Brian’s Column: Up on the Farm

9: Fields of the grandparents: Splendid icing on childhood’s cake
Brian R. Wright

[Link to Episode 8]

Note: These columns are a series I am making into a volume of my memoirs, working title: Volume 1: Overland Park Ways. You may follow the links at top and bottom of page to go to preceding or succeeding episodes. The series starts here. {If the [Link to Episode <next>] at the  bottom of the column does not show an active hyperlink, then the <next> column has yet to be written.}

Note: Image showing my brother, Forrest (L), then Grandpa Fobian, then me (R) with barn in the background. This was a fully working family farm of roughly 500 acres, near Centerville, Iowa.

In the 1950s and very early 1960s my brother Forrest and I would go with Mom and Dad to my grandmother’s farm in Iowa. These were annual golden interludes, usually of a long weekend, sometimes longer, in my childhood… most of the photos of this chapter are from the week our family was at the farm in the summer with my mother’s sister June’s family—Forrest and I had four cousins who lived in Battle Creek, Michigan: Jim and Karen, twins, two years older than I, Marie, one year older, and Marsha, one year younger, close to Forrest’s age. This visit was much like a rare family reunion; even my aunt Donna, single, a public health nurse, came down from wherever she was at the time… might have been Des Moines.

What a great week. Fun and games for us city kids: catching tadpoles in the pond behind the house, jumping around on the hay in the barn, warily watching Big Hog Tommy in his pen, making the rounds of the chicken coop and machinery garages, riding on the tractor with the men—Grandpa Al Fobian had three sons: Kenny and Lee, lithe and strong-backed 20-22 year-olds about to spread their wings, who did the lion’s share of the farmhand work… then Darrell, maybe 16, still in high school.

Thinking back it was interesting how the boys tended to stick with the men, which meant getting out on the farm acreage and with the equipment, and the girls with the women, who stayed closer to the house… doing all the stuff men generally have very little clue about: cooking, canning, sewing, needlepoint, tending to flowers and gardens and, of course, the very young. And so forth and so on. Farms entail work for everyone, and slackers, well, they simply wouldn’t make the grade, at least not at my grandma’s farm. [I might also point out, in these days of gender identity hypersensitivity, that if a girl were a tomboy wanting to fix engines or a boy were effeminate and liked to bake pies, I really don’t think anyone would stand in their way. The main thing was: nobody gets a free ride.]

Regarding Kenny and Lee and Darrell, didn’t see much of them as it was a working farm and they were workers. But I do remember, with Ronnie and Forrest, FLYING down those dirt roads in Lee’s light blue Oldsmobile 88. I was maybe 13 and Ronnie was a couple of years older. Once we had just gone airborne cresting a hill, Lee turned to Ronnie riding shotgun and said, “You do that in a Ford and you’ll be picking your head out of the roof!”

So in a way Lee was a bit of a role model for me, like out of the Robert Mitchum Thunder Road mold. I said to myself, “Aha!, this is what you have to be like to be cool and be popular with girls.” At the same time, I realized there had to be more to life than driving fast down dirt roads in the country and partying on Saturday night in Centerville… or wherever they drove off to… like becoming a professional baseball player.

Lee seemed  to be the more alpha, fun loving one, while Kenny was quiet and steady. They were definitely in their sowing wild oats years so didn’t exactly look at sharing their life impressions with youngsters like us as a high priority. Darrell, as the youngest, tried to hang out with the two older ones, didn’t say much either, but I do remember him being conversational with Forrest and me. He had an exceptional naturally kind manner about him for someone in that primary an environment.

Let’s see Mapquest says Centerville is ~190 miles from Overland Park, and today it takes about three hours (along I-35), but back then it was like five or six if nothing broke down. I couldn’t have been much more than five or six years old the first time.

I do recall the pond and pulling some very small fish from there. Also being taken for rides on the tractor, being allowed to drive the tractor—with close supervision—, being taken out to the fields where there were these things called crops, that had to be tended, and then harvested, which we were told became an essential part of what we know as food. I did try to pay attention to these practical matters, Lee and Kenny would not talk much about what they were doing, but if Al was along he would embark on rather elaborate conversation explaining the underlying agricultural practices and business—of course we didn’t understand a word, but were grateful for him talking to us.

Gram ruled the roost, cleaned the fish, handled the books most likely, and I suspect she snuck out to the barn every other night to perform oil changes and probably knew all the routine maintenance of the farm equipment. Gram was a force of nature, not the most communicative—children, especially coddled city-slicker children, needed to show some promise of usefulness before wasting any idle banter on them—though kind and patient. I don’t know whose decision it was, probably this one time with the cousins, to have Forrest and me bunk down in the attic with the girl cousins. That was memorable, too, from a biology perspective.

Then a later time, after the noon meal… [That’s another thing I learned: men on a farm eat roughly their body weight every meal. No secret to losing weight, just burn 10,000 calories a day working a farm. Or if you’re the woman of the house, burn 5,000 calories a day preparing meals… and canning, and shopping, and sewing, and washing, and cleaning, etc. etc.]

It sticks out with me still today: After one of these adventures in fine farm cuisine, I was allowed to have my first adult beverage, a Schlitz beer, just a couple of sips. I remember EXACTLY how it tasted to this day… and for a while later in my life I went on a mission to drink as many beers as I could to recapture that same exact taste… without success. [Another taste I never recaptured in adult life was that of coffee, as I remember taking a sip from my mom’s percolator brew one day. It WAS coffee to my young buds; maybe that’s the key, it’s not so much the product as the age of the taster that makes a pure experience. 🙂 ]

Some of the other farm experiences not so great: I remember my aunt Donna slapping me a good one after I talked back to her… just as Mom would do on more than a few occasions. I also recall that the Fobians had a pet racoon, that thing would scratch and bite me something fierce; wasn’t a problem for my racoon whisperer brother. The farm lacked some of the modern conveniences, no AC for instance: it did have indoor plumbing but also a well for water, and I think there was a television out in the family area, rarely watched. Most of the information came from books and periodicals. Their telephone was on a party line. They must have had an attic fan. But you know what, the experience was far richer and more reality-based-human for the lesser comfort factor.

So what did my folks get out of Farm World? A lot, I believe. For one thing, they didn’t have to constantly pay attention to what we kids were doing. It takes an extended family. Everyone kept track of the others, kind of an informal buddy system took shape. In fact, getting back to my education musings, who needs government education when you have one another, especially on a farm?! What an ideal setting to learn from: everything you need to know right at your fingertips, with an accessible, caring knowledgeable expert—grandma, grandpa, mom, dad, uncle, aunt, step family, older cousins—to guide the way. And if they don’t have the answer, you can always hoof it down to the public library. The perfect environment for “DO and you understand.” [Check out Mom’s Elizabeth Taylor sunglasses, eh?]

To my point, exactly, kids can be set free, and typically are, here to find out things for themselves, without coercion of any kind… and without any need for parents to monitor their behavior moment by moment. Freedom young folks => freedom old folks. Above right shows dear Mom sitting on someone’s horse in front of the house. [I don’t remember my grandparents having horses, perhaps a neighbor dropped by.] Dad availed himself of the opportunity to help out with physical labor; I have a great picture sitting around here some-where where he’s pushing a wheelbarrow with cement for some barn construction project they had going.

Remember the barn raising scene in the Harrison Ford/Kelly McGillis masterpiece film, Witness (1985). Well it wasn’t like that in degree for Dad, but it certainly was like that in essence. I’m linking to the YouTube video here, so those reading this as a Web article can take a moment to refresh their souls. Compare that peak experience to the job satisfaction one typically finds in the 9 to 5 world many of us feel they are stuck with in the ‘real’ economy.

Somewhere in the early 60s my grandparents sold the farm and moved down to the Rio Grande town of McAllen, Texas, home of oranges and palm trees and, more recently, high concentrations of Border Patrol goombahs. I remember that long week we drove down to visit them there, this was over our school’s Christmas vacation, and I was 13 years old. It was the year my parents drove from McAllen to Brownsville on the Gulf to go deep-sea fishing on a charter boat trip experiencing severe wintry choppy seas.

This delves into my gene pool deviation since I was always one to get motion sick in the car, say, when we rode the twisting, mountain roads heading for vacation in the Missouri Ozarks. On the other hand, my dad had a cast iron stomach and could eat raw, rancid pork rinds without batting an eye; apparently Mom was of sturdy tummy stock, as well, when it came to handling high-amplitude seas. Of the 20-some passengers on the boat, they were the only two who did not ralph repeatedly on the decks, and caught a cooler full of red snapper, the savory deliciosity of which I remember to this day.

Check out my mom’s enchanting smile as she rests on the boat storage bin during that cruise so grueling for the others. She was 36 that year! Still a prime catch in anyone’s book.

I wanted to push on from the farm life a bit to reach a point in time where, arguably, my parents reach the zenith of their lives together. I’m reading genuine, sublime happiness in her face there, and I know Dad felt the same joie de vivre during that signature moment in the sun (of gray skies). What a fitting flourish to their marriage, which unfortunately would not vanquish the storms to come.

Also, that week in McAllen, I felt myself coming to the edge of adulthood on the puberty train… in a couple of ways:

1) While my folks were out playing Captain Neptune, I walked into the city of McAllen  proper, all on my own. No, it’s not like taking an innocent’s journey to the downtown of a big city, but I was on my own checking out unfamiliar territory. I decided to be like Joe Cool and go to a movie. Forgot the name of the movie, but I did buy some popcorn and I remember putting the remnants of the bag into the right pocket of my 3&2 baseball champion jacket as I left the theater.

A day or two before, the whole family had crossed the border into the Mexican town of Reynosa to go shopping. I had bought some cheap fireworks,chiefly a few boxes of what we called pop balls… you throw them on a hard surface or step on them, they go ‘pop’ like a cap pistol. Well, never guess, I forgot that after playing with them I had put a few into the same right pocket of my jacket.

Yes, I picked out a few of what I thought were kernels of popcorn, and BOOM! What the FFFF?!! I had, indeed, chomped down on one of the pop balls! I realized it immediately. What makes a such small sound when thrown on the sidewalk is extremely LOUD when detonated in your mouth, and I had an instant of panic wondering if I’d blown a hole in my right cheek. At the same time, on the outside, nobody seemed to notice thanks to the muffling of my teeth and semi-closed lips. I felt my cheek, no blood. But, so this is what gunpowder tastes like! Staying in Joe Cool mode, I calmly rinse  my mouth out at a water fountain, empty my pockets, find some hard candy to suck on, and walk the mile or so back to la casa. I don’t remember telling anyone about the incident.

Impending-Puberty Lesson #1: Joe Cool is no protection against being a careless idiot.

2) Also joining us down in McAllen for the Christmas week was step-cousin Ronnie’s family, I don’t remember their last names, but this is Grandpa Fobian’s married daughter, let’s call her Jackie, and she seems a funloving, forward sort, doesn’t mind discussing sex and such matters in mixed company. Smokes like a chimney, cigarettes, just as Grandpa Al always seems to have a cigar going.  It’s cocktail hour at La Casa, the adults are gathered ’round, and for some reason Gram brings up the strip bars in Reynosa… only they aren’t strip bars as the normal, semi-acceptable burlesque outlets I’ve heard about in Kansas City. No, “these women take everything off!” Guess whose ears perk up?

Then, Jackie—I wonder now, was this for my benefit?—goes into a story of when she and her girl friend, about my age, are playing in the girl’s house a quarter mile down the country road from where Jackie lives:

“We’re doing dress designs in crepe paper. Our parents have left instructions that we must stay together while they’re away. We come up with a design that fits her, and at my urging, she agrees to try it on leaving herself nude [for some unfathomable reason] underneath. At that moment, I insist we both must immediately walk up the country road to my place. She’s worried I’m going to tear her lightweight dress off and expose her to the occasional driver coming down the road. I tell her, with my fingers crossed behind my back, ‘no way I would ever, ever do such an awful thing to my best friend.’  So we go, walking side by side. Here comes a car. Sure enough, I grab the back of her dress and rip it completely away from her in one motion, leaving her out in the open totally naked.”

It’s like my first exposure to Penthouse Forum. The details of step-aunt-in-law’s salacious, and probably not bona fide, story fade in memory, but that’s the essence. The hormones kick in, producing my first genuine tingle in the jingles, perhaps imprinting my proclivities in this delicate personal area for life. Say good bye to sock hops and Bobby sox, my ethereal, pop culture kissing-my-girlfriend-is-everything view took a definite whole body turn.

Impending-Puberty Lesson #2: The church will surely have something to say about this.

In the next episode, I’m going to take one more sweep thru the vault of golden memories leading me up to, for convenience, The Day the Music Died—the felling of the President in Dallas, November 22, 1963. It turns out that the end of 1963 was a watershed time for our family, too, Dad’s job situation leading us to move south to Oklahoma City. A veritable social cataclysm for yours truly—yet generating the roots of the righteous philosophy that would guide me to this day.

[Coffee Coaster Column link]

[Link to Episode 10]

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