A vignette: The charms of a rural turn-of-the-century childhood, with not a hint of the issues of “Expatriation.”
From the Relief Society Magazine, August 1952 –
Papa Took Us Fishing
By Christie Lund Coles
Papa wasn’t an outdoor man. He was a thinker, I guess, for he was a lawyer and sometimes traveled as far as the county seat to plead his cases. He was always meticulously dressed, tweeds and worsteds during the week, and the most beautiful of black broadcloths for Sunday. You’d think by looking at him that he was a city-bred man, with his rather slender build, and his lean, handsome face; his large, hazel eyes framed by gold-rimmed glasses; and his black handlebar moustache, which he touched up with some delicately scented pomade.
Yet, he was reared in the country, and only went away for his schooling. Mama was from the city. She hadn’t ever seen a cow until she came West. But she was the one who liked the outdoors. She took care of the flowers, the chickens, and the vegetable garden, as well as the strawberry and raspberry patches. That’s how it goes, sometimes.
Still, when it came to knowing how to make a straight furrow, turn the water into the ditches, and prune the roses, it was Papa who could show her how to do the work, even though he didn’t really like to do it himself.
I think he wanted to enjoy country outings more. For instance, every summer our neighbors, on either side of us, took fishing trips. Websters, east of us, had one of those new contraptions called an automobile, and they had even got as far as Yellowstone Park with it, and back. Libbys, across the street, had a Harley-Davidson motorcycle with a sidecar attached. It gave you goose pimples to watch them spinning around the corner, the sidecar leaning to the earth as though it were going to dash them out any minute. And at the unheard of speed of twenty miles an hour.
Then came that summer when Papa decided we were going to take a trip. Not a long trip, mind you, not up to see Grandma and Grandpa, as we did quite often, and not to the city, which was nothing new for us, because we got free passes on the train because Papa was the attorney, but a trip to the mountains. A fishing trip, to be exact!
When the neighbors heard about it they were all anxious to go along. Websters wanted to take their car, but Papa said he wouldn’t be responsible for it going off the dugway up Rockcreek Canyon, even if it had gone to Yellowstone. I think Mr. Webster was offended, for he snorted and called Papa behind the times. Papa reminded him of the day he first drove his car downtown and kept yelling, “Whoa,” and nothing happened.
Of course, Libbys couldn’t take their motorcycle because the whole family wanted to go (three girls and a boy). We had three girls, too, and two uncles who lived with us, which, altogether, made quite a crowd.
Papa and Mr. Libby got together and planned the trip carefully. Each one decided to rent a white-top wagon, as there was room between and under the seats for quite a lot of provisions. The top would shade us from the sun, if not from the wind and rain.
I won’t soon forget how Papa and Jim and Willie packed provisions. They had everything from home-cured ham to radishes, and loads of Mama’s buxom loaves of bread. But the thing Papa seemed most concerned about was salt. We had to have bags of it. When Mama asked him why all the salt, he explained, patiently, that the salt was to put the trout in until we got home. After all, hadn’t he fished when he was a boy, didn’t he know all about those things?
No one dared dispute him, nor wanted to, since it was all so heavenly exciting, going out after dark to find night crawlers on the lawn, putting them in tin cans of moist dirt; watching Mama put the lids on the big flour cans filled with food; and being unable to keep from laughing at Papa in bib-top overalls and a blue denim shirt topped by a Farmer John straw hat.
And, most exciting of all, of course, was the day we left, being up before sunup, getting ready, running back and forth across the street to talk to our girl friends in breathless whispers while we waited for our fathers to come with the horses and wagons …
We could hear the clomping of the horses’ hooves on the red dirt road a block away, and it sounded like the cavalry that old Grandpa Libby told about in the Civil War. And it looked almost like that, too, in the half-darkness, for the one buggy had four horses pulling it, and the other one had two monstrous ones that were gray and white and might have been the ones that pulled the dray from the depot each afternoon. We ran back, squealing as they drew nearer, and the horses reared to a stubborn halt.
I soon saw that it was Papa’s buggy that had the four horses, and two weren’t really horses, they were small, adorable colts.
Mama protested about having the colts, but Papa raised his voice and said that was all he could get, and nothing was going to spoil this fishing trip after he’d worked so hard to plan it. So they began loading. All the salt went on the floor and my sister and I got to sit on it. It made a comfortable, if rather scratchy seat, though by noon I was so hot and dusty that I was actually tasting salt.
The men had planned it so that we wouldn’t be too long riding in the hot sun, and we really weren’t, for we reached the place and made camp by about two-thirty. Still, it wasn’t as simple as that, believe me.
In the first place, Mama said Papa was driving too fast, and he replied that he was just trying to keep up with old Libby who was trying to show off because he had once been a cow-poke, and was used to handling horses. In the second place, we reached the dugway. Just like that, we were on it. The horses didn’t seem to know the difference and didn’t want to slow down when Papa pulled the reins. And, worst of all, one colt was so near the edge that it kept starting to slip off. Mama was a right good hand in the garden, but this was too much for her city sensitivity. She began to cry, to beg, to cajole. Papa, helpless to do anything about the situation except hold the team back, which he was doing to the best of his ability, became angry.
Then she became even angrier as she sat jolting on the seat, holding on with one hand, keeping her hat on her head with the other. Finally, she commanded him to stop and let her out, and said she would rather walk any day, and if he didn’t stop, she would jump out, no matter what the consequences. She would. She even looked over the side as though she might be ready to attempt it.
Papa wrapped the reins around his fist, and the horses stopped. Mama, tears streaking her dusty face, climbed out. She reached into the back of the buggy and insisted that we three girls get out also. Jim, the youngest of the uncles, who was pretty pale around the gills, began to follow suit. I’ll never forget how Papa (who was, ordinarily, the gentlest of men) turned on him, crying, “You sit down!”
He sat down, believe me, and away they went, lickety-split. The colt couldn’t have fallen off if it had wanted to. There wasn’t time.
We started to walk in the dusty, long road. When we had gone quite a distance, we saw Papa slowing down, saw him stop. He called back to ask if we wanted to ride. Mama merely shook her head.
Of course, all this was forgotten when we made camp. It was a beautiful spot, near the mountainside, which was covered with evergreens and aspens and different kinds of wild berries. We could hear the stream singing over the rocks; could see blue jays and many other kinds of birds weaving about overhead, chattering to us. Our camp, set amid a group of trees which almost formed a large room, was secluded and cool. To the side were other trees which formed other rooms, some of them small and so shut in even from the sky that they were cold and dark. Pine needles lay in deep carpeting on the ground, and there was the sigh of wind above us, sounding almost like distant choir music. My sisters and friends and I soon made one of these rooms our playhouse. We had stumps for tables and chairs. The grownups were busy unpacking, putting up Libby’s tent.
After we had all washed in the icy water, we were starving, so we ate ham fried over the campfire, fried potatoes, and corn boiled in a sooty-black kettle. Then, since it was dark and we were all tired, beds were made – and with what mounds of bedding! The one seat came out of our wagon, and quilts and pillows were spread in the bottom for Mama and us two younger girls. Sue, the eldest, and her friend, Ruth Libby, said they weren’t afraid to sit on the ground nor sleep there either. So, still in their clothes, they curled up together. Papa and my two uncles slept together, and the Libbys divided themselves up likewise, Mrs. Libby and her two youngest in the tent.
The last thing I remembered was feeling secure and warm between Mama and Inez, though the air on my cheek was like little pricks of ice.
The next thing I knew I could hear voices. I rose up and could see a flashlight, and Papa and Mr. Libby leaning over a new campfire. It was so terribly dark that I was sure even they couldn’t have thought it was morning.
Then I could hear Mrs. Libby crying, saying over and over, “I know I heard a bear, I know I did. He was right in the brush above here.” And she had a gun in her hand!
Papa turned the flashlight up there, ran it across the hillside, but there was nothing to be seen except the heavy brush, which didn’t seem so attractive now, and might be full of all kinds of dangers.
Mama decided to get up and said we might as well stay where we were and go to sleep, we were safe enough. I asked why she didn’t stay there, too, then. I didn’t feel safe since we were so near the hill, neither did Inez. We got our shoes and sweaters on and climbed out, making for the fire, which was blazing now, and sending out tongues of warmth to lick our faces. The logs we had sat on at suppertime were still there, so we all sat down, and that hour or two was something extra special to be remembered, to be savored, to be talked about all our lives.
When the fire had died down the night before, Papa and the other men had put some potatoes under the hot ashes, close to the ground, as they used to when they were boys, they said. Now, with long sticks, they dug them out. They were steaming hot and baked perfectly, till the skins were crisp and smelled like nothing else in the whole, wide world.
We each had one on a tin plate. We buttered them with homemade golden butter from a crock, salted them, and ate. When we had finished, my uncle began playing his harmonica, and we all began to sing, “Memories,” “On the Banks of the Wabash” (Papa’s favorite), “In the Gloaming,” and all the other songs we could remember.
After a little while, I think I fell asleep against Papa’s shoulder. But I woke up again, in my bed, to see the sunlight dripping faintly through the trees, to hear them all preparing to go fishing. Mama came over and told me it was only six-thirty. She said I might as well sleep, but I begged to go with the men up the stream. Finally she consented, brushed and braided my hair, put two sweaters on me, and warned me to be careful.
Papa kissed her and said that I could bring some fish back for breakfast. She handed me a tin pail, and I started up the road holding my father’s hand. Libby’s boy, Sam, looked disgusted. He was an expert fisherman, and didn’t want anybody around who might make a noise or frighten the fish away. He struck out ahead and went to a different spot than the others. I don’t think they missed him, but he did get more fish than the others.
Still, I remember running down the road with four or five silver speckled trout in my bucket. Mama slit them with a sharp knife, cleaned them, rolled them in flour and salt and pepper, and fried them. Some fishermen prefer the large lake trout, but I have heard others say that nothing quite compares to the fresh, mountain trout. At least that morning, I was sure nothing could be better.
We stayed three days. We hiked, waded, gathered chokecherries and wild currants. We spent hours lying in the sun – as the shade was too cool – hearing the music of the pines, smelling their matchless freshness.
The men fished in the mornings and evenings, dozed in the daytime or played kick-the-can or horseshoes with us. Of course, there were the usual near-accidents: Inez fell into a deep part of the stream, and Mama had to pull her out; Susan came very near to being shot by Sam, who was doing some target practice and didn’t know she was on the other side of the stream.
All in all, it was simply a heavenly trip while it lasted. But our groceries were running out, and Papa had a case coming up before the court, so we all packed and got ready to go home.
Papa told Mama she was going to ride in the wagon because what difference did it make if she fell off a mountain or died of a sunstroke. She said she would try it, but if she really got scared she would have to do the same thing again. They both laughed, and Papa patted her affectionately.
Inez and I curled up on the bags of salt again (with a blanket over them) while Mama wondered if the grocer would take some of the salt back. Papa said you could bet he wouldn’t ask him, even if the salt had to last us the rest of our lives. You see, Mr. Webster owned the store, and he would know by the salt how many fish we brought with us home.
How many! Inez and I giggled as he said that. Because, to be exact, we brought precisely none.