Running Wild and Free

Growing up in the small town of West Carrollton as free-range wildlings in the 60’s-70’s, it never occurred to me at the time how truly lucky we were to be able to wander around our neighborhood without fear or being subjected to the long parental leash of a cell phone, not to mention the seduction of video games. We weren’t as crazy as the Lord of the Flies, but we were left to our own devices and would be gone the entire day, coming back in time to avoid a spanking for missing supper and then head back out to play hide and seek or catch fireflies.

There were no hovering parents in my family…quite the contrary.  Dad was always working and mom preferred us not to be underfoot. On a non-school day when the weather was nice or on summer vacation, we got chased out of the house and were on our own as soon as we woke up.

Breakfast?  Get your own bowl, typically a recycled margarine tub and fill it with Trix, Apple Crisp or Cap’n Crunch after rummaging through the box to see if there was a prize.

Classic-cereals-from-the-60s-Cocoa-Krispies-Pops-Smacks-Apple-Jacks-750x244.jpg

The prize is how we picked out our cereal, as long as it was sweet we would eat it. Dinosaurs, super balls, glow in the dark stuff, submarines, you name it…prizes ruled! There were even records on the back of the box you could cut out and play on the old Close and Play. The Archies “Sugar Sugar” comes to mind.

Cereal Records.jpg

Of course, the tooth-rotting amount of sugar already in the cereal was not nearly enough, so we emptied the sugar bowl into our Jethro Bodine size bowls (Beverly Hillbillies reference for y’all young-uns) to the point where it wouldn’t even dissolve, leaving big spoonfuls of milky sugar at the bottom as dessert.

hqdefault
Monster cereals!

With six kids, food in my family was done on a military scale.  The main food groups us kids were in control of, beyond our morning cereal, were milk, bread, peanut butter and jelly and baloney and cheese…and it was always baloney, not bologna.  And there was always a big basket of tomatoes for snacks once they started coming in from the garden.

Tomato-Baskets-Square

Milk was delivered by an actual Borden milkman in glass bottles and left in a galvanized box on the front porch to keep it cool. 4 gallons of milk were delivered every couple of days, along with butter, cottage cheese, butter milk for dad and other assorted dairy products.  Elsie the cow even made the glue we used at school!

5967910814_7a36287aea_b.jpgVintage-Borden’s-Embossed-Metal-Dairy-Farm-Milk-Bottle.jpg

When they came out with those 2.5 gallon plastic dispensers there were always at least 2 of them in the fridge. We helped keep dairy farms in business as dad still might have to pick up a gallon or 2 on his way home from work to tide us over.

The bread was typically whatever white bread was on sale the cheapest at Woody’s, but  if we got Wonder Bread we thought we were farting through silk and would immediately sacrifice a piece slathered with peanut butter to the dog.

s-l300.jpg

The peanut butter served as the glue to stick to the roof of the dog’s mouth, and the soft Wonder Bread made an almost impermeable barrier once compressed and licked by the dog, who would spend the next 15 minutes trying to lick through the bread shield to the delicious peanut butter hidden beneath. Cheap entertainment.

product-classic-white
Wonder Bread is now “Classic”?

The peanut butter came in 5 lb plastic buckets, bought at least 2 at a time. These buckets then became cheap utility Tupperware. Arguments over whether the next bucket was going to be smooth or crunchy style were fought with the gusto of an MMA fight. Jellies, jams and preserves were made by mom and in a seemingly endless supply from our cellar pantry.

shedds-bucket_12.jpg

Apple, grape, strawberry and rhubarb were standard as we had those fruit trees and plants… maybe some peach, plum if dad picked up a few flats at a roadside stand. Wild blackberry, mulberry and raspberry depended on us kids getting out and picking peanut butter tubs full of them…usually paying dearly with days of suffering relentless chigger scratching.

MuscadineJelly-4685-9-2-602x399-2.jpg

Making a PB&J entailed slathering peanut butter on as thick as possible and dumping jelly out of the jar so it would ooze out of the bread every time you took a bite.  You had to eat it like an ice cream sandwich…licking the sides after each bite.

article-0-1CC5329E00000578-716_634x483.jpg

There were no Ziplock bags in those days, you used a sheet of wax paper or foil to wrap it up or if you were lucky mom bought some of those new-fangled sandwich bags that you had to fold a flap back over the sandwich and pull the top of the bag inside out to form a loose seal.  Which leaked if you fell in the creek.  We ate a lot of soggy sandwiches.

Wholesale-PE-Sandwich-Fold-Top-Bags
We called them “Baggies” I can’t remember if that was a brand name or just what we called them.

Lunch meat was just baloney, and was named Oscar Mayer. Mom bought it by the cart load in the 1 lb packages and our family could decimate several packages a day like locusts.

58-2
Chicken lips and pig snouts?

Cheese (and I use the term loosely) was a box of Velveeta.  Seriously, we thought that’s what cheese was for many years.  At some point after Kraft invented the individually wrapped American Cheese slices, they became the standard, as it was not unusual for a kid to cut hunks of Velveeta an inch thick to put on a sandwich. After all, American Cheese is really just Velveeta squeezed thinly into a sheet of plastic, right?

00068100018578_a1c1
This is not cheese

You would slather that with yellow mustard and what we commonly called mayonnaise, but was actually Miracle Whip, a cheaper version of mayonnaise full of fructose, soybean oil, sugar and other nasties.  I remember tasting Hellman’s for the first time and feeling cheated all those years…thanks for fooling us again mom!

hellgrid1
Accept no substitute!

Thus invigorated with a bowl of sugar fortified cereal and maybe a sandwich crammed in our pocket, we were good for a full day of exploration and adventure.

The first order of business was to try and sneak off without the younger kids noticing or receiving a mandate from mom to “watch you brothers and sisters”.  This was not an easy task, the youngsters were on to us and stuck to us like white on rice.  Sometimes we employed the “outrun them on our bikes” method until they gave up or simply tried to lull them into boredom, as if we weren’t going to do anything and then creep off. It really depended on how adventurous we felt, creek walking was open to anyone.

kidonbike from groovyhistorydotcom
Pulling a fast one to escape younger brothers and sisters…

One of the first adventures I remember was exploring the new 3 story apartment building going up behind the house.  What was formerly just an empty field, suddenly sprouted into a building site, with heavy equipment, excavation, framing and so on.  As soon as the workers left for the day we would climb all over the bulldozers and trucks, checking out the construction and playing in the endless mud puddles.

Greg and laurie Back yard Oct 18 1969_1
Laurie and Greg in backyard with only 1 story of bricks laid on apartment building. October 1969

We soon became a little braver and made friends during the work day with one of the construction guys.  I can feel moms everywhere shuddering with the notion of “a friendly stranger”, but at least it seemed a bit more innocent in those days and the worker turned out to just be a friendly guy.

Rose LAne  building apts behind house
Backyard with apartment building still under construction

He would share bits of his lunch, sugar packets from his coffee breaks and so on. We would climb up and around everywhere in the 3 story building, watching the workers do their thing, fetching boards or tools or just getting in the way.  No one seemed to care and OSHA had a low profile in those days.

But more typically, a good day of adventuring started in the nearest creek, which happened to be about 2 houses away if we cut through neighbor’s yards.  We always cut through the neighbor’s yards. Fences, dogs and gates were just obstacles to be negotiated like we were on American Ninja.

kids-climbing-a-fence-1024x676.jpg

Once in the creek we were in our natural element. We tried to stay clean and dry for about 5 minutes…until we saw our first crawdad or frog and all bets were off as we splashed right in after our prey.  We would then wander up the middle of the creek, stopping to build a dam to make the water deeper and then wandering on, flipping rocks and poking in holes to see what was hidden away.

6eb8bfcbb281abca7ae5ba781af9fa34.jpg

Down towards the old Kimberly- Clark paper mill, in the creek along Gibbons that ran in-between White Villa, there was a retention pond that settled out some of the solids before being discharged into the creek from a big pipe.  You could tell what color paper they were making due to what color the creek water was that day.  You could dig into a sand bank and see multiple layers of colors in the sand, like someone made a colorful cake.  We thought it was cool at the time but who knows what chemicals we were wading around in.

cap1.jpg

In that part of Ohio limestone is the dominant geology, and it was so full of fossils that we became immune to the commonplace seafloor fossils, with seashells by the millions.  Reading my fossil books, I was always on the prowl for a cool T-Rex tooth or mastodon tusk.  It took a while to understand they did not walk around on the ancient seafloor of Ohio.

surface2
Typical looking hunk of Ohio Limestone

I really got into collecting rocks and minerals along with fossils. Pardon while I nerd out for a minute…I found brachiopods, crinoids, cephalopods, gastropods, cool horn corrals that I first imagined as dinosaur teeth, and eventually a trilobite or two.

BF_01
Typical Brachiopod Fossils

I had boxes and boxes of all these rocks in my closet, many mounted and named on cardboard, in little sectioned boxes and just loose in bags.  I still can’t help picking up cool rocks but I try to limit them to one or two per trip as a memento rather than trying to find one of everything possible. When we were selling off mom and dad’s house and cleaning it out, there was still a couple hundred pounds of rocks down in my old bedroom in the basement. I kept a few just for old times’ sake.

IMG_2346
A few artifacts of a once mighty collection…

We also collected every form of fresh water critter found in southwest Ohio. Mom was into tropical fish for a while and had collected many fish tanks and paraphernalia of varying sizes. As her interest faded, we took control of the tanks and created terrariums and aquatic re-creations of the creeks and ponds, filled with frogs, toads, turtles, mud puppies, snails, tadpoles, crawdads, fresh water clams, hellgrammites and any other unusual insect larvae…everything but snakes. Oh, we caught them alright, but we had to hide them in the garage, as mom drew a hard line at snakes in the house. There may have been a death penalty involved.

625417_3855506805752_121427869_n
Good days catch…

As we wandered up the creeks, we often got side tracked by various woodlands around our area, many of which have been developed these days.  One that hasn’t, was the woods right next to our elementary school, Harry Russell.  I believe it was part of the school property and classes occasionally went up into the woods on field trips to study nature.

There was a house that had a long, private drive just off of Bishop Drive that wound to the top of the hill right next to the Russell woods. I used to remember the name of the folks that lived there, but it seems to elude me at the moment.  In any case, as kids we of course placed a sinister reason for them living in their relative seclusion.  They had to be rich and evil, as they had their own bridge across the creek and long driveway with acreage.  Worst of all, they had no trespassing signs, the nerve!, so who knows what kind of sorcery went on in there and which were as good as a blinking neon sign saying “enter here”.

Cap3.jpg

We would sneak up the drive, cautious for any sign of approaching cars or guards.  We knew they had to have guards at such a house. We would dive and roll into the bushes at any indication of danger, which might be noise from a bird or cicada or just a giggle. I don’t think I ever saw any people, cars or activity of any kind from that house.

We would stealthily creep our way past the house, along old animal and kid trails, through what is today called Hintermeister Park (maybe the Hintermeister’s are the ones that owned the property and house?) at the top of Mayrose Drive, to enter the school woods proper. This woods was a playground for kids around the entire area, but we thought of it as our own.  After all, when we first moved to our brand new house there were no other houses past the creek bridge on Primrose and they had just opened Harry Russell my first year there in first grade. We obviously had seniority.

It was a wonderful little woods filled with all kinds of possibilities for adventure.  It was situated up the side of a hill, so it had gullies and ravines with little water courses to wander up.  There were the more or less official trails through the woods, and then there were the “secret” trails…these were the more interesting ones of course.

071211-kidsinwoods1
Did you hear something?

They might take you to the edge of one of the ravines where kids had trimmed back the undergrowth to clear a path for swinging on a big vine out over the ravine.

My-life-in-appalachia-swinging-on-grapevines-500x375
This should work…

There were a lot of wild grape vines in the woods so when one dried up or got ripped down a new one would be created somewhere else.

very-kid-s-dream-swinging
Yeeeee haaaaaw

The trails would also lead to makeshift clubhouses, tree houses and secret clearings in the woods. You could tell the hangouts of the older kids by the stash of playboy’s, beer cans and cigarette butts littering the area.

images
Warning, Danger!

We knew to tread cautiously in these places so we didn’t get into a turf war. That didn’t stop us from climbing tree houses and ransacking clubhouses for usable booty, that all seemed to be part of the game.

the-fort.jpg

At the very top of the hill, along the property line, there was a fence enclosing a large meadow where the owners kept horses.  The horses were always happy to see visitors and would come trotting over to say hi. In a little suburban town, this seemed like we were a world away in the country, in a place where we could call the horses, pet their heads and feed them grass or maybe even a carrot or apple if we had thought to bring them.

A couple of the creeks had steep dirt cliffs, where we became mountain climbers for the day.  We had an old army rope of dad’s that we would coil up and use to act like Sir Edmund Hillary.  The cliffs were eroding and dangerous as they were just clay and dirt, but that didn’t stop us from scaling them and getting into precarious situations where we were afraid to go up or back down.

D145_215_298_1200
Kid climbing dirt cliff…

This was made all the more exciting by throwing dirt clods at the person already in meltdown mode on the cliff to break them even further.  I have no idea why we didn’t have more broken bones and injuries.

We didn’t limit ourselves to above ground either.  When they were building out the then new Sherwood Forest development, they had built the sewer infrastructure but hadn’t yet built any houses.  I thought this was a great opportunity for becoming cavers and exploring the subterranean.

F7QKOFUH4AGM388.LARGE
Enter if you dare…

The storm sewers were still clean and new, so we didn’t need to worry about nasty surprises like dead animals or people dumping nasties down the drains.

FG339UKH4AGM3AG.LARGE
Still Nice and Clean

We would gather a collection of candles, matches, flashlights and string each time.  We accessed them from an outfall pipe in the creek and would walk in as far as possible, then crawl on hands and knees, eventually traveling through even smaller pipes on our bellies with no way to turn around.

west_island_storm_drain1
Nice to be able to stand up!

Claustrophobia was always in the back of our minds down in the black depths of the pipe, and we inched forward with a hopeful wish that there would be a manhole station at some point ahead where we could gather our courage and continue on or turn around.

FAPXNQSH4AGM3BU.LARGE
Manhole exit

I ended up mapping the entire system with drawings of the size of the pipe, where the manhole access points were and which ones made good clubhouses to stash candles and booty.

F5ALX2QH4AGM3C4.LARGE
Roomy chamber to turn around or turn into a clubhouse…

Occasionally a summer thunder storm would come up and begin flooding the pipes, but this again we didn’t really acknowledge as real danger, just heightening the adventure a bit more.

F5H9V94H0OJ6YN0.LARGE
Got to map the system…

Over along the now buried creek under Liberty Lane next to White Villa, by a chigger filled raspberry patch, there was an old tree house notable for how high up in the tree it was and how rickety the steps were to climb to the top.  When we “acquired” it, the past builders had, by all appearances abandoned it for some time.   There was rotten wood, rusty nails, loose boards and so on. Maybe someone fell, or parents got wind of it and banished them from such a dangerous place, or maybe they just got older and pursued other interests, who knows.

tree-house-ladder.jpg

In any case, we planted a flag and claimed it as our own. We began the rehabilitation by dragging more building material from dad’s stash of second hand lumber and banging in yet more rusty, bent nails into all of the many loose boards creating a ladder going up the tree trunk.  Old school tree house ladders were just boards nailed onto the trunk. They  loosened up regularly as the still living tree grew.  We figured if 2 nails were good, 10 nails were great.

tree2lg
More nails!

I recall there were a couple of places that had extended sections where you had to climb the tree, possibly to keep the squeamish from continuing to the top. This thing was easily 50-60 feet up in the tree…any fall would be a broken bone or worse. We continued adding nails, rails and new boards until we eventually lost interest as well, leaving it for other kids to discover.

As we all got older, adventures took us farther afield on our bikes, perhaps fishing at a pond or walking out on the dilapidated spillway on the Miami River. Eventually, I started hanging out more with my school buddies rather than my brothers and sisters and they had to create their own new adventures as I began stretching my teenage wings…but that is a different set of tales.

 

 

Ground Hog’s Day all over again

I wrote this story on Facebook a year ago and it showed up on my “Memories” this morning. It was just a quick little blip that popped into my head back then and I jotted it down for Facebook.  I smiled over the memory then read through the old comments.

The post didn’t get much notice as posts go, 7 Likes and 6 Comments, but two of the comments were from my life-long buddy Rick. “Man, that looks like fun!” and “Those wool pants can take a beating!”.  Very short and simple, but just the kind of thing that sets off a hundred memories.

He was referring to the photo at the top that shows Beckey on an easy flake doing a layback move. We had been on climbs like that many times.  Each one flashed through my head and they were all fun indeed, even the nasty, chossy, dirt pile Beckey death routes no one had been on in years.

He knew that wool pants can take a beating because we had both worn them for many years before all the new-fangled synthetic stuff came out.  I had given him a pair of my dad’s old wool Army pants back in high school and we both wore them until we got too old and fat, replaced by nice comfy fleece.

But the thing that stung was that it is coming up June 17th, the day he died a year ago. I’ve been reading his comments from the last ten years coming back from the past in those Facebook memories for the past year thinking “he was still with us a year ago”. I don’t know why a year is meaningful, but it is.

Maybe because it still seems like it was just yesterday.  Maybe it’s simply a calendar year has an implied meaning.  Or maybe because the memory is the first time it has popped up…we have had plenty of fun re-commenting on these old FB memories from 2, 5, 8 years ago, but his voice is now gone from them.

In a few days none of the comments will be “new” memories.  Each would have been seen at least once before as a memory and repeated year after year like a scene in the “Ground Hog’s Day” movie.  I suppose all very appropriate for the boy born on February 2nd.

Flapjack Lakes 1989 27
Rick in his hand me down wool pants at Flapjack Lakes, Olympic National Park 1989

======================================================================

fb

In the early 90’s we stopped in to check out some routes in Squamish BC that were right next to a residential area overlooking the main highway. They were just beginning some home construction there and we figured we should bag the climbs before they closed it off from climbers.

We took the short walk over to the cliffs and were scoping the routes and noticed a group on a nice, classic looking crack. Most of them were young but there was an old dude on lead, dressed in long wool pants and a flannel shirt while everyone else was in shorts and t shirts.

The old dude would work his way up the crack with pretty good run-out and then do an odd layback that I can only describe as a “butt smear” so he could get a nut or stopper in. He was actually smearing the full length of the wool pants for added friction while he worked the stopper in. He could almost no hands it!

He turned to look down at us and I immediately saw it was Fred from his photos on his climbing guides. He must have been about 72 at the time. Here was our alpine messiah, whose words we poured over in his Cascade Alpine Guides to find some glimmer of how to find a route on some crazy “Beckey variation” doing a single pitch 5.6 fifty feet from a construction zone. Very surreal.

We immediately added the “Beckey Butt Smear” into our quiver of climbing moves…if it was good enough for the Master it was good enough for us. Photo (not mine) of the Legend on another climb, looks like up Icicle Creek in Leavenworth.

I’m the Son of a Picker-Man

With apologies to Dusty Springfield for the title, one of my favorite memories of childhood is going “picking” with the old man, an activity he loved and my mother detested. You only had to step into the garage to see he was a collector of all manner of previously used “stuff”.  I can hear mom shouting “Gordon, we don’t need any more of that old crap, I’m going to throw it all out!, with him hollering back “woman, don’t touch my stuff!”

trashcan man korea '54 fox co
I’m not saying he was born to pick…but he could never resist no matter where he was, even the Korean war.

He never met a bent nail that couldn’t be straightened out enough to pound into a board.  Now, they may get flung into an old rusty Folgers can, mixed with sawdust, dirt and god knows what else and sit in that can waiting to be chosen and pounded straight for an eternity, but you never know when you might need a single 3.25” aluminum ring shank with extra-large head.

4043235391_0557e069c4_b.jpg

He knew all the good dumping spots within 10 miles and we would meander from one to the next, checking out what treasures the imprudent had offered up to the more experienced palate of the expert picker.

The best spots back then (and probably still) were along the Miami River between Miamisburg and the Dayton city limits.  Vance and West River Roads along the West bank and East River Road on the East bank were particularly fertile grounds as almost no one lived or worked along the river back then.  They were usually accessed down a dead end “fishing spot” road that resembled the entrance to the Bat Cave from the old TV show, not the groomed levee banks, bike trails and industrial areas you find today.

river
Banks of the Great Miami River much cleaner these days

He would holler “let’s go for a ride”.  We knew exactly what that meant…we could run wild in the woods and creeks along the river, exploring for snakes and frogs while he dug through piles of “stuff”.  He would load us kids in the station wagon and off we would go for a few hours of prime entertainment.

rose lane blue wagon and driveway '66 _1
Ready to roll

It really was great fun for us as we were pretty undemanding kids.  We were happy running the neighborhood, climbing trees, picking berries or wading miles up creeks, flipping rocks for crawdads and poking around for fossils.

As a rule, we didn’t get to go to fancy places (i.e., places that charged money or an admission) that smaller families took their children to have fun, so our expectations had a low bar set for what fun was. Just spending time with dad was fairly rare as he was usually working 2nd shift at Dayton Tire and Rubber.

Sometimes, there might be a specific mission in mind, such as finding some (barely) usable lumber to build some project he had in mind.  We would all get hammers and descend on a pile of old wood to pound rusty nails out and refill dad’s coffee cans at the same time.

Junk-Pile-Cartersville.jpg

At least once a year during pollination season in the spring he would take us to old farmsteads that were most likely abandoned after the big 1913 flood, before the levees were built. They still had orchards that had gone wild and we had some fruit trees at home that needed to be cross-pollinated from other fruit trees. He would be busy cutting flowering branches off of apple, plum and pear trees while we dug through old foundations, ruins and out buildings seeking fabulous treasures.

More typically though, was the “let’s go see what we can find” drive.  We would pull off onto one of the many dirt paths, usually full of puddles that splashed the car with mud and brambles and briers to scratch the paint up with long, slow, teeth-grinding squeals as dad squeezed through the overgrown paths.

junk-pile
Look at all that treasure!

These dump sites contained pretty good sized piles, deposited over many years.  There was some house hold garbage, but people were usually driving out to these sites to get rid of appliances and other “big trash” that they couldn’t easily get rid of or to avoid paying for getting rid of it at the dump.

rglogo1.gif&logoxpos=5&logoypos=5&maxw=630&maxh=350
Gotta be some good stuff in there

Dad would flip everything around with a heavy stick, looking for washing machine motors, lawnmowers, bicycles, tools, old phonographs, radios and other electric gear for parts and pieces. 2x4s and other dimensional lumber was stacked in the wagon, nails or not.

junk+pile
Typical pile

There might be old flower pots, household knick-knacks, old lamps, brass stuff, ashtrays, glassware, crates, you name it.  We were always on the look-out for bits and pieces to make go-carts, skate boards, push carts, bicycle choppers and other ways to injure ourselves like miniature Evil Knievel’s.

If we weren’t sure if something was a true treasure or not, we would hold it up and wait for the nod from the master. It felt like we were in the Coliseum, waiting for Caesar to give us the thumbs up or down, tossing it back down in disgust if it didn’t meet whatever standard dad had in his head.

Another favorite was just being down on the river itself.  There were a number of bends and log jams along the river that had treasures that had somehow fallen or gotten tossed into the river upstream.  There were always a lot of baseballs, softballs, footballs, kick balls, basketballs, whiffle balls and other floating stuff to be had.

river2.jpeg

Digging for snapping turtles, poking at dead animals, jamming sticks in muskrat holes and prospecting for snagged fishing lures and bobbers rounded out river activities.

Sword fighting with sticks was prized action. My brother Greg and I were playing gladiator on a log jam one time and he hit me in the face with a good size muddy pole that left a good sized gash. Per standard operating procedures, dad poked around with a Zippo heated knife blade, digging for splinters…mom splashed it with peroxide and called it good with slapping a butterfly bandage on. Left a scar for many years, but it has faded away over the decades.

High-tech medical instrument
zippo-fire-flame-petrol-lighter
Sterilizing unit

It was not unusual to come across an uncle or cousin down along the river as well.  They might be picking junk themselves, fishing or just plinking at cans with a .22.

One time we came across Uncle Pete or Uncle Shelby (Can’t remember which, we had a lot of uncles back then) bow fishing for carp.  He was out in the middle of the river, bow at the ready, staring down intently into the muddy water that was almost up to the tops of his folded-down hip waders.

bowfishing-keith_orig
Random dude bow fishing

I was amazed because 1) He was only in knee-deep water. We had been told we would drown if we went anywhere near the bank of the Great Miami River. 2) He was using a bow and arrow to fish! 3) He looked very dangerous creeping around with a big bow in water you could barely see through!

The carp got pretty big and generally slow moving as they vacuumed up everything along the bottom, but it looked like grand adventure to me.

image.ashx
Giant goldfish AKA a carp

We would eventually grow tired of digging in the junk piles, leaving dad to do his serious picking work while we wandered into the woods exploring. I would run out ahead, trying to escape the younger kids, with Greg right on my tail, Laurie chasing him and Phil just trying to see which way we went.

Each time we came back to a familiar place we would fan out a bit farther each time, enjoying the feeling of adventuring on our own in unknown jungle territory.  We were oblivious to any sense of danger, getting lost or being injured.

There were other dangers inherent to picking as well.  Worst perhaps, given my dad’s predilection for emergency medical procedures, otherwise known as poking around with that heated pen knife, was stepping on a rusty nail in the endless piles of construction debris.

foot-puncture
Ouch

Not only was there an opportunity for a tetanus infection, he had to explain to my mom what we were doing jumping around on piles of wood covered in splinters and rusty nails and had to go get our tetanus shots updated…again.

One more time…

There were often bee and wasp nests, chiggers, thorns, loose logs in the river jams, poison ivy, snakes…I have very vivid memory of running wild through the woods and stepping on a big snake.

201307_blue-racer_9093422571-640x424
How about a bite?

There were low growing and high climbing viney plants that grew everywhere and hid the forest floor and climbed up everything along with wild honeysuckle, but I knew as soon as I stepped on it what it was.  It just had that feel. It wasn’t a little garter snake either, it was big and meaty and curled up and now pissed as all Hell.

Snake haven…

My blood went icy-cold as I saw it writhing around, striking at everything within range. I suddenly became aware that I didn’t know exactly what else was under all the kudzu and plants around me. I grabbed a stick and started back-tracking, heart beating like a jack hammer, whacking weeds with the stick like I had a machete in the Amazon jungle.

Not every trip was junk picking, some times it was just prospecting for new spots, or going to his pokeweed patches for a mess of poke sallet. He always knew what was in season, whether it was pokeweed, huckleberries, hickory nuts, fruit in the old orchards, paw paws or a wild rhubarb patch on one of the old farms. He could scrounge up a meal for free just about anywhere.

By the way, the whole poke plant is poison, especially the roots.  Don’t eat the stems or any purple parts, only the leaves when they are tender in the spring and don’t forget to boil your poke leaves 3 times, with water changes in-between. Now you are ready to go harvest some poisonous poke come spring.

img_1223
Pokeweed
blogger-image-2130360249
Mess of poke greens

This reminds me of one of my favorite sayings that dad had, and he had many. Opossums seem to be immune to the poison in poke, and are known to eat the berries. When we had Kool-aid stains all around our mouths he would start chuckling and tell us “your mouths looks like a opossum’s ass in poke berry season”. Use your imagination.

pokeweed-berries-on-mature-plant
Pokeweed berries
3261842445_0a0b5214c0
Opossum ass

Eventually we would pile back in the wagon, and drive home all covered in mud and burrs, bitten up with bugs, punctured with nettles and briers and totally worn out. We would hurriedly carry our booty to the garage before mom saw it, to be inventoried and examined in more detail later.

What did he do with all this stuff you ask? Most of it gathered dust on shelves built of scavenged wood, put together with those recycled bent nails. Us kids might slap together some monstrosity from old lawn mower wheels and wooden crates to rattle down Orchard Hill as fast as we could before we crashed and burned.

the-simple-off-road-go-kartbuild
Classic styling

But occasionally, dad would have a project in mind and have just the item he needed, sitting on the shelf for the last 6 years waiting for its moment, or just the right screw or plumbing gizmo, even if it was only a nickel at the hardware store.

100_0052
Picker to the end

I don’t want to crawl too far into the old man’s head, because it was just great fun for us, but I think all this scrounging, living off the land, being self sufficient and gardening his own food was a product of growing up on a small tobacco farm in the hills of Kentucky, where his depression era family relied on getting by however they could.

dad and jean
Dad with his sister Jean down in Kentucky about 1928

I pale in comparison, but I’m not ashamed to say I inherited some of the master’s skills.  I can’t toss an off-cut of hardwood, will stash a hunk of stainless, brass or copper away “for the future” and have my own cans of nails and screws to sort through when I need one “just right”.  Thanks pop.

391973_10150539630369695_1464240819_n.jpg
My own collection of bins and jars of nails, screws, washers and “stuff”

 

Catch Up To That Tornado!

The recent tornado destruction in Port Orchard got me thinking about the time a tornado ran over over me and my friends back in the 70’s.  Tornadoes are pretty rare in Washington State, unlike forest fires, floods, landslides, earthquakes, tsunamis and the odd volcano blowing up.  Seems like a good bargain most of the time.

This is what reminded me from the local newspaper:

Emily Silverman told KOMO News she was caught in the tornado. She was in the car with her husband and 2-year-old son near Walmart.

“And it’s raining and it’s pouring down really bad and before you know it everything was flying everywhere,” she told KOMO. “Our car back windows blew out, our side windows blew out. Things hit us — there were a few people who had some head injuries from being hit by things. A car got pushed into a back… there was an accident. It was crazy. There were things flying everywhere. I thought I was a goner.”

My story starts when I was home on leave from the Army, maybe around 1979, just before I shipped out to Korea.  I was hanging out with my buddy Rick and his girlfriend Bonnie before going to my next duty station.

We were driving around in Bonnie’s old Pontiac Bonneville. I don’t remember exactly what we were up to, probably no good.  It was summer time, with typically muggy thunder storm weather in southern Ohio.

We happened to be out in Fairborn, by Wright Patterson, the local Air Force base, when I saw in the distance what looked like a funnel cloud forming up over some farm fields.

I had my new Canon SLR camera with me and I immediately began trying to convince Bonnie, who was driving, that we needed to get closer to the funnel so I could get some good pictures.

My argument consisted of “as long as we drive 90 degrees to the direction it is moving we will be fine”. I knew this to be true because I read it somewhere. There was no internet back then, so people generally still believed the printed word.

Rick and Bonnie were not convinced it was a good idea, but I kept it up, explaining this may be their only chance to see a tornado up close and personal… you only live once… go for the gusto… I think that was a beer commercial back then for Schlitz beer.  (I should probably confess a hurricane party has been on my bucket list since I was around 16 and still is)

I was either very convincing or just wore them down as Bonnie eventually pointed the car in the direction of the tornado.  It wasn’t raining all that hard where we had started, but as we got closer and closer the rain came at us harder and harder until it was coming at us horizontally.

We were getting buffeted around by the wind pretty good but I was still convinced her big boat of a car would be fine. The tornado still looked like a baby compared to the massive EF-5 that had wiped out the town of Xenia in 1974 and the hood alone on that Bonneville was the length of a football field and it was as wide as an oil tanker, so I was still pretty confident.

As the intensity picked up they both started in again about how this was “another one of my crazy ass ideas and why do we ever listen to you” complaints. By this time the windshield wipers were on high-speed, beating the window to death but still couldn’t keep up with the rain enough to see very well.

It was like being inside a car wash that had gone off the track.  I could still get a glimpse of the tornado once in a while to direct Bonnie which way to go, which was pretty much exactly opposite of the way she wanted to go.

As the sky got darker and darker we found ourselves on one of those straight, lonely roads that cut through Wright Pat that have the 10 foot security fences on both sides of the road.  With steep, deep ditches on either side, it was essentially a fence canyon with no place to get off or even turn around, and no where to go but forward.

The car was whipping back and forth, rain coming at us in buckets with shortage of irony in the fact that the closer we got, the less we could actually see of the tornado, much less get “good” pictures.

Suddenly, up ahead in a field on the other side of the fence I see the funnel cloud touch down along a hedge row and explode all the trees and bushes.  Vegetation was whirling everywhere and you could see it moving across the field, with crops swirling around like one of those invisible monsters on the old Johnny Quest cartoon as it bounced across the field.

The funnel then hit a big billboard sign and exploded it to pieces.  A full sheet of plywood was spinning right at us like a Frisbee and Rick and I were like PUNCH IT!, we’re gonna get creamed!

Bonnie put the pedal to the floor to try to speed past it but the car was being shaken back and forth all over the road, again with nowhere to duck into or get out of the way.

The plywood came at us like it was in slow motion, slowly spinning as it came at us with the Johnny Quest monster right behind it.

As we crossed the tornadoes path it got extremely loud and with a big blast the side windows blew out of the rubber seals around the door frame with a big pressure blast.  Our ears all popped at the same time and then the plywood Frisbee smashed into the front of the car, luckily taking most of the initial impact and as it continued on back and sheared both windshield wipers off in one big slice.

By now Bonnie is screaming “what have you gotten me into, I’m going to kill you if I live long enough” or something to that effect…along with plenty of more colorful language that I richly deserved.

She slammed on the brakes as she could no longer see anything out of the windshield and as we watched the tornado bounce across the road into the another field we all looked at each other kind of surprised we were all still in one piece.

I can’t remember what kind of tongue lashing I got after that, if I ended up paying for new wipers or any details really…I believe Rick switched to driving at that point since in order to see anything the driver had to stick their head out of the window and get a continual face full of rain.  We somehow limped back home with a great story to tell.