When Johnny Comes Marching Home

It is the mid-sixties and Rowe Hill is still the sleepy little hamlet. Wilmer Bryant milks his cows morning and night; Eunice Brooks makes her delicious butter every week; Winnie Hanscom and I exchange news and recipes on the telephone. Sun comes up in the morning and goes down in the evening and so the days go.

It is a different story outside our little world; the war in Viet Nam is raging and several of our young men from the village of Bryant Pond are in that country, so unlike their little home town.

Every morning the children of Rowe Hill gather at the rustic “bus stop” at the bottom of our driveway, awaiting the bus to carry them away for another day at the local schools. Among them are the “kids” from on top of the hill, who have to walk the distance no matter the weather.  One of the “kids” is older than the others, but he seems to delight in standing with the youngsters. My four come home with tales of “John saying this ” and “John saying that” and particularly, in the winter time, how he divides the kids into teams for snowball fights before the bus arrives. Oh, it is so much more fun now that John is waiting at the bus stop with them each day.

This was pretty much the same conversation each day upon their arrival home. Then came the time when one of the four remarked, “John isn’t at the bus stop any more.” I figured perhaps he had moved or had decided not to attend school any more and let it pass in the business of the day. The second time it was mentioned I asked if anyone knew where John had gone. “Oh, he went in the Army,”  one offered.

Not another one, I voiced silently. Later on,over the crank phone I consulted with Winnie down over the hill, who confirmed that she had heard John had enlisted. 

Months passed, another school year gone and September rolled around again. The questions began. “Do you think John will be at the bus stop this year?”  “I don’t think so.” Then a chorus of “why?” echoed around the farm kitchen.

This was new territory for me. I could explain pretty much any farm life questions, but how to explain why their friend was still away. I tried but there were still four concerned faces when they left for school that first morning.

Gradually the questions faded; another year went by and apparently the four had decided that John left and would never be there for another snowball fight. Meanwhile, the little hamlet was whispering that John was missing in action in Viet Nam. At this point, the four had grown to an age where they understood what it meant to be at war and that John was fighting, and so I broke the news to them gently and told them we had to pray that he would be coming home soon.

Months roll into years; years into decades and I never heard the status of John…was he still missing; had he been killed…who knew.

Fast forward forty years.  Alan, the youngest of the four, traveled with his step-father to Washington, DC, to see the Fourth of July fireworks. As always, when they traveled, they sought out other interesting things.

Two days after returning home, Alan came to me. “We visited the Viet Nam Wall, Mum.” 

I asked what his impression was of the Wall. “I found him, I found John.” It took a minute for me to comprehend what he was saying. ” I found his name, Mum.  John Brooks. I found John.”

The grown man had not forgotten. He found his childhood friend at last…among so many other names on the Wall. Johnny would never come marching home, but he stayed in the hearts of everyone who knew him.

(I never knew the official ending to John’s story. I do know that for years relatives could not find out what happened to him. May he rest in peace.)

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HOT WHEELS

Oh what a glorious June day in 1961.  Wild strawberries lay in wait for my little lard bucket, little birds were breaking their shells and timidly trying their wings for the first time. A wave of courage washed over me watching their little feathers lift in the wind and I guess I thought it was time for me to do the same thing. Why else would I even entertain the thought of getting a drivers license at this particular time? I had three children, the oldest not quite four years old and I was shaped like a root beer barrel. Indeed! I was ready to bring child #4 into the world in a matter of..well, let’s say…a week or two.

It started innocently enough a few weeks earlier when my friend, Shirley Morse, came on the Hill and offered to ride along as I toured one side of the mountain. Winnie Hanscom did her share by watching my three youngsters during these outings and we went up and down, up and down one side of the mountain, using the top of the hill for the turn-around. This remained a secret from the husband. No need for advice from him. Well, a couple years earlier, he gave me one driving lesson, resulting in his little coupe setting on top of the stone wall when he did not make it clear what gear I should leave the little gray marvel in and it took off on its own..backwards down the hill and found its own resting place. I decided remaining silent on this crusade was the thing to do.

The day came..and all I envisioned was the steep hill to the courthouse in South Paris. Tales of horror had come to me over the years and I dreaded that so much. Well, there I was, waddling toward the very lucky fellow who was going to be riding with me. I swear I saw his eyes buzz around in a circular motion when he saw the very pregnant woman who was going to “try” to get behind the wheel. Have to give him credit..he spied a penny on the floorboards and told me to save it toward a mink coat. I don’t know if he was trying to calm me or himself down.

I remember driving out of the yard and down a side street and suddenly there I was..in Market Square, the land of confusion, at the time. My passenger told me to stop and park. Was he kidding? I only park pointed in; I don’t do square parking. I put that in simple terms because that was the way I was thinking. There was no place on Rowe Hill to practice parallel parking. I stopped; put the gear in reverse, turned the wheels ( I think). No go. Second time and my belly was scraping the steering wheel. No go. Merrill Transport trucks are now lining up behind me. I can feel sweat beading on the forehead. Nice time to go in labor, I thought. I had absolutely no clue. One more time. Did everything I had read about this absolutely dumb way of parking. Ah ha!! I got the vehicle where it belonged..almost. There was a little metal “ping” and I halted immediately. My passenger told me that was enough and we would head back to “town”. I thought we were going to make a tour of Norway. Who knew! A sudden scream from the passenger side told me that I was to now attempt the dreaded steep hill. OK. Hold on!  Got half way up there and stopped. Got the vehicle in the right gear and by golly, I took that car right up the hill without one tiny slip back. 

The good man crawled out the car at the top of the hill and informed me I now had a drivers license. Frankly I could not believe it. He did add,”The next time you park, don’t use the sound system.”  Hmm..a little sarcasm on his part, but I had the paper in hand.

Before the husband left for work that early morning, I decided it was time to let him know what was going on..well, in case, I had an accident and he came home to find me in casts and bandages. He told me if I got the license to come home, drive the 1957 Ford station wagon to Bethel, get two bags of grain and get them home.

My maiden voyage was just that. A trip to Bethel and back, two bags of grain in the rear, two medium sized tots sitting on the back seat singing and chattering, one baby secured in a car seat and one big root beer barrel behind the wheel.

Now I knew exactly how those little baby birds felt on their first flight. Freedom!!! (But I had a lot more noise on mine….)

 

 

 

 

 

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Remembering Rowe Hill

It isn’t there anymore…the Rowe Hill I knew and loved back in the Sixties and Seventies. Oh, there are traces …but it isn’t the same.

There were about seven houses, eight if one counted the summer home belonging to Ethel E. Hobbs.  I should count my grandparents’ home, although the house belonged to someone else by the time I reached Rowe Hill.   Below their home was the Emery household, which I remember being owned by  “Grammy ” Record when I was very young. I remember her as being very kind and sending me a dollar when I received some award, but other than that, I have no knowledge of her family.

Let’s start at the very top of the mountain . My cousin, Leland Farr bought the home there and turned it into his retreat when not working. If one began the journey down Sheepskin Bog Road there was the Brooks farm. What a lovely family.

We bought butter from Eunice who , I swear, made the finest butter around ( not counting my Gram Martin’s of course). She always had a ready smile. One of the most simple  but unbelievably beautiful sights I ever witnessed , was to be near the road one day when Mont and Eunice rode by in their horse and buggy. Why has that scene not vanished from my memory bank?

During my newspaper days, I had the opportunity to visit the Brooks farm and talk to Bernard, the oldest son. He had a collection of the alphabet …not unusual, you say? Well, during his outings, he had found twigs in the shape of each letter until he had the complete alphabet. I think of Bernard today, on the farm still, and wonder if he still has that collection.

Down the hill a bit, was the Sumner home. The walls fairly burst with all the children and well behaved children they were. Myrtle and Lee Sumner had the most wonderful family and I often wondered how Myrtle ever kept track of their eleven children. I always remember Sammy coming to the farm to say hello and I had something on the stove simmering. He said, Well, it smells good and looks good, but will it taste good?” He had a beautiful smile and a great sense of humor. After I started working for the newspapers, Myrtle called me each Sunday evening with news of the family visiting so we had an opportunity to chat.

There was the Colby Ring homestead, the very place my brother Curt and I “got religion”. At that point, Stella and Colby had moved and over the years several took up residence for awhile. Finally, the Powers family bought it for a summer home. Now, I have no idea who lives there.

Not far from my driveway sat the Bryant/Hanscom home. Wilmer and his mother, “Maggie” lived downstairs for years with Ray and Winnie living in an apartment upstairs. By the time I moved to Rowe Hill, Wilmer, Ray and Winnie all lived downstairs.  Oh, I would love a transcript of the phone calls between Winnie and me over the years. We exchanged news, recipes and weather reports along with everything else imaginable.

At the time, a little log cabin still stood at the top of ( appropriately named) Log Cabin Hill. In the “olden” days I guess it was rather a social gathering place with music or so I am told. During my tenure on Rowe Hill, that slowly melted into the ground.

There was the “little field” where Wilmer Bryant planted cucumbers for the factory in South Paris and over the years it was sold and a house erected.

As I knew it, Rowe Hill primarily consisted of the Brooks, Sumner, Hanscom and sometimes the Emery families. It was a close knit community . If one household was in need, others knew it and took up the cause. We exchanged everything from food to clothing.  If Winnie had something cooked up that I loved ( like her glazed donuts) I would swap a pound or two of pork chops out of my freezer from butchering time. If someone needed a ride to  a doctor’s appointment, then one of the neighbors knew and offered.

Over the years, a few little homes went up; some people stayed, but more than likely moved after a few months. It was mostly..the Brooks, Sumners, Hanscoms and the Dunhams fending for themselves and helping each other.

The last time I rode over the Hill, my head swiveled like I was watching a tennis match. Who lives there, I kept asking, my daughter the driver.  Her answer was always the same. “Darn if I know..”

Nope, it isn’t the same. But does anything ever really stay the same? I am so glad I remember the Rowe Hill that was.

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LITTLE TINY TREASURES

Most country kids, back in the Sixties, manufactured their own games and new toys were limited to Christmas and birthdays. Their fertile imagination carried them wherever they wanted to go and many days were spent on hands and knees in the sand pile with beat up trucks and cars.

However, there was always the little wish that he would be the one to get the prize in the cereal box. Hands disappeared out of sight searching before emptying the goods into the plastic bowl. The siblings did not mind that their breakfast had been manhandled before it got to them. Each morning was a battle to see who got the box first to start the “pawing” and after the prize was eventually found, all interest was lost . Remember the chintzy little card or whatever encased in such tough cellophane that a pair of kitchen scissors was needed?

Cracker Jacks was not necessarily an item that my four were crazy about, but there was always the prize nestled in that box with the sailor boy saluting.  As the years went by, the prizes got smaller and far worse…but then perhaps their expectations had grown too big.

They watched their mother buy soap detergent to get dish towels and glass ware so of course, it was expected that every box at the grocery store should have something mysterious hidden within.

It was about this time that I discovered one could get refunds for boxtops and labels. Well, now, it was my time to rejoice.  The average refund was .25 and what  a joy to see those quarters arrive in the mailbox!  Soon I found that one could also get premiums for those same boxtops and labels. It was a common sight to see my body flung between an outstretched hand and the wastebasket. Another big rr–iii–p and the label was mine.

One June afternoon, the four arrived home and my heart just did a jig with the surprise I had in store.  All lunch boxes were dumped on the kitchen table and I emerged with my prizes.  They watched, with open mouths, as I dumped four heaps of sticks and plastic down on the porch.

“There you go,” I announced  and readied myself with the instruction sheet. Within a few minutes, each one was holding a kite, ready to hoist it in the spring breeze .  Down to the lower field, we marched, my camera in hand, kites in their hands.

Soon the wind picked up and aloft against the beautiful blue sky were the kites emblazoned with the Jolly Green Giant on each.  They ate the canned veggies and were now reaping the rewards. 

I wish I still had the photo I took that day..the kites so high that even the Giant had disappeared. As my son, Gary, said recently …when he looks at the photo of just the kites and no one in the photo, he remembers thinking that he could fly just as high as the kites and do whatever he wanted to do in life.  Well, that might not be verbatim, but it was the jist of what he was saying.

It was such a simple thing to do…back in a more simple time. Coloring books with advertisements, a Christmas pin for .25 and a boxtop, and if you wanted to think big, S & H green stamps , lick them and stick them in a book and eventually, your son had his own bike.

I don’t do boxtops and labels any more….but I would, if I had those four young kids back again and a wide open field with a June breeze.

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FIELD TO FREEZER

gary1The livestock kept accumulating on the farm and after awhile, I lost count of just how many of this and that we had. However, the four farm kids knew them all and named them as they arrived in the yard, pulled in a trailer hooked behind a big truck, pickup truck, any kind of moving vehicle.

One fact is for sure. Farm kids are tough. They know when an animal arrives, it might be just a visitor for a couple of years  and then it was butchering time. I can’t remember how they were taught this or if it was just some thing that came naturally.

One exception was the pig. I cannot remember their ever putting a moniker on the squealing piece of pork that came each spring to take up residence in the big pen in back of the farm. Maybe it was because there was little to love about the creature that delighted in digging underneath the fence and taking to the hills for long hikes, bringing out all members of the family and anyone else we could enlist who could tolerate a “porker.”

There are numerous ways one can capture a rambling pig, but few work. The first and foremost, I was told by the husband, was to stand and beat on the pig’s grain pail with a stick.  I perfected a great Latin beat with this method, but never succeeded in a capture.  The husband performed beautifully a couple of times and grabbed the pig by his hind legs, who squealed loud enough to wake the dead , thrashed around like he was demon possessed and carried the husband with him over half an acre of land before the pig was deposited back in his own domain.  I hated that pig and all pigs that came before and after him.

I forgave his many outings in the fall as I nibbled at the bacon all smoked and cured by someone in West Paris over a hickory fire. Oh, never have I tasted anything like that before or after. Crisping over the griddle on the top of my Sears,Roebuck stove, the house was saturated with the smell of bacon. 

The four were never allowed to witness any butchering nor did they ever request it. Sometimes they visited their grandparents for the day. This was particularly good the day of the pig butchering. I want to add that this day was a particularly unsavory day and it is a messy task. I did help occasionally with the final steps but it was not to my liking.

We had animals that we “took in”. There was Toby, an exceedingly old horse, who would have been en route to a glue factory, had he not landed at the farm. I vaguely remember a lamb, who grew into an alarmingly huge sheep. I remember, because I came home from running errands, and it was dead on the lawn. I really think there was some weed growing around the farm that was poisonous to some animals. We also had a burro named Jack, who we found in the back yard , with no signs of ill health. My knowledge of animal health is vague; I just know I was tired of finding dead animals every where. One would think I was using them as garden gnomes. 

We had the white bull ( in picture) for a couple years. All the kids knew, in time, he would be butchered, but of course they had a conference on the name and it turned out to be “Exodus”. Don’t ask me. I had no idea then nor do I now. Gary decided he would ride him, thus the burro’s saddle on his back and a scruffy Gary on the hillside. At the time, my newspaper column was popular and I mentioned the above and probably ran the photo.  During the summer months, we had a few column fans arrive at the farm just to meet the kids and , I guess, see what all the furor was about .

I will never forget the day the out-of-state car pulled into the yard. It was always unexpected..no warning call or whatever. I went to the porch to greet them and answered the usual questions. To my chagrin, one lady said, “Oh, we would love to see Exodus, the bull your little boy rides on.” Oh, boy.  Two seconds later, Gary was behind me, and held out two freezer wrapped packages to the lady. “Here’s Exodus”, he exclaimed , and the poor lady’s hand flew to her mouth.  I tried to explain the whole situation, but it fell flat. City folk just don’t understand the way that country folk live, I guess.

I don’t care what anyone says, farm kids are tough and they learn a lot of hard facts early in life. If we are lucky, they carry it through their adult years.

They are special.

 

 

 

THE RING DOWN EXCHANGE

I did not mention that besides the 13 rooms and the piano, there was another distinct advantage to moving to the farm.  There, on the wall, hung my line to the outside world…a telephone! An honest-to-goodness telephone!! The luxury my father refused to have in the house was now part of my new life.  I could not wait to test the waters..there was a little thing connected to the main part of the telephone for me to put to my ear and the crank on the right side. If you look past me in the photo among the ugly wallpaper, you will see our first phone.

I soon learned it was a “party line” and I was to only answer if the phone rang three long rings followed by two short.  It was a common occurrence to be in the middle of a conversation, only to hear someone pick up the phone and put it back down. This was the cue to finish up and let the next in line make his call!

It can be noted that some people picked up the phone to “listen in” and get what might be the latest news on the Hill. No one took umbrage as long as the person kept the heavy breathing down while listening.

The phone might have been primitive, but it was magic. When two year old Brian fainted outside on a hot June day and hit his head on cement, I did the magic crank that got my neighbor, Winnie Hanscom, on the line. She, in turn, called Dr. Nangle in West Paris to alert that we were on our way. We raced into her yard where she was waiting to take Debbie and Gary, and we were on our way. Dr. Nangle took one look, called Norway Hospital. To make a long story short, Brian was a resident there for three days and recovered.

Over the years, the phone was replaced with an updated model, but hung in the same place with the same magic.  My friend and I returned to the farm one day after taking Alan to have stitches taken out of his foot. As we entered the farm door, Debbie stepped on a scythe and cut her bare foot to the bone. OK!! What was a scythe doing there? I  have no clue, but it happened. A dash to the phone to ask the doctor in Bethel to hang on for a few minutes while my friend took Debbie back to have stitches put in her foot. Never a dull moment. I am at home consoling one whose stitches were just removed and the oldest is getting stitches inside and outside her foot.  Is there no end to farm fun??

But as much magic as the phone on the wall provided, it had its downside too. It was not the fault of the phone.  My second son, third child, was not to be trusted. It was not that he was a bad child. He was curious; his imagination knew no boundaries whatsoever.

It was a summer day. I was in the yard trying to weed a few flowers which had miraculously escaped being eaten by bovines. An uneasy feeling swept through me ; go in the house, something kept whispering in my ear. I went; there standing on a chair, was Gary having a full conversation with Evelyn Farnum, the lovely phone operator downtown. I gasped, grabbed the phone, apologized to Evelyn, who was laughing. Apparently it had been quite the conversation and I didn’t dare ask how long he had been talking. Suffice it to say, it did not happen again.

This is the same child who called to me when I was hoeing potatoes. I looked up and he sat on the window sill on the second floor with his feet dangling down the side of the house.  I cannot recall my heart being up in my throat as far as it was in that moment. Talking on the phone with a complete stranger was one thing; dangling from a second story window another. I looked up, kept talking, sneaked through the downstairs rooms, up the stairs, came up behind him, grabbed him and hauled him back through the window.

I gathered the news each week for the paper on that old phone and as my writing increased, the Hathaway crew provided me with a small phone to put on my desk and actually painted it orange to match the brown and orange decor..if it could be called decor. It was a “woman-cave” as opposed to the now popular “man cave”. What a great bunch the phone crew were!

Once more the phone came into play in regard to the third child. On his 14th birthday, I was on assignment in Harrisburg, Pa. traveling to Nashville. I really wanted to call and talk to him.

“Operator I want to call Bryant Pond Maine 123.”

“You want what?”

“It’s a ring down exchange. Just get the operator in Bryant Pond, Maine, and tell her the number 123.”

This conversation probably took fifteen minutes and finally I heard the familiar voice of the Bryant Pond operator and within seconds had Gary on the line.

I don’t think he knew what a hassle it was until, while in college, he tried to call home from a dig in Northern Italy. In the end, he opted to call me in upstate New York and we made the trip to Maine to deliver his message.

After the ring down exchange closed, many sought the phones to keep as a memento of a much simpler time. I have warm thoughts in my heart for that old crank telephone that brought neighbors close together in good times and hard times.

If I remember correctly, there were no telemarketers, no politicians and no charities on the other end when it rang. That, in itself, makes up for being on a “party line!”

 

 

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A Little Happy Story

It was a long time ago..well, not back in the caveman days…I’m not that old, but shall we say about 38 years ago when I was much younger, much more agile and getting up much earlier in the morning.  The world was my oyster and I woke up each morning searching for the pearl.

We lived in what I refer to as “our little house”.  Each morning I eagerly awaited the delivery of our daily paper. Our paper boy lived down in Fenimore and he delivered on time, religiously, in fair and foul weather.

I watched him as he plowed through the snow, a short, chunky kid with bright eyes above his cheeks which were red from the cold. One morning, I thought about my own three sons and if they were delivering papers, how cold they would be…and I was the last customer on his route.

So it began. Each morning, I made a cup of hot chocolate in a Styrofoam cup and put it in the paper box. I pictured how pleased he would be to have something warm after walking his route and it would carry him back home until he could warm up again. I don’t know how long I did this during the winter months and to tell the truth, I had almost forgotten about it over the years.

Today I received a message that my paper boy was in the vicinity and wanted to stop in and say hello.  Since I have Rheumatoid Arthritis, with the drugs giving me a pumpkin face and taking a lot of my hair, I had reservations about anyone seeing me I hadn’t seen in a long time. But what the heck~~

The knock came on the door and he stood at the top of my stairs with a huge bouquet of flowers in his hand. I was stunned and he said…”this is for all the hot chocolate you gave me.”

I have to admit I have never been as touched to think that this man, standing before me, remembered those cups of hot chocolate all those many years ago. 

It really was something I would have wished for someone to do for my sons had they been out in the cold, but it meant so much more to him that he remembered all these years.

Thank you, Larry Bulman, for giving me a day that has made me forget some of the obstacles of the past two years.  You will never know how much it means to me!