And Never Let Us Cry, Part 4 of 5
April 14, 2006
By William Christy
A series of stories sliced from life during the thirties
in the central and Sandhill areas of Nebraska.
The Bending of Twigs
Part 4 of 5
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Mart and his parents were fortunate. They arrived at the town hall early while there were still seats available with backs on them. Mart picked his nose excitedly as he looked about the crowded building. He waved one hand slightly as Orrie Fenster, escorted by parents and fat sister, struggled along the narrow aisle, but he couldn’t gather enough courage to call out a greeting with so many people around. Orrie wouldn’t have heard anyway – the noise was overwhelming. Mart didn’t even hear his mother speaking until he saw her mouth moving.
“What?” he asked.
“Don’t pick you nose!” his mother repeated close to his ear.
Mart was terribly demoralized. He peered about fearfully hoping no one had noticed his horrible breach of etiquette. He was not cognizant of all the manners and ceremonies established by convention as acceptable, but he had been frequently informed that the offense he had just committed was strongly disapproved, and it was hinted, probably sinful. Mart cautiously searched the faces near him endeavoring to discern to what degree the congregation might censure this thoughtless act.
There was much to disturb him. He felt he could read condemnation in the eyes of several individuals. On his left, a young bland-faced farm wife was contentedly nursing an equally bland-faced infant at a large white breast. She gazed about smiling and nodding to acquaintances, but she didn’t smile at Mart. Her husband sat by nonchalantly probing among his teeth with a sliver of wood whittled from the back of an adjacent seat. He seemed to stare right through Mart. I.I. Mintle, splendidly dressed in new overalls, five buckle overshoes, and sheepskin cap with leather covered earflaps which he only wore to horse sales, funerals, school board meetings, and other special functions, walked gallantly down the aisle. He stopped, and Mart felt for one appalling moment that I.I. was about to accost him. However, I.I. turned his attention toward the big wood-burning stove which struggled to remove the chill from the barn-like meeting hall. He calmly opened the iron door and discharged a well masticated cud of tobacco and an accompanying stream of accumulation juice among the roaring cottonwood logs. Only a few stray drops of saliva dangled from I.I.’s right earflap as he stumped away without comment. Directly behind Mart, Fenlow Quinnbaugh and his mentally retarded son, Dinton, were shelling and devouring peanuts as rapidly as their uncoordinated movements would allow. The peanut husks dropped about their feet during this operation were being methodically reduced to dust as four muddy shoes ground them against the floor. Caught by the spirit of the occasion, Fenlow began shouting amiable obscenities to people to recognized, while Dinton echoed portions of these exhortations in a peanut muffled monotone. Mart was afraid they might shout at him. He longed to be home where he felt safer.
He was distracted from this survey by the arrival of one of the drunken cowboys from the Box A who tottered in precariously on high heeled boots and jostled politely until he found an empty chair. No sooner had he seated himself when he clutched at his mouth with both hands and lunged for the rear exit with remarkable alacrity for one in his condition. No doubt he would have been able to except before it was too late had not the rear door been secured tightly to the frame with ten penny nails as a precaution against the chilly northeast wind. Mart felt at once grateful and ashamed. Certainly, in his own mind, he could no longer be the central attraction for scorners.
As if in conjunction with this pandemonium, squeaky pulleys of the hand operated stage curtain began to jerk, and the town hall stage was revealed a section at a time as the curtain rolled up unevenly from the bottom. First the feet, then legs, body, and finally the head of Emil Flitmore became visible as the mechanism continued to groan. Emil seemed to stand swaying in the unsteady glow of four naked light bulbs hanging by cords from the ceiling. He uttered words of greeting, but the clamor among the spectators did not subside appreciably until he placed his hand over his heart and turned toward an American flag on the wall. Then everyone stood and repeated the Pledge of Allegiance with him as if they had been practicing for years. It was quieter after that.
As Emil retreated into the wings, a pale nervous young man appeared abruptly and spoke for exactly ten minutes about the American farmer. His oration was generously sprinkled with words such as: mulch, resources, conservation, fertilizer, society, and progress. For this effort he received a polite round of applause.
Next, a freckle-faced girl in a wrinkled gingham dress and new brown cotton stockings adjusted her thick spectacles and read a poem which she had composed as a part of her 4-H project. The poem was also about the American farmer and contained the same words which the pale nervous young man had previously recited in prose. She, too, was warmly recognized by the audience as she departed stoically from the stage. Her new shoes squeaked audibly above the applause.
Again Emil Flitmore stood before the assemblage.
Beside him was a stranger whom he introduced as Mr. Samuel Scladerman. Sam was an unimpressive individual with shaggy white hair and watery blue eyes. He gave the impression that he really didn’t understand why he was on stage as he shuffled and bumbled about without speaking. He didn’t seem frightened or uneasy though, so the audience waited hoping he would think of something to say. However, he couldn’t seem to recall his speech, and several people began to feel sorry for him. He was definitely out of place standing under those light bulbs in his lint covered double-breasted blue serge suit. Many began to suspect that he was some stranger who had wandered in by mistake. Apparently Mr. Scladerman was hot because he removed his coat. Then he found a large white handkerchief and mopped his brow. Next, he carefully unfolded the cloth, and there in his hands appeared a white rabbit – alive. The crown went wild. They cheered, stamped their feet, whistled, and clapped.
“Well, I never did see nothin’ like that before!” cried Orrie Fenster’s mother hysterically from somewhere near the center of the mob.
Before long, Samuel Scladerman had further endeared himself to the audience by producing more rabbits and two white doves – apparently picking them from the air. Then he changed his white handkerchief to a red one. Mart hadn’t been so fascinated since he had watched Aunt Elmira clean her false teeth.
The wily magician, warmed by success, borrowed a hat and began to mix a cake in it. He poured in milk, flour and sugar and added a couple of eggs. He didn’t seem to notice that the shells fell in also. He asked if someone would lend him a watch so that he might time the cake and determine when it was ready to eat. Lew Wright’s gold watch complete with gold chain and elk’s tooth was provided. Sam observed it intently. “Time is up,” he proclaimed, and dropped the watch in among the other ingredients. The crowd was convulsed with frenetic merriment, but became calm again as the magician reached into the hat and drew forth a beautifully decorated angle food cake. “Happy Birthday!” he said, and gave the cake to Emil Flitmore. Emil broke the cake apart and removed Lew’s watch. The ovation which followed shook dust from the splintery rafters.
While the crowd continued to show unbridled approbation, Emil dragged a portable blackboard onto the stage. A feeble spotlight constructed from a lard pail, light bulb, and baling wire was brought to play upon its surface. Sam took colored chalk from a paper bag and arranged it neatly upon the ledge of the chalkboard as if this were his most important task. He turned his body slightly so he could partially face the audience and still see what he was doing. With rapid unconscious strokes he began to sketch, and at the same time speak vibrant lines of propaganda relative to soil conservation in a throbbing baritone:
By hulking banks of clinging clay
And meadows deep with clover,
A raging storm once rent the day,
While clouds came tumbling over.
The ballad increased in tempo as did the hands of Samuel Scladerman. And upon the chalkboard that evening erupted one of the most awesome battles ever witnessed by soldiers of the soil. It seemed that the good top soil might hold against the wind and rain; however, the picture soon grew dark and foreboding:
And torrents washed away the soil.
Deep gullies gouged the land;
Quiet streams began to boil
All choked with silt and sand.
The rain washed most of the top soil right off the blackboard. Wind blew across the fields. Dry weather came. Mart could feel his throat grow parched as the heat of the sun withered green plants until they turned brown before his eyes. Another appalling gust swept more soil away baring the plant roots. Sam’s voice became louder and the chalk fairly flew. Abruptly the storm ended leaving a farm in utter desolation. Sam stood beside the picture, head bent, as if it were his farm that had been destroyed. There were few dry eyes among the spectators.
“And now,” said Emil Flitmore, breaking the spell, “we have with us a representative from the Agricultural college. She will give us some tips on saving our farms from the destructive effects of erosion. Here she is, Eunice Treadwell!”
Eunice was an efficient looking woman in her mid-thirties; indeed, she would have been beautiful if she had not taken pains to appear otherwise. Her baggy tweed suit and severe hair style did nothing in the way of revealing her womanly charms. She believed that the business of saving the good top soil was too serious a matter to get sexy about. Saving top soil was her one passion in life since her husband had vanished with a voluptuous social worker some ten years before. Eunice was now a very dedicated public servant.
She arranged an elaborate display of charts, graphs, and posters and began speaking intently using all the technical words she had learned at the University’s Department of Agricultural Engineering. She used complete sentences. She placed the proper emphasis on each syllable she uttered. With a pointer, she properly indicated each telling remark by lightly touching a graph or chart. Eunice proved mathematically that a farmer could plant rye, plow it up later, replant corn, and realize a greater profit. She showed how building a series of small dams in existing gullies could prevent washouts. Her dissertation was technically flawless. Furthermore, there were few people in the hall who would not have admitted, secretly, that her comments were appropriate and true.
When she sat down amid scattered applause, Emil came forth and announced that Eunice would be happy to give further assistance by answering questions from the floor. Several hands went up at once, and Emil began to repeat the proffered questions.
“If I plant rye and then plow it up just when it gets to growing good, how am I going to plant corn when I just spent all my seed money for rye?” asked an elderly farmer with decayed teeth.
Eunice indicated that this was a long range program, and financing would have to be arranged using long term anticipated profits.
“But what am I going to live on,” persisted the farmer, “whilst I’m waiting’ for them there long range profits?”
It would be difficult the first few years, but once the program was properly effected everything would level-off. In the meantime certain sacrifices would need to be made.
“I don’t mind them sacrifices so much,” said the farmer. “It’s that going without money that harms the old lady and kids so much.” He sat down unconvinced.
“How,” asked the young father near Mart who was still probing his teeth, “can a feller keep his hogs from rootin’ out them little dams that a person makes in washouts?”
Eunice suggested he keep his hogs penned and feed them a highly concentrated ration of hog pellets which would furnish needed minerals plus protein. His hogs would not only stay in; they would grow bigger and stronger in less time.
“He ain’t never thought of keepin’ his hogs locked up,” submitted Orrie Fenster’s mother, “but if them ornery animals come stompin and rootin’ in my garden just one more time, I’ll give them some concentrated pellets – shotgun pellets! There ain’t no sense in lettin’ hogs be a public nuisance.”
Emil interrupted Mrs. Fenster’s observations to recognize a serious young man in very faded overalls who wanted to know how much it might cost per pig to feed those concentrated pellets until market time. After Eunice gave him a figure for one animal, the man quickly multiplied in his head. “That there hog supplement costs more than what we spend for groceries all year,” he announced sadly. “How could a feller feed his hogs better and still feed his family?”
Again Eunice explained in much detail how a good long range program eventually pays high returns for those who plan carefully. There was a suggestion of irritation in her voice as she reiterated the points she had previously made. This irritation did not diminish while she repeated the same general answers for the edification of several other farmers who presented specific questions.
Eventually I.I. Mintle took the floor: “It don’t look like we’re gettin’ no where with this here talk about conservation. In the first place, conservation means to save stuff don’t it? Well, if you don’t have nothin’ to save they ain’t no way you can save it. Like that there good top soil, I reckon it has blowed plumb to Kansas by now.”
“Me and Dinton might just move to Kansas then,” shouted Fenlow Quinnbaugh. “We got relations there. Then when that soil blows back, we’ll just blow back with it!”
“Blow back,” said Dinton.
I.I. ignored the Quinnbaughs. “All this talk about conservation and hog feedin’ and such might be all right at the university, but them people don’t know nothing about farming. If they did, they wouldn’t be tellin’ us to feed our pigs better than we do our own families. That ain’t right. Pigs is pigs and people is people!”
“Some people is pigs!” explained Fenlow.
“People is pigs,” said his son.
“Everytime,” continued I.I., “some one comes along and tells me to save something it costs money. I saved so much on that new mowing machine I bought that I’m about broke. And this here conservation will cost too. Now just think a minute; they ain’t none of us going to get rich a farming around here. So why make them long range plans and go deeper in debt when things don’t look too bright anyhow? Let’s postpone all that sacrificin’ and just suffer like we been doin’. If we spend five to ten years starvin’ so’s we can build up our soil and animals, we’ll all go broke before we get done. Then about that time, one of them government people will probably say, ‘Don’t raise so much corn; plow it up and plant rye.’ Then we won’t have no corn to fatten all them litters of big healthy pigs we’re supposed to be gettin! Conservation and hog pellets might be good, but there’s a lot to be said about livin’ too.”
“One thing I noticed,” said Lew Wright. “Course I ain’t a farmer, but this sounds like a government program. You know as well as I do what that means. Every man that’s a part of a government program has got to fill out papers and send them in all the time. And he’s got to make two or three copies just alike of the same paper. Why even now it’s getting so I can’t hardly buy a can of cream or a dozen eggs without sendin’ in a report. Just yesterday a government fellow stopped at the store and started nosing around. He said there wasn’t enough reports coming into his office.”
“Well, I’m here to say one thing,” said a tired looking farmer. “Nobody won’t sign me up with no government program. I don’t trust them people. They might even try to tell a feller how much he can grow. Do you know who pays for all that foolishness? We do! We pay for it with our own tax money.”
During this period of verbal turmoil, Eunice Treadwell sat quietly on stage taking copious notes in crisp legible shorthand. She was unruffled even though Emil had lost control of the meeting. Eunice, drawing strength from several courses in rural psychology, rural sociology, and rhetoric, had already outlined a three point rebuttal: first, the “soft sell; second, appeal to reason; third, back to saving the good top soil. She rose from her chair with that confidence frequently exhibited by leghorn hens just prior to laying triple-yolked eggs. “I want to help you people,” she began simply.
“If you want to help,” said Mrs. Fenster, “how come you’re not out stringin’ manure amongst them blow outs instead of travelin’ around with that magic person stirrin’ up trouble?”
“We can’t all string manure,” replied Eunice. She knew that it was sometimes necessary to put these uncouth farm women in their place. Woman against woman, Eunice was a worthy opponent in any verbal battle, all other things being equal. However, Fenlow Quinnbaugh, self appointed wit, felt compelled at this moment to inject a candid observation thereby disrupting what had promised to become a heated debate.
“I think,” said Fenlow, “that both of you women string manure pretty good.”
So many people laughed with him and at him that he repeated this witticism several times. The merriment so absorbed him and Dinton that they were forced to cling to each other for support until their elation partially subsided.
“You!” shrilled Mrs. Fenster. “You fool! You ruin every social event we try to have in this town. Look at you now making all that mess eating peanuts. Why ain’t you out buildin’ them toilets like the government pays you to do?”
There was a lame and bedraggled joke frequently repeated among members of the particular W.P.A. project Mrs. Fenster had endeavored to slander concerning specifications for toilet seats to accommodate the anatomy of certain individuals of the community. Fenlow now recited these requirements for the enlightenment of this lady and the group assembled: “I’m buildin’ a special toilet for your; it just has half a seat!” He wanted to say more, but he choked on laughter and peanuts and couldn’t continue.
“Half a seat,” said Dinton and joined in laughter.
“Don’t you and the idiot make fun of me!”
“Dinton ain’t no idiot,” replied Fenlow with injured pride. He’s a moron, and he’s a smart one too? Why your whole family put together ain’t got the sense Dinton has got!”
Mrs. Fenster’s long suffering, long silent, diminutive husband started to rise in protest. He was nearly out of his chair when Mrs. Fenster, arms akimbo, spun about to face Fenlow eye to eye. During this rapid maneuver, her left elbow struck Mr. Fenster squarely in the face. Being in an awkward position, he toppled – chair and body – into the lap of the unfortunate spinster occupying the seat behind him. Like a sinking man seeking a life line, he clutched at the bosom of the lady’s dress for support on his way down. She jumped in alarm. The strain was too much for the fabric and it parted from collar to hem. The resourceful victim quickly grabbed her coat to cover her exposed muslin slip, but before she could place one trembling arm in a sleeve disaster struck again. Mr. Fenster, now trying to rise from the floor, seized the garment unwittingly and it cascaded about his upturned face. On his back, his feet tangled in a folding chair, his vision blocked, his oxygen supply drastically reduced, Mr. Fenster panicked and screamed for help.
“Hit him again,” shouted Fenlow. “He’s gettin’ up!”
He’s gettin’ up,” said Dinton.
It was at this point that Mrs. Fenster discarded that small amount of decorum she possessed and started toward her antagonists. She trod heavily – stepping twice upon her prone husband without noticing – gathering momentum as she progressed. Chairs and humanity dissolved in her wake. A primitive cry escaped from between her clenched jaws. High above her head swung the most formidable of weapons, a heavy cowhide purse. Mrs. Fenster had run amok.
Dimly Mart could hear a voice in the background saying, “I want to help you save the good top soil.”
Mr. Scladerman, perhaps not so dedicated, but surely wiser than Eunice in the psychology of mass behavior, was treading his way nimbly and quietly along the far wall toward the only unencumbered exit. He was the first to leave. Mart, his mother, and father were second, third, and fourth respectively.
They paused long enough in the open doorway to observe I.I. Mintle assist Mr. Fenster to his feet and receive a solid blow on the earflap from his distraught neighbor as a reward for his kindness. I.I. turned pale, clutched his stomach, and went into a coughing convulsion. Apparently he had taken another chew of tobacco during the program.
Fenlow and Dinton were scrambling through the crowd toward the rear exit with Mrs. Fenster in frantic pursuit. She nearly caught them as they sped twice around the stove, but the mighty blow she delivered only fanned Dinton’s unkempt hair. The full impact struck the stove pipe. Four joints of pipe shuddered and collapsed causing an avalanche of soot and sparks. Fenlow and Dinton forged through the cloud and reached the rear door – it was still nailed shut.
Dinton lunged against the door and began kicking it violently. Fenlow held his hands in front of his face and pleaded: “Don’t hit me!”
Mrs. Fenster complied with this request and struck Dinton a resounding thump. As she raised her purse again, Fenlow turned and began kicking the door also. Mrs. Fenster assisted their efforts by belaboring them unmercifully about the head and shoulders. Quite possibly she would have done them permanent damage, but a large bag of peanuts had spilled during the struggle and her feet slipped so much among them that her accuracy was impaired.
The dry wood panels of the door eventually crumpled under the weight of the attack, and the Quinnbaughs escaped into the darkness. Mrs. Fenster hesitated, but did not pursue them. She turned her wrath upon Eunice Treadwell, “If you want to help people so much, why didn’t you help when those animals tried to injure me?”
“The question and answer period is over,” said Eunice primly. And so it was.
Mart, feeling a tug at his arm, turned to depart with his family. He glanced up and was surprised to look into the watery eyes of Samuel Scladerman. Mart recalled the words his mother had told him to use upon occasions of departure. “Thank you,” he said, “for a very pleasant evening.”
“You are quite welcome,” replied Sam. “Have a rabbit.” He placed the small animal in Mart’s arms and walked away.
Mart held his rabbit tightly and dozed intermittently during the trip home. His parents, thinking him asleep, quietly discussed the problems of raising a child amid so much hatred, violence, and confusion. “He notices everything,” said Mother.
“I noticed one thing,” Mart admitted sleepily.
“What was that?” asked his mother in alarm.
“I noticed,” said Mart, “that Lew Wright was picking his nose, too.”