Tom's Corner

Discovering Today
Tom Irons

Chapter 3
On the Brown Farm

        On Labor Day weekend in 1953, Mother and my sisters moved the household goods and furniture to our new residence-the farmhouse that Dad had bought from Frank and Ada Brown after our barn burned up. I liked Frank and Ada. She had watched me a time or two when Mother needed child care and Frank was the one who had picked up my sister, Frances, at the Halloween school party the time she had the family wrap her in ripped up sheets like a mummy. Frances had insisted on being left near the door because if Dad carried her inside, everyone would know who she was. So Dad did as she asked, carrying her from the car to the building and leaving her propped against the schoolhouse wall. When Frank came along and saw this speechless mummy, he saw the situation for what it was and hauled her inside where he stood her up against the basement wall, just inside the door. Frances didn’t speak or move all through the festivities, and she won a prize that night for not being recognized.

Dad with Farmall and bailer at the Brown house 1957

        On Labor Day weekend in 1953, Mother and my sisters moved the household goods and furniture to our new residence-the farmhouse that Dad had bought from Frank and Ada Brown after our barn burned up. I liked Frank and Ada. She had watched me a time or two when Mother needed child care and Frank was the one who had picked up my sister, Frances, at the Halloween school party the time she had the family wrap her in ripped up sheets like a mummy. Frances had insisted on being left near the door because if Dad carried her inside, everyone would know who she was. So Dad did as she asked, carrying her from the car to the building and leaving her propped against the schoolhouse wall. When Frank came along and saw this speechless mummy, he saw the situation for what it was and hauled her inside where he stood her up against the basement wall, just inside the door. Frances didn’t speak or move all through the festivities, and she won a prize that night for not being recognized.

        The insurance on the old barn provided Dad with a down payment on the Brown farm. There were numerous benefits that came our way with this purchase. Dad’s major benefit was the doubling of tillable acreage he would have at his command. The others were the big old barns and out-buildings that he could use for animals, equipment and crop storage. Mother greatly appreciated the advantage of having a newer, tighter farmhouse to live in.

        Both Fred and Dad were laid up in bed with bad backs and could not lift anything. Mother and the girls had waited long enough. The Brown farm had been purchased in May and Dad procrastinated moving for one reason or another all summer. I was seven and most likely under-foot, so Mother said ok to my idea to pull my little red wagon full of toys over to the new house. She even allowed me to use the road instead of the dusty trail; even back then, Taylor Pike was paved. Weeds, fencerows, and wild strawberry plants bordered the asphalt and there was one s-curve midway between the two driveways, which were only about an eighth of a mile apart. In the middle of the curve there was a bridge over the drainage ditch. I was certain there were fish in the shaded pool below but in those years, I had no fishing line or enough knowledge to know how to approach the task.

        On the day of the move my father immediately announced that the big bushy-tailed red squirrels that romped in the stand of trees in front of our new house were off-limits when it came to hunting. They were for his enjoyment and anyone else who wished to share them but NO HUNTING ALLOWED. I considered that policy a waste of good and ready-to-hand food. But he hadn’t stuttered; the message was loud and clear.

        The fact that we would have a newer, nicer house may not have been a factor for Dad but my Mother was very pleased. At the top of her list of new benefits was the big kitchen gas range which replaced the old wood-burning stove with a water reservoir on the end. Not having to constantly feed wood into the old steel clunker was a huge upgrade. Even though she was a master at keeping the temperature just right for baking pies daily in the wood stove, she found the ease of using a gas stove wonderful.

        After living in the uninsulated, clapboard, firetrap on the old farm, the new house was a different world. The Brown’s house actually had some insulation and it didn’t let in the rain and wind. One didn’t have to stuff folded newspaper around the kitchen door to keep out the snowdrifts in the winter. That was such a hassle at our old place because one of us always needed to make one last toilet run just before going off to bed.

        Lastly, there was no comparison between the appearance of the two houses. The old one bore wood siding much in need of a coat of paint. The new one had either recently been painted or it had new aluminum siding installed but I do not know which. In either case, the new one appeared well cared for.

        Then there was the roof. I remember Heber Mallot coming over to work on that roof. I recall the look of surprise on his face when he glanced over his shoulder and saw me sitting astraddle the roof peak. I was only seven years old and definitely not supposed to be atop the house. That was the second time in my life I would smell the pungent, acrid odor of solder flux; something that would play a big part in my life in later years. My first memory of solder flux is when Fred used it at his big workbench in the room we shared in the old house.

        I don’t know if Heber was repairing or resurfacing the roof, but I do remember Mom was so happy to have a roof that actually worked the way it was designed to.

        “Hi” I said.

        “Yes, it is.” Heber murmured in his soft, slow country manner of speaking. He was a short man with a barrel frame covered in worn and tattered work clothes. He wore a billed railroad cap on his head. Large sun-browned hands handled tools with a comfortable familiarity. In his movements there was, like his speech, an underlying current of knowledge and capability. I never saw him hurry or flap over an issue. He’d listen, rub his stubble-covered chin with his right hand and nod his head, as if in complete understanding.

        I considered Heber a friend because Mom and Dad spoke highly of him and he had a boy, David, near my age. We would play together a few times over the coming years but never became close pals.

        “Slide me that bag of nails there, Tommy. Does your Mom know where you are?”
       Handing him the bag of lead-headed roofing nails, I admitted that she probably didn’t but
if he needed my help it would be ok with her if I stayed.

        While he was considering that proposition I took in the view.
        The part of Ohio that held our farm doesn’t have any mountains and almost no hills to speak of. I’d had few chances to see our fields and barnyard from the bird’s eye perspective the roof peak provided. Along two sides of each field was a dirt road, just wide enough for a tractor. One morning, after listening to the Lone Ranger radio program the night before, I said we had a Dusty Trail, too. Dad liked the idea and from then on the access road for farm machinery on our farm was known as the “Dusty Trail.” Each field was flat, neat, and enclosed with overgrown fencerows that afforded rabbits and quail a safe habitat for nests and to hide from the occasional hawk. Because of the mass animal killings of the 1800s I had never seen a deer or coyote, a bear or bobcat. On a very rare occasion, we would see a Ring-necked pheasant, a raccoon or opossum.

        “Maybe you should ask your mom if she minds that you’re up here hep’ing me?” said Heber after due consideration.

        I knew he was right, but by then I had learned that permission was a difficult blessing to receive for any endeavors interesting to young boys (and more specifically to me). In deference to Heber and the fact that he was an adult, I started a slow withdrawal from the roof. He watched me only long enough to ascertain that I could manage the descent unaided. I hated to leave the lookout, but held no grudge toward Heber; he was just being an adult.

        The year was 1953 and I turned seven in April. When haying season rolled around, Dad announced that I was finally old enough to drive the tractor. He just couldn’t justify paying a grown man a day’s wages for, in his words, “ Sitting atop four wheels and being useless.” Whatever the reason I was thrilled by the long-awaited announcement. It would prove to be one of the most important benchmarks of my life. No matter what type of work was involved, I knew I was ready to step up and be of value on the farm. Besides, I could think of nothing more fun than navigating the big red Farmall around our property. By the time I turned nine in 1955 Dad was finding ways for me to be of use around the farm. We were standing between the truck and the Farmall in the 50-acre field one day that year. He saying, “Well, that finishes up this field. Wasn’t sure we were gonna have enough seed. Good thing it’s not 51-acres, I guess.” I nodded in agreement and swatted at a pesky fly buzzing around my head-then, jumped back a step realizing the insect was a honeybee.

        Looking up at his silence I saw that Dad was gazing at me with a somewhat perplexed look on his face. I quickly explained somewhat abashedly, “It was a bee, not a fly.” Dad said nothing as he shifted his eyes to the Farmall and the brand new four-row planter attached to the rear hitch bar. By now I was getting to know him, and could tell there was something stirring his thinking process far beyond that bothersome bee that was still continuing to give me trouble.

        He slid his eyes back to the old 5-ton dump truck, which still provided him an income twice monthly from hauling gravel and stone for the county roads. He appeared to be deep in thought. The money for these paychecks came from the ‘gass tax’ [The spelling is Herschel Limings’, a treasurer of Wayne Township in the 1950’s], motor vehicle license tax, and the road and bridge fund. His hauling pay was 50 to 85-cents per ton, delivered and spread where needed. From this, he had to pay for his truck operating expenses and gas. In 1949 and 1950 he was paid the going rate of 75-cents an hour for ‘burning brush’ and ‘operating a grader.’

        Dad must have gotten his thoughts straightened out because he said slowly (and with a fair amount of doubt in his voice), “You know how to steer it, start it, and stop it, so I guess driving it won’t be a major leap of ability for you. Go ahead and take it home.” Pausing for a moment, he considered some more. Then in a deeper, more strident voice said, “Don’t wreck it, it’s the only one I got.” A bit more thought was followed by, “If you do wreck it, don’t bother coming home.” Then, turning on his heel he moved off toward the tractor and new planter.

        I stood in my tracks with what I’m sure was quite a foolish look splashed across my young freckled face. Then, with a bounce in my step and my heart in my throat, I climbed up into the cab of the truck.

        Before starting the engine with its usual roar I immediately discovered my first challenge. I could not sit on the seat and engage the clutch because I was too small. This took some thought, some ingenuity. It didn’t take me long to discover that if slid my backside over the edge of the big bench seat and used the steering wheel to gain the needed leverage for a downward thrust of my left leg, I could disengage the transmission. However, as the pedal descended toward the floorboards, so did my little body, and my eyes dipped below the dashboard. On the first attempt, I failed to make the shift into first gear. However, I discovered that the clutch had enough upward thrust to propel me back onto the seat. A second try gained me success. I slipped the big gearshift into first while I kept my left leg locked at the knee. I was even able to turn the ignition key to the ‘on’ position. Excitement coursed through me as the big engine turned over with a roar! Once the engine settled into a smooth throb, I let the clutch toss me up onto the seat. The truck lurched forward and as I stretched out my right leg for the gas pedal, I felt the thrill of success.

        I gripped the big round steering wheel and was whipped and tossed about like a bed sheet on a Kansas clothesline in a windstorm. I held on for all I was worth. Once clear of the 50-acre field I turned the truck onto the Dusty Trail and the ride got smoother. I had some time to consider Dad’s instructions. They were crystal clear. If I wrecked his truck I wouldn’t under any circumstances, go home, ever again. Not that I had plans to wreck, but I knew that if I did, “home” was no longer an option for me.

        I downshifted just before wheeling the big land monster through the barnyard gate. Later Mother would tell how she heard the approach of the truck. She glanced out the window just in time to see it make the turn and slip through the narrow gate opening, adding, “But, goodness sakes, there wasn’t anyone driving it.”

        Once in the barnyard, I executed a wide turn and pulled the old truck up under the oak tree just as I knew Dad would have done. I quickly shut off the engine, opened the door and jumped down to the ground, excitement coursing through me. I was intent on telling Mother how Dad had just given me the elevated status of truck driver.

        Mother continued to watch, fascinated, as the truck without a driver made the wide turn, and rolled to a hasty stop in its proper place. She heard the engine cut off, saw the door open, and then finally saw me leap to the ground with a grin as big as Texas spread across my face. I’m not certain why I was so enamored of driving at that age but it may have to do with my very small stature. I was aware that I was smaller than most boys my age. Being trusted to wheel those big pieces of machinery around was a heady experience and a major ego booster for me. None of the boys in my class, even the older ones that were allowed to drive tractors, had attained the status of ‘truck driver.’ From that day on, whenever Dad ordered, I would navigate that monster-sized truck around the county roads that bordered our farm. I never wrecked it and was always pleased to have escaped the possibility of not being able to go home.

Richard (L), Dad (Center), Fred (R) and Tommy (Front) ~1955

        The stand of trees northwest of our house held untold hours of adventure for a young boy. Early in our life there, I would spend long lazy afternoons with Nancy’s dog, Klu, poking into every nook and cranny; walking around every tree. I especially liked the hollow tree near the pond. The base of it was hollowed out and enough of the trunk was missing that I could wedge myself into it. I’d peer out and spy on the outlaws, pick off the bad guys with my superb marksmanship, or escape from the posse that was close on my heels. But the biggest attraction, far and away, was the pond itself.

        By the time I was seven I was drawn to the idea of putting food on the family table; rabbits, quail, frogs and fish were all fair game. The only animals off-limits were those big red squirrels of Daddy’s. Even though it couldn’t have been more than twenty feet across and only a couple of feet deep, there were fish in the pond. I would catch little bluegill by the dozen using a safety pin and a red worm, and on a good day, maybe a sunfish or two as well. This was a young boy’s dream and I did a lot of dreaming. I was careful to spread the fishing out so as not to empty my spot of all the fish in one sitting.

        The winter I discovered fish frozen in the ice was memorable. A steady ground wind had swept the ice clean of snow and probably enabled the pond’s freezing clear to the ground. After spying three fair-sized fish in the ice, I rushed up to the barn to get a hatchet. With the old kindling-maker in hand I hurried back to the pond, even though I knew beyond a doubt those fish weren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Did I mention it was a cold, clear and windy winter day? Or how that ever-present ground wind made it feel like the Arctic ice pack in a January blow? Have I mentioned that I never really had warm winter clothes? And I know I haven’t described how hard eighteen inches of clear, solid ice can be. By the time I could claim success I had worked up a pretty good sweat. My toes felt like chunks of ice, my nose was red and numb, and my fingers hurt like some kind of sinning. They burned, they tingled, they ached, and they really weren’t working all too well by the time I got fish, hatchet, and my self back indoors.

        Mother was amazed to say the least. “Where did you get those fish?”
       “In the pond,” came my teeth-chattering answer. I had some note of pride in my voice
but I think my voice box was on the verge of freezing up.

        “How?” She inquired.
        “Well, what are you going to do with them?” By now there was a touch of incredulity in her voice.

        “Put them in some water until I can clean them, I guess.” I’d been prepared for that particular question since I realized I would need to take a breather and warm up my fingers before starting the involved process of cleaning the fish.

        Imagine my surprise when, after placing the frozen fish in a pail of well water, all three of them started swimming around! Granted, the one bluegill maintained a list to one side, but swim they did. Mother and I stood over that bucket in the kitchen and marveled at the wonder of it. An hour or so later I killed, gutted, and scaled those fish so that Mother could bread them up and fry them for our family supper.

        Another food that I harvested from the pond on a regular basis in the summer was frogs. When I turned seven, my brother Fred said I could use his bolt-action .22 caliber rifle as long as I bought the cartridges for it. Back then a box of .22 long rifle shells were only about 30-cents; .22 ‘shorts’ were even less expensive so I managed to keep ammunition for hunting year-round. Money was dear and I learned quickly when to use the shorts and when to use longs. For popping frogs the shorts did just fine. I perfected the hunt. I’d walk to the pond and cruise around it purposely scaring all the frogs. This would cause them to jump into the water, and I could judge with some amount of accuracy which ones were large enough to ‘harvest’. Once all the way around the pond I’d move off to one side next to a large maple tree, where I had a clear view (line of sight) of the entire pond. Then I’d wait. Pretty soon frog eyes would start popping up, usually about two feet out from the water’s edge. My targets would be two humps right at the surface of the water. The spot to hit lay between those bumps. I seldom missed, as the distance to the targets was short and that big old tree made a perfect gun support. Sometimes it would take two or three days of hunting, spread over two or three weeks, to get enough frogs to feed our family. I’d skin them the day they were shot and Mother would keep them in the freezer until there were enough legs.

        There is an important trick I learned when dressing frog legs. Once the skin has been removed from the legs and the legs removed from the body, you want to get hold of the white cord running down the middle of the leg next to the bone and pull it out. That’s the nerve. If you don’t remove it and if your teenage sister is the one assigned the task of breading and frying those legs in a hot greased skillet, she just might start to scream, “Mother! They’re not dead yet!” Then, if you just happen to be the less-than-teenage brother who cleaned those very legs and had failed to remove the nerve, your Mother would probably dress you down for not having done so. It’s possible. Believe me.

        Of course, I got a good laugh out of it and managed to kid Nancy more than once over her reaction to those legs as they jumped around and out of that hot skillet.

        I recall the day Dad and I were performing some much-needed maintenance on the bean drill. Pausing in my work I looked up from loosing a rusty lug nut to see the postman driving up our lane. It wasn’t often he had to make that short trek, so it was a bit of a novelty for me, and an exciting mystery as well. What would bring him to the house, I wondered? Dad was on the other side of the drill and had not seen the approaching car so I asked him if he knew. He tossed the big crescent wrench aside, stood up, and replied, “Don’t know. Let’s go find out.”

        By the time we reached the car, the mailman had our mail in hand. Handing it to Dad he said,” I’ve got a package for you and need a signature.”

        “If it costs anything I don’t want it,” replied Dad, as he backed away from the car, holding his empty hand up like a traffic cop.

        “No, all postage’s paid by sender,” laughed the carrier.
        The signature was quickly rendered and a cardboard box handed over. I was full of excitement. I couldn’t recall having an unexpected package sent to us. I was ready to open it right on the spot, but Dad said we’d wait until we got inside. At the kitchen table, I watched Dad carefully cut the packaging tape with his pocketknife and open the cardboard leaves of the box. Peering inside we saw a shiny-chromed electric toaster. Dad lifted it out and placed it on the table and we admired it some more.

        Until now, Mother had always made our breakfast toast in the broiler section of the gas stove. Sometimes I would be assigned to ‘keep an eye on the toast’ and not let it burn. I was really excited over the prospect of having ‘real’ toast like other people.

        “Wonder if it works,” Dad mused out loud, immediately implanting the same question in my mind. As I sat there, running the possibility of it not working through my brain, he said, “Guess we oughta find out. Get some bread.”

        While I dashed to the breadbox to grab a loaf, he transferred the new toaster to the counter and plugged it into an outlet. Next he took the two slices of bread I offered him and he directed me to, “Reach us a couple plates and knives and set the butter dish on the table. This here’s an experiment.” Quickly, I did as told and returned to stand next to him at the counter. We silently watched the toaster for a sign that the toast was done. When it popped the now beautifully-browned bread up, we each grabbed a slice and slathered some butter on our piece. Oh, the joy; the exquisite ecstasy of my first experience in mass-producing a treat.

        Finishing our snack, I was sad to have the special event over so quickly. I didn’t know what to say, so I just stared at my plate of crumbs. “I wonder if it will work again?” Queried my Dad. “Let’s find out.” Woo hoo, Boy Howdy! I thought. How lucky can I get? Another two slices of white bread went into the new toaster, and soon out came two gorgeous pieces of golden manna from heaven. They were consumed with just as much enthusiasm (and butter) as their preceding cousins.

        “Want another?” I offered as I reached for the loaf.
        We didn’t stop after the third pieces of toast. In fact, we sat and communed the afternoon away while consuming an entire loaf of bread and most of another. Just as we finished the last slices of the final loaf, my mother drove up the drive and parked the green ’49 Plymouth under the oak tree. Entering the kitchen with her arms full of shopping bags, she took in the incriminating scene: table, plates, empty butter dish, and new toaster in one sweep of her eyes. Fixing a stare on Dad she demanded, “What are you two doing?”

        “Testing. We took a vote and decided to test the new toaster,” answered Dad with only a slight touch of guilt in his voice. Wisely, I kept quiet.

        “Well, you certainly aren’t going to feel like eating dinner if you ate a half a loaf of bread between you.”

        “Probably not. It was a loaf and a half. We might of kept goin’ but there wasn’t anymore.” With this revelation, the guilt was fairly obvious.

        “You mean we’re completely out of bread?” This was truly more than my mother could handle. “Well, don’t blame me if you don’t have any bread to eat with your eggs tomorrow morning then!” Shaking her head, she began to put away her new purchases.

        For years, I had heard how Mother had clothed and fed the family on next-to-no money. She had washed, bleached, and sewed flour sacks into clothes, curtains and tablecloths, and learned to stretch our food dollars multiple ways. Part of this economy was due to her experience of having lived through the Great Depression, and part of it came from simply never having enough to work with. Mother’s early life never allowed for indulgences of this kind.

        Mumbles were still emanating from the pantry when Dad turned and winked at me. “Go button up that bean drill and put away the tools. I’ll try to calm your mother down a bit.”

        Never before (and never again) did I share such an experience of wanton abundance with my Dad, nor did I ever hear of him having one without me.

Mother and Dad ~1957

        In the fall of 1956, Dad hired a man to help put up hay and work around the place on a day-to-day basis. I was assigned to drive the tractor for him, and we were supposed to pick up hay bales that still lay in the field. Once we had the wagon loaded he deposed me from the driver’s seat saying, “We’d best make a run for it back to the barn. Those clouds are closing in fast and I ‘spect they’ll dump a fair amount of water ‘fore they disperse.”

        I didn’t like the idea of giving up my seat, but he was an adult and I knew Dad would side with him. Besides, I knew I was a cautious driver and that he’d get us back to the barn faster than what I’d be capable of doing.

        As we pulled into the barnyard I gave a silent prayer of thanks for the dry hay we had behind us. “Which barn does it go in?” he asked.

        “The old one. That one.” I said, pointing a finger.
        “Can I pull this rig in forward?”
        “No. You have to back it in. I’ll get the doors for you.” Hopping down from the tractor I ran to the big double sliders and started the pushing, grunting, and grumbling process that always accompanied my opening the massive doors. As I accomplished this, I watched out of the corner of my eye as he swung the tractor and wagon around and started backing toward the ramp that led up into the ramshackle structure.

        When the doors were open as far as they would go, I stepped off to one side and watched him maneuver the lengthy equipment. Each successive pass yielded worst results than the attempt before. Granted there were only about three inches of clearance on each side of the hay-laden wagon, but I knew it could be done. I’d seen my dad do it any number of times. I didn’t realize that Mother had heard the tractor come in to the barnyard and was watching his attempts from the kitchen window.

        Try as he might, it soon became obvious he wasn’t going to be successful. Reaching the end of his rope, he turned off the ignition and stepped down as the first tentative rain drops started to fall. Two thirds of the hay remained outside the barn doors. “That will just have to do.” He stated defiantly. “Maybe your Dad can back up that ramp and through those doors, but I can’t.” He turned and started walking toward his car.

        I stood there debating whether or not to attempt the task myself. Before I could reach a clear-cut decision, I saw Mother step from the house and approach the hired hand as he neared his car. Knowing something was about to take place that I didn’t want to miss, I hastened toward the two of them.

        “You’re not going to just leave the hay out to get wet are you?” I heard Mother ask of the man.

        “Yes’m, I reckon I am, seein’ as how I can’t get it any further through them doors than what you see.”

        “But the hay will get wet and Don will have a fit if that happens!”
        “Fit or no, I can’t help it. But, if you think you can do better you’re welcome to give it a try,” He said resignedly.

        I watched Mother then as she stood looking at the hired hand and then toward the tractor and hay wagon.

        “Well, ok,” she said after due consideration, “I’ll do it. But I don’t like having to drive tractors.” With that made clear, she walked decisively over to the tractor, climbed aboard and started it. Then she pulled the rig forward until the rear of the hay wagon was clear of the doors and ramp. Shifting into reverse, left hand on the steering wheel and right hand on the seat rim for support she watched to the rear as she backed the wagon up the ramp and into the barn.

        Seeing that she was going to make it on the first try, I dashed into the barn through a side door and ran to the rear wall so I could tell her when to stop. Through it all, the hired hand stood in the barnyard without saying a word. After she had climbed down I joined her and we started for the house through the spitting rain.

        Before we reached the hired hand he turned, silently climbed into his car, and drove off down the lane. Looking at Mother as she watched his car recede I realized I had newfound respect for her. Seeing my gaze she said, “Your Dad would never have considered leaving hay out to get rained on if he could help it.” Then she returned to the house to start dinner.

        Tommy stayed at Everett and Edith's for a week after the reunion. Nancy Thomas was there too, part of the time. They had such a grand time together and finally got to know each other."----AUG. 19, 1957. [Taken from "The Life and Letters of Mary Eva" by Fred H. Irons.]

        Both the Hayners (Mother’s) and the Irons (Father’s) families held annual reunions. There were a social gathering filled with food, laughter, games and the opportunity for relatives to share the happenings of the past year, introduce new babies, new mates, and to remember those who had died. Missing a reunion was frowned upon and not a popular thing to do. The 89th annual Irons reunion was held in 2012. It now mostly consists of my immediate family and their children, my nieces, nephews, and their children and grandchildren.

        In 1957, mid-way through the stay with my aunt and uncle my cousin, Nancy Thomas, came for a couple of days. Nancy was my second cousin and about a year younger than me. Maybe Aunt Edith wanted someone to distract and entertain me, or maybe she saw it as an opportunity for us to get to know each other. What transpired provided a mutual memory that we still share.

        The day after Nancy arrived, Uncle Everett announced that the two of us could go fishing. He told me I was in charge and the responsible one. “Tommy, you’re older than she is and you’re a boy, so I’ll expect you to look after your cousin. Girls usually need watching, you know.”

        I assured him that, ‘I knew’ and I’d keep my eye on her. I really did plan on that. At the same time, I had my mind on catching fish.

        The sheep pasture was a luxuriant green carpet. We carried our bamboo cane poles and a can of freshly dug red worms down the gentle slope to the shining body of water. Long, slender tendrils of the weeping willow moved hypnotically back and forth in a soft breeze. Tiger swallowtail butterflies danced about our heads as we trundled along. Sheep raised their heads to note our passing with baleful stares of their big brown eyes. Recalling Uncle Everett’s words of warning, I kept a wary eye out for the belligerent ram. He usually stayed close to the ewes but was known to confront pedestrians who passed too close to his ‘ladies.’ I did not want a confrontation of any sort.

        When we reached the edge of the pond, we stood on the built-up area that somewhat resembled a dock. It was Uncle Everett’s answer to a diving board because deep water could be accessed by a simple dive. Because of the sand bottom in that part of the pond, I didn’t give the area much credence to good fishing. I wanted to access the region where I figured the fish would feed: the muddy, weedy areas. So, without so much as wetting a line, I turned right and started walking along the edge of the pond toward the ditch, which funneled runoff from the fields into the body of water.

        There had been little rain and the water level was lower than I’d ever seen it before. That made no difference to me. With Nancy trailing and asking a dozen questions, I led the way along the weed-filled ditch.

        “Where’re you goin? Why aren’t we fishing?”
        “Across this ditch. The fishing will be better over there.” I assured her.
        “Then why are you going ‘way up that way? We can just cross here,” she proclaimed imperiously. “I don’t want to walk that far!”

        There was no water in the channel. I had tried one tentative step towards the ditch and immediately determined that mud was indeed just under the dry cracked surface. No way was I going to try to cross the dozen feet to the other shore.

        “We have to go around because we’d be up to our knees in mud if we try to cross here,” I explained patiently, all the while thinking that girls really were clueless and a bother.

        “I’m not goin’ ‘round.”
        “Well I am, and you’d best too if you know what’s good for you,” I announced while continuing the weedy journey.

        It wasn’t until I reached the end of the drainage ditch and made the short leap across that I realized Nancy had remained where I’d last seen her. “You’d best come around,” I yelled. She stood, looking first at the twelve feet of unknown terrain, then shifting her gaze to the weed covered ditch she would have to walk along for approximately 100-feet up and another 100-feet back. I could read her mind. “Come on. Don’t even think it. There’s mud under there and you’ll get stuck.”

        By the time I’d reached the spot directly across from her she was still undecided. “Go around,” I coaxed.

        “No, I’m going to cross here. It’s too far ‘round.”
        “Better not.”
        “Gonna.” But she did not move.
       “Well, I’m going to fish.” With that announcement, I started to unroll the line from the cane pole while keeping one eye on the recalcitrant girl.

        “Wait for me!” With that exclamation, she started forward across the ditch. For the first few steps the ground managed to support her and I think this gave her encouragement. Thus, she began to move faster. By the time she reached mid-way across the channel, mud was clinging to her pretty white tennis shoes and her pace slowed appreciatively. With the next step she sunk up to her knobby little-girl knees in the muck. “Oh, Tommy, help!” Came the plaintive wail.

        “Uh uh, I’m not coming out there. Then we’d both be up to our knees in mud. I told you not to try it.” I said helpfully. “Just keep coming now.”

        “I can’t. My shoes start to come off every time I move my feet.” The wailing increased with each new discovery of her predicament.

        “Well, you can’t stay there all day.”
        “You call Uncle Everett.”
        “He’s at work. Won’t be home until tonight. Just come on out.”
        “No, my shoes will come off if I do.”
        We had reached a stalemate, and my mind was on the fishing we weren’t getting done. Searching through my brain for a solution and discarding each one as it arose, I stood still and considered my cousin. She was younger than me by only one year, slightly smaller, but every bit as alive and interested in life as I was. Nevertheless, she was still an unknown person at this point in my life.

        “If you leave them there Uncle Everett will be able to get them tonight when he gets home,” I offered, with no real hope of her accepting the idea.

        “No! I don’t want to leave them! What can I do?”
        Then it struck me. Widening my eyes and suddenly pointing at the ground directly behind Nancy I said, “Oh, look at the pretty snake right there behind you!”

        The transition was instantaneous; one moment she was stuck in the mud and the next instant she was standing slightly behind me peering at the spot where I was still pointing. Her first discovery, that I was fibbing about the presence of a snake, angered her and the second discovery, that she was sans footwear, truly upset her.

        Before she could break out into full-blown tears I said, “Uncle Everett will get them when he comes home. Come on let’s fish.”

        “My legs are muddy!”
        “That’s ok, let it dry and you can brush it off later.”
        We caught plenty of fish that day,one after the other. I kept myself busy threading the worms on both of our hooks, removing the nice-sized sunfish and smaller bluegill. Every so often I reassured my barefooted cousin that all would be okay.

        That evening Uncle Everett did indeed recover the lost shoes. As he cleaned, scaled and gutted the fish, Nancy ran back and forth to Aunt Edith with the cleaned ones. He asked, “How’d you think up the idea of a snake?”

        “I don’t know. I guess it was all I could think of at the moment.” Then seeing the grin spread across his gentle sun worn face, I grinned, too.

        Neither Nancy nor I ever forgot the events of that day. Over the years, I heard Everett relate the story to neighbors and friends many times, always chuckling at the ingenuity of an eleven-year old farm boy.

Last month, I wrote cousin Nancy, to inform her that I had included the above story and I asked if she would enjoy having a chance to correct or edit it in. This is her (edited) response.

About that day we went fishing together on the farm. Did you know that I have a picture of us up in my house……. Has always been a meaningful memory to me. Just came to my mind a few minutes ago why that day might hold so much meaning to us both. I can only speak for myself. Here it goes----------I came down to spend time with Grandma Irons (your Aunt Ethel) that summer with my sister Peg. Things were not going well at home. My mother was in the process of seeking a separation from my father. Being insightful and very aware of what was going on-though not told- I was living in a state of panic. My mother's tears etc. That day with you on the farm took me away from the state of fear and dread. It was a day of fun when I could be a child. As for you-your father died less than a month later. Maybe for you it was the one good memory you have during a time to follow that must have been so sad for you. Just a Freudian take on things. I only remember the feeling part of it and that I was happy.—Luv ,Nancy (e-mail 2007)

Cousins Tommy and Nancy 1957

        On a late-summer day, after draining the last drop of coffee onto his tongue, Dad set his coffee cup down with a clank and announced, “ I’d best get over to Teague’s and get that combine.”

        “Won’t that wait ‘til Tommy gets home from school?” Mother asked. She was already up and clearing the table of the noon dishes. She reached for the homemade apron with little embroidered rosebuds on it and knew the answer to her question even before it took shape in her husband’s mind. After tying the apron around herself, she started the water running in the sink.

        “No, I want to have time to check it over. I expect it’ll need a good goin’ over after doing that field of Teague’s’.” He settled the old wide-brimmed felt hat on his head of jet-black hair, bent down, and gave his wife a peck on her cheek before stepping out the kitchen door into the warmth of the noon-day sun.

        It didn’t take long for sweat to soak through my father’s homemade chambray shirt. This was natural for him; it’s why he always changed into a clean one after he’d washed up at the well before both dinner and supper. At the neighbor’s farm he backed the big red Farm-all tractor up to the tongue of his combine and whistled one of his favorite tunes. A light breeze brought the pungent, pleasant, and fecund odor of newly harvested soybeans to his nostrils. The beans had been combined only the day before and the hay still lay in the field adjacent to the barnyard. He noticed a flapping noise coming from above and to his right. A quick glance over his shoulder told him it came from a loose corner of rusty tin roofing that hung precariously off the old swaybacked barn. It was one of the older barns in the neighborhood. The siding was rotten and falling away, holes gaped, and the walls leaned drunkenly, yet it refused to fall down even in the face of the strongest winds.

        One nudge was all it took, a tap of the tractor hitch kissing the combine tongue, to unbalance the combine. The support block, which was already canted, slipped sideways and dumped the front of the combine onto the ground. Dad’s whistling ceased abruptly. Shutting off the tractor, he slowly climbed down to appraise the situation. Had there been another man in the vicinity he might have asked for assistance, but having spoken with the lady of the house, he knew that Mr. Teague was not at home. Loaning equipment was something most Ohio farmers did and Dad was always willing to help a friend. However, it was an inconvenience to have to come to reclaim his own machinery. It was worse, to find it not even properly blocked up.

        Pushing his hat back to wipe the sweat from his beaded forehead, he studied the problem. Darned, it was hot! There wasn’t a cloud in the clear, blue September sky. He knew he should find a fulcrum and lever to create the two hundred pounds of lift needed to rebalance the tongue, but that would take time and he was impatient to get back to his farm. He was burning daylight. Bracing his sturdy legs he took a deep breath and bent over the tongue, grasping it with large, callused hands. Then he lifted. Just as the tongue settled onto the hitch and he slipped the retainer pin in place, a bolt of searing light flashed across the back of his eyes. It was accompanied by pain so intense that his knees started to buckle. Clutching the large tire for support he wobbled unsteadily. The roaring in his ears drowned out all external sound. Fighting to hold back the nausea and dizziness that threatened to consume him, with sweat pouring down his face in torrents, his legs suddenly failed.

        Later Mrs. Teague would report on how she had just happened to glance through the ruffled yellow curtains of her kitchen window. Even from across the barnyard she could tell that something was terribly wrong. She ran out to check on Dad and knew immediately that his condition was not good. She returned to the house and called the Allen’s in hope of catching Mr. Allen at home. She also called Mother and the Newtonsville life squad. Mr. Allen was not home but his eighteen year old son, Don, was. He jumped in his car and drove over as fast as he could. Mrs. Teague met him at the car and led him to where Dad was slumped in the sun near the barn, sweating profusely, and complaining of a severe pain in his head. They were able to help him move into the shade of the grain silo near the barn where they helped him to lie down on his back. At Don’s request, Mrs. Teague ran to get a cold wet rag for his head and a blanket to stave off shock.

        At some point Mother arrived and could do nothing but wait for the life squad. She sat by Dad’s side for more than thirty minutes until they finally arrived. The EMT immediately administered oxygen, but by this time Dad was unresponsive. He never again regained consciousness. Mr. Allen showed up at the time the squad did and was available to help with the loading process. Dad was a big man and it took all four men (driver, EMT, Don, and Mr. Allen) to get him into the vehicle. A quick assessment told the EMT’s that they needed to make a “scoop and run,” that is, they loaded Dad into the ambulance as fast as they could, allowed my mother to join them, and started back down the Teague’s quarter-mile lane. On reaching the main road, Taylor Pike, the vehicle turned west and immediately Mother protested. She told them to go west would add five miles or more to the trip. Because they were not familiar with the area roads and having come from Newtonsville, they insisted on taking the route they knew: the long way to Wilmington. It crossed Mother’s mind to have them stop in Edenton at the school and take me along. When she mentioned this to the men they said there was not enough room for an eleven-year-old in the ambulance.

        I was at school, oblivious to the day’s events. I had gulped down my lunch hastened out to the baseball field. Both boys and girls joined in this activity since there weren’t enough boys to make two full teams. Of course, Margie Angel could smack the ball farther than any of the boys and was a choice teammate to all of us.

        The clear blue sky over the Teague farm also domed the schoolyard, making it a beautiful day for a game. Large Monarch butterflies dotted the infield and honeybees worked the big yellow dandelions. The warm September sun cast shadow circles around the player’s feet. It was a glorious day to be a school kid-to be running, jumping, yelling. It was a day I have never forgotten.

        I was only eleven years old, yet every detail is still etched clearly in my mind. Any moment now, the noon bell would ring and call us back to our desks where we would struggle to remain awake for the rest of the afternoon. Our team held a tenuous one-run lead as the other side’s batter represented their go-ahead run. At the crack of the bat, I started toward the line drive I knew would only hop once before it ended up in my small, tattered glove. The second base runner had been allowed an extended lead, so I knew I needed every instant to have any chance of nailing him at third. Usually an outfielder, I had just recently graduated into the infield as second baseman. There was a fair amount of pressure to do well or I’d be demoted, by popular consensus, back to the boondocks.

        If I had kept my eye on the ball instead of tracking the base runner, I would have had a better chance of making a play at third. What I wanted to do was snag the ball and throw out the runner to remove his scoring threat on the next play. Alas, it was not to be. Our makeshift ball field had a lot of gopher holes. One of those changed the course of that hot bounding ball just enough to make it hit the end of my ring finger. Even though I was wearing a small ratty mitt it was my finger that stopped the ball. A flash of pain shot up my arm and told my brain what happened. Luckily, the ball dropped dead at my feet. Quickly I scooped it up and threw it to first base. The runner made it safely to third, but the batter was out by a close call. Now there was my jammed and swelling finger to contend with. Tears clouded my eyes and pain burned my finger like a white-hot poker. That was the era where men didn’t cry, and I did my best to mask my discomfort just like every other boy on the field would have done.

        When the next batter stepped up to the plate, we heard the first high notes of an approaching ambulance. It quickly closed on the school then swept around the corner, ignoring the stop sign, and rapidly picking up speed continued east on state route 133. All play stopped for a few moments as we simply stood and watched. Then the bell rang, and we straggled back to our classrooms. There were probably catcalls and verbal swipes from the victorious, and derogatory quips from the losers, because this was our usual routine. Tomorrow the score would, in all likelihood, tip the other direction.

        Our principal was a large, heavy, middle-aged man who wore baggy, stained clothes. Unlike the stereotypic overweight person, Mr. Johnson was not jolly, nor was he liked by any of the kids in my class. Certainly no one respected him-although most of us did fear him and his oak paddle that he freely used to punish the wayward. Like the rest of the boys in my class, I had been stretched over his big maple desk and received, in sets of five, those formidable whacks on the seat of my britches. The narrow set of his tiny gray eyes perched above flushed fat cheeks gave a pinched and suspicious nature to his overall demeanor. Once, when I was in the fourth grade, he had stood next to me at the urinals and loudly passed gas. Then with a smirk on his face he said, “There’s a kiss for you, Tommy.” I was only ten, but I knew it was an inappropriate remark for an adult to make to a kid.

        At the end of afternoon recess it was the principal who stopped me on the stairs to say that my father had been in the ambulance. He seemed to take a smug satisfaction in the announcement.

        The afternoon wore slowly on. All I could think of was my father lying in a hospital. I knew he had been sick. There was something about his blood pressure being too high, lower back pain, and stomach ulcers. I had tried to help out by doing more and more work around the farm. An eleven-year-old boy can make a big difference in a man’s workload if he tries hard.

        I sat in the old maple wood desk and fretted away endless hours waiting for the last bell. At last the old yellow bus sighed to a stop at the end of our lane and I was out the door, across the road and running. I came through the kitchen door out of breath and already crying. My world was falling apart.

        Mother sat at the kitchen table twisting her fingers, a mangled handkerchief in her grasp. Her usually serene face was splotchy and streaked. My eighteen-year-old sister Nancy was standing next to her wearing the saddest expression I had ever seen. Growing up on a small farm one becomes accustomed to hard times, but this was something deeper. I can’t recall who spoke first, but at some point Mother blurted through her tears, “Tommy, you don’t have a father anymore; you’re the man of the house now.”

        For an eleven-year-old those were very pregnant words. I vowed then and there to do my best to be a man, to carry that burden, and to be a grown up. In the ensuing years I would naturally feel torn between responsibility and childhood.

        I remember running to her and throwing my arms around her. We held each other for a short while before I pulled away and ran up to my room. I threw myself across the bed and cried. In a short while, Nancy came up and sat next to me stroking my hair and making soothing noises. With her touch I began to calm down. Sitting up I announced my intention to go milk the cows. This came from the idea that milking was now my job, as man of the house. Gently Nancy told me Frank Brown had already called and would be up to do that chore as soon as he was free.

        The following days are a blur. We stumbled and bumped our way through them. Neighbors brought food and words of sympathy. More than once, men whom Mother did not recognize and a few she did, drove slowly down our drive and stood in our yard refusing her offer to “Come in and sit.” After saying their ‘sorryies’ they’d reach into their pocket and take out some amount of money. The stories were all the same, only the individual amounts varied. They said that when they were in need of money and had nowhere to turn, Dad had ‘lent’ them what he could spare. Mother said she never knew if Dad truly lent this money they gave her, or if they just wanted to give her something and this was a way they could do it without her refusing to take it. She always claimed Dad never had money to spare, let alone to lend to someone else. But then again, maybe he had.

        Mother let me remain home from school for a week to have me near her. Fred came home from college, but could only stay for a few days. Alice and Frances joined him in spending as much time as they could with Mother, Nancy and myself, but a huge gaping hole had opened in our family. Dad had been a focus around which each of our lives had revolved. That focus, that central hub, was now gone forever. The suddenness of his death left us all with a sense of incompletion that would take decades for some of us to resolve.

        Dad’s funeral was held on Friday the thirteenth, September 1957. He was fifty-one years old and he had never taken a vacation.

        The day after the funeral I picked up the 410 shotgun that Dad had given me for my ninth Christmas, whistled for Klu, and walked out into the woods. It was a pleasant, sunny September morning. Leaves were starting to turn colors and fall felt near. As Klu dashed about in his usual fashion, sniffing the base of trees, leaping through the dry leaves, and returning to me, I moved slowly from tree to tree watching and listening for the large red squirrels that had been, until now, off limits to me. I only had one cartridge and I meant to make good use of it. When I neared the far southwest corner of the woods, I saw a flash of red high up in the top of an oak tree. A squirrel was running along a branch. Swinging my shotgun up to my shoulder I sighted along the barrel, gave the fluffy body just a bit of a lead, and squeezed he trigger. As always, the recoil shoved my shoulder back as if a mule had kicked me. The squirrel had been in the middle of a leap from one tree to another and its body went momentarily limp as it plummeted downward through the branches. Halfway to the ground and the waiting Klu, who had followed the aerial action with excitement and expectation on his animated face, the squirrel managed to clutch a branch and hold tight. At first, the little animal did not have the strength to pull its body up onto the branch so it hung there feebly struggling. Down below Klu and I waited, looking at each other from time to time. Klu seemed to be saying, “Well, you’ve got the gun. Do something.”

        Out of ammunition, I did not have the option of another shot. At the same time, I figured the squirrel would ultimately drop into our waiting hands if I did nothing. That was not to be. As we patiently watched, the wounded squirrel began to slowly haul itself up onto the branch. I knew that if it succeeded, it could die up there and never fall. Looking around, I spied a small limb that had fallen from a tree. It was fairly rotten and I broke it into several pieces. Then I started throwing the pieces at the squirrel. The third missile found its mark and the squirrel resumed its fall. When it hit the ground, Klu immediately jumped for it and quickly dispatched it with one snap of his jaws on the neck. I praised him and his efficiency, picked up the beautiful animal, retrieved my shotgun that was leaning against a nearby tree, and headed toward the barn where I skinned and gutted the animal.

        Mother was surprised to say the least when I entered the house and handed her the fruits of my hunt. “Your father told you not to hunt those squirrels.” She admonished.

        “He’s not here now. I can hunt what I want.” I retorted, and ended that discussion for good.

        The squirrel-hunting incident was the first of many outward statements I made regarding my independence and anger at Dad’s having left me. Mother set the stage with her announcement that I was the ‘man of the house’ and I never forgot it.

        The following Father’s Day she presented me with a beautiful wooden handled hammer since, in her words, “We don’t have a Father in our house anymore.”

        For an 11-year old this position of ‘man of the house’ was a heavy concept, one demanding an air of responsibility and purpose. It was a staggering concept for one so young, but I did my best to live up to the charge. In doing so, it was the cause of many arguments between Mother and myself. Both of us were stubborn by nature buy maybe my argumentative stance was more a product of trying to be grown-up prematurely.

        When I returned to school, my classmates, with the exception of Barbara Witt, avoided the subject of Dad and his death. At noon on my first day back Barbara sought me out. Looking into my eyes with a tenderness I’d not experienced from anyone her age, she asked me if I missed him. Pain washed through me like a burst dam and I broke into tears. In 1957 it was not cool for an eleven-year old boy to cry-for any reason, under any circumstance, ever. The spontaneous shedding of tears surprised me, but more than that, I was embarrassed. I would from that moment on guard against being taken by surprise. I especially would do my best to avoid, at all costs, the subject of my Father and his death.

        Frances and Alice were both married by that time. They had children, jobs and husbands. Fred had his schooling in Boston. Nancy was in her senior year of school, and had a part time job working for Snyder’s Hardware store in Blanchester. Mother had the concerns of the farm. There were the cows and farm machinery to sell, crops to harvest, and the raising of me to keep her busy. In her letters to Fred she expressed worry about me. I rattled around the woods and barns with Nancy’s dog, Klu not really knowing what to do with my self, and was not receptive to talking about our mutual loss.

        Within a few months Nancy revealed to Mother that she would like to join the Air Force but felt it would be an act of abandonment to leave Mother all alone to care for me. To Mother’s credit, she encouraged Nancy to go and make a life for herself. If the Air Force was what she wanted, then she should go after it. She assured Nancy that she was capable of raising me and that Nancy had to put herself first.

        As soon as her graduation ceremony was over, Nancy enlisted.
        The following is an excerpt from Fred’s book Donald Foster Irons © 2012. It was written by Nancy in 1995 at Alice’s request and was initially planned to be a surprise for our mother. Each of her children wrote personal memories of Dad and Alice collected them but decided not to give them to Mother due to the content and pain in some of them. I include the following with Fred’s blessing.

"On the first Wednesday of September 1957, Dad came and picked me up from work at Snyder's Hardware. Mother had the car that day and I needed a ride home. Since it was lunch time, we drove up to Midland and enjoyed a very rare lunch together. We discussed my desire to join the Air Force. I had an appointment the following week with the recruiter in Cincinnati. Dad wanted to know about my reasons for joining and what I expected to accomplish. I explained about wanting to be an airline hostess but my eyes were too bad to get into the commercial airline training. However, the recruiter had assured me that as long as my eyes were corrected to 20/20, I could qualify to be a hostess on the military flights. I was really excited about travelling [sic] and flying and he seemed to understand my feelings. At any rate, he told me he would not object to my enlisting. We had a nice lunch and then went home so I could change clothes. Then I helped him in the hay field all afternoon. I enjoyed driving the tractor again and just being out in the field with him. Of course, this was only a couple of days before he died and I have always treasured the memory of that afternoon together. When I did join the Air Force later, I knew it was with his blessing and that was very important to me."

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