Chapter 2 – Fence Sittin’

Boy on fenceIt 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.

Read Chapter 3


Chapter 1 – Going Back

LJH-Lulu epub pictureGoing back to my home town of Tekamah, Nebraska filled me with trepidation. It had been almost twenty years since I last saw my brother and sisters, but it seemed like an eternity. Would I ever find them? Would anyone remember me, or them? Not sure why I let myself be talked into going back; it was a crazy, miserable, strange time of my life. Much I wanted to forget. But I had to go back one more time. Had to see if anyone knew anything about my family.

I drove through the town as slow as the limit allowed; maybe I would spot someone I knew. The old town hadn’t changed much. The one room schoolhouse which also served as a church was now a museum. The doc’s office became a small clinic. From town, I headed west along Old Tree Lane where tall cottonwoods guarded either side of the road. Brisk fall winds persuaded the trees to powder the ground with fluffy white puffs of cotton. Past Mill Pond, the stately Johnson homestead still guarded its place on the corner. I recalled with sadness the death of my two brothers while in the Johnsons’ care. Turning the car north, I passed the Wheeler farm where I grew from a boy to a man. It looked empty. Made me think with fondness of old Mac and wondered if he or his missus were still alive.

Almost at the old homestead, I slowed with the thought of turning around. Why did I come back? The memories were way too painful, but I had to know. I took a deep breath and drove up the road toward home. When I spotted the old rickety wooden fence surrounding the abandoned shack, the memories washed back with a flood of debris.

There we were – seven of us – perched atop that wooden splintery fence waiting for Pa to come back. Darkness started to settle in and with it a slight drizzle. The wind picked up steam, howling loudly as it screeched around the barn. I shivered and wrapped my arms inside my coat to keep warm. I looked down the row on my brothers and sisters; saw Gracie whimpering again. She looked so pitiful and scared. None of us dared move off the fence. Pa had said to sit here until he came back and he meant it. He was a mean man to deal with when he got drunk. I shivered again as I remembered him locking the shack, staggering towards the truck and driving away without a look back. We were all afraid of what Pa would do if he came back and caught us away from our fence post.

“Where is he?” whispered Mikey.

“Ah’s gittin’ cold,” sobbed Josie.

I was worried too. When Pa left, he was already half-drunk. Sadly, Pa loved his drink. He took to drinking more since Mama left. As long as I’d known, he was always a drinker. One time, he came home so drunk, he acted crazy and out of his mind like a wild man. He started to beat Mama. He slapped her face so hard, she stumbled and fell to the floor.

“Where’s my dinna’?” he hollered. The table was set; Mama made us all wait for him to come home, but he wasn’t satisfied. He grabbed the tablecloth and yanked the whole thing to the floor with one swoop, breaking every dish. Mama stood there wide-eyed and scared. Her body shook as she dodged another drunken swing from his hand. He staggered towards Dolly with a raised fist, and that was more than Mama could handle. I saw her eyes flare with anger. She grabbed the baby and put herself between Dolly and the madman she called her husband. “Get outside quick!” she ordered. She pushed us out the door, and slammed it behind her. All we could do is leave – fast. Mama and four children marched down the dark country road walking and waiting until Pa passed out on the bed in a drunken stupor. When we thought it was safe, we would tiptoe into the house.

On that freezing cold night so long ago, all he said was, “Git yore stuff on! Ah’m goin’ ta town. Ya’ll git on that fence and wait there ‘til I gits back; an’ don’ ya dare move an inch!”

His breath reeked of liquor. Gracie was too small to balance atop of the wooden fence post, so Pa just “hung” her there by her coat so she wouldn’t fall off. I wasn’t sure what to think or do. All I knew was that it was getting colder by the minute. So, we waited; thought he was probably in town drinking some more and would be even meaner when he came back. I shivered again when I remembered he locked the door. We couldn’t even get back in the shack. What was he thinking?

Read Chapter 2


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