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A Lucky American Childhood
By PAUL ENGLE
UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESSCopyright © 1996 the University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.
First memory of Mother: she had taken me to the Linn County Fair at Central City, Iowa, a pleasant place with trees along the Wapsipinicon River. Dad talked with old cronies down at the horse barn and watched the harness races while Mother and I visited the food and sewing exhibitions and talked with Uncle Charlie in the cattle barn where he was competing with his Jersey dairy cows. After a few hours of lemonade and pop (I was only four), nature startled me, and I said, "Momma, I gotta go."
Mother took my hand and led me to the little wooden buildings marked "Men" and "Women." But which? As almost a male, I should have gone to the Men's, but Mother didn't want to turn me loose among the race drivers, farmers, trapeze performers, strange men. She took me into the Women's and led me to a toilet. I stood in front of it, shocked by all the sturdy farm wives lifting their dresses around me, shocked by what I saw, and unable to "go."
"Momma, let's get outta here," I begged, putting my problem back in my skinny shorts. As always, she understood, took my hand, and led me outside. I told her, "Wait," and ran around the corner of the Women's building by a trailer. I was happily making my little water when a tall woman with a tiny pair of shorts and a piece of cloth around her bulging breasts, spangled and glittering in the hot Iowa sun, came out of a tent marked "Arabian Nights Dancers" in wriggling letters. She had red slippers with toes that turned up and back in a circle. "Hey, you little bastard," she yelled, "you can't do that here." Nature fought with fear. I had to go, but I was scared. I went on going. She slapped my face. I continued to go. Then she saw how small I was, leaned over, breasts bursting at the jeweled cloth, patted the top of my head, looked at what I was holding in my right hand, and said softly (I remember it as seductively), "Still, it is kinda cute," and went back into her Arabian tent. Recalling her voice now, I suspect she was from south Chicago. In that moment I was introduced to the delicate world of dangerous women. I have had lesser praise since that quick, warm remark at the Linn County Fair on a hot Iowa afternoon by the corner of the Arabian tent. It was the sight of that woman's bare body, not the slap, that stopped me. I pushed my smallness back into my pants. Mother had been standing at the other corner of the tent, too startled to act. She came over, saw that I was properly buttoned up, took my hand, led me to the Methodist Ladies' tent, and bought me a bottle of strawberry pop. I knew that if I drank it, there would be another crisis in an hour, but after an experience like that, a man needs a drink.
I don't remember Mother feeding me, dressing me, bathing me, picking me up, in those first four years, but the simple gesture of making a tiny stream of water on dusty ground with the big voice of a beautiful woman yelling at me was the most dramatic moment of my life until then. The image of that exotic "Arabian" dancer with the midwestern voice still dances in my mind.
My second clear memory of Mother is watching her in a half-size oak rocker combing her long, long hair. From the time she was born to the day she died she never cut her hair, so that in her last years it hung down to her thighs. It was thick, glossy, abundant, shining the more the more she pulled through it her little, black, double-edged comb with its very fine teeth. As she drew it with quick, graceful strokes of her arm, she rocked in rhythm with the comb's motion. I sat in my own tiny rocker and stared at the glory of it, proud of a mother who owned such a marvelous, living decoration. (The lady next door had recently "bobbed" her hair, which had also been long; Dad called her a "bob-haired bandit" because, he said, without her dense hair wrapped around her face, it looked like a revolver.) I had such a miserably small amount of hair that to see so much was to see a miracle. After each day's combing, my mother braided it and then coiled it on top of her head, where it was neat and out of the way, for she had hard, dirty, vigorous work to do.
On the morning after I returned from three years at Oxford, when I came down for breakfast, Mother was rocking and combing, braiding and coiling. I almost wept at seeing again the homely, feminine, beautiful, and, above all, personal act in a private home. I was fresh from hearing Hitler howling at masses of uniformed men in Munich, streets-long columns of Nazi Brownshirts yelling back at him, their right arms raised in that outstretched salute which was not a soldier's recognition of another soldier but a gesture of aggression. I had listened to Mussolini screaming at his Blackshirts in Rome. I had been in the immense line of people in Red Square waiting to enter the tomb of Lenin and look at the short body of that man radiating revolution, the line going up and down the length of the Square many times, shuffling in silence, their eyes fixed on that square block of marble where they begged for comfort and power. Inside the tomb, guards kept everyone moving, fearful that if anyone stopped and stared that person would claim a miracle. I had worshipped with many hundreds under the rose window in Chartres Cathedral, the sun blooming through the many colors of that incredible stained glass and nourishing the crops in the flat farmland around the city. On some of those farms there must have been descendants of the peasants who are pictured in the window. I had watched a motorized German army rushing along a Black Forest road at a speed never before seen in military history, troop carriers with wide benches with soldiers sitting with their arms folded over their chests, their heads up, their eyes lifted, as if they were worshipping the face of their Fuehrer.
Now I was home, in that house where the woman combing the lush strands of her long hair had borne a little boy named Paul. Above us was the bedroom where she had groaned in childbirth and I had drawn my first breath with a human cry.
My third strong memory of Mother is sitting with her in the backyard of our house at 1602 5th Avenue SE, Cedar Rapids, Iowa. We had a cherry tree, which Mother, in a fit of extravagance when she was young, had bought from a traveling salesman who was probably Johnny Cherry Seed. It flourished, gave us a huge crop of cherries each year, which I picked with a short ladder at the risk of my life. (My cousin fell out of the tree when reaching for an especially large cherry and broke his arm, which was set, then had to be broken again and reset because it was crooked; I just assumed that cousins were more awkward than I was.) It was fruit-canning season. I was five. The day before, Mother had cut her thumb deeply when slicing a piece of tough beef. The slash was bleeding again and I was scared, but she took a piece of gauze bandage, wrapped it tightly around her thumb, showed me how to tear the end of the bandage down the middle to make two strips, wrap them around the thumb, and tie them twice. She had a dishpan of cherries on her lap and a big white bowl on the grass by her chair. She would use her thumb to split and "pit" the cherries, then drop them in the bowl. Hour after hour. I helped in my feeble way, sometimes leaving a stem on the cherry, sometimes popping an especially ripe, red one in my mouth.
Perhaps it was the acid in the cherries, or the pressure of pitting, but by the end of the morning her thumb began to hurt. Then Mother noticed that the bandage had turned red. She took it off and found that it had been bleeding badly, dripping blood under the bandage and into the cherries. "Paul, we've got to finish," she said quietly, put the bandage back on, and did not stop until the job was done. We had mother's blood in the cherry pies and jam she made from them. It was a standard morning at the Engle house.
A fourth memory: my brother, ten years my elder, was always called Bob, although his actual names were Charles Glenn Engle (he was named for two uncles, Charles Reinheimer and Glenn Engle, who was of course always called Billie). In the chicken coop in the backyard he had a small flock of bantams, with a fiery, many-colored rooster. It was a special treat for the children when we were given those little eggs for breakfast. One day Bob noticed his rooster moping in a corner, its tail feathers drooping, ignoring for the first time those speckled hens, who must have been so beautiful, so irresistible to him, judging by his rude conduct toward them. His beak was down; his eyes were glazed and sometimes closed; now and then he would utter not one of the red-sounding crows with which he celebrated the morning sun or his kindness to one of the beauties in his harem but a sad, self-pitying, life-despairing croak. Bob must have been fifteen years old and I five. He came running into the house, crying, "Mama, rooster's sick. We gotta do somethin'. What we gonna do? Hurry. Poor rooster. He's mine. I want 'im."
Mother was cooking, but as always when a child needed care, she turned down the fires and without taking off her apron rushed out to the coop. She looked around with her farm-trained eye, saw that the straw was clean, picked up the rooster's head to examine the usually red comb above his bill and the wrinkled wattles below it, saw that they were pale and that the head dropped down the moment she let it go, and said, "Bob, he needs medicine." She ran back into the house and came out with a bottle of castor oil and an eyedropper. Bob held the rooster so that it could not flap its wings or kick out with the needle-pointed spurs with which he intimidated larger roosters. Small as he was, he would strut around with the hackles on his neck puffed out, lifting his feet like a gaited show horse and swearing at any full-sized feathered creature in his way.
"Now, Paul," Mother told me, "you pinch open his beak." I knew about that, for I had watched Dad pinch the corner of a horse's mouth to make him open up and take the steel bit against which his big teeth had been clenched. Scared, because that rooster had pecked me many times, I pinched. Mother had the eyedropper waiting and quickly emptied it down the bird's throat. Then another and another, the rooster making mutterings of rage, fright, and choking, but we could see him swallow, tilting his head back just the way he drank water. Mother was down on her knees in the filth of the chicken yard, doing what she regarded as the most important thing in life-helping a troubled child whose pet was in trouble.
Early the next day Bob and I ran out to see if the rooster was dead or alive. He was strutting around, clucking what must have been the most shocking erotic comments to his hens, lifting his spurred feet stiff and high, sneering at the full-sized hens and roosters, proud to be a live, feathered male. I don't know how many American roosters have been dosed with castor oil, but our rooster was now a member of the Engle family, enjoying its favorite cure. Brother bantam: I had the same treatment. But I did not strut.
When Bob left home at about sixteen, we stopped keeping chickens, and the coop was torn down. I made a garden each summer where the coop used to be. Its soil was so rich that my flowers and vegetables (half the space went to each) were the best in our part of town, without weeds. I won a hoe for having the best "Victory Garden" in 1918. The judge did not know that it was less my skill than the years of fertilizing by hens, roosters, and Bob's bantams. In honor of Grandfather Reinheimer and the uniform he wore in his Civil War photo-he was a handsome man with a fine military figure, a black beard, eyes like bullets-Mother had bought me a little child's cavalry uniform. The day the chicken coop was broken up I put on my suit, complete with small sword, and ran around battling the mice that had nested underneath, chasing them with great courage and hacking at them with my dull sword. There is a photograph of me holding my sword the way Grandpa held his and trying to look military and tough.
Eva Reinheimer Engle had been born on the family farm on the northwest edge of Marion, then five miles from Cedar Rapids. The farm was on a hill with oak trees and was called Grand View because from it you could see across the landscape on all four sides. By climbing the windmill, which I did on every visit, including one several weeks long every summer, I could see buildings in Cedar Rapids. Grandpa had received some of that land as bounty for serving in the Civil War. He would sit out in the yard in a chair when he was old and gray and no longer farming, occasionally smoking a cigar.
An old Indian, tribe unknown, showed up at the farm each spring, and Grandpa would give him a room in the barn. He hardly spoke any English, but he could carve anything. One time he took a big cowhorn, pale yellow with a black tip, carved some animal figures on it, and then fitted a little lid so that it looked like a powder horn. Every spring he made me a slingshot out of a tough hickory crotch. I shot acorns in the autumn and stones in summer with it. I can't remember hitting anything but the side of the barn. The Indian helped at odd jobs around the farm and ate with the family in the kitchen every Sunday. When the first frost came, he simply disappeared. One day he was there whittling or shoveling out the cow barn, and the next day he was gone. But in April he would turn up without warning. Once I asked him where he had been. "South."
Eva left the farm when she married Tom at sixteen. I can only guess what happened to that shy and innocent young girl, but I did once overhear Mother whispering to a cousin, "I grew up with beasts on the farm, but I didn't know about men. They're worse."
She was soft-voiced but physically strong. In those days a housewife and mother did not merely spend many hours doing necessary things in the kitchen. The work was hard and often heavy. She did our laundry on scrubbing boards in the basement. Because of their horse smell and often actual manure, she washed Tom's clothes separately from ours, the heavy overalls, the thick riding pants, the sweaty shirts, the wool socks. She carried a huge wicker basket full of wet clothing up the steps and into the backyard where she hung them. That full basket must have weighed as much as a bale of hay, but she lifted it lightly. She could harness a team of horses and drive a wagon. She could climb ladders to pick cherries or to paint the house. She helped spade the garden, hoed it, weeded it. She spent burning summer days in the kitchen canning fruit and vegetables, even when the total savings must have been pennies after she had paid for the Mason jars, the metal tops, the rubber rings. I always hovered around when she was canning to help in little ways, carrying big bowls of skinned and pitted peaches, quartered tomatoes, green beans which had been trimmed and the "string" pulled away, pans of apples which had been chopped and mashed to be made into her apple butter with its cinnamon tang. All winter I took that apple butter to school between slices of homemade bread for my lunch. Another reason I always hung around the kitchen on canning days was that often, when all the jars had been filled, bits of the fruit would be left and I could eat them.
That kitchen must have been hotter than the hundred-degree August day outside, but Eva never slowed down. It must have been a hundred and thirty degrees above those pans on the stove where she sterilized the jars in boiling water. She never complained. It was all for the family; what else was life about? We were devout Protestants who believed that people were put on this earth to work and to pray. But then, work itself was a high form of prayer, a ceremony of thanking God for giving us eyes that could see the jobs to be done, and hands that could do them. Work ordered the world and our lives. Laziness was a sin like adultery and stealing-it would put you in hell, a taste of which we had every summer in the heat of Mother's kitchen.
Whenever she had no urgent work in the house, Mother sewed. Her medium-sized rocker had a drawer under the seat which swiveled out from a wooden peg. In it were pin cushions, spools of thread on metal rods, hooks for thimbles, cards of hooks and eyes, snaps, rows of buttons all in lovely variations of pink, white, gray shell as well as big ones made from bone or leather (the beauty of buttons has never been celebrated enough in paint or word), binding tape, pinking scissors with their serrated edges as well as ordinary shears, a cloth tape measure, a row of heavy needles for sewing buckram linings, corduroy, denim, all heavy cloth, a beautiful piece of beeswax which Mother used to harden a loose thread so that it would go through the eye of a needle. That little drawer was the magical source of the clothes we wore. Mother even made heavy winter coats. When my older sister Alice graduated from high school (old Washington High, a huge, dark limestone building by the railroad tracks, long since torn down), she carried the first bouquet of roses any member of our family had ever carried and she wore a "Swiss organdy" gown, covered with embroidery and flowers, which Mother had made for her.
Excerpted from A Lucky American Childhood by PAUL ENGLE Copyright © 1996 by the University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Paul Engle (1908-1991) won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize for Worn Earth in 1932, became a Rhodes Scholar in 1933, began to teach in the Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1937, and directed the workshop from 1943 to 1966. In 1967, with his wife, the Chinese novelist Hauling Nieh Engle, he established the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. He published eleven books of poems, a novel, books of reminiscences, children's stories, and an opera libretto.
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