Friday, October 6, 2017

The Simple Life

Recently a friend posted on Facebook the following quote:  “I’m so old that I’ve actually dialed a rotary phone before, while listening to an 8-track, next to a black & white TV with aluminum foil on top of its rabbit ear antennas!”

To this I replied:  “I used a crank-box phone while listening to a hand wound Victor Talking Machine playing wax pressed 78 rpm platters sitting next to a 3-dial tuner Marconi radio using electricity generated from a farm windmill.”

This started a brief exchange with another friend who had similar experiences to mine.  The reality is there was a time in America before Smart Phones, High Definition,  Internet, and Computers.  I don’t want to go back to the way things were.  Yeah, I remember these things, and they make fun memories, but that’s about as far as it goes.

My great-uncle John and his wife Gertrude were farmers, and I really enjoyed visiting with them.  At least it was a break from the farm my grandparents owned.  Uncle John lived in a very complex world often referred to as ‘the simple life.’  But it was anything but simple.  Every day John would have to replenish the woodpile next to the kitchen door so Gertrude would be able to fire up the old cast-iron wood-burning cook stove.  She would spend all day working in the kitchen (literally from about 4am until 7pm) just so they could have cooked meals.  John would work the watermelon fields and maintain the farm animals (again from about 4am to 7pm).  And in their spare time they would retire to the ‘parlor’ to relax, watch the radio, dance to some music from their old Victor Talking Machine, or just fall asleep reading a book.

I would visit the farm a few miles southeast of Fort Worth for a couple of weeks each summer from the time I was about 8 until John passed away just before my 13th birthday.  I would work in the watermelon fields just as the harvest was beginning, and it was not easy.  Some of the melons would weigh in at 60 to 70 pounds.  But then again, I got paid real money for my contribution. 

There were days when we quit working the fields about noon and spent the rest of the day cleaning out barns, feeding animals, repairing fences, cutting and stacking wood, collecting eggs, milking cows, and several other things that couldn’t be neglected.  I suspect there were a few things, such as fence repair, that were neglected until I came for my summer visit, but that was okay.  I sort of liked the fence repair.

Uncle John was about seventy years older than me, but still, he could keep up a work pace that would drop a mule.  I do believe he would have worked longer days if the sun had stayed up a little longer.  In fact, during full moons he would often work into the night because of the extra light.

This is not to say all I did when I visited was work.  I had time to explore his old barns and look over items stored in them untouched for maybe a hundred years.  I opened a cabinet and discovered a cache of muskets from the Great War for Southern Independence.  I found a large number of pistols and swords from that era as well.  John told me he purchased the farm in 1911 from a civil war vet, and he had heard rumors that the place had once been used for meetings to stage another uprising.  He had also heard the place was used to store contraband weapons, since firearm ownership was outlawed in Texas from 1865 to about 1870.  He thought these were just rumors.

I asked why he had never opened up any of the boxes and cabinets in the barn before now, and he replied he never had the time.  There was always too much to do.  But he decided to join me for a day or so and just go through some of the old stuff.

There were built-in cabinets along one wall that yielded more than sixty rifles and muskets.  More than a dozen boxes contained pistols of varying types, and we found several trunks packed with old gray uniforms (mostly rotted).  Four or five crates of swords of several types and designs.  And under a pile of canvas tarps was a cannon.  It wasn’t enough to outfit a regiment, but it was far more than most people had lying around.   There was no powder for the weapons, but we did find a large box filled with shot canisters for the cannon.

The next morning John called someone at a museum to come out and look at this stuff.  I remember it was a long process of connecting through multiple operators to reach the museum less than 20 miles away.  .

My summer with Uncle John was over before the museum person came out to visit, so I never got to find out what happened with all those items.  I left with my family for a visit to Roaring River State Park in Missouri for a week, and when we returned, we found out Uncle John had been killed by falling through the roof of a barn he was repairing.  A few years later I went to the museum to inquire if they had purchased the war items from my uncle, but they had no record.  Aunt Gertrude also never answered my questions about them.

I’ll never forget the farm.  Candles, kerosene lamps, wood burning stove, windup record player, crank box telephone, outhouse (complete with bugs, spiders, snakes, and wasps), working from dark to dark, caring for animals, raising watermelons, etc.  And they called it the simple life.

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