Vol. VI, No. 4, Spring 1993


Farm Boy

By Donald R. Holliday



Don Holliday is Acting Head of the English Department at Southwest Missouri State University, an editor of OzarksWatch ---and a farmer.

I drew my first breath on the farm. And anxious, I guess, to get on with things, or perhaps doubtful that official certification I had been born could ever be of value, I also drew my first meal before my father could drive the ten odd dirt and rock miles to Omaha, Arkansas, get old Dr. Cox, and return. On an Ozark farm, things wonderful or unwanted have a way of springing up on you that way, while your back is turned--persimmon sprouts, attitudes, careless weeds, kids.

The farm was in most ways identical to all the other farms in the Ozarks, and all things considered, like all the farms that have ever been. In the Ozarks we had to work harder to induce a good stalk of corn from our flintrocks than farmers did in real soil, though anything determined enough to make it through our rocks was unlikely to be washed out later. And while fields in such lands as Iowa met at neat fences the edges of other fields, our fields and our miles of wilderness shared a rough frontier, on both sides of which we got our food and income for the price of constantly pushing trees of prey back from our fields and animals of prey back from our animals, and being careful not to let our fields get too far into our wild. But when everything is said and done, whether we grow under the shade of oak limbs reaching out to recover a land or among square fields and straight fences, all of us farmers have learned to do for ourselves, maybe even being born.

I followed three brothers, and various parents and grandparents, and a sister followed me in birth. All of them grew smarter than I was. I know that to be factual, because all of them told me so. After years of study, I've concluded they all enjoyed the benefit of observing me, while I lacked their perspective. But whatever merits I or they had cannot be regarded as great, for we were farmers, simple farmers, and our educations simple. Our academy was only the world, nothing more, and our theory of knowledge only to toddle out the door and learn the world, learn it all, step by simple step, by looking at it and using it until we discovered how it worked. Because the front door was reached by several high steps, we toddled out the back door.

Directly behind the house was a cellar, in which canned and perishable goods were stored and in which we hid when winds threatened to blow us away, dug into the breast of the hill, hugging it, inseparable, with concrete walls and rounded top two feet thick and mounded over with earth, through which a burnt-red tile air vent thrust, like a nipple. In the bitterest cold, nothing ever froze in that cellar. Going down the heavy concrete steps, through the thick oak door, one entered a moist, earthy atmosphere, as though someone had stored a bit of spring there, holding it over for seed. Behind the cellar, a smoke house stood on a high foundation, protected from ground splatter as all our buildings were. Inside, smelling of hickory-smoked hams and salt, the walls and rafters were smoked dark brown. When I was just old enough to follow my mother or father over the high door sill to slice off slabs of smoked ham for breakfast, I used to wonder why termites didn't eat smoked wood. I still wonder. I remember the taste of smoked ham too.

Bill Springer (astride) and author pose with Old Sucker, who was permitted to die a natural death on the
farm.

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A woven wire fence enclosed the house, cellar, smoke house, and a little over half an acre of yard under an umbrella of big black and white oak, black gum, and hickory, and varieties of flowers my mother valued. The men used to sprawl out on the grass in the, shade of the oak trees for two or three minutes to rest, while their dinners settled, before going back to the hay fields.

Adjoining the yard on the east side lay the garden, about two acres of it. On the side nearest the house, lettuce was planted the first day the ground gave off a spring smell, and planting proceeded across the garden as the season progressed---onions, peas, cabbage soon after the lettuce; potatoes near St. Patrick's Day, corn near May first, turnips before the end of July. Enough was grown there to feed forty farm hands, and often did, considering the cucumbers and turnips and beans that were given away, or the ripe tomatoes hied at unsuspecting brothers. Just outside the southwest comer of the garden stood a twenty by thirty-foot chicken house, atop its own high foundation, but also stuccoed to the eves and rocked up a few feet. A long chicken-wired window in the south wall and the door were secured at night to reinforce our claim to ownership against 'coon and fox who, drawn by the perpetual dream-talk of roosting chickens, laid their own claim.

To the east of the chicken house, a farrowing house snuggled into the hillside adjacent the chicken yard. It had two cells dug into the hillside to give the pigs the advantages of the relatively stable temperatures of the earth. The floor was sloped so that waste was constantly squeezed by the sows' bodies under the raised bottom of the wall--natural sanitary engineering we called it. When I and my brothers and sister went there to see baby pigs, we were warned not to lean too far over the fence or we might fall in and the fierce sows would eat us up in seconds.

Three hundred yards due north of the farrowing house stood a combination dairy, hay, and tobacco barn, four twelve-foot tiers wide, sixty feet long, and 36 feet high at the peak, supported by tree trunks taken from the bottoms of hollows where, in reaching for sunlight, the trees grew tall and straight and slender. The west tier of the barn was stacked with hay from the ground to the roof. At the north end of the east tier, an eight by twelve foot tobacco stripping room was built; the remainder of the tier, on the ground, was dairy barn. Above the stripping room and dairy and from the ground to the peak in the center two tiers, tobacco was hung for drying from late July to October. The remainder of the time, the ground level of the two center tiers served as machinery storage, calf pens, stalls for ailing animals, and horse stalls. Halfway between the house and the barn was a grain shed on the east eave of which was fastened a backboard and basketball goal; the ground was worn smooth within playing range.

Beyond the locus of the house and immediate outbuildings, the home place was scattered. Five hundred yards from the house and down wind was a hog feed lot and pond where droves of hogs were fattened for market. Two hundred yards northwest of the hog lot stood--or leaned---an ancient log house which was used for hay storage. Next to the hog lot was a stack yard for hay, placed there because of snakes' affinity for hay yards and hogs' appreciation for snakes, as hors d'oeuvres.

Three hundred fifty yards, much of it vertical, north of the house was an "everlasting" spring, from which we carried drinking water; before the cistern was dug and the gravel-sand-charcoal filter system built under the enclosed back porch of our house, my mother carried water for laundry as well, two three-gallon buckets at a time, up that nearly bluff hill. My father had built a three foot deep concrete holding tank at the spring. The tank had "water dogs," salamanders, among the leaves at the bottom. We believed the bite of a water dog caused instant death and were justified in being terrified of them.

Old Soupie.

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The author, brother J.C., and sister, Marilyn.

East of the house again, beyond the garden and hog pasture, on a broad south bench a third of the way down the steep slope, a line of feed troughs, some made of lumber, some of split hollow logs, was scattered among the timber which provided beef cattle adequate shelter in winter. On below the feed troughs, in the head of a long hollow, a clear blue pond, swimming hole, and bass and blue gill fishing hole held up for a time spring water which eventually trickled over a spillway, ran down a branch into Tykie Branch, not yet a creek, to empty into Bee Creek, one of hundreds, which emptied into White River, one of a dozen, which raced the Arkansas River to the Mississippi, arriving at almost the same time.

The house, the cellar and smokehouse and yard, the chicken house, the hog pens, the barn and feed shed and hay yard--to these I and my brothers followed our parents, exploring the first scenes of our world beyond the house steps. My sister also followed, but only to the house and its immediate surroundings.

Like learning to walk, I found my way first to the door, to look out and listen to the chatter. Then I moved to the yard, tottering after my mother in the garden or among the flowers, or to the cellar, or to gather poke, dock, lambs' quarter, dandelion. Fascinated by little things, I talked to the chickens; then I learned to gather eggs without breaking them. I went to peer over the fence at the new litter of pigs, then to carry watermelon rinds or other scraps to feed them. I followed by father and mother to the barn to milk the cows, and made the mistake of thinking milking was grown up and therefore fun. I tried squeezing the teats of the cows. Milk came out--and demonstrated I could milk and made me ever after a regular part of the ever understaffed milk crew that began every night-washed morning at 4:30 and ended the slow moving evenings at 7:30. In this way, our parents permit us to go, unsuspecting, out of our childhood.

Considering all the animals, all the crops, all the machinery, and the variety of work, my elementary years were complex, but simplified and reinforced by routine. By accretion, from the time I was bom until I was thirteen or so, considered almost grown on the farm, I learned the thousand tricks of shoeing horses, breaking them, working them. I learned to catch and hold a calf or hog and to make a steer or barrow of him without letting him bleed to death. I learned the details of the eleven-month season of growing tobacco. I learned my father's belief in planting and working animals by zodiacal signs, a hundred home remedies for man and beast, and superstitions and potions for counteracting not-quite-physical maladies. I sawed and hammered my way to being a fair carpenter, mixed mortar, and laid rock. Plows, tractors, trucks, cars, hayrakes, and mowing machines were my toys because there were few others for a man-child to value. They made a mechanic of me, capable, determined, ingenious enough to repair a machine or to get it unstuck and back on a road. Double-bitted axes, cross-cut saws, and mall and wedges made me a timberman.

When I was twelve years old, while mowing hay I drove the horses too close to a pear tree in the field. The end of the sickle bar caught the tree. The wooden mowing machine tongue broke. I unhitched the horses and tied them in a shade, walked the half mile to the house and got ax, buck saw, brace and bits, and wrenches and returned to the field. I took one of the horses and the ax down to a cedar glade, cut and trimmed a long straight tree, hitched the horse to the tree butt, and dragged the tree to the field. With ax and buck saw, I trimmed the cedar into a mower tongue, bored holes in the tongue to fit those in the mower housing and to attach the double-tree clevis, bolted all in place, rehitched the horses, and returned to mowing. That was my middle school final exam--and I guess it was routine too because I did not get a diploma for it, and nobody told me I had done a good job. I didn't need to be told. I knew it.

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I remember, too, a night when I was a child in years and mind bucking hay bales by moonlight, at ten or eleven o'clock at night, after having brought in the dairy cows in the gray dawn. Our livelihood depended on getting the hay into the barn before rain. But I was tired. My legs and arms were leaden, my feet numb. My brain had ceased its activity. I told my father I couldn't move another step. He told me I could, in such a way I could not resist. I did go on, until my aches receded somewhere and all reality became rolled up into a single step, the next move, the next bale. We finished the job and went to bed. That's all there was to it.

Routine--routines of routine--and determination, mixed into an odd kind of fatalism that permitted us to carry on sometimes beyond exhaustion, made a farmer of me, as they did my brothers. But the routine did not make the same men of all of us, for we all had our own interests, streaks, cussedness some would call it, which we of course followed. If we hadn't, we would have grown up to be the same man, or four of the same men.

Following our own interests was really a natural part of farm organization, though it seems presumptuous, even now, to call it that. A farm requires some specialization, and at different ages boys are capable of different things.

My oldest brother, Gerald, became the first farm mechanic. Because he was interested in the ways all kinds of machines worked and because he was older than the rest of us, he got the specialist's job, though we all had to learn it. His training was too simple to express. He took apart gasoline engines and other machines to see what made them go. He ended up repairing them. He took apart battery-powered radios-and the batteries--to see what made them go. He wound his own magnetic core and built a simple radio. He kept taking things apart and repairing them until MIT declared him an electronic engineer, and therefore finished, but he's not.

My next oldest brother--Loy, or Bub, or Red--became the second farm mechanic, and kept doing it until he could rebuild or build any machine. Redhaired, cocky, pugnacious, he also became the farm daredevil, first to jump on an unbroken colt, first to tackle the biggest bull calf waiting in the lot to be castrated, first to jump from a bluff into a swimming hole. He followed the wheat harvest from Texas to Canada and apple picking in Washington and his own will. He still does. He tends his cows and machinery. He fishes and hunts when he wants. From his expertise, I judge he has earned several advanced college degrees in farm independence.

My next oldest brother, J.C., became a master of organization. He organized me to milk the cows. He organized me to feed the hogs. He organized a plan to apply for a U.S. Department of Agriculture subsidized farm pond and carried out the plan until the pond was completed. He planned to paint white the trunks of all the trees on our farm some thousand acres of timber the way he had seen them in town lawns. He analyzed computer systems and organized data processing systems and wrote logistics systems programs for the U. S. Air Force all over the world.

Because I was the last at home, I specialized in learning how to do everything well but never having time to do it, so I patched things together and kept moving. Except during the three terrible drought years of the early 1950's, when screw-worm flies, which deposited live larvae directly into open wounds, moved north from Texas to the Ozarks, I learned to catch range cattle, as well as more domestic dairy cattle, horses, hogs, even dogs, and hold them by hand or rope while I poured chloroform into the screw-worm infested wounds and cleaned them out, dressed the wounds, injected antibiotics, and even sewed up large and deep wounds. Eventually, I could, and did, also turn a calf inside the womb and delivered it, clean and push a prolapsed uterus back into place and install a suture to hold it, deliver a calf by caesarian section and end up with a live cow. Anesthetized by necessity, I could surcingle a bull into paralysis and turn him unanesthetized into a steer.

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Perhaps also because I was last at home, alone, I became a rememberer. I remember our farm did not stop at the fences. Even our best built ones, around the fields, I always knew were at best temporary, thin lines of metal galvanized for longevity, slowly oxidizing--brown, then red, slowly becoming thinner, more brittle, until the inreaching oaks themselves fell before some great wind and buried the crumbling wire in leafbeds and the earth. I remember the miles of fragile fences we strung over ridges and down slopes and through creeks and across solid rock glades where tripods had to be built to hold up the wire, to enclose the land we called ours. I remember too the tree dogs when we built or repaired fence, first at our heels, then off into the brush and timber, and I remember the joyful times we threw down the tools and tore through the briars to reach where the dogs had treed a squirrel or brace of half-grown and not-yet wisely nocturnal 'coon. I remember walking the trails to carry salt to cattle on summer range and the excuses those trips gave us to walk through the gates in the fences, out of a world of mowing machine tongues, surcingles, and muscles ached dull, into a world of green wonder, another laboratory.

I remember my father's soft tread on the woods side of the gates. He could read fox sign and tell you whether he was reading bitch or dog fox, where it was going, and why. He could do the same with mink and 'coon, even cats. I've watched him course honey bees through the summer skies washed white by the sun. I remember and follow his gaze into the green and wild world, through it, into whatever blue and shining parallel lay beyond. And if I followed him and leamed from him the first two worlds, didn't I follow his gaze into the next.

The road home.

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