My mother Genevieve was nineteen at the time of my birth, my father Lawrence was twenty-three. They had been married just twenty-two months earlier and already had a little girl named Lois. They lived on George Wernimont's farm north of Carroll, Iowa, where my father worked as a hired hand.
The day I was born my father was busy mowing weeds along the county highway. He had to finish mowing before he could take my mother to the hospital. I was named Richard Henry at birth. The Richard may have come from the song "Open the Door, Richard," then popular across the country. The Henry was in honor of my paternal grandfather, who - along with my maternal grandmother - was chosen to be a sponsor at my baptism. The ceremony was held in the hospital chapel instead of the parish church because my father had recently had a falling out with the resident pastor.
When I was a year and a half old, my mother gave birth to my brother Donnie, then in quick succession to two more sisters (Connie & Bonnie) and two more brothers (Tom & Charlie), each a year apart. Donnie was born with a curved spine and was sickly from the start. He lived only six months before dying of pneumonia. Dad fashioned the coffin out of some new lumber he had on hand. A neighbor named Mrs. Schon lined it with white satin and embroidered material. Donnie was buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery at Carroll, Iowa, in a gravesite provided by Great Grandpa Herman Gehling. The site was afterwards covered with flowers cut from the family garden.
At the time of Donnie's death, my sister Lois and I were both in bed with whooping cough. My case was thought to be especially desperate: every time I coughed, blood would gush from my nose and throat. As an infant I had often suffered from the croup - an inflammation of the respiratory passages, that would result in labored breathing and hoarse coughing.
My earliest childhood memories date from the age of three. By then we had moved to the Billy Bedford farm a few miles northeast of Willey, Iowa. The house had five rooms, with a pantry and three bedrooms. There was also a little gazebo out near the garden where my sister Lois and I used to play. One summer day we were having such a good time in this gazebo that we promised one another we would return the next day. But when morning came we were both down with the chicken pox. Several days passed before we got outside again, and by then the solemn promise was forgotten.
Later that same summer I remember chasing Lois down the lane, threatening to hit her with a long stick. I don't think I carried out the threat; but the incident must have occasioned a spanking because years later - when it came time for my First Confession - that childhood threat was the only sin I could bring to mind.
The Bedford farm had a huge barn, with one side of the roof extending nearly to the ground. Lois loved to climb to the top and watch Dad coming home from the fields. One day she convinced me to attempt the climb. After much hesitation and not a few tears, I finally made it to the top - just in time to see Dad waving as he led the mules into the barn. Some weeks later, those same mules kindly jumped completely over me when I accidently fell down in their path.
At the age of four, I was again chasing after Lois when I jumped from the barn door onto a broken pop bottle. The glass cut a four-inch gash into the bottom of my right foot. Lois helped me to the house, where Mom stuck the foot into a pail of cold water, then sent Lois into the fields to get Dad. Somehow we made it to the hospital before I ran out of blood. In the operating room, two nurses held me down while a third poured ether on a rag and forced it over my nose and mouth. I thought they were trying to suffocate me and struggled for all I was worth. The foot did finally heal completely, leaving only a long scar to mark the cut.
Later that year (1943, midway through WWII), two of my uncles came to visit us before going overseas. Both had recently been drafted - Uncle Paul into the Marines, Uncle Clarence into the Air Force - and they came dressed in their new uniforms. While Dad and my uncles talked of war, I hid under the kitcken table, pulling the tablecloth aside from time to time in order to play peek-a-boo with them. Mom had recently taught me a nursery rhyme:
Before I went to bed I was called on to recite the rhyme. It came out something like this:
That fall, when Lois went to school, I was allowed to go into the fields with Dad to pick corn. He would let the mules pull the wagon by themselves, with me up on the seat, while he grabbed the ears and tossed them into the wagon. It was said that he could fill a wagon faster than any other farmer in the county.
One day we took his old tractor out to the pasture to bring in the cows. As we came to each gate, Dad would jump off to open it while I steered the tractor through. One gate he had trouble closing. I was steering the tractor down a hill directly towards a barbed-wire fence when he finally caught up with me.
©1999-2006 Richard Gehling...E-mail me at GehlingR@aol.com