Country Editor's Boy, p.26Hal Borland
None of these four, as I said, was a loafer at the blacksmith shop, though all went there occasionally to get a job done that was too difficult for their ranch forges. And now and then they contributed another paragraph to the oral history of the area. In later years I heard various stories about those men, most of them patently apocryphal. Like the one about Charley Farr and the whip socket. When Charley bought his first Model T, the story went, he took it down to Ed Malbaff and had Ed put a whip socket on the dash; said he wouldn’t feel comfortable in the dang thing without a buggy whip handy. Pure fabrication, of course. Any man who could sharp-shoe his own saddle horse could fasten a whip socket on a Model T if he really wanted one there. Another such tale was about John Verhoff. John, the story went, when he first built the big dam wanted Ed Malbaff to build him a water wheel to install in the spillway and drive a generator for electricity. Another fabrication. John Verhoff had no more interest in making electricity than he had in going to the moon. He was a ranchman, and a ranchman’s whole being was wrapped in cattle and feed for those cattle. John Verhoff outlived the other three as well as all those who had personal nail kegs at the blacksmith shop. He outlived Ed, for that matter. He didn’t die until March of 1969, when he was in his ninety-eighth year.
Another of the old-timers who spent little of his leisure at the blacksmith shop had a ranch on down the river from Charley Farr’s place. One of his sons was also a classmate of mine, but he never finished high school. The father was a wiry little man so sunburned that some said he was part Indian, and his silence and reserve added to that story. But he had no Indian blood in him, though his children did. They were half-bloods. The mother could have posed for one of those William Henry Jackson photographs in front of a tepee. She was copper-skinned, dark-eyed, with beautiful black hair that she always wore in two long braids bound at the tips with yarn. And she wore the full blouse and wide, billowing skirts that go with the traditional Indian squaw. She was said to be a full-blood, from Oklahoma, but she spoke better English than some of the women in town who had twelve grades of schooling. Her voice was soft and she laughed easily but almost silently.
She came to town once a week, always driving a team of bay horses hitched to a lumber wagon. Sometimes she brought her little girl, sometimes her husband came with her, but usually she came alone. She went to the stores, did her buying, and then, every time she came to town, she went to the town library. It was only a small library with no more than twenty-five hundred or three thousand volumes, and it was open only two afternoons a week. But her visits to town were always made on library days. She returned the books she had borrowed the week before, browsed the shelves, chose three or four more volumes, checked them out, and went back to her wagon. She had read most of the fiction, the librarian told me some years later, and had gone on to biography and history. If she had come to town alone, she always started home with an open book in her hands, the reins held loosely. The horses knew the way home.
Twice I was at their ranch, stopping for a drink of water when I was prowling the hills along the river. Each time she welcomed me with a smile and gave me a glass of fresh buttermilk and squares of gingerbread. “Boys need something inside besides water,” she said. In later years I wished I had had the courage to get acquainted. But I never knew her beyond those brief encounters. She died a quiet, peaceful death, I was told, about ten years later. And nobody in town, not even the librarian, knew any more about her than I did.
One man who might have told remarkable stories, who was, in fact, a strange story himself, probably never set foot in Ed Malbaff’s blacksmith shop. That was LeRoy Cuckow, who owned the boxcar house where we lived when we first arrived in town. Mother spoke of him as “that dirty old man” and didn’t even like to pass him on the street. He made me think of Fagin in Oliver Twist, tall, lean, slightly stooped, with a thin face, hawkish nose and deep-set eyes that always seemed hostile or defensive. He wore a scraggly dark beard, and his hair, thin on top, hung down over his greasy coat collar. He walked with a kind of loping gait and his clothes hung like the clothes on a scarecrow. And, as Mother said, he was dirty, physically dirty. He lived in the office at his garage, along with five or six feisty little dogs. There was an old iron bedstead at the back of the office, with a mattress and a rat’s nest of grimy blankets where he and the dogs slept. There was a kerosene stove on which he did his cooking, and it always had a frying pan with traces of egg and pancake batter on it. The office smelled of kerosene and dogs and motor oil and sweat. So did Cuckow.
Where he came from, I never knew. He had few friends and he made no confidences. Somehow Father learned that he was a veteran of the Spanish-American war, had been wounded in one leg, and had some kind of dysentery that never was cured. On top of that he must have had tuberculosis, for he had one of those tombstone coughs you could hear a block away. He was a sick man who simply clung to life with his grimy hands and wouldn’t let go. Small boys teased him, and he sicked his dogs on them. Some townsmen laughed at him, some sneered. A good many farmers went to his garage to buy the things he advertised in the News—kerosene at 11 cents a gallon, axle grease at 5 cents a pound, engine oil at 34 cents a gallon, asphalt roofing paint at 75 cents a gallon, linseed oil at 80 cents a gallon. Some days the customers had to get him out of bed, where he slept in a grimy suit of long underwear, to get them what they needed, often racked by that ghastly cough till he could hardly stand.
But even then he was a glaring figure of defiance. Defying death, of course, which had been at his heels almost twenty years, ever since that war. He kept on defying it another three or four years. Then he died in his bed, and a paper among the litter on his office desk had a scrawled note. “Notify my sister,” and it gave her name and address, back in Illinois as I remember. Dr. Williams, called when the garage mechanic found Cuckow stiff in his bed, sent a telegram. Word came back to bury him there in Flagler, sell his possessions, pay for the burial, and send any leftover to the sister. This was done, and only two things remained of LeRoy Cuckow to remind the town of his life there. One was the store of gossip about him, the untold stories he could have verified or scotched but never did. The other was his dogs.
The feists were the only ones in town who mourned the strange man. Disposessed at the garage, they roamed the town, scavenging for a living, occasionally scuttling back to the empty garage, whining and then howling in chorus. Finally the deputy sheriff was told to do something about them. He tried first to catch them, but it was like chasing greased piglets. When he finally did corner one it was so vicious he didn’t dare lay a hand on it. So he got his gun and hunted them down, one by one, and killed them, all six of them.
LeRoy Cuckow, to nearly everyone’s surprise, had been in favor of the municipal light plant. Those backing the proposal weren’t sure they welcomed his support, knowing how many people disliked him, particularly the women. But there wasn’t anything they could do but accept it. At the livery stable the loafers, all against change of any kind, gloated, saying, “If old Cuckow is for it, that’ll swing enough votes the other way to kill it.” But at the blacksmith shop Ed Malbaff said, “I’d take support from Cuckow’s dogs, if they could vote. We need that light plant.”
One of the most stubborn die-hards said, “Mark my word, Ed, they’ll tax you right out of business, the way they’re going.”
And Ed said, “That’s what you said when we voted to build the new school. Remember? And that’s what you said when we voted to incorporate the town. Times are changing, Jim. We killed off all the buffalo and most of the Indians some years back. Or didn’t you know? God knows you been bragging about it long enough, you should know. Why, Jim, we don’t even plow with oxen any more!”
Jim wasn’t convinced, nor were quite a few others. But before the snow flew again the loafers at Ed’s shop were saying what a marvel electricity was. Just look at the way it ran that triphammer Ed built for himself! Only now and then would one of them shake his head and say, “It ain’t like it used to be
I TOUGHENED UP FOR football that year by working for the railroad. In mid-July the company sent a crew to Flagler to put in a whole new water system at the depot, including a big steel tank to replace the old wooden-stave tank down beside the tracks. The new tank was to be up the slope from the depot and a new main would have to be laid. Pick-and-shovel help was needed. Father said he could spare me, since late summer was a slack time at the office, so I went down to the depot and asked the crew boss for a job. He took me on as a general laborer at 46 cents an hour. Big money.
There were nine of us in the crew, only four from Flagler. The boss, who was a master plumber among other things, put me on the ditch crew. I can’t remember ever being more tired than I was every night the first week or so on that job. We dug ditches two feet wide and six feet deep. Fortunately, the soil was all ancient sediment, laid down about a hundred million years ago when that land was ocean bed all the way to the Rockies. No rocks in it. But when I shunned pick-and-shovel work in later years it wasn’t for snobbish reasons. I had been there. I had dug my ditches.
Two weeks after we started digging ditches the boss started laying pipe. He needed two helpers and I was one of the two he chose. It was a dubious honor. We had to carry sections of cast-iron pipe from the pile to the ditch, and each section weighed close to two hundred pounds. We had to lower those sections into the ditch, with ropes. Once the pipe was in the ditch we had to get down in there and level it at a proper pitch, with the boss himself standing over us. It was back-breaking work, and we fried as the sun bore down on us in the ditch without a breath of moving air.
The pipe in place, the boss started calking the joints with oakum. I showed too much interest in that job; within a couple of days he had me calking joints with oakum. And when the oakum was all in and driven down, he set us to melting lead which had to be poured into those joints, using a flexible “dam,” over the oakum. That lead had to be driven in and expanded with calking chisels, and I did my share of that, too. My muscular forearms are in part a consequence of using a calking hammer on that water line; some nights my hands and wrists were so sore and tired I could hardly hold a knife and fork. But we laid those mains, and calked them, and got the job done. And to the best of my knowledge those mains never had to be dug up for repairs. By Labor Day I was all ready for football. No matter how Professor Ward drove us, it was going to be a cinch now.
I was a senior that fall, a full-fledged senior at last, and I had to take only four subjects. But after the first week I had so much free time that I asked if I couldn’t take a course in advanced English that was being given for several graduates, Marjorie Miner among them, who weren’t starting college for another year. That took up some of my slack time. I joined the debating team. And there was football, of course.
This was going to be my last year of high school football and I wanted it to be special. I secretly hoped to be chosen captain of the team. I hadn’t mentioned it, and wasn’t going to, but I thought I had earned it. I had scored more points than anybody else on the team last year.
Professor Ward called us together the third day of practice, after we had got into uniform and before we went out onto the field, and said we were going to elect a captain. The boys looked around and I just stood there, waiting. But nobody said a word. Professor Ward laughed and asked, “Aren’t you going to have a captain this year?” And one of the Johnson boys, Ab I think, said, “I nominate Irish Quinn.” There were shouts of “Yeah!” and “Sure!” and someone made it official by saying, “I second the nomination.” Then silence. Professor Ward asked, “Any more nominations?” Silence again. “All right, then, all in favor of Hugh Quinn say ‘Aye.’” And everybody said, “Aye.” I felt as though I’d been socked in the solar plexus.
I knew I had to get outdoors before I started heaving. I pushed over to Irish and slapped him on the back and said, “Congratulations, Captain,” and ran up the stairs and out the side door and down onto the field. I felt the cold sweat and the lightheadedness, but I trotted down the field, belched a couple of times, and felt better. Then the rest of the squad was on the field and I heard Irish yell my name and turned and saw him throw a long pass that I had to sprint and leap to catch. I returned it with a drop kick that went a good fifty yards. Then Professor Ward called us together and started the same old drill, the fundamentals, and I began to feel all right. It didn’t matter, really, not being captain. Irish was quarterback again, and he was better than last year. Besides, he had the knack of leadership. He would be a good captain. Probably better than I would have been. For my own pride, I had to say “probably.”
By the next day things were back in place. I was pretty much a loner, and the loner doesn’t make a good leader. I probably would go right on being a loner. That’s the way I grew up. And next spring I would be through high school. Next summer I was going away, to be a crewman on the Chautauqua circuit. I didn’t need to be captain of the football team.
That afternoon, during our last period, Phyllis Ward, who was senior class sponsor, called a class meeting. We went to her home room, all eleven of us, five boys and six girls. Miss Ward said, “I called you together because it’s time you organized. As seniors, you are the most important class in school, and you should elect your officers. Let’s start off with nominations for class president.”
There wasn’t any hemming or hawing. Later I heard that it had all been agreed on beforehand. Duncan Farr nominated me and the nomination was seconded at once by Lora Moore, the preacher’s daughter. Then Little Doc moved that the nominations be closed and Irish Quinn seconded the motion. Miss Ward called for a vote and I was elected by one short of unanimity. I was so amazed that I couldn’t even speak.
Miss Ward said, “Now that you have a president, he had better take over the meeting,” and I had to go up and take charge. I said my thanks and said what a total surprise it was, and Pearl Robb, the only boy I ever knew named Pearl, said, “You got to be a senior in two years and it took the rest of us three, so maybe you can set a good example, or something.” I knew just enough about parliamentary procedure to get a secretary and a treasurer elected, and then we adjourned and Irish Quinn and Duncan Farr and Pearl Robb and I went down to the locker room to suit up for football practice.
At supper, when I told Mother and Father about the class election, Mother said, “That’s nice, but don’t let it go to your head.” Father said, “I’m proud of you, son.”
“Who nominated you?” Mother asked. I told her it was Duncan Farr, and she asked who seconded the nomination. “Lora Moore,” I said.
“Oh. So now she will expect you to take her to the class parties.”
“Of course not!” I said. “She always has a date. She doesn’t need me to ask her.”
Mother smiled. “You’ll learn, some day.” Then, “Lora’s a nice girl. But don’t get serious about her. Or any girl, yet. I was only eighteen when your father married me, but he was almost twenty-one.”
I puzzled over what Mother had said about Lora Moore, and it didn’t make sense to me. Even if I had a chance, I had no notion of dating Lora regularly. I wasn’t dating anyone, really. I took this girl or that one to Sunday school parties and picnics and birthday parties, but nearly always in a group. Anyway, football season was starting the next Saturday, and football didn’t leave much time for one to think about girls.
We played six games that year and we lost only one, and that by one touchdown. I had two big days, one against Hugo when I scored two touchdowns, kicked a field goal, and kicked four extra points. The other big day was against Akron, and that was my defensive day. I played defensive left end and everything happened right for me. I was able to get through every defense they tried and I caught their ball carrier for a loss four times, recovered two fumbles, and blocked
We played our last game the second week in November, and the school held a football banquet the Saturday before Thanksgiving. Team members were allowed to bring girls, but before I got around to asking anyone all the senior girls had dates. So two days before the banquet I asked Marjorie Miner, who was in the advanced English class with me. We knew each other, not only because she was Spider’s sister but because in a town like Flagler and in a school that size you know virtually everyone. I don’t know how many there were in high school at that time, but all four classes couldn’t have totaled more than sixty. The two previous graduating classes had totaled only thirteen. There simply weren’t any strangers among us.
Marjorie went to the banquet with me, and the surprise of the evening was when Professor Ward presented miniature gold footballs, watch charms, each engraved with the player’s name, the school’s initials and the date, to each of us seniors. That was before the school gave athletic letters, so it had special significance for us. It was a very sentimental evening, as all such banquets are. That was one reason, I suppose, that it was followed by a series of dates with Marjorie—she had shared that evening. Several times Little Doc borrowed his father’s car, dated one of the Kliewer girls, and the four of us went to parties together. But Little Doc wasn’t particularly interested in dating, and by the end of January I was losing interest too. Marjorie knew it. When I didn’t ask her for a date for almost three weeks she went out of her way to tell me how busy she was, how little time she had. I said I had been busy too, of course, and that was that. Not exactly a spat, but almost.
Then Mother said, “I guess you and Marjorie have had a falling out.” She hadn’t commented before. She liked Marjorie, or had always seemed to; but the way she said it now seemed almost triumphant. It made me bristle. But I held my tongue, simply said no, we hadn’t had a quarrel.
Country Editor's Boy by Hal Borland / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes