Truman and Me (part 4) by Julian Martin

(Editor’s note: Biology. Physics. Chemistry. — farm style.  Very boyhood, intense, funny, and gross.  The image of Grandma with the fightin’ groundhog is absolutely classic.  You can’t make this stuff up.)

Fall butchering was a Druid carnival. The bladder from the hog was cut loose and thrown to Truman and me. We put a hollow stick in the urethra, blew the bladder up like a balloon, and tied it off. We kicked it all over the hillside pasture, fell down, got up laughing and ran after our “pigskin.”

We rode the snow down the hill behind the house on sleds that were old pieces of metal roofing. One summer we camped out in a shelter we built of boxes holding up that metal roofing. A pregnant cat crawled in with us and aborted her kittens in slimy looking bags—we were stunned and ignorant of what was happening.

The bottom land was, in addition to being our camping and recreation area, a cow and horse pasture where we invented the game of Frisbee. Cows’ semi-liquid poops dried hard in thin disc shapes and were perfect for tossing.

We learned to swim in the Big Coal River, which winds along the edge of our farm. Grandma, who couldn’t swim, was our life guard. Truman yelled, “Did you hear that?” He was knocking two pieces of coal together under the water. No, I didn’t hear it. “Go under and listen.” It was magical! The loud knocking noise seemed to be inside my ears.

Our physics lesson continued on the railroad track — we put our ears against the rail and listened to an approaching train before we could hear it through the air. As the train approached we put pennies on the track and got them back thin and flattened. We noticed that in cold weather the spaces between the rails were much farther apart than in the hot sun of summer when they almost touched. A few years later science teachers taught me what I had already learned by experiment, that sound waves travel faster in liquids than in gases, and still faster in solids, and that metals expand on heating and contract when cold.

Aw, Grandma. I see her herding and milking the cows, churning the milk into butter and stirring hot, thick, satin brown apple butter in a large copper pot over a wood fire. She stirred the apple butter with a long-handled wood paddle with holes to allow the liquid to pass through. To pick berries, she dressed up in a garb that covered every part of her body. Her face barely peeked out of an Arab looking head wrap through a swarm of gnats trying to get at her blood. Picking berries was slow, hot and miserable for me, but Grandma could go all morning, picking two water buckets full of berries without giving in to the heat and bugs.

On one of our berry picking forays up Thomas Branch, the dogs treed a groundhog.

Grandma picked up a piece of wood and knocked the groundhog from the limb it was clinging to. Thinking it was dead, she picked it up by the tail and we started toward home. The animal wasn’t dead! It was “playing possum.” The dogs barked at it but stayed a safe distance from the snarling, vicious growl. I was looking eyeball-to-eyeball at an animal that had every survival alarm turned on, ready to fight for its very life.

Grandma didn’t pay any attention to the life and death noises as she carried the groundhog to the house where she finished clubbing it to death, skinned and gutted it, and cooked it for dinner.

Truman and Me (part 3) by Julian Martin

The kitchen and dining room at the farm were closed off from the rest of the house for winter living. Heat came from an open-grate coal fire in the dining room and from a wood burning cook stove in the kitchen. Charlie and his brother, great-Uncle Kin, dug coal from an outcropping up Thomas Branch holler (that’s what I still call a hollow) to fuel the dining room fire.

In cold months Truman and I bathed in a galvanized wash tub sitting near the kitchen cook stove. In warm weather we washed in Big Coal River.

On winter evenings, we enjoyed the voice of Uncle Kin singing hymns as he rocked in the warmth of the dining room fireplace — Bringing in the Sheaves and When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder were my favorites.

There was no overnight heat in the farmhouse. Electric lines had not reached our area of Big Coal River. At bedtime, Charlie, Uncle Kin, or Grandma “banked” the dining room fire with ashes to keep air away from the coals. In the morning it was easy to rekindle a fire with hot embers in the grate. Grandma told me that Isaac and Spicy Barker, our progenitors and the first Barkers in Boone County, kept a stump burning in the summer to have a source for starting a fire in the cook stove.

As the fire was being banked and by the light of a kerosene lantern, Truman and I hurried out of the two heated rooms, across the cold living room floor, past the white enameled slop jar and upstairs to bed. If we had to pee or “goo-goo” at night it was either outside to the toilet or the slop jar under the stairs. I can still smell that foul thing. In the outside toilet, Sears Roebuck catalogs provided the necessary finishing touches.

On cold winter nights, Truman and I shared a feather tick under a mountain of homemade quilts. It was deliciously scary when the wind banged the big sycamore tree limbs against the house. Ghosts and strange creatures lurked in the “boar’s nest” — a dark, mysterious, and cluttered storeroom of dusty pictures, old clothes, trunks, broken furniture and a coat tree with a hat on top. Flashes of lightening or a full moon turned the coat tree into a creature looking in at us huddled close together under our quilts.

From late spring through early fall mornings after Grandma milked the cows, Truman and I herded those cows up Thomas Branch to graze for the day. Uncle Kin leased that holler for a dollar a month from ARMCO Steel. As we followed the cows, we chewed on birch bark, threw rocks in the creek, ate blackberries, and watched snake doctors (AKA, dragonflies) glide over still pools of water.

At the end of the day we found the hurting-to-be-milked cows waiting for us at the holler gate.

We carried drinking water by the bucketfull to the house from a dug well down the hill near the collapsing remains of the first house built on the farm. Water for other uses was caught in barrels from roof downspouts. By August, it was so dry that Charlie hooked up horses Frank and Barney to a sled with empty fifty gallon water barrels aboard. Besides “gee” and “haw,” Frank and Barney seemed to understand the meaning of “get up there,” “whoa” and “easy there.”

Truman and I rode the horses as they dragged the sled and empty barrels on the road to a ford in the river where Charlie poured buckets of water into the barrels. Going back with one hundred gallons of water was not easy for the horses — their veins bulged as they pulled the heavy water on the uphill grades.

To reduce the load on the horses, Truman and I walked on the way back.