Family stories and traditions create a sense of continuity between generations. Many family stories fall into the oblivion of the forgotten after two or three generations. No one bothers to tell them or to write them. I become melancholy when I realize that my stories or my father’s stories will be forgotten. I can’t remember a single story that my grandfather told, if he told any. Is it selfish to preserve your history? I think not. Memories are one of the few things that lingers following one’s life.
One of my best memories unites three generations of Watkins. It centers on the unique “horsing around” performed on Halloween in Yarmouth, Iowa in years long ago. These customs are long since dead. Yarmouth was where I went to school from kindergarten to the 9th grade. It was also where my father and mother went to grade and high school.
The idea was that high school students would roam the countryside looking for farm machinery, animals, and outhouses to “borrow” and haul to town on wagons to display on the grounds of the high school. The result was the parking lot of the high school full of plows, corn-pickers, goats, cows, sheep, outhouses, and wagons. I was always surprised the high school principal was never kidnapped and tied to the flagpole.
My grandfather Watkins looked old as long as I can remember. His greatest claim to fame was his reputation for yelling demeaning comments at the basketball referees when things were not going well for the home team. The Yarmouth teams suffered many a technical foul because of his abusive comments. Now and again, the referees ejected him from the gym. Robert E. Watkins always created a hometown spirit among the fans. He grew more and more slumped and loud with each year. He was bald except for a band of hair from ear lobe to ear lobe around the back of his head. Seldom did I see him wearing anything other than carpenter style overalls—the ones that had white and gray stripes with straps over the shoulders to keep them from falling down.
As a young child, I always went to the elevator when I was in town to get money from him for an ice cream cone. That was always one of the certainties of my life. He always had a dime for an ice cream cone. He would pull a huge leather coin bag out of his pocket. It had a drawstring. (I have this bag in my lock box. It is one my esteemed possessions.) He would ever so slowly untie it. Then he would stick a couple of his long dangling fingers in the bag and I could hear the coins tumble under his touch. After an eternity, he would pull out a dime and hand it to me. His smile was gentle and filled with love. I would glide from the elevator, the recipient of a fortune.
My father had two brothers, Major and Charles. The three earned a dubious reputation as young boys. I know they were the harmless thugs of the community.
But to hear the stories from Dad, I pictured them as competitors for Bonnie and Clyde. No doubt their mischievous nature came directly down the bloodline from Robert Senior although I know little about his childhood.
Halloween was the night the high school students were free to pull their gags. They called it “Halloweening.” The county sheriff and his deputies tried to keep the pranks under control, but that was nearly impossible with kids all over the county involved in similar mischief. Most of the time no one or nothing was hurt and it brought a laugh the next day except from some of the grouchy old farmers who had to collect their misplaced property. There were exceptions like the night one of the kids “borrowed” a lamb from my grandfather’s herd and it ran off the third story of flat roof of the high school.
As a rule, kids quit this practice when they left high school. Our family was a bit different. Neither my Grandpa, nor my dad, gave up this childish practice. So, finally, at age 12, I convinced them to allow the youngest Watkins male to tag along. We would park down the road from selected farms and then sneak, flashlights in hand, to a selected farmhouse to find something to haul or pull to town. Grandpa and Dad told me that sometimes the farmers would actually shoot at you for the mischief. I was super cautious and watched for any twig in my path. Then when we found our target, we would push the pickup by hand to the property and load the article we wanted.
After several stops we had one stinking outhouse on our wagon and a few small geese that we were able to catch without too much racket. We corralled the geese in the back of the pickup inside the outhouse. We took all the back roads to avoid the sheriff. Just as we were approaching Yarmouth with our caravan of junk, the sheriff had set up an observation point behind a large barn. He was soon behind us with his red lights flashing. He made us get out of the pickup. He acted pretty tough and actually frisked Dad and Grandpa. He asked them the obvious question, “What the hell are you guys up to now?” Dad and Grandpa didn’t have to answer. He then said, “You know if you old men would just stay home, I could handle the kids…now get this junk back to where you found it.” And, that was my initiation into the adult life of the Watkins’ family.