First, I have to tell you about Pappy. He’s a lot like Walter Brennan in the old westerns. Crotchety, gruff, weather beaten, a born teacher of all things outdoor, intolerant of stupidity but he had a soft spot for us kids. He was always grumpy but he was patient with us at the same time.
It was the mid-1950’s and things moved a little slower then. I was a seven year old boy filled with curiousity. Everything was an adventure at that age and it was a wonderful time to grow up. Going to Pappy’s place was always a treat. The smells, the sounds and the sheer beauty of the north woods along the Wisconsin River was breathtaking. To this day, some fifty-four years later, I can still recall the smells and the memories of it all like it was yesterday. I especially remember Pappy. What a character he was.
One thing about Pappy and, there were many things about Pappy, if there was work to be done, you were going to help. One of his many rules, no work, no eat. This went for us kids too. If he thought we wouldn’t get hurt, he’d let us help him with his daily chores. Mowing his huge lawn from the front road back to the barn he called his garage and over to the little bar next door that he owned but leased out to a neighbor. Pappy didn’t use a conventional mower, he used one that he towed behind a small, faded yellow tractor with a metal seat that looked a whole lot like curved Swiss cheese. It was rusty, beaten and battered, sorta like Pappy, but it started first time, every time and did its’ job well.
When Pappy cut firewood, it wasn’t with an axe or chainsaw, it was with a truck. Now let me explain. Pappy had this huge circular saw blade about three feet in diameter mounted on a metal stand and weighted down with cement blocks to keep it from running away. There was a long slide to the left of the blade that was on greased rails where he would lay the logs to be cut. On the right side of the blade was a set of pulleys. A smaller one on the blade itself connected to a double pulley in back of that with a six inch heavy reinforced rubber strap connecting the two. Then Pappy would run another reinforced rubber strap about ten feet long to the rear tire of a Model-T truck he kept on blocks just to power the big saw blade.
When Pappy turned that thing on, you could hear the whine and whistle of the big blade for miles. It would build up speed gradually with an ever building high pitched whine. The closest thing I can think of it sounding like would be a jet engine as it spools up from a dead start to a normal idle. Very impressive and very dangerous if not careful. Pappy would do the cuttin’, us kids would do the tottin’ and the stackin’.
Other things would be like cleaning out and checking the oil in the outboards of the three small boats Pappy kept for fishing on the Wisconsin River which, I might add, was a hundred or so yard behind Pappy’s house and just down a grassy path. Convenient, huh?
Now, I’m not much of a sportsman, much to my fathers disappointment. God bless him, he tried. But I have to admit, I loved going out in the early morning with dad and Pappy on the Wisconsin. The water was almost dead calm at that hour. Nary a ripple on the surface, just like glass. The only sound was that of the little outboard pushing us up the river and the wake off the bow lapping against the banks on both sides. With the morning fog turning into a low mist hanging over the water it was picture perfect in every respect.
Every once in a while, a fish would break the surface just to say good morning or, perhaps, catch me if you can. There were fresh water Bass, Bullheads or Catfish, if you will, and my personal favorite the Walleye Perch better known there as the Northern Pike but sometimes referred to as the fresh water Barracuda. It was a fighter and a lot of fun to go after. Everything was fun on the Wisconsin.
When we would return from a day of fishing, dad, Pappy and Pappy’s son Harry Jr., would go over to the little bar for a few beers before dinner. Now, in the country, dinner is the noon meal and usually the largest meal of the day. It was done that way so the men in the fields would have enough energy to work until dark or after and then come in and have a light meal (supper) before turning in. More than likely soup and sandwiches or the like.
Harry Jr., Pappy was Harry Sr. by-the-way, had two sons, Bob, who was a year or so older than I was and Jim, who was around four or so years older. Since Bob and I were closest in age, it was we two who ventured out looking for ‘adventure’.
One day, after a morning of fishing, Dad, Jr. and Sr. went to the bar per the norm. Bob and I had a soda and then went outside. Around the corner of the little bar was this miniature quonset hut (not sure of the spelling there) that stored the supplies for the bar. Being the time and place we were in, nothing was ever locked so, Bob and I peeked inside. There, in front of us, was a keg of Grain Belt Beer. It looked like the bartender had tried to tap it and had failed for one reason or the other. It was waiting, all alone, in the little hut to be replaced by the delivery driver. But, until then, Bob and I just had to sample some of that delicious brew. We grabbed a couple of new glasses out of one of the boxes of glasses there and slowly but surely started to consume the warm beer.
I guess we must have overstayed our welcome because the next thing I remembered was my dad and Bob’s dad dragging us out of the little hut. We must have fallen asleep or something cause it was dark outside and it was just past noon when we went in. We figured we were dead meat. All that was left was the cryin’.
On the way back to the house, dad and Harry were talking, then talking and laughing, then laughing and talking and laughing some more. Bob and I looked at one another and figured we had it made. We were going to get out of this thing relatively unscathed.
Well, we were sorta right. We didn’t get spankings or anything like that but, we did go to bed hungry and missing one of Aunt May’s meals was a penalty worse than death, missing two, unthinkable. We slept through one and were about to be omitted from the other. What made it even worse was the fact we shared the bedroom that backed up to the kitchen. We could smell the food but couldn’t eat it. I was thinking, bring on the spanking, I’m hungry.
I know this is supposed to be about Pappy and his three pronged fork, be patient, I’m gettin’ there. Aunt May, Pappy’s wife since the beginning of time, was the best cook ever, anywhere, bar none. That next morning, the morning after our little involuntary hunger strike, Aunt May pulled out all the stops. Bob and I woke up to the smell of wood burning just outside our door which, most mornings, we would lay there and enjoyed that just because it smelled so good. She had fresh coffee and biscuits baking in the huge old wood burning stove. It was either biscuits or fresh bread but it was always one or the other.
You see, Pappy would do or buy anything for his May. He bought her a new washing machine with the electric wringer to replace the hand cranked rollers she had for so many years and he bought her a big ole electric stove to replace the wood burner she had for years and years that he had to cut the wood for.
The electric stove stood idle in the kitchen unless my mom or Harry Jr.s wife Judy wanted to do some cooking. Mainly they would just be helping May because of the volume of food needed to feed all of us but May wouldn’t touch that darned thing. She loved Pappy but she always figured he wasted his money on that electric stove.
Back to breakfast. It didn’t take Bob and I long to roll out of bed and crash through the door into the kitchen. May smiled and said, “My, I bet you boys are hungry, hum?” We both shook our heads like they were rattles on a stick. Aunt May had every inch of that wood burner covered with skillets and pans of every description. The left and right hand sides of the stove were the wood burning chambers. The big opening in the center was the oven. That’s where May had the biscuits and boy did they smell good.
Since there were so many of us, nine all together, we ate on their screened in porch out back of the kitchen at a big round table. It had to be well screened because of the mosquito’s. You think everything is bigger in Texas? Well, you haven’t seen a mosquito that’s grown up on the Wisconsin River.
Anyway, we were all settled down for breakfast and Pappy said grace. He wasn’t overly religious but he figured, “What could it hurt?” It was Pappy’s rule that everyone ask for things to be passed if you wanted something, take all you want but eat all you take. Simple rules all of them and there were others, believe me. That was one thing about Pappy, he wouldn’t always tell you about the rules first and then punish you if you broke one. Sometimes you got the kick in the britches first and then were notified of the existing rule.
Again, back to breakfast. Needless to say, Bob and I were starving and the table was overflowing with every kind of breakfast fare you could imagine. Eggs, bacon, ham, sausage, pancakes, toast, biscuits and gravy, you name it and it was there. We were so hungry we didn’t know where to start.
Pappy always went first, another rule, so everything went to him first. Not so bad, there was plenty for all. Bob and I ‘would’ get our share. After everything made its’ rounds and grace was said, Pappy picked up his fork. It was a wooden handled fork with three very, very sharp prongs. Pappy used it as an extension of his right arm and hand. Anything that was just out of reach he very adeptly snagged with the sharpened end of that wooden fork. I saw him reach across the table and snag a piece of bread and breaking his own rule of not reaching but asking to have it passed to you. I figured, well okay, maybe that rule isn’t in effect any longer so, I reached for a biscuit and whack. It was just like being hit by a rattlesnake. Not two but three little points of blood appeared as if from nowhere on the back of my right hand. I drew my hand back and covered it with the other. I looked at Pappy and asked him, ‘Why did you do that?”
He look at me an said, “You know the rules. No reachin’ across the table.”
I said, “But you just did it yourself.”
“My house, my rules.” he said. Then he smiled and threw me the biscuit.