Fall in the Central Valley of California is not a season I look forward to except in one way. The weather finally calms down and stops being crazy hot. Other than that it’s not a pretty season. Here in the Valley everything is dry and crispy. The grasses are a crunchy brown. The grape vines and almond trees are coated with dust. The only place nice place for the eye to land is where the sprinklers have kept the lawns green and the gardens growing.
In the Midwest, however, things are different. In the Midwest Fall is my favorite season. Yes, it’s true that it’s time to go back to school and, yes, it’s true that I always dreaded that part. It even gave me a queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. Where did that come from? I’ll never know. It just started up at the first part of September and I don’t even know when it went away. It just went away on its own.
Everything else about the rest of the season was pure bliss to me. There was the welcome chill in the air and the dry breezes that replaced the oppressive humidity and heat of summer. The leaves on the trees would turn colors and then they’d fall. We kids would be crazy wild running through the leaves and throwing and kicking them every which way. Mom would be standing there with one hand on her hip and the other on the handle of the rake wondering what had she done to get these crazy children. When I walked down the sidewalk I made sure to step on each and every leaf so as to hear the satisfying crunch. I still do this now. I am old and it’s been a life long habit. It takes me back to when I was young and I didn’t have a care in the world.
The wind would blow out of the gray northern sky and the leaves of the dried corn in Schultz’s field behind our house would rustle like paper flowers in a vase. Out in the back yard we’d look up and great flocks of starlings flew over head. When they were right above us Dad would say “Clap your hands! Loud!” and I would clap my hands loud and the birds would, for some reason, spread out from the center and fly away from the noise. Dad said they flew like that because they thought it was a gun shot.
My dad loved hickory nuts. Actually my dad loved anything that was free. Child of the depression he was very good at spotting a good deal when he saw one. He got out his burlap bags and we’d all pile in the car to go to some farmer’s woods where the tall shagbark hickory trees stood. Some years the squirrels got them first and our pickings were slim. Dad said don’t bother with nuts that have a hole in them. A hole meant that a worm that had chewed its way out of the shell and the nut meat would be ruined. In the winter my dad would sit and patiently crack the tough nuts and pick away at the interiors with a pick to get the meat out.
When I got older my dad would take my sister Toni and me to Polley’s farm north of town and we would all ride the barn horses out into the corn fields and then into the timber. My dad rode the horse with one hand on the reins and one hand propped on his hip western style. My sister and I tried to mimic him but we didn’t have the confidence to one-hand-it so we held the reins plow rein style and followed him out past the barn. Then we found little trails in the timber and rode all over until we came back to the edge of the corn field where the spoiled horses could see the barn. We let them loose while we clung to the horn for dear life and the horses ran back across the field. Poor horsemanship, I know. We didn’t know any better and besides we were young and loved the thrill of the running horse. Our legs were strong enough to grip and our balance was good enough so we never fell off. The horses ran in a straight line. There was nothing to impede them. I can’t remember how we slowed down. Maybe the horse went from the dead run to the trot to the walk instead of slamming on the brakes. Years later we drove out there and I recognized the house and barn but the field looked completely different.
We walked to school at Norris for Kindergarten, first, second and third grades. It was only 3 blocks from our house. As we got older we biked to Woodbury for 4th, 5th and 6th as long as the weather was good. Jamie, Cindy, Sally, Lindsay, and some other girls. I had a little wire basket attached to the handlebars of my Schwinn that I put my metal lunch box in. The Schwinn had great big fat tires. It must have been hard to pedal with its one gear and brakes that you engaged by pushing back on the pedal. The lunch box looked like a little house and my mom would put a hot dog in the thermos so I could have a hot sandwich with my soup at lunch time. This really embarrassed me for some reason. I really wanted shoe string potato chips that came in a can but I never got them.
When it rained we’d pile in our family cars one forward one backward so as to pack more kids in and then our mothers would car pool. There were no seat belts at that time and we always made it to school anyway. I don’t remember much about the moms except the backs of their heads. There was Dorothy Lund and, of course, my mom and Sally’s mom. Sally’s mom sometimes harped at us girls not to bite our fingernails. We’d hold on to the back of the seat and she could see if we were paying attention or not.
When we got old enough to go to Anson Junior High we could ride the bus. They let the bus company dedicate some of their buses to take the kids right to school. I had to walk to the corner bus stop and my mom was always late getting breakfast so she’d demand that I take a scrambled egg sandwich with me. I’d grouse and complain. “Mom! I’m going to be late for the bus!” She’d win and I would sullenly take the sandwich promising to eat it as I ran to the bus but I never did. As soon as I got out of sight of the house I’d throw it down the storm drain. Sometimes my friend Marjorie and I would walk all the way to Anson. Sometimes we’d walk in very cold weather. Our knees would be nearly frozen when we got there. We wore knee socks so our knees were bare. They were beet red when we got to school.
On the weekends we’d kind of turn into Huckleberry Finns and go walking around just to see what we could see or what trouble we could find. Walking up Elder Drive we would be out in the country in one block and there was the grain elevator and the railroad tracks and a dirt road that was called Beer Can Road for, guess what?, all the beer cans people threw out the windows into the ditches. We went just as far as we felt safe and then we’d walk back again. Once we walked all the way to Sutherland Station power plant. Sutherland Station was a great big giant brick building that seemed like the castle in the Wizard of Oz.
All the corn fields were stubble and the weeds in the ditches were dried and dead. If we found a dried up milk weed pod we’d take it. Such amazing nature! Everything was losing color. Color only came back if it rained and then it was a monochromatic pallet of browns, red browns and ochre. Winter was coming and when that happened the sky would be the same grey as the ground and the only color came from the rare pine tree here and there.