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Archive for April, 2013

Paddles

I stuck a garden hoe between the curved handlebars of my ten-speed bicycle. Bill carried the rake. We pedaled five miles from our home in Three Springs to our family’s huge vegetable garden located on a piece of land next to Bob Garlock’s junk yard . Most children were sleeping at 6 a.m. on hot summer mornings. We were up early. We wanted to beat the heat of day.

According to our stepfather, Bob, conditions of the garden and the weeds within was “unacceptable” and worthy of a beating “across the arse” with a wooden paddle. Bob made his prized paddle in a carpentry shop which once his racecar garage. He called the wooden paddle ‘the reminder’ and carved not only holes in the object for extra sting, but actually wrote the word “reminder” on the damned thing. Like the rake stuck between my handlebars, the wooden paddle was kept on a shelf near the aluminum door of our green and white trailer.

It seemed unfair to Bill and me that our parents chose not buy canned vegetables. Instead, we grew enough corn, tomatoes and potatoes to feed our entire town. Our step-father worked away on construction jobs during the summer. He left strict orders on what chores needed to be done before he returned home on Fridays.

“You kids think life is easy. When I was your age, I spent all day in the fields. We didn’t have swimming pools when I was a kid. Let me tell you, if I find one weed in the garden or if it ain’t hoed right, you will be restricted from playing little league and going to the swimming pool for the rest of the summer!”

The land on which we grew our crops belonged by Bob Garlock. He purchased a large piece of property that was once a pig farm and had plans of converting it to a junkyard. Garlock was a used car salesman and best friends with our stepfather whose name was also Bob. It angered Bill and me that Ryan and Robbie Garlock, the sons of the used car dealer, didn’t have to work in the gardens that their father had planted next to ours. Although their fields had weeds, their crops seemed to do just as well. Bill concluded that our step-father simply liked to torment us and enjoyed making our young lives a living hell. I tried to stay happy, keep a smile on my face and I always whistled when I worked. At least Bill had his joy of fishing. Restriction from the town swimming pool would ruin what little joy their was left to my creative and playful side.

Mom typically drove us in our family’s blue Chevy pick-up truck to the garden, but Bob decided that the family could save on gas if we rode our ten-speed bikes to the gardens instead—
“Your bikes costs me a couple hundred dollars last Christmas. It ain’t gonna hurt you to ride your bikes to the garden. Your mom has got enough to do. Just be careful on the roads. Watch for traffic. Be ready, because we are going to have to start watering soon. If you think weeding is bad, just wait ‘til you carry two ten gallon buckets at a time.”

A thunderstorm swept over the rolling farmland of Central Pennsylvania just as we were half-way to the garden. We took off our drenched t-shirts and continued pedaling in the downpour, thankful that it was still early summer and rain was falling. The rain felt good. At 6 a.m. it was already eighty-five degrees.

The tall weeds that littered perfectly parallel rows of corn came out easy, thanks to the rain. Bill quickly finished weeding twenty- three rows of corn. I finished my task of dusting the potatoes with lime sifted through a burlap sack. I joined my brother to help him finish weeding the seemingly endless rows of corn. I heard a faint cry ahead of me, from Bill, way down the row where there seemed to be a stirring among the tall tops of green corn. I continued to remove all the weeds until I arrived to discover what was making the corn commotion.

“There’s a raccoon caugtht in one of the traps. Get me a club or big stick!”

Our step-father placed metal, spring traps throughout the garden to keep the wild game at bay. Rarely did we catch anything. The animals seemed to know not to touch the sardines that were placed on the traps and preferred eating the fresh corn instead.

The huge creature looked at us with frightened black eyes. The animal’s foot was caught in the trap.

“What are we going to do?” I asked Bill.

“Gotta kill it. Can’t set it free now. It will die.” He explained.

I handed him the hoe that was once a long set of wooden handle bars. I closed my eyes as my big brother slammed the hoe upon its head, as if the entire task was as trivial as putting a stick-worm on a hook.

When the raccoon finally stopped moving, we finished weeding.

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Spillways

April showers saturated the black topsoil covering the woods of Three Springs. Winters with blustery blizzards melted away, leaving the ground like a sponge. When the rains came, robust streams formed behind the house; the contents of trickling, wormlike sprouts from the ground all fed into one larger stream– a manmade channel that my dad dug with a backhoe truck in ’72. He purchased his share of the American dream, which happened to be a wet one at the base of a Pennsylvania Mountain.

Dad needed dry land to park our trailer home upon. The deep channel, four feet deep at the time of original escavation, had caved- in, due to erosion. We found the perfect location to build a damn that exists, in a near natural, god-like perfection, to this day. A natural mound appears amidst the willows– a little hump in the land, back where saplings fight with their ancestors for the right to sunlight.

We called the mound across the trench ‘Lady Slipper Dam’, but no matter how many of the orchids we attempted to transplant to our breast, those delicate tissue tulips never could be removed from their root of origin. We flooded fields of the pretty flowers away.

Dad never named the creek he dug to keep the basement under our green and white mobile home dry, but his common sense led to the creation of man made water-way that three sons were able to tame for the purpose of forming a summertime lake that survived droughts of August. We spent so much time playing there, the little damn needs a name.

The cool little pond glittered when shreds of filtered sunlight dripped through an umbrella of oaks and pines. The minnows we brought home in buckets thrived there. A million mosquitoes must have hovered up there at night, because our pet fish got fat, and lived most comfortably, at least until winter came and our lake froze solid. We never knew where the minnows went when the lake froze, and always assumed that a bear or raccoon got to them in the shallows of November.

A damn of mud and rock made one handful at a time was covered with moss gathered from northern sides of century- old locusts and elm. The organic carpet took to root upon the clay mounds. We dug deep down to find the perfect clay– chopping our way with chunks of broken sandstone through the root systems of hundreds of trees; our hands were cruddy with fingernails encrusted with coal black- topsoil of the sacred Lady Slipper forest.

The damn was built a bit stronger, year after year. We chased spring showers like kick-balls. The neighbor boys came over to help– Chris Smith, shortstop of the Three Springs little league team as there to build. Chris had a grandmother who owned Miller’s Restaurant– a coffee shop right across the road, downhill from our place, where eventually, our little river crossed under a bridge on Hudson Street. The muddied currents we stirred passed down a gully just West of Miller’s Diner.

Chris lived in a trailer too, two houses away. When he wanted to come out to play with the Taylor boys, he’d stop at his grandmother’s restaurant and pick up four cans of Donald Duck orange juice. Chris always had a can of snuff. Sometimes, when Mom seemed in a good mood, my brothers pinched in. If ever we were caught, we were beat with a wooden spoon.

“What younz doin’ ta-day?” Chris would ask, handing us the offerings. Chris was an only child and lived with his mother. Like us, Chris’s parents were divorced, but Chris’s mom had not yet secured a second husband, and worse-off for Chris was the fact that he did not have a lot of brothers, like we all did. He thought of the dam as his too, although it was on our land.

“Puttin’ in a spill-way,” I explained, showing Chris a piece of plastic tubing we found in our father’s race car garage.

Before finishing his juice, Chris would dig into the clay trench and grab handfuls of material for the damn. Brian Hoffman sometimes came over. He lived next door to Chris. The arguments over how to increase the size of the lake without having to take down the old damn and put up a new one were as common as our screams and yells when we played with a Nerf football in Brian Hoffman’s yard where there was another lake– a septic tank that bubbled like an untapped oil field somewhere in Texas, where the land is so dry, tumbleweeds grow instead of Lady Slippers.

Tadpoles– the infestation of tadpoles that happened in our lake the first year we built it– handfuls of jelly with tiny spots inside. We had to take mounds of the tadpole embryos out of that lake, just to see our spillway work! We tossed them like Nerf footballs and played tackle on the moss and Lady Slippers.

So many frogs were created, thanks to that damn, and the children of Three Springs, but so many rare orchids were lost due to the love of water and the children of Three Springs who lived in trailers.

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All About Trout

The Pennsylvania Fish and Wildlife Commission stocks the ‘crick’ in Three Springs with trout. Former President Jimmy Carter fished in nearby Trough Creek State Park when he still was the president. Funding he made available for the place must still be around, because every year in March, more trout get put into one of the streams for which Three Springs is named.

Following the collapse of the sandstone mining industry in the 1940′s, fishing was the only occupation in Three Springs.

The borough used tax dollars to keep the largest of its streams well- stocked with rainbows and brook varieties. The once blue-collar town, through hard economic times, blossomed because of that crick and the fish placed there. Most of the town was on some form of public assistance thanks to government subsidies. Not only was there free cheese and butter– but fresh trout to eat.

Perhaps the current recession could be staved by such careful spending by Washington.

Fishing and hunting became the favored recreational hobbies and a means of survival for the decedents of miners who continued to live in Three Springs, long after the quarry had closed and a means of making a living there trickled away.

The population of Three Springs was only several hundred in 1976, and the ratio of fish to men was nearly 1 to 500 thanks to Jimmy Carter.

Three Springs was known for excellent fishing holes. With a pair of hip-boots and the right bait, one was likely to catch the daily limit of seven, or at least have a few stories to tell after a day of roaming the crystal clear waters, drinking beer subsidized by food stamps.

The best fishing holes in Three Springs were accessible only by foot and sportsmen desiring seclusion while fishing could walk along the abandoned East Broadtop Railroad tracks, avoiding the swamps filled with patches of skunk weed, and cast their lines into a mountain stream without having to fight for the best currents or sit shoulder to shoulder with other fishermen with lines in the water.

Trout were dumped from a bridge near Spencer’s gas station. Most fishermen cast their rods under that bridge, knowing that was where the fish commission stocked the crick.

Spencer’s convenience store was nearby, just up the muddy bank.Men parked at Spencer’s, purchased cigarettes, expensive salmon eggs to use as bait, and beer and newspaper. They spent all afternoon, any day of the week, in relative peace under the shade of the bridge.

Very few waded upstream where the big trout hid among slime covered crick rocks. Women in Three Springs never fished. The weeds were thick along the riverbanks and if wading, one certainly could slip upon the large, slippery stones that lined the crick bed.

My brother Bill was often the only one to wade and fished the crick, way upstream. Our home was atop the hill in Three Springs. Bill followed a deer trail down the mountainside to the same stream that runs past Spencer’s. He knew that most of the stocked trout migrated to cooler waters upstream where very few rods were ever cast.

Getting to the best fishing spots in Three Springs was easy for kids like Bill who lived on the hill. He tumbled down the mountainside with his fishing pole in one hand and fresh bait in the other. Most often, when I tagged along, I was empty handed, with no interest in fishing.

Getting home with an armload of trout was difficult. The river there was untouched and its banks unpolluted by beer cans and cigarette wrappers. Only we were rambunctious enough to traipse down the hill behind Miller’s Diner and make our way through the thorns.

It seemed Jimmy Carter used Marine 1 to get there.

Bill had a fishing bait business. He sold live minnows and nightcrawler worms. A small stream behind our trailer– another for which the town of Three Springs is named– was the perfect spot for keeping inventory.

Fishermen driving by or having breakfast at Miller’s diner across the street, spotted a sign in our front yard–

“Live Bait”

Bill netted his stash of minnows from the creek below Miller’s Diner, where he loved to fish. He used sweet corn from a can and a wire-mesh cylinder contraption for harvesting the fish. He tied the wire tube to a rotted tree that fell over a portion of the crick showered in heavy currents. He knew that rarely did anyone fish that part of the crick, nor would they ever dare to crawl out on the log like a monkey, as Bill could do with his eyes closed, to steal the device and the captured minnow bait within.

Minnows entered the trap by swimming through small holes at the end of an inverted cones on each side. The apparatus was designed with funnel-like entrance ways at which point, the minnows could not see to escape.

The minnows filtered in effortlessly, lured by the scent of sweet corn that bill dumped inside. Unable to recognize the two exit holes among the mesh of wire, the tiny fish were stuck, for now the way out was no longer a funnel-like passageway, but a mere point on a cone and everyone knows—fish are color-blind.

Bill emptied his minnow trap each morning, in the little stream behind our trailer. He hauled the minnows in a tin bucket, up that steep hill. A partially-submerged plastic bucket with holes on the sides and bottom hung by a chain from a tree limb into the water. When a customer stopped by, Bill simply lifted the bucket and take out the live inventory.

Nightcrawlers were captured from our front yard. We used flashlights at dusk to find the worms that came to the surface of the soil to get air following rains or sprinklings from the garden hose.

Steady hands were necessary for extracting the nightcrawlers from their holes in the ground. Pulling too fast caused them to snap in half. One first pinned the long worms with his finger, preventing it from disappearing like lightening beneath the green grass. We then slowly tugged the slimy creatures until they tired of trying to escape our grasp. After each nightcrawler was pulled alive and intact from the ground, they were tossed into plastic tackle boxes that fastened to our belts. We moved slowly across the lawn, often shaking our flashlights to regenerate fading batteries, pulling what was on business standards, ten-cents a pick.

Nightcrawler inventory was maintained in the tractor shed inside a large wooden box filled with topsoil, dead leaves, and used coffee grinds.

We had a steady stream of customers. Fred Parks, an avid fisherman who was rich on Three Springs standards, made a purchase almost every Saturday morning.

I bought my own shoes for the second grade on nightcrawlers.

“Do you got any of those stick worms today,” Fred often asked. Stick worms were taken from atop Jack’s Mountain, near the abandoned sandstone quarry, where a spring bubbled from the ground and formed an ice-cold pond.

An unusual worm that covered itself with a camouflaged shell of decayed leaves and sticks lived in those waters. Fishermen could strip away the shell and find inside, the juiciest of white worms that no fish in the world could swim by.

Fred paid $3 a piece for stick worms, but like wild raspberries along fishing spots in a creek, finding stickworms was not easy and the walk up Jack’s Mountain to that icy pond, took almost an hour.

For every dollar we made, Bill pocked seventy-five cents because he caught most of the bait. I was often disgusted by smell of worms on my fingers and never would I crawl across the crick on a log to pull up the minnow trap. I maintained the dam mostly and was content with my quarter.

Our uncle Frank Brown fished the Auwick Creek in Orbisonia almost every Saturday in summer. He bought a minimum of forty fresh nightcrawlers every time he took his canoe out on those muddy waters. We knew almost all our customers, but one morning in 1976, a stranger knocked on the trailer door at 4 a.m. to buy bait.

“You got a customer,” Mom said, turning on the light in our bedroom. Bill crawled like a stick worm from the top bunk, stepping on my arm that dangled from the side of my lower mattress. Barron, sharing the bottom bunk with me had peed on my back.

“Get up, Charlie,” Bill yelled. “If you want your quarter, you gotta get- up and help me.”

“Who do you think it is at this hour?” I asked.

“Probably Max Parks. He’s always up early.”

A stranger dressed in a suit was standing on the front porch.

“Good morning. I’d like forty dollars worth of live bait.”

“Forty dollars?” I asked, rubbing bird shit from my sleepy eyes. “That’s almost everything we got.”

“Do you have a bucket?” Bill asked. The man in the suit indicated that he did not.

“We have some milk cartons,” I said. “You’ll need something to put stick worms in. Do you want any stick worms? They are five dollars a piece.”

“I guess so,” the man in sunglasses ordered. The sun wasn’t up yet. “What else to you sell?”

“Nightcrawlers, minnies and stickworms. That’s it,” Bill informed.

“I’ll take twenty in nightcrawlers, twenty in minnows and ten in stick worms.”

“That’s just two stick worms,” I reminded.

“I tell you what. Make it thirty-five dollars worth of those stick worms for a total of seventy-five dollars,” the man said winking at me, as if I already knew everything there was to know about how Washington works.

I considered giving up my paper route that morning. Riding the hills of Three Springs on a bicycle, delivering newspapers for less than five cents a piece, was hard work. It felt like I was a miner. After selling our entire live bait inventory in just one day in one simple delivery, I was convinced that life as a fisherman was easier than that of a writer.

A shipment of 250 Huntingdon Daily News newspapers arrived on our front porch on Monday evening. I cut the bundle open with a pair of scissors and sat on the front step to wrap seventy-five copies with red rubber bands realizing I should be hunting nightcrawlers. On the front page of the paper was our President, Jimmy Carter who stopped in Huntingdon County to fish again.

According to headlines, President Carter went fishing in an undisclosed region of Southern Huntingdon and managed to catch seven fish that day. My hands, covered in black ink, trembled as I folded the papers– knowing that I, with a stick-worm, would catch my limit too.

Jimmy Carter made the news that day, but I knew I would one day write a story about it and get rich.

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Rain from April thunderstorms filled the rain barrel at the base of grandmother’s trailer. A steel metal drum rested on cinder blocks under a rain spout beneath her bedroom window. 

An aluminum spouting ran the entire length of the pink trailer in which Esther Taylor lived. The spouting captured precious droplets of those thunderstorms that hit the tin roof with a slight drumming noise. 

The spouting carried the fresh rain to a big black metal barrel, just a yard or two from a vegetable garden. 

Esther used a rusty coffee can to carry water from the barrel to the plants which included blue potatoes. She poked holes in the bottom of the can with a nail and once said, as she was running down a row of radishes before it all drained out, “nothing is better than what God gives us slowly!” 

Running quickly to her flowers with that can, she wobbled barefoot with muddy toes down rows of cabbage, scattering her captured thunder showers, days after the rain had fallen. 

She worked from sunrise until it got too hot, always watering in the morning because “plants like it that way,” she explained to me in the manner that grandmother’s do.

“Did you hear God moving furniture last night?” she asked as I noticed the barrel was full and all the dead bugs and moths from atop the water were gone. 

“That was thunder!” I said, not believing for a minute that someone was living in the clouds and moving a couch around. 

On June mornings after mostly all April showers had ended, on my way from the old farmhouse, running past the chicken coop on a path in the yard where my bare feet had carved a brown trail, I’d stop to pick up a mulberry or two and drop them in the rain barrel. 

I tried to be careful running though the green grass of the yard, as to avoid white patches of clover where yellow jacket bees were known to be. 

The pain of their stings to tender toes was a mess—in between my toes a little stinger one day was planted. I screamed at the top of my little lungs– running all the way to Esther’s trailer. 

I squished mulberries in a space where a tooth had been lost, happy that day I did not get stung getting past that big tree. 

My little white body quivered at the rush of purple sugar upon my tongue, made from a mouth full of mulberries I found in the fresh grass. I didn’t bother eating around the little green stem each berry had, instead, like a cow, just put more in my mouth to kill the taste of bitterness from the stems. 

Cold rain water trickled over the top of the barrel. I was tempted to jump in, but it was too cold. Instead I put my face in first, holding my nose, proving to myself that I could swim. Into the rain barrel I splashed my arms up to the elbows, rinsing my hands mostly clean of the purple stains. I knew not to touch Esther’s polyester pants when I got inside and hugged her leg. She made us cups of instant coffee despite what my mother had said about how chatty it made me.

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