Bad-Ass Women

Another weekend of perfect weather made outdoor adventures mandatory. Sally and I were feeling lazy, so I proposed a route that promised very few steep grades. Starting from my driveway, we pedaled companionably across town (if you can call Mentone a town) on paved streets, until we reached the conservancy in Marlboro Hills. There’s only one steep climb and that’s preceded by a thrilling downhill that allows one to use momentum to ascend at least a quarter of it with no effort.

We paused at the secret spring at the college entrance where a tiny pond collects enough water for small fish to propagate. Though it’s within sight of the road, it feels secluded as it’s surrounded by the natural canyon wall and some strategically planted eucalyptus trees. After a short rest, we continued up through the college, taking the most gradual route to the Crafton Hills Conservancy. Due to our lethargy, we contemplated turning towards home at various points but found ourselves at the Back Breaker intersection and again paused to consider our options.

Intersection of Back Breaker and the fire road

Sally lay in the grass while I reclined on the bench, reveling in the childlike pleasure of having nowhere to be but in the moment. Continuing east meant climbing the fire road, which was mostly not very steep, and turning back involved one hike-a-bike climb (the previously mentioned thrilling downhill), so we opted for the continued gradual ascent. I suppose our old-lady-paced ascent had us feeling appropriately guilty, so I suggested we take the Long Cut which meant a short effort with a meaningful descent back to the fire road. By “meaningful”, of course, I mean exhilarating. We lowered our seats and pointed our bikes downhill, scouting ahead for ruts or other obstacles. The very end of the Long Cut drops off an embankment that’s about 15′ high and you can’t really see the trail until you’re committed, so it lends a bit of excitement.

The confidence-building part of Roller Coaster

Having roused our inner mountain biker instinct with a smidge of adrenaline, I continued down the ridge without consulting Sally. She, naturally, followed me. The next section of confidence-building trail had us at the intersection of three options: climb back up to the Yikes trail (not going to happen); continue down Escalator (not all that interesting); or ROLLER COASTER (shudder!). To my utter amazement, Sally voted for Roller Coaster. We were tired and it offered the shortest (read “steepest”) route home.

I know I’ve described Roller Coaster before, but each time we ride it, it’s a new adventure. The trail changes with every rain storm and the traction varies from non-existent to barely noticeable. What never changes is how sweaty my hands get when I describe it. After an introductory, gentle swoop down and then up, the trail simply disappears. Until, that is, your front wheel is over the edge and the hill falls away into an abyss with a menacing rut meandering along the line you want to ride.

Once you have gathered the courage to slide down the steepest part, navigated the berm that forces you onto the edge of the rut, there’s a lovely rollout to the next ascent. And then the trail rolls benignly through a tunnel of aromatic brush, until….you arrive at the final descent to the highway. Oh, I skipped a couple of interesting sections but they pale by comparison to the FINAL descent.

Honestly, the traction was pretty good and Sally was right on my wheel as I made the turn onto what’s probably, no definitely, the most challenging section of trail. At first it’s steep, but there are no real challenges as you can pretty much either control your slide or not, as long as you regain control by the time you get to the part where the ruts start to vie for your attention. At this point, you had better be looking ahead for a place to bleed off some speed because, if you brake too hard here, you will certainly slip into the rut. Okay, if I’m honest, you can ride the rut because it’s not that deep and it’s fairly straight. But, for the sake of the story, let’s say I skillfully avoided sliding into the treacherous rut. There was a point at which I was thinking of looking for a place to bail out, but short of laying the bike down sideways, there were no options but to focus and ride it.

Arriving at the bottom of the hill, breathless and pumped, I looked back to find Sally coming down, skillfully and in perfect control. She had never managed to ride this entire hill before and was justifiably proud of the accomplishment.

Feeling like champions, we rode the rest of the way down the wash trails, our fatigue completely obliterated by adrenaline. When a couple of manly-man, four-by-four, trucks rolled by with their tattooed drivers piloting them, I said to Sally, “They think they’re bad-ass.”

She replied, “They don’t know what bad-ass is!”

You Can’t Love ’em and You Can’t Kill ’em (warning: nudity and gore ahead)

My sister is scanning and organizing her old photos and journals and frequently sends me the gems from our past. We looked so carefree and untouched by any premonition of what lay ahead in life.

Remembering, my sister and I refer to periods in our life by which man had been our partner for that decade. I was married for ten years to the love of my life. His joie de vivre was unlimited. Wine, women, song, there was never enough. I moved on. I’d had enough women!

I brilliantly chose another alcoholic, thinking I could fix this one because he wasn’t a womanizer. I spent another ten years on that fixer-upper. He was clean and sober when I figured out alcohol wasn’t the problem.

I finally chose a man who had a reasonable relationship with both alcohol and women AND could fix things. Thirty years later, I still love him beyond all reason. I mean that literally. He’s the smartest man in any room, rabidly opinionated, egocentric to the point of narcissism, honest to a fault, genuinely egalitarian, kind to animals, patient with children, profligate, introspective, unsentimental but eternally romantic. There are so many times when I wonder how it came to this…

A Winter? Ride

A regular winter ride in my neck of the woods is normally one of several local trails, either in the wash or the foothills that surround the valley. But February, in Southern California isn’t your typical winter, with warm sunny days and sleep-with-the-windows-open nights. Daytime temperatures in the high 80s, motivated Sally and me to load the bikes onto the bike rack and drive to Mountain Home Village (elevation 3,700′) where the Mountain Home Creek trail begins the ascent to Angelus Oaks (5,800′). Just a few weeks ago this route was impassable with snow, but today the trail was in fine form.

A couple of years ago, a utility company had restored the abandoned road to a navigable two-track in order to bury fiber optic cable. This had destroyed what had become a beautiful single track trail over the years. Fortunately, there had been a bit of a flash flood in the mountains, in November, which all but restored it to its previous condition. Rock slides, fallen trees, deep sand and wash outs all made the trail interesting again.

When we came to The Avalanche, I had some trouble making it up the steep incline because the traction was loose and mostly because I’m a klutz. I made it half way before spinning out, so I turned the bike back downhill to try it again. A couple of hikers were closing in which was incentive to clear it on the second attempt. Nearly to the top, I stalled, this time high centered on my seat and unable to clip out of my pedals as I was momentarily unsure of which way the bike was going to go over. As luck would have it, the bike tipped towards the outside (towards the downhill side) which probably looked pretty exciting from below, but I got my foot on the ground before there was any danger of toppling over the edge. When I turned around for the third try, the old hikers (probably my age) were standing in the trail waiting for me to clear the way. The old gentleman kindly mansplained to me how I needed to put more weight on my back wheel and then stand up to pedal to the top. I showed what I thought was commendable restraint by not saying anything unkind in return. In his defense, I did look like quite the novice. On the third assault, I found the sweet spot, the perfect speed and gear, and sailed up as I’ve done at least a hundred times before and I’m sure the gentleman was left with the belief that his generous coaching had enabled me to succeed.

Cresting the top of The Avalanche

We climbed as far as The Bench and decided that there was no compelling reason to pedal the last two miles to The Oaks restaurant as the food wasn’t that good and we were tired, so tired, in fact, that even the downhill seemed like more effort than we cared to expend. But, of course, as soon as we pointed the bikes down the newly restored trail, we regained our enthusiasm. Riding The Avalanche from the uphill direction is merely a matter of carefully gauging your speed as you come into it. Approach too slowly and you are going to have to pedal to the top, which as described previously, can be problematic. If, on the other hand, you sail up too fast to make the slight turn at the top, you could fly right off the trail. Oh, and one more consideration is that approaching from the uphill side, you can’t see if anyone is ascending from the downhill side. I really didn’t want to mow down the elderly hikers…well at least not his woman companion. As fate would have it, just as I accelerated for the ascent, a guy on a gravel bike crested the top of the berm coming from the opposite direction, oblivious to his peril. I skidded to a stop with room to spare but his eyes were as big as saucers.

The Bad Ass Great Grandma
https://unsplash.com/photos/9q5vptiE2TY?utm_source=unsplash&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=creditShareLink

Seventeen weeks or 119 days, which sounds longer? How about almost four months? If you had told me when I was ten years old, that you were taking me to Disneyland in four months, it would have been excruciating to have to wait so long; but ironically, at this age, when active life ahead looks like a narrow window of time, I will treasure every one of those 119 days of planning and anticipation. Maybe it has to do with how quickly time passes as we age. I read somewhere that there’s a reason time speeds up as we grow older; it’s because our brains form fewer memories which condenses our memories into a fast-motion scene when we review them. Probably pseudo science.

At any rate, my Word Press ramblings serve as a detailed memory that should entertain me when I’m confined to a nursing home but not yet drooling in my laptop.

MFN Tamera expressed an interest in attending her high school reunion, but didn’t want to leave her Mini-Aussie, Lucy behind, which precluded flying from Denver to California. While the idea of leaving my girls behind wasn’t ideal, I offered to fly to Denver and join her for a girl’s auto trip across my beloved desert Southwest. I’ll miss the Wanderlust with it’s cozy bed and efficiency kitchen, but the convenience of popping into a hotel for a hot shower, a clean bed, and mediocre coffee has its appeal too.

I’ve already plotted the itinerary, complete with breaks in the driving (I have very limited tolerance for sitting still), that include hikes, ghost towns, a burned suspension bridge and stops at favorite restaurants. Our first night is four hours from DIA where I land mid-day, so the drive is proportionally long compared to the hike. Rifle Falls State Park should be just perfect for a late afternoon walk. https://cpw.state.co.us/placestogo/parks/RifleFalls

Our next hotel is in Moab. I’m steeling myself for the changes tourism has brought to this “ugly little town” that Edward Abbey so loved/hated. All of the things that curmudgeon loathed have reproduced themselves exponentially. I usually read parts of Dessert Solitaire before I visit Moab to refresh the sense of loss. I first started going to Moab once a year in the 1980s and each time we turned off the freeway towards this mountain biker’s paradise, my heart would swell as if I were returning to a home I’d known in a previous incarnation. Even then, the scars of human abuse were everywhere, beginning with the uranium tailings that covered many acres at the edge of town, adjacent to the Colorado River (a major source of water for much of Nevada, Arizona, and California). I read recently that there is a clean-up operation in progress. Once it’s completed, a hotel chain will probably build a high-rise on the site. Bring your Geiger counter if you book a room there.

After a hike up Grandstaff Canyon, (formerly known as Nigger Bill Canyon, then renamed Negro Bill Canyon when the trail namers became aware of the offensiveness of the original name, and finally William Grandstaff was appropriately remembered when it was renamed Grandstaff https://moabmuseum.org/william-grandstaff/ ) we will grab a bite to eat in Moab before checking into our sterile, chain hotel. It’s called something reminiscent of a boutique hotel but is probably owned by Hilton. Energy levels permitting, we will do another short hike or stroll the main street, where my favorite bookstore, Back of Beyond, still lives, or so I’m told.

If we can tear ourselves away from the splendors of this scenic area, we will proceed to Escalante where our “cabin” at Yonder awaits. I’m hoping we have the strength, after an afternoon of hiking along the Escalante River, to wander over to the drive-in movie theater for some popcorn in a vintage car. https://www.stayyonder.com/?gclid=Cj0KCQiA3fiPBhCCARIsAFQ8QzVFmlIXRelSKILI0BQ0P4xX_He9DqqaWYT8pvG4-px0GlkBSruYpn8aAiOHEALw_wcB

Another four hour drive, through Bryce Canyon and Cedar Breaks, to Overton, will bring us to within striking distance of Valley of Fire. It may be too hot for little Lucy and my heat-sensitive niece to hike in June, but VoF lends itself to auto touring as the Big Horn Sheep graze obligingly close to the road and pose for photos when approached.

I will fill you in on all of the exciting events of the trip as they happen. I hope “exciting” is an exaggeration, but as you well know, I do play fast and loose with the truth.

What’s on the Floor?

The girls and I came home from a hike in the wash, the other day, and even though it wasn’t hot, they were thirsty. I usually carry a hydration pack, and they are adept at drinking from the nipple, (yes, we all share the same nipple) but this hike was short so I had left the cumbersome pack behind.

Sadie drinking from my bite valve

Hoping to prevent a swamp around the indoor water bucket, I encouraged them to drink before we came in the house. But, of course, one stop at the fountain wasn’t sufficient to slake their thirst, and they topped off in the kitchen. My partner BikeMike, a most skillful grumbler, griper, grouser, and growler, began a tirade about the mess. Now, before you take his side in this earth-shattering debate, let me plead my case.

Separate but equal segregated water dishes for dogs and cats

When said partner first joined my pack, we were just me and the love of my life, Studley Dude (a Maine Coon cat who seemed half cat, half dog), and a couple of other cats who had adopted me as their staff. He was informed that should he have any idea of being higher in the household hierarchy than Studley Dude, he might as well not move in. He readily agreed, being as how he had already developed more affection for my cats than for me, and like them, saw me more as staff than was warranted by my opinion that I was the pack leader.

But I digress. Shortly after settling in, he installed a dishwasher and a new kitchen floor, white, ceramic tile. I know you’re asking who would put white tile anywhere, much less on a kitchen floor?! But I wanted to have a CLEAN kitchen. About ten years later, I decided that clean was highly overrated. So, when we remodeled, I chose a dirt colored floor. Aside from vacuuming up the dog hair, it requires no maintenance. I’m only half kidding. It gets cleaned around the water bucket about twice a day! But seriously, the two dogs clean up anything that’s spilled on the floor and the vacuum gets the rest. As a matter of fact, since we got dogs, the dishwasher is almost superfluous.

I’m Too Retarded to Learn Politically Correct Speech

Yes, my ability to learn and adapt has been retarded by my ageing brain. When my brain was more agile, I had no difficulty memorizing new words, as in, “El gusto es mio; soy Juan Martinez”. It was a little harder to learn to use new words for old things, but with some work, I could do it. But as I age, time goes by so quickly and re-naming things is just confusing. I mean, in my lifetime people who have naturally dark skin have been known in polite society (the only kind I have ever traveled in) as negro, colored, black, and African American. But now I guess I’m supposed to avoid even alluding to the fact that my friend Rhonda is of a different race than I am for fear of someone being offended that I noticed.

So, the other day I heard someone refer to their singular partner’s attribute as “their” thing. Okay, I get that perhaps one’s partner may be neither exclusively male nor female, and I don’t really have a vested interest in that, but unless one is referring to the holdings of multiple partners, he/she is NOT a “their”. I get that referring to one’s mate as “it” would be a bit impersonal, but it would, at least give him/her exclusive status.

I’m the first to admit that I’m insensitive. I mean truly, if you’re trying to insult me, please give me a heads up; because I’m not likely to get it. So, it’s unrealistic to expect me to be all that sensitive to your sensibilities. And BTW you probably can’t hurt my feelings unless I value your opinion. That leaves a boatload of people out.

Oh, and while I’m on this career busting, politically incorrect rant, don’t expect me to memorize an acronym that grows longer every week for your sexuality . I don’t expect you to recognize that I’m a PMW and I don’t care who or what consenting entity you consider arousing.

I have some advice for folks who want to take umbrage at my archaic language: Don’t get your panties in a wad and never ascribe to malice what can be explained by the ageing brain.

Cram Peak on New Year’s Eve

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.

Sycamores line Morton Creek

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.

Looking across Morton Creek canyon at the Morton Peak Lookout Tower
Sadie pauses to allow the old ladies to catch up.
A view of the damn dam.

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.

Memories of Past Glories

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.

Mum’s Story – Chapter 4

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. 

Choosing a draft horse means matching the horse to the job | Hello Homestead

5

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 celery was 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.

Mum’s Story – Chapter 3

brown horse with carriage on road
A prettified peddler’s wagon

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 they belonged 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.

Papa and Mama my grandparents

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.