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.