Growing Up in the Midwest


Creating Fear Does Not a Competent Teacher Make

Most students in the 40s, 50s, and 60s encountered a teacher that relied on yelling, threatening, and some form of pain to keep a disciplined classroom. Recently I had to ask former classmates for the name of my third grade teacher because I long sense erased the dignity of remembering her name.

Maybe she was bright…I don’t know. Maybe she was great with numbers…I don’t know. Maybe she was well versed in literature…I don’t know. Maybe she had advanced degrees…I don’t know. Maybe her father or her husband abused her. I don’t know.

I only remember her as tall, lean, stony, and mean. She wasn’t capable of demonstrating affection. She entered the room and tension filled the air. She always had a lethal weapon in her right hand when she left her desk to pass through the classroom. She usually walked to back of the room with a face that could have ruined a mountain in the granite-mountains of the Black Hills. She stood quietly and erect in the back of the room until someone forgot she had drifted there.

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If someone passed a note, whispered, or appeared to be resting, she would quietly tiptoe to his/her side and as quickly as the strike of a viper she would slap you on the top of your hand with the flat side or steel edge of her ruler depending on the infraction. The flat side hardly caused a student to yelp, but the steel edge caused a certain cry and brought tears. No explanation followed…she just returned to her desk and stared at the victim.

I did like one of her punishments; she would send us to the dark cloakroom at the back of our classroom for whatever infringement of her rules she deemed appropriate. Just enough light filtered in that it wasn’t creepy and you could nap if alone or talk softly if two people got “cloaked” at the same time.

She seriously damaged a tendon on my right hand that caused me to have a bump over one of the bones that didn’t disappear totally for several years. I have no remembrance if I reported the abuse to my mother or not. Such an abuse would have sent her to court in today’s world of litigation. A ruler etched into her gravestone would have been a proper memorial.

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Growing Up in the Midwest


“Rise and Shine, Let’s Hear Those Little Feet Go Pitty-Pat!”

Laziness may appear attractive, but work gives satisfaction. Anne Frank

I have never been a person to dread getting up in the morning. And, laziness wasn’t an option in our home. That was in part because our parents only called us one time in the morning. If you went back to sleep, no one would bother to call you again. But, there would be serious consequences when you did wake up. I remember someone telling me, “When we say get up we mean it.” I don’t think I ever tested the system to evaluate whether the hard consequences would be worth the extra time on the soft pillow. “Rise and Shine” is one of my first memories. Dad used the phrase to stir me to roll out bright and early to go do my chores before breakfast. Farm boys had a number of jobs to do before we could return to the kitchen for Mom’s crisp bacon, floating fried eggs just crispy around the edges, and toast. I had to move to Tennessee to attend college to learn that biscuits and breakfast were synonymous. And, without a doubt, homemade biscuits put toast to shame.

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My Grandfather–Robert Elmer Watkins

“Rise, Shine, Hit the Deck, Let’s Hear Those Little Feet Go Pitty-Pat” were probably amended Navy words. The “Hit the Deck” is a dead give away. I think Grandpa Watkins learned those words during his naval service in World War I. Tragically we have few memories of his service. I only remember his story of getting seasick in high seas when most sailors were confined in the mess hall two floors under the deck. Everyone was so sick and throwing up that no one could eat until the passing of the storm.

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A Model Shipped Owned by Robert Elmer Watkins

That morning call sounds mellow for the Navy, but maybe Grandpa watered the phrase down a bit. Maybe the original was something like “Get your lazy skinny buns out of the bunk, you will be on the deck in five.” I don’t remember my grandpa telling me about the background of the phrase, but I am reasonably certain that Dad learned it from him. That is the way I like to remember it—I was probably the third generation to use it with my kids. Maybe my boys will carry on the tradition…there is no better way to wake up.

Growing Up in the Midwest


Hunting—Never Sat Well with Me

Most Iowa farm boys were introduced to hunting while in grade school. Can we say from that observation that fathers and boys naturally possess an innate drive to kill animals to provide for needs created by hunger? Did this tendency to seek food find its way into the gene pool due to repetition over centuries of turning to the forest or plains for food? No, I think killing animals is a learned behavior.

I became a hunter because I wanted to be with my father and do much of what he did. Maybe I thought it was a “manly” thing to do since my sister was never invited. Actually, we didn’t hunt to eat. Wild game never made it to my mother’s table. We had meat at almost every meal, but never what was killed on our farm. Our hunting was purely recreational and any squirrels, deer, or rabbits we killed were given away to others.

My parents gave me a Remington Nylon 66 rifle when I lost interest in my Daisy Red Rider BB gun. It is a semi-automatic rifle (22 long rifle only), fed by a 14-round tubular magazine located in its butt stock.

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Overall length is 39 inches, and barrel length is 19.5 inches. The weight of the unloaded gun, including the magazine follower tube, is 4.2 poundsIt was introduced in 1959 and discontinued in 1989 or 1990 (depending on the source). I suspect I owned one of first produced. According to Remington, approximately 1,050,350 Nylon 66 rifles were made. It had the potential to kill small animals or even a human if used inappropriately. Dad taught me a few basic lessons. Don’t load your gun until you are ready to enter the forest. Never point your gun at any human, even while turning to shoot. Keep your safety on until you are ready to aim and fire. Unload your gun immediately upon leaving the hunt.

My first trip into the woods with my new rifle was traumatic and transformational. I saw a beautiful male cardinal land on a branch about fifteen feet of the ground and thirty feet in front of me. I took aim never considering the consequences if I happened to hit the innocent and helpless creature. The radiant red bird fell almost instantly with the echo of the gunshot. I stood stunned. I approached and found crimson blood in the snow beside the motionless cardinal. I propped the gun against the leafless tree and picked up the warm limp bird. My stomach did a flip and my heart broke without losing a beat. I had just ended a life with absolutely no reason except thoughtless adventure and lack of respect for the value of a helpless creature’s life. Nobody ate cardinals or other songbirds.

There was no more shooting that day and I suspect that one deadly shot etched a dislike for hunting in my mind and heart that will follow me to the grave.

Peer pressure eventually led me into the forest again primarily because it was the accepted thing to do. But those hunts were rare. I don’t remember actually shooting many animals. I would later buy a 10-guage shotgun to hunt ducks, doves, and deer with friends. Fortunately I was a lousy shot and only killed one or two ducks.

I never taught or encouraged my children to hunt.

Growing Up in the Midwest


Five Unconventional Ways to Fish

 

Dynamite—The Loud and Violent Way

Many Iowa farmers had a number of “not so” legal options for those difficult days of fishing the “old fashioned way.”

On one occasion when a pole and a line yielded no results, Dad headed to our garage and opened a padlocked wooden box and removed two eight-inch long sticks about the diameter of a garden hose. This box had always intrigued me! And, now we learned its content. Dad said, “We will catch some fish now. I promise.” A thick layer of paraffin covered the beige sticks, but I chilled when I read the words dynamite and danger. He also pulled out a couple of caps from another cardboard box and cut two-tthree foot lengths of fuse wire. Off we would go to one of several isolated deep holes along the creeks of our farm. We didn’t know it, but our escape to deep into the farm was to avoid any chance of a game warden hearing the dynamite and suspect illegal fishing. I was edgy and excited. I knew dynamite was an explosive and worried that we could be blown to kingdom come should it accidentally explode. But, I put two and two together and realized that we were about to create such an explosion under water that some fish would be killed. I wondered how many and what kind? Would they be edible after such a horrific end?

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Dad carved a small hole in the stick of dynamite, pinched a cap tightly around one end of the fuse wire with pliers and shoved the cap as deeply as possible into the hole in the dynamite. Dad issued a warning, “You kids get behind that big oak tree and stay there until I get back!” I worried frantically Dad would hold on too long to the stick and it would blow him into the next county. Yet, I was so hoping we would find some really big fish, the likes of which we had never seen.

He went to the edge of the creek, carefully lite the fuse, and threw it into the deepest point of the creek hole. The length of the fuse wire allowed about 30 seconds before the burning fuse reached the nitroglycerin. After the explosion and the sight of the water rising toward the sky, we rushed with long sticks to the edge of the creek and collected the stunned and dead fish. There was a five-pound carp, several bullheads, numerous small perch, and two turtles.

Gigging—Harvesting the Stranded

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Floods often covered portions of river bottoms following heavy spring rains near our house. Farmers couldn’t enter their fields until the rivers or creeks could empty into the larger rivers and the sun gradually dried the land. No one could hurry the process. Most years the drying would occur in time for the farmers to plant a late crop in the worse areas. A lot of large fish were trapped in shallow pools on the land. People would put on boots and wade into these pools to gig the fish. This was one more way that Dad had to make fishing a certainty rather than a hope.

The Magneto—A Shocking Strategy

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We also fished with a telephone magneto. The magneto produced an electric shock when two copper wires were attached to the positive and negative poles on the magneto. Then, we just dropped one wire over each side of the boat and an electric charge rushed out trying to find an object upon which to discharge. This method was rather selective since it sent an electric charge primarily to the bottom dwelling catfish. They were stunned and paralyzed, and slowly floated to the surface where we could catch them in a fish net. The difference between the using a gig and using the magneto was the gig was legal and the magneto could have resulted in a huge fine.

Seining—More for Your Money

Seine fishing is a method of fishing that employs a seine or dragnet. A seine is a fishing net that hangs vertically in the water with its bottom edge held down by weights and its top edge buoyed by floats. Seine nets can be deployed from the shore as a beach seine, or from a boat.

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We periodically used a seine on some of the larger creeks when the water was high. This method required two strong people to pull the seine from each side of the creek until they reached a point shallow enough to cross the creek and then gather the net and remove the trapped fish.

Bottle Fishing—Multiple Large Bobbers

Lakes and river coves provided the quiet location to enter right before dark with a boat and individually pitch ten to fifteen gallon plastic bottles that had been tightly sealed. Each bottle had a ten to fifteen foot length of forty pound fishing line attached to the handles of the bottles. Each line had a lead sinker and a baited hook dangled in the water below the “bobber” bottle that was usually painted a conspicuous color.

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Two options remained. The fisherman or fisherwomen could then leave the bottles overnight and return the next morning to collect the bottles and the fish that had taken the bait. Or, if it was moon lit night, the people could remain in the boat with a lantern and wait for the bottles to begin to “bob” up and down or begin to move wildly wherever the fish pulled. Regardless, over a period of several hours several fish would eat the bait, get a hook stuck in their mouth, and be on the last swim of their lives.

These different fishing strategies practically guaranteed catching fish. We did speak frequently about the legality of using dynamite or a magneto; maybe that is why we talked about it much more than actually doing it. Obviously these options are not recommended today in our mobile world, but they brought a lot of fun to kids and adults that liked to flirt with the one game warden allotted to every few counties.

 

Growing Up in the Midwest


Fishing Worms—The Old Fashioned Way

Just about thirty yards north of the original site of the outhouse was the seepage of a makeshift leech bed from the drains and sewer lines of the house. Dad often sent us there for fishing worms. We knew exactly where to dig. Worms loved the environment around our sewer exit. Halfway down the slope our sewage spilled out of the pipe and on the hillside and then filtered its way into the ground. This formed a moist slightly stinking area covered with rusty sheets of tin roofing. Under the tin the soil could easily be stirred with a pitchfork, and with every turn, to to five fat juicy worms would try to take flight from the sunshine they had never seen in their damp tomb. We could easily gather a half-gallon tin with fifty worms and cover them with the deep black Iowa soil in a few minutes. Of course, my sister was never willing to get her hands dirty collecting the worms so she was the designated pitchfork operator. She was the revealer and I, the gatherer.

My Dad had a better way to collect fishing worms. Now there are dogs and there are dogs. My father claimed to have trained one of the most intelligent of dogs to do amazing things. Stanley Cohen, author of The Intelligence of Dogs, posits there are three aspects to a dog’s intelligence. First, instinctive intelligence is the dog’s ability to perform the task for which they were bred, such as herding, fetching, or guarding. Second, adaptive intelligence is the dog’s capacity to solve problems on its own. Third, obedience intelligence is the capacity to learn skills from a human.

His dog had learned hunting differentiation skills so that if Dad took a rifle and walked toward the forest, his dog would automatically tree squirrels. However, if Dad carried a shotgun, his pet would immediately begin looking for rabbits. But, Dad’s proudest moment came when he left the house with a fishing pole and his pup grabbed a tin can, ran behind the barn, and began to dig for fishing worms. Now that was quite a dog and an amazing Dad. No wonder I have always been comfortable with my imagination and ability to slightly amend the truth.

Dad always said, “There is always a way to catch a fish if you are hungry. It may be by hook or by crook.” And sometimes he resorted to the latter.

On occasion Dad would load three to five poles and a tackle box in our 1935 rusty Ford pickup; and off we would go to the lake at the New London country club. If lucky, the fish would be biting and Dad would never get to wet his line because my sister and I would keep him busy baiting our line and removing the catch. Sometimes, fishing with a pole ended without a bite. Dad must have hated an empty stringer.

You may remember that on one occasion seven of the disciples of Jesus spent the night fishing with no results. As these hungry exhausted men recovered their empty nets on the Sea of Galilee; they headed for the shore for another day. A voice from the shore directed them to fish from the other side of the boat. Probably with some resistance, they followed this directive from an unknown stranger, and dropped their nets into the sea and immediately their nets became so full, they couldn’t haul in the huge catch. I guess you could call that a divine plan B since the disciples later discovered that the directions came from the resurrected Jesus.

Growing Up in the Midwest


Fishing with Dad

Look at where Jesus went to pick people. He didn’t go to the colleges… he got guys off the fishing docks. Jeff Foxworthy

As I glance at the pond from the stile I recall the times I caught fish. So many memories of bass, bullheads, bluegills, carp, catfish, sunfish, and spoonbill catfish…I can’t remember fishing without a result.

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My First Bullhead

The Farm Ponds

From the top of the stile of my childhood home, straight north of me is a pasture where my sheep often grazed, where Dad played catch with me and where he hit pop flies before bedtime, and where we screamed with glee as we flew kites. The small pasture about the size of a football field declines to a ravine that was dammed up to form a small pond about a hundred yards to my left that provided a limited amount of water for frogs to croak and spawn or a place to ice skate in the winter. My sister and I tried to ice skate there by stuffing paper into the toes of our parent’s skates still stored in the garage from the years they lived in Denver, Colorado, during the Second World War while Dad was working in a factory for the war effort.

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Most of the year this shallow pond was covered by algae and served as a supreme breeding ground for mosquitos. The dam also served as a drive for vehicles to pass over the ravine that was formed decades before by erosion. Four larger and much prettier ponds beyond my view provided a source of water for our livestock regardless of where they might be on our farm. Dad stocked all of the ponds with catfish, bass, and bluegill—all of which fought a vicious tug-of-war before I drug them ashore.


My Childhood Understanding of Death

I spent the first fifteen years of my life with the notion that animals died but that people seldom or ever did. Maybe I didn’t want to cope with the unknown. My Dad had a few close calls but somehow avoided being swallowed by quicksand, spelunking, having his skull crushed with an ax, and nearly drowning while noodling (hand fishing) for huge catfish along riverbanks. I didn’t even know that newspapers had an obituary section. My closest pets always eventually died but not members of my family. I don’t remember attending a funeral until I became a pastor.

 

My own death, however, provided me with a lot of sleepless nights. For some reason I feared I would die and be laid to rest on my back. I could only sleep on my side or stomach as a child, and I fretted over an eternity of discomfort lying on my back in a coffin. Thankfully I have learned to sleep on my back as well as come to the realization that the body has no perception of its position in a casket.

 

The first part of the prayer “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep” brought me great comfort. The last part however caused me pause “If I should die before I wake I pray the Lord my soul to take.” Why did my parents remind me to remind myself at bedtime that I might not live to see another day?

 

Other than my own death and the death of animals that I quickly deemed quite natural, death seldom entered my mind. My parents caused my birth. Someone or something will determine my death. Each took or will take a few moments. The in between is what excites me. Over seventy years I have learned not to waste too much time fretting over what will be my last moments. I recognize, however, that my life on this earth lessens with every day. I do find it interested that many people care little what will happen in the eternal after death. Eternal destiny deserves careful thought by all.