Going to Alaska
October 7, 2016
By Michael Calvert
Not yet ten, I sat on my knees at our kitchen table and slurped Cheerios. Dad and Uncle Bill sipped their morning coffee with Uncle Bill heralding bold plans. Dad was not a pessimistic, but skeptical about his grand ideas.
“I’m going to file a claim under the Homestead Act in the Alaska Territory. I’ve been reading about Peace Valley. With the midnight sun in the winter, you can get three crops a year in a greenhouse. Tomatoes the size of pumpkins, cucumbers as big as watermelons,” my Uncle Bill asserted.
“You already used the GI Bill to buy the farm. How in the world are you going to go to Alaska?” Dad asked.
“The Al-Can Highway,” said Uncle Bill with a laugh.”It will be passable next year. Some stretches only gravel, BUT…” Dad scowled as Mom served scrambled eggs and toast on melmac plates. She put salt, pepper, and the catsup Bill liked on his eggs in the middle of the table.
“Just you wait and see. First I’ll get the farm running like a well-oiled machine after I quit my job here in Columbus and move down there with Dad and Mom. Dad runs the place like farmers did when he was growing up at the turn of the century. God bless him for doing it, but I’ve got big plans for modernizing the farm.”
“I don’t know, Bill,” said Dad. A lot of men would kill for your job on the railroad.”
“I’m not quitting tomorrow, but it won’t be long. After making improvements at the farm, we’ll be on the Al-Can Highway headed to Peace Valley.” He affirmed this with a hearty laugh. Mom offered more coffee, but Dad said he needed to get to work.
Uncle Bill held out his cup saying that coffee never kept him awake. He had just got off work. Soon he was stretched out on the couch under a blanket. As always, he said, “Good night, Michael,” as I was leaving for school with my book bag and metal lunch box.
For a couple of years, Uncle Bill made the two-hour drive to help Grandpa plow and plant in the spring, mow alfalfa and hay in the summer, and harvest corn and wheat in the fall. Sometimes he didn’t sleep between shifts to be in the fields sunny days.
“I can get to the farm in an hour and a half going the back roads where there are no cops.” Mom said she worried that he would fall asleep at the wheel or make himself sick if he didn’t get more rest. He answered with a laugh.
A couple of years later, Uncle Bill moved his family to the farm, but drove back and forth to his job at the rail yard. His vision was a working farm to support his family. Milk from a few head of cattle, eggs from the chicken coop, apples and peaches from trees near the farmhouse, grapes from an arbor near the front porch, and a one-acre kitchen garden would feed his family. Jams, vegetables and fruit would be canned in Bell jars for the winter. Hogs and cows would be butchered, and hung in the smokehouse. A bountiful life.
Corn, wheat, hay, alfalfa, and soybeans would be cash crops trucked to markets in Logan and New Straitsville. More hogs and cattle were definitely planned, and Uncle Bill was evaluating sheep, llamas, and ostriches. He subscribed to Progressive Farmer and received bulletins from from the Department of Agriculture. Although he grew up in a Columbus, Uncle Bill was eager to be his own boss and manage of a successful farm.
The first summer my cousins lived on the farm, Uncle Bill asked me if I would like to help him, Grandpa and my cousin Tom, who was also eleven, bring in the hay. Of course, I would. I mowed the yard, took out the trash, and did other chores at home, but working as a farm hand in the hay fields was not a boy’s job.
Grandpa harnessed Dolly, an old black mare, with Prince, a new palmino stallion, and attached them to a mowing machine with large iron wheels, a metal seat above the axle, and a set of overlapping blades extending ten feet to the side. The triangular blades, driven by gears connected to the wheels cut the hay. A machine without an engine.
After traversing the field repeatedly to mow the hay, we stopped to eat the lunch delivered by my cousins Connie and Joyce. Grandpa’s pale blue shirt was darkened with sweat. Tom and I led the horses to the creek. Grandpa harnessed the horses to the rake, another implement with iron wheels, a moulded seat, and a row of semi-circular bars for rake the mown hay into windrows. Before the sun reached the crest of the hill to the west, the hay that had waved sinuously in the morning breeze was piled in long windrows. Grandpa harvested hay this way in his youth in the first decade of the twentieth century.
Aunt Josephine rousted us out of bed at dawn. Tom and I were soon leading cows into stanchions in the milk shed and squirting streams of warm milk into stainless steel buckets. Streaming piles of manure were deposited by the stolid beasts. Tasseled tails struck out like whips at flies on their flanks and occasionally slapped Tom and I as we bent to our task.
After we turned the cows loose and mucked out the shed, Aunt Josephine served a big breakfast. Uncle Bill, who had worked the night shift, arrived before we were half-finished.
Tom and I sat in the empty hay wagon as Grandpa harnessed Dolly and Prince on either side of the rough-hewn tongue. It was like a buckboard in the TV Westerns. The wheels and spokes were gray, weathered wood with rusty, iron rims. With Uncle Bill on the seat next to him, Grandpa flicked the reins and growled commands to the horses, addressing them by name, until we reached the hayfield and stopped next to a windrow.
All four of us grabbed pitchforks and began tossing forkfuls of hay on the wagon. Only the snorting and stomping by the horses and the chatter of birds in the trees bordering the field intruded on the silence. Sweat dampened my shirt and attracted small bees with annoying stings. As the hay piled up on the wagon supported by vertical staves, Tom and I struggled to pitch the hay high enough. We took turns climbing up and tamping down the load. The sun was directly overhead when Grandpa called a halt. Connie and Joyce appeared with lunch and another jug of cool well water, and we ate in the shade of a huge oak beside the field. Tom and I sprawled on dead leaves while Grandpa and uncle Bill took the wagon to the barn.
A new hoist with an 8-foot claw was one of Uncle Bill’s innovations. A system of pulleys, tracks, and ropes pulled by Prince enabled them to put all the hay loaded onto the wagon with pitchforks into the mow in half an hour. Tom and I were disappointed when they returned with an empty wagon so soon.
We brought in more hay that afternoon and every day when it would not mildew on the ground or in the barn. I acquired a deep tan, ate heartily, slept soundly, and took satisfaction in my role as one of the hands.
The following summer, Uncle Bill presented a new Ferguson tractor, gray with the name in bright red letters. Dolly had died during the winter, and Prince was bartered for the corn from two fields on the Wahl’s place. The tractor’s two small front wheels, inches apart, and the tall, wide rear tires, reminded me of a giant’s tricycle. The perforated metal seat behind the steering wheel and next to a long gear shift was high in the air. At Uncle Bill’s urging, I climbed up to the seat, sat with my legs dangling, and stretched my arms to grip the steering wheel.
“This Ferguson’s got a lot more than the two horsepower we got from Dolly and Prince,” said Uncle Bill. “We’ve invested in some new livestock, too,” as he motioned me to the upper pasture. “You’re looking at genuine Merinos. Their wool gets top dollar, and it grows back fast!” The black hooves, snouts, and eyes made the sheep more menacing than those i remembered from my children’s books. Their guttural cries sounded like threats.
“Looks like a good prices for corn, wheat, and hay this year. Wool will bring in some cash. This farm is going to work out for us.”
The next summer when I was thirteen, Uncle Bill had a new task for Tom and me. He led me to a pile of stacked cement blocks from a demolished building on Route 33. Our job was to chisel off the encrusted mortar so Uncle Bill could build walls for a shed for the hay baler he bought at a foreclosure auction in Perry County. Grandpa noted with a hint of skepticism “It’s a mighty big investment.”
“This will get me in condition for football,” I said as I put on the work gloves, picked up the mallet and chisel, and began chipping off mortar. Uncle Bill watched me for a while and said, “I’ve never laid block, but it can’t be too hard. Maybe you can help with that, too. Always good to learn a trade.
Tom and I became adept at hitting the chisel, not our thumbs, knocking mortar off with a few well-placed blows, and piling up stacks of cleaned blocks. Meanwhile Uncle Bill was on his back under the baler repairing the gear box and differential. The gasoline-powered John Deere machine had a blade for cutting the hay, a conveyor for feeding it into a compressor, and a chute for expelling bales bound with wire. Uncle Bill hailed it as advanced technology, but Grandpa lamented that a farmer had to be a skilled mechanic to make a modern farm work.
On Sunday mornings, my cousins and I dressed for church. Connie and Joyce wore bonnets secured with hair clips. Although he was not Catholic, Grandpa always drove Grandma and the children to St. Mary’s in New Straitsville and attended the nine o’clock mass. Grandpa told me slyly that he had always taken his girlfriends to church. Aunt Josephine was not Catholic and a divorced woman to boot. Uncle Bill had not been a practicing Catholic since he returned from service as a seabee in the South Pacific.
One Sunday, conversations stopped when Uncle Bill emerged from the bedroom in a dated brown suit with a white shirt, and asked Grandpa to lend him a tie. We piled into Uncle Bill’s sedan. Grandpa gave him directions to the modest brick church on a hilltop in the oldest part of the town. We walked under tall elms and oaks past the cemetery with birth dates from the early 1800s to the open double doors.
Grandma led us to our usual pew near the front. The tall candles between vases of blue hydrangea blossoms on the altar were already lit. The pastor entered the sanctuary from the side followed by two altar boys, stood at the foot of the altar, and intoned the first lines of the Latin liturgy in a deep resonant voice. The altar boys’ response was barely audible. After the introductory prayers, the priest mounted the steps to the altar while parishioners deployed the hinged kneelers and shifted to their knees with a muffled rumble.
I leaned forward and glanced at Uncle Bill, still surprised that he was there. His head was bowed, eyes closed, and hands folded on the back of the next pew. I looked away to avoid embarrassing him with my staring.
After mass, the car was quiet until Grandma broke into the silence with her plans for Sunday dinner. After Tom said he didn’t like spinach, my cousins commented on their likes and dislikes. Grandpa wondered aloud if the cattle should be moved to the other pasture.
Everyone shed their Sunday best for everyday clothes. Grandma and Josephine started dinner. Connie and Joyce set the table and played card games. Tom and I threw stones at chickens after Uncle Bill and Grandpa went for a walk down the lane toward the mailbox even though there would be no mail on Sunday.
Aunt Josephine carried steaming dishes of potatoes, green beans, and cauliflower to the table. Grandma added a bowl of salad, and Aunt Josephine placed a platter of meatloaf and carrots in the center prompting a murmur of approval. Afterwards Connie and Joyce cleared the plates to make way for slices of neapolitan ice cream from Kroger’s.
When everyone was seated, Uncle Bill quieted the chatter by saying, “Now hear this,” a bit of Navy lingo he used frequently. “I hope you’re enjoying this ice cream, but we won’t be buying desserts for a while. We’ve got to tighten our belts until we get the farm running right. We’re going to sell half the herd and butcher seven of the hogs to tide us over. We’ll be fine after we get the corn crop to the market in October. No need to worry. OK?” Everyone nodded as spoons clicked on ice cream bowls.
Before I left for home, all the hay was in the barn, and Tom and I had the cement blocks cleaned and stacked. I was sure my biceps had grown as I viewed them privately before the mirror. I was ready for the football season.
In December, Mom opened her weekly letter from Grandma. Phone lines had not reached the farm, and only emergencies justified the expense of a long-distance call from a pay phone in town. Mom announced, “Your uncle got a job at a new plant in Logan. He starts next week.”
“What about the farm? How will he take care of the livestock, crops and machinery and build up the farm?” I asked.
“Oh, he and Grandpa will keep it going, but it’s hard to support a family with a farm these days. I’m sure he got the job to pay bills and put food on the table.”
I was stunned. I had never doubted that Uncle Bill would succeed with all his plans to make the farm work. His boyish enthusiasm, inexhaustible energy and dogged determination seemed to conquer every problem. He fixed the hay baler, learned how to butcher hogs, and got hay in the barn even when it rained almost every day.
I had spent my last summer helping at the farm. I spent the next four summers on the golf course caddying to earn money for my tuition at St. Charles. I seldom had time to visit during high school and college years, but when I did, I took note that the cement blocks had become part of the landscape, entwined by vines and surrounded by tall weeds and a couple of saplings.
After graduate school, I relocated to Baltimore, married and had two children. During a visit to Columbus over the Fourth of July, all the Calverts were invited to a birthday party for Uncle Bill at Joyce’s home. He sported a gray ponytail and stood in the front of a black Harley with several young men who were introduced as his sons-in-law.
“This here is my nephew, Michael, he was an extra hand for getting in the hay. Damn good worker,” Bill said followed by his laugh that I triggered memories from prior years at the farmhouse and in the hayfields. We reminisced about Dolly and Prince, the hay hoist, and Aunt Josephine’s big meals at the end of our days in the fields. The others drifted away.
“How about a ride on my hog,” he said pointing to the Harley with an extended seat for a passenger. “I usually stay below the speed limit, but I’ve had her over a hundred.” Again, the laugh, good-natured but mocking.
“Not now. Maybe later.”
“I’ll be eligible for retirement in three years. Jo and I are planning to do some touring on this bike. The Al-Can Highway is paved now. We’re going to Alaska to see Peace Valley, Mount McKinley, and Anchorage,” he concluded with a laugh.
“Great! What a trip. Exciting,” I said recalling his vows to go to Alaska many years before. I was skeptical, but I hoped I would see a snapshot of him and Aunt Josephine on the Harley with snow-capped Mount Mckinley in the background.