Tuesday, May 10, 2005


My childhood was a mob scene. My sisters and brothers married and many of them had children the same age or just slightly older or younger than me, so I never lacked for playmates, since most of the Neices and Nephews visited the Farm regularly, sometimes for days at a time.

The three youngest children of our Clan was myself, Helma and Harlan, whom we call Deed, for some reason or other. Pop was always using nicknames with children and Helma was called OOUH and I was called WOY for many years. Thankfully, both those nicknames are forgotten, except for one nephew whose nickname used to be PEEWEE. We have a pact. If he will stop calling me WOY, I will never call him PEEWEE again.

Helma was the delicate flower among the hardy cactuses growing up on the Farm. She had pneumonia with great regularity and, since birth, had suffered a variety of ailments, all of them terrifying my mother into constant nursing service. Helma was a beautiful girl, tiny and fragile, with hazel eyes and a mop of brown hair.

Helma weighed under two pounds at her birth and was placed in a cigar box, which was used as a cradle. A man's handkerchief was folded to make her a diaper, and she was wrapped in a little fuzzy blanket and placed in the warming oven of the old woodstove, which substituted as an incubator. The miracle is that she lived and thrived and developed a left hook which could send one into doubled-over spasms of misery. But Mom did not know about Helma's amazing muscular ability. To her, Helma was the child she almost lost, and the child she had to nurture into adulthood.

To make sure Helma was properly nurtured, Mom would place a bed in the center of the living room floor. When Helma felt weak or was sniffling, she would sprawl on this bed, while Mom brought her bowls of soup, ladling each bite into Helma's mouth and urging her to swallow.

If Mom left the room and one of the other children approached Helma's bed, she would fend him off with amazing dexterity and strength, only to fall back into a dainty weak faint when Mom returned to her bedside.

With the wisdom of children, we knew in our hearts that Helma could be brought back from Death's door, if we just handled it right. Helma had one fear....a terrifying, paralyzing fear of snakes. So we decided to cure her illness by using this fear to our advantage.

All afternoon, we worked on it. Starting with a length of wire, we took black tape we found in the barn, and began winding it. We wound and wound the tape around the wire, making it bulge at one end and taper at the other, until it looked like a replica of the real thing. Our artistic ability confounded us. We attached piano wire to the snake and congratulated ourselves on the way it wiggled and twisted when we pulled it.

Our artists were Deed, Ronnie, Donald, Richard, Charlie, Norma, Sis and myself. No exhibit in any museum was gazed upon with such admiration and adoration. Leonardo da Vinci could not have been so pleased with an artistic triumph. We could hardly contain our enthusiasm.

It was almost evening when our chance arrived. Mom was busy cooking in the kitchen. Pop was reading his paper in his easy chair. When Pop read his paper, you could get away with anything, so immersed did he become in the written word. So, we quietly placed the snake at the foot of Helma's bed, as she lay dozing, trailed the wire back to the bedroom, peeped out, and awaited the big moment.

It came. Helma woke up and was daintily sipping water from the glass Mom left by her bed, when Deed began slowly pulling at the piano wire. The snake wiggled and twisted its way across the white coverlet. Helma didn't see it for a long while, then finally, she noticed the movement. Her eyes widened, and there was a moment of shocked silence. Then her scream broke the air like the terrified wail of a stuck pig. She leaped from the bed, jumped over my father, as he leaped from his chair, newspaper flying in all directions, and Mom came running into the room, anxiously shouting "What happened?"

Helma could only gasp between screams and point at the snake. Mom snatched up the stove poker and began whacking the snake with it, while Pop roared that his newspaer was being trodden apart.

In the bedroom, we collapsed into laughter, a great pile of giggling children. Unfortunately, this alerted Helma to the culprits, because Mom had quickly declared the snake a fake, and Helma came into the bedroom like Mohammed Ali ready to defend his title.

Never had a person emerged from the doors of Death so quickly and so energetically. Children scattered in all directions. Helma proceeded to chase her tormentors, promising to knock their teeth down their throats. The one she eventually caught was me, and I still have the bruises to prove it.

Order was restored and Pop eventually returned to his newspaper. Helma went back to her bed, alternatively proclaiming her complete heart failure at one moment with glowering at any of us who happened to be near her at the next. And the Tale of the Snake has become a part of family lore as the day we saved Helma from entering the Gates of Paradise, bringing her back to her earthly being, saving her from the Grim Reaper.

Even today, to mention "the snake" to any of my neices and nephew brings snorts of glee. Our artistry was so perfect, our enthusiasm so great, our purpose so focused, that we recall the snake as the Revenge of the Hale and Hearty against the delicacy of the falsely fragile.