The Last Time I Ever Saw Mom

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen Mom was a little girl growing up in Moonshine Prairie, her folks would stop the buggy on the way home from church to let her pick sweet williams. And from the time I heard her tell the story when I was a kid, I made sure that she had a nice big bouquet of the phlox she called sweet williams, every single Mother’s Day.

When the day came that Carol and I had to go west to spend our5970678010_27968bcfe6_m time teaching on the reservations, I was no longer able to give Mom her flowers. We climbed Peacock Peak one Mother’s Day, and near the top in a grove of Piñon Pine, we found some kind of white phlox growing which was much smaller than sweet williams. I wanted to pick them and somehow send them to Mom, but there was no way we would ever have been able to climb back down the mountain with them.

One summer when we were back home, Mom’s hip broke and she fell. After a spell in the hospital, we took her out to my sister Joan’s in North Carolina and got teaching jobs. The teaching jobs didn’t work very well. My school decided to teach all year, which would have crippled our writing, and Carol had a childish buffoon for a principal who was determined to nursing home falls-thumb-300x199-40655make life hell for anyone with the nerve to come from Arizona. We made it until December and then found jobs on the Navajo res in New Mexico.

We had just announced our decision to move back west, and were going to leave in the morning. Joan and I were sitting at the kitchen table, playing our fiddles. Mom announced that it was her bedtime and began shuffling out with her walker. Just after she had navigated between Joan and the refrigerator, she paused and turned to me. “Well, I guess this the last I’ll ever see you,” she said serenely.DSC_0348

“Mom!” I said. “Don’t be ridiculous. We’ll be back this next summer.”

We had just gotten moved when Joan rang us with the news that Mom was gone. The thing that came to mind when I hung up the phone was remembering Mom taking the time out of her hectic spring day to walk a mile down into the woods with me to see an ovenbird’s nest. This May will be the first chance I’ve had in all these years to go to the woods for sweet williams. I reckon I’ll leave a handful on her grave.SweetWilliam1024

 

Tom Phipps

 

The Hualapai Indian Baby

Years ago when we started teaching at Peach Springs, the teachers in the lounge began at once filling me in about what terrible students the obstreperous, gasoline sniffing, hairspray drinking Hualapai were, with horror stories of drunken mothers backing over their own children and kids watching their stumbling drunk father bleed to death from stepping on a whiskey bottle.

What I found were lots of damned good artists. Where there might be one or two kids who draw well in a class of twenty to twenty-five Anglo students, fully one third of these Hualapai kids were good at drawing, complete with a sense of perspective and depth. And I’m sorry, but I can’t imagine slow wits doing that well with a pencil.

One day, I had a particularly quiet Zoology class. I walked all through the classroom, handing out papers, lecturing and answering questions. They nearly all were taking notes. When we finished up, perhaps five minutes before the hour and I suddenly realized that the class of sober faces sparkled with eyes of merriment, the room erupted with a roar of laughter, for they had kept a baby absolutely quiet all hour, passing it from student to student behind my back!   

Tom Phipps

Your Butt’s too Big

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Years ago, when I taught at Ch’ooshgai Community School on the Navajo Nation, the students there had a reputation for playing rough, but when it came to it, they had big hearts. Like students at all schools, they resented the Special Ed students for being given lighter work for the same grades. However when a little Down’s syndrome girl showed up at school, she became a celebrity.

Yvonne was one of the handful of students who stayed in the Special Ed room instead of attending at least some regular classes. In spite if this, like every other student in school, she was supposed to take her seat and stay there when she came to class, and that meant that she was supposed to be in her seat when the door was open and kids were in the hall.

That was an utter impossibility for Yvonne. She was endlessly in the doorway with her hopelessly smeared glasses, swinging her leg like a ballerina at the bar, waving and calling out cheerfully to the passing students. I would hear time and again from across the hall: “Yvonne! Where are you supposed to be?” and, “Yvonne, take your seat!” Kids liked her, even if they did call her names.

One day, she grandly sang out a little rhyme:
“Your butt’s too big, your butt’s too big,
No matter what you do, your butt’s too big…”

“Yvonne! Get to your seat, now!”

But before everyone was in class, I heard:

“Your butt’s too big, your butt’s too big,
No matter what you do, your butt’s too big…”

Soon, passing students were taking up the chant each time they saw her in the doorway. “Whose butt is too big?” became the burning student question. The Special Ed teacher’s? She’s got a big enough butt, they said. No. It had to be the old witch from the Office. Or was it a particular student? They would ask Yvonne.

And her reply was:
“Whose butt’s too big? Whose butt’s too big?
If you don’t know, your butt’s too big.
Your butt’s too big, your butt’s too big,
No matter what you do, your butt’s too big…”

One noon, Yvonne came marching down the hallway with all of the verve and poise of a first string cheerleader, followed by the entire student body, chanting at the top of their lungs, the kids near the walls pounding the locker doors in time:
“Your butt’s too big! your butt’s too big!
No matter what you do, your butt’s too big…!”

The following noon, the Special Ed door stayed closed. There was a brief interlude of students chanting: “Y-vonne! Y-vonne! Y-vonne! Y-vonne!” but every noon thereafter, the Special Ed door remained shut. Even so, I seldom heard a day go by without at least someone chanting a verse of Your Butt’s too Big, all the way to the end of the school year.

So in spite of the best efforts of Special Ed, Yvonne may well have become the most specially remembered of all the students in her class.

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Tom Phipps

Fannie and the Polite Stranger

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                        Emma Walker Phipps                Fannie McKenzie

ws_A_Path_in_the_Woods_in_Autumn_768x1024Fannie McKenzie was my grandmother’s niece who married Horace Werden and lived with him in a log cabin on a farm north of us. Every day she would card00883_frfeed her sheep and her chickens and guineas and then walk a mile through our woods to teach at the Balch school house. Most days after it turned cold, she carried a spur triggered pistol in her muff to shoot squirrels on the way home.squirrel1

On a day which was cold enough to see her breath, she met a stranger on the path who asked what the shortest way was to get across the river.

“See that hogback, yonder?” she said, pointing this way and that. IMG_1818“Right beyond the top, there’s a fork in the path. Take the path straight east, down into the hollow and follow the creek. Just keep a-going and directly you’ll end up at McCann’s Ford.”

“Yes ma’am,” he said with a wide-eyed nod, “Yes ma’am!” And he hurried on his way.

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“Well now, he’s awful polite,” she said as she watched him go. And then she remembered the pistol in her hand as she put it back in her muff.

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Tom Phipps

 

The Day My Brother Became my Hero

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It has been far too long to remember just what I was doing out in the yard amongst the bees and the dandelions, but it was a glorious spring day. I looked up at a rattle of bicycle fenders to see one of my brother’s chums hop from his bike, leaving its wheel spinning in the grass. “Hey Cricket!” he called, trotting straight up to my brother.
“Hey, what’s up, Ronnie?” I hollered.
They weren’t about to notice a six year old girl. After all, they were all of nine or ten. The screen door to the kitchen clacked shut behind them. I was on my feet at once to find out what they were up to.
“Yea?” said Mom, planting her ball of dough on the bread board as I stepped inside. “And Ronnie’s welcome to stay here and play all afternoon if he wants.”
“But how can he show me his new puppy? His puppy’s at his house. That’s why he came to get me.”
“Take your sister if she wants to go…”
“No way!”
“Or stay here.”
“She ruins everything,” he said, throwing down his cap. “Can’t she go to Kay’s or something?”
“They’re gone for a week, kiddo,” she said, rolling out her dough this way and that. “So how about it Carol? Want to go with Greg and Ronnie to see a new puppy?”
“Sure,” I said, in spite of Greg’s smoldering look as they tramped out the door.
“You need shoes.”
“Can I wear my brand-new red tennis shoes?”
“Oh…try to keep them clean.”
“Goodie!” I cried as I dashed over to their cardboard box on the closet floor to sniff at their new rubber before tying them mercilessly tight, since they were a full size too large. I watched my two feet walk as I stepped outside.
“I’m ready,” I said as I caught up with Greg and Ronnie at the end of the lane.
They kept their backs to me and set out, trading mumbles.
“Hey!” I cried, clopping to keep up. “This isn’t the way to Ronnie’s house. Mom’s going to…”
Suddenly Greg wheeled about, giving me a shove that nearly knocked me off balance. “No she isn’t, or I’ll fix you up a whole lot worse.”
“Why would she ever find out?” I said, knowing in my bones that I was still going to pay for this.           
“Good! Just stay far enough behind us not to be nosy and keep your mouth shut.” And with that, he and Ronnie resumed their saunter down the buckled sidewalk, past the catbirds and the daffodils, and past the privet and the picket fence which was at last replaced by parking meters and paving brick. They walked into a dime store and bought some candy.
“Could I have some?” I said. “I didn’t bring any money.”
Greg took a big bite of his candy bar. “Then you don’t get any,” he said, thrusting his chewing mouth into my face.
They looked at boy’s toys for some time and then went to the park to spend the afternoon, playing baseball. No one was about to let a girl play. I looked all about for clover in the grass to make bracelets, but there was none. I might have gone home, but Greg would get into trouble and take it out on me.
Presently it was past time to go and Ronnie was convinced that it was at least an hour late. “We’ll take a shortcut,” said Greg with a wave, as he set out at a brisk jog.
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I ran along after them until we wallowed through some daylilies and clambered up a bank to the tracks with my side aching. A green heron called, somewhere beyond the chorus of cricket frogs. I could scarcely keep up. I watched the white toes of my red tennis shoes come down upon tie after tie. Once in a while, I’d slip off a tie and stumble. I was falling behind. Just as I heard a train whistle, my toe slipped off the back of a tie into a deep hole, catching me hopelessly fast by the heel and setting me down hard. There was the whistle again. I couldn’t begin to reach my laces. Greg and Ronnie were getting too far away to hear. White hot terror flooded me as I yanked and yanked on my leg.
Suddenly they were running for me, wide eyed and waving their arms. “The train’s behind you!” screamed Greg as he grabbed below my knee and pulled with everything he had. “You idiot sister!” he sobbed as Ronnie heaved from under my arms. Without warning, we were on our sides in the nodding weeds of the steep bank as the train raced by.
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“My shoe!” I wailed. 
Greg shot to his feet. “I’ll get your damned shoe after the train’s past,” he said, furious that I’d brought tears to his eyes.
Mom met us at the screen door. “Just in time for supper,” she said. “Did you have fun?”
“Yea,” said Greg. “The uh, puppy’s real cute and stuff.”
           
“Can we get one sometime, Mom?” I caught Greg’s eye. I could see that he was ’way more than merely glad that we got home. He might have had his awful moments, but he would certainly do for a brother.
Carol Marrs Phipps

Pappy Taylor’s 93rd Birthday

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One evening on the first of October, better than twenty years ago, Gary Harrison and I drove down to Effingham to call on Pappy Taylor for his ninety-third birthday.

“Yea!” he hollered at our knock. “Come on in! “Grab ‘ee a ch’ir!” He was sitting on his davenport, his ankles swollen with dropsy, coffee can cuspidor at his feet, when we stepped through the door. “Hand me that there fiddle, would ye, Gary?” He fingered its strings and tightened a peg as we hauled out our instruments and the evening began. “What do you ones want to play?” He leant forward and took a spit.

“What ever you feel like, Pappy,” said Gary.

Pappy sawed haltingly for a bit, rummaging about through fragments of tunes. “I know all kinds,” he said, “if I can just think of them. Here’s one. Lonesome Indian.” He commenced playing with a flourish as Gary and I followed along on guitar and banjo. With a scarcely a pause, he started another tune with the verve and abandon of a long lifetime of playing.

“Man!” I thought. “He must have been something in his prime.”

“You know that one, don’t ye Gary?” he said as he finished.

King’s Head, ain’t it?”

“Yeap. Now this here’s one,” he said, striking up another piece.

“Now what was that?” said Gary.pappy02

Six Pound ‘o Feathers in a Cuckoo’s Nest.”

“I don’t recall ever hearing that one.”

“Yea.

“Theah was an old woman, wanted a new feather bed,
And an old man, white hairs upon his head,
Old man he come from the west,
Old woman, wouldn’t have any but the best…

“Oh hell, I’ve clean forgot, but anyway he found six pound o’ feathers in a cuckoo’s nest,” he said, raising his fiddle again. “This here ‘n’s pret’ near my favorite.” For a long spell he played an elaborate version of Turkey in the Straw.

“Now what was that?” said Gary.

“That there was the piece that Turkey in the Straw was wrote off of. It’s called Natchez Under the Hill. Theah’s fellows ask what that is, and I say: ‘Ain’t ye ever heard of Nachez Indians?’ It was written ‘way back in George Washington’s time. See, the White man got to cheating them, and one thing and another, so they danced all night, a-getting ready for a big Indian war the next day. That’s what that there tune is.”

“Say Gary,” he said, nodding at me, “what’s his name?”

“Why, that’s Tom Phipps.”

“Well I know that, you fellows know what I mean, but I couldn’t think of his name to save my neck,” he said, leaning to one side of his fiddle for a spit. “Now here’s one…” He put his fiddle to his collarbone and played Paddyin’ on the Turnpike, a tune about the Irish who laid the first railroad tracks across Illinois. Then he played Flop Eared Mule, Picking Cotton Down South, Bear Pen Hollow and Devil in the Haystack. He played Sugar Foot Rag and West Coast Rag and somehow ended up talking about Buffalo Bill. “He was an Indian fighter,” he said as he picked at some small something on the side of his bow. “Now that’s the part that wasn’t right. The White man wanted their land, and the damned government come in and killed women and children, by God, and old men. And they hadn’t done nothing, nothing at all except to try to live peaceful. They killed women and children! That son of a bitch Custer got what was a-coming to him, by God!

“You know, the United States Government stole this universe from the Indian. No use a-saying they didn’t ’cause they did, and now they’re a-starting to acknowledge it. They stole it! A fellow asked if I wanted to see the monument out there, ye know, at Wounded Knee, and I said no, I ain’t going to. That ornery cu’se Custer had it a-coming.

“You fellows got any Indian in ye?”

“Both sides, I think,” said Gary.

“The Walkers,” I said.

“Well I have,” he said. “My dad was part Iroquois. He used to tell that they’d trade an old pappy01gun for as much land as a man could walk in a day. But then the White man went to cheating, and directly it was all gone.” he raised his fiddle. “Here ye go. You ones know this one.”

We played Cumberland Gap for quite a good long time. When we finished, Pappy stared off into days long gone. “Got married when I was twenty-four,” he said to no one in particular as Gary and I refined the tuning of our instruments. “I married her in Arkansas, when I crossed the Mississippi to work on the railroad. She was awful pretty, and she was sure my wife. She was full blooded Osage. She died of tularemia when I was twenty-eight.

“She took a notion for to eat some rabbit, so I went out and shot her a couple. Now I don’t eat no raw meat, but she did. In three days she took sick and died.”

He raised his fiddle and played Payroll, then Hell Amongst the Yearlings, then Mockingbird, then Arkansas Traveler and Old Molly Hare. On and on, picking up momentum, keeping us on the edge of our seats away into the night. At somewhere between one and two in the morning, we rose to leave.

“No need to be rushed off,” he said. “I can play all night if you fellows want to.”

A train whistle blew, off in the night, as we stepped outside.

“You’ve still got trains a-running through here,” I said. “We’re losing everything these days, trains, middles of towns. And all the small farms…”

“Why them’s the Hundred Cries,” he said as he steadied himself against the doorway.

“Hundred Cries?”

“Yea. My Indian father-in-law used to tell about that. The Hundred Cries is the voices of the multitude, never to be heard, as they’re driven from the wilderness for good.”

The next February, Gary and I were pall bearers at Pappy’s funeral. We rode in silence most of the way back to Effingham from the grave yard. “He was the last one wasn’t he, Gary?” I said at last.

“Yeap. Sure was.”

If Pappy (Harvey) Taylor was not the absolute last who had learnt his tunes from older mqdefaultfiddlers instead of from the media, he was without a doubt amongst the last. Pappy had tunes in his repertoire several hundred years old. King’s Head, which he had learnt from his dad, was about the execution of King Charles I in 1649.

I cannot help but feel that the passage of people like him leaves us all impoverished. Tunes imitated from the media are not the same. However, the passage of the old fiddlers isn’t the half of it. I grew up with regular square dances. The neighbors got together and had big sings. Dad sang with a barbershop quartet. We sang in church, a mile away. All this is gone. So what? We all know that the rural neighborhoods are gone, wiped out by centralization. But that’s not all. We used to sing every day in music class at school. We looked forward to the traditional carols we practiced at Christmas. Several years ago, the music teachers replaced the old songs with shallow parodies of them from the media. Soon the schools stopped having music classes. Soon the grade schools gave up recess. This is ‘way better for us, all sped up and modern, right?

Tom Phipps

Ross Harwood’s Blind Cattle

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Part Two

Over the next few years we would see Ross out and about, always wearing the same i64147_27766-mid-weight-duck-insulated-waist-zip-coverall_largensulated coveralls regardless of the weather, his pith helmet, boots and his machinery changing color with the season. We would pith.helmet (1)encounter him at night, suddenly seeing him in our headlights, driving without his lights on, two wheels off the pavement, two wheels on, creeping along like some kind of garish ‘possum.

Dad had thirty acres of the most beautiful corn on the south-west part of Grandpa’s eighty. It was about the best ground that we had and we’d planted it at exactly the ideal time, and the weather had been just right for growing. He went to inspect it incessantly, his one perfect field. On the fourth of July, his birthday, I went with him to see his corn one more time. Grandpa had a contrary wether outside the fence, so I stayed to help get it back in whilst Dad went to see his field.

Cow in the cornfield 2When Dad returned, he was livid with dismay. Ross’s cattle had tramped the fence and were stripping his corn. “Locks a-missy! Hell fire and damnation!” he said, looking away at his field. He took a champ on a timothy stem, flinging it aside.

“We don’t need the corn that bad,” said Grandpa, shuffling up.

Within the hour, Dad had been to see two or three of the neighbors who farmed close by. One of them, Jack Best, came with us to see Ross. We turned into Ross’s lane between hedges grown wild with mulberries, carefully straddling the ruts and gullies as we climbed to the house.

The grand fronted Civil War era brick house rose at the crest of the moraine with all-pictures-11851neglected majesty, its windows looking out across the front yard which was now a hawthorn and blackberry thicket to rolling pastures that once were. We parked beside the kitchen at the back. Dad and Jack stepped through the vines imagesasmothering the porch and knocked at the pink and blue door. The pink and blue piano stood resignedly, its keyboard facing the vines. The windmill beyond the sheds squawked in spite of the still air. A starling gave a breezy whistle. Dad knocked again. They slowly stepped off the porch and hesitated, Jack idly pushing at stones in the gravel with his toe, Dad glancing at the sun, kneading his watch to the top of his overalls pocket.

“Yea?” said Ross, stepping into the doorway without his pith helmet, steadying himself against the piano. His face was white as a pupa behind its egg crusted bristles. His gum boots, their blue paint crackling and peeling at the ankles were fastened mercilessly to his filthy coveralls with yards upon yards of adhesive tape. “You’ll pardon me, but I’ve been blacked out for a few days. I couldn’t manage to get to town for my insulin until yesterday evening,” he said, catching his balance.

“Did you know that your cows are out?” said Dad. “They’ve been all through our corn. They’ve been over on Jack’s some, too.”

“Ain’t surprised. Pasture’s all petered out and I haven’t had the strength to feed ’em for a spell.”

I looked into the kitchen as they talked and nearly reeled from its fetid reek. I held my breath and peered in again. Its floor was stratified with banana peels and flattened ice cream cartons, mired in a blackened goo better than a foot deep, as though it were some ghastly calf shed with more than a year’s accumulation of manure. The kitchen stove and a kerosene heater stood anchored in the mire like oriental furnishings in some lost corner of Hades. Jack read my face as I stepped back off the porch, giving a slight grimacing wink and shake of his head.

“I ain’t able to he’p,” said Ross, “but if you ones could round ’em up and take them to the packing plant, you can divide up what they fetch. I hope it covers your corn, Harry.”

Jack and Dad decided to get some hands and run the cattle back onto Ross’s place and corral and load them in his barn lot. Word was sent out by telephone and after dinner we joined a sizable party of neighbors and their hired hands at the edge of the Whisnand Woods. We took out a large section of fence next to the corn and started our drive.

We learnt several things right quick. The herd simply could not be driven. They went insanely wild as we closed in, running every which way, breaking blindthrough our line repeatedly and unpredictably. Dad and Jack had been puzzled by Ross’s inability to say how many head he had. It was now quite clear that he had neglected his herd for years, allowing them to inbreed. Most of them were blind and over a third of them were bulls of various ages.

I was at the edge of the trees when a bull and three heifers broke and came my way from the corn. As I was clapping, waving my arms and hollering, I heard sticks snap right behind me. I wheeled about to find a dozen or more of the brutes coming straight for me at a dead run out of the timber. I remember a fleeting glimpse of the trunk of the tree next to me and I recall watching the beasts thunder by beneath the limb I was standing on, but I remember nothing at all of my climb. I wasn’t about to go back down the way I had come, either, for my sudden refuge turned out to be an old honey locust tree, bristling with sharp spikes all over the trunk which was also smothered in a mantle of poison ivy vines.

By and by Dad came to my aid, parking his tractor under my perch. He stood on the seat, steadying me as I dropped onto the hood. “Don’t you reckon that this is a poorly chosen time to watch birds?” he said.

The men milled about at the edge of the corn, visiting and spitting. “We’re not a-getting anywhere this way,” said one.

“No. Not when the help is a-trying to go to roost with the owls,” said another.

“I don’t see how we’re going to get anywhere without horses, do you Harry?” said Jack.

The next morning I flew through my chores. I had scarcely begun doing them when Dad took off for the Whisnand Woods. After what seemed like a small eternity, I finished up, put a drawbar and clevis on one of the tractors and drove after him.

There were pickup trucks scattered all along Grandpa’s lane when I got there. The pasture looked like a fairground with neighbors and hands milling about several small tractors and5328856497_115e32eea3 the large cattle truck from the Charleston Packing Plant. Whilst everyone visited, waiting for the horsemen to arrive, I marveled at the tree I’d been up the day before.

The voices picked up, accompanied by the clank and rattle of iron. The first two horse trailers had arrived. The two drovers began saddling their horses. In spite of their riding boots and chaps, they didn’t look much like Hollywood cowboys. One wore a St. Louis Cardinals baseball cap and a t-shirt with a picture of a belted Hampshire hog on it. The other fellow did wear a white hat, but it was made of straw and had International Harvester stenciled on it. Each of them had a cheek stuffed tight with tobacco.

They were off directly, in pursuit of some cows in the brush at the edge of the woods to the south. Dad and I each followed with a tractor and several passengers apiece. It didn’t take long for each drover to run a cow-brute into the open and rope her, but it was an ordeal Credenhill19July2011-006getting them hitched to the clevises on the tractors, for upon being roped, the cows went wild, dragging the horses about. My cow broke her rope and hied off into the brush again, horses in pursuit. Directly, she was re-roped, bellowing and snorting, throwing her head about. This time, a hand managed a hitch knot which wouldn’t cut the rope, feverishly tying, mindful of his dear fingers. “All right! Take up the slack! If she comes for ye, switch off the tractor and get under it right now!” he hollered, springing aside with a wave.

She was the one who took up the slack! She gave the tractor a hair raising jerk as I got under way. She bolted from side to side at first, causing the tractor to sway and labor. She growled through her froth, stiff-leggedly planting and sliding her feet like some furious dining room table.

They were struggling to load Dad’s creature as I approached the truck. She fought, blind pink eyes rolling, muzzle a-froth all the way up the chute. They pulled with ropes through the slats on the sides of the truck as they prodded at her flanks and rump. At last she lurched into the truck. My brute began her ascent much the same way , except that half way up, she decided to climb over the sides. She nearly made it before lying down, refusing to move.

The drovers kept all the tractors and hands busy throughout the morning, even whilst changing mounts. The loading chute was what slowed us, so they called for another truck to cut loading time in half. To my surprise, the bulls were the easiest to load. Some ofF100407MS81 them would give in and walk, with only occasional attempts to bolt. Yearlings weren’t too bad either, but it was the cows who fought us relentlessly, especially if they had calves.

A little past one ‘o clock, the cloudless sky began growing dark. “What the dickens is going on?” I said to Bill Hall, a fierce old man with a couple of teeth in his mouth to match the two fingers he had left after a corn picker accident.

“Ain’t ye heard?” he said. “That’s the eclipse. We’re supposed to have a solar eclipse.”

“Aw shit!” I said, I wish I had a cardboard box and some white paper and tin foil.”

“What on earth for?” he said, fixing his steely gaze upon me.

“So I could look at the eclipse.”

“Well look at it then!” he said. “You’ll miss it if ye don’t.”

“That’s why I want the box. I don’t want to burn my eyes.”

“Experts!” he said with a brown spit. “For Christ’s sake! Is that what they teach you at the Lab School? Now don’t get me wrong. I’m right glad you’re a-going to the Lab School. But them experts don’t want you to wipe your ass unless they say it’s all right.”

“But they say…”

“Of course they do! They can’t feel important unless they can demand you heed their narrow minded judgment, if ye know what I mean. They’ve got to have you a-stepping in time to their dance. Men have looked up at the sun for thousands o’ years to get the time ‘o day. How many blind farmers do you know? You’ll miss out if ye let them keep ye from looking.

“I’d better get this here rope,” he said, looking up at a thrashing heifer.

I felt sheepish, still afraid to look up at the eclipse. As it grew light, I finally plucked up the courage to glance up at the sun as the last fragment of black slipped off the orb.

The following January, Ross burnt up in his house. The local paper allowed him the dignity of printing a picture of his charred torso being removed from the hot ashes with a manure fork.

Tom Phipps

Ross Harwood Goes Mad

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Part One

On an unusually hot and humid day, the last week of June, I got permission to stop at Bill Richardson’s store for an ice cream bar and a bottle of soda pop on my way to Grandpa and Grandma Phipps’s. I leant my bicycle against the store’s brick tar paper wall under a rusted Coca-Cola thermometer. A Massey Harris tractor and cultivator, it’s shiny shovels wound with morning glory vines, stood by the gasoline pump. A house wren sang out its declaration. The screen door whispered a squeak as I stepped inside.

“Why there’s ol’ Tom,” said Mr. Richardson. “What can I do for you, this fine sub-zero day?”

“I’d like an Eskimo pie and a seven Up.”

“That would be twenty cents. Go h’ep y’se’f.”

“How are you folks a-coming with your cultivating? You ’bout to get ‘er all laid by?” said Jim Best, a fellow who farmed directly west of us.

“Dad thinks we’re ‘way behind,” I said, dangling my hands in the icy water of the soda pop cooler.PrinceAlbertB

“Well we’re better off than we could be, the year a-being what it is, but I really don’t need to be a-sitting here,” he said, carefully shaking some Prince Albert into his folded cigarette paper. “How much rain did you all get over here two nights ago, Bill?”

“Three tenths.”

“Boy. That was the spottiest rain. We didn’t get quite a tenth,” he said, licking the paper. He struck a match. A cicada buzzed its pulsing song in the maple branches over the store. The coolers and freezers rattled and hummed quietly.

I sat down at the far end of the bench from Jim, savoring his tobacco smoke, chasing my dribbling ice cream with my tongue. After a while, Mr. Richardson stood up from his keg of nails, picked up my dimes and dropped them into the cash register, returning to his seat with a newspaper. Above the shelves of laundry soap and cereal, the Pepsi girl, reposing on the sand in her pink bra and pedal pushers, waved from her faded poster.

92870.1941.cadillac.series.61A 1946 Cadillac quietly drove up and parked beside the tractor. It was painted all over with aluminum and pumpkin-orange colored house paint, even its tires and parts of its windows. A man wearing insulated coveralls zipped up to his chin and an aluminum painted pith helmet shuffled into the store and up to the counter.

64147_27766-mid-weight-duck-insulated-waist-zip-coverall_large (1)“Morning Ross,” said Mr. Richardson. “What do ye need?”

“Couple Co’Cola,” he said, scarcely moving hispith.helmet bristly lips.

“Am I in your way out there, Ross?” said Jim.

“No-no. Don’t need no gasoline,” he said, scratching around in his coin purse. By the time he laid out his change and turned to shuffle to the soda pop cooler, his odor had filled the store. It was vaguely like that of a sugary sour slop bucket heating on a stove.

Mr. Richardson traded glances with Jim, then rose and immediately propped open the back door with a flat iron.

Ross sat between Jim and me with his two bottles of pop.

“What’ve you been up to this morning, Ross?” said Jim.

“Cultivating.”

“Looks like you’ve been a-painting,” he said, nodding at Ross’s aluminum painted overshoes, fastened to the legs of his coveralls with hog rings.

“Oh I have been, but that was yesterday.”

“You paint your car again, this year?”

“Yeap. And my tractor. It needed it. I even had enough left over for my piano.”

“Your piano?”images

“Sure. It sits out there on the porch. It needed it.”

“Looks like you got your hat and boots, too,” said Mr. Richardson.

“Of course,” said Ross. “They ought to match, oughtn’t they?” He certainly had them there. For a mid_IMG_6306moment all was quiet except for the wren and the cicadas. Ross unzipped his coveralls, spread out his collar and poured Coke all around his neck and collar bone.

Jim leant forward, looking at Ross. “You must be pretty hot,” he said.

“Tolerable hot,” said Ross, stretching his chin to one side to slop on some more.

Mr. Richardson lowered his newspaper and stared agape, shifting his eyes to Jim.

Jim grinned with raised eyebrows, searching for a reply that wouldn’t quite materialize. “Well Bill,” he said after a spell, “I’d better get back on the cultivator.”

“I followed him outside with my cupped hand full of ice cream that had thawed whilst I was struggling to get used to Ross’s bouquet.

“Say hello to your folks for me,” he said, starting his engine.

1930's Call for Philip Morris Matchbook CoverI wiped my hands in the grass beneath the Kool penguin and the Philip Morris buss boy, koolforever waving in rust-streaked competition from the wall. I mounted my bike and pedaled to Grandpa and Grandma’s.

I found Grandpa under the shade of the big black locust outside his work shop in the orchard, running the treadle of his grindstone, sharpening a hoe.

“You wouldn’t believe what I just saw Ross Harwood do,” I said.

“I just might,” he said, stopping the stone.

“Ross came into the store and poured Coke all down his neck.”large-vintage-coke-coca-cola-sold-here-metal-steel-sign-796-p

“You mean the outside of his neck?”

“Yea. Almost the whole bottle.”

“Well if that don’t beat the bugs a-fighting,” he laughed, wiping his chin with the back of his hand. “That’s a new one, all right. But I’ve seen him do similar, many a-time.

“Years ago, when Ross was still a young fellow, he was a-helping us put up the silo at the cattle barn, over on the east place. He was a-running the rope with one of the mares, a-hauling up concrete blocks to us. He’d be ready for to send up a load before we were, nearly each time, so he started building a hog shade over in the corner of the barn lot. It was just perfect for an old sow and her litter. He even wired up gates around it.

“When we took a break at about eleven, he scattered straw under it and then crawled in on all fours. The hands were a-watching him, kind of amused. He didn’t say a word to anyone. He’d lie still, then he’d wallow and thrash around and lie still again, just like an old sow and her pigs.

“Ross ain’t stupid. He’s just stuck on making himself the brunt of his own jokes. The more of an audience he has, the harder he’ll work a-clowning, that a-way. He’s been doing that almost the whole time he’s been grown.”

“You mean he was normal once?”

“Yea. At least he didn’t seem too queer whilst he was a-growing up.”

“So he just got that way gradually?”

“No sir. He changed right now.” He paused, straining to pull his leg off the grind stone. He scratched his head and replaced his cap as he studied one of his ewes coming up for a drink. “Nope. All of a sudden. He lived with his folks, right where he lives now, straight south. He even went to college at Eastern. I don’t remember what he studied, but I reckon he did all right. he put in nearly all of four years. He’d room at a boarding house through the week and then ride his horse home and farm on the weekends.

“Well he had a sweetheart up there, some young lady from Windsor, if I’ve got it right. And they were engaged to be married. He was home one spring weekend, out in the field a-harrowing. His mom come out where he was a-working with a letter from his fiancée which said that she was a-marrying some other fellow.

“He went mad right then and there. He ran his team and harrow off into the brush, tangled them up in some wire fence and beat the holy daylights out of them. They were a nice gentle young team of Clydesdales, too. Just as sweet as ye please. They’d bought them from us. The mare’s legs were so badly cut up, she had to be destroyed.

“Well, he left his team and ran off into the timber and was gone for days. And when he finally showed up, he didn’t act right. And from that day to this, he’s been just as odd as odd can be. When his mom died, he boarded off their dining room, parlour and upstairs with her things in it, and has let everything else run down ever since.”

Tom Phipps

That Old Ox Yoke Downstairs

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Grandma poured some tea from her cup to her saucer as Grandpa removed his napkin from his collar, all eleven white hairs on his bald head a-fly.

“Grandpa?” I said. “Where did that old ox yoke in the basement come from? It was your granddad’s, wasn’t it? Was it your Grandpa Phipps’s?”

“Grandpa Phipps used oxen every now and then for heavy work such as hauling gravel and one thing and another, so I expect he had at least two or three yokes. He died before I was ten, so I don’t know what became of them. A lot of people used oxen back then. A yoke of oxen won’t quite out-pull a good big team on the start, but if it’s a right smart heavy load, a team o’ draft horses will tire out and the oxen will just keep a-going.”

“How much could they pull?”

“Oh,” he said, pausing to wipe his mouth one last time, “you can take one of the tractors with a two bottom plough and break about ten or twelve acres in a day, you know. Now if you hitched a good big team of fresh horses to the draw bar of the tractor, the team could pull the tractor backwards for several rod before they’d give out. That same team and another ‘n’ to spell them off could plough, oh maybe four acres in a day with a walking plough. They wouldn’t be able to keep going with a two bottom, if you hitched them up. But now a team of oxen, I don’t think could pull a two bottom tractor backwards, but they’d be able to pull a two bottom plough all right. In fact, they’d be able to take it and plough maybe half to three quarters of an acre in a day with it. Course, nobody ever pulled a two bottom plough with oxen, at least not in this neck of the woods. Now that’s what that yoke downstairs was used for.” He paused, fiddling with his bib overall pocket, fishing for his twist of tobacco.

Grandma began clearing the table. “What are your folks a-doing this morning, Tom?” she said.

“Dad’s a-pruning apple trees. I don’t know what Mom’s a-doing.”

“You have any more ewes to lamb?”

“One. Joanie. She really looks like a butterball. She always does though, and then has just one lamb.”

Grandpa broke off a piece of his twist and loaded his cheek with it. He pushed back his chair a bit. “Now that’s what that yoke downstairs was used for,” he said. “Grand-dad Balch, he’d ‘ave been your great-great grandpa. Bill Boyd Balch was just a little bit of a fellow. I don’t think he was much over five foot. He had a real deep voice and he had a long white beard which went down below his belt buckle. And he had a brown stain that went the length of it, down from his mouth. He wore a wide heavy belt and his boots went ‘way up above his knees.

“Now you never did get to see the old big bluestem prairie grass which grew all over. Any place theah wasn’t woods it grew. It was so tall that if you stood up in a buggy, you could scarcely see over it. The buffalo had paths tramped down all through it. And when the English first came, everyone would turn his cows out to graze in it. They’d put bells on each of them for to be able to locate them when they’d bring them in of an evening. Everyone had to build his buildings before he could manage to put up fences, so everyone branded his stock with ear notches and turned his animals out into the grass, like a great common.Working on the Land

“Well that’s what that yoke downstairs was used for. The big bluestem sod was heavy and tough, and an ordinary team of horses and a walking plough couldn’t get through it. Grandpa Balch had a great big old prairie plough. It had one bottom with a share which probably didn’t cut more than a foot wide, and it had a big wooden moldboard. It had a beam on it, oh I’d reckon it was twenty-four foot long at least. The last I saw it , it was up again the fence next to the old scales, over on Dad’s.”

“What ever happened to it?”

“Theah was a racket to it?”

“What ever happened to the plough?”

Oh! I wouldn’t know. Your uncle Hen farmed there for pret’ near thirty years. It was just old junk at the time, I reckon.

“Well Grandpa Balch would use it , a-going around a-breaking the heavy bluestem sod for people. He went all over. He ploughed all around here, and between here and Palestine, and he broke ground all around, up north o’ town. He’d plough for someone and hear about somebody else a-needing ploughing done, then he’d go plough for them, just a-hopping around that a-way.”

“Did you ever see him do it?”

“Once or twice when I was real little. He’d have three yolk of oxen hitched to the plough. he didn’t have any lines. He’d just say gee or haw and crack his whip in the air to the opposite side of the heads of the lead team of where he wanted them to go. It was the longest dag-goned whip ye ever saw. It would reach from the back of the plough clean to the lead team. He’d get to the end and stop, and they’d put their heads down to graze, and he’d take the butt of his whip and shove each yoke forward to let the air get to just ahead of their withers whilst they rested. Then he’d give each one of them a real quick pet or a scratch, and then he’d crack his whip to turn them and go on. he’d have another three yolk a-resting whilst he had the three on the plough, and every couple of hours he’d change them and spell off the ones which had been a-working. He’d do, oh maybe half an acre to an acre a day that a-way.

“Now this don’t sound right to people these days, but theah used to be these little rattlesnakes, about a foot or eighteen inches long, which used to be thick in places in that tall grass. I’ve heard time and again that when everyone had first come here, they didn’t think anything at all about killing a half o’ dozen or so of the little cu’ses in the morning, a-hoeing in the garden. Anyway, Grandpa would have to watch right close, ’cause every now and then whilst he was a-ploughing, one of them would grab onto the hide of an ox and just hang there, a-working its mouth. The old ox’d get to kicking and he’d take the butt of his whip and knock it off right now, or it would make a pretty mean sore. That’s also why I’d allow that he always wore them heavy leather boots up over his knees.

“Now his great-grandad, James Balch, would tell about when they had the first horse collars. Up to his time, all the ploughing was done with oxen…”

oxen

“And I know two fellows, slow as a couple of them,” said Grandma.

“I guess I’d better get to clearing sticks out of the yard,” I said.

“I reckon you’ll see my crocuses and daffodils, but you mind my lilies a-coming up when you go to cutting.”

“Yes ma’am,” I said. And I went out to see if I could start the lawn mower.

Tom Phipps

Fun at the Ostrich Farm

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When Tom and I were both teaching and living on the Navajo Reservation near Gallup, New Mexico we liked to visit an Ostrich farm just east of Holbrook, Arizona where you could feed the ostriches. It was fun to watch the huge birds all run to the fence to try to be the first ones to get the feed, which they really seemed to love.

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There were several methods you could use to feed the giant birds. One way was to use the large PVC pipes in the fencing which were provided for that purpose. They made dandy chutes for the feed which ended up in troughs at the end of the pipe where the birds could easily eat it.

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Of course, if you are anxious to attract the birds you could always bypass the chutes and just dump the feed over the fence. (Not the best choice).

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If you are tall like Tom, you can simply hold the cup of feed up at the top of the fence for a more up close and personal experience. (Not advisable for the timid or anyone who doesn’t have a firm grip. The birds are most enthusiastic and can grab the cup from your hand or knock it from your grasp).

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If you are very fortunate when you visit an ostrich farm you may be treated to the magnificent mating display of a male ostrich.

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In this instance I was actually the object of this male’s display. He was obviously a very confused bird. Tom found it amusing, though.

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Carol Marrs Phipps