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In the Barnyard
 
A compilation of stories from the Kentucky childhood of
Robert W Courtney
 
The Fruit of Our Labors
 

 

My father was a simple man. We were not really poor, but he was a very frugal man. He was the quintessential Kentucky dirt farmer in the 50's.

As a family, parents, uncles, grand parents, we raised tobacco for a living. With the farms owned by my grand parents and the son's, plus the share crops, we put up about 1200 acres of tobacco a year. A decent living. My father was saving his money for a "real" farm. I guess 300 acres were not enough for dad.

It really wasn't. He was an ambitous workaholic and he wanted a big estate like some of our share crop owners had.

One of these shares was owned by a man I only knew as Mr. Skinner.

His farm had "Justamere Farm" on the wrought iron gate at the start of the driveway. Rich land owners liked to name the "homestead, back in those days. Dad was pretty impressed with that. Justamere Farm was about fifteen miles from our farm, and took about an hour to get to in those days. MUCH longer on a tractor. But it was only about 2 miles from my grand parent's house, and they kept a lot of equipment on their farm. We also had mules and Clysdales on my grandies' farm. That story will come later.

When we were there to work the crops, my sister and I didn't do much more than take water out to the fields as most of the work was done by equipment. What field work we did will be talked about later.

One of the things that dad really liked about Mr. Skinner's place was the orchard. He thought that it was a sign of a genteel land owner and decided to put a five acre orchard on our farm. I am so glad he did.

But before I get to that, one little story that happened one day at Mr. Skinner's farm.

My big sister and my relationship was kinda strange. She was over three years older than I, but we were both young when this tale starts. I was 5 or 6 and she was 8 or 9.

During the summers, she spent more time at my grand parents house than she did at our home. And Maw Maw spoiled her pretty good. Paw Paw pretty much treated everyone the same. I never really knew Maw Maw's name as she was called mom by her son's, Maw Maw by her grand kids, and "Elmer" by Paw Paw. I can still hear Paw Paw say "Now, Elmer, don't get so riled up". Yeah Elmer was the boss in the family. Until Paw Paw got pissed off, then things changed real fast. But, he was mostly content to allow "Elmer" free reign over the family.

I think her name was Elma, or Emma, but I just couldn't get it. However, Paw Paw's name was "Brack". Yep, that's right, Brack.

For some reason, my older sister liked to torment me in any way she could. Mom always took up for me, so it may have been over that. And my mother and Maw Maw never got along. Maw Maw thought mom was beneath Dad. Luckily Dad, like any good father, took better care of his daughters than me (being the only son, and by the way, the last male Courtney in that bloodline), So if I retaliated physically (and I did, more on that later), Dad would deal with it pretty harshly. And considering he allowed me more leeway before he got involved with what I did while alone, I was OK with that attitude, and actually agreed with it. Still do.

Now, I am not trying to make excuses, but this story may show why I sometimes did retaliate. I felt like I was in mortal danger whenever Betty Jean (my sister) was around. Was it my imagination (and I HAD an imagination from playing alone for so long)? I still don't know.

On Mr. Skinner's farm, there was a water pump (regular handle pump) on a well right before you went into the barnyard. He had horses (pretty common around Lexington, KY) and used that pump to push fresh water into the corrals. The pump had a concrete trough that carried the water. Probably 8-10 high and 12-16 inches wide. Pretty much anytime you pumped water some always ran into the corral.

This pump was on a well that was naturally spring fed. This means the water was always cold. And this is where we would fill the drinking buckets to carry to the fields. We were not allowed around the Big House, but pretty much had free run of the whole farm. Mr. Skinner knew dad could be a hard man when it came to other people's property, and if we screwed up, dad would make it right. He would make US right, too, Boy Howdy.

It was a beautiful summer day and we were amusing ourselves (apparently, one of us was more amused than the other), and were playing around the water pump. This was also the area that the family vehicles were parked when we were at the farm. My father would buy a new Mercury 4-door (not a Ford mind you, a MERCURY, always black) every 3 years. As I said, we weren't poor, although you would not have known it by the way we lived.

So we were sitting in the Mercury (1953, I seem to remember) resting from chasing each other around (hey, that was HER idea, I usually needed some motivation to "chase" anything, mostly). As we were sitting in the front seat with the front doors open, I noticed that weird look in my sister's eyes that NEVER bode well for me. But I was still naive. Family is family, right?

She pushed in the cigarette lighter until it released when it got hot. Dad used that lighter quit a bit when driving as he was a chain smoker. Started smoking at nine and didn't stop until his bypass at 55. Substituted chewing. (Yuck!).

Anyway, when the lighter popped out, she pulled it out and the coil was bright red, even in the summer sun. I never actually looked at that before and found it quite fascinating. The profoundness of it froze me up for a second. To this day, I occasionally have these same epiphanies and go into a trance thinking about it. My youngest daughter, Melissa, has even noticed it. Luckily, these events usually have a decent ending as I learn something from them. Isn't logic fun?

And I learned something from this event, too. Wait and see if I am right.

Betty looked at me and said "Look at how that glows. Ever wonder why?". Well, actually no, not until she mentioned it. She said "Put your thumb on it and see why".

Was it being naive? Being 7 years old? Or did the stupids take over? All of the above, as I stuck my left thumb firmly on the red hot coil.

At first, other than the smoke from my fingerprints being burned off, nothing happened. Then, the pain hit. WOOOOOOWEEEEE it hurt. And hurt, and hurt, and hurt some more. The closest thing I can think of was the pain I had when I had a Black Cat firecracker go off in my right hand. The skin literally fell off the next few days. But that happened a couple of years later, this pain was new.

Or imagine eating the hottest pepper on the planet and having the inside of your mouth in excruciating pain. Nothing you can do but ride it out.

The pain on the tip of my E.T. like thumb was MUCH worse! It looked like a taillight from a 1959 Caddie at night. You could see the pain around corners. Well, that may be an exaggeration, but Lordy Lordy, it HURT!

When Betty finally realized how bad the injury was, she either felt sorry for me, or got worried Dad was going to straighten her out. Not a good thing. I like to think she felt sorry for me.

She took me over to the pump and pumped some fresh water into the trough and pushed my thumb into a small pool in the trough. After many years of the water force from the pump spout, it had a eroded a small hollow in that spot. It felt SOOOO good! However, a couple of seconds later it would start burning again, so I would pull my thumb out. Then after a few seconds, stick it back in. That way, for 2-3 seconds every 30, I would have relief. My thumb turned into a prune before the rest of the family came out from the fields to go home.

And yes, when dad heard the story, he whacked Betty on her God Given fatty buttocks. Once. he would have been harsher with me if I had done that to her, but I accepted that. I was taught to put girls on a pedestal by my father, although today, it doesn't seem to be as popular as it was then.

This is the kind of relationship I had with my older sister. Please keep that in mind as the stories progress.

 

Paw Paws and a Paw Paw Tree. These grow wild in Kentucky.

 

Back to the orchard.

In 1955, dad decided to put a five acre orchard on the farm as he was quite impressed with Mr. Skinner's orchard.

It was at one end of the garden plot. Yep, we had a seven acre garden, a five acre orchard, and waaaay in the back of the farm, a 3 acre strawberry patch and a 1 acre melon patch.

He chose his fruit trees carefully. And took care of them religiously. He kept them watered and fertilized. I remember his load of cow manure and corncobs that he would spread around each tree. And boy did that work.

We had fruit on those trees the 2nd year, and they bore fruit until we moved from the farm in 1962. Except for the two plum tress, it took them several years to bare fruit. But, we did get a few years off them.

There was three kinds of apples, two kinds of pears, peaches, plums, raspberries, persimmons, mulberries, and a small grape arbor. Concord grapes and they were delicious. Mom loved to can fruits and veggies, and make jams, preserves, and jellies.

Although dad liked most fruit, he could take take or leave cherries. We did have one cherry tree in our front yard, as talked about later in this story.

Dad's favorite fruit was not in this orchard. He loved Paw Paws. you know that song, "picking up paw paws and put'em in your pocket"? (You can hear the Paw Paw Patch song, by Burl Ives, on the Music page).

We had Paw Paw's that grew native to that part of KY. And dad took care of the little patch that grew naturally down the fence row on one side of the farm boundary.

Paw Paws kinda look like small bananas, only more of a brownish orange color. They are sweeter than a banana. They also have huge seeds in the soft flesh.

After moving to Missouri, where there were no Paw Paws, dad would get VERY ripe bananas. Almost all black. I never cared for the ripe ones, but have a special liking for the still green tip bananas. Much firmer and not quite so cloying sweet as the over ripe ones dad liked. About the only really sweet food dad liked at all was Paw Paws and VERY ripe bananas.

Although he raised them all, he wasn't much for beef, chicken, turkey, or fish. He was a pork man. And the last few years, it was just ham. And yes, he died young with bad arteries.

Living on a farm in those times, I would eat about anything. Very few things I don't like. Even libber and onions. I can eat it, if cooked right. But most organ meats are right out. Any meat has to be cooked. And NO oysters. No way, no how. Clams, and other shellfish I can handle, oysters? UH UH!

Those were the good days. I could wander down to the orchard and pull fruit from the trees any time during the season. Wonderful. Tomatoes, corn, beans, melons (cantaloupe and water melon), crook necked squash, peas, carrots, potatoes (even a small patch of peanuts for boiled peanuts), okra, zucchini, pumpkin, but, my favorites were strawberries and cherries. The reason we had three acres of strawberries was for the whole family to pick in season. Even cousins.

And for a quick change of subject, I want to explain how many were in my family. There are so many, I don't know more than a 10th of their names.

On the Courtney side, there was my grand parents. They had three boys. John, my uncle that died in the Korean War before I was born . He was the oldest. Then came Vernon, the next oldest, He had one son with my Mom's sister, Bernice, then later, a girl, Debbie. My favorite cousin.

Dad had my older sister, Betty, me, and fifteen years after me, my little sister, Leah.

I had two daughters, Betty Jo and Melissa. And I have eight grand kids from them.

My sister Betty had two, a boy and a girl from here first marriage. The girl, Leslie, had a boy when she was 13, and died of brain cancer at 15. Betty Jean adopted her grandson, Leslie's boy, after Leslie died.

Betty's son, Ronnie, as far as I know, is still single.

My little sister, Leah, married a Saudi Arabian boy and moved to Saudi. She has since had 5 children. I have never met any of them. Maybe someday.

Now, on my mother's side, my grand parents (Richardson), whom I affectionately called Big Daddy and Big Momma (big daddy was full blooded American Indian. Some small tribe in Kentucky). They had four girls. In order is Sis (yep, Sis), Bernice, my mother Irene, and the youngest was Iloo (wow, serious!). Iloo was several years younger than mom, and I believe she only had 2 children. I have no real idea as I haven't met her since I was 12. The same with most of my cousins. No idea of most of their names as I left KY when I was 12 and have never gone back except to sight see.

And my mother had an older brother, Paul. He had five kids. Two boys, three girls. I used to know all of them, but no more.

Sis and Bernice had 32 children between them. 32! My favorite was one of Bernice's boys, Jimmy. But, again, I have not met most of them and haven't the faintest where they are. Mom's family were very poor and lived in what was the white projects of the 50's, in Lexington. This is why "Elmer" didn't think mom was good enough for dad.

What is funny is that Bernice was married to Vernon for a few years. They had a boy that was named Peanut. He was one of my favorites, but ended up in prison long before I left KY in 1963. In fact, almost all of mom's two older sister's boys have done hard time. And some are still doing hard time. A rough bunch.

This was why Dad kept such big patches in his gardens. So that ALL the family could come get as much as they could use. And they did.

We also butchered our own beef, pork, and chickens. And when they were processed, the meat would go into the huge chest freezer we had on the back porch. And the whole family got some of it if they wanted it.

As I said, dad was a pork man. He had a big smoke house and smoked all his own meats. Beef, and pork. He had two big salt boxes in the smokehouse along two sides in a "L" shape. There were old hams (dad loved OLD hams and picnics) down in the salt, some as old as 3-4 years. NOTHING will wake you up faster on a cold winters morning than the smell of old salted ham being fried, with eggs, biscuits, and coffee. We had fresh milk, although I liked the pasteurized stuff at school better, but I did like fresh churned butter. And still do.

And, we always picked Blackberries during the summer. This is where I got my first knowledge of Chiggers, Ticks, and Poison Oak/Ivy. In fact, I got Poison Oak so bad that I had to go to the hospital. They gave me a shot of something (not moonshine, I've got a story about THAT, too) and never have been effected by any of the oaks, ivies, or sumacs to this day. The doctors say that this could change tomorrow, but 45 years of being immune to this stuff has been great. Too bad I had to almost die from it to become immune.

We also picked up Black Walnuts, and Hickory nuts during the season. Both will leave a stain that soap and water can't get off. But, in my community, it was pretty common to see these stains, so we didn't think much of it. We also got Pecans from some friend every year, so we had plenty of nuts in our house. And yes, pun intended.

Obviously, I never went hungry. And mom cooked for a crowd as we always had the family and hired hands to feed. And mom, as did we all as we got older, worked in the fields, too. Until she went to work at the Parachute plant in Lexington. That story comes later.

 

These are the same type of cherries that the tree in our front yard produced. Good cherries.

 

In the sketch on the Home page, it shows two trees in the front yard of the farm house. The one closest to the driveway was a Cherry tree. This tree bore fruit the whole time we lived on the farm. GOOD Cherries, too!

I was out picking and eating the fresh cherries on that tree. Yummy, as always, they were wonderful. Can't find a food market cherry as good as those today.

I was chewing away when dad came out the front door. "Hey, what are you doing!" he asked. I thought right then something was up because dad NEVER asked a redundant question.

You know like walking in on a couple having sex (maybe one of them being your spouse) and asking "What's going on here!" Now that is what I mean by redundant. Dad was cool that way.

"Uh, eating cherries....?" "Son" (he like to call me son when he really didn't mean "Son", but was about to teach me something. Happened a lot back in those days), "have you checked those cherries?" "For what"? "Because I didn't get around to spraying that tree this year, so there may be worms in the cherries." He sprayed the trees in the orchard religiously. But then again, He didn't much like cherries, and there wasn't... a....cherry....tree....in....the....orchard. "So THAT'S how it works" I thought to myself.

"Look, before you eat them, split them like this" as he used his thumbnails to split the top of the cherry.

There was no creepy crawly inside it, so he flipped the pit out and popped the juicy fruit into his mouth. "You've got to shed the pit, anyway, right?" Hmmm, he was right.
So, I picked another ripe one, split it open and sure enough, there was a worm inside. "See? Just be more careful", he said.

I watched him as he walked back to the tractor he was working the fields with that afternoon. A 1949 Ford, if I remember right. That was when they were still painted gray with blue accents, from the factory.

The truth was, I had been eating those cherries for 5-6 years and never found a worm. I had been eating them for a couple of weeks that summer before dad's warning. How many worms had I already chewed up? And WHY did they taste so good?

And the other funny thing? I grew three inches, and was MUCH stronger at the end of that summer.

Must have been all the extra protein.

 

 

 

I keep saying that we were not poor, but you wouldn't have known by looking at how we lived.

A little explanation.

My hair cut was a tip off. Home cut, and sheared down to the scalp during the summer, but a decent wave in front during the winter.

I could actually put a part in it! Later on, I had a car accident and got my scalp split from the forhead to the back. Funny thing was it split right down that part line! So nowadays, I put quite a bit of time trying to hide the part, as it shows the scar. So much for intentionally shaving my head bald. I would like to, but I have one ugly scalp, as the car accident isn't the only scar there. From a tire wrench to racket ball, I have gotten a few more.

And the clothing. It didn't matter what time of year it was, unless I was at church, I wore rolled up jeans and long sleeved flannel shirts. Period. And black work boots.

My flannel shirts always had the sleeves slicked down as even in the summer, my nose ran all the time. And until I was about 10 years old, I never worried about how bad it looked to have the sleeves stiff and shiny with snot. I really didn't!

The rolled up jeans were always really stiff as they were like new. I never seemed to be able to wear a set out, but dad still insisted I would grow into them, so "get'em long", he said. My waist line never met his expectations and I never had a set of jeans that still didn't have at least three inches of roll up left over.

Eh, the elementary school I went to was nothing but dirt farmer kids, like me. So, I never worried about it, and neither did anyone else.

I'll never forget the first time I actually knew I had it good.

We had two brothers in my 4th grade class. The oldest of the two was named Melvin. Melvin had been held back a year, and to be honest, not the sharpest tack in the whole danged box. His little brother had some potential, tho.

We were in class one morning and the teacher was talking about proper nutrition. She went around the class and asked each of us what we had for breakfast.

My breakfasts were varied, but normally anything from oatmeal and toast with bacon, ham and eggs, fresh biscuits and fruit preserves, and even molasses that dad made himself.

He would raise Sorghum to feed his cattle. Then make sorghum molasses to mix in the feed during the winter to make sure the livestock had calorie dense food. He would further refine and filter a gallon or two and make cooking molasses from the black strop. I prefer fresh honey (something we didn't have on the farm. Dad hated anything that stung. Honey bees were on that list), but good molasses is a treat, at least, to me it is.

Corn pone, Farina, etc. Like I said, I never went hungry and never thought about it. But THAT day changed my whole way of thinking.

When it came to Melvin's turn, he answered. "Some Walnuts". This was in the winter and the walnuts we picked up were ready to eat as they had shed their hulls and dried.

Some walnuts, Melvin said. The teacher looked shocked, and my heart fell into my stomach. With all I had, this family was living on walnuts. I was 10 years old.

I went home and told mom about it. And I could tell she was affected by this. This was before Mom's psychosis ruined her life. She was as emphatic as anyone I have ever met. That old saw about giving some one less fortunate your shirt, was written about Mom. Dad wasn't quite so charitable, but he didn't mind feeding the less fortunate, as long as the family had plenty.

Melvin and his brother rode my bus to school. The bus ride was almost two hours one way as we lived in a rural district. It never bothered me as it was what it was. As my folks didn't have the luxury of taking us to school, the bus, it was.

I can still see Melvin and his brother waiting at the end of the drive. They lived in a two story red brick home that sat back away from the road easily 600 yards. So I hadn't gotten a good look at the house. It looked better than what I lived in, so I never thought they were in that bad of shape.

So, a couple of days later, I asked Melvin and his brother if he would like to come over to my house the next Saturday, so they asked their parents and they said yes.

My mom and I went to pick them up and as we got closer to the house, I could see it was in bad shape. About half the windows had no glass, and it was winter. Cold!!

When we got back to the house, mom had fixed fried chicken and the trims. The boys tore into that and even I didn't have a chance. And that's saying something when it came to mom's fried chicken! And they ate like that every time it was laid out, and mom was good at laying it out.

2-3 years before this, we had gotten one of the first TV's in the area. And old 21" Black and white that was used when we got it, but not many had even that. Those young boys were spell bound. I loved TV myself, but it wasn't new to me. I envied them for their new experience, and have been thankful for new experiences, good or bad, every since. they are what make life so interesting.

When we took the boys home, mom had rounded up some of my old clothing that fit them pretty good, as well as a couple pairs of my work boots I had out grown. Luckily, she had washed the snot off, and the sleeves of the flannel shirts were back to normal. Lord knows how she did it as I would have thought boy snot as good as horse glue.

And I learned right then to never throw clothing away as long as it was serviceable. Salvation Army gets a lot of my old stuff nowadays, and they seem to be glad to have it.

The boys came back several times that winter, but by spring, they moved away and I never saw them again. But in my mind's eye, I can still see them in the class where Melvin had answered, "some walnuts".

My Church clothes were a white long sleeved shirt and dark slacks. And maybe, if I was lucky, black penny loafers. Paw Paw delighted in putting in bright, shiny copper pennies in my new loafers I would get for my B'day or Christmas. And I would wear those shoes proudly until they got too small and hurt my feet. Dang shoes! They just couldn't keep!

I still love penny loafers. Too bad adults can't be seen wearing them nowadays. Maybe $5.00 Gold pieces? Naaah, too big and flashy. Bling Bling.

Anyway, I would wear them if they were socially acceptable. Maybe underwear would be next on the list, as I wear none. Too much info? Too bad.

It'll get worse, believe me.

 

 
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