My grandma on my mother’s side, who lived from 1914-1990, and my grandma’s brother, Orlin, who lived from 1912 to 1987, grew up in Kansas during the 1920s.
Kansas during the child years of my grandma and great uncle was a wide-open magical place, according to her writings. Magical by no means meant easy.
But there were fields, meadows and wildflowers as far as the eye could see. You could see literally for miles on a clear day. You could see the universe majestically displayed every night — no city lights to distract from the spectacular view. The stars and planets in all their wonder and majesty were laid out before your very eyes. Shooting stars were a regular occurrence.
Neighbors weren’t very close either. They were miles apart from one another.
You could go for days, weeks or even months without seeing a single soul other than family.
As my grandma tells it, her brother Orlin, although he was older by two years, was always in trouble.
Grandma wrote, “He would try to get me to go along with his antics, sometimes I would, but mostly I would be afraid of disappointing or getting into trouble with mama or daddy.”
Orlin was what she would call an “overly busy boy” (knowing grandma she probably had other names for him that she didn’t want to say, or put down in her memoirs, but probably thought anyway).
Grandma wrote of her mother (great-grandma Annie) getting so frustrated with Orlin (he was 6 at the time) running off and her not knowing where he was that she fastened a wire to his overalls and attached the wire from his clothes to the clothesline in the backyard.
Uncle Orlin could run to his heart’s content — or at least the length of the clothesline between the two wooden poles.
One morning, as Uncle Orlin was tethered, grandma heard hysterical laughter coming from the backyard. Great-grandma Annie was doing other chores in the house, so grandma wasn’t sure what was going on. She looked out the window only to see my uncle streaking across the yard, naked, laughing his you know what off. She looked at the clothesline and there were his overalls hanging upside down on the line. Somehow Uncle Orlin had gotten himself upside down and fell to the ground out of his overalls leaving his overalls hanging (apparently underwear was optional).
Grandma tells of another time when Uncle Orlin got into trouble for being “busy.” He had worn his winter jacket to school one bitterly cold Kansas December morning. His jacket was a “hand-me-down” but still usable. In fact, all of grandma’s and Uncle Orlin’s clothes were hand-me-downs. They couldn’t afford new clothes. Grandma’s dad was an unemployed carpenter who got work where he could, and great-grandma cleaned homes for well-to-do neighbors.
Well-to-do usually meant they had a home and a stable job, but not much else.
So, my busy uncle decided to take a shortcut through a farmer’s field to the schoolhouse. On his way under the fence, his coat got on the farmer's barbed wire fence. The jacket was so tangled and torn, he couldn’t get it loose. So he left it, hopelessly tangled in the farmer’s fence. Now freezing, he ran to school several miles away.
As he made his way home from school later that day, he knew he would have to explain to great-grandma what had happened to his jacket. When he arrived at home, sure enough, great-grandma Annie confronted him as to where his jacket was. My uncle, looking like the Grinch trying to explain to Cindy Lou why he is taking their Christmas tree, came up with a story that is not only creative, but kind of believable. Well, maybe not that believable. Uncle Orlin looked at great-grandma and said, “Mama my teacher has it.” Great-grandma said, “Why does your teacher have your jacket?”
Uncle Orlin said, “Well Mama, she liked my jacket so much that she asked me to leave it with her so she could make a pattern off it for herself.”
I can just see great-grandma looking at Uncle Orlin and thinking to herself, “That seems a little far-fetched.” She then said to Uncle Orlin, “You start on your evening chores, I’ll just take our horse and wagon to the school to get your jacket. After she traces a pattern that is.”
Uncle Orlin hurriedly exclaimed, “She’s gone Mama, she left shortly after school.”
“Well, Orlin,” said great-grandma. “I know for a fact that’s not true; this is Thursday and Thursdays she stays after school to grade schoolwork.”
Grandma didn’t say what happened after great-grandma got back home but I’m sure by that time, Uncle Orlin’s story had changed considerably.
My great-grandparents did not hesitate to take their children to the “woodshed,” and it usually wasn’t to get wood.
Richard Stride is the current CEO of Cascade Community Healthcare. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.