Friday, June 11, 2010


When I was very young, I can remember Hubert and Bud riding horses in the hills and fields behind our house. They would sing and shout and yodel and the sound of their voices echoed across the green of the land, through the cornfields and meadows, to bring delight to my young ears. They were strong and lithe back then, aglow with the beauty of youth, both of them trim and fit, both of them handsome young boys.

Oh, how I loved them even then, caught up in the adoration of a young sister for her older brothers. I watched them as they raced those old plowhorses back to the barn, then jumped off to laugh about their ride. They were inseparable back then, always laughing, enjoying the pleasures of youth together.

The family left Illinois before Helma and I were born, loaded possessions in an old car and rumbled up to Michigan. There were jobs in Michigan, it was said, jobs that didn't involve labor on a farm. The brothers planned on getting jobs in the auto plants. Henry Ford was looking for men and they were ready to work.

Unfortunately, Hubert and Bud were too young to get jobs in the plants, but the older boys were soon employed. Herman, Harry and Homer were old enough and punched the timeclock every weekday, rustling around to get something to eat before they had to leave for work. They came home greasy and exhausted, falling into bed to grab some sleep before morning came again. Herman spent his lifetime working in the plants, but the other brothers eventually went on to other careers.

They rented a house in a crowded neighborhood, with houses lining the streets and streetlights casting their light through the shadows of the night. From the house, one could hear the rumble of streetcars as they labored down the tracks and the view from the windows were not scenic vistas, but a seemingly endless world of chimneys and housetops. Pop had also obtained a job in an auto plant and he was as miserable as a born farmer can be, hating the job, hating the house, hating the rows of houses and the crowds of people walking past on the sidewalk, going somewhere, too busy to stop and chat. He hated riding the streetcars, shoulder to shoulder with countless others, all smelling of grease and perspiration, all staring out the windows and the passing storefronts and miles of sidewalk.

Once in a while, the lure of the big city affected Pop and, according to Mom, he would fail to come home when his shift was over and would stagger in late at night, still awake in the wee hours of the morning, and definitely under the influence of demon alcohol.

One night, Pop staggered home, opened the door of the house, and fell into a stupor on a couch, only to discover in the early morning that he was in a strange house. He managed to get up and hurry home before the unknowing family discovered his presence, but Mom was already out of bed to greet him and definitely ready to berate him. No one could bang pots and pans around and tell someone off like Mom could. Pop would listen, then wander to his chair and light his pipe, unperturbed by her anger.

In his heart, he yearned for Illinois, for the people he had known and talked with throughout his life. He missed the fields and the woods of the farms where he had planted crops and traded horses to make his living. He wanted no part of city life and resented their lives there. His young children were running wild on the city streets and he felt that no man should spend his life working in grime and grease when there were crops to plant and fields to plow. the soft breezes, the falling rain, and the sun smiling down as you worked.

Mom, too, had her problems. The older children were working most of the time, but she was left to manage the younger scamps. Hubert and Bud explored the neighborhood and fought with some of the aggressive older boys. They would return to their rented home with scrapes and bruises, while Mom fussed and fumed and washed off the wounds with Fels Naptha. When a group of boys tied Hubert into a cardboard box and left him on a streetcar track, it was Bud who ran home for help. Mom's heart leaped into her throat, as she prayed that a streetcar wouldn't come barreling past before she could get Hubert out of the box. Fortunately, she made it there and a disgruntled Hubert was freed.

It was episodes like this that made Mom uneasy and dissatisfied with city life. Her lively boys were magnets for trouble and it didn't take them any effort to use their fists to protect themselves. They were strong and fit, from their early years on the Illinois farms. They knew they could lord it over these puffy. weak city kids. They walked together, Kings of the Road, winking at the girls. scowling at the boys, but always courteous and polite to the older folks.

When Hubert tied the string around his penis, Mom knew it was time to do something about their behavior. His organ had swollen to encompass the string and Mom didn't know how she could extract it. When Pop came home, he helped get the string out and Mom put lotion on the red, swollen organ, while Hubert tried to hold the tears from his eyes and babbled nonsense when asked the reason for the string. No one ever knew just what had happened, whether Hubert tied the string himself...or did he finally meet his match and was humiliated by strange boys holding him down, taking down his pants and subjecting him to this indignity? If Bud knew the answer, he didn't tell, so throughout the years, the story was told that Hubert tied the string himself.

Mom and Pop knew then that their city days had to end, but where could they go? They rattled around in Harry's car, looking for places to rent. Harry and Herman decided that Pop couldn't make any money as a farmer. If he was going to quit his job at the auto plant, he had to go into business for himself, where he could make money and maybe even end up rich. Pop was flabbergasted by this idea. He had never wanted a store. His life, he felt, belonged to a farm, and business was beyond his imagination.

In the days ahead, they located a store on a little rural street in a little Michigan town, with buildings stretched up and down this street like beads on a necklace. The store was a tiny grocery, with two gas tanks in front. With the riches garnered from the auto plants, Pop was soon ensconced in his very own business.

So, the younger children were enrolled in the red brick school, while Pop and Mom ran the grocery store. My only interest was the bins of cookies that lined an outer wall. I would snatch a cookie several times a day, until Pop began to guard the bins. But he hadn't counted on my host of nieces and nephews who also raided the bins. Sis, Junior, Ronald, Donald, Richard, Norma Jean and Bette June and I would stake out Pop's position, then one of us would creep through the door in the direction of the bins. By hiding behind a counter filled with grocery items, we could make it across the room, then quickly take cookies and stuff them in our pockets, while Pop was busy with a customer. Then we would run out behind the house and enjoy our sugary treat.

One time, Hilda ran into one of the gas pumps and the excitement that followed allowed us time to empty the bins. The problem was, there was one cookie left over, and Ronald claimed it as his due, because he had been the one to sneak into the store and empty a bin. "Not fair!" we cried. "We have all taken turns getting the cookies. Why should you get more than us?" We ganged around Ronald and tried to grab the cookie from his hand, but he ran like the wind and disappeared into the house, where he told Mom we were beating up on him and we ended up getting scolded.

Pop was not happy. Running a store was not his cup of tea. He ended up handing out credit to all of the financially strapped people in the neighborhood, whose numbers seemed to be astronomical. They always promised to pay him back, and some of them tried to do so, but times were bad and hiring had cut down at the auto plants and so, the return was scant.

Helma entered school, a fact which filled me with bitter envy. I was so incensed by this unfair fact that I vowed I would seek my revenge. So, when Mom walked Helma to the school, I followed not far behind. When Helma sat at her little desk, I found a perch near a window and spent the day glaring through the glass at her. She complained to Mom, who tried to keep me home, but I slipped away and continued sitting at my post. Finally, the teacher told Mom that, if I was going to attend school every day, I might as well do it correctly, so they placed me in a class.

I was extremely happy, even though the teacher was an ogre who slapped tape on my mouth because I wouldn't stop talking. If I had known the Constitution guaranteed me Freedom of Speech, I would have informed Mrs. Williams. As it was, I had to stop talking and pay attention, which was never easy for me to do.

This was a very strict school, with some very strange methods of punishment. Deed was punished for some extraction and was forced to stand on tiptoe with his nose placed in a ring that was screwed into the wall. After being punished this way several times, Herman placed a visit to the school. When he had finished lambasting the principal, the nose ring was removed from the wall.

Again, Pop and Mom decided to move on. The store shelves were empty, the till was empty, and Pop was unhappy being a businessman. So, once again we began to look for a place to live, a house to rent, a place surrounded by fields and woods. Pop found his farm and I found the happiest years of my childhood, blissfully leaving Mrs. Williams behind.