Uncle Ernie Died Last Week
Ernie, Ernest R. McDonald, Uncle Ernie, died last week. He was a dirt farmer, a son of a dirt farmer, one of those kind that live so close to the soil, to the ground, that they sort of become inseparable, the earth, the farmer, the soil, the ground. Uncle Ernie died last week.
He was maybe, five foot ten though he seemed much taller. He had a barrel chest that, after a deep breath, measured maybe fifty-four inches around. He always wore bib overalls over a cotton plaid work shirt and white socks and clod hoppers on his feet, you know, those boots with the leather laces that come up through the eyes so far then go to those brass hooks above to lace as you wished for the work you were about.
He had a round, red, robust face, and when he laughed which was often, it came from deep in the belly and came out like a rapid machine gun rattle or a hen pheasant forty yards off, too far away to fire that twelve gauge.
I visited him often as a young boy, sometimes with my younger sister, Barbara, and when I did, I stayed in the old house, the big house, a two story wooden frame with a fireplace and registers to allow the warm air downstairs to reach the bedrooms upstairs. His dad lived alone in the big house. I was a visitor there. It wasn’t wired. We used coal oil lamps for light. It was dim most of the time.
Uncle Ernie lived in a small house a few yards off built much like what a few years back we might have called a house trailer. It was wired. The farm was somewhere outside of Salem, in Northeastern Ohio, on a dirt road, in the midst of the Amish people with their black horse-drawn carriages. That’s how it was.
Uncle Ernie farmed eighty acres with two draft horses, work horses with the big hooves, the hair growing long around them, with mechanical plows, rakes, bailers, and the rest, that somehow magically were connected to the yoke behind the horses. His job, that dirt farming, was a tough one.
He was up way before daybreak, shaking me so I dressed and went along, to milk by hand those eleven or twelve milk cows, who spent the night in the lower part of the barn, each of us carrying coal oil lanterns which we hung on nails overhead. The barn down there was steaming and warmer due to heat from the cows and from the decomposing manure, the smell of which you could not escape. That was part of it.
I remember the sound of the squirt, squirt, squirt, as you squeezed the teats, one in each hand, and pulled as you squeezed so as to get the most milk from the utter with each as you alternated left hand then right hand and back up for another grip and yet another stroke, left and right.
And the sound of the squirt of that warm milk as it hit that galvanized pail held between your knees as you sat on that three-legged stool. And the smell of that milk, that sweet unpasteurized, unhomogenized milk as it built in that pail. And the steam coming up from that warm milk, and the color, much more yellow than that we buy at the Market and much stronger by taste, too.
He had some sows and some pigs that ate the leftovers and the apples picked off the ground from the several acres of orchard on the hill overlooking the house, the valley, the farm. I remember a picnic with Uncle Ernie, his wife, Virginia, my dad’s sister, we called her Auntie, under that large maple tree in the pasture, when one large sow got into the picnic basket and made short-shrift of what was in there.
Then his dad died. Then one night the orchard caught fire. All the neighbors came to help to no avail. It was destroyed. Then one of the draft horses got sick and died. And the cows were older and not producing much milk. And the silo collapsed. Uncle Ernie, with a growing family that needed providing, took a job with Chrysler a little ways away. He sold that eighty-acre farm that had been in the family for who knows how many generations, for something like seven thousand dollars. He moved to a place on a hill closer to work and eventually retired from Chrysler.
His last years were spent in a rest home not that far from Salem. He didn’t really belong there. Now he’s back where he belongs, back one with the soil, back one with the ground, as dirt farmers should. Uncle Ernie died last week.
‘Till we meet again, be out there looking for Trouble in Cedar Key…