I think it was one of the long-established methods of food storage passed down over the centuries. We had many stored foods beyond those in the cellar. My relatives who fished for a living would supply another relative with fish, we'd supply the needed varieties of wood, and my uncle and cousins would smoke the fish in a large one-story barn-like shed. Much of the fish was eaten by them, traded to us for the wood and some farm goods, and the remainder sold and shares of profits allotted between the fishing cousins and the smoking cousins. We always had smoked herring, salmon, flounder, and salted pollock, cod, and haddock available, as well as sardines from the canneries that still operated at that time. Some foods were smoked by us, such as hams, turkeys, and wildfowl. We also had a time set aside for making sausages, jerky, dried and spiced beef strips, and corning beef. My aunt and Mrs F would spend days and weeks on end canning and preserving everything from various pickled fishes and pork cuts to jams and jellies. Almost all the vegetables grown would be grown in quantities to allow preserving jars of peas, beans, beets, rhubarb, etc for fall, winter, spring, and early summer use. Store bought food was a rarity, usually the store food money was saved for purchasing treats such as oranges, peaches, pears, and the like. The kitchen was a beehive of activity from the first harvests of early summer until late autumn. Just the smells emitting from the pantries and kitchen at these times was pure heaven. When it came to meat, we generally raised a few beef cattle, pigs, chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, and an occasional "meat" goat or two that were raised for that purpose. We also always had ample supplies of deer meats, bear meat, rabbit, squirrel, wildfowl, and freshly caught fish. Fresh fish were available via ice fishing in late fall and winter, and pole fishing at other times. Uncle R, F, Dad, myself, and some cousins and uncles would go as a group on my relative's boats deep-sea fishing several times a year also. In addition, other cousins fished for lobster or dug clams, which they'd trade us for farm or dairy goods. My aunt made the best batter coated, fried clams in the world, and they remain my favorite food to this day. Not the clam strips sold in stores, those are akin to cardboard, but whole clams where the clam explodes with flavor in your mouth on first bite and the flavor can be savored to the last, slow, drawn-out chew. I often think that if someone could capture and bottle the aroma of food being canned, dinner roasting in one wood stove, and pies and bread baking in the other wood stove, they'd become a billionaire overnight. Those smells and the anticipation of tasty delights to come are a part of childhood that I fear is beyond reproducing. I think it's because of the "magic" my aunt put in every dish. Take care and enjoy life's little pleasures when you can.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

A Short Tale of Cows and Cats One of my responsibilities on the farm involved herding, feeding, milking, and other milk related tasks as were needing done at any given time. A quick explaination of the photos above first. On top left is a milk can of the type we used to collect the milk from the milking machines and hand milking. Next to the can is a butter churn of the type my aunt and Mrs F used to make the butter we sold. Next is a Holstein cow which made up most of our herd, as they give the most milk overall. Below that are butter churns of the ancient type my aunt and F's wife used to make the butter for our own use, as they claimed the old way was better tasting. I can't find any fault with their reasoning, as they produced the sweetest, salty, home churned butter I've ever tasted before or since those wonderful days. Then is a Jersey cow, we only had a small number of these, probably around fifteen at any time. The milk these cows produce contains the most butterfat and was used for producing butter and our household use. Going down, we find a mechanical milker of the type we used and an example of one being used. We had four of these, and they were the original reason for the generator being purchased. Lastly, we have a Guernsey cow. We had quite a few of these, around twenty-five usually. Their milk was mixed with that from the Holsteins, and comprised the milk we sold. A bit of the Guernsey milk was set aside to settle, and then put through the cream separator and the cream bottled for those wanting cream delivered along with their milk. As we had no real cold storage, other than the cold cellar, we attempted to keep the herd and milk production equal to the sales. The milk that was left over from the Holsteins and Guernseys was fed to the pigs as the liquid component of the pig slop. In this way, we generally managed to balance things so nothing went to waste. Occasionally if we had a large excess of milk, F would take some to his produce store to sell in the small city. Our milk deliveries usually required two or more runs, due to the number of customers being in the hundreds in four towns. This was when pasturized and homogenized milk was considered less healthy than raw milk from healthy cows. It also tastes one helluva lot better! We were the only farm around willing to comply with the strict laws and regulations governing the sale of raw milk to the public. One of the requirements was that a licensed veterinarian visit the farm every second day and test each cow for disease, sores, etc and the equipment cleanliness. We always passed the probings of two veterinarians with ease, as R was a stickler for detail and ensuring the safety of anything he sold. We also had several milk goats that my aunt tended and that provided househol milk only. Their milk was always my favorite, and to this day I'll go out of my way occasionally to get a bottle of raw milk and goat milk. One neat thing about goat milk is that it comes from the animal homogenized, as the milkfat stays in suspension in goat milk, unlike that of cows which rises to the top as cream. My aunt usually preferred goat milk for cooking as well, as she claimed it made batter smoother. I couldn't prove it one way or the other, except to reveal that I've never tasted cakes and pies as good as hers were. One aspect of selling raw milk, was that when the vets discovered a problem cow, the cow had to be put in a separate area at the east end of the barn until it was cleared by the vet to return to the herd. At any one time there would be from three to ten cows in this quarantine area for various reasons. The problems were always just routine things like raw teats, bacterial infection requiring antibiotics, etc. The cows on antibiotics were cleared for milk sales as soon as the infection cleared, but R wouldn't sell their milk for an additional five days to allow all the antibiotics to leave their systems. He was deathly against selling milk with any medication in it, unlike today, where the milk in many states contains antibiotics at all times. Thankfully, antibiotics and bovine growth hormone in milk in Maine must be clearly labeled, so we can avoid the milk if we wish. One truth about all farms, without exception that I know of, is that they have resident rodent populations of various species, numbers, and habitat. They also have those critters that prey upon the little rodent residents. These generally come in three varieties, snakes, avian carnivores, and little old feral barn kitties. I use the term kitty jokingly, as these felines are not kitties. They are domestic cat varieties that have become semi-wild. They are universally known as "barn cats". The non-poisonous snakes here, the owls and other feathered rodent eaters can't even come close to matching the voracious appetites barn cats have for rodents. Their numbers seem to swell and ebb in direct proportion to the population of the rodents. This rambling tale has taken a long route to get to the memory that gave birth to it. As the quarantined cows had to be hand milked so as not to injure them further or cause contamination of the milking equipment, they became my little task twice a day. Now from this experience came the chance to study feline behaviors and foibles. I'm convinced that cats can tell time, and I know that feral barn cats have a pecking order. Normally these furballs will avoid any human contact whatsoever, but I discovered, much to my amusement, that all rules are suspended twice a day during hand milking time. Before I arrived on the scene, my aunt did the quarantine cow milking, and it was she who showed me the delights of playing with the barn cats. As I'd arrive with my armload of milk pails, a small army of the little cats would magically appear, and, if I were late, they'd be awaiting my arrival. Once they saw which cow I'd do first, they'd arrange themselves by social standing. It took me several milkings to notice this, and my aunt claimed she'd never paid that much attention to them. I guess being a young and overly curious lad contributed to my closer observations. At first they just seemed to all want milk, then I noticed the same ones always went first. As soon as I started really monitoring them, it was apparent that the oldest toms went first, then the old females, and so forth to the very newest wobbly kitten on its initial milk outing. What started as simply pouring milk into a few old bowls, put there for that purpose, evolved into a neat interaction twice daily with these amazing creatures. One day I wanted a certain cat to move away from a smaller one and, lacking anything to throw, I squirted milk from the cow at him. From this I discovered cat acrobatics, as, rather than leaving, the old cat jumped up and got a large percentage of the milk stream in his mouth. He then sat waiting expectantly for me to repeat the squirting, which I did. Each time I shot a stream of milk in his direction, he'd intercept it and make a crazy attempt to catch it all. After a few times I was laughing so hard I had to stop, catch my breath, and dry my eyes. It was then I saw him sitting majestically and licking all the excess milk from his drenched body. From this silly beginning, grew a little game I played every day I milked, until I left the farm for good. The cats figured out quickly that I liked to shoot streams of warm milk at them, and so would now line up in a rough queue awaiting their turn at the milk stream. As we grew more practiced at our little diversion, they'd line up along the top of the low stall wall and, as I directed a stream at one, it would jump up and back to the floor, and try to get every bit of it in its mouth. This provided for some rather unique cat leaps, as they all developed their own style of milk chasing. When I tired of the game or had to get back to work, I simply filled their bowls and they descended on them as though they'd never had milk before. I still wasn't allowed to touch any of them, but it did progress to the point where a momma cat would bring her babies out when they were big enough and teach them to "chase milk". And that's the end of a silly little tale of a boy and some cats with too much time and imagination. It still remains as one of my best farm memories and I've loved cats ever since. Hope you enjoyed sharing the memory with me and, until next time, take care and drink your milk.