Thursday, July 02, 2009


Older folks always remember what they call the "Good Old Days." Someday the young people of today will do the same thing, say the same words, walk the same path. The past always looks better from a distance. After years have passed, those memories glow like dewdrops in the sunlight.

One of the things I remember from my childhood is penny candy. When I visited Norma Jean and Bette June in Detroit, my older sister, Hazel, would give us each a dime and tell us to go on a walk to spend it. We felt rich as we headed for the candy store. Some stores had entire counters filled with an assortment of colorful, tasty chews. We would lean against the counter and try to make our choices, the dimes in our pockets burning our fingers as we tried to make up our minds. The clerks would wait patiently, an expression of boredom on their faces, as we pointed at certain varieties that we wanted to buy.

"I'll take one of those and two of those. No, wait, one of those and three of those. No, maybe just two of those and two of those and three of that one!"

Finally, with our purchases tucked into little paper sacks, we would leave the store. Then, for an hour afterward, we would chew the candy, lines of strawberry red or lime green dribbling down our chins, that fruity sweet smell so reminiscent of KoolAid forming a miasma around us.

Today's world isn't much different, except that the candy has soared in price. For some reason, in today's world, instead of candy, folks carry around something to drink. From water to soda pop to fruit juices to "power" potions, these drinks are carted around as though they are a part of our bodies. We carry them everywhere and take careful little sips, sometimes placing the liquid in fancy cups that retain the chill and leave the drinks more palatable.

We didn't do this back when I was a child. Water was obtained from the pump in the yard and the galvanized bucket sat on a stand in the kitchen. If you needed a drink, there was a communal dipper that everyone used. There was no need for water to be purchased. It was readily available from the pump during the Spring, Summer and Autumn. All you had to do is find a little water to prime the pump, pour it in, then take the handle and flail it ferociously until the precious liquid started to pour.

Every day, around lunchtime, Mom would take that bucket filled with water, along with the dipper, out to the field. Pop would first drink dippers filled with water. Then he would take off his hat and pour a dipper filled with the cool liquid over his head. His team would wait patiently, knowing that their turn at the trough would come when the day's plowing was over.

In the wintertime, the pump would inevitably freeze. Then water became a problem. It was fetched from the stream that ran near the orchard. Mom would break the ice with a hatchet, then dip up a bucket of the water. Pop also had to use the water in the stream in order to give the horses and cows enough water to assuage their thirst. For laundry, Mom always melted snow. This was a slow, laborious process and often involved carrying in what seemed like a mountain of snow, in order to get a small pail of water.

After Mom had scrubbed the clothing in the snow water, she would sometimes hang the clothing outside until they froze as stiff as planks of lumber. Then she would bring the clothes inside the house and hang them around the rooms on a makeshift clothesline. This meant that while walking through the house one was slapped in the face by the melting, dripping articles of clothing. They looked like a field of doomed men hanging from where they had been hoisted by executioners, empty sleeves dripping wet, legs hanging to the floor. It seemed as though it took them forever to dry. Once dry, Mom would heat up her flatirons and smooth the material, the kitchen filled with steam and the smell of clean, Fels Naptha soaked, hand-scrubbed clothes.

Hubert, Bud and Herman got together and decided to put water inside the farmhouse. They worked for days, digging and sweating in the summer sun, arguing with each other over which pipe went where. Hubert would curse. Bud would admonish him that we children were listening. Herman would spur them onward. Mom sat on the stoop, a doleful expression on her face. I don't think she ever believed they would end up with anything usable. When they finished their task, the kitchen had water available in the form of a little pump. It sat proudly there where the galvanized bucket had formerly reigned.

What jubilation it must have been for Mom to have water available at her fingertips. She pumped the first dipper filled with water and drank it, a huge smile on her face. I am sure it was as delicious as a glass of expensive champagne. As for myself and the rest of the children, we entertained ourselves by pumping and splashing the kitchen water around, amazed that my brothers could bring about such a miracle. They stood around, basking in the admiration, acting as though such a plumbing feat was an everyday occurrence for them.

The kitchen pump was a vast improvement over priming the one outside, but it still froze up in the winter. Nothing could ward away the icy winds and subzero temperatures that Michigan endured in those long, cold months before Spring. We always knew it was Spring when the pump thawed. It was as joyous an occasion as seeing that first robin or seeing the apple trees budding their bridal blooms in the orchard.

The days would pass and soon those old trees reached into the remaining sap of their youth and, despite their age, would burst into pink and white glory. It was my favorite sight, these lovely old relics clad in their bridal gowns, standing at attention in fragrant rows. All of the nieces and nephews and myself would race around the trees, climbing into them, sending showers of petals to the ground, delirious with happiness that summer was on its way.

We always had to remember Charlie's heart. All of the adults called him "Junior," but we all decided this was undignified, so tried to call him Charlie instead. When we would run to the orchard, his older sister, Hilda...would admonish us to be careful, not to allow Charlie to overexert himself. No admonishment held Charlie back, however. He was the rowdiest among us, climbing the trees, racing in circles around the orchard, shouting and laughing until he would have to stop to catch his breath, his heart thumping in that skinny chest. We knew he was disobeying his mother, because we could hear his heart thumping and sloshing. It was as though cold buckets of water were being poured on the joy of the occasion and nudging us with a constant reminder that Charlie was not like the rest of us, that we had to worry about him dying.

Charlie was not only the most exuberant of the boys. He was also the meanest. One did not dare cross Charlie. He would fold his tongue backward between his teeth and come after any antagonist with fury written on his face. The only way to halt Charlie's anger was to run very fast and we had some excellent runners. We all knew that Charlie would end up sitting exhausted after any race, his anger abated, his chest heaving, his face flushed with pain.

Our little altercations were never remembered and we would continue our games, still friends, still determined to fill our lives with fun. We carried no grudges, but immediately forgot any argument as though it had never happened. We knew that Hilda would meet us with concern and irritation, her eyes taking in the fact that Charlie was straining for breath.

"I thought I told you not to exert yourself," she would scold him. Then she would turn to the rest of us and repeat her words. We would stand there with innocent demeanors, our dirt-smeared faces revealing the grueling activity of our games. "We told him. He wouldn't listen!" was always our excuse. This wasn't far from the truth, because Charlie was determined to keep up with the rest of us, come what may.

So, while children in the city had counters filled with penny candy and other delights that a city can bring, we had a world filled with blooming apple trees with gnarled branches to climb, a reed-filled lake with water so murky it was a wonderland of frogs, and dippers of cold water from the kitchen pump to quench our thirst.

Just as penny candy no longer exists, the value of water has multiplied beyond measure. In today's world, water is as precious as diamonds. Folks pay for the water they drink and dipping into streams as Mom and Pop used to do would send modern folks to the hospitals, victims of the pollution that has plagued our world. So, the Good Old Days were in some ways far better than our lives today, because our streams ran clear and our clean, fresh air was perfumed with the fragrance of blooming flowers. Even so, someday old folks will sit around and reminisce about the 75 cent candy bars they used to buy and the bottled water they drank.