Jeb Monge column: Backyard fun growing up in Tracy, Minn.
We had a large backyard. Living on the corner in Tracy, Minn., gave us lots of space to play, garden and so forth.
Mom got a chicken from one of her piano students. She grew up on a farm outside of Madison, Minn., so she knew how to butcher a live chicken. I was about 6 when I had this experience with her. She took me and the chicken out next to the alley where there was a three foot high wire mesh which was the garbage burner. Back then we burned the garbage rather than have a truck pick it. It was always fun to stand around the fire as it burned.
There was a large stump of a tree in that area. The stump was about 2 feet in diameter. Mom held the chicken in one hand and had a hatchet in the other. I didn't know what to expect. She told me: "We have kill it, of course." She laid the head and neck of the bird on the chopping block and proceeded to chop it off.
That was gruesome, but what followed it was hilarious. As soon as the head came off of the chicken, it began running around and around with blood spurting all over the place. I was horrified as well as titillated. I cried and laughed at the same time. It seemed like forever that the chicken ran around, but finally it fell to the ground.
Then Mom and I went up by the picnic table and proceeded to pluck the feathers out. We had a delicious chicken dinner that night. I am surprised that my experience did not take the joy out of the meal.
A friend of mine at the seminary grew up on a farm in northwest Wisconsin. He was a vegetarian long before it was popular. I asked him why, and he responded: "I saw the cattle grow up and then led off to be slaughtered. They had become my friends, and each one had a name. I could not tolerate eating them.
One day, Dad brought home a long pole, plywood for a backboard and basketball basket. We already had the basketball. Don got the shovel out right away and began digging a hole. He then bolted the plywood onto the pole followed by the rim. Then he got some sand and cement and mixed it. We put the pole in the ground, measured up 10 feet and Don filled the hole with the cement. We spent hours out there playing basketball. It was on the Fifth Street side of the lot, so we had lots of room to play.
The only problem we had was the bumps in the ground. When we tried to dribble, the ball often shot off to one side of the other. So we learned to play without dribbling, passing it to one another rather than dribbling. I guess that is often the best way to get down the court and move the ball from side to side. So, Bob and I benefited from the practice. We both played basketball in junior and senior high school.
The side yard was the baseball diamond. A neighbor once told me as he was passing by that we were ruining the grass. I told Dad, and it is one of two times that I heard him swear. He said: "Hell, I've been trying to kill that grass anyway. Go ahead and play all you want."
Home base was up by the sidewalk on the Emory Street side of the yard. First base was the tree on the Fifth Street side. Second base was a baseball glove which the hitting team was not using. Third base was the side porch of the house. We used our field throughout preschool and grade school. Finally, we began hitting the ball so far, we had to play at the city baseball field. Hitting became the one thing I could do well in softball and baseball.
Dad was a left-hander, so whoever used his glove had to turn it backwards. As a result Bob and I learned how to bat and catch with from both sides of the plate. In fact, Bob went on to bat only left-handed and also played golf with his left hand.
We also played tag using the entire yard. The bush in the front was home. We took turns being "it."
Mowing the yard was another thing. There was no such thing as a power mower. We had a push mower. When we took turns mowing was one time we did not appreciate having such a big yard. I remember pushing that thing from south to north the length of the lot. I didn't really swear, but I remember being quite disgusted pushing that thing forever. Thank goodness we had a big garden.
Mom had planted asparagus alongside the alley in the back. I did not eat asparagus, but I did enjoy cutting it with Mom. She tried to get me to eat it but failed.
When I think of all of the chores we had to do to keep everything going, I do not feel angry about it. That is, except weeding that stupid garden. Kneeling alongside a row of vegetables with the sun bearing down and the humidity was painful to young Jeb.
We felt needed when we did the chores. We also felt as if we were adult when we did them. Also, it was often a time we spent with Mom, and that was fun. Again, Dad was at the store 60 hours a week, so he was never around to do chores.
Dad always was glad to have us come down to the store and visit him. He had two chairs in the back. He spent time reading during his breaks. He was an insatiable reader, if I may use that word. When he was home, he was always reading a book. Of course, he read the Minneapolis Star which was the evening paper. On Sunday afternoons he and Mom read as they listened to the opera on the radio.
When he retired, he was happy as a lark. He could read all day long. When his emphysema got really bad, Mom went to the library once a week and picked him up five or six books to read during the week.
In a way I feel kind of bad for kids today because they don't seem to have a lot of these everyday tasks to do. It is cheaper to buy a cake than to fix one. Licking the bowl of the cake mix and the frosting bowl were highlights.
Baking bread was a major task, but I liked it. We used a large metal container with a handle on top. The container was about 2 feet high and 15 inches in diameter. There was a handle with a curved, vertical bar which went down into the flour mix after it was blended together. We had to turn the handle around and around in order to turn air into the mix. I think that was the reason. When that was done, we helped Mom grease the bread pans and form the dough into loaves. After they had risen, we put them into the gas oven, and then we smelled it bake. The best part was to eat some of the bread right out of the oven. It was warm and melted the butter. It was absolutely heaven.
Also, when the four older boys were babies, Mom did not have small bottles of baby food to give to us. She had to make applesauce and then strain through cheese cloth, so we could eat and digest the food. This was true of vegetables and fruits. I assume she did the same with meat.
When Dave was born in 1945, I think we had bottled baby food, so she no longer had to do that.
You can see that being a mom or dad were huge jobs. There was no such thing as a 40-hour week for either of them.
Besides long hours of work, they were responsible citizens and members of our church. Dad taught Sunday school, was on the church council, in church choir, helped with the Fathers-Sons Picnic and the meals at church - pancakes and then meatballs along with Brotherhood. He also was on the school board and a member of the fire department. Things did not get done in our churches, schools and community unless citizens got involved.
Mom directed the choir at church and played the organ. She belonged to a music club, the piano teachers guild and reading club.
We boys were busy with music, sports, Luther League, church choir, Sunday school and so on. And we did not have organized sports until seventh grade.
One experience I had in Junior Legion baseball catching for the team. At one game, Gail Brekken was pitching. Somehow the ball took a quick turn, just a small one, and the ball hit between my third and fourth fingers of my right hand. One of the fathers took me to the doctor in Balaton, Minn., the town we were playing in. He wrapped my whole hand in tape.
I went to Dr. Valentine in Tracy, and by that time I had a rash all over my hand. I had to put a pink cream on the skin to heal it. So I walked around with pink hand for a week.
After that experience I got bat shy, that is, I blinked when the batter swung, and played second base from then on. As I said, I did not do so well catching grounders, but I managed to survive out there.
This has gone a long way from the back yard, but that's OK. You don't mind, do you? Of course, not.