The dry heat along with the sounds and smells of the past few weeks bring me back to the happiest, safest and most serene times of my childhood. At about the ages of 9 through 12, I stayed the summer at my aunt and uncle’s 98-acre dairy farm outside Mansfield, Ohio. What a wonderful, secure place that was in my young life.
As I was too small to lift bales of hay, I was taught how to drive the old green John Deere tractor. What a proud little girl I was! I pushed the clutch lever with my right foot, my leg fully extended to do so, I accelerated using a lever near my left hand and slowly maneuvered that wonderful John Deere around the hay fields. Putta, putta, putta, putta; I’ll never forget that ear-pleasing sound. As I drove, my uncle Virg, his brothers, his dad and my cousins, Bruce and Dean, threw the bales up on the hay wagon. One of them stayed on the wagon stacking the bales this way and that, using a special method that would ensure stability of the load. I couldn’t recreate that puzzle of criss-crossed hay bales if I tried! A more vague memory was observing a grain elevator in use that would raise the bales into the top of the barn and grain into the granaries.
Meanwhile, Aunt Ethel stayed at the house, seemingly continually washing and hanging clothes, washing dishes, cooking, baking, cleaning, etc. Bruce and Dean’s sister, Sandy helped a lot with those household chores. I remember thinking, “I wouldn’t want that job for nuthin’!” There were always huge meals on the table, as Uncle Virg worked hard on the farm in the afternoon and into the evening after working all day at Tappen.
There were four of us kids: Bruce, Dean and Sandy and me. We would pair up and take turns rising very early every other morning to go down to the barn to do the morning milking. The cows, 4-H projects, all had names and would not proceed into the milking parlor until called to do so (e.g., Sandy, Candy, Joyce, Lucy, etc.) in a remarkably orderly manner. The boys would receive direction from their dad with instructions for the next day’s chores, whether plowing, cutting or crimping hay, pulling jimsonweed from the endless rows of corn, “hilling-up the pickles” (well, eventually they would be pickles) and on and on and on. A farm certainly never lacked for chores. Living there for less than 3 months, I’m sure there was a lot I missed and really, was not even aware of during the other three seasons.
I would gather the eggs from the hen house in the morning, walking through slowly so as not to upset the girls, giving them a treat of crushed oyster shells. Eventually it would come around to the time to butcher the no-longer-laying-hens. That experience gave a whole new understanding of the term, “Running around like a chicken with its head cut off”. The odor of that process is unforgettable. But let’s get back to the egg-gathering. Sometimes I stuffed the excess eggs in my pockets, having too many to carry. I don’t remember if I had a basket to tote them back to the house, but if I did, apparently it got full and one of those eggs in my pocket broke. Embarrassed, I didn’t say a word to Aunt Ethel, fearing getting in trouble, but sure enough, she somehow knew (maybe the dried egg/stiff jeans pocket was the first clue?) and asked me if I’d broken an egg in my pocket. Oops! You just can’t hide anything from those adults.
Uncle Virg had built an in-ground pool for the kids out of silo staves and it was the highlight of our day to go swimming. For supper, among other tasty things, there were green string beans, asparagus, lima beans, beets. Yes, there was a multitude of “foreign” foods I’d never seen or even heard of before. And there always was, if I didn’t eat my veggies, I wouldn’t be allowed to use the pool or ride Ginger. Geez, just rip my heart out why don’cha? I had to choke ‘em down or never see Ginger or the pool again. Oh, but hey, there was the best cobbler you ever tasted after those veggies were gone!
I remember that Bruce had gotten mad at me about something forgettable and hid Ginger’s white bridle. I looked around the barn for a while because I wanted to take Ginger out for a ride and his bridle (that I had worked for and brought here from home) wasn’t hanging on its usual spike on the barn wall. I don’t know why, but I eventually went to the huge oats bin, dug my hand down deep and and found it buried in the grain. Ta-da! Intuition, even then?
We used to play hide and seek in the barn, climbed on the barn beams (instant death if we fell), slept there in sleeping bags once in a while, caught lightening bugs, played baseball, yelled at cars going by (“Goin’ too fast!”, “Goin’ too slow!”) and overall had a heck of a good time making our own fun. Bruce and I would lie in the grass and watch the clouds drift by, pointing out to each other animals and other things that we thought we saw in the clouds. I remember one day the boys and I hopped on Ginger bareback inside the barn and he took us for a spin around the hay mow. There was a board sticking out about three feet from the side of the mow. Ginger went right under it, I’m sure knowing the whole time what he was doing, scraping all three of us off into the straw…and probably cow poop. Bruce and I frequently rode out into the hay fields and Ginger would occasionally get frisky, lifting his rump, trying halfheartedly to buck us off. If he was successful, he just stood there waiting for us to get back on.
Bruce on Ginger
At that age, and for a long while afterwards, I was in love with horses, especially Ginger. I still love that horsey smell! Give me a jar full of horse manure and I’ll be happy forever. One summer I had wanted to “fancy him up”, so I braided his mane and tail. This quickly resulted in welts on his hind quarters as he swished his tail to ward off the flies with his braided “whip”. I never did that again; poor baby! I remember putting the saddle on the pony as Uncle Virg stood behind Ginger and watched me. I stuck my left foot into the stirrup, swung my right leg up and over and accidentally kicked my uncle in the belly, knocking the wind out of him. I scared myself, and probably him, nearly to death.
Cleaning out a stall near where the rabbits were caged, my outermost pitchfork tine went into the top of my worn-out old sneaker, along the outer edge of my foot and out through the hole worn though by my little toe. Amazingly, it never even broke the skin; a departure from the time I stepped on a nail near the barn and had to get a tetanus shot. The rabbits were another love of mine. Bruce and I were responsible for cleaning their pens and feeding them. I was in attendance once when it was time for butchering them, but had to swiftly leave the barn, hearing their blood-curdling screams. I never wanted to be there for that event again. A couple summers we also cared for the beautiful pigeons in their coop and I vaguely remember goats one year. Oh, and spreading manure on the fields was a pleasant task, for sure!
One warm summer evening I found a baby bunny who I thought had lost his mama. I raised “Whiskers” all summer. Aunt Ethel later told me he had hung around the yard for weeks after I left, looking for me. I experienced so many different things those wonderful summers. I got to watch an artificial insemination of the cows. I thought, “What the heck are they doing?” Oh my gosh, what a traumatic experience for a naive pre-teen! There were pigs who were fitted for nose-rings as well as having their masculinity detached. When we had time in between chores, we would play in the two farm ponds, catching things for supper: Frogs’ legs, sunfish, blue gills. I think we may have dug clams from the pond mud too.
Bruce, then the perpetual jokester, instructed me, a newcomer to farm life, to grab the electric fence (it’ll be OK!). Yep, he was right-it was an unexpectedly electrifying experience. Then he convinced me (due to past experience, I should have known better by then) to jump up on a heifer and ride her. Well, of course – predictably – I slipped off, my hand evenly dividing a generously-sized cow patty.
At night, when we were finally winding down after supper and the evening milking, we had to take a bath (yuk, imagine that!). About a week ago, I noticed the crickets outside on a warm starry night and it suddenly brought back those warm summer nights on the farm with the bedroom window open, the warm breeze gently blowing the curtains, the night sounds of crickets and cicadas. And, let’s not forget about the early morning haunting sound of the mourning doves. Ahh, to be a young adolescent again!
Unquestionably, I loved my summer vacations at that farm and look back at my time there with much fondness, love and appreciation for the grand new and formative experiences. Most of all I have a deep gratitude for my loving and guiding part-time parents.