Tom's Corner

Discovering Today
Tom Irons

Background and Introduction

        I’ve been a farm boy, small town boy, big-city dweller, professional mass killer for the US war machine in Southeast Asia, and a senior electronics technician for a major aerospace company where the CIA paid my salary. I was a drugstore stock boy, liquor store clerk, Federal Fish and Wildlife biologist technician in Alaska (twice), Nursing Assistant caring for Hospice patients, and I worked in construction. I’ve built a desert home for myself with my two hands, two log cabins in the Arctic wilds where I was charged by a starving grizzly bear, had photos that I’ve taken appear in Life magazine, appeared on TV and in dozens of newspapers, many as full page color spreads on my art or my Arctic adventures, and have that art spread around the state of Arizona and across the USA. And I’m still searching; for what I’m not sure, but I’ve enjoyed the seeking.

        When I was born our family was living on Taylor Pike in Wayne Township, which is located in the far northeast corner of Clermont County, Ohio, about thirty miles east of Cincinnati.

        In pre-history, the Gulf of Mexico covered the area that would later become known as Ohio. When the land rose, rivers ran north. After that came an ice age, and later still came the mound-builders and ancestors of Mongoloid origin. They were in the Ohio Valley for perhaps ten centuries constructing their intricate earthen serpents, forts and burial tombs. Iroquois and Algonquin, descendants of the Asiatic people had a land of plenty, a land of beauty and a land of reasonable peace. In the 1600’s French explorers first saw what would become Clermont County, and I imagine that marked the first time the indigenous people saw a European.

        The Miami were the longest tenants of any tribe in the region, and a part of the Illinois division of the Algonquin family. They raised corn, melon, squash, pumpkin, and beans and probably hunted the forests for venison, bear, rabbit, squirrel and birds. And of course, legendary numbers of buffalo. In Alan W. Echart’s impeccably researched book, The Frontiersman, it is told that on May 15, 1775, near the South Fork of the Licking River, a stampeding herd of buffalo kept Simon Kenton up a tree for 1-hour.

        Before the invading hordes of European settlers took this land from the Native Americans, old-growth hardwood forests of oak, walnut, sycamore, maple, beech and the American Chestnut covered 95% of what would become known as “Ohio”. Ohio is derived from the Iroquoian word meaning “great river”. Lesser shrubs like dogwood, plum, crab apple, redbud, paw paw, blueberry, and raspberry covered the ground while grapevines hung overhead. Big Bluestem and Indian Grass was reported tall enough to hide a horse and rider when whites first came into the area. By 1900 80% of this deciduous forest would be eradicated like the Indians before it.

        By the time Simon Kenton was harassing the natives, the Wyandotte, Huron, and Shawnee people had been forced into the area from eastern and northern locales as the white settlers took their land using starvation, biological warfare, superior weaponry and any other method they could employ. While the settlers and the U.S. army were waging all-out war, our country’s “Forefathers” were borrowing democratic governmental doctrine from these very ‘heathens’-using it to help form the three-legged system of American government that we have today.

        Simon Kenton, Anthony Wayne, Tecumseh, Yellow Jacket, and Little Turtle are a few names of the men who fought across the Elm-Ash swamp forests of Clermont County. Just a few miles to the south of Taylor Pike is the site of the largest frontier battle fought in Clermont County, the Battle of Grassy Run, where pioneer Simon Kenton clashed with the Native American warrior, Tecumseh, on April 10, 1792. Kenton had approximately 36 men but 12 purportedly ran off while a couple of dozen remained to fight. The Indians, led by Tecumseh, may have had upwards of 100. Then again, they may have had far fewer.

        Tecumseh, a Shawnee, became a great warrior and created the Indian Confederation. He was almost successful in uniting the diverse tribes in the hopes of stopping the eradication of the natives. It was not to be. Even his brother, the Panther and his psychic abilities were not enough to overcome the superior firepower and sheer number of whites.

        Forced migrations, like the one in 1846 where the Miami were banished to {now} eastern Kansas, left these forests, swamps, rivers and animals open to white dominion. And dominate they did. To clear forests, farmers cut and burned the smaller trees and brush then ‘debarked’ the larger trees and left them standing for a few years, planting around them until they, too, could be burned away. The soil was rich and crops grew well. These early settlers of Ohio killed off all large and medium-sized wild animals by forming firing lines miles long, walking ten feet apart and shooting everything that moved: deer, bear, coyote, wildcat, and bobcat. Anything and everything was herded into an ever-tightening deadly noose of gunfire. Thousands of animals were slaughtered to make a “safe and civilized” environment. This unrestrained extermination also served to reduce the available food which the indigenous people counted on. Only now, two hundred-fifty years later, are some native species recovering. However, they are not proportionally in balance because big predators aren’t sufficient in number to maintain natural equilibrium. Lack of equilibrium always creates an unhealthy ecosystem.

        My father, Donald Foster Irons, was born in 1906 and raised on a farm near Lebanon, Ohio. From 1924 to 1928 he owned and worked his own farm. In 1927, he married a woman named Garnet and they quickly had a child; Richard. The short length of gestation certainly had everything to do with and was directly proportional to the length of the engagement. The marriage collapsed in 1930 when Garnet abruptly abandoned her husband and son. As I understand it, one day Dad came home and discovered that his wife had packed her bags and departed leaving behind the toddler. I don’t know how long my half-brother, Richard, was left alone in the house, nor why his mother left. My brother, Fred, told me that Garnet did not have a good reputation and that she complained about housework, motherhood and Dad. Ultimately she did something that angered Dad such that he told her to “Be gone” when he came home. If this ultimatum actually was issued then she took it for what it was and heeded it to the letter. Dad filed for divorce November 17, 1930. Garnet’s whereabouts, as reported to the judge, could not be ‘ascertained through diligent search’ by the Warren County sheriff and his deputy. After six consecutive weeks of publishing Dad’s intent to divorce, Garnet still failed to surface. Thus she was found guilty of “Gross Neglect of Duty.” Dad was granted full custody of Richard by the Warren County Court of Common Pleas in case number 14490 on January 24th, 1931.

        In the ensuing months, Dad either lost or sold the farm and enrolled in Ohio State University’s College of Agriculture. Richard was left with Mother’s Uncle Charlie and Aunt Elinore Mullenix who would raise him as their own son. It was through this couple that Dad and Mother would meet. Dad stayed at Ohio State for two years. Why he left I do not know, but I can only assume it had to do with a young man feeling the need to earn a living.

        In 1932 Dad drove nineteen year old Mary Eva Hormell across the state line into Kentucky where they could obtain a license and be married without having to fulfill a waiting period. Forgoing a honeymoon they immediately returned to set up housekeeping. Their first child was born in 1933. They would have four children within five years; Fred H., Frances Louise, Alice Elaine and Nancy Grace.

        In 1941, if Mom and Dad owned a radio and the electricity to run it, they might have been singing along to Nat Burton’s “White Cliffs of Dover”. What they would not have known then was that “joy… laughter… and ….peace ever after” would take a few years to prevail for their family.

        When the Japanese destroyed Pearl Harbor on a Sunday morning in December, 1941, my father’s life was equally laid to waste. Dad had made a good living through the Great Depression of the 1930’s by hard work and ingenuity. Operating a trucking firm that employed four to six young men as drivers, he delivered milk, cream, coal, sand and gravel around an ever widening area. For a young man he was on the track to success.

        With U. S. involvement in World War II came rationing of gasoline and rubber for tires. Small independent trucking firms like his were not considered a priority and could not obtain these necessities. When the call to arms went out across the nation the young drivers gave notice and answered their country’s need. Dad soon found himself without trucks, gasoline, tires or drivers. Dad dearly wanted to join the war effort but his application was rejected out of hand due to his age, his history of high blood pressure and his large family.

        Almost immediately, the opportunity to purchase black market gas and tires arose but Dad steadfastly refused to do so because it would be dishonorable. This was my first introduction to the concept of personal integrity. I was around the age of twelve when Mother first told me this and I failed to fathom how or why a man could be willing to stand aside and watch his business fail when a viable solution was at hand. It took quite a few years of living life to reach an understanding on this issue. Somewhere along life’s road I came to realize that one’s integrity is all you get to take with you when you die. At the same time, it is one of the most important things that you leave behind for your family.

        As he saw his business sinking deeper into the toilet I can’t imagine what he felt. Was it anger, frustration, resentment or all three? Ultimately, the result of all the setbacks and reduced income was bankruptcy. Whatever his inner feelings were, he saw the need for another line of work as a necessity for putting food on the family table. During those hard years my parents felt too insecure to consider having another child. It would take the approach of the war’s end for Mother and Dad to change those feelings. Even, in 1942, with a tightening noose around Hitler, they maintained the status quo. As 1942 came and went my birth was still two long years away.

        Between 1932 and 1943 Mother and Dad established themselves in four different homes. The first was a little home in Springboro, the second was a home that Dad built on Stubbs Mill road south of Lebanon, the third was a tenant farm owned by a Doctor Blair, and the fourth was the farm on Taylor Pike in Clermont County.

        Dad stood 5-feet, 8-inches tall on a solid frame, slim in his early years while midlife gave him more pounds than he needed. He had piercing brown eyes, black wavy hair and was quite handsome. Never one to shirk hard work, he was very certain he wanted to be responsible for his own destiny. Except for a short, unsatisfactory attempt at tenant farming in the early 1940’s he was always self-employed. This experience confirmed that what he needed, once again, was his own acreage where he’d be free to make his own decisions and his own mistakes and reap the full results of both.

        In 1942, while Japanese-Americans were being herded into prison camps such as Manzanar, in California, Dad started seeking affordable farmland. This was a daunting task. He had little ready cash, yet in 1943 he located 94 and 1/2-acres, a house, and a large barn square in the swamplands of northeast Clermont County. Although he had to ask for a loan from a family member to supplement the bank loan, he knew in his heart this boggy ground held tremendous potential. He also knew seeking loans from family or friends was frowned upon and kept it as much of a secret as he could.

        On 20 August 1943 Luigi and Francisca Martina sold 94 ½ acres to Mary E. Irons. This land transference was recorded on 21 September 1943 at 10:49 (Eastern War Time) in the state of Ohio, Clermont County by the county recorder Rollin Stanley Coyle, for $2.00.

        My siblings speculate that the title was recorded in my mother’s name because Dad was still dealing with debts from his bankruptcy during the early war years. It was not until 2007, while I was searching for family background that this fact came to light.

        The old two-story house had a dark, dank cellar for food storage and spiders. It was falling down; a wood-framed, clapboard affair that let the winds blow through and snow drift across the kitchen floor. There was no electricity, no running water for indoor plumbing, no insulation and no paint. Mother was not thrilled but Dad assured her he would build her a better one “Soon”.

        The new property was a swampland with few trees, no wild animals, and poor farm land. Dad recognized it for what it was; an opportunity to get cheap land that needed only hard work to prosper. Going against the opinion of his siblings and peers he took a chance and the family became modern-day pioneers, toiling from dawn to dark. They grew, canned, and dried garden foods, picked wild berries, and kept cows for milk, butter, and cream. Chickens provided eggs, and table meat came from those same chickens and milk cows as well as home-grown pork. This was subsistence living made good by Mother and Dad’s combined attitudes toward work.

        The fields were drained by removing old fencerows and trenching by hand, brutal work for a ten-year-old boy and his thirty-seven year old father but Dad and Fred, working side by side, accomplished much. And they did it well.

        By the time the Japanese signed the terms of surrender on board the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, September 2, 1945 formally ending the war in the Pacific, I was already percolating in Mother’s womb. I can only assume that she knew by then of my approaching debut.

        Mary Eva Hormell was born in 1912 to two quite unstable people. She had a less than happy childhood. Her father was a “ner’-do-well” who could not hold a job; her mother was part of a gypsy band passing through the area. The marriage, a shotgun affair, was unstable at best with neither parent being mature or responsible enough to provide for the four children who ultimately resulted from this mismatch. When money was short or one of the parents vanished, the children would be placed in the nearby Shaker Children’s Home, in Uniontown. Some of Mother’s earliest and most bitter childhood memories are of being subjected to this ‘home’. The fact that she was the youngest of the family meant that she spent more time in this orphanage than her siblings and that was a deep source of anger and upset for her.

        When Mother was a young teen her father took her out of the Orphan’s Home. This was supposedly done so that she could keep house for him: cleaning, cooking, and all the associated household chores. It was not long before she went to live with her grandmother and her Aunt Anna. Mother explained the change this way: “They came and took me out of there and I never went back.” Although there is no documentation to prove why this happened I have come to believe that her father and some of his acquaintances were molesting her. Mother certainly carried anger for her parents all her life, especially her father. I believe this anger was stronger than her sadness at never having a real home or the experience of parental love.

        All her life Mother loved and cared about her Aunt Anna. She would frequently make the 25-mile drive to Springboro for a visit. Aunt Anna never married. She remained in the large brick house caring for her brother, Lou, who had some sort of emotional defect that kept him from becoming a fully mature and self-actualized person.

        After completing high school Mother went to Columbus where she attended a secretary school for a while before meeting and marrying Dad. A picture of her at this time shows a beautiful young woman with light brown hair down to her shoulders, soft brown eyes, and a gentle face. What you don’t see in this picture is her strength, tenacity, honesty, bravery and an innate knowledge that she could handle anything that came at her. I think that she believed she’d seen the worst of life and anything that came after just couldn’t be as hard as that which went before. The strength of her personality belied the fact that she didn’t quite reach the height of five feet.

        I certainly have some of my Mother in me; stubbornness, tenacity, humor, love of reading and travel, and much more. My Father’s contributions are not nearly so prominent, possibly because of his early death, yet I have made many crucial life choices from his memories. Some of these are things he did not do himself; such as serving in the military, taking frequent vacations, consciously caring for tools, and showing gentleness toward loved ones just to name a few prominent examples. Others, like an early failed marriage, lost relationship with my firstborn, being forty at the birth of my last-born, I repeated.

        Our Mother was the wife of a southern Ohio farmer and truck driver. Dad never had the luxury of dwelling upon his success because throughout his entire, short life, his successes were always tempered with immediate setbacks and losses.

        Mother and Dad must have made an attractive pair; she with her wavy, long, brown hair and sparkling eyes, he with his good looks and infectious grin. Dad’s solid frame towered over Mother’s 4’ 11 ½” petite build. As only a young son can, I remember him having hands of great strength - hairy arms that could lift enormous weights and broad shoulders that could carry all the hardships farming threw at him. After surviving the misfortunes of his dairy trucking business, farming proved to be troublesome, too. The early years on the farm saw him lose 19 of 24 feeder pigs to cholera, or maybe it was anthrax in one year. One horse, Nell, died of an unknown cause and another, Prince, died from lack of salt. One year he lost the entire corn crop due to an early freeze; another year he lost a whole crop of soybeans due to continual rain just prior to harvesting. Other years two pigs, one calf and the family milk cow, Cherry, perished from assorted causes. Storms took off parts of the barn roof a couple of times. The first financial bonanza a harvest yielded was immediately eradicated by hospital bills to treat a severe case of blood poisoning in his arm. And I have yet to mention the lightning strike yet to come.

        This is a staggering list of financial setbacks for one lone farmer to endure, complete with intense psychological ramifications. How could Dad face these experiences, keep smiling, and maintain his love of farming and the land?

        He was a whistler and our neighbor, Ada Brown, claimed to be able to hear him at great distances, rumbling down the road in his gravel truck, preceded by his melodies. Dad must of carried a sweating gene and passed it on to me. I remember him changing his shirt before sitting down to the noon meal or prior to driving into town. There was a time, before mine, that he smoked but economics brought an end to that habit. He seldom swore, drank, or went to church, favoring instead finding his God in the land. His “can-do” attitude was inherited by each of his children and has served us equally well throughout our lives.

        Just the other day I started reading old letters my mother wrote to my brother, Fred, the ten-year old shovel wielder. He has kept every letter anyone ever wrote to him and recently compiled Mother’s letters into a book. As a retired professor of electrical engineering at an eastern university, he had at his disposal a secretary who was able to transcribe that collection of letters. He added a few notes, did some editing and presto! The result was an historical novel, biography, work of humor, and a philosophy book all rolled into one.

        Another thing I realized while reading those letters of Mother’s is that my memory doesn’t always mesh with hers but she wasn’t writing from long-term memory like I’m trying to write from today. There are a lot of mysteries in my family history and after reading the letters my mother wrote to Fred there are just a few less. On the other hand I became intrigued by that which she omitted telling him.

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