Sunday, April 25, 2010

Entering Modernity

My parents lived for a long time without electricity, running water or indoor plumbing and got along just fine. One of my earliest memories is the great event of electric lights coming to our home. My brother just older than I, always a quick wit, quoted the Bible when the lights came on: “And God said, Let there be light, and there was light.”
He had a way with Bible verses. In the little country church my family attended, children were supposed to memorize an assigned verse during the week and they were brought forward in the Sunday school assembly to recite it. Once my brother’s assigned verse was, “I was glad when the said unto me, let us go into the house of the Lord.” His rendition of the scripture provoked a lot of mirth in that solemn assembly. It was, “I was glad when the told me to get under the church house.” My brother immensely enjoyed having entertained so well.
The very next Sunday, the verse was a much simpler one. Maybe the Sunday school teacher wanted to avoid any more comedy, so she picked a short verse. Her plan didn‘t work. The verse was, “We are helpers.” Of course, my brother’s version was, “We are heifers,” and, much to the chagrin to the serious-minded teacher, the congregation howled and another mischievous child mooed.
It was not long after we got electricity on the farm that we moved to the city. There, we had all the modern conveniences. I recall being afraid of the bathtub. I had always bathed in a number two washtub that, in the winter time at least, would require Mother’s regular addition of boiling water to the tepid contents. The reason that new fangled bathtub was so frightening was that when you pulled the plug, it made a gurgling whirlpool that, in my mind, at least, could suck you under.
I am sure Mother felt very smug and sophisticated in our new place with all the amenities. I remember going with her to the Ma and Pa Kettle movies. One of the series of films was about the time Pa won some kind of contest and was awarded a new home with all the modern conveniences. They didn’t know how anything worked and the humor came from their superimposition of their old country ways onto the latest technology. I don’t think I ever heard Mother laugh any louder than she did at that movie. Sure, she was laughing at the characters on the screen, but she was also laughing at herself--at all of us.
Even though we were living a comfortable life in town, Mother held onto the old farm place and rented it out for a little bit of nothing. When she remarried, my new stepfather, a carpenter by trade, saw the place as a potential getaway only 50 miles to the south. After they got rid of the renters, Pop really fixed the old place up, adding plumbing, a well pump and other needful accouterments. Our family spent many happy weekends down at the farm. We even had a television set there. Let there be “I Love Lucy” and there was “I Love Lucy.”
Daniel G. Ford, Ph. D.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Ham and Eggs

A decade ago, I took a job at a college in my old home town. Shortly after my duties started there, I was walking to the library, across the street from the administration building where my office was located. An older gentleman with a raspy voice stopped me, introduced himself and started a conversation that went on so long that we sat down on a bench in front of the library.

“I used to live over on Fifth Street when I was a kid,” I told him.

“Did you sure enough? I lived across the way behind Charlie Murphy’s house.”

“Really? Did you know Modine Edwards?”

“Modine? Yes, I certainly did. She was a fine woman. She passed a few years ago. Good while ago.”

“Yes, she took care of my brother and me while my mother worked at the bank.”

“Well, you got some good upbringing if Modine had anything to do with it.”

“You are right about that. You know, I learned to swim in Charlie Murphy’s pool.”

“Did you sure enough? I used to cut Charlie Murphy’s grass down there around that pool. You might have seen me way back then.”

And so the conversation went. I vaguely remember a young man that used to mow Charlie Murphy’s grass, and I assumed that was the guy.

A few mornings later, I was in my office and my secretary came in and said there was a man there to see me. It was my new acquaintance. I was working on a pressing report at the time, but had her send him in.

He sat down and began a long stream-of-consciousness diatribe that became more and more bizarre as he talked. It had something to do with a previous co-vivant, a law suit, a difficulty with bill payment. He began to quiz me about local attorneys, which ones I would recommend. I told him I didn’t know anything about lawyers in the area and hoped I never needed one. It was then he said in a loud rasp, “I want some ham and eggs.”

I didn’t know how to respond. Should I make a joke of it and say, I just happen to have some ham and eggs here in my drawer? Should I offer to take him to breakfast? How should I handle the situation? So, I started to act busy, which I should have been anyway, looking down at my report and scribbling something.”

“I want some ham and eggs,” he said louder.

“Well, sir. I want you to have a great breakfast over at the place that used to be Woody’s across the street.” I stood up and walked to the door.

“I want some ham and eggs,” he said, as he walked out. I hope he got some.
Daniel G. Ford, Ph. D.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Shinola Coffin

I’m not sure why children always want to have funerals for their pets, but they do, and they are quite serious about it. Most kids are inexperienced with such events, so they go by what they have seen on television or in the movies and make up a somber decorum of their own.

I had an involuntary remembrance of one such funeral of my childhood when I was in basic training in 1959. What brought on the sudden flash of memory was a spilled bottle of polish that we used on the edges of our boot soles to make them shine. (It was impossible to spit polish the sole edges the way we did the boots themselves, so the barracks furnished several bottles of the potent shoe sole polish that we shared). The containers looked like king-sized versions of Shinola liquid shoe polish with which I had been familiar as a civilian. But the contents of the big bottles gave off a much brighter gleam when applied and dried.

The Shinola shoe polish packagers of my youth had a great idea. There was a little bottle-shaped tear-out section of the box the product came in, into which one lodged the container to keep the liquid from spilling. The box provided a secure base against tipping. The big bottles we had in basic training had no such safety device, and, as I was removing the dauber one evening, I spilled about half a bottle on the barracks floor.

It was at that moment that our childhood pet funeral was borne in upon my consciousness, as if the event had happened just days before. I was seven and my brother was 12 at the time. Bush hogs were clearing an area near our home to make a park. (My street was named Parkway Drive, so they had to make a park). After the workers had gone home for the day, my brother and I found a baby rabbit in the stubble, its tiny sides rising and falling with life. I guess the doe rabbit got the rest of the litter out of there before the dangerous humans returned.

Mother said we could keep Uncle Wiggly. My brother named him that on the way back to the house from the soon-to-be park. He doubtless imagined that the little rabbit would grow up to resemble the handsome rabbit on our board game, but that never happened. Mother advised that we should feed it Pet Milk with an eye-dropper. Even though Uncle Wiggly didn’t want any Pet Milk, we forced the issue, until his little sides stopped rising and falling with life.

The Shinola box lined with cotton made a perfect little coffin for our short-lived pet. I sang “You Are My Sunshine” at the funeral under the gum tree and my brother preached. I don’t remember what he said, but, whatever it was made me feel comforted. I briefly had that good feeling at basic training until the drill instructor started yelling at me.
Daniel G. Ford, Ph. D.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Art of Boyhood

We made our own fun when I was a boy. The drainage ditch behind our house was the source of several enjoyable pursuits: clay for molding, crawdads for catching with a hunk of dry salt meat, “quicksand” for sinking in and banks for digging caves.
My best friend and I made Native American settlement from clay, sticks, paper and foil down by the ditch under the shade of a sweet gum tree. We used watercolor on the clay figures, giving the braves war paint and providing their pinto ponies with realistic splotches. The foil created the illusion of streams and lakes and intricately decorated paper bags became teepees. We made little boys fishing in the ponds with twigs for poles and their mothers cleaning fish in front of their wigwams. Also, before we tired of the project, we had molded a fairly large herd of buffalo. These were just suggestions of the beasts, without much detail. Once we had given the adults a tour of the exhibit, we became cowboys and had great fun wiping out the village with BB guns and dirt clods. We hung onto a few of the finer figures, but most of them went back to dust from whence they came.
A little later, my friend found a tree in the nearby woods that yielded very good bows and arrows. I’m not sure what kind of tree it was, but I remember big horse apples nearby. It could be that we were making our weapons from Osage orange (bois d’arc), the actual material used by the Caddo and other tribes. We fashioned a lot of these, decorating them and ourselves with berry juice and feathers. We looked more like the Indians of the movies than the actual noble people Hollywood misrepresented. I came upon a very nice way of making arrowheads: driving a finishing nail into the end of the arrow, then beating it flat with a hammer and shaping and sharpening it with a file. Those arrows would stick into anything! I would not have allowed my children to play with such dangerous toys. But, we somehow knew that we should be very careful with our creations and we were.

Much later, when my wife and I were cleaning out the old house I grew up in, I found some clay figures from our long summer days at the ditch. One of them was my own creation, a bust of a very primitive-looking man. He had a heavy forehead, deep-set eyes, small knotty ears and a blank gaze that seemed to say, “I am mysterious and unfathomable.” The only thing that didn’t seem quite right was his rather menacing grin, showing a few misshapen teeth made of pea gravel. The old guy was either grinning at his young creator or sneering at what I had become. Either way, I wish I had included him in the destructive raid of so many years ago. Some works of art are not meant to last.
Daniel G. Ford, Ph. D.