Thursday, July 27, 2006
The Farms As I Remember Them Here I think I'll take a little detour in the story and take a moment or two to describe the farms where I grew up. It's not an exciting or even intriguing read, just a little background to better set the scene for the years of memories that I hope will follow on from this point. The photos show low-bush blueberries, a rake used to gather them, and rakers harvesting rows. The rows are laid out across the barren, using white twine, to ensure a complete harvest by sectioning off the berries. I'm hoping you'll be able to get at least a vague picture of the places, as they no longer exist as they were, lost, not to progress, but to the realities of economics and changing family dynamics. They've now, for the most part, been reclaimed by the forest that allowed the men to carve them out originally. The places lay from north to south one atop the other, geographically speaking, with a state road that ran from hardly anywhere, through much of nowhere, and ended that leg of its journey in the second biggest city in Maine, some ninety-three miles to the west. The southern farm was comprised of a few fields of beans and corn, three small hayfields, a smallish apple orchard, and a few woodlots of poor quality trees growing in marshy thickets. The house and small barn were behind a very small and weedy lawn that was loaded with yellow dandelion dots, and a short driveway to the west of and touching the cellar wall that led to the solo barn. The house was considerably tinier than our house and looked like a small sister of the larger one. The barn also was rather diminutive in comparison to the somewhat sprawling complex of multi-function structures to its immediate northeast. This building was used primarily to store various items that tagged along behind the ancient John Deere tractor F used to work his fields and orchard. There were also innumerable baskets of various sizes and styles used to sort, store, and transport the several crops F reaped each year. The field behind the house to the east was a square one measuring about 300 feet per side. F rotated crops between hay and string beans, with an occasional excursion into the exciting worlds of peas or potatos. The large field to the south of it was of equal width and ran south 1000 feet up part of the hill in back of the house and barn. This acreage was mostly devoted to yellow corn, with a smattering of sweet corn that yielded huge, juicy ears with whiteish kernels that screamed to be boiled, buttered, and messily gnawed to their very cores. These cobby cores then provided treats for R's hogs and goats, having already rewarded the human component of the farm families with full stomachs. Although F's crops went mainly to his small truck-farm store in the nearby "city", there was always, by mutual agreement with R and Dad, ample produce grown between those commercial fields and the "house gardens" to provide all the vegetables the three families could desire or need. I don't recall a meal that was ever served without the fruits of our labors being piled on in abundance, fresh or home-canned. To the west of all this, separated by a well travelled two-rut track running westward from the barnyard and south up the hill to the orchard, were hayfields about 400 feet wide, east to west, and running back to the base of the hill to the south. Beyond them were woodlots split by a hard-packed trace that led to a large lake's big cove on its northern edge. On the shore of this cove, which ran around a half-mile wide for nearly two miles to the west, where it joined the main, and considerably larger, part of the lake, was a cozey little cottage. This is where we kids that resided on the farms for all or part of the summer spent most summer nights. We were a motley bunch and I'll tell of some of the lakeside adventures at another time. Some of us lived and worked all summer on the place, and some were city relatives visiting their parents' humble beginnings. The woodlots ran through a semi-swampy area and measured about a mile or so east-west and probably a mile and a half north-south. Covering all the north slope to the summit of the hill in back, and to the south of the corn and hay fields, was a continuous apple orchard rife with a wide assortment of delicious teacher bribes. I'm not sure how big the orchard was, but I do know F had to hire people at picking time to get all the juicy treats gathered in time to prevent loss from "falls", etc. I do know it was a number of rows wide and grew Macintosh, red delicious, Rome beauties, and green apples akin to granny Smiths. At harvest time a large box style semi-trailer was delivered from an express trucking company in the "city" and was filled with apples and driven to the big city several times a week until the apples were all gone excepting those for our own uses. This time of year was always super busy, especially if we had managed to coax a third, very late, crop of hay from the rocky soil. It seemed that everything that could grow there needed picking or "raking" in unison or close to it at that season. The woodlots on F's farm provided us and several dozen town and "city" families with many cords of firewood each year. We cut, sawed, sold, and delivered it "green" and they would stack it to dry for a year or more at their homes. This was extremely hard work that lasted all winter, with F, R, and myself toiling on F's lots one or two days a week and on R's the rest of the week. The logs had to be removed from the forests prior to spring thaw when the woods were impassable. The firewood logs were sawn over the spring and summer as time allowed using a portable mini-mill consisting of a model A engine and sixty-inch circular saw mounted on opposite ends of a twenty-foot four-wheel trailer. This was constructed from a 1936 Chevy truck frame. The engine was mounted transversely across the front with the transmission end on the left side looking forward. The saw and an extendable log table were mounted on the rear with the saw to the right side. From the saw, a driveshaft ran across to a twelve inch flat pully. This pully was connected to the engine's pully, mounted on the end of the transmission, by means of a four-inch wide, sixteen foot belt. I'll get to using this threat to human health later on when I get to describing working around the place in more detail. This pretty much covers the south branch of the farm complex. On the north side of the road, an expansive lawn dotted with huge shady oaks, ran beside a wider and longer barnyard. The house, which I described a bit before and will visit more extensively eventually, was bounded on the west by two house-gardens. One was tended by F's wife and the other by my aunt, although it was really more of a joint enterprise. Just to the north of the gardens and west of the pantries was an old well and a huge rhubarb patch. To the west of all this and running down a slope to a small farm pond, and far beyond, were hayfields. To the northwest ran additional hay producing acres. On the north side of the working buildings, beyond the paddock and small animal abodes, were four pastures, each several tens of acres and separated by stone walls. These walls deserve a chapter also, so I'll just mention here the crop I forgot, the annual spring crop of rocks. These were pushed to the land surface by the frost heaves of fall and spring and we duly harvested them after "mud-season", when the ground would again support the old-fashioned spoked and steel rimmed wheels of our wagons. We would then spend the evenings of several weeks rebuilding and adding to the great stone walls which retained the bovine members of the family. Beyond the western hayfields to the north, the pastures to the north, and for a considerable distance east, were R's woodlots. These ran on for about four miles to the north to the far side of the mountain on the top of the place, and about two and a half miles to the east of everything. The end of the hay to the west was the edge of the farm. R's farm was much wider to the east, whereas F's ran farther to the west. Much like a rectangle on its side with a larger square sitting on top of it and overlapping it to the east, while the bottom rectangle extended farther west. In addition to the road, a fairly large year-round brook ran through the west side, flowing from northeast to southwest, stopping to both fill and empty the six acre farm pond on its way to the lake near the cottage. Also, from the year-round spring on the east slope of "our" mountain, only about eighteen-hundred feet high at the summit, flowed a small brook. This ran to the river to the east eventually, leaving several excellent fishing and swimming holes in its wake. Another feature on the east was a four acre or so blueberry mini-barren, a collection of glacially deposited rocks, from which only the low berry bushes grew. This was nature's free crop, which we gathered by use of "blue-berry rakes". I hope this gives you a better picture of the place that served as playground, food source, work-place, and school for a constantly amazed boy, who to this day, can spend hours absolutely motionless watching nature's many wonders. Take care.
Posted by Mike S at 4:20 AM
Thursday, July 20, 2006
My First Farm Job With Pete & Jake In the fall after the magical summer with Dad, I stayed in town for the first few weeks, going to my aunt's house after school until Dad came to take me home. We soon saw the problems this was causing, as my uncle worked shift work making their schedule somewhat counter to that of mine & Dad's. He had to go on a business trip for two weeks in late September, and one week of that time we had off from school for teacher's convention. For these reasons, that week was selected for a change in residence. Thereafter I was, as per Dad's instructions, to consider the farms and uncle "R" and his family as my home and family. Thus started my years as a "farm kid" versus a "town kid". This lasted for about nine years, until I moved out on my own on my sixteenth birthday, and taught me much of what I know about life. Uncle R had only one child, a daughter who abhorred all facets of farm life except riding her saddle horse. She was never made to feed, clean, or do any of the work normally associated with having a horse as she was what was then considered "delicate". We now have a better term for it: "spoiled only child". She was, from what her grandmother confirmed to me, a "holy terror" with brattiness and tantrums to spare. Her grandmother, R's mom, lived with us and was a wonderful, if stoic, woman who took to me immediately, as she claimed I reminded her of R at my age. It was her suggestion that R treat me as if I were his son as he was raised. This idea appealed to him I guess, as the first few days after she suggested it, he took me with him all day watching, learning, and trying my hand at all he did. He decided after two or three days, that my place was two-fold as far as my main chores would be. I've always been intrigued by anything the least bit mechanical or that moves on it's own. Seeing my interest and obvious, even at that age, knack for all things involving machinery, my main job was to learn and see to maintaining all the farm's many mechanical devices. At first this involved mostly checking fluids, belts, fuel, adding what was needed and greasing all fittings everywhere with the proper lubricant. This part filled me with such excitement and anticipation I was elated as I'd seldom been. Being allowed to touch machines would've been enough, watching them even better, but to actually WORK on them, sheer joy. Then, as I sipped fresh raw milk to help swallow my warm, homemade molasses cookies spread thinly with fresh-churned salty butter, he delivered the devastating details of my other job. It seems uncle R loved his horses, he loved driving them, working them, even occasionally plodding around the farm and his woodlot's rutted roads atop one. He did not, however, like any part of their upkeep. From feeding, cleaning and maintaining them and their tack in pristine condition, to mucking out their stalls. I was now in charge of all aspects of their care. Not only was this a daunting amount of constant, heavy, and tedious toil, but he'd noted my nervousness around the beasties and thought this was the perfect way to overcome my trepidation. Not to mention relieving him of the position he'd held for so many years. These beasties consisted of the princess' palimino gelding, a donkey whose purpose was never made clear other than R's mom "liked" him, an obstinate and mean mule, and three work horses. One old Belgian stallion who was "retired", and two stallions that were mixed Belgian and Clydesdale, sons of the old Belgian and a neighbor's Clydesdale mare. The pictures above are of one of each breed, similar draft horses "pulling" to show their size and power, and similar horses "twitching wood" or hauling logs from a woodlot. The standing growth in the photo is far less dense than our lots. You'll notice I use "our" a lot as I felt as much a bona fide member of the family as any, and more than some who came and went at different times. That's another story though. Our woodlots were so thick with trees and undergrowth that they were only accessable by rutted paths or chainsaw. These photos were taken from the web, as I can find nobody having any of the farm or our lives. I'm sure they exist someplace, I just haven't found the person who has them, so these will do for now. Notice also the heavy harnesses or "tack" associated with these horses. As you might tell from the "pulling" photos, these horses were rather "big", even "Very big" if you consider how they appeared to a somewhat slight, short, seven-year-old boy unfamiliar with animals larger than a dog or cat. All three draft horses were large even for their breeds. Old Tom, the sire, was smallest at over 18 hands and 2200 pounds. For you non-horse savvy folks, that's over six feet tall at the withers, a ridge between the shoulderbones. The "boys" were about the same height, but a bit heavier. I thanked my fairy godmother on my first day learning all about them when I discovered their gentle, even playful nature. I guess that's part of why R trusted them with me, he knew they'd look after the silly little creature pretending to be "in charge" of them. The ass, mule, and palimino, I only ever cleaned and mucked out. The donkey was "retired" from a kiddie ride when R's mom bought him, as she thought he looked tired and footsore. The palimino was finickey as the princess and I hated riding anyway, even though I'm quite adept at it, if I may say so myself. The mule was occasionally employed hauling something or other, but as R was the only one who could find his "start" button, my task was similar with him. I did harness him up for something on rare instances where R was in a hurry and needed it done for him. Tom was let out each day to do whatever pleased him, which usually involved ambling around the various fields & woods trails and eating. At the slightest provocation such as rain, heat, bugs, etc, he was off for the safety of the barn. To get a picture of the place, the farm of the two we lived on was on the north side of the state highway that separated the two. Although they operated as one farm with two families, they were in fact quite different. While R had a dairy herd, hay & alfalfa fields, and income-producing woodlots, "F", his half-brother, had apple orchards, corn and bean fields, and a truck-garden store in a nearby town for income. Our farm consisted of a huge house, which I'll get to at another time or two, a huge pair of separate but parallel pantries with different uses running north to your left when in the kitchen facing the front, or east, side of the house toward the barnyard. The west side of the yard abutted the three story house, the north the connector shed, to the east was the three story milk barn, the milkroom, and a storage shed. To the north of the milk barn, running at a ninety degree angle from it, was a two story horse barn. Abutting the horse barn to its east was the one story 80 X 35 foot equipment barn. The milkroom was to the south of and added onto the milk barn. I'll get to these various structures in other segments of my ramblings, today we're in and about the horse barn and its denizens. As you enter the place through the milk barn, you find on the left the newer stalls housing the ass, mule, and palimino, running in order south to north. On the right are the larger, and older, homes of Jake, Pete, and lastly Tom. All the stalls are equipped with a feed trough, water trough, and a half-door behind each animal. The far end at the north has a stairway leading to the second floor which housed the tack room and the door to the paddock and fields. All the equipment in this room, which equalled in area the entire stall area below, was also now my responsibility. It mattered little to R that I had no idea what most of the stuff was, let alone how to use or care for it. His response to my saying such was "don't matter boy, ye'll larn soon 'nuff fo' my satisfaction". And so we come near the ending of this segment, and my beginnings as a somewhat hesitant farmhand. The next week and a half of my school fall vacation was thus consumed by learning adventures of a different sort than that to which I was accustomed. First I learned the importance of scouring the stalls clean, followed by spreading new bedding chips and hay throughout. That this was the most important of my tasks involving clean-up duties, was heavily stressed, until I passed the perusal of R's eagle eyes. First, you remove the stall occupant, so naturally I started learning with the smallest and gentlest of the six-pack of equines, the donkey. R wasn't present when I started that first day and had told me to get one animal out to the paddock in the back and wait for him. He was clearly not impressed with my decision, as he said as how I'd've been better off doing the hardest first, when my energy was at its peak. He was so right, and I followed that path of logic starting that very evening. I forgot one small fact here, as R had to tend to other duties and figured this'd take a bit, we began lessons before milking time, which was still a "late" daylight saving time five AM. That put the start of my horse chores at three AM, long before breakfast time, which was after milking, bottling, and delivery truck loading. Did I mention that we delivered raw milk, cream, eggs, and home churned butter to over two hundred homes seven days a week? Bet you can guess at what my third non-school day job was to entail. Anyway, back to horse farming for a bit more, lest you think this was the end. I forgot, we also had pigs, goats, and chickens. My aunt took care of these. Mucking out stalls, I was soon to discover, required critter removal, as I said. This was followed by shovelling/sweeping all the stall floor "matter" into a pile and onto a wheelbarrow as high as it'd go. This, so as to make as few trips out to the manure pile as possible. Usually, what I came to know as the little horses only took two trips per animal. The big boys were another matter altogether. After the solid matter was removed, you hosed down and applied soap to the stall floor and scrubbed mightily with a straw brush on a long handle. This mess was then washed down the drain at the front of each stall, beyond the animal's reach. Then you emptied, cleaned, and refilled the water and feed troughs that were at the front in a "V" shape, to allow the beastie access to each. Then you moved down to the next stall and removed the occupant while the first stall floor dried some. This usually took a few minutes and was hastened along by vigorous scrubbing action using another long-handled brush having far more bristles for generating frictional heat. Then you got the "dry" wheelbarrow you'd filled with dry sawdust and wood shavings and spread the stuff throughout the stall. This was followed by a generous serving of hay for bedding down and occasional munching on when it was still fresh and clean. Now the first beastie was rounded up, not always an easy task on nice days now that he had a playmate in the paddock with which to run around in mock races. When he was finally in the barn, you brushed & washed him as needed before re-installing him in his castle for about half a day, whole routine was repeated twice daily, three hundred sixty-five days a year, excepting leap years when you got an extra bonus day for your efforts. Did I mention that we had no electricity excepting the milk barn and milkroom which were serviced by a diesel powered generator as needed? That meant no running water with which to hose out the stalls until the rooftop tanks were filled. If you were lucky, it'd raind a bit to help you out. If you were me, usually drought conditions were prevelant. Assuming that mother nature had co-operated by filling the tanks one quarter full, you only had to pump the lower tank full and then use the hand cranked rotary pump to fill the upper tanks. As this was all the water available for cleaning, you made it do the whole task to avoid pumping more than the minimum amount needed. The lower tank was left full to use filling the pails for the water troughs, as the hose water from the upper tanks wasn't clean enough . The tanks were open-top style to gather rain, but collected other things as well. The monthly cleaning of the tanks is a story in itself, horrible undertaking. Even that first day, I got an insight into what my life as a team driver was to be. After cleaning the stalls of the three draft animals, I watched Tom and Pete add to the mess in the paddock in the form of their own brand of fertilizer. They then trotted docilely over to me when I called them. What a thrill that was, these great masses of muscle trotting eagerly to me at the sound my youthful, squeaky voice. They then got in place on their own for me to groom them, and when I finished they moved gingerly into their respective stalls. Thus leaving Jake for last. I called him, and when he refused to acknowledge me, let alone respond, I got the rope as R instructed me and ventured into the muck and manure filled paddock. After chasing him while slipping, sliding, and falling until I needed a good cleaning, he stood still, snicker-snorted, and lowered his head to allow me to put the rope around his neck and "lead" him into the barn. He stood perfectly still while I brushed and cleaned him, after some washing-up of myself. Then he traipsed into his stall, looked at me, snickered and shook his head and, as I closed the half-door, proceeded to "fertilize" the stall I'd just mucked out. Then R, laughing 'til tears ran down his cheeks, informed me to never scrub & refill Jake's stall until AFTER he had his little "joke", which he pulled on me virtually every day. He wouldn't do it on rainy, snowy, or exceptionally cold days as he didn't want to go back outside while I recleaned the stall. This was my introduction to horse humor, a trait abundantly plentiful in Jake and a bit also resided in Pete's inner mental programming. Later on, after I became more familiar with the requirements of farm life and, using a bit of ingenuity, there came to be various homemade contraptions to make life easier, mostly my life. For now, we'll leave the equipment as I found it, and save working the tack room and "driving" the team while pulling logs, rocks, wagons, and competing at county fairs with them in pulling contests for later. Those contests remain a huge part of farm life here today. Some people look at these contests as cruelty to animals, but I can tell you from experience, these animals are at their happiest when showing off what they can do. The folks who raise, tend, and compete with these horses and oxen treat them as valued members of their families. More horsey stuff next time as I'm all typed out for now. Any errors, mis-spelling, etc are purely the result of my continuing lack of any computerized typing skills. Take care.
Thursday, July 13, 2006
Just A Passin' Memory
I was lookin out the window at the berry bushes in the back yard & a happy memory popped into my head. The summer I spent alone with Dad was a magical time to that now deliriously
happy young boy. He never let me out of his site for than a few short minutes, ever. He even took me to class & work with him & let me sleep in his bed at night until I insisted on sleeping alone again. I can still recall the smell of his sheets as they were scented with his aftershave.
Anyway, a quick flash came to me as I saw the blackberry bushes in the evening sun. Dad had taken me fishing for the first time with nobody else with us. We only caught a few brook trout, enough for supper if we added plenty of potatos & fresh picked peas & beans. Maybe some of my aunt's homemade yeast rolls too. As we rode in silence down the dirt ruts the ten miles or so to the main road, Dad spotted something & brought our big tank of a car to a halt.
He'd spotted a huge jumble of blackberry & raspberry bushes beside the weedy ruts, full to over-flowing with berries. After blowing the horn several times to scare off any furry berry-picking competitors, we got out & grabbed a couple of pails from the trunk that we'd brought to
hold the extra fish we neglected to catch. After showing me how to pick the ripest bush fruits
he turned me loose to do my best. This, in hindsight, might not've been the best decision of the
day. You see, he'd been too busy until that time to devote much time to training me on the finer points of wild berry picking procedures, and more importantly, the hazards involved.
I was doing great and had a pretty good crop of juicy goodness gathered when I happened upon a particularly good group of very ripe fruits. I immediately set to work picking as fast as my small hands could fly and still not damage the fruit or hit too many thorns. So lost in my efforts was I, that I wasn't real aware of my fellow creatures. If I'd been looking, a growing presence of hords of one of nature's wonders would've caught my notice. Unluckily for me, my first inkling of a pending disaster was when I stepped up onto a fallen log to reach the higher targets of my efforts. As I did, I noticed, but ignored, the sinking feeling under my left foot. It was soon made painfully clear that I had committed a grave transgression against a group of very perturbed flying honey making critters. I immediately pulled out my foot, covered as it was with a sticky combination of honey, wax, bark, and highly hostile honey bees. My father heard the ungodly screeches that came from the depths of my being as I ran out with this terrible mess coming along for the trip and still stinging away, those that hadn't left their tiny spears embedded in my already painful leg. This, I remember thinking, "is not good". Why that thought, I don't know. But under the circumstances, a totally concise and accurate assessment of things.
Dad reached me and scooped me up, hitch-hikers and all, and commenced a mad dash to a little brook he'd seen while he was picking. As we reached the tiny flow of water, he lay down in it with me still in his grip and shook up both as hard as he could. I, being stunned by all that had transpired in such a short time, was sooooooo happy to feel the cooling liquid as it rinsed away the unwanted mess from my leg. Finally, checking to see that the bees had lost interest in us in favor of repairing their poor, badly damaged abode, Dad stood and pulled me to my feet.
What a sight he was, all wet and covered all over his arms with tiny red battle scars that were swelling as we watched. I must have looked a fright to him too, as he looked horrified at the wet and badly stung boy before him. After determining that we looked far worse than we felt, we exited the water and walked the few yards down the grassy ruts to our hulk of a car. As we neared the beast on wheels, I took off at a dead run past and away from it, eliciting new yells from Dad. He quickly calmed down though, as I came running back with my hard-won pail of
berries, bees in hot pursuit once again. As I reached the car with its now open door, Dad scooped up me, berries, and his pail and dove in the passenger door over me and the pails, slamming the door with a flick of his panicked foot. I realized my window was still down and furiously cranked it back into place at the top of the door, trapping us & some bees inside, but many more without.
When we got to the farm, my aunt removed my pants & shirt to review the damage caused by the tiny lancers. From her gasp, I had an inkling it wasn't good. While she took the berries & proceeded to bake some delicious pies to top with homemade ice cream after supper, my Dad & uncle R retrieved a bright lantern from the barn to use for stinger removal. As there was only a generator for power at that time, and it being used to light the milk barn, the kerosene lantern was the tool of choice. I don't know how long it took to remove what they could, but it was long after milking was done, horses & other critters cleaned & fed, and supper gone from fixins to fixed. There was no lotion available that night, so I ended up being covered in "bag balm" to ease the smarting. "Bag balm" is the trade name of the stuff used to rub on the sore udders of
milk cows & goats and the sore hands that milked them on biting -40F winter days.
This story has a happy ending though, mostly involving fresh mashed potatos, peas, beans,
yeast rolls with hand-churned salty butter, and all topped off with fresh berry pies still warm enough to melt the homemade vanilla ice cream I was allowed to heap on mine, "just this once" as my now relieved Dad watched me chow down like I'd never eaten before. Take care.
Posted by Mike S at 7:56 PM
Before Ya asks, NO! It's not a poem, it's my lack of computer skills when transferin' this stuff around. Hope it's easy enough to read, bein' in funny-typin'. Sorry. A Darkness Decends Over My New Life This part of my life is very difficult for me to think about, let alone write about. I must do it so soon after my last entry because, having dredged the memories back to the surface of mind from the depths to which I had pushed them with so much effort, they are once again disturbing my sleep with such vividness that rest is impossible. Therefore, as soon as I put them to paper, it's my fervant wish that I'll once again be able to force them back into the compartments from which they seemed to have been loosed. As I type this it's 4:00 AM and I woke a while ago from the most vivid nightmare about that time that I've had in years, many years. So it's all fresh in my mind, far too fresh. As, after counselling evoked the memories, I once before was able to banish them by writing and discussing them, I'm optimistic that will once again be the outcome. I'm in a much better mental position to effect the ouster this time than I was so many years ago. Enough delaying, into the fray. As I alluded to in a previous post, the rough treatment at the hands of MM on my first time alone with her was indeed a harbinger of the evils to come. All of this has been verified by disccussions with Dad, after an extensive series of psychoanalytical screenings had been administered seeking answers as to my suitability to be placed in an extremely sensitive government position in my very earliest years of involvement with Uncle Sugar. He was reluctant at first, but once he heard the detail in which I had recovered memories he had striven so hard to erase, I saw him shed tears for the first and last time ever. He then proceeded to fill in the gaps over many bottles of Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer, a rarity for him indeed. In the intervening years, I've been able to suppress and avoid those memories, which I find myself even now avoiding putting to paper. The following condensed account is a synopsis of the first 4 years of my life with my new family. At first, the evil was very subtle, a slap across the face or being literally tossed into my crib, which I'd outgrown, for the least perceived violation of MM's everchanging "rules". After a few months, one day I spilled my cereal after eating almost all of it. The words aren't important, if they are later, I'll try to include some very familiar phrases. What's important is the severe, sputtering rage emitting from MM at this trivial occurance. This "violation" of her rules", the contents of which I was ignorant, led to my introduction to "the hole". Our house's first floor was divided into two very large rooms with a stair- way between, that had at its bottom a smallish platform with two short flights of steps arranged perpendicular to the main stair. The short stair on the right low- ered the person descending to the living room, while the stair to the left led into the kitchen. The platform was approximately four foot square and the two short stairs were four steps each. The main stair was seventeen steps tall climbing up to the upper floor where there were, at that time, two bedrooms, a bathroom, and a large-ish hallway that led from the big bedroom on the left to the bathroom, with a small ell off the right that led to my room. A closet covered by a curtain ran along the length of the hall for its entire length. The top of the stair faced south, the left bedroom faced the street on the east, and my room and the bath were on west end, with my room consisting of the northwest corner of the upper floor. The living room was below the big bedroom and my room and the bathroom were over the kitchen. The street-side or front door was centered on the livingroom to the east, after passing through a very small enclosed front porch, and was rarely used. The back door, centered on the west wall of the kitchen, led to an enclosed porch with cellar steps a ways to the right and the back door to the left. The driveway, headed by a detached garage on the southwest corner of the property, was just out this door, which was the commonly used entrance and exit to the house. If you stood in the center of the stairs leading to the sleeping areas facing to the platform at the bottom, and if you were to raise your right arm, it would extend into the living room, as the stairway was open on the living room side be- low the level of the second floor. The drop from this point was about six feet to the living room floor and there was never a railing installed. This will be key to an evil I'll describe shortly. If you raised your left arm you would touch a wall. Behind this wall was a space sited between it and the kitchen wall. This space was tall, going all the way to the second floor ceiling at the top and to the first floor on the bottom. This space was accessed by removing a piece of plywood fronting on the area to the south of the short stair leading to the kitchen. This space was about six feet deep and two feet wide with a chimney at one end and the short stair at the other. This was not a finished space at this time although, long after my time there, it was put to use. This tiny space, when the plywood was in place, was utterly dark. If you have ever visited a cave or other lightless place and doused your source of illumin- tion, you know the utter lack of light to which I refer. Dad was a great carpenter and the plywood fitted with absolutely zero light bypass. This is what I call the hole. My first time in the hole, following the rather severe, but average, thrashing I received for spilling about two tablespoonsfull of cereal and milk onto the table, was by far the shortest time I spent there. After being advised the beating I'd just had was nothing in comparison with what would happen to me if I were to go astray of her newest rules. No noise, no moving about, and above all, the new "rule of most importance". This rule said I was to never, under any circumstances, tell Dad or any- one else about being in the hole. She had early on given me a horrible beating with a two-by-four through my "punishment clothes" for no reason, other than to show me the result of telling about any of the punishments I underwent. This beating was administered during a week when Dad was away on business and the bruises were pretty much gone when he returned at any rate. I was also constantly told of the even more severe beating I'd get from Dad for making MM punish me so often. Don't ever believe that wearing thicker winter clothes will protect you from the blows she would deal me with a board, a ball bat if I was deemed really bad, and a length of 3" steel pipe for the worst of my offending actions. The severity of my offense was at all times arrived at by the depth of her rage, never anger, screaming mad rages. In those years Dad was attending college part-time to further his career and he was often gone for long hours each day and even days at a time on weekends. This left just the two of us home, which gave MM loads of time to list my offenses that she felt strongest about. I'll run through them quickly and leave them. These first few were ones over which I had no control, as you'll see. In no particular order they were: being male, having darker skin than was acceptable, having dark brown eyes, not being young enough, being able to talk, being able to walk. These last two were of importance to her as she'd bragged to everyone that they were adopting a newly- born only a few month old. This would play havoc with birth certificates as she tried in her depravity to make me younger. She'd wanted a girl, Dad wanted a boy. He saw me & fell in love with me, while she was horrified. I later found out that both my and my sister's adoptions were without revue and illegal under then existing law. They were both accompanied and facilitated by the exchange of very large sums of cash. This was necessitated by the fact that MM had repeatedly been disapproved as a potential adopter as being mentally unstable. Dad wasn't aware of the degree of her instability at that time, as they underwent separate screening, rather unusual in the 1940's. All I can surmise is that the psychiatrists, she saw several, saw through her. I'll now list the punishments as I recall them, the offenses were all in her head on most occassions anyway, so they're not relevant. I'll admit the treatment abated for a time on the arrival of my sister as she fit MM's wish list, at first. She then was the cause for additional punishments, as when she cried, I caused it, she mess- ed her diaper, I caused it, do you detect a growing trend here? Punishment for most things, was several face slaps, rings on. Then came paddling on bare bottom. Not to bad, except she had a paddle from one of those old toys with the ball attached via a long rubber cord. This evolved into the paddle of choice as it was me who was using it when the rubber cord came loose from the partially installed staple meant to hold it to the paddle. The other reason, was it still had the staple attached, which never failed to draw blood, which in itself was a further offense. Bleeding led to the next level of pain, soaking in a shallow pan filled with rubbing alcohol, of which she had a source who provided it by the gallon, literally. We had many gallons in the cellar which she told Dad she used in housecleaning tasks. Placing your raw, bloodied, bottom in a pan of alcohol not only hurts a mite, it evokes an unusual phenomenon, it causes such pain your bowels let go. Being a particularly horrid offense, it led to the next level of inevitable pain, the alcohol enema. This she deemed necessary as I had uncleanliness within me needing to be excised. This enema was always applied using what I thought of as the big sticker. It was the largest size enema application tube I've ever seen. It was as big around as a hen's egg, and being freshly cleansed in alcohol and inserted dry, was a pain only exceded by that felt by the inrush of the two pints or so of pure alcohol thru the colon to the intestine. Every drop was made to go in by means of rolling up the water bottle she employed. These were the most usual treatments I received, followed each time by hours in the completely dark hole. We're nearing the end, I promise, as relating this is very painful to me mentally. The importance of cleanliness was always stressed by MM. One treatment was being scrubbed raw with SOS pads to remove the filth on my skin from being in the sun, followed of course by the above routine. My heritage causes my skin to be of a rather dark hue when at its palest. Five minutes or longer of sunlight causes it to turn a beautiful reddish-copper color, which was unacceptable. Too dark for our kind. See, there were then, and now, no blacks in the area, so the plentiful local Indians were "it". Hey, somebody gotta be the inferior race, right? This cleanliness rule was enforced in the hole too. In the hole would be me, naked. A shiny metal pail, and a small bowl with my rations, the cheapest canned pet food available at the time she went shopping last. These cans were kept in her "special" private metal box in the cellar. To wash this treat down was water served by the quart in the container you associate with quarts, not milk. Hint, it didn't all drain into the car engine, always some left for me to drink to flavor the water I suppose. As the stays in the hole could last several weeks at times, avoiding the use of these items was unavoidable. And void was what my bowels would do endlessly after sipping from the can as care- fully as I could. That oil works wonders. Ever sit in absolute darkness, naked, raw skin, severly bruised, cold, and really wish you were dead. Heavy thoughts for some- one not having yet attained his seventh birthday. You're preached to how this guy God loves you all the time during MM's lucid moments, but you don't see how he lets you live. Not why you're being punished, but why you can't die when you want it so bad you spend hours on your knees in the hole until they're raw, praying to die. Just one more item, the penalty for really breaking rules, followed of course by all the above. If you guessed by now a real beating, WRONG! That was "minor", don't you remember? Nope, this was saved for special times and only used every month or so. This involved stripping naked, an SOS bath followed by an alcohol rubdown, very roughly applied. Then you stood naked against the wall until the bleeding stopped. When she was satisfied you'd not get blood on things, usually after standing for at least four or five hours, you got "what was coming to you". First you marched to the top of the steps and stood arms to your sides. You hold that position, knowing what always comes next, just wondering how many times it'll be this time and if you can die before the paddling, alcohol pan, enema, and then the hole. While you stand still, very important to stand still and not cry, she ties your arms securely at your sides. Then she ties your feet together. Then, this is the good part, she forces you to your knees, as you're never fast enough on your own. Now, on your knees, trussed up, back to the stairs, you're ready. Next is the best part. She walks back a bit. lifts her leg, and kicks you down the stairs. If you're lucky, you go down straight. If not, and you go toward the wall and don't reach the platform, it doesn't count to her. If you go the other way and fall into the living room and hit the stuffed chair, it doesn't hurt so bad. If you drift onto the maple phone table or go between to the floor, those both hurt quite a bit. Did I forget to mention the stair treadboard construction? They were 17 rock maple steps, but the edges and corners were nicely rounded, so not as bad as it could've been. The roll down was followed by your feet being untied, didn't expect to be carried up did you? The minimum was five rolls down, the maximum was when she tired of watching you. She always made sure there were at least a few days in which to heal in the hole before Dad returned. Now you have an idea why I hate the memories. I'm not looking for pity, but this is a record of my life, and this was part of it that went into shaping who I am today. Just part of the mix. I'll not speak of this ever again voluntarily after today. Now to end this dark chapter and move on. All this came to an abrupt end one day when I was around seven. Close to that date anyway. I was newly in the hole after the full range of treatment because I hadn't reached the ringing phone in time. Never mind that we had a crank type phone with a live operator who'd cheerfully tell you who had called and what they'd wanted. On this day, me in the hole, my sister playing outside being watched through the wind- ow, and MM and her best friend playing cards, the unexpected happened. Oh yeah, I could always hear them in the house doing things, MM told her friend I was with our relatives out of town. This day, after his professor took ill and cancelled the classes for the week, Dad had driven home with no notice to surprise MM. This he was very successful in. My sister made the "fatal" gaffe of telling him, when he asked where I was, I was in the hole. MM tried her best to get him to leave so she'd be able to do a bit about my condition, to no avail. When he kept asking her, my sister showed him "place for dirty, bad boys". Dad practically ripped off the plywood getting it off. What he saw did something to him I only ever saw that once, he literally turned a bright reddish-purple color, looked at MM, and just pointed to the back door and mouthed the word "out". It took him some time to coax me out as I was petrified at what he'd do to me. After all, it had been threatened to be worse than anything I'd ever experienced. He got me out finally, shaking in fear, took me upstairs, cleaned the feces off me in the tub, and wrapped me in a blanket. Then he gently carried me to the car and drove me to the local doctor's house, as it was a Saturday. I stayed with the doc and his family in a separate room for two or three days before Dad took me home. He'd been to see me every day until I fell asleep. When we went into the house there was no sign of MM or my sister. Dad said they went to visit my aunt about 200 miles away for awhile. We stayed there and at the college together the rest of the summer. MM and my sister finally returned as school was about to start, but I was never left with her again without Dad there. I started then to spend more and more time on the farm, eventually that became my main residence and Dad's house a place I rarely visited. If I was in town to stay after school, I went to an aunt's house until Dad came and got me. Finally, at age 16, by their birth certificate (MM's original), I moved out to live with a friend while working two jobs and finishing school. I left town, never to move back, 13 days after graduation. I returned to visit, but the feelings never died, even though the memories were well suppressed for many years. After Uncle Sugar was sure I was okay to go, he generously provided me with intense counselling to re-suppress them. There they've stayed until about two months ago when reading a friend's blog, made me realize when I'm gone, my kids and grandkids can never know who I was, as I've never spoken much to anyone of my youth before. I don't want them in the position I find myself, hav- ing a nearly untraceable family tree. Other than the counsellors years ago, I've never felt the need to tell the story again until now. Now it's done, RIP evermore. One ironic footnote is that when MM reached old age and needed care, I was the only one to step forward as she'd alienated so many by that time. A few stuck by her, but I was the one to ensure she was well taken care of until her death several years ago in her mid-nineties. I find myself feeling pity for her, as she was very ill mentally. Next time we'll move on to brighter subjects and happier times. Take care and cherish all those God gave you to love, even at their worst, they're the only family you have. Now maybe he'll grant me some peaceful sleep and allow my demons to return to the depths of my mind.
Posted by Mike S at 9:04 AM
Tuesday, July 11, 2006
A Wee Bit O' Family Background Time for another trip into the somewhat jumbled understanding I now have of my early history & some background on the folks into whose care I was delivered. As I said before, the first 2-3 years of my life are probably lost to the annals of time, never to be recovered. After much digging, needling, & prodding, I have finally come to reluctantly accept that I'll never truly know what transpired in those dark years. This decision to accept things took many years of being frustrated at every turn by cover-ups, half-truths, lost memories, outright falsehoods, and a deep aversion to discuss the matter by all those in a position to enlighten me as to the facts. The reasons for their individual actions are many, but they've created an impenetrable screen and then "shuffled off this mortal coil" to their final fate. They took the means to lift the fog of the mystery with them. I bear them no ill will, I'm more puzzled than anything, although I do have an inkling of the people, places, and times that underlie it all. RIP for now. I'll get into the next few years as best I can & soon enough to suit me, as recalling those years fills me with an unshakable dread to this day. For now we'll concentrate on the folks who had custody of me until I moved out on my own at age 16. No, I didn't quit school & run away to join the circus, I chose a more arduous route to follow. That's another life, another story, and will be covered later on if I live that long, as it's a long way in the future of this boy's life. Now onto a very complicated "family" that I call mine, although not by birth. We'll start with Dad, since he's the one I cared most for among all the various characters that made up this motley collection of souls. His mother was Canadian born and a first generation Scots-Canadian. Her parents emigrated when her mother was pregnant with her older sister. Beyond that, I've never really enquired, as it has no real bearing on the "heritage" I searched for in a vain attempt to find out who I really am and where I came from. His father's lineage is a bit more murky. I do know he came to Canada as a young boy to live with his grandparents for whatever reason. As near as I can tell, he was molded by a pair of older, very religious, very miserly people. As a result, he was said to have had no real emotional expression, other than hate and greed. It's my understanding that he married Dad's mother when she became pregnant with his eldest brother, much to the dismay and horror of his grandparents and her parents. Soon afterward, they moved with their young son to Maine in search of work, which he promptly found in the blossoming paper-making industry. He worked in the mill until it worked him into his grave in the late 1920's. They bought & settled into a SMALL house & proceeded to produce another six children, who they raised in the little two bedroom bungalo with a great rhubarb patch. As I alluded to above, Dad's father died of "exhaustion" soon after the arrival of their last child, who was far removed in years from the eldest. His death came after many years of six day work weeks filled with the sixteen hour "doubles" needed to support their burgeoning brood. By this time Dad's two elder bothers and one elder sister were married and on their own. Using the small pension insurance her husband left, supplimented generously by her offspring, Dad's mother lived to a ripe old age before passing away in what passed as a "nursing home" in 1957. When she died, the little bungalo where all but one of her children were born and raised, was sold of necessity to pay her creditors from her last years. The little place still stands and has a nice big side yard where Dad's father had always planned to add onto the house. This makes it the nicest small house in the area today, and it's still inhabited by a young family with three small children that I saw happily picking the rhubarb with their mom on our last drive past. Dad went to college and returned home to settle down in a little shack of a house he and his new wife, MM, were buying in installments from the landowner, who lived next door. As soon as he moved in, he began to build his dream house around the outside of the little place, literally. This was interupted for several years while he served in Europe in WWII, but resumed when he returned, flush with cash from sources he'd never explain, except to allude to the fact that Uncle Sam generously provided a steady supply of playing cards in their ration packs. I'll explain the house building later. As you'll see in a bit, Dad would've been the perfect poker player, as he was almost as devoid of emotion as his father. He was blessed however, with a wonderful sense of humor in place of the greed and hatred. He also was a very fair and thoughtful man with good intentions toward all. He was just nearly emotionally dead in some deep way, safely hidden from our view. He'd never talk of it until Alzheimer's took his mind and put him, as a lad, in the past. Around 1946, my "uncle R" came into the "family" in a round-about way. There were three sisters in a small village nearby, two of whom married into Dad's and MM's families. The eldest married my "uncle-to-be", the middle one married MM's younger brother, and the youngest married Dad's next-youngest brother. Thus, although not truly "family", it being a very small place, he was always known thereafter as "uncle R". My uncle had come from a small farm family that had gone belly-up during the depression leaving them penniless. Although his father found work with the CCC of the 1930's, uncle R always wanted to farm, as that's all he knew. He had the good fortune to marry who he did and when he did, as Dad immediately went in with him and his half-brother in the purchase of two adjoining family farms that had just come onto the market. As a result, this became my "safe haven" in latter times when Dad wasn't able to be with me. I'll get into the reasons for this seemingly strange "dual life" in the next bit I write, I hope. I'll also explain Dad's working life a little then, if I remember. This pretty much covers Dad and how he became to be the nice, kind, funny, unexpressive man he was. Now to MM. MM's mother was born into an old Maine fishing and lumbering family. While never going without a means of making a living, it was often a hardscrabble life in those years before WWI. Her family still resides on the coast and islands of eastern Maine and most still pry their living from the sea. One big difference today though, is that many of the younger ones no longer fish for a living, but work at whatever endeavor they can find in winter, and take tourists "deep-sea fishing" in the warmer months. The warmer months here generally being late June through very early September. Some also dig clam worms, clams, trap lobster, and smoke fish. There's also salmon farming there now. A few have migrated to the more inland areas and work in the wood products industry and as Registered Maine Guides. But we're off subject here, maybe later. Plenty of little gossipy snippets to fill a page or three. Back to MM's family. Her grandfather on her father's side had relatives living in the same area and more or less following the same lines of work as her mom's people. This worked out very well for him when, in the late 1800's, the Queen suggested he leave British soil and seek his fortunes elsewhere. As the alternatives were to remain in England under very unpleasant conditions, or go to Australia or New Zealand, he wisely opted to make an extended visit to his folks in the land of opportunity. He settled in, married, and passed his love of the bottle and shady dealings on to MM's father. As a result, it was suggested to her dad by the powers that were at the time, that perhaps a ferry ride up-river with his growing family and possible employment in the paper mill was in order. Seeing the idea as a terrific chance to get away from certain troubles on the local level, he immediately left with his growing family for greener pastures. For reasons of privacy among living family members, I'll not go too deeply into MM's family, other than to say she had several siblings, all but two of whom I've met. One died in WWI and another was committed to the State Mental Hospital at the time Dad and MM were dating. I'll get into a bit of it when there's no one left to be hurt or upset later on. For now, that's a much longer than planned capsule of where my adoptive parent's roots lie and , to some extent, what shaped them into the people they were. Not a bad lot, all things considered. Could've been much worse in many ways. As soon as my fingertips have the feeling return, I'll attempt to shed a bit more light on where and how I was raised and the times I lived in as a boy. I'll also try to portray the people involved as honestly and kindly as I can. Things were never really easy I guess, but I was blissfully ignorant of that truth, so I remained happy throughout for the most part. As my uncle told me almost daily: "We live through the hard times as best we can so we'll enjoy the good times all the more". I think that's true of most of our lives. We've got a wee stretch of darkness to travel next time, but the light that follows throughout my life was well worth waiting for. I'll try to update once a week at least, more if I can. Keep safe and stay optimistic, there's light at the end of every tunnel. Maybe that's a simple way to feel, but it's always been my way.
Friday, July 07, 2006
The Beginning, As Best As I Can Tell Welcome, let me start by explaining that the circumstances & place of my birth are lost to history as I write this. I've got several birth certificates, each valid & issued by the state in different names. This is due to some unusual happenings during the first years of my life, which I've pretty much narrowed down to starting in 1946 and in the fall. As I don't know the actual date, I use April 17, since that's the date my adoptive parents had on their birth certificate. Now that you're really confused, let me explain a bit of what I've found out via various sources. The closest I've found to an actual date, is an old newspaper article about my birth parent's death in an auto accident in the fall of 1946 as they drove home from a job search in a snowstorm. The article cites as the accident having one survivor, a son "approximately one month of age". Since this is the earliest account I've been able to locate & being the closest to revealing the actual time of my birth, I assume it's the most accurate age I can give. It's not, however, the birth date & age I've always used. Some more of the explanation is needed. My parents were American Indians & upon hearing of their deaths, I was adopted by my mother's cousin & his wife who were childless at the time. This made them the only ones in the family with room for another member. As fate would have it, this arrangement was to last for only about seven months, when they were killed in yet another auto accident. At this time there was nobody acceptable to the state to take me in & as a result I went to an orphanage. As luck would have it, I was adopted by people from close to where my parents were from. As a result, through the efforts of my adoptive father, I was to interact with my biological family as the years passed. Unfortunately, none of them were in touch with my birth parents at the time of their deaths, and many were unaware I even existed prior to being notified of my survival. At any rate, these musings are going to center on my life with my adoptive parents, as this is what I was most involved in. The other family ties consisted of sporadic visits for the most part. Although the ties are closer now with some members, I consider myself a Native American, but far from the reservation & the tribal lands & family of today. For reasons I may go into later, I spent most of my youth on a family farm, although my adoptive parents lived mainly in town where my father worked. I suppose my uncle was as much a father to me as was the man who's name was on the adoption papers & who I call "Dad". He was a truly nice man who died some time ago after reaching his 90's. My adoptive mother, who I'll hereafter refer to as "MM", died shortly thereafter. This writing is for the benefit of my decendents, if any deem it worth reading. I'm afraid that if I don't start leaving some sort of history now, there'll be nobody to leave one. As I tend to remember things out of order, that's probably how this'll be written. Time will tell I guess. I'll finish today by simply saying that what follows are my earliest memories: I'm in a place that has all white enamel cabinets, a cabinet color that gives me chills to this day. The "big people" there are all female & most wear only black with funny hats. For some reason, I'm always kept away from the other people my size in an all white room with a few simple toys to amuse me. I eat alone, & I don't go with the others to sleep either. These are just collective memories formed over about a two-three year time. I could talk & walk, but I remember mostly being left in a white room away from the others. I now believe I know why this was, but I've no proof as the place & people are long gone. As of now, almost everything of my youth is gone to make way for "progress". As a result, I'll have to describe most things, as photos are few & far between. If I find some, I'll share them as I go along. One day, a "big person" happened to see me through the open door & came in to see me. I remember it clearly, as he was exceptionally nice to me & it was the first "big person" to ever visit me. When "big people" came I was left in the room with the door closed. This day I guess somebody neglected to close me away from view. Some days later, the man reappeared with another "big person" & after a while, I was put on a funny couch-like seat in the back of what I was later to come to know as a 1949 Studebaker. I remember laying there a long time watching lines go past out the window. I now know they were power & phone lines. My next clear memory is of the nice "big person" tossing me about in a big blue room. The room today looks far from "big", as does the little house that I sold some time back after my parent's deaths. At any rate, I was placed in a big bed-like thing with loads of toys. The big people left & I remember clearly what happened when I cried from being alone & hungry. The "other" big person came in & yelled at me & forced a bottle into my mouth & held me down until I stopped struggling. At the time, I wasn't developed enough to foresee what treatment lay ahead for some time at the hands of the "other" big person. Finally, the nice man came back in & turned on the light & he must have held me until I went to sleep, as I don't remember clearly any more for a bit. As I said, it comes to me in scattered pieces, especially the early years that I've blocked out parts of. Well, guess that's enough for one post. Have to gather my thoughts a bit.
Posted by Mike S at 6:19 PM