I was 12 when I found out what it was like to kill a person you love, and my best friend Doug can’t help but laugh till he cries whenever he hears the story. So here’s the confession of how I got into this mess: I loved to scare my mother.
In fact scaring my mom was on my agenda, like going to a movie, for a good time. Dad? Nahhhh, there was never a time I could do it. I’d jump out and yell “BOO!” and he’d look calmly up at the expectant me, looking like he’d heard an interesting bird call, and say something like, “There you are Bobby.” I’d feel unaccomplished, perhaps a bit embarrassed. Ahhhhh, but mom! She was so easy to get a scream out of. By her own admission, she could know I was laying in wait, and I’d still get the desired reaction. Life was good.
A few days after Independence day the sunlight was turning golden after super. The windows were open so the slight breeze could cool and freshen the house. And my new plan was to step up my scare game with technology. I had some Booby Traps left from the 4th. These were some of my favorite fireworks: unique, versatile, and not very expensive. They were small firecrackers with a string out each end. You’d tie the strings to two things that when pulled apart would cause the fire cracker to explode. It occurred to me how fun it would be to scare mom by cleverly tying one to the door knob and strike plate of her bedroom so when she walked in it’d pop and she’d do her usual scream. What fun!
One night a month during the lawn mowing season dad stayed in the trailer house we had at Harlan County Reservoir, an hour and a half drive away. One of the income streams for his auto shop was being a small engines parts supplier to shops in towns and villages in the area. This was the night he was away, so after supper it was just my aunt Clara, mom, and I in the living room. The light breeze was just enough to cause the door to click a couple times a minute against the latch. It wasn’t enough to latch it, or enough to cause the booby trap to explode but it was noticeable. If the breeze was just a tiny bit more forceful the whole plan would be ruined, so I was tense with excitement. Suddenly Clara stood up, “Oh for pity sake! What is wrong with that door!” and she walked quickly off to the bedroom, turning right at the end of the hallway and disappeared from my view in the living room chair. I thought, “This could be good!”, barely able to keep my excitement hidden, and smirk off my face, waiting for the exciting next moment! Suddenly the expected pop. Then everything started to unravel to disaster. I can still see it like it’s happening now.
Clara suddenly in view, staggering backyards.
Her back now against the corner slipping down the wall and slumping into a heap on the floor.
Mom rising up out of her chair and rushing down the hallway. She kneels next to her older sister, then her voice, imploring, “Clara!? Please don’t go! Don’t go!”
“OH NO!,”, I thought, “I’ve killed aunt Clara!”
The helplessness! I should call an ambulance. I should help somehow. But this is before “911”. The number may be a mortuary number for in this era it’s good business for funeral homes to hire a couple college kids to pick up the sick and take them to the hospital, with a good chance they’d pick them up later for their other services. Maybe the phone number is on the plastic phone book cover, maybe it’s inside and I’ll have to look for it. Will it be listed as “ambulance”? I’ll have to hope I can find it but I have to do something! I have to help! I’ve never felt so unprepared.
“Should I call an ambulance!” I yell hoping somehow I can do it.
“No not yet,” mom says.
Clara, who was my mother’s older sister, was a short woman. When I was young my father told me she’d always have red hair and it was true. It suited her well. My father thought she was a stubborn woman and he had a story to prove it. When she started school she could only speak German. “Dog! Dog!” the teacher would say. “Nein! Nein! Das ist ein hund!” she’d respond. She lived in a German based community, going to a German-speaking church until they showed their patriotism in WW1 and switched to English. Although she didn’t have a German accent she had peculiarisms in wording and pronunciation, for instance lightning was always said as “light-ling”.
Another of my father’s stories about her was also a favorite. He was teaching her to fish one day in his boat. She was really working the rod and line when the game warden came alongside. My dad and he chatted a while, all the time she continued to fish. The warden finally took off in his boat and my dad, wanting to satisfy his curiosity, looked over at Clara and said, “Clara? Do you have a fishing license?”
“Fishing license? What’s that!” From this I learned that if you look and act innocent, because you are ignorant, game wardens don’t bother with you.
While dad worked in his auto shop down town, and mom in her beauty shop at one end of our house, Clara ran the household chores. She helped fill my life with a predictable pattern.
As a young boy she’d take me in her 1936 Chevy, named Putt Putt, over to spend nights at her house where she and her husband Gene lived. On one of those rides we passed boys yelling blasphemies that Santa Clause didn’t really exist. They were blasphemies that I was becoming suspicious were true. I asked Clara about it, and she told me the honest truth in a round about way.
At her home I learned other things. That flannel sheets felt great. That carrot juice from her juicer tasted great and, “Juice is good for you Bobby. It makes your eyes better.” That her backyard cherry tree provided what was needed for a great pie. And I enjoyed the occasional episode of The Untouchables or wrestling with Mad Dog Vachon in the comfort of an easy chair.
Putt Putt would also often take me over to her house and to Gene’s filling station on the south side of town. There’s he’d hoist up cars to work on tires, between filling up gas tanks and cleaning windshields. Occasionally he’d give me a nickel to put in the pop machine. It was a strange contraption by today’s standards. It was a tub of cold water with bottles hanging by the necks on racks. You’d have to move the bottle around, sort of like solving a puzzle to get out pop you wanted, in my case the rare cream soda. After Gene’s death she moved into a room in our house and spent the next ten years there doing what she’d done earlier.
She did our laundry in a Maytag Model A 1930 wringer washing machine with its advanced two tubs. We had the electric model, not the gas powered engine model. The agitator was controlled by a stick shift on the side. After a while Clara would put it in neutral, turn another lever on the wringer to start it going, and start pushing clothes with the cut off end of a broom handle into the wringer. Water would gush out and back into the wash tub. The cloths would fall into a rinse tub to be swirled around with the broom handle. The wringer would rotate 90 degrees and the clothes would be wrung out into a second rinse tub to be swirled and wrung out once more for drying. I was often warned it was a dangerous machine and not to play with it but of course I had to shift the gears to make the agitator work, or turn on the wringer. Its one safety feature was the red plate you could hit on top of the wringer to disengage it which I’d use for fun but never really needed.
After 40 years of use the Maytag repairman told my dad that there was no replacement gear anymore for the machine so we had to buy a new one. Perhaps the repair man was tired of fixing these, or maybe Maytag’s lawyers said they didn’t want anymore of these liabilities in use. But one weekend I returned home to find modern appliances. It seemed long overdue and somewhat disappointing at the same time.
Clara would then hang the laundry to dry in our basement during bad weather, or she’d haul it outside into the sun during the good weather,the sheets carefully hiding the undies from beauty shop customer eyes. Until we got rid of the wringer-washer we had no drier. Instead we often had the cleanest smelling sheets around. It seemed like sunlight had infused into them, along with a crispness that is little known in an age of fabric softeners.
Once a year in the summer, about the time we’d get our half side of beef for the freezer, there would be cardboard boxes of beef tallow on the sidewalk next to our backdoor. The tallow would be but into a big pot on the stove and melted down, sieved to remove the animal bits, and lye added. Over a few hours it would harden into blocks, which Clara would put through a drum shredder, and returned to the cardboard boxes, making what looked like shredder Parmesan cheese. This was our yearly supply of lye laundry soap.
Washing, wringing, rinsing, rinsing again, hanging, rushing out to take down clothes before a storm, making soap, and using our foot pumped Singer in the basement (this was our sewing machine until my parents both died), kept her busy, along with cooking, cleaning, and gardening.
Maytag sold an attachment that went over the agitator of the washer to make butter back in the 1930’s. We didn’t have that, but we did have a big glass jar with a wooden agitator that fit on our Sunbeam Mixmaster mixer. So once she brought home a lot of cream and we made butter. It was amazing to see the liquid rather suddenly turn into butter lumps floating in butter milk. Butter was not the only thing. I learned to cook from her. In large measure she grew tired of making all the cookies I needed to survive so one day she said, “Bobby, I’m going to teach you how to make your own cookies.” And so she did. From that cooking became normal to me, and gardening to supply the cooking.
It was not the only thing Clara would introduce me to. She was the first one to walk me up to the House of Yesterday to see the very new J.M. McDonald Planetarium show. I fell in love with the stars and astronomy. After the show she bought me my first star map. She also brought a photometer home for me, the little gadget that looks a bit like a clear light bulb but has vanes in it that spin around when light shines on it. I kept that until a few years ago when all the spinning finally broke caused the glass holding the vanes to break. I still have that first star map.
She liked healthy things, often telling us that, “We need ruffage in our diet.” She’d grind up wheat berries to add to her home-made bread. And her dislike for sugar was legendary in the family. When Lizzy, her sister, was visiting our home one summer, we were going to have strawberries for diner (diner meant lunch in our family, which was typical with families from a farming background). Mom took a few moments away from customer’s in her beauty shop to come into the kitchen when Clara wasn’t there. I watched her add some sugar to the strawberries and by way of explanation she said, “You know Clara never uses enough sugar.” Mom left and Lizzy appeared and worked with the strawberries too.
Later, after finishing of dinner (lunch) we all dug into the strawberry shortcake, with the three sisters looking very surprised.
“Oh my, these strawberries are so sweet! I didn’t think I put that much sugar in.” mom said.
“You put sugar in!?!”, Lizzy said. “I didn’t think Clara would put enough in so I added some too!”
At this point Clara chimed in, “Ehhh!?! I knew you’d want sugar in them so I put it in this time!”
There was so much sugar on them it was more like uncooked jam and even I could barely eat it all.
One thing my sister and I agree on is how aunt Clara seemed timeless. For forty years she seemed to hold steady against aging. Until she was 90 she tended her own garden and had her fruit trees. It was only her last couple years that she seemed a little slower. At 92, two years before she died, I stopped by for a visit. Her last husband had died a year or two before and she’d moved into an apartment in the Good Samaritan retirement village. She was still driving her car to visit friends, family, and get groceries. I asked if there was anything I could do for her. She was as alert and intelligent as she’d always been, but more tired.
With a twinkle in her eye and a strong voice she said, “Bobby! You can find me a man!”
I demurred suggesting perhaps I wasn’t in the circles that might allow me to find a useful one. I also said a silent prayer to please be like this woman when I’m 92.
Mom was kneeling next to Clara, slumped in the corner, stroking her hand. “Wait Bobby.” she told me and then a tentative, “Clara?”
Clara opened her eyes. “Ehh?”
“Clara, are you OK?” mom asked.
“I’m OK. What was that?”
I confessed to the Booby Trap. I hope I said I was sorry for I surely felt very sorry, and very lucky that she was back from the dead, and that I didn’t have to figure out how to call an ambulance.
Clara told us, “I saw a spark on the door knob and thought light-ling struck me! Then I just felt faint.”
What can a twelve-year-old boy do to atone for this sin? Especially when I was taught to not waste things, like food (“Think of all the starving little boys in India Bobby. Eat your food, you’re too thin and will just blow away!” Clara would exhort).
So I tied all the remaining Booby Traps to my bike, got on, and rode off to the sound of a dozen pops and smoke swirling about like boyhood incense. The smoke took away any desire for Booby Traps, and it took away any desire to scare anyone again, including my dear mom. And with that I rode off in search of another adventure, perhaps to ride through another kind of summer incense from the fogger, or to watch the fountain splash and play, all to the sound of the cicadas humming their hymn to summer on a lazy Hastings summer evening.