Musty, mysterious, damp, dark, earthy, eerie, funky, and fearsome: That’s what Granny’s cellar at Brushy was like on Tuesday morning in summer, and it was like that because of the way it was at other times, say on a late afternoon or evening any time of the year when it had ‘come up a cloud,’ as Granny said when referring to a severe thunderstorm, and you were huddled down there wondering if you were going to come out and find a house there or not.
I was only in the cellar under such circumstances a couple of times when I was very young and it made an impression. I don’t recall many details, except that the grownups were just as unhappy about it as I was but for different reasons that I didn’t understand then but understand all too well now. The weather, for someone who makes their living off the land in what has been called Tornado Alley, is a fearsome thing.
I was reminded of that just as I was thinking of what to write about Tuesday on a Tuesday when my sister got in touch with me to let me know that a thunderstorm had dropped two-inch hail out at Brushy the night before and had completely ruined the garden she was growing there, some of the seed for which I had secured for her. Because that’s what Granny was afraid of every time she saw a cloud. There never was a funnel cloud that I ever heard of out that way, although nearby Wichita Falls has been devastated twice in my lifetime, but there has been hail and wind and torrential wind time and time again, and for those who cultivate plants and rely upon such cultivation for sustenance, a really bad cloud is just about has bad as any tornado.
The cellar was like a concrete bunker, dug seven or so feet into the ground, with eight or ten concrete steps revealed when you lifted a heavy iron door that had a counterbalance of wires and weights otherwise you’d have never lifted it at all. The roof was a steel-reinforced concrete slab that you could play tops, marbles, or hopscotch upon–the closest thing to a sidewalk we had out there, except for the little ones leading from the front or side doors to the gates. A couple of thick metal pipes with weather caps stuck up a couple of out of the cellar roof, occasionally inconvenient for some games, but providing air for anyone sheltering beneath.
The cellar steps were very steep, so that’s why Granny sent somebody else down there when she could, because her hip made the trip down and up both difficult and painful. She grimaced something fierce coming up out of the cellar under any kind of load. And she might have to go down there, because there was a set of shelves built into the end the other side of the door, and that’s where she kept all her canned goods. They replicated those shelves on a larger scale when they built the house in town, and Granny dutifully filled them up, so that my wife and I when first married used to joke (Reagan was in office then) that if the Bomb dropped we were headed to my granny’s house ’cause she had enough food put up to feed ten people for three years.
Such a supply would ease the pain of losing the garden, and maybe that’s why she put up so much produce whenever there was any. There might be a time, and I suppose in her life there were many times, when there might not be anything to put up.
There’s a way in which the bad weather was why Granny lived there. The property had belonged to her own father, who had farmed it until after the War, when he bought a bunch of land on the plains near Farwell that was irrigated land with a gentler climate, so he wasn’t as subject to Mother Nature’s temperamental whims. There he and his sons grew corn and beans and I don’t know what all, while my grandparents took over the dryland farm at Brushy and did the best they could, which after all was not bad.
Dryland farming was always a bit of a gamble, and my grandfather was not a gambler by nature, though he liked to play dominoes for small stakes, or else he might have died a rich man. Or a poor one. One or the other. In the 50s he had the chance to buy the place across the highway from Brushy and double his holdings only he was afraid that he’d lose everything if he got a run of bad luck and bad weather. As it turns out, the next four years had mild conditions and bumper crops that would have let him pay off the loan early. So faint heart very much led to not winning fair damsel, I guess you’d say. He never increased his stake beyond what he had left him by his daddy and his father in law. I seem to recall some scripture that implies such behavior is looked down upon.
So I guess you might say that other than holding on to what he had and attempting to cobble together silk purses out of the sow’s ears he had laying around, my grandpa was not a talented man. My Granny, however, could make anything out of nothing, which was a handy skill to have living out in the middle of nowhere as she did, looking nervously out the window at every gray cloud on the horizon or at the complete lack of clouds, which was an even more common experience. I remember one year there was a drought, and the contrivances that both my grandparents had to come up with to keep fed and washed were enough to make anyone appreciate their local water company. The well had just about run dry and could only be relied upon to supply cooking and drinking water—water that I swear was so brackish that you’d find salt crystals on top of the ice cubes. Grandpa for years had relied on water from his stock pond—again, in North Texas that’s called a ‘tank’—to irrigate his garden. That was the summer I mentioned yesterday when he extended the line to the house and switched over the bathroom plumbing so that whether you wanted to shit, shower, or shave, you were going to do it with tank water. Water that the cows not only drank but did their other business in as well. Taking a bath in that old tub with that tank water, even with all the Mr Bubble you could get in it, was, as I said, something like sitting under an old cow’s rump while she hiked her tail and let loose, but it was also about like trying to bathe in a piss-scented mud puddle. It’s a wonder none of us got dysentery.
But we didn’t, and life went on just as it always did. Which meant that you never knew, even in the midst of drought, when you were going to get jolted out of bed by a clap of thunder straight over the house at 2 in the morning, like we did the next year when we had to get up and rescue the kittens that the dumb old momma cat—one we’d tamed a couple of years before when she was a kitty—had nested up in a cozy spot just underneath one of the gutter downspouts by the front door, as the very welcome rain absolutely poured down in what my other grandpa up in town, Gramps, would have called a turd-floater. We also had to take the alligator clip for the television aerial loose from the TV, and that night wasn’t the only time I saw it arc.
If you didn’t know when a cloud might come up, you did know it was going to be hot in the summer, just as sure as eggs is eggs (and I do seem to recall my Gramps asking one time, in the middle of a bad heat wave, if my granny’s hens were laying hard-boiled ones.) The heat would rise at about ten in the morning, and build and build throughout the day until it reached a peak between four and five, generally topping out at 103 or some such nonsense, unless it was a really bad year and it got to 111. And I don’t care how dry of a heat it might be, 111 is hot.
The worst part was that it hardly got cool at night, and grandpa was such an old tightwad that he wouldn’t run the coolers at night, so you just had to swelter. Like I said on Monday, after I started sleeping in the north bedroom, I took to running the fan all night, and that helped a little, cost what it may. Some nights I hardly got to sleep before the birds went to twittering at around 5am, and the fact that I never made it to breakfast had something to do with that. Well, with that and being a teenager.
Heat in the day wasn’t so bad, at least if you weren’t out working in it all day, and I just bet you it cost more than a quarter a week to fix up all the ice—salt crystals and all—that grandpa put in his Coleman water cooler morning and noon so he’d have ice water to drink out in the field. And Lord, why not? These days I always say a person may as well be comfortable, though I generally say it when I’m getting up the gumption to ask the person next to me to get up so I can visit the restroom on an airplane. However much it cost to keep his water cool, grandpa at least understood that heat stroke ain’t so cheap as that comes to.
Being a kid staying around the house, the heat was almost a sport, and sometimes I’d go out and just stand in the yard to feel how hot it was. That was when you had ice-water ready to hand in the refrigerator when you wanted it, and sodas come three o-clock. Granny had that ferocious sweet tooth, and kept flats of just about every soda they made out in the closet on the back porch. Mother, on health and sanity grounds, negotiated a treaty where we were allowed to have one soda per day and the time was 3 o’clock. So that 3pm soda became quite an institution, you see. Being kids we weren’t all that partial to Coke (Dad loved it with salted peanuts in it), but there was Nesbitt’s and Frosty rootbeer and Orange Crush and 7-Up and it was always a chore in the morning to figure out which one you were going to want and then put it away in the refrigerator laying on its side at the top so it would be cold in the afternoon when it would be so blame hot outside. Granny had bunches of these funny little plastic caps with loops that you could snap onto a 10-oz soda bottle to keep it from going flat, and to make the soda last we’d taken these and punched a hole in them with a church key and then we put them on and sucked the soda out slowly through the little hole.
If there was water and grandpa was watering the lawn, Granny would suggest that we run in the sprinkler to cool off and to our initial objection that we hadn’t brought our swim suits she’d say ‘just go in your underwear’ and to our further objection that appearing outside in one’s underwear wasn’t something that was done Granny would reply ‘Lord, who’s going to see you, and who would care if they did?” So we took her up on it and enjoyed ourselves immensely, though when a car came by we ran around the back of the house and hid, which we had to do twice in an hour, I think. In future years I saw to it that we brought our suits.
I have wrote like we was only there in the summer, with dry and heat and storms of rain, but we were also there in winter, and in winter it was cold. I think winters were colder then, and that’s as much proof as I need of global warming. There was that bad winter of 70-71, when so many records were set that still haven’t been broken, and that was the year I believe that they had a bad ice storm that knocked out power to the farm for a week. Granny and Grandpad—and my Uncle Don Joe, who was home from college—spent the whole time in the front room with the door shut, keeping the kitchen in particular cold so the food in the freeze wouldn’t ruin (it was so cold out it didn’t). They sat by the light of a kerosene lamp (the only time I remember seeing it out of the cellar; it’s still there I believe) with Granny quilting and Uncle Don building a model tank. We stayed up at town and watched TV.
Tuesday was not a notable television night in those days, so we’ll leave the discussion of our viewing habits to other days, particularly Thursday and Saturday. If Tuesday were a bit dry even on autumn nights in the 70s—except for Happy Days which everybody watched—Tuesdays in summer were a positive desert, with the only good shows in re-runs or on hiatus and the rest of the time occupied by insipid and uninteresting filler. I don’t think Granny cared, because no matter what was on she was going to sit there piecing a quilt and enjoying potted meat and crackers for supper. They ate both light and late on the summer evenings out at Brushy, and you were welcome to piece together whatever meal you could out of the leavings from the day’s noon dinner and what you could find in the cupboards. We ate a lot of tuna.
They stayed up to watch the late local news at 10pm, usually tuned to NBC even though my Uncle Don, freshly graduated, worked in advertising at the CBS affiliate in Wichita (Falls, but nobody added that part in conversation) and was married to the lead sportscaster’s daughter who kept an old horse named “Sugar” out at Brushy who was constitutionally opposed to being ridden by anyone but her old mistress. Sometimes Grandpa changed the channel after the NBC weather to catch Jack’s sportscast, them being kin and all. Then it was off to bed.
After reading in bed for a bit (Granny shared some interesting reading material with me one summer, which you’ll find out about when I write about tomorrow) I’d turned out the light and lay there listening to the night noises through the open window, glad for the screen that kept the skeeters out, wondering if a car would come by, wishing they had a window AC unit in there like my other grandmother up in town, and dreading just a little bit, being Baptist, the events of Wednesday evening. Laying in the bed thinking about all this just before I sat down to write about this last bit, I thought that it really isn’t true that everyone talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it. Leastways, it wasn’t true when my Granny lived out at Brushy. Sure, they talked about the weather—“Is it hot enough for you?”—but they also lived through it, heat, hail, sleet, sun and all, and they rolled with it.