These stories and tales are based on real memories of a real little boy. They are as accurate, usually, as memories can be - especially those that are more than 75 years old. Also, the stories are, once in a while, changed a little bit to protect the guilty. I didn't bother taking any time to protect the innocent; they have to take care of themselves. And, some names are changed so as not to impinge on the privacy of real people, living or dead.
In general, these stories reflect my life at the time, as well as I can recall. It gives me pleasure to share them. I hope readers can have some bit of enjoyment from reading them.
Jack Voss, The twerp of Dobie Road
ABOUT THE TIME IT CAME TO BE
I was about 3 1/2 when we moved into an old farmhouse on the south end of Dobie Road. The locale is about 10-12 miles SE'ly of Lansing, Michigan. The house, I've been told, was built before the Civil War. We moved in during spring or summer of 1941.
My Aunt Mary, Dad's sister, and uncle Roy owned the farm, about 80-90 acres I think. They lived about 3 miles to the east of us on another farm, about 120 acres. They had dairy cattle on both farms, and part of our rent was to help make sure that no cattle got rustled. To my knowledge, none ever did - even during the meat rationing of WW-II.
The house was a two story frame house, 10 rooms and a path. At the end of the path was a two holer - the outhouse. One faucet, in the kitchen, ran cold water. A second faucet, a frost proof hydrant, was out by one of the garden plots - the "kitchen" garden. We had an agitator washing machine with an electric motor, and a power ringer. We also had an electric refrigerator and electric kitchen range.
Also in the kitchen was a laundry stove that burned wood. These laundry stoves are small, about three feet long, a foot wide, maybe 2 1/2' high, and flat on top. We had a laundry tub whose bottom was tailored to fit well when set upon the laundry stove. This kettle had straight sides and ovular shaped ends. It would hold 8-10 gallons of water to be heated over a wood fire in the laundry stove.
It was a big kitchen, and we ate meals at a full sized table there - breakfast, dinner, and supper. On a farm, you didn't eat "lunch": it was dinner. The evening meal was supper. Though, later, I did eat "lunch" at school. The difference, to me, was that lunch was just sandwiches, while dinner was a meal designed to be filling and lasting.
My baths were in a large, metal washtub, with water heated on that laundry stove. We had two of the large laundry tubs, both about 3' across. One was squarish, and the other was round. I liked the square tub better. It was shinier.
In what we used as the dining room, was a wood fired heating stove, a tall, pot bellied stove. I believe the brand was an "Iron Oak" stove. Another room, beyond the dining room, had an oil fired space heater. It was made at the Motor Wheel Company in Lansing, and was a Duo Therm brand. On cold mornings, it heated up faster than the Iron Oak stove did. That's where I'd get dressed on cold mornings.
Out in the front yard was an old, large elm tree. From an overhanging branch about 20' up, my Dad had hung a lonnnnng rope swing. He'd cut a seat from a 10" wide board, and notched the ends for the rope to fit into. I can tell you that there are five, important features to a good swing. The first four of them are: length of the rope, length of the rope, length of the rope, and length of the rope. Little short store-bought swings may be OK for city kids, but real kids know better. The lonnnnng, slow, full-sweeping arc of a tall swing is ever so much more fun and more satisfying. The fifth, nice feature is having somebody to push you in the swing. Now, THAT combination is a slice of heaven for a kid. It ranks right up there with Hershey bars.
I typically wore only my little, dark blue swimming suit all summer long, and ran barefoot. Thistles were the bane of my days, especially dead thistles. The sticker-needles would go into my foot, and then stay there! Green, live thistles would remain on the plant, and so pulled back out of me. But dead thistles were dry and brittle. Sticker-needles would break off and stay in me. I hated that! It not only hurt, bringing forth a cuss word or two, but I had to take time to stop, sit down, and pull them out.
By day two of running nearly naked in the sun, I had an established tan. It got deeper over the summer. Since I'm of 3/4 German stock, that tanning gene must have come from my Mom's side of the family. None of my cousins ever have browned up like I do. I still brown up well in the summer, but not as quickly as I used to. The tan still fades slowly over the winter though.
Jack, thanks for rekindling old memories. It's amazing how similar our past are. I recently read a book " Cajun Grace" about growing up in a Louisiana swamp. No that much different than Kansas if substitute prairie for swamp!
When we moved in, on Dobie Road, I was the only little kid for several miles around. So, I had to devise lots of ways to play all by myself. Fortunately, that's never been much of a problem for me, nor for most other kids. A stick of one shape became a six shooter. A longer stick, when some binder twine was tied on, became a bow. Other sticks became arrows. Shooting "bad guys" and harassing sparrows occupied me throughout several summers.
One day, as a sparrow was flying overhead, I drew back my bow (probably about 10-20 pound draw weight), and let fly at him. Instantly, my vision changed. I was no longer watching a blur of an arrow, nor the rapid flight of a bird. Instead, I was watching a series of still shots. In each one, the arrow was a bit higher, and the sparrow was approaching the flight path of that arrow a bit closer. They were converging on each other, step by step. Then - the bird diverted to its right, the arrow slid on by, arced, and fell back to earth. I don't know how the meeting of sparrow and arrow would have turned out, but I gained insight into the field of ballistics that day.
But, still, I wanted someone to play with. Turned out that the closest thing to another kid was Fred Eiffert who is about 9 years older than me, and lived almost a half a mile away. Well, once Fred and I met, we became good friends, and he was tolerant of a pesky kid tagging along behind him. We explored the woods, built a tree house, herded cows, cooled off in the stock tank on hot days, built forts with straw bales, and whiled away time doing boy-type things. We became kind of like a big brother-little brother team. To be honest about that cow herding thing, it was just one cow named Smokey who didn't need to be herded anyway, but we didn't let that stop us.
Fred's family consisted of his mom and dad Irene and Bill, his older sister Barbara, and his uncle Fred. They became a family of friends for me. But Fred's mom didn't always enjoy me. It seems that she thought I wasn't the best mannered little boy, and she didn't like some of my adventurous, spirited antics. She dubbed me as the "twerp of Dobie Road". We learned to get along together. To be honest, if Irene were to be asked, I'm pretty sure that she could tell a different story. sigh
Fred raised a few rabbits. Once in a while they harvested one for the dinner table. Fred taught me how to deliver an effective rabbit punch with the edge of my hand to the back of a rabbit's neck. It broke the neck, thus killing the rabbit.
My uncle had been in training at the Great Lakes Naval Station north of Chicago. He visited us while on leave, and gave me one of his white, sailor hats. I was really proud of that hat, and showed that pride when I wore it. But, when I wore it on the school bus, a high school boy named Casper Antcliff, would grab it away and toss it around the bus. That was frustrating, and made me mad. But I was way too little to take him on.
I lamented this to Fred one day. I complained about how mad Casper made me. Fred had seen these forays on the bus, but had held his counsel. He looked at me, shrugged his shoulders, and just said, "Give him a rabbit punch." I thought about that for a minute, and liked it. I hadn't yet learned to think through downstream consequences tomorrow, of what we do today.
On Monday morning, I climbed up into the bus, said "Good morning" to our driver, Mr. Arnold Powell, and started back along the aisle to find a seat. Part way back, sat Casper, across the aisle from Fred. And, true to form, as I passed Casper, he grabbed my treasured sailor cap, and tossed it on to another protagonist.
I didn't say a thing, but walked an a few steps. But, instead of sitting down, I stopped and turned. Casper was facing back forward, triumphantly. I walked up behind him, positioned myself, and delivered one helluva rabbit punch. The reaction was immediate. For a second or two, Casper was shaken. Then he was enraged. Turning in his seat, he started to rise. His face clearly showed what he intended to do to me. But, his movement was quickly arrested. Fred, sitting just across the aisle, put a firm hand on Casper's thigh, and pushing him back down into his seat, calmly shook his head from side to side. The strong message was not lost on Casper. He sat back in his seat, and shut up.
It was then that a lot of things dawned into my realization. I haven't mentioned here yet just how strong Fred was. Nobody messed with him. He was big and muscular. I never, ever saw him in a fight; Fred didn't have to fight. And, neither did he want to. Also, his positioning near Casper wasn't by accident. And, others had been watching the harassment of me, and were tiring of it. And, for my part, if you strike a blow, you'd better be prepared to take quick action of some kind. It all came together in that instant. And, then I went and sat down. Mr. Powell put the bus into gear, and we proceeded on along the route.
Fred affected my life in other ways too. He let me try to milk Smokey the cow. That was a short lived career. I also rode my first horse there. Uncle Fred farmed a few acres with a team of work horses, two mares named Maude and Nell. Maude was a gentle horse, and blind. Nell was black and intolerant of whatever she considered to be bad behavior. She would kick and bite. I stayed away from her, and out of range.
A few times, we rode the horses out to the yonder end of a pasture to "round up" old Smokey. Every other day of the year, she would wander up to the barn to get fed some grain, and be milked. So, we weren't performing any useful chore. But, on the other hand, neither were we doing an damage.
And, for a while at least, neither were we under foot.
Andy, I've noticed similarities in us before too. Toss Joey Dupre into the sack along with us. It's probably lucky for our parents that we grew up far apart. I suspect that the three of us together might have been a handful? Not malicious boys, but full of mischief.
Fred's dog was a beagle bitch named Gyp. She would climb up a ladder, but couldn't get down for herself, and always had to be rescued. She had a litter of pups that summer, and my Dad wisely got one for me. Now, I finally had someone nearby to play with, a companion. WAHOO! A friend of my own, right here.
The average beagle has a couple of characteristics - they hunt rabbits instinctively, and they're dumber than a box of rocks. To be fair, they're also a cute, attractive dog. Beagle puppies are irresistible. I named my dog Tippy because the tip of her tail was white. Her and I bonded instantly, and for life. We were to be close friends for years, until she died in the summer of '54. I still have her picture, and still miss her. Tippy had some rat terrier blood in her, so she had some brains. Beagles that I had later in life were just disappointments - dumb.
Tippy chased after the school bus one day when she was less than a year old, and was hit. Fortunately, my Dad pulled her through. And, she never chased after a vehicle after that.
Tip and I roamed the fields, streams, and woods. In the spring, we brought back wild flowers to Mom. We brought in violets, trilliums (not legal to pick them now), little Dutch boys and girls, jacks-in-the-pulpit, bull thistle blossoms (VERY tricky to pick with only bare, little hands), lilacs, etc. In the summer, we chased birds. In the fall we watched ring necked pheasants run and fly around. She was always out ahead of me, out on the edge of vision in open or brushy terrain. She would be casting back and forth, constantly sniffing, searching, yipping at discoveries, and glancing over her shoulder at me.
As a 4 to 13 year old, I never worried about getting lost as long as I could see that white-tipped tail out in front. All I had to do to get home again, was follow that whirling white tip. Only later, as I was hunting pheasants and rabbits behind her while she was out in front - casting left then right - did I realize something. No matter which way I would turn, she would reappear right out in front. I wasn't following her - she was following ME!
As a little kid, often with no one to play with, Tip and I were constantly together. Mom and Dad would, of course, make demands on me. Bothersome demands like washing my hands, picking up my toys, clean up my plate, and all those irksome things with which parents interrupt boyhood. Tippy never made those silly, useless demands. Often she even fed herself. Mice and ground moles were regulars on her diet. That got rid of vermin, gave better nourishment than anything out of a can, and saved money to boot.
Because a dog is so giving and not demanding, I would often sit on the front porch step, with my arm around Tippy by my side, and tell her, "Tippy, you're the only one who understands me." Well, that was only partly true. Looking back through eyes that include not only my childhood, but some of those of my own kids and grandkids, I realize that new parents do struggle to understand kids. They do understand, because they were once kids too. But, I still believe that Tippy and I really did understand each other better than my folks and I did. After all, Tip was a kid too. And we shared everything we did. Anyway, that's my story, and ?i'm sticking to it.
One summer, probably when I was 5, I dug a foxhole. Tippy wasn't any help at all in this project. But at least, she did stay out if the way. After the foxhole was done, we shot all kinds of bad guys from it. I had that foxhole for a year. Then, Dad butchered a hog, needed a place to bury offal, and I lost my foxhole. I dug another one, but it just wasn't the same.
It was on a Sunday. I remember it. The radio was on. Then the program was interrupted and an old man started talking - in slow, emotional tones. He said something about a far away place, and sokmething called infamy. When he was done, and the music started again, I asked Mom, "What's wrong?" I will never forget what she answered, "We're at war!" At 3, I didn't have any realization of what all that meant. But, Mom's face, stature, and tone of voice told me that it was going to be bad.
Some things remained the same, as far as I could tell; and some things changed. Dad worked in a factory, Motor Wheel Corporation. His job changed drastically. Soon, he was running machines that turned out large, brass casings for artillery shells, and brake drums for bombers. The factory would not let him go to war, but issued a thing called a deferment. I was glad; Dad had mixed feelings.
Pretty soon, things were being rationed - meat, tires, and gasoline. And we were started saving things "for the war effort". A tin can sat on a shelf above the kitchen stove. We saved bacon grease in that. I heard that they made gunpowder out of it. I have no idea what they really did, but I'm pretty sure it didn't end up as gunpowder. We also saved tin cans. Cut both ends out, put them into the cylindrical part, and jump on it. Stomp it down tight so those two ends are wedged in tightly. Then do the same to the next can, etc.
Cans from Pet Milk or Carnation Milk were prized. We didn't have to cut out the ends. They'ed been punctured with a "church key", and those ends remained. If you stomped on the side of one of these cans carefully - right in the center - it would collapse and fold up around the heel of your shoe, sticking tight. With one of those cans stuck on each foot, a kid could prance and gallop around, whinnying and snorting like a wild stallion. It was one heckuvva thing to be doing on a bright, sunny day.
To be truthful, when you live on a farm where game is plentiful, meat rationing doesn't have much of an effect. Dad and Uncle Stanley, Dad's older brother, butchered a cow or pig now and then. Mom canned beef. And, we cured and smoked our own ham and bacon. Rarely today, do I find either ham or bacon as smokey good.
And, Dad was a crack shot. He always had a .22 rifle that was a tack driver. Bag limit on fox squirrels was 3. On a sunny morning, if he wasn't working, he walked back to the woods. Sitting still, he wouldn't stand until he had bagged three. Mom made squirrel stew or squirrel pie. In pheasant season, he brought in lots of ring-necked roosters. Roasted or fried pheasant was standard fare. Rabbits were plentiful too. Dad could spot them still setting, hiding. As they ran, he could hit them in the head while they were on a dead run. .22 shells were much cheaper than shotgun shells. (But, when I got older and hunted, every rabbit that I ever shot was with a shot gun. sigh)
A few years later, one day we heard bells ringing, horns honking, and people yelling. "What the heck is going on?" we wanted to know?
"The war is over! We won! The war is OVER!"
V-E Day - victory in Europe had already been achieved. V-J Day, victory in Japan, was the final victory. The horror was coming to an end; and strong mixtures of sadness, joy, sorrow, and triumphant excitement swirled around us.
Fifteen years later, almost to the day, I started living in Japan. As a kid, during the war, we called them Japs. It had been meant to be an insulting term. Living among them, working with them, trusting our baby daughter to them - we easily learned to like them as trusted friends. Not all, of course. But, as young parents in a foreign land, you observe and learn about people. About the same percentage of people were, nice, grouchy, helpful, huffy, etc. in Japan as back home in the U.S. Since then, I have met quite a few native Germans. Darned if the same general rule doesn't apply there too!
In general, people are people. And we are, all at one time, capable of being the most generous, kindly, and helpful animal in the zoo - AND simultaneously, we're also capable of the most vicious, cruel, and deadly behaviors.
It finally came, that day that I had to start school. It was a whole new world for me. And - Mom probably enjoyed some quiet time.
The old school was built sometime in the 1800's. It was a giant building, a 2 story, wooden building. It was built in a time when there were separate cloakrooms for boys and girls. Actually, it was built in a time when people still wore cloaks! There were two stairways - each on opposite sides of the building - up to the second floor. One stairway was for boys and the other for girls. In those days there was a firm belief in two - and only two - genders. And, for many, that still holds.
The ceilings were very high in this old building. Guessing here, but I'd bet on 12' ceilings. The upper sash of the window could be opened only with a long, wooden pole that had a steel knob on the end. No kid was tall enough to reach the metal socket up on the window, only a teacher could reach up that high with that long pole.
Our kindergarten teacher was Mrs. McKinley. Her father was a doctor, our family doctor. My grandmother had been his nurse. Aren't small towns neat?
Here is where I was introduced to an indoors sandbox! The only ones that I'd ever seen were outdoors. The one that I played in at home was on top of an old, hand-dug well that had been filled in after a new well had been drilled. "Sandbox" was treated as an academic subject. What I think they were really trying to teach was socialization skills - "Plays well with others", etc.
That winter, out of a mixture of curiosity and naivety, I stuck my tongue onto the steel pipe flagpole. Of course, it froze on. The only way I could get loose was to leave a small patch of tongue back there on the pole. OUCH!!!
The war being on, there was military training going on. We boys were absolutely ecstatic when one day - Army jeeps and a halftrack were running up and down the little side street out in front of the school. "Maneuvers" were going on. I couldn't have been more excited if Hopalong Cassidy and Tom Mix had both shown up! All week long we played war instead of cowboys and Indians. The next week, they'd all disappeared. It was back to cowboys and Indians.
Another time the war touched the old school was when we were asked to gather kapok. The milkweed plant has a few weird characteristics. When the plant is young and green, if you break off a stem, a sticky, white sap oozes out. It looks much like milk, thus the name. As far as I know, only the larvae of the Monarch butterfly eats the milkweed. When the plant matures and ripens, big seed pods develop. They are 3"-4" long, and about 1" in diameter. As these pods mature, little silken fuzzy things pop out and float away on the breeze. That's kapok. It was used in life jackets for flotation at sea.
Well, the fields near my house had a lot of milkweed, particularly around the edges. And, back by the pond, it was thicker than fleas on a dog's back. In under my belt, I'd stick a couple of mesh bags, and head out when I got home from school. I'd take several bags of kapok a week to school, and hang them on the fence to be collected. Only a few of us boys were bringing it in. It felt very good to be contributing directly to saving lives in a war far away. We couldn't make silk parachutes, but we could contribute to kapok for making life savers.
In the SW'ly corner of the school grounds, was a large, maple tree. In fact, that tree still stands there today. In the shade of that maple, was a large, iron merry-go-round. It was at least 12'-14' in diameter. Though there were bench-type seats all the way around, there were only four stations where you could sit and pump the thing around and around. Each station was wide enough so that two kids could pump. Rods were connected from each pumping bar to a round bell-crank in the center. Today, that merry-go-round wouldn't be legal. It had too many exposed mechanical parts. But, I don't remember anyone ever getting hurt on it. We figured that anyone dumb enough to get a finger caught in the mechanism deserved to get hurt. Frankly, I still believe it. As the Duke said, " Life's tough. When you're stupid it's tougher."
There was a certain bluejay that lived near the school grounds. Somebody had named it "Ike". On warm, spring days, Mrs. McKinley would open up those tall windows and let in the breeze. We kids really appreciated that fresh air. One day Mrs. McKinley was at the blackboard, writing something about Dick, Jane, Baby, and their dog Spot. With her back to the class, she didn't see Ike fly in the open window, light on her desk, and pick up one of the brand new Ticonderoga wooden pencils there. During the war, new pencils were rare, and prized. Ike flew right back out with that pencil.
When she turned around to face the class, she immediately noticed that a pencil was missing. She asked, rather sharply for her, "Where is the pencil? WHO took it?" Silence, nobody spoke. Insistently, she repeated her question. No response. Again she asked, getting irritated by now. It took us kids a few minutes, and everybody saying the same thing, to convince her that no one had taken the pencil. That Ike was the culprit. Finally, she believed us. Finally.
The absolute best feature of that school building was the fire escape. It was, without question, the world's best fire escape. All other fire escapes that I've seen since are dangerous, or sinister, or difficult to use, or all three. This one was none of that - it was pure FUN. It was attached to the second floor, at the rear of the building. Ground level there was one floor lower than at the front of the school. Lower ground level plus those tall ceilings made it at 35-40 feet vertical height above ground.
The fire escape itself was a large tube. Little, short doors opened out of the second floor schoolroom, directly into that lonnnnnnng tube. Imagine a playground slide that - instead of being only 8' high - is 40 feet high!! As Crocodile Dundee would have said, "Now THAT'S a slide!!" And, if you saved a piece of waxed paper from your lunch box, and sat on that, you went down the tube even faster!
At the long, lunch hour recess, we'd try to quietly, sneakily climb up the inside of that long, sloping tube. You had to do it when the playground monitor wasn't looking, and quietly so the teacher who was posted by those short doors didn't hear you. Wearing tennis shoes was a necessity both for silence and traction. Then, carefully turning around, holding on to your position, carefully positioning that waxed paper so the mustard or mayonnaise side didn't get onto your pants, sitting down onto it before it got away and fluttered uselessly down ahead of you, then let go and gain speed!
Nobody ever walked across past the opening down there. When you shot out of the tube at the bottom, you were doing more than 15-20 miles per hour. And landed on your butt wayyyy out there. WHOOOOOOHEEEE!!!!
It was nearly 20 years later, on my honeymoon, before I found something more fun than that magnificent fire escape.