Remembering the Forgotten
By LeeAnn Garton
I don’t know if my mother and I were going to Spencer to catch the train or just for the excitement of seeing a letter from Dad a few hours earlier than the mail delivery time to my grandparents’ home in Kilgore, where we were staying.
I do have a memory of sitting in the Spencer train station on one of its high-backed depot benches, sleepy and disoriented in the night, but I think this may have been an earlier scene that stemmed from trips we’d taken to and from California and Kilgore. Either way, my mother most likely would not have been happy.
Actually, it may have been on this trip that Dad’s crate came. It was an ammunition box that contained woolen blankets, a white one with “Navy” in bold letters just under the dark blue band. The other was a military green blanket with “US Marines” written across the top stripe. I liked the Navy one better.
There were other things in the crate that I don’t remember but after we returned home late in the short winter day, it was a charged atmosphere when we opened the crate under the kerosene lamplight.
What I remember most as a regular occurrence in those days was the light grey canvas sack of mail, the grommets threaded through with a white cotton rope at the top, tied securely when the sack was ready for travel. The bag must have been four feet deep, never full, but it held precious catalogues, letters, packages, all the ties between us, the forgotten people, and the other world.
This canvas bag was brought into Ollie’s store, where all manner of things were sold and where neighbors would be already waiting. The bag was pitched unopened on the floor, a triumphant gesture that was accompanied by jolly banter, which was all-important to cementing connections in our community. The mail was then sorted into our fancy numbered brass postal boxes.
The government invested in high-quality craftsmanship back then. We postbox renters would twist the knob at the center of each box back and forth to undo the combination lock, which opened a small door backed by thick metal and mechanical parts.
The news we received through the mail was important, because we were at war. Even though I was oblivious to what that meant, it was affecting my life. The Japanese man who candled the eggs and grew vegetables disappeared, and harsh words were used about him.
War surplus parts of planes arrived, such as engines and propellers. Listening to the radio became an evening ritual. Flashlights with batteries appeared and, as I grew a bit older, small exotic porcelain dolls that were exquisitely painted came in people’s mail. I recognized that this painting was hand-done but try as I might, I could not conceive how hand and eye could make this effect out of paint and clay.
Each one had a tiny label that said it was made in Occupied Japan. Eventually, to acquire such skill became a quest for me [see “The Puppet Maker,” IDAHO magazine, May 2012].
At home, Grandma was queen of the kitchen, keeping things tidy and warm. Her realm was pastel and precise. Granddad’s kingdom, on the other hand, was the barn and fields beyond. Except for the glittering white winter snow, it was earth-colored and dynamic: animals, leather, wood, metal, oats, and hay.
Granddad was good with animals. I never heard him address any being under his care in anger. He raised his voice only to cover distance, and his animals had quiet trust in his stewardship. Not that he didn’t get angry—he was a redhead—it just seemed he knew his anger would not advance a situation with either animals or family, especially his grandchildren.
In wintertime, the barn stalls were cleaned out and fresh straw put down almost daily. A large flat-edged shovel was pushed through the center of the barn to clear out the muck. The manure was piled behind the barn where it would compost until spring, when it would be spread over the fields.
I wanted to be strong enough to push the shovel through the manure but I was a flop. The large shovel was much too heavy for my most earnest efforts, yet Granddad seemed content with the attempt and made some wry joke that I did not grasp.
I remember the barn as warm in the winter, which seems odd. Perhaps it was the animal heat or the activity but I know a wood stove would have been out of the question, because loose hay in the loft posed a serious fire hazard. The warmth could have resulted from the insulating hay above our heads.
I have no memory of manure frozen to the floor—and the floor was pretty much the level of my observation at that young age.
In the summer, hay was brought to the barnyard in great loads on a hayrack behind the team of horses. The hay was left in a loose haystack in front of the barn until a derrick was set up to shift it in smaller bundles up into the second-floor window above the main door of the barn, which had a wooden door that later would be closed to the elements.
My first memories of the hayloft begin with a ladder attached to the barn wall that reached to the second floor, where abundant stores of hay were apportioned to the animals all winter through openings above their mangers. Often it was my job to climb this ladder up to the hayloft and push hay down into the mangers. It was always best to get the mangers filled as quickly as possible, because I was prone to play up there and if I got carried away and fell through an opening, it would be good if the mangers that caught my fall were filled with cushioning hay. That was my motivation to do the work, anyway.
Granddad’s two-horse team was kept in the first stall to the right of the main door. The load was unhitched beside the barn before bringing the horses inside, where they shook their heads, whinnied, and stamped up the ramp to the barn door and into the stall. Here they were unharnessed and groomed.
Granddad would undo the traces and reins. Then he would remove the leather-covered wooden collar around their necks by grasping the two metal horns that extended from the hames that hold the traces at the top, and he would swing the collar onto a peg. These were draft horses and my grandfather was a little more than five feet tall. The metal extension of each hame was topped in grand style by an ornamental silver ball. Granddad would hang all the reins and harnesses on pegs in the wooden-slabbed wall of the stall.
Curry combing was something I could do. I spent hours combing the horses’ mighty legs. Granddad must have shown me how to follow the direction of their hair because I remember doing that very carefully before I combed through their long tails. I also tried out my new skill of braiding on these long patient tails. I combed the horses’ underbellies and then their necks.
If I teetered on the edge of the manger, I could reach along the neck almost to the horse’s back. The horses let me explore the suede feeling inside their ears and I would look deep into the reflections in their eyes. After Granddad finished the initial going-over, I was mostly unsupervised. He trusted me and those massive horses, and I remember being alone in the quiet barn.
I wonder if I would have been intimidated if I had understood just how big those horses were, but I think probably not, because my grandfather’s calm manner left me with the same confidence he gave the horses. Although now, it seems like I was playing out the ancient parable of the blind men and an elephant.
I think it was once a week that my grandfather harnessed his team and headed out to Spencer for the sack of mail that came in on the train. I don’t know if this was a regular job or if he simply did this regularly in winter because of his fine horse team. He certainly had enough to do to keep himself busy on the ranch.
The message about the mail delivery probably came through our phone line. We had a phone system set up by the Forest Service, I believe. A well-crafted oak box about two feet tall and eighteen inches wide had been installed in the parlor. It hung on the wall, jutting out probably six inches beyond the wallpaper.
On its right-hand side was a crank handle that would generate enough electricity to send a current down the wire to all of the homes on the system and ring according to the length of time the crank was turned. As I recall, our ring was three shorts, like the “S” in Morse code.
We were on our honor to answer only our ring, which made us very careful to cover the black Bakelite mouthpiece in the center front of the box before we even thought to pick up the receiver from its cradle hook on the left side to open the line.
Not all the houses in the area had the luxury of a telephone. It could have been our remoteness—because even by Kilgore standards we were remote—or it could have been the mail gig. I was told on several occasions to be very quiet after the phone rang, When I agreed, Grandma would carefully pick up the receiver.
Knowing what was going on in the larger community could mean life or death in this least-populated county of Idaho. Whenever the message of the mail’s arrival came by telephone, our adventure began. My mother and I would sometimes ride to Spencer inside a covered sleigh pulled by the team.
This small portable building was made of a new manufactured-wood product called plywood. I think it was attached to the work sleigh, which was used to haul winter loads of firewood, posts and hay through the snow into the fields. A small wood stove sat in the center and a tiny chimney rose through the roof.
Mom warned me to not touch the stove because I would be scarred. This was something I could not grasp in spite of her explanations, which did not include that it would just plain hurt me. I understood hurt.
The horses, the black one named Coaly and the white one Queeny, plowed steadily through belly-deep snow. I have no idea how my grandfather pulled off this feat. He talked to his team, his voice holding my attention, too. He used the reins to signal to which side and how far or how fast to go, these changes in speed and distance often being very small increments.
He never lost his calm manner. Even as a child, I knew those two powerful horses and my grandfather’s control were our lifeline through the snow and cold. He wore heavy mittens but through a lot of these journeys, his bare hands held the reins in the freezing air. All year round, his hands were cracked and thick with calluses.