Sunday, June 17, 2018

Father's Day

I grew up on my grandfather's farm. It was a coincidence, but when I was born he built a house in town (population 150), a mile away, and we moved into the farmhouse. A four-stall garage sat between the house and barn. It was originally designed to protect farm vehicles, not cars. My grandfather had built a massive workbench on the long side that only a very tall person would enjoy using. I remember my mom climbing up on it to get to her painting and gardening supplies stored in the cabinets on the wall. 

My brother and I liked to stand outside and throw a ball back and forth over the garage roof. I didn't get any sympathy the time the ball hit my nose because I didn't see it coming. The standard response from Mom for any kind of owie was, "It's a long way from your heart." That was her version of "Suck it up, Buttercup." 

Not long after the baseball in the face incident, Mom or Dad discovered the ball was breaking the slate shingles when we didn't lob it up and all the way over when we threw. That was the end of "Blind Catch" and the garage retired to it's singular duty of providing a roof over the car and pickup.

The doors on this garage were as solid as the work bench inside. They weighed a ton, unlike modern aluminum doors. Perhaps I exaggerate, but they were very heavy. A counter-weight, spring, and pivot system made it possible for weak humans to open them. The weight was a metal box filled with sand and suspended from pulleys by a cable. If the spring tension, pivot point, and the weight were exact, the door would stay in any position.

This was a fine design for anyone over five feet in height. Opening the door was a little like a weight lifting routine. Grab the handle at the lower middle of the door and pull. Walk backward while the bottom of the door swings out and up. Watch out that it doesn't bark your shin and ruin your pantyhose. Once it reaches chest height, turn loose of the handle, take hold of the bottom edge of the door like an Olympic weightlifter doing the clean and jerk, and give it a mighty heave. Momentum swings it all the way up and inside the building where it parks securely on top of a supporting frame. While this maneuver is going on, the counterweight pulls the cable through a set of pulleys and rests inches from the floor.

If you were 6'2" like my grandfather, you just gave the handle a good pull, and the door catapulted into the top position. When my brother and I were little, he would let us hold onto the bottom of the door while he opened it.

For short people like me, closing the monstrosity required a different set of skills. Just jump up like a gymnast mounting the uneven bars, grab the edge of the door and ride it down, while the cable zips the box of sand back to the top.

Like people, even garage doors have a life expectancy. Although the wood was still as solid as the old workbench, the cable stretched and the weight box rusted and leaked sand like an hourglass. The two doors we used all the time were permanently parked in the open position for fear we'd never get them raised again.

Mom was a stickler for keeping the garage closed up. Open doors invited cats, dogs, birds, and possums while dirt and leaves blew in. She tried to keep the garage as clean as her house and didn't appreciate the extra work if she had to sweep it out. Why even park the car in the garage if birds could perch in there and whitewash it?

Sometime in the early 1980's, out of necessity, Dad replaced the worn-out, most-used middle doors with light-weight fiberglass roll-up doors. Mom had the luxury of a remote opener on her stall. A third door was removed from the pulley mechanism and fitted with hinges to swing open from the side. Instead of a farm truck, the lawn mower lived behind door number three. No one used the fourth door.

My mother worked the 5-9 shift at a restaurant for twenty-two years. The only exception was on Sundays when she worked two shifts. She went to town (a real town, not the one my grandparents lived in) at ten in the morning, waited tables through the busy noon hour, and came home at two o'clock for a nap before driving back to the restaurant.

One Sunday, Father's Day, in fact, she was rushing around to get to work. My dad had already been somewhere that morning, probably looking after his cattle, and had left the door open behind his pickup. His was the stall closest to the house. In her haste, Mom just walked through the open portal, jumped in her car and shifted into reverse. The rear bumper just fit in one of the spaces where a fiberglass panel should have been. In her new automatic garage door. The one she forgot to open.

Can you imagine a bumper protruding from the left door, just below the handle?

Naturally, she blamed Dad because he hadn't closed the other door. She would never have entered the garage through that door if it hadn't been open. She would have remembered to push the button and raise the door on her side if he had just closed his door like he was supposed to.

Since her car was wedged into the door, Dad had to take her to work in his pickup. She was late. 

You can't imagine my dad's delight in this minor auto accident since she never did anything wrong. It didn't matter that Mom thought it was his fault.

Mom didn't plan to give Dad the Best Fathers' Day Gift in the history of the world, but she did. He didn't mind the cost of the replacement panel. He didn't even call the insurance agent. He derived years worth of mileage from that incident.

I hope all you fathers have as pleasant a day as he did.

Thanks to my writing friend, J, for helping me with some descriptions.

Monday, June 11, 2018

The Goat Who Ran Out of Gas

My grandfather on my mother's side was a backyard mechanic and ran a little shop from his farm. We're talking subsistence farming on 40 acres, raising alfalfa, a handful of pigs, a milk cow, and hens.  He rented a pasture where he had a modest cow/calf herd. 

In the mornings, when my grandma left for her job in the school lunchroom, half the neighborhood men convened at his house.  After drinking a couple of pots of black as tar coffee made in a glass percolator on the stove top, they adjourned to his shop and wasted away another half of the morning smoking roll-your-own and telling stories. (Boy, did my brother ever get in trouble for repeating a word he heard!) The shop was dark and grimy. Everything had a generous coating of black axle grease or motor oil on it. He didn't own anything modern like a parts washer, so there were dishpans of black, oily gasoline sitting on the floor for rinsing off bearings and the like. I always worried those men would burn the place down with their matches or the ash off their cigarettes. 

Each fall it was a combined effort to chop enough sorghum to fill everyone's silo to feed their cattle through the winter.  Each man had a job they knew very well and they went from farm to farm until it was done. One of the neighbors was also a first cousin of my grandfather. His name was Orle. I don't know exactly what was wrong with him. Easy explanation was that he was 'simple'. He always crowded into a persons space and got right in their face. If he asked you a question, he didn't wait for an answer, but would say Huh? way down in his throat. He kept that up until he got an answer. Once, my dad decided he would just ignore him.  Dad lost. Another neighbor was a cousin by marriage. He had a bird dog named Jack that stuck its nose in my crotch every time I got near it. Not exactly germane to the story. 

These three cousins plus two other neighbors usually filled silo together. They used an ensilage cutter much like this. One day they were taking a lunch break, sitting around on the ground under some shade, and a goat kept trying to get into everyone's lunch pail. My grandfather sarcastically asked his neighbor what he would take for that goat since he was so proud of it. He said a quarter and Orle (the simple one) reached into his pocket, threw the man a twenty-five cent piece and hollered SOLD. The joke was on grandpa, and this bunch made sure the goat went home with him at the end of the day. 

I don't know what kind of goat it was. I expect a meat breed. It had horns that curved back and seemed pretty big to a 7-year-old. It must have been someone's pet. My brother and I named him Billy. He stayed around the yard and didn't get out on the road. We tried, unsuccessfully, to get him to pull a little red wagon by tying a rope from the handle to his horns. Technically, he pulled it, because it moved at great speed when he ran off.  On the other hand, the wagon was bouncing on its side, and my brother and I were in a tangle on the ground. Not to be thwarted, we tried it a few more times and decided Billy didn't have enough training. 

After retrieving the wagon and rope, my dad took Billy by the horns and led him into Grandma's HOUSE. The goat was already upset from the wagon treatment. The results were worse than the time Dad tucked a thirty-pound pig under each arm and let them loose in the kitchen. 

My brother and I had been outside recovering from the wagon wreck. Hearing shouts, we ran to the house. When the goat's hooves hit the hardwood floor, it went spraddle-legged. The more it struggled to stand, the crazier it got. It also lost control and rained goat droppings all over the dining room floor. 

Soon we were laughing, jumping up and down, trying not to step in anything, and generally adding to the chaos. My mom screeched at my dad and took a rolled up newspaper to the goat. Dad told her it wasn't the goats fault, so she brandished the paper at him. My grandpa collapsed into a chair and held his feet off the floor as he clutched his ribs. "It's playing marbles!" he guffawed. When the over-excited animal was back outside, my grandma cleaned up the mess. She never did get mad at my father for any of his tricks. My Mom had serious words with my Dad, but he never did quit grinning.

Billy did everything that goats in children's storybooks did. It ate tin cans, for instance. We thought he was great.  He had one talent, or vice. He liked to hang out with the guys in the shop. He lapped up gasoline out of the pans on the floor. The first time I saw that I was sure he would die.

One sad day we went to see Grandpa and Grandma and couldn't find Billy. We looked everywhere. We were frantic.
My dad told my brother and me that Billy had wandered away from the house, ran out of gas, and couldn't get back home. 

My brother and I were traumatized by Billy's disappearance. We imagined dreadful scenarios of him getting run over by a truck, or laying down in some distant field and starving. We talked about him all the time. I mean until we were in our 30's. Really.

Several years ago, I got in my dad's face and told him I was a big kid now. I could take the truth. What happened to Billy?  He laughed and told me. I called my brother up and bragged that I found out what happened to the goat. Then I kept him in suspense for two years before I gave him the answer. Dad played along and kept it on the QT as well.

I won't be so mean to you, dear reader. A neighbor's grandchildren came to his farm for the summer, and they took the goat. From there? I don't know.

Monday, June 4, 2018


My Dad's family was crazy for two things: fishing and card games.  The fishing lure (pun intended) skipped a generation with me. I still enjoy a rousing game of 10 point pitch or Aggravation.

I learned to count and add with Dominos. As soon as my brother and I had learned the rudiments of the game with Double Sixes, Dad graduated us to Double Nines. The only indication we ever got from him that we had accidentally played a tile that scored was if he asked if we wanted that count. When we got older, we learned to watch him like a hawk because he would claim he scored when he hadn't or write down 25 points when he had only made 10 or 15.

When we played Aggravation, which was already a fast-paced game, we discovered it would move a lot faster if every player had his own set of dice, instead of waiting for the preceding player to politely pass them on. 🎲🎲🎲🎲🎲🎲🎲🎲

Here are the House Rules for board games.

 Rule One:  Watch Dad.  He Cheats.

Rule Two: Don't let your playing pieces roll off the table.  All other players may move their pieces at warp speed until you get back to the table.  If your playing piece/s roll/bounce into the floor furnace, you are out of the game.

Rule Three: Don't repeat any words Dad said.

A genius invented 10-point pitch. There are an astronomical number of combinations of hands that can be dealt. The human element of players and their bids increase the combinations to an unfathomable level.

House Rules for card games are a little different.

Rule Four: The object of the game is not to win.  The goal is to keep my dad from winning. Period.

Rule Five: If you are in the hole (have a negative score) and shoot the moon (a bid worth 20), and make the bid, you lack 1 point of getting out of the hole. This is a time-honored tradition dating back to the day my grandfather proclaimed the rule when my Dad and my aunt were kids.
Just FYI, going SET means not making your bid. If you bid 7 and fail to get 7 points, you go SET. 7 points are taken off your running score. That's how you can be IN THE HOLE. 

This looks like a good hand. I'm a cautious player. I'd bid 6 in Spades and hope my partner had some trumps. I know people who would bid the maximum 10 on these cards. Why not go crazy and shoot the moon?

Mom and Dad belonged to a card club for about 50 years. They met once a month at alternating homes. In the early years, the host couple gave out prizes for high, low and the Galloper.  If you bid 7 and made it, you wrote your name on the Galloper prize. Whoever had their name on it the most, took it home at the end of the evening. In case of a tie, they drew for high card. Most of the prizes were white elephants, especially low prize. When the lottery was legalized, $2 tickets became popular prizes. 

My folks taught my kids to play pitch when they got big enough to hold the cards. I think my daughter was about twelve before she caught on to what 'going set' meant. We thought it was odd that she didn't react to losing points. One day it hit her that every time she or her partner went set, they lost that many points.  "WHAT!!" she shrieked. After that, when someone lost a hand, my Dad would mimic her.

I told one of my Dad's friends what a low-down cheat he had been when my brother and I were kids.  
"You learned to pay attention to the game, didn't you?" he said.