Summers on the Farm

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user 135067

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Apr 28, 2016
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It gave me a lift when threejewels posted she'd like to hear about my summers on my grandmother's farm. Having a love of writing I thought this might be a way to hone my skill and maybe get a little constructive feedback.

Doubtful that anyone wants to read a novel on a forum, this will be episodic memories as best as I can recall. For back story, my dad was rough with me. I had two older sisters and a little brother. Of us four, I was the only one he'd beat. Home was hell. I don't think there was a day I didn't see the belt. My sisters considered me a nuisance and teased and bullied me often making me feel they didn't give a **** about me. But I recall my dad beating me so severely that it had them and my mom in tears.

But at the farm he had to act like a loving respectable parent. Everyone was watching. The farm was my safe place.

I don't recall days when there weren't cousins and aunts and uncles about. The house wasn't small but never large enough, either. I remember ten hours in the car with my siblings shoved tightly together in the back seat and how we fought for enough space. It was a blessing when they'd fell asleep. I could never sleep in a moving car. I'd sit behind my dad with my chin on the back of his seat, watching the green glow of the dials, and the scenery come and go in the shadowy illumination of the headlights. To me that was magical.

I'd always had a keen sense of direction. Of the nearly four hundred miles of the trip up US1 I remembered every inch. I'd anxiously await my favorite landmarks. Not so much the small towns, their main streets and store fronts. Those were familiar and I was happy to see them. I'd awaited the house too close to the road on a too tight curve. It seemed friendly, like they wanted to be near you. There was an old Mack truck rusting at the side of a dilapidated service station. I wondered what forced its abandonment. It saddened me that no one gave it new life. These gave me thoughts of lives other than my own. When we would finally come upon the sign that said WELCOME TO PENNSYLVAINIA it would lift high my doldrums of the long trip. That sign made me feel I'd made it. I was safe. The farm was still a hundred miles away, but to my young mind my grandma owned all of the Blue Ridge Mountains and I was safe.

The house had been built by my grandfather. It was covered in dark red asphalt shingles and had green rolled roofing. The porch and trim were painted white. Tall spruce and oak trees towered at its sides. It sat on a hilltop that had huge stone steps splitting it in the middle.

I have memories of sitting on my grandfather's lap, this huge dark haired man always in red plaid shirt and blue dungarees. We'd sit on his shaky, squeaky metal chair on the open porch. The giant, old barn was across the street. He'd built that, too. The land ran in open fields down to a stream, what they all called the run, and then up another massive hill covered in maples, ash and hickory. In the fall they'd blaze in reds and golds. He'd offer me a stick of Teaberry Gum, or sometimes Clove Gum, and we'd sit and wait for the deer to come out to drink.

The end of the trip was exciting. There were landmarks like the old spring with a pipe that jutted from a wall of stone. The turns in the road were historic to me. I had a sense they'd always been there, like an Egyptian pyramid. The old iron bridge covered in planks that rattled beneath the tires. Barns painted with "Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco." We were getting close. More old houses marked the way, but of these I knew the names of the people behind the glowing windows.

Then the final curve. We'd pass my uncle's house, the final milestone, and it was then only a long straight to my grandma's. I could see her lights twinkle behind the trees as we drove. My heart filled with happiness as my dad pulled the car up the coal covered drive.

Sitting by the door and wide awake left me first out of the car. I'd run up the path. In my younger years those old block steps were nearly too tall for the reach of my legs and I'd bang my shins. I'd scurry up them as fast as I could. Up the porch steps and to the front door that I'd nearly crash through. My dad would order me to slow down, but my excitement was too high to listen.

My grandmother would hear the car. She was always on her way to the door. Though she would know we were coming she'd always say something like "Gracious! Look who's here."

I'd wrap my arms around her tightly. She'd squeeze me against her with her hands on my back. Like a kid that had made it to home base in a game of tag, I was safe. No one could touch me. Love filled me up to overflowing. It was hard to let her go as she greeted the others. I'd step back with a smile nearly bigger than my face. I'd watch her hug my sisters, and then tiptoe high to kiss my dad's cheek. My mom would have my little brother in her arms and the hug for him would include her.

It was always late. We were put right to bed. My sisters got to sleep in my aunts' old room. My brother and I usually had blankets on the parlor floor in front of the old player piano. I often wondered if my grandmother slept. She was up when we fell asleep and she'd be cooking breakfast when we awoke.

As we aged summer after summer my brother and I would find our way out and about, looking for any adventure, and sometimes mischief. In all my years the farm never lost its enchantment. I was always safe. I always found more love than a boy can absorb. And I always couldn't wait to get there.
You're a good writer Jesse, very descriptive. I'm glad you gave this it's own thread, :)
You're a good writer Jesse, very descriptive. I'm glad you gave this it's own thread, :)
Thank you, Jewels. It was a lot more emotional than I'd expected at the start. We'll see how much material I can dredge up. Writing is my escape, so this is therapy.

I'd like to put it out that anyone that finds less than quality in any of this please speak up. A writer doesn't improve with praise. They improve by listening to criticism. So don't be shy. :)

I used to belong to writer boards. Experienced and respected, successful writers do not visit writer boards. One thing a struggling writer should never do is listen to all the other wannabes. Writer boards really aren't fruitful. So this is an experiment. Getting critiqued by non writers that just want to read to be entertained should have a positive affect on my style.

Thanks. writer here 😁 I quite enjoyed this and could easily envision the trip to and once you arrived at the destination. I remember those long road trips and much of what you wrote was very relatable.
The Barn

Imagine if you will, a huge square box with a singled pitched roof, not gambrel like most barns, just a roof. More like a house. But the barn was massive. Even bigger to us five and eight year-olds. The roof roll was black. The sides were vertical planks that had been darkened by creosote— black and dark-brown ribbons following their grain.

To me it was a hundred feet high. On top were two boxes containing vents. On their small roofs were lightning rods, one resembling a rooster. They were so far up that it cricked my neck to examine them. Cut into the forward gable were five stars.

The farmhouse was full of love, but the barn, it was an adventure. It had a set of track doors that opened the whole front of the main floor. They were too heavy for me to use. One rolling door had a smaller swing door built into it with a hasp and staple for a padlock. A lock wasn't needed because of a swing latch that all the world reminded me of a ship's anchor. I recall being too short to open it myself. I'd step on my brother's back to reach it.

Inside it smelled of animals and hay. The floor was heavy planks and completely open, suitable to storing a tractor. I'd never seen a tractor at the farm. My cousins, much older than me, had put up a basketball hoop and backboard. The ball was usually flat so there was an ancient bicycle pump which always set nearby. My brother would hold the ball while I worked the handle. I wasn't strong enough to throw the ball to the hoop. My little brother had no hope at all, but he tried. More often than not the ball soared under the backboard and bounced through all the old furniture and equipment that took up a space which had been poorly floored with much lighter free floating planks. It was scary to climb through to find the ball. The articles were stored haphazardly in a heap and tightly together. Climbing over the teetering whicker couch was particularly precarious. But more than that, there was the fear of stepping between the planks and finding ourselves fallen into the decades of caked manure in the level below.

Either side of the basketball court were hay pits— walled off open sections that could be filled to overflowing with fresh hay. Ropes hung from the roof high above making long and fast Tarzan swings. I could never swing far enough to land on the opposite side. Quite often my brother and I would swing together back and forth until we found ourselves dangling too far above the hay when it was low. We knew the only way out was to drop, but it was always an argument about who should let go first. Falling was frightening, but landing was soft and laughing usually ensued.

The hay bins didn't take up the entire length of the barn. Up front near the big rolling doors were doors to each side. One went into a shed of sorts that was filled with mason jars, 40's and 50's farmer's magazines and National Geographic issues. I remember laughing hardily at the native women with there teats hanging down. Teats was a Grandma word that all on its own inspired some laughs.

The door on the other side... it was a fright to equal any fun house. Immediately upon opening it there was a staircase far too steep to be called steps. Many attempts were made to crawl down backwards before I finally made it. The floor was a crusty coat of petrified cow and pig dung that crunched as I walked. Stalls, once home to cattle and swine, were lined along the front. The back was a wall of raw tree lengths stripped of bark rising to the ceiling thereby creating feeding troughs that opened to the hay above. It later became a challenge to climb from below up the troughs and through the floor to the hay bins.

The side walls of the lower level were open for stock to come and go, no doors at all. Those killer steps weren't necessary to get below. They'd only been a matter of bravery. Walking out and around to the rear of the barn left one to be amazed at the massive structure the barn was. The rear was a floor taller. The hill sloped downward. Stepping back made the barn all the higher. Standing behind the barn blocked you from being seen from the house, and even the road. I remember my dad telling a story of his first cigarette right there where I stood, and his hulk of a father catching him and delivering a lesson not soon forgotten. That was a lesson I'd be taught not so many years into the future.

High up near the peak of the roof was a door in the gable. It looked tiny in that huge, broad wall of boards that didn't otherwise have so much as a window. The barn held many challenges and that door with its potential to see across the hills as if in flight was one I never quite conquered. I tried only to need rescuing by my cousin that didn't hold back his dissatisfaction for the trouble. He and his brother would often climb the beams and rails to make their way into those vent boxes so highin the open peak that it scared me just to watch them. I could never brave the daring feat of beam walking. The loft above the basketball court was as much adventure as I could muster. It had relics of the past scattered across more debarked tree stalks that couldn't close the spaces between them. Little feet had to take care or be forever trapped in the bindings of the sparse floor.

That barn had been built at the end of the nineteenth century by my great grandfather, and my grandfather still a boy. Though it contains not a single nail or bolt to secure its massive frame of long square timbers it still stands today. It remains full of the same off-castings of when I was small. It's as though time leaves it alone. I've not visited it for years and years, but last I did the hoop was still there. The ball was gone, though that air pump still set where it had always been, slowly rusting beyond usefulness.
The Bicycle

The safety bike was invented in 1881, a design which nearly all modern bikes are based. I swear, the old bike in the barn must have been the original prototype. It was ancient. It seem to weigh as much as a truck. It was an ugly green woman's bike, rusty and rattly. My brother and I never could have ridden a man's bike at that age. I'd stand to pedal, unable to reach the seat. My brother would sit there with his hands on my shoulders and his legs stretched out trying to keep his balance.

Preparing to ride was a job in its own right. Those crackly, dry rotted tires were always flat. That old pump had a ball needle on the end of its hose. To pump up the bicycle it had to be removed. I only lost the needle once. My male cousins were nearly ten years older. They never hit me, but wow could they yell. It wasn't easy being the youngest among so many relatives. I learned quickly to always put the needle back before riding.

We'd ride the bike up and down the old chip-sealed road. Chip-seal, gravel and tar, is what they use for asphalt when there aren't enough people to pay taxes to cover the cost of a real road. I actually liked the way it growled under the car tires.

My uncle and cousins lived a half mile down the road. We'd ride down there just to add a bit of change to the day. My aunt scared the crap out of me. She was a blustery woman that was absolutely certain the world should abide by her opinion. We'd stop in to say hi, usually interrupting their routines. Generally we'd be ignored. We'd sit around, or investigate the dead animal trophies, then get bored and leave. The words, "don't rush off," were never uttered.

We'd muscle the Sherman tank of a bike back up the road. We'd park it beside the ball court, maybe to get it out the next day, or maybe not until the next summer.

I believe I was ten, making my brother 7, when we got the bicycle out for our greatest trek. We'd pumped up the tires and took it out to the road. A girl cousin was there. She was old, you know, like early twenties. She had used the bike when she was a youngster. "Is that thing still working?" She mentioned how her sister and her had used it to ride to school.

We knew the school. I had a fond memory of a huge cookout there. All the hotdogs and chips I could eat. I got this brilliant idea that my brother and I should go into town.

Town was two miles down the road. Of course sometimes it was up the road. Hills. Much bigger hills than while I was in the back seat of a car. The first of the ride was easy. It sloped down. Then we got to the up part. It would be hard enough for me to pedal that behemoth uphill had I been alone. My brother sitting on the seat was just dead weight. We pushed it up hills. That was a monumental task for two little kids. But when we topped the crest we could effortlessly fly down the other side.

We eventually made it. The school was bigger than a house, but small compared to the city schools I'd attended. It only had four classrooms. My dad had gone there, as had most of my cousins.

There was a church across the street. Neither of those were our objective. We were interested in the candy counter at the general store-slash-post office. We went in excited about all the new stuff. When you are a kid with frugal parents the new stuff in a store is a wonderland. We grabbed handfuls of candy and dropped them on the counter. I laid out my cash... one thin dime.

The clerk gave a bit of a smile. He scraped away half our candy while saying, "This much." We still had a pretty good haul. I think back to the penny candy and I realize we had more than the ten pieces that we were entitled to. He had been generous.

The church had a grave yard. It was an adventure to examine all the stones of dead people. To the front of the graveyard were a row of twenty or so tiny marble headstones. I remember reading their names and ages. Three, Two, six months. All of them had been younger than my little brother. 1921. The idea of all those kids dying stayed with me. Later I learned it had been influenza.

At the age of ten you don't dwell on the dead for long. We headed back to the farm. I understand how my uncles could say they walked to school, "uphill, both ways!" The journey home was much more difficult than the trip there.

I think I managed to consume three fireballs on the way home. The tires were nearly flat when we parked the bike for what would be the last time. The next summer those old tires wouldn't hold air long enough to get it out of the barn.

I don't think having to walk everywhere we went left us to miss that old bicycle all that much. I think walking was faster... or the running was. We didn't slow down at all.
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Then there was the time someone ran over a skunk just past the house. It was the first skunk I'd ever experienced... and I experienced it for days.

Imagine two small boys, and how obnoxious and gross they might become when inspired by Chanel le Pew. I don't remember the constant jokes, but I remember giggling until my side hurt.
Then there was the time someone ran over a skunk just past the house. It was the first skunk I'd ever experienced... and I experienced it for days.

Imagine two small boys, and how obnoxious and gross they might become when inspired by Chanel le Pew. I don't remember the constant jokes, but I remember giggling until my side hurt.
I like the smell of skunks. :)
Paper Airplanes

My dad was 12 years old at the end of World War II. He had an older brother that piloted B25s. I imagine he found that exciting. I don't suppose there was much to entertain him in a deeply rural home back then. Outside information came by way of radio, or a news paper when they had the opportunity to go out. That would have been rare during fuel rationing. You might ask yourself, before TVs, before internet, what a young boy would find to do on a farm in the hills. Being the youngest by nearly a decade, his siblings were all living away. He'd have been an only child at home. Chores. Those are always a hoot.

The war was five years of nervous anxiety. There was already an alliance between America and Europe prior to the Japanese launching their undeclared war on Pearl Harbor. It was a sucker punch that divided world populations all the more. With division comes hate. The "nips" and the "krauts" gave Americans common foes, and for a while domestic division was set aside for the United States to hate united.

This coming-together gave the war a certain romance. Courage and dominance was a prevalent attitude. Of course there is money needing to be made even in wartime. Some cereal companies exploited this romance by printing their boxes with what they called "punch-out planes"

It is easy to imagine a young boy's excitement when the cereal was finally gone. He'd run off with the box to pop out the plane, his bowl still on the table and likely half full. A new plane in those times would have been akin to getting the latest smartphone today. His excitement would bubble over and he'd be out flying it, launching it from atop the hill that steeply sloped the front yard.

You see, the planes would actually fly if a penny was put into the nosecone. I can imagine him chasing the plane in the air as he bounded down the hill beneath it.

Forward twenty years. My brother and I weren't allowed to snoop in the cradles of the roof. There was a small door in one bedroom that went back into a dark and scary hollow. Light slipping in from the end of the rafters left us barely able to see. We found a box. In the box were the most fabulous airplanes. We pulled them out. There were about eight of them, as I recall. Each a different fighter plane.

We were reprimanded for snooping, but they left us to play with the planes. We were out front, gliding the planes down the same hill that my dad had likely used. That is, until we discovered the pennies in their noses.

Today I regret that we were never taught value. Money got us new stuff. We valued it above all else. Had my dad sat us down and told us the story of the planes, told us something of why they existed in the first place, we might not have torn the pennies out of his planes. We ruined every one of them.

My dad found us amidst a pile of ripped paper planes. He looked at us for a moment and then quietly walked away. We never knew the violation we had committed. Our parents never took the time to teach us. We were left to be children without any effort to guide us into adulthood. We made our own choices and were then punished when we chose wrong. I am still pained for our ignorance. Today I too would cherish those simple little cereal box airplanes. I have a sense of the times. I know their history now. I know what they must have meant to him.

We were never punished for destroying the planes. I can only forgive myself because of my dad's lack of parenting. We simply didn't know. You cannot put a value on sentiment. For that they were priceless. I feel the pain he must have felt then. In all my history with my dad that was the one time I think he had every right to loose his temper. He didn't. Maybe that was a lesson much greater than the belt that usually found me. I'm sorry, Dad.

*Nips was a nickname for the Japanese deriving from Nippon, the Japanese word for Japan. Krauts presumably coming from the fact that southern Germany had a local dish they called sauerkraut. These terms were used with all the derogatory disdain one might have for an enemy.

Example of the paper airplanes on the cartons.

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Bullets, Apples, and Burglary

When I was fourteen years old my dad bought me a .22 rifle. It seemed odd to me since he always argued against giving me anything. I'd bet it had more to do with showing his family how he was such a good dad than a gift for me. A boy getting a gun was something of a right of passage in those hills.

He laid down the rules and left me to learn to operate it on my own.

I had to leave it at the farm, so I don't guess it was mine, really. It belonged to the farm. Any one would use it had they the notion. Bullets were plentiful. It wasn't the only .22 at the farm. There were quite a few guns of a variety of calibers. With the farm's more than 300 acres there was plenty of space to shoot.

Dad took me hunting once. We really just walked through the woods with the guns. The sky was cloudy. The leaves had turned. The woods seemed almost morbid. I remember him walking in front of me and me thinking I could shoot him in the head. Or were we out there so he could shoot me in the head? No one shot anyone. We returned to the farmhouse never having fired a shot, empty handed and a bit damp from a drizzle.

I remember a game we'd play with the guns. We could lie on the hill in front of the house and target an apple tree some hundreds of feet away. The game was to shoot the apples from the tree. You had to shoot the stems. If the pulp was damaged it didn't count.

I suppose that was the most my dad ever gave to me. Not the gun. The ability to assess logically. I didn't get all that many points. I'd scrape the apple's skin more often than not. At the time I didn't realize that simply hitting the apple was a feat. I suppose that was something else that gun gave me… no limits. I learned not to trust the sights. It's the variables that make for success or failure. It gave me a principle I could use in life. You can't depend on what you see. You have to look for what you don't see.

That apple tree wasn't the only fruit on the property. There were nut trees; hickory and filberts. I recall sitting and cracking nuts for hours. Sometimes I'd even take some back to the kitchen. My grandmother was a wonderful cook. There was always bread, or pies baking in the oven giving the house a most marvelous aroma. There was a pride to knowing it was my labor that sprinkled the tops of an apple pie. There were pear trees, wild blueberries and strawberries. Teaberry was here and there and we'd pick leaves to chew while we were out walking. We even had wild rhubarb and mint. My Grandmother would make delightful delicacies from it all.

But my favorite was the apple orchard. Dozens of trees with the tastiest apples ever. Keener Seedling apples aren't your basic red delicious. Sweeter, not as juicy. They had a rough coat over their green skin. A farm down the road would allow us to use their apple press in exchange for a few gallons of cider. The best cider. Despite its unusual sweetness it would make your cheeks pucker. Pies? I will never find an apple pie that is the equal to my grandmother's pies with those rusty apples baked into them.

The farm's property seemed to go on forever. In the early years there were cows and horses. Later the fields were rented to other farmers. We had wheat in the fields one year. I remember learning how to take the raw wheat and roll it in my hands to remove the chaff. Raw wheat is quite tasty. Crunchy. Really crunchy. It made for a good cereal, too. My grandmother would cook up a pot of whole kernel wheat. It's different than the ground up stuff. It took forever to cook. It tasted different too. It had substance.

There were oats one year, and corn another. Later just grasses for livestock feed. Then nothing.

The farm was vividly alive once upon a time. Having a house full of family and friends gathered around the large dinner table. The table was so long that someone on the end would actually be sitting in the parlor. The huge china cabinet left us to squeeze into the chairs. The cuckoo clock would sing every half hour. I was always fascinated with its pine cone shaped weights and how they could make the clock work. I wanted to be the one to pull the chains down and watch the cones ride up to the clock. I'd wait for the cuckoo to pop out on its perch and sing the time.

There were curiosities all over the farmhouse. Even the TV was a fascination. It was ancient even back then. But on a cloudy day its foil wrapped rabbit ears would pull in the local TV station from our home town that was 400 miles away. What are the odds in that? It felt like Grandma had a magic and used it to watch over me and make sure I was safe.

My grandmother died before she could meet my son, but she knew he was on the way. My heart breaks even now for the loss of her. My dad had been killed years before when I was nineteen. A drunk driver hit us head on. He died with his head on my lap. My uncle down the road died a few years after that. My cousins moved to their cities. Neighbors stopped dropping by. Most of the ones I knew had passed and their children owned their farms. My aunt eventually bought the farm from the estate. I'm not certain but I think there was some disagreement as to who should own it. Money was the only answer.

No one lived on the farm after my grandmother passed. It was a vacation home used by any that wanted to. Then, one day my cousin, the daughter of the aunt, arrived to find the house had been stripped of all its furniture. There was nearly nothing left.

No one came any more. The house was just a hollow specter of times past. I drove by it a few years ago. My aunt had died. I'm not sure who owns it now. The orchard had died. The hickory tree had died. They had been cut down. Aside from that the farm's corpse looked little different than when I was a boy. Except, knowing that no one was home, that no one would ever be home gave me a feeling of distance. It was just a house. For that I didn't even stop the car. I drove on past. It was no longer my safe place.

The only constant is change. Appreciate those around you. Eventually, all you will have is your memory.
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