One way to make sure you’re not awake at midnight on New Year’s Eve is to hike up Cram Peak.
About thirty years ago, a group of about five guys and I had the bright idea to explore the Cram Peak “trail”. Back in those days, there was no app to consult but we had heard tell that there was an old route that would take one off the backside of Morton Peak, all the way down to Mentone via Cram Peak. The ascent of Morton Peak is no small feat as the fire service access road is granny-gear steep, so, by the time we reached the alleged trail, I was already pretty toasted. But, always the optimist, I plunged into the unknown, believing that it would be all downhill.
The first mile or so was indeed downhill and wide enough to ride. But then came a series of what we call hogbacks, where the ridge humps up and then drops to a saddle before rising again, even though the general elevation loss is greater than the gain. Aside from the hike-a-bike ascents and the brush-choked, white-knuckle descents, the only real excitement was when we aggravated a Diamondback Rattle snake who had been peacefully basking in the sun, until we came slip sliding, almost in control, through his territory. We have a saying that the first rider wakes the snake up, the second rider pisses him off, and the third gets bit. Well, I was the sixth in line and had little choice but to zip past him as fast as I dared, hoping I could regain control of my speed once beyond his reach.
Today it was cool and overcast with no danger of snake encounters and too early in the season to worry much about ticks. Unlike the overgrown route of thirty years ago, there is now a well-worn path that we could follow with little difficulty. The only difficulty lay in the approximately 1,000′ of elevation gain per mile. At one point, I put my gloves on so I could scramble up on all fours. The view from the peak was worth the effort though we had some second thoughts as our age-worn knees objected to the steep descent.
The story of the accursed dam is a real heart breaker to local mountain bikers. Jerry Lewis, U.S. Representative and Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, carved out an obscene amount of money for his district to build a dam on the South Fork of the Santa Ana River under the auspices of protecting development downstream. The proponents assured those who were concerned about losing access to this lovely stretch of canyon, with its perennial stream, that once the dam was completed, full access to the canyon above the dam would be returned. In due course, a previously unspoiled riparian habitat was blasted into the largest earthen dam in the country, an eyesore that’s visible from almost anywhere in the valley. The first rainy season after the dam was completed, the entire season’s runoff was too polluted by mud to be used. A season of heavy rainfall followed a year or two later and the dam’s spillways were damaged by the urgent need to send water downstream to prevent a breach. And the canyon was never reopened to recreation.
That’s not to say we never enjoyed the canyon again. Sally and I have been escorted out by flustered security guards more than once. There are two forest service roads that allow access to mountain bikes that can be hoisted over the gates at the top of the canyon. Once you’re down at the dam, there’s not much they can do but tell you to leave, which is what you are in the process of doing when they find you.
Once we were standing at the top of the dam, marveling at the muddy pond a hundred feet below, when a security guard drove up. “You can’t be here!” he spluttered, though clearly we were here. He continued his tirade and we listened politely until he stopped for breath. At which point I asked sweetly, “I guess this means you won’t take our picture?”
His shoulders slumped and he grinned ruefully, holding out his hand for the proffered camera. He dutifully followed us down the face of the dam to the gate where we had to wait for him to catch up to let us out. We didn’t have the heart to tell him that we knew of a route that circumvented the gate.
I suppose it’s natural to wax nostalgic for the days of our youth and remember our feats of yore as our bodies age and our memories grow fuzzy. I’ve been riding mountain bikes longer than most of the kids I meet on the trail have been alive, so when they tell me they want to be like me when they grow up, I have to laugh. I used to feel the same way when some sexagenarian kicked my thirty-something butt on the trail. I also laugh because at twenty-something, they’re already riding power assisted e-bikes so it’s not likely they will grow up to be gnarly at seventy.
I was still in my thirties when a group of us embarked on an epic ride which began at a rustic campground next to the Santa Ana River. We drove up to the campground the night before the planned ride and sat around the campfire, sharing a few beers and telling tall tales of previous adventures. A couple of the guys went off to the restaurant/bar to top off the evening while the sensible men and I crawled into our sleeping bags in anticipation of the next day’s ride.
Dawn came early and hot even at that elevation. We filled our water bottles, packed some Cliff Bars (these were the first and the worst of the high-carbohydrate, calorie dense, unpalatable energy snacks touted by the experts of the time) and began the tedious, rocky, fire-road climb which ascended some 2,760′ in 7 miles, on a south-facing slope. The already dehydrated guys who had closed the bar were out of water by the time we reached Skyline Road, also known as the Five Bitches because of the five sandy climbs that follow the contours of the ridge to a giant Lodgepole pine and the start of the trail we were seeking.
While there is a stream near the pine, no one was desperate enough to drink from it at this point. We continued to the Siberia Creek Trail that promised to be the reward for the the 3,000′ of climbing we had done. Anticipating a lovely, shaded trail that would take us back to the lodge, we began the descent. Within less than a mile, the trail became alarmingly difficult. Buck thorn and holly encroached on the narrow path making riding painful as it clawed at our Lycra-clad legs and bare arms. We contemplated turning back but the thought of climbing back up the last hard-won mile and then traversing the Five Bitches was more than any of us felt capable of. We pushed doggedly on and soon we were literally pushing our bikes ahead of us through the snarl of wickedly thorny shrubs. But at least it was downhill.
Coming around to the south side of the ridge, we were relieved to find the trail was less overgrown and for short stretches we were able to ride. But then we came to an exposed area where water runoff had all but obliterated the trail and it was too narrow to even walk beside our bikes, having now to lead them like uncooperative pack animals. Rounding a rock outcrop, the trail evaporated. It had completely slid down the hill leaving a bare cliff with only a few roots dangling where the trail had been. We were well beyond the point of no return, so the guys (I was the only female stupid enough to do this trail) decided that they could traverse the gap by grabbing a sturdy root and swinging across to where the trail lay intact some five or six feet away. The penalty for failure would probably not have been fatal but it wasn’t something anyone wanted to contemplate.
One of the strongest of the men went first and then the other guys swung the bikes across to his waiting arms. Once the bikes were all safely on the other side, it was my turn to make the leap. Shorter, weaker and utterly petrified, I had to depend on the strength of one of the guys to swing me across and another to catch me on the other side. We all made it to the other side and prayed that the trail would not deteriorate further.
The trail was still too rough to ride and did not travel consistently downhill, rather it followed the contours of the mountain slope, crossing dry stream beds and then ascending the next ridge. One of the men, who had an inexpensive heavy bike, and who himself was overweight, was too exhausted and thirsty to continue. He sat down and said he would have to wait for rescue. Afternoon shadows were growing long and we were some unknown distance from a road. The group splintered with the stronger riders pushing on, leaving the weaker ones to manage on their own. The strongest guy in the group volunteered to carry his own bike and my light bike if I would carry the heavy bike of the worn out chubby guy. After a rest, chubby guy regained his feet and the three of us struggled on.
Shortly before dusk, we reached the forest service road where we left chubby guy with his bike, promising to return with a vehicle and water. We still had a ride of about four miles back to camp, half of it uphill, but we came to a small stream and threw caution to the wind and drank from it. We later learned that Stronger guy had rinsed his soiled shorts in this stream when dehydration had loosened his bowels without warning.
When we pedaled into camp we found the Stronger guy sitting at the bar, freshly showered. He had hailed a passing motorist and paid $20 for the short ride back to camp. I was furious! I told him to get in his truck and go back to rescue chubby guy. He sheepishly did so without complaint.
One of the guys in the group was a retired Marine and he confided that he had never done anything as difficult in the service. I felt pretty smug until I learned that he’d been a recruiting officer.
We had two horses; a brown one named Jim and a black one named Barney. They were gentle work horses. After a days work in the field, sometimes we were allowed to sit on their backs as we returned to the barn. They were not riding horses. They were trained to respond to Gee and Haw and other oral commands such as whoa and a clicking sound to make them go. They could not be trusted never to kick however, and we were trained not to walk behind them after they were in the stalls or when they were not in harness.
Jim (the horse) was twenty-seven years old. One night Papa came back to the house after the evening chores and announced that Jim had died. Barney was younger by a couple years. It was now his job to drag his old working buddy out of the barn and to the back of the field behind the house. The weather was cold and the body was left there as food for the wild life. It was a very sad time for us but Barney seemed to mourn the most. And well he might, because we had suffered an economic loss but he had lost his long-time partner. He was too old to be paired with another strange horse to make a team. He had to be sold to someone who could use a single horse or he had to be brought* to the rendering works. We found a buyer for him but only after he had been subjected to what was probably the ultimate humiliation.
*(In my family “brought” was used interchangeably with “taken” and I didn’t learn the proper use of those words until I was in my thirties. For the most part, my mother’s grammar was surprisingly good, while my dad’s remained painful to my ear until he died)
That Spring when the weather became warm again, the fields had to be plowed. One horse could not pull the plow. But we had a cow that was strong enough to break out of the fence often. So often that Papa was frustrated to the point of tying her in the stall and beating her for punishment. He decided to use her energy to pull the plow with Barney. Getting her into harness was difficult. Getting her to understand commands was impossible. It was a ridiculous sight and the neighbors stared in disbelief. Poor Barney was confused and totally humiliated. After that, he probably thought even being sold to the rendering works to be made into dog food wasn’t so bad. But he was sold as a single work horse and we soon bought a new team. Jim and Barney were geldings. Our new team was a pair of mares. They were both black and smaller than the geldings. They were younger and more spirited. Their names were Kate and Topsy.
Living in a two bedroom house, it was necessary for Marge, Jim and me to sleep in the same room. However, the house had space in the attic that could be converted into another room by building on a dormer and finishing off the interior. This was done shortly before the fourth baby came.
Marge and I were moved to this upstairs bedroom. At first the only access to it was up an improvised ladder. The ladder was made by nailing short pieces of wood to two wall studs in an unfinished little back room that also served as another back entry and led to the stairway to the cellar. Later a stairway was constructed to come down into a closet that opened into my parents bedroom. It was a very steep stairs but easier to climb than the ladder.
One morning when Marge and I came downstairs and into the master bedroom, my mother was still in bed and Johanna Gruppen from across the road was at her bedside. I sensed something was different. I was three and one-half years old. Johanna said to me, “come, see what Mama has in bed with her”. It was a baby boy. I was shocked. I had had no idea that a baby was on the way.
My parents had given each of us nicknames and never used our given names. Marge was “girl”, Jim was “boy”, and I was “baby”. I had a sudden sinking feeling that I had been replaced. As the baby of the family I had been showered with affection and attention. Now I had lost my place to this ugly little stranger. I refused to even look at him. I went to the far side of the bed which was almost against the wall and squeezed down into the small space. For some time I refused to come out and join in the festivities of the occasion.
He was my brother Louis, named after our paternal grandfather, whose name was Lykle. I ignored him as much as possible. I resented him a lot, for many years. And it was because of him that I had to have a new nickname. They began to call me “Tootie”.
Since we had no electricity on this farm, we harnessed the wind, the horses and each other for power. The wind pumped our water with the windmill. The horses tilled the fields and pulled the wagons. And members of the family provided the power for the washing machine, among other things.
The washing machine was a wooden contraption with a handle on top that had to be pushed back and forth in order to agitate the clothes in the semi-circular tub beneath. The machine was in an out-building which was also used for washing celery and preparing it for market. There was a stove for heating the wash water. The wash water was heated in an oval shaped copper tub which we called the “boiler” because Mama used to boil the clothes in it if they were unusually dirty. The stove also provided heat for us in the fall and winter when we worked in there. Later we had a Maytag washing machine that was powered by a gasoline engine.
Celery could be harvested long after cold weather came. In fact, after snow fell Papa used a wagon with runners instead of wheels to bring in a load of celery from the field with the horses. In the wash house we trimmed off the roots and outer leaves. Then the celerywas washed twice and packed into boxes which we assembled from wood pieces pre-cut to size. We children were taught to help with everything as soon as we were big enough to handle the jobs. I remember working with very sharp, large knives at an early age. I still have a scar on my left forefinger where one slipped while I was cutting a watermelon.
A favorite task was nailing together the celery shipping boxes. After packing them rounding full, we nailed three slats on the top and stacked them. A truck came to pick them up and deliver them to the market in Chicago.
The celery was one source of income, another was the milk that we sold to a creamery. The cows were milked by hand and the milk stored in metal milk cans until the truck came to pick it up. While milking, Papa would feed the cats some of the fresh, warm milk. If any of us children were there we could have some too, either in a direct stream from the cow, or poured in the cap of the milk can.
Saving out milk for our own use, we did not keep a sufficient amount to churn butter. We did make some butter, but we mostly used margarine because it was cheaper. In those days margarine was sold in one pound bricks, in it’s natural white color. In the package was a small envelope with a colored powder which we sprinkled on the margarine and worked it in to make it yellow. Later, the envelope was replaced with a capsule that contained a liquid coloring. This capsule was inside a sealed plastic sack that contained the margarine. You pinched the capsule until it burst, then kneaded the contents until the coloring was evenly distributed throughout.
The plastic sack came after world war II. So for twenty years or more, we mixed the coloring into the margarine. Then the permission to color margarine by the manufacturer was placed on the ballot to allow the people to decide. That was when I voted for the first time. It passed and we no longer had to artificially color our margarine.
My mother was very frugal. She colored two pounds of margarine at a time in a large bowl. Then she added one pound of real butter and mixed it thoroughly. This was supposed to create the illusion that we were eating butter.
We had no means of cooling the milk so sometimes the milk began to turn sour. Then Mama put it in the churn to make butter and buttermilk. The churn was a one gallon square glass container with a mechanism in the screw top which had a handle to turn. The handle turned a gear that turned wooden paddles in the milk. It was my job to sit there and slowly turn and wait, turn and wait until little floating blobs of butter formed. After the butter formed, Mama took over and fished out the pieces, saving the buttermilk for buttermilk pap (pronounced “pup”).
Many of the good things in life were diluted in order to stretch them as the family grew larger. For instance, we canned our own grape juice. When it was served, the glass was filled half way with grape juice and then filled with water. Sugar was added to make it palatable.
We canned many things. By the time winter arrived our cellar was stocked with hundreds of filled mason jars. We butchered our own cows, pigs and chickens. We canned beef and stored pork in crocks; we smoked beef and hams. Papa built his smokers in the ground and prided himself on getting the meat just salty enough and not too dry. We raised apples and canned applesauce. We canned crab apples, peaches, pears and plums. We made sauerkraut by storing it in crocks on top of the kitchen cupboards near the ceiling to keep it warm. We raised navy beans and sorted them by lamp light on the kitchen table. Pickled peaches and cucumbers were special treats. On the other hand, homemade bread was ordinary and tiresome. “Boughten” bread, the white soft spongy kind, was a rare delight.
Living three miles from the nearest grocery store and on roads that were sometimes impassable, we were accustomed to very little contact with the outside world. But if we couldn’t get to the store, the store did get to us. There were two grocery stores in Borculo, at the crossroads that we called, “The Corner”. There was also an auto repair garage and the Christian Reformed Church. The grocers had trucks that were stocked like miniature stores. These trucks had regular routes through the countryside, stopping at each farm to supply us with staples. They were the “peddle wagons”. When they came to our farm the driver got out of the cab and got into the back of the truck seating himself behind a tiny collapsible counter while Mama stood on a broad step that ran the width of the back of the truck. She read off her list and he placed the items one by one from his shelves onto the counter. When she was finished, he added it all up and packed it into bags. At the end of the transaction he threw in a handful or two of loose candy. We called it “peddle wagon candy”. To this day, when I see that certain kind of candy, I think of it as “peddle wagon candy”.
Our clothes were purchased from mail order catalogs. We ordered from Sears Roebuck, Montgomery Ward, National Bellas Hess and Spiegel Companies. We spent time making the selections, then filling out the order blank and waiting for the packages to arrive. When the order came it was like Christmas, opening the packages and fitting on the items. We rarely had new clothes. More often we wore things that were given to us or handed down from one child to the next.
Nothing went to waste. When our socks were beyond darning they were saved for making rugs. My happy memories include the long winter evenings with a fire in the stove. With Mama in charge, we cut the old socks into narrow strips starting at the top and cutting round and round. We avoided the heel which was full of holes and continued to the toe. Then Mama sewed the ends of the strips together and we cut the threads and wound the strips into balls. With a crochet hook she made round, oval, rectangular or square rugs, using the different colored socks to make pretty patterns.
Mama sewed most of our clothes either from things that were given to us and didn’t fit, or from material that she ordered from the catalogs. We had to buy shoes but Papa did shoe repair on his own cast iron shoe lasts. Shoestrings were worn until the knots were too numerous to tuck under and hide. In the summer we usually went barefoot.
We raised three grains; rye, wheat and oats. We harvested it with a machine called a binder. This machine cut the grain stalks and bound it in bundles, dumping them on the ground as it moved along. We gathered up the bundles, standing them against each other, on end, to let them dry. Then the team of horses was hitched to the wagon and we loaded the bundles to be brought to the barn. In front of the barn, on either side of the large doors, we made circular stacks of the bundles. These stacks were wider at the bottom and came to a rounded point at the top.
When all the neighbors were ready for threshing, we called the man who owned the threshing machine. His name was Hank-o-pa. He went from farm to farm with the machine and all the neighbors helped each other with the threshing. For the kids it was a celebration. We played in the bins while the men poured the newly threshed grain over us. We liked the noise of the steam powered threshing machine, and the slapping of the wide belts that transmitted the power. It was usually hot and the men were sweating.
We gave them homemade root beer to drink. The ladies of the neighborhood all helped, crowding into the kitchens to cook a huge meal for the hard-working men. When the threshing was finished the straw mows were stuffed full and the granaries were piled high with grain. And the threshing machine and Hank-o-pa moved on to the next neighbor. It was a time of laughter and camaraderie, hard work and good food.
Bringing in the hay was easier. The mowing machine was pulled by a team of horses, and a dump rake, used for raking it into wind rows, was pulled by one horse. Then the hay was loaded on the wagon, manually with a pitch fork, and brought into the barn. There it was unloaded from the wagon with a harpoon. This was a large steel fork attached to a large rope that went through a pulley and was pulled by a horse.
After the haying was finished, the thick rope that was used to carry the harpoon which loaded the hay into the mows, was put to better use. Papa climbed to the highest cross beams in the barn and fastened both ends. This made the biggest swing we had ever seen. Each year, while Papa scaled the heights in the barn, Mama sat in the house and worried. When the job was finished and the swing installed, even Papa took his turn on it. We could jump off a mow at one end of the barn and swing the whole distance of the barn floor. We climbed the rope to get a new vista of the barn interior.
I also had a more prurient reason to enjoy climbing one of the swing ropes. It was while doing so that I had my first orgasm.
Peddlers visited our little farm regularly. The Rawleigh man and the Watkins man are two that come to mind. They sold spices, medicines and some groceries, like packaged puddings. From them we bought cod liver oil, castor oil and magic oil.
We hated cod liver oil, but Papa dispensed it every night in the winter for its vitamin D content. He demonstrated how good it was by drinking it from the bottle and smacking his lips. We were not convinced. We hated the fishy taste until someone discovered that by holding one’s nose while swallowing it, the taste disappeared completely – until you let go of your nose anyway. Cod liver oil was given by the teaspoon, straight, unadulterated. But magic oil was more pleasant. It was measured one drop for each year of your age into a teaspoon of sugar. I’m not sure of its purpose but judging by the name, I assume it was meant to cure whatever ailed you.
(Yet another demonstration of Grandpa’s eclectic palate)
Castor oil was rarely administered and was the worst of all. The thick oily consistency and tastelessness was repulsive. Floating it on top of some precious orange juice motivated us to gulp it down. Fortunately we didn’t often need a laxative. Epsom salts was another home remedy. The one time my mother forced it down me it came back up instantly. Skunk oil was used for exterior application in case of a sore throat. Papa made his own and wore it on a rag tied around his neck.
I remember when we first became aware of vitamins. Papa discussed the subject with the peddlers who sold them and read whatever information was available to him. He was interested but couldn’t afford to buy them for his ever-growing family. We were a healthy family but did not escape the childhood diseases. After Marge started school, the infectious diseases to which she was exposed were brought home. We all had scarlet fever, chicken pox, measles and most had whooping cough. I did not get whooping cough even though every one of the children around me had varying degrees of misery with the dread disease. When the home had an infectious disease the County health officer came and posted a red quarantine sign to warn visitors not to enter.
The only time a doctor was summoned was to assist in giving birth. When my mother’s pregnancy was in the seventh or eighth month, Papa telephoned the doctor to tell him the approximate due date. Then, when labor started, the doctor was called to come and attend the delivery. If the weather permitted, he arrived in time. He came from the nearest town which was about eight miles away. Three of the eleven children didn’t wait for him and I was one of those three.
Across the road from us lived the old Gruppens. We called them the old Gruppens because two of their married sons and families lived near us and constituted our near neighborhood. We were on civil, sometimes even friendly terms with all of them even though theybelonged to the Christian Reformed Church which had expelled Papa.
We paid formal visits to the Ed Gruppens. Formal, meaning we were invited to spend a winter evening with them. The parents sat in the living room talking. The children played games in the kitchen. A favorite game was hide the thimble. All but one child went into an adjoining room while the one who was “it” hid the thimble. The adjoining room was cold and dark. Some of us huddled together to keep warm. The little boys were not above indulging in some mischievous feeling and tickling of the little girls. On signal we all barged out of the dark room and began the search for the thimble. The one who was “it” continually called out “warm” or “cold” as we were closer or farther from the hiding place of the thimble. The finder became the next one to be “it”.
This family always drew the shades down at night to “save the light”, they said. Their theory was that if you stopped the light rays from going outside, you had more light inside.
They were a family with seven children, four of whom were boys. Three of the boys were close to my age. They were my nemesis. They teased and frustrated me. When their father castrated animals, they saved the gonads and showed them to me. They delighted in drawing my attention to mating animals. They were earthy and crude. They pretended to be horny animals, bumping their genital area up against telephone poles; anything to embarrass me. I was always trying to time my departure from school and from home, so as to avoid having to walk with them.
As I later learned, my fear of them was unwarranted. One day Harold, the oldest of the three had me cornered in the back stop of the baseball diamond. School was out and I was carrying my metal lunch pail. In desperation I swung at him with the pail. Although he was probably two years older than I, my sudden fury caught him off guard and he jumped back. He laughed but kept his distance and I felt he had gained a new respect for me which encouraged me to use the same tactic on later occasions. This taught me that bullies prefer to pick on wimps.
The old Gruppens had a grape arbor near the road. When the grapes were ripe we sneaked in among the vines and helped ourselves. It was forbidden and periodically they complained to my dad and we were properly scolded. But it was too great a temptation to give it up entirely.
Our sex education began with our observation of the animal raising process. When Papa led a cow down the road to a neighbor to be bred, we knew the purpose of the breeding was to produce a calf. We had seen dogs mating and knew puppies resulted from that. The only thing we were told about human sexuality was that genitalia were dirty. If children showed an interest in their own or others private parts, they were playing dirty. It was forbidden.
(Considering the infrequency of bathing and the shared bathwater, I expect their genitalia were dirty!)
The edict against playing dirty was not enough to stifle our natural curiosities. My closest friend Jerene and I wandered off into the fields on the way home from school on a warm day. There we found a private spot behind a bush and a slight rise in the land and explored each others anatomy. Old Mr. Gruppen spied on us from a distance and reported to my mother. When I walked on the yard my mother was seated on a stool at the back porch with a stick in her hand. I knew what was coming. I was turned over her knee and the rod was not spared. I was so ashamed of what I had done that when my cap fell off I didn’t pick it up. Somehow it became the symbol of the shameful thing I had done and I never wore it again.
In spite of my fear of and revulsion for the Gruppen boys, one warm summer day when we were playing on the banks of the drain ditch under a bridge, I exchanged a little anatomy exploration with them too. They never let me forget it. In the secrecy of our world, the world made up of kids only, they coined a nickname for me. They called me “hot pants”. And again I was ashamed.
(A testimony to my mother’s ability to learn from her own experiences was that she didn’t instill the shame of my own natural inclinations as her parents had. My aunt Marge would tell her boys, “Acht! Don’t play dirty.” But my mom gently suggested that I should go to the privacy of my bedroom to “do that”. Of course, I inferred that it was shameful, even wicked, and I credit my mom for making it all the more pleasurable.)
I never expected them to tell about this incident to an adult but they did. After Mrs. Plant left Eagle school, Fred Knoper became our teacher. Mr. Knoper was a very nice guy. He gained our confidence. He encouraged us to confess to him our darkest sins. He even took us to a private place in the basement of the school where no other student could hear what was being said. The Gruppen boys had their turn for a private conference with the teacher before I did. Imagine my surprise when my turn came and the main topic he wanted to discuss with me was the “hot pants” incident. He tried to get me to talk about it, gently telling me such behavior was not nice. But again, I was too ashamed of myself to even tell him that it had happened three years before when I was a mere child.
At the time of my birth, my parents (Tom Elzinga and Edith (maiden name omitted) Elzinga) were living on a forty-acre farm which they had bought before Jim was born. Our farm was mostly poor, sandy soil. But a small strip near the drain ditch was black and rich. We called it “the muck”. On this strip we raised celery. Early in the spring Papa planted the seed in a cold frame. When the seedlings were the right size and the weather was right, we transplanted them in the muck. In order to make straight rows, we placed stakes at each end with a string pulled taught between them at ground level. One of us would then walk on the string to make a straight imprint on the ground, a job that we liked to do more than the planting.
At first, the person who planted crawled on hands and knees placed each plant separately in rows. Marge and Jim were big enough to be planters. I was given bunches of the small plants and instructed to separate them, laying the individual plants at six inch intervals in the row. Then the planters came along and punched holes in the soft ground with their fingers and set the plant in, firmly tamping the soil around it to keep it standing. After hours of planting, our knees became sore, so Papa designed and made knee pads out of old inner tubes for protection.
Later, we rented a celery planting machine. The machine accommodated two people who sat on it riding backwards. With a box of plants between them, they separated their own plants and slipped each one into a large wheel equipped with wires to hold the plants. As the wheel turned, it placed the plants into the soil. The wires were spaced for the proper distance between plants. It was important to get a plant into each wire and the machine had to be run at a speed that would permit this. The machine made the job fun and exciting, and we had no more sore knees.
Part of the farm was not used because it had not been cleared of trees and brush. This part was also low land and usable as muck. Papa decided to clear it. We worked hard at cutting trees and uprooting everything and eventually it too was suitable for farming. We called it the “new land”.
If we were working out in the field, far from the house, Mama sent snacks out to us for a coffee break. She sent hot coffee in a fruit jar and sandwiches, cake and cookies. One of the children who was too small to be working in the field was told to carry the lunch to the workers. I remember that as a very pleasant job because she would pack enough for the messenger to be able to eat with the workers. Once, when we were eating our lunch in the field, a cat that had followed us jumped into the lunch bag. Jim said, “that cat is ambitious for something to eat”. We thought that was a very funny remark and repeated it often.
Many of the earliest memories of my father had to do with his sense of humor. He was playful and intentionally eccentric. Once when he had invited the widowed school teacher and her daughter to dinner the conversation was about unusual things to eat. He claimed his children liked raw eggs. She couldn’t believe it. He offered to demonstrate.
(Grandpa was omnivorous and would eat outlandish combinations of food. He was known to dump his green salad into his soup and eat it all together)
We had indeed become accustomed to eating raw eggs slightly beaten with sugar in it. So to prove his point, he prepared it as usual and set it before me. I was always a shy child and disliked being the center of attention. That first. Secondly, the look of sheer revulsion on her face made me view the late delicacy as something less than appealing. The fact that this demonstration came at the end of a complete and filling dinner may have contributed to the fiasco. At any rate, I took one sip and decided I wanted no more. I was never offered, nor ever ate, another raw egg, sweetened or otherwise.
We had our main meal at noon in the summer and on weekends. During the school year we had it in the evening. We each had our own place at the table and ate from enamelware which we called tin plates. The baby of the family was placed in a high chair to the right of either Papa or Mama, depending on whose turn it was. Since feeding the baby was an inconvenience, (this was before the days of canned baby foods) they had agreed to alternate not by days but by babies. The first baby was fed by my mother, the second by my father, etc. Of course, all the babies were breast fed until almost a year old. The earlier they grew their teeth the sooner they were weaned.
We had no electricity, but the farm had running water produced by a windmill. We children were taught the mechanics of disengaging the pump when the tank was full or when we wanted to operate the pump manually. The metal structure of the windmill provided us with exciting climbs, both up the ladder and when we were more daring, up the corners. If the sky turned dark and high winds threatened, my father would tie it securely and arrange the blades so as to catch as little wind as possible. Sometimes the winds came without sufficient warning and he would have to fight to get control of the windmill while my mother waited in the house with her brood. She worried a lot and we sensed the tension. We were poor and could not afford the expense of a damaged windmill.
We bathed once a week. Not because of a shortage of water, we always had plenty. But we had to heat the water in kettles on a cook stove. The cook stove also had a built-in reservoir on one end from which we dipped hot water. In the summer bathing was easier. Sometimes we went swimming in Lake Michigan at Port Sheldon on Saturday instead of having a bath at home. I can still see Papa sitting in the shallow water sudsing himself all over, then rinsing and drying. Standing just in the water, he dried one foot at a time, put on one shoe and then tried to keep the shoe out of the water while he dried the other foot, encouraging us to do the same rather than getting the beach sand in the car.
In winter the house was unevenly heated with coal or wood burning space heaters. To get a room comfortable for bathing, the kitchen would be closed off and the cook stove fired up to heat kettles of water. Then a wash tub was brought in and placed on top of the kitchen table. And the water was poured in. A couple kettles of hot water made a very shallow bath, even when diluted with cold water.
Papa bathed the kids, beginning with the youngest in the few inches of warm water. Continually refilling the kettles and adding it to the tub, by the time two or three of us were clean, the water had come to a level where we almost felt luxurious.
In later years when there were seven or eight children, it became necessary to throw out the water after the kids were done. Then the tub was placed on the floor and refilled with clean water and our parents bathed, first Mama, then Papa. Having only one warm room for this process, we grew up with no privacy and nudity of siblings and parents was commonplace.
We walked the mile and one-quarter to school and carried our lunches in round pails with tight fitting covers. I think they were originally five-pound pails that contained Karo syrup. We usually had peanut butter sandwiches and a homemade cookie or cake. But Betty Plant, the teacher’s daughter, would often have something as exotic as an orange in her lunch. She would sit at her desk peeling it with her hands and we gathered around to watch. We waited patiently as she generously doled out the pieces of the peeling, trying to fairly distribute it so we each got an equal portion. To the poor children of Michigan farmers, orange peeling was a rare treat.
We got our very own, whole orange once a year on Christmas. Christmas was such an enjoyable celebration in those days. After the school Christmas program each student was given a small box of candy and an orange. My first year in school I was one of the performers in the program. My act consisted of singing three verses of “Away in a Manger” while seated in a child-sized rocking chair with a doll in my arms. I had just turned five and in spite of my shyness, I liked being chosen to perform.
The preparations were so exciting! My hair was curled with a curling iron which was heated on the cook stove. My long underwear which usually came off once a week to be replaced with a clean one, now was left off entirely and my legs were left bare. Ankle socks in the winter in Michigan was unheard of but it was allowed for the occasion. The doll I held was a big, beautiful, expensive one that belonged to Betty Plant. I was driven to the school like a prima donna. A blanket was wrapped around my bare legs and my mother fussed over my hair to keep it curly at least until I got on stage. I remembered all three verses of the song and sang it on key. I was a hit.
It soon became apparent that I was the smartest kid in my grade, with one close rival, Marvin Haveman. I always compared my test scores with his. Sometimes his score was better, sometimes mine was. He may even have been smarter than I but I never conceded that.
(My sister, Babs used to tease Mum when she would boast about being the smartest in her class. Barb would say, “Yeah, Mum, but there were only three kids in your class.”)
The teacher favored me. I always suspected that was because she liked my dad. He was not above flirting with her in my mother’s presence. Anyway, when I finished the day’s assignment before the rest of the class, Mrs. Plant would invite me to sit with her at her desk and give me new crayons and a coloring book to use while the rest of the class was finishing the assignment she had given. Coloring in coloring books was not a normal part of the curriculum in kindergarten. If we were allowed to color, it was as a reward for a job well done. We learned the alphabet, simple arithmetic and eventually reading, in our first year of school. By the end of my kindergarten year I was taking my turn at reading the Bible for our dinner table devotions at home.
At each sit-down meal Papa offered an original prayer. Immediately afterward the children said a short “God bless” prayer. Then we ate. No eating was allowed before prayers. At the conclusion of the meal a chapter was read from the Bible and Papa said the Lord’s prayer. Then the children said a “Lord we thank thee” prayer. Later, when several kids, all speaking at once, rushed through the prayer without seeming to mean it, Papa decided we should say our prayers one at a time beginning with the oldest.
At about that same time, I remember Papa placing me on the communion table in church to perform some little song or poem that I had learned from my brother Jim. My parents were very proud of me and my mother often asked me to “play something” when we had visitors. I always demurred until the visitor joined in encouraging me to do it. I sensed that they might not be as interested in seeing me perform as my mother was.
One day, as a complete surprise to Marge and me, a piano was brought to our house. Few experiences of my life compare to the joy of that day. From then on more hours were spent teaching myself rapid sight reading of music than were spent on any other form of recreation. Even on the coldest winter days when we only heated the kitchen, I ventured into the cold living room and played the piano until my fingers were too cold to play any more.
(Mum played the piano until the day she died. When she could no longer read music, due to her failing eyesight and ageing brain, she played the songs she had learned as a young girl from memory. Each year her repertoire grew smaller, until towards the end, she could only play portions of “Rustle of Spring” and “Robin’s Return”.)
Other winter recreational fun was ice skating and skiing. My father had ice skates from the Netherlands. They had a narrow blade which curled up over your toe and left your foot closer to the ground. I found them easier to use than the American made skates. We skated on frozen ponds or sometimes after a sleet storm, almost anywhere. The ponds had to be shoveled clean of snow first. We went to the pond with kids from the neighborhood and shared the task of clearing the ice for skating. The winter days were short and by the time we had a large enough clearing for skating, we had cold feet and hands. The next day we hoped to get more time for skating. But if it had snowed during the night the shoveling process had to be repeated. After a sleet storm it was easier. Then skates could be put on at the back porch and the smooth areas of the yard were good for skating.
The house stood on a slight rise from the barn and the path between the two became a miniature ski run, perfect for “old country” skates. The countryside had no hills suitable for skiing and we had no skis. We did have barrels. And barrels have staves. Barrel staves make passable skis, and a rope fastened to a moving car takes the place of gravity. My dad drove the car on the road and the kids took turns on the skis, skiing on the shoulder, across the ditch which was alongside the road, or even in the ditch. This type of skiing was hazardous but suited our need for adventure.
Decades ago, my mom wrote a memoir that she titled Rags to Real Estate. It described her life from childhood to middle-age and though her writing was anything but professional, everyone who read it clamored for more. Friends and family who read it each found something different to appreciate; but for me, it allowed me to see my mother as a woman independent of her role as mom. I was staggered by her courage, her innate intelligence, and her confidence, in an age and culture where women were expected to raise kids and keep house, period. She managed those expectations as well as could be expected, given the opportunities she was shown, and grew beyond all expectations.
Recently, a cousin prodded me to “finish” Mum’s memoir. I’m now older than she was when she began the saga and I’m not sure my memory is up to the task. That said, I’m thinking that some parts of her writing could be of interest in this venue. I admit that Michele’s last post made me realize how interesting the recent past is to those of us who grew up with modern conveniences.
So, I’m going to post a few chapters to see if anyone finds them interesting. It starts out with the groundwork of her family history but quickly becomes a snapshot of life on a Michigan farm in the 1920s.
Rags to Real Estate
By Joan Elzinga Hossink
My birth, on December 3, 1924, during a raging snow storm that prevented the arrival of Doctor Maaselink, was attended by my father and my grandma Lamer. One of my earliest memories is of my third birthday. My older sister, Marjorie, had told me that you had one golden birthday in your life. It was the birthday when you became the same age as the date of your birth, which in my case was the third.
I also had an older brother named James. As the custom was in those days, Marjorie was named after our paternal grandmother whose name was Martje. James was named after our maternal grandfather whose name was John. My brother’s full name was John James Elzinga. But because there were several other Johns in the extended family, we called him James or later, Jim. I was named after our maternal grandmother whose name was Johanna. They named me Joan and pronounced it Jo-Ann.
My father was born in the Netherlands, arriving in this country at the age of six. Since he spoke Dutch only, when they tried to enroll him in the local school he was told to go home and come back when he had learned to speak English. He went back the next year and they accepted him. He went on to High School but did not graduate. He was not a citizen yet when he married my mother. And even though she was a native-born citizen, she lost her citizenship by marrying a resident alien. Though I don’t remember the date, I do remember the occasion when they both became naturalized citizens. I was 11 or 12 at the time.
My mother was also of Dutch descent and spoke the language fluently. We children were never taught to speak Dutch. The only time Dutch was spoken in our home was when we had visitors who spoke Dutch or when our parents did not want us to know what they were saying.
There was a Christian Reformed Church in Borculo about three miles from the farm. I was baptized there by Reverend Fortuin. My father was involved in a controversy with the Church at the time and in 1925 they kicked him out. He was one of a segment of that denomination that disagreed with a recently adopted doctrine of “Common Grace” and formed a splinter group, calling themselves Protestant Reformed. The nearest Protestant Reformed church was forming in Hudsonville which was ten miles east of our farm, and we began going there. They had two services, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.
(This was not to be the last time my very contentious and opinionated grandfather was to be involved in an excommunication. His religious fervor would later have a significant influence on the trajectory of my own life.)
My parents went to both services every Sunday, one of which was in English and the other in Dutch. I remember being bored when the sermon was in Dutch, but being a well-behaved child, I sat quietly through the service making little animals out of my mother’s handkerchief by folding and knotting it in certain ways.
(My sister and I have trouble envisioning our mother as a “well-behaved” child as she was anything but as an adult. As a matter of fact, I credit her with my own “you’re not the boss of me” attitude.)
The drive to church, in a Model T Ford over gravel roads, took about one-half hour. We had to leave early enough to allow time for changing tires or fixing minor break-downs. My father was a fun-loving risk-taker and his driving showed it. My mother was a back seat driver. And although she was never willing to learn to drive, she didn’t hesitate to try to improve my father’s driving.
Rather than drive the entire ten miles for each of the two services, we stayed at Vander Walls for Sunday dinner. They were fellow church members and welcomed us each week for a hearty noon meal. We were poor and the long drive on Sundays was a hardship. But my father was staunch in his religious convictions so church and church functions were given the highest priority. Discussing his beliefs with consenters and dissenters alike was his favorite pastime. We grew up believing Calvinism was the only true religion.
Music was also a big part of our life. My father gathered a group of adults from the congregation and led them in singing as a chorus. My mother could play the old pump organ but only played from the Psalter which we used in church, or from books of hymns. My dad had given Marjorie some rudimentary instruction in reading notes and she in turn passed it on to me. He taught her by showing her where the lines of the staff were on the keyboard rather than by assigning letters to the notes. And that’s how I learned.
Very little written music was available to us so we learned to read notes from the hymn books. At first we practiced the melody, played with one finger until it was almost memorized, then we would add the other note which was written to be played with the right hand. After that we added first one note with the left hand and ultimately the fourth note which made it a complete chord. One by one I learned the simplest hymns. Because there was a dearth of talent in our small community, by the time I was eight, I was asked to play the piano to accompany the singing both in school and for catechism classes.
In 1929, while I was still four years old, I started going to Eagle school. It was a one-room school with kindergarten through eighth grade and only one teacher, Mrs. Plant, who had a daughter, Betty. They lived with a family of the school district who charged her for room and board. We respected her because she was the teacher and also because she was richer than we were.
The one large classroom had a coal-burning space heater. Four or five large windows were on the east wall. The students sat at double desks in rows arranged so that the lowest grade was on the west wall and the eighth grade was nearest the windows and farthest from the heater. In the coldest part of winterthere were not many comfortable seats, those near the heater were too hot and near the windows were too cold.
On the north wall near the entry were rows of hooks on which we hung our outer clothing and beneath which we set our boots in snowy weather or our rubbers when it was rainy. Rubbers were rain-wear that protected only the shoes. They had no fasteners, therefore, they had a tendency to get sucked off your feet when walking in mud. During the five and a half years that I attended Eagle school it was remodeled, adding an entry which became a cloak room and a basement which housed a furnace. There were separate outhouses for the boys and girls.
At home we had an old pump organ but in school we had a piano. My sister Marge, I and two other girls could each play a few hymns. The teacher would call on one of us to accompany the singing of the morning hymn. And the song she chose would be one of the repertoire of that pianist. None of us had any formal instruction in piano playing and each of us had our own style. One of the older girls played only on the black keys and strictly by ear. Her own ear, at that. Sometimes it did not suit our ears but if we were inclined to snicker we stifled it.
My interest in music exceeded that of my sister Marge’s. I enjoyed reading notes like an avid reader enjoys reading words. I practiced for hours out of the sheer enjoyment of it. Eventually my skills allowed me to play better than my sister, who had taught me. She was almost five years older than I and I looked up to her, even idolized her. I saw her as a hard worker, good at sports, pretty and sophisticated.
My parents dearly loved all their children but Marge was the first-born and probably was favored. At least brother Jim thought so. My father had an explosive temper and Jim inherited this trait. Marge, being bigger than Jim, enjoyed taunting him until he exploded, especially when our parents went somewhere and left Marge in charge.
Once when she had pushed him to fury he began chasing her around the kitchen table. When he saw it was impossible to catch her, he picked up a chair and threw it over the table at her. She managed toduck and avoid being hit. Her laughter made him more angry and he continued the chase. This time she grabbed me and held me like a hostage between them. I was so terrified at the ruckus that I found it difficult to breathe. I was beginning to lose consciousness. When they noticed my dilemma they were distracted enough to discontinue the fight for the time being. Their physical fights became a thing of legend in our family and left psychological scars on Jim, that remained for years, and maybe even to this day.
The root of the problem was probably cultural. We were taught that women should be subservient to men. Men were the heads of families, they had a place of dominance. Ideally the first-born was a boy, who would take his place as leader and protector of the rest of the brood. My sister was not entitled to be leader and protector of the brood, but became so by reason of size. She was not willing to defer to a younger brother simply because he was male and she female. When he grew up, my brother Jim often voiced his preference for a first-born male, and he got it. In fact, his first two children were sons.
Our small farm house had two bedrooms, a living room and a kitchen. In one of the back corners of the house was an enclosed porch. In this area were nails sticking out to form hooks on which to hang outdoor clothing. And beneath these we would set our footwear that was too muddy to be allowed into the house. On one of the nails hung a scale that was used for weighing small things. You held it by a ring on the top and hung the item to be weighed from the hook on the bottom. With the ring on a nail, I decided to weigh myself. Holding tightly to the hook on the bottom I carefully put more and more of my weight on the scale. Just as I managed to get my feet off the floor the nail holding the scale let go and I fell. On the way down, another protruding nail caught my left nostril and ripped it. I still have the scar.
(What Mum doesn’t mention is that it never occurred to her parents to have a doctor stitch the torn nostril. Doctors cost money and that was always in short supply)