– THE BEND IN THE RIVER –
By Edward L. Binkley
Being a city boy by birth, it was always a treat to go somewhere outside the city limits if only to the farm areas surrounding Chicago proper for fresh vegetables once every couple of weeks. Everything was so crowded in the city. People everywhere, cars hurrying past, trains billowing black coal smoke into the air along with factories pumping out goods and pollutants by the ton.
It was post World War II and the Korean War was still being fought. It was 1953 and I was turning six years old in October. I was going to start the first grade this year and we were going to celebrate by going up to northern Wisconsin to visit Aunt May and Pappy just outside of Tomahawk. They lived in a big white house just off the main road, at least it was the main road back then, and their property backed up to the Wisconsin River on the west bank.
I loved going up there during the summer. We would usually spend a week or so. Dad would go fishing with Pappy and he would sometime take me along. Pappy had a pretty short fuse when it came to kids. Don’t get me wrong, he was never mean or anything he just hated repeating himself and with kids, you did a lot of that.
When you caught him in the right mood though he would be as patient as Job and explain anything you asked about in great detail but, get him at the wrong moment and you’d think you just shot his favorite dog. He was a strange old duck.
I was just happy being there. I’ve written about this before but I never get tired of repeating it. It was a wonderful time to be a kid and a wonderful place to be when you were one.
I have to explain, for those of you new to my stories, that Aunt May and Pappy were not related to me at all. They were good friends of my dad and mom and kind of adopted me as one of their grand kids. Lucky, lucky me.
Aunt May was a great cook by anyone’s standards. Pappy bought her a brand new electric stove and had the electrician wire it in. May never used the thing. It just sat there until my mom or their daughter-in-law, Judy, would come up to visit. When May would allow them into her kitchen to help, they would use the electric contraption. She didn’t want anyone messing with her wood burning stove.
That was why Pappy had bought her the electric stove as a surprise, the wood burning stove used up a lot of wood. Not that he didn’t have enough forest to supply it; he was just tired of chopping, stacking and carrying the damn stuff. As he found out, some things just aren’t meant to be. As far as I know he chopped wood for that stove until the day May passed away and took all those wonderful cooking aromas with her.
– 2 –
Perhaps I should explain. May, like I said, was a fabulous cook and she cooked everything on her wood burning stove. The kitchen was on the north side of the house. The room that I slept in was on the north east corner of the house. It backed up to the kitchen and the old stove backed up to that bedroom wall. There was a door just to the left of the stove that was the entry to my bedroom. May would wake up early every morning and put on a pot of coffee to boil. Yes, I said boil. May was old school if you hadn’t guessed by now. For me, the smell of that coffee brewing and the wood in the stove burning are two of the most memorable aromas I can think of. Whenever I smell those two aromas together I’m right back in that feather bed waiting for the first sound of the bacon to start frying.
May would open the door just a crack to let all of the smells of the morning come drifting in. She didn’t want me to miss anything. Soon I would hear dad and mom shuffling around out in the kitchen and then Pappy would make his entrance and that would be my signal to slip out from under the down comforter and crisp air dried sheets and greet the new day and all it had in store, starting with a hearty breakfast ala Aunt May.
When you think of breakfast at a restaurant you might be tempted to order one of each item on the menu. At May’s table you got one of each without ordering it. There would be eggs, ham, bacon, sausage, pancakes or waffles, toast and jelly of many flavors, juice, milk, coffee always lots of coffee and sometimes sweet rolls for good measure. Now, you were ready for the day, that is, if you could get up from the table.
I have to throw in one more little fact that, if forgotten, could raise blood from newly found holes in the back of your hand. Pappy had rules even at the table. Take all you want but eat all you take. Waste not, want not. And, there would be no reaching across the table. If you wanted something ask for it and it will be passed to you.
One day at an evening meal, Bob Merwin, one of Pappy’s real grand kids who was a year or two older than me , and I were waiting our turn for the goodies on the table. We saw Pappy reach across the table and snag a piece of bread with his three pronged, wooden handled fork. A fork that he kept sharpened to needle point sharpness. Well, Bob and I thought that the ban of reaching across the table had been lifted so, like Pappy we reached for the rolls. Before we had time to react, that fork got both of us in the back of our hands, neat as you please thank-you very much.
We withdrew our now punctured hands and inspected the damage. Three very neat little drops of blood appeared as if by magic through three little holes that mere seconds ago were not there. We looked at each other and then at Pappy whose fork had been retracted back into its sheath and asked him why he did that. He repeated the rule about no reaching across the table. We then reminded him that he had done the very same thing just before we had. He went on to explain one other little exception to that rule. “My house, my table, my rules.” We then asked him to pass the rolls and he threw them at us and
– 3 –
started laughing, so did everyone else. Bob and I just looked at each other and shrugged then we, too, laughed while we held paper napkins over our wounded pride, more-or-less.
That little episode happened a couple years later when we were eight or nine years old. You’d think we would have known better by then wouldn’t you? Well, back to the story at hand. After finishing Mays glorious breakfast, I got dressed and walked out onto the back porch where we had all just eaten. Mom and May were clearing the remnants of breakfast and the dirty dishes from the big round table. The porch is screened in for summer use because of the airplane sized mosquito’s and other insects of unusually large sizes that inhabit the area. I was one of the lucky ones that the mosquito’s generally left alone. I guess I had a natural repellant or something. They landed, they tickled my arm or whatever and then they would look for a more tasty prey.
As I walked down the steps to the backyard I would always survey the area as if for the first time. To the left was the garage what Pappy called his shop. In front of the garage about twenty feet or so was a tree that dad, Pappy and the other hunters would use to bleed and skin the deer after the hunt. Off to the right of the garage was Pappy’s old, and I do mean old, yellow tractor. It had one of those steel seats that are form fitting, if you know what I mean, and looks kind of like Swiss cheese with all the holes. When I refer to it as yellow I’m being rather generous. It was mostly rust with a little yellow showing here and there. But, it still ran and that was all anyone cared about who needed it to pull a boat out of the water or put one in.
About forty feet to the right of the garage was and old Model-T truck that was up on blocks. It’s driving days were over but it’s usefulness around the homestead were still just as important as ever. Pappy used it for cutting May’s wood for that confounded stove of hers as Pappy would put it. Pappy had built a heavy metal stand and fastened a huge circular saw blade to it with a drive wheel connected to the rear tire of the old truck with a thick, six inch wide leather and rubber strap. When he would fire up the truck and put her in gear, you could hear the whine of that big blade for over a mile. He had a cradle on a track where he would place the logs and then push them through the blade as they dropped to the ground. He wouldn’t let us kids near the blade while it was moving but when he took it out of gear, he’d give the order to retrieve and stack the logs by the house. No work, no food. Another rule.
If you looked all the way to the south side of the house there was a fence about four feet high separating the main house from the little quonset hut just on the other side and the little beer bar just a little further away. Pappy owned the bar but leased it out to one of the neighbors. He had no interest in running even a small bar in the middle of nowhere. I, on the other hand, went there frequently either for a strawberry soda or an Uno bar or both. It was another of those places that had a smell all its own. The mixture of years of cigarette smoke and stale beer was intoxicating. You would think that it would be repulsive but, strangely enough, it wasn’t. Every once in a while I’ll walk into a small bar yet today and get that whiff of familiarity that will take me back to that little bar on the side of the highway.
– 4 –
As I reverse my scan back to the left and just before I get to the old truck and saw stand, there’s an overgrown path that leads down to the river bank. The grass is green and about shin high. You can distinguish the path where cars and the yellow tractor have traveled. There are wheel ruts on either side of the raised area in the middle but the grass has filled in the ruts. They’re still there just not used as much as before. It’s mostly foot traffic now. That will be the path I’ll be taking.
I’m almost never in a hurry when I’m up north. Unusual for a six year old who runs everywhere when at home. I find myself strolling like the older folks and looking everywhere. I have walked this way so many times yet I am still amazed at the beauty even at my young age back then. As I go over the final rise and around the trees leading to the river, I can start to hear the water of the river as it flows past and under the dock now just thirty feet or so away.
Again, the smells of the river are unique as well. The rotting foliage on the upper banks and the water soaked trees at the waters edge. The smell of dead fish and bate that permeates the planks of the old dock from years of use as a cutting and cleaning spot. Scales from the last fish cleaned here shine in the early morning light like little flakes of pearl on the wooden deck. There are Pappy’s three small boats that are floating and bumping together in the on rushing current. The smell of oil and gas for the outboard motors on two of the three boats that stay mostly dry inside and the dark green metal boat that leaks from God only knows where. You want to stay close to the pier with that one.
It’s still relatively early and the mist hasn’t cleared from the river banks yet. It hangs over the water like fog over the ocean only lower and less dense. Little patches break loose from the shore line and float out over the center of the river where it disappears only to return with the evening chill. It’s quiet and except for the water brushing against the shore and foliage hanging over its banks it’s like Mother Nature has let everyone sleep in this morning.
I always sat on the edge of the dock and let my feet dangle off the side. The dock was high enough and the water low enough where I didn’t have to worry about getting my shoes wet. Swinging my feet back and forth and looking down the river and then back up river again, it’s easy to get lost in thought. I got that Tom Sawyer feeling (although I hadn’t read the book yet) of adventure and wonder. A boy’s imagination can really run away with him if he lets it and I always let mine run wild.
As I would sit there and let my mind drift with the current, an occasional fish would break the water and dive back down. It was as if it were saying hello and come on, try to catch me if you can. That was a challenge my dad would relish but not me. I wasn’t much of a fisherman or a hunter for that matter. My dad took care of those things but I feel he was a little disappointed I didn’t follow in his footsteps in that regard. I was more of a watcher of nature. After seeing Bambi for the umpteenth time there was no way I could ever go out and shoot a deer. Forget it. Not happening in my lifetime.
– 5 –
The river, any river, has always held a fascination with me. Where had it started, where does it end and what marvelous things does it see, if it had eyes, along its journey? Are there kids just like me sitting on other docks or standing on banks or levees asking these very same questions? Are they looking into the muddy waters of the Wisconsin River or some other river wondering and dreaming of what lies just out of sight?
I sincerely hope so, I hope there are thousands of them and I hope they continue to ask and to wonder and to marvel at the flowing giants that played such an important part in our countries growth and continued well-being. Some of the romance associated with the river may be gone but enough is still there that we can bring it back for a visit now and then can’t we? When was the last time you took some time to look at a river? I mean really look at it not just glance in its direction and say,” Oh yeah, very nice, now let’s go.”
I still like to sit on a rock or a pier and chuck a stone or two. Skim a flat rock off the glassy surface of a smooth running river. Or dream a dream of places I haven’t seen. The dreams of days gone by when the steamboats and river barges plied the inland water ways delivering goods and people to water front towns and cities. It was a time when the river boat gamblers were the princes of the paddle wheelers and women in fine Paris gowns and sparkling jewels paraded around the promenade. The smoke from fancy cigars wafted from the gambling rooms and drifted off into the dark of the rivers night.
It was a time of adventure and great wonder especially for us who were not there during that period. All we can do is imagine what it was like and read of others experiences and rely on their accounts or, we might make up are own. We might decide that our imagination might just give a more special meaning to whatever lies just around the next bend in the river.