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Read an Excerpt
By Howard Doughty
Trafford PublishingCopyright © 2013 Howard Doughty
All rights reserved.
April 30, 1936—Nice day. Let fire go out in P.M. Went uptown and to Pleasant Lake with Elmer. Harold (roomer) came from playing ball and finished the yard without any objections from me. Hand and knee lame.
May 1, 1936—Mrs. Butler died yesterday. I laid down part of day. Went uptown, got last of the money from bank failure: $4.58. Went to grocery in eve. Elmer and Ester here when I returned.
While visiting friends on Christmas Eve, my great uncle, Elmer Aldrich, parked his '34 Dodge on the smooth ice at the end of Pleasant Lake. Elmer's car was the best he ever had. Although it was five years old, Elmer said it accelerated well, just as long as nobody was in a hurry. He bragged that it rode with the finest cars whenever the road was smooth, and that it braked admirably just as long as there was plenty of room in front of it.
At Pleasant Lake, parking on the ice wasn't unusual—people did it all the time, especially ice fishermen. Only this Christmas Eve was a windy night, and the new ice was smooth. While Elmer and my great aunt, Ester, reveled on carols and eggnog, a strong wind came up and blew his car out to the middle of the lake where it fell through the ice. There was no snow, so the car left no trail.
At ten o'clock that evening, the snow did come. A storm kept people off the lake the next day, so the ice had time to refreeze above the car. No clues remained to its location unless an ice fisherman, while clearing the snow from the ice, happened to notice a change of color in the ice out in the center of the lake, and no one did. Elmer thought his car had been stolen, so he got his insurance company to pay on the loss.
In the spring, an oil slick started emanating from the center of the lake, and it continued until August when a neighborhood boy rowed out and dived down to see what it was. He saw the shape of an automobile among the lake weeds, and he came back and told Elmer that he found his car that he thought was stolen. When his insurance man heard about how Elmer lost his car, he sued for the return of the insurance money, and he would have raised Elmer's rates except Elmer took his insurance business elsewhere.
Unlucky things were always happening to Elmer. On his wedding night, his bride was all laid out on the bed and looked good to him. Elmer said, "Oh, that's a lovely sight," and turned out the lights, started into bed, and ran his nose into Ester's upraised knee, causing him considerable grief and a broken nose.
He once enrolled in a "reading and conversation course" offered by a book salesman. The salesman said that he could make anyone into a sparkling conversationalist in just five weeks. Elmer longed for education and refinement. He always joked that the only reason he didn't go to college was that he didn't go to high school. He wanted to be a good talker like other people, and he paid the man twenty-five dollars for the course. The man ran off to Chicago with his money, and Elmer started talking. How he talked! He talked in a way that would make Dale Carnegie's people stop and listen. When he stopped talking, Elmer wasn't any better off than he was before he took the course.
Elmer tried, though; he really did. He wanted to be a success. He wasn't like a neighbor of his who sat around all summer and wasn't worth a hill of beans. Once, Elmer offered him a dozen ears of corn. His neighbor asked, "Are they shucked?"
Through most of his working life, Elmer was the janitor at the hospital in Garrett. He kept the aged building in as good a condition as possible until the hospital closed in the late forties. Most memorable to Elmer was the day they brought in a man involved in an automobile crash. The man's right arm was completely severed in the accident. The ambulance driver brought the arm to the hospital, but the doctor couldn't save an entirely severed arm. The man's family didn't want to bury or cremate the arm, so Elmer was asked to dispose of it. He carried it in a bucket to the boiler room and dumped it in the furnace. As he started to walk away, he saw the arm twitch in the flames. In a few more seconds, it was writhing. Elmer said he'd never forget that sight.
When he was fifty-seven, Elmer fulfilled his ambition of opening a grocery store. He found a building in Ashley-Hudson, received a bank loan; and with Ester's help, he stocked the store. Over the front door, he nailed a sign saying, "Aldrich's Grocery Store." The sign painter embellished the sign with a pine tree on each end, and Elmer was so proud of it that he cut down a couple of red maples so people could see it better. The day before the store was due to open, Elmer put his truck in reverse by mistake and backed through the front of the store, an act that inspired his rheumatism to act up.
Despite his lack of education, Elmer Aldrich was a man with an unusual idea. The idea never made Elmer any money, but it did give Elmer and everybody he told it too much to think about. Elmer was always talking about his grandfather who lived to be ninety-nine years old. He said that his grandfather represented a century of civilization, "from Andrew Jackson to Franklin Roosevelt, from steam power used commercially to passenger airplane flights."
But that wasn't Elmer's unusual idea. He was always saying that if a person took thirty persons as old as his grandfather was—give them an extra year to make them an even hundred—and placed those people side by side, those thirty persons would stretch only about twenty yards. Just twenty yards. Elmer said those thirty persons in a line wouldn't even stretch across his front yard in Garrett. But that line of hundred-year-old people, each representing a different century, would stretch back in time all the way to Moses; and they would stand for most all of history.
He talked with shining eyes: "Think of it? All of humanity represented by just thirty people. Thirty people would do it. They would represent a link to the beginning of civilization. Linking together, they would touch Moses' time!"
Neither Ester nor anyone else in Garrett could see what Elmer's idea was good for. Ester tired of hearing about it all the time when visitors were around, and she usually tried to retire the conversation with a frown. To her the idea was awkward: A person must die to be part of humanity?
Ester passed away in 1962. Elmer retired from the grocery business and moved to Rivermet. He returned to Garrett from time to time for visits with friends. The last time anyone in Garrett saw Elmer was on Memorial Day one year when he was planting flowers at Ester's grave. A friend, Edna Rose, asked him how he was doing; and Elmer said he was doing fine. The next year when Edna came to the cemetery, she noticed a new marker next to Ester's. It read:
ELMER B. ALDRICH 1891-1965 "With Moses"
June 20, 1936—Raymond wouldn't tuck in his shirt so Mary sewed pink lace on his shirttails. Raymond is better.
July 21, 1936—Mrs. Baniff called in A.M. Each of her daughters has two fine children, except one who has a boy. Nice day, some cooler. I have a fire in the furnace.
November 24, 1936—Snowed a little in the morn and streets slippery. Sewed a few quilt blocks. Tried to clean front porch but the water froze and I didn't do a very good job. Billy Williams' little boy killed by a train near Edon. A lovely winter day.
When I told Jim Pierson I was determined to hop a freight train again, he advised me against it and started talking about the danger involved. I said I didn't care about the danger; I was going anyway.
"But, Edward," he complained, "it isn't normal!"
I thanked Pierson for the compliment and cast my eyes down the line for a coming train.
Everybody knows hopping freights has its troubles. Railroad men tell stories about a man near Garrett who tried to grab on to the ladder on the side of a boxcar that was traveling about ten miles an hour. He expected that car to give a little with his weight when grabbed on, like a small boat does when you step onto it, but it didn't. That train was as hard and firm as a political opinion, and it pulled his arms out of his shoulder sockets.
There was the man coming out from Virginia who tried to stand-jump head first into a slow-moving boxcar. His top half landed in the doorway all right, but the rest of him dangled out over the road bed. At times like these, the principles of physics are called on to explain what happened. Simply told, the rate at which the Virginian was traveling didn't match the train's rate. The train was traveling a little faster, and it was much larger, and it wasn't about to slow down for anyone from Virginia. That man left a fingernail trail on the floor of the boxcar as he slid out the door. His legs landed on the rails and were cut off by the overpassing train. He bled to death.
There are other stories too about a brakeman testing a pressurized brake hose coupling with a stick when it accidentally uncoupled and flailed around, beating him to a lump. Or the time when a boy on a moving train was given a clubfoot when he was standing on a coupling between cars, and the train slowed down and compressed the couplings' expandable arms and his foot with it. Or the time when a train braked and a giant steel roll broke its binds in a gondola car and rolled over a man who was traveling in the same car.
These things weren't on my mind, though, when I started rolling, or the train did really. I stuck my head out the boxcar door and looked back at Pierson standing on the ground and watched him get smaller and smaller.
It wasn't long before the train was clipping along. Later the sun went down, and the moon rose up and put a dusty silver edging on the boxcar doorway. The trees and fences up close went flashing by like ghosts. The barns and farmhouses farther out went by more slowly and looked eerie. When I put my head out the door to see where I was going, the wind took my hair back and inflated my mouth so that I couldn't speak a word if I tried. I took in more oxygen in one breath than I regularly got in a day. The wind roared in my ears and set my eyes rattling.
Toward midnight, a chill claimed the railcars, and I should have expected it as it was November. November isn't the regular freight-hopping season. The nights are far too cold for the respectable freight hoppers, and they're not so warm for the others either. But once a person commits himself to a freight train ride, he stays with it. The only way out requires taking a large step into bushes, trees, and fence posts rushing by so fast that they sometimes blend together into a solid gray wall. After midnight, the temperature dropped so low that I had to run the length of the car several times a minute to keep from freezing. With all my exercising, I didn't have to be on that train at all—I could have run to my destination without the aid of a boxcar. When I was warmed a bit and tired of running, I sat up against the sidewall and sang Christmas carols at the top of my lungs as I went alone, reeling through the Midwest.
Near morning, the road got rough, and the cars started swaying hard from side to side. I can now advise the prospective freight hopper when this happens to avoid sitting near the sidewall where this see-sawing goes to extremes. By breaching this rule, I found out what they mean by "rolling with the punches." One second I was perfecting the art of self-levitation, and the next second my bottom four vertebrae and the car's oaken decking were occupying the same space, becoming one as it were.
Then the car took a turn of mind again and I was flung up in the air free from the mundane influences of gravity. Then I came down and there came a terrible crushing and gnashing of bone again, alternating with Icarus-like flights, until I was flipped to the center of the car. There I found tranquility in the eye of the storm, and I stayed there until the train slowed down.
I jumped off that train in an unknown city, and pointed my thumb out over a street. Returning home always required hitchhiking in unfamiliar territory and usually at night. Common methods of finding my location were by reading billboards ("Bud Jackson's Ford, Grand Rapids, Michigan"), determining which way was north, and by remembering the general direction in which I came. Asking directions of someone would have been a good idea, too, except I always seemed to land in neighborhoods where the residents were hostile to newcomers, and everybody else. Traveling by boxcar rarely put me in the finest depots.
A police car rolled up and the officer told me to get in. I should have been scared but I didn't know any better. He asked me how I got there. After I told him he said, "Boy, hopping freights is dumb enough, but getting off at Division Street, where we've been having all these riots, is even dumber." He said, "Two more minutes standing there would have been all that it took to qualify you for a free ride home in a refrigerated railcar." He drove me downtown and dropped me off where he said I'd have a better chance at returning to Indiana in the condition in which I left it.
Despite claims to the contrary, most times freight-hopping is as safe as reading the evening newspaper—as long as a person picks the right car. The safest railroad cars to pick, of course, are the ones that aren't moving—but even an experienced freight hopper can be surprised by a train that started rolling without notice. Once I was exploring the top of a boxcar when I noticed that the landscape was moving. The train was pointed toward Kokomo, but the scenery was rolling toward South Bend. By the time that I clambered down the ladder and bailed out onto the gravel bed, the train was going at a trotter's pace. I stood there a minute listening to a scolding from the engine's whistle. I could feel the draft from the giant railcars, and I could hear their moaning and rumbling. And all this started just as quietly and imperceptibly as a campaign for county clerk.
I don't hop so many freight trains anymore, but I can still detect a train whistle off in the distance straining through the clamor of everyday noises.
I told a friend of mine about me hopping freight trains. "Oh, Edward, why don't you grow up," was his chastened reply. Later when we were talking, he told me about his plans for his new house. In the basement, he was going to have room for his electric train where it could circle near the furnace by the light of a seventy-five-watt lightbulb.
June 2, 1937—A little warmer today. I was out in the yard looking around but didn't do much. Went to see Mrs. Wolfe in P.M. All quiet except for the pump in the back shed.
June 13, 1937—Did my ironing in A.M. and put clean papers in cupboard and cabinet shelves. Went with Wilmet and Graydon to a farm near Metz to buy pigs. Rained hard again today. Warm.
Pierson slammed open the screen door and stepped out into the brightness beyond the porch. He treaded around a mud flat in the barnyard and continued to the road. Looking south, then north, he asked, "When's he getting here?"
The governor was due. He was going to give Pierson's star boar, Oscar, the prize ribbon from the State Fair.
"Come on back, Pierson," I called, "You shouldn't be standing in the middle of the road when he comes."
I knew all about Oscar, having watched him grow up from a piglet. The first time I saw him I was camping with the Boy Scouts on Pierson's farm. We were disporting ourselves at the edge of the woods with a game of football. Oscar and the other piglets were in the plowed field beyond our clearing. A fence separated our herd from theirs.
I learned that day how intelligent pigs are. I used to think of pigs as stupid, fat, and dirty animals who have nothing in common with humans; but after that day playing football, I found that we have many things in common; the game of football is one of them. Oscar and those pigs stayed and watched us through the fence all afternoon and participated as best as they could in their own game. Pigs are animals too.
During the game, whenever our Scott Lundgrun dropped back for a pass, the pigs on the other side of the fence galloped back as if to do the same thing. Of course, this left no pigs to do the receiving, but later on they learned to send out a detachment for that purpose. A pig's got a capacity for learning, and they are rule players. A donkey, on the other hand, is two hundred pounds of free enterprise—but a pig likes to play by the rules, as long as he knows them.
When we huddled, the pigs would huddle too; they were natural huddlers. When we broke out of a huddle, they'd break out of a huddle too, as if that was what a pig was put there for. During the count, they would creep up to the fence, slowly and quietly, as curious as the devil. They couldn't wait to see the next play. When the ball was snapped and our scouts started their maneuvers, the pigs would get excited and collide and run in different directions and show considerable propensity for the game.
They'd dart around trying to get out of each other's way and trip on each other doing it. They'd go for spaces that weren't there anymore, and they'd bump snouts and squeal like a convention of Democrats. Then they'd see Jack Willoby going out south for a pass, and Curt Rainey chasing him, and that whole tribe of pigs would head south too. It's a wonderful sight, a herd of thundering pigs' feet charging down field. If Curt intercepted the ball and started running north with it, the pigs would just sit down in bewilderment. An interception is a thing that a pig hasn't heard about.
Excerpted from Midwestern Journal by Howard Doughty. Copyright © 2013 by Howard Doughty. Excerpted by permission of Trafford Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
PART I: AT HOME (Before 1979)....................
Elmer Aldrich.................... 1
Freight Trains.................... 5
Looking Back.................... 14
Mary Kiess.................... 18
Ilene Ellis.................... 25
Bill Ellis.................... 31
PART II: IN NEW YORK (1979)....................
Lake Placid.................... 47
Mountain Climbing.................... 51
Winter Sports.................... 56
New York City.................... 65
Art Museum.................... 72
Natural History Museum.................... 76
Nature Study.................... 79
Wondering And Wishing.................... 85
PART III: PARADISE LOST (1980)....................
Teresa Corydon.................... 89
Mark Penner.................... 95
Cedarville Reservoir.................... 107
"Don't Worry, Sweetie".................... 117
"You Can't Change People".................... 130
Officer Dolhoff.................... 140
House On Eastbrook.................... 145
So Clear.................... 178