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Bo's Stories, Page 4

THE FAMILY OF BESSIE EDNA BROWN & THOMAS MONNIE WOODS

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“Milking”

 

Milking was a real chore for us, and most other folks that we knew.   Our cows were sorry milk producers and we had to milk two to four cows to get enough milk for the nine of us.  Milk was a very important part of our diet and it is a shame we didn’t have one good cow.  The average dairy cow now produces 5 or 6 gallons of milk per day.  That is probably double what it was in 1945, but one of those 3 gallon a day cows would have been wonderful.

We milked our cows twice a day, hot or cold, rain or shine.  Frequently we milked before daylight and after dark, but it was a chore that you didn’t skip because you were too tired or didn’t feel good.  I usually enjoyed the milking although it was a chore.   There was always the smell of the barn, maybe the hay in the loft or corn in the crib.  And then the cows themselves had their own mostly pleasant odor.  If there was a cat on the premises it always showed up for milking time.

Cows were always milked from the same side and would not stand for you trying to milk from the “wrong” side.  The “right” side was always the cow’s right side.  Most people sat on a small stool while they milked and set the milk bucket on the ground.  I usually squatted while I milked.

I always hated to milk when the cow was cold and wet.  She was uncomfortable and that made me uncomfortable.  I liked to duck my head against her side and concentrate on the milking, but if her old tail was wet and maybe covered with wet manure you best pay attention.  It was almost a certainty the cow would swish her tail and slap you upside the head with that old, dirty, wet tail.   I learned a trick later in life that would have stood us in good stead.  That was to take a piece of heavy rope and tie it in a loop about three feet in diameter then drape the loop over the cow’s rump.  The loop prevented the cow from swinging the tail up to hit you.  How nice that would have been back then.

It was essential that we have our cows produce a calf each year if possible.  Without the calves the cows produced no milk.  I understood all of that by the time I was 10 years old and could tell when a cow was “ready”.  We didn’t have a bull on our farm.  Mr. John Smith owned a 95-acre pasture that joined us on the south and east.  When one of our cows came ready to be serviced one of several things happened.   Sometimes Mr. John’s bull would come through the fence to get to her.

At other times the cow would go through the fence to get to the bull.  If neither of those happened then we would see that the cow got through the fence to the bull.  We didn’t have a gate in the fence, but removing a few of the staples that were holding the wire to the posts would allow good access.  I’m not sure Mr. John was pleased about that but he lived several miles down the road and there was really nothing he could do about it except get rid of his bull.  He probably took pity on a widow woman with a bunch of kids anyway.

About the time Ray left for the Navy in 1942, we had a heifer about 2 years old that produced her first calf.  She was really too young and a little on the small side, but that was out of our hands.  She was a well-formed animal and looked as if she might produce a better than average amount of milk.  The problem was she had never been milked and she determined that she never would be. 

Mama gave me the chore of breaking her to milk and she was a real challenge.  I finally just wore her out.  I began trying to milk her with her suckling the baby calf.  Each time I began she would start kicking and walking away from me.  I just kept after her.  Every time she moved I moved too.  As soon as she stopped I was at her again.  After 2 or 3 days of this she just gave up and let me milk her, and sure enough she turned into a pretty good milk cow.

We didn’t feed our cows like they should have been fed.  Frequently we didn’t feed them anything, just relied on the cow getting enough feed from grazing the pasture.  A full sized dairy cow needs as much as 40 pounds of hay or the grass equivalent each day she is producing milk.  Along with that she might drink 20 gallons of water so you can see that a dairy cow is a walking milk factory.  She eats the feed and drinks the water and turns it into milk.

Our cat or sometimes cats always came for the milking.  I would catch one of them sitting and watching me milk and turn one of the cow’s teats toward the cat and squeeze out a jet stream of milk into the cat’s face.  The cat didn’t particularly like being fed milk that way but would lick the milk off and sit there waiting for more.

Back then we never thought about getting a disease from the milk coming straight from the cow, but I’m sure many people did.  We weren’t very sanitary about our milking either.  I don’t recall ever washing the cow’s udder before beginning milking but that is routinely done by dairies.  We did our milking out in the lot (cow pen) where there might be mud or dust composed of a mixture of cow manure and dirt.  Frequently there would be some dust or trash find its way into the milk pail.  Mama or the girls always strained the milk through a piece of fine cloth to remove the insoluble foreign bodies before the milk was put away.

The flavor of the warm (cow temperature) milk was pleasant to me and when we had plenty of milk I usually drank a glass soon after milking was done.   As I’ve mentioned before we put milk sealed in one-gallon pails into our spring to chill it.  We had no other refrigeration for any of our food.  As a consequence the milk, rife with bacteria, would soon sour if not quickly used.  But no matter, it always got used, sour or not.  The cream, which congealed on top of the milk, was removed and went into the churning for our butter.

When a churning (about 1 ˝ to 2 gallons) of milk and cream was accumulated it was put into the butter churn and agitated by “churning” the paddle up and down in the milk.  When this action was completed the butter could be accumulated on the surface of the milk by patting the surface with the paddle.    The butter was removed and could be used as it was, but most people worked it some to remove the residual milk and whey and it was also customary to salt the butter.  Many people put the butter into a bowl and smoothed and cut patterns in the surface with a wooden butter ladle or knife and then served it.  If the butter was to be sold then it was shaped into one-pound blocks with a butter mold.

Most everyone had a butter mold.  This was a small wooden box with a round hole in the center of the bottom.  A piece of wood cut to fit into the box was attached to a small handle.  This piece would be dropped into the bottom of the box with the handle passing through the hole in the bottom.  One could then hold the box by gripping the handle protruding from the box bottom.  Butter was then packed into the box until it was full.  Then the box was inverted over a plate and the butter was pushed out of the box by shoving on the handle.  These butter molds were sized to produce a one-pound block of butter.  And this is probably more than you wanted to know about milk and butter.

 

“The Big Bang”

 

The “big bang” came when I was nine years old.  It happened in either 1939 or early 1940.  We were at my Uncle Roy Brown’s house and it was a cloudy cool afternoon.  I was playing out between the house and the barn.  There was an area there that was bare dirt.  There was no grass there at all.  I had some firecrackers left from Christmas and that is how I can pin the time down.  The firecrackers never lasted long after Christmas, because we had so much fun firing them off.

Somehow I had found a new trick.  I’m not sure now if I learned it from some other boy or if it was original with me.   But, I think it was my idea all the way and I am going to take credit for it since there is no one here to refute my claim.   Placing a firecracker under a tin can and watching it sail up into the air when the firecracker exploded was old stuff.  I had done that, many, many times as had every other kid that I ever knew in East Texas.

We never got firecrackers on July 4th.  I don’t know if you could even find them in our part of the world in July back in those days.  Maybe you could, but if so I never knew about it.  We always got a few firecrackers on Christmas even if we didn’t get much else.  Firecrackers were cheap.  They were very cheap.  For a dime you could get a package of a hundred firecrackers.  Small ones but just the kind we usually got and the ones I liked.  A quarter’s worth would last us a week and I expect that is about what we usually got.

The typical way to light the firecracker fuse was to take a big chunk of a burning log from the fireplace and lay it out on the ground near the spot you were going to pop the firecrackers.  If you were brave you could hold the firecracker in your hand, stick the fuse to the burning log and then throw the firecracker.  That is the way we did it most times.   Another way was to light a small twig by holding it to the log and then use it to light the fuse.

On this day I was doing the old firecracker-under-the-can trick, but with modifications.  What I was doing was punching a small hole in the bottom of the can and pushing a firecracker down in the hole with just the end and the fuse sticking out the bottom.  Then I would push the can about half way down into the soft dirt before lighting the fuse.  This way the explosion was contained under the can.  The dirt around the sides prevented any of the explosion gases from escaping and the firecracker had the hole in the bottom plugged.  When the firecracker exploded, all of the force of the explosion was directed against the ground.  The results were spectacular.  The can would rocket into the air with great velocity and would go to an unbelievable height before it fell back to the earth.

I was having a fine old time of it until I had a firecracker that failed to explode.  I was very cautious after once having a firecracker explode in my hand about the time I drew back to throw it.  My fingers were swollen and burned that time.  I had a lot of pain for a time until my hand healed up.  I didn’t want any part of that again so I just left the thing alone and waited a while to be sure it was safe.

After waiting what I deemed to be more than enough time, I cautiously approached the can and took a look at the firecracker.  The entire fuse was gone and there was no evidence the body of the firecracker was burned or burning.  I bent over the can and reached for it so I could replace the firecracker.  Just as I did that there was an explosion, it seemed, in my face.  It was so fast that I hardly knew what had happened.  I suppose the fuse had slowly burned down inside the firecracker and reached the powder charge just as I bent over.  Maybe I fanned the ember enough to make it go at that moment.  At any rate the can shot out of the ground and hit me in the face. 

The can cut both of my lips, bloodied my nose, broke one of my front teeth and temporarily blinded me.  I was a mess.  I know I must have scared Mama and Aunt Bonnie half to death and I thought I was practically killed.  It was truly a “Big Bang”.  After a little while I could see again and the pain lessened some and I realized that I was going to be all right.    That incident made me very, very cautious with firecrackers for many years to come.

How many times did Mama have things like that happen to one of her kids?  Too many, I know, and there was not much she could do about it.  There was no hopping in the car and running to the doctor’s office or the hospital.  You just did what little first aid there was that you could do and then waited for nature to take its course.  If it was apparent a person was in serious trouble and could possibly die, then the doctor would be called to come, or someone with a car might be summoned to make a run to town.  A person had to be in pretty bad shape before that happened.

Oh, the joys of parenthood in those days.  Don’t you know that it was really tough to see your children suffering and there was not a thing you could do except try to comfort them.  I know there were many times when Mama prayed to take away our pain and heal us.  There was nothing else for her to do except suffer along with us and I know she did that.  I surely accounted for many of those gray hairs that adorned her head and I regret that.

The tooth that was broken, by the firecracker-propelled can, has never been repaired.  A number of dentists have talked about it but I’ve always declined their offer to fix it.   It is beginning to wear pretty badly now, but I think it will last as long as I do.  After all it has now lasted about 60 years since it was broken.

 

               “Cisterns, Wells and Springs”

 

There are many springs in the East Texas area of my youth.  As I told in an earlier story, we had a wonderful spring, as did our neighbor Mr. Dobbins.   And just on the other side of the hill from our spring was another one perhaps as good as ours.  It was on the southwest part of the Joe Williams place and fed the pond that I described seeing built there in the mid-1930s.

All families were not lucky enough to have a good spring or even a good well to supply their water.  The water table in that country was very near the surface in most areas and it was generally easy to dig a well to supply the needed water.  And that is what most people did.

It is relatively easy to dig a well by hand.  The tools required are simple.  They consist of some type of windlass or pulley.  A rope and bucket and a couple of digging tools that I will describe are also needed.  I speak from experience for my brother Ray and I dug such a well on the Kelly place that joined us on the northwest.   A two-man crew is also required with one man in the well and the other at the top of the hole.

Ray chose the place for the well.  We erected an “A”-frame on each side of the location with a cross member joining them at the top.  From this cross-member we suspended a pulley with a rope and a five-gallon bucket.  Then using a posthole digger we dug a hole a little larger in diameter than the bucket.  When that hole was about twice the depth of the bucket, we placed the bucket into the hole.  Then we began using the other digging tool.  It was made from a malleable-steel bar about 6’ long.  I believe this bar had been a buggy axle.  One end of the bar had been flattened, widened to about three inches and drawn into a sharp blade.  This tool was used to cut the dirt around the hole into the bucket.

When the bucket filled it was pulled out of the well with the pulley and emptied away from the hole.  As the level around the bucket was cut down, the digger was used to deepen the hole for the bucket.  Actually the bottom surface of the 36’ diameter of the well became cone shaped and sloped toward the hole with the bucket in it.  We continued to draw the level down.

A 36” stick was used to frequently check the diameter and the roundness of the hole we were digging.  As the depth increased, the lack of a breeze became very noticeable down in the hole.  This was offset some by the coolness of the earth so it was not an unpleasant job, although the digging was hard work, as was the drawing of the bucket from the hole and emptying it.  As the hole got deeper the opening at the top appeared smaller and smaller if you were standing in the bottom of the hole looking up. That was not a place for a person prone to claustrophobia to be.  We frequently swapped places because the air in the hole was a little oppressive.  Digging or working down in wells was somewhat dangerous.  There was always the possibility of a cave-in as there was of a lack of oxygen or the possibility of an accumulation of a poisonous gas such as methane or hydrogen sulfide such as miners encountered.

We didn’t worry much about the hazards of the job.  The area where we were digging was firm clay from about a foot down to the final depth of the hole that in this case was about 22 feet.   We, or at least I, assumed we would know if the air were bad.   I know now of course that we would not have known until one of us passed out while down in the hole.  Had that happened it would have been almost impossible for one of us to safely get the other one out of the well.  Our guardian angel was looking out for us.

At a depth of about 20’ we hit a rock that spanned the entire hole.  When we first hit it, it seemed very solid and our first thought was that we had hit bedrock and could go no further.  But the rock proved to be only a minor obstacle.  It was from two to three inches in thickness and we broke through by pounding it with the blunt end of the steel bar.  Just below the rock was a sand layer containing some water and we thought we had our well, but it never did amount to much.  Maybe another 2 or 3 feet would have hit a good level of water, but we never went back and dug it deeper.  Maybe Ray did later, I don’t know now.

Our neighbor Mr. Odie William had a good well and it was only about 12 feet deep, but wells varied in depth all around the area.  My sister Cathryn and brother-in-law Milton Roberts lived, at one time, on the road from Tatum to Marshall.  The house where they lived was just north of where I-20 crosses that road now.  Their house there had a well on the back porch, as many homes did then.  That was the deepest 36” well that I ever saw.  I don’t know how deep the well was, but the surface of the water in the well was 55’ down from the top of the well box.  The water was cold and good, but it was a chore drawing it from such a depth.

 

A story here about wells on back porches.  When Lloyd and James were toddlers the house where they were living had a well on the back porch.  Mama was in the kitchen working and the boys were outside playing.  She heard one of them yelling and it sounded like he was down in the well.  It almost scared her to death thinking that one of the little boys had fallen in the well.  She ran out to try and save him only to find that James had stuck his head into an empty churn and couldn’t get it out.  He was yelling and it sounded much like it would have had he been in the well.  She was able to get him out of the churn by lifting him straight up by his feet.

Some people lived where there was no well or spring to provide a supply of water.  Earlier in this book I told of Mr. Coker Waldrop hauling water in barrels in his wagon for their use.  Other families relied on a cistern.  I knew a number of people who had them, but I wouldn’t want one.  All that I saw were metal tanks located to receive the flow of rainwater from the roof of a house.  There is nothing wrong with using rainwater, but there was a problem with all kinds of foreign bodies winding up in the cistern.  And some of them you wouldn’t want in your water.  Such things as insects, bird droppings, birds, small rodents, dust, and leaves.  Some of those might lend some body and flavor to the water but weren’t too wholesome and could even make the water dangerous to use.

Of course, wells were not impervious to some of those same problems found in cisterns.  Some well openings were completely enclosed with a box around the top of the well and a hinged lid to keep things from falling into the well.  But many times these lids were left open or in other cases there was no lid.  There were fewer problems with contaminated springs but there were some.  The wonderful thing about a spring was that it purged itself at least every few minutes by continually bubbling forth with fresh water from underground.  Most springs contained a few water insects, the occasional crawfish and maybe even a few minnows along with maybe some weeds and mosses, but I never viewed any of those as being a serious source of water contamination.

In looking back, I wonder how much sickness and disease the water we used caused.  I’m sure there was some with more being caused by cisterns and wells than by springs.  The way people managed their water was probably a bigger factor than the source of the water, in most cases.

 

“To School in Town”

 

In the spring of 1942 I finished the seventh grade at Brooks School which was located in the Brooks Community about two miles from our home at Sugar Hill.  At Brooks School I knew every one of the students there.  I was kin to many of them.  I knew their mothers and fathers, their brothers and sisters and most of the grandparents.  Going to school in town was a frightening experience. 

As part of the Texas education change from an eleven-year to a twelve-year system, I skipped the eighth grade and went from the seventh grade at Brooks to the ninth grade at Carthage.  I turned 13 in June before beginning the ninth grade in September.  Being young and very small for my age made it all the scarier for me.

Some of the kids, at Carthage, I knew from Brooks and there were others I knew from the Delray Community where my Aunt Mildred and Uncle John Tom Ross lived.  Their kids were now my classmates in addition to being my cousins and that was nice.  There weren’t many other nice things about it though.

At Brooks School each of us had a teacher and a desk in her or his room.  That is where we went and spent the day.  Everything was quiet and relaxed.  Carthage High School was anything but quiet.

Each student was assigned a “Homeroom” and each homeroom had a teacher assigned who checked the roll.  After that was done the students scattered for classes in various rooms with various teachers.  I don’t suppose that system has changed much until this day.  A student may or may not have a class under his or her homeroom teacher.

The Carthage school building seemed so large to me then, but I know it was not really very large.  At first I was terribly afraid of not being able to find the room for my next class or of being late.  Those fears passed pretty quickly as I learned my way around.  But I never did become comfortable around the “Town” kids.  I always felt inferior.  They dressed much better, most had benefited from better schooling than we had received at Brooks School.

One of my teachers made a bad situation much worse for me.  In her defense, she was young and inexperienced and I long ago forgave her.  What happened was this.  I was taking Plane Geometry and was grasping the concepts pretty well and was pleased with my progress.  As a way of instruction my teacher had a student go to the black board and work one of the assigned problems and then explain it to the class.

I had been good at this kind of thing at Brooks and felt pretty comfortable in doing it.  The problem arose because of the word chord. Now this word was foreign to me.  Of course I had seen it in the book and even knew what it meant, geometrically speaking, but I did not know the ‘h’ was silent in pronunciation.  When I was explaining my problem I pronounced the word ‘ch’ord.  When I did the kids laughed.  When the kids laughed the teacher laughed too.  There I am standing at the board explaining a problem and everyone is laughing at me and I didn’t even know what was funny.

That was almost the end of my formal schooling.  But for my great respect for my mother, I would not have gone back to school.  Very unimportant things can become very important to insecure people and I was very insecure.  Already timid and self-conscious, that incident made me more so.  There is no doubt in my mind about how that one incident shaped my life.  I’ve probably done things as bad to other people but I always feel for those who are like I was then.  I try to make them feel at ease.

I did not want to go back to my Plane Geometry class but I did.  I didn’t learn much after the incident though.  I had a classmate by the name of Laura Link Allison.  She was from a well-to-do family that owned one of the Carthage banks.  Laura felt sorry for me and befriended me during the rest of the school year.  She will never know how much that meant to me.  Perhaps if I ever see her again I will tell her.

As time went by I gained a little confidence and did pretty well in school.  I had learned my way around, and began to feel a little more comfortable.  Then during the school year we moved to Henderson and I had to do it all over again.  Only this time the school was much larger.  The building was probably three times as big, was two or three stories and I was really lost.

To complicate things, they were using different books in some cases and in others they had progressed at a different pace and I struggled to get by.  There was absolutely no way that I would have gone to a teacher and asked for help.  I see where that is frequently recommended now, but only one who has been there can understand why a kid won’t do that.  I understand completely.  Somehow I made it through that first year and by fall we were back home on the farm and I was once again at Carthage High School.

 

I took Vocational Agriculture, as most all the farm boys did, and that was a good experience.  My “Ag” teacher was Mr. H. C. Ellis and he was a real character and in retrospect I think he was a good teacher.  I liked him.  One of the proudest days of mine was when I got my brother Ray, home from the war, to go to school and talk to the boys in my class.  Mr. Ellis made a big deal out of it and I was thrilled.

About the time I went to town to school I was introduced to tuna fish sandwiches.  I don’t know how that happened, but prior to that time I had never eaten tuna.  But I liked it and a tuna sandwich became a regular thing in my school lunch.  I am not sure if I ever went to the school cafeteria.  If I did I don’t remember a thing about it.  I’m sure it was cheaper to take a sandwich from home than it was to buy lunch in the cafeteria.  Anyway, I preferred it and that is what I did.

In the early spring of 1944 Mr. Ellis took a busload of Vocational Agriculture students to Fort Worth, Texas for the Fat Stock Show and Rodeo.  This was a voluntary thing and we had to pay our own way.  It wasn’t very much and somehow Mama came up with enough money for me to go.

We got into Fort Worth and went to the hotel where arrangements had been made for us to stay.  They sent us over to a barracks building at North American Aviation.  The barracks were built to house workers during the frantic effort to produce the planes needed to fight the war.  We stayed in the barracks and that was a good place for a bunch of rowdy boys.

There was a small neighborhood café nearby and that is where we had all of our meals.  They were very reasonable and good too.  At that time a hamburger was about 10 cents.  I don’t remember, but a breakfast of toast, eggs and bacon was probably not more than 20 or 25 cents.  I enjoyed the food.

We went to the Fat Stock Show on Saturday morning and then in the afternoon we attended the rodeo.  The featured attraction was Roy Rogers and his horse Trigger, and of course his wife Dale Evans was there too.  It was a great thrill to actually see the movie stars perform.

To tell the truth I was not a good student.  I don’t have any of my school records so I can’t testify as to my grades, but I would say they were mediocre at best.  In the spring of 1945, about a month before the end of my sophomore year, I came down with the mumps in one side only.  Then, I don’t know about now, there was a great concern when boys had the mumps because if not cared for properly they could cause sterility.

I was confined to home during my convalescence.   About the time I recovered and was ready to return to school, I swelled up on the other side and had to remain home until I was over the second episode.  I missed all of the final weeks of school, which I admit I didn’t regret a lot.

In the fall I began my junior year.  I made a somewhat feeble attempt to contact my teachers of the previous year so that I could do make-up work and take my final exams.  I was successful in completing the work in only one class.  My failure to do that was the nagging worry of something needing doing that was left undone.  As time went by the worry faded and everything seemed to be fine.

My classmates accepted me as one of them and by my senior year I was beginning to enjoy school.  That year, my classmates elected me to the yearbook editorial staff.  That was really a nice thing for me. I was elected Assistant Sports Editor and assigned to assist the professional photographer in taking pictures for the book.  I carried his gear and helped him setup shots and felt like a really important person for one of the first times in my life.

All was going along pretty well until the list of graduating seniors was posted.  My name was not on the list.  I went to see the Principal.  My records were pulled and he found I had been given ‘Incomplete’ for a final grade in all but one of my sophomore classes.   Of course I knew all about that.  The Principal talked with my sophomore teachers. It was finally agreed that, in view of my performance subsequent to the time of the missing grades, I would be assigned a passing grade in those courses and allowed to graduate.

The graduating seniors were outfitted with caps and gowns for the ceremony.  Ties were required for the boys but I didn’t have one.  My brother-in-law Milton Roberts lent me one of his ties to wear and also let me drive his car to Carthage for the ceremony.  I don’t think any of my family was there, but it was a momentous occasion for me anyway.

My friend Harold Gene Williams, who graduated with me, planned to attend Panola Junior College that was recently opened.  I wanted to go too, but just couldn’t see a way to do it.  Instead, I made a crop with my brother Ray that summer of 1947 and then again in 1948.  I had visions of doing something more but I seemed to be tied to the farm.  That was where Mama was and I felt a responsibility to her to stay there and help provide for her.

What I really wanted to do was go to Marshall and get a job with the railroad or maybe to Shreveport where I could get a good job.  Another attractive possibility was going into the Navy, but I felt if I left I would be betraying my responsibilities so I stayed.  The peacetime draft passed in the 1947-48 session of the legislature and gave me the impetus to finally leave the farm.  Although I returned for a time, twice, that was essentially the end of my life as a farmer.

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