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.

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.

Christmas from times past

It is my habit to repost special stories on Holidays. Christmas, too, has one such story—A Gathering of the Clan.

When my Grandmother lived with us on the farm, Thanksgiving and Christmas was always special. Many of our relatives lived at both ends of the state.

My Aunt Anna May (note: My Aunt Anna May, at age 99, is still with us, [UPDATE: My Aunt Anna May passed this year a few months shy of her 100th Birthday.]) and a bunch of cousins lived near Cairo (rhymes with Aero. Kayro is a syrup. K-Eye-ro, another incorrect pronunciation is a city in Egypt,) Illinois. Mom’s other two siblings, Aunt Clara and Uncle Bill, lived near Chicago along with their batch of kids and cousins. We lived betwixt them with a local batch of cousins and therefore often hosted the gathering of the Clan at the holidays.

In the late 1950s, most of the cakes and pies were hand-made including pie crust. Betty Crocker was expensive and not to be trusted according to Mom and Grandma. A week or so before the guests arrived, Mom and Grandma started making pie dough. They would make it in small batches, enough for a couple of pies and then store it on the porch. The porch was unheated and was used as a large refrigerator during the colder months.

Mom and Grandma collected pie fillings most of the year. When cherries were in season, they canned cherries. When blackberries and raspberries were in season, they canned the berries—along with making a large batch of berry jelly and jam. When apples were in season, they canned and dried apples. When the holidays arrived, they were ready.

About the only things they didn’t can was pumpkins. Mom and Grandma purposely planted late to harvest late. I don’t remember a year that we didn’t have pumpkins or sweet-potatoes for pie filling.

The count-down started with the pie dough. When the dough was ready, Mom began baking pies. When a pie was finished, it’d go out to the porch covered with a cloth. The division of labor was that Mom would make pies, Grandma would make cakes.

Grandma liked sheet cakes. I rarely saw a round, frosted cake unless it was someone’s birthday. Grandma’s cakes were 12″ by 24″. Icing was usually Cream Cheese or Chocolate. Sometimes, when Grandma make a German Chocolate cake, she’d make a brown-sugar/coconut/hickory nut icing. The baking was done right up until it was time stick the turkeys, hams or geese in the oven.

The last item Grandma would make was a apple-cinnamon coffee-cake that was an inherited recipe from her mother. It was common-place that when everyone arrived, we’d have a dozen pies and another dozen cakes ready. That was our contribution. The guests brought stuff as well.

The holiday gathering wasn’t just a single day, it was several. Thanksgiving, for instance, lasted through Sunday. A Christmas gathering lasted through New Years. We weren’t the only relatives in the central part of the state, but we were the gathering place. Come bedtime, the visitors left with some of the local cousins and would gather again the next day at another home and the visiting continued.

It was not unusual for us to have twenty or thirty adults plus numerous kids at the house at one time. Our barn was heated for the livestock, so the men and boys—and some girls, gathered there. Dad would turn a blind eye to the cigarettes, cigars and bottles—as long as no one started a fire. Grandma’s jugs of Applejack appeared as well.

The women would gather in one of our side bedrooms where Grandma’s quilt frame was set up. They would sit, talk, quilt and plan future family affairs. A number of weddings were planned in those sessions. Sometimes before the bridegroom was aware of his upcoming fate.

Come Christmas Eve, the women, along with a number of kids, put up the tree and decorations. At 11PM, those who wished went off to midnight services. There were a number of preachers in the Clan and those who didn’t want to drive to a service and were also still awake attended a Clan service in the barn. That was the only building able to house everyone at the same time.

On Christmas, the Clan dispersed to their more immediate relatives. For us, it was Mom, Dad, Grandma, my Aunts and Uncles. My sister Mary Ellen, her husband Dick and their two kids arrived early Christmas morning. Sometimes my Aunt Emily and Cousins Richard and Dorothy (Dad’s niece and nephew) from Dad’s side would come down from Mt. Vernon, IL for Christmas.

More often than not, Dad, Dick, my Uncles and I would go goose or duck hunting early on Christmas morning. The Muddy River was only a few miles away and if we arrived right at dawn, we were likely to find some Canadian Geese or Mallards sitting out of the wind on the river. We rarely spent more than three hours hunting before we’d return home, wet, cold and tired ready for breakfast.

We would have a large breakfast around 9AM and afterwards while Mom and Grandma started on dinner, we’d open presents next to the tree. I remember once that Mom hide a pair of snow tires for Dad’s pickup behind the couch. I really have a hard time believing Dad wasn’t aware of them.
 
Over the years, the Clan has dispersed. Most moving to locations where jobs were available. The elders have passed on and with them the traditions. Cousins have lost touch and few live on the old homesteads.

It was a different time, another era. Some families still maintain the old traditions. They are the fortunate ones.

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Mr. Helfritch

I wrote a post last week about my old grade school principal, Mr. Helfritch. I couldn’t remember his first name when I wrote that piece.  Since then a few more memories have risen.  I now remember adults called him “Fritz.” I still don’t know if that was his real first name or a nick-name.

He was the principal during my first three grades. When I was in the fourth grade, he took a job at a slightly bigger school in Coello, IL. We still saw him from time to time when our two schools played softball and basketball against each other. He moved on some years later and I never heard from him again.

After the incident I reported last week, Mr Helfritch joined us boys in some of our “after-school” activities—like squirrel hunting. The “rules” of squirrel hunting at our school, in fact pretty much the norm in our area, was to hunt squirrels with a .22 rifle. Shotguns were universally frowned upon. Only city-slickers, those who came down from Chicago, used shotguns to hurt squirrels.

Squirrel season was broad then, from mid-September until late October when rabbit season started. During hunting season, a bunch of us would bring our .22 rifles to school with a few cartridges. Dad never let me bring more than six at a time. He said if I couldn’t hit a squirrel with six shots, more wouldn’t help.

We stored our rifles in the corner of our school-room with the actions open. We weren’t allowed to hunt during school hours, but as soon as school was over, we would collect our rifles and troop off into the woodlot adjacent to the school.  That five-acre woodlot was filled with acorn, pecan and hickory trees. Perfect for squirrels—grey ones and the larger red fox squirrels.

One day, Mr. Helfritch asked if he could join us hunting after school. I don’t think anyone had the nerve to say, “No.” After school, Mr. Helfritch disappeared into his office. A few moments later he appeared wearing jeans, a dark shirt, his old army boots and a denim jacket. Gone were his usual sport-coat, white shirt and tie. Instead of a .22 rifle, he had a revolver strapped to his belt…a Smith & Wesson .22 revolver with an eight-inch barrel. It was the longest barreled pistol I’d ever seen.

Off we went into the woodlot. The method we used for squirrel hunting was to find an appropriate nut tree, lay down on the ground quietly and wait for the squirrels to emerge. The first to see one would whisper, “Mine,” and he would take the shot. Usually, there was only one chance to shoot. It the hunter missed, which was easy to do in those heavily branched trees, the squirrels would scatter and hide until they thought it was safe to emerge once again.

Our usual score was two to three squirrels in an hour. We rarely hunted longer. We had missed the bus and we would have to walk and arrive home before dark. In late October, that didn’t leave much time for hunting. It took me slightly over an hour to walk the 3 1/2 miles home.

We let Mr. Helfritch have the first shot that day. We were anxious to see how well he’d do with only a pistol. We lay there for around fifteen minutes when the squirrels began to emerge. Mr. Helfritch had chosen a large hickory tree that was home to a number of fox squirrels.

One of those fox squirrels began to run along the upper branches of the tree. Mr. Helfritch whispered, “Mine,” and raised his pistol. The squirrels froze for a moment at the sudden movement. Mr. Helfritch waited…waited…POW!

We could hear the squirrel stampede through the branches. The revolver was much louder than our rifles. We usually hunted with .22 shorts. They were cheaper. Mr. Helfrich, however, used .22 long rifle cartridges. A small difference perhaps but still much louder out of an 8″ barrel.

We could also hear something dropping down through the leaves until it thumped a few feet away. A very nice, red squirrel. Mr. Helfritch rose, walked over to the squirrel and picked it up. “That’s enough for me, boys,” he said and walked off towards the school.

The next day we all talked about hunting with Mr. Helfritch. Of course, the tree grew larger, the squirrel higher and bigger. It was the nature of hunting. Mr. Helfritch joined us a few more times that fall but those expeditions were never as grand as that first time.

A few years later I acquired a Harrington & Richards .22 revolver and from that time forward never hunted squirrels with a rifle. I didn’t bring home as many squirrels as I did with a rifle. It was more exciting that way.

Thanksgiving Remembrance

I hope you all are having a great Thanksgiving. As I am known to do, I repeat some selected posts on Holidays. Some Holidays trigger particular memories. Thanksgiving always triggers one for me about an older cousin of mine. My Grandmother’s nephew actually.

Here for your enjoyment is a tale of Heinie Mueller. I hope the story may trigger some memories of yours of those who have gone before us and left a memorial mark on our lives.

***

Heinie (Henry) Mueller was Grandma’s nephew. He served in the US Army during WW1 though most of the battles on the front lines. He was gassed twice, received two Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star plus some French medals.

Heinie was a character. He walked with a slight limp and cussed every third word. He didn’t care who he was with nor who heard him. If somebody didn’t like his language, it was just too bad. Usually, Heinie would send them on their way with a few choice words and phrases.

After the war, he married a lady named Irene and moved to Woodriver, IL. They would drive down to visit us every few months—more often after we moved to the farm. Heinie liked to hunt squirrels, rabbits, and geese and he would frequently appear during hunting season. He, Dad and I would go hunting while the women-folk visited.

I don’t remember Heinie ever shooting much. He seemed to just like getting outdoors and walking in the woods. When we flushed some game, he would more than likely let Dad or me have the shot.

One year, Heinie and Irene came down for Thanksgiving. They arrived on Wednesday and Irene brought makings for oyster dressing. She and Grandma would fix Thanksgiving dinner the next day while Mom went to pick up my sister who was attending college. Heine, Dad and I planned to get up early Thanksgiving morning and go goose hunting.

We left the house early Thanksgiving morning, about an hour before sunup, and drove down to the Muddy River bottoms where Dad share-cropped corn on a ten-acre field. Dad built some hunting blinds along the edge of the field when Heinie announced he was coming.

The blinds were set up along a tree line with an open view across the corn field. The field had been picked late in the season and there was a lot of corn spillage to attract geese and an occasional deer.

It was cold. Ice had formed on the surface of the field and crunched as we walked across it towards the blind. It had been built out of salvaged two-by-fours and scrap sheet-metal for the roof with a covering of corn stalks for camouflage. Across the front was a tarp that would be dropped to allow us to step forward to shoot.

For whatever reason, the wind, or low hanging gray clouds or just general cussedness, the geese didn’t appear that day. Heinie had brought a hip-flask and would take a nip every so often. Dad was a Baptist and didn’t drink, but Heinie didn’t care.

By 11 o’clock, we decided that we’d give up hunting for the day. Dad started a fire to make some coffee and to fix a quick lunch hoping to sober Heinie up a bit before we went back to the house.

Heinie had been nipping steadily since we arrived and was feeling good. While the coffee was perking in an old coffepot, Heinie started talking about when he was in the Army. He had joined the US Cavalry in 1912 at the age of 17 and had gone down into Mexico with Black Jack Pershing after Pancho Villa.

After a bit, he talked about going to France to fight the Germans. Heinie was a Corporal by that time and had transferred from the Cavalry to the Infantry. After Mexico, he said, he didn’t want to ride or see another horse for the rest of his life.

Heinie was promoted to Sargent on arriving in France and took over a rifle platoon. He fought in a few battles and managed to survive with only some minor wounds. He was lightly gassed with chlorine a couple of times when his British-made gas mask leaked.

After we had finished our coffee and the fried egg and bacon sandwiches Dad had warmed over the fire, Heinie was silent for awhile. Then he began to talk about the Second Battle of the Marne and tears started flowing.

Heinie had been in charge of a rifle squad when they had left the US, first as a Corporal and then as a Sargent. Not long after arriving in France, he was made a Platoon Sargent and Company interpreter. Heinie had known many of the men in the platoon for several years, some from the excursion into Mexico.

Heinie’s grandparents had immigrated from Hesse, German in the early 1880s. They spoke both German and French. Heinie, born in Illinois, didn’t speak English until he entered school and retained a slight German accent the rest of his life.

Heinie’s company was in the front line trenches and preparing for battle. The Battle of the Marne had been going on for some time and the allies were preparing counter-attacks. An hour before the company was scheduled to attack, Heinie was sent back to the battalion headquarters. It had been decided that all interpreters would be held back and would not attack with their troops because they would be needed to help translate for all the prisoners that would be captured—so they assumed.

Heinie paused several times to blow his nose and wipe his eyes before continuing. The whistles blew and the troops attacked. After several hours, survivors began filtering back through the battalion headquarters area. It was later determined that out of Heinie’s company, he and seven others were the only survivors. None were from Heinie’s platoon.

Later, Dad told me that every year Heinie would get a bit liquored up and start talking and remembering. One of my uncles, Dad’s older brother, joined the Army just before WW1 but had spent the war in the Cavalry patrolling the Mexican border out of El Paso. Usually Dad wasn’t too tolerant of drunkenness but Heinie was different. Dad said it was a small thing to give Heinie an audience. It quieted his ghosts.

Heinie is long gone now. But every Thanksgiving, I remember him.

Aunt Anna May

When the mail arrived yesterday, it contained a letter from my cousin Donald.  I didn’t need to open it to know its contents.  My Aunt Anna May had passed.  She died on Sunday, January 7, 2012, just a few months shy of her 99th birthday.  This last Christmas card from her son, Donald and his wife Faye, told us she had been placed in a nursing home.  She had been mentally sharp all her life…until the last few months.  I knew what was coming when I read their Christmas card. I just didn’t expect it so soon.

Aunt Anna May was the survivor of five siblings, my mother, Rosalind, the oldest, my aunt Clara, my uncle Bill, and her twin sister who died as a child during the Flu Epidemic of 1918-1919. Aunt Anna May also buried two husbands, Loy Light and Frances Lamastus.

I hadn’t intended for this post to be an obituary. I wanted to record some of my memories of her before those, in time, faded.  She lived a rough, tough life on a farm from the days before tractors until the death of her first Husband, Loy, in the 1970s. She lived near my Father’s farm in Franklin County when she married her second husband, Frances.  When Frances died unexpectedly a few years later, she returned to her family farm and lived near Donald and Faye.

My most vivid memory of her was from a visit made one weekday when I was in grade school. School had just ended. My Grandmother, who lived with us, wanted to go down to the Aunt Anna May’s family farm near Cairo, IL.

It was a warm, sunny morning when we pulled off the highway onto the gravel road that lead to the farm. It was a short drive, about a half-mile, past the Olive Branch Baptist Church and over a ridge.  When we topped the ridge, we could see the farm and a cloud of dust in the field on the opposite side of the road from the farm-house.

Uncle Loy and Aunt Anna May were planting beans.  Uncle Loy was driving the old, green, John Deere tractor. Behind the tractor was a modified horse-drawn planter.  Aunt Anna May sat on the planter to operate it and to raise the planter and guide arms at the end of each row.

She wore an old floppy straw hat, worn jeans with torn knees, and a long-sleeved blue work shirt.  Her ensemble was finished with a red bandanna tied around her face. When we met her, the dirt around her eyes were reminiscent of the face of a raccoon.

Anna May looked more like her father, tall and slender. She never had a weight problem. She did add a few pounds in the last decade or so but that was compensation for all the decades when she needed a few pounds and didn’t have them.

Another memory was a visit we made one weekend. There was a church reunion on Sunday. When we arrived, Aunt Anna May was in the back yard, standing over a stump with her hatchet, killing chickens for the Sunday dinner.  She’d grab a chicken, CHOP!, toss the chicken aside and grab another.  There were two-three chickens flopping, running around without heads and a few more in a small wire cage.  Next to her was a cauldron of boiling water over a fire.  The water was to scald the chickens and make plucking the feathers easier. It was a familiar scene.  At home, on similar occasions, Mom and Grandma would do the same. One difference was that Mom and Grandma preferred to wring the chicken’s neck instead of wielding a hatchet.

Aunt Anna May and Uncle Loy didn’t have much money. One Christmas they came up and brought me a present.  It was a hand-made bow and arrow set. Uncle Loy made the bow by hand from a limb off an Ash tree.  Aunt Anna May made the arrows using turkey feathers and Indian arrow heads they found on their farm.

In 2001, we visited her bringing our daughter Jennifer and our year-old grandson, Andrew.  We spend the day visiting with her, Donald and Faye, talking and watching  a dozen or more Hummingbirds flying around a trellis and an attached Hummingbird feeder.

She was my favorite. Oh, how I miss her.