Monday, July 19, 2004

JULY 20-22
After I put up tomorrow's post, I will leave for a short trip to Curlew, Iowa, my "hometown." The folks who bought the Joe Wilson house in Curlew live and work in Atlanta, Georgia, but they spend their vacations repairing, restoring, and refurbishing the house that my childhood friend Bryan Wilson grew up in. I have fond memories of the house, as is evident in my memoir, Curlew: Home. The house, as is the case of Curlew itself, has fallen into some disrepair over the years. Bryan Wilson was killed while serving a second tour of duty in Vietnam.
The owners of the Wilson house are working on it this week and next. They had invited me to visit them during their time in Curlew, to tour the house. I've offered to spend a day helping them. So I'll drive out to Curlew tomorrow after posting here, work with them in the house on Wednesday, drive home on Thursday, and return to blogging on Friday.
I wonder what ghosts will stir up dust in the old house as I'm in it. I wonder what emotions will stir within me. Will I get the kernel of a good essay out of the experience, or at least an interesting journal entry? I don't know. There are no guarantees, but this is the sort of experience that usually bears fruit for me and I am grateful for the opportunity to visit my dead buddy's childhood home.
This is part of an interview I conducted in July, 2003, with 99-year-old Pearl Mt. Castle of Lewisburg, Ohio. Pearl taught school for forty years, usually fifth grade. She taught Sunday School for sixty-four years, retiring from that when she was in her nineties. She still lives independently on the farm and in the house her parents moved into in 1913. She still takes care of herself. She still sometimes refers to herself in the third person, in the manner of old school teachers. I've been asked what Pearl looks like, and this is how I responded: "Pearl is white-headed, fairly thin, of a medium woman's height - neither short nor tall. Her face has seen some years, but her eyes still have some fire in them. She was wearing a long, dark house dress when I interviewed her, she walks with a walker, she wears a built-up shoe and brace on the foot and ankle most damaged by the polio." I found that my job during this interview was to stay out of the way and let Pearl tell her story. Pretty much I succeeded in staying out of the way; there's no question but that Pearl can tell her story. Try and keep up with us, now.

"I didn't tell you about my 4-H work," Pearl said. "It wasn't called 4-H in Preble County back in 1919. I was 14 or 15 years old. It started with our wonderful superintendent of schools - 'We ought to have something for these children to do in the summer-time.' So we formed little clubs of one kind or another, and Lewisburg had a food club. Seven or eight girls belonged to it. One of the young teachers, who was a grand woman if there ever lived one, said she would be the sponsor of it. We met every week or so through the whole summer and studied nutrition, menus, preparation of foods, and cooking. A cooking club. Lanier Township had a cooking club, Monroe Township had a cooking club, and Lewisburg had a cooking club. There were at least sixty some girls in Preble County at that time in cooking clubs - 1919. We had a pamphlet explaining the things we studied We helped our mothers with cooking, canning, preserving, stewing, and all that, making family dinners and so on."

"At the county fair in September," she continued, "we exhibited - canned vegetables, canned fruit, jellies, and preserves, and a loaf of bread. Prizes were given for the best exhibit. The fair was during school-time but school was dismissed so the kids could go to the fair. The Mt. Castle girls wouldn't be going to the fair until the second day, so they were put out in the field picking up ears of corn that had been knocked off by the binder. When the came up to the farmyard for Dad to shovel the corn out of the wagon into the crib, the girls came to the house to get warm. While they were sitting here getting warm, waiting to go back out to the field, the telephone rang. The principal's wife was on the telephone when my mother answered. My mother said, 'Well, you can tell Pearl.'"

"So Pearl goes to the telephone," she said. "The principal had been so anxious to see what his school had as exhibits that he went over early on Thursday morning. His group of girls had several first place prizes. Pearl Mt. Castle had the prize for 'Best Cook in Preble County.' A little girl from Lanier had second place. And the third, fourth, and fifth places went to our Lewisburg club. The principal was so pleased and surprised he couldn't wait to tell it, he had to call his wife in Lewisburg and have her call to tell me I was first in Preble County. The prize was this - first and second in the county would go to Columbus - which was like going to Europe, you know - for Farmer's Week in January, entertained at Ohio State. The trip was all furnished by the county. That was like going to Europe for little country girls."

"I didn't know the Brauers from Lanier, my family didn't know them," Pearl said. "Jessie Brauer was the girl from Lanier. They lived at Isabelle Crossroad, we called it Beantown. The families got together to talk about how we'd get transported to Columbus for that week. We decided that Dad would take me by horse and buggy down to the traction line - there was a traction line from Richmond to Dayton, an inter-urban electric. I spent the night nearby. Then in the morning a fellow took us to the inter-urban line, and told them 'These little girls are going to Columbus, be sure they get off at Ludlow so they can walk to the depot.' We got on the train in Dayton that took us to Columbus. Advisers for 4-H met us at the train station and took us to the hotel where we stayed for a week. We went to the Ohio State Agricultural Building for a lot of meetings. We saw the town. We saw the Capitol building. We had three meals a day at the hotel or wherever."

Pearl said: "It was a great outing for a little girl back in 1919, 'the Best Cook in Preble County' - Pearl Mt. Castle."

"I wasn't too dull, I guess," she said.


JULY 13, 1998

Partly cloudy this morning. I can hear a woodpecker at breakfast. A squirrel noses its way down a tree in the back yard. In the distance, a mourning dove sits on a wire, tells me of its sadness.

We approach mid-July and I am caught, I think, somewhere in late May. Though how tall the corn is says it is July. How far the winter rye has turned says it is July. Still, being away from home for much of the month of June, it is almost as if my internal clock stopped while I was away. Well, I am here now, and the place fills me, here, now.

The village is very quiet this morning. What is it poised for? A new day? A new week?

It is a green land this year, a great green smear across the state. Should we be happy that every farmer prospers, or complain that the price paid for their products will drop as a result of a good harvest? Some are caught in that hard place where their happiness must sadden them.

The day lilies in the ditch north of Five Corners are orange summer sentinels, fully at attention.

In Ripon, the butt end of the weekend celebration remains. In the park, the rides and the midway are quiet, the carnies and hawkers and ride operaters Canjun'd by the constant sun and marinated in cheap bourbon - they sleep the fitful sleep of those who have no permanent home. Perhaps the women dream - a house and bed to call their own, a man to stand by, a sproutling child who will never have to live like this. The day will waken each of them, by and by, the heat will, each with his own, her own sour breath; then they'll be off down the road again, another town, another shill, another day.


JULY 14, 1998
It was blistering hot yesterday. The heat is expected to continue through the week. The humidity helps the crops, perhaps, but makes the people a little cranky. I mean "makes me a little cranky." It cooled last night somewhat and we were able to cool the house. At one point, waking during the night, I could have sworn it was even a little chilly.

People talk too much of the weather and complain too much of the heat, sometimes. Accept it, people! This is Wisconsin; this is the way it's going to be. Like complaining about it is going to change anything?

I leave early for work today. There is moisture on the windshield, on the side windows. The humidity in the cool evening air has to condense somewhere, I suppose. It is almost as if it has condensed on the morning sun as well.

The stray cat lounges in the driveway, up against the tire of a car, surveying his kingdom. This is my world, he says. Challenge me for it.

White clover shows itself in the lawn across the street, and elsewhere in Fairwater. A rabbit in the cemetery, a robin.

In the country, the humid air is so thick that groves of trees, silos, barns disappear into it a mile off or so off. It's not fog. The air is that wet. Even in the cool breeze sweat beads on my forehead. Am I talking too much of the weather, complaining? Shut up, Tom!

You can see the different maturity dates of the sweet corn, I think, looking at the color of the tassels - the paler, the later it matures.

Even the skinned lawns in Ripon - there are lots of them - soak up the dew this morning.

Two crows strut on the sidewalk in front of the bank downtown. I wonder, Do the bankers know that crows can count to ten?

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