CATEGORY: EARLY CHILDHOOD
PHOTO: OLD SILVIES SCHOOL HOUSE
As the Depression got worse, our father moved to smaller and smaller schools. The last of these was a one room school at Silvies, a tiny town in a wondrously broad, startlingly green valley high in the mountains between Burns and John Day. Because there were so few students, my sister, Mary, who was five years old, was allowed to enter the first grade. The school was two or three miles from our house. On school days, first my father left for school, walking. Then closer to school time, Mary and Gracie got on our two horses, Biddy and Penny , and rode off into the unknown down our road. Biddy was a big horse: almost too big for Gracie to get her legs around. She looked like a little round bunny sitting on a log. Even though Mary’s horse was smaller, she was smaller too and looked about the same. They looked like round bunnies because they were so bundled up with warm clothing. At school, it was Gracie’s job to take care of the horses in the barn behind the school house. She made sure our two horses, and the horses of the other students who rode horseback to school, had hay and water. Mary learned to read so fast it makes me wonder if she had a printing press hidden in her brain. Soon she was reading stories to me and teaching me letters. Still, even though she was a big school girl now, we seemed to have plenty of time to play when she was home.
I have vivid memories of the year we lived in Silvies when I was four years old.
–The look and the feel of the place we lived. As always, I had a good sense of where things were in relation to myself. The house was made of logs. It had a door in the middle. When you went in the front door the entry into the kitchen was immediately to the left and the cook stove was just to the right of that with its back toward the wall. A big gunny sack full of jerky hung in the generous space behind the stove. The jerky was made from deer venison and it was free for the taking any time we wanted some. Deer jerky was to us what candy is to today’s children. To the left of the house was an outdoor toilet. It was positioned right in the front yard for the convenience of anyone approaching the house. At the right end of the house was a garden with a fence around it that attached to the house on two corners. The fence was to keep out rabbits and deer. There was a creek behind the house with a log bridge across it that led to a log barn. There were big pine trees all around the house and the barn, and there were willow trees along the creek.
–Cooking my first real food on the wood cook stove with my mother’s help. It was whole grain cereal. First you dip some water from the water crock and pour it into a small pan. Then you add some salt. When the water boils you add the cereal, stir it in, and let it cook for awhile. Then you put it in a bowl, stir in some butter and eat it.
–The black spot on the ground beside our log house that I thought was a little spot of muddy water that kept drying up and re-appearing. One evening we were all sitting outside by the door. Mother had brought chairs from the house. For some unknown reason we were all being very still and watching the place where the mud spot had been. Then a bird flew down and suddenly the spot was there. Mother whispered to me that it was a whip-poor-will and that the little hollow in the ground was its nest. Whip-poor-wills don’t build a nest. They lay their eggs in a hollow in the ground. They are birds with faith!
–The time our father caught a porcupine. We had all gone for a walk down the other side of the creek when our father saw a porcupine up a tree. He went home and came back with a fish net on the end of a long bamboo pole. Using the pole, he somehow prodded the porcupine out of the tree and herded it home under the net. Then he put it in a rabbit hutch where Mary and I used it as a source of needles for “tick shots.” We would open the door, and the porcupine would put its nose in a corner and thrash its tail. We would hold a stick near its tail so that quills from its lightening fast tail swipes would get stuck in the wood. We used these as needles when we pretended we were going to the doctor.
–The weird noises that we heard after dark that came from the vicinity of the garden. Mary and I were spooked by these noises. Later Gracie told me that they were the sounds of porcupines mating. How could porcupines possibly get close enough to each other to mate?!!! The noise we heard was probably them screaming, “OUCH, OUCH, OUCH”!
–The well with a water snake in it. The well was in a tiny house, surprisingly close to the toilet, and you could go in and look way down into the dark water. The snake was a garter snake; it lived in the well house and sometimes it was in the water and sometimes it was on the floor. And sometimes it went walk-about and moved INTO THE TOILET! Garter snakes are harmless. We learned not to be afraid of ours, but after the first time of finding it in the toilet, I was a little apprehensive, imagining it slithering over my bare behind.
–Our play place down by the creek, where the willows formed interesting spaces and where there was a lot of green grass growing. Mary and I had a play house for us and a play barn, formed by circular clumps of willow, for our stick horses. Once our daddy came there and, without saying a word, cut us each a stick horse that was like no other stick horse we had ever had. It had reigns and a head! He did this by choosing a willow branch with two side branches that were on opposite sides of the main stick and fairly close together. He cut the horse off the tree at the base of the bottom side branch. He shortened that side branch to about 3 inches. That was the head. Then he cut the other side branch to about a foot. That was the reigns.
–Funnybug Prairie. There really is a place called Funnybug Prarie. We went there on horseback: Mary behind Daddy and I behind Mother. It was a beautiful flat green meadow with forest around the edge and hills in the distance. There was a watering trough hewed from a log just where the meadow met the trees.
Water from a spring ran through a pipe into the trough. There were many half-wild cows on the meadow and around the trough. We saw two black bulls fighting. It was the only time I have ever seen bulls fighting. They tore up the dirt with their hooves making thick clouds of dust. They bellowed and butted heads like two trains colliding. Or so it seems: at that time I had never seen a train.
–Falling off Biddy, our big, tame horse. There was no saddle. Mary and I were on the horse bare-back. Mary was in front and I in back with my arms around her. The horse didn’t move, but suddenly, with my arms still around Mary, we both fell off, just like the Katzenjammer Kids in the funny papers. It was a long way to the ground.
–A family consisting of a man and his wife and five children who came to our house in an old car. The father went away on foot with our father. My mother later told me that these people were refugees from the Dust Bowl. They had no money and were totally out of food. Someone directed them to us: someone who knew our father and knew he was a good and stealthy hunter. During the Depression many people were living on illegal deer. My father shot a deer for this man, and when they walked up to it together, the man fell over the dead deer weeping.
–The day that we left there and my mother saying that our house was now part of a cattle range. As we were leaving we saw the cattle coming over a distant hill like a red tide, just the way we later saw Indians in the movies appearing across the length of a hilltop. Often, during my life, I have had very vivid dreams. Like the horse sitting in the child’s wagon, I later wondered if this was a dream.