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Born With a Rusty Spoon: Episode 14

...Around this time, P.G. was hired to cut posts and build fencing for John and Paul Moss who owned a ranch in Perk Canyon, above the sawmill. The house they furnished us was known as the Walsom Place and was surrounded by pine covered mountains. It was fairly remote, with few neighbors, but we happily settled in. It was one of the more enjoyable times of our childhood because this was one of those times that my folks didn't drink much...

Artist Bertie Stroup Marah continues her gloriously readable account of growing up in hard times.

To buy a copy of Bertie's wonderful book please visit

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Life in the sawmill camp was both difficult and uneventful. The work was hard and P.G. came home tired and dirty every evening and Mama was worn out from trying to keep the house clean, cook, and run after Phyllis and Reita. They chose to seek relief by having a lot of beers on the weekend.

One Sunday, however, we were treated to an unusual event in the home of another sawmill worker. P.G. suggested, "Let's go over to the Henry's house to listen to that black man he smuggled out of Mexico. I hear he can't talk English but can sing it real good. Old Henry heard him in one of those bars in Juarez and brought him home to listen to."

It turned out that the man did have a wonderful voice as well as a happy smile and could indeed play the guitar and sing beautiful songs. He sang many tunes popular at the time including the famous "Mona Lisa" that we requested over and over. I never learned what happened to that man but I will never forget his singing.

Our family didn't like living in close proximity to the other sawmill families. Mama had never been one to visit with neighbors. "I have better things to do than sit around 'jacking my jaws' and listening to 'idle prattle'," she would say. For the most part she didn't enjoy the company of other women. P.G. enjoyed her company more than that of other men, and we kids enjoyed each other.

P.G. loved us and tried to not to show a preference for Phyllis and Reita although he was at odds with Jessie from time to time because Jessie had a rebellious streak. He even got into a fight with a neighbor man for threatening to whip Willie and Jessie.

Around this time, P.G. was hired to cut posts and build fencing for John and Paul Moss who owned a ranch in Perk Canyon, above the sawmill. The house they furnished us was known as the Walsom Place and was surrounded by pine covered mountains. It was fairly remote, with few neighbors, but we happily settled in. It was one of the more enjoyable times of our childhood because this was one of those times that my folks didn't drink much. Our school bus driver was a fellow student, John Dick Grissick, a senior in high school whose family lived at the end of the bus route.

While living on the Walsom Place we would occasionally hear a mountain lion squalling at night. Mama would reassure us, "There's nothing to worry about." But images of being attacked by a mountain lion still frightened us.

I liked the house on the Walsom place because I had a tiny room of my own. That summer while Jessie and I visited Daddy for a couple of weeks, and Willie stayed and helped P.G. cut posts, Mama made me a dressing stand out of wooden boxes and a stool from a wooden keg. It was a lovely surprise to come home to. Mama didn't express feelings with words so this was her way of telling me she loved me and was glad I was back home.

I loved my room except for the uncovered opening into the attic that was a black gaping hole in the ceiling. My overactive imagination kept me awake many nights when I had visions of unholy monsters hiding in the dark recesses of that attic.

One night, I could stand it no longer and crept from my bed to the boys' room and carefully shook Willie so as not to wake Jessie. I shared my fears with him when I whispered, "I think there's something in the attic above my room, I keep hearing noises."

"It's probably that packrat that left the silver spoon in the drawer the other day," he said sleepily. "You better go back to bed, 'cause if you wake Mama up she's liable to move your bed in here." I didn't want to give up my room so I went back to bed, squeezed my eyes tight, and tried to ignore my fears. I hoped it was the packrat and that he would bring us something else nice.

Mama would get up early every morning to cook breakfast and fry potatoes on a wood stove. She would then put the potatoes and biscuits into the one-pound Folgers coffee cans we used for lunch boxes. We looked forward to those times when we were lucky enough to find fresh venison instead of potatoes, in our lunch cans.

My brothers especially enjoyed living on that old place where they found many things to occupy their free time. They built a trap door in the roof of the chicken house to spy on imaginary invaders. Much to their disappointment, these assailants never materialized. They also enjoyed their fort, dragging their bedding there to sleep some of the summer nights.

Our water supply came from a natural spring that fed into a ditch. The ditch ran alongside a ravine next to the old house. It was my brother's job to locate any gopher holes along the ditch and fill them with dirt so the water wouldn't escape and run into the ravine.

One day the boys discovered what they thought were dinosaur bones protruding from the bank of the ravine. Because this twenty-foot bank was steep and difficult to climb they were forced to enlist my help.

"Now Bertie, You ain't gonna get hurt 'cause we won't turn you loose."

This promise was made as they tied a rope around my waist and repelled me down the bank. "You just dig those bones out and hold on to 'em, and we'll pull you right back up." I trusted Willie completely and tried to bring back something of value but without success.

There was a wooden water trough that crossed the ravine to a ditch in front of the house. Phyllis was about two years old at the time and loved to take her clothes off and get into the ditch. One day she slipped outside, crawled into the trough and was halfway across the deep ravine when Mama discovered her. Mama was terrified that Phyllis would try to stand up in the trough and fall over the side. But she stayed calm.

She started talking softly to Phyllis. "Baby, don't stand up. Stay right there." While she distracted Phyllis, Willie crawled out to bring her to safety.

That summer P.G. brought home three orphaned baby squirrels from where he was cutting fence posts. "I think their mother was killed," he said, handing them to Willie and Jessie who put them in a pen out back.

The mean little Stevens' boys were at our house the next day and let the squirrels out when Willie and Jessie weren't watching. My two brothers searched in vain for them. The next morning Willie ran into the house and breathlessly told us, "You won't believe where those squirrels are, Mama. They're in the nest with that old yellow cat and they're nursin' right along with her kittens."

The baby squirrels did fine and grew up acting a lot like cats. One of them was killed by a slamming screen door while trying to get inside the house. Another was accidentally smothered while sleeping between Willie and Jessie on their narrow bed. The last one retreated to the cellar to build a nest and was still there when we moved from the old house.

That fall, P.G. and the boys had a particularly disgusting experience. After working hard all day, they stopped by the house of J.D. Stevens and his German wife, Amanda, who was known for her dirty housekeeping. When P.G. greeted Amanda he saw that she was cutting meat from a deer
hindquarter that was hanging on the back porch. He also noticed with disgust that there were maggots hatched from the blowfly on the carcass. He assumed she was cutting away the bad parts of the meat but was still queasy from the disgusting sight.

When J.D. asked them to stay for supper and have some of Amanda's stew, P.G. declined. "No, thanks, J.D., we'll just wait 'til we get home." He sent a subtle message to the boys by squinching his face when J.D wasn't looking at him. But the boys didn't get it. Jessie looked pleadingly at P.G. and said, "But we're hungry." Willie nodded in agreement and said, "Yeah, it's been a long day; can't we please eat?"

Backed into a corner, P.G. was forced to accept the invitation. "Well, I'm not very hungry," he said, "but I will have a little of that bread pudding."

He sat there feeling bad that the boys weren't aware of Amanda's unsanitary practices but believed he was relatively safe with his choice of the pudding. His illusion of being exempt from her unsavory cooking habits would soon be shattered. As he was spooning out a hunk of bread pudding, he stopped in mid-bite at the sight of a glob of hair in his pudding. He quickly stopped eating and hurried the boys into finishing their supper. "We better get on home, Bee's gonna wonder what happened to us."

On the way home, P.G. told my brothers about the meat and the pudding. They had to stop to puke along the side the road, and vowed never again to eat anything that woman cooked.


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