On Writing

"Every fine story must leave in the mind of the sensitive reader an intangible residuum of pleasure, a cadence, a quality of voice that is exclusively the writer's own, individual, unique."
Willa Cather

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Down on the Farm

            City Slicker and Country Bumpkin are a couple of the negative terms expressing differences in upbringing and attitudes.  These may have been more commonly applied in days gone by than now with more associations between the two environments.  A city kid,
Sydnes farm, Slater, Iowa
I was born and reared in Des Moines, Iowa, but my mother’s parents and two brothers were farmers, and we spent almost every Sunday afternoon traveling to the beautiful homestead of my grandparents, pictured here.  I was much younger than my brother and sister, who together had spent several weeks in the summer during their growing up years at the farm, but as a vacation it was not an appealing prospect for me.  Instead, I looked to my aunt and uncle’s neighboring place where as a ten-year-old I would have the companionship of my slightly younger cousins, two girls and a boy.
            My uncle Fred loved to tease me about my ineptness in almost everything I tried, and to be honest, I had more of a romantic idea of rural life from voracious reading than what was reality. If my sweet aunt prepared a picnic lunch for us to enjoy by a little creek, I was put off by the muddy bank and the bugs crawling around our food and faces and couldn’t eat a bite.  I was encouraged to ride the gentle American riding horse, but he knew I had no confidence in controlling him, and invariably he raced madly for the stable with me just barely hanging on.
            My aunt set me to gathering eggs from the hen house, but the chickens were not cooperative and squawked and flew at me, so I begged off, instead offering to throw them their feed.  Next to the hen house was a tool shed, and its sloping shingle roof that tapered to a low drop-off was perfect for sliding down.  It also was perfect for shredding my thin slacks, so that had to be discontinued.
            And then there was the BB gun, a weapon I’d never handled, though at home I had a pistol or two for playing cops and robbers with the neighborhood kids. I thought it would be interesting to shoot a BB into a board, which we had found in the tool shed.  My cousin Judy was sitting across from me as I fingered the trigger, and I still shudder at what happened next: a BB ricosheted off the board, landing a fraction of an inch from Judy’s eye.  When her mother saw what I’d done, I know she desired nothing more than to send me packing.  There was no real damage, however, to everyone’s relief.
            All of the above activity took place, I must add, in the space of one day—and that was not the end of my adventures on the farm.  Later that afternoon, my grandfather came over to help my uncle repair some piece of equipment, which one I don’t remember.  I do distinctly remember us children standing around in the garage near the barns watching the men working on something.  I looked up and saw a large bull strolling past the door.  Casually, I mentioned the strange sight, and as if I’d given them an electric shock, the two men jumped up, my grandfather grabbing a hammer, my uncle a shovel. 
            “Get up in the loft,” my uncle ordered, and we children clambered up to safety.
Eventually, the men corralled the bull, new to my uncle’s stock; it had broken through two wooden fences on its way to freedom.  This was the sort of experience that definitely set apart the farm from the city. 
            Worse was to come for me, however.  My cousins had the two bedrooms upstairs while I had a bed made up on the living room couch.  The lights were extinguished, and my uncle admonished me to be aware that a mouse might run up my pajama leg, hardly a comfort.  In fact, I found myself treated to a very different nighttime experience.  At home, a street light streamed in a friendly fashion through my bedroom window, and I was lulled to sleep by the hum of an occasional car on the highway a block from our house.  Here in the pitch black living room were no lights or sounds. I couldn’t even see my hand before my face; it was as if I had descended into something horrible, a vast pit of oblivion. 
            It was no use.  I stumbled to my feet and made my way into the kitchen, where I called timorously to my aunt at their bedroom door, “Gwen, will you come here, please?”
            In a few minutes she came out and turned on the light, concerned that something bad had happened.  But all I wanted was for my father to come and get me.  She made the call, I packed my things, and within forty-five minutes my parents had driven the twenty miles to retrieve their City Slicker. 

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