By Patricia Ann Martell Tattu
Published in: Easy Reader News
Hermosa Beach, CA
August 21, 1980
Essay contest: Third place winner; historical
It all began in the rolling golden hills of the country. I chased Indian spirits through the underbrush and rode from them over the plains on my brother’s pinto pony. We picked wildflowers and took them home to show Mother our love, she put them in water and they died the next day. They looked so much better in the ground we decided to leave them where they were happy.
We climbed the buttes and pulled each other up cliffs with ropes. We waded in the creek with muddy clay up to our calves. We slid down clay banks after the rain and found oil puddles in the creek which proved someday we would be wealthy. Our clothes were old and well-worn; nothing was thrown away. But what did it matter?
Our home was a log cabin built by my father in the dead of winter by pulling logs by horse and chain over the encrusted snow. When I knew it, it had been plastered over inside and out. The walls must have been more than two- feet thick. The roof was sod and scoria, (a hard pink clay broken into chips), with the weeds growing in between. The bedrooms were parts of old buildings that had been left by the farmers during the Depression. They too plastered after having been attached to the main cabin. Our cellar’s door was in the middle of the dining room floor; it lifted up with a ring. Down below in the darkness was a coal bin filled by my father from the coal strata across the creek. The coal kept us warm in the winter and cooked our meals all year round.
Our kitchen was a warm and friendly place. We had an honest- to- goodness sink and running water. This put us among the socially elite in our part of the country. More than that, we had hot running water and all.
The floors were covered with linoleum which we religiously changed every three years or so. They were a bit warped, but who cared about that. The dining room had two tables; one for eating which seated six, and one desk type table which sat under the old crank type telephone. There was also a tall china cabinet with beautiful glass etched doors where mother kept all the pretty pieces she had collected or received as wedding presents. We were not allowed to open the doors. Most all those pieces now belong to me. They are worth very little to a collector but much to my memory bank. We also had a plain wood rocker with a canvas sling bottom made sitable by a pillow, and a wind up phonograph called an Aiolean which was broken half the time, but my father usually managed to fix its spring when the blizzards kept us in during the winter.
Two of our bedrooms were furnished with brass beds which we at the time only appreciated as a place to put our heads and bodies at the end of the day. The mattresses were lumpy and every summer we dragged them outside, placed them on the coal bin, and very carefully examined them for those terrible beasts, bedbugs.
My brother’s room had an iron bedstead instead of a brass one, and his bed had a feather tick. He was a hoarder that boy. Daddy would go to town once every two weeks to do the grocery shopping and sometimes he brought us a portion of candy. The pile was evenly divided among the five of us, and we would secrete it off to our rooms. My hoard never lasted more than a day or two, but my brother! Sneak a look in his drawer a good week later and more than half was still there. Unbelievable! I was tempted, but never did I ever take one piece. God would surely strike me dead or at least my brother would discover the loss and probably hit me on my arm so hard it would turn red and sting at least overnight.
And so we lived our simple life under skies so blue and lucid your heart would jump with ecstasy whenever it was beholden. And the clouds! There have never been such clouds. Huge, white as the white sands of Arizona, fluffy and alive, moving so close you felt they were about to swoop down and rise up into the sky carrying you with them for an unprecedented view.
We planted the garden in the spring, with my mother nagging us all the way. It was so much fun to hide under the plum bushes feeling guilty and watching her hoe away, knowing if she caught sight of us the fun would be over.
We canned in mid-summer; not only our vegetables but fruit brought in from those far off mysterious lands like California, Florida and Oregon. My father butchered his own meat; beef, chicken and pork. We canned that too in a gravy that turned my stomach whenever it was served- and it was served often. We watched in fascination as my father cut the heads off chickens and they ran crazy all over the yard. Then we children picked them up and trudged off to the house where mother had boiling water waiting for us. We dunked the chickens in the water and proceeded to pull their feathers off.
In spring cowboys came to help with the roundup. We children helped too, driving the cattle from the winter pastures. It was a bit unnerving but nice. My father did not believe the branding and the castrating was a good sight for girls about to become ladies, so we peeked through the cracks in the barn till we got bored or were afraid we might be seen. One time I heard my father say “goddamn son of a bitch” to an uncooperative animal and I was shocked! I never knew he used such terrible language.
We fed six to ten cowboys during that season, and believe me they were not of the rhinestone variety! Their leather hats were old and dirty, molded to their heads, and shaped by years of sweat, wind and weather. My one disappointment was that none of them wore cowboy boots, just regular heavy leather ankle- height work shoes. But they chewed on straws, spit tobacco and were wrinkled and worn from spending most of their lives outdoors. They stayed in the bunkhouse, an unpainted wooden shack with running cold water and a bath tub. I think that tub probably was used only a couple of times during its lifetime. And, oh the spell of a cowboy. What a delicious masculine scent. Sweat and body oil mixed with cattle dust and tobacco. Enough to turn any young girl’s head; mine was all the way ‘round. And besides, I had read The Virginian. What could be more romantic than a honeymoon traipsing over the hills behind my man and sleeping out under the stars? That’s as far as my fantasy went except for a few illicit kisses sprinkled in now and again.
And meanwhile we were waking up to sunrises over the Butte, to a sun which spread its sparkling light down the creek below till diamonds seemed to jump across its surface. And that is what life to me was all about. Warmth and beauty with a commitment to all the earth, and entering in, and being a part of. But that life is gone; it is the dream of a child.
We also spent the summer gathering blueberries and chokecherries to make jelly. And spent long hours under the hot sun on the dusty fallow field pulling cockle burrs. That was a job we hated. Blowing dust, cockle-burrs biting our fingers, parsed throats. Oh how we suffered and complained.
And when it came time to stack hay, we stacked hay. I enjoyed standing in the middle waiting for the hayrack to dump us a load. The straw went down our necks and stuck in our hair, and many times knocked us over when we were unable to avoid the load. But it was fun. We spread the hay around, enjoyed the sun and the wind, enjoyed bickering with one another and enjoyed feeling the stack grow high beneath our feet, so that when we left for the day we found ourselves sliding down the sides of a small mountain.
Life was one big adventure after another. Either we were complaining and working or not working and complaining about being bored. During those times we would read books and sit in the dining room with our feet on the table drinking precious Pepsi Cola. Ah, those soda drinks were a treat, and we portioned them out to make them last as long as possible.
Oh, we did other things too, like slopping the pigs and throwing them corn, milking the cows, riding the calves, gathering the eggs and putting in prison those hens who refused to lay and then get off the nest. That was their punishment and it worked; they seemed to forget all about having babies after being caged in an airy crate with only water and grain to eat and with no protection from the elements. There were certain hand-picked hens who were allowed to hatch their eggs; they were usually mean old things who pecked at you madly if you made any movements which threatened their maternal purpose. We waited impatiently for those eggs to hatch. To see those little beaks pecking away from the inside of the shell and finally to see those chicks come out panting and exhausted from the exertion of birth; they would lie on their sides until they got the strength to try to wobble onto their feet. Sometimes we would take some of the eggs, where the chicks were having double trouble, up to the house and put them into a warmed oven, and then slowly with care we would help them peel their way out of their shelled cages. What fun it was!
In the summer of 1948, we sadly left all this. Goodbye to the freedom and our safe self-contained little world. Goodbye to the buttes, the raft in the creek, the meadow lark’s song, the grain stubble shining like gold in the autumn sun and the bloodsuckers that stuck between our toes while wading, the droves of mosquitoes in the cool evening and the Fourth of July celebrations with the explosions of homemade gunpowder made by my talented brother. Goodbye to the rodeo in Sidney, Montana with its tobacco chewing cowboys and carnival rides, and last but not least, to the Indian ghosts hiding in their scary canyons. Could heaven be better than this? I doubt it.
This story was published in the Lewis and Clark Trail Museum newsletter August 2020