Friday, August 2, 2013



I have threatened to write this many times, maybe I have actually done so and published it on the blog, but you know that I am going to repeat stories, so quit while you can.

More characters, these from my early years, in keeping with my original intent of this blog--to tell stories that may be of interest to some, particularly my kids and grandkids, niece and nephew and their kids.

Sort of a departure from posting about world/national/current events about which I typically have no real knowledge, just opinions with limited validity. If you thought some of the other stuff was a collection of random thoughts, get a load of this.


The smells of our neighborhood when I was growing up were so vivid and so different than what we experience in ordinary suburban living or the farms that are located there now. Every farm had a unique smell to it, and you could tell if it was dairy, sheep or hogs. Horses had their own smell. Silage. The thing that was the same--the smells were strong. Most of those odors had to do with livestock, something that is much reduced today.

When we were at the farm a few years ago, our golden retriever wandered off to find whatever, came back with the happiest look on his face, tongue lolling out of the side of his mouth, so proud of his latest adventure. He had found the rotting carcass of a raccoon and was covered in slime, maggots and stench. When we got him cleaned up and would not allow him to revisit the carcass, the disappointment was evident, whites of the eyes, droopy countenance. Not something you find every day in the city. So, another smell added to the mix, not a problem but a feature.


When it rained, all the smells took on an even greater amplitude, if that is a correct way to describe a high stink. A rainy day was also the time to exact a punishment. Unlike today's youngsters that have their cell phones taken away or a privilege denied, "grounded," our felonies and misdemeanors were paid for with unpleasant tasks. Now there were lots of unpleasant tasks on the farm, some of them pretty dangerous, like stacking hay bales in a barn loft with temperatures that were hot, hot, hot and no ventilation, but those were just part of the job, not a punishment.

The "sentences" were meted out on rainy days--for the minor offenses, fixing fence. A bit more serious, muck out the barns. For a major offense, clean the chicken house. That ammonia would gag you no matter how accustomed you were to barnyard smells.

Again, due to the reduction of livestock, the proliferation of X-boxes and cell phones, I doubt if those tasks and punishments remain.


Which brings me to a farm that sort of exemplified the old-timey place, that of Pud and Gladdy. Pud was actually Elmer, but everyone from that generation had a nickname--Doogie, Shorty, Buck, Polie, Swede, Shotty (not Scotty), Flick, Babe, Ole, Axle, Corky, Toots, Buzz, Fuzz, Rock--and Pud rhymes with "good" not "thud." Some said he earned that moniker because his face looked like a catcher's mitt, a "pud," because it was round, soft and damaged by too much alcohol. More likely, it was a contraction of "Puddin'". That puffy face was always wreathed in cigarette smoke and his fingers, I remember, were a fetching shade of nicotine yellow, like Harry "Speed" Burrows, Teeny's husband, as they both cupped the smoke sort of underhanded so the whole fist was bathed in it. Speed, by the way, was an ironic nickname as he was one of the slowest mammals I ever saw.

Interesting character, Pud, as he is the only person I ever knew who took down telephone lines with a car--airborne, without hitting a pole. Seems he was a bit "under the weather" from spending too much time in the bars, not an unusual thing for Pud, and on the way home, he drove off the highway near Gussy Johnson's at a high rate of speed, hit one of the driveways like a ramp, and lofted into the air high enough to catch the telephone lines. Came down in a field, banged the car up quite a bit and walked away. You know, "drunks and fools."

Gladdy was Gladys, and she was a friend to every kid in the wide neighborhood. She had another nickname, too, but I have forgotten it or it was not commonly used by people I knew. Generous to a fault, and always ready to laugh. She worked nights at the nursing home and it seemed as though she never slept. But the house...that was all a part of the experience. That house was, apropos to almost nothing, where I discovered and borrowed the first "real" book I ever read, when I was in the seventh grade--Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls.


A lot of the farms were subsistence farms, not the business farms you see today. They had chickens, a few hawgs, a few cows and a horse or two. Lives were a lot different, too, and I'll never forget rolling into one of those farms when I was just out of high school and working during the summer applying fertilizer and asking to use the phone. She allowed me to come in and do so, and I noticed that she immediately sat down, did not look well and had a nasty red injury spread all over her swollen leg. I said it looked bad, had she seen a doctor, and "No," that wouldn't be necessary. No running to the E-room for those folks, you doctored things yourself. I have no way of substantiating this, but I heard that she was eventually institutionalized with severe mental problems and her husband, who everyone knew had a problem "borrowing" things, like cattle and hogs, spent some time in prison.

On the other end of the spectrum from this sticky-fingers guy was a farmer "south of the river" who returned my brother's log chain six years after Dick had lost it while doing some work on the man's farm. Sought him out, brought it back. It was a miracle that he found it after all that time, those fields are BIG and the farming practices cover stuff up. I am pretty sure the man's name was Cuba which is pronounced sort of like zoo' baw, not like the island country.

Back to Pud and Gladdy's house. Their dairy operation was completely different from ours. We had stainless steel throughout, were inspected all the time and sold fresh milk from 50 to 60 cows to the dairy in Omaha. They, like many farmers, had a couple of cows, milked by hand into open buckets, separated the milk and fed the skim milk to the hawgs. Think of that last item--I have seen recent information that when humans consume skim milk they gain more weight than when they consume whole milk, and the whole business of trying to convert us to consumption of vegetable fats is part of the obesity epidemic in the US. The hogs thrived on the skim milk, gained weight and did so through the experience of farmers and without the benefit of a university study. Go figure.


Most of the places had a "milk house" where the milk was poured into a separator, a centrifuge device that spun out the watery, blue skim milk and diverted the cream into another container. Cleanliness was often sketchy, admittedly difficult because there were a lot of parts to the separator, holes, nooks, crannies and milk is notorious for hiding and attaching to the metal. When it does, and is not thoroughly cleaned with the help of chlorine bleach, it stinks. Sour milk. And Pud and Gladdy separated in the basement of the house where the cement floor was infused with milk creating a foundation scent throughout the house, eau de spoiled milk. Plus, they both smoked. A lot. Add another olfactory dimension. And every house that I recall back then had the smell of the outdoors and the livestock, the boots with barnyard residue, silage and such. Stored in the house.

Their house had a secret weapon in regard to the smells, though. It was well-ventilated. My mother remarked that you could "Throw the cat out in any direction," and my dad complained that it was so drafty on a cold winter night with the north wind howling that, "You couldn't light a cigarette with a kitchen match."

Hygiene was so much different then, and not just for individual farmsteads, like ours that had a basement with a dirt floor. For example, the towns had open dumps and burned the garbage. The St. Ed and Genoa dumps were situated along the creek so that when it flooded, the garbage floated down the river. Not until after my childhood were sewage disposal facilities common, you otherwise dumped raw sewage into the ground or into the rivers. Likewise with animal waste. Different time, but we improved our rifle marksmanship by shooting rats at the St. Ed dump.


It has been years since I have seen a chicken wandering about in rural Nebraska, and when I think of what "free range" chickens ate on the farm, I'll excuse myself from dining on them. Dead stuff, bugs, and the best smorgasbord, the grain left over in the droppings of cattle. They were often on the roads picking up gravel, needed in their gizzards to grind up food, and yes, there were always a few dead ones alongside the road.


Silage was often the finishing fragrance, topping off the winter smells in a home. Cut and stored in the late summer for use during the winter, silage is the fermented product of chopped up corn stalks, corn kernels, leaves and all. Fodder, sometimes other crops than corn, but nevertheless a hearty feed for the cattle because it had both good protein and the roughage that ruminants need. Like anything that is fermented (think sour kraut or Korean kimchi with no garlic), it had a strong, pungent odor that infiltrated your clothing and hung in the house.

Nothing like the smell of a feedlot on a hot summer afternoon right after a rain. Or flood water. I could keep going, the olfactory memories are quite clear.


Pud and Gladdy were all about fun. They lived a very spare existence, but they had lots of friends, all the young people used their place as a refuge and a gathering spot, and they just knew how to enjoy life. My parents, on the other hand, were much more serious, not completely austere, but the priorities were certainly different. One might say they avoided the frivolous; good Lutherans. So an afternoon or evening of fun at Pud and Gladdy's, swinging on a tire swing and reading comic books, was always a treat, and when it was the Fourth, especially so.

I was about seven, I had just had a birthday, and we spent the Fourth at their house. First time, maybe only time, I had a firecracker go off in my hand--fortunately a ladyfinger, so I was just burned, not picking up pieces of fingers. The big guys were there, their oldest son, Bill and his buddies with big firecrackers when cherry bombs and silver salutes that seem to me to be partial sticks of dynamite were available. Lots of noise and excitement...and motorcycles.


The idea that my parents let me get on a motorcycle with Phil Maurer (who was chosen because he was the least inebriated of the group) is still a mystery to me, but we took off for my first ride on a motorcycle. That house was on the highway, we went north a mile or so to the top of a hill, got a good run at it, and by the time we went past the house, Phil boasted to his friends that we were "...doin' over a hunnert." The old Harley caught fire when we got back, somebody threw beer on it and extinguished the fire, only to be criticized for wasting beer. "Why didn't you pee on it!"


Some time ago, that house was torn down, replaced with a nice modern raised ranch. Pud died a difficult death from emphysema, struggling to get a breath. I can still see him hunched over the kitchen table, smoking with that raised-shoulder posture of the victim of breathing disorders, cupped hand. Of course, I was smoking with him, evidently inviting a "chronic obstructive pulmonary disease," but I quit long ago.


I was in high school, it was spring, and he needed to get ready for planting, so he hired me to do some plowing. The tractor was a "tractor-fuel M" which was a Farmall Model M that burned something called tractor fuel--not gasoline and not kerosene, and I don't know exactly what it was. (I just now looked it up, and it is interesting, a non-taxed, parafin-based fuel with a low octane rating). But it was a weak sister, that's for sure. I would sit there in the cold and wind, hour after hour, evening after evening, weekend day after weekend day, performing a task that is not even done today. When I last did real field work, with today's machinery, it was done with a hydraulically-operated disc in just a few hours in the comfort of a cab with air conditioning and a radio.

The plow was a "3-14," three "bottoms" or plowshares and moldboards, each with a 14" cut. Round and round we went, it had a mechanical trip mechanism instead of hydraulic controls. Wow, that was a long time ago.


Those kinds of farming practices are long past. I survived motorcycles and fire crackers along with the strong smells that are such a part of my memories and, to this day, seem to imbue me with a greater tolerance for earthy fragrances than most people.

Pud and Gladdy, in fact, the whole neighborhood, provided me with something that doesn't seem to be as common today as then--respect from another generation. I was treated as a valued "employee" and a friend rather than shuffled off to sit in front of a TV. When kids were young, they ran the stacker tractor. When laying out pipe, they pulled the wagon while the men laid the pipe. When a crew was shelling, they did what they could. There were always jobs, important jobs, to be done that matched up with your ability at that age. You were part of the crew.

That, actually, is one of the abiding influences on my life, that feeling of being accepted and useful, a part of the family, the neighborhood and doing my job. May be why retirement is just not something I want to do, some of that would be lost.

See, I told you to stop reading!!

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