When You're Nine Years Old And You Live on a Farm
YOU'RE a nine-year-old boy and it's Tuesday morning on the farm. Your mom (Gladys) and Grandma (Lucy) and Grandpa (Gideon) and Uncle Wilson have been out of bed for an hour or more already. The sun, not quite up yet, is just now starting to give off that special pinkish-purple glow of light it spreads out early each morning (except when it's cloudy, looking like rain), blanketing the distant line of trees with muted warmth.Besides the small, four-room white frame house you live in (the house your mom and Uncle Wilson and their three brothers and three sisters were all born in), there are some other parts of your family's farmplace: the cellar where your mom stores the dozens of jars of fresh vegetables she "cans" each summer (and where the whole family goes to hide from the tornadoes that whip through the countryside each spring); the tire-swing Uncle Wilson hung for you from a stout limb of the old oak tree just north of the house; the fenced-in chicken coop up by the barn; the little "smoke house" where, in the chill of winter, butchered hogs are salted and hung to cure; the garage where Uncle Wilson keeps his beloved blue '38 Ford pickup truck; and the little windmill that stands on the highest part of the entire farm, about 100 yards west of your house. 6:01 a.m. "Wayne!" your mother calls out. "Time to get up!" You hear her, but your bed, it's just s-o-o-o comfortable you can hardly make yourself leave it. But you know you must. Uncle Wilson will already be at the barn waiting for you to come help him give the cows their morning milking. He uses an electric milking machine these days, so it's not a very hard chore. You actually enjoy it. There was a time, though, years ago, way back in the 1940s, he says, when he milked the cows by hand, all 30-some of them, just he and Grandpa. But Grandpa doesn't do it anymore, so you have to help. While the cows are being milked, Uncle Wilson likes to tell you about how things were for him and his younger brothers and sisters here on the farm when he was young. How his dad (your grandpa, Gideon) used to grow cotton down in the "bottom land" on both sides of the little creek that meanders clear across all 360 acres of your family's farm. (Cotton! Ugh! You've never had to pick any, but you have a pretty good idea about what hard, back-breaking work it'd be.) And Uncle Wilson likes to tell you how, when he was just about your age, his dad and a few other grown men once took him and his brothers and sisters (one of them was your mom) out into the dark, scary night on a "snipe hunt." (I leave it to you to find out what a "snipe hunt" is. A clue: Try the library.) 6:30 a.m. By now you've brushed your teeth and combed your hair (you showered last night just before going to bed), and have finished the big breakfast your mom made for you: a glass of chilled fresh milk, a biscuit spread with butter and homemade peach preserves, and two scrambled eggs. Uncle Wilson will have already had his breakfast; your mom will sit and eat hers with Grandma and Grandpa a little bit later. The reason you eat before they do is so you can hurry and go help Uncle Wilson with the cows. 7:15 a.m. The cows have now been milked and are being herded through the gate you've opened in the fence that circles the barn. They head for the woods and wide-open pasture land that surround your house for as far away as you can see. It's part of your job to drive the cows off after they've been milked in the morning, and then, later that evening, to go off with your three dogs (Peaches the beagle, Sweet Baby the basset hound, and Dempsey the Dalmation, who looks just like one of those in a Walt Disney movie) and round them up to drive home again for their second milking that day. You also help Uncle Wilson carry several large cans of milk you get from the cows to the cold-storage shed that sits beside the barn. From here, they're picked up at about 10 o'clock each morning by a man who drives a big truck all through the countryside loading farmers' milk and hauling it off to be sold to the dairy processing plant some 35 miles away in the city. It was this same truck driver who stopped in front of your house one day a couple of years ago and handed your mom a shoebox with some big holes punched in it. When she took the lid off, there was a tiny Dalmation puppy inside clamoring mightily to be let out. You'd heard, somehow, of the famous boxer Jack Dempsey, and had often dreamed of growing up one day and being able to fight, just as he did. So you'd named your new fighter-puppy "Dempsey." 7:33 a.m. Yes, you're a nine-year-old farm boy, all right, but you're also a nine-year-old farm boy who goes to school. So after you've hurried the last of the cows out to pasture, you dash the 100 yards or so to your house, grab your books and lunch basket, kiss your mom and grandma quick goodbyes, then start your half-running, half-walking trip through the fields and woods to school about a mile away. Classes don't start till 8:30, so you're never late. 4:30 p.m. The school day's over and you're back home again. You quickly change into your "work clothes" and head toward the barn. Uncle Wilson has a few Hampshire hogs he keeps in a pen not far from where the cows are milked. It's your job to feed and water them. You also take care of the pair of mules (named Blue and Blackie) that Uncle Wilson uses for plowing and pulling the wagon, hauling things like hay, big heavy sacks of feed, and chopped firewood. The two chores your mom asks you to do are feed the chickens and gather their eggs each evening after school. When you finish, you call for your dogs and the four of you head out to round up the cows and drive them home for their evening milking. They're usually pretty easy to find; several have big bells tied around their necks, so you can hear their tinkling a long way off. 8:05 p.m. You've been up for over 14 hours now, so you'll soon be going to bed. Another long day on the farm is almost over. It's been a busy day filled with chores (and time out for school). And as for Saturdays, well, they're even busier than school days. It's on Saturday (and sometimes Sunday) that you get to help your mom hoe weeds from the vegetable garden, mow the lawn, and help Uncle Wilson saw up a stack of firewood. Stuff like that.But there's lots of fun too, being a nine-year-old boy growing up on a farm. Uncle Wilson always has a new story to tell about things he did when he was young like you. And Grandma sometimes lets you churn a new urn of milk into the butter that tastes so good spread on the fresh warm slices of white bread she bakes almost every day. And Grandpa carves you whistles and bows and arrows from smaller branches of giant willow trees that grow down by the creek.On most Sunday evenings after church, Mom reads to you from the comic strips in the newspaper. (You like "Hagar" and "Miss Peach" the best.) And there're the games of "cowboys and Indians" and "Dick Tracy" and "war" you play with James and Orville ( neighbor friends your age) every chance you get. Not to mention weekend trips to town with Uncle Wilson, when he buys you comic books and great big three-dipper ice cream cones."May the countryside and the gliding valley streams content me. Lost to fame, let me love river and woodland." They say a wise Greek philosopher named Virgil said this more than 2,000 years ago. Being only nine years old, you're not sure you fully understand all of what he meant. But you figure that one day you will.