Thursday, March 31, 2011
What Do The Simple Folk Do?
Boys don’t need money, just space. Both of my boyhood homes were a stone’s throw from the “country.” To the west of our George Street house a field that measured about 300 ft. by 600 ft. provided seasonal variety to the neighborhood. It hosted a variety of crops over the years including, one year, a crop of seed tomatoes. There is nothing more delicious than a tomato, freshly picked from the vine, ripe and sun-warmed, full of juice and pulp. Alas, they were not ours, Dad reminded us, so we watched the neighbors sample them that summer. Most years the little field served as an extension of a larger field to the north, sharing its crop of corn or soybeans. Once the crops were cleared it was, for the rest of the fall season, a baseball field. In snowy winters, (not all Illinois winters are snowy) it became a battlefield, dotted with makeshift snow forts. The little field butted, on its western side, against the railroad tracks. Beyond the tracks was the Clinton Pure Ice Company. It would play a major role in our lives and will undoubtedly figure in some of the stories I’ll tell.
About 200 ft. to the north of our house was open country, vast Illinois fields that alternated, from year to year, between corn and soybeans. A small creek coursed though the field closest to our house. A swampy swale in the same field interrupted whatever crop was sown there, forcing the farmer to leave that unplowed area to grow its crop of tall weeds, a perfect habitat for boys to carve out a secret place to plot their revolutions.
In winter, my oldest brother, Marvin, would take his shotgun or rifle, and with the dogs, roam the fields, hunting for rabbits, scaring them out of corn-stubble “tents” where they had built their burrows, or flushing them from a lumber pile or a deserted automobile shell dumped along the railroad right of way. It was not uncommon for him to bag three or four. He and Dad would dress them out and put them in salt water over night to remove the “gamey” flavor. The next morning Mom would fry the pieces much like she fried chicken, making a gravy to serve with the rabbit over hot biscuits. I used to think I liked rabbit gravy over biscuits. Not so much anymore. But the memory of those breakfasts could almost tempt me to try it again.
There was a period each March when no one ventured into the fields. Their soggy clay sought to capture any creature that set foot upon it. I can imagine archaeologists of the future finding an army of perfectly preserved bodies under that field. I learned of its hazards the hard way. Something lured me into the field one spring day and before I knew it I was ankle deep in sticky clay, unable to move without leaving my shoes behind. If Dad had not heard my cries and rescued me, I would surely have joined that missing army awaiting the archaeologist’s trowel. I recall a great deal of displeasure in Dad’s tone as he rescued me. It is likely that I had been told not to go there. It is likely, too, that he threatened to leave me there if I ever did it again.
But in summer and fall the fields provided a wilderness in which Donald and I, and our neighborhood buddies roamed at will. Ten Mile Creek ran close to the railroad right of way less than a mile across the field. Weeds and immature trees lined its banks. Its muddy bed was home to surly crawdads, resentful of boys whose delight it was to annoy them with sticks. Ten Mile Creek was stocked with a million little suckers, each with a million little bones. The day we brought home a stringer with thirty or so, six inch suckers for Mom to clean and cook she demonstrated the unfailing love that only mothers have. Other adventures revealed a different side of Mom. When we returned home soaking wet from falling in the creek, or failed to return home at the expected time, or when we ignored her calls because we wanted another hour to play, there was a price to pay. Once the punishment had been meted out we were required to admit that the pleasure gained by disobedience did not compensate for the punishment later inflicted. But, perhaps it did. The next day, or week, the lure of the wild would draw us into disobedience again. We were boys! Sons of Adam.