When Dad got his first Ford tractor he spent one afternoon driving it out to my mother’s grandparent’s farm south of Ustic, Idaho. My mother’s aunt Ellen had been raising her three children on that land since her husband died some thirteen years earlier at the age of forty.
Ellen led a hard life, scraping together enough egg and milk money to feed her growing kids. Her daughter Dona tells me Ellen made their clothes out of feed sacks, the unworn edges of sheets, and what good scraps could be salvaged from ragged adult clothes. Her mother was so good at combining the different patterns that Dona considered her dresses to be the prettiest in the school.
The farm had a large garden to grow the food the family would eat through the coming year. Every spring the garden needed to be turned over, raked level and prepared for planting. Dona’s older brother and sister pushed a wheeled hand plow through the dirt to break it up and the whole family got busy raking and leveling the ground for planting. It was days of back-breaking work.
And that was why my dad drove his new tractor mounted with a plow way way out in the country. The rest of us arrived in our Frazier Manhattan automobile pulling a trailer with a disking implement on it.
Dad sat on his tractor pulling the plow through the garden. It dug deep, breaking up the soil and turning it over so the remains of last year’s crop were turned under to compost into the land. Then he sat on the tractor dragging the disc, a series of circular blades that broke up the clumps of dirt left by the plow and leveled the deep ruts the plow had left behind. The job was easily done in an hour.
Years later Dona told me she and her sister and brother had watched that man they did not know sitting on his tractor. “We knew he was showing off. BUT WE WERE SURE GLAD TO HAVE ALL THAT DIRT TURNED OVER!!!!!!”
(A note: My mother’s grandparents on her dad’s side were Eric and Johanna Dahlberg. Their daughter Ellen married Earle Officer in 1925. Their daughter Dona married James Saad in 1956.)
My folks started renting trailers during World War II. They added two Ford N series tractors to their home rental business after the war.
Once I got old enough to be trusted with such transactions I was on the phone letting men know that, yes, “They are full-sized tractors and we have the implements you need to get your job done.” If they needed more than one implement (perhaps a plow to turn soil, a disk to break it up, and a blade to level it off) we had a heavy-duty flat bed trailer that tilted and had a winch for loading the tools. They could pull the loaded trailer to their job site with the tractor.
We rented the tractors, including implements, by the gallons of gas they burnt. “That way if you get called away from the job you are not paying for the use of the tractor.” We always gave the example that perhaps they’d have to take a phone call. And yes, kids, we had to go in the house to use the land-line phones in those Barbaric times.
The rate for our tractors was $5 for the first gallon of gas, $4 for the second gallon and $3 for every gallon thereafter. Gas was going for 20¢ a gallon at the time so this was when questions really started to fly!
I had heard the answers from my dad many times and repeated them: “How much gas the tractor burns depends on what you are doing. Plowing is a lot harder work than leveling. The tractor will burn more than a gallon an hour when plowing, depending on how hard the dirt is. You get over an hour per gallon when disking. And yes, you drive the tractor to your work site. The tractors have an overdrive for highway use and they get around 16 miles per gallon.” Our customers considered that good gas milage back in the 1950s, when cars were built like tanks and had big, inefficient V8 engines.
Usually the customer would show up as soon as he could get to us. But sometimes the man on the other end of phone let us know he could rent a garden tractor for $1.25 an hour. We’d mention we were renting full-sized Ford tractors and, of course, we certainly respected his knowing what was right for his project.
Sometimes a man would show up the next day saying he had tried a garden tractor and had barely begun his project when it got dark. Two to four hours later he’d swing our Ford tractor back into our driveway, pay somewhere between five and ten dollars, and let us know he’d be telling his friends about using a “real tractor.”
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
As we can see in this 1953 photograph from Baumgartner’s Campground on the South Fork of the Boise River, my folks were most resourceful at draping our canvas tarps over lodgepole pine frames to provide shade and keep out rain and frost. In the early 1950s we also had the small stand-alone tent you can see in the far left of this photo.
Tent was seldom used, only providing shelter on rainy nights. Otherwise sleeping under the stars and the whispering trees was what mountain campgrounds were for. Or so I assumed at six years of age. It well could have been our family of five had already outgrown being in the tent except to crowd together to escape inclement weather.
In my last Car Camping episode I told of my dad taking me along when he visited Pioneer Tent and Awning in downtown Boise. I spent my time amazed at the cash carriers zipping around the ceiling. My dad was spending his time giving measurements and specifics for a very large tent to be made from heavy canvas. That is what Pioneer Tent and Awning did at the time — they made things from canvas and leather.
Dad’s tent was designed to accommodate our five army-surplus cots and have room to walk around as well as space to store supplies we did not want to get wet. He also specified that the tent was to have vertical walls rising some four feet above the ground rather than be sloped all the way to the earth. There was no floor.
Dad made the rafter and three poles to support the tent as well as the ropes and spikes to keep the tent anchored and in shape.
The genius of those walls along the sides of the tent became apparent the first time it warmed up on a campground afternoon. Dad pushed up the walls and held them in place with sticks he had fashioned just long enough to do the job. While Mother read to us we enjoyed a delightful breeze while lolling in the shade under the hot canvas.
It was in that tent my sisters and I learned not to touch canvas when it is being rained on. Just the least brush on the wet canvas would cause drips, drips, drips that did not cease until the canvas had throughly dried. We had to adjust the location of our cots a few times but we caught on!
Somewhere in my kid-hood, I’m thinking between eight and ten years old, I remember Dad taking me along when he went to Pioneer Tent and Awning. It must have been 1954 or so. The large store was on Main Street at 6th in downtown Boise.
I had no idea what Dad was doing there but I discovered three things: One, the building had a very cool white horse on the roof. Two, on entering the shop the smell of leather and oiled canvas opened my nostrils as my lungs drew in as much of that heavy aroma as I could manage. And third, there were wires hanging all over the ceiling.
It was the strangest ceiling I had ever seen.
Just then a little jar zipped along one of the wires, whipped around a corner, and landed in what looked like an office on the balcony overlooking the first floor. I followed those wires back to the other end where each wire stopped at a different sales desk. Thanks to as much attention as a boy can muster in a new store it wasn’t long before I saw a clerk put papers in a jar, screw the jar to a lid attached to one of the wires, and pull down on a wooden handle attached to the wire with a short rope.
The jar flew with amazing force and was slamming to a stop in the office in no time! From then on all I did was wait for another paper with payment to be sent whizzing to the office to be processed. Yes, even at that age I deduced the wire system replaced having cash registers being responsible for collecting payments. Who would have thought of such a thing?
Writing this account, I learned the jars zipping around the ceiling were an early version of the pneumatic tubes banks now use to get cash and payments from our cars to the teller. Called Cash Carriers, the version in Pioneer Tent and Awning was a Wire Carrier. The mechanism the clerks used to send the containers zipping to and fro is called a catapult.
If you ask me stores should still have wires catapulting jars around the ceiling if only to keep kids busy while mom and dad shop. Like I said, this is for the kids. I promise I won’t be standing in your way gawking at the ceiling.
PPS – I tried to find a good video of a Wire Carrier in motion. Alas, dear reader, you’ll have to search for one yourself.
But I did find this most satisfying homily to The Rise and Fall of the Cash Railway. I am not the only child hanging on to the magic of those flying jars. Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Dylan Thomas and many others have paid homage.
The article also describes a fairly common disaster I had not thought of. It reprints a 1903 article from New Zealand involving a proper patron bringing her “big handsome dog” into a large dry good store during the Christmas rush. The dog had been trained as a pointer and was perfectly behaved. Then the patron’s cash went zipping to the cashier.
I can only imagine if our completely undisciplined dog Flip had joined my Dad and I at Pioneer Tent and Awning …
The reason for buying the 1952 Cadillac was the car’s big V-8 engine.
Our family had grown to five and our camping supplies were early 1950 technologies. Heavy canvas tents. Coleman stoves. Canned food and iron skillets. Supplies that once fit in the trunk now required a densely packed trailer.
Cadillac V-8 engines were big, powerful and reliable. Just what we needed to get over the high summits of Idaho’s rugged Forest Service roads. Roads that still remain surfaced with the dirt and rocks the landscape provides.
The greatest disappointment of the Caddie turned out to be that big engine.
After a few trips to the shop Dad mentioned how he was surprised at how unreliable the engine was. Sure, it was more reliable than the Model A Ford he had kept running for his folks through the 1930s and 40s. But it sure needed more fussing over than he had expected from a Caddie V-8.
The shop fessed up that the Cadillac motor factory had burned down shortly before our car was manufactured so General Motors had installed Buick motors. They had equal motor-mounts so were handy to toss in but they did not have the horsepower the car was designed for.
Dad never agan bought aGM product.
(But I think the switch was his fondness for Mercurys — the first car he bought on his own.)
For several days Dad delighted in reading the manual for our new 1952 Cadillac and discovering all the new features of this luxury “automobile” — versus all the “puddle jumpers” out there.
The first night the Caddy was home we kids were rousted out of our warm beds and led to the cold garage where he sat us in the front seat and pushed in the radio’s tuning knob. A motor’s rather loud whir had us discover the radio antenna rising out of the right side front fender. Pulling the knob out caused the same whir to make the antenna disappear back into the fender!
Dad’s excuse for buying the Cadillac was for its big V-8 engine, but an equally important feature was the heater. The heater blew out from under the front seat. The Manhattan had a heater unit hanging down under the dash on the front passenger’s side. All three of we kids would crowd on the front bench seat after a day sledding in the snow, usually crowding Mom ontothe back seat. Having the heat come out from under the front seat meant both the front and back of the car had warm air blowing on our feet, so Mom no longer had to sacrifice so we kids could warm up.
Come to think of it, it was probably also a safety feature since Dad no longer had to drive on icy roads while being squashed against his door by three squirming kids.