My favorite memory about Mom was exploring outdoors. She was adventuresome about exploring hidden areas around our farm. I loved to follow rivulets of running water in search of creatures and she induldged me. We enjoyed visiting the creek, poking around the bank to see what the rains and high waters had left behind.
Mom’s craft projects often were kid-sized – from constructing papier-mache` objects to creating a child-kitchen from orange crates and bread tins. Such projects usually required messy gluing, taping, and painting, but Mom didn’t seem to mind the messiness.
Mother also taught kindness. She would not permit hunting or harming creatures found on our farm. We were not allowed to shoot birds, throw apples at chickens, nor chase animals with dogs, bicycles, nor motor vehicles. I admit some these things were done in disobedience, but they were not allowed.
Mom had a habit of reading at bedtime. She read many books both in the rocker and at my bedside. After reading, she always said a bedtime prayer, “Bless my boy tonight and keep him safe till morning light within thine arms of love, Amen.”
When I was five or six, I loved to ride the tractor with Dad, especially when working the soil. I would run down the lane from the school bus, change my clothes and wait in the field for Dad to come around. Most of the farming was done with the red Farmall Model M, which Dad bought new in 1948. The Farmall had no fenders, so I sat on Dad’s lap while riding with him. He would let me steer the tractor while we were on a straight line across the field. I was proud of my ability to “drive” the tractor straight and true, although making turns would need to wait until my arms were stronger as power-steering was not yet invented.
Dad was doing quite a lot of reseeding in those years — plowing, disking, rolling, floating and seeding. These tasks were usually done in the spring when the soil was moist and dust was minimal. The air smelled of fresh moist dirt, and the open air felt good on my face.
Driving tractor with Dad also introduced me to the male mode. The weather wasn’t always balmy and pleasant and the ground was not always smooth and easy. Tractor drivers were expected withstand sudden rains, cold winds, rugged fields, and natural obstacles to farming, without stopping or complaining. I learned how to be stoic without ever hearing the word.
Later, at eight or nine, I was considered old enough to drive a tractor by myself, but I still enjoyed riding with Dad. By that time we had an Oliver Model 77, and I would sit beside Dad on the fender just to enjoy his silent companionship going round and round in the field. I learned about operating farm machinery easily because it fascinated me. Dad trusted me, even when he probably shouldn’t have. I was disappointed that he rarely complimented my skills, but Mother reported compliments he had stated to neighbors, and that helped.
I appreciated Dad’s attempts to teach me useful skills in his shop as well.
When I was about twelve, go-kart racing was all the rage in Roseburg and I dreamed of being a go-kart racer. Dad suggested we could build a go-kart as a learning experience and I liked the idea of building it together.
We started with four wheels, clutch, sprocket, and drive-chain from Sears-Roebuck. We borrowed a gasoline engine from a hap-hazard and worn-out lawn mower. We fashioned a frame from angle-iron bed rails and created axles from round stock. Bicycle handlebars were added for steering, and various parts as required were formed from Dad’s metal scrap pile. Too young for welding, I was able to help with filing, shaping, bending, drilling and painting.
The worst part of our project was that we worked after dark in a farm shop building that was uncomfortably cold. This cut our work time short and the project seemed to drag-on all winter.
The finished go-kart was fun. It could be driven on gravel lanes and fields at speeds of about 10 to 15 miles per hour. I thought it was underpowered, but lobbying for a more powerful engine failed. Dad apparently thought it was fast enough to keep young drivers out of trouble and had no interest in pushing the envelope.
The little go-kart lasted for several years and even my little sister Annie enjoyed practicing driving skills, after I had left for college.
Which were your favorite pets, and what made them special?
Border collies were my favorite animal. They are loyal, affectionate dogs, usually restrained and safe around children. We mostly had one dog at a time. I appreciated our dogs because they liked to follow along on our outdoor adventures, which generally took us through the fields toward the Calapooya Creek. Our dog would be nearby investigating smells and small creatures — things that interest dogs.
Border collies are differentiated from most other breeds because of their insatiable herding instinct. In my early childhood, we had sheep on our farm, and the border collies helped round them up. We also had free-range chickens around our house. When our dog was not needed in the field, we could find him intently watching chickens, trying to work out how to herd them into a chicken corral. The hen house out back had been torn down when I was little, and there was no proper place to corral the chickens. Amazing the chickens survived from predators with their free-range life style.
I adopted a border collie — not sure she was intended as a gift for me. I named her Sydney, after that city in Australia. Sydney had developed the habit of chasing passing hay trucks and nipping at the wheels. One busy afternoon Sydney was run over and badly injured by the hay truck I was driving. Mom and I used a large piece of cardboard to load her into the back seat of our car for the trip to the vet in Roseburg. Mom drove the dog to the vet; a one-way trip, since Sydney was suffering from several broken bones. I still feel guilty that I didn’t slow down and swing wide to avoid harming the dog, and that I didn’t stop hay hauling and ride with Mom to the animal hospital.
When you were a kid, what was your favorite holiday and how did your family celebrate it?
We owned a hill with fir trees and we often attempted to cut a Christmas tree from our own land. Our hill land was called the Moore Place, because it belonged to the Moore family when my father purchased it. Most of the fir trees on the Moore Place were more than 50 feet tall. We sometimes had to walk and look for a hours in hopes of finding a small bushy tree that would look good in our living room. Most of the small trees on our hill were spindly and sparse. When my Dad went along, he could usually remember where to find bushy trees.
We decorated our tree with lights, colored balls, fake icicles and foil garlands. We had one string of lights shaped like candles, but filled with liquid that bubbled when heated. Gradually the bubble lights failed, one by one and we gravitated to the ordinary colored incandescent lights. I remember ruining one Christmas tree by attempting to flock it with white flour. White flour doesn’t look anything like snow when strewn over tree boughs.
Our family celebrated gift exchange on Christmas day. The day began with early-rising children tip-toeing to the front room to see what Santa had left. We soon learned that Santa wasn’t real, but played along with the fantasy because it was more fun that way. One Christmas, Santa left a rather noisy electric train with a whistle. It wasn’t long before Dad was hollering at us from the bedroom to go back to bed.
We never had any guests at Christmas because our relatives all lived in faraway places like Kansas and Colorado. We did not mind because we enjoyed being together for our gift exchange and a special turkey or ham dinner with mashed potatoes and vegetables. Mother was a good cook, who could create a dinner and a dessert that all of us would enjoy.
We were a Christian family and stories about Jesus were part of our Christmas tradition. Dad would read from scripture to remind us of the religious basis for Christmas. As children, we understood the story of the birth of Jesus in a literal way.
What kind of house did you grow up in, and what was the old neighborhood like?
After Mom and Dad were married at Fountain, Colorado and honeymooned at Yellowstone, they drove directly to Oregon to look for a new home. Driving south on Highway 99 from Portland, they were chagrined by high farm prices. Continuing south they passed Eugene and soon arrived in Douglas County, where farms were affordable. Fall colors, trees and hills added to the allure of the farms. A ranch was soon purchased in Calapooya Valley, and my parents returned to Kansas to retrieve their possessions.
Pearl Brandner (the mother-in-law) accompanied the newlyweds on the return trip to Oregon. When they arrived, Dad remembers Pearl’s words as: “Looks like you bought yourself a shack in a mud hole.”
The house on the farm was a “cottage” or “tar-paper shack” with electricity and running water for the sink and shower. Toileting required a trip to the outhouse. At age three, I remember being led to the outhouse after dark, terrified of dangers lurking in the darkness.
Dad began construction of a three-bedroom California Style Ranch house in about 1949. He hired local helpers to speed the work. By about 1951 we moved into an unfinished new home with modern indoor plumbing, a kitchen with a window over the sink, a large living room heated by a wood fireplace. Picture windows facing Tyee Mountain provided a constant reminder that we live in Oregon, far from the high plains of Kansas. For this Mother was very grateful — no more winds, tumbleweeds, dust storms and drought!
Our ranch was bounded on the South by Calapooya Creek, a 40-mile long tributary of the Umpqua River. The ranch house was built in the flood plain. Despite a lack of experience with flood plains, Dad listened carefully to the old-timers who said it would be foolhardy to build the new ranch house on grade in the flood plain. So he scooped and trucked many loads of gravel from the creek to raise a level building site for the ranch house. In years to come, our house would become a small island in a sea of muddy flood waters many times, but water never rose above the third step on our front steps. In several of the larger floods we climbed aboard Dad’s tractor to ford the floodwaters to meet the school bus.
Our immediate neighborhood was halfway between Sutherlin and Umpqua off Fort McKay Road. The connecting gravel road was rerouted and paved to support the timber haulers in the early 1950s. Road builders bypassed our gravel lane with a sweeping curve. Thus our parents were spared from worry and we children were free to walk or bike our gravel road between neighboring houses with impunity.
Monetts, our next door neighbors, were a quarter mile away to the left of our red barn. Wilsons were just past Monetts, but of little interest to us because they were older and had no young children.
Monetts were a blessing for us; Susan was my age, and David was Glen’s age, so that two of us could have a best friend living next door. Pictured below, we are enjoying Sandy’s birthday at Monett’s yard with their Wattman cousins.
You might notice some personality quirks that are evident in the photo. Glen is holding a toy rifle, betraying his life-long fascination with guns and hunting. David is wearing a Davy Crockett hat as Disney made Crockett the hero of popular media in the fifties. Kathy was sticking close to a Wattman sister betraying her childhood shyness. I am wearing a cowboy shirt, sewn for me my beloved Grandmother Crouch, a favorite shirt in my early grade school years. Sandy and Susan are normal cheerful girls with good hair and nice smiles. Sandy is the leader of our group, because of her age and her assertive manner.
After-school and summer activities in our neighborhood avoided ball sports in favor of exploration and adventure. After we reached first-grade age, our parents seemed not to worry about our play, and we roamed the fields, hills, trees and the creek-side. There were a couple of swimming holes in the creek and one of the parents would accompany us to supervise our swimming.
We would often push our bikes high on the hill, and coast downhill through the bumpy field with wild abandon. We would sometimes get the giggles and lose our ability to brake and steer. It’s a wonder that no bones were broken on our rapid bike descents and occasional crashes.