(A condensed portion of a chapter of a larger work in progress)
Growing Up Country
He was born in the Midwest, the third of three children, but never the “baby of the family”. His sister was daddy’s little girl, and his brother momma’s boy. He was their “other child”. His world: a farm north of a small midwestern town. It was not large, as farms go, only 60 acres of “bottom land” near the river. It was his world, but never his home. He was born with a spirit of wanderlust and had dreams beyond this small world, dreams of new horizons, of lives to live and stories to tell. But then what does a boy of 5 know of the world? For now he was content with make believe adventures, playing with plastic figures of animals and little metal cars in the dirt under the back porch.
Every morning was the same…, milk the cows, feed the pigs, get the eggs, water all of the livestock, then wander through another day. The real treat was when Gram came to visit. She always brought treats – cookies, candy, and sometimes some books to read. As he grew older, the books became more of a treat than the candy. They let the mind of a boy wander through the world of knights and kings, of monsters and giants, always imagining himself as a hero, or at least the companion of a hero in the stories.
Sometimes, when he visited his cousins in town they would play in the woods behind his uncle’s house, re-enacting their impressions of favorite civil war heroes and battles. His cousins always opted to be northern heroes like Grant and such (maybe because the North won the war), but he related more closely with the South, chosing the part of Lee, Stonewall Jackson, or even Mosely. In the end he was usually killed, except when portraying Lee, but then he had to surrender. It was ok, and in good fun, but through it, he developed a real feeling for the south . He started to read more of its history and its people and their problems. It would carry through in relationships in later years.
Time passed and one day his father brought home a pony for the children of the family to share. His sister had no interest in it. His brother was mean to it and the pony would always throw him off and run to the barn. The pony and the boy, however, became inseparable and shared years of adventures riding through the fields and pastures, and along the river near the farm. The idyllic adventures came to an abrupt end though with the start of school, (only to resume in the following summer).
Without the benefit of Kindergarten, he started into 1st grade and, thanks to the tutelage of his grandmother, he was at the level or even a little ahead of a lot of his peers because he already knew how to read and write and could do simple arithmetic. Art and writing were his favorite things though. He loved to draw and would sometimes go to great length to make sure details in his drawings were just right, earning him much praise from his teacher.
The freedom to roam and explore while riding the pony, escaping the farm while in school, and the voyages of adventure in books began a spark that would ignite his wandering spirit so that one day it would burst into an unquellable flame. Til then though, he had to be content with the pony, school, books, and his dreams. He began one of his usual explorations along the river, riding farther and farther north, past the old Davis farm, under the bridge, and along the old indian battleground, imagination conjuring up pictures of the indians and soldiers fighting among the trees and along the riverbank. He’d been there before and decided to press on farther to see what new things there might be to discover. After about a mile, along a neglected pathway, he found himself in the ruins of the indian town, one that he’d heard his grandmother describe. It was an eerie setting with a couple of buildings that were mostly falling apart and the remains of rotted boards and other debris scattereded across the open field. Strangely he felt as though he had been there before…, a long time ago. He thought about taking a souvenier of the place home but it didn’t feel right…, like he would be stealing something from a sacred place. With those thoughts in mind, he turned the pony and started back to the farm. He would ask Gram more about this place and see if she could get him any books about it.
All of the farmwork had its more pleasant interruptions when, one warm summer day, Uncle Clarence stopped by the house. After a cup of coffee and talk about the family, he started toward the door. He’d been on his way to go fishing on the river. “Elsie, mind if I take this here young-un with me…, that is if you don’t need him for something else”? “Well…, I guess it’d be alright…, if he’s back before Roy gets home and he gets his chores started”. With that, new adventures were about to begin. He handed the boy a fishing pole and a tin can. “Where’s our bait”? “Waitin’ for us down by the river”. It was a quiet, long walk. Uncle Clarence wasn’t much of a talker, speaking only when he felt he had something important to say. When they reached the river, Clarence took out a long knife and poked in the dirt along the riverbank, dislodging earthworms for the boy to gather. He was quiet too, figuring that Uncle Clarence would say something when he was ready. After a while conversation started slowly, mostly about the bait, how to fish, what kind of fish they’d catch, sandbars, gravelbars, and fresh-water mussels. Fishing led to quiet conversations about other things. He learned that Clarence and his father had played on a minor league baseball team for several years. Clarence played 1st base and his father was a pitcher. That explained a lot of things, such as how his father could throw a baseball so fast he could hardly see it. Both of them had been good enough to be asked to the Major Leagues by the Pittsburgh Pirates. Clarence went (for a year), but his father refused to leave, citing family responsibilities. The boy and his uncle shared other interests, hunting, target shooting, and just long walks through the countryside enjoying nature.
Intervening years were filled with schoolwork, farmwork, and really little else except for his adventures and excursions on the pony and the dreams evoked from the library books he would read. At school there were the usual social problems between city kids and farm kids. To the “townies” the farm kids were just a bunch of stupid “hicks”. To the farm kids, the “townies” were just stupid (and rude). Friends were few, but a relationship developed between him and one of the “townies” , Bill, who, because of his size, was one of the less than popular classmates. Some were abusive, calling him “Fat Matt”. The boy, as he grew older became more and more interested in sports. He was a reasonably fair baseball player, having played softball on the 4H teams and could hold his own in playground basketball games too. The problem was that, to his father, the farmwork was always more important than the boy’s opportunity for sports. It trumped his chances every time. It was always his dream to be on a school team. That would have to wait for a while though.
Always there was the farm. Up early in the morning to milk the cows, feed and water all of the livestock, clean manure from the stalls and put down new straw. It seemed never ending. After a pseudo rest through the winter, the work of spring planting abruptly ended any time for riding and adventuring. He would be on the tractor plowing, discing, and planting from daylight til dark for weeks until crops were in the ground. Then came time for the first cutting of hay which would be 2-3 days of slave labor in the hot sun, lifting and stacking bales of hay on a truck or wagon, only to be unloaded and stacked in the even hotter hayloft. After a short respite, came time to cultivate and weed the crops, followed by…, what else…, time to cut the hay again. Summer vacation??? He had no summer vacation, except for the times his father and mother would go to fish and visit with his great uncle in Minnesota. Even then there were cows to milk and livestock to feed and water. As he grew older, he felt more and more like a slave to the farm and it only served to make him more determined that he would never live on a farm when he finished school.
The boy’s life began to change when he became 12. Still a very serious student, his mind began to wander in a really different direction – girls! For such a long time they had been repugnant creatures, barely tolerable. Now they had miraculously become somewhat attractive, to the extent that he would even talk to them and walk with them to the drugstore for a soda during school lunchtimes. A lot of changes began about this time in his life, like a change to a somewhat noticable baritone/base voice, broader shoulders, more muscular arms and legs, and the girls seemed to notice and approve, which didn’t hurt his feelings at all.
8th grade rolled around and Barbara became the focus of his attention. She was short, petite, and very cute. She was a cheerleader and one of the most popular girls in the class. He walked her to the drugstore at lunchtime, bought sodas for her, walked her home after school, and she, for her part was very sweet and nice, but, at the same time, very proper. No holding hands! No kissing! No nothing. After a time of being rebuffed at any and every advance, he grew frustrated and dropped the effort, thinking that maybe girls weren’t so great after all.
Later in the year though, he kept getting assigned to class projects with one girl in particular – another farm kid. Many of the projects often took them to the city library for research and on one trip, as they walked and talked, he felt her hand slip into his. They looked at each other, smiled, and continued walking. Needless to say, they went to the library a lot after that. Walking, talking, holding hands, in due process had to be followed by the inevitable first kiss and it would be the first for both. The library was quiet and the lone librarian was busy behind the desk and didn’t notice a boy and girl slip behind the many rows of bookshelves near the windows. It was a tenderly awkward moment but both were equally eager for what was in the offing. Facing each other, she put her arms around his neck and he incircled her waist and their lips met very shyly at first, and followed by a more lingering kiss. Both took a step back and looked into each others eyes, smiled, and kissed again. Not knowing what else to say, he asked, “Did you like it? Was it alright”? Her response was a smile, and another kiss. Ah, young love. First girlfriend. First boyfriend. They agreed to carefully disguise their feelings in school but little did they know that his best friend had been outside the library, witnessing their romantic encounter through the window. When they noticed the “spy”, they swore him to secrecy under threat of death. They were attending an old fashioned Catholic school and boy-girl relationships were very much frowned upon by both the nuns and priests (and parents). Bill, too, knew that if he said a word that they would surely find some way to make his a life of pain and misery, so he wisely kept their secret.
Graduation brought some sense of maturity and accomplishment. Next year came high school. Along with the hoopla of graduation came a sad realization. The young sweethearts would be parted – each going to different schools, miles apart. There was a school party and a dance held in the gymnasium, under the careful supervision of the nuns and priests, but rock ‘n’ roll music blasted into every corner of the place. It was a fun time for all, until the party ended. In a fashon typical of their library trysts, they eluded the watchful eyes of the chaperones and met behind the stage curtain for a last kiss, and goodbye. They would see each other in church on most Sundays afterward, but it would never be the same for them. Still, even years later, there was always a knowing look and a smile between them that no one else understood (except Bill).