The Grass is Always Greener, Down the Road Apiece

By Helen Erwin Campbell

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The Odes and Hazel Erwin story continues…

In 1927 Charles A. Lindberg made his historic flight across the Atlantic, Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs for the New York Yankees, the Charleston was still in vogue, Henry Ford produced his fifteen-millionth Model T Ford, and I was in the third grade.

That was the year we moved to the town of Lamont, Kansas because Dad decided, again, to give up farming and work the oilfields. Lamont wasn't a very large town, but we were used to the country and the farm and probably were notice­ably farm kids. After being teacher's pet for two years, I found myself in the unenviable position of being teased and picked on. One girl a grade or two ahead of me decided I was a good subject for her attention, and she made my life miserable for a month or two until she moved on to another victim.

There was a boy named Claude in the school who stood out as an incorrigible. He wasn't accepted by the town kids, but he wasn't harassed either. He was larger than most of the kids in his grade, due to his having been held back more than once because of poor attendance.

Claude chewed tobacco. Mary and I were familiar with chewing tobacco because Dad used it, but we'd never before known a boy so young who chewed. As almost everyone knows, when you chew tobacco you also have to sit frequently. In the classroom that's a little difficult, but Claude solved the problem. He wore bib overalls, and on the days he came to school he would carry a tin can tucked in behind the bib of the overalls. When he needed to spit he'd tuck a thumb over the bib to hold it away from his chest and spit into the convenient can. I feel certain that the teacher was a little relieved on the days that Claude didn't come to school.

Mary and I were forbidden by Dad and Mom to play with Claude, but if we happened to meet him down by the river a short distance from our house, we didn't hurry away. One day Claude had a pitchfork with which he was trying to spear fish, but with little success. He did spot a water moccasin, and started to tease it. Somehow he managed to spear the snake with the pitchfork and then got the idea of trying to tie a string on the angry snake's darting tongue. While Mary and I took turns holding the pitchfork with the imprisoned squirming snake, Claude had a string with a loop on one end. He intended to get the loop on the snake's tongue and then pull the loop tight. Of course that didn't work. The darting tongue was lightning fast, and the string was soft and flimsy.

One of us began to wonder about the moccasin's mate. What if the snake's mate came looking for it and then attacked us? We began to worry and decided to leave while we could. Claude pulled the fork up, the snake slithered away into the water, and we ran like mad away from the river bank. We didn't mention this adventure to Mom and Dad.

Many years later I did tell this story to Dad. "Was that snake really poisonous?" I asked him. Dad looked at me soberly and, after a moment, answered very quietly, Oh, yes, it was.

Although our house at Lamont was close to town, we still had the freedom to wander the oilfields, with certain restric­tions.  We were to stay away from the pumping stations and the rigs. There was one pumping station for three rigs, the rigs being connected to the station by metal rods which moved back and forth horizontally. They were just the right height from the ground to be a great temptation to me, but I was told to stay off them.

One day when Mary and I were out walking we came to those metal rods going back and forth, back and forth. I couldn't resist. Mary said, You'd better not. I looked around. There wasn't an adult in sight. So I sat down on the rod and was moved back-and forth with it, but only for a moment or twoNo one would know, or so I thought.

That night Dad looked at me across the room. You were on those rods again, he stated matter-of-factly. No, not me,” I said, trying to look innocent. “Oh, yes, you were. I decided to let well enough alone and said no more. I'm still not sure how he knew.

Clifford, my oldest brother, had his first job in Lamont. He had his own team, and he and Dad worked for the oil company. The jobs lasted six or seven months. They each were paid seven dollars per day for self and team. Clifford had become a man.

Clifford didn't receive his wages; Dad saved them for him until the end of the job, when Clifford was given fifty dollars for a down payment on a 1925 Model T Ford roadster. Clifford paid the remaining one hundred dollars in twelve payments.

Clifford told of an incident that took place during this time at Lamont, although neither Mary nor I remember it. Our neighbors, the Carlisles, also teamsters, lived a little way from us, and one day Buddy was over there playing. Dad yelled for him to come on home, but three-year-old Buddy didn’t pay any attention to the summons. Dad spotted Mary and me in the yard and said us:

You two go over there and bring that boy home.Mary and I tried to do his bidding, but Buddy just wouldn't come. Dad again yelled at us: Come on, bring him on. Come on home!

So Mary and I, one on each side of him, started dragging Buddy towards home, while he dragged his feet and kicked and squalled all the way. Dad, hearing the ruckus, picked up a switch and came towards us. We must have thought that Buddy was really going to get it for disobeying, because after all, Mary and I were just following orders. But when Dad reached us he started using the switch on us.

Just then Mrs. Carlisle came rushing out to our defense, saying You're getting on the wrong ones!Dad said, They must have been tantalizing him or some­thing.But Mrs. Carlisle was adamant in her defense of us. If it had been me, he’d a gone home under his own power. I’d a used that switch on him instead of the girls.” According to Clifford Dad stopped switching us then, and I’m sure we were both grateful to Mrs. Carlisle.

It was that same year, when I was in the third grade, that I discovered reading. My favorite spot was the apple tree out in back of the house. When it was in full leaf I could hide out with my book on one of the upper limbs, and if anyone called for me I could just ignore them, since I couldn’t easily be seen. Unless, of course, if it was dinner time, or unless I knew of a planned trip to town. But for a Come help with the dishes kind of call, I just scrunched back and pretended to be part of the tree.

I can remember some complaints about myself that started about this time. One was “You’re just like Flossie...always got your nose in a book. I did read everything I could get my hands on, but books weren’t so easy for me to come by if school was not in session. Another criticism, this time from Mom, was “You’ve always got your feet higher than your head. Why can’t you be more of a lady like Mary? Mom also opined, You have a tear in every one of your dress tails. Stop climbing trees. I would have been better off in jeans, but little girls always wore dresses then.

But the world was a pretty good place back then, at least from where I was viewing it.

In nineteen twenty-eight we moved to a little three­room house in Madison. There was a place at the back of the property for the horses, plus a henhouse and small yard for Mom’s chickens. She had twelve Rhode Island Red laying hens, and usually got ten to twelve eggs a day. One day she came back to the house with a pleased smile on her face. She’d gotten thirteen  eggs that day from her twelve hens.

At one point Dad got a job with the Jacereka Manufactur­ing Company. According to Clifford, Dad worked for thirty-one days with Bess and Queen unloading a carloads of pipe. At the end of that time the company offered him a job as yard man, and as such he would have had to measure and sell pipe. But Dad didn’t take the job. He felt with his limited education he wouldn’t be able to handle it.

Soon after Dad had sold his team Bess and Queen to a farmer, but still had a team of buckskin horses named Mac and Jack. One night when Dad was home I remember hearing pounding on the door and adult voices, but I went back to sleep. The next morning I found out Dad’s team had gotten out, and a neighbor four houses down, a Mr. Donaldson, had alerted him in a not-too-friendly manner.

Dad had not liked this man Donaldson. He was a deacon in the local Methodist Church, and in that capacity he passed the collection plate to the congregation on Sundays. On Saturday nights, according to neighborhood gossips, he got drunk, but every Sunday morning he appeared in church, piously passing the plate.

Walking home from school. that day with my sometime playmate Maryanne Donaldson, I asked what caused those large round indentations in her father's small but heretofore perfect front lawn. She looked at me with a little disgust. Your Dad’s horses did that.” “Oh,” was all I couldn’t think of to say. I felt that she was putting my father down, and I wanted to say something equally denigrating about hers, but I couldn’t think how to say it. The moment passed and I said nothing.

Times were becoming more difficult for the Erwins. Dad and his brothers had been trained to work with horses, but the world was gradually becoming mechanized. Jobs utilizing their teams and wagons were becoming increasingly hard to find. Part of that year Dad had a job grading a portion of the road between Hamilton and Madison. He was paid $4.50 a day.

In 1912 Dad earned $2.50 a day for himself and his team. In 1917 he was paid $7.00 a day, in 1918 the wage was up to $10.00 a day, but by 1928 the daily rate had fallen to $4.50.

Dad quit this grading job, as he still seemed to think that the grass was somehow always greener someplace down the road, and it was not long afterwards that the county bought mechanized graders. The importance of the work horse, and the men who worked them, was waning.

It was this year also that Clifford and Uncle Jim got jobs at Yates Center, a small town south and east of Madison, working for a road contractor who had about fifty head of horses. They worked there about six months. But Dad wanted to go to another oil boom at Valley Center, just north of Wichita, and he talked Clifford into quitting the Yates Center job and going with him. Dad had Mac and Jack, and he bought another small black team. Dad didn’t move the family to Valley Center right away. He and Clifford used Clifford’s little Ford roadster back and forth. Those weekly trips were almost the end of Clifford’s little car.

From Valley Center Dad and Mom, with Mary, Buddy and me, went to Grandpa Hayworth’s homestead near Fargo, Oklahoma.  Mom's sister Alpha and her husband Lon Stoner were farming Grandpas place then. We stayed most of the rest of the summer living with them, while Dad hauled wheat.

I have pleasant memories of those weeks in Oklahoma. I remember the mulberry trees lining the driveway. Their fallen fruit stained our bare feet unless we were careful where we stepped. The huge water tank served more than one purpose. There were goldfish in it, the horses drank from it, and sometimes we kids jumped in to cool ourselves off on hot afternoons.

Dad was completely disapproving of our swims in the tank. He said the horses shouldn’t have to drink the water where we had been, and that his own horses would refuse to drink there. Uncle Lon, however, didn’t care, and neither did his horses. So we continued to take occasional dips in the tank along with our cousins, but never when Dad was around.

I seem to remember Aunt Alpha played the piano, was interested in different crafts, and could tell fortunes. There was a Ouija board available that we and our cousins played around with. Mildred was close to my age, and Snooks (her real name was Daphne but no one used it) was about fourteen. She was at the boy-crazy age then and particularly interested in a boy working for Uncle Lon. Most of the questions we asked of Ouija had to do with Snooks flirtation with this young man: Would he smile at her? Would he hold her hand? Would he kiss her that night?

Snooks was definitely the leader of our little group that summer, and I have good memories of those weeks spent there. But Mary remembers that summer as one of the worst she ever had. Snooks made her the butt of her jokes and Mary was often excluded by Snooks from our activities, whereas Mildred and I followed the stronger leader. I didn't remember that part of it, and this revelation from Mary left me with grown-up feelings of guilt for my lack of family loyalty.

Goldie and John also came down to Oklahoma that summer and Flossie was there for part of the time, but I was looking at the world from an eight-year-old’s viewpoint, and my memories do not include much about them.

We came back to the little house in Madison, and Mary and I started that September in the Madison school; Mary in the fifth and I in the fourth.

It was also in 1928 that Grandma and Grandpa Erwin bought the house in Severy in which they lived out their lives. They had been living on a rented farm a few miles from there where Grandma had raised 1,000 White Leghorn chickens. From the sale of those chickens came the $200 they paid for the Severy house.

Grandma often said she paid for the house, but Grandpa hauled water for the chickens and raised milo to feed them. In addition he jacked up the house to remedy several dips in the floors, and built on the covered torch that went around two sides of the house.

Grandma Erwin, with sons Tom, Odes & Dale, ca. 1954.

In the years to come that house was the scene of many family get-togethers, with lots of good food and many conversations. Those family reunions were about the only time we got to play with our many cousins. I also remember that it was not unusual for at least one of the uncles and his family to be absent because someone was not speaking to someone else.

Clifford recently drove by the old house where we spent so many pleasant Sunday afternoons and found it to be now derelict—windows broken and roof falling in (probably around 1980-Ed.). A sad ending to the house, but the memories live on.

Grandpa died in 1953, and Grandma was almost ninety when she passed on in 1960, but she was able to care for herself, and the old house, almost to the end.

Jimmey D. Erwin, a grandson who lived with Grandpa and Grandma for a time as a youngster, moved back to Severy when he retired, and reports that the old house was razed several years ago. A mobil home sits on the lot now, but without Grandma's garden.    -Ed.

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