Sunday, February 24, 2008

Story Hour XIV

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

Threshing Day

Monday morning dawned clear and cool. The clearness would hopefully stay with us but the coolness would be replaced by the heat of the sun as it rose higher in the sky. Morning chores done, Jack and Dick, after tow starting the Studebaker, loaded the milk and immediately left on the milk run. Dugal, Sally, Alex and I headed for the garden to pick corn and tomatoes for canning.

At this point I must interrupt my story and plead a memory glitch. I will tell this part of the story as I recall it as a nine or ten year old boy. While looking up some facts pertaining to oat harvesting, I started remembering more of the procedure that I had neglected to include. The reaper had cut the oats about a week before threshing day. This allowed the oat grains to dry and ripen to facilitate the threshing process. The bundles of oats were gathered and stacked in bundles of three with one bundle laid across the top to act as a water shed in the event of rain. After the passage of three or four days everyone would gather for threshing day.

So, as it were: Our oats were cut and stooked and ready to be threshed, tomorrow was the big day when the local farmers would come with their teams and wagons and all work together to git ‘er done. We didn’t have a very large oat field so we figured to be done well before night chores. For today there were the usual activities, principally canning. Whatever was in the garden that would provide nourishment through the winter went into a jar and was processed on the wood burning kitchen stove. The hottest day of summer was no deterrent to the canning job.

It didn’t take too long for Dugal, Alex and I to slip off to the shady side of the barn in search of a breeze. I felt a little guilty thinking about Mom, Sally, and Thelma still in the kitchen (but not too much). After all, in those days ‘women’s work’ was women’s work and we men folks had other things to do. Believe me - we would all three, pay for that philosophical outlook many times over during our lifetimes. Times have changed.

Eventually we had cooled off enough to wander back toward the house. Dick and Jack had returned from the milk run and were busy inspecting the oats and the water level down in Sage Creek, along with a few other things that would keep them away from that hot box of a kitchen. The big problem was that we were all getting kinda hungry and the only place we knew of where there was food was in the garden or in the kitchen. Mom looked at us when we walked in.

“Did you get lost between here and the garden?” she asked sweetly. “I’m glad you’re back and just in time too. You boys have got to make four dozen biscuits and four loaves of bread as long as the stove is hot. That will save us a lot of time tomorrow when the men are here. Sally has made bread and biscuits before so you will do as she tells you. I will be right here to so there better not be any problems”.

Three rather crestfallen young men looked pleadingly at their mother and one of them softly said, “Please mom, we’re hungry”. With just a touch of sarcasm she said, “Eat a tomato and get to work.”

Well, yes indeed, Sally knew the fundamentals of bread and biscuit making so with a little supervision from Mom and a lot of superior bossiness from Sally, we sweated our way through measuring and mixing flour, lard, salt, baking soda to produce the required number of biscuits.
As the first pan of golden brown fluffy biscuits came out of the oven mom relented a little, “You may each have one.”

“With strawberry jam?” we shouted.

“Yes,” She replied with a smile.

Bread making was a different matter than simple biscuits. Mom took a much more active part in this effort. In an attempt to prepare us for adulthood, even though we were “MEN” she wisely explained what and why things were done in a certain way: mix and set the sponge (Yeast, sugar salt, flour and warm water) and let it set until the yeast started making bubbles and filling the kitchen with the unmistakable aroma of home made bread.

I seem to recall something about saving the water the potatoes had been cooked in for bread making. This time though we did not have any potato water so we used the well water. At the proper time it seemed like half a barrel of flour was dumped into the biggest bowl we had and an awful lot of mixing took place for a few minutes.

”Take a break,” and out the door we all went. It must have been at least 90 degrees outside but it actually felt cool after being in that kitchen. We all walked down to the end of the driveway to the well and pump, under the big yard maple.

Taking turns with the dipper we all enjoyed a cool drink of water and then the boys took turns holding their heads under the water spout while someone else pumped the water…Oh, did, that, ever, feel, good!

Somewhat refreshed, back to the house we trooped. More work to be done. The canning was pretty much done for the day so Dugal, Alex and I were told to take all the tomato peels, corn husks and cobs along with any other food scraps out to the pigs. Mom and Sally would finish the bread baking while we cleaned up the canning mess. After that we “MEN” would be excused to go swimming at the creek and bring the cows up from the pasture on the way home.

Little did we know of the activity that Jack and Dick had been up to. A few miles away to the west was a larger stream called Deer Creek, and just off the road was an abandoned gravel pit that was now part of Deer Creek. It had been a hot and dry summer so the creeks were quite low. This caused the fish to congregate in the deeper pools and that gravel pit certainly qualified as a “deeper pool”.

Dick always made sure to have survival gear near at hand so he was able to rig a couple of fish poles with the line and hooks he had in the truck. By flipping over stones on the stream bank where the soil was damp he procured fish worms and crickets for bait.

The fish evidently had been trapped in this pool for a few days and were ravenous. Each cast with the smallest piece of bait on the hook produced an instant strike and up would come a very nice seven to nine inch bullhead. Just the right size for the big black iron skillet.

“Supper comin’ up” yelled Dick as he pulled in one. Jack whooped, ”I’ve got another one too.” A quick count showed an even dozen on the grass.

“Let’s not over do it, said Dick, we might want to come back next week for some more”.

“Good thinking,” replied Jack. “We will stop at twenty which will be plenty for everyone, including mom.”

It’s funny but an almost exact repeat of this fish story happened just about a year later to Dugal and I. We, of course didn’t drive but we did walk to the Deer Creek gravel pit with our fish poles. The results were very similar.

The water was low the fish were hungry and biting. We had bait with us and soon had all the fish we wanted. As we started to leave I noticed, sitting on the edge of the water the biggest bull frog I had ever seen.

Quickly I put a very small piece of worm on the tip of my hook and dangled it directly in front of “Jeremiah”. WHACK, went his tongue and he was mine. I quickly gave him a resounding whack on the head to prevent his suffering and into the feed sack he went. That was a special treat for mom that night. She did dearly love frog legs and fish.

Anyhow, Dick and Jack gathered up their gear and fish, jumped into the truck and headed home to clean the fish before chore time. When they arrived home the bread was just coming out of the oven and it was a little too hot to cut so they cleaned the fish first. Mom was tickled pink to see that mess of fish.

“Sweet corn, sliced tomatoes and fried bullhead, you can’t beat that for supper,” said Mom.

“Don’t forget the fresh bread.” added Dick as he reached for the bread knife to cut a slab.”

I always thought it peculiar that we liked to visit our cousins in Pulaski because they had store-bought, sliced bread and they used to like to come to our house because we always had home made bread. They had many other food items that we did not have - peanut butter was a rarity at our house. Mayonnaise, sliced bologna, cheese and even butter were unknowns to us. Soda (Coke, Hires, Seven-up) were nothing but words that had no meaning or identification to us. Lack of that, which we did not know about, did not bother us. The term that comes to mind was, “Fat, dumb and happy”, but we weren’t fat or dumb...

Slab of bread in hand, Dick looked out the window to see the cows coming up the lane with the three musketeers with stick swords battling along behind. “Chore time,” he announced and headed out the door.

Once again mom excused herself a little early from chores with the suggestion that the three youngsters could help finish up. I have to admit that Alec was an unusual worker. I do believe that if we had wanted to we, could have sat down and watched him do all the work by himself. He was usually quiet, serious and dedicated to whatever the task at hand.

When all was done, we headed for the house. Quickly we washed up and sat down at the table. There was a veritable feast laid out before us. A heaping platter of fried fish still smoking hot from the pan, nicely steamed ears of corn, a plate of sliced red ripe tomatoes, a plate of fresh slabs of bread with a jar of strawberry preserves A jar of home made chili sauce replaced the bottle of ketchup that we never had (or missed).

All in all, it had been quite a day. Much had been accomplished and we were in good shape for the big day tomorrow. Dishes out of the way and the kitchen neatened up, it was time for the radio and a little relaxation. I had read everything in the house that had print on it so I had to be content to listen to the Lone Ranger with the rest of them. I asked Dick and Jack if they could get some old “Street and Smith” paperback books from their friends that liked to read the pulpers (dime novels). I received an affirmative grunt and a “yeah” as the program had started and there were to be no more interruptions.

After the show ended, even though it was not yet real dark, I headed up the stairs to bed. It had been a long day and I was tired out. There were no left over fish as mom ate the last one and smiled. Life was good.

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