In the Barnyard
A compilation of stories from the Kentucky childhood of
Robert W Courtney
It's just one of those days
“BANG" I said.
It was Summer, 1957. Fayette County, Kentucky. A farm boy's paradise.
I was peeping out over the old chevy pickup bed that was in the barnyard. Errant Fescue, that dad had sown everywhere for the cattle to eat, had grown up over the side of the bed rail. Dry from the summer sun, the long sheaves waved stiffly in front of my sights.
No pickup truck frame under the bed, just a shell. The bed thumped deep bass every time I moved position to position. Wiping out whole tribes in my frenzy to save the West from the savages.
Dad was going to use that bed shell to make a wagon to haul trash and garbage to the back of our 300 acre farm (one of several that he and our family made a living from). There was a sink hole there that had stuff from the 1800's. Just rusting away.
The sink hole had been our dumping area since Dad bought the farm in 1949. So there was newer material there amongst the vintage junk. Everything from old autos, trucks, and tractors, to chunks of old farm equipment that even the mules were ashamed to pull anymore.
The sink hole just happily swallowed it all and begged for more.
Sounded a lot like me. I ate everything in sight. When mom made her infamous fried chicken on Sundays, she always made an extra chicken. Yep, I could eat a whole fried chicken, AND all the sides.
from what I have heard later, the Preacher didn't like coming over, I think I bit him on the arm.
I miss those Sunday chicken dinners.
Yep, that's me at six.
But, at 6 years old, I was a slim child. I had hair that was so blond, it was almost white, and in the summer, was kept in a buzz cut. “To keep you cooler" says dad.
Hmmm, considering that I was a blue eyed fair skin entity, the scalp stayed sunburned all summer, discrediting that cooler statement. I think it was just cheaper, as it was done at home in about 14.5 seconds by my mother. Yeah, purty shore 'bout that. The Cowboy in me just had to come out in my speech, don't cha know.
Took weeks for me to get tan, but once I did, I turned a hazelnut brown. I blame this process on the 1/2 Injun - 1/2 English my mother was, and the 1/2 English - 1/2 Welsh my father was. I guess the best of both in the tanning world, if you could endure the sunburn for the first coupla weeks.
“BANG” I said again, this time adding a “ptcheew” to simulate a ricochet. The lethal weapon in my hand was one of a set of twin toy cap guns in a two gun belt/holster. These were the Brand Du Jour for that summer. A beautiful set of Have Gun Will Travel in a silver finish. “Paladin, Paladin an Where do you Roooam”. This TV show, remember?
Have Gun Will Travel reads the card of a man.
|The first image is just one of a twin set of Paladin cap guns. Next is the "business card" that Paladin used is on the right. I had gotten 20 of these in the gun set. Bottom left is the holster set. With spurs and wrist bands. And who can not recognize Richard Widmark as the Paladin.|
I had dozens of these branded sets. From Bat Matterson to the Rifleman.
These were bought for me by my dad. As he was a SERIOUS spendthrift, (I hate to go as far as miser) I kinda knew they were just to keep me busy as I was still too young to hit the tobacco fields with the rest of the family. I didn't even know I had it made. I damn sure found out, later!
He knew I would spend 80% of the summer playing alone on the farm. It was just too far out in the sticks, and took too much time to get to any of my school year friends.
Plus, I think mom kinda bullied him into feeling sorry for me. I still can't say that as fact, just a feeling.
Yep, I was a loner. Didn't realize it at the time. I have come to know that I actually like myself, and have no problem being alone. I'll talk more about that later.
I was an only child, even tho I had an older sister. More on that later, too.
I finger twirled my pistola into the holster (I was good at it) and looked behind me to see if any pesky Redskins were sneaking up behind me. Nope. But I did smell smoke. Were they sending smoke signals?
I turned around and noticed a plume of dark smoke coming from the front of the garage. I couldn't see the actual front of the garage, as I was behind and a little over from the front doors. Maybe 35 yards.
“Hmm. What's going on".
Then I heard my dad yell at my mother in the house. When she came out, she seen dad pumping water from the cistern and running over to the garage. She grabbed a bucket and started doing the same.
Now, about that cistern.
We had no running water, ANYWHERE on the farm! We had a sink in the kitchen for dishes, but no water. We also had an outhouse, a fixture we had well after I left home at seventeen.
Dad always said the highest station he would ever have was sitting on the one holer 30 yards from the back door of the house. He always laughed when he said it, but I didn't think it was too damned funny. By that time, I had experienced indoor bathrooms at school (church had outies, too), and preferred them... a LOT!
|Here is a familiar sight. Pretty close to what we had, only ours was a little more run down. The wear on the bottom door planks and the cutout on the lower right is from decades of feet hitting the door frame. Also, the dogs pawing at it, trying to get in when a human was asatin' on the one holer.|
The only thing that kept it from being stereo typical outhouse was it DIDN'T have one of those half moon cutouts over the door. However, there was no shortage of Sears and Roebuck catalog pages! At one time, it did have a corncob nailed on the outside to serve as a latch.
We later move up to a two holer when we moved to the farm in Missouri. More on that later.
The cistern was a big shallow well (maybe 25 ft. deep in the center) that was in the far left corner of the house yard. Maybe 30 yards from the back door of the house.
The interior had been concreted, as had the wide top, so that it didn't get as much silt as from a natural hole, and it was relatively easy to clean. IF you had the nads to pump it out, then quickly climb down a ladder that ended on sides that were a few feet above the deepest part. I didn't have the inclination, even at 12 years old when we left the Kentucky farm.
Luckily, dad had NO problem with it. Brave man. He didn't mind the snakes and small lizards that always seemed to live in that cistern. He was also a Fireman in Lexington, KY for 9 years. As I said, a brave man.
The pump housing would pop over like a Zippo lighter top on it's mounting frame, giving access to the cistern.
It was dug in the early 1800's and dad cleaned it out every 3-4 years and the water was wonderful. It was fed by a natural spring (not mineral) and was always cool and clean tasting, snake and lizard poop not withstanding.
It was not a hand pump that pulled the water up to the spout. It was a chain and cup system that pretty much just used a chain with metal cups attached, rolled onto a wheel that was turned by hand. As the cups went under the water, and as they turned up to come back to the top of the wheel, it scooped water into the cup, then dumped the contents into a reservoir attached to the spout. The weight of the chain and cups kept it hanging tightly. The faster you turned the handles, the faster the cups would fill and dump.
A small schematic of how a cup and chain pump works and the pump housing.
Surprisingly, I only seen that break one time while I was living there. Even tho we pumped 40-60 gallons a day outta that cistern.
It was one of my chores to make sure the house always had water in it's barrels inside the back porch. One of MANY chores that a farm boy did in those days.
So, I looked into the yard and was watching mom and dad doing a two man bucket brigade from the cistern to the garage. Now, you might think I would have been confused, but to be scary honest, I had already figured it out.
About an hour before I had wondered down to play cowboys and injuns in the truck bed, I had spent some minutes doing a no-no in the garage.
A little description of the garage.
The garage was an old wooden frame that didn't even have a foundation. Just packed dirt. It had seen better days, but was mostly rainproof, so dad would work on his vehicles and farm equipment in it.
In fact, the only vehicle actually kept in the garage was an old wooden speedboat that dad had bought to take his family buzzing on the Kentucky River that was only 10-12 miles from our house. That activity ceased before I was old enough to ride in it, as dad lost interest in it. I never found out why, but did hear rumors of a very scary incident. So it sat in the garage until shortly before this incident occurred. Dad had moved it down to the barn, and it sat beside his Harley, for many years.
The Harley Davidson is another story.
Dad, being a workaholic, had dug a grease pit in the middle of the garage floor. He had shored up the sides with 2X4's, put in a ladder on one side. VERY nicely done. He used this to work under the vehicles. It didn't take long before oil changes, etc, had soaked the whole thing with oil, but, getting dirty was part of the job. I didn't mind that at all.
But that scrubbing I got from mom later on wasn't a bit damned fun. The lye soap felt like a cat's tongue. Must have been the wood ashes used to make the lye. My skin would end up as red as my scalp, and lemme tell ya, THAT was RED!
As to the no-no.
I had gotten into that “fire good” stage that most children left to their own devices, seem to fall into. It usually doesn't last long. Either the child burns the frak out of themselves, or some part of the house. Mostly.
So, for some reason and knowing it was the wrong thing to do, I gathered up some Sears Catalog pages, some old newspaper, and dozen of the wood kitchen matches used to start the fires in the old Warm Morning stoves we used for heat, and to fire the gas burners on the kitchen range we cooked on. The wood cook stove hand went to it's great reward in the hungry sink hole out back, several years before. We didn't have no auto light burners on OUR cook stove, By Gawd!
Might as well explain this now, as it's coming up later in this story.
As I said above, we used old Warm Morning wood stoves to heat the house We had a four room farm house built in the early 1800's. Big rooms, but only four of them. We had wood stoves in two, and a small gas heater in the kitchen. The one bedroom was heatless, and the other had another Warm Morning.
Our favorite use for them were roasting pecans and melting Sugar Daddys on the hot tops. Mmmmm.... melted caramel!
The first image is VERY similar to one of our Warm Morning stoves. The 2nd image is pretty close to the other stove. We lived almost as poor, too. Our farm house was built in the early 1800's.
After a time dad quit using wood to heat as his farming was taking most of his time. So he converted these huge Warm Morning stoves to coal. He did this by putting firebrick inside to line the cast iron liner. The fire brick kept the cast iron from getting too hot as coal burns hotter than wood. Both stoves also had an outer sheet steel shell a few inches from the outer liner. They would get hot enough to pull the skin off FAST, but still safer than the hot cast iron liner. Amazingly enough one of the shells had a fake wood grain finish! Ironic, huh?
Keeping the coal in the coal bin behind each stove was one of MY many chores. The coal was dumped out into a pile right behind the outhouse, but on the other side of the fence separating the house yard from the barn yard. This meant either carrying the full coal buckets all the way around the outhouse an through the gate into the driveway, then all the way to the back door of the house. OR pick up the correct size of coal and THROW it over the fence, then go around and put the thrown piece into the buckets and then carry them into the house. This saved about 30 yards of carrying the heavy assed buckets.
During the Winter, when we had snow and ice (40% of the Winter), it took a while to get things broken loose. Try that with just cloth gloves on! They are the only gloves that were cheap enough to use for coal gettin'! Our other gloves were too precious.
Luckily, we didn't need coal in the summer, because downwind from the outhouse was not a place to be standing around in the hot sun. Tho the chickens didn't seem to mind. All 300 or so of them that was wondering around. No lack of a Sunday Dinner at our house.
About the coal size. Coal is purchased by a sized grade. From dust to 3 foot square chunks. Believe it or not, for home use, it was cheaper to buy the big chunks, use a sledge to break it into a usable piece. The Warm Morning stove doors would allow some serious size, so it wasn't too bad. We saved the small slivers to help start the fire. Big chunks are harder to get started.
And that's my story, and I'm sticking to it!
So, back to the no-no.
After I had gathered my little piles of combustibles in the garage, I played around lighting bigger and bigger pieces of paper. I don't know if you remember your first “fire good” experience. I call the look on the face a fire rapture. Hypnotized like a chicken staring at a white line is probably more like it.
Of course, mom, whom at the time was a devout Southern Baptist, all end of days, hellfire, and brimstone, would have said I looked like the Devils spawn. She probably wasn't far off. Maybe I should have been named Damian, ya think? All in a days work, I always say.
While I was marveling at the possibility of laying waste to the earth with my new found ability to make FIRE, mom stuck her head out the back door, and called for me.
I quickly threw the still burning paper into the grease pit, not thinking about that grease part, and ran out to see what she wanted.
Just wanted to see if I was still alive. Thanx mom, I am. Mostly.
After talking to her for a while, (she was fun to talk to back in those days before her schizophrenia took her over. More on that, later) I lost interest in being the Universe's Fire God, and decided to go pick up the combustibles before dad got home. So I gathered them up.
Just as I was about to leave the garage and shut the doors, in the darkness, I saw a flame lick up from the pit. Fire and brimstone from the depths of hell? NAAH!
I went over and looked and seen that something was still burning in bottom end of the pit. I looked around to see if there was something to smother it with. Please remember, I was six years old! And that's when the stupids took me over.
I ran around the gate and picked up one of those BIG chunks of coal from the pile. As big a chunk strong six year old could carry. Lugged it into the garage, and threw it into the pit, onto the flame. I watched it for several seconds, didn't see any flame. So, I left the coal in the pit, not even thinking that at the very least, dad would want to know why a big lump of coal was in the pit, what less burnt paper. The six year old stupids had me in it's clutches, and I left the garage whistling and wondering what to do next, it was only about 2 PM!
And for some reason, I had a quick thought that it was one of those days. I remembered that thought and feeling the first time I jumped out of a perfectly good airplane in1972.
So, I went inside, and picked out my Paladin gear, and went into the barnyard. There, I fought injuns and Amazon Women Warriors for several hours.
Yes, at six years old, I could read comic books if they weren't too smart for me. I was mesmerized by the Amazon Women Warriors, and later Wonder Woman, although at six, I didn't know why.
|The Warrior Woman above is Frieda Ratsel, a Nazi. She was an earlier Villian in the Marvel Universe during the Golden Years.|
When I was nine, I had read every book in our small elementary school library. The school was 1st-6th grade and WAAAY out in the sticks. But, it was a nice County school, far from being a one room shack. More like a 12 room Stone wonder, to a six year old.
At nine, I tested at a 10th grade reading and comprehension level. I ain't no genius, but I ain't stupid, either. And there is where I got my love for Science Fiction and all Science in general.
That's why, when I saw mom and dad doing that bucket brigade into the garage, I knew for sure, it was going to be one of those days.
So, I did the best thing I could think of. I sat down in the truck bed shell, and hid.
Turned out, that wasn't as good of an idea as I thought.
Not long after that, my folks managed to put the fire out. It seemed like hours to me, but probably not near that long. I heard my dad, VERY angrily calling my name.
A little about that.
Dad had an IQ of about 140. He wasn't a genius, but he wasn't stupid. He quit school in the 6th grade to work on the farm(s) with his family. It's just what you did in the 40's. It didn't hurt him much, tho, as he could learn almost instantly. When he finally got his GED when he was 54 years old, it was a breeze for him. He had books stacked on every inch of his bedroom, and read every night for many years.
It was instantly apparent to him that Irene Courtney's little boy Robert Wayne was at the bottom of this. And he was determined to get at the bottom of Robert Wayne.
My dad loved us. He tried hard to juggle his farming (workaholic, remember) and his family. This usually meant we ALL worked in those Tobacco fields. And in the 50's it was HARD manual labor. Dad loved that, too bad I didn't share his joy with it. By the time I was 13, I had already decided I was NOT going to stay on those farms. Uh Uh!
|To get this stuff to the warehouse in Jan-Feb was hard back busting work. I didn't like it!|
Dad didn't have to spank us very often. Once or twice was enough for any sane person to risk. He left the small stuff to mom, and she was good at it, believe me.
Trouble was, he was always mad when he disciplined us. And he always over did it. When he calmed down he always realized he had screwed up. I loved my dad, but I always felt I got the raw end of the deal in the process. I can remember three whoopings that dad gave me. I can remember a dozen mom did. None of them hurt them more than it did me, so they could keep that crappy excuse. I wasn't buying it.
When dad called for Robert Wayne, (I was named after him, but he was Robert Lewis and never went by Robert. Me, I am Robert, not Bob) I knew I was in more trouble than a passel of injuns and Amazons could ever give me.
As the stupids still had control over me. I peeked over the edge of the truck bed.
Whoops, remember that platinum blonde hair and the sunburned scalp? Imagine a semi-moon shape of short white hair with a flaming red scalp, and two wide sky blue eyes, popping up over an OD green, dark blue, and primer red pickup bed. That would be hard to miss, don't cha' think?
Like a big bull seeing a red cape, dad spied me out and in an instant, darted that 30 yards and pulled me out of that truck bed.
As he was fumbling at his belt, I didn't stick around to see it clear the loops. I turned and ran for the hills. Or rather the house.
Mom was my only chance. She MAY have been able to calm dad down before my butt was lit up. Although I didn't know it at the time, mom wasn't going to do anything, not even watch. She wasn't stupid herself and had known dad a few more years than me. She knew better than to get in his way. And, here's the kicker, she was pretty pissed over this, herself.
I may not have seen the belt clear the loops, but I heard the swish and felt the slap as it left the loops and caught me square across the fatty folds on my butt cheeks.
You see, the thing about dad is, he NEVER hit his kids anywhere but the ass. He always said “If Gawd wanted man to fly, he would have given him wings, and if Gawd hadn't wanted a father to spank his children to make them better folks, he wouldn't have given them fat butts”!
He HATED to see other men knuckle their kids, or slap them, or even kick a child. That REALLY pissed dad off!
I have seen him fight on two occasions, and it wasn't fair, and it wasn't pretty. It was just done and over. Once a straight knockout to the chin. The other was bloody. But it wasn't dad's blood, nor did he start it.
And another time, I seen him poleaxe an 900 lb. young steer. A solid punch straight between the eyes. The steer dropped flat assed down on it's front knees and it's head shook for several minutes before it finally got up. The reason? The stupid steer head butted dad in the nads while we were trying to get it through the chute onto the cattle truck.
|This is an 800 lb steer. Their heads are hard, but apparently, not as hard as my dad's knuckles!|
And that was just weeks after I had reached 12 years old and thought I could take the old man. Just waiting for the time. Did he sense I was about to make my move? Most young boys do that. I would not put it passed dad to do that very thing. He definitely warded of a horrible butt kickin'. MINE!
Uh Uh. Changed my mind that instant. Maybe I could wait until he was 70. Too bad he died at 65. I could have been a CONTENDER, Dad! I could have been a contender. Rest In Peace My Father, My Friend.
When people say that time slows down during an emergency, they ain't kidding. I am short legged, but can run short distances lightning FAST. But when I felt that first stripe across that ass, time slowed down.
I couldn't outrun my dad in those days, anyway. I mean, I did get my legs from him. And as a 30 year old man, he was FAST. Later in life, after he had both knees and lower back surgeries, he did slow down, but at that instant he was a cheetah, and I was one legged gazelle. He never grabbed me, just let me run. Slapping that belt across those bobbing buttocks on what it seemed, every step I made. 50-60 yards to the front porch.
He waited until I had went through the screen door into the living room before he finally grabbed me.
As I said, my dad was a strong man, even when he was calm. He was one teed off bull at that moment.
The fearsome weapon he so easily pulled from his dress slacks (now smudged with soot marks) was his favorite dress belt. Thank the Lord. Why? Because this belt was made from several strips of black dyed leather, sectioned with chromed chain links. These were not like fence chain or logging chain, but really just for show, so the material wasn't very strong.
He whipped me with that belt until two or three of the chain links broke and flew across the room. He used what was left until essentially all he had left was a buckle in his hand.
Seemed like days.
Me screaming, him oddly silent, as he usually wanted you to know why you were getting a beating. When he let me go, my butt was on fire.
Did I deserve such a beating? I actually do feel like I deserved it. I mean, the house was only 20 yards away from the garage. And if the stupids were upon me, it could have been the house instead of the garage. You never know what them stupids are going to make you do as a six year old.
When he was finally done with me, he rushed from the house and you could hear him ranting out in the front yard. This had really got to him.
My dad didn't swear very often. In fact, he did so rarely,. Here's little anecdote about that.
When I was about 14, Dad had come in for dinner from working all day on the farm . He absolutely LOVED pinto beans cooked with smoked ham hocks, and a side of corn bread to crumble into the soup. Apparently he knew mom was cooking beans and had been highly anticipating them. When he came in and tasted them right out of the pot, he was furious. Too salty! Mom had forgot she had put salt in the beans, and asked me to salt them again. Her second big mistake, I knew squat about salting beans.
So dad drops the spoon, turns around to mom and myself standing in the kitchen, and said “What in the HELL do you think you were doing”!
WOW. This was such a rare event, both mom and myself did the jaw dropping double take thing. As we stared at dad, he had a smirk of satisfaction on his face. You see, he was actually PROUD of himself that he put that four letter word into his rant! I am serious! He was PROUD of doing it right!
Of course that took the sting out of his anger as even he soon realized what just happened and we all had a good laugh. I'll never forget that day. For just one of those days, it was a good one.
Finally, I calmed down and had that hiccup-sniffle thing that kids get when they have been scared and crying. I was sitting on the couch not moving, when dad came back thru the front screen door. He walked over to me and picked me up, sat down and put me on his lap. He kept patting my head, hugging me, and telling me how sorry he was that he beat me so hard. After a while, I realized that I actually did forgive him, and that I was pretty sorry myself.
My dad rarely showed any real affection to any of us. In his mind, men just didn't do that, and they didn't have to. It took me until I was a father to realize that, although I don't agree with him, it's the way he was raised. His father was a workaholic, too. Grandpa didn't show a lot of attention, but you felt his love and concern. And as I came to see, my dad was the same way.
So, after the big blowup, and I was getting held and petted by my father, a rare event, indeed, I was thinking to myself.
“It's just one of those days, and it hasn't been all that bad”.