Across the USA (Pt. 5)

Morning arrived and once again we were assigned farm duties.  I had to go out and do the milking for five rather surly cows.  I say surly now, but I didn’t know that until the first time I approached them in the pasture.  Rounding them up consisted of a running game whereby I ran back and forth over the grass while they loped right in front of me laughing.

Fortunately, I’d played a lot of foosball and had the stamina to keep up with them.  As I narrowed their field of coverage by running back and forth in front of them I managed to back them up enough to force them through the gate and into the small pen.

Panting heavily, I swung the gate closed and smacked the first one on the butt to get her moving into the barn.  She looked back at me, swished tail a couple of times, and meekly trotted across the floor and into the milking area.  Milking a cow is fairly easy if you can rub your head and pat your stomach at the same time while reciting the Gettysburg Address.  The hardest part is keeping the business end aimed at the bucket and batting away the barn cats.

One of the cats in particular kept trying to dip her paw into the bucket.  I nipped that early on by squirting a couple of blasts across her face.  She began frantically wiping her paw over it while fighting off the other cats.  It’s sorta like sharks; give them something else to do while you swim out of the area.

By the time the fourth cow was ready for milking my forearms and wrists were aching.  I felt like they should look like Popeye’s arms from the pain.  I had to take a break so I stood up, cricked my back, and took what milk I’d gathered so far and poured it into the separator.  My brother arrived about that time and I taught him how to keep the machine running and hold the various buckets to catch the cream and milk.

Refreshed a little, by the time I tackled the fifth cow I was running on sheer determination alone.  She kept trying to shift sideways and knock the bucket over.  In the process she would kick my ankle – hard.  She would turn to me with that “did I do that” look.  She settled down when I punched her on the flank and kept squeezing.

Finally the milking was done so I separated what I had just gathered and the two of us hauled it back to the house.  My sisters had gathered all the eggs without fuss as the chickens seemed less quarrelsome then my Uncle’s chickens.  What they didn’t know was the there were some wooden eggs in the nests that were used to encourage egg production.  Of all the eggs they gathered, about ten of them were wooden.  We had a laugh over that.  They didn’t think it was so funny.

After breakfast we were all turned loose to do kid stuff.  We already knew that most families around the farm were relatives of some sort; some of them by marriage and some of them by blood.  The closest was about a half-mile down the dirt road so I began walking.  Nobody used bicycles here because of the gravel roads.  Gravel is very tricky to maintain your balance on.

Actually, I found out later that my grandparents had three horses.  One was used for plowing but the other two were sort of riding horses.  During my first visit down the road, my cousin, Dale, taught me to ride bareback.  That bony old horse was like riding the business end of a very large, hard comb.  At any pace over a plodding walk it felt as if hundreds of tiny builders were whacking at your privates with little hammers.  Galloping?  Forgeddaboudit!

He did have a spare saddle which he taught me to throw over the horse and cinch up properly.  He even taught me a trick.  It seems a horse will swallow air while you are making ready to saddle him/her.  When you throw the saddle over him/her and cinch it up tightly you think you’re ready to climb aboard.  Not so.  The first time you put a foot in the stirrup the saddle will slide down the rib cage and you’ll end up on your butt with the horse snickering back at you.

So, when you’re just about to cinch the saddle, you punch the horse in the ribs hard.  Sometimes you have to do it a couple of times but once you hear (or smell) the air exiting – by the means you might expect – then you quickly pull the cinch even tighter.  Sneaky animals, horses.

Our travels were greatly enhanced by the use of horses.  A couple of days later, several of us kids, mostly relatives, saddled up.  The locals were taking my brother and I out to what they called ‘four corners’.  Now, I’d already heard of Four Corners and thought something might be afoot here in the way of hazing tenderfoots.

Four Corners is a properly designated State rest area out on US Highway 160 that exits Colorado and enters Arizona.  It does it in such a manner as to pass directly adjacent to southeast Utah and northwest New Mexico.  If you spread yourself out like a spider you can be in four states at the same time.  It is the only place in the entire US where four states come together.

But, I digress.  These old hands were taking the dudes for a ‘ride’.  We ambled along winding our way through small hills and down streams.  We went across a big wooden bridge over a dry arroyo that had huge boulders along the bed.  Dennis told me that when there was a big storm up in the hills that water would roll those rocks down the streambed quite a ways.

The local school kids had lotteries started up where a big number was painted on a given rock and everyone would place bets on how far it would roll in the next storm.  Purses could get up into the sums of twenty or thirty dollars at times.  These kids really needed better hobbies.

We crested a big hill and out in the rounded valley below was a single post stuck in the middle of a barren dustbowl.  Dale pointed to it and told us that was the four corners.  I mumbled a muted ‘gee whiz’ and looked impressed.  I didn’t really feel like it, but I followed them down the hill and we rode around the post and back up the hill.  The locals then told us we’d been in four states just now.

I know how to read a map.  I knew for sure that Four Corners was about fifty-five miles, or so, away as the crow flies so this couldn’t be it under any circumstances.  I wisely kept my mouth shut though because they were having so much fun kidding us.  With suitable expression of dudeness, I acted impressed.  We rode back to one of my cousins homes for lunch.

My brother and I have such a rapport at times that it seems uncanny.  We can improvise comedy routines that will really get you laughing.  One day as we sat in the living room we launched into a very Abbott and Costello routine:

“Hey!  What’s that seat you sitting on made of?”  He asked me.

“Hide.”

“Hide?”

“Yeah, hide.”

“Hide.  Is that so?”

“Yeah, HIDE!  You know, the cow’s outside!”

“So what, I’m not afraid of a cow.”

Damn, we really break each other up.

My granddad’s farm wasn’t really what anyone would call a working farm.  He had a couple fields of corn, some beans, a line of squash and zucchini plus a really good watermelon patch.  Now, I know you’re al l thinking ‘wow, a watermelon patch’ but some of them looked purely scrawny.  Most of them were as round as, and felt like, a cannonball.  That got us thinking about cannonballs, cannons, things that shoot, and finally, to a big slingshot that would shoot hard melons.

We gathered up the items we would need:  a couple of old inner tubes, a nice piece of leather about a foot square, some baling wire and tin snips.  We cut the tubes up into thin bands and braided them into two lengths of about four feet each.  Next we wired one end of the rubber band to holes we cut on either side of the leather hunk.  The hardest part was searching for a suitable launch pad.

We finally found a defunct fence (well, it really wasn’t completely defunct but we fiddled with it until it defunked).  We wired the loose ends to posts on either side of the big empty space that we found.  Next up was the trial run.  We gathered several young volunteers of the watermelon persuasion and set them down on the ground handy to our launcher.

Fortunately, a rather large clapboard shed was within range and almost dead across a small field from our contraption.  With a small can of paint that would hardly be missed, we put a nice target on the side of the shed.  We were ready.

Putting our first load into the pouch, we began stretching the bands back.  Unfortunately, we didn’t notice that one side was beginning to slide under the wire binding it to the fence post.  Since I was the person holding the bag as it were, when the wire released the band it snapped back sharply and whacked me across the chest rather severely.

“Oh, gosh, gee whiz.  Consarn it.  That really smarts.”  I managed to croak out while bending over and trying to take in a breath.  What I really said should have melted the rubber band.  My sister couldn’t make up her mind to clap her hands first over her mouth or over her ears.  Everyone kept trying to pound me on the back but that wasn’t what I really needed just then.  An oxygen bottle would have been nice.

We made adjustments to the device and tried again.  I tried to talk my brother into giving it a go, but he’s too wary of things like that.  I carefully drew back the bands again until they were almost vibrating with pent-up tension.  A little elevation for luck and I let go.

The cannonball…er…watermelon arced across the field and impacted with a bang somewhere far over the shed.  We wondered what it could have been but decided to continue our test.  Another watermelon was loaded, the elevation was reduced and I let go.  The fruit sailed across the field with military precision and shot through an open window far to the left of the target.  Several loud noises were heard as it came to rest.

Well, we had the range, now we needed the precision.  Another super-hard watermelon, slightly larger than the rest, was fitted with care into the pouch.  I carefully drew back the bands and made sure they were equally tense.  Bent over slightly so I could sight better I aimed and let fly.  The watermelon flew across the field and whacked the side of the shed at about the top of the second ring.  Unfortunately, it didn’t stop there.  It crashed through the rather thin board and touched down somewhere in the middle of my granddad’s work bench.

What we didn’t know at the time was that my granddad was working near the bench and had left a bucket of old oil he had just drained out of the tractor on it.  We scored a direct hit on the bucket.  You have NO idea how far a blast like that can scatter a few quarts of oil.  Spilled milk has nothing on oil.

My granddad came boiling out of the shed casting an eye in every direction.  I doubt very much if he could see the faint dust clouds left by us rapidly departing kids.

That evening we were a bit subdued and didn’t do much clowning around like we usually did.  My granddad announced to nobody in particular that somehow a bucket of oil had exploded on his workbench and he’d be really happy if somebody would clean it up for him.  It took us almost an hour to mop up that black gooey mess.

There was a very old Montgomery Wards Airline floor model radio in the living room.  According to my grandma, she and granddad listened to the news about Pearl Harbor on it about a month after it had been delivered from the store.  Until September of 1941 it wouldn’t have mattered because they hadn’t any electricity out that far.

In any case, I found that it didn’t work.  I got permission to ‘mess with it’.  I’d been working with radios for quite a while actually.  I had built a crystal set, a one-tube radio and a broadcast band modulator so checking to see what ailed this radio wasn’t hard.  I pulled it away from the wall, pushed the plug into the wall and turned it on.

Every tube seemed to light except one.  It was located way forward (from the back of the set) and partially hidden behind the tuner mechanism.  I turned the set off again and pulled the plug.  When I reached into the radio to pull the tube I managed to touch elbow to the top connector of one of the tubes.  In most cases, the top connector is where the high voltage is.  I hadn’t allowed enough time for the power supply capacitors to discharge and my elbow completed the circuit between elbow, arm, fingers, and chassis.

There was a soft pop (probably my finger exploding), a very numb feeling coming over my entire arm, and a rather loud clunk when the back of my head hit the wall.  My grandmother called from the next room and asked if I was okay.  I managed to stammer out a reply that I was fine without gasping too much.

Some people learn from mistakes and some people don’t.  I’m probably in the latter group because I again reached into the radio to pull the tube.  This time I was VERY careful and gently rocked the tube until it came free from the socket.  Heat had erased the tube type printed on the glass, but a handy tube chart was glued to the underside of the wooden shelf holding the chassis.  I only found that because I managed to drop the tube with numb fingers and look up as I retrieved it.

The tube type was a 6V6, which is part of the audio amplifier.  I got permission to drive into town and buy a new one.  Darn thing cost me almost three dollars.  I returned, placed the tube into the socket and plugged the radio in.  After a few seconds music and static blasted out at top volume.  Whoever had last used the radio when the tube blew had left the volume all the way up.

At reduced volume that huge twelve-inch speaker sounded very nice indeed reproducing the sounds of Glen Miller.  My grandparents were happy it was fixed and I got the exclusive use of a giant slab of gooseberry cobbler.  Nyahhh, nyahhh, to my siblings.

Note:  I still have that radio.  It was willed to me.  It still runs just fine, but the next tube that blows will spell doom because you can hardly find tubes any more.  Sad, really, because tube radios just seem to sound better than tinny transistorized sets.

T.O.M.

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