It had only been a few weeks since Mama left us. Pa had lined us up on the fence that night too. It was an awful night. One by one, he made us perch on our post. The shack was way too crowded as it was. Guess he figured the kids wouldn’t be in Mama’s way when she gave birth if we were outside on the fence. He was really nervous that night. I could tell by the way he chewed on his mustache and paced the floor.
“Now, jes’ set out here a spell,” he ordered. “Soon ya’ll have yorsef a new brotha’ or sista’! I’ll come an’ tell ya’s; then ya’ll kin come back in. I’m gonna go find someone to help yer Ma now.”
He went into town to find someone to come help Mama deliver the baby. I hoped Pa would hurry. I knew something was wrong – dreadfully wrong as we listened to Mama’s screams and pitiful cries of pain. But we were told to sit on the fence and wait – wait until we were told we could go inside. So we sat and waited and talked and played games and thought. Besides, if we were loud enough, we wouldn’t hear Mama’s cries. Fence-sitting gave us lots of time to think.
I was the third born of seven. Big brother Guy was the oldest, soon to be fourteen; Dolly was twelve. I sat next in line, then Mikey, my best bud, sat on the other side of me. He was nine. Past Mikey sat the twins, Jesse and Josie, age six, and then baby Gracie, who couldn’t perch herself on the fence. She was only four. I was named after my great-grandfather Timothy Franklin, but everyone called me Frankie. I was almost ten and a half.
Guy was the thinker, the take-charge sort of guy. He was strong as an ox, and almost as big. He was smart, too. We all looked up to him when we needed help. I admired Guy a lot and wanted to be just like him. My older sister Dolly was quiet and pretty, slender and tall like Mama. She had Mama’s eyes, the color of a clear blue sky and Mama’s silky blond Norwegian hair. Dolly was a hard worker too; she had to be in order to help Mama with all the other children. I was born a few years before the Great Depression. Mama always said I was so independent because I was born on Independence Day, July 4, 1926. My best bud and younger brother Mikey came along two years later. Things started to get very crowded in the little shanty we lived in. We learned to live, eat and sleep in cramped quarters and make the best of it – or hear the worst of it.
The twins, Jesse and Josie, were nothing alike – in looks or personalities. Josie was quiet and shy; she wouldn’t hurt a fly. Jesse, on the other hand, liked to think he could do anything at anytime, anywhere. He was loud and proud of it. Truth was, most of the time he was just a loud-mouth boaster. He wasn’t as brave as he let on; he really needed his twin sister to balance him. Mikey and I teased the daylights out of Jesse and the little girls, but we wouldn’t dare cross Guy, and well, Dolly was just too nice. Besides, she would tell Mama.
Jesse made a good target more times than not. He loved cold tea with lots of sugar. So one time Mikey and I got the idea to put salt in his tea instead. We changed the sugar for salt in the bowl, and invited Jesse to have a nice glass of cold tea. Jesse put one teaspoonful after another in his glass. Mikey looked at me cross-eyed, and I almost doubled over to hold back a giggle. Chuckled to myself as I thought of it all over again. Jesse only took one drink – but it was a huge gulp – and spurted it back out in an instant – all over the floor. Mikey and I ducked out the door, but Mama knew what happened. She wasn’t too happy with us, but we laughed until we cried as we watched Jesse sputter and spit all over the floor. He didn’t get over that one for a long time.
My daydreaming on the fence was interrupted as Jesse coughed again and poor little Gracie let out another whimper. She was the youngest. Now she shivered; her tiny body shook as the wind assaulted her. She had the saddest look on her face, and dared herself not to cry. I was real worried about her. I tried not to think about it, but it wasn’t working. I could still hear her small shaky sobs through the howl of the wind. We had to get her off this fence post into some warmth.
Why wouldn’t he let us stay inside out of the wind? Why did he lock us out? Anything would be warmer than out here. Pa told us to sit tight until he came back, and we all knew we’d get paddled or more if we moved too far away from our assigned posts.
The old shack had been a great deal, or so Pa thought. It was small, but at least it had three bedrooms plus a barn out back. Even had fencing already made for the animals he hoped to raise someday. We all looked forward to our own room with a real bed to sleep on. The lean-to only had one bedroom, and that had been Mama’s and Pa’s. Guy, Dolly and I had to sleep on the floor. But even the new shack became small when more kids came along. I think that’s when the fence-sitting started; every time Mama had another baby, we ended up waiting on our wooden post.
The rickety fence crawled its crooked path around our small acre of property – not too high that animals or kids couldn’t jump over; it was just a property marker. Broken in places, the logs that had slipped out of their sockets lay rotting on the ground. There was one good stretch of seven or eight posts in back of the house where it seemed we ended up whenever we were not allowed in the house.
And that last night? Well, Pa was too drunk to know what he was doing. He wasn’t thinking too straight when he left. He just locked up the place and told us to sit on the fence and wait. We knew we best obey or suffer the consequences from a drunken lunatic. He usually came back after a couple hours. Truth was, Pa never did come back that night.