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Growing up in Iowa (II)

Move to Gilmore City

Before the year was out, we moved from the Bedford farm to the Wendl farm one-half mile north of Gilmore City, Iowa. The house and barn on the Wendl farm stood just a few yards from a busy gravel road leading into town. One night, as we were getting ready for bed, we heard a terrible thud and went out to find out big Shepherd dog had been hit by a speeding car. The impact had killed him instantly, throwing his body nearly fifty feet through the air. Lois and I cried ourselves to sleep that night. The next morning Dad dug a shallow grave in a grove of trees. There we buried old Shep, placing a large rock on top of his grave as headstone.

The Wendl farm comprised 160 acres, sown mostly to corn and soybeans. Down on the south forty was a bit of pasture land for the milk cows. One morning Dad went out to the fields to find that a large area, about the size of a football field, had sunk down twenty to thirty feet. My sister Lois and I had great fun climbing down in the hole to explore. Little did we then know that the southern part of the farm lay over a vast reserve of limestone, which would eventually make one of my uncles a rich man.

That fall I went to school for the first time. It was a whole new world, completely foreign and slightly scary. There I was - a little country bumpkin, with a freckled face, cow licked hair, a slight lisp, and the inability to pronounce the letter "L". There was the school - a big brick building, two stories high, with an auditorium, three classrooms, and a large basement. There were three grades to a classroom, each room presided over by a Catholic nun dressed in a black and white habit.

There were no girls in the kindergarten class of 1944, just three boys: Jimmy, Hughie, and myself. Jimmy and Hughie were both town boys, and adapted to school life rather quickly. I, on the other hand, was backward and shy. The shyness eventually passed and school became a little more enjoyable. I still had problems with phonetics and the pronunciation of words, but recesses become a delight. An eighth-grader named Dee took a liking to me. Whenever outside, he would throw me on his back and we would fight other like-mounted boys to see who could stay upright the longest. Dee was both tall and strong, so we never lost an encounter. When spring came, I was almost sorry to see the school year come to an end. The report card I brought home confirmed that I had indeed passed kindergarten, albeit "conditionally."

Shortly after school let out we moved again, this time to a farm three miles east of Gilmore City. The farmhouse stood immediately adjacent to the main highway leading into town. It was wired for electricity, had an upstairs with three bedrooms, but no running water. Just west of the house was a large barn, a chicken house with three or four hundred chickens, a garage, and several outbuildings. One memorable night a weasel got into the chicken house and killed nearly fifty hens. I can remember helping to gather up the dead hens, searching all the while for the hole that had allowed the animal entry.

Our closest neighbors while living on this farm were Merle and Harriet and their son Roger. The first night we met them, Merle was playing the accordion while Harriet danced through a pile of dirt on the living room floor. A few weeks later, Merle showed up at our door asking to use the phone. "Need to call the doctor," he said. "Harriet is having pains in her side." Advised to get to town immediately, Merle hitched the horses to the manure spreader and - with Harriet and Roger stowed safely inside - took off down the highway. Many times the three of them would go to town for groceries in the hay rack, and we would hear them in the distance singing away just as happily as though they were driving a Cadillac. When her father died in Plover, Harriet resourcefully took the horse cart and drove herself to the funeral.

I spent a good part of the summer of 1945 riding the tractor with Dad while he plowed and planted and cultivated the fields. The tractor was a big John Deere "D", with lugged wheels and a large flywheel that had to be turned to start it. Whenever the tractor was started, our dog would go wild with excitement. One day in late summer Dad asked me to jump off the tractor, go to the house, and get him some matches. I picked up several dozen wooden matches for him and a croquet ball for myself. On my return, I idly struck the matches against the ball and threw them to the ground. Suddenly I heard Dad shouting and pointing behind me. I turned around just in time to see the big haystack I had just passed become engulfed in flames.

Despite Dad's best efforts, that haystack burned completely to the ground. He lost double that day. Some concerned neighbor had called the fire department, who charged $50 a visit. Besides that, the hay had already been sold. As for myself, I thought it best to hide out in the granary until matters calmed down. I didn't receive a spanking for the fire, but - for several days afterwards - Dad checked my pockets to make sure I wasn't carrying any matches.

We stayed on the farm for three years. During the summers Lois and I played around the yard, walked through the chicken pen in our bare feet (just to feel the droppings squeeze between our toes), and swiped pudding mixes from the pantry to eat right out of the box. During the winters we were bused to St. John's Catholic School in Gilmore City.

One day Lois stayed after school to play with some of her friends. I took the school bus home, arriving just in time to catch a glimpse of her walking down the highway. In spite of my tattle-telling, she didn't receive the spanking I thought she deserved, so I decided to try the same mis-adventure myself. A few days later I too stayed after school. Just before dark I walked the half-mile to my grandfather's house. He took one look at me and called my Dad. Later that same evening I got the spanking that Lois had never received.

Some months after my youngest brother Charlie was born, Mom went into the hospital to be treated for cancer. It was a hard time for all of us. Dad was convinced she was going to die. A teen-aged girl was hired to stay with us for awhile. Once she caught all of us kids in bed together with only our shorts or panties on. As punishment, she locked the youngest ones in the chicken house. Lois and I received a spanking. The two of us talked it over and decided we would much rather have been locked in the chicken house, as we were older and knew how to escape.

One night, shortly after Mom came home from the hospital, I dreamt that there were mice scrambling around under my pillow. The dream became a nightmare and I began crying. Mom finally allowed me to crawl into bed between her and Dad. But even there the terror continued. The rolls in their blanket seemed to turn into snakes, forcing me to cuddle up closer and closer. Even this was of no avail. The snakes continued their night-long assault until the morning light finally made them disappear.

When I was six years old, the whole family gathered at my Grandfather Henry's house to celebrate Christmas. Towards evening Santa Claus came through the rear door with a pack of toys slung over his back. As he passed out the toys he asked me if I'd like to return to the North Pole with him. "I'll bring you back next Christmas," he said. Much as I wanted to go I finally said no. Maybe next year, I thought. But by the time Christmas came again my sister Lois had already informed me that old Santa Claus had been none other than one of my uncles dressed up in a suit. The elves hadn't made the toys, she said. Mom and Dad had bought them and hidden them in the locked pantry. And with that said, she had me look through the keyhole at the mounds of toys and candies. I grew up a lot that day.

When Uncle Paul got out of the marines in 1947, Leo Wendl turned the farm over to him and we had to leave. Dad sold off his equipment and livestock, and got a truck-driving job hauling limestone. He would never farm again. He moved us to a four-room house in Gilmore City. The house sat on a corner lot near the big public school. It had florescent lighting, which was a novelty to us.

Here for the first time we had other kids to play with. I made friends with a little girl named Jean. She took me to her home - which seemed to me a mansion - where we finished off the last of her Easter candy. We played together much of that spring. She became my first girlfriend. When she wasn't around, I rode a little scooter made out of a WWII bomb casing. One day Dad brought home an old bicycle, which he painted up and presented to me.

That spring Dad and his younger brother Albert went down to Bayard, Iowa, to look at a beer joint that was for sale. They didn't buy the beer joint, but did put a down payment on a DX gas station and garage. While we kids finished out the school year, Dad moved to Bayard to open his new business. He returned nearly every weekend, bringing each of us a shiny new quarter to spend on candy.

With Dad gone much of the time, my sister Lois and I had to do the family shopping. We would pedal down to Hogan's Grocery a couple of times a week to pick up bread, milk, meat and canned goods. We took no money, as the cost was put on Dad's standing bill. After a time, it occurred to us that the bill might also stand the purchase of a few things for ourselves, with no one the wiser. Encouraged by our friends Hughie and Rosie (who stood to share in the spoils), we began to buy candy, pop, potato chips and even whole watermelons, The bill had risen to nearly $45 before old man Hogan finally brought the matter to Dad's attention. Needless to say, our spending spree came to an abrupt and screeching halt.

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