Yes, I am getting old. Yet I feel like my life has been more fortunate than younger or future generations. My great grandfather once told me the same about his life.
Not that life is bad now. If anything, many things are easier. However, not all memories from the old days were good. My family, like most, did not own an air conditioner until I was 18. This meant sleeping in hot rooms with fans blowing additional hot air and consequently little sleep. Windows were open and a hole in the screen meant bugs to bug you – including mosquitoes.
Younger kids were always afraid of the “Boogieman” climbing through the window and getting them. A bright day was never frightening. A dark night in the exact yard seemed to hide evil behind every bush and tree. The “Boogieman” never carried off anyone I knew of, although I left him cookies and a cool drink with precise directions on how to find my little brother’s room – didn’t work.
Insects were a challenge to us in the old days before insect-bite sticks appeared on the market. Throwing hay bales, fishing and playing baseball meant that severe chigger bites covered your legs and everywhere besides, making sleep even more impossible. Many of you reading this column painfully remember this torment. Clorox baths gave some relief, but the next day you had a whole new set of bites.
Today I have a gun for the “Boogieman,” chigger medicine, central air and no trouble sleeping, especially when night temperatures are over 90 degrees!
Kids made their own fun in the last of our pre-electronic age before cell phones, computers, iPads or big screen televisions. We had the same outdoors that youth enjoy today and we did.
Fireflies were an every night adventure. We caught a jar full and placed them in our rooms for an amazing lightshow. Even digging for fish worms, or catching crickets and grasshoppers for fish bait was great fun. Occasionally we stumbled across a big snake while crashing through the weeds. Someone would catch the hapless reptile and then we would play with it before release. The snake was always seemed happy to go.
Country kids had some unique pleasures. For example, we had milk-can coolers that made watermelons ice cold and farm ponds filled with fish, generally catfish, bluegill and bass. About once or twice a month during warm weather someone would decide to build a bonfire by the pond and everyone would spend the evening. My Ozarks friends did the same by their clearwater rivers.
The adults would sit and chat while the kids chased fireflies, played hide and seek or watched catfish rods. There was always good food and homemade cookies or cake. Farm women know how to cook!
Occasionally the catfish were biting and enough were caught to skin and throw in a propane-gas-powered pot of hog lard. Few meals were ever better than freshly caught catfish and ice cold watermelon. A few frog legs were occasionally added to dinner and they were good.
Naturally there were many side dishes to go with the fish. Garden vegetables and homemade dishes created from scratch were cooked by those same wonderful country women.
My great grandmother made the best apple or blackberry cobbler in a bluish pan dotted with white specks. She cooked her creations over the coals. The well-cooked fruit would pour over the sides. There were never leftovers.
Horseshoes were thrown by the adults until dark. I once watched several men attempting to throw horseshoes by kerosene lantern light until a horseshoe bounced out of control and slammed into the lantern, busting glass and sending flames everywhere. That was the last lantern-lighted horseshoe game I ever witnessed.
We always had logging paths cut through our farms and occasionally an older cousin would take us on rides in their old pickup. Of course they drove faster than would have been tolerated by their fathers and we went bouncing down through the woods, whooping and hollering with each bone-jarring bounce off the smooth-leather bench seats. The headlights darted from bush to tree and the woods looked different at night.
The younger kids or even unsuspecting men from the city generally were taken on snipe hunts by older kids or mischievous adults. Then they would sit with a bag and gently say, “Snipe, snipe, snipe,” until they gave up or realized this was a dirty trick. Snipe do exist in marshes, but these long-legged shore birds are seldom found in deep woodlots unless they migrate into swampy woods and they are smarter than to go near and voice saying their name. Of course, an adult always hid in the woods to make sure their victim did not get lost.
We all wandered around the woods at night without fear. We had done this most of our lives and knew where to go and how to navigate. Cold weather coon hunts at night were part of the reason. Several of the kids I grew up with made fine soldiers in Vietnam because of their knowledge of the woods, especially at night, and their hunting expertise. They all survived jungle warfare and made it home, but a couple were badly wounded.
Eventually we all grew up and moved from the country. Many are living in cities now, while a few still manage to create meager livings off small farms. The older folks are gone. But I would give almost anything to hear those beautiful voices around that pond bank, talking or laughing or tasting one of my grandmother’s blackberry cobblers cooked to perfection.
So now I know why the old folks talked about their good old days when I was young. I imagine my ramblings seem silly to younger generations like the old folks did to me. But sometimes you just have to find a way back – even if it’s only in your mind.
– Kenneth Kieser, a veteran outdoors writer and member of the Waterfowlers Hall of Fame and National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, writes a weekly outdoors column for The Examiner. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.