Thursday, April 26, 2007


My friend Jim Stebbings has been recovering memories of working in the East St. Louis stockyards when he was a kid. He’s not much older than me, but he got me thinking about earlier times. Here are my mother -- except she wasn’t even married yet -- and my father’s cherished youngest brother, Seth, who was clearly “born to fly.” He began with the earliest fabric and bamboo little moths on the prairie and -- parallel with flying -- became a unicycle operator with a thirty foot tall unicycle! (Well, maybe only ten.)

My father, Bruce, and Seth were a lot alike physically but not at all beyond that. I’m not sure exactly how they differed or why except that my father carried an enormous burden of responsibility, partly because he was the oldest -- save for another little boy who died days after birth. Seth was the youngest.

Because Bruce was the oldest and this was a Scots prairie family, it was taken for granted that Bruce would go to college. He was kind of bookish anyway -- in fact, the family thought he was brilliant. Unsaid was the idea that, once graduated, he would pull the family along into enough prosperity for the others to go to school. In fact, they all earned post-secondary certificates paid for by their parents, but only Bruce got a Master’s degree -- in agriculture at Oregon State University. The Depression changed everyone's plans. His thesis was on the price of potatoes -- what patterns the prices followed and which hopefully would be predictive. He was motivated from experience -- the family went broke growing potatoes up in Manitoba.

But an MS in Ag, which is what he earned, didn’t mean a desk job. He worked for the Oregon Wool Growers as a buyer and was grateful since he was getting the only paycheck in the family for a while. In these two photos, he’s sorting wool. It got him exempted from WWII. By then he was married with kids and a little too old.

When he was courting my mother, he was cruising eastern Oregon to look at wool and sheep. She was working in Roseburg and he -- the self-declared atheist -- went to church so he could gaze at her while she sang in the choir. (So he claimed.) Early in the marriage my mother went along on the trips, taking her needlework in the car. I have a quilt on my couch this very moment that she started as individual blocks with iris appliqued onto them in 1937 and never put together into a quilt until very late in life. (1982)

Bruce is the farthest to the right.

Now Bruce is the farthest in the rear.

When I was very small, I went with him to the warehouse. I announced that I needed to “go”, but there were no women’s bathrooms in the building -- indeed, no women! One of the men said he would guard the door, I suspect, while my father took me into the only bathroom, but I was so distracted by several big white shiny installations that I’d never seen before that I almost forgot why I was there. I asked what they were, but got nothing but doubletalk and changed subjects. This, of course, alerted me that they of great and mysterious importance to adults. It was many years before I realized they must have been urinals. Until then I think I had the idea that they were sheep monuments of some kind.

Jim remarks on how decent and mannerly men were in those days. They showed up for work on time, didn’t loaf, and checked out a little AFTER quitting time. No cussing except a little mild stuff if no women were around. Older men here, both red and white, are still like that. They tip their hats and hold doors and say, “Ma’am.” The kids don’t. They just growl and prowl. Unless there are none of their peers around -- then they are quite capable of being decent human beings.

Late in life my father worked with Future Farmers of America a bit. For instance, he composed and judged competitions. One of his favorite questions was “if you see a flock of sheep spread out through a fenced pasture, would you expect the wool to be higher or lower quality?” Of course, it would be likely better wool because sheep that are fenced have been bred for wool quality, but sheep in a flock favor the survival of those who stay in the bunch, which might not mean the best wool. One could say better wool is evolution guided by profit but tighter flocks are evolution guided by survival.

I suppose this is true of people, too. So what is it that shapes our young people into growling prowlers, I wonder?

1 comment:

Da' Goat said...

You are how you are treated. Given responsibility, asked for input, put to work alongside their parents or other family members... I don't know many farm kids that turn in to "growling prowlers."