Saturday, February 23, 2008

Story Hour XIII

Story Hour is a collection of autobiographical short stories written by my father, about growing up in rural Upstate New York.

Everyone was up early the next morning. It was Sunday, but on a farm with animals it is just like any other day. A cold breakfast was eaten and Dick and Jack got the Studebaker running and went to check the road block. They were back very shortly to tell us that the road block was not there. A brief discussion with mom and they headed for the milk house to get the milk from the previous evening and the milk from the morning milking.

Covering the milk cans with the tarp and, hearing a few words of caution from mom, they headed up the hill towards Pulaski. They encountered no difficulties and found they didn’t have to wait in line at the milk plant.

“I guess you boys got the word early, eh?” queried the milk tester as he knocked the can covers loose. Not waiting for an answer he sniffed each can for odors, then stirred the milk with a long metal paddle and dippered a small sample to test for butterfat content.

These procedures out of the way, he dumped the milk which had been weighed into the refrigerated holding tank and placed the cans and covers upside down on the can washer conveyor. In the meantime, the tester had done the butterfat test and gave the receipt to Jack.
The receipt had all the information on it: date, time, farmer’s name, weight of milk and butterfat content. Moving the truck to the washer can discharge, there was a short wait until the cans came out. It was advisable to wait a few minutes before grabbing the cans as they had just come out of a sterilizing steam bath and were very hot. Cans loaded and covered with the tied down tarp they were on their way back home.

Arriving at the farm they went right to the milk house and unloaded the cans and then went back to the house. “Strike’s over!” they shouted as they walked into the kitchen.

Mom and Sally were canning tomatoes again, so of course the kitchen was very hot. Extra pans held water heating on the stove for cleaning the kitchen. “Well I’m certainly glad to hear that,” exclaimed mom. “Now we can clean the kitchen and get ready for the threshing crew on Tuesday. We will, however, have cake and cream one more time on Monday night when your father comes home. I think the cream I have in the pantry will hold another day if we keep changing the water so it stays cold.”

Everyone grabbed a rag and, using yellow laundry soap, proceeded to wipe down the table, chairs, the wall behind the table, and the door casing leading into DG’s room. That was the last place you would want to leave a sticky gob of whipped cream. Dick picked up a mop and dunked it in a pan of hot soapy water and started sloshing it around on the floor. No need to worry about finished hardwood flooring in this old house. Plain old yellow pine boards, tightly nailed, served the purpose quite nicely, thank you. It wasn’t long before mom looked around with a pleased look on her face and allowed as how we had done a good job.

Alex picked up a damp cloth and carefully removing the chimney from the lamp, wiped off a smear of cream and cake crumbs and handed it to mom to put it back on the lamp. For a little guy he was pretty smart. Mom looked at the lamp chimney and, taking a small piece of newspaper from the kindling box, proceeded to wipe the inside of the glass. For some reason everyone said that newspaper was the very best for cleaning soot from lamp chimneys. There was usually a newspaper that DG brought home with him by the wood stove, to be used for starting a fire.

Dick told mom that he was going up to the woodlot to look for trees for the winter’s firewood. He would prefer to find standing dead hardwood trees that had not started getting punky yet, but we kept them culled out on a regular basis. The next best was a split crotch or half broken trunk, or a blown down tree with most of its roots in the air.

What we were actually doing was housekeeping in the wood lot and keeping our woods in good order. When one uses wood for fuel it warms you many times over, when you cut and split it, stacked it in the wood shed, carried it in to the stove and when you took the ashes out. An added plus was the fact that it cooked your food too.

Dick had brought along his 22 rifle with the idea that maybe we would have something besides pork belly and milk gravy for supper. Silently moving deeper into the woods, he knew where there was a group of beech trees that would be heavily laden with beech nuts. As he approached the gray trees he could see several fat gray squirrels scampering from branch to branch. Their cheeks bulging with the nuts they were hiding in various crevices and holes in the trees. Some they buried in the leaves covering the ground. These locations were frequently forgotten about and after the snow and cold of winter, the return of the spring sun shining through the leafless trees warmed the earth. The small seeds would sprout and ensure the beech trees would continue the cycle as nature intended.

The squirrel activity ceased as they noticed the stranger in their midst. Sitting quietly on a stump, Dick waited. He knew that it wouldn’t take long for the creatures to ignore him and resort to their previous activity, which they soon did.

As Dick sat there waiting for the opportunity to make a “one shot clean kill” he thought about the squirrels as a family group, hard at work, laying in their winter’s supply of food (much as we were). Plus the fact that one, two or even three squirrels would not be enough meat for our hungry family. Taking more than that from this group would mean the others might have a hard time making it through the winter.

As an added inducement not to shoot he thought about the costs of the ammunition in relation to the meat provided per shot. It seems he had a bit of Scots frugality in his blood too. This decided, he stood up, the squirrels froze momentarily and he quietly moved away from the beech grove.
At the edge of the woods he paused and looked out over the meadow where the hay had recently been mowed, raked and transported to the barn. Woodchucks were a different matter than squirrels. They were bigger - meaning more meat per shot - and what was worse they dug burrows in the hay fields, thus they were considered varmints or undesirable.

The problem came about if a horse stepped into a chuck hole and broke a leg. This was indeed a disaster as it usually meant the horse had to be destroyed. Standing in the shade looking out into the bright sunlight made it easy to spot a dark shape in the stubble of the field.

Holding his rifle in the ready position he gave a short sharp whistle. Immediately the chuck sat up and looked around for just a split second. That’s all it took. Dick had his “one shot clean kill.”
He knew without even walking over to look the chuck was dead from a bullet in its brain. After replacing the spent shell, he waited for a couple of minutes to see if another curious chuck would pop up. Sure enough about 3o feet beyond the first chuck hole was a slight movement in the stubble.

Dick stood with nothing moving but his eyes, calculating the distance, no wind to allow for, no appreciable drop because of distance. These thoughts went through his head automatically. After a moment the chuck lifted its head for a quick peek. Dick was still standing in the shade of the woods and the chuck being in bright sunshine could not see him. Seeing no reason for alarm the chuck stood up on his hind legs, which proved fatal. “two for two,” thought Dick…..”Not bad", as he replaced the spent shell.

Quickly he walked to the nearer animal, laid his rifle on the ground and pulled out his jack-knife which he always kept sharp. With one quick slice he opened the animal and removed the viscera. From another pocket came a short length of baler twine which he used to tie the hind legs together.

Picking up his rifle and the chuck, he headed towards the other one to repeat the evisceration. The offal was left on the stubble as a treat for a bird of prey or a hungry fox prowling the night. Now that he had something to show for his time he hurried back towards the house.

Hanging the chucks by the back door of the woodshed he went into the house to wash his hands and jack-knife. The kitchen was hot as the canning session was still going full blast. “I’ve got supper, two young chucks” Dick told mom. “That’s great”, said mom. “Get them skinned out real quick so I can par-boil them a bit, and be sure to get the glands out from under the legs.”

Dick of course knew about the glands but said nothing as he headed out to skin the animals. Having done this job many times before it did not take long to prepare them to mom’s orders and deliver them to her in the kitchen. She had already sent Sally to the garden for three nice onions which would go into the pot with a little salt to parboil the meat. The parboiling tenderized the meat and the onions added a little flavor.

Jack had, in the meantime, carefully mowed around the house, along the sides of the road for a distance on both sides of the house, the front lawn and around the barn buildings to reduce the danger of fire. This had made the farm look a little neater and also took some of the energy out of Tom and Jerry. If they were idle too many days in a row they got a little edgy and more apt to run away. He wanted them to be not too frisky on Tuesday so we would find some more “Look busy” work for Monday.

They had been unharnessed and put back in their stalls with a handful of oats and a bucket of water. Dugal and I had gone down the lane “exploring” with the idea that we would drive the cows up for milking when it was time. This also kept us out of trouble and avoided work assignments.

Next to the cow’s lane to the pasture, this year we had planted field corn. This needed to be checked out. Neither one of us could reach the top of the corn plants and the ears were forming up fat and heavy. By the time we had gone in four or five rows there was nothing to be seen in any direction but CORN.

“A guy could get lost in here,” allowed Dugal, “and wander around in circles forever.”

I had a suspicion he was leading me on so I replied, "If he had any sense at all he would know that if he stayed in one row and kept walking he would either come out by the house or on the other end he would be at the pasture. If he kept walking across the rows he would be at the far meadow or at the cow’s lane."
I was walking ahead of Dugal as this exchange took place and I suddenly felt a corn stalk thump me over the head. “CORN WAR!"

Grabbing a large ear of corn I snapped it off the stalk and whooping like a wild Indian I charged at Dugal swinging that ear of corn like a war club. I think this took him by surprise because usually I would have started bawling and headed for the house. He immediately started running away with me in hot pursuit.

All of a sudden I dropped the corn and started laughing. He stopped running and started laughing too. It was a good thing I hadn’t hit him with that ear of corn as I would have knocked him sillier than he already was.

By now I could hear a cow bell clanging in the distance which meant the cows were smarter than us and were headed towards the barn on their own. We fell in behind them, after taking a quick count to make sure they were all there.

Once the cows were locked in their stanchions and the milking started, Dugal and I quickly started our chores. Grain hay and water for all the cows, calves, horses, chickens and pigs. The sour milk would be coming to an end in a day or so but we didn’t tell them that.

When we finished we went into the milking barn where mom instructed us to help Jack and Dick finish up on the chores as she had some stuff to do in the house. We scattered some fresh bedding for the cows and did a couple more odd jobs and headed for the house. Dick drove the Studebaker up to the house so the battery would be handy later on.

When we walked into the kitchen it was hot but it smelled different too. The big black iron skillet was on the stove and the smell of hot lard was noticeable. Potatoes were boiling and corn ears were steaming in their pot. Sliced tomatoes and cucumbers were already on the table. Mom was busily dusting the parboiled pieces of wood-chuck with salt, pepper and flour. Carefully she placed the pieces of meat into the hot lard where they sizzled and popped. OH, did that smell good. When the last piece reached the proper degree of doneness and was the right crisp brown color she announced,”Let’s eat”. And so we did.

It was good! After too many days of side pork and milk gravy we were all ready for a change of diet. These chucks were young and tender and the parboiling with the onions didn’t hurt at all. In fact the beef-like taste of the meat was complimented by the oniony flavor. This was by far the best meal we shared in a long time.

”Three cheers for dead-eye Dick,” said Jack as he reached for another piece of meat. Six year old Alex immediately jumped up from his chair, raised his arm in the air and shouted (quite loudly), “YAY! YAY! YAY!” Everyone laughed and Dick turned bright red and smiled, obviously proud of his accomplishment.

There was no whipped cream cake for dessert that night.

1 comment:

MamaBird said...

Wow, talk about thinking carefully about the source of your food (weighing the impact on the animal communities, the cost of the shot)! Amazing stories...tx for sharing.