A Family Tradition

Times change…and then sometimes they don’t.  I grew up in the Fifties in rural Southern Illinois. Like most of the country, we had our traditions of the Holidays. Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years were THE big events of the years for families. Easter was another one but it was more oriented towards faith and many families observed Easter at church and at home.

The big three holidays usually involved traveling for many. My sister and brother-in-law visited us at the Farm most of the time. My brother-in-law was an outdoorsman, a term not often heard anymore.

In the summer, he liked to fish. He and my sister built a home on the shore of a twenty-acre lake. In the winter, he liked to hunt. Ducks and geese had their season. Squirrels and rabbits had theirs.  In the fifties, there was no deer season. They were rare after being almost hunted out during the Twenties before hunting became regulated.

I’ve written about our Thanksgiving hunting tradition in another post. However, there were other hunting traditions, too, during the Fall. The most common was rabbit hunting.

While November and December were Duck and Goose seasons; August and September was Squirrel season, October was reserved for Rabbit Season and was my favorite. When I was growing up I hunted, and trapped, rabbits in a variety of ways. A neighbor kid and I once hunted them with baseball bats in an overgrown gully after a fresh snow. We had also hunted with bows and arrows. But we hunted most often with firearms.

I killed more rabbits with a .22 rifle, catching them sitting along a fence line. But hunting with dogs was the best.

Dad raised a variety of hunting dogs. His favorites were Beagles. In October, my brother-in-law Dick Harriss would arrive early on Saturday and Dad  and I would load up a half dozen dogs into his pick-up and we’d head off to the fields.

On this occasion, we went to an area called Beaver Dam, a section of the Big Muddy River that ran through Franklin County, IL. It was a small river than ran through the farm of one of my mother’s cousins, Roy Miller. Roy wasn’t much of a hunter but he did like to eat rabbits. We could use his land for hunting as long as we gave Roy a ‘tithe’ of any rabbits we killed.

Unlike hunting for Quail or Pheasant with dogs, hunting for rabbits with dogs was different. In the former case, dogs were used to find and flush birds. You could only kill game birds while in flight. Rabbits, on the other hand, didn’t fly. Dogs would range ahead of us searching for sitting rabbits. When one was found, it ran with the dogs not far behind.

That day, we had been walking along a fence line towards the river. Dad was on one side of the fence. Dick and I was on the other side. We were silent. The only sound was the crunch of ice ribbons forced out of the ground by the sub-freezing overnight temperatures as we walked with a whisper of wind through the saplings growing along the fence.

Roy Miller hadn’t cleared his fence line in some time. It was overgrown with saplings and briar patches. We were half-way to the river when the dogs flushed a rabbit that took off down the fence line with the dogs running right behind it. The race was on.

Rabbits don’t have much endurance. They are sprinters. They will run a bit and then hunker down hoping whatever is chasing them will pass them by. Beagles hunt by scent and by sight. When beagles lose sight of their prey, they start sniffing. Hunting rabbits with dogs is a series of sprints and pauses.

If the rabbit runs away, how can a hunter shoot one you may ask. It’s simple. Rabbits don’t run in straight lines or directly away. They run in circles. All a hunter needs to do is to listen to the dogs. When the rabbit circles, the sound of the dogs will let you know to keep and eye for a streak of brown running through the brush or a field. The trick is to shoot the rabbit, not the dog who is following close behind. Some hunters never learn that little skill.

On some occasions, the rabbit will circle, return and never be seen. In fact that is what happens in most of the cases. On that morning, I was on the outside, away from the fence line. Dick was on the inside close to the fence, Dad was on the other side of the fence.

We heard the dogs turn on the circle. I was carrying a Stevens, break-open, single shot, 12ga shotgun. I usually carried it open, empty until I heard the dogs approach. Dad carried his Remington Model 11 and Dick carried his 16ga bolt-action shotgun. When the dogs began to circle, I slipped a #4 shotshell into the chamber and closed the action.

At first it seemed the rabbit would come on Dad’s side of the fence. But when the dogs got closer, they switched to our side. Because I was on the outside from the fence, my shooting section was to my right. Dick, closer to the fence, could only shoot if the rabbit appeared to our front. Most often a rabbit would follow cover, in this case the fence. I expected Dick would get the shot.

We continued walking down the fence line with a slightly slower pace. The dogs came closer and I cocked my shotgun. We took a couple more steps and I spotted a streak of brown through the high grass to my right. I brought my shotgun to my shoulder, swung on the target, gave it a bit of lead and fired.

I thought I had missed. The dogs stopped and began to mill about as if they had lost the scent.

http://www.gameandfishmag.com/files/2010/09/ra_0107_06a.jpgI walked over to where I had last seen the rabbit.  The field was a pasture with dead, brown grass rising about eighteen inches over the ground. It was threaded with small game trails and tunnels under the cover of fallen grass stems throughout the field. I walked about fifty yards through the grass when I found the rabbit. There were a couple of blood specks on its fur but it appeared to be otherwise undamaged. I raised my hand indicating that I’d found the rabbit and then slipped it into the pouch on the rear of my hunting jacket.

It felt good swinging in the pouch as I walked back towards the fence. In a few moments the dogs found another rabbit and another hunt was on.

We finished the day with a half dozen rabbits. I got another one late in the day. Dad and Dick split the rest. We gave one rabbit to Roy for his ‘tithe.’ We were all pleased with the results of the hunt.

I remember this day for another reason. It was the day I broke the stock of my shotgun. We were loading up to go home. Dad and Dick slipped their guns into gun cases. I didn’t have one. We were loading the dogs into Dad’s pickup when my shotgun fell to the concrete of Roy Miller’s driveway. It landed vertically on the butt of the stock and the stock cracked at the grip behind the trigger. Its weakest point.

It was an old shotgun, older than me or Dick. It was probably made around the time of WW1 and the woodwork had a bit of hidden rot. It was a cumbersome gun to use. I had to cock it to fire and the hammer spring was so strong that I had to brace the stock on my thigh and use both thumbs to cock the hammer. One time my thumbs slipped and it went off, braced on my thigh and for a moment I thought I’d broken my leg. I hadn’t but I did get a bruise that took a couple of weeks to heal.

Rather than take my shotgun to a gunsmith for repairs, Dad traded it for a 12ga, single-shot Winchester. The Winchester was of a different design and it had a safety and cocked when the action was closed. It didn’t have an exposed hammer like the Steven had.

It was the last shotgun I owned until a few years ago when I found a Remington Model 11 shotgun just like Dad’s at a gun show. It had been re-blued and the stock and forearm had only a few dings and scratches. All  of Dad’s (and my Winchester shotgun) firearms were stolen while I was away at college. I always envied Dad’s Remington. Now I have one just like his.

We continued to hunt rabbits every weekend in October for several years until I left for college. I’ve not hunted rabbits since. Today, people in Kansas and Missouri prefer to hunt deer and turkeys. My hunting choice was and still is rabbits.


In many areas of the country, it’s hunting season. I saw a notice warning hunters to prepare for severe cold when hunting deer this coming weekend. The progressives are still waiting for global warming to appear. The rest of us look at the sunspot cycle and, seeing little to no activity, know that solar heating will be less. That means a cold winter…and snow. The Kansas City area may receive up to four inches of snow this coming weekend.

When I was growing up on the farm, we didn’t have long term weather forecast. Our long-term weather prognostications came from the Farmer’s Almanac. I don’t remember how accurate the Almanac was. Dad’s only interest was when to start planting in the Spring.

We looked for our first snow, or sleet, or some form of frozen precipitation, around Halloween. I remember numerous times when plans to go Trick ‘r Treating went awry because of snow and/or sleet. Starting with November, I seem to remember one snowfall after another until March and occasionally in April. One of my least favorable memories was Easter Sunrise services, outside, while it snowed. The point to my ramblings to this point was that hunting in the snow, was the norm for the 1950s and early 1960s.

Our farm was in three segments. The original part, around the house and barns, was about 30 acres that included a one-acre apple orchard and a three acre woodlot along the backside of our acreage. The other two segments were leased. One was a large fifteen acre field a half mile away from the home patch, but within walking distance. The third portion was a bit over a mile away bordering the wooded Big Muddy river bottom. With the leases came exclusive hunting rights.

During the Fall through the Spring, we ate a lot of wild game. Dad had at least a number of rabbit traps scattered around and one of my duties, when I got home from school, was to check the traps…regardless of the weather.

I didn’t mind that little chore. I liked walking around outside, as long as it wasn’t raining. Usually, the temp when I got home hovered around the freezing mark. There may have been a little thawing during the day, but in the late afternoon, whatever had thawed was refreezing. When I took a step, it was always accompanied by a ‘crunch’, the crushing sound of stepping on ice and snow.

Frequently, whatever I retrieved from the traps was what we ate for supper, that day or the next. With six traps scattered around the farm, it was an unusual day when I didn’t find one trap, or two, sometimes three, occupied.

Dad’s traps were hand-made from scrap 1X4s. They were about 2 1/2′ to 3′ long, 7″ on a side with one end plugged and a falling trap-door on the other. Towards the plugged end was the bait, usually some vegetable (carrot) or dried fruit on a stick that ran up through the top of the trap. The stick was attached to the trap-door release by a piece of string or cord. When a rabbit entered the trap and nibbled the bait, the movement of the stick caused the trap-door to fall. Simple.

When I got home, I would change clothes into some old jeans, plus a sweater, lace-up boots, coat with a hood and gloves. I would take my single-shot Stevens .22 rifle along in case the trap contained something other than a rabbit or squirrel.

I usually got home from school by 3:30pm and was outside heading for the traps by 3:45pm. Dad worked in the mines and would be home by 4:30pm, Mom, teaching school in another small town, would get home around 5:00PM. Grandma lived with us at the time and she was fixing supper and often was waiting for me to bring home the entree.

Crunch…crunch…crunch. I don’t remember being cold outside. My face would sting a bit when the wind picked up. My nose, too. My eyes would water when I walked into the wind but I loved being outside.

When I neared a trap, I could easily see if it had been sprung. If it was, the trap-door would be down. It the trap-door was still up, I still had to check to see if the bait was still there. Sometimes, if the bait wasn’t firmly attached to the stick trigger, the animal could get the bait and back out of the trap without causing the trap-door to drop.

If the trap was sprung, my chore could get interesting. How? Well, you see, I never knew what was inside the trap. Dad’s later traps used a heavy wire door on a hinge. In those traps, I could see what was inside. But his more common trap had a wooden door and that was what made the chore…interesting.

The conundrum was that the trap had to be big enough to allow the game to enter, but small enough to keep predators out. The problem was that a trap big enough for a large rabbit, was also big enough to trap a ‘possum, raccoon, or a skunk.

I had some heavy leather gloves that I used to extricate the game. If it was a rabbit, I’d grip the rear legs in one hand, the head carefully, rabbits can bite, in the other, a quick twist and into the bag with it. I’d do the same if the trap contained a squirrel.

But, if it didn’t? Ah, that was the interesting part. In our area, it wasn’t uncommon for a predator to find the trap with a rabbit, or whatever inside, and think it was going to be an easy meal. It was not unusual to check a trap and find it empty but with the remains of a rabbit or whatever scattered around the trap amid many tufts of fur. Some raccoon found it easy to lift the heavy wire door and get at the rabbit inside. Sometimes that lead to the ‘coon being trapped with the remains of a rabbit or squirrel.

More than once, I’d receive an order from Grandma to bring back a raccoon if I found one. Grandma had a recipe for BBQ’d ‘coon that was very good. A bit stringy, perhaps. Stewed, a raccoon was indistinguishable from a strewed rabbit or squirrel.

If the trap contained a ‘possum, I’d just open the door, kick the trap a few times and let the ‘possum escape. I’d do the same if it contained a skunk. The difference with the skunk was that I’d step further back and have my rifle ready in case the skunk decided to do some retribution for being trapped. In that case, I’d have a skunk-hide drying on the barn-door the next day.

On rare occasion I’d find something else in the trap. Feral cats weren’t too unusual. I’d let them go like I did with the ‘possums. On one occasion, I found the frozen carcass of the neighbor’s dog inside a trap. I don’t remember if anyone told him what happened to his dog.

Dad used to trap the year-around. That is until he found a bull snake inside a trap with a squirrel half-way down its throat. He stopped trapping after early Spring after that.

One winter, on a weekend, I think, I was checking the traps on the land down near the river bottom. The trap was one of Dad’s older ones, all made of wood. It had snowed overnight and when I approached the trap, the area around it was covered with blood and bits of fur. The trap was completely torn apart. The fur lead me to believe the trap had contained a raccoon. The tracks around the trap looked like those I’d see from time to time, a bear. A small bear, likely a black bear that had traveled up from the Illinois Ozarks fifty to sixty miles south of us. Dad and I had seen bears tracks but few, other than our neighbors, believed us. The county conservation agent didn’t. Regardless, whatever had torn the trap apart was bigger than a raccoon or a wild cat. Dad’s traps were build strong.

When I heard the forecast calling for snow this weekend, and that it was hunting season, I thought of the farm. I remembered walking through the brush and fields of the farm, the crunch that accompanied me as I walked along on the frozen ground, the snow and utter stillness of the land, silence everywhere except for the wind and me.

I don’t care for the cold anymore. Cold makes me ache but the memories of being outside, face stinging, eyes watering, walking along the fence-line to the next trap, keeps me warm.



I attended a meeting last night with some conservative friends. The original program scheduled for the evening had to cancel due to a sick family. Instead we had a round-robin of ‘Intro and tell’, or introduce yourself and talk about…whatever took your fancy.

To say the topics varied is an understatement. We discussed national politics and conservatism, state politics and conservatism, local politics and conservatives—do you see a pattern here? Each of us had our favorite hot buttons but the discussions were friendly and informative.

During one session on education and the NEA, I mentioned my mother was a teacher and related a story about Mom when she first started teaching in 1922 at the age of 18. Times were different then. It is less than 100 years since my Mother began teaching. All-in-all, I believe people were better educated then than now. Why? Because Mom didn’t teach rote memorization. She taught her students how to teach themselves—and think for themselves as well.

Mom’s birthday is coming in a couple of weeks. If she were still alive, she’d be 109.

The session last night caused a lot of memories to resurface. It’s time to repeat the story of Mom and the Fisher Boy.

Mom and the Fisher Boy

First Posted on

Today is my mother’s birthday.

Mom was the oldest of five children, four girls and one boy. She was born in 1904 and grew up on the family farm near Olive Branch, IL not too far from Thebes in the southern tip of Illinois. This area was in the southern portion of Illinois is known as “Little Egypt.”

In 1922 at the age of 18, she began teaching in a country school about five miles from the farm. The Nialls Township school was a single room building containing grades one through the first two years of high school. The youngest pupil was five and the oldest seventeen. Mom, having just completed teacher training, was hired to be the sole teacher at the school.

Attending this school were the four Fisher boys. The Fisher boys ranged in age from eight years to seventeen. The oldest boy, no longer legally required to attend, wanted nothing to do with the school. In fact, none of the Fisher boys wanted to go to school and it was only their father’s heavy hand that any attended with regularity.

Mom was a disciplinarian. She’d help raise her four siblings, as well as many of her cousins in the area. She had definite ideas on how children should behave. In short, Mom did not believe in sparing the rod (as I well remember!)

The Fisher boys did not care to attend school, nor were they interesting in learning or being quiet. The oldest stood several inches taller than Mom and outweighed her by at least 50lbs. After the first week, he decided it was time to show Mom who was boss.

The usual routine was for school to start at 8 o’clock in the morning and run through until 11 o’clock. The pupils who lived close to school would go home for lunch returning at 1 o’clock in the afternoon. The remaining pupils brought their lunch. The Fisher boys lived several miles away and stayed at school. The afternoon session, starting at 1 o’clock continued until 4 o’clock when school dismissed.

On that day, all the pupils had returned and entered the school—except for the oldest Fisher boy. I don’t remember if Mom ever mentioned his name. For the purposes of this story, I’ll call him “Mose.”

Mose declared he wasn’t going to school anymore and Mom couldn’t make him. Mom’s reply was, in that case, Mose should be getting along home. He was to tell his father that Mom would be stopping by on her way home. That didn’t set well with Mose and he said that if she showed up, Mose would give her a lickin’.

Now, Mom had a brother that at that time stood over six feet tall. She had several male cousins her age, larger and heavier, and neither her brother nor any of the cousins gave Mom any lip. She had, at one time or another, licked them all. Mom might not have been a tomboy, but at that time, at that place, there were few women who couldn’t hold their own with any man.

Mom grabbed Mose by the collar and the seat of his pants, frog-marched Mose off the school grounds and tossed him out into the road. That did it. Mose came up swinging. Mom promptly decked him. Mose tried again, several times, with the same result. Since he wasn’t getting the results that he wanted, Mose finally decided that he’d enough and took off down the road. His three brothers started to follow but with one look at Mom, decided to remain at school.

At the end of the day, the children took off, primed to spread the news about the big fight. Mom spent another hour at the school, cleaning and preparing for the next school day. She was saddling her horse for the ride home when one of her pupils arrived to tell her that Mose had a gun and was coming to “fix her.”

It was not uncommon for most folks at that time to carry a gun. There were still night raiders who came up from Arkansas on the Mississippi River to raid small towns and rural homes. As was also common of the times, the law ended at the city limits and the only time the Sheriff was seen was just before Election Day to buy some votes. Mom, like many women of that time, who travel the country roads alone and often at night, was armed. Next to her horse, Mom’s prize possession was a Smith and Wesson Model 1917 .45 revolver. Grandpa Miller had bought the pistol for her as a graduation present from one of her cousins who had kept it when he was discharged from the Army at the end of WW1.

Mom had ridden about half way home when Mose stepped out from the side of the rode brandishing a shotgun. Before he could blink, Mose was staring down the bore of Mom’s forty-five. Mose promptly gave up the idea about “fixin’” Mom.

Mom marched Mose home at gunpoint and reported to Mose’s father what had happened at noon and later on the way home. The elder Fisher told her she should go ahead and shoot Mose, since Mose was a worthless SOB who couldn’t lick a little school lady and wasn’t worth the cost of the bullet to boot. Mom declined. Mose’s father then proceeded to teach Mose some manners to the extent that Mose lost several teeth.

Mose never returned to school after that day. He left the county the following week to find a job and never returned to “fix” the school teacher who wouldn’t be intimidated.

Mom died in 1967 after a long battle with cancer.


More Memories from The Farm

A facebook friend and our local state Representative Rick Brattin had to chase down an escaped bull over the weekend. When I read his wife’s post, I had a flashback to a similar escape over fifty years ago.

I grew up on a small farm in Southern Illinois. Dad was a coal miner and part-time farm, or it could have been the other way around with all the UMWA strikes in the fifties. Mom was teaching school. As I remember, I was around twelve.

The time was in the Fall. My Grandmother had moved in with us a few months before. The Farm mostly raised crops but we did have some hogs and a few cattle: a bull, three cows and a couple of yearling calves that were destined for the market or our freezer.

I rode the bus arriving home around 3:30pm. Grandma greeted me with the news that our bull had escaped. He had broken through a 2×4 fence and tried to get to the cows, it being that time of year. He failed to break into their pasture. From there he wandered off looking for more female companions.

I called our neighbors, told them of the escape and asked if anyone had seen the bull. No one had, but one, our neighbor a half-mile down the road, said he’d seen some tracks along his fence line.

Some farms put halters on their bulls, a halter being easier to lead cattle…when cattle, the bull in this case, is cooperative. Our bull didn’t wear a halter. I found some half-inch hemp rope in our barn, told Grandma where I was going and took off after the bull.

Usually this bull was docile. But, in some circumstances, he had a stubborn streak. It took me an hour or so before I found him grazing in a meadow about a mile back in the woods on another neighbor’s farm. He had broken through a number of fences and was scratched up from the barbed wire. He wasn’t in a good mood.

I tried to make a rope halter to lead the bull back to our farm. He didn’t cooperate. The most I could do, at that point, was to keep him in the meadow instead of wandering off deeper into the woods.

I finally heard Dad and some neighbors hollering, looking for me. I answered and in a few minutes they arrived. Dad took over, tried to make a rope halter and after several failed attempts gave it up as a bad idea. He made a lasso instead, put the rope around the bull’s head and attempted to lead him off.

That didn’t work either. The bull liked that meadow. Even with all of us pulling on the rope, the bull wouldn’t budge. Another neighbor arrived in a jeep. One neighbor had the idea of tying the rope to the jeep and forcing the bull to follow. Everyone agreed it was a good idea.

Dad tied the rope to the jeep’s bumper. Our neighbor put the jeep into double low and slowly moved off. The bull got stubborn. He didn’t want to go and dug in his hooves. The jeep inched forward, the bull resisted, the rope tightened, the bull’s hooves dug deeper into the meadow’s loam.

All that suddenly changed. The bull collapsed. The jeep dragged it a foot or so before stopping. The bull was dead. In his stubbornness, he had strangled himself with the rope.

You can imagine the scene. Dad and some of our neighbors turned the air blue. The neighbor driving the jeep was apologetic. Dad acknowledged it wasn’t the neighbor’s fault and besides everyone had agreed on the tactic.

Dad sent me off with our jeep-driving neighbor to get our tractor and wagon. I returned a while later to find the bull strung up from a block and tackle being field dressed. We lowered the bled out bull on the wagon. Dad thanked our neighbors for their help and we rode home, Dad driving the tractor, our neighbors riding with me and the bull in the wagon.

We dropped off our neighbors along the way home. Dad was fuming. The bull was registered Black Angus and Dad made quite a few dollars in stud fees from it. I was smart enough to keep quiet. Obviously, Dad wanted to be mad at someone but he had no one except himself. I learned a lesson that day. Some times it’s better just to keep you mouth shut…among learning other lessons.

At home, we switched the wagon from the tractor to our pickup. Dad took the bull to our closest meat locker where the bull was turned into steaks, roasts, sausages and hamburger.

We ate well that coming winter. It was a costly lesson for Dad. There were some things in this world, the bull in this case, who were more stubborn than him.

Wednesday’s Words

The big topic in the media these last few days is “immigration reform.” First let’s lay out the facts. It’s not about immigration and it’s not reform—it’s AMNESTY! It’s just another attempt to defraud the American public into believing more liberal lies—with the conscious assistance of some ‘Pubs, Marko Rubio for one.

Rubio made the conservative media rounds yesterday, Limbaugh, Hannity and Levin and others presenting his side of the issue.  The problem is that it isn’t Obama’s side. Rubio stated that security must come first. Good, I’m glad he said that. Unfortunately, it’s a fantasy. It doesn’t mean that border security will actually happen.  There was supposed to be an electronic fence built on the US/Mexican border. It, too, was a prerequisite in the last immigration reform bill. I’m still looking for that fence. From what I’ve been able to determine, only a few miles of the fence was ever built before the whole project was abandoned.

Rubio said the criminal immigrants would be excluded. Evidently he’s forgotten the definition of “illegal.” All those who are here illegally are criminals and they continue in that criminality by staying here. By Rubio’s logic that would mean that all aliens currently living in the US illegally would be excluded. I don’t think that is what he meant.

Legal immigrants, as a condition of being given a Green Card, sign a statement pledging that the immigrant will not accept any public assistance, nor public monies for a period not less that five years—no welfare, no Medicaid, no food-stamps, nothing.

Under Rubio’s plan, there are no similar prohibitions. The illegals would be given social security cards, driver’s license, and be eligible for welfare, food-stamps, Medicaid, plus—the Earned Income Tax Credit—a negative income tax if they earn below the poverty level. Many (most?) of these illegals do live below the poverty level. They will receive money from the government in the form of a tax-refund, a refund on taxes you, not the illegal, paid.

I’m against the whole plan. I would prefer we enforce existing law. We wouldn’t have to round up the illegals if we made it impossible, perhaps just difficult, for them to be parasites on the American public.  They’d soon leave for easier pickings. There is a reason why they are called ILLEGAL aliens.

Here is a LINK to other writers with opinions on this so-called immigration reform.


I just heard on the radio that a Missouri legislator is pushing for gun safety classes in schools. It is the NRA’s Eddie Eagle project. A number of Missouri schools already have Eddie Eagle classes. This legislator, Dan Brown, wants to make it mandatory for all Missouri schools. The radio newsitem triggered another memory from my childhood.

I previously blogged about guns in schools in my posts, PROTECTED, and MR. HELFRITCH. There was another instance when guns in schools was the topic of the day.

When I was in the third grade, as I remember, one of the local farmers shot himself in the leg with a .22 rifle while climbing over a fence.  It was the talk of our rural community. My father was on the school board and the incident was mentioned. One of the board members suggested that we have a gun-handling session for the schoolkids to make sure they all knew how to cross fences safely and were taught general gun safety procedures. Mr. Helfritch was nominated and after a quick phone call he agreed.

A week later, all the school kids, from the youngest in the first grade through those in the eighth grade, boys and girls, and all the teachers, gathered at the rear of the school yard where an old rusty fence separated the school yard from a field. It was a small school. There were only around 80 pupils in attendance in most years.

Mr. Helfritch taught three grades at a time showing how to check to see if the rifle was empty, how to unload it if it wasn’t, to empty and place the rifle on the other side of the fence before crossing and to only cross when those steps were finished.

Cooper’s Rules hadn’t been written at that time, but Mr. Helfritch wrote some of his own that closely matched those later created by Col. Jeff Cooper. He spent another hour with everyone reviewing his rules, why they are important and some examples of the consequences of failing to abide by those rules. There were some parents present during this class and I remember one saying that he’d learned some new things during that class.

I don’t know why the classes didn’t continue. Perhaps, with the exception of the incoming first graders, all the students had been trained. But time passed. Mr. Helfritch left for another teaching position, there was a new school board—my father didn’t run again and there was a new Principal with different priorities. I do know that none of those students trained by Mr. Helfritch ever had a gun incident or injury.


It will be 40 years  next month since I got out of the Air Force. So many little items have been lost over the years—my insignia, ribbons, uniforms. I think my old field jacket lasted longest until I “outgrew” it.

My boots were the first to be lost. I was one of a lucky few who were issued jump boots instead of the usual lace-up 12″ boots. I remember looking for them when a deep snow fell a few years after leaving the Air Force. We had moved at least once, maybe twice at that point. The boots were well broken in. Perhaps I should have worn them more often. If so, maybe they would never have been lost. I have no idea whatever happened to them.

AirForceUniform-1970-1The Air Force numbered their uniforms. When I first entered, the 1505 tan uniform was universal for summer wear. The blue uniform was darker, shade 1545. We were called bus drivers due to the similarity with the Greyhound bus uniform.

(I’m not in either of the photos in this post. They are just examples of the uniforms.)

There were optional items and alternatives available through the local BX and the local sales store; a light-weight 1545 dark blue short jacket, or a dark-blue 1545 long sleeved shirt that could be substituted for the usual long blue winter tunic.

USAF_Uniform-2A few years later, the 1505 tan summer uniform was replaced by light-weight/tropical weight dark blue worsted trousers and light blue short-sleeved shirt. No one grieved at the loss of the cotton 1505s. They were a pain. Both the shirt and trousers had to be heavily starched and wrinkled within a few minutes of being worn. It wasn’t uncommon at some bases to require a change of uniforms several times a day because the 1505s would not remain fresh. The new blue summer uniform was a mixture of wool and synthetic material and much easier to keep fresh-looking. It wore well although being a bit warmer than the 1505s.

I’m not sure how many iterations of uniform changes have occurred in forty years. Several without a doubt. I owned some “tailored” fatigue uniforms including some unauthorized short sleeved fatigues. Mine were solid green. The camo versions were for South-east Asia locations only. Now the digital camo is in vogue even for the Navy! (Why is camo needed aboard ship!?)

So many changes.

It’s been a long time. I’m going to look to see if I can find my dog tags once again.

Repost: New Year’s Eve at the Farm

Growing up on the farm, we had a few traditions—mostly imported. New Years was a family holiday. Kith ‘n kin visited on Thanksgiving and Christmas. New Years, however, was just Mom, Dad, me and later Grandma.

The farm was located in the middle of coal country in southern Illinois. The population was mostly Scots/Irish/English who brought mining skills learned in the coal mines of England and Wales. During the Union/Mine Owner wars of the early 20th century, many East Europeans were brought in as strike breakers. After the strikes were resolved, the East Europeans—Poles, Hungarians and various Russians, became good union members and added their traditions to those of their predecessors. However, their new traditions were mostly religious holidays than of New Years.

One tradition that became almost universal was the tradition of the gift of coal. The tradition was that the home would have good luck if the first person to cross the threshold in the new year was a dark Englishman, Welshman, Scot, Irish (add other nationality here) wishing everyone within Happy New Year and bringing a gift of a bucket of coal to warm the hearth. My Dad fit that job description and since I was the next oldest (only) male in the house, I assisted with the tradition.

Come New Years Eve around 11PM, earlier in some locales, the men of the house would leave with a bucket of coal, their shotgun, and, for those who imbibed, a bottle or mason jar of holiday cheer. In town, they would usually head for the closest bar or other gathering place and wait for the mine whistle to blow the arrival of midnight.

At the farm, we had three close neighbors; John Davis, our neighbor just across the road from the farm, Sy Malone, a friend of Dad’s who had a small farm a quarter-mile to our west, and Ken Shoemaker who lived a couple of hundred yards to the east. All were coal miners or had been. Ken Shoemaker was also a bus driver for the High School. John Davis’ place was the most central of us and he had a heated barn for his heifers. That was our gathering place.

Ken and Sy usually arrived early bringing some ‘shine that Sy made in the woods in back of his house. John would join next. By the time Dad and I arrived, they were sitting around a kerosene heater and usually well lubricated. The men talked and drank. Dad sipped tea from a thermos he had brought. I listened. I heard quite a bit of gossip, bragging and stories while waiting in that barn.

Remembering those times, I’m amazed that with all the drinking that occurred, there was never a firearm accident. I think folks were more used to guns in those times. Many were WW2 veterans such as Ken and Sy Malone. John Davis supplemented his mine income by trapping pelts and as an occasional commercial meat hunter. Dad was a long-time hunter as well. They were experienced folks who acquired gun-handling habits that just weren’t broken even when one has consumed large amounts of alcohol.

In coal country, the time standard was the mine whistle. The whistle blew at shift change each day, at noon, and on New Years Eve, at midnight. The closest mine to the farm was about five miles away. That mine, Orient #2, was on the north edge of West Frankfort. Dad, John and Sy worked there. Ken worked occasionally at Orient #3.

When midnight neared, everyone loaded their shotguns—usually with #6 or #7 1/2 shot, and went outside to listen for the whistle. At the stroke of midnight, delayed only by distance, we heard the mine whistles; Orient #2 to the south, followed by Old Ben #9 to the south-east. Another whistle arrived from the west, followed slightly late by Orient #3 from the north. The men raised their shotguns and in turn fired three times into the air. Nine shots in all. 

As the sound of their shots faded away, I could hear the patter of falling shot and the echoes of other shotguns rolling in from surrounding points. In the far distance, I could hear the Sheriff let loose with his Thompson sub-machine gun…a weapon confiscated from Charlie Birger decades before. Charlie Birger was tried for murder and hanged—the last public hanging in Illinois.

As the gunfire died away, each man picked up his bucket of coal, his shotgun and began the trek home to be the first dark-headed man to cross the home’s threshold. In lieu of hair, John Davis wore a dark hat.

It was a short walk for Dad and me, just across the road and up the drive. Dad walked up to our front door and knocked. Mom would answer and Dad would exclaim, “Happy New Year!” and we’d go inside to the warmth. Mom would have coffee or more tea for Dad, a glass of milk for me and either cake, sweet rolls or home-made doughnuts depending on what she and Grandma had made that day.

New Years was a family celebration, but New Years Eve was one for males. A celebration in the cold or in a warm barn. A gathering of men, boys, talk, drink and memories. The communal celebration of the coming year.