My Folks #3 – Tortured Christmas Eve

The grownups had no sense at all come Christmas Eve. Or was it they just loved to torture little kids?

I well remember the huge dinners at our house. Uncle Jake always brought the special full-sized Hershey’s candy bars that had to be frozen before eating so they went right in the top part of the refrigerator. Obscure aunts and uncles gathered. Cousins we barely knew showed up and it was fun to get under everyone’s feet chasing and screaming with them. Tall people with strange odors milled about chatting as if they owned the place. 

Then we were all called to dinner.

I was old enough to know the big dinner table had been extended with extra “leaves,” although to me they looked like boards that matched the table. Even so we kids often got shuffled to card tables. But there were times we would sit with the adults. I loved seeing all the colors and shapes of the food and the glasses and the plates and knives and spoons and forks. I remember the clinks of metal on china and the big plates and bowls of smelly food that passed from right to left and sometimes from left to right. It was taken for granted, listening to odd stories from near strangers who did different things than I had ever imagined—stories from farms and construction sites and offices. And it was a thrill to see these people listen when I worked up an interesting adventure to blurt out.

It never seemed long before the platters of food had stopped being passed around for refills. Chewing slowed and more of Mom’s silverware that came from the special box with soft lining was laid on empty plates. The magic time was near, when somehow everyone stood up at the same time. Then, as soon as that magic coordinated exit from the table had been executed, the torture began.

It was, after all, Christmas Eve. Presents had been under the tree for days, each pawed and shaken and dreamt about. Each bright box had been checked and checked again to see that our name was on the tag. And even more gifts had been brought by folks who had come by for dinner. It was time at last! It was fine some of the older folks were slow finding a place to sit but it was time and we kids knew the bright paper was screaming for us to liberate it from whatever burden it was carrying. 

In past years our sensible pleas and arguments had been denied but surely this year the grownups would listen to the voice of reason. 

But no. Every year it was the same. Why be so crazy? It was obviously just to torture us!

We knew why adults sometimes talked about how resilient kids are—we had to be resilient to survive the horrors we suffered, dealing with unreasonable adults. The lame excuse to put off opening the presents was always the same. The moms and aunts couldn’t relax and enjoy opening presents until the dishes were done.

The agony. Did they have to laugh and talk so much instead of just getting the dishes done? Why take the time to wipe off the table and put away the leaves? Why can’t all that be done after the presents?

Well. The agony and the torture were soon forgotten. And soon after that so were the toys. The underwear, though used for months after the agony, was forgotten before Santa got down the chimney that night. 

It’s been some seventy years since we waited so impatiently. During those seventy years I’ve never found any of those special Hershey’s candy bars that need to be frozen. Could it have been Mom was saving our appetites? No way. Uncle Jake found those bars special for us and we loved them snapping from the cold.

I am writing this on Christmas Day, 2020, the Christmas of Covid19. Between the pandemic and those seventy years my sister is not hosting the large Christmas gathering I’ve enjoyed the last several decades so I am sitting alone, finding myself writing about memories. 

I’ve always been a bachelor and don’t mind the solitude. For one thing, it has let me reflect and come to realize the greatest gift of those youthful agonies and forgotten gifts—the greatest gift is the echo of those beloved women’s laughter rising above the clattering of washed plates. 

On The Road #23 – Juicy Stories

Having made it across endless Pennsylvania I found myself headed into the heavy traffic feeding Akron, Ohio. Despite my rush to beat winter weather my higher priority was to not get left beside the freeway in a major city where I did not know the neighborhoods. So I left the freeway, swung south of town, and started walking a surface street crowded with traffic, traffic signals, telephone poles and entrances to strip malls.

The travel gods were smiling on me. Within minutes I noticed a guy slowing down and checking me out. Laden with backpack and strolling along, it seems this lanky stranger was worth going around the block for another look. I smiled and waved a bit. He pulled over. 

Within a minute he was taking me home, a shiny new trinket to share with his partner. 

It was a delightful evening. The conversation sparkled. The meal they whipped up was hearty and luscious. My clothes got passed from washer to dryer (an absolute delight when you are on the road!) And the games on the bed were jumped into, spirited, respectful and evenly shared. 

After a warm night’s sleep on a comfortable bed I packed up my fresh clothes, enjoyed a hearty breakfast, and the guy who had picked me up delivered me to a handy spot to catch the freeway on the far side of town. 

There was never a doubt in any of our minds what our roles were. Those good looking guys were gracious hosts while keeping their relationship peppy. I was the exciting stranger thankful for a meal. I took off refreshed in the morning. They got with their friends on Saturday night with juicy stories to contribute to the card party. 

I hope their friends showed a wee bit of jealousy. It would have been a shame to not get the most out of those juicy stories.

My Folks #2: Halloween Treat

A note to start: My thanks to Paul of Paul’s 16mm Film Collecting Pages for the photograph of a Bell & Howell 185 advertisement photo. For an education in 16mm films or to have some fun checking out equipment and titles, click on his site. What a great resource! 

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During the glory days of Halloween, about the time my sisters and I were cast out to knock on doors without a parent trailing us, our home became a candy-night event for the neighborhood kids. 

My Dad had talked himself into the fun of a Kodak movie camera and, of course, a projector to watch the 16mm films. Being a man he could not be reasonable and get a simple home projector made for our simple, silent, and short recordings of swinging on swings and falling on skis. Instead we ended up with a commercial-grade Bell and Howell projector with a separate large speaker box to put under the screen for sound. These were exactly what schools used to show movies to assemblies during the 1950s and ’60s.

Our place was on 29th Street, not far from downtown Boise, but it was south of State Street and not far from the quarry ponds along the river. The City did not consider the neighborhood fancy enough to annex so we kids took dirt streets and modest housing to be home. We kids were plentiful since every house in the neighborhood was home to several of us. Being in the County rather than the City accommodated my parent’s tractor and trailer rental business, which is why I was raised in a large cinderblock structure that was half machine shop and half house. 

With Dad’s new ability to show movies and Mom’s home being large enough to hold a crowd of kids, my folks decided to treat the 1950 tricksters to something special. I went with Dad to a mysterious place called the State Library where Dad picked up some round cans of different sizes that turned out to hold films.

On the big night trick-or-treaters came to our door demanding payola OR ELSE! Mom explained to them we were doing something different. “Go to all the other houses and get your candy, then come back after dark and we’ll show movies while you sit on the floor and eat as much of your candy as you want.”

By the second year the kids didn’t bother coming to our house until it was good and dark and their snack sacks were bulging. Then we all sat yelling, stuffing our faces, and having a great sugar high while leaving small colorful papers all over the floor. Dad threaded the films and turned off the lights and flipped the switch on cartoons and cowboy shoot-em-ups. I think he snuck in a bit of moving education about Idaho wonders as well. 

I can still smell the chemical aroma of the screen as it was unrolled and the hot odor of vacuum tubes and a bright projection bulb heating the vinyl and plastics in the projector and speaker. I’m sure I’m not the only one who remembers the sound of 16mm film being snapped over a bright beam of light.

The Halloween treat of watching movies did not last long. I was seven when TV came to Boise, so it would have been 1952. Giant neon “TV” signs sprung into the windows of every furniture store, radio shop, and hotel in town, not to mention a few tire shops. Chimneys sprouted antennas like spring fields sprout corn. 

That year we had a few kids come early and say they’d rather get candy. “We have TV. We can watch movies anytime.” The next year, with the saturation of television complete, my folks bought a big bowlful of candy. 

On The Road #22 – A Long State West

My timing sucked when it came to hitchhiking. The middle of December is not considered the best time to hitchhike from Southern California to Idaho and then to New Jersey, traveling the northern United States. It’s icy. Early March from New Jersey headed toward Maine was cold and wet and I did not have a tent. And when it came time to leave the Catskill Mountains of New York to head west across the Upper Midwest, Plains States and Rocky Mountains, wouldn’t it make sense to choose a warm summer month? 

Well, folks, when it is time to go it is time to go and the time to leave the Catskills for Idaho and California was November of 1970. 

November hitchhiking forced me to abandon my usual search for tiny roads through the backwoods. Beating the weather absolutely trumped the romance of meandering for miles on empty one lane roads. I was off to find an Interstate and, apparently, to immerse myself into watching a pot boil.

There are a few stories to tell about that 3,500 miles back to Hollywood and we’ll get to those. For now, what amazes me is how little I remember of the first 370 miles — 370 miles I call, “getting across Pennsylvania.” 

Heading toward an Interstate I must have gotten short rides over the narrow, winding roads through the hilly country on both sides of the Delaware River, but I don’t remember one wit of it. Once on the Interstate, probably I84 / I80 in Pennsylvania, I do remember a snippet of the newly constructed freeway taking dramatic swoops around forested hillsides while I enjoying a ride with a chatty young gal, probably a college student.  

There is one impression of this leg of my journey that is permanently burned into my brain and that is just how long Pennsylvania is. And I am not talking about how many letters are in the name.

The rides went on forever. Officially it’s 283 miles from east to west, about the same as crossing Southern Idaho. But Southern Idaho is the flat Snake River plane. Pennsylvania cuts across several Appalachian mountain ranges, through some of which I was traveling on country roads. Then miles of rolling hillsides where the freeway is adding miles as it weaves its way through. 

That’s some 300 miles of thinking the Ohio boarder must be within the next fifty of those miles. 300 miles of not knowing where the ride of the moment is going, since I knew none of the towns folks said they were headed to. And finally some 100 miles of pleading with the travel gods to let this ride take me past the other side of Pennsylvania! 

That was the end of my experience getting across one state. I’ve since learned Pennsylvania is far shorter than originally intended. When King George granted William Penn the original Charter in 1681, the Province of Pennsylvania was “all lands” west of New Jersey, north of Maryland and south of New York. I would have been in Pennsylvania all the way to the Oregon coast if it weren’t for Thomas Jefferson’s deciding enough was enough. His vision was for western lands to be divided into roughly equal sized States  and that is how Ohio put a western border on the great Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

What does this have to do with watching a pot boil? Hitchhiking north from New Jersey it took me more than a month make some 160 miles to the heart of the Catskill Mountains in New York State. Some days there were no rides and that was fine. I was on the road for the sake of being on the road and the distances mattered not. But headed across Pennsylvania I was racing winter and wanted miles behind me. Having a goal sure puts time in the way.

My Folks #1: Droning and Dying

Mountain Home Air Force Base was built in the early 1940s to train World War II bomber pilots. It was located forty miles east of Boise, Idaho—far enough inland from the Oregon coast to provide protection from light bombers launched from aircraft carriers yet within range for our heavy aircraft to reach islands in the Pacific, where they could refuel. After the war large formations of transport planes left Mountain Home to supply the food and materials to rebuild the decimated lands where the war had been fought. 

One of those formations of planes is one of my earliest memories. Perhaps I was three. It was a warm afternoon and my two sisters and I were on the lawn being watched over by our mother. We were sitting in the grass when a distant rumble grew to a deep, droning roar and the clear sky became thick with planes, all flying a fixed distance from one another, their four mighty engines powering propellers that pulled them forward. Behind each hard working engine dark trails of smoke blended together to turn the sky gray. It took some ten minutes for them all to pass. 

Years later Mother told me that when we had been sitting on the grass that day she had been convinced she was dying of tuberculosis.

Barely thirty years old. An infant daughter. A three-year-old son. A five-year-old daughter. Feeling the cool grass of a new home. Breathing the spring air and playing with her children. Every possible future being cut short. 

The winter before my parents had managed to get hold of a used Model A Ford. In those days ammonia was used as an antifreeze. Ammonia lowers the boiling point of water which is exactly not what a summer radiator needs, so regular maintenance meant flushing the antifreeze and replacing it with water. My dad was diligent about mechanical maintenance and performed his first flushing of the Model A’s radiator once there was no danger of an overnight freeze. 

When ammonia quit escaping the radiator, Mother’s lungs cleared up. 

I can only imagine the relief and joy my mother felt, knowing her life with her children and husband was hers to enjoy. I know for sure that tears well up when I think she may not have been around to be my Mom. 

Buck Brook #27 – Running Rat

It was another of my days on kitchen duty at Buck Brook Farm and I was man-handling a huge square pan of chicken swimming in a thin sauce into the commercial oven. Suddenly one of the students burst out of the walk-in cooler. She was all atwitter about seeing a rat.  

I guess some folks live around rats but I had never shared space with our fellow life form that lives as grey rodents with bald tails hiding from the world. I prefer the variety of rodents that sport busy tails, an abundance of brown or grey hair, and are always squirreling around climbing trees for all of creation to enjoy. 

Not having been around rats, I finally had a chance to check one out. I started hurrying to the walk-in, hoping it would not be gone before I got there.

As I entered the walk-in I was astonished at the size of that rat! It was longer than a commercial sized can of tomatoes and it was running like lightening. How it ever fit through whatever small holes it could find through the walk-in’s walls was astonishing to me.

Just then one of our energetic students came screaming in, yelling like a Mongolian hoard riding into battle, and swinging one of the kitchen’s sharp French knives.

As fast as that rat was sprinting it was not fast enough. The flash of the knife in one mighty swoop toward the wooden shelf that frightened beast was running on and we were left with a front half a rat and a back half a rat.

I refrained from serving up a chef’s special. 

Car Camping #10 – A Beloved Trailer the second

I was fourteen in 1959 when my folks rented the trailer we used for camping to someone who was heading up the Boise River. I have no idea where he was headed, perhaps Twin Springs or Atlanta. Perhaps some mining claim between the two.

All went well until he was returning the trailer to Boise, when a tire blew out. Having no spare he unhitched the trailer and left it beside the road while returning to let us know where it was. 

Now let’s take a gander at the meaning of “beside the road” on the Middle Fork Boise River Road. The road is eighty miles of unpaved surface, some of it dusting over dirt and some of it jolting over solid rock. It is not too difficult to pass oncoming traffic on most of those eighty miles but all of the bridges and most of the many blind corners are one lane and one lane only. Most of the road meanders along the beautiful waters of the Middle Fork but fourteen miles of it is tucked on a narrow ledge snaking some thirty feet up a steep bank that plunges into the waters of Arrowrock Reservoir. Blind one-lane corners are plentiful on those perilous fourteen miles. 

It was right at one of the narrowest of the one-lane bottlenecks that was on one of the blindest of the blind corners and at one of the highest points of the steep bank plunging into the reservoir that our delightful camping trailer had been left “beside the road.”

Dad and I showed up with a spare tire and, not finding the trailer where the customer said he had left it, Dad looked over the side of the road. 

It seems having that trailer perched on the edge of that steep bank was just too tempting for some jackass who had come along. It had been pushed off the road and came to a stop half way to the reservoir. 

Now, it could have been a large truck came upon that trailer and getting it out of the way was necessary. But we stuck with the jackass theory, assuming the deed was done just to watch the trailer take the spectacular journey to a watery grave. We presumed that was the motive since we always did exactly that with some large rock sitting beside a road perched high up a hillside just waiting to go for a roll.

Dad quickly came up with Plan B and we returned to Boise for supplies.

First, we needed the implement trailer. This heavy trailer with a flat bed that tilted and with a winch and steel cable on one end was used when our tractor customers needed more than one tool for their job. So a plow, a disk and a leveler might be loaded on the implement trailer, tied down with the cable that had been used to winch them on the trailer, and the customer would haul all the implements to their job in one trip. 

Second, we brought along my two sisters, Mother, Aunt Eva and Grandfather for extra hands and traffic control. 

Dad also loaded up some chains just in case the steel cable was not long enough to reach the trailer. Good thing, too, since by the time we got back to that fateful corner someone’s sense of fun had made them shimmy down to the trailer and push it the rest of the way into the reservoir. Now, it might have been the weight of the trailer on that steep and slippery slope that had pulled the trailer to the water. But we stuck with it being some …

With Eva around one end of that blind corner and Mom around the other, both waving traffic to a stop (it turned out there wasn’t any), Dad parked the trailer across the narrow road. Carrying a long chain looped over his shoulder he hung onto the hook on the end of the cable while Granddad let out the winch, letting Dad keep his footing down the loose slope that slid away under his weight. The extra chain came in handy for reaching and then securing the trailer before it was time for Grandpa to slip the ratchet into the gear of the winch and start cranking the cable up to the road.

Dad held on to the trailer, partly to keep the trailer from flipping but mostly, he admitted, to let the winch pull him up that steep climb.

It was all a great success. We loaded the camping trailer onto the implement trailer for the drive home, where Dad could properly check out and repair any damage as well as change the tire. 

The trailer survived to carry many more of our camping trips. And everyone added another “do you remember when” to an occasional Thanksgiving chat.

Buck Brook #27 – Unsuspecting Cow

The educational approach at Green Valley School, and our campus at Buck Brook Farm, was students having hands-on experience with the world we live in. One annual hands-on experience we practiced at Buck Brook was getting close to how we satisfy our appetite for meat. 

The campus had a small dairy operation that supplied our fresh milk. It was up the hill from were most of us lived and we didn’t spend time there. The guy who spent all his time there was about my age and he came visiting on occasion. To this day I can smell the combination of odors that seeped from  every pore of his body and from every fiber of his clothes. A very earthy aroma that professional dairymen call, “The smell of money.” 

Pungent as his aroma was it also manifested a cow’s warmth. I suppose I associate the smell from childhood times at my uncle’s farm when he milked his five cows and squirted streams of milk right from the teat into the mouths of the waiting cats. That manure-strewn shed was a young lad’s adventure.

One day the dairy guy at Buck Brook ran off with the headmaster’s wife—something that caused a stir! The fact they took one of the school’s credit cards to finance their escape got things even more riled up.

Before that particular ruckus the entire population of Buck Brook Farm trekked to the dairy where a cow was brought to the yard. We all gathered facing the submissive animal while one of our students volunteered to do the deed that had to be done. One blow of the sledgehammer between the eyes and the cow buckled to the dust.

None of us complained when our getting close to the price of how we come to eat meat was cut short. We did not hang around for the gutting and cutting. And now that I think of it, the dairy guy who knew about feeding and milking cows was probably not qualified to do the butchering. It’s likely a professional butchery was hired to pick up the carcass and finish the job in their certified facility. 

Car Camping #9 – A Beloved Trailer the first

As our need for more camping gear grew, the challenge of carrying it into the Idaho backcountry became more daunting. The heavy canvases, the Coleman camp stove and fuel, the cotton mattresses, the World War surplus cots, the big tent, the blankets, the canned and fresh food and our family of five had to be hauled up and down dirt roads

My dad often said if he didn’t have trailers he would have had to drive a pickup. That’s no problem these days, what with pickups being more spacious and comfortable than luxury sedans, but pickups in the 1950s were not so well appointed. A bench seat that did not slide forward or backward was good enough for wasting resources on human accommodations. Oh—but the cabs did include a heater. What more could you want?

Meanwhile, Dad did have trailers. There was a whole row of them that my parents rented out to strangers. 

1952 Atlanta INT

From Dad’s earliest photos in 1952, I see the first trailer we used for camping was one I don’t remember. I was seven at the time and not paying attention to why a trailer did not work out for camping. Perhaps it was made of steel and was too heavy to pull up mountain grades. Perhaps it got sold or it got wrecked. What I do know is that Dad would have chosen it because it had solid sides to keep our camping supplies from falling out on the rough roads.

There was a light weight trailer that transported our Arians tiller when folks rented it. Dad also used this trailer in parades around town. He’d hitch up one of our two Ford tractors, decorate the trailer and the tiller (making sure the point got across that we rented all this) and join the festivities. One of my earliest memories is being on that trailer with my two sisters, throwing saltwater taffy to scurrying kids along parade routes through downtown Boise.

1950 tiller trailer INT

About the time Dad ordered the big tent from Pioneer Tent and Awning he converted that light weight trailer into a most useful camp carrier. He enclosed the sides with plywood to keep our stuff in and he left the back completely open for loading said stuff. He fashioned a plywood panel that slid into steel u-channels at the rear of the trailer, thus enclosing the entire kit and caboodle.

1959 Grandjean INT

A bonus with this light weight, spacious trailer was it had a long tongue running from the trailer to the hitch on our car. That long tongue made it easy to back the trailer into any position we wanted.

This trailer ended up being the last trailer in the family. When my dad passed and Mother auctioned off the rental supplies, I kept that trailer just because it was so handy. But I never used it. After several years of sitting in my garage I sold it to a friend who used it to move to Portland. I hope it is still in service and is still being enjoyed as much as ever.

Our next Car Camping story will reveal an incident when that delightful trailer was not treated with the respect it deserved. It was not well treated at all.