LIFE ON THE FARM

[Dear readers: please allow me some literary license here. Much of this and the following few chapters will NOT be told exactly in the order in which they occurred.  Most of the content describes things that continued all though my teen years and, when there are specific events, I really can’t place all of them as having happened in any particular year.  Then, too, I remain acutely aware of how long some of my chapters tend to be, so I’ll cut them off at around 4,000-to-5,000 words each to give you convenient stopping points.]

My grandfather was Luther Brittain Hontz, known by the locals mostly as “Brit”, for whatever reason I didn’t know in 1958. I didn’t learn his middle name until well after he died and I got into genealogy in my mid-50’s.  He married Anna “Fannie” Johnson (Johnston), whose family hailed from the Dallas area not far from Sweet Valley.  From that union came two boys: my Dad, Albert Warren, in 1904 and Ormond Luther (a\k\a “Mike”) in 1908.  Albert, as we have seen, left home and married twice, eventually becoming a widower twice over.  Mike, on the other hand, never left home and seemed content to spend life as the “town drunk”, taking care of Brit.  For this, Mike inherited the 55-acre farm; a situation with which Albert was quite content.

Brit himself must have been quite a cantankerous coot most of his life.  He had one brother, my great uncle Frank.  Frank had married, had four daughters, and often had family get-togethers at his house to which he invited Brit.  Although he lived but a mile and a half away from Frank, Brit never attended.  When Albert’s first wife, Mae, died in 1940, Fannie went to look after Albert’s two oldest boys but, as my brother Bob tells it, “She didn’t come from Brit’s house.  She had left him before then!”  Brit’s house was only one mile from our boyhood home and Bob says he went there many times to pick strawberries.  Sometime after that, though, Albert must have had some sort of falling out with Brit and Mike, for I don’t recall going there EVER before the Spring of 1958.  Given this rather odd backdrop, it’s a wonder they let Dad and me in when we showed up.  They had no phone, so I’m fairly sure we arrived totally unannounced.

Stan Laurel often said to Oliver Hardy “Well, here's another nice mess you've gotten me into."  That doesn’t begin to describe the situation my Dad was in.  He had no nice home any more.  The ’52 Chevy was gone and he had no job.  Mike’s besotted body must have held a drop or two of human kindness alongside the Budweiser, for he at least let us stay with them.  I don’t think Dad knew quite what to do about his supposedly-sick bride-to-be.  All he COULD do is sit and wait for further word from California.  In the meantime, we couldn’t expect Mike to feed us, so Dad had to find a job.  Luckily, the very next farm to Brit’s (only 200 yards away) was owned by Renold Morris and he needed help.  Renold could only afford to pay 50 cents an hour but it was enough to feed and clothe us, so Dad gratefully accepted the job.  (As I am writing this in 2008, I have just realized that even KIDS made earned more than that.  A classmate’s husband has just told me that he was paid 75 cents an hour at age 15 to run the merry-go-round at Wolfe’s Grove!)

Life in Grandpa’s house was quite a step down from what I had enjoyed for my first 11 years.  Beyond lacking a phone, the two-story old farmhouse had no running water or central heat.  There was a well in the front yard and a coal-or-wood-fired stove in the kitchen.  Fred Updyke’s school bus picked me up right at the end of the driveway so, at least, I avoided the old saw, “walked 5 miles to school, uphill both ways”.  My 6th grade classmates welcomed me back as if I’d never left. I picked right up with my schoolwork, taught by Arthur Curtis, who I’d last seen in 2nd grade.  About all I really missed was getting a trophy from being on the championship 1957 Little League team.  The coaches hadn’t thought I was ever coming back and hadn’t bought one for me.

Grandpa was 78 when I came to his house in 1958.  While he may have been cantankerous the better part of his life, by the time I came to know him at all he was just plain NUTSO!  Mental health experts may quibble over the distinction between senility and Alzheimer’s Disease but I, as an 11-year-old, would have been satisfied with “loony tunes”.  He seldom knew who I was and, about every other day, I’d have to tell him “I’m ALBERT’S BOY!”  He had one old lame horse out in the barn and we could never be sure if Gramps had fed him or not.  I made sure I gave the poor bugger one bucket of oats daily where he probably needed two.  That way he got at least half a ration.  On other days, he was probably overfed when Gramps fed him twice.  I’m told that Gramps once chopped up his rocking chair for firewood but I didn’t witness that.  His bed was a metal-framed affair with just a 4-inch thick mattress and no sheets.  Its springs were not of the “box” style but, rather, resembled a chain-link fence lying horizontally.  More than once I saw Gramps throw his mattress on the floor and sleep on the springs.  He lacked the ability to wash or shave himself and those tasks fell to Uncle Mike once a week.  I was fascinated to watch him strop the straight razor and proceed to shave the old man.  It was a true wonder that he managed to do so without cutting his throat.  Gramps’ most disgusting behavior came when he’d head for the outhouse in the middle of the night.  When his poor, delusional mind told him he’d gone far enough, he’d drop his drawers and let fly—right in the middle of the kitchen floor!  I quickly learned to NEVER venture across the kitchen at night without turning on the light, lest I step in something.

Spring of 1958 turned into summer and school let out.  It was a rather lonesome time, for I was now too far away from the Mahoney and Rosencrans boys to go play with them.  There was no library west of Dallas and I had no way to get to the one there.  We did have a radio in the kitchen and I listened to it for hours into the night, tuning in to both WARM-AM locally in the daytime and WABC-AM out of New York at night. Rock and roll was in its early years and I listened avidly, learning the words to most of the hit tunes. 

There had been no further word from California and Dad just soldiered on, working his tail off on Renold’s farm.  He’d come home with the back of his gray work shirts stained white by the condensation of body salts he’d sweated out.  Still, he never complained about the predicament in which the perfidious Janet had put us.  He still believed that she would come for us eventually, he’d marry her, and all would be well again.

I did meet 3 boys about my age that summer of ‘58, if ever so briefly, as they came by to visit twice.  One of great uncle Frank’s daughters had married a man named Kusma and these were her three sons; Francis (Fritz), Andy, and George Kusma.  When I got into genealogy years later, I learned that, in that their Grandpa and mine were brothers, the Kusma boys and I were second cousins.  Brit, who seldom seemed to know me, seemed to know them fairly well, especially the oldest, Fritz.  I felt a wee bit jealous.  After not seeing any of the Kusma boys for well over 45 years, I again caught up with Fritz by searching the Internet for a phone number.  He told me that both Andy and George had died young, from heart attacks.  He also explained how it was that Brit had known him a lot better than he knew me.  Heck, he had spent SEVERAL summers living with Brit (his uncle) and my Uncle Mike (who he called “Shorty”).  It was a great escape from the heat of summer in Swoyersville and he enjoyed picking strawberries and making hay.   He didn’t quite agree with my characterization of Uncle Mike as the “town drunk” but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.  Fritz had, in fact, accompanied Uncle Mike on many of his almost-nightly sojourns out of “dry” Ross Township and across the border to Louie Winicki’s bar in Hunlock Township. Fritz would just listen to Mike talk and slowly sip one or two beers.  His take on it was that Mike was just lonely and went there for socialization.  Fritz hadn’t seemed to notice that the front seat of Mike’s car resembled a honeycomb, his having burned numerous holes in it from dropping his in-dash cigarette lighter while both he and it were “lit”.   He certainly also missed out on the night that Mike was so potted that he drove right past his own house.  Mike did do that, managing to negotiate both a sharp curve and then a steep downhill, only to bump into the Iron Bridge across Huntington Creek, where he spent the night until he sobered up.

Gramps’ old farmhouse, as I have said, lacked a central heating system.  It was almost unbearably hot upstairs in the summer.  Uncle Mike and Dad could stand it but I, at 11 years old, chose to sleep on a couch downstairs in the parlor.  It was a musty old room with furniture that may have dated back to the early-1900’s.  The most memorable item was an old hand-cranked Victrola, complete with a bunch of thick 78-RPM records.  Among them was a series of comedy records (who knew that such were recorded THAT long ago?) featuring a comic named Cal Stewart.  I just Googled and found that the one I most recall, “Uncle Josh At the Dentist’s”, was released in 1919.

As the summer of ’58 passed into autumn and the nights grew colder, sleeping downstairs in the parlor wasn’t a good option.  Around October or so, I moved upstairs to sleep in Dad’s bed, a bed which was probably the same one in which he had slept in his youth.  (This turned out to be the norm for the entire rest of the years whenever I lived with or visited Dad; he never again had living quarters with more than one bed or even more than two ROOMS.)  I  had been there only a week or so when, one night, I heard Gramps stirring around downstairs and I simply had to investigate.  Dad grumbled “Go to sleep!” as I crawled over him to get out of bed but I wasn’t deterred.  I sneaked down the stairwell, opened the door at the bottom, and peeked out.  There was Gramps, headed for the room where I used to sleep, with a BUTCHER KNIFE in his hand, muttering “Sumbitch, stealin’ my stuff!!”  My God!  Had I still been in that room and not awakened, he could have killed me!!

It took Dad just a day or two to realize we had to move out.  Right on Renold’s farm where Dad worked stood a two-room shack. (Fred Updyke had married Renold’ sister, Mildred, and the shack was initially built for them right after their marriage.  They lived there until they could build a much better home.  An old fellow named Edmund Harned had also lived there up until his death.)  It had been vacant for years but, now that Dad and I needed it, Renold was only too glad to provide it rent-free.  It was the least he could do, given that he could only pay Dad 50 cents an hour.  Had he not done so, Dad probably could have found housing elsewhere but far enough away that he couldn’t have made the daily trip to work.  

As one may be able to tell from the pictures, the shack had no foundation; it just perched on top of a couple of logs that allowed it to be readily moved.  (Present-day owner Don Stroud has moved it back from Grassy Pond Road from where it stood when I lived there. The few trees seen are the remains of what was once a very productive apple orchard.  Don uses the shack as a hunting “stand” to hide from the whitetail deer that wander up from the nearby swamp to eat the remaining apples.)

For the first few months of our residency in late 1958 and perhaps continuing into the Spring of 1959, we had no refrigerator.  (Gramp’s house had at least had that modern convenience.)  For the warmer months, Dad dug a hole in the ground behind the house in which he could store our perishable food.  He was wise enough to cover the hole with a large flat rock to keep the skunks from getting the food.  Our margarine of choice was Mrs. Filbert’s Golden Quarters.  Mickey Adams, the grocer a mile away in “mid-town” Sweet Valley, was kind enough to let us buy just one of the individually-wrapped quarter-pounds of margarine at a time.  More than that would have spoiled before we could use it.  Similarly, we bought only one quart of milk at a time.  Without a car, either Dad or I would walk the two-mile round trip for groceries.  (Further evidence of the rift between Dad and Uncle Mike is seen by the fact that Mike did have a car.  He could have stopped by every once in a while to ask “Hey, Albert, need anything from the store?”.  In all the years we lived that close to him, he NEVER did.  Every so often I’d see him “in-town” and I’d say “Hi” but that was the extent of our interaction.) While “in-town”, Dad or I would also fetch our mail.  For some reason, even though the post office was that close to us, there was no delivery to our house and Dad had to rent Box 104.  The post office was, for a time, run by George Bronson in the rear of Ord Trumbower’s store but it later moved about 150 feet East into the building where Mickey had given up his store. 

One would enter our house into the main room, which functioned as our living room, dining room, and kitchen.  (The second room, off to the right, was our bedroom with one small closet.)   In the main room was a combination coal and gas stove.  We bought bottled propane gas from Willard Benscoter in Muhlenburg and his tank stood right outside the wall from the stove, a practice still widely seen around Sweet Valley.  The left-hand side of the stove featured 4 gas burners and we used the gas, year-round, for cooking.  The right side of the stove was for burning coal which was used only for heat in the colder months.  We had a small coal supply in a run-down shed behind the house and I think we used less that one ton annually, compared to the 3 or 4 tons we used to need back in Mooretown with our central-heat furnace. (In fact, as I think of it, I’m strictly guessing at the shack’s need for coal.  I can’t remember a coal dealer EVER making a delivery.)  Anyone who has ever used coal for heating will know that the fire must be damped off overnight (had its air supply restricted) lest it burn itself out.  Dad was always the first out of bed each morning and would stir up the smoldering coals to begin bringing the room temperature back up to something close to bearable.  It was quite obvious that, overnight, the bedroom temperature had fallen below 32 degrees.  Waking up, I needed only to look at a quart of milk on the window sill next to the bed; it would be frozen solid!   I believe we got an old refrigerator in the summer of 1959, so we then had a place the next winter where it could be kept cold but not frozen.  That first winter, though was a real bugger. The biggest reason for the freezing temps inside was that the walls of the shack had no insulation.  Contributing mightily was the fact that it also lacked a foundation, which allowed the winter wind to blow beneath it.  We used to pray for snow so that we could pile it up around the base of the shack so as to block the wind.

Like Gramp’s house, our shack had no running water.  We fetched it in a pail from an old hand-operated pump on the west side of Renold’s barn about 150 feet from the shack.  The two-story barn was built into a side hill with the cellar used to store apples and potatoes.  The pump was about halfway down the hill alongside the barn and the path to it got quite icy in the winter.  More than once I slid right past the pump and had to work my way gingerly back uphill to it.  The pump was quite rusty and, upon returning with a bucketful of water, we had to wait about half an hour for all the rust flakes to settle before we could dip any to drink.  (I should NEVER have a need for Geritol.  I will NEVER suffer from iron-poor blood, given all the rust I ingested in my teen years. LOL)   I was quite lucky to have ANY friends in high school for I freely admit that I didn’t “bathe” as often in the winter as did my classmates who had running water.  We took only “pan baths” about once a week when Dad would fire up the coal stove and heat the room hot enough to allow us to get naked and wash all over.  Think of it: climbing out of bed into a less-than-32 degree room doesn’t readily lend itself to standing very long in front of a pan of water every morning before Dad had a chance to heat the room, which took about 20 minutes.  Most mornings, I’d just splash some water on my face and a couple of other important places, slap some “pit stop” (deodorant to make my “pits” stop stinking) under my arms, and be out the door.  The weekly bath was accomplished only after we’d drawn the two window shades.  Dad would take his while I was over the road somewhere watching TV and I’d take mine after he’d retired for the night.  We sent our laundry out.  For a while, Pearl Brink did it and later, Agnes Maciejczak did.  They’d pick up and deliver.

One had to be a really brave soul to venture to the outhouse in the winter.  We’d sometimes have to shovel a path in the snow to get to it.  It took a hardy person to plunk his bare butt down on a cold-as-ice seat.  We couldn’t afford toilet paper so we used both the Sunday newspapers and catalogs. (Small joke here: an old farmer had heard about a fancy new invention called “toilet paper” and wrote to Sears Roebuck requesting a quote for a gross of it.  Sears responded with “See page 124 of our catalog.”  The farmer replied “If I had your catalog, I wouldn’t need your toilet paper!”)  Years later, after I’d graduated from King’s College and finally had some money in my pocket, I bought Dad a package of Charmin.  When next I visited, the supply was gone.  Concerned, I asked “Have you had diarrhea these past few months?”  “No”, he replied “the field mice stole it to feather their nest.”

Many of our adult traits are traceable to childhood experiences and my life is proof of that.  While at Knott’s Berry Farm in California, I learned to fear electricity.  The arcade there had one machine used by teenage boys to show their girlfriends how tough they were.  One would drop a penny into the slot and then pull two levers apart.  The farther apart one pulled them, the stronger a jolt was delivered.  What did I, at 11 years old know about such things?  I was nearly knocked on my butt!  In high school, our Physics teacher had a static-electricity machine that he’d spin.  The students would touch each other, fingertip-to-fingertip forming a chain around the room.  Not ALL the student would do this, though.  You’d find me hiding with the girls in the back of the room.  Even today I have a healthy respect for electricity.  (Bobby Kunkle, on the other hand, had to learn the hard way.  He once stuck both ends of a bobby pin into a wall outlet and I think he still has the burn scars on his hand.)

In a similar vein, I learned the habit of thrift from Dad.  Even with his measly 50 cents an hour earnings, he managed to not only feed us but also clothe us, too.  Sure, things WERE cheaper back then, but not THAT much cheaper.  Come September each year, he’d give me $25 and I’d head for town to buy school clothes.  For that amount, I’d usually buy three shirts, two pairs of pants, and some underwear.  I was lucky that my feet didn’t grow that quickly and I think I bought shoes (usually “clodhoppers”) only every other year.  Those items, along with things from prior years, formed my entire school wardrobe.  ( I was 22 and taking my draft physical when I first learned that I have no arches whatsoever.  My feet are as flat as pancakes.  I later recalled that Mom used to take me to a shoe store in Luzerne where the salesman had a fluoroscope-type machine that would, essentially, X-ray my feet to help determine the size I needed.  Heck, Mom MAY have been buying me special corrective shoes for all I know.  She died when I was 6 and, in my teen years, Dad would just let me go buy my own.)

Beyond providing us with the necessities, Dad also managed to have some money for “extras”.  There were no real jobs in Sweet Valley and I, admittedly, was quite lazy.  (See more in my chapter about “Farming”.)  About every other week or so, he’d manage to have a dollar or two to hand me. Although we no longer had a car to go to the drive-in theaters, I still got to see some movies.  I’d hitchhike into the Square in Wilkes-Barre to see, mostly Elvis flicks but sometimes I’d come out of the Comerford Theater, kill some time in the park, and then go into the Paramount Theater and watch what was playing there.  The Square is way too busy a place to hitch, so I’d take a bus from near Pomeroy’s over to Stull Brothers’ hardware store on Wyoming Avenue in Kingston.  That was where Route 309 left Route 11 and folks turning left at a red light would be going slow.  I’d stand about half a block away from the light and they’d get a good look at me before deciding to stop.  By the time I got to Whitesell Brothers in Dallas, I had it made.  Many Sweet Valley folks came past there and I seldom waited there for more than 15 minutes.

Even with all those expenditures, Dad STILL managed to have some money saved up. I honestly don’t know HOW he managed but it sure put a sense of thriftiness into my character.  Throughout my adult life, I’ve more or less hewed to the thought that “So what if you only earn a nickel an hour?  Put aside one cent here and there!”  The lesson I learned from Dad in my teen years is a MAJOR reason I was able to win the award for “first in the Class of 1964 to retire”.  I retired at only 47 chiefly because I never wasted money and invested it wisely.  (Then, too, I never married, but that is a “whole other story”.)

I don’t know how much Dad saved up but, it became clear that Janet made a lucky guess and put into action her “Plan “C”.  I really can’t put a year on it but I think it must have been around 1960 or 1961.  She must have figured “I took Albert for $8,000.  Now, let’s go see if he has any more.”  Our neighbor, Russell Kitchen, came over one night and told us he’d had a call for Dad from Janet in California and she was going to call back.  I accompanied Dad to Russ’ house and stayed in the kitchen while he talked to her.  It was downright disgusting overhear him calling her “honey bunch” and other terms of endearment.  Hell, this was the woman who had already scammed him!  In this conversation, she laid on him even MORE lies, one of which had a lasting impact on Dad’s future relations with many people.  Reportedly, she had sent him several letters since the Spring of 1958 but Dad had never answered them.  He came to the conclusion that SOMEONE had been stealing his mail!  One of the folks related to his first-marriage in-laws was a part-time mail carrier but I will not name him.  Dad was dead wrong in this assumption but, from that day forth, he had reason to outright hate an entire group of people. The group grew to, eventually, include two of the three sons he’d had by his first wife! (More on them later.)  Dad bought into the pack of new lies and sent Janet whatever he had saved.  That didn’t sate her desire to rip him off but we didn’t hear from her again until 1964.  That was a most pivotal year in my life and may even deserve an entire chapter by itself. 

Like many other items in this autobiography, some things herein were simply not deeply thought out until I sat down to write it.  For this chapter, I came to ask “HOW did Janet know who to call to contact Dad in 1960 or 1961?”  After all, she had left Mooretown in the early 1950’s and really hadn’t known much about Dad.  She wouldn’t have known who his friends were or even exactly where he had ended up in 1958.  Only after several hours of pondering this did I give up and consult my best buddy, Rich Bronson.  I had overlooked the most obvious answer.  She must have saved my oldest brother Warren’s phone number up in Utica, New York from 1958.  She had had her son, Jackie, call there to say she’d had a heart attack on the plane.  Warren would have known that Dad went back to Gramps’ house in Sweet Valley and probably would have told her.  He also would have known that Russ Kitchen would be able to dig us up.  Unfortunately, I can’t contact Warren to ask him about it.  He was even more curmudgeonly than I am and may not have told me, but it doesn’t matter now; he DIED at age 78 just three days ago!

Written in April and May, 2008 by

 

Ronald E. Hontz

33 Whitcraft Lane

Shrewsbury PA 17361

(717) 235-5791

cell phone (717) 309-1402

e-mail: Sweetvalleykid@gmail.com

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