Friday, April 22, 2011

Memoirs of Uncle Joe (Pt. II)

This is a short of George Hildebrand, who married Grandpa's widowed mother, Clara Whittington (our Great Grandmother):

We Called him George
A man with powerful arms and a barrel of a chest, George always wore his gold rimmed glasses, but kept his teeth in a bowl of water on the shelf in the old barroom. He met our widowed Grandmother in a boarding house where she worked as a cook. The work must have been very hard in those days, and the days were long. He married our Grandmother, and the big man with the big heart took on the responsibility and labor of providing and caring for her and the children.

Eventually George bought the old hotel they called The Halfway House on Finch Hill (it was halfway between Carbondale and Clifford). Dad said it was a stage stop at one time, before the auto was invented. I do know for sure it was a famous watering hole during and after prohibition; for many years afterwards the raw materials for producing wine, cider and whiskey continued to grow behind the hotel. The huge apple orchard stood upon the hill, and the rhubarb, elder berries and grapevine grew and bore fruit for years after the bar closed.

Dad took care of the bar after dark when he was young and single. When a customer said “Have a drink with me”, he would reach for his bottle of tea, pour it carefully into a shot glass, and down the hatch, pick up the money for two shots and wait on the next customer. They said the reason he held his liquor so well was due to his red hair. When the farmers from Clifford dumped their produce in Carbondale, it was their custom to stop there on the way home. As long as they kept both elbows hooked behind the ridge that ran around the bar, they stayed on their feet. When the elbows came loose they would fall on the floor. If a customer was too drunk to walk, George and Dad would carry him out to his wagon, lay him down comfortably in the back, untie the horse, and with a gentle slap on the shank and a giddup, the horse would take his master home. There never seemed to be a problem with drunk driving then, but I wager there was many a farmer who woke up next to his barn in the morning wondering what happened.

Grandmother tended the bar during the day. They had a bell on that door and she could hear when someone entered. She would leave her canning and cooking and go into the barroom. Being alone in the house, she would have the big collie with her. He would also answer the bell and sit in the bar watching the customers as long as they were there. No one spoke too loudly, or made any sudden movements.

George worked steady night shift, seven days a week, as a fireman in the D&H Roundhouse. It was his job to fire up and prepare the big steam locomotives for their runs. Dad said the Roundhouse crew called him the Iron man because he worked so hard. He rarely slept more than four hours a day. After his supper he would light up his corncob pipe and sit next to the potbelly stove in the old barroom (at this time, of course, the bar was no longer in operation); when we heard the pipe fall on the floor, he was sleeping. Grandma had his lunch pail packed at ten p.m., after which, she would wake him. Farm work on Sundays was limited to milking the cows (when George and Dad had the twelve head in the mid 1930s), and feeding the horses and chickens. On Sundays, he drove Grandma and Uncle Paul to Mass, when they were well enough to go; he would wait in the car, and then drive them home.

Some mornings George would not make it home; as 8:30 a.m. came and went, Grandma would tell me to open up both garage doors wide. I sat on the porch waiting for him and was amazed how well he drove the car into the garage. One time he didn’t come out of the garage for a long time, I went in to help and found him sitting on the running board of his new 1939 Plymouth. His legs would not work, but he was all right otherwise. Dad said he would drink whiskey from a beer glass, he didn’t believe in those small shot glasses. This did not happen every day, however; George loved his land too much to neglect it. The trees in his orchard were always trimmed and the trunks whitewashed. The two large gardens up on the hill and the small ones down by the house were always free of weeds and neatly cultivated.
Many mornings my Mother or Father would wake me early, so I could walk across town and wait near the garage for George to come from work and get his car. On such days when I rode back to the farm with him, he went straight home. I did not suspect it then, but now that I am older, I believe Grandma may have called Mother or Dad to send me out, or perhaps Dad surmised that George might stop that day.

Summer and fall were the busiest and best seasons of the year. I would watch in awe as George drove his team of horses cutting hay; so close to the trees, rocks and walls, raising the cutting arm at just the right moment, and sideways on the hill without tipping. The mower was the hardest pull for the horses. Every muscle in their body would be straining and their tongues hanging from the side of their mouth. I noticed how George would drive the harnessed team to the machine so they could see what they were about to pull, then back them into it. The brown horse, Bob, always seemed to hesitate and stall, only at the mower; he must have known it was going to be a hard day. I was always on hand to hook up, but too small to throw the harness over the horse. George would then take his knife and cut a switch (a small branch from a tree) in front of the horses so they could see it. He would take a little time right there at their nose, and swish it back and forth just gently before going back to mount the mower. I never saw him use the switch, but I could hear him curse and yell when Bob lay back in the traces. When the hay was cut and raked it was always my job to go ahead of the hay wagon and cock it—that is to say, stacking and piling the hay, so Dad could throw it easily onto the wagon. George would load and drive. It was that summer in 1938 that I was feeling my job was not very important. Somehow George sensed this and yelled down from the wagon “How old you gonna be next month?” I told him I would be 11 and he said, “Next year you will be old enough to drive the team.” And I did. Years later I realized why I had to wait until I was 12; my voice would have been so high, the horses would never have listened to me.

The Fourth of July was a big day. George would stop at our house after work and take us all to the farm. If he could not get us all in one trip, he made two trips. George, Dad and I would go to Clifford to buy the cabbage plants. By the time we had the plants in the big garden on the hill, the party was ready with plenty of ice cream and watermelon.

When I left for the Army he was there at the train station with my parents, and a big ten-dollar bill. I was in Japan when the big heart finally gave up. Maybe it was too much whiskey, too much work and not enough rest; but the Iron Man died.
I am so sorry we did not call him Grandfather—I think he would have liked that.