Mornings: Smells Great

After school let out at Augusta High School following our junior and senior years, John Luding and I worked for two or three weeks for Paul Slagle, a contract baler. When the alfalfa matured in May, Paul would go around to local farmers and bale the hay after it had been cut and raked. Paul would pick John and I up at our homes a little before 6:00am, and take us to whatever farm we were working that day. When we got out of the pick-up, and our feet hit the ground, it was like the fragrance of that fresh cut alfalfa enveloped us and everything in the vicinity. The scent was so overwhelming. Since that time, whenever we are driving through the Imperial Valley or any other alfalfa producing area, the smell takes me back to that time years ago. I love it.

Dave Thomas
3/5/2020

Uncle Dave’s Basement

Uncle Dave’s Basement

My great uncle, Dave Peebler, and his wife, Rachel, built their house at 124 High Street in 1923. It was a nice place with three bedrooms and a bath upstairs, and a full basement downstairs that had 2 bedrooms and a bath as well as a bunch of free space. In the basement, was a gas range for cooking in one area, and a Maytag washer in another. The furnace, a part of the central heating system, was there as well. Part of the free space contained a workshop area and part of one wall was covered by floor to ceiling shelves for storage.

 

Over the years, I had many connections to the basement as well as the rest of the house. This story probably should start with my Mom. Mom’s mother died when Mom was only eight years old. Mom’s dad couldn’t care for her, so she was passed around to different family members until she was taken in by her Grandmother Minnie. Later, when she was in high school, she was taken in by Uncle Dave and Aunt Rachel. I think that after her high school graduation, she stayed with them for a couple more years. After Mom married Dad, they lived in an apartment above a store downtown. This was during the depression, and Dad was doing what he could to find work and keep some money coming in. He wasn’t able to bring in enough to keep us going, so when I was about three years old, Mom, Dad, my sister, Sylvia, and I moved into Uncle Dave’s basement.

 

I only remember two things from this time period. The first was that I had violated two rules of the house and ended up getting hurt. The first rule was, “Don’t run with a pencil in your hand,” and the second was “Don’t try to hurry down the stairs.” I had gone upstairs to get a pencil and then ran through the house to the stairway. I fell down the stairs and jabbed myself in the middle of the forehead with the pencil. The worst part was that for the next few years when Mom or Aunt Rachel needed an example, they would point to my scar and say, “Here’s what happens when you don’t follow the rules.” The other thing I remember from the time we lived in the basement was that one day I realized that my Dad wasn’t around. I asked Mom and she said he couldn’t find work and so he had gone to Western Kansas. He was working in a store out there. Fifty years later, when I became interested in genealogy and family history, I found one of Dad’s uncles had a general store in Atwood in Rawlins County, Kansas.

 

Things got better in the summer of 1941 when Dad was hired by the local refinery. We moved out of the basement and into the house at 19 Cliff Drive. In a short time, two brothers, Ray and Russ Larsen, moved into the basement. In a few months, the war started, and the brothers were drafted. The last time I saw Ray while he was in a Class A uniform, he was wearing the stripes of a master sergeant. While the guys were in the Army, their clothes and their personal items were stored in one of the bedrooms. After the war, Ray lived in the basement for a year or two. I don’t know where Russ was, but a few years later he came back to town. He and his wife, Sarah, opened Larsen’s shoe store on the west side of State Street, across from the bank. In their store, they had one of those magic x-ray machines that you stick your foot in and see the bones of your toes and the outline of your shoe.

 

During World War II, almost everyone had a Victory Garden. The war had caused quite a shortage of food. The able-bodied men who would normally be raising crops on the farms had been drafted. Then, what crops were produced had to be processed and sent overseas to feed the thousands of men were sending over there.

 

Aunt Rachel and Uncle Dave had an acre or so out on Custer Lane, at the edge of town. They put in a large victory garden there and let my folks have a garden there also. When the green beans came in, Mom and Aunt Rachel decided to work together and can a lot of them. They set up the basement as their efficient green bean canning factory. I don’t know how the process works, but I know Mason jars, pressure cookers, and a stove are used. We heard Mom and Aunt Rachel talking about pressure cooker explosions being reported, and that they must be careful. Well, sure as heck, one of the jars exploded and green beans and glass went flying across the room. Sylvia had some bad luck as a piece of glass hit her in the forehead, and she was cut badly enough that she probably still has the scar. The rest of us and the basement were pretty well covered with green beans.

 

Another time, Mom and Aunt Rachel decided to make soap which was in short supply during the war. They acquired lye from someplace, and used it to make their own. After that, we had plenty of soap on hand.

 

After a fantastic cucumber harvest, they decided to make pickles. They had crocks all over the basement. They made dill pickles, sweet pickles, bread and butter pickles, and relish. It was stored for the family. We were in pickle heaven.

 

We didn’t have a washing machine or a car after we moved to the house on Cliff Drive. On laundry day, Aunt Rachel would haul us up to her house. Sylvia and I were young, so we had to tag along. One day, I was so bored I asked Mom if I could help with the washing. She was wringing out a load and said I could help. After receiving instructions and warnings to be careful, I started feeding clothes into the wringer of the old Maytag machine, and it wasn’t long before the thing grabbed my fingers and pulled my hand clear into the wringer. I let out a yell, and Mom stopped the machine. She opened up the top and got my hand out. No broken bones- just another case of humiliation.

 

My next memory of the basement involved Uncle Dave’s guns. In one room, two guns were hanging. One was a double-barreled 10 gauge, and the other was an over-and-under with a .410 on top and a .22 on the bottom. I don’t know where Uncle Dave got them. He wasn’t a hunter.

 

I had traded for a .22 when I was 12 years old so I could start rabbit hunting. I also wanted to hunt ducks, so Uncle Dave let me borrow the 10 gauge whenever I wanted. I shot at some tin cans with the 10 gauge, and I’m telling you, the recoil was pretty nasty. I don’t think I ever shot a duck with it. That was probably a good thing for I hate the taste of duck meat.

 

Pat and I got married in 1957, soon after I joined the Navy. One of the perks of graduating in the top five of my class at Aviation Electronics school was that I got to pick my next duty station. So, California, here we come! We got to San Diego in 1958, and that has been home ever since. We soon had Russ, Doug, and Terri, and as they grew up in the 1960’s and 1970’s, we tried to go back to Kansas every year or two.

 

Uncle Dave had always enjoyed estate sales and farm auctions. When he retired, he went to a lot more of them. If he found a good buy, it usually ended up in the basement. So, the basement was full of all kinds of odds and ends, and ready for the kids. Uncle Dave had always encouraged them to go downstairs and explore.

 

One of the main attractions was the black walnuts. There was a black walnut tree in the back yard, so Uncle Dave always had a keg or a bucket full of them. There was a work bench in the basement with a vise mounted on it. Using a nearby hammer, you could crack the nuts against the vise. There were always a couple of nut picks handy so you could dig out the meat.

 

Another favorite was the hand drill. We used to call it a “hurdy-gurdy.” There was an old wind-up Victrola phonograph with a stack of records that ranged from Perry Como to Turkey in the Straw. There were several whet stones. Uncle Dave prided himself on being able to put a keen edge on any kind of blade. Russ tested the blade of an axe, and cut his finger when barely touching it. There were several items that Uncle Dave built himself. There was a table saw that doubled as a work bench, a battery charger for his truck battery, a bit for a horse, and a hunting knife. There were old monkey wrenches and a 36 inch Stilson pipe wrench. There were drill bits for wood and metal, and taps for cutting threads. There was a stack of National Geographics in one corner. Who can throw away those beautiful pictures? There was a pair of World War I puttees. Who knows why? The basement was full of new things to learn and new nomenclature to use. For instance, in addition to the table saw, there was a bucksaw, a crosscut saw, a rip saw, a keyhole saw, and a coping saw. The kids learned a lot from Uncle Dave and his tools and junk. He often let the kids pick something from the basement to keep. Terri really liked an old saxophone she found, so she took it home and still has it. Doug remembers Uncle Dave calling them to come up from the basement for lunch which included what Uncle Dave called “Smearcase,” a name for cottage cheese derived from an old German term. The kids thought that was pretty funny.

 

Uncle Dave passed away first. A few years later, Aunt Rachel passed. Their daughter, Maxine (Peebler) Fisher came down from Denver and settled the estate. She sold the house and all of it’s contents to our friend, Keith Scholfield, a realtor in Augusta. Keith said it took several days and a lot of truckloads to clear out that basement.

Read It Again

Our granddaughter, Michelle, is a very bright young lady and a college graduate. Despite these attributes, she has her lapses just like the rest of us.

A few years ago, Pat and I were living in Keller, Texas, a small community on the northern edge of Fort Worth. Michelle had come from her home in San Diego to visit us in the period between school terms. We had been showing her around and decided to go to San Antonio so she could see the Alamo and River Walk.

Michelle volunteered to drive, and we were happy for the chance to relax. One morning, we headed south and in about an hour and a half, we were approaching a town. Michelle glanced at a sign from the corner of her eye and snorted. “What kind of people would name their town ‘WACKO?’” Pat and I both laughed and said, “Read the sign again, Shell!” She took another look, and said, “Oh. It’s WACO!” She laughed with us as Pat and I watched her face turn red.

Dave Thomas

November 21, 2019

 

Favorites

If you didn’t see the Ken Burns documentary “Country Music” on PBS in September, you really missed a winner. We really enjoyed hearing the singers and the songs we have enjoyed over the years. Check the PBS programming and catch this show the next time it comes around.

As much as I enjoyed the show, I’ll have to admit that I was disappointed that they didn’t include two of my favorite songs. These two prize winners are: “If You See Me Getting Smaller, I’m Leavin’,” and “When I Get Done Leavin’, I’ll Be Gone.”

Dave Thomas
October 3, 2019

Ringers, Leaners, and Bull’s-eyes

The city of Augusta, Kansas had a parcel of land that became a site for horseshoe pitching and an archery range. On West 7th Street, go about half a block west from Walnut Street, and on the north side, you will find a small, red brick building that is a pump house for the city’s water system. The parcel that the pump house sits on is a city block long. It runs from 7th Street to where the old high school tennis courts were located. It’s a green space, but I have never heard it named a park. One day, we noticed that a group of men had gathered just north of the pump house. Naturally, we had to check this out, and we soon learned that these men had formed a horseshoe pitching league, and were going to dig the pits. At the time, I knew most of the men, but, for the life of me, I can no longer recall all of their names. The one I do remember is Newt Dennett. Newt was the spark plug of the outfit, and he was heavily involved in the construction of the pits as well as organizing the tournaments after. Newt must have been self-employed. I think he sold insurance or real estate. He seemed to have plenty of time to help with the construction project and later spent a lot of time practicing the pitching of horseshoes. That was a lucky thing for us neighborhood kids as he taught us the rules and how to properly pitch horseshoes.

Like most kids, I apparently didn’t pay attention to the important stuff. I remember that there were four or five perfectly aligned pits with matching pits about 15 or 20 feet away. (I don’t know what the spec for the distance was.) The pits were exactly the same size. The target pegs were exactly vertical and in the same spot in every pit. Thinking about it now, I realize that there must have been a welded metal structure for each pit that was jig built to the exact dimension.

One weekend, a couple of the men drove a truck to another town and came back with a load of fine, gray clay. The clay was smooth and pure. They filled the pits with the clay, and it proved to be the perfect material for the job. Having been taught the proper way to pitch horseshoes, I wanted to get serious about the sport. I didn’t have money to buy a set of horseshoes, but I had a good collection of rusty old shoes I had found at farms around the area. They didn’t work. Real horseshoes aren’t much good for pitching.

The horseshoe fad lasted for a few years, and then fizzled out. There were quite a few tournaments, and the local guys had some good times.

Meanwhile, up toward the north end of the property, an archery group was busy with their hobby. They had a nice professionally- made target. It was made of straw placed into about a 4 foot diameter circle, and it was about 12 inches thick. It had a cover made of oil cloth with the bull’s-eye and circles stenciled on it. The target was hung on a big easel. IT was kept in a shed or locked box about 4 feet by 3 feet in size. The archers were good folks, and didn’t mind answering questions for a bunch of kids.

One day, the storage shed disappeared and we had no idea were the archery group had gone. A few weeks later, I was with my great uncle, Dave Peebler, who was visiting his rental property that was located at the northern most part of Custer Lane; it butted up against the golf course. I looked over and saw the archery club guys and their target. I went over, and the leader of the group recognized me and started telling me about their new location. He was a wiry little guy, friendly, and always ready to talk about archery with any kid that showed up. It turned out that they had moved to their new location under the cottonwoods at the extreme west end of the golf course because most of their members lived up in the north end of town. I was glad that they were happy in their new home.

It’s Not Easy

Today, I have to depart from my usual type of storytelling. We have a topic here that can no longer be denied.

A famous frog once sang, “It’s not easy being green.” That’s true, not only for frogs, but also for peas. People are always bad-rapping the pea and only because they have never learned how to properly prepare it. Nowadays, the pea is used more for its color than it is for its nutritional value. A cook or chef will plate up a pork chop or a chicken breast, add mashed potatoes and gravy, and then realize that what they have dished up really looks boring. So, to add a little color and excitement to the plate, they toss on a bunch of peas. It’s true, that they have added some color, but they have also added a component that is cold and dry and boring as hell. What a crumby way to treat a pea.

To properly prepare peas, open some canned peas or frozen peas, and put them in a pan. Add enough water to cover the peas well, and then do a good job of cooking them. When the peas are hot and well-cooked, ladle them into a side dish and make sure you add enough juice to cover them. Add a sliver of butter and some salt and pepper and you have a tasty dish that is ready to serve.  Eat the peas with a spoon so you get plenty of that delicious juice.  Bon Apetit!

That’s all I have to say about peas.

Dave Thomas

August 8, 2019

 

 

Houses on the Move

It’s always been a surprise to me to pull up to a stop sign, diligently look both ways, and see a house coming down the street at me. That always wakes me up. Houses are supposed to remain fixed, and not be coming at you. That kind of thing isn’t seen much anymore, but years ago was quite common. When towns were formed, the businessmen built their homes within walking distance of the main street. Later, as the towns grew, the citizens moved a little further out. The original homes, now much older, were torn down or, if in good condition, moved to a new location. The land had value though the homes themselves may have lost theirs. Sometimes the homes were sold and then moved, or if someone just wanted to develop the property, they might give the house away rather than suffer the expense of tearing it down. This is how house moving developed into a business, and it became quite popular after the 1930’s. I don’t know much about moving houses, but I can tell you a couple of stories.

 

My cousin, George P. Sicks, graduated from high school in Iola, Kansas during the days of the dust bowl and the Great Depression. There wasn’t much work in farming country for a young man at that time, so George looked for greener pastures. He hitchhiked to Los Angeles and walked the streets looking for work there. Finally, in the city of Long Beach, he hooked up with a man who moved houses. There was enough work to keep George busy most of the time. However, George wanted to do better for himself, so he continued to look for work. He finally found the perfect solution. He found an evening job building movie sets for one of the movie production companies. So, when there were houses to move, he did that during the daylight hours, and in the evenings, worked on the movie sets. He finally was making enough money to live comfortably without wondering where his next meal was coming from.

 

When I was growing up in Augusta, Kansas, we had one man who specialized in moving houses. His name was Boler Wilson. Boler was a quiet man with a set of shoulders that gave the impression that he could pull a house down the street by himself. Boler and Mrs. Wilson lived in the eleven hundred block of School Street, I think, the last house before 12th Street. Every now and then, as kids, we would spot Boler towing some house down the street. Aside from the trucks pulling the house, there were usually men on foot with long polls to push tree branches and telephone lines out of the way.

 

My dad, Al Thomas, was a brick layer and concrete block layer. Boler sometimes hired him to build a foundation for a home after it was moved to its new location. Normally, it was a concrete block job, and when I got older, I was able to work for Dad, mixing mud and carrying the concrete blocks.

That’s really all I know about the house-moving business. I’m still amazed by the memory of houses going down the street.

Dave Thomas

July 31, 2019