Mountain Romance Waltz

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Mountain Romance Waltz page 1

Mountain Romance Waltz page 2

Mountain Romance Waltz page 2


Fourth Installment of: A Thin Slice of Sky


Lou Jonas


He was part Jeremiah Johnson, part Audubon, and part soldier of fortune. Lou rented the old cabin while we spent two winters inWhitewater,Montana. He holed up with his books, guns, letters and botany collections, to outlast the winters.

Bundles of dried mint hung from his ceiling. A burlap bag of venison jerky slumped against one of the support posts, like a laborer on siesta. The cabin was dark and warm. His bed had no pillow. “Bad for your back and neck,” he asserted. He stretched and tacked animal pets to the outsides of the cabin. Crammed into the north wall, serving as cheap insulation, he had stuffed envelopes from women around the world. Years after Lou moved out, we sorted through them collecting the exotic stamps.

Dad admired Lou for living life so easily. Dad coveted his powers of observation. Lou saw the natural world acutely. Ever ready, a botanist’s magnifying glass hung around his neck. He frequently flicked it open to examine rocks or plant parts. I was entranced by his jolly yodeling and tricky whistling.

Lou’s mountain prowess was legendary, at least in our family. He was a real live hero, stamped from the mold of Pecos Bill and Daniel Boone. One day he squinted and gestured southwards to the bony ridge.

“Biggest buck I ever saw lives up there,” he said. “I was sitting up there quietly one day, when down below me, what looked like a cheery tree started to move. That was not a tree, that was his antlers. Never saw him when I had a gun.”

In all my future hunting, I kept a lookout for this monster, believing all the time that a mule deer of such grandeur could really exist.

Lou told of meeting a bear face-to-face coming around a corner on a trail. He was alarmed but determined not to show it.

“I just growled at him,” he said.

The bear decided he had met his match. Ursus turned and padded away. Even now, when I hike quietly on paths with moist leaves, I imagine meeting a bear and wonder if my courage would match Lou’s.

A walk with Lou was an education in ecology; he knew and told how plants, soil and climate fit together. He named the conifers, grasses, dicots and ferns. He explained the mutual lechery of algae and fungus within lichen. Stopping at a swiped anthill, a black mud hole, or a rotten log that had been ripped open, he estimated how much time had elapsed since the bear had visited. He spotted a tuft of cinnamon-bear hair on a barb of a fence wire. No one else was as observant.

“This is what the ruffed grouse eats in the winter.”

“A porcupine likes aspen- one’s almost girdled this sapling.”

“A bull elk has used this tree to scrape the velvet off his antlers.”

He was a walking plant identification guide, a lecturer without a podium. Though he never attained his doctorate, due to personality clashes, he said, no professor stirred my interest in nature the way Lou did.

He suggest we gather Morel mushrooms one summer evening. It had been raining for two days. We walked through O’Connell’s place, across an aged logging bridge and into a young stand of lodgepole pine. On the forest floor was a buildup of needles, spring under foot. Tow or three times each year we would make this fifteen minute hike and harvest a couple of pounds, to be sautéed with deer steaks or scrambled into eggs and bacon.

Like a playground drug pusher, Lou got Dad hooked on puffballs. Compared to Morels, one could really make some volume with puffballs as they grew to the size of grapefruit or cantaloupe. Dad would spot these freebies in the pastures of the Church Farm and bring them home, like a Viking proudly bearing his plunder from the Anglo-Saxons. Slabbed and fried in butter, their tofu-like flesh was supposedly edible, though I don’t think the kids ever found out. Even Mother, who normally liked any food that was free, was lukewarm about puffballs. Perhaps Dad ate them just to be macho, not to be outdone by Lou.

My own male ego was also exploited once when, with Lou, we were hunting atopBaldMountain. We had shot a young buck and dressed it out. Being the inordinate distance of half a mile from the house, we thought it best if we took some nourishment before attempting the return. Eight inches of old snow patchily covered the ground. Near a big fir tree, where there was no snow, we built a small fire. Lou divided the liver into three pieces. We roasted them on sticks, as if roasting marshmallows. Camp robbers hung close by in the trees. When the meat was black on the outside, we tried to eat it. It was rare inside. Lou at his; Dad ate some of his. I tried, but after a few feeble attempts, the men said I didn’t have to eat any more if I didn’t want to. I had passed initiation. I was tough. The troops of Napoleon retreating fromMoscowdidn’t have it any tougher.

Another foolishness Lou forced upon Dad was bathing in the creek. A thick growth of willows offered privacy from the county road. Bathing here was not a leisurely affair, even for hardy Lou. Ninety seconds usually sufficed. The procedure was as follows: step in, yell, splash water upward to body and soap very lightly, yell, rinse, maybe by lowering oneself into the twelve inch depth of the refrigerant water, yell, stumble out, dry off. Actually, yelling was nearly uniform throughout. I tried it once as a teenager. A bath in 33 degree water sounds like a manly challenge. It sounds invigorating until you are naked and standing with one foot on a shark rock, the other on a slippery, mossy one. The air temperature has dropped from its afternoon high of 89 degrees to 59 in the shade, and the only mosquito in 300 yards is biting the back of your thigh. At that moment, being a mountain man like Lou loses its appeal.

Lou had more challenges for me than creek bathing and charred liver. We visited him in the cabin one winter evening. I was four. He offered me a candy bar with the wrapper pulled back.

“Why are all these adults watching me expectantly?” I wondered.

One bite told the answer. I spit out the soap I had gnawed off and blew bubbles for a few minutes. They all laughed. How was I to know the difference between a bar of soap and a candy bar? Both were unfamiliar, especially candy bars.




WillAdamswas a real old-timer. His place was a quarter mile upstream from the rock corner, half a mile downstream from our place. The county road cut through the placement of his buildings like the ventral slit a fisherman makes cleaning trout. The house was on the left, the barns tight up against the road on the right. To see the inside of Will’s house and to talk to him was to visit a different era. No museum will likely capture the plain, coarse way of living of this denizen of the woods and master of manual labor.

An entryway clung to the face of the dwelling. In the 1990’s one might call it an airlock. In Will’s house it was a clothes closet and a “smell lock.” Earth, sweaty, raggedy coats, boots and tools formed a gauntlet.

Stepping into the house proper, some natural light showed a coal stove for cooking and heat, and a short grizzled, stoop-shouldered man. Food cooking smells deeply impregnated walls, curtains, floors. Here was a man and house as comfortable with each other as a gopher and his hole. Sterility was sacrificed to function.

Will was not overly threatening, but neither was he charismatic and warm. He tended a few chickens and two dozen of their eggs was the reason for my call. He shuffled to get them. Leaving the cool, pungent quarters and stepping into the sunshine of his south-facing yard, we stopped at the water pump. That it worked and was his only source of water in all seasons amazed me.

His siding had two long cross-cut saws nailed to it. These were no idle artifacts bought in an antique store for decoration. They were tools, employed, as I understood it, not so many years before. Perhaps some of the stumps, rusting machinery and rutted trails I discovered in the forests ofBearCanyonare remnants of Will’s logging labors early in the century.


Patron Saints


The best fishing hole in the 400 yards of creek we considered “ours” – by use – was behind Pat O’Connell’s place. We freely traversed her property. It offered the best nearby climbing tree, the most fruitful service berry patch, and access to the best fishing hole.

Mrs. O’Connell had set up a camp trailer for summer visits but rarely used it. We gawked through the windows of her trailer a couple of times, feeling awkward, prying with our eyes into her belongings. Her lands didn’t seem taboo.

The road past her big spruce climbing tree and camp trailer was marked by decades-old ruts of log wagons and truck. Were the adjoining lands some of the fields of Will Adams’ labors? The road led t grouse hunting, mushroom patches and needle-padded hideouts. Huge ant piles stood as sentries on either side of the red, clayey road. If Mrs. O’Connell had been stingy, forbidding a half-dozen kids to play on her land, the maps of trails and bear wallows which now exists in our minds would have been much smaller. Sadder than the actual physical limits would have been the blow to our gentle view of the universe. Mrs. O’Connell’s gifts and kind allowances enhanced our faith in people and peaceful view of the world.

AuntDelwas another patron saint to poor mountain children. The mother of Dad’s sister-in-law, she could hardly be called an aunt in the technical sense. Generosity called for the honorary title. Christmas, Halloween and Easter were celebrations she marked for us. A box would appear by mail, propped on the mailbox. Eagerly we surrounded it, a treasure from the civilized world;Dellived inGreat Falls,Montana. We would not have seen such delights as plastic Easter grass, candies and Halloween masks had Delphine Hume not taken an interest in our situation. We hardly ever met and didn’t write to thank her that I can remember. Her reward in heaven will include film footage of the twinkly-eyed delight of six small ones.


Spanish Peaks Sunrise

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Third Installment: A Thin Slice of Sky



Dad, our resident philosopher, quoted Ben Franklin: Eat to live, don’t live to eat. He also referred to the Bible: Man shall not live by bread alone. “Wheat for man” came from another holy book. These were parts of our dietary law. Napoleon said that no army marches on an empty stomach, but Dad and Mom mis-quoted this, thinking that an army marches better on an empty stomach. If this is so, our small army was often ready to march, for our fare was modest and sometimes sparse.

Wheat was the staff of our life. The simplest way to eat it is to take a handful and put it in your mouth. Soak and slosh it around until it begins to soften. Then, chewing and being careful not to swallow, form it into a blob of poor-boy’s gum. When we wanted gum, Mother pointed us to the open wheat sack and reminded us of this method. We were never enthusiastic.

Almost as simple as gum was boiled wheat, or Wheat Kernels, as our resident Director of Marketing called it. Mother knew how to merchandise a mundane product. She also knew how to disguise our poverty, keeping it invisible to all nine children until we became adults. Mother prepared Wheat Kernels by soaking wheat overnight and boiling it vigorously for forty-five minutes the next morning. Topped with brown sugar and cream, it was a tasty respite from cracked wheat, our breakfast staple.

We cracked the wheat using a Corona hand grinder. We clamped it to a long wooden bench. A 9” x 12” cake pan caught the product. Kids weighed down the ends of the bench while Dad cranked and sweated. He employed a strenuous circular motion he had learned as a teenager, cranking cars and tractors.

As we grew, the older boys helped with the cranking and sweating, less to be helpful, and more to assert muscular near-manhood. Putting grain twice through the grinder produced a mixture of fine flour and cracked grains, only about twenty percent of which was fine enough to be sifted out for baking. Normally eager to pioneer through any hardship, this tedious process frustrated even Mother.

Mother headlines her culinary repertoire with whole wheat breads of all types. Pancakes and waffles were breakfast favorites. Muffins, in paper cups, or in pans, were supper fare. Before Mother discovered the evils of deep-fat frying, we even had apple fritters a few times.

Of course, the premier wheat product is bread. Baked in batches of twelve, the sole purpose of its creation was to pose innocently on the sacrificial cooling racks, then be offered up to the residents as they returned from school and work. Countless are the bad days repaired by warm bread, dairy butter, and wildflower honey. Dad introduced bread and milk. A variation he also taught was toast broken into warm milk, flavored with cinnamon and sweetening.

When Mother made pies, she rolled, stripped and sugared the extra dough. Then she sprinkled the strips with cinnamon. These cinnamon sticks were only slightly less favored than the pies themselves. She perfected cinnamon rolls in later years.

Our ravenous horde consumed cookies of all kinds; raisin bars, oatmeal, peanut butter. Swedish Stollen Bread, with orange peeling grated into it, was a Christmas tradition.

Making birthday cakes with whole wheat was more difficult than with white flour. But this did not temper Mother’s preference for the health-promoting features of the plain grain. One year, we baked the 4-H fair entries handicapped both by using whole wheat, and by baking in the antique wood-fired oven. Fickleness combined with impossibility, but the baked goods still earned ribbons.

Merely readying wheat for grinding involves labor. We couldn’t tell if clean wheat was not available on the market, or if Mother preferred to buy a cheaper grade, using it as a ploy for teaching the value of work to her children. She conscripted us to sit around the kitchen table to pick rocks, weed seeds and grasshopper parts out of the golden grains. The boys ate the grasshopper legs to elicit disgust from the girls. Cleaning wheat was a task we relished approximately the same as plucking chickens. But I am sure Mother could not see the sense in paying extra for clean wheat when she had so many hands available. If you commanded the Chinese Army, would you buy tanks?

We boiled wheat and added it to chili as a substitute for half the hamburger. Flour and salt made a crude modeling clay. Wheat was the all-purpose commodity.


Lunch from the Garden


On summer days, we often ate produce directly from Mother’s garden. The plot was her Arch of Triumph, a monument to her conquest of nature in our little sliver of canyon. A productive garden was her Great White Whale. Daylight was short at both ends of the day and the soil was geologically young, thus of limited tilth and fertility. Goats, horses, cows, rabbits, moles, caterpillars and slugs were other dangers. Lou Jonas showed us how to kill slugs by laying boards between rows. Slugs collected on the cool undersurface and were easily killed by turning the boards over and shaking salt on them. In spite of difficulties, Mother, with the lukewarm aid of her children, harvested beans, carrots, peas, cabbage, onions, potatoes, radishes and lettuce.

Corn and tomatoes would not grow. A bluegrass classic states, “There’s only two things that money can’t buy, And that’s true love and homegrown tomatoes.” We proved that you can get by on one of the two. We bought ample supplies of the tropical exotic Solanacaea on trips to Billings. Mother tried Jerusalem artichokes, eggplant, asparagus, comfrey, dill, cucumbers and other fabulous plants. Some succeeded; some were pure hallucination from the start.

In June, July and August, our lunches were the simplest. Sometimes I could hardly believe my eyes. On the table would be a dozen fresh leaves of lettuce, (two calories each), maybe some leaf spinach for balance, a forkful of tuna fish, or a small mound of cottage cheese, neither of which appealed to me. A two gallon crock full of radishes was the only other sustenance in sight. “All you can eat” meant unlimited radishes, (Oh, yum!), and more lettuce in the garden. These days, even Weight Watchers warns that such meals are medically unsound. None of us starved, but we grew tall and thin, some would say gaunt. Slimness was thus one of the positive side effects of our being poor.


Berry Picking


It may seem to readers that picking wild berries is an unprofitable activity, like straightening nails pulled from old boards. But to a family living on teacher’s wages, it was a way to augment the food budget. Alexander the Great could not pass an unconquered country; food free for the picking was an opportunity Mother could not ignore. Apples wasting on lawns affronted Mother’s “waste not, want not” ethic. She so excelled at utilizing scraps of food that our garden rarely got the benefit of composted kitchen refuse, though the pigs received a few morsels.

Chokecherries line Bear Canyon Road. Could it be that the soil disturbed by road-building is an ideal medium for them? We harvested these prolific berries; many townspeople came for them, too. That the bushes grew ten to fifteen in height, and hugged the steep roadside, made stripping all the fruit difficult. But the clustered fruiting pattern, a raceme, made filling the bucket go faster than with any other wild fruit.

The ease of picking was not lost on bears either. Our neighbors, the McGoughs, reported watching one bear gorge himself. They stopped their car. The bear was grsping the bushes at a height of eight to ten feet. He looked indifferently over his shoulder, evaluated the danger as negligible, then resumed his meal. He was farther up the thin grey stems when his weight overcame them and he tumbled to the road like a down pillow. He was no Newton; the laws of gravity cause him no reflection. He immediately climbed back to his meal, tickling his observers.

Chokecherries are barely edible. They are so sour, only bears and desperate wintering birds eat them plain. Honey and pectin make them palatable in jams and jellies. The berries are mostly pit covered by one-eighth inch of white flesh and a purple cloak. Mother extracted their juice by boiling and squishing them in a colander. On cold winter mornings, the syrup was a deep red, bittersweet dressing for pancakes. Jelly spread on buttered toast was a delicacy. It was anticipation of these sweet treats that caused us to pick until late in the evenings of September.

Raspberries and wild strawberries were such diminutive delicacies that we didn’t bother to accumulate them. Eating, not gathering, was the aim. They are so few and far between, you eat them as you find them, exclaiming with delight as each bursts into flavor. If you tried to “live off the land,” surviving on wild strawberries, it would be a brief but ecstatic existence.

In contrast, sarvice berries are plump and prolific. Some people call them June berries. They are roughly the same size and shape as commercial blueberries available at the supermarket.

This berry grew with abandon around our mountain home. When the berries ripened, we worked for two weeks gathering them. They were sweet enough to enjoy while picking and prolific enough to fill the bucket. The season was one of pleasant weather, the longer days of the year following the monsoons of June. Within 300 yards of our back porch enough of these berries grew that one year Mother canned the results of our pickings into 100 quarts. Other years we froze half the harvest. They went into our hot cereal along with brown sugar and cream. Fresh, we ate them with honey and cream. They made delicious open-faced pies. Mother sometimes added lemon rind or rhubarb to impart tartness. Blueberry pies in the restaurant will never rival these homemade, home-gathered pastries.

Huckleberries are the reigning Champions of Taste. There are two varieties in my experience: large and small. Large are best, of course, but no one spurns a patch of the small if that’s all there is. Huckleberries seem seedless, augmenting their appeal. They are 100% flavor, no bothersome pits. This is an “eat only” fruit, as opposed to a fill-the-bucket type. Anyone who has filled a bucket is either a self-denying masochist, or has found Mother Lode of berrying. A piece of advice is in order: bears are attracted to huckleberries like coyotes are to sheep. If you seek huckleberries, watch out. Bears are dangerously territorial when foundering in a prime huckleberry patch.

Mabel Curdy organized a gooseberry expedition with Mother and several of us children during one of our four summers in Deer Lodge. We threw sun bonnets, plastic pails, and belts to hold them, into the back of the station wagon. Past the city dump three miles, in a creek bottom, was a winning patch. Gooseberry bushes have real thorns. The women persisted but we dropped out of service to play hide-and-seek while watching for cows and bulls nearby. We were eager, though, to eat the pies the ladies’ persistence produced.

Thoreau picked the berries growing near his cabin. In Walden he tells what prices they fetched, or at least what they were worth. Calculating dollars per hour probably never occurred to Mother. Were her labors profitable? Of course not. But the pies, jams, jellies and experiences were rewarding beyond measure. We felt satisfactions in our small discoveries and conquests at the berry patches and later as we feasted on the spoils which would have made an emperor jealous.




Root beer was the theme upon which Father built a party. He had grand hopes of filling twelve dozen brown bottles for winter consumption while also indulging the palates of party attendees.

Several families gathered on the appointed summer evening. The tubs and dry ice stood ready. The cook added sugar, color and flavoring to our mineral-rich well water. All hands tested. A few reluctant praises were given. Then all the cooks offered how to improve the broth. What ingredients should be added? Dad’s brow puckered. He did not want either the party of the concoction to fail. The children were willing tasters also, but as the flavor was experimental, not engineered in the laboratories where A&W and Dad’s Root Beer were perfected, they left their posts early and the gritty adults retained the task.

We rinsed the bottles one final time and filled them. Where did they all go? None showed up at winter festivities as had been the plan. As with many enterprises, the pleasure of planning and anticipation exceeded the pleasure of the finished product. We only had one root beer party; that was our first and last.

Cider parties drew a better crowd and rewarded the attendees, so we held them annually. The product was superb. Dad bought the cider press in a moment of inspiration. Perhaps he got it at the weekly auction in Deer Lodge. Usually the machines he bought were useless except as stimulants to the imagination. “What could I do with this thing? Put a pulley, gear box and some wheels on it and it would make a hot go cart for the kids.” But most of the machines languished. Pumps, chains and tools were some of his weaknesses. It was a harmless and inexpensive hobby he had, one that provided parts and kept our shed an interesting place to tour. But when he purchased the cider press, his judgment was impeccable.

The machine worked as follows. One person dropped whole apples into the grinding box while someone else turned the crank arm. The shredded pieces dropped into a cylinder of wooden slats without top or bottom. When the cylinder was full, we pushed it forward twelve inches directly under the screw press with a round foot. The round foot was the same diameter as the inside of the cylinder. By screwing the foot down into the pulverized apples, juices oozed out between the slats of the walls. They drained down the slightly sloped board into a pitcher, ready to drink. Two cylinders came with the press. While one was in squeezing position, the other filled up with mangled apples.

The apples were usually free, the profit of Mother’s scavenging around town. She would see a lawn strewn with windfall apples and inquire of the owners. It seemed most owners of apple trees let the fruit go to waste rather than putting it up. Mother thought such wastefulness was criminal and cheerfully offered to correct their fault.

People of all ages enjoyed cider nights. Many hands helped. Kids could romp in the dusk; they helped when called. The September weather was usually beautiful, though chilly. The juice was delectable. There was plenty for both drinking and saving for later. The root beer party was a flop, but cider nights more than compensated.


A Brief Catalog of Edible Plants and Unorthodox Foods


Burt King was one of Dad’s fellow teachers. He hung pheasants on his back porch with guts and feathers intact. He influenced my parents to unorthodoxy in foods. His idea was Asian: ripened innards supposedly seasoned and tenderized the meat. Mother learned from Burt that pigweed was edible. It certainly was plentiful. When it germinated around our back step, Mother forbade us from pulling it. A weed we didn’t have to pull? Great! But saving the labor hardly seemed worth the prospect of pigweed salad, or bacon-pigweed-tomato sandwiches. Maybe her technique was devious; spinach and beet greens tasted pretty good when threatened with pigweed. She called it “lambs quarter.” This fancy name didn’t impress any of us. A sucker might be born every minute but our gullibility had been stretched before and we were cool skeptics.

Watercress was another of Mother’s favorites. She used it as a salad garnish. She teamed it with alfalfa sprouts on cream cheese sandwiches. It grew in the same shallow, cold watercourses that peppermint did, or at least, near the more terrestrial peppermint. We were all in agreement as to the merits of mint, perhaps because it was used for tea, not eaten outright, as was watercress.

Lou Jonas taught our parents another culinary delight: stinging nettle. This gangly weed is the poison oak of the northern Rockies. Picked with gloves, and boiled to remove the poisons, we ate it with butter and salt. Butter and salt can transform about anything; stinging nettle gave them a sore challenge.

Dad was enthusiastic about preparing the most sinister-sounding foods. Some never got past the planning stage, a fact for which we were often grateful. We were content to eat Spanish Rice, cornbread and potato soup routinely, and let Dad talk about head cheese, (actually made from head meat, tongue and brain), as long as it never materialized on the dinner table. Calf brains were supposedly good in scrambled eggs. He offered samples. None felt the need to prove their bravery. We all declined.

Dad bought an antique crock and filled it with five gallons of chopped cabbage. He intended it to be sauerkraut. Nose-clearing fumes rose from where it sat by the back door. When it was “ready”, even Dad decided that he wasn’t sufficiently German to appreciate it. The pigs seemed grateful.

With Lou Jonas, we went to Canyon Ferry Dam, and in the shallows, pitch forked a station wagon full of carp, one of the least desired fish of Montana’s waters. Carp were more fun to hunt than to eat. Canned, they were edible but not highly sought after. Mother sneaked them as a substitute for tuna fish in casseroles.

The Indians are known for using the whole buffalo. Dad was nearly as efficient when it came to the animals we slaughtered. We had oxtail soup. The tongue was boiled, skinned and sliced for sack lunch sandwiches. Reluctantly we tried it, grudgingly admitting we liked it bearably well.

When we had milk cows in production, Mother tried making a variety of foodstuffs from the milk and cream. They ranged from nasty, to fair, to irresistible. In the first category were buttermilk, cottage cheese and cheese. Yogurt was moderately good, though the thought of all those beasties fermenting was daunting. Most excellent were butter, made with a variety of churning methods, whipped cream on cake, and ice cream. But that was in the days before the harpings of government and the media about cholesterol and heart disease. We indulged innocently. In later years, Mother cut us back on milk fats and tried to sell us on tofu, soybean products, sprouts and cayenne pepper. It almost made us long for stinging nettle and “lambs quarter.”


What Causes Poverty?: More responses

I ask people the question, “What causes poverty?” Below are some answers.

A nine year-old girl: “Loss of job.”

A homemaker: “Doing a bad job. Poverty is a mindset. You can think yourself poor, a victim. You could get sick and lose your job.”

A legislator: “Poverty is a choice and a mindset. We lived on (little money). We did not think we were in poverty. We were happy and content with what we had and every physical need was met. We had no cc debt and only owed on our house and we saved money. The kids were never hungry. These were necessary times and everyone should go through them. They are good for you.  Here again the state takes away natural discipline and keeps people weak and dependent.”

An entrepreneur: “Lack of education. Choosing lack of education. Lack of education can be a choice.”

A convenience store clerk: “Ignorance. They don’t take the time to learn and educate themselves and do what it takes to improve themselves.”

A physicist: “Bad leaders can bring a whole people into poverty. Bad choices can lead to poverty. Lack of education.”

A small businessman: “Greed. The effect of others not sharing. That’s why the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and the middle class is shrinking.”

A music teacher: “Laziness. Sometimes it’s chosen. They just don’t know a different way.”

A researcher said, “I suppose genetics could. If you didn’t get much in the genetic lottery, you could have a hard time.”. So far, only the highly educated researcher came close to the, “Poverty is something that comes over a person out of the blue, there’s nothing they can do about it, and most are diligently trying to work their way out of it,” thinking that welfare programs assume.

A convenience store clerk in Ennis said, “People not wanting to work.” She didn’t have to think about it at all.

A hotel desk clerk look at me quizzically, “Poverty?” The next morning we talked more about it. I told her lots of people tell me “Education.” She assented. I said, “But education is free, at least through grade 12, and many don’t avail themselves of it. Why?” We both admitted perplexity. But desire to avail oneself of education seemed necessary. So desire is fundamental. Incentive. Where does persistence and desire come from? We mulled that together. We talked about food stamps and other aid, and the way limits and requirements reduce her incentive to work. She works 15 hours a week. I explained why taxpayers want to limit aid the more someone makes, and that’s why she has lowered incentive to work. She resents it. To her it feels like a trap. Each additional hour she works, she only profits a small portion of. She said she didn’t want her 6 month old son seeing her taking aid. I taught her the Rule of. I told her of the $25,000 settlement my employee got and how he drunk it up, and how an extra 15 hours of work a week between ages 16 and 25 nets millions at retirement. She was a keen listener.

A grocery clerk in Ennis said, “Beats me.” He then asked what the answer was, “What’s the punch line?” I assured him that I was gathering information, not propounding solutions. I said, “Our government tries, with billions of dollars, to solve poverty, but so many people do not know what causes it.” He said it makes sense to know the cause before trying to solve it.

I asked a homemaker. She said, “Handouts.” Can handouts cause poverty? Aren’t they supposed to cure it? She might mean that handouts change work incentives, decreasing need and desire to work.

I asked a manager. He said, “Freebies.” He may mean the same thing the homemaker does.

I asked a grocery clerk. He said, “What causes poverty? Do you have an answer?” He said, “I work two full time jobs, I’m just an average guy with a wife and kids, average house. I work 80 hours per week and my wife is a full time school teacher. And I see people coming through here with their food stamps, buying T-bone steaks. They eat better than I do.” We agreed that he has the dignity of his children seeing him and his wife earn the things they buy.

I asked a fitness business worker. He looked quizzical. The answer he gave, timidly, was, “The economy?”

Someone answered, “Lack of knowledge. Unwillingness to work.”

A dental office worker said, “I suppose you could have a series of unfortunate events. It can also be a lifestyle choice. You could get cancer; that could ruin you financially.”

A convenience store worker said, “I don’t know…government?” Her co-worker, when asked what the government should do to solve poverty said, “Quit spending all our money. Quit spending it on stuff that don’t matter.” (Park City,MT, December 16, 2011)

Someone answered, “Lazy ignorance.”

January 20, 2012

A deli server answered, “Complacency.”

A grocery store check-out clerk answered,  “Minimum wage is too low. Income cut off for the food stamp program is too low.”

May 1, 2013

A Walmart cashier: “I dunno. Not enough jobs?”

Yellowstone River Rag page 2

Yellowstone River Rag

Yellowstone River Rag page 2

Yellowstone River Rag

Yellowstone River Rag Page 1

Second Installment: A Thin Slice of Sky

Heating with Wood


Cut your own wood and warm yourself twice. – Proverb


Within a few years, Dad had erected the permanent house. In winter, our bedroom floors were icy. We piled blankets on and pulled them up to our chins, or up to our noses, depending on the temperature. The reason for our frozen exile was that the bedroom doors stayed closed, preserving heat in the center of the house, the common living space, and areas with plumbing.

Our only heat source was a wood stove. Wood stoves in the 1950s were not marvels of engineering and art. They used wood cord upon cord. They smoked. As teenagers, we fretted that our clothes smelled like trappers’. I even resorted to hanging mine outside on the back porch where only the frost and wind could reach them.

But wood heat also has charms to recommend it. The stove was as much a family focal point and gathering place as the dining table and the piano. Like a campfire, the wood stove warmed front, back, feet or hands as needed, but not all at once. Regulating the temperature was a simple matter of moving closer to, or farther away from, the stove. At 6:00 a.m., three shivering teenagers scampered to its proximity to dress. In the evenings, we directed our guitar and fiddle music to it, as if the black behemoth could applaud.

A battered kettle spluttered on its top. Naturally dry air, made drier by burning wood, was humidified in this manner. Sledders draped their soaked clothes on chairs standing in a circle around the stove. They hoped for an expedited return to the hill. Mother used a rack made of wooden dowels for drying laundry in the winter when clothes hung outdoors would freeze solid.

Chopping wood was pleasant labor. I located the weakest part of the log, looking for drying cracks. Then I raised the double-bitted axe, aimed and let fly. Proper aim, strength and judgment were rewarded with a sharp, snapping noise. Halves of pine tumbled off the chopping block. I set aside choice blocks that held promise as kindling. Dryness and straightness are the attributes. With my right hand, I gripped the axe hear its head. Accuracy, not power, is what is called for. My left hand gingerly held the quarter block, ready to release a split second before impact. I cut progressively smaller sticks until what began as bridge timbers was reduced to pencils. I pride myself on arriving at young adulthood with all the fingers of my left hand intact.

The chopping block is flat-topped and bedded into months of wood chips and bark. In its second or third season, it is tenderized, like a bed of moss. Across its top an ant might venture. As pre-teen boys we liked to wager that we were accurate enough to bisect these moving targets. In order to qualify, the axe must be swung from full height. Generally the little beasts were safe, for our brag was worse than our blow.

Radiant heat, the smell of real wood, the satisfaction of providing one’s own fuel and knowing your labor was proportional to the heat enjoyed; these constituted some of the charms of our wood heat system. They partly offset the inconvenience of icy floors and smoky clothes.






Summer was a Broadway musical. For spectacle, color, and transient passion, no other season was a rival. Cold, white winter was far behind. The endless indecision ofRockyMountainspring had finally given way to the forthright cheer of indisputable summer. When Elisha asked, “How long halt ye between two opinions?” he could have been insisting that a Bear Canyon Spring declare for either winter or summer. Conditions had ranged from cold to warm, from rain, to snow to sleet. Some days included snippets of every imaginable weather. So when the curtain went up on real summer, the audience was more than grateful for the overture’s conclusion.

A procession of wildflowers marked the passing segments of summer. Bluebells, Indian Paintbrush and Glacier Lilies bloomed, then declined in a sequence that to a botanist would have been boringly predictable. Unschooled, we welcomed each new arrival with glee lost on old scientists. The flowers and fruit of wild strawberry, sarvice berry and chokecherry also had a sequence as interesting to children as the progress of beans and squash were to Mother.

One dramatic botanical event was the launching of the cottonwood fluff. I spent serene afternoons, flat on my back, watching the millions of weightless globs drift. I chose one twenty yards up and tried to keep locked on it. I did Euclidean comparisons between its apparent travel and that of a fluff closer in, rough comparisons only, no measurements or calculations.

Monarch butterflies were a similar flood. By the millions they flew through with an Indy 500 urgency. Other moths and butterflies called the canyon home. Their appearance in a certain order marked the relative temporal position in the season.

The biological time posts were a useful calendar because we were out of school and had reduced our trips to town for such things as music lessons. In the summer, obligations to society were less confining, Sunday meetings being about the only reminder of the imperative to synchronize with the rest of mankind.

We spent our time lounging, reading, exploring with the dogs, practicing music, helping in the garden, picking berries, fishing or taking turns riding our only bicycle to the bridge and back. City kids would have thought we were living in the Dark Ages.

Behind the First Cabin, Dad built an extension of the roof, a lean-to. Here stayed the ringer washing machine. It was Rhyll’s job to wash and ring out loads of laundry using this machine. The Consumer Product Safety Commission hadn’t hatched, or the washer would have been recalled and banned. Oh, for the simplicity of those risky days! A creekside washboard would have been safer. One day, Rhyll’s fingers got caught in the ringers, stalling the machine and wrenching howls of pain from her. We extracted her hand and rushed to town where the doctor pronounced no major harm done. The only casualty was that Mother’s innate distrust of technology was confirmed.

Dabs of grass and other forage grew on the shady hill behind the back step. Our gentleJerseycow sought out the tender morsels. I didn’t concern myself much over her absence. Neither did anyone else. But in the late afternoon, Mother urged us to find and bring her back, knowing Dad would want to milk the old bovine when he got home from work. The tangles of snowberry and ninebark frustrated our search, by eventually, we found her by honing in on the soft clang of her copper bell. Then we shoo-ed her home. She tossed her head, smiled, and kicked a little to show that she had gotten the upper hand. She had pried us away from our quiet afternoon of doing nothing.

The horses wandered further when they escaped. Since they didn’t need to be milked, and were practically useless for riding, we had less motivation to bring them back. When the goats got out of the six-foot high board and wife fence, Dad wished them “good riddance”, but Mother made us retrieve them. Dad had no love for goats and cats. When the pigs sought adventure in the thickets behind their pens, we deployed all squadrons, as they were the most creative at resisting capture. We built a tree house in the massive firs that towered around our small clearing. It was constantly in need of repairs. Summer was the time to consider its state, and to expand the wobbly rungs that led up to it. Our committee meetings usually ended up with more talk than action. The house never accommodated more than two people or complied with even our primitive building code. Life was a gamble.

Children squander summer. It is as expensive as tickets on Broadway, and not a step behind in entertainment.




Too soon the summer carnival is over. The fall colors, though simple compared to those ofNew England, provide a modest glory.RockyMountainMaple turns a showy red, the best of any shrub in our native collection. Dogwood leaves turn a dull, purple-red. Aspens supply contrasting patches of yellow and green-yellow.

We put the garden to bed. We place straw bales over the rows of carrots so the ground will not freeze. Otherwise, frost penetrates the ground to a depth of two feet, making it impossible to dig. We sack potatoes, squash and onions, then stow them in the root cellar’s bins below shelves of bottled tomatoes, peaches, pears, cherries, apricots and applesauce.

It was time to get out the rifles and try them for accuracy. Dad had a 30-06 with open sights. It was the main hunting rifle. When the boys reached an age when they could hunt, they used the 45-70, an old war relic that shot one shell at a time and delivered a great blow to the shoulder. Once, when I missed a shot at a deer, I saw the fat bullet plow a trench in the hillside.

We were lukewarm hunters, both as to avidity and prowess. Yet the fall always brought with it the urge to pursue deer, elk, and moose for the meat, as well as for the excuse to wander in the woods in trails beyond our usual network close by the house.

The perpetual search for wood stove fuel accelerates in September. We cut up a few fallen cottonwoods and spruces, but they are inferior for fuel because we lack the patience to wait enough seasons for them to dry. Green wood makes early morning fire starting a frustrating business. We sometimes traveled to the lumber mills in Livingston andBelgradefor slab wood. It is cheap because it is inferior; it is small and still has bark.

The house needs to be readied for winter. Window covering goes up. We stuff cracks with bits of insulation to thwart cold drafts. Dad arranges a zig-zag pattern of heat tape on the eaves to melt snow and ice. We cover the crawl space holes with plywood. The holes have been open all summer, allowing humid air to escape. The pump house gets new insulation and heat tape, if needed.

An abundance of windfall apples necessitates a cider pressing party. We invite other families to come. Instead of being a chore, it becomes a party.

Fall is a time of few contemplative moments because of the return to school, music lessons, and other obligations of the civilized world. New Yorkers close toCentral Parkprobably have more time to revel in nature than we do. Their supply of heating oil is secure, food storage is handled by their supermarket, and their dwellings require few modifications at the change of seasons. For us, the summer party is over and it is time to prudently face the coming winter.





When winter comes, it is not with a blast, but with a firm hug. Notice of its approach is given in shorter days, falling cottonwood leaves and penetrating frosts which burn zucchini to the ground. The Bennie Goodmans of summer – the thrushes – depart and the air grows still but for the Mick Jagger croaks of the remaining crows.

Our protected enclave escapes the wind; no buffeting blasts assist the cold. The icy bear hug seeps through from all directions. The stove flexes and radiates in mighty opposition.

Snow falls straight, like feathers after a pillow fight. So still is the air, the whole winter’s snow accumulates and settles where it falls, most conspicuously on fence posts. Even the clothes line and barbed wire fences are decked with several inches. They appear as sagging white planks on edge. Fir and spruce hold more snow on their boughs than the laws of physics predict.

Snow settles, melts and compresses on all horizontal surfaces. Fresh snow frosts the older sediments, like icing on cake. In this manner, a brief history of the long winter is preserved in layers – archaeology with a six-month time frame. No drifts are whipped up, though two miles away, at the mouth of the canyon, crusty drifts pester motorists. In our fold, the snow falls deep enough that, unaided by wind, it thwarts half-hearted doings.

But however restricted, our lives must go on. We tromp paths to essential destinations; tool shed, root cellar, wood stack, sledding hill, pig pen. Otherwise, the field is an untracked carpet, a massive down quilt.

I reverently watch the falling snow. The clouds settle in to a siege of the canyon then send their millions of ambassadors. I spend an entranced hour watching. Daily concerns vanish; even my connection with humanity weakens. I feel embraced and comforted.

Winter is a time for reflection. I am introspective and stay inside near light and warmth. Near the food. A lamp, a book, a guitar, theses are the implements of winter. We sip herbal teas, sometimes steeped from the peppermint we gathered in summer. We entertain a small group, serving cinnamon Rolls and hot cider. Under the grasp of cold and snow we warm ourselves with friends, wood fires and quiet reflection.





The days lengthen and promise spring before the weather actually makes good and delivers warmer temperatures. The north-facing slopes ooze pent-up stores of water, creating rivulets and froggy ponds where the lawn is to be. We dig trenches to divert runoff away from the house’s foundation.

As the ground underfoot begins drying, we begin to traipse the trails. At this time, brilliant Glacier Lilies emerge, a dazzling carpet at our feet. Their citrine yellow petals, delicately turning back, enliven the heart so long mothballed by winter.

The creek boils with rusty runoff. Butterflies return. I had read of Indian fathers requiring their sons to chase and capture butterflies to gain agility and endurance. I tried it but decided that agility and endurance were too expensive.

Cottonwoods perfume the air. Roadside ditches harbor frogs, snakes and a gelatinous slurry of tadpoles. Horsetail ferns are the size of a drinking straw, gradually tapered to the top and divided into stacked sections. We take them apart and try to reassemble them as necklaces and belts.

The rock chuck colony at Rock Corner comes to life. Wobbly baby moose accompany their mothers.

Rain falls for days at a time. And sometimes it is white and flaky; the ghost of winter is not fully exorcised.

Mother orders loads of sand and manure put on the garden and that fences guarding the garden be repaired. She sets out petunias and pansies. Dad hauls haying equipment to the mechanic for repairs. We clean the root cellar and wood shed. Dad removes the plastic covers, poor man’s storm windows, from the window frames. He supervises the cleaning of animal stalls. He purchases chicks from the feed store and sets up heat lamps and feeding trays in the workshop where chicks can safely spend their first two weeks.

The longer days of spring cultivate hope. Life will return; winter is not forever.


Hunger in America: The Myth

Montana Watchdog posted my recent article,

Hunger in America: The Myth.

The link to read it is:

First installment of my book: A Thin Slice of Sky


A Thin Slice of Sky


Tom Burnett

Copyright 2003


This book is dedicated to my parents, Darwin and Barbara Burnett. What they have given me, and all of their posterity, is not gold, or worldly wealth, but a blessing of love, joy and health.





Chapter One: A Thin Slice of Sky                                      page 2

Chapter Two: Fun with Father                                           page 26

Chapter Three: Motherhood Undaunted                         page 36







ENVIRONS:BearCanyon- Bear Creek – Bald Mountain


HOME AND HEARTH: The First Cabin – Heating With Wood


SEASONS: Summer – Fall – Winter – Spring


EATING TO LIVE: Lunch from the Garden -BerryPicking – Beverages – A Brief Catalog of Edible Plants and Unorthodox Foods


Neighbors: Lou Jonas – Will Adams – Patron Saints


ANIMALS: Vaccinating Hogs – Pinto – Fowl






BearCanyonwasn’t our first, and certainly not our only home. Married Student stacks at Montana State College and a range-rider’s cabin nearWhitehallpreceded theBearCanyonyears. Yet our canyon home was the old “homestead”, the great adventure, the cradle in which our family formed.

We leftBearCanyonfor three winters in easternMontana, a school year inOgden,Utah, and four complete years in Deer Lodge,Montana. No member of the family considered these as anything more than temporary wanderings. Like Indians following buffalo, we knew we had to go where a livelihood could be had. The folks never sold theBearCanyonproperty and we knew we would return.

Once, when finances must have been especially precarious, Dad called us around the kitchen table for a council. He had accepted a teaching position inUtah. Should we sell the house and land? Howling like wolves, we pleadingly made known our disapproval. We threatened mutiny. We wanted a secure place of retreat if our excursion the big city didn’t work out. All through the scene, Mother patiently waited, smiling a Mona Lisa smile. She must have predicted our adamant position and the effect it would have on Dad. She might even have engineered the meeting to take this course. She was quietly pleased when the decision was so obviously against selling.

Though the Bear Canyon years were only a part of our family’s experience, they were the formative ones. In all our travels, our humble sanctuary in the mountains beckoned us to return. It was home. The other places were mere outposts, temporary assignments away from headquarters. Like mica in granite, we were part of it, and it was part of us.


Bear Creek


Bear Creek is a modest tributary of theGallatin River. The Lewis and Clark expedition crossed it almost two hundred years ago, camping near its confluence with Rocky Creek. Our narrow canyon gathers and sends forth this creek; a large river, theMissouri, receives it thirty miles to the west. Despite its small proportions, the creek and the canyon that nests it were the macro-elements of our physical world, major shaping factors.

Annually, spring run-off is a miniature flood of rusty water carrying several times the average flow, but rarely threatening our bridge or buildings. Flooding struck only once in the three decades we occupied the place. That flood pushed boulders, propelled large trees and pounded out the bridge. The creek’s banks crept to within a rod of the house. We had built barely a dozen feet above the low water level of the creek, and back from it fifty yards. Dad refused funds the government offered for rebuilding the bridge. He had built it in the first place and still enjoyed the health and stubbornness to provide his own crossing.

In the early days, the creek was used for laundry and bathing. It watered our horses and cows. In the winter, Dad axed holes in the ice to make watering holes.

The three hundred feet of creek cutting through our land was the Parks and Recreation Department. All kids ought to have such a creek to play in, to build ineffectual dams in and to explore. It was a racetrack for our version of theAmerica’s Cup. It was a foot cooler. It was a boundary for games of pursuit. The creek formed a buffer against the county road, subtly separating us from the human race plying there.

Expectant young eyes imagined fish, big ones, behind rocks and submerged trees. Only at later, less idealistic ages would we realize that fish grew to a maximum of eleven inches there, with the average being smaller. Feed simply was not that plentiful because tumbling waters were too cold and fast to allow the growth of fish food. But we did not know that and preferred to see more potential in our private fishery than really existed.

Frontier families have no access to symphonies, sonnets or galleries. But the little creek partly supplied the lack. It gave us music, a passport to the other-world of poetry and a perpetually variable visual feast.

Bald Mountain


Across the road rose the open, sage-covered mountain. Due to the steep sides of the canyon and the spruce and fir trees hemming us in like the skyscrapers of Manhattan, the south-facing mountain provided the only vista available to us. It bore no dark secrets; everything about it was exposed to view, inviting full perusal. Bears lurked behind the house in the damp forests; in front, perky deer and haughty moose roamed double-chinned, dome-faced BaldMountain.

The sun came blaring over the crest on summer mornings- not too early, for our home was squeezed into the bottom of the canyon like a speck in the bellows of an accordion. Welcome rays parted the border of fir trees cresting the top of the hill. The old trees stood like so many Indians atop a ridge in a John Wayne movie scene. Like their stern chief, the sun edged through the ranks to lead a daily charge to our encampment.

The mountain provided many landmarks, labeled, cataloged and mapped in years of juvenile exploration. The Three Sisters, towering fir trees, formed the points of an eight foot triangle. They were ideal for climbing owing to comfortable spaced, sturdy horizontal branches. From them one could spy on town and beyond into theGallatinValley.

The Big Tree, a stately old thing, stood aloof just above the point where other evergreens and aspen gave up their fight against the dry southern exposure. This granddaddy served as a rendezvous point for young hunters. We sometimes ate lunch there and agreed how to split up and reconvene. When, years later, we watched the Big Tree explode in an eight acre forest fire, we felt we were losing a friend. The ground was always dry under its expansive branches.

At the mountain’s crown, behind the fir trees at the scalp line, snaked the trace of an abandoned logging road. Beyond this road another drainage began: Stinger Creek. The formidable terrain rebuked hikers. Moose inhabited the bottoms, but to shoot them, a hunter had to negotiate deadfall timber tangled enough to make WWII barbed wire defenses look harmless.

Two hundred yards from our place, at the bottom ofBaldMountain, two cabins languished in the advanced states of their lives. They may be the oldest structures inBearCanyon. As explorers and cosmologists are prone to name peaks and galaxies, in a stupendous effort at creativity we named the cabins Number One and Number Two. Number One had a porch of rotting planks from which we peered in to see a tousled mattress and not much else. Number Two, a hundred yards up an overgrown trail, had two out-buildings and a grinding wheel. Of the two, it showed more evidence of a woman’s touch; a line for drying clothes and an addition for storage at the back.

BaldMountain, a pleasure to view, was not lightly tackled. Even to reach the Three Sisters, a mere fourth of the way up, one had to muster significant resolve. The slopes with the dark forests behind the house suited walkers more. This difference madeBaldMountainlonelier for visitors. One day I went to the vicinity of the Big Tree to pray. I knew that I would not be disturbed, though the house was close enough that I could hear dogs bark, cars pass and hoods slam. We mostly viewed the dome from the bottom as tourists do theEmpireStateBuildingwhen the elevators are out of order, with admiration, but little inclination to climb the stairs.



Home and Hearth

The First Cabin


Dad and Mother bought twenty timbered acres inBearCanyonas he neared the end of his college training. They immediately erected shelter. The outside dimensions were twenty by fifteen feet. Eight-by-eights set at the corners and in the middle bore the roof’s load. The roof pitched slightly, shedding water at the back. Rough two-by-fours framed between the main posts. Concrete was too expensive so we did without a foundation. The floor consisted of plywood sheets nailed to studs placed on edge. A few weeks after the sheeting was put down, Dad laid some thick brown linoleum from a demolished Army barracks. This was superior to the plywood because it could be mopped. It may have served, before the barracks, in a battle ship.

The preschool children were exceedingly helpful during the construction of the first cabin. We played with anything that presented itself. A refrigerator standing beside the stud wall begged to be used as a “house.” Everyone else was house-raising; why shouldn’t we? Quickly we placed dibs on what we considered the choices compartments, ground level rack, mezzanine rack, or penthouse rack. As we climbed into our cramped new lodgings, the big, white appliance tumbled on it face, evicting the squatters without due process.

We wailed and whimpered as Mother whisked us down to the creek. It was “running water” in the most primitive sense. It now served as first aid bay, a place to wash cuts and expose any real damage. In years to come we would resort to the creek as a place to heal a harried soul. Constantly changing, gurgling and splashing, its kindly patter calmed tired nerves and weary hearts.

Friends from the church came to help build the first cabin. The Boy Scout troop came one evening to help insulate. Mostly they gawked about, surprised that people actually planned to live in such a dwelling. The first bridge was a log. Crossing the creek on this log, one of the church ladies lost her glasses. Several men pawing around in the stones and clear water failed to recover them.

A few weeks into construction, and prior to completing the insulation and siding, we entertained a visitor. This uninvited guest called late one summer evening. It was fully dark. Dad was due back from town at about this hour. Mother was in bed. Like sausages on a skillet, my sisters and I slept on the floor, side by side on a mat. Attracted by a ham hanging above the cook stove, a bear entered the framed doorway and proceeded in that direction. Mother shrieked with a volume meant to be heard at our neighbor’s, two hundred yards distant. This alarmed the poor bear greatly. His paw had set the ham swinging, but he reconsidered and beat a hasty retreat. Dad complained to Mother after hearing about the incident, “You probably scared him so that he’ll never come back.” Dad finished the siding immediately after this visit. The hung blanket acting as a door was soon replaced by a plank door suitable as a deterrent to unannounced visitors of the animal kingdom.

Toilet facilities were out back. Bathing was out front, first in the creek and later in a fifteen-gallon galvanized tub. Since the creek was icy cold, even in summertime, the interval between baths was only somewhat less than that between full solar eclipses. The galvanized tub was a fine advance over the creek, but heating water on the cast iron cook stove was tedious. As a result, bathing was usually reserved for Saturday nights. We vied for first bath. The water became soapy and scummy as successive people used it. Two kids could be washed at once, so the selected twosome went first. The left over kid got second washing. By the time three kids were done, fresh water was ready for the parents who bathed and toweled under cover of darkness.

Though it was not spacious, the cabin served our needs. No one is known to have frozen to death there. Dim light radiated from a couple of bulbs dangling at the ends of cords, defying the Uniform Building Code. Curtains divided the space into quadrants.

Later this cabin was used for storage and a kid hangout. It was here five sobbing kids read to each other the closing pages of Where the Red Fern Grows. Now it is merely a memory, a ghost at the end of the sidewalk. The First Cabin is the picture that comes to mind when I sing one of our family folk classics, “Little Green Valley.”


I see a candlelight

Down in the LittleGreenValley

Where morning glory vines

Are twinin’ ‘round the door.


Oh, how I wish I were back again,

Down in the LittleGreenValley,

That’s where my homesick heart

Would trouble me no more.