I reckon the best thing a Dad could ever give his kids growing up would be eleven acres of West Virginia dirt to play on. It included a two-story, four-room house for us to all squeeze into, with a gas stove that worked from tanks that a man had to bring up from Moundsville. If the gas ran out, it had a wood stove we called “Mariah” that would warm us up and keep Mom cooking. From the front porch, we could see the quarter-acre strawberry patch on the next level spot down, and beyond that and above the tree line, the blue-green hills lurking far across the other side of the valley. Below the strawberry patch and hidden by the brush, the creek had dammed itself up to give us a little swamp that was always full of frogs and various other slimy critters, the thoughts of which warned us not to jump in for a swim no matter how hot it got. Sometimes the layer of lily pads made it all green and you could hardly see the water. But we knew the water was under there and not to try and walk over it.
To the left of the house was the tenth-of-a-mile driveway carved out of the sloping hill that curved around the back of the house. The highway went on up to Wood Hill, where the Peppy Steppers had the 4-H club that we never got to join because we were originally from the city and never got learned-up enough about farming to pass the tests. When the highway was being built long before, they’d pushed gravel down the hillside making a slope we called “the desert” because nothing would grow on it. It ended at the edge of the woods and when we passed into the shade on a hot summer day, it was like walking into an air-conditioned movie theater. On around the other side of the house were the wood-frame chicken house and the concrete-block one-car garage that Dad had built on his sober Sundays.
Past the chicken coop, the flat part of the land reached over to the bank that had a tree stump on the edge where Dad would chop off the chickens’ heads when we wanted to cook and eat them. We kids would have to pick which ones because Dad didn’t know which was pets and which was just chickens. At the chopping stump, we’d tie a clothesline around the chickens’ feet and, after the head was chopped off, we’d sling them over the bank and watch them flap around until all the blood ran out and they were dead. Then we’d haul them back up and dunk them into the witches’ cauldron full of boiling water on the concrete-block barbecue grill Dad had built, then, after they got good and hot, move them to another cauldron full of ice-cold water. That would loosen the feathers enough to just wipe them off rather than having to jerk-pluck them out. Dad would then perform the surgery to remove the guts and other yucky stuff. He showed us how to be careful to cut the gall bladder away from the liver without breaking it, telling us that the green bile would make it taste bitter. But he only showed us and never suggested that we try it for ourselves, so we didn’t have to worry about that. Sometimes guts or slime or blood would splash out in his face and he’d get mad and cuss real bad. We never got scared, though, because he never hit anyone. He just said mean stuff to my brother and sister, but not to me because I looked like him. They both looked more like Mom with curly hair and all.
On school days, my older brother and sister and I would walk up the driveway to wait for the school bus. We could hear it grumbling its way up the highway about a half-a-minute before we could see it coming round the bend. Right where we stood, there was a wooden post about six inches in diameter stuck in the ground near the mailbox to hold a red reflector to warn the passing cars about the dug-out culvert that collected rain water to carry it to the other side of the highway, by way of an underground pipe, almost big enough to crawl through but too mucky to try. We never paid the culvert much mind because the tall grass growing out of it didn’t make it anywhere near as interesting as our real-live swamp. But sometimes after a gully washer, the pipe would clog up with sticks and mud and make a small river across the highway that was fun to stomp in and float sticks on. But mostly, the post itself offered the most entertainment. If we pounded it with a stick, thousands of ants would come out and we’d smack them to see how many we could squish before the bus stopped. The mashed ants smelled a little bit like boiling rice – not good enough to make you hungry but not bad enough to make your stomach grumble. We’d forget the ants when we’d climb onto the school bus.
I had the honor of closing be bus door with the hand-crank. I would be the patrol boy for awhile before the bigger and older Caulfield boy took over about ten minutes up the road, just past the hairpin turn. The bus would then turn onto the dirt road called “Grandview” to pick up more kids, and that’s where Nancy Yoho would get on, with her long and soft hair held back by a bandanna or something. She was in the same classroom as me but in the grade higher so I never got a chance to tell her that I loved her. One day the bus ran over her Lassie-type dog and she ran off the bus crying and didn’t get back on till the next day. Everyone understood and was a little bit glad that it wasn’t their own dog. Ours was an Airedale named Muggsy and he’d protect my sister from the giant rooster that liked to peck at her ankles. She’d go stand by Muggsy and the rooster’d go away but wouldn’t stop strutting even though everyone knew he was really scared.
After we’d get back on the highway from Grandview Road, it was another 20 minutes till you could see the four-room, two-story school house built on top of the hill just before coming to the store-and-gas-station past the sign that said, “Limestone, Unincorporated, Population 67.” So that’s what they named the school: Limestone Grade School, LGS, school colors: green and white.
The first year I went there was for the third grade. Before that, the four rooms were big enough for two grades in each. But in the year I started, it had a first grade with as many kids as any two other grades. So they had to mix them up and even put desks in the gym that was in another building in the back that looked like it’d been built later on. Soon they had a bond issue to get the money to make the school bigger. We didn’t know what that meant, but it was a fun thing to say, “bond issue.” So the school got bigger but never so big that I got in a grade all by itself. I always shared the class with the next level – like third grade on the left and fourth on the right, with the teacher going from one side to the other every half hour. I was lucky because each year as the first-graders pushed us up, I was in a half with the lower grade of the two and I always knew what was coming the next year, sort of like the previews in the movie theater. So when we moved back to Wheeling for the eighth grade, I already knew what was coming.
Limestone Grade School once asked my Dad to be the president of the PTA because his real job was a businessman up in Wheeling. They thought he’d be smarter than the farmers. But he’d always drink whiskey after work, the effects of which would show up at the meetings. So they only asked him for the one year and never asked him again. We never even went to the meetings after that either, which made us a bit sad because at night the school yard was completely different with no teachers and we could play any way we wanted. That might not have been too good though, because it was one of those nights that I chipped my front tooth and never got it fixed until 30 years later when I got in a brawl in a bar in Arizona. The tooth got knocked out but I got a new one for free when I told them it actually happened when I fell of a ladder at work. Shortly after that, my sister said I was turning into being like my Dad, so, after thinking about it a while and not wanting to die at 54, I stopped drinking all together and hung up the hard-party hat for good.
One day when we went up to the highway to wait for the school bus, we saw that the grass-filled culvert was gone. Instead there was a big square hole dug out and we immediately guessed they were making it big enough to not clog up during the gully washers. The hole smelled as good as fresh dirt always does, and we started looking along the walls to see if they had cut any fishing worms in half. We didn’t really want them, we just wanted to see, and sure enough, there were plenty of them with icky stuff oozing out. Whole worms last a long time if you put them in the ice box with the right kind of dirt, but the half ones don’t. So we just left them be.
All of a sudden we saw a little black thing with shiny fur pop out of one of the walls and start scurrying around the bottom of the hole. We quickly figured out it was a mole that had been digging along underground in his normal way but didn’t know the hole was there because he was blind and couldn’t see the light. My big brother jumped down in to try to pick him up – carefully at first to make sure he didn’t bite. He figured out that if he moved one hand in front of the other real fast, the mole would scurry along thinking he was on an endless highway. He handed me the mole to let me try, and after dropping him a few times, I figured out how to do it. I let him run for a while and then handed him to my sister to let her try. While she was figuring it out, I said we should call him Herman because that was the name that just popped into my head. My sister asked me how I knew it was a boy and I told her it had to be because girls don’t go digging around in the dirt like that. I said there were probably no girl moles. She told me that was stupid because they need girl moles to grow up to be mommies or otherwise there wouldn’t be any more moles. She had a point, but I still couldn’t think of a mole as being a girl. My brother took it and held it upside down to look if it had a dick, but he couldn’t tell. He said it wasn’t anything like the rabbits that we had in the hutches. Then we heard the bus grumbling and decided to just put the mole back in the culvert and see if it was there when we got back home. We figured that if we took him along on the bus to school, he’d wiggle enough to get out of our pocket and maybe get squished. Or if he got loose, he’d just dig a new tunnel somewhere and we’d never see him again. When we got home that afternoon, I ran across the highway to see if he was in the culvert, but he wasn’t.
Usually when we’d get back from school, it would be a few hours before Dad would come home. We’d go back up to the top of the driveway and wait, but lots of times he would be real late or wouldn’t come at all. So we’d walk down into Moundsville where the two bars were and there’d be his car parked. We’d have to guess which he was in but it was always one of them. He’d buy us sodas while he finished his drink or even had a few more, depending on who was listening to him talk. Then he’d drive us home and when we’d get to the top of the driveway, he’d stop and let my brother slide in on the left side and steer the car down the driveway. He’d be going for his driver’s license first, so he was the only one who got to do that. My sister and I would get to do it later when we were older. On the day of the mole, we went up to wait for Dad and looked in the culvert, but it still hadn’t come back.
But the next morning, the mole was back! We figured he’d forgot the culvert hole was there and fell in again. It seemed like he remembered us because he wasn’t quite as scared, so we played with him until the bus came. When we got home that afternoon, I went across the highway and found out there had been a tragedy. They’d come and lined the whole culvert with concrete and there was no way the mole could get in. I thought about him crawling around, lost and wondering where to go. But soon I forgot and went down to collect the eggs and play with our goat that we’d named Hubbsy after the principal of Limestone Grade School named Mr. Hubbs.
The next morning while waiting for the bus, all we could think about was Herman. We figured that he’d come along and bump his little pink snout against the concrete wall of the culvert. My sister said we shouldn’t worry because since he was blind, that he had a compass built into his brain to keep him from getting lost. I said he’d probably just turn left and hug along the wall to the end and then go hug against the next wall until it ended and then go on to find his way. My brother asked me, “Why left?” and I told him because that’s the way I’d go. He didn’t say anything more and just looked away staring at nothing.
In the summer after I finished the seventh grade, we moved back to Wheeling to be closer to the better high schools and what not, and not to have to drive so far all the time. After high school, my brother joined the Air Force, my sister got married and started having babies, and I joined the Navy to see what the rest of the world was like. After the Navy, I worked as a telecom technician and engineer until I retired in South America, which reminds me of the West Virginia farm, only without winter. After the Air Force, my brother went to college to study physics on the GI Bill and then went to work for a big computer company until he retired in Colorado. My sister stayed in Wheeling and kept having babies until she had six, then moved to Arizona to retire after they all grew up.
I’d gone back to look for the farm twice after going to my high school reunions in Wheeling for 25 and 35 years, but couldn’t find it because I was looking for it from the highway. The hairpin turn was still there and Limestone Grade School had more buildings than ever. But I couldn’t find the driveway because there was no break in the guard rail. But after my 45-year reunion in 2006, I went back again and came up from the bottom. I took the highway down into Moundsville and after the last turn onto First Avenue, kept as far right as I could, knowing the highway was above me. Near the end of the last street closest to the hill, I talked to some men working in an auto repair shop and they told me that there used to be a driveway that started at the end of their parking lot, but it had all grown over with weeds because the folks had moved away. But I could park there and walk up if I wanted to.
A little way up the overgrown driveway, I saw the swamp and knew I was in the right place. I continued on up past where the strawberry patch was, and finally saw the garage with the door broken out but filled in with some glass doors like the kind for a regular house. It looked like someone had tried to live in it for a while. The whole thing was leaning a bit to the right and some vines had grown onto the roof. But the four-room, two-story house was gone. I started taking pictures and walking around, trying to remember where everything was. Then I saw a bathtub in the weeds and immediately recognized the nozzle on the spigot where we used to push on a small hose and sprayer to make a sit-down shower. I started up the hill where I supposed the driveway had been and when I got to the highway stepped over the guard rail and crossed. The wooden post had been replaced with a steel one, but it still had a red reflector. After pushing away some grass, I saw the note I had scratched in the wet concrete of the culvert with a stick on the top edge, so many years before, “Herman 10/7/53 BIP.” I’d figured he was alive when I wrote it, so it meant “Be in Peace.” I wondered why I hadn’t thought to look for the culvert in my first two searches, but then I reckoned it was better to find it this way because, just like violins and wine, nostalgia gets better with age.
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