Wednesday, June 29, 2011


Have you ever visited the National Museum of the American Indian? With overhanging ripples of yellow stone pockmarked with windows like empty black eye sockets, it looks like a little bit of the Southwest deposited on the national Mall. Inspired architecture: just too bad the interior doesn't match up to the promise of the exterior.

But the interior, while light on actual history, is heavy on symbols and Indian interpretations of themselves. The focus is on the modern communities, but I prefer to spend my time with the artifacts of the past: spears and robes, beads, baskets and pottery. I may not understand the language of the totem or the buffalo robe, but I appreciate the artwork.

Many of the tribal displays begin with a creation myth: myth used in the sense of an explanation, a unifying bedrock of origin. I understand these tales. Its not so different in our small towns or multi-generational families. We too have stories we tell over and again about births, weddings, droughts, floods, fires, championships, wrecks and record crops..good or bad. They remind us what and where we come from and if a little embroidery is added, on this level, no harm, no foul.

We moved back to the farm in the back of a '74 Ford truck and Blake's baby blue Ford Torino, one of the worst cars ever to roll off an American assembly line. The Ford truck, on the other hand, became obsolescent long before it actually quit running. We didn't have many belongings, but we did have all my college houseplants and a complete set of John D. McDonald paperbacks. They filled most of the car. We were headed for a little hired man's house on the farm Blake and his brother rented from our New York landlord's family.

And sure enough, as in any good we-had-it-so-bad family saga (how bad was it?), our first winter back on the farm in the little white house was the very worst in many many years. Snow piled up in the roads, the winds were brutal, polar plunges dropped the temperatures well below zero. The roads drifted shut...and stayed that way. Blake's trips back and forth to feed the calves took all day.

The baseboard heaters were no match for the wind coming in the windows, around the windows, under the walls and through multiple other orifices. Heat tape kept us in water most of the time, but an occasional south wind froze us up at the well head, just three feet down at the corner of the house. We had fallen in love with the ornate Round Oak wood stove back in Columbia, but when it came to heating stoves, we were rookies. Picturesque, yes! Practical, no. The firebox would hold a log about 15" long, no more. We sawed, split, and carried twice as many logs as a sensible wood stove would have required.

Like pioneers, we finally barricaded ourselves with blankets in the one room of the house we could keep warm, the kitchen. Like a little old gaffer and granny, I'd sit in my rocker and Blake in his recliner in front of the wood stove, reading, with our feet up and smothered in afghans. At night, we'd warm up the electric blanket and hustle out of our chilly bath to the cozy confines of the bed.

The wind wasn't the only thing that wanted in. A tremendous rattling and scraping in the walls would wake me in the night. Now, I am the kind of person who would lay awake at nights in my grandmother's basement listening fearfully to the tiny mice feet running through the canning jars on the shelves. As a child I would deliberately avoid looking in the bath tub drain in the middle of the night for fear of seeing a giant spider. (I have since toughened up with regard to spiders, adopting a live and let live policy.) This noise was several magnitudes past tiny mice feet. There could only be one verdict: our home was invaded by rats. With no basement and no slab of concrete, the rats had a direct route from soil to ceiling.

We were living in suitably humble circumstances, as befitting newlyweds and entry level employees on the farm. We didn't spend much time thinking about living on two mud roads or driving an extra three miles to get to pavement when it rained. Our well was right out our back door but that meant the washing machine would freeze up the first cold snap. We did have a private phone line and were situated to pick up two of the three network television stations coming out of Omaha. Blake would have to climb on the roof after a particularly windy day and move the antenna so we could watch a favorite show on another network. We watched alot of public tv; the interior UHF rabbit ears brought in a better picture. Sunday television included Washington Week in Review, Market to Market, Louis Rukyser, and, of course, Firing Line.

Before Lee was born, I rode along when Blake did chores, or hauled grain or cattle. We hauled most of the beans over to Brownville and wait our turn in line on the steep steep slope in our trucks with hand emergency brakes. Snap! would go the clutch as we lurched forward in turn.
We'd go to cattle sales or machinery auctions lots of times when the weather was bad. Back then he didn't run the combine much, so it was a big deal when he traded with Grandpa to combine beans on the farm we rented. We just ran beans with the second combine. Suffice it to say, combines have come a long ways since then. No buddy seat, no air conditioning, no rotor, no header control. It was slow, nasty work fraught with hazards. Remember, this was pre-Roundup ready too!! I can well remember standing by pulling massive handfuls of foxtail and sunflowers out of the plugged head.

We didn't travel like we do now. We watched high school sports. We bowled in a league at the Blue Jay Bowl with Millie and Charlie one night a week and we played in the Tarkio College orchestra under the direction of Dr. Crapson. When we started playing, Mary Craig Stevenson was still playing the lone violin. As a matter of fact, it was after a Monday night rehearsal that we got up in the wee hours of the morning to go to Fairfax Hospital to await the arrival of our first child.

Tarkio still had two of just about every kind of retail establishment, but only the HyVee could be considered part of a chain. The Pizza Hut appeared in Tarkio and just a year or two later, Shenandoah got a McDonald's.

We ate out every once in a while. While I was pregnant, we'd go to Curly's for a fried shrimp basket. I know, I know, that reinforces every old wives' tale about the cravings of expectanct mothers, but cliches become cliches for a reason. Blake's grandparents enjoyed taking us all out for supper as well. Sometimes we'd go over to Wheeler's in Auburn, but other times, we'd go to oddball establishments where Grandpa had heard they served good fish. The Rulo River Club was reliable, but I had my doubts the time we ate in Brownville in a single wide trailer with so little heat we could see our breath and smell the kerosene in the air.

We stayed in the little house until summer 1980, moving just two weeks before our second baby was born. Buying a house was a hard decision, but land prices were still very high and we could never dream of the farm crisis and credit crunch that was to come. The summer of 1980 was a brutal one but.....

well, that's another story.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Snow Boots in the Summertime

Though I enjoy writing, there are times a picture is still worth the proverbial thousand words. As summer makes its stately progress past the solstice, the tender greens of the garden become the towering tendrils of vining tomatoes, cucumbers and squash. Chaos reigns as you wade into the mass to search out that first ripe tomato, or a small but tasty pepper for the salad. One day a cuke is cute and the next as long as a torpedo. The perennial bed is an explosion of daylily trumpets, balloon flower orbs and the spiky plates of coneflowers. If nature has provided, or if one is diligent in running the sprinkler, the annuals become a solid kaleidoscopic melange. The bounty of color and form makes a virtue of disorganization.

At least, I'd like to believe there are instances when disorganization can be a virtue. Every summer for nearly two decades, our family honed disorganization to an art form as we prepared for our county fair.

Its not that we didn't have a plan, or a schedule. In fact, year in and year out, we probably tied the calves up on exactly the same day. We looked for the fair schedule the same day; we finished the baked goods the same last minute; we made a desperate run to the farm supply store for show sticks and halters the same calendar date as the previous year. Consistent, yes! Prepared, no......

Lee was nine the summer we cleaned the junk out of the small lot across the driveway from the house, wired up the hogwire and put up a gate. She was game and we'd already made it clear that both girls were responsible for doing the chores. They wore snow boots to do their chores in the lot. They were barely big enough to haul the corn buckets from the bin to the bunk, but we only showed two steers with unusually calm dispositions for Hurst calves. We didn't win anything at all, but that really wasn't the point. Lee looked cute and no one got hurt; the fair was a success.

Annie was old enough to join her sister the next year, but our beginner's luck failed us. The calves chosen from our cow herd should have run steeplechase. As the door opened, they burst from the trailer in a blur, too fast to be shunted into the lot. They took off down the road, into the fields, and disappeared. Short 4-H season. When time came to gather the neighbor's cowherd in, he called us about a strange steer in his lot. But we never found the other one at all.

That was the end of home raised steers at Deadman's Hollow. From then on, we watched for Club Calf sale bills. For a couple of years, all five of us would buckle ourselves into the front of the pickup and travel clear out to Grand Island to buy some Simmental steers, big blond animals that begged to become cow hide rugs. We bought Simmental/Chianina cross steers. They were beautiful things, with dished noses and wide set eyes just like an Arabian horse. But no matter how well the girls fed them, they failed with the judges. Finally, we settled on a local farmer in Iowa who had alot of Angus in his fancy club calves. He was a good judge of animals and breeding. While we bought calves from him, the kids even won a few classes and a couple of Reserve Grand Champions.

And that was probably as much as we could ever expect. We were never calf jockeys. The steers lived out in the lot all summer. The old chicken house provided some shelter and so did the elm trees in the fence row, but they were fed, watered and housed the old fashioned way. The kids grew too; after "someone" left the gate unwired, all feed was carried over the fence. During winter mornings, they pulled their rubber boots over their pajamas, layered the hooded sweatshirts over their tangled hair and headed out to chop ice in the dark. The whole ritual was accomplished in total silence; no conversation til everyone thawed out in the bathroom.

The county fair was late in the first week of August when our kids were growing up. That meant we could wait to break the calves until after the 4th of July. After the grace period of early summer, when there was no bus to catch and the sun rose early, we sent the kids to the basement to find the halters and the lariat.

Blake possesses nearly an endless list of talents. But roping animals is not among them. If the whole situation had not been so tense, it would have been riotously funny. Here is the dad, circling the loop in his hand. Here are the two girls, arms out wide on one side of the chicken house, attempting to keep the steers calm. The animals know them, but they don't know that guy with the glasses and short hair; he's trouble and in their dim little brains, they know this. On the other side of the chicken house are the mom and the little boy. Before long, he'll be on the top of the chicken house as the steers avoid the approaching man with rope and trot their way around to the other side.

The girls know they could probably walk right up to at least one of their calves and slip the loop over their heads. But they can't dig in their heels and stop 1100 pounds of careening steer until the lariat is looped around one of the hedge posts in the lot. Their dad can't rope 'em, but he knows when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em. My job is to grab the long end of the lariat while Blake is being drug around the lot and flip it around the nearest hedge post. Then.....hold on. Period.

Some steers behaved, stood there and allowed themselves to be haltered. Some jack knifed, bawled, and generally made us all sick at heart while they choked themselves and coughed. What a relief it was to have all the steers tied to posts so the girls could bring them water and feed. How many times did Blake tell them to 'scratch their steers.' They were never really scared of their steers that I recall, but they were never very sentimental either. Over the years, we had calves that were friendly, calves that were spooky, calves that chewed through ropes and had to be restrained with log chains, calves that bloated and needed to be poked, calves that were eating machines and calves that were gazelles. One year we kept a steer to fatten more for our freezer instead of showing him. He became so tame, he would follow us to the fence when we watered the mums because Kris had been feeding him volunteer corn stalks. Friendly or not, we ate him later.

Even after the steers were tied and calmed down, even after they could be led to water and stood quietly to have their feet moved and scratched with the curry comb, even if they didn't balk and dig in their considerable bulk, the good behavior had almost no predictive value on their actions in the show ring.

When the girls were young, the livestock show took place in a small ring made of cattle panels by the baseball fields in the park in Rock Port. If someone's steer took a notion to break out, it was quite a chase across the golf course. Later, the fair moved to the old sale barn outside arena. There was a lot more room and less chance for escape. Kids' steers still ran off when they hit the sand, or played bumper cars in hallways of the barn, but it did look more like a fair barn.

Other families had gear boxes and cooling fans. We washed our calves with Lemon Joy and fitted them with White Rain hair spray and baby powder. The kids were tired of brushing steers and the dad was so nervous he couldn't quit messing with them. Some years the judges wanted to see exhibitors in boots, sometimes in hats, but always with the curry comb in the back pocket. We crammed on weights and rate of gain. We noted whose steers were also in the weight class;some families always had wild steers. In the ring, the big kids helped the little kids; the ring men twisted tales when necessary. The crowd was silent except for the click of shutters as another year of kid and calf was recorded for posterity. Wherever their animals placed, the kids never betrayed emotion. They took their ribbons and headed back to the barn, ready for the next steer or a trip to the concession stand for pop or pie.

The steer show was always a family affair. The years all three kids showed steers we might have eight animals in the little lot. We always showed at least six, but only sold three at the auction. After all, there were four other Hurst kids showing steers as well and not enough bidders to cover them all.

The fair was more than just a livestock show. The girls had projects for cooking and sewing while they were younger with either their Grandma Millie or their mother as project leader. We were not very good about filling out the paper work and the process, but they did the work nonetheless and spent lots of time with Grandma and in the kitchen, more lasting than any ribbon. Millie always had a stack of girls sewing at her house...from neighbor girls Brooks' age on down to her own grandkids. The house would be festooned with fabrics; the iron would be steaming in one room while a canner of beans would be boiling in the other. Everyone was sweating even though the air conditioner was churning away. We all wore shoes for fear of pins in our bare feet.

All three kids took cooking exhibits over. We'd pore through recipes so they could pick out what they wished to bake. The girls kept baking long past their 4-H years in order to watch Grandpa Charlie bid on a cake or a pie to raise money for the fair. Even if Grandpa hadn't been at the sale to run the bid up, who wouldn't buy a chocolate cake or a cherry pie from a pony tailed chef in tall rubber boots??

The evening of the sale, our local Farm Bureau grilled burgers and served ice cream. The kids would be decked back out in their best show duds and the winning steers sported their big rosettes. I had several big 72 rolls of film on hand so I could record each kid and each animal for the buyers and sellers. It could be a long night if there were lots of hogs; a child can lead a steer to a place, but taking a photo of a hog properly presented required quick feet by the ring guys and no hesitation from the photographer. These were still the days of film and I never wanted to find out I'd cut off half the exhibitor or missed half the hog after the fact. Some of the kids I only saw once a year; the pictures I took were like growth charts scratched on the back of the closet door; the animals looked about the same from year to year, but the kid started just below the calf's nose, gripping the halter in two hands and finished his career with the halter nonchalantly hand on hip while he looked down on his steer.

I haven't been to the steer show for a few years. The dates have changed and we don't have kids showing anymore. But Aaron is seven and his daddy and mommy grew up that way. Our kids still have nightmares about forgetting to water the calves, or leaving the hydrant on. I'd hate to have Aaron miss out!!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Hit the Road, Jack

Even from Spruce street, I can hear the increased traffic on highway 59. At night, when the lawnmowers have gone to rest, our town is pretty quiet and the roar of the engines as they power up from the 30 mph speed zone carries well. I hope the local merchants are benefiting from this rip tide from the north. It is certainly a matter of conversation among the locals....Ann counted 24 vehicles at the three way stop of Highways 136 and 59.

The folks with out of state plates remind me of the summer pilgrimages our family made annually years ago. Before the days of garden mum lines, we would plan eagerly for the week after the county fair, when the 4-H calves were chilled and hung in the locker, the sweet corn was bagged in the freezer, and summer sports were still in the future. This was as free as we ever got from farm, home, school and garden; I would pore over free travel literature and the Rand McNally Road atlas. Mid August in Westboro needs no description: invariably, our sights would turn West, to higher elevations, clearer air, and less humidity.

There were other reasons to go West, young Hursts. It was but a day's drive to the mountains heading west and going east meant two solid days of Corn Belt, not exactly exotic and different. But perhaps the main impetus was the sheer romance we had with the history of the lands we would traverse. The landmarks of the Oregon Trail, the Santa Fe trail, the Bozeman trail, were an outdoor, bigger than life, time machine travel museum just over the horizon. We could, and did, read about our nation's Manifest Destiny; we were farmers, tillers of the land and familiar with the challenges of making a living from our native soil. Our little town sat lightly on the land, a few years past a century old, as ephemeral as the ghost towns bypassed by railroads of the last century. The emigrants of the Oregon Trail weren't relatives by name, but they were kin by spirit as they took that leap of faith in Independence, crossed the prairie streams of northeast Kansas and followed the Platte, so foreign in nature from the narrow woodland creeks of the East. For our journey, Lincoln, Nebraska was far enough west to be foreign territory...or maybe we took off south first, stopping at the Pony Express station in the limestone fence post capital of the world, Marysville, Kansas. The Platte was flat and lazy under its bridges along I-80 as we marked the mile posts. Gibbon, with the Windmill Park. Grand Island with the Stuhr Museum. Kearney with its military fort and Harold Warp's Pioneer Village, an icon of travel past, south of town. (an aside: the Warp company still manufactures the poly plastic film we use on our greenhouses).

Somewhere before the town of Gothenburg, where the city park sported another Pony Express Station, we crossed the mythical 100th parallel. Cozad, Nebraska straddles that barrier along I-80 and proclaims its presence with sky breaking concrete elevators spelling out the letters C-O-Z-A-D. We passed Cozad for years without stopping, even though there was an art museum there. I knew nothing about Robert Henri, but he grew up in Cozad in a modest two story gray frame house with sloping floors and the smell of age. The prints in the catalog showed rain swept street scenes and European cafe life, a far cry from the Great Plains.

At whatever time we reached North Platte, we made the stop. North Platte, the home of Buffalo Bill Cody and his red barn with the built in advertisement on the roof. If seeking the West, how could one not pay homage to the grandest promoter of them all? North Platte itself is dusty and no nonsense. Buffalo Bill Cody is the romance at its heart, just like the cowboy hero of the movies.

Our road trip turned off the interstate as the land rose and the humidity fell. Here the pioneers rested before ascending the broken terrain at Ash Hollow. We could drive between Chimney Rock and Scotts Bluff in a hour or so, but the wagons west must have seen those landmarks for days. Now there is a museum with a nicely framed view of Chimney Rock and information, maps and excerpts from diaries. Twenty years ago, there was a construction type trailer( closed), a historical marker, and some colossal mosquitoes, according to the girls. The winding road to the top of Scotts Bluff is another remnant of the WPA, worth preserving because no one can build roads on monuments any more. My mother was born in Scotts Bluff while my grandfather was working in western Nebraska, the road and tunnels of Scotts Bluff one of the projects he worked on. From the summit, I tried to visualize the verdant patchwork of crop ground and arid pasture as parched and lonesome as it must have been in the early thirties, then narrowed my vision further til the scene from William Jackson Turner's paintings came to life below me.
The imprints of the wagon train wheels scored the softer rock near Guernsey, Wyoming to a depth of four feet. While the white cliffs had its share of modern graffiti, the names and dates of the 19th century could be spotted as well. These inscriptions bring a shiver wherever they appear on the trail, as well as a certain sense of reverence. I doubt the wind ever ceases near Independence Rock, in the midst of the Rattlesnake Hills, along the stretch of the Trail that includes Split Rock and the Devils Gate. A landscape of desolate beauty these days, the isolated ranches do nothing to dispel the pervasive feeling that humanity is merely passing through. It is a long way to anywhere populous on this road....while we traveled it, the kids napped and I pondered the emotions of folks who had gone too far to turn back.

Our week long vacations were too short to finish the pioneer trail to the promised land of Oregon. We would leave our wagon trains to cross most of the mountains and find the Columbia on their own. We might follow the Sweetwater on up to the South Pass, picnic amid the remnants of South Pass City, and wend our way through the jagged youthful mountain ranges of northwestern Wyoming. One year we followed the Bozeman Trail past one ill fated fort after another through the bastion of the Indian Wars. The folly and foreboding ended at the Little Big Horn where the summer winds rustled golden grasses between the headstones and we read descriptions of the battle to each other in hushed voices. We've been lost on the ranch roads of the Powder River, had the highway to ourselves in the Hole in the Wall country, and frozen our toes in the bubbling Wind River.
Aaron and I used our time wisely this March in Washington, D.C. We entered the halls of the Smithsonian museums like it was a library full of volumes to browse, or a buffet of exotic dishes, too many to sample at one sitting. And, with an inquisitive seven year old, whetting the appetite was probably just the ticket for future memories and inquiries of a more lengthy and serious nature. But a week long trip to our beautiful West was a different type of experience, one that concentrated the mind on the majesty of the breadth and depth of our nation. The ambitions of our pioneer immigrant and emigrant ancestors used to be celebrated in novels and textbooks alike. I don't know if that is the case these days, but our kids learned their stories in the giant open air museum of our Western road trips. Mountain men, Indian chiefs, dusty U.S cavalry, lumberjacks, railroad magnates, gun fighters and ranch hands: all these came to life just over the next curve of the road. They still do. Grab your Road Atlas and go.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Old School

Its graduation time. The air and highways are full of comings and goings. Tomorrow, the preschoolers at Tarkio Kids Korner will receive certificates promoting them to kindergarten, though it will take an entire circus to accomplish the task. The photo op on the stage at Tarkio Elementary reminds me of "graduation" days of years past at long gone Westboro R-4.

Westboro was long past its peak when little Lee Hurst attended her first day of kindergarten. At that time, there were still enough kids to keep the art class as the sole occupant of the third floor. The old brick school had four levels, built on a pattern repeated all over the Midwest. The first floor classrooms could have comfortably seated forty students, but the little kindergarten kids would have had no trouble eluding their teacher during a game of hide and seek in that cavernous space, so the school library was housed in the kindergarden classroom. Even more convenient for Miss Walter, the combination teacher, librarian, and administrator of Westboro school.

Like country schools of bygone days, kids from first grade through sixth shared classroom and teacher with another grade. With enrollment of 50 kids (when Lee was six) shrinking to 37 (when Ben was a student), even combined classes left perhaps 12-15 kids per class. What Westboro lacked in facilities, comfort and infrastructure, it compensated for with personal attention.

What a gentle introduction to organized school Miss Walter gave a small child! A half day of school and a ride home for lunch on the little bus. The real work began in the first grade in the classroom of one of the finest teachers I've ever known. From reading to geography, from spelling words to history, the marvelous spectrum of knowledge opened up on a scale each child could manage and appreciate. Every week we parents would get a report on the individual doings of our kid and marvel at the varied range of activities designed with our son or daughter in mind. Without internet, satellite, or any other of the other aids we now take for granted, the building blocks were laid row by row in a stout foundation.

The little school resembled a family in more than one way. While other school cafeterias reap ridicule for the daily provisioning of the student body, the staff of the kitchen at Westboro somehow managed to make homecooked meals from the bulk cans and ingredients of the basement kitchen. The years Blake was on the school board, we took advantage of the yearly invitation to savor a Thanksgiving feast on our plastic platter.

The upper grades had the duty of reading to the little kids: a double dipper! The youngsters looked forward to the stories and the big kids got some extra practice in reading and patience. I don't mean to suggest Westboro school was a paragon of educational excellence by any means. Heading south to junior high led to all kinds of adjustments, academic and otherwise. Art and music teachers, PE teachers, were hard to attract to a little school with declining enrollment and part time positions at best. Some of the best music teachers couldn't make the grade with the state regulations; finally, the rules that were burdensome for small schools sounded the death knell for districts as tiny as Westboro. All the volunteerism, all the community support, could not overcome simple demographics.

I clearly remember the chilly spring day when the PTA used all its funds for one last bash for the kids: a trip to Worlds of Fun. I chaperoned Ben's class....all three of them. They were still too short for the big kid's rides, but we made the best of our day even so. Nowadays, we consider our R-I school small and worry about its viability.
I've turned this subject over and over in my mind, coming to different conclusions according to my inner level of optimism or pessimism. Are we better off with our small classes and individual attention? Are we worse off with our isolation and narrow employment opportunities for spouses of teachers? Are we limited in our curriculum by our small enrollment? Or does this give us the opportunity to tailor the course of study to the student? Do we expect too much....or set our sights too low?

Wherever one falls on this sliding scale, I would maintain we are hindered by our small size in the eyes of the State, with a capital S. If little schools had more leeway, we could make better use of our resources. We need the flexibility to be jacks of all trades in much the same way we small businessmen must be bookkeepers, salesmen, janitors and strategic planners on any given day. Life in this small town isn't easy: to be successful and keep a household together can feel like the guy on Ed Sullivan spinning plates on both hands, and his chin! Small towns act as buffers for our society, keeping "progress" from moving too quickly. They are repositories of accumulated custom and cultural habits. They are our history, writ small.

Ask any alum: our little schools form the ties that bind.