Book In Common: In De Smet, when the going gets tough, the tough get going

Hard Times. That means something different to everybody. 

For one thing, it’s the name of a movie with Charles Bronson and James Coburn. I watched it when I was a kid, smitten with both actors.  It’s about a man who makes his own Hard Times, and drags his friend along behind him.

A lot of people make their own Hard Times – poor decisions, selfish, short-sighted and greedy. Many times those people manage to make Hard Times for everybody else too.

Hard Times are almost unavoidable at some point, they are around every corner, one mishap and you’re a resident of Hard Times. 

Hard Times are different for everybody – some people actually thrive in hardship, others wither at the sight of it.  You know, one person’s hardship is another person’s luxury. 

When the supplies start to run short at the Ingall’s house in De Smet, Ma laments how quickly people have forgotten to fend for themselves as she makes a candle out of some axle grease and a rag. Mrs. Ingalls had been a child of the frontier, growing up in “Indian territory,” living in a cabin with a dirt floor and tiny shuttered port holes for windows, she thinks people have gotten soft with the new technology.  

What would she say about us today? Flip a switch and live in instant comfort. Flush toilets – wow, that would blow the mind of a person who had lived their life following a mud path to a pit toilet.

Imagine living through a prairie blizzard – 40 degrees below zero – with no heat. I’ve never experienced below zero temperatures, but I know I’d be dead in minutes. I get very uncomfortable at 30 degrees above zero, and anything below 20 makes me feel dysfunctional. 

Even coal heat cannot keep the house warm, so the Ingalls move entirely into the kitchen of their town house, huddling around their dining table, spending the long dark days passing the coffee mill in which they grind wheat for their daily bread. At night they steal up to their beds carrying iron bed warmers, which Laura remarks have little effect. She speaks regularly of the nail heads in the roof above her attic bed being white with frost.

When Pa realizes they only have a few more days of coal left, he has an idea that seems to energize him – all that hay he cut last Summer, thinking he might sell the extra – hay burns.  

But Laura reminds him – it burns so quick, the ashes don’t even have time to fall before it is burnt up. You’ve seen burnt grass maybe – it’s true, it burns so fast the ashes retain the shape of the grass. It holds no heat.

Pa has thought this out. He is sure his idea will work. He blusters out into the storm to feed the animals one morning, and comes back with armloads of hay, tossing them into the little lean-to off the kitchen. There he and Laura sit while he works on his plan – twisting together bunches of the rough prairie grass into hard “logs”. 

This is hard work, and must be done all day long. The grass is sharp, it cuts not only their hands but the sleeves of the big coats they must wear in the freezing lean-to, where snow blows in the unfilled cracks in the walls. Soon their hands are slashed and swollen – Pa is no longer able to play his fiddle, and that seems to make the cold more severe, the blowing wind more sinister.

But they are able to stave off Winter, hopefully til the trains return, Some Day. Ma bakes her rough bread, they sit around their grass-fed fire and drink hot tea. Day after day after day.

Sure, they could have taken the train back to the East with people like Eliza Jane Wilder, but to where? Go back to be a burden on family? 

When I was a kid my parents split up, and that was my mother’s choice – go home to her parents, where everybody in town would know, or be independent, make a go for it, try to keep us fed while making the mortgage payments on our little green house.   At that time she waited tables in a couple of different cafes, driving her old ’55 Chevy back and forth between Willows and Dunnigan, working til 2 am, having to scrub the grease trap before she left work, etc. Once she cut her finger on a cheese slicer and lost a whole day of work (TIPS!), not to mention the ER bill. 

I remember coming in from play one afternoon to find my mother sobbing on the phone to my grandma. She couldn’t do it anymore, she said. We were a handful, that’s for sure. She had to sleep in the daytime with one off to kindergarten and two tots running loose – there was no such thing as “daycare” then and she could only afford a teenage babysitter from four to midnight. The girl went home and  left us sleeping and everybody hoped for the best. I remember waking up and standing in the front yard calling for my mommy in the dark until her wobbly headlights turned the corner, and the neighbors didn’t like that. They were good people, and their concern was genuine, but they were starting to get worn out with my mother. 

They hadn’t liked calling the cops late at night when my dad was knocking the crap out of her, but this did not seem better.

So she finally had to ask my grandparents for help. They had been champing at the bit, they were there almost instantly. They took us to their house, and my mom started making arrangements.

She and my grandma arranged for her to go to Heald College in San Francisco. My mom had started college but dropped out to get married, being young, impatient, and not too sharp. Now she was ready to get a job, knowing what raising kids by yourself was all about. 

We were still residents of Hard Times, but Hard Times became a somewhat nicer place to live. We all slept in one bed at Grandma’s house – but it was a really nice bed, with an electric blanket.  We wore hand-me-downs – but now we had a bigger selection because of all the cousins  and neighbors that did same. We were summarily denied the things we saw on Saturday morning television – but hey, we had a television! 

And no matter what, my grandma managed to spoil the hell out of us even as she held us to strict rules. She always seemed to have a cookie in one hand and a switch in the other. And my grandpa had eyes in the back of his head, that is the truth. That old man could turn up on a dime as soon as you even  thought of doing anything. He didn’t speak much, but he had a look that could make you wet your pants. “Git!” and you’d be gone.

My grandparents were Calvinists, even if they didn’t know it. They came from hardworking families. I learned, life is what you make it. Life is a bed, and if you make it lumpy, those are your lumps. Nobody else can  smooth out your lumps, you have to do it yourself. They helped my mother because they felt we kids did not deserve to be punished sleeping in my mother’s lumpy bed. 

Pa Ingalls had  a similar outlook: God made us free and independent. We can do what we want, not like the animals, who do as God directs them. He uses the example of the muskrats’ house – they only make one kind of house, and it’s a good house, but it’s what God directs. And like Bing Crosby said – they can’t write their name or read a book!  Men can make any type of house they want, and if it’s a bad house, then it’s on them. God allows us our freedom, even if we’re good Christians, we can build a lousy house and end up out in the cold.

Or we could build a really good house, and we could keep it all to ourselves! 

At the same time, Pa knew people had to work together and help each other. Whenever there’s a problem the men all gravitate to the store at the center of town. A small strong group leads the others to do the right thing. When the wheat that’s been  keeping them all alive begins to run out, they gather to make a desperate plan. 

 

 

 

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