Down the Road Apiece
In 1924 Calvin Coolidge was elected President, J. Edgar Hoover was appointed director of the Bureau of Investigation (the name was later changed to the Federal Bureau of Investigation), the film “The Ten Commandments” was produced by Cecil B. DeMille, insecticides were first used, the Ford Motor Company produced its ten-millionth car, Will Rogers was becoming known as a comedian and philosopher, and two and a half million radios were in use in the United States. That year Thompson seedless raisins sold for twelve cents a pound, a #2 can of Van Camp beans could be purchased for twelve cents, a can of Tuxedo Smoking Tobacco, made by the American Tobacco Company, went for twelve cents, and a Chevrolet Superior Sedan was advertised for $795 f.o.b. Flint, Michigan. This was also the year my little brother Buddy was born on October 23. He was the seventh child and third son of Odes and Hazel, and Dad was back farming again.
When Buddy arrived on the scene the family was living on a farm about one mile north and a half-mile east of Madison, Kansas. That year Goldie was sixteen, Flossie fourteen, Clifford twelve, Bub (Raymond) nine, Mary six, and I was four.
I remember that house and garden. I used to go out early in the morning and pick blue morning glories with the dew still sparkling on them. I’d come back and lean against my mother at the breakfast table until she noticed and admired my flowers. I also remember a large red rooster that was tame enough to accept food from me and would follow me around.
Once Mom caught a mouse in a trap and later found her nest of babies. She let me keep the tiny, pink, hairless creatures in an empty kitchen match box lined with cotton, and showed me how to feed them with a toothpick dipped in milk.
After a few days, however, Mom must have questioned the wisdom of her actions when the babies grew a little, because my orphan mice suddenly disappeared. I took the empty box to her.
“Where are my baby mice?” I asked Mama anxiously.
“I think the chickens must have gotten them,” she said as she tried to console me. I looked at Goldie, and she nodded her head to confirm the sad facts. Later I figured out that she’d probably gotten rid of them before they grew up to be pests, and themselves be caught in another mousetrap. Even so, I wondered if perhaps my four-year-old kind of mothering was not sufficient and the poor things starved to death.
When Buddy was born Goldie was asked to quit school and stay home to help. We think she didn’t really mind that much. By that time John Cummins was her steady beau, and school was not her primary interest. Flossie remembers that John often drove her home from school, and returned later to pick her up for a date.
In contrast, Flossie insisted on attending school, even though school was not important to our parents, and they didn't seem to care whether their children kept good attendance at school or whether they missed. On cold days Dad would often decide that everyone should just stay home, but Flossie would slip out and walk to school. She was always often quiet around the house, and even when Dad was home he usually didn’t miss her.
Dad always liked an excuse to go to town, and when work didn’t interfere he would often drive his school children into town with the team and wagon, even though he owned a car most of the time in those days. He was really from a different generation and seemed to prefer his team and wagon over the automobile.
It was embarrassing, especially for Flossie, to arrive at school sitting on the farm wagon. Dad would stop the team with a “Whoa,” and Flossie would have to descend from the farm vehicle under the interested eyes of her friends and classmates.
Fads and fashions take longer to reach the Midwest, and bobbed hair was just becoming popular in the little town of Madison. Two of Flossie's girlfriends had bobbed their hair, and the new style appealed to her. At the time she braided her hair and wrapped the braids around, forming little coils of braids over her ears. First she had to brush her hair, part and braid it, then arrange the braids in a secure position. It took forever to get her hair done up before she left for school.
There was a lady in Madison who cut hair, and Flossie's two friends, who already had short hair, persuaded Flossie to go see her. The lady agreed to bob her hair but said, “Now don't you dare tell your folks I was the one who did this.” Flossie agreed.
She liked her new haircut. She shook her head and rejoiced in the lightness and freedom of her short locks. Then she thought of home and the coming confrontation with Dad, and she got a heavy feeling in the pit of her stomach. But he had to be faced.
When Dad saw what Flossie had done, that well-known temper of his boiled over again.
“Who cut off your hair?” he demanded to know.
Flossie wouldn’t tell him. He charged out to the barn and got his leather reins, strode back to the house and proceeded to whip his fourteen-year-old daughter.
I was only four, but I can still remember, from the safety of another room, and with a closed door between, hearing the snap of those reins and the sound of their contact. I flinched each time. Flossie didn’t cry out, at least not that I remember. I was holding on to Mom, and she was wincing too.
Dad finally wrung out of Flossie who actually cut her hair. He stormed off to town to challenge the woman, but Flossie doesn’t know what happened. It was a closed subject, and nothing more was ever said about it.
After Flossie had had her short hairdo for a time, Dad began to mellow down. Her hair was so easy to wash and to comb. Within a year Dad took Mom to a barber shop and paid for her to get her hair cut as well. Perhaps the main thing about the whole episode was simply that Dad couldn't stand anyone going against him. Flossie, now some sixty-three years later (this was written in 1973, -Ed.), still feels resentment about that whipping.
It was 1925. One of the more popular songs was Show Me The Way To Go Home, female fashions had skirts above the knee, Adolph Hitler had just published Volume I of Mein Kampf, Calvin Coolidge was President, White King Washing Powder cost forty-two cents, a box of Certo was twenty-nine cents, Post Toasties ten cents, a Ford Fordor Sedan sold for $660 f.o.b. Detroit, and the economy was good. That was the year Flossie started to high school in Hamilton, and I started first grade.
Our family lived on a rented farm east of Madison, Kansas, near an oil station known as Burkett. From a five-year old girl’s view, and maybe from Dad’s too, that was a very good year. There was a large two-story house, ample space for seven children, and with its large rooms and covered porches, it was a pleasant place to play on a hot Kansas summer day.
An even better place to play was the creek (we pronounced it “crick”). The creek was shallow in spots, and by stepping on rocks a five-year-old could cross it and get only a little wet. There were also some pools deep enough for minnows. One favorite pastime was to catch the tiny fish in a Ball canning jar filched from Mom’s pantry. We didn’t keep the minnows; there was nothing to do with them, so we'd turn them loose and usually return the jar to its proper place.
Sometimes that spot at the creek was a place for just closing my eyes and listening. The leaves of the cottonwood trees seemed to whisper as the breeze moved them gently, and they harmonized perfectly with the sound of the water rippling over rocks and pebbles. Even now, remembering the place and time induces a feeling of peace.
Other times we’d catch grasshoppers and keep them prisoners for a time in one of the canning jars, or we would wander the pastures and look for wild flowers. My favorite was the buttercup, a large blossom aptly named for its color. At least the flowers were large when I was a little girl of five and six and seven. Many years later I went back to find them, but the species seemed to have shrunk to a very small flower...not spectacular at all.
At that time in Kansas, in the middle 1920’s, there were still many rock fences made by the early homesteaders. We were constantly warned to “stay away from those rock fences. There’s liable to be rattlesnakes under those rocks.” Since we were barefoot most of the summer, we could have been easy targets for some defensive snake. That was a warning we didn’t ignore.
I always loved dolls...dolls of all kinds. Becky, the doll that was my almost constant companion, went with me to the creek and on my treks through the pastures. She had a composition head and a cloth body, including cloth arms and legs. Since I always carried her by one of her arms, sometimes the arms came loose and she would lose one. I’d arrive back at the house with my doll, but, alas, she’d have only one arm. I’d go tearfully to Mom, and she’d make my beloved Becky a new arm from a scrap of white material and stuff it with rags. My memory of that doll is with one very white clean arm and one very discolored arm as the result of my grubby five-year-old hands.
The summer I was five, Buddy was not quite one and was learning to crawl. He must have been the only baby ever to learn to crawl backwards. That worked fine for me. Since I wasn’t big enough to be much good at helping with cooking or dishwashing, I was given the task of “minding Buddy,” with the admonition that “there’s spiders in the house and he might grab one and put it in his mouth.”
At that time I had a very large family of paper dolls, all carefully cut out from an outdated Sears Roebuck or “Monkey Ward” catalog before they were relegated to the little house out back. Since Buddy could only crawl backwards, I would place him a few feet from my fragile paper doll family, feeling safe in the knowledge that he couldn’t reach them.
One day I was deep in my imaginary play, not really watching him, when my ears caught a suspicious sound. I looked back at Buddy and let out an agonized scream. My mother and older sisters came running from the other room, expecting a terrible tragedy. Buddy had suddenly mastered the art of crawling forward and had some of my precious paper dolls in his fat little fists and in his mouth. My peaceful paper doll play was forever ruined.
One of the highlights of the summer, after the Fourth of July, was preparing the catalog order for school clothes. Mom would make our dresses and the boys would get new overalls, but the main thing we could count on was new shoes; the high-top kind. The shoes had to last the whole school year. There was no such thing as outgrowing them. They were ordered with lots of “room to grow.”
Later that summer our order finally came, and we were so excited when it was time to try them on. I was pleased with mine, but Mary’s were a disappointment to her. They were way too big; even Mom and Dad admitted that. It was a lot of trouble to exchange an order.
Clifford casually picked one up end tried it on. It fit him, and he still had some growing room. Dad and Mom looked at each other, and looked at the shoes. There really wasn’t much difference in the styles for boys and girls. They decided that Clifford would keep the shoes meant for Mary.
Mom said, “Now don’t you tell anyone that they’re really girl’s shoes, and no one will know the difference.”
But one day at the noon recess, soon after school started, everyone was sitting around on the playground in various groups eating lunch. Someone mentioned new shoes. Another student showed off her new shoes and told where she’d gotten them. Mary listened to the others and suddenly blurted out the secret.
“Clifford’s wearing girl’s shoes. They were supposed to be mine but they were too big.”
Before the recess was over everyone knew that Clifford Erwin was wearing girl’s shoes. He took the ribbing and was angry with Mary. That night he complained to Mom and Dad.
“Now why did you do that?” Mom asked her.
Mary hung her head. She wasn't sure why she had done it.
Flossie graduated from the eighth grade at the Burkett School that spring of 1925. Education was not a high priority with our parents, but it was of prime importance to Flossie. There were no school buses, and the parents of the farm kids had to furnish their own transportation if they were to continue their schooling. We, like others, lived beyond walking distance from the nearest high school. A rented room in town was the only answer, and Mom and Flossie went searching in the little town of Hamilton for one they could afford.
They found a room in the home of a widow for sixteen dollars a month. Flossie waited anxiously until Mom made the decision. Mom decided they could afford it. She had her weekly egg money, and from this she financed Flossie’s first year of high school. Flossie would come home each Friday after school and return on Sunday evening to her room for another week of instruction. She has many fond memories of that year in Hamilton, and has been forever grateful to Mom for making it possible.
I started to school that fall when I was five and a half, starting in the first grade since kindergarten had not been heard of then in Kansas. We had to walk two miles or so to school, and to shorten the distance we cut across the fields. Mom and Dad always warned my older brothers and sister to “...look out for Helen. She’s the baby.”
We had to go through at least one barbed wire fence that I remember, and on one particular winter morning on the way to school, Bub had preceded me through the fence and was holding the lower strand of wire down with his foot while I squeezed through. He suddenly let go and the wire bounced up, tripping me so that I fell on my face. One barb cut through my black stockings and into the front of my ankle, leaving a cut like a flattened out “V.” I cried of course, and accused Bub of letting go of the wire too soon.
“You were too slow,” he defended himself.
The wound didn’t bleed very much and the cut in my stocking wasn’t very noticeable, so none of us told the teacher. I was unusually quiet, and the teacher even remarked about it, but I was too shy to tell her about the accident.
By the close of the school day the cut was starting to hurt a little. We walked home by the same route across the fields, and I could hardly wait to get home to get Mama’s sympathy. She peeled off the black stocking and washed the wound. My leg did become infected, and I missed at least a week of school. I kept my foot elevated, and every time I’d put it down my whole leg would start to throb.
The great fear then was blood poisoning (antibiotics came several years later). My parents put all the blame for the infection on the black stockings, particularly because I had “sat in school all day” in them. It never seemed to occur to them that the rusty barbed wire had anything to do with the problem.
It was when we were in that house that I remember having my head washed with kerosene and then combed with a finetoothed comb. We had caught head lice!
John Cummins was still courting Goldie when we lived on this farm. Although Dad had two sons, Clifford and Bub, now thirteen and ten, to help him in the fields, he sometimes pressed Goldie into service. She drove the team of horses that pulled the rake at haying time. When John came to see her he would often have to go to the fields to talk with her as she reached a point at the edge of the field. She would make another round, and they would snatch another few moments, always on the lookout for Dad’s displeasure if she tarried too long.
It was in November of that year they decided to get married, and on the 16th they drove with John’s stepmother and his aunt to Emporia, some twenty miles north of Madison, only to discover they would need a consent form for Goldie, since she was not quite eighteen. They drove back home, had Mom sign the necessary consent form, and then drove on to Eureka, about twenty miles in the other direction. There they were finally married.
I remember being at some gathering soon after this when an adult friend of John’s family said to me, “So your sister Goldie got married, did she?”
I, five and a half at the time, answered, “Yes, but she’s not my sister any more.”
“Oh, why not?”
“Cause she’s married,” I answered, plausibly.
Everyone laughed, and I suffered from their amusement as all children of all times have suffered when being the subject of the laughter of adults.
This was the middle of the Roaring Twenties and the age of the flapper, and Flossie at fifteen was a flapper. She’d come home with the latest songs, and I’d pick them up. I remember parroting one in particular:
Show me the way to go home,
I'm tired and I want to go to bed.
I had a little drink about an hour ago
And it went right to my head.
Wherever I may roam, over land or sea or foam,
You can always hear me singin' this song,
Show me the way to go, show me the way to go,
Show me the way to go home.
At age five I had no understanding of the words, but it had a catchy tune. Mom deplored hearing me sing it. She said it was “not nice.”
Dad and Mom must have had some extra money that Christmas, because they sent for a large order from the catalog. Among the items they bought was a generous portion of hard Christmas candy. It was put out in a dish and was accessible all the time. For the first time in my memory I had all the candy I wanted.
But like all pleasures when constantly available, it soon became very ordinary and unimpressive. One day when Dad were both away from the house we children were sitting around the table, looking with disinterest at the half-full dish of hard red and white sweets.
Someone remarked, “This doesn’t taste anywhere near as good as it did when we first got it.”
I reached out, broke off a small piece, and popped it in my mouth. “No, it doesn’t. I didn't think I’d ever get tired of candy.”
Bub spoke up, “Well I took some and hid it. Then when this is all gone for awhile I'll bring it out and we’ll be real glad to have it.”
“You did?” We all thought about it. “I guess it will,” we all agreed.
But I, at five-going-on-six, was not too good at keeping secrets. That evening after supper when Dad and Mom were still at the table, I piped up:
“Guess what, Bub took some of the candy and hid it away.”
Dad looked up. “Go get it, boy, and put it back out here with the rest.”
Without a word Bub left the room. We could hear him going up the stairs and into the boys’ bedroom. He came back and dumped the candy into the dish, giving me a disgusted look.
Several weeks later we were sitting around again, talking in a desultory manner. I looked at the table where the Christmas sweets had sat.
“I wish I had some of that candy.”
The others all looked accusingly at me, and Bub said, “If you’d kept your mouth shut, we would have.”
I looked again where the candy dish had been. I sure wished I had kept my mouth shut.
We all attended Burkett School in those days. It was in a two-room building, with grades one through four in one room and five through eight in the other. I was in first grade, and Mrs. Beale was the teacher. She had a quick temper, and she often exploded at some of the students.
Mary remembers being petrified of her, but she seemed to like me, possibly because I was only five and the youngest student in school. She’d sometimes walk by my desk and pause for a moment, resting her hand on the top. When she’d walk on there would be a couple of English walnut halves left for me. I’d grab them and slip them into my dress pocket.
English walnuts didn’t grow in Kansas, and to me they were a delicacy. Sometimes I’d surreptitiously nibble the walnut meats in class, and, looking up, my eyes would meet those of the teacher. But she didn’t scold, either by word or look. Mostly I’d save the treat until recess, find a quiet spot, and make it last as long as possible. I never verbally thanked her, but she probably didn’t need a spoken thank you. My reaction may have been enough.
We were supposed to go to the toilet at recess, but sometimes I'd forget. One day during class time I really had to go, but I was too shy to raise my hand and ask. I wet my pants, and of course the older boys snickered at my misfortune, but Mrs. Beale was kind. She assigned some work for me to do at the blackboard at the back of the room near the heat register, and I wrote my numbers on the board until my clothes were dry.
There was one little girl in Burkett School for a short time who aroused great envy in me. Her name was Elizabeth. She carried a “store bought” lunch pail. We carried our lunches in buckets that once held lard. Her sandwiches were a marvel to me; they were made with bakery bread, the slices being small, white and fluffy looking. Our bread was made by our mother, and it was larger, flatter and heavier, plus it wasn't completely white.
Elizabeth wore patent leather Mary Jane shoes and white stockings. We wore high top shoes, purchased from the Sears or Wards catalogs, and black stockings. We also wore long underwear that made unsightly bumps above our ankles. Each day we tried to fold the legs of the underwear over in a pleat to go under those black cotton stockings, and each day they would stretch a little more, and would make larger lumps. By Friday our legs looked very lumpy.
Elizabeth didn't wear long underwear at all. Of course on cold windy days I was out playing at recess while Elizabeth was huddling in the doorway. I heard Mrs. Beale sniff disdainfully and make some remark about the unsuitability of Elizabeth’s attire, but I would gladly have traded my black lumpy legs for her smooth white ones, even if I did get chilled.
Our drinking water at Burkett School came from a covered well near the building on the opposite side from the play area. When any student wanted a drink he or she would pump fresh cool water into one of the communal tin cups kept there. One day the teachers called us all together to make a solemn announcement. One of the older boys, who had just been suspended, was reported to have peed in the well. This, they solemnly decided, made the water in the cell unfit to drink. We were ordered to bring water each day with our lunches.
Mary, Bub and I went home with the story of the contaminated water and the news that we were to bring drinking water to school. Dad listened to the story and pronounced it silly.
“You're not going to carry water.”
“But what will we drink?”
“Drink out of the well. It won’t hurt you.”
We didn't want to be different. We begged, but Dad had spoken, and we couldn’t defy him. We just didn’t drink at morning recess, but by the time we’d eaten our lunch sandwiches we were pretty thirsty. The three of us gravitated together, and since everyone was busy playing we quietly went around the schoolhouse to the well, hoping to get our drinks in secret. Bub was pumping water for Mary and me when suddenly a head appeared at the corner of the building.
“Hey, look at them, they’re drinking that dirty water.” More kids appeared, and soon everyone knew.
I was going to toss the water out, but Bub told me not to pay any attention to them. I was thirsty, so I drank it while they laughed at us. Each day at lunch time the three of us went together to get our drinks of water, and most days we were discovered and taunted.
About a week or ten days later the teachers had another announcement. Someone had lied about the boy peeing in the well, and the water wasn’t contaminated after all. Everyone could now drink the well water.
“Yah, see! We knew it all the time.” We felt somewhat vindicated.
The saga of the Odes and Hazel Erwin family, as they looked “… Down the Road Apiece,” will be continued in the June issue.
Helen Virginia Erwin Campbell is the sixth child and fourth daughter of Odes Herman Erwin (1888-1966) and Hazel Dell Hayworth (1889-1976), and resides in Hemet, California.