The Dairy Farm

Our first real house seemed like a mistake.  It was a product of dad’s ingenuity, single-minded practicality and lack of aesthetic concerns.  He built it mostly himself, with the help of his brother and a few hired hands.  It was a cement block house.  Growing up I never knew anyone else that had a cement block house.  Had I lived in Florida that might have been different.  There the welcome coolness of the construction would make sense.  In Southern Illinois in the winters of the 50’s, all I remember about the comfort of that house was gauging just the right distance from the pot-bellied coal stove to be warm without burning.  Any distance from it…that is in the bedrooms or bath, was bound to be intolerably cold.

The only beauty of the house was mom’s purple bearded irises by the front windows and later in the summer the glorious zinnias in a riot of colors that she grew between the rows of vegetables.  The house itself was filled with cheap, drab furniture and rugs.

To make matters worse, the house was hidden from view behind a railroad track embankment.  Turning off the highway you would drive up and over a 12-15 foot high slope and then down the driveway which forked to the right to the Fossil’s and left to our house.  Mom hated that railroad track for making her feel imprisoned.  I became terrified of it after nearly getting hit by a train.  I rode my tricycle up there to look at the pretty rocks.  I was sitting down examining the small bits of quartz, limestone, flint and river rock.  Sometimes I’d get lucky and find a fossil.  On one occasion I heard the train whistling as it neared.  I jumped up and ran to my trike.  Straddling it I tried to pedal it off the tracks.  The wheels spun in the gravel and then to make matters worse I couldn’t get one of the back wheels over the raised track.  The train was getting louder and bearing down on me.  In my smallness it looked so close and big.  Finally I jerked it free and pedaled faster than I thought possible down the hill and to the house.  Myrtle had come running after hearing the frantic train whistle.  She was scared and crying too.  Mom was mad and spanked me.  I think it was the last spanking I ever got from her.  I never hunted from prize rocks on the tracks again.

Mom’s anger at life on the farm was further intensified when she was permanently blinded in the left eye by a piece of bailing wire.  She later suffered another accident when the tractor overturned on her, pinning her underneath it with hot oil pouring on her.  Fortunately, she was on the silage which took the weight of the tractor, cushioning her so that her injuries were minor.  She complained bitterly as the years went by about all the pain the farm had caused.  Besides her accidents, Carole got a broken elbow and Helen hit me with the tractor, breaking my leg.  I spent 28 days in traction and then some weeks in a cast.  In mom’s eyes, all of this was dad’s fault.

Neglected…cold…shouts more than conversation…embarrassment…silent tears.  That was our home.  Those early years crystallized the relationships in our family, which continued to play out until the end:  Mom’s bitterness, dad’s infidelity, Carole’s detachment, Helen’s rebellion and my conflict of duty and freedom.

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