Saturday, March 30, 2013

Radios and Rifles--More of my Father's Memoir

When we first moved out to the timber claim, rural electrification had not come that far, so we had no electricity. Kerosene lamps in the evenings, cooking on a wood burning stove, and no refrigeration. The milk was kept on the North side of the house in the shade, and covered with damp cloths, since evaporation contributes to cooling. But only contributes--not really keeps it fresh. I had to drink so much questionable milk that to this day I won't eat cottage cheese, yogurt, or buttermilk. I got completely turned off on anything milk-wise that wasn't fresh. Hate it!!!
After a while we did get a wind charger and hooked it up to batteries, so we had a certainly amount of electricity. Could run a radio, and burn a couple of 25-watt bulbs in the evening. That was about all. The wind charger was on a tower beside the house. One clear night it got stuck by some sheet lightning when I was standing about fifteen feet away. I saw a flash of light overhead, a huge boom, and I was inside that house before that boom was over. Really scared me.
A couple of years later we did get a kerosene refrigerator, so I once again could peacefully drink the milk. It amazed me that a little kerosene flame under the refrigerator would keep everything cold. But it did.
We would do a lot of hunting. I got my father's old rifle (a 1903 Winchester) when I was about 9, and my father sent a lot of ammunition that he got when the DuPont company bought some ammo company. Sent them through the mail - don't try that today! We would wander around looking for rabbits or snakes. Even got a couple of pheasants with my 22 caliber rifle - lucky shots, for they were on the wing. But they made good eating.
One time I had just rounded a turn in the road, when all of a sudden a rattlesnake breaks the silence with its very loud rattling. After my nerves calmed down, I shot it, waited for it to quit wiggling, and then cut off the rattles as a souvenir. When that rattling breaks the absolute silence out there in the wilds, you are so startled you shake for a few minutes.
In this deserted land with no paved roads or state police, everyone learned to drive at an early age. When Bob and I were big enough to see over the hood of the car, and our feet could reach the pedals, we learned to drive. I drove everywhere, even into Vona on occasion. I was probably about ten or eleven when I learned to drive.
Sometimes we would go out in the car with Ira Fisher. One of us would drive, with the other two sitting on the front fenders looking for rabbits. Once, during a sharp turn, I fell off and landed on my side, with the rifle on top of me. Picked myself up, dusted myself off, and on we went. One time Ira was using our single shot rifle, and he fired at a distant rabbit just as Bob stepped in front of him. This rifle had a habit of misfiring - which it did this time. Thank heavens, for the shot would have gone right into Bob's neck. Another time I was carrying my gun, and it went off. The bullet hit close to my foot. Glad it missed me. I would hate to have had the embarrassment of shooting myself in the foot.
When Bob and I were old enough we would gather firewood for the winter, by cutting down the dead trees and sawing them up to stove size. We had a big bucksaw, a 2-man affair that we used, with the logs on a hand-made saw horse. Once, after a short rest, we started up again, but Bob started before I had a hold of the saw. Well, it went right across my leg, leaving a gash, which slowed us down for that day a bit. I still have a scar. And we would end up with a winter's worth of firewood for my grandmother and aunt to use, along with some coal.
We acquired a radio and set up our private radio network with a few of the neighbors. We ran a wire from our radio to the fence line, erected poles over gates and roads to carry the line up and over any passing vehicles, hooked the wire to our neighbor’s fence, and then ran a line to their house. They had to buy a cheap trumpet-like speaker, but they could listen to the radio, but only to what we had tuned in. Talk about a captive audience. They probably weren't too interested in listening to Bob's and my serials - "Little Orphan Annie," "Tom Mix," or "Jack Armstrong, All American Boy.” But they had a switch and could always turn it off.
     Then when we got a phone that was hooked up to the national lines, the same neighbors got some cheap phones, and we had our own little network, again using the fences. If they needed to call someone, they would call us and we would relay it on. Of course everything was a party line. You cranked one long one for the operator, who then rang the number you wanted - numbers like, "2 long, and 1 short" - like that. My aunt made a career out of "listening in" constantly. About the only really interesting thing I remember she heard were some girls calling a boy to "meet them down at the graveyard." Gee, wonder what they had in mind?
   One last thing. Out there in the middle of no where, my mother and her sister Ruth made Bob and I practice violin. Hated it. Rather be out hunting.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

My Father's Words Part 3--Dust Storms, Hail and Grasshoppers

by John Sedwick


DUST STORMS: This was the scourge of the environment. There had been so little rain, and the soil was so dry that it blew with any wind of a little strength. We had it bad up where we were, but it was really much worse down around the panhandle area of Oklahoma.

During World War I, the price of wheat hit the ceiling and stayed high for a time. Land was plowed up to plant more wheat. Then the price of wheat went down, the rains stopped, and all this newly plowed land was ready to blow away. Which it did. For several years the total rainfall was about five inches. That certainly doesn't do much to help raise anything, except dust, and then more dust.
Library of Congress
You would see a dust storm coming hours ahead of its arrival. A brown cloud would form on the horizon, grow larger and larger, until it was filling the sky. About ten minutes before it hit, the wind would die down - sort of like the back draft of a fire - and you ran for the house, closed the door and windows, and waited for it to be over.
Library of Congress

We had one last for three days - the tail end of a hurricane that came up from Texas. Times we couldn't see fifty feet outside the house. Everything was covered with dust. And there were constantly occurring dust storms - at least one a week.

As I said, there were not as many families moving away as there were down in Oklahoma. Oh, we had some. I remember going to one auction up the road a bit. Stuff going for a quarter, 50 cents, etc. I understand that land was going for $16 an acre. Heard that some of the folks were going to Alaska because the government was giving away homesteads up there. These people were farmers. That's all they knew.
Library of Congress

LIGHTNING: Horrific, frightening, shaking-in-your-boots-time. Multiple streaks of lightning streaking across the sky lighting up the land, followed by loud thunder claps. If it hit a fence line it would split out the fence posts for a quarter of a mile until it grounded out. Rolling in from the West you would see the storms coming. And there wasn't always rain associated with them. Some were dry storms. In the years of drought we could have used some rain, but it didn't always come. And many times the flash would not be completely over before you were rocked with the thunder - the lighting was that close.

HAIL STORMS: You might have three or four bad ones during a summer. You could tell one was coming by the color of the clouds that day - hail clouds were very brown in color. Then you would hear a low rumbling, like a base drum-roll being beaten, and to the West would come a white glaze over the landscape. As it got closer you could see the hail stones, anywhere from marble size to golf ball size. They beat the crops down to the ground, flattened them out. And you didn't want to leave your car out during one of those. Would not be good for it.

After one bad hail storm all the neighbors gathered up the hail - real ice in the middle of summer, wow! - grabbed some salt, sugar, and milk, and came over to our place and made ice cream. Their crops were ruined, but they had some unheard of ice in the summer - so let's get something good out of all this. And that ice cream was delicious! Whole milk, sugar WOW!

Library of Congress
GRASSHOPPERS: They say that in the 1930s, they darkened the sky in China as they were flying over. Well, we never had them that bad, but for several years you could see and hear them flying over, and hopping along all day long. And eating everything as they went. Locusts and grasshoppers of every shape, color, and size. And walking along you kept stepping on them, squashing them. Was quite a plague. It seems that after a few years they died down somewhat, but they had all ready done their damage. Bob and I made a collection of them, pinned them to the inside of cigar boxes. We showed them at school when we came back East.

 RABBITS: We were being overrun. Coming back one night from Vona, in ten miles I counted 110 rabbits picked up by our headlights. And those were just the ones I saw. They were eating everything. They were starved by the drought too and wanted to eat. It was either us or them.

Rabbit hunts were held. A circular fence was set up in about a 100 foot circle, with a funnel-type chute leading to it. All the men and grown boys (we were too young) went out in a big semi-circle, oh, a half mile wide. Then making noise and hollering to scare the rabbits, the crowd started walking toward the chute that led to the pen. One time a coyote got in there, but he escaped before the pen was closed up. Then the men went into the pen and clubbed the rabbits to death. They couldn't shoot them with everybody in this tight proximity, and besides bullets cost money. The state was paying a bounty of two cents an ear, so all the men had a burlap sacks and would cut off the ears and stuff them in a sack. So, you could make some money and help get rid of a real problem at the same time. And, the rabbits were a real problem.

We might shoot a cottontail bunny, and then skin it and eat it, but we never tried it with a jack rabbit. Understand from the locals that you had to boil a jack rabbit for about eight hours to even make it chewable. Not worth it.

THE FLOOD: I think it was 1935, when we had eleven inches of rain come down one night during a six hour period. Looking out the window I could see we were surrounded by water forming a lake around us. We were on a little rise, but the water could not drain away fast enough.  But the most amazing thing was that the Republican River, usually a dry river bed, was running a quarter-mile wide and taking everything in its path with it. Even with the rain pounding the roof and the heavy claps of thunder, we could hear that river roaring four miles away. All bridges were gone, so no one got to town for several weeks. Then they had a temporary crossing rigged until a new bridge could be built. And there was water standing in all the adobe low areas. In our pasture the fence ran through one of these adobe low fields. The fence ran down, disappeared, with the water two or three feet above the fence post tops, and then appeared again later as it came out of the depression. It was there for a good six months before it completely dried up.
Library of Congress

And an amazing thing - within days there were tadpoles swimming around in the ponds, and by a week or so later we were serenaded by the sounds of frogs croaking. Probably the eggs lay dormant in the soil until awakened by the new moisture. But somewhere, somehow they had to get there in the first place. But I will not worry about that.

THE BLOWOUT: This was not an element of the environment, but a victim. This piece of land, about forty acres had been a plowed and planted, then abandoned. It was located on a high area, so there was nothing around to check the force of the winds. The dirt had been blown out, leaving a depressed, scooped out area. The sides of this sandy bottom were about six feet higher than the floor of the area. That's how much dirt had been removed by the winds. This was not a recent happening, but somewhat old. And every school picnic or church gathering visited it. Why? It had once been an Indian campsite, so the area was loaded with lost arrowheads. Probably either a Cheyenne or Arapaho tribe, as they lived in that area. And over the years many were found. You walked around, looking down, hoping to see one. There were four big cottonwood trees beside the blowout (but on the leeward side, as far as wind protection would have been), so that meant there was water not too far down, which made it a good camping ground. There were no other trees in sight.
Anyway, I have a collection of arrowheads. The work was so precise, with one a bird arrowhead, only about one inch long, but perfectly shaped. How did they do it so well? Must have taken a lot of patience. Also time, trying to find suitable rocks in this sandy land. I wonder over the years how many arrowheads were found there. 

Sunday, March 24, 2013

My father's words -- Part two

By John Sedwick

Once the weather got colder, my grandmother decided that three women and two young boys living alone eleven miles from town without a well or electricity didn’t make much sense. We moved closer to town--about one and a half miles from Vona--to a twelve foot by twenty foot shack at Joe Moser's place. Hardly a mansion. A pot-bellied stove was in the center of the room, which was well used in the winter. One night it got down to forty below. All the guinea hens froze up in the windmill by Joe's house. When the sun got warm the next day, they all fell down, frozen.
Joe and his wife were real characters. They had two older daughters; well maybe 17 or 18, but to me that was old. They were of German origin and were the area’s brew-meisters. Prohibition was in full force, and they had their own home brewery and did a rather good trade with the locals—lawyers, doctors, sheriffs, all the good citizens desired a brew. To all those customers Prohibition Be Damned!
Joe was building our new house right out back of his. When it came time to move up to our property, Joe got the necessary house-moving equipment--wheels, beams, jacks, etc., slid them under the house, started up his tractor, hitched it to the moving rig, and towed the house the ten miles to our new place at about three miles per hour. This was now the new home.
The house was to be placed on a rise and among the trees. Deep holes were dug at each corner of the house. Large pieces of junked farm equipment were placed in the holes, and several strands of wire (barbed, as this they had in stock) were attached to them. The holes were filled in with the wires running out of them. The house was lowered in place, and the wires firmly attached to all four corners of the house to serve as anchors for the house. Quite a wind blows constantly, and at times is strong enough to warrant this kind of anchoring. We were in.
            Before long we had an extension built on the back of the house, an addition for the kitchen, with a bed at the other end. I remember having whooping cough there in that bed. Then there was a garage built for storage and the car. In those days of dust storms, you didn't want to leave the car outside. The storms drove a sandblast that could take the finish right off it. And behind the garage we put the outhouse, a custom-built two-holer with room for the Sears catalogue.
            A cistern was dug behind the house to store the rainwater. Since water was a precious commodity, you tried to save all you could. With a gutter on the sloping roof, we could divert the rain water into the cistern. We didn't drink or cook with this water, but used it for bathing and household chores.
We added a large screened-in porch on one side, about 10 by 10, with a canvas roof on top. Was good in the summer. Where we were in Colorado was at about 4000 feet elevation, so it would cool off at nights. You usually needed a sweater after dark. Actually, the weather, humidity and general weather conditions were very pleasant. But there were times the “gods were angry” and let us have it. More about that later. 

Saturday, March 23, 2013

My father's words

COYOTE WINDS was inspired by my father's stories of growing up in Eastern Colorado in the 1930s. While there was plenty of blowing dust in his stories, he also talked about freedom and adventure. With the schools closed, he spent his days hunting rattlesnakes and rabbits. He collected arrowheads and grasshoppers. He camped out on the prairie grass and counted a thousand shooting stars. 
I was lucky that my father left a short memoir of those years. After he passed away, I reread the memoir, determined to find some way to use it. I was not ready to say good-bye to Dad.  
 I wanted to share parts of his memoir with you.  Here's Part One. 

John Sedwick
I don't know why it happened, and it is too late to find out now for there is no one to ask, but at the age of around four I found myself living on the rolling, sage brush covered plains of Eastern Colorado. I heard was that my grandmother's health had broken, and she needed to be in a drier climate. Colorado, where a high humidity in the summer might be all of 20%, certainly fulfilled that requirement. I wasn't alone. There was my mother, her sister, Ruth Vincent, my maternal grandmother, Florence Vincent, and my brother, Bob, who was almost two years older than me. The year was 1931.
Why Colorado? Well, my maternal grandfather, on a whim one summer when he was a schoolteacher, went out to Colorado to claim some land. I think it was around the turn of the century, but am not sure. You could claim as a homestead a "section" (640 acres) by living on it for 18 months. Or, you could claim a "quarter section" (160 acres) by planting forty acres of trees on it and call it a "timber claim." This is what he did, planted forty acres of ash trees and never saw it again. But, it was in my grandmother's name, so she was the owner.
Our property was eleven miles from town, and at first we were living in a two-room deserted shack on the property to the North of ours. There were two rooms - but one was used for corn storage for the people who owned the place. So we had one room for the five of us. We had five folding, collapsible, canvas army cots. I guess some sort of stove. Not much.
I remember that during the day it was Bob's and my job to track any rattlesnakes we saw so that the farmer could kill them. That's a job for two boys, 4 and 6 years old, right?
We did get a horse, a white-ish sway-back that we named Spark Plug. But, we never did get a saddle.  Any riding was done bare-back. We also were adopted by a dog, a brown "dawg," that we called Barney Google, after the comic strip. (Not the current Internet search engine). Once when Barney had an entanglement with the coyotes and was all torn up, he nursed himself back to health there in the garage.  We would bring him food and water, and he would lick his wounds.  Within a week he had recuperated.
All the local roads around there were just two tracks in the sandy soil, with grass growing up in between. Our Post Master would wear out a car a year with his deliveries. He drove seventy to seventy-five miles a day, as fast as he could over dusty roads, six days a week. About nine o'clock every weekday morning we could look South toward the next hill. We would see a dust cloud forming, and before long would see Fritz's car barreling down toward us. He'd come to a fast stop at the mailboxes there at this corner, get rid of the mail, and careen off on his way. You could set your watch by it. And everything came by mail. No UPS, no FEDEX - just mail. One time we had to order a new axel for our '28 Chevy from the Montgomery Ward catalogue. It came by US mail.
And then there a small church, white, with a small steeple that must have been built in better times. Everybody went there on Sunday. It was the only time during a week that you could see other people, have someone to talk to, and put on your "Sunday-go-to-meeting" duds. The "service" was led by Spurgeon Brawley from a weekly scripture mailed to all of us by a religious publishing house in Kansas City, was our weekly Bible lesson - sort of like "mail order religion."
        What were these people living on? Not much. Besides The Great Depression, there was also a ten-year drought going on in the West, which was later called The Dust Bowl. Most people raised their own food. They would take their milk cans down to the train station to be shipped to a creamery. Prices were very low. I remember eggs at twelve cents a dozen, gas at ten cents a gallon.