Friday, April 22, 2011

Memoirs of Uncle Joe (Pt. 3)

These were stories Uncle Joe told of his childhood:

How to Weasel a Dog
I suppose during that particular time period in the early 1900s, there must have been an infestation or overabundance of weasels in the area. The long, thin rodents could find a way into a chicken coop at night regardless of how tightly locked it may be, stealing eggs and sometimes, killing chickens. To solve this problem the farmers would look for a dog, probably of the short-haired terrier breed. The dog was taken to a farmer or neighbor (who sometimes lived a great distance away) lucky enough to have trapped an elusive weasel. The squirming rodent was dumped from a burlap bag into a large steel drum. The dog owner then dropped his dog into the drum, and the action began. After a period of time, when they felt the dog was thoroughly weaseled, they tipped the barrel over, bagged the weasel (if he was still alive) for the next session and cared for the dog's wounds. Some dogs were so mutilated they had to be shot (a shotgun stood nearby). Those who survived became the best weasel dogs in the county. They could probably smell a weasel from half a mile away.
It was this particular story that made me lose grandma's favorite cat. He was a huge, one eyed, battle-scarred, gray colored tomcat. He would go in and out of the house anytime he chose; no other cat had such privileges. He would go to the door and yowl when he wanted out, and yowl again to come back in. When he was in, the tomcat followed grandma around the house and they talked to each other. On one particular day at 4:00 p.m., I took the pail to the barn where the grain was kept, in order to feed the chickens. The lid on the big steel drum was ajar. As I lifted the lid to dip the pail, I encountered the biggest barn rat I had ever seen. He evidently jumped into the drum and ate so much grain he could not jump out.  I shut the lid and went back to the house for the tomcat. Grandma was not around and the cat came to the door as I entered.  I carried him to the barn and dropped him in the barrel. As soon as he hit the bottom he sprang from that drum like a shot from a gun and ran straight into the woods without stopping. We never saw that cat again. Grandmother asked me a few days later if I had seen her cat around, and I told her I hadn't seen him for three days. I had to get that rat out of the barrel with a hayfork, which I would have done in the first place, if I hadn’t heard the weasel story.

The Cat Family
Domesticated animals on the farm were not always considered pets. Certainly there were favorites now and then who received special attention because of their appearance or disposition. Our cat family seemed to be the most ignored and self-sufficient animals on the farm. They dropped their litters either somewhere in the barn or underneath the back porch, nobody seemed to care much if they survived or died. I never saw them being fed, only during the milking in the evening and morning. At that time they would sit in a straight line approximately four feet from Dad's milking stool. When he was sure I was watching, he would give each one a squirt from the cow's teat. That was fascinating to see each one in turn rise on his haunches and catch that stream of hot milk in the mouth. This was the only time they appeared for a head count. If a cat didn't arrive for the milking, it was either dead or in labor. After the milking they would receive more milk in a large round pan. When that was thoroughly clean they were on their own.
It was the cat family's job to keep the rodent population down to a minimum; the family ranged from five to eight, or more. When numbers were reduced (bad timing on the roads, or just missing in action), one or two young kittens were introduced from another house hold. The first thing Grandma did before turning the new cats loose in the barn was very important. She put them in the hen house with that flock of fifty or so screaming, pecking, laying hens and the big mean rooster. The cats kept a good distance from chickens the rest of their lives and so did their offspring.

You Too Will Cry
We received the telephone call around 8 p.m. that night. Grandma said, “You have to walk up to your other Grandmother's house and tell her that her brother Denny is dead. He was found frozen in a snowdrift.” She gave me a flashlight to swing back and forth in my left hand as I walked up the right side of the road; Uncle Paul reported on my progress from the bar room window. Grandma Moran was alone in the house and knew something was wrong when she saw the light swinging down the road toward her. As soon as she opened the door, I casually gave her the message as instructed. When she sat down at the table and began to cry, I put my hand on her shoulder and asked, “Why are you crying, Grandma?” She replied, “You too will cry when your brother dies.”

Little Red Wagons
It's just not possible to buy a little red wagon for a five-year-old who has a three-year-old brother. We will never forget the pulling and shrieking that took place Christmas Day on Franklin Street. There was no other way but to come up with another dollar, hurry down to Shaws on Main Street, and rush back with another red wagon just like the first. I don't remember who made the run to Shaws that morning, but it probably was the same culprit who made the mistake in the first place.
Our little brothers felt very proud and important with their wagons. They finally found a way to contribute something to the family. They would circle around the field behind the house, loading the wagons with scrap wood and branches for the kitchen stove. This was very helpful to our little Mother, especially on bread baking day. The young ones were kept busy all day while the rest of us were in school, and could be seen from the kitchen window. The hungry stove took all the wood they gathered to bake bread. Mother would mix her dough in a very large silver pan, punching and kneading until it was right. Then it was put into the bread pans and placed high out of reach on racks and shelves around the kitchen to rise, and then put into the oven for baking.

There is a unique skill and dexterity in berry picking. You only approach the bushes that appear to hold the most and biggest berries. It is a serious crime to pick on a bush owned by someone else, unless, of course, a brother or sister owns it. This could result in bloodshed. Ownership is immediately established by the first person to reach the bush. The right hand is held palm upward, fingers bent, and thumb rolling back and forth across the fingertips. The left hand is used to gently move the branches of the bush, or to hold your small picker. As your right palm fills, you fill the picker (a small cup or can). When the picker was full, it was dumped into a large pail, which was kept carefully in the shade, but not out of sight.
Cooking and canning huckleberries seemed to be a necessary requirement during the Great Depression. The whole family was involved, from old Grandfathers to pre-schoolers. If we left earlier than our brothers, sisters or friends, we told them which path we would take—Path No. 1 or No. 2. As the latecomers arrived, they sang out our names. When the pail was full we hurried home, usually with enough light for a game of softball. Our softball had been taped and re-taped so often, that it could not be hit much farther than the pitcher. Before each game I had to lock my dog Buddy in the cellar; otherwise, he would lurk behind a tree or in the tall grass, field the first hit, and take off for the woods with ball in mouth. When both teams failed to catch the dog, they began chasing me.
In later years we picked berries at Newton Lake. The pails were easier to fill because these were High Huckles (big berries on high bushes). The distance to the Lake was much greater; if we could not catch a ride, we walked five miles. My brother Art went with me, but only if I promised to take him for a swim after we filled the pail. That was not a hard promise to keep, since we both loved the water and still do. We would dig a hole in the ground for our berries, beneath a shady tree, and cover it with branches until we left.

Pee Gerard
My last chore at the end of the day was to supervise the emptying of baby brother's bladder. This was a very important task, since we had only three to four beds, and nine in the household; sometimes we slept as many as three to a bed. On my way upstairs, Mother would say, “Don't forget to pee Gerard.” I would lift the little brother from the bed, holding him underneath the arms from behind, and gently, but quickly walk him to the bathroom. Once there I dropped his drawers, aimed for the toilet, and commanded, “Pee Gerard”; little brother always complied after four or five commands. He never woke up, and we would have a dry night, but rarely a restful one. When the brothers were small there was no problem pushing them back to their side of the bed after one of their rollovers, but as they became heavier a push became impossible. I soon discovered that a quick pinch on the upper leg was very effective.

My Father: The Family Physician
He said his neighbors and friends often asked for his help when their mares or cows were having difficulty giving birth, or when any of their animals were sick:
  • If a horse had the heaves (similar to asthma in humans), the prognosis was to wet the hay and make an adjustment in his grain intake.
  • A dog with a dry nose that expelled everything he devoured had distemper. A mixture of raw eggs and whiskey was forced into the dog; very soon, the dog was able to hold food.
For those of us requiring medical attention, the following remedies were commonly applied:
  • A shot of whiskey, one tablespoon of honey and the juice of a lemon were mixed for the night cough. One teaspoon of this elixir was taken as needed.
  • Octagon soap with a pinch of sugar was squeezed into a paste and applied to bring out the infection in boils.
  • Castor oil was delivered with a tablespoon (to those who didn’t gag), or mixed with orange juice (for those who did). The oil was mandatory for constipation anytime, but also deemed necessary in the Spring of each year to cleanse the system—whether or not it was necessary.
  • One teaspoon of Mercurochrome was used to gargle the throat when it was raw and infected (but you couldn’t swallow any).
In the early days, the kitchen coal stove was allowed to burn out every night, to be restarted each morning; this not only conserved coal, but also eliminated the inhalation of coal gas during the night. Each night enough kindling had to be cut to start the morning fire. One cold winter evening on Franklin Street, I cut my second toe right to the bone, as I was cutting kindling with Dad’s small hatchet. I limped upstairs with a shoe full of blood; removing the shoe and sock, Dad cleansed the wound; pushed the skin together over the bone; taped it tight, and told me to walk to school on my heel for a few days. When we lived on Pike Street, my knee slipped out of the socket during a football game. Somehow he slipped the kneecap back in, and bound it with an ace bandage. Within two weeks, I was playing football again. On Willow Avenue, during a game of Kick the Can, I was too close to the kicker, and received a deep wound in the head. He calmly cleaned and closed that wound.

One early morning in the Autumn of 1954, Uncle Paul called and said his Mother fell down the stairs and could not get up. Dad and I drove out to the house and found her lying at the bottom of the stairs. Together we were able to move her to a chair underneath the kitchen light. While we were waiting for the ambulance, he began to work on her head, which was bleeding badly. He had her head shaved and the bleeding stopped before the ambulance arrived. Our Grandmother died in the hospital some days later as a result of that fall. It is still a mystery to me how Uncle Paul was able to climb over the top of his Mother on one leg to reach the phone. After the funeral as we walked together Dad said, “I wish I could have done more for her.”