The Grass is Always Greener, 

Down the Road Apiece

The year was 1926. A. A. Milne’s book Winnie The Pooh was published, Duke Ellington's first records appeared, Kodak produced the first 16mm films, popular songs were “Desert Song and Bye, Bye, Blackbird, and the population of the United States had reached one hundred and fifteen million. Also that year a box of Post Toasties® cost ten cents, a pound of oleo (margarine) twenty-seven cents, we moved again, and Clifford graduated from the eighth grade.

This time we moved to a farm on the north side of the school, being grateful that we could still go to Burkett. We no longer walked through the pastures but straight down the road. Our one-story house sat up on a hill, the equivalent of about a city block from the road, and it had pretty trumpet vines which attracted birds and bees climbing on one side of it. Another plus was the large barn.

Always having someone to play with is one of the ad­vantages of being a member of a large family. In the long summer evenings we’d often play Run Sheep Run or Hide 'n Seek. When it was too dark to see well, we’d often catch lightning bugs (fireflies) and imprison them for a time in a jar.

Our one indoor game was dominoes, and we’d spend many a winter evening around the kitchen table playing with our double-six domino set. Some of our friends played card games, we were told, but Dad would not allow a deck of cards in the house.

But why not, Mama? we would often ask.

We were told that one of Dad’s uncles was a gambler and came to no good end.” We never did have a deck of cards.

Clifford and Bub (Raymond) often made stilts for themselves, tall ones to show off their prowess. If we teased enough, and if sometimes Mom asked them also, they were persuaded to make shorter ones for Mary and me. Mine raised me only a few inches, but I was pleased and happy with them.

Sometimes on rainy days, when we’d all have to be inside—Clifford, Bub, Mary, Buddy and meMom would tolerate our bickering just so long before she’d order the older four of us out of the house, and to the haymow to play. There’d be some loose hay there, but mostly there would be bales. We’d each make our own special place, and a sibling could come there only by invitation. Clifford and Bub would have the best places since they were bigger and could move the bales around fairly easily. We’d have to crawl through a tunnel made of bales to get to their places, much like going into an igloo. It would be pouring rain outside, yet we’d be cozy and dry. It was a nice place to play.

When school was in session Flossie was home only on the weekends. The high school she had to attend was in Hamilton, Kansas, and in those days there were no school buses. It was up to the parents to get the students to and from school. Many high school students in those days “boarded” during the week and went home on weekends. I remember one particular early morning when I was up early and whining about something, probably that I was hungry, and all the while getting in Mom’s way. My mother was bustling around, trying to get breakfast on the table before Dad and the boys came in from the milking. Flossie, like teenagers down through the ages, liked to sleep in after a hard week of school, and was still snuggled in her bed. Mom, turning around quickly and almost falling over me, grumbled,

If they're big enough to be of any help, they’re lazy in bed. But at this age, they’re up and under my feet!

We had to walk about two and a half miles to and from school most of the time. That spring of 1926 I was in the first grade, Mary in the second, Bub in the sixth, and Clifford in the eighth. In fair weather it wasn’t unpleasant at all. I did a lot of daydreaming walking down that country road, my daydreams usually being punctuated with calls from the others,

Hurry up, or we’re going to go off and leave you. I was the youngest and they were cautioned to look out for me.

We were constantly warned, Never get in a car with a stranger, but I can't remember anyone ever offering us a ride, friend or stranger.

One of my favorite memories is turning up the driveway to our own house on Mom’s bread-baking days. She’d use some of the dough to make cinnamon rolls, and would try to time her baking so that the rolls would be coming out of the oven as we arrived home. The aroma of the hot bread and cinnamon would quicken my lagging steps, and I’d rush in, fearful the bigger ones would get more than their share.

The only horse we ever had that was strictly for riding was a pony named Pet, and for a time we rode her back and forth to school. Bub rode in the saddle, with me in front of him and Mary behind the saddle. Pet was fat and sassy and liked to shy at any little thing along the road—a rock, a piece of paper, even a bird. She also had a trick of puffing up her belly when Bub put the saddle on her. Thus it was difficult to get the saddle tightly cinched, and often it would later slip.

One afternoon we were riding home, in our usual positions on Pet's back, when she shied at a paper that moved in the slight breeze. She jumped, and the saddle started slipping. Bub yelled at us to jump off. Mary did, but I was too frightened. I held tightly to the saddle horn, and all the time my brother was yelling in my ear to jump. The saddle kept slipping, and the horse kept dancing around, with Bub pulling on the reins. By the time the saddle had slipped into an almost sideways position, I let go of the saddle horn and fell into the ditch; unhurt but scared to death.

When Dad heard the story he was disgusted with us, especially Bub, since he was responsible for handling the horse. Dad figured he could handle any horse alive, and he expected a better performance from his children. He took Bub and Pet out and made Bub ride that horse, using the whip freely, until Pet was too tired to shy at anything. Dad believed in conquering his animals with fear, while kind-hearted Bub was often accused by Dad of making pets of them. Dad may have traded Pet soon after that; at least we didn't ride her to school much longer.

We always had animals on the farm: horses, cows, pigs, usually one dog, and a cat or two, plus a litter of kittens. We didn't have a house cat. On our farm cats were working animals too, and their purpose was to keep down the mouse population in the barn.

Living amongst all the animals should have provided a natural way for a little girl to learn about the facts of life, but it didn’t. One sudden addition I remember was a little red calf with very wobbly legs. I’d seen the mother cow the day before, and she didn’t have the calf then. I asked Mom where it came from and was told the cow found the calf under a bush in the pasture. I went out and looked under all the bushes, but there weren’t any other baby calves there.

Not long after the calf arrived we went to see Uncle Tom, one of Dad’s brothers. Aunt May, his wife, was propped up in bed, and alongside her was a tiny baby girl. She was so little, and I was intrigued by her. Buddy, my baby brother, was a lot bigger than that by now. I wasn’t really listening to the conversation, but I heard Aunt May tell Mom that Georgie, her second son, had asked where the baby had come from. She told him that the doctor brought it in his black bag. Even now, when I see a black satchel-type bag, I can picture a baby inside it.

In the springtime we could hardly wait to go barefoot. It was a welcome change after wearing shoes all winter. As soon as the first warm days came we’d start asking Dad when we could shed our shoes. He would say that when the Grandaddy Bullfrog started croaking he would know it was time, so each evening we’d listen for the frogs. I would hear a croak and call Dad’s attention.

There, Dad. Hear it?

Oh, no, he’d say. That wasn’t the Grandaddy. That was just one of the young ones. We have to wait for the Grandaddy Bullfrog to speak.

I’d keep listening. There'd be another croaking sound, and I’d call his attention to it again. But it still wasn’t the Grandaddy.

Finally Dad would say, Yep, that’s him. That’s the Grandaddy Bullfrog. He says you can start going barefooted.

I would be excited and could hardly wait for the morning to try out my tender winter feet on the dirt and pebbles. I thought my Dad was very clever to be able to tell the difference between the Grandaddy Bullfrog and the younger ones. They sounded pretty much alike to me, but I didn't question his superior wisdom on such matters.

About this time Dad acquired a little bay team, and it soon became Clifford’s team. Clifford always worked them and took care of them, and Dad, always good at giving promises but sometimes not so good at keeping them, had given the team to him. One day Clifford arrived home to find that Dad had traded the bay team. Clifford was hurt and angry. He thought about it for a time.

If they were my team, then I should have the money you got for them.

Dad slipped out of that by saying, I'm keeping the money for you.

But it didn't take Clifford long to figure out that he’d never see any of that money. The next day Clifford quietly disappeared from home. The kids at school found out, and I remember the buzzing about it.

When he gets back he’ll sure get a whupping, they speculated.

During Clifford’s absence Dad and Mom were worried. Dad was out looking for his son and asking questions of his friends, but he couldn’t find a clue as to Clifford’s wherea­bouts.

About a week later Clifford came home. He had spent the interim with a friend, and the two of them were just hangin' around in Madison. He didn’t get a whipping as the other children had expected, or any other punishment for that matter. Dad’s guilt and relief were probably deterrents to any kind of chastisement. Mary and I thought Clifford was a bit of a hero for doing what he did, and for standing up to Dad as well.

Clifford remembers that Dad very seldom gave him or Bub any sort of physical punishment. They mostly got tongue lash­ings, and Dad was very good at giving those. He also remem­bers that Dad didn’t always find out who was guilty of the assumed offense. More than once Dad lashed out at Bub for something Clifford had done. Bub would silently take it and not say anything.

Clifford asked him once, Why do you just sit there and take it? Why don't you tell him that you didn’t do it?

Bub shrugged and answered, Aw, it doesn’t make any dif­ference.

It was in this year of 1926 Dad bought a brand new Overland car for $600. It was exciting when he brought it home. The car was two-seated and had isinglass curtains for bad weather. I can remember the running boards still had the protective heavy paper covering on them. Dad didn't take it off for quite some time—not until it became worn looking.

Ten or fifteen years later Bud found a car key amongst Mom’s things and asked her about it. She told him the story of her one and only attempt at learning to drive. It seems that before Dad bought the car he promised Mom he would teach her to drive. Possibly he did this to secure her approval of the unprecedented large purchase, although he never seemed to need her permission for anything else he did. When he took delivery of the new Overland he gave Mom her own key.

For the driving lesson Dad took Mom out to the pasture, where there were relatively few obstructions. Then she got behind the wheel. The lesson did not go smoothly. Mom was probably nervous and a little inept, and certainly Dad would have been quick to point out her mistakes. The final result was that she ran into a tree. The fact that it was the only tree in the whole pasture merely added fire to Dad’s temper.

Hell, woman,” he raged, “there’s only one tree in the whole damn pasture and you manage to run into it!

He got out of the car and stomped away. Mom never again tried driving, but she kept the car key with her other small treasures.

My memory tells me we didn’t have the Overland very long. I’d always assumed that Dad didn't manage to complete payments on it and let it go back. Flossie told me what happened though. The Model T cars Dad had been used to had high narrow rubber tires. The new Overland was one of the first cars to come out with modern “balloon tires. At the end of one weekend, when Dad was driving Flossie back to Madison for school, he got stuck in the good old Kansas mud. He never had that kind of trouble with Model T’s. The Model T tires would

bite down through the mud to find a firm footing. He got so mad he went into town and traded for an older Model T with the old type tires. Flossie believes, in his disgust with the Overland, that he made an even trade, even though the newer car was worth more. That would have been like him..

Flossie had loved her first year of high school at Hamilton, but in the fall of 1925 she was persuaded to stay in Madison with Goldie and John and attend high school there. She did so, but reluctantly, since she didn’t want to leave her friends at Hamilton. But Goldie was having a baby and felt Flossie would be helpful to her. Plus, not having to pay for her room in a private home in Hamilton was a deciding factor as well where our parents were concerned.

Clifford also started high school in Madison that fall and went out for football. The coach was more than pleased to have him. Clifford was physically fit and had broad shoul­ders—the typical football player build. But Dad, as he’d done before on other things and for no apparent reason, decided his son would not play football. A clash between Dad and Clifford was like the meeting of two brick walls. Clifford, in his stubbornness, decided if he couldn’t play football he wouldn’t go to school at all...and he quit. Dad, who had only gone to about the third grade himself, didn’t object to that. It was a shame, because Clifford was a good academic student.

Often over the years Dad wondered how Grandma Erwin knew of some of the things that happened in his own immediate family, things only he and Mom would know, or perhaps their observant children. More than once Dad would say,Now how did she know that?when Grandma would come out with some tidbit of information.

Clifford recalled one instance, when he was fourteen or fifteen years old, and happened to be outside Grandma’s kitchen window, that she was questioning Uncle Tom’s two boys, Tommy and Georgie.

Minnie Freeman Erwin & her chickens, c.1920

And what did Mama say?

Then what did your Dad do?

Grandma was pumping the four and six-year-old boys for information. Suddenly Clifford realized that Grandma had pumped him over the years too, and he hadn’t even been aware of it. She’d probably also used the same tactics on Goldie and Flossie. That was how Grandma got all her bits of private information.                                                                                          To be continued...