A short story by “Philip Neumann”
“Boy, let’s walk over to the hardware store,” Uncle Jacob said as we were clearing the kitchen table of breakfast dishes. “I need a box of nails if we’re going to patch all the holes in that old chicken coop, and make the varmints at least work for their dinner.”
Jacob was my bachelor uncle, who lived alone on a farm in the Flint Hills of Kansas. His younger brother, my dad, had been killed on Omaha Beach during the Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. My mother never really got over it, and I was now a teenager in need of a male role model before I ended up in the juvenile reformatory in Jefferson City, Missouri.
The year was 1954, and I was all of fifteen years of age. Hardly a delinquent in my own eyes, but folks in my Missouri hometown didn’t appreciate their privies mysteriously catching fire in the middle of the night. Gee-whiz, it was only those a safe distance away from other structures, and they never actually caught me red-handed, but when Judge Brown’s outhouse went up in flames he calmly informed my mother that I needed a long vacation out of state. Almost everybody had indoor plumbing, anyway, but I guess people are sensitive about such things.
When I’d arrived on the train from Missouri a couple of days earlier, Uncle Jacob was at the station in the small town of Otoe in Kansas — named for an obscure Indian tribe who once lived in the area — and the first thing he said to me was, “Boy, I don’t care for the idea of doing my business in the bushes, so there’ll be no fires set to my outhouse.”
I assured him that was not anything I had in mind, having been sent into exile on the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence. I was turning over a new leaf, I proclaimed, with my fingers crossed behind my back.
“You’ll be here for the summer, and maybe longer if things work out. This is a working farm, boy, even if it appears to be falling apart, and I still do things the traditional way as far as crops and livestock. The place was homesteaded by my grandfather, your great-grandfather, who came over from Denmark before our Civil War — in which he fought for General Sherman against Johnny Reb and then fought the Injuns who weren’t too happy about the coming of civilization. A lot of history here, so if you pay attention you might learn something.”
“Uncle Jacob,” I volunteered, “I’m a hard worker and more than happy to learn about family farm life. I have to ask, since the farm is so close to town, don’t those folks get upset by the aroma of your hogs?”
When he finished laughing, which took about a minute, he pointed out that small town Kansas residents also kept livestock of all kinds in their backyards. “Boy, that’s not manure you smell; it’s money!” I tried to wrap my mind around the idea of Judge Brown and his prissy wife keeping hogs and chickens in their backyard back in Missouri, but it made my head hurt.
On this particular day, we started out on the short half-mile trek into town about 7 in the morning, after chores and breakfast, including the first cup of strong black coffee I’d ever tasted. Jacob swore it would put hair on my chest, and being just fifteen this was something I really wanted.
1950 Ford 8N Tractor
The farmhouse was located at one end of the half-mile frontage of the farm’s 160 acres on an all-weather county road, and at the other end was the Otoe city limits. As we walked along, Uncle Jacob took the opportunity to tell a few of the stories that had been passed down from my homesteading great-grandfather, the Union Army veteran and part-time Indian fighter.
At one point, we stopped so that I could see the remains of the family’s sod house built in 1880, about the time that Jacob’s dad, my grandfather, was born. According to Jacob, he never had any interest in farming and went into banking as soon as he could. That’s why my great-grandfather left the farm in trust to the very young Jacob, born in 1910. “The grand old man died in 1923, aged 80, and so there were a series of tenant farmers until I came of age,” Jacob explained. “I might have felt guilty about evicting tenants at the start of the Depression, but they went broke anyway and couldn’t pay the rent to the estate. When I moved in, there was nobody on the place except jackrabbits and a few of those gaudy Chinese pheasants.”
The original wood-frame house and barn were built before 1900, and remained in good shape thanks to the efforts of Uncle Jacob. He admitted, “I never cared how rickety small outbuildings looked; to me, a solid farmhouse and main barn were most important. Even so, we’re going to patch the holes in that chicken coop today.”
I’m glad we made the walk to the hardware store, rather than riding in the Ford pickup, because it gave me an insight into this extended family I’d hardly known.
“Uncle Jacob,” I inquired, “did you ever see an Indian around here?”
“No, Boy, the Otos and other tribes were gone by the time I was born. But, during the Depression I saw many a rough-looking hobo looking for a handout. If they would work for a day, I’d feed them good twice and let ’em sleep in the hayloft. The bums who wouldn’t work? I showed those varmints the business end of my old ’92 Winchester, and that big .44/40 caliber hole made ’em step right along in double-time.” We both laughed at that image in our minds. “Most of the hoboes were good men, down on their luck, but the few bad ones were just mean as rattlesnakes. They all wanted to keep drifting on, it seemed.”
“Was this farm hurt by the Dust Bowl storms? We learned about that in American History class last year,” I asked.
Jacob thought about it for a minute, as we stopped again, then he said, “Not this one so much, Boy. I never believed in planting crops fence to fence, and always left about a 10′ wide strip of native prairie grasses around each field. That and the cedars your great-grandfather planted as windbreaks saved most of this farm’s topsoil. And I’ve shot many a cottontail rabbit for supper, not those stringy jacks, walking along the fencerows.”
I looked at my uncle carefully, not wanting to appear overeager, and asked him. “Would you teach me to hunt, Uncle Jacob?”
“I thought you understood, Boy — that’s to be part of your education here this summer.”
19th Century sod house on the Great Plains
All Danes look alike. Or at least the male members on the paternal side of my family do; I concluded this after seeing a photo album Uncle Jacob kept in a steamer trunk in the farmhouse’s attic. There was even a Civil War photo of my great-grandfather in uniform. I think the Negroes back in my Missouri hometown, who were often said to “all look alike” by the rednecks, would have agreed.
I had no trouble in adjusting to the everyday labor involved in raising hogs and chickens; mowing, raking, and baling hay to be sold to the neighbors in winter as feed for their cattle and horses; helping with the wheat harvest around the end of June (I drove a big truck loaded with grain to the farmers’ co-op elevator for the custom combining crew, as they were short a man when they arrived at our farm); maintaining fences; learning about basic mechanics for every piece of machinery on the place; weeding the LARGE potato patch (Jacob traded potatoes for canned tomatoes, green beans, and sweet corn during the winter); and dozens of other tasks.
And yes, I found time to practice my rabbit-hunting skills that summer, both jacks and cottontails being fair game year-round in the Sunflower State. I used Uncle Jacob’s Winchester Model 12 shotgun in 20 gauge, which was also the weapon of choice for marauding foxes and other varmints seeking a free chicken dinner. My uncle kept a plentiful supply of 20 gauge loads in various shot sizes, from #8 and #6 birdshot to #3 buckshot. Jacob had purchased his Model 12 when he took over the farm, and it looked well-cared for after more than twenty years of service.
My only complaint was insomnia; the place was TOO QUIET at night, compared to the residential neighborhood I was used to. It didn’t matter where I tried to sleep — in the guest bedroom, on the floor of the screened-in porch, in the hayloft, etc. 15-year-old boys need their sleep, and there was never any chance for a catnap during the day. Jacob told me that I could catch up on sleep when I went back to my mother’s home in the Show Me State. I’ll admit I was looking forward to my own bed, although I knew I would otherwise miss all that had become a part of my daily life in Kansas.
Nothing is ever perfect, a fact I came to accept in regard to many issues in my life that summer.
Another lesson I learned was about neighbors pitching in to help each other, without waiting to be asked, whenever the job needed extra hands. Jacob explained that volunteering was a part of the barter system, trading your labor on a task at the farm next door and receiving their labor in return. Sort of like exchanging a bushel of potatoes for several quarts of canned vegetables, as my uncle did when the snows came. Although I wouldn’t be around for hog butchering that Fall, my uncle told me how he would distribute the bounty from the processing plant — bacon, hams, tenderloins, chops, sausage, head cheese, and more — to farmwives in the area, who in turn kept him supplied with fresh-baked bread and pies.
Head cheese — definitely an acquired taste, like coffee black and bourbon neat
Sunday, August 1, 1954
Dear Judge and Mrs. Brown,
My name is Alvin Larson, and I’m the teenage boy who set fire to your privy last May. I deeply regret my wrongdoing, and I humbly ask you to forgive me.
As you may know from my mother, I’ve spent this summer on my Uncle Jacob’s farm in Kansas. I’ve worked hard and learned a lot about all that goes into a farming operation.
I’d like to work off the damages I owe you by coming to work for you, perhaps at your own farm, on weekends and holidays during the upcoming school year. Once I return to Missouri. I intend to make the same offer in person to the other four privy owners who suffered from my misbehavior.
Thank you for your consideration.
This is the letter I sent to Judge Brown, in an effort to make amends and set my mind at ease. I had my uncle read it first, and he agreed that it was the right thing for me to do, despite the obvious risk in making a written confession to a judge. About ten days later, I received this reply:
Saturday, August 7, 1954
Your letter both surprised and delighted Mrs. Brown and me.
The truth is that we had wanted to be rid of that eyesore for years, and upon consideration burning it down was as good a means as any. Nobody would have wanted to salvage lumber from a privy, anyway, and we would have assumed the cost of having it hauled away to the city dump regardless. Even so, we accept your offer to make restitution by the labor of your hands on our farm. We paid a Negro man $20 to dispose of the well-charred remains and fill in the pit, so it should take you about 20-25 hours to make good on your debt to us.
Do you know anything about horses? I can always use an extra stable hand to care for my American Saddlebreds.
Please allow me to smooth the way for you with the other four victims of your misguided prank, so they will know that you are serious in wanting to make amends. You may as well be informed by me that there is one city police officer who is determined to bring the “privy arsonist” to justice, but a settlement among all of the parties involved will quickly bring this to an end.
Folks in our fair city remember the sacrifice made by your father, giving up his life in defense of his country, and almost nobody wants to see his son in legal trouble if it can be avoided. That happens to be the view of the police chief, as well.
Come by and see us as soon as you get back in town, and we’ll work out the details.
Thaddeus Q. Brown
Need I say how relieved I was after reading this letter? I slept soundly that night, and every night the rest of the summer, so it wasn’t really a case of the farm being TOO QUIET for restful sleep, it’s that my conscience had been TOO LOUD. I never committed another crime (not counting the time I slugged Joe Dunn in the jaw for drunkenly accosting my girlfriend at the 1957 Octoberfest Dance in my hometown).
A few days later, Uncle Joe took me down to the barn to show me his wintertime project-to-be. When he pulled a dusty old canvas tarp off of a 1921 Indian motorcycle, in need of some work but clearly able to be put in running order again, my mouth just hung open.
Truly a classic machine
The dog days of August on the farm in Kansas were about what I’d expected, because it’s the same climate in Missouri. The difference being that there were two ponds at Uncle Jacob’s place, deep enough to remain cool during the worst heat wave. There’s no faster way to get relief from the scorching sun than a quick dip sans clothing, except for slowly sipping a big dipper full of the water from the farm’s well — 90 feet deep. Melons put into a washtub full of this icy relic of the last Ice Age are a delicacy, more refreshing than any bottle of soda pop. Colder than a well-digger’s ass the old saying goes.
In the evenings, when the day’s work was done, Jacob and I would sit on the screened-in porch safe from skeeters and flies, and talk about lots of different things. For example:
“Uncle Jacob, you never mentioned who the ’92 Winchester rifle and the vintage Indian motorcycle belonged to. You’re too young to have bought either one, unless they were used.”
“Boy, the rifle came with the place, and since it’s unbelievable that a dirt-poor tenant would have forgotten such a valuable item and left it behind, I figure it must have been my father’s. Not much use for a weapon like that if you were a banker in Wichita and now retired. I never asked him about it. The Indian is a real mystery, because I’ve never been able to find a title for it here or in the safe deposit box at the bank. After I restore it this winter, I’ll just ride it for fun. You’re welcome to do likewise if you come back next summer.”
“Do you want me to come back?”
“Of course I do, Boy. You’re just about the best farmhand I’ve ever had working with me, and I’ve gotten by without paying you any wages. So far.” We both laughed. “Actually, I’ve kept track of your hours and will settle up with you before you go back to Missouri. A little cash in your pocket along with what you’ve learned about farming — the way I practice it — will have made your time here worthwhile.”
“Why did my dad leave the farm? Do you know the reason, Uncle Jacob?”
“Well, my brother was five years younger than me, you remember. As I became more interested in farming, he became more interested in seeing the world beyond these 160 acres. Your dad would get a faraway look in his eyes when he heard the train whistles, as they rolled through Otoe day and night. After he graduated from high school in ’33, he managed to get a job working for the railroad, at a time when lots of other young men were hopping on freight cars going who-knows-where. He wound up in Missouri, where he met your mother — but she can tell you more about that.” Jacob paused to wipe a bead of sweat away from his cheek; it surely couldn’t have been a tear. “He saw plenty when he enlisted in the Army, and so did I, but he never made it back home and I’d like to forget most of what I did overseas.”
“Who did the two of you live with after my great-grandfather passed on, and the farm was being held in trust?”
“Boy, you can probably imagine that I bristled at the thought of living in any big city like Wichita. We stayed with our great-aunt at her place in Otoe, and I helped out six days a week in her general store while going to school. Not exactly ideal, but more to my liking than being the banker’s boy in the city. Your dad and I were never close to our own parents, and we sort of made our own way in life as best we could.”
“Say, Uncle Jacob, how old is this basset hound of yours? I’ve never seen him do much more than sleep here on the porch.”
“I’m not sure about his age. He just showed up in the driveway one day years ago, and decided it was agreeable enough to stay on. You’re right, he don’t do much. I figure that some city slicker dumped him out on the road to be rid of him. That’s why I make allowances for his laziness.”
Kansas farm pond
About once a week I’d go into Otoe by myself to pick up a few miscellaneous items from the stores there, and stop at the drug store for an ice cream soda. This treat was made in a tall glass with a small amount of milk, chocolate syrup (other flavors available), vanilla ice cream, and club soda. Whipped cream and a maraschino cherry on top were optional, but that seemed too girly for me. Of course, you needed both a LONG spoon and a straw to properly consume it, and then you’d tip the glass upside down to get the last few drops of goodness.
Uncle Jacob and I were the only customers at the hardware store who wanted 44/40 WCF ammo, the caliber being introduced in 1873 and long since faded into obscurity by 1954. But if you were lucky enough to own a John Moses Browning-designed 1892 Winchester rifle, it was too fun not to shoot it, even if your targets were paper. The 24-inch barrel version had a full-length tubular magazine that held 15 cartridges — hence the old saying load on Sunday and shoot all week. I became a pretty good shot, for a novice.
I’d been keeping a written journal of my experiences on the farm all along, and hoped that it would come in handy if I needed to submit a paper in English class — What I Did on Summer Vacation. Why, I hid out from the law in another state! Should have been good for an “A” but I never was assigned such an interesting topic, one that I might approach from my unique perspective.
One useful thing I learned to do was make biscuits. I used flour, baking soda, cream of tartar, lard, and milk. Baked in a hot oven — it would have been a hoot to try it in the old wood-burning cookstove, but a modern propane stove was more convenient — these always turned out well. Making sausage gravy in a huge cast iron skillet was easy, too. This was the sort of breakfast fare you washed down with a large mug of black coffee, and it filled you up until lunch. Bachelors have to learn to do all of the household chores, and cooking is the most pleasing of what is otherwise drudgery.
It was only a couple of weeks more until I was set to get on the train back to my hometown, and I knew for sure that I’d return to the farm in Kansas for the summer of 1955. I wondered how bored I would become back in my hometown, which had never held much appeal for me; that’s why I was attracted to the notion of torching privies. I had to trust that I’d become more mature over the summer under Uncle Jacob’s guidance.
Time would tell . . .
I still needed to finish up with repairing fences around the place, and there was more hay to be mowed, raked, and baled. A farmer’s work is never done.
My duffle bag was packed and I was tossing it in the back of the old Ford pickup to head to the train station, when Uncle Jacob remarked to me, “If I’m still running this place twenty years from now as I have been since 1931, this farm will stand out like rat shit in a sugar bowl.”
I was taken aback. “What do you mean by that?”
“Boy, I’m no Daniel like in the Bible, but I can see the handwriting on the wall and understand what lies ahead for the so-called family farm. Bankers with their lure of huge loans to farmers for expanding, along with government policy that favors big operations, will be exploited by the greedy corporations to turn farmers into serfs. Nobody will even think about supporting themselves by raising a few hogs and chickens and growing vegetables for canning like my neighbors and I still do. It will all be brand new overpriced equipment and tons of chemical fertilizer, herbicides, and insecticides if you grow any kind of crops; hormones and antibiotics if you raise any kind of livestock. Most farmers will go broke as things settle out.”
“What will you do, Uncle Jacob?”
“Just what I’ve been doing; scraping out a modest living and resisting the urge to borrow my way to prosperity. Alvin, listen to me, you’re a bright young man and should go into a profession that can offer you more than this place has given me.”
I decided I’d have to think about this on the trip back to Missouri, but I didn’t really feel the love for a home place like Jacob did. I might prefer a job that could take me all over the country, and maybe even the world. I wondered if my uncle was content with the path he’d chosen, being rooted to one spot. He was 44 years old, with no education beyond high school, and probably had a better life here than he could have anywhere else. I hoped so, because I truly admired the man I’d come to know over the course of a summer.
We didn’t say much as we drove into Otoe. When we arrived at the depot, Jacob pulled an envelope from inside of his overalls. “This is your pay for the summer. I tallied up about 700 hours of labor, at the generous hourly wage of $1, and it’s all in Jacksons for your convenience. Hell, you couldn’t get change for a Benjamin except at a bank.” He grinned at me and said, “You could stuff it under your mattress back home, but I recommend that you open a savings account at your mother’s bank. Personally, I’ve kept my cash both ways, but it’s useful at times to have a banker in your corner.”
We got out of the pickup, and firmly shook hands in the Scandinavian manner — no hugging or other unmanly gestures.
“Oh, one more thing, Alvin.” It was only the second time he’d used my real name, the first being just a short while earlier. He pulled out a long package wrapped in canvas from behind the seat and presented it to me. “I called your mother about this, and it took all of my persuasive skills and natural charm to get her to agree, but the ’92 Winchester is yours now.”
This meant more to me that the $700 I’d earned, suffering through the heat, hands blistered, every muscle in my body stiff and hurting. The rifle was sort of a coming-of-age gift from an older warrior, one I’ve cherished and still own at age 76.
Thus ended my summertime visit to the farm in Kansas circa 1954, and I should add that things worked out okay back in my Missouri hometown.
Winchester Model 1892 Rifle, caliber .44/40 WCF