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Nostalgia July 2014

Summers on the Farm

By Don Johnson

I’m sure that today, a child welfare officer would come by, arrest all the adults, charge them with child abuse, and divide us kids into a series of foster homes.

In the early 1930s, my dad was a biology and chemistry teacher and football coach in an oil boomtown in north central Texas. But in teaching at that time, the best opportunities were in vocational agriculture, subsidized by the federal government.

But to land one of these lucrative positions required a master’s degree in the subject. With a family to support, and in the middle of a depression, he could ill afford to take time off to pursue an advanced degree. So, he decided to do it during summer sessions only. He could teach all through the school year and in the summer session he could work toward his master’s degree.

He and my mother would take an apartment or duplex or whatever was available in Lubbock, Texas, where he could study at Texas Tech. That left only one major problem — what to do with my brother and me.

That problem was solved by my aunt in a move that, while taken for granted by me at the time, seems like a singular act of generosity looked back on from a more knowledgeable time. She unhesitatingly said that my brother and I could stay with her during the summer. This may not seem like a great sacrifice unless you know the circumstances of her life at the time.

Aunt Nellie owned 80 acres of land on the High Plains of West Texas purchased with the insurance money she received from her husband’s death, which left her widowed with two young sons to support. In addition, her retired parents (my grandparents) were also moving to the farm with her.

It fell to my grandfather (an excellent carpenter) to build a home for the family with his only help that of my cousins who were about 12 and 14 at the time. I remember being there at age eight while the house was being built. I don’t remember being much help in that effort. I spent a lot of time whittling arrows from broken shingles which I fired with the help of a straight stick and a piece of rubber from an old inner tube. I shot them at rabbits, birds and any other game I could find — mostly to no avail I’m afraid.

The house was two rooms with a pyramid-shaped roof. We had no electricity, no gas, no indoor plumbing. We had a windmill which pumped up icy cold water from somewhere under the ground. It was pumped directly into one oaken barrel, piped across into another oaken barrel and from there it flowed into a small pond. Running water was supplied by our running feet carrying buckets from the well to the kitchen. Needless to say, a bath was a rare and major occasion.

We had an outhouse with necessary paper supplied by last year’s Sears & Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogs. A small vineyard of Concord grapes supplied fresh fruit in season. A hand-dug, dirt-covered cellar furnished shelter from major storms and storage for preserved vegetables from the garden.

Livestock consisted of a few cows, hogs and a small flock of chickens. There was a team of mules, a pony and an occasional jackrabbit or ground squirrel captured and kept in a cage made from scraps left over from the house construction. A dog and several cats kept varmints away from the house and were thus judged worthy of their keep.

Sleeping arrangements were quite simple. Aunt Nellie and her parents slept inside. Her kids, my brother and I shared the entire outdoors as our bedroom. We had iron bedsteads, steel springs and easily portable mattresses. We slept out under the stars, and my older cousins gave me a first class education in the stars, the planets and the constellations.

If it rained, we grabbed our mattresses and bedding and raced to the house where we threw them on the floor and bedded down dry and comfortable.

In spite of the severe depression that savaged the rest of the nation, I never remember being hungry for a single day. We had vegetables from the garden, milk, butter and cheese from our cows, a beef carcass hung from the windmill all summer long. It would develop a thin, flint-like covering that kept the beef good all summer long. My grandmother would also slice thin steaks which were stored in layers of salt and pepper in clay crocks. Pork was cured and salted down in the cellar.

Ice was brought by the iceman who made his rounds, even out in the country, watching for the cards in the window which, depending on how you turned them, told him to leave a 12.5, 25, 50, 75 or 100 pound block for the ice box.

I was the self-appointed hunter of the family, and I would joyfully search out the pastures for game with my trusty .410 gauge shotgun, .22 caliber, single-shot rifle, or my B-B gun (which utilized very cheap ammunition). My grandmother, bless her heart, would gladly cook and help me eat anything I killed and dragged home — birds, frogs, rabbits, squirrels or whatever. My mother and aunt were never quite that accommodating.

I’m sure that today, a child welfare officer would come by, arrest all the adults, charge them with child abuse, and divide us kids into a series of foster homes. But my recollection of those times was one of hard work (which came with the territory) and happy memories. I wouldn’t trade those times for any I can think of today.

And, that’s just the way things were.

 

Don Johnson is a nonagenarian who lives in Palestine, TX. He writes articles that illuminate the human condition and frequently show the contrast between our lifestyle of today  with that of yesterday. He welcomes your input at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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