On my dad’s side things were not as formal, we all sat around the same table. The family was more scattered then, we only had one cousin, and I don’t remember the big gatherings like we had on the other side. What I do remember is that the adults were more fun, one of my earliest memories is of my Uncle Terry (Dad’s younger brother) scaring the living hell out of me with a werewolf mask (later my grandma would help Terry and his girlfriend elope to Hawaii), and when I stayed over there was a good chance of having biscuits and chocolate gravy.
Even if we didn’t have biscuits and gravy, breakfast could be pretty entertaining. For a long time, Grandma and Grandpa W had a parakeet named Petey. Petey was let loose every morning to stretch his wings and would perch on the edge of Grandpa’s plate and help himself to breakfast. His favorite? Fried eggs.
The first ten years of my life was spent in California, around Sacramento. My dad and his dad both worked as truck drivers during this time, hauling produce from the fields to the canneries. We moved four times in the ten years I lived in CA, one of the places was a little farm outside of Galt, very close to my mom’s family. We had a bunch of chickens, a couple of goats, name Timmy and Chiquita, and a pretty good sized garden.
My sister, Kelli, and I used to run by the barn door where the chickens hung out because the little banty roosters were mean as shit. Once, I remember Kelli was running ahead of me when one of the roosters came sprinting out of the barn and spurred her in the back of the leg. I don’t remember what happened to him, but I do remember when it was time to butcher chickens; my cousin (of hog fighting fame) and I sat and watched while each chicken had it’s head removed by means of an axe by my dad and Uncle Terry, amazed as each chicken then ran around without a head as it bled out. Soon, my mom and grandma would be busy plucking the birds after a quick dunk in boiling water to loosen the feathers.
I remember all of us sitting around shucking peas and using a cool old machine to remove dried corn from the cob.
I don’t know what the point of the goats was, other than goats rock. We never ate them, didn’t milk them, and they ate my mom’s rose bushes. I do remember a bag full of green “Cheerios” that dad said were going to make Timmy’s balls fall off.
A couple of months before my tenth birthday, we moved to Lenna, Oklahoma with my dad's folks. Our three vehicle convoy, including a ’48 Dodge truck over flowing with household goods, looked like the Grapes of Wrath in reverse. Grandpa kept me entertained across the boring stretches of Arizona and New Mexico by pointing at random rock formations and saying, “You remember that movie where John Wayne got shot off that there rock?” I’d just nod, wide-eyed.
Lenna wasn’t much of a town then and is even less of one now, but when my grandparents had been young, and my dad a kid, the place was hopping, with four cotton gins, a couple of stores and a even a movie theater. Bonnie and Clyde were said to have bought gas in town one day and it was such news-worthy event that people were still talking about it thirty-five yeas later.
Mom and Dad had been reading way too much Mother Earth News and Organic Gardner back then and had decided to get off of the grid, even though there wasn’t really a grid yet. Grandma and Grandpa went along because Oklahoma was home. They had been in California for a long time and were ready to get back to where they started from.
That first place in Oklahoma was absolutely fantastic for a ten year old, surrounded by woods and at the base of the low hills that we called mountains.
We had chickens, rabbits, pigs, and a couple of milk cows named Lavern and Shirley who provided my first taste of raw milk. Though I’d like to claim that I had some great culinary awakening at the taste of fresh from the cow milk, it kind of freaked me out with all the cream floating around in it. Milk, I thought, was not supposed to have texture.
We ate squirrel, which Mom told us was chicken, and rabbit (also alleged to be chicken) and my mom got to be a pretty proficient snake killer with a .22 rifle (we didn’t eat those, but I hear they taste like chicken).
The pigs kept breaking out of their pen until my dad and grandpa gave up trying to keep them contained and let them roam free. They would spend the day in a small spring in the woods not far from the house and wander in at night to be fed and wallow around in the fine, cool dirt underneath the tire swings. While the pigs were loose, we didn’t have much of a snake problem anymore.
That fall I started learning to drive. My grandpa had gone to work on a ranch and my dad needed someone to help him in the hay fields. My job was to keep the old Dodge creeping along the rows as Dad pitched the hay onto the truck’s bed.
We also dug potatoes and kept them on the ground, in the shade of the woods, inside a circle of sheep wire fencing to keep animals out. Grandpa told me that the potatoes were wild and the fence was to keep them in.
In the evenings the trees would be full of lightening bugs, which we caught and kept in jars next to our beds.
The house had no central heating, there was a propane heater in the bathroom, one in the living room, and that was it. On winter mornings, my mom would crank up the burners on the stove and the oven, leaving the oven door open, and the oven and the two heaters before waking up my sister and I. We’d then run from our freezing bedroom to the bathroom and get dressed and then huddle next to the stove in the living room until the school bus showed up. We were the first kids picked up every morning and the last ones dropped off.
The place was lopsided, too. I could sit in the living room and my Hotwheels would slowly roll across the floor on the their own.
Our well pump gave out and we ended up having to haul water up from the well in a long bucket designed to fit in the 8” pipe; the water was cool and delicious. Mom did laundry in the bathtub with a washboard until Dad was able to get her a washing machine, an old outdoors model with an attached ringer to squeeze the water out of the clothes before hanging them on the line.
At night, coyotes would yelp just beyond the security light out back near the chicken coop, as our dogs cowered on the front porch.
Though we lived there for only a year, and I know that it was extremely hard on my parents, it was one of the best times of my life. For that year, we did manage to provide for ourselves, for the most part. We ate fresh eggs, butter from our cream, game from the woods, and one day the pigs disappeared to be replaced by two big freezers full of meat about a week later.
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