Chapter 3 – The Father
Firing on the railroad was not an easy task. Endlessly shoveling coal into the fire box, breaking the “clinkers” with the long, steel poker, adjusting the drafts so that the plume of smoke was always white (that was the sign of a good fireman). Watching the water level and raking ashes were part of the job too …
He came over from Scotland when he was about fourteen, having been born in Glasgow with numerous siblings, 6 brothers and 2 sisters. Not much is known about his early years in America other than the family lived in New Jersey for a short time, eventually ending up around Syracuse and Pulaski. His father was known as an eccentric character with a taste for strong spirits and a bit of a mean streak.
One of the grandfather stories I have heard involves a motorcycle and sidecar trip to Canada with one of his drinking buddies. On the return trip from the North, loaded down with bottles of illicit booze, they were unfortunate enough to lose the road and end up in the ditch.
The next day, impeccably dressed as usual, relating the story in front of the drug store he was heard to exclaim, “And the funny parrt aboot it, we nair broke a bottle.”
As I said, he always dressed the dandy. His explanation was that he was “a gentleman in the old country and would damn well be one here.”
There are two possible sources of his income. One was that he owned several tenement houses in Glasgow and was a slumlord. The other was that he was a remittance man. A remittance man is a black sheep, paid by the rest of the family to stay away and out of sight. I really don’t know if either story is true.
He supposedly came to America twice. During prohibition he remarked that, “any country that made it illegal to take a drink was not worth living in.” And thus, he returned to Scotland until after the repeal of prohibition.
As far as my dad was concerned, I never saw or heard of him taking a drink of any kind of alcohol. On the hottest day of summer a glass of cool water or switzel would shake his thirst and the haying season or other work would continue unabated. Switzel was a home made concoction of water, vinegar, sugar and ground ginger. It did quench the thirst but it sure didn’t taste like Pepsi.
At one time DG spent some time in the Western U.S. I remember seeing in a closet a black bear skin coat and gloves (hair on). Kinda scary. There was also a 44/40 octagonal barrel rifle. This must have occurred before 1918 as that is when he and mom were married.
According to sister Sally, DG had a reputation as a ladies man. This may well have been but being a young boy I never noticed any such activity except for one bit of obvious flirtation with our lady school teacher at a school picnic. I’m sure nothing materialized from this and it was promptly forgotten.
DG did indeed have a very frugal manner. Once in a while we would make the trip to Pulaski on a summer Saturday evening to do the grocery trading. There wasn’t much trading involved as we didn’t have a surplus of eggs, butter or other trade goods but we would buy a few staples such as flour, coffee, salt and of all things MARGARINE.
The canny Scotsman figured that it was more profitable to ship the milk (instead of making butter) and buy uncolored margarine for pennies per pound. The margarine was white and came with a little color packet of yellow orange powder. When it was properly mixed in the butter bowl it did look like butter, but tasted like grease.
As we progressed down Main Street (DG, Dugal and I) we would stop in the various stores, exchange howdys and my dad would always inquire if there were any bargains on sale. Some times a small bag of stale candy (I remember candy orange slices so hard you couldn’t bite them). Shriveled oranges, over ripe bananas and stale mixed nuts left from Christmas were all fair game. Now-a-days kids have to go to the mall with a hundred dollars in their pocket in order to enjoy themselves. Times change …
Another big treat was a trip to Syracuse. This involved DG, Dugal, Sally and I riding in the old Model-A Ford. The purpose of the trip was to visit Grandma Brown, Aunt Sarah and Aunt Jeanette on Comstock Avenue.
Grandma had a parrot that would draw blood if he could get you. He sometimes did a little swearing too. Grandma had a Scots Brogue to the point I had trouble understanding her. Part of these trips was a stop at “Hanks” on North Salina Street.
Hanks was the king of close out shops the junk, and overstock capital of Syracuse. You could hardly walk through the place. It spilled out onto the sidewalk and the merchandise was left out all night. I don’t think there was anything worth stealing in the whole place. Nonetheless, DG HAD TO STOP AND CHECK FOR BARGAINS. The only thing I remember getting from there was a soft cap with a snap brim that the kids wore in the 20s-30s (I hated it). I would rather have had the quarter it cost.
I do not recall my father being a particularly devout or religious man. I do recall before moving to the farm, walking back from the Presbyterian church on the Sunday that I was baptized. Religious holidays were pretty much work days on the farm. The cows had to be milked no matter what. Other animals had to be cared for and the wood boxes always needed filling
DG had an ongoing war with the power company and the rural electrification agency. The survey crew would lay out the power pole positions and drive a small wooden stake to mark the pole site. The problem developed when Jack or Dick would be mowing hay with the team, Tom and Jerry. They would step right smartly along and before they could be turned or stopped the cutter bar would hit the marker stake and break off a blade or two. This of course curtailed the haying operation until repairs could be affected. To my taskmaster father this was an affront to his personal property and so every opportunity to pull up and throw away the stakes was a pleasure to him. Eventually the poles were set and the wire strung. We did not subscribe to electrification.
At a later date we did acquire a second vehicle. It was an overused and abused Studebaker pick up that had a tendency to die beside the road. Jack and Dick were by this time going to Sandy Creek Central School and thusly were acquiring new friends and activities.
From somewhere unknown Dick had obtained a used radio from a car. It worked. The routine quickly developed. On those nights that DG was on the road the chores were quickly done with. The battery was removed from the Studebaker and connected to the radio in the front parlor. The cluster of rug-rats quickly gathered and sat enthralled
As the speaker gave forth with the “Tales of the Inner Sanctum”, “Amos and Andy”, “The Shadow”, the glorious tones of music and other electronic marvels including, “The Lone Ranger”.
There was, as usual, a down side. After a couple of hours of steady drain on the battery the volume would start to fade and we knew that in a short time the entertainment session would come to a screeching halt. DEAD BATTERY! Might as well go to bed.
Jack and Dick realized that in the morning it would be required that they harness at least one of the lighter horses, hook it up to the truck with the dead battery reinstalled and pull the truck around the barnyard until the combination of speed, inertia and the timely popping of the clutch caused the engine to turn over and fire. This accomplished they went about the regular chores of milking and caring for the animals while the running engine recharged the battery. Gasoline was 20 cents a gallon and I often wondered if DG noticed how much gas we used when he wasn’t around.
By this time, Dugal and I had grown to the size required to help more with the chores in the barn and house. While Jack, Dick and mom did the milking, Dugal and I would throw down hay from the mow for the horses and cows. Each milking cow also got a scoop of grain. Each horse received a portion of oats that we grew on the farm. The chickens got a scattering of corn and oats and the eggs were gathered. The pig pen was off to one side of the barnyard by a garage type building where the corn meal was kept. A pail of water also had to be carried with the kitchen slops from the house. Most days the slops bucket was pretty skimpy as we didn’t waste much.
DG was not without faults. He had a violent temper that he had difficulty controlling. He also had a very vivid imagination and a smoldering jealousy (real or imagined). This led to an inevitable confrontation that resulted in physical violence inflicted on my mom. It occurred early in the morning while Jack, Dick and Dugal were in the barn doing chores. I don’t know the subject matter but DG lost control and used his fists on my mom’s face and body. The results were very noticeable and it was a very short time before he left for work. There is no doubt in my mind that he did not want to be there when Jack and Dick came in from the barn.
It was a school day so Dugal, Sally, Alec and I went up the hill as usual. Around noon Dick, driving the Studebaker truck, loaded with clothing and a few pieces of furniture, pulled up to the school and picked up the “Brown Kids”. And so we moved again. This time it was to a very small, 3 room bungalow (no bathroom). It did have electricity and an ice box. It was located just up the street from the house where most of us kids had been born, the house that my dad had built.
Next: Chapter 4 – The Mother