Sunday, September 23, 2012

My Family Story # 7: Hired Hands and Mother

Helen Allison Giles
With my father commuting back and forth, it was clear by that first spring our parents needed a full-time hired hand to work the farm, keep a handle on what was happening in the barn, feed the livestock, and till the land.  Unfortunately, they never seem to settle on the right person and constantly found themselves with new hires in the position, many of whom had drinking problems or problems with their wives, or friends, or the law.  Each of our hired hands lived in an old mobile home just off the highway turn-in to the barn and, with our house a quarter-of-a-mile up the small lane through the fields, it made going down to the barn to check in on the hired hands slightly disconcerting.  I don’t think my mother liked being around the barn at all, and for us kids it was always a struggle to walk down there to do our chores.  I remember on one occasion when Allison and I, in our Hans and Gretel best, walked hand-in-hand to the barn to feed the chickens, we discovered our hired hand had killed a deer out of season and had skinned it in one of the cattle stalls, thinking my mother and us kids would never know.  I remember the carcass draining from the first floor roof and blood everywhere mixing with the beat up, white-washed wood from the stall and the thickly matted straw.  I swear we didn't think it was a deer at all, we thought it was one of the three Billy Goats Gruff, or a fabled monster of some sort, and the blood, the blood of the unimaginable, or, at least, of children who went into that god-awful barn uninvited or without a parent to protect them!  The hired hand threatened to skin us alive if we told anyone and, of course, looking at the skinned deer, we knew he could do it too!  We promised we never, never, never would tell, and, after quickly doing our chores while appearing to be quite sympathetic to his situation, we immediately ran up the lane and told our mother who had our father fire him that night.
On another occasion a group of field hands arrived at our farm early one summer morning to harvest peas that had been planted earlier that spring.  These were a rough bunch of men working as pickers for extra money.  It was a hot day in the dead of summer and, as luck would have it, my birthday.  My mother had arranged for a number of my school friends to come to our house from their farms around the area, and I was very excited about everything going on that morning, the pickers up in the field and mother getting ready in the kitchen for the party that afternoon.  I rode my bike to the field where the workers were picking and watched them for awhile pulling the ripe pea pods from the rows and rows of plants.  Soon I became aware of several men chewing tobacco near the edge of the field where I was standing with my bike.  I don’t think I ever watched anyone chewing tobacco before, and I marveled at the large plugs they put in their mouths.  Before too long one of the older guys standing in some shade on the side of the field offered me a “chew” by handing me his pouch of tobacco.  “Hey, boy, would you like some?” he asked innocently enough through a toothless mouth, spitting a stream of brown juice into the field full of peas.  Thinking it was much like bubble gum, and realizing that the bunch of pickers were looking over to see what I’d do, I reached into his bag and took out a handful of the dark and stringy substance.  It was sticky to the touch and smelled really bad, musky and not at all inviting like gum.  “Go on, boy, try it.”  With his encouragement and the nodding of the other men, I put the plug in my mouth and chewed.  I realized immediately I absolutely hated the bitter taste and horrible juice filling my mouth.  I looked at them aghast as they burst out laughing.  Rather than spit it out in front of them, I immediately swallowed it to get it out of my mouth.  With the realization of what I had done, even more of the men joined in the laughter as I became ghostly white, turned, and ran with my bike back to the house. 
Seeing me running down the yard and bursting into the kitchen, Mother looked at me concerned from the kitchen sink and followed me as I rushed into the bathroom and immediately threw up in the toilet.  “Jonathan, what is going on!” but I was too sick to tell her.  The rest of the day was spent hugging the toilet or lying on my bed completely dizzy and disoriented and totally sick to my stomach.  Soon though, Mother learned between heaves what I had done and was furious with the pickers; she had had so much planned for that day, and I could barely crawl out of bed.  She stormed up to the pea field, a small tornado of anger, to where the callused pickers were enjoying their fun, and, yelling loud enough to be heard across the field, she demanded to know, “Who gave my son the tobacco!”  The picking stopped and all the men stood and stared at her.  When no one spoke, she screamed at them all, “Why would you do that to my son!”  Furious, she yelled, “Get these peas picked now and the hell off our farm.”  Not satisfied, she demanded, “Where’s our foreman?  I’m not paying anyone if I have to take my boy to the hospital!”  Whatever laughter the pickers had had in their respite quickly fell away, and their effort in picking the remaining peas immediately intensified.  My mother stood there eyeing each and every one of them as they got to work in earnest; then she turned and stormed back to the house.  That was the one thing about my mother, she was not a person to be trifled with, especially when she was angry, and that morning, the morning of my eighth birthday, she was furious.
Still at Mother’s urging, that first summer on the farm Charley and I helped the hired hand and guys he paid to bale hay.  We learned first-hand how hard it was to pull those large bales off the baling machine and carry them to the back of the wagon or stack them with the help of a conveyer into the upper reaches of the barn.  Once haying was finish and, especially, with our father not around and our mother letting us to our own devices in the barn, the kids from Brotherton would come over, and, together, we, Holly, Charley, Allison and I, would build tremendous forts with the fresh bales high in the stacks of hay.  Secret passageways and hidden dens provided an endless maze just for us kids.  With tied flashlights hanging down from bales overhead, we would crawl all over the stacks and pop up and throw rotten apples and eggs at each other.  Someone, I remember, tied a thick rope to one of the rafters, and we would swing out into the center of the barn and back into the stacks, letting go just in time to land in a pile of hay.  With Mother and Daddy being so new to the farm, these were the days of childhood fun, beautiful sunsets, and endless spasms of laughter.

Friday, September 21, 2012

When It's Time

There’s sadness in your hello.
As much as we love you,
We won't let it show.

You’re not trapped living a past,
Or being someone
You no longer know.

I can see it in your smile.
You can stay awhile, but –
We’ll let you go.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Tootsie Rolls

It is late Sunday night and I am standing in the kitchen with a mouthful of tootsie rolls.  I have jammed eight, bite-size tootsie rolls into my mouth and now am having problems breathing.  I should have blown my nose first – it never dawned on me that I would need my nasal passages to suck air into my lungs.  Literally, I can't open my mouth without tootsie roll juice spilling out everywhere, and I'll be damned if I am losing any of the chocolaty saliva now that I have gone this far – even if I can't move my teeth or get air past all the goo lodged on the top of my tongue.

Indeed, it is clear, I have decided to choke on tootsie rolls rather than let go or, for that matter, pack for an early Monday morning flight to Los Angeles.  Prior to my ongoing tootsie roll debacle, I calculated how early I would have to get up if I put off packing altogether, especially if I waited to iron the shirts in the washing machine needed for the trip.  It would mean waking up at the crack of dawn, and, even then, I might not have time to iron the shirts, yet alone get everything else accomplished, including picking up documents left in my office by mistake.  Still, under the enticing onslaught of bite-size tootsie rolls crammed into my mouth all at once, packing doesn’t stand a chance.

Earlier today, I was so good.  My wife Karen and I spent a three-day weekend in Pennsylvania and before we drove home, Karen bought the tootsie rolls for the road; she purchased a huge brown bag of "midgies" just for the two of us, even though I told her this was a mistake and the last thing I needed.  However, once we were driving, I stayed strong and ate only three: one because it was a tootsie roll, after all, the second because you can never eat just one, and the third when Karen announced she was closing the bag.  Given the circumstances – a six-hour drive with forty minutes stopped in traffic due to an accident – I was proud of my will-power and restraint.  At any point it would have been easy to say, "Hey, Hon, this is killing me, toss me a midgy!"  But, I didn't.  I kept my mouth shut and my mind off of her tootsies.

That is until tonight.  Tonight, when I was in the laundry room with the washing machine banging away and the dryer beeping incessantly, it was, then, that I saw the tootsie roll bag with the wide opening gap sticking out of my wife's purse on a nearby table.  I remembered how good I had been earlier, and the thought occurred to me that I should reward myself now that I was alone and had unlimited access to the hundreds of individually-wrapped midgies.  Still, that wasn't simply it.  It wasn't until needing to iron my shirts, jump on the computer to pay some bills, stop by the office for those critical documents, leave instructions for the staff, do my wife a favor by running past the post office and the grocery store, race to an ATM and get gas, and give the Red Cross all of my blood before being totally sucked dry – that my cravings grew past the point of sanity – it wasn't until I thought of the plane waiting, engines smoking, no where to park at the airport, the all-call system moaning my name over and over, the door closing at the last gate of the long terminal, stewardesses standing in a huff  on the plane, all the seats but the one in the very middle filled with angry travelers and crying babies, no room overhead for my luggage, and no room under the seat for my cumbersome laptop and my sweaty legs and hot feet – it wasn’t until then that the inspiration was fully and completely formed on undertaking a quick-as-a-whistle tootsie stuffing into my pants pockets.          

Now I wonder what Karen will say when she hears me suffocating on the tootsie rolls – and when she rushes into the kitchen to give me mouth-to-mouth resuscitation – what will her reaction be when my mouth tastes like burped-up, barely-chewed, tootsie-roll-chocolate?  What if Karen finds me lying already on the floor with our clean clothes crunched around me, and she realizes she has to reach down my slimy throat and grab that glob of chocolate lodged in there to save my life?  But what if I die with the chocolate goop all over her hands, chocolate snoot running out of my nose, and chocolate drool oozing out of my mouth?  And, later, in the funeral procession, when Karen is riding alone in the black limo following my white hearse, what if she discovers all the midgies gone from the brown plastic bag in her purse? What if, at the grave-site, while the minister drones on and on about what a good man I am, she puts it all together – that the big bag of midgies she purchased back in Pennsylvania was actually what did me in?  (“Everyone!  STOP!  I know what killed him, and it wasn’t me!”)

After everything I tried in life, after those years as a kid competing with my brother on who could stuff the most sandwiches into our mouths, or as a teenager pumping fistfuls of popcorn into my mouth from one movie to another, or as an adult dishing hundreds of dinners into my mouth like I was the Thanksgiving turkey – no, it was eight, individually-wrapped, bite-sized tootsies eaten together at midnight on a Sunday night when I was nearly sixty and supposedly ready like any normal adult my age for a business trip the following morning that totally and completely did it.  What would the staff, my friends, everyone think then?  

Oh… wait… never mind…

It turns out, I CAN swallow them all! 

Should I pack? 

Hmmmm, I think, I'll try ten.