Clarence Hall Had Play Pretties


Saturday was cool and clear. A few dark wisps of cloud scurried along the horizon, clearing away Friday night’s storm. The calves and lambs butted and pranced, skidding in the mud. The first heron of the year croaked at the far end of the pond. The orchard orioles were back. I made John Deere noises as I slid my feet through puddles and cow piles, carrying buckets of feed. There was no way we’d be in the field, today.


After my chores, I got permission, took a handful of coins and hopped astride my rattling bicycle to pay a call on Clarence Hall. After a good mile’s pedal, I arrived at his house. On a wooden frame which held his mail box was a sign that read:

Clarence Hall Third9320494_1

Cousin Abraham

Lincoln All kinds of

Things made here

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I leant my bicycle against the sagging picket fence, slipped the wire over the post and stepped through the squawking gate. His house was a one storey frame building of bare weatherboard, one small room wide by about three long, which had long ago resigned itself to following the contours of the ground between the day lilies and daffodils, probably planted by his mother. It wasimages2 roofed with clapboard shingles which he’d undoubtedly split himself, and the front door and windows were tightly boarded over. On the south, one windowless door opened to face the well and a couple of sheds.

I didn’t see him out and about, so I knocked. An earnest house wren called from somewhere. An house_wrenaluminum measuring cup rocked idly on its wire in the breeze sighing in the cedars. I knocked again and hollered: “Clarence?”

“What?” he barked, throwing open the door, giving me a start. He closed it behind him at once and hooked it as a dank reek of coal oil and foul clothes whirled away into the air. “What d’ye want?”

“I came for a couple of things, really,” I stammered. “Do you have Abe Lincoln’s old gun? Could I…?”

“No!” he barked, giving me a shudder. “I ain’t got hit! They ain’t goin’ ‘o get hit ’cause I ain’t got hit.”

“Well, I thought I might buy one of your toys, if you’ve got any made.”

“Well yea!” he boomed, taking a couple of sudden strides toward his shed to stop short, not turning about. “What’s you ones want with play pretties? Ain’t you a little old for that? I see you go by on your Fordson.”


“Well, I ain’t too old! I won’t tell no one,” he, said as he tramped on to the shed to fiddle with the7595437-man-in-bib-overalls-weeding-the-garden-in-vertical-format latch and throw wide the door. “There ye be. Look ‘ee here. Got all kinds. He scratched at his jaw through his filthy Lincoln-style beard. He gave a brown spit and turned aside to blow his nose into the grass and wipe his hand on his sooty bib overalls. “Got all kinds. Now these’ns be whirligigs and them’s windmills.

“Ah! Somebody’s here,” he said, looking up at the sound of popping gravel by the mailbox. “Here! You get out o’ there. You set on that there stump.”

I took my seat meekly as he tramped into his dark house and came back out, dawning an ancient 300_1805981stove-pipe hat. He stood straight and marched to the gate. “Morning !” he called out, as they clambered out of their new Buick hard top.

“Hi,” said the pasty white driver in Bermuda shorts. “We’re from Oak Park. Ya probably don’t know where that is, but it’s right by Chicago. We’re touring da Lincoln attractions. We’re on our way back from his birthplace in Kentucky. You look like da president himself. You got souvenirs for sale, do ya?”

“Yeap! Right this a-way.”

Here they came single file behind Clarence, Mr. Shorts followed by his two ladies, dressed fit to kill in the latest, latest suburban leisure wear, one as white as a termite pupa, the other bronzed and buttered. They minced along as if the very grass were vulgar. “Hi ya Huckleberry,” scoffed Mr. Shorts as he passed, with the ladies half smiling and avoiding my eyes.


I certainly needed a good reply, but all I managed was to look away mutely in my straw hat, bare feet and breeches rolled up to my knees, all spattered with mud from the rain-soaked barn lot. And I did no better when they passed by on their way back to their car.

“Well they’s gone, “said Clarence from behind. “Do ye still want to look at them play pretties?”


“They’s right where they was.”

I followed him back to the shed. His wares were crude, brightly painted yard ornaments and wind driven novelties, such as ducks and geese with whirligig wings or little men who rocked back and forth in the wind, sawing wood. He had wooden pistols and daggers. He had his shed piled with all sizes of lop-sided rocking chairs, some small enough for doll houses. I picked out a dirty pink one, about a hand and a half high. “Do you have any clappers?”


“Now what’s that?”

“John Best told me about…”

“Oh yea! The new one, little Barbara. Here,” he said, shoving a pile of noise makers at me.1680067534

I picked out one that seemed to work the best. “What do you want for this and the rocking chair?”

“Twenty-nine cents. Twenty-nine cents for each one.”

I pulled out my fist full of change and fingered the coins.

“There! Them two! Them two will do,” he said, pointing to a couple of quarters.


Clarence was slow witted, but he did support himself. Getting a driver’s license might have been beyond him, but he made toys and he helped roof barns, hoe and put up hay. There was indeed a place for him in the neighborhood. I think about this when we drive through modern places with assertive institutions and see bag ladies and bums living out of shopping carts. 


Tom Phipps



On summer evenings when I was a little squirt, I would bathe in a galvanized tub under the pear tree and put on my pajamas before running up and down the lane or fooling around in the garden whippoorwill00until dark. When I was old enough not to have the whip-poor-wills raise the hair on my arms, I could trot up and down the road, so long as I didn’t follow it so far down into the hollow that I couldn’t hear Mom when she called. As the cricket frogs began their chorus along the banks of the pond and the robins gave roosting calls in the orchard, the bull frogs would join in with their carboniferous grindings. And ‘way over east where the road climbed out of the hollow again, Horace Werden’s guinea hens would start their racket as they found their roosts in the trees about his one room log cabin.



4282148_1_lI was intrigued by Horace and his farm. It was a menagerie, a veritable wonderland of old machines standing in the horse weeds left by the hogs. From imageshis sagging gate, I could see two or three old cars with wooden spoked wheels, a collapsing threshing machine and an iron lugged McCormick tractor. He had a lotmccormick-deering-hand-crank-start-tractor-daniel-hagerman more old implements than could be seen from the road, though. I understood that he had an old steam engine and a Fordson_TractorFordson tractor and a Maxwell touring car, and I longed to go see them. He was called Stormy though, and was said to take an especially dim view of trespassers, so I knew better than to wander onto his place by myself.


I would see him drive by every day in his old blue Buick with plywood replacing one of its windows, on his way to town to see to his several rental properties. He had acquired the deeds to more than a score of houses during the Depression, when he and Fanny had run a grocery store before she had divorced him. Every Christmas he’d call with a huge box of chocolates for us and sit in the kitchen, visiting for an hour or two.


On one such occasion, he stepped in with his arm in a sling and his overcoat about his shoulders like a cape . He grabbed at his shabby felt hat as his box of candy tried to slip away from under his elbow. “Mercy!” he said. “I’d be more dignified if I could see where I was a-going,”

“Let me wipe off your glasses, Horace,” said Mom. “I’m doing laundry in the basement and everything’s steamed over.”

“What the dickens did you tangle with?” said Dad at the sight of the black and blue streak on the side of his head. “Better let me get your coat.”


Horace sat down with a stiff plump. “Eyeballs,” he said, donning his glasses. “I j’ined a Christmas party with my tenants where I was guest of honor, by God! I’ve got this young buck Irishman from Chicago who rents the whole downstairs of the house I’ve got on seventh street. He’s on the first string of Eastern’s football team. His head’s bigger’n the football he throws. School treats him like some kind o’ mascot.

“Well I called on him and the liquor was just a-flowing! He had a bunch o’ his chums in there, letter jackets and all. It’s a mercy theah was no women. Anyway he wasn’t one bit pleased to see me. All I wanted was his arrears. He was just as disrespectful as he could be and one word led to another and directly he took a big step up and hit me in the head! Well by God, I picked up a chair and broke it up all over ‘im, and put the Goddamned son of a bitch in the hospital, I did!


“Mercy, mercy Hilda! It’s times like these ye got to forgive a fellow’s delivery. You know, that was a good hickory caned chair. I don’t know why I ever let them use my furniture. He got me with a floor lamp before I was done with him, but I put him on the floor and give him a proper lesson on the err of his ways with a leg from that bu’sted chair. There for a spell, I thought to my stars that I’d killed him, but he started rolling around a-moaning and a-carrying on by the time the ambulance got there. Made me feel like whacking him some more. ‘Course I didn’t.”

“What kind of shape’s the kid in?” said Dad. “Have you found out?”

“He’s still in the hospital, I reckon. I went to see the president of that whore house of a college, this morning. I had to find him at home. They’ve started their holiday. You ought to see the house that curse is holed up in. We’re a-paying for it with state money, don’t you know. He let me stand in the doorway and talked to me just as smooth as if gravy didn’t run down his chin. Oh, he knew that player all right. Said his daddy was some big lawyer who wrote a big check to Eastern at their last banquet. He said he’d look into it.”


“Uh, oh!” said Dad. “Those types will sue you. Give ’em a slick sidewalk and they’ll take your farm.”

“No problem there, Harry. If he ain’t learnt his manners yet, I’ve still got my chair leg.”

Tom Phipps