LIFE ON THE FARM
PART 2- NEIGHBORS

Not long after moving to the shack on Renold Morris’ farm, I learned that every one of my neighbors had a television.  Renold himself had one, but living with him was his divorced sister, Florence Shaw, and her two daughters.  Fay was only 19 months older than me and her sister, Alberta was about 5 years older than me.  Had Renold lived by himself, I probably could have watched his TV from time to time, but, with two teenage girls in the house, their mother wouldn’t have stood for it. She would have thought I had intentions toward the girls.  Oh, Dad and I did get invited over a few times for homemade ice cream but that was the extent of our interaction.

Next in line headed westward on Grassy Pond Road was the home of Russell Kitchen where Dad had taken the call from California.  Russ lived in the house with his second wife, Freda, but he also had a rather large garage and above it was an apartment.  In it resided Roberta “Bobby” Clemow, widow of a pastor, and her 3 children, all of whom were considerably younger than I.  From time to time, she’d pay me a dollar or two to watch them while she had an evening out but, truth to tell, I would have done it for free just to watch her TV.  All five of us watched many shows together when she was home.  We’d “Sing Along With Mitch” (Miller) and also enjoy the ubiquitous westerns like “Cheyenne”, “Wyatt Earp”, “Wagon Train”, and “Have Gun - Will Travel”.  The kids were well-mannered young’uns who gave me, the babysitter, no problems at all.  The eldest, Paul, was a noted somnambulist and he’d head off to bed, only to later head for the bathroom, still fast asleep.  I devised a test.  I’d tell him “Watch out, Paul!  You’re gonna walk right into that table!”  Undeterred, he’d march straight ahead and we’d giggle mightily at his bloodshot eyes as he passed.  Connie was the middle child and quite pretty with freckles.  Bart, the youngest, was a noted thumb-sucker.  Bobby also introduced me to what became my favorite homemade cake; chocolate or cocoa with peanut butter icing.  Eventually, she married Dennis Mahoney and moved away.  Bobby died in September, 2007, but Dennis’ mother, Elsie, still bakes those cakes for me and will, in fact, give me another one in exchange for a copy of this story.

After Bobby moved away, I started spending some time at Russ Kitchen’s house watching his TV and more time even farther over the road at the George Gross household watching his.  The time with Russ and his wife, Freda, however, didn’t last all that long.  Although they didn’t directly say that the TV-watching came with a cost, it was well understood that I was to accompany them back to the Mooretown church I had attended as a child.  It didn’t take me long to realize that the church had changed.  It was now a Pentecostal church, which most outsiders know to be one of “Holy Rollers”.  While I never did see any rolling on the floor, they were a quite-strange lot who insisted on calling each other “Brother” or “Sister”.  I sometimes attended there with Bobby and her kids.  I think her husband had been the pastor there but she never bugged me as much about religion as did Russ and Freda.   The current pastor was a fellow named Schell. His fat brother, who was, more or less the “youth minister”, had weekly bible study and prayer up in Bobby’s apartment.  I went to those, too, but, eventually, I began to question this whole “religion” thing.  It started to make no sense whatsoever to me that there was this big being up above keeping an eye on everything I did.  I was starting to develop my own code of ethics and moral behavior from just watching my Dad’s actions.  I certainly didn’t need anyone else giving me instructions in that regard.  One night in, I’d say, 1960 when I was 14, my knees wore out at a weekly bible study group in Bobby’s apartment and I was just plain tired of pretending, too.  I climbed up from the sofa where I’d knelt, announced “I can’t take this any more”, and walked out.  Freda kept after me some after that until I finally told her off, too.  Russ was upset, but I told him “Russ, she just wouldn’t leave me alone!” Although I continued talking to them over the years, I never again went to watch their TV.

There I was, at age 14, a confirmed atheist.  In all my years since, I’ve never wavered in that conviction.  In fact, my conviction has been only strengthened by what I’ve seen from others who profess to be “holier–than-thou”.   I totally fail to understand just HOW they can be married and divorced multiple times and yet consider themselves destined for this “Heaven”? Then, too, some of them have committed adultery.  Golly, I’ll confess to be a serial coveter (see Exodus 2:17) but I’ve never put my lusts into action.  The “holier–than-thou”’s I know are currently engaged into sending out character-assassinating e-mails about Barack Obama.  When I ask them “What would Jesus do?  Did he not say to love your fellow man?”, they have no answer.  Oh, now I get it!  Their “God” is a forgiving God, so they get a free pass no matter what they do.  Awfully convenient, it seems.  I have no desire to be a close friend of any such folks.  I just watch them from afar as they cavort behind their “masks of righteousness”. I totally and absolutely reject any notion of “religion” and I’m danged proud of my position.

My relationship with the Gross family was one that would last all through my teen years and even beyond.  The father, George, was about 4 years older than Dad and, beneath his sometimes-gruff exterior, he was a prince of a fellow.  His wife, Pearl, probably felt sorry for me, a poor motherless child, and she took me under her wing.  They had raised two older boys, Don and Glenn, who had moved out by the time I started visiting.  Their two youngest kids, Bob and Nancy, were still at home.  Bob was just a year older than I and Nancy was five years younger than I.  Our TV-watching sessions would find George in his rocking chair, Pearl in her overstuffed chair, and we three kids on the couch.  Bob got to lie down, poor Nancy was in the middle and had to put up with his stinky feet in her lap, and I sat closest to the TV.  Together with the western shows I’ve already cited, we’d watch Red Skelton, Ed Sullivan, and the Warner Brothers’ alliterative detective shows like “Surfside Six”, “Bourbon Street Beat”, and “77 Sunset Strip”.

George Gross had pretty much retired from farming by 1958 but still had one heck of a garden from which Pearl canned many vegetables.  They also two cows across Grassy Pond Road in a barn and, beyond supplying the family’s needs, the cows provided milk that Pearl sold.  She had a regular group of customers who’d bring their own glass quart bottles to be filled with raw milk.  Pearl also had an electric churn and she made her own butter.  It was Bob’s job to milk the cows.  I guess he did so each morning before going to school. I always got to tag along in the evenings to keep him company before the television-watching began.  The family sometimes raised a young bull to provide meat for the table.  One evening, Bob and I had quite an adventure.  Nearing the barn, we heard a cow bellowing frantically and we soon found the reason.  The horny young bull had busted his way through a stable wall and was chasing the cow around her small stable, banging her up against its walls.  The cow was pregnant at the time and liable to abort if Bob couldn’t stop the bull.  He sure was a LOT braver than I.  Instead of running home to get George, he managed to chase the bull back through the hole in the wall and fetched a hammer and nails to repair the hole.  MY job was just to reach down across the manger and poke the bull with a pitchfork to distract it and keep it off Bob, who had his back turned. Golly, that bull sure was mad!  He snorted and bellowed but, try as he might, he never could get more than his front two legs up into the manger.  The barn also housed a mama cat who was more or less feral.  She maintained her small family of kittens under the manure spreader.  I once made a BAD mistake in trying to crawl beneath it to pet the kittens.  I never saw her coming and mama managed to sink about 10 claws into the side of my head!

In the summertime, Bob would have the job of making hay.  I can’t recall if they had their own baler or borrowed a neighbor’s.  Initially, he’d drive the tractor pulling a flat bed trailer, hop off to toss bales onto the trailer, and then climb up on it to make neat rows of bales.  I tried to help but I was in no kind of shape and quickly wore out after tossing no more than 10 bales.   He then came up with the idea of letting me drive the tractor while he did all the loading.  That idea didn’t work, either, for I was so inexperienced a driver that I popped the clutch and he fell off the load! 

Another summer job I “helped” Bob with was “floating” a field.  Back before the days of “no-till” farming, “floating” was the step that followed plowing, disking, and, harrowing.  Intended to smooth down the dirt before planting, it involved towing a heavy, flat, wooden platform behind the tractor.  We also called the platform a “stone boat” for, if two people were available, one drove the tractor and the other sat down and rode the “boat” to lean over and pick up rocks.  The latter was a job that I excelled at, although I’d end up quite filthy at the end of the day.

In that the Gross farm abutted Grassy Pond, George used to also earn a few dollars by renting rowboats to fishermen, as did Russ Kitchen on the road side of the pond.  Bob Gross and I would sometimes use a rowboat as a floating dock to go swimming.  We’d row it to the middle of the pond and then capsize it.  Being wooden, it would still float and we could jump off its bottom.  When we were done, we’d flip the boat back upright, bail out a little water, and row home.  

During the winter, Grassy Pond also served us well as our skating rink.  We’d shovel snow from the ice and other teens from around Sweet Valley would join us in games of hockey.  I had no skates but sometimes borrowed a pair, to no avail.  I simply wasn’t cut out to be a skater.  My ankles were nowhere near strong enough to support me and my balance was poor. Our “puck” was fashioned from a tin can from which we’d removed the label so it would shine in the moonlight.  We’d also cut it open, add a few small rocks for weight, and then stomp it flat so that it would slide rather than roll.  Our hockey “sticks” were often young sassafras trees.  They had unusual roots that formed nearly a 90-degree angle from the main stem, except for an occasional warped curve that lifted away from the ice and then sat back down.  It was possible to take a swing and have the stick completely whiff on the puck if the curve passed over it.  Our “goal” was just two flat rocks set on the ice about 10 feet apart and one scored by getting the puck between the rocks, but only from one direction.  As the lone non-skater, I ended up being the “goalie” and it was a tough job.  It smarts considerably to get hit in the shins by a flying tin can with rocks inside!

At other times, the gang would form a line, link arms, and skate to “crack the whip”.  With one end of the line forming the pivot point, the rest of the line would skate in  counter-clockwise circle increasingly fast until sufficient speed had built up.  Then the person on the far end of the line would release and take off in great haste tangentially.  I was always the pivot man, for that involved no skating but only spinning around in a very tight circle.  Once someone in the gang did something that angered me and I devised retribution.  There was a small cove where Russell Kitchen harbored his boats in the summer.  I got to the pond ahead of the night’s activities and very carefully used the wet snow to build a ridge line about 3 inches high on the ice across the mouth of the cove.  It had frozen by the time the gang arrived and the night was a bit cloudy.  The ice barrier wasn’t very visible.  I arranged that the person I was mad at would be the “whip cracker”. I challenged them to go sailing into the cove to see if they could get stopped before he ran out of pond and onto the shoreline.  He didn’t make it even CLOSE to the shore.  Hitting that frozen barrier, he went flying “ass over tin cups” and crashed! Now THERE’S an expression one seldom hears anymore. LOL

One member of our Sweet Valley gang was Billy Ferrey and he was quite nicer than the rest of us were.  Whereas most of us would cuss, smoke ‘em if we could get ‘em, and look at “girly mags”, Billy was far different.  Raised as a good church-going fellow, Billy wouldn’t say “shit” if he were standing in three feet of it and probably hadn’t been past “first base”(if even THAT far) with a girl.  His main hobby was trapping all sorts of wild critters for the bounty he could earn from the state of PA for their ears or hides.  Different kinds of critters required different kinds of traps and Billy once went to the sporting-goods store and asked the clerk for a “fox trap”. The clerk misunderstood him and had to ask him twice “What’s your waist size?” before Billy finally caught on.  He turned positively purple with embarrassment as he finally realized the clerk had heard “jock strap”! That was a word that Billy would never have uttered. 

About 1961 or so when he turned 16, Bob Gross bought a black Ford and that afforded us many adventures.  One of our favorite pastimes was “spotlighting” deer. I think it may have been illegal to shine a spotlight on deer at night as they grazed but, being brave young souls, we chanced getting caught.  After all, “bad guys” would actually poach deer out of season and we were only checking out open fields where we’d likely find them during daylight hours when hunting was legal.  About four of us would pile into Bob’s Ford and run all over Ross Township.  Sometimes our light would catch sight of a set of eyes close to the ground and we knew it was either a deer lying down or else some sort of small critter.  One sharp yell would make the eyes rise up and take off if it was a deer.  If the eyes ran along the ground, it was a small critter.  Billy Ferrey was along with us one night when the eyes did the latter and he yelled for us to let him out to chase it.  It might well be a critter worth some money to Billy.  Well, it was small, all right; a SKUNK, and Billy got severely sprayed!   We made him ride home in the trunk.  (Lest you think I made up these last two “Billy” tales, be advised I did confirm them with him at the Red Rooster Restaurant when we were in our mid-50’s.)

On other nights, Bob and I would join Dick and Don Stroud, who lived in the house my Dad had sold to their parents in 1957.  The family farm of their grandfather, Cliff Stroud, was nearby and he had apple orchards where deer liked to browse.   We’d chase the deer merrily through the orchard with the Ford. One poor buck got hung up with his antlers entangled in a low-hanging branch.  We climbed out and laughed heartily as we paddled him lightly on the butt with small  twigs.  Man, you wouldn’t believe how fast he ran when he finally shook loose!  I don’t think the Ford could have caught him!  Dashing across fields posed a danger to the Ford’s suspension system, though, for we had to watch out for getting too close to a plowed field.  When farming, one would always plow furrows in the same manner, say, so that the soil turned over clockwise.  However, at the very edge of the field, the very last furrow would be plowed counter-clockwise so as to retard soil erosion.  If one hit a “back furrow” at any speed, one risked breaking an axle, as the car would stop quite abruptly.  Woodchuck holes posed a similar threat.  (Woodchucks were also known as “whistle pigs” because a sharp whistle would cause them to rise on their hind legs from grazing to see what the danger was, thereby exposing them to being shot.)

When I was about 17 and Bob Gross was 18, he’d let me drive his Ford a bit on the back roads, although I wasn’t quite legal.  A learner’s permit cost money and, given that Dad had no car, we didn’t see any sense in getting a permit.  (I did take Driver’s Ed in my high school classroom but the teacher never could take me out on the road lacking a permit.  I didn’t get  a permit and then take my driving test until I was 21 and used Jay Ruckel’s Dad’s Corvair to pass it.) Those first few lessons in Bob’s Ford were quite nerve-racking because I had great apprehension about oncoming cars.  The road didn’t seem wide enough for both of us.  Luckily, George Gross had taught Bob well and he passed along his lessons to me: always pump your brakes lest you burn down one side of the brake shoe; always come to a near stop when a deer jumps in front of you because, even though he moves on, there’s ALWAYS another one coming behind him; and roads are always slickest right when rain begins falling, from oil left behind by all passing cars since the last time it rained. 

Bob, of course, had much more luck with the ladies than I, for his car was a big attraction.  Only once did I get to go along on one big adventure.  We convinced two Broadway-area gals from the lower end of Ross Township to go to the drive-in with us.  Bob’s gal had been a classmate of mine but she had either dropped out of school or flunked once.  Her girlfriend was someone I had never met.  While Bob was “getting lucky” up in the front seat (as I could judge from the sounds I heard; he never spoke about it), my “date” faked going to sleep. Golly, I never even got to “FIRST base” but I’d never tell Billy Ferrey that.  After all, a young man did have a reputation to uphold. LOL.  I once went with Bob to the Fort Durkee Hotel on Public Square in Wilkes-Barre and waited outside while he entered.  It was a rather seedy old dump and I have long suspected it may have housed an abortion clinic, a place that was extremely illegal before Row v. Wade.  That was another event he never explained to me and I might, just MIGHT, ask him about it when we get into our 70’s.

Bob earned money helping Lew Evans, who worked for, I think, something called the Dairy Herd Improvement Association.  Bob may have gone out on weekday mornings before school but I only joined him in the evenings on Saturdays or Sundays.  We’d travel from farm to farm as the morning milkings were taking place and we’d collect milk samples from each cow.  Neatly labeled, they’d be returned to Lew, who then turned them in to be tested for butterfat content, disease, etc.

Bob and I also had two more minor adventures worth reporting and they both involve lightning.  The first also involves all three Stroud boys; Dick, Don, and the youngest, Allan.  We were all gathered in the basement of their grandfather’s barn while Dick milked the cow. The rest of us just watched Dick, carried on as teen boys are wont to do and listened to  rock and roll on WARM (“The Mighty 590”), our local AM station on the radio which was perched atop the stone-wall foundation.  A tremendous thunderstorm raged outside but we, initially, hadn’t thought about the lightning rods atop the barn.  The rods were grounded immediately outside the stone wall.  We finally realized that our radio might get zapped by a power surge should lightning strike anywhere in the neighborhood, so Dick told Allan to turn off and unplug  the radio.  Just at the very second Allan reached for the radio, lightning DID strike, right on a rod atop the barn.  The very loud sound momentarily froze us but we soon recovered.  We were first attracted to the sound of Allan barfing his guts outs onto the barn floor.  He wasn’t hurt at all, just sick to his stomach.  Hearing Dick cussing, we turned out attention to him.  There he lie, all covered in manure and milk.  The poor cow must have jumped 3 feet straight up, knocking Dick off his stool and spilling the milk pail onto him!

The second lightning adventure occurred during another hellacious thunderstorm. Bob and I were convinced that lightning had struck really near to our houses and we set out to investigate.  Roaming slowly in his Ford, we looked for fallen tree limbs and such but soon found evidence in Carl Rood’s potato field.  From the car, we could see a patch of dead plants that were brown instead of green.  We parked the car and set out across the field, determined to enjoy some baked potatoes.  We dug up a few but were totally surprised at what we found.  Rather than being baked, these taters had attained the consistency of salt-water taffy!  Once twisted apart, they could be stretched to a distance of about 2 feet before the strands parted!  Trust me on this one, readers: that IS what happens when lightning hits a growing potato. I’ll have a lot more to say about potatoes in my next chapter.

At some point in out teen years, Bob and I gathered together a group of other Sweet Valley guys for a trip up Red Rock Mountain.  Atop the mountain was an Air Force base that served, back then, as part of the DEW (Distant Early Warning) system, watching for Russian bombers headed our way over the North Pole.  The “fly boys”, as we called them, were stationed quite far from the nearest town and the ones lacking cars had few on-base activities other than softball to occupy them.  We were proud of our prowess at softball and, somewhere along the way, decided to challenge them to a game.  I was a bit leery, though, figuring I’d meet up with a big, black guy from Alabama who could  pitch a softball at 80 m/p/h.  I was quite wrong in that regard.  Their pitcher turned out to be a small, wiry white guy from Louisiana who threw at 85 m/p/h!  It was the ONLY time in my life that I ever stung my hands fouling off a “soft” ball!  They whupped us little old country boys by a score of something like 18 to 2 and we never again ventured up the mountain.

Carl Rood’s farm lie along what is, today, paved and known as Post Office Road.  When I lived there in the 1960’s, it was still a dirt road with no name.  It did, at some point, get named because it led from Grassy Pond Road out to the middle of Sweet Valley and ended right at what once was Mickey Adam’s grocery store and later housed the US Post Office.  Carl and Garfield “Goody” Goodman had married Ben Jackson’s daughters and I guess each inherited part of their Dad’s farm, for they still lived across the road from each other.  Goody and Eileen were really nice to me, often inviting me in for milk and cookies and Goody even hired me to clean out his chicken coop.  Carl and Mae, on the other hand, were more distant.  I wouldn’t say they were unfriendly, but I don’t think I ever set foot in their house.  They also had a female German Shepherd that WAS nasty.  She had bitten both Bob and George Gross, I was told.  Perhaps she just didn’t like the Gross family but I’m firmly convinced she would have bitten me, too, were I not so wary of her.  She was even nastier than the usual dog that would at least bark and give one fair warning.  This rotten b**** (female dog) would lie silently on her tummy beneath a low-hanging evergreen in the yard, just waiting to pounce.  Quite aware of her presence, I’d speak to her as I walked by. “Don’t even THINK about biting me!  I’ll kill you if you do!”  At first, I backed up that threat by carrying a folding pocket knife that, when opened, was about 10 inches long.  I later had that knife confiscated by cops at a football game in West Wyoming when some fool threw cherry bombs off the bleachers and we all had to empty our pockets.  (I was saved from going to jail by the intervention of my principal,  Lester Squier.)  Without my knife, I decided that a rock would be my next-best weapon.  I found one weighing about 3 pounds and would carry it past Carl’s house in plain sight of the dog.  I figured it was heavy enough to crush her skull should we end up in a wrestling match.  I’d carry it on my outbound walk to get groceries or head elsewhere and then, about 50 yards past the house, I’d set it down alongside the road.  On my return trip, I’d pick it up and carry it back past the house the other way.  That did the trick, for I never did get bitten.

Just past the Rood farm on the left side of the road was a small shack, only slightly bigger than my abode.  I never knew the names of the people who lived there and, only when I got into genealogy in my mid-50’s and started asking around, did I hear it called “the Trescott place”.  I guess, on that basis, those folks may have been 2nd or 3rd cousins of mine but we never talked much.  I’d just wave and say “HI” as I passed.  I’m not sure exactly how many people lived there but one does come to mind, for she was a fat lady in a wheelchair.  I guess she may have had polio.

The next place along the road on the left side was a really old, run-down house barely visible behind the vegetation that had grown after it was abandoned.  I never had any curiosity about it until, while working on my “Legend Of Juber White” (also on this site), I learned it had been the home of the notable Squire Wesley cited therein.  That vegetation played a role in one small item that took my notice.  Any one or thing behind it would, if low to the ground, have no sight of my approach.  Combing that fact with the fact that the dirt road had recently received a fresh load of gravel, my passing while wearing sneakers was almost silent, as well.  One day, a small red fox made a leap from the brush and landed on the road. I’m not sure which of us was more surprised. Seeing me, he did a quick “uh-oh !” and, faster than he had emerged, jumped back into the brush.

Across the dirt road was the Wesley place with even more vegetation, growing on the backwater of Grassy Pond.  It was quite a marshy area but, with experience, I found rocks I could step on to avoid getting my feet wet and I used it often as a shortcut to Bobby Kunkle’s backyard.  It also was the place I encountered yet another critter.  This time, I heard him and ventured off the road to learn what was making that rustling noise.  It turned out to be Mr. Porcupine, whose spiny needles couldn’t help but rustle as they rubbed against the brush.  I left well enough alone, merely venturing a “Hi, Mr. Porky Pine.”

Mr. and Mrs. Jaquish were an older couple and their house was on the left side of the final, uphill curve before the middle of Sweet Valley.  As I kid, I never paid any attention to whether my neighbors owned or rented a home and I only found out years later that they were renters.  They were very nice to me, too, and, like the Goodmans, sometimes gave me cookies.  They also let my use their driveway as a shortcut to North Lake where I’d dance with the “town” girls in the summertime.  I’ll have more to say about those girls later.

The last place along the dirt road that attracted my interest was the red-brick home of Al Dailey, the well driller.  He had a couple of daughters, the most attractive of whom was a red-headed beauty named Gladys.  She was a few years older than I and the guys her age had named her “Happy Bottom”, an obvious play on her first name.  I often found myself passing that house after dark, on my way home with groceries or from some school activity.  I always made sure to pass by really slowly, never letting my eyes leave the window shade that covered a room at the end of the house.  That room was always lit and I hoped to catch a glance at Gladys naked if the shade flew up.  Heck, I wasn’t even sure that it WAS her bedroom but that didn’t stop me from trying to see her.  I don’t think I could have been charged with being a Peeping Tom, for I never ventured close to the house and my feet never left the road.  The shade never did fly up and I was always disappointed.

Well, that’s about all I have to say about my interactions with neighbors.   Now I’ll do my next chapter about what happened ON the farm.

Written in May and June, 2008 by

 

Ronald E. Hontz

33 Whitcraft Lane

Shrewsbury PA 17361

(717) 235-5791

cell phone (717) 309-1402

e-mail: Sweetvalleykid@gmail.com

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