Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Parsonage Autumn (It Ends)

 Before we landed in our spring-board parsonage dwelling, we had traveled to Colorado on the train.  At night, of course.  We should have been used to it, because we took most of our trips at night.  We lived in New Mexico, for one thing, before cars had air conditioners.  What we had, in the early days, were rough burlap canteens (water bags) for the radiator and parents who could stay awake and drive through the night.  By parents, I mostly mean fathers, of course.  My mother was grown, married and had several children before she learned to drive a car.  We were moving in two vehicles and my mother learned to drive with a car full of children on winding roads at night.

My clever mother assigned responsibilities to each of us, things we needed to keep track of while traveling.  I had an overnight make-up case, a Samsonite knock-off, filled with various and sundry items, none of them make-up related, I'm sure.  The baby, our toddler brother had a pillow.  What the others had, I don't remember because I probably didn't pay attention.  By probably, I mean, of course I didn't pay least for longer than a few minutes. 

My father worked out of town a lot of the time and most of the time for our short spell in Colorado, following drillers and rigs where he could find work.  He borrowed a truck or shared rides and left us in the hills with the car.  When we came home from school early one day to report the news of President Kennedy's assassination, my mother sat listening to the updates on the car radio.  She stayed out there all evening and into the night, coming in to get a blanket and to fix a quick supper for us.  We had no phone, no television or any other communication device out there in the eerie, forsaken blackness. 

Sometimes it scared me to think of my mother being the only adult caring for the five of us.  I should have seen then how strong a woman she was, but she was just our mother.  One day, we drove into Grand Junction, less than a hundred miles from where we lived in Colbran, for groceries and supplies we were not able to get otherwise.  In those days, the trip was probably at least a couple of hours.  It was late as we traveled home, but Mom decided to stop at the drive-in so we could watch a movie.  A special treat that I tried to enjoy fully, but I was never able to shake the worry that something could happen to the car on the way back and we would be stranded late at night, far from home without my father's home-grown mechanic skills to take care of the situation.  I was no stranger to the fact that cars could break down, radiators could over-heat, tires could blow out and five noisy children could be quite distracting to the most experienced of drivers.

I needn't have worried, because, remember?  This was the year of our charmed and charming autumn.  Our 1st through 12th grade school building had a juke box in the library, riding the bus down out of the mountains was always a happy experience, and our teachers actually liked us and were nice to us...each of us!  (That didn't always happen for us.) We had family friends by way of one of my father's drillers, who were so wild and nutty, they made us look almost normal by comparison.  (And THAT didn't always happen for us, either.)  By wild and nutty, I mean the kids actually chased headless chickens whose necks they had just wrung, tromping barefooted through spilled blood mixing it in the dirt.  For fun and entertainment.  Of course, we ate the poor, tough old things, if we could.

When my father did come home on certain weekends or between jobs, he helped us crack and peel the windfall black walnuts in front of our house by driving over them with the truck he had borrowed.  We used hammers and rocks, too.  However difficult those odd-smelling things were to crack and dig out nut meat, staining our fingers for days, it was well worth it for the banana-walnut ice cream we hand-cranked in the yard. 

Other things I remember about his being there at that time were the breakfasts my mother would cook for him every morning:  fried eggs and toast, and sometimes bacon or sausage.  But it was the hot, over-easy fried eggs that he vigorously dumped salt and pepper over before cutting them into little pieces with a knife an fork and scooping them onto the heavily buttered toast that made me love fried eggs when I really didn't like them at all.

My father was, not surprisingly, an enigma to us, and when he was home that fall, we noticed a Bible sitting on his night stand.  My mother, who was a chuch-goer didn't even have a Bible on the nightstand.  That was enough of a surprise that we talked about it quietly, discretely among ourselves. This was not the father we knew and frankly, it was a bit worrisome.  What ever could have brought about the change?   For all we knew until then, he didn't believe in anything much at all. Was he becoming even more of a stranger to us?  Who could ask him about such a thing? And then he was off again.

We stayed there long enough to get a taste of winter.  Early, heavy snows, layers of ice on the still-running ditch out front, where we would suddenly see our dog Teddy swimming under the ice, and where we would dare each other to skate without shoes, pot-bellied stove needing to be fed and stoked often, and more little bodies in the same bed at night for more warmth and more protection against the mice. 

True to our way of life, the time soon--too soon--came for us to leave again.  We packed and loaded up, crawled into the car with the back seat made into a bed and drove away from our Halcyon Season, this time not in the lonely hours of dusk when one should be sitting down to supper, but on a frosty, pie-less, Thanksgiving morning.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Parsonage Autumn (Part Two)

The next house we rented belonged to the farmers who had built a larger, more modern home up the road. They had a few children our ages and they had animals we loved to get up-close perspectives of, when we could.

Well, the bull, we steered away from (I swear I didn't see that pun coming!) He chased us if he was close enough when we took a shortcut through the field. And the sow we were cautioned to leave alone so that she wouldn't gobble up her newborns.  The other animals, however, were subjected to a good dose of Armstrong hands-on curiosity.  Some of the more intrepid of us would let the still-nursing calf suck on our whole hands and then use his furry back to wipe the thick slobber off.  When I say "our hands," I don't mean I ever did that.  I could play with grasshoppers who leaked brown tobacco spittle on my hands and pull slick and muddy night crawlers from flooded lawns or even land a bare foot right smack in the middle of a cow paddy without making much to do about it, but that calf-nursing on human hands was a bit more than I was ever tempted to try.  The kids said it was a very interesting feeling, though, and that little cow sure had a mighty pull!

Our favorite, of course, was the mare they let us ride bare-back.  Big brown mare with a big bare back that we clambered upon and fought mightily to stay on when she trotted across the field.  We could fit three of us...sometimes four...on her back at a time, but if the front rider couldn't manage to stay astride, the whole rest of the train would hysterically slide right over the "healthy" bulging rib cage and fall in a howling heap onto the hard-packed ground.  Unadulterated delight and joy, that!

When we weren't discovering the delightful world of domestic farm animals, there were plenty of wild creatures to get to know.  Jack rabbits that would pop up right before our eyes, causing the younger ones to exclaim that they had met a kangaroo, skunks that tempted our Teddy out at night to give fearless, chivalrous chase, and little round-eared field mice scurrying and scratching our bedposts, probably very angry that a human family had moved in and threatened to disrupt their warm wintering.  But threaten we did, with girly screams and swipes of the broom under the beds and taking the rodent-slaying dog to the bathroom with us at night. 

Not over yet...


Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Parsonage Autumn (Part One)

When we lived in a parsonage, I slept on the fold down couch with at least one of my sisters and our dog woke me up one morning by licking my face.  Not a pleasant experience, that.  As a matter of fact, I hated it.  How do people like to let their dogs lick their faces?!  That's when I traded places with my sister and slept on the wall side of the couch.  Other people in my family were more tolerant of Teddy and his affection. 
Teddy was as loyal and protective a dog as anyone has ever described and he was with us for quite some time.   He waited by the door at ungodly hours to see our father off to work, even on his days off.  We all have memories of his following each of us all over the place and we were not always together.  It was if he could be in several places at one time.  All this to say that our annoying, barked-too-much little dog is a fixture in these memories, as well.  Magic little mutt.
There were five of us seven siblings, at the time, living with our parents.  One hadn't been born yet and the eldest was in college.  My father was a roughneck, an oil rig worker.  I remember a time when I didn't feel as if I needed to explain what that term meant.  Mostly, to us, it meant we had to move a lot.  Had to follow the work, and pull up stakes, as it were, at any given time during the year.  During this particular year, I attended five different schools in two different states. 
The year we lived in a parsonage, we lived in a couple of different houses in a couple of different towns for little longer than a  couple of months.  I can't even remember how long, really, which is very puzzling in light of the fact that it was one of the most favorably memorable times in my childhood!  My sisters have similar regard for that time, and we often mention something about it, but still I'm just not sure how long we were there.
This much I remember, some of it quite vividly and some of it very vaguely: 
My mother went to a PTA meeting one evening, or maybe it was a Town Hall meeting, or maybe it was both in one,  leaving her rag-tag brood at home to wonder what in the world went on at a PTA/Town Hall meeting!  It got dark early in the Colorado hills and I remember that evening as being very mysterious and even somewhat dangerous.  I mean, weren't we living in a parsonage with an off-limits, most certainly haunted, boarded-up second story floor? We had no phone, our father worked graveyards, and where was this weird PTA meeting, after all? 
Did a couple of the younger ones go out in search of her?  Down the road maybe, where there were some lights glowing in the distance?  Was my mother embarrased when her kids came looking for her?  Someone got scolded that night.  Probably some older children for not preventing the younger ones from going out after dark alone in a strange town.  But really, what did we know?  They were probably the safer ones, with who knows "what-or-who" might have been hanging around behind locked doors upstairs! We had grown up playing out in the dark, after all, often escaping impossible to sleep on backyard army cots in the middle of hot, Southern New Mexico nights, to go in search of whatever creatures inhabited those fleeting cool, dark and refreshing hours.  Outdoor dark was much less scary than inside unknowns. 
A few days, weeks, moments? later, we moved from the parsonage in one town to an old farm house higher up in the hills in another close-by town, but of course, only within town-limits, as we were not in town.  We were in the glorious, wide-open, adventure-rich countryside!  Never before had we had such wild and wooly wonder at our fingertips and right under our beds, too, if you will.
To be reverently and longingly continued...