Thistles Cut, Ironing Done


When I met Howard in the summer of 1940 at the University of Colorado he was pleased to find that my home was a farm in Wisconsin. His home was a farm in Texas. We had a common ground or did we? In spite of the warmer climate of Texas farm work was more seasonal than it is in Wisconsin. In August after the crops, cotton or corn or sweet potatoes, were "laid by" the family often went on a camping trip or visited relatives in other sections of the state.

Howard remembers very well a fishing trip on the Sulphur River. The family loaded wagons with non-perishable foods, quilts and all the equipment for cooking over a campfire as well as fishing gear. He remembers two older cousins, girls who told stories to him and his younger brothers and sister to amuse them during the long wagon ride from their home to the River.

They often spent as long as two weeks on such a camping trip. There were no nearby "Quik-stop" food stores or even a corner grocery. Every thing must be cooked or baked over the open fire from staples brought from home.

In our getting acquainted conversations that summer in Colorado, Howard sensed that such camping trips were not part of my experience. He knew that Wisconsin had many lakes. He said,

"You mean, you live in Wisconsin but you don't go fishing or swimming?"

"You just try living in Wisconsin. You won't think about going swimming or fishing either," was my retort.

Now that Howard is retired he doesn't go fishing or swimming even in Tennessee. His recreation is gardening which looks exactly like hard work. For the past twenty years he has dug drainage ditches and built levees to keep the rains from washing across his garden. All the work was done with just a shovel. He struggles to make the soil more productive by using compost and mulching of all kinds. All of it is done on land that belongs to someone else - someone who has no idea how to grow anything and has no real interest. When it is suggested that the garden could be a much smaller plot, Howard's reply is always, "I want to have produce to share with others." The only requirement is back- breaking labor, which he insists is fun.

In my family we admired men or women who were diligent workers, especially those who worked with their hands. It was high praise to be labeled "a hard worker."

Howard was from "the south," even though it was Texas. His quiet, deliberate speech and manner did nothing to dispel my family's idea that he was too relaxed to know how to do real labor.

My father was five feet six inches tall and weighed about one hundred forty pounds. His muscles were well developed from doing farm labor from early boyhood. He did not hesitate to try any task requiring strength as he went about his daily work. My brother, Sheldon, was a little taller but he too went about the farm work with much impatience. When working in the fields together with other men he tried to be the fastest. He didn't tolerate hired men dawdling on the job.

In the summer of 1942 Howard was stationed at Battle Creek, Michigan waiting with the 12th General Hospital to be sent overseas. He was able to get a furlough and came to spend part of it with us. June is a rush season in Wisconsin. We were hauling peas. In those days the peas were cut with a mower pulled by a team of horses. The peas lay in swaths on the field. In order to drive a wagon or truck across the field to be loaded, two swathes had to be forked out of the way onto the nearest swath to the left or right. We called it "making roads." Then as the truck drove slowly down the "road" the peas were pitched onto the truck by men working with a fork from each side.

When Howard arrived he got into some of Sheldon's work clothes and went to the field with the other men. He worked all day forking the peas from early morning till dark. It was difficult for anyone to win commendation from Sheldon. He was always highly critical, but he was forced to express surprise that Howard could work that hard all day. What Sheldon didn't know was that this Texan had as much determination to finish a task as any Schwandt or Sommers.

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Copyright 1991, 2004 by Zona S. Justiss. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise noted, text and photos on this page are property of the author and may not be reproduced, posted, distributed, or used for any commercial purpose without prior permission.