FOOD & FUEL FILE
A dash of sugar-like snow is almost lost in the brown grass and gray sky out my back door. Winter’s dullness seems to have finally caught February, and the weight has slowed it to a cold crawl.
Fifty years ago a tablespoon more snow or a teaspoon more ice would have changed a plow horse day like this into a runaway stallion. Reading, writing and religion would have been ditched for sledding, skating and tagging along with Dad and the hired men on the farm of my youth.
Each of those rare days began the same way: listening to the stern voice of an announcer on “the 50,000 red-hot watts of KMOX Radio, St. Louis” as he slowly read a long list of school closings.
If he called our school, we five siblings – my sister, three brothers and me – cheered. Our mother, however, sighed.
The fickleness of southern Illinois weather dictated the day’s schedule. Since a good snow was as rare as thick pond ice – and neither survived long – quick action was required to either sled the mountainous levee that surrounded the farm or skate what 364 other days a year was just a four-acre watering hole for dry cows.
First, we pulled on two pairs of just about everything we owned – blue jeans, socks, T-shirts, flannel shirts, sweatshirts and cloth gloves. The all-cotton outfits were crowned with itchy woolen hats and shod in thin rubber boots.
Next, to actually sled, we crawled, slid or climbed under, through or over barbed-wire, woven-wire and wood fences that held the pastures between our house and the levee. As we did, the cows always stood in a stiff stare. You know you’re a sight when you’ve frozen a cow’s curiosity.
Then, finally, we climbed to the levee’s flat top where we could see the farm’s fields, barns and cows in one glorious sweep. But that grand sight quickly gave way to sledding and down we’d scream on the levee’s river side because near its bottom another, smaller shoulder gave us another short-and-fast ride. Wow.
But that ecstasy always brought agony, a slick, steep trek back to the top. A dozen or so screaming trips down, followed by a dozen or so wheezing trips back up, wiped us out. Back we then went, through the fences, pastures and still-staring Holsteins, to Mom’s warm kitchen.
Recovery was quick – it came with hot chocolate – and off we traipsed with Dad or the hired men as they did chores or hid out in the heated dairy barn.
In many ways that part of the snow day was better than sledding because my brothers and I were with people who talked like we wanted to talk, looked like we wanted to look and did the things we wanted to do. They were men and we, well, we weren’t.
If my father sent hired men Jackie and Charlie to straw the big loafing shed, off we’d go with them to open gates, load the wagon and, later, toss the bales to them to spread. They loved the help; we loved helping.
Most times, however, the snow that brought so much pleasure in the morning usually melted by mid-afternoon. Since mud ruined the fun, we traded it for games of euchre at the kitchen table.
If my mother thought us wasting time she often drafted us for kitchen work or sent us to the basement to crack pecans.
Whatever we did those afternoons certainly beat the memory work and bus rides that had threatened us just hours before.
Only once or twice during all my school days on the farm did snow or ice keep us more than one day from learning and Luther.
But the memories of all those special days still quicken the pace of a slow, muddy day a half century later.
The Farm and Food File is published weekly in more than 70 newspapers in North America. Contact Alan Guebert at www.farmandfoodfile.com.
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