Five children in our family grew up into adulthood (three sisters died as infants: Alice Jean, died at birth on September 22, 1925; Treva Madeline born February 6, 1927 and died February 15, 1927; Kathryn Augusta was born and died on March 10, 1938). My sister, Louise was the oldest then we four boys – Merlin, Charles, myself and Edward Robert (Bob). From birth through the teen years – the 1920s and 30s – we lived on Dad’s farm in northeast Kansas. Many of those years were a time of drought and economic depression. We boys became a part of the work force as soon as our ages fitted us for regular work. However, we utilized time and opportunity for recreation. We were quite creative in this.
Louise helped with chores and field work until Merlin was old enough to take her place. From then on she became Mother’s helper, sharing not only work, but feminine interests in general. She took piano lessons, and became quite adept as a pianist. “Etude” magazine was subscribed to and encouraged her growing ability to play well. How I enjoyed hearing her play when I was within ear shot of the house. Right after graduation from High School, Louise was employed as a “house keeper” for a family in Atchison until she went off to Bloomington, Illinois, to Nursing School.
We boys took it for granted that nature was to be enjoyed. We observed birds and animals and their habits. I remember that we caught a black aquatic bird that we called a “Mud Hen” along the creek in our back pasture. It had red eyes. We brought it home to show around, then released it back where we found it.
We raided the nests of blackbirds and destroyed them, feeling for some reason that they were unworthy of being related to other birds. We enjoyed looking into pigeon nests in the barn to see the eggs or newly-hatched fledgelings. We knew the colors of various birds’ eggs. We annoyed the catbirds living in the cedar trees, becoming victims of their pecking attacks many times. We were familiar with barn owls, screech owls, Baltimore orioles, brown thrushes, sparrows, killdeers, and many other aviary species. Killdeer were especially interesting. They nested on the ground, often between the corn rows. When anyone came near their nest, the parents would utter a plaintive cry and put on the “broken wing” act, flopping along to lead us away from their nest as we tried to catch them when suddenly they could fly away easily. It was all an act. While working alone I found their cry hauntingly sad.
Fishing in a rare midsummer fishing hole was a favorite past-time when possible. We did not have good fishing tackle, but once in a while we would happen to catch an unwary sunfish which was good eating.
Play equipment was generally home-made or well-used. We had a toy Fordson tractor which was lacking front wheels, but still it was a great toy. Our first bicycle was an old one with wooden rims and inflated self-enclosed tires that were glued to the rims with shellac. If the tire was run flat, the valve stem would pull out, ruining the tire. Flats were fixed by squeezing a sealing liquid through the valve stem.
Later we got a used Howthorne (Montgomery Ward) balloon-tired bike. It had red tires which later were replaced with black-walled tires. That bike later became my transportation at Wheaton College near Chicago, and also Milton College, where I sold it to a boyhood acquaintance who was working on a farm near Milton. That year I had bought the old family Model A Ford, taking it to Milton the second semester.
Our barn had a corrugated tin roof. On Sabbath afternoons we often got on the less steep roof over the milking area and used it as a slide. Unfortunately, the nails began to come loose in time and we would end up with the seats of our overalls torn, if no personal injuries as well.
There was always the challenge of the “dare devil” in us. I was dared once to jump off the roof of the automobile shed. I made the mistake of jumping with my knees bent. On landing, they came up and snapped my jaw shut. Happily, my tongue was not between my teeth. On another occasion there was the challenge of climbing out a small window of the barn about 25 feet from the ground and having the boys lower me on a rope. That ended well. Before we were of an age that Merlin could drive and take us to Christian Endeavor meetings, Sabbath afternoons were spent in adventurous activities.
Once we made a corncob pipe and tried smoking corn silks. We went out into the pasture where we met a neighbor youth who was a regular smoker. He gave us some Prince Albert tobacco which we tried out. That cured two of us. Young brother “Bob” secretly tried to smoke again out in one of the livestock sheds. He was practicing some spicy language he had heard, annoyed that the corn silks would not light. He was interrupted and angrily threw the pipe at the interloper. Merlin persisted in smoking, naturally against our parents’ wishes. Coming home from college, he was smoking his pipe as he and I were working in the hay field. He said, “This is my last smoke,” broke the pipe and threw it away. To my knowledge that was true.
We did buy a cheap tennis set at one time. We set up the net on an open area north of the barn and enjoyed that for a time. Aside from Sabbath afternoons, play time was minimal as we grew into working age. Those times remain as priceless memories.
In our teen years, we did get into some mischief with our cousins and other boys in the neighborhood. One trick was to fill a gunny sack with straw, tie a long cord to it, and place it on the road after night. Knowing how farmers valued anything they might find, we would find a place to hide nearby, holding on to the cord. Auto lights not being too brilliant at that time, the driver would not see the sack in time to stop before getting past. Then the driver would back up to retrieve his “prize”. Meantime, we would have pulled the sack away. That all ended when one driver, realizing he had been tricked, said, as though speaking to a passenger, “Give me that gun.” The fun was over!
When I was quite young we had the remains of the buggy that my mother used to use early in marriage to take the cream and eggs to Nortonville. All that remained was wheels, platform and the shafts to which the horse was hitched. We pulled each other around on that. Another “leftover” was a coaster wagon with just the floor of the box remaining. A few years later we saved enough money to buy a bright red wagon. We were so very proud of it that once I “coasted” it all the way to Lane School about a mile and a half away. It, too, became one of the work items on the farm and deteriorated under heavy loads of five and ten-gallon cans of milk.
One of my Christmas gifts in my early years was a “Handy Andy”. It had a wire frame supporting a chute with marbles. A counter-balanced arm would take the marbles one by one and put them on the floor. I was extremely possessive of that toy. It disappeared after a short time, and I never knew what happened to it. Surprisingly, I never seemed to have brooded over the loss, but it was a well-remembered possession.
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