Thomas Wolfe, You Can Go Home Again:

A Muggy Monday Morning in July

Lowell L. Getz

When growing up on a farm near a small southern Illinois town in the 1930s, one of the rituals of spring was to buy a new “ball cap.”   It was not a “one size fits all” with a plastic tab expander in the back as are current ball caps, but a cap that came in specific sizes to fit individual heads.  Typically, we purchased a bright shiny red or blue rayon cap.  We wore them with the bill in front and usually bent upward.  No one ever wore one with the bill backwards.  Was not the purpose of the bill to keep the sun out of our eyes, not off the backs of our neck?

Another spring ritual was to head to Lockyer’s Grocery and Hardware Store to buy new fishing lines and extra hooks, sinkers, and bobbers.  Lockyer’s store had two side-by-side rooms.  In the first room were the groceries and in the second, the hardware--buckets, shovels, hoes, rakes, gloves, brooms, pans, and other garden and household supplies.  In the far southeast corner was a small counter with fishing lines, hooks, corks, bait holders, and other fishing supplies.

I would select two or three fishing lines with the string wound around red or yellow ladder-like holders, with the hooks around one “round” of the ladder and the line wound tightly around the two “rounds”, with the bobber in between the rounds.  I would also buy some small boxes of assorted sizes of hooks, a packet of “Eagle Claw” hooks on short nylon leaders, a box of split shot weights, a box of larger elongated weights, and some extra bobbers.  With these new purchases, along with the lines and extras from last year, I was ready for school to be out and to start a summer of fishing.

Early the first morning school was out, I would roll back some old osage orange fence posts lying on the ground in the horse lot.  With spade I would dig up earth worms from the damp soil below the posts.  These would be placed in an old A&P Iona hominy can, along with some crumbled up damp soil.  Then it was off to fishing.

Usually I would go a mile north of where we lived to Bear Creek and to the “Flood Gap.”  This was a gate arrangement across the creek where the fence line of Teedy Duckels pasture came down to the creek.  A wooden and wire gate was attached to a cable across the creek.  When the water in the creek was low, the gate hung down preventing livestock from walking down the creek bed and out of Teedy’s pasture.  When the creek was high from heavy rains, the gate swung up, letting logs and other debris pass under it.  But, the gate was not completely effective.  Small logs and brush would hang up on the bottom of the gate causing a 3-4 foot deep pool to erode out from under the gate.  When the gate dropped down, some of the brush remained, providing cover for fish that congregated in the pool below.  Once at the flood gap, I would fix a line to a pole cut from a nearby hickory sprout, bait up, and toss the line in the pool and settle back waiting for a fish to bite.  The big attraction of fishing the “Flood Gap” was “the pounder” catfish my friends and I were certain inhabited in the pool.  Every time I got a bite from a small bullhead catfish or green sunfish I anticipated it was “the pounder.”

I would sit for hours on end staring at the red and white bobber.  Sometimes it would sit idly on the water, floating in gentle circles in the eddy currents and maybe dancing slightly from a wind-caused ripple that went by.  Other times the bobber would dip down in the water, bounce back up and sit quietly.  Often I would jerk up the line hoping I had a fish, only to see a bare hook.  The worm had been cleaned off by a bunch of very small fish, too small to get the hook in their mouths.  Other times the bobber would give a bounce or two, or three, and then disappear at an angle below the surface.  When I pulled up, I always expected a heavy pull on the line.  But, to my disappointment, there usually was only a slight tug as I flipped a small green sunfish or catfish back over my head.  Undaunted, I would bait up again and continue to stare at the bobber.  I did this so intently and for so long that when I went to bed that night and closed my eyes, I would see a red and white bobber sitting on the water bouncing up and down and disappearing at an angle below the water.  When my parents had no work for me around the house or in the garden, I could always be found at the Flood Gap staring intently at the bobber, hoping for “the pounder.”

As I grew older there was summer farm work, college, the army, graduate school, a family, and academia where, I became involved in time-consuming research projects, was a department head, and taught large classes.  There was no time to sit quietly for hours on end and stare at a bobber floating in circles on the water.  The first few years of retirement were just as hectic.  Papers needed to be written before the data became stale.  There were cruises, overseas trips, and extensive trips in this country to be made.  Eventually these were done and life settled down.  Quiet time became more available for reflection.  When musing upon what once had been, the long mornings and afternoons sitting on the banks of Bear Creek at the Flood Gap kept drifting back to mind.

Finally, one muggy Monday morning in July, I went out to the back yard, dug into the damp soil under the English Ivy bed, and got a handful of earthworms.  These I placed in an IGA green bean can (I do not think A&P sells Iona brand canned foods any more) and got out a collapsible fishing pole I had used as a pointer when lecturing to a large class.  I found an old reel with some line, a few hooks, lead weights, and a red and white bobber in an old tackle box I had kept with me, mostly unused, for over 60 years.  Then I took from the closet a baseball hat (sadly, with a plastic expander in back), put it on and tilted the bill up at an angle in front.  Told the wife I was “going fishing" and headed for the Sangamon River 20 miles away.

At the river I found a flat ledge down over the bank from a parking spot alongside the road.  A large tree trunk was logged against the bank and a deep pool had formed under it.  I put together the fishing line and pole, baited the hook and tossed the line into the water, and sat back to watch the bobber.  As I stared at it floating on the water, slowly moving in a circle in the eddy current formed around the log, I became completely mesmerized.  It seemed as if the years had not happened.  I was transformed back in time and once again was sitting on the bank of Bear Creek at the old Flood Gap.  I hear sounds that trigger in my mind events of 70 plus years ago.

A crow is calling in the distance.  I am a frail barefoot 4 year old feeling the cool soil of the furrow on my bare feet as I follow my dad as he does the spring plowing with a two-horse walking plow.  The reins are looped around his shoulders so he can hold onto the handles of the plow, directing the team, Bird and Faye, to the right and left with a simple “Gee” and “Haw.”

A bluejay calls.  The song sounds like the squeak of the rusty pump handle on the drinking water well at my grandparents house.  I feel the damp early summer morning air and the fresh smell from the garden to the west of their house.  The row of large hollyhocks, with their multi-colored horn-shaped flowers, alongside the side yard comes into view.  It is “fun” to trap bumble bees collecting pollen and nectar from deep inside a flower by squeezing together the petals of the flower.  The skill is in letting go and running away before the bumblebee can get out and figure out what has happened and who did it.

Some far off sound resembles a bell.  I am walking with my uncle down the “Big Hill” to the “bottom pasture” to get the milk cows in the evening.  We walk down to where the seven or eight cows are waiting at the gate to the pasture.  One has a bell around her neck so we can locate them should the cows decide not to come to the gate.  But, they instinctively know the time of day and are anticipating the food that awaits them at the barn.  Once at the barn, my uncle and grandfather milk them by hand.  I hear the “skirtching” sound of the milk hitting the bottom of the metal buckets and then the “swooshing” sound as the bucket fills and foam covers the top of the milk.

A truck crossing the bridge around the bend makes a rattling sound.  I hear my grandfather shaking down the old wood-burning kitchen cook stove in the mornings.  I feel the cold linoleum kitchen floor on my bare feet as I run to the kitchen and let down the oven door to try to get warm while dressing.

A small red-eared turtle crawls up on a log.  I am staying with my grandparents during the summer drought of 1936 while my mom and dad are on a trip to visit his sister in Kansas.  All the wells at the house and in the barn lots are dry.  My grandfather and uncle have dug a deep, 6 x 4 x 6 foot pit in a seepage area quarter mile west of house.  We go there in each evening to fill several milk cans with water to bring back for the livestock.  There is a baby red-eared turtle in the pit.  Each night we see him swimming in the water and crawling up on small ledge of clay near the bottom to get out of the way of the buckets lifting water from the pit.

A straight surface tension line forms where the water is deflected around a log.  There comes into view the stretched rope of the derrick horse that pulls hay up into the barn loft.  I am with the horse on the opposite of the barn from where the door to the hayloft is located.  The rope from the horse goes up to the pulley at the base of the barn and then to another pulley at a small hole on the east side of the barn.  From there the rope runs through a trolley at the end of a track along the top of the loft and down to the hay fork below on the wagon at the west side of the barn.  The loader on the hay wagon pushes down the inverted U-shaped hay fork into the loose hay and extends small flanges on each arm so the hay holds onto the fork.  He yells outs “Alright” and I lead the horse away from the barn.  The rope pulls the fork and bunch of hay upwards until it engages the trolley on the track and moves on into the loft.  When the horse and I have pulled the hay to where the hired man in the loft wants it dropped, he yells out “Whoa” and I stop the horse.  The loader on the wagon pulls a trip rope that retracts the flanges and the hay falls into the loft.  The loader then uses the trip rope to pull the fork back down to the wagon.  At the same time, I walk the horse back to the base of the barn.  It is not an exciting job and the straining, stretching rope worries me; I am afraid it might break and snap back on me.

From a distance there is another sound of a bell.  I am walking from my home on the farm to the grade school in town, one and a half miles away.  I hear the 8:30 bell as I near my great aunt Nell’s house at the edge of town.  Today, there is snow and mud.  I leave my galoshes at her house so that the kids at school will not make fun of me (the kids in town have sidewalks to walk on).  Aunt Nell also washes my ears, telling me my Mom does not get them clean enough, much to my Mom’s chagrin.  Then, it is the last two blocks to school, getting there in time to “shoot a few baskets” in the gym.  At the 5 minute bell we line up on the stairs to the second floor classrooms.  The final bell sends us on to our classes.  Today some smart-aleck has put a snowball on the very hot steam register at the bottom of the stairs.  The stench is over-powering as we wait to go up.  The teachers at the top of the stairs wonder why we are all giggling.

In the distance, the sound of a combine.  It is threshing time, the most exciting time of the year.  On this late afternoon in early July, Lewis “Push” Banks pulls into the lot next to the cattle barn.  Behind the old International Harvester 10-20 tractor is the Case Threshing Machine.  He backs the threshing machine up close to the old straw stack from last year and turns around and raises the straw spout from the top of the machine to face over the old straw stack.  He then puts a level on a ledge in the middle of the threshing machine.  By pulling the threshing machine forward and scooping out dirt from under the appropriate wheels, Push levels the threshing machine.  Then, he unhooks the tractor and drives it a few yards away and turns facing the thresher.  He places a wide belt on the drive wheel of the tractor and on the main drive pulley wheel of the threshing machine, crossed in the middle to keep it from slipping off the pulleys.  The tractor is backed up slowly to tighten the belt.

Now it is the following morning.  The neighboring farmers in the threshing ring and their hired men arrive.  Wagons with “loaders” go to the field to load up the wheat bundles from the shocks in the field.  A “pitcher” forks the bundles up to the loader.  When the first load is filled and arrives at the threshing machine, Push starts up the tractor and puts the power pulley in gear.  The threshing machine slowly comes to life as the various pulley wheels and chains start a staccato rumble.  I quickly climb into the grain wagon placed under the down spout from the bin in which the wheat accumulates as it is threshed from the straw.  At each bushel, a large flange lifts up allowing the grain to flow down a chute into the wagon.  The force of the wheat grains is strong against my hands as I place them in the cascading flow of wheat down and out of the spout.  Among the wheat grains are legs and other parts of grasshoppers chewed up in the threshing machine.  While the bin is filling up again, a few grains of wheat shoot down the chute.  I feel the very sharp stinging of these grains on my hands.  I see the bright yellow straw blowing out of the straw spout, forming a new layer of fresh straw over that remaining from last year.

When the grain wagon is full, one of the men hooks up the waiting team of horses and pulls it away.  Another wagon is pulled under the spout.  The team is then hitched back to the grain wagon and we are off to the Chesterfield Cooperative Elevator in town.  I ride to the elevator, sitting in the grain.  At the elevator, the wagon is pulled onto the large scales.  We get off.  A worker comes out and pushes a long brass spike into the grain.  He twists the spike to allow grain from top to bottom of the load to enter the spike.  This is taken into the elevator and weighed to determine moisture content so as to adjust the price of the wheat.  Once the weight of the wagon and the grain is recorded from the slide scale inside, the team pulls the wagon up a ramp inside the elevator where the wheat is dumped.  The front wheels are placed on a lift, the tailgate raised, and the hoses unhitched.  The lift then raises the front of the wagon, the wheat flowing out the back and down into the slotted floor and where augers move it into storage bins.  While this is taking place, I go inside the office and get a drink of water from the ice-filled water cooler.  The sounds of the elevator, the smell of the office (emanating from decades of old paper receipts stacked on shelves and dust from innumerable grain wagons) and the cold taste of the water, they are clear.  When the wagon is emptied, it is pulled back on the scales to get the weight of the wagon itself to calculate the wheat we brought in.  Then, it is back home to repeat the process.

And, now it is the noontime.  A few of the wives of the farmers in the threshing ring have come to help my Mom with the dinner.  They have arranged long tables, made of wide boards placed on sawhorses (more boards, placed on nail kegs are used to sit on) out in the back yard under the maple tree.  The tables are covered with fried chicken mashed potatoes, gravy, cherry and apple pies, iced tea and lemonade, and my favorite, cole slaw with chopped up peanuts in it.  The 15-20 men wash up in a tub of cold water placed on a small table in the yard.  The food soon disappears.  The men are hungry.

A leaf falls on the water, looking like a triangular kite. It is a March morning in 1939.  I am in the second grade.  As I leave for school, I ask my Mom if I could have a quarter to buy a kite after school at Chet Towse’s drug store.  It is still during the depression.  We have little money and a quarter is a large sum.  She says we could not afford it.  I beg, but she keeps saying no.  So, I leave for school, crying because I could not get a kite that afternoon.  When I get to the bottom of the hill and start to crawl through the fence on my way to the pasture, across which I have to go to get to school, my Mom comes running down the hill with a quarter.

A fox squirrel peaks at me from behind the limb of a tree across the water.  I see the six fox squirrels my Mom has rescued from an oak tree that had been cut down in the pasture for wood for the cook stove.  She raises them on milk from an eye dropper.  As they become older, she trains them to go to assigned cans on her command and stand on their hind legs waiting to receive peanuts.  The squirrels are allowed to run free in the house most of the time.  We have “gumdrop trees” (gumdrops stuck on the ends of the branches of a small limb from a tree) in wall vases.  The squirrels climb up to the gumdrop tree and eat the hard, sticky gumdrops.  When the gumdrops become stuck in their teeth, the squirrels try to get them out with their front toes, while continuing eating.  This causes the squirrels to bite their toes, squealing in the process, but continuing eating.

A large carp rolls near the surface just beyond the large log. I am fishing with my grandparents and uncle in the summer.  We are at Macoupin Creek, where it runs through Amos Fenton’s farm.  We get in the water and feel along the banks and under logs and begin catching the fish by hand (this we call “logging”).  In the summer when the water is warm, the fish (carp, buffalo, and catfish) are sluggish.  When we feel a fish, we slowly move our hands to over the gills and pull it out and put in a burlap (“gunny”) sack.  If the water is especially deep, we feel them with our feet, pin them down with our feet and then go under to reach the fish.  My grandfather’s old felt hat floats on the water while he is under.  When he comes back up he either is under the hat or he grabs it and puts it back on.  When our gunny sack is full of fish, we take them home and clean them.  The feel of the slime and scales is still on my hands.  Then, my grandmother fries them, including the eggs from female carp, in a skillet of deep grease.  We leisurely eat the fried fish, carefully mincing out the bones from the soft flesh with our tongues and teeth.

All the while the sights, the sounds, the odors, the feel of the dust and grass on my bare feet of those 70 plus years ago flow in my mind.  My eyes see again the barn lot in front of our house; the scraggly maple tree near the gate; the engine block from my dad’s first car, a Model T Ford, now used to remove and rivet sickle blades on mower bars and other tasks needing a solid iron block; laying hens wandering around picking at insects and weed seeds in the dirt; on the far side, the farm equipment “tool shed” with its dry powdery dirt floor; on the south, the shop (part of an old abandoned house where my grandmother had lived as a child) with its cluttered floor, and my father repairing equipment on damp rainy days; near the shop, the chicken house where the hens laid their eggs (and itching from lice after gathering eggs in the late afternoon); the curving road down the hill in front of the house with a windmill at the bottom and a very small stream flowing at its base; the cold wind hitting my face when sledding down the hill in winter; the sound of the wind blowing through the maple trees on each side of my second story bedroom; roosters crowing early in the morning; the droning humming of tens of thousand of honey bees moving among the flowers of the black locust stand behind the house; the unpleasant stench from the outhouse on hot summer days; the squishy juice from the red cherries running down my arm as I climb a ladder among the limbs to fill a three gallon milk bucket; the creaking of the harnesses on the horses as they pull heavy loads of hay to the barn; on sunny summer days, the hot dust stinging my bare feet as I walk the quarter mile up the lane to the mail box; the cool water of the pond in the cattle pasture as I learn to swim; the smell of sweaty horses as my dad removes the harnesses at night; walking up the narrow stairs and smelling the dusty musty air of the loft of my grandfathers tool shed, made even more so after my uncle kept there a couple red foxes as pets; walking with my uncle to get the cows from the bottom pasture; going into Chet Towse’s drug store to buy penny “Guess-Whats” (two candy “kisses” and a cheap trinket), licorice straps with drops of sugar candy on them, and for a pineapple milk shake.  I am a kid back home again, and content.

The ringing of my cell phone breaks the spell and abruptly transforms me back to the present.  The wife is checking to see if I am OK and to remind me it is getting on towards dinner time.  Yes, even now at home, it is “dinner” at noon and “supper” in the evening.  So, I reel in my line and take off the hook, collapse the rod and put it and the reel in the tackle box and slowly climb back up to the car.

Tonight when I go to bed and close my eyes, once again I will see a red and white bobber floating on the surface of the water.  Then, a bob . . . . bob . . . bob . . bob . bob bob-bob as it disappears below the surface.  Tonight, one more time my feet will feel the cool damp soil in the bottom of the furrow as I follow my Dad behind the walking plow.  His voice will be as clear as if it were only this morning, “Gee”-“Haw.”

What did I catch?  Oh, the usual--a few small shad, a tiny bullhead, and a green sunfish.  A large carp broke a hook and got away.  Don’t they always?  But, that was OK, no one ever caught the “the pounder” at the Bear Creek Flood Gap, either.  Most likely there never was one there.  However, that is what life is all about--anticipating the “big one”, but making do with what is given you.  Today, what I experienced was more satisfying than catching a “the pounder.”  For a couple of hours I was “back home” again, the first time in over 70 years.  Thomas Wolfe once wrote “You can’t go home again.”  Thomas Wolfe never went fishing on a muggy Monday morning in July.

Copyright 2009 Lowell L. Getz