Trick or Treating with the Pig Farmer‏

Childhood Halloweens are pretty well etched into my memory, but the one that stands out in my mind is the year that my brother Mike dressed as a pig farmer and took us trick or treating. That was the infamous year of the Skeletor and Cactus Incident.

Normally, Mom drove us on a long winding loop “around the block,” about ten miles looping around to our neighbors out in the country. We spent most of the time in the car and made less stops in our night of trick or treating than kids living in town, but most neighbors loaded us with a treat bag, so we always hauled home heavy bags of candy by the end of the night. Just the same, every year we wondered if maybe kids in town were collecting more than us, and every year, Mom assured us that they indeed were not.

That particular year, I remember standing in the kitchen ready to go, probably waiting for Mom who was trying to get a few more things done. I’m guessing I was decked out in some combination of a costume and a winter coat, like most Minnesotan kids trick or treating.

Just off of the kitchen was our utility room, where everyone came in and out when doing chores. While I was impatiently waiting to go trick or treating, my brother Mike came in from doing chores in the hog barn. I think he was about a junior in high school at the time.

I don’t remember the particular conversation between Mike and Mom, but looking back, I’m guessing I was impatiently waiting in the kitchen to go trick or treating, and Mom had baby Victoria and about ten kids at home and a million things on her plate and didn’t know how to make it all happen. Mike offered to take us younger kids trick or treating.

I’m sure Mom was relieved, but to me, this immediately was a problem.

Mom ALWAYS took us trick or treating. How could Mike possibly do it the exact same right way that Mom did it? And what was his costume? Halloween only came once a year, this had to be done right.

Mike smiled and told me, “I’m going to be a pig farmer!”

He definitely looked every bit like a pig farmer. Mike, fresh from the hog barn, still had coveralls on and his olive green chore boots, commonly known as “shoot kickers,” well, something close to “shoot,” anyway. To keep warm, he might have thrown on top a green Pioneer Seed Corn hooded sweatshirt, full of holes and covered in grease.

Then he reached up above the cereal cupboard to the cabinet where we kept the garbage bags. He pulled out a gigantic black garbage sack, and said he was all ready to go and fill it up.

That’s when I began to protest. I was young, but old enough to know something embarrassing when I saw it.

“Oh no, Mike, you can’t wear that. It’s not a REAL costume. And you can’t take a garbage bag. That’s not a real trick or treating bag.” Halloween has to have a certain mystique, and that wasn’t what I had in mind.

Acceptable costumes came from our big cardboard box in the attic of musty-smelling costumes. Like the Gene Simmons Kiss mask that repeatedly tormented grandkids in later years (sorry, Jason). Or the homemade Indian costume made from a sheet. Or the stained ghost costume made from some other sheet. Or maybe one of Mom’s rumpled wigs from the era when wigs were the thing for a while.

Even one of those creepy masks that was supposed to look like a little kid or the disturbing red-nosed clown would be ok. Also acceptable was a vinyl store bought costume from Henry’s Variety, like my awesome Tweety Bird costume in kindergarten.

Now, those were REAL costumes. That’s how it was supposed to work.

My protests were fruitless. Mike knew he was a farmer, and that was that. Off we went, three young kids and our pig farmer big brother, off for a night of trick or treating in Mom’s Bonneville. In hindsight, my embarrassment about Mike’s chore clothes “costume” seems pretty pointless, considering almost every stop was at a neighboring farm.

Our first stop without exception was Grandma’s house, right next door. Grandma Kramer always had a beautiful yellow banana ready for every trick or treater that stopped by. Unfortunately, Grandma’s bananas often looked a little worse for the wear after getting banged around, scrunched, smushed during the night of trick or treating.

After Grandma’s, we made our way around the neighborhood. Mike stopped at all of our usual stops, and added in a few extras, too. Mike was a talker, and he was more than happy to spend an evening making little social calls at all the neighbors in the name of taking younger siblings trick or treating.

I remember being impressed by how easily he talked to everyone. As I kid I felt shy every time the door opened and I had to talk to a someone that I only saw a few times a year, but Mike loved every minute. Our routine that night became saying “trick or treat,” collecting candy, saying “thank you,” and then waiting, and waiting just a little bit more while Mike talked to the neighbors.

At Jerry and Mary Connelly’s house, we stopped in and collected our candy, said thanks, and then stood around and waited while Mike talked and talked. Which brings me, then, to the Skeletor and Cactus Incident.

That was the era when He-Man and Masters of the Universe were very cool, so my younger brother, Matthew, was dressed up as Skeletor, He Man’s evil nemesis. That Skeletor costume was one of those vinyl ones, the kind that made loud noises when you moved and often ripped by the end of the night.

This is just what the costume looked like.  Thank you, internet.

This is just what the costume looked like. Thank you, internet.

Matthew was maybe just four or five at the time, but he faithfully wore the cheap yellow Skeletor mask for hours. You can imagine the type of mask, it’s the kind that they now recommend you avoid because it impairs your vision.

Well, little Skeletor, standing there at Connellys and waiting quietly while Mike talked, shuffled and stumbled backwards, and landed right in Mary Connelly’s cactus plant collection. Real live fully intact cacti. Feeling shy and embarassed, he got up quickly and didn’t say a word about it, and probably worried that he wrecked one of the plants. And then we all waited a little longer while Mike talked a little more to our neighbors.

When we got back into Mom’s car and started to head back out onto the gravel road, Matthew finally shared his predicament: the poor kid had cactus spines stuck in his back side. He had stoically stood there the whole time, and never said a word about it.

I clearly remember sitting in the dark night on the gravel road with just the dome light of the Bonneville for light. With a cumbersome shuffling of costumes and candy bags and coats, Mike laid Matthew across his lap and opened up the Skeletor costume. He then plucked the cactus spines out of Matthew’s poor little “biscuits,” as Mike called them. I felt so bad for Matthew. Cactus spines are tricky things, tiny and hard to see in low light, so it took a bit of doing for Mike to make Skeletor ready for more trick or treating again.

Imagine a costume just like this, with a few cactus spines added in the back.

Imagine a costume just like this, with a few cactus spines added in the back.

Cactus free, we rounded out the night. Just before heading up the hill back to our house, we made a stop at our aunt and uncle’s house, where Donna always had the cutest little paper Halloween bags ready for us, and always made us feel special. The last stop of the Halloween night was always Elsadie Hansgen, then we headed home.

I’m sure we ran into the house and gave Mom the full report of the highlights of the evening, while dumping out our candy into cake pans so we could see it better and sort through it all. Then came a little giddy gorging followed by hiding the cake pans of candy in our bedrooms so nobody else would steal the precious loot.

All in all, it was a fine Halloween.

Lessons learned? Never under estimate the pain tolerance of a little boy dressed as an action figure. And sometimes, the real super heroes come dressed in s*** kickers.

No photo exists of my long ago Halloween night with a pig farmer and Skeletor, so you have to use your imagination.  As a substitute, here are my kids this year: Iron Man, a Witch, Elmo and a Skeleton, Spot the dog as himself.

No photo exists of my long ago Halloween night with a pig farmer and Skeletor, so you have to use your imagination. As a substitute, here are my kids this year: Iron Man, a Witch, Elmo and a Skeleton, Spot the dog as himself.

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Back 40 Adventures

I do believe that to grow up properly, every kid needs to spend a little time on exploring adventures. My favorite playground growing up was our “Back 40:” about 240 acres or so of cropland, CRP, woods, rolling hills, ponds, and ravines on our farm.

Around 5th grade, my Saturday afternoon jobs were to vacuum the den and haul everyone’s clean clothes from the utility room up to the bedrooms upstairs. I particularly hated vacuuming the den. Usually, I made it an all day affair stalling to avoid the 15 minutes of vacuuming, and often enough, everyone tripped over the vacuum for a week because I never actually vacuumed.

My biggest motivation, though, to complete the torture of vacuuming for 15 whole minutes was going out exploring afterward. Once I had my afternoon jobs done, I was free to head outside.

I’d grab my jacket, and head upstairs to get my special survival gear fanny pack off the hook in my closet. My “survival pack” was a bright red fanny pack with the Kool Aid man on the front. I’d ordered it after carefully saving Kool Aid Points from the back of every drink packet all summer long.

Inside I had all the survival essentials: matches that I’d waterproofed in melted wax, a short candle, an emergency poncho, a jack knife from my brother, a lighter, fingernail clippers, a candy bar, a space blanket and even a toilet paper packet from an MRE (Meal Ready to Eat) that came from one of my siblings in the military.

I’d tell my mom I was headed out exploring and promise to be back by supper. Then I’d call Sparky or Bandit or Buck to come along, and the dogs and I headed out on a walkabout to the back of the farm.

I’d round the corner at the silos, go past the yellow shed and hog unit, and past the windbreak. When I climbed over the gate, leaving the farm yard and entering the open fields, that marked the official start of exploring, just a girl and her dogs.

After a few trips, the dogs knew the routine, and eagerly took off ahead of me down the field lane, zig-zagging back and forth, following any scent trails that crossed their paths and marking their territory with a seemingly endless well of “marking spray.” I walked down the dirt path of the field lane and passed the corn, soybeans, and hay, and usually headed out toward the pond.

On the way to the pond I’d usually avoid the big stand of pine trees that my family planted before I was born. I was fairly sure someone would be hiding behind one of those trees. In hindsight, the possibility of a “bad guy” randomly waiting behind a pine tree on the back of our farm, ten miles from town seems awfully remote, but at the time they seemed dark and scary.

When I reached the pond, I’d throw a few rocks in, watch the splashes, and let the dogs walk in the mud and get a drink.

Most of the time, I’d then head to the woods. On the back end of the farm, past the pond, we had rolling tree-covered hills which connect to the Whitewater Valley. I’d crawl on my belly to get under the barbed wire fence, and then follow along animal trails.

I’d walk along logs, climb up steep hills, and make my way through thick underbrush. I’d flip over rocks to check out the bugs and dig in mud with sticks. I’d collect little treasures and sometimes find secret hideouts. I’d imagine where I would sleep if I was stranded out there all night, and what I would do to survive.

Periodically, when I hadn’t seen the dogs in a while, I’d whistle and call them back. They’d circle back within sight to check in, and head off again on their adventures. As long as I had the dogs along and my survival pack, I knew I was safe.

Once I plucked a little white daisy-like flower with a yellow center, and had a sick feeling in my stomach seeing that it began to “bleed” after I picked it. Slightly afraid I’d done something bad, I told Mom about it later, and learned first hand about the blood root flower.

Another time, I brought home a dried out weed with a large swollen round bulge near the top. That’s when my brother, Greg, taught me about wax worms. I believe we later smashed open the bulge on the weed to check out the wormy contents inside.

Mostly, I just wandered…because I could. That was the era when I loved books about dogs and the outdoors, and read through everything I could get my hands on by Jim Kjelgaard, the author of Big Red. In elementary school, I spent a lot of time doing what other people wanted. Out exploring, though, I had independence. I could wander anywhere I wanted as long as I stayed on our land.

I loved the smell of wet dirt and damp fall air. I liked the sound of the wind rustling through the trees. I crunched on crispy old leaves and felt the soft squish of thick piles of pine needles on the ground. I loved the thrill of being off alone on an adventure, relying on myself to remember my paths and get back home again before suppertime.

Pine cones, bark, and little branches: the latest treasures collected from my own kids' exploring adventures.

Pine cones, bark, and little branches: the latest treasures collected from my own kids’ exploring adventures.

I was always struck by the world apart from our house. Inside our house was all the business and busyness of life, projects, things to do, TV, noise, people. Outside exploring, the world was nothing but wide open fields, woods, and quiet.

As a kid, my Saturday afternoon exploring was the favorite part of my week, and I couldn’t imagine what kids did in town when they didn’t have their own farm to explore. When looking at my watch told me I needed to head back in time for supper at six, I always felt a little sad that my exploring was done for the week.

I think that little explorer in me is partly what lead me to head to Bozeman, Montana for college, to Seville, Spain to study abroad, and to still have a need for new adventures. The explorer in me is also what sent my kids outside today to go play in what I jokingly call our “Back Four,” the windbreak of tall pine trees on the east side of our land. I’m fairly certain that trees, dirt, and burdocks are essentials for learning.

Westward the Chickens: The Great Roundup, A (Mid)Western

Folks, turn on your deep, gravelly Sam Elliot cowboy voice as you read this today. Go ahead and put in your dip o’ chew. Things are gettin’ a little mid-western ’round these parts. This here ain’t no Louis L’Amour, but it is a bona fide true story.

Winter was a comin’ on the midwestern horizon. As she stood on the front porch sipping her morning coffee, she gazed out upon the land. Miss Kathy felt the chill in the wind and knew the nip of winter was in the air. The steely gray skies on cloudy days had the suggestion that winter indeed was a comin’. Miss Kathy gazed out on the corn stubble horizon, and off in the distance, thought of the herd.

Chicken herd, that is. Well, maybe it weren’t even a herd anymore. Heat of summer and a few careless young hands led to a few losses, but the plucky chickens that survived were a fine lookin’ bunch.

One of the chicken herd surveying her new surroundings from the fence.

One of the chicken herd surveying her new surroundings from the fence.

All summer long, the herd grazed contentedly in the eastern pasture, growing long and lean in the summer sun, spending nights up in the high country of the rafters of the breezy chicken house. But with winter approaching, Miss Kathy knew it would soon be time to make the drive, moving the herd to the wintering grounds of the snug barn by the house.

If left too long in their summer paddock, the trail approaching the chickens would become nearly impassable as the winter snow drifts blew in. The hired help was only waist high, the oldest wasn’t but six years old, and it wouldn’t take much of a snow to make it too difficult fer them to break a trail to water the chicken herd. Why, it wasn’t even a quarter mile to the summer chicken house, but that would be just far enough to leave chickens forgotten on stormy winter days.

And they couldn’t have that. They were depending on those chickens. Well, maybe they weren’t depending on them chickens, but the family was mighty hopeful. Why, some day, one of those hens just might lay an egg.

Preparations were made in the barn for the chicken herd. The little ones scattered in a snug layer of straw, and the trail boss rigged up a brand new window, feeling right proud to make something with his own two hands.

On the day of the roundup, the greenhorns filled their bellies with buttermilk pancakes and sippy cups of milk. The trail boss brewed coffee, preparin’ for the day ahead. When the last pancake was squashed into the floor and the baby had a dry diaper, it was time to head out. Well, maybe not. Turns out, the young crew all wanted to watch Saturday cartoons before gearing up to work.

It seemed to be a simple task. After all, this crew lived in Montana cowboy country for years, where they’d repeatedly seen pictures of John Wayne on display. They’d also watched City Slickers several times, causing Miss Kathy to become an eternal devotee to Jack Palance, the old cowboy. Yes, they reckoned they knew all they needed to know about chicken roundups, but as every chicken rancher knows, sometimes it is the simple tasks that wreak the most havoc on a soul.

They set out on foot, having no horses to ride and knowing horses would just squarsh the chickens, anyway. The roundup began just after high noon, starting off with several minutes of little greenhorns circling around the feathered herd. Plenty of squawking ensued. No surprise, the herd had no interest in being handled. Why, you might say they acted like a bunch of chickens. Indeed, they were.

The trail boss caught one of the plucky ladies, and a few minutes later, wrangled a second bird. The last few, however, proved to be mighty cantankerous. The chicken ranchers backed off, leaving the herd to cool down a bit. Those stragglers retreated to the high country up in the chicken house rafters, and with no fight in them, they were easily caught. Soon after, the entire chicken herd flocked together in their new winter barn.

All in all, it wasn’t a terribly long move, just a couple hundred feet west. Unknowing observers might have said, “Aw, how cute, a kid carrying a chicken across the yard,” not realizing that in fact, The Big Chicken Roundup of ’12 was in progress. Yes sir, that roundup took a solid fifteen minutes, maybe even twenty after helping the ranch crew put on shoes.

Reaching out her fingers fixin' to touch a chicken.

Reaching out her fingers fixin’ to touch a chicken.

With a successful chicken roundup completed, the green horns celebrated with trick riding on their bikes and a little tree climbing on Maple the Maple.

Mighty happy to hold a fluffy kitten after watering chickens.

Mighty happy to hold a fluffy kitten after watering chickens.

That evening, as the sun sank in the west, the family headed out to the barn. Inside, four lively kittens scampered in the hay bales, chickens pecked at the sunflowers left over from the garden, and four half-pint kids ran circles around all of it. Just six months before, when they moved into the place, that building sat cold and empty. And now on that chilly fall night, the lights glowed warmly, and the barn teemed with a fullness of life that made the trail boss and Miss Kathy feel right content with living in the country.

This post linked to The Prairie Homestead’s Homestead Barn Hop #141.

Happiness Is…

Written October 14, 2013.

Some days, my cup is half empty. All I see are messes, everything grates on my nerves, and I just wish it was bedtime.

It’s those times when I wistfully remember the simplicity of life before kids and daydream about that far off future when we have the freedom of being empty nesters, of days when kids aren’t constantly pulling on my arm yelling “Mom!”.

But the truth is, happiness isn’t when a long off “finally” day arrives. Happiness doesn’t come when everything is finally perfect, because perfect doesn’t exist.

Happiness is the million little things that happen every single day. This is happiness for me, last Sunday:

Happiness is…

-Waking up to a window view of sun shining on orange leaves fluttering in the wind.

-Happiness is kids that dress themselves without being asked a second time.

-A hug and an “I love you, Mom” after helping my four-year-old with his shoes.

-Getting ready to yell at him for messing around on the way out the door, but stopping in my tracks when he says, “I’m looking for my little Bible book.”

-Happiness is hearing your two-year-old chatting on and on with the ladies at church about her sparkly red shoes and plans to be Elmo for Halloween.

-Happiness is starving after a long morning at church, and heading to Grandma’s house where brunch is all ready and waiting when we arrive.

-Happiness is bacon.

-Happiness is a warm cup of tea and a few handfuls peanut M&Ms.

-Happiness is laying down on a soft bed with a tired toddler who needs a nap. Happiness is taking a Sunday nap of my own, too.

-Happiness is a little boy who rediscovered his special collection of linked key chains that had been lost at grandma’s for a week.

-Happiness is when he figures out how to hook a key chain to his belt loop, and repeatedly tells me the rest of the day, “Look, Mom, I haven’t lost my chains because I hooked it on!”

-Happiness is getting out of the house for a walk to the city park with my family.

-Happiness is my little boy pedaling his trike through dry leaves on the way.

Happiness is riding your tricycle through the crunchy dried leaves.

Happiness is riding your tricycle through the crunchy dried leaves.

-Happiness is the sound of crunching leaves that remind me of Coach Arnold and the cross country season back in high school.

-Happiness running into a group of boys at the park that seemed like they came right out of Mayberry: holding nets and pails, wading in the creek to catch crayfish.

-Happiness is hearing the boys describe how they will use the crayfish as bait for trapping season later on.

-Happiness is seeing kids that know how to play outside in a creek.

-Happiness is remembering catching a crayfish as a kid with my brother Mike down at Black Bill’s cabin on the North Branch of the Whitewater River.

-Happiness is hearing about childhood crayfish boils from my Tennessee-born sister-in-law.

And, happiness is…

-Cousins making a train while sliding down the slide.

-Two six-year-old cousins making a secret world under the lilac bush at the park.

-A two-year-old yelling “Hi!” under the highway bridge walking home from the park, and then saying “it echoes.”

-An afternoon of blue sky, sunshine, and crisp fall air.

-The rustling sound wind blowing through the dry leaves of a corn field.

-Watching my adult brother ride a little girl’s bike to the park because that’s what’s in Grandma’s garage, and why not.

-Watching my husband take a turn on the little girl’s bike on the ride back from the park.

Happiness is a husband who will happily ride a little pink bike home from a Sunday afternoon at the city park.

-Watching cool kids stare in disbelief and teenage disgust at the man riding a girl’s bike.

-A mountain of mini pumpkin gourds shared from my sister’s garden.

-Laughter from hearing another sister ate one of the gourds last year.

-Happiness is eating chicken and gravy and cream puff dessert made by my mom.

-Two-year-old and three-year-old cousins having a discussion at suppertime. “I’m three.” “You too little to ride bus.”

-Happiness is seeing my younger brother rediscover his long-lost RC airplane.

-Happiness is reading a book, and then hearing “read it again, Mom.”

-Seeing my 2nd grader absorbed in the Fleet Farm Toyland catalog. And happiness is being grown up enough to resist the urge to snatch the catalog and look at it myself.

-Happiness is remembering the smell of ink and paper of the Sears Christmas catalogs as a kid.

-My seven-year-old daughter’s giggle of delight at bedtime realizing the upcoming week of school is just three days long.

-My two-year-old girl’s delight at catching a lady bug and watching it crawl across her hand (even though she wasn’t brushing her teeth like I asked).

-Happiness is that same little girl darting across the hallway to yell “Mom, we need more ‘washcoffs’ ” while standing with no clothes on and holding a glass vase with a lady bug inside.

-Happiness is my six-year-old son at bedtime saying “I just can’t ever hug you enough, Mom.”

-Happiness is stumbling across family videos after the kids went to bed.

-Happiness is watching those videos and feeling thankful that we no longer have melted carpet from a curious toddler with an iron.