Look to the Stars
by Alice Isom Gubler Stratton
Chapter 10
In Which Papa Has Another Son
(1922)

48 In the spring of 1922, Kate graduated from the first, Second Year High School Class held in Hurricane. After school was out, she went to Cedar to work for Gwen Matheson. Annie had a summer job working in Zion Canyon at "The Wiley Way."

And Mildred came down with one of the most severe cases of construction fever that ever hit a fourteen-year-old girl. She took it out on the steps outside the kitchen door. Why those steps were as much a part of the house as the roof was, and I would never have dreamed of changing them. But Mildred had visions of a cement porch. From somewhere, she came up with a faded pair of bib overalls that had room enough in them for two of her. (Papa only wore waist overalls held up with galluses.)

Mildred ripped away the wooden steps and hauled wheelbarrow load after load of rocks, filling up a form she had built of boards. Her endurance was uncanny. Just one load of rocks like she hauled, was enough to do me under. But it was her project, and she persisted. Papa provided the cement and she hand-mixed it and dumped it over the rocks. Then I think she wore out, because the porch was never troweled, but had a rustic, rugged, non-skid finish. It was possible to trip, but never to slip on Mildred's dream porch. And it endured for years, a lasting monument to our sister.

It was interesting how attractive Mildred was to the boy who lived through the block, while she slaved away, blistering her hands on rocks and cement. He reclined under the cherry tree next to the house, trying to flirt with her. Boy friends were something new in our family. We figured ourselves to be the shy, spinster type. Papa cautioned Mildred not to take up with any boy that would loll in the shade making sweet talk, while she pushed the wheelbarrow. "He is nothing but a trashy, lazy lot," he warned.

Mildred went to work for Grandma Petty on week days and for Hannah Hall on Saturdays. Every other week, I had to help Mildred carry Petty's washing home. It was packed tight in a No. 1 tub, along with the homemade lye soap. The tub was heavy and we had to set it down often in the two and one-half blocks, to change hands.

Washing took all day. The fire under the black tub had to be built far enough away from the house to avoid the smoke. We had no hose, but carried every bucket of water from the tap by the porch, down the path to the tub. When the water was hot, we poured in a teaspoon of lye and a gray scum of hard-water rose thick to the top. After skimming this off, we carried the hot water up the path, up the steps and into the kitchen to fill the "Easy" washer. Every drop of wash water and rinse water had to be carried in and carried out, bucket full at a time. And the clothesline was beyond the garden by the lucern patch, quite a distance for carrying heavy, half-wrung out baskets of clothes. Sometimes it took the following day for things to dry. By the time they were gathered, folded and hand-carried back in the cumbersome tub, we had earned fifty-cents each. Before the "Easy" washer came into our home, everything had to be 49 scrubbed on the board. I have no nostalgic longings for the "good old wash days."

And no nostalgic longing for bare, pine board floors. With my sisters away, the Saturday scrubbing fell more often to me. Lye soap and one hour of scrubbing and rinsing made every board look new, but left my water-wrinkled fingers raw with lye holes, my knees red and swollen, and an ache in my back. The woven rag carpet had long since been discarded, hooked and braided scatter rugs taking its place. Linoleum covered the other floors in the house.

By this time I was fairly well trained for scrubbing floors on my hands and knees. Homer and Joe (Josephine) Englestead rented our two north rooms. We loved to tend their little girl Alice, and Joe often flattered me into scrubbing her floors.

While I scrubbed, Joe would say, "Alice, you are a champion floor scrubber. If I were you, I'd ask my mother to let me scrub floors all of my life. No one can do it better than you." And then before I'd groan at the thought, she'd say, "Open your mouth."

Sitting back on my heels, I'd open my mouth and she'd pop a chocolate into it. Ummmm! How good, how good. On and on I'd scrub. When I was finished, she'd pay me a dime. It wasn't the flattery, nor the dime that kept me scrubbing, but the chocolates.

Joe was a story teller. Her quick sense of humor and keen imagination made her a natural. She used to tell us tales about people and places she knew.

"I used to get 'A' in English Class for my compositions," she'd say. "Mine were the best. You have to tell some whoppers to be the best."

She used to tell of a kid named Ed who was tampering with tobacco. His mother suspected it, so she asked him to kiss her goodnight, but he refused. Instead, he clomped outside, climbed the ladder to the attic and crawled into bed without even saying his prayers. His conscience nagged him and he could see his mother's troubled face.

He tumbled and tossed and pretty soon a swarm of little red devils scampered up the ladder into the attic and danced upon his bed. Then he heard a rumbling and bellowing and the old bull lumbered from the pasture and came puffing up the ladder.

Sticking his monstrous fat head in the attic window, he rumbled, "Ed, Ed, get up and say your prayers."

Ed was scared almost to death and he got up and prayed. The little devils left, the bull went back down the ladder and Ed kept himself fit to kiss his mother every night after that.

Edith's and LaPriel's Saturday job was to scrub the wooden chairs and sweep the yard. Sometimes they kept sweeping until little paths went right up to Mama's flower beds, and a broad, impressive path was swept all the way to the barn. We didn't have a lawn, but hard-packed dirt yards, bordered with flowers, pomegranates and grapes.

When the Saturday's cleaning was done, we were free to climb the hill to gather wild flowers. We must have denuded the Hurricane Hill, because 50 we picked every larkspur, buttercup or sego lily we could find.

One Saturday, I hiked to the river with Retta Humphries, she brought along a frying pan and a couple of trout and we fried them by the river bank. Eating out of that frying pan was a most satisfying adventure. Later I learned that Retta's family was upset over the mysterious disappearance of the fish.

For sometime now I had been Grandma Isom's sleeping companion. I slept in the big folding bed that had a full length mirror underneath. When the bed was folded up against the wall in the daytime, it looked like a polished, hardwood wardrobe. Grandma slept on a spool cot at the foot of my bed. The cot swayed like a hammock at the slightest touch. If Grandma was in bed asleep and someone accidentally bumped into her cot, it sent her into one of her "spells." "Heart spells" is what she called them. Actually it was gas crowding her heart. The pain was terrible and sometimes she screamed in such agony she could be heard as far away as Aunt Mary Campbell's. My job was to rub her back and arms until she got relief. Grandma said I had the right touch. As I rubbed up her arms, and up from the small of her back, the gas began to move and she burped again and again. Then limp and exhausted, she'd fall asleep. These nightly spells came so regularly that I automatically got up and rubbed her in my sleep.

On summer afternoons we often played in the dusty road in the shade of the Lombardy poplars. We played Steal Sticks, Pomp, Pomp, Pull Away or Prisoner's Base. Run, Sheep, Run, the most spine-chilling game of all, had to be played in the dark. This was no game for sissies. It had suspense and daring. The players were divided into two teams, each with a captain. A bonfire or a street light was home base. One team stayed on base while the second team disappeared into the dark to hide and to decide upon their code calls. Then their captain returned to base. The home team began their search and the hidden team's captain continually called out the position of the searchers in code, such as "lizzard", which might mean "We're approaching from the south", or "black bear", which could mean "Lay low, for we're close to you." The hidden team silently crawled through corn patches, grape vinyards and fences, sneaking toward home base, their hearts thumping as they listened for the signals. The searchers moved stealthily, alert for every sound. The squeaking of a gate or the snapping of twigs could send them racing back to base. If the hidden team's captain sensed the danger of them being discovered, or if their position was right, he'd call "Run sheep, run!" and both teams crashed through the fields for home. The first man to arrive on base claimed the victory for his team. This game was thrilling and chilling even in 100° weather.

On the thirteenth of July, our brother Wayne was born. Since we already had two little boys in the family, Wayne's coming was quietly accepted as an added blessing. He was an entertaining little kid, and fit right in with the rest of the family.

Back to school again, Paul Gates was my sixth-grade teacher. In our room were two "tough guys" who had been held back a couple of years. They never opened a book or took part in a discussion. They still thought it was still funny to disappear up the air hole and be brough back to class by a juvenile officer. One recess they stayed out longer than the other students and when they finally swaggered in, their corncob pipes protruding from their shirt pockets, they reeked of tobacco.

51 "All right you fellows, bring those pipes to my desk," Mr. Gates demanded.

Instantly they leaped upon him, pinning him down. Terrified, we watched the tangle of feet and fists. One of the students darted from the room and returned with the principal, who grabbed the ruffians by their collars. They were expelled from school, never to return.

Karl Larsen was our music teacher. When he taught us to read notes, I became excited about learning to play the organ. Enthusiastically, I studied the organ book that was stored in the music compartment of our treadle organ. After I had mastered "The Mosquito Waltz", I informed one of my classmates that I was going to be a musician.

"Let me look at your hands," he said. Taking my hand in his, he spread out my fingers. "You'll never learn to play," he said flatly.

"Why won't I?" I asked.

"Because your hands aren't shaped right. Your fingers aren't long enough."

What a let down. Foolishly, I believed him and quit trying, except to fiddle out a few tunes by ear, like "Springtime in the Rockies."

In October, when the sweet smell of steaming cane juice wafted across town, we knew Will Wilson's molasses mill was running. After our Saturday's work was through, Mama often let us take our lard bucket to the mill, and Will always filled it with skimmings. The pulp and trash from the cane was in the skimmings, but there was enough syrup underneath the foam to make a batch of candy. If we didn't have almonds, we used peach pits for nuts, which made the candy a little bitter. Eating too much of it made our stomachs ache. Golda Campbell was sick a long time from eating peach pit candy. More than the satisfaction of eating the candy, was the fun of cracking the hard shelled pits and of trekking to the mill, and seeing things on the way, especially the tiny toads no bigger than honey bees.

On winter afternoons when school was through, we played baseball in the street. Even when I hit the ball, I could never beat it to first base. In choosing up teams, they always chose me last. I could have developed a complex, except for the fact that in school when they chose up sides for a spelling match, I was always chosen first.

I don't know whether Papa answered an advertisment, or how the Excelcis representative happened to call at our house, but call he did. And while he subtly hypnotized Papa, my Lee's Manufacturing exploits leaped to Papa's mind and my potential qualities loomed before him, and I was signed up to take the agency. What Papa didn't realize was that my salesman days were over. It had been nothing more than a passing childhood fancy. By now I dearly hated selling. No matter! In one brief hour, I got all twelve lessons on how to mesmerize the housewife, or how to hoodwink her into thinking she couldn't live without what I had to sell.

What a gloomy, sad day! The bold confidence I had felt when I earned my little vanity case, or my ruby birthstone ring, had long since turned to self-consciousness, and I was actually afraid.

But sally forth I must! Filling my hands with little yellow price lists. Papa sent me out into the world to seek my fortune. Timidly 52 I knocked on the first door, hoping no one would answer, but in those days everyone was at home. When a lady suddenly appeared before me, all of the door approaches the representative had taught me fled from my mind. Timidly, I half whispered, "You don't want to buy any extracts of spices do you?"

"No I don't. We have plenty," she answered.

"I have face powder, coconut pie filling and lemon pie filling," I added.

"Pie filling?" Her eyebrow raised.

"And cake mixes," I added hurridly.

"Tell me about your pie fillings and cake mixes," she asked.

Ready mixes had not yet appeared in grocery stores. I was in business. Curious customers were eager to try my mixes and so was I. I squandered my first month's commission on them. The cake was the crustiest, best morsel I had ever eaten. (Every cake was the best I had ever eaten, the one at the moment that is, because cakes were rare.)

I was a little dubious about pushing cosmetics. Hearing Papa and Grandma talk of the Harlots of the Virgin Oil Boom Days, had given me the idea that only bad women used make-up and perfume. Still I was aware that when Grandma was decked in her satin and lace and the kid curlers unwound from her hair, she smelled of carnations and her skin had the look of velvet. But I was apologetic about selling a sinful thing like face powder and when I told Annie Wright (who was the age of Mama) that the Daughters of Zion shouldn't use such things, she bought some.

Right then I shed my Quaker standards. That's when I started dabbling with my perfume samples, which came in thin glass tubes. One of them broke in my pocket at school during music period one day.

"Phew!" Mr. Larsen exclaimed, "What's that stifling smell?"

"It's Alice," one of the boys piped up.

"Open the windows before we smother. Alice, you may leave the room."

Wafting the aroma of lilacs, I drifted out, knowing I had blessed the room with a breath of spring. It was almost time for school to let out for the day anyway.

Papa was a Republican. In all of the history of Washington County, there had been only one Republican sent to the State Legislature, and that was J. W. Imlay of Hurricane, two years before. At election time we heard a lot ahout politics in our home. This year an interesting race for the State Legislature was putting Hurricane on the map, because both the Democrat and Republican candidates were from our town. David Hirschi, Republican, was running against Charlie Petty, Democrat.

Even as good a Republican as Papa was, he surprised us just before election day by coming in with a wide grin and a flat can of McGown's salmon—a salmon steak, it was, like you never find in a can anymore.

"Where did you get that?" Mama asked.

"Charlie Petty gave it to me," Papa replied.

53 "You take that right back," she demanded. "Charlie Petty isn't going to buy our votes."

I looked at the can of salmon, my digestive juices flowing with a sudden sensation of total starvation. The room became very tense. Papa put up some kind of plea, but Mama was firm. Papa seemed so meek and Mama so mghty, their roles were completely reversed. Papa was on trial and I so much wanted him to win. This is the only recollection I have of Mama ever opposing Papa.

Then I guess Mama got to thinking how humiliating it would be for Papa to have to return the salmon, and how domineering it would make her appear. She loved Papa, so she let him convince her that Charlie only gave him the salmon as a friendly gesture. So we opened the can and put that beautiful steak on a plate for supper, and David Hirschi won the election.

What a heap of difference there was between our little brothers. Willie was still the top star in Papa's heaven, because he arrived before Clinton and Wayne. At five, he still had a bit of angel shining through his wit and mischief, and knew how to influence people. Clinton, at two and one-half, was already off on exploring expeditions. His interest was not so much in people as it was in places and things. He learner to climb the highest piece of furniture before he could even walk. He had an insatiable curiosity that led him into everything. Fondly we called him "Freckles", not because he had freckles, but because of the song that said, "Freckles was his name. He always used to get the blame, for every broken window pane," etc.

In a letter to Annie, dated November 6, 1922, I wrote: "I'll tell you about the main thing first. That is chasing our cows in every few minutes, or chasing the neighbor's cattle out of our corn and putting the pig in, or taking Clinton off the table and out of the slop bucket and cleaning up preserves which he brakes the bottle of preserves on the floor."

Wayne was still in the age of innocence, a little doll in his dainty, white dresses.

Thanksgiving day, which was normally a day of happy expectancy, dawned forlorn and lonely. Grandma was away, sharing herself with her daughters. Annie was living with Uncle Will and Aunt Kate Palmer and going to school at the B.A.C. in Cedar, and Kate was working in Cedar too. Even Mildred was helping someone else on this particular day, and Mama was sick in bed. This was the first Thanksgiving I could recall when there weren't pies and cakes made ahead, and a suet pudding bubbling in its little cotton sack in a kettle on the stove. Such bleakness was almost crushing.

"Mama," I said going to her bedside. "I wish I knew how to make a cake."

"We haven't rendered out the lard yet," she said.

Vegetable shortening so far as I know, was non-existent.

Mama closed her eyes as if she were thinking, then she said, "Perhaps you can borrow half a cup of lard from Aunt Mary Stout, and I will tell you how to make a cake.

The room suddenly brightened. My feet fairly flew to Aunt Mary's and 54 and back. In and out of Mama's room I went for step-by-step instructions, and carefully I watched until the cake came out of the oven, a golden-brown beauty. Good things from the cellar made the dinner complete and Mama was able to come to the table. My heart swelled with true thanksgiving for I had discovered the joy of doing things. Everyone enjoyed my cake. It was very good and I knew it, and I had made it myself. 1

Footnotes

  1. Story "The Not-So-Pitiful Thanksgiving" published in Friend, November 1979, p. 2.