The Grass is Always Greener,
Down the Road Apiece
By Helen Erwin Campbell
The Odes & Hazel Erwin story continues...
We moved to the house on the hill in 1926. It had a party line telephone when Dad rented the place. The phone was attached to the wall, and you got the operator by turning a crank. Each party had its own ring, like one long, two shorts, etc. I don’t remember Mom or Dad ever using the phone, but if it rang, we children would sometimes listen in on the conversations. We listened in until Mom saw us, that is. She’d scold and make us hang up. When there was an electrical storm we were cautioned not to go near the phone. I recall seeing streaks of light in the air at the telephone as a bolt of lightning struck. That was enough to make me heed the warning.
Dad had a crystal radio set on which he listened to news and music. It was very difficult to tune in; sometimes just walking across the floor would cause enough vibration to jar the radio off the station and back to static. One day Clifford was trying to tune in the set, without much success. Buddy, just two years old and a little mischievous, came a short way into the living room, and, seeing Clifford working with the radio, gave a hard stomp on the floor. Instead of bothering Clifford, as was Buddy’s intent, the vibration of his stomp knocked the set into perfect reception. Clifford rewarded Buddy with a loud horse laugh.
Mom was usually pretty even-tempered, and I remember few spankings from her. I do remember playing on the floor around her when she was sewing. She’d have her thimble on, and if we were too annoying, she’d rap us on the head with it. That hurt.
Mary and I fought a lot, as sisters do. I was probably a pest, and Mary had a temper at times. One day she got so mad at something I did or said she threw Mom’s little sharp-pointed scissors at me. The point hit me on the left shoulder and made a small puncture wound that bled. I was very dramatic.
“Mama, she stabbed me! And close to my heart, too!”
It really was several inches from my heart, as the faint scar I still have will attest. I felt very let down because Mom didn’t take the whole incident seriously at all. The smug look Mary gave me didn’t help either.
Dad used to park his Model T Ford not far from the house, with the front facing down the hill towards the road. One day Mary and I had been quarreling and she climbed in the car just to sit and to get away from me. She was there for several minutes when she did something—either accidentally or unknowingly—that released the brake. The car started rolling, slowly at first, and then faster and faster, right through the corn field. She left a path of flattened corn stalks behind her. I don’t know whether she was screaming or not; I was screeching so loud I couldn’t have heard her. Mom came rushing out of the house, and we watched the car with its unwilling passenger plunging through the field. The car slowed down when it came to level ground, and stopped gently just before it reached the fence which bordered the road.
Mom didn’t drive, so there was nothing to do except leave the car where it was. I was sure Mary would really get it when Dad got home. She probably thought so too and kept saying, “I didn't touch a thing, it just, started rolling.”
When Dad arrived home with the team of horses and wagon he didn’t say much. He just surveyed the situation from the wagon seat of the wagon, put the horses away, and just drove the car back up. He didn’t punish Mary either, much to her relief and my surprise.
We saw a lot o f our Dad’s brother Bill during the summer of 1926. Uncle Bill was wild, sometimes outrageous, a good-natured tease, and always fun to be around. He seemed to liven things up. He started calling not-quite-two-year-old Buddy "Bawl Baby Buddy," and Buddy called him "Bawl Baby Bill" in return. Buddy would sometimes see Bill's car turn in from the road down at the bottom of the hill.
"Here comes Bawl Baby Bill! Here comes ole' Bawl Baby Bill," and Buddy's feet would fairly dance with excitement.
After the hay harvest Bill never came around much. Mom later told Flossie the reason Bill hung around that summer. He had wanted Dad to go in partners with him and start a still in the cave, which we used as a cellar, in back of the house. It was quite large, and it was where Mom kept her canned fruit and vegetables, and where she placed the milk until the cream rose.
This was during the days of Prohibition, and Mom said Dad was tempted. He could have used the money. But then he contemplated the possibility of getting caught and decided it would not be worth being shamed in front of his children. He turned Bill down, and Uncle Bill again faded from our lives.
One of the highlights of the week when we lived at Burkett was the trip to town on Saturday night. Dad and the boys would come in early from the fields and take turns washing up at the wash stand in the kitchen. We’d have supper, and then pile into the car for the trip to Madison.
On arrival Mom would go to the grocery store, we kids were turned loose, and Dad would head for his usual meeting place with the other men who liked to swap stories. In this case it was the steps of the bank which was now, of course, closed. The business part of town was only two blocks long, and the bank was on one corner of the main intersection. The door of the bank opened diagonally onto the corner with five or six rounded steps leading up to the door. It was there Dad and his cronies would spend the evening.
Mary and I would walk around and around the town, sometimes accompanied by little brother Buddy and sometimes not. There was no fear of children being abducted in those days. We’d go past the grocery store, around the corner and down by the picture show. We’d continue across the street and back past some other lighted stores, around the corner and down by Crawford's Hardware, and again across the street and past an. ice cream parlor, then past the bank where Dad hung out. He’d look at us and we’d look at him, but neither acknowledged the other except by the look.
One evening I decided to ask Dad for money for candy. Mary told me I shouldn’t, but I never heeded the warnings of my brothers and sisters. I went to his corner and stood before him.
“Dad, could I have some money for some candy?”
All the other men stopped talking and watched. Dad hesitated, then reached into his pocket and brought out some coins. He examined the lot, picked out one, and gave it to me without a word. It was a quarter. I’d have been happy with a nickel.
“See,” I taunted Mary, after we’d walked away. “He did give me some.” We had our candy; in fact, on a whole quarter we really feasted.
Mom would finish her buying and we kids would get tired long before Dad would be ready to go home. We’d all wait in the car in the dark. Mom never complained, but we’d whine,
“Why doesn’t he come?” and she would try to soothe us. “He’ll be here directly,” and after what seemed like hours, he’d finally come.
That particular night I was half asleep when Dad arrived at the car, but I quickly became wide awake as he started bawling me out for asking for money, and for spending it all.
“But you gave it to me,” I argued. I couldn’t see why he was so angry.
Dad turned around and leaned over towards me in the back seat. I pushed as far back as I could away from him and into the cushion.
“What else could I do when you asked me in front of the other men. Don’t you ever do that again!”
And believe me, I never did.
We were not a church-going family when I was small, but Sunday, unless we were in the middle of a harvest, was a day of rest for the men—but not necessarily for the womenfolk. We ate on Sunday, as well as on every other day of the week, only on Sunday we ate more and better. Also, it was a day for family get-togethers. Sometimes we’d go to Grandma and Grandpa Erwin’s house, but I also remember many special dinners with just Goldie and John as company.
One special treat was homemade ice cream. We always had milk cows, and Mom liked to have at least one Jersey cow because they gave the richest milk. She would leave the milk in the crock until the cream rose to the top, and then skim it off. Often the cream was so thick it could be cut with a knife. She’d make a custard of milk, eggs, and vanilla, and then add lots of the thick cream. Folks weren’t worried about cholesterol then.
Dad must have gone to the ice house near the Burkett station for the necessary ice. Mom would fill the metal container with the custard, insert the paddle, and carefully put on the lid. The container was put into the outer wooden part of the freezer and alternate layers of ice and salt were added. We little ones got to turn the handle first, but as the mixture started to freeze and thicken the job became harder. The bigger boys would then take over, and Goldie’s husband John would usually finish the job. I can’t remember Dad ever turning the handle of the freezer; I was not his kind of job. When the handle would no longer turn it had to sit for a short while to freeze a little harder.
When it was time to open the freezer we’d all gather around waiting for the delicious mixture to be dished out. John would refuse a dish of cream. He wanted to wait for the paddle. He’d balance the paddle on a plate and spoon the cream off. That got to be a family tradition: “Save the paddle for John.”
Another memorable treat was watermelons. Dad grew them, usually an acre or so, and he’d go out to the field and choose several. He could tell by the sound when he thumped one if it was ripe. He’d demonstrate.
“Now this one is still a little green.”
He’d thump another. “This one has a deeper sound. It's ripe.”
All the thumps sounded alike to me. I still can’t pick a watermelon by that method, but Dad almost never missed. If we cut one that was particularly sweet, we were told by Mom or Dad to “Save the seeds, we’ll use those for planting next year.”
Since we always ate the watermelons out of doors, we kids usually just spit out the seeds, sometimes at each other. We were warned by Mom not to swallow them. I was told by one of our cousins that if I swallowed the seeds a watermelon plant would grow out of me. I did swallow some, and I could picture the vine growing out of my ears or the top of my head. I’d check now and then to see if any were starting, but none ever did. I hadn’t really believed him anyway.
One of the foods we always had plenty of was eggs. Mom had a talent for raising chickens. Those chickens were not only a direct food supply, but an indirect one as well. Many of the young ones ended up on our table as fried chicken, the older hens in a chicken and dumpling dish, and of course the eggs we had fried or boiled. Mom almost always sold her surplus eggs to a local store or to individuals. This money bought other foods we did not grow, and many times also helped buy our clothing.
Because the eggs were so plentiful and at hand, we ate lots of them. I can still picture that large platter of fried eggs being passed around the table at breakfast time. But I was heartily sick of eggs. I tried passing the plate on by. Mom solicitously asked,
“What's the matter? Don’t you want any.”
My answer was, “I’m tired o f fried eggs,” which was a mistake.
Dad looked up at me from the head of the table where he was busy eating. “Eat ‘em!” he growled.
I sighed inwardly, but I served myself the smallest one on the platter and dawdled over the eating.
Sometimes we’d have cereal for breakfast. Mom would cook oatmeal, or sometimes rice, which we always ate with cream and sugar, not as a vegetable. If we were lucky we’d have Post Toasties®. She bought that brand because it came in the largest box.
Often at supper, just before bread-baking day when her bread supply was low, Mom would serve mush. She’d cook cornmeal and put it in a pan to cool and become firm. Then she’d cut it in to slices and fry it to a crisp golden brown. I loved it.
Another treat was fried bread. Sometimes when the bread for some reason was not baked by mealtime, Mom would cut off slices of the rising dough and fry it. The best of all, however, was her bread, fresh out of the oven, with her own churned butter and her canned apple butter.
To be continued in the next issue...