Four Episodes from "The Round Barn"

Monday, July 11, 2011

[Jacqueline Dougan Jackson’s Stories from the Round Barn and More Stories from the Round Barn (1997 and 2002, Northwestern University Press) were drawn from a much larger project, a third-person memoir and history of a Wisconsin dairy farm, and of dairy farming in America from about 1900 until about 1970. The following four previously unpublished episodes are set in the 1930s and 1940s and appear, among other narratives and historical chapters, in four different places within the complete work, The Round Barn. This unique project also includes many photographs and will be published by Beloit College Press in three volumes beginning in late 2011. W. J. Dougan, who is Jackson’s grandfather, founded his farm in 1906 and was succeeded as head of the farm by his son Ronald, who was Jackson’s father; both men figure in the episodes below. —The Editors] 

Red and Loretta Holmes
Hiring at the Dougan Farm is often a chain reaction. Hire one person, end up with the family. Lester Stam is followed by his father and mother. Herbert Hertzel’s sister Josie comes to work in the Big House. Earl Bown travels down from Soldiers Grove in Kickapoo Valley; he tells Rod Jennings; Rod tells his first cousin Orland Potts, who comes, followed by Orland’s sister. Whole clans migrate. If a person doesn’t get a job at Dougan’s, he finds one in Beloit and stays on in the vicinity.

“The largest export of Kickapoo Valley is her young men,” Ron Dougan has been heard to say.

Robert—“Red”—Holmes from Soldiers Grove is working for the WPA in Flora, Illinois, in 1941. His salary is $40 a month. His brother-in-law Rod Jennings writes from Beloit that he thinks Daddy Dougan will hire him for more than that. Red applies, and W. J. offers him a job at $65 a month, provided he doesn’t smoke. Red and his wife of a year, Loretta, can hardly believe it. They pack up and drive their 1929 Model A to Beloit. They carry a dozen baby ducks in an iron kettle in the backseat.

Red assures Daddy Dougan that he doesn’t smoke. It’s a lie, the only lie he ever tells Daddy. He never smokes on the job, only at home. He figures what he does off the farm is his own business. “I’d have told him I didn’t eat, if that was one of the requirements,” he says. He tells W. J. he won’t be able to do much right away, for he has the flu and is pretty weak.

“With all the Vitamin D milk you’ll be drinking, we’ll have you well and strong in no time,” W. J. says. “I’ll give you an easy job this morning.”

The easy job is digging post holes.

Red and Loretta find a house near Waverly Beach. It’s full of bedbugs and cockroaches. They fumigate for two days before they move in. The ducks go into a washtub.

At the end of the first month, Red gets raised to $100. He and Loretta drive down to Little Egypt to visit Loretta’s folks. They debate all the way whether they should tell anyone how rich they are, and decide against it.

They move again, into the Larson place on a lane far back from Colley Road, alongside the Hill Farm. They have three little rooms and a windmill. The ducks go into a shed. When they return one night, the rats have eaten them all. They make another move, into one of the apartments at the Hill Farm. Pete Hoff lives downstairs and fires up the furnace so hot that the upstairs dwellers, the Holmeses and Jenningses, can hardly stand it.

At first Red does general farm work. W. J. watches him unload corn. “You’re taking too many unnecessary steps,” he says. “You’re making work for yourself. Instead of shoving your scoop into the corn and stepping back to pitch it, just scoop it in and then pitch it.” He demonstrates, leaving out the backward step.

Red tries. It throws him off balance, it hurts his back. But if he does it by stepping back to get into position before he throws, his balance is fine, his back is fine.

He does it W. J.’s way while the boss is watching. “Good,” says W. J. “That’s more efficient.” When he leaves to supervise some other worker, Red returns to doing it his own way.

He’s sent up to Ron’s place, Chez Nous, to bring down a load of hay. He has a blind horse, old Molly, and a bay, May. Red has driven horses before, but never on a sharp curve with a load. At the turn above the dairy he chooses the higher side of the road. The slope pushes the load against the horses and the singletree hits their heels. They want to go faster and Red lets them. The horses and wagon get away from him. They are going so fast they don’t even try to turn in at the farm. They hit the ditch below the drive. The blind horse falls; the wagon goes over her and lodges on top of her. Grampa comes rushing out, agitated, fearful for the horse. Red is agitated too, not only for the horse but for his job. It takes many men and a tractor to get the wagon clear and to free Molly, who miraculously is unhurt.

Red is next assigned to the milkhouse. Ronald is now his boss. Red is a self-confessed hothead; it must be in the hair, his wife says. He gets in fights with this and that fellow worker—“it never takes much,” says Red—and every time figures he’ll be canned. Ron always saves his hide. When Red is using an ice pick to remove caps from bottles returned from the route and then pouring the milk into a milk can, he gets into a heated arm-waving yelling match with John Baker. John reports to Ron that Red tried to stab him. Ron manages to calm Baker and tells Red from now on to punctuate his arguments with his finger.

Not all confrontations are trivial. Red has the milkhouse job of dumping milk: meeting the patron farmer coming in with his milk, taking the cans, weighing them on the scales and marking down the weights, then dumping the milk into the pasteurizing vat. One day he pulls the lid from a can and sees that the milk is off color: there’s blood in it. Bloody milk can be caused by a number of factors. When a cow first milks, the colostrum may be a little bloody. A tit can be worn down and bleed. There can be internal bleeding, too, an infection in the udder. Whatever the reason, the milk is unacceptable. Red refuses to take the patron’s milk. Elliot gets angry; Red gets angrier. He goes to the office and tells Ron. Ron informs the patron that the dairy can’t take bloody milk. The patron drives away in a rage, shouting at Red, “Blabbermouth!”—and worse.

Red also washes cans in the milkhouse and sometimes puts the cream in the churn and makes butter and buttermilk. He sometimes adds the starter to the vat of milk for cottage cheese. A few times it doesn’t set and has to be fed to the pigs. Ron is provoked that there’s no cheese, but nobody can figure out what went wrong.

One winter night it snows so heavily that some of the drifts come up to Red’s armpits. He and Rod Jennings drive to work from the Hill Farm in a ’34 Ford, going around by Highway 15, then into town and out Colley Road. Halfway to the farm they get stuck. They walk. It’s 16 below zero, the wind chill 30 below. The intense cold gets into Red’s face and paralyzes one side. Ron takes him to the hospital, where they diagnose the paralysis as Bell’s palsy. The condition goes away very slowly.

Red asks for a milk route. When Ron can’t give him one, he quits and goes to work for the Beloit Corporation. A month later Ron offers him Sam Mackie’s route; Sam is going into the service. The factory is unwilling to release Red. There is a wartime stipulation that they don’t have to let a worker go, but Ron talks them into it.

Red works harder on the milk route than he’s ever worked in his life. He comes home and falls on the couch, sleeps till 3:30 in the morning, then has to be up and back at work. By now he and Loretta and their children are living on Sixth Street. They have no car. Red has to ride his bicycle out to the farm in all weathers, six or seven miles from the west side. He neglects to fill out his route book regularly enough as he goes along, and then at the office has to grapple with whom to credit the two or four dollars left over, before he can check out and go home. He isn’t fond of the shoe factory, where the little strings on the floor get tangled with the small wheels of his milk trolley. He hates all the irksome coupons--the butter rationing, the gas rationing. He finds a milk route involves a lot of walking.

Red’s draft notice comes after he’s worked on the farm three and a half years. Ron can get him a deferment as a farmworker. But Red decides he’ll take a chance on the service.

“Gung ho!” snorts his wife, telling about it years later. “Twenty-six years old, with a third child coming up! When was he ever going to get another chance like that? And then he goes and volunteers for the paratroopers!”

Ron, unable to find anyone to take over Red’s milk route, has to take it himself.

In the infantry, Red reports, an old sergeant keeps hollering at him, “You’re not a milkman anymore! You’re not a milkman anymore!” He never figures out how the sergeant knows he’s been a milkman.

At the end of the war, after serving in the Pacific and Philippines, Red returns to Beloit. Ron is ready to hire him back, but Red remembers how hard he worked on the route and those icy 3:30 mornings.

“No thanks,” says Red, “I’m not a milkman anymore,” and he and Loretta buy a little farm west of town.

During World War II, when the Philippines are cut off, there is no hemp for rope. American farmers are urged to raise hemp. The Dougan farm has a field of it. It’s a tall, dense, rank, and unsightly weed. It’s hard on machinery to harvest—it can dull the sharpest blade. It depletes the soil more than any crop W. J. has ever had. He dislikes his field of hemp but tolerates it as his patriotic duty.

As a controlled substance, it takes a special permit. W. J. has a marijuana license; he sticks it in a file folder under “Hemp” in the office. He and Ron are the only ones aware of the license. To them it’s just another government regulation. They do know that marijuana can be used as a drug, but they only vaguely know its properties. Had they announced they had to have a license to raise hemp, few if any would know why it required one. Few if any would conjecture, even notice. Marijuana and pot are not everyday words. The Dougan kids, in their teen years during the war, with fields of marijuana everywhere, never hear their classmates talk about it, much less see them smoke it. Adult concerns about teens are what they’ve always been—smoking, drinking, driving, sex.

Craig is fourteen in 1944, working on the farm for the summer. He’s pulled off the detasseling, a job for unskilled labor, and put to harvesting the hemp. This means driving horses, the two remaining horses on the farm—the tractors are all busy—and Craig has driven this team before. There is no regular farmhand who can be spared for the job, especially when Craig is able to do it.

The horses pull a side delivery. A side delivery is used for cutting hay. It is slim, wheeled, light, and has a tractor seat and, out to the right, at a right angle, a long pair of scissor blades that go rapidly back and forth when the side delivery is moving, cutting the hay close to the ground and leaving it lying behind in a fragrant swath. The blades work in opposition and consist of many sharp, triangular teeth. It is dangerous to be a cat in a hayfield when the side delivery is coming along.

Grampa uses this machine to cut the hemp. He follows behind Craig a little way, making sure that all is well. Then he leaves him. But hemp is not hay. Its tall, thick stalks are like wire. A tooth on the side delivery soon breaks. Craig reports to the farm; Lyall Bacon roars up in a truck with a butane stove and solders the tooth back into place, and Craig goes on. It is a beautiful sunny day, but very, very hot, perhaps over 100 degrees, and humid. Another tooth breaks; Lyall returns, and after a third break returns again. He also has to sharpen some of the teeth.

Craig is feeling aggrieved. He’s not sorry to be out of the cornfields, where Grampa reproves him when he misses tassels, insisting that as a detasseler and a Dougan, “you have to be better than the rest!” but does not hear Craig’s response, “But I’m shorter than the rest!” He does love driving the horses. But he’s aggrieved to be doing an uncomfortable, sweaty job in a foul-smelling field where the side delivery is constantly having to be repaired. The job will take forever. It won’t be done in a day as was predicted.

The day goes on; the air fairly shimmers with the heat. There is no breeze. But Craig’s feelings begin to change. The sky is blue, the sun is shining. Birds are singing. The clickety-click of the side delivery blades is music. The glistening rumps of the horses ahead of him are beautiful, and the team responds to his slightest bidding. Craig finds himself thinking deep thoughts and appreciating all of life’s gifts. He does not mind the interruptions to fix the blades. He has never known such a perfect day. He is sorry when it comes to an end. His feelings of euphoria extend into the night, and he anticipates cutting more hemp the following day.

But the next day a man is available for the work, Daddy is short on detasselers, and Craig returns to the cornfields. Not until a number of years later, when he is in medical school, does he realize that he had spent that perfect day stoned.

Hemp is a weed that propagates easily; like asparagus, it escapes cultivation and adapts to ditches and fallow fields. With the war over, hemp has not been raised for many years. The government has fieldworkers whose job it is to go around and obliterate hemp stragglers from the landscape. Craig, working on the farm between med school sessions and now aware of hemp’s properties, asks his former high school classmate Joe Peppitone, when he discovers him with a knife and a sack in a Dougan ditch, “Whatcha doing, Joe?” When Joe mumbles that he’s collecting dandelion greens, Craig responds, “In August?”

Later, there is a hemp-related incident with the Holmeses, though not on the Dougan farm. Red Holmes came down from Soldiers Grove in Kickapoo Valley and worked on the farm for several years, one of the many young men from Kickapoo who migrated to Dougan’s on the recommendation of relatives already working there. During World War II he enlisted and was stationed in the Pacific. When he returns, Ron is all set to hire him back. But Red remembers how hard he worked on the milk route and refuses. He takes a railroad job for a few years, then goes to the Beloit Corporation, where he had earlier served a brief stint. After they save enough money, he and his wife Loretta buy a small farm west of Beloit.

Whoever owned this farm during the war must have raised hemp. Some has reverted to the wild and is growing like a weed. Loretta keeps the eight-foot plants as a tall shield between her garden and the neighbors’ land. She also has a few plants in flowerpots by her back door. Her goat gets loose one day and chews the leaves off a whole plant. He wanders around swaying and bleating softly.

One night the neighbors are burglarized. The deputies cut across into the Holmes garden, parting the marijuana to do so. They want to know if anyone has seen anything. No one has.

Before they leave a deputy says, “Lady, what sort of plant is that in your garden?”

“I guess savory or something,” Loretta answers. “I’m going to put it in my pickles.”

The deputy sighs. “Oh, those’ll be some pickles!” He leaves without another word.

Before long the state patrol pulls up. An officer tells Loretta she has to cut the plants down.

“What for? Why? What is it?” she asks.

“It’s pot.”

“Pot!” Loretta cries. “It’s against the law to touch the stuff. I refuse to cut it down!”

The officer shifts from foot to foot. “I may have to come back.”

“Well, you better,” retorts Loretta, “for I won’t touch illegal stuff like that!”

Some other officers return in a while, uproot all the plants. and put them in their truck. Loretta stands with her hands on her hips, glaring. The men don’t look at her as they confiscate the plants by the back door too.

Loretta has a talent for writing. She becomes a weekly contributor to the Beloit Daily News. Her column, bearing its own title and a snapshot of her mischievous face, is a popular one. It addresses farm and family topics, salted with Loretta’s lively and outrageous lip. Ron calls her up from time to time to comment on her column and to suggest articles.

“You haven’t written yet about how you saved Red from a life in Soldiers Grove,” he says.

“Yeah,” retorts Loretta. “A CCC boy up there. My mother always said, ‘Don’t grab the first thing that comes down the pike.’ Unfortunately, he was the first and last up in that hickory country. There wasn’t much. Strange people up there!”

“You could write about how everybody flocked south like lemmings to work for Grampa Dougan. Or the ducklings you brought with you in a kettle. Or the marijuana episode.”

“Ron,” Loretta says, “I’ve got plenty to write about with current topics. Besides, about the pot, Red says there’s no way I could make myself sound innocent. Not with those silver bells and cockle shells growing all in a row by the back door. I’m lucky I’m not in jail.”

Ron chuckles at the allusion. “The pretty maids—all named Mary Jane. So why then do you suppose Mary was contrary?”

“Because the deputies came, of course!” says Loretta with a snort.

“If I’d known, I could have loaned you Grampa Dougan’s marijuana license,” Ron says. “They wouldn’t have dared touch you! Tell me, Loretta, did you ever try the stuff?”

“How could I? All they left me were my pots,” says Loretta. “But I’ll tell you one thing, Ron. They never came inside and looked on my kitchen windowsill!”

The Smokehouse
When Jackie, Craig, Patsy, and Joan start visiting the Snide farm, they find a building that intrigues them, behind and set apart from the farmhouse. There’s nothing like it on the dairy, or any farm they’ve visited. It’s the size of a playhouse, with a door but no windows. It’s made out of pale yellow limestone chunks, the same as the foundation of the side barn on the dairy, and also with no mortar. So it is very old. Inside on the rafters, both along the sides and crossing from wall to wall, are spaced hooks.

The building is a smokehouse. The farmers here once hung their hams and sides of bacon and whatever else it was possible to smoke, perhaps fish they caught in Turtle Creek or up at Lake Koshkonong, on these hooks, and built a small fire in the building. This was kept banked and burning for days, and the dense smoke from the fire permeated and preserved the meat. The meat was flavored by the kind of wood burned. Hickory was a favorite, Ron says.

There’s no evidence that the smokehouse has been used for many years. It’s a curiosity, a quaint and handsome little building set on the lawn, with trees and bushes around it, but without windows it’s no use to play in. It would make a good jail, but by the time the four have moved and are living on the Snide farm, now renamed Chez Nous, they are past the age of imprisoning each other in their play. It doesn’t occur to them to experiment with curing meat, and anyway, with the scarcity of meat in the war years, it’s unlikely that Grampa or Daddy would donate a ham for such a purpose.

There are two unlikely denizens that inhabit the smokehouse, each for a time. When Craig is at Beloit College, he belongs to the Sigma Chi fraternity. Down the street from the Sigma Chi house is the SAE house, and in front of the SAE house, on the edge of the sidewalk, is the SAE lion. This heavy bronze lion must once have graced the entrance to some great estate and undoubtedly was one of a pair. Where the SAEs got it is shrouded in history. A favorite sport of college pranksters is to douse the lion’s gold with paint; it goes through stages of being green, pink, white, rainbow. One March first white cotton balls are glued all over it and the lion becomes a lamb. The SAEs always patiently clean it up again.

The lion also lives under constant threat of thievery. It regularly disappears, and the SAEs regularly track it down and return it to its place. They never call the police, for the thieves are invariably members of other fraternities, and the police can’t be bothered with college shenanigans. To manage to steal the SAE lion is a coup, and the longer a rival fraternity can keep it hidden, the greater the glory.

One fall night the lion disappears again. The SAEs begin their search, looking in the usual places, expecting some mole (perhaps a former girlfriend) to come forward and exchange information for favors. But no one squeals. Weeks go by and the lion remains missing. Months pass, and the SAEs begin to worry. Maybe it wasn’t a college heist. Maybe the lion is gone for good this time.

But Jackie, who is a senior this year, knows where the lion is. The Sigma Chis took it, and it’s in the smokehouse. She goes and looks at it once in a while. Its soft golden splendor gleams out from the dark when she opens the door. Craig feels smug that he’s provided the most successful hiding place the lion has ever had.

Ron belongs to a town-gown group nicknamed “the Great Brains.” They meet once a month, at different members’ houses, for dinner and discussion. The spring evening that the Great Brains meet at Chez Nous is a fair one. The sun slants across the grass. One of the members, history professor Bob Irrmann, takes a solitary walk around the lawn before dinner. He travels slowly, for one leg is in a brace from childhood polio and he uses a cane. He comes to the smokehouse, unlatches and opens the door. He spends a long moment contemplating what is inside. Then he carefully latches the door again and continues his ramble.

The next afternoon the SAE lion is back in its accustomed spot in front of the fraternity house. Craig is baffled. How did they find out? How did they manage to sneak out to the farm in the middle of the night and rescue the lion without anyone inside being alerted, not even the dog? They’d have to have had a truck, the lion is so heavy.

But Jackie knows how they found out. She had watched Professor Irrmann take that long, thoughtful look into the smokehouse, and she’s aware that once upon a time he was a Beloit SAE.

The other smokehouse resident arrives a few years later. Craig is now at medical school. Somehow he manages to filch a head from the cadaver room. It’s leathery and mummified. It hasn’t been dissected. It’s been hanging around a long time and become a sort of mascot. It is called George. He wraps George in white tissue paper, puts it in a box with a blue ribbon, and gives it to his father for his birthday.

Craig is highly entertained by his joke, but Ron isn’t amused. He orders Craig to take it back. Craig protests—he ran too much risk in smuggling it out to now risk sneaking it back.

Ron doesn’t know what to do with it. He puts the box in the back of the garage. But every time he uses the car he sees it there, and it bothers him. He takes it and pushes it up onto the corner of a shelf just under the roof of the smokehouse. He forgets about it.

A year or two goes by. Joan comes down from Madison for a visit, bringing her three little children. They play on the lawn. They find the smokehouse has been filled with old shingles that slope from the door up to the eaves. They scramble around on the shingles and dislodge a box on a high shelf. The box splits open; something rolls down the slope of the shingles, shedding tissue paper as it goes, and bounces out onto the lawn. The children poke at it with a stick. The dog barks.

Joan goes to see what the ruckus is.

“Look what we found!” Peter cries.

Joan sees. “Keep back, all of you!” she yelps. She flies into the house and telephones down to the dairy office. “Daddy!” she screeches. “There’s a head on the lawn! The children are playing with a head! It’s got eyes and teeth and it looks—”

“Mon Dieu,” Ron cuts her off. “I’ll be right up.”

He finds Joan trying to keep her children away from the head. They are dancing around the yard, making little darts toward the forbidden object. She can’t control the dog; he keeps running up and sniffing.

“Get away, everybody,” Ron orders. “Show some respect. That’s one of ours! It’s your—let’s see”—he counts on his fingers—“it’s your great-great-great-grandfather!”

The children fall back, confounded and pop-eyed.

“You’ve disturbed the shrine of your ancestors,” their grandfather explains. “The smokehouse is the temple of—”

“Daddy!” Joan cries. “Don’t say a thing more!” She drags her three into the house.

Ron rolls the head back into the tissue paper and puts it in the car. He returns to the dairy and drops it in a gunnysack. He gets an auger-type post-hole digger out of the tool house. He finds Ervin, the farm mechanic.

“Erv,” he says, “take this somewhere—back up to my place, and somewhere on the land, not near the house. Dig as deep a post hole as you can. Make it along a fence where a plow won’t come, and drop this in. Don’t tell me where you buried it. Don’t tell anybody.”

“What is it?” asks Erv.

“Erv,” says Ron, “you don’t even want to know.”

Clinton Corners
Jackie is a senior in high school. It’s New Year’s Eve. She’s in a strange house in a strange town, even though that town is Clinton, only nine or ten miles east of home, the first town east of Beloit. It’s a town she’s been in and out of all her life, the town you have to go through to get to Phantom Lake Y Camp or the Milwaukee State Fair. The town she’s had ice cream in, when Grampa takes Gramma and Effie there on a Sunday drive and she’s ridden along. The town whose tall grain elevators she knows, and the office below, with its calendars and desks and dust and a corn-ear paperweight that says “Delong Seeds,” when she goes with Daddy to pick up grain sacks at DeLong’s. It’s a farmers’ town. Jackie hears Daddy say once, “When you have to go to Beloit for something, you put on your town clothes, but when you need something in Clinton, you just climb off the manure spreader.” Now she is here, and she must have passed this very house dozens of times, but never singled it out among the many other comfortable, wide-porched houses on Clinton’s main street.

It’s a strange weekend. She was persuaded to come by one of her friends, Lois Curtright. Curt’s sister works in McNeany’s Department Store in Beloit; a coworker is an older woman who lives in Clinton. She has a daughter Curt’s age. The daughter goes to Clinton High, and the mother wants to give a New Year’s house party for her daughter, with Curt and Curt’s friends as guests. This is strange in itself--a house party for girls you don’t even know? Remarkably, Curt manages to corral four other girls to come to it, including Jackie.

This recruiting is remarkable because New Year’s is an important event at Beloit High, with dates and sleigh rides and parties and long kisses as the town church bells and the factories’ steam whistles announce the New Year. But this weekend includes no Beloit activities. In fact, it’s a secret party. Most of Jackie’s friends are going steady, and most of them have endured some irritations from time to time; their love lives are often rocky. They think it a delicious joke to vanish from Beloit on New Year’s. It will teach their steadies a lesson to be left dateless, high and dry. It will pay them back for the times these girls themselves have been left hanging while their steadies have pursued male activities without them.

Jackie has no boyfriend to teach a lesson to. She did go steady for part of her junior year, but Eric broke up with her in order to go steady with another Jackie. She regretted having spent so much time knitting him a pair of argyle socks, and spending so many Friday evenings at home because he played in the dance band that usually accompanied the weekly sock hops at the YMCA. Without a boyfriend, she still went defiantly to the many formal dances Beloit High put on: the Junior and Senior Proms, Hi-Y, Treble Clef, DeMolay, the Country Club Summer Solstice, where you could walk barefoot on the golf course and let the hem of your gown get wet, ROTC’s Military Ball. She imported boys from other towns, old friends of the family, much in the way her mother and her mother’s friends with teen daughters sent formals from town to town so that she and her sisters seldom had to wear the same dress twice. But with these imported boys, with whom she once caught frogs or held belching contests, there has been no romantic interest. Their presence has merely meant that she hasn’t stayed home from major social events. When Curt urges her to come on a New Year’s lark, she has no reason not to go.

It has been somewhat interesting to live in a different house in a small town for a winter weekend, and with a strange family. Take Darlene’s mother. She’s a thin, nervous woman, an earnest hoverer, a flutterer, and has plied them with more food than anyone can eat. She keeps urging second and third helpings. She whisks plates away at the ends of meals and won’t let anyone assist in the kitchen. She has heaping candy dishes all over the dining room and living room, and snacks laid out in the evenings. Darlene’s father is silent and keeps out of the way, usually behind his newspaper, but at some flurry of activity or squeal of laughter will glance out with bright, amused eyes. The six girls have stayed up late talking and laughing, trying new hairdos, new lipsticks, spraying on different colognes from cut-glass atomizers. The record player is always on, usually Frank Sinatra singing “That Old Black Magic.” The house is one big slumber party, and the talk is of boys, boys, boys, especially the Clinton boys who have sniffed that there is new game and have been circling around. Jackie, while in the group, is more a watcher than a participant. These Beloiters are part of the gang she runs around with at school, but because she lives in the country, wartime gas and tire rationing have kept her extracurricular activities minimal. She hasn’t been much in on the easy town socializing. She is somewhat uncomfortable.

But there has been no discomfort with the skating! They all have brought their skates, and today, a bright cold day with blue, blue sky and sparkling snow, Mr. Brakefield drives them all to Clinton Corners, a spot with a name but no apparent village, where the road crosses a meandering little crick. Here they lace up their skates and follow the stream. Jackie has often followed streams in other seasons; it is one of her favorite activities. She has even skated on a stream—Spring Brook, where it goes through the Catalpa Forest, midway between home and the dairy. She has ridden her horse across the pasture, tied him to a tree, and skated in loops and circles on the tiny area that freezes solid where the water runs deepest, until the horse wearies and snorts and stamps for her to return him to the barn. But she has never explored beyond the frozen forest, so she didn’t know how different it was to follow a stream, skating.

This brook allows no skating abreast; it is too narrow. One is not being unfriendly to skate alone or to forge out ahead of the others. Jackie relishes the aloneness with the snow-lipped banks on either side, the azure sky, the snow a dazzling blanket sometimes in drifts on the ice, often icing the bushes and the tree twigs, and falling like feathers in her face when she brushes past them. The ice narrows and widens, and sometimes it ceases altogether, becoming a diminishing transparent wafer and finally water gurgling over stones. Then she has to climb the bank and clunk through the snow until ice returns again and she can climb down and resume her winged glide inside a hidden world, where around every curve is something new and different to see, to hear, to feel—for the light wind is sometimes at her back, sometimes in her face or from the side, or, in a sheltered area, there will be no wind at all, and then the feel is all sunshine.

Most exciting is the ice itself. In Beloit Jackie and her siblings have the lagoon alongside the river, and ever since they were small Daddy can once in a while be persuaded to take them there of an evening, during the season when the river is frozen, to skate under the big lights with the crowds of kids, to play crack the whip, to warm themselves in the pavilion, and to return home chap-cheeked, sweaty, and exhausted. You always meet someone you know and can skate with, clasping snow-pilled mittens. It is a heady social event as well as exercise. But the ice itself is furrowed and cross-furrowed by skate runners, gouged and pitted, mounded into low crescents of scraped and refrozen ice where someone has executed a fast turn, wiped clear where someone has fallen and skidded on snow pants. She has paid scant attention to the ice as ice, except to try to stay upright on its uneven surface and move ahead.

But this ice! No other blade has made a mark on its pristine surface. Near the banks dried reeds sometimes poke through it, and the ice has frozen around their stems. They rattle in a windy gust. Here and there she encounters a rough area, as though bubbles had come up and burst and then frozen, so that the ice is cratered like the surface of the moon. But then the smoothness returns and she can glide again. Mostly it is opaque smoothness, a kind of mottled white, but there are stretches where it is black as an obsidian floor—black, and transparent! Through the transparency, underneath the ice, she can see flashes of light. It can’t be, she stops skating in disbelief, and stares—but it is, little fish swimming, as though it were summer instead of the depths of winter! It is their silvery scales turning to the sun, their reflecting sides, that makes the flashes.

It is a magical afternoon. And when she asks Darlene’s father the name of the little stream, he says Spring Brook—and Jackie sucks in her breath, for it is Spring Brook that runs through the Catalpa Forest and then through the back pasture of the dairy and joins Turtle Creek close to town at the railroad bridges. It is the stream she’d grown up with that she finds so enchanting today.

But now it is New Year’s Eve, and the girls are arranging dates. They are going to go to the movies, each with a Clinton boy. The boys had circled closer, sitting on the porch before supper, creaking in the porch swing that hasn’t been taken down for the winter, throwing soft snowballs at the windows. Now it is after supper and Darlene is on the phone. One by one the Beloit girls get dates. Jackie watches and listens. Curt will go with LeRoy, Betty with B. J., Helen with B. J.’s brother Steve, Nancy with Ed. Darlene is set with her usual date, Foster. But who is there for Jackie?

Darlene tries number after number. All the boys she calls are unavailable. Some have made other plans, some are out of town and their mothers apologize for them. Some already have a date. There is nobody for Jackie. Darlene and the others are perplexed, uncomfortable.

Jackie is uncomfortable too. She clears her throat. “Call Bill DeLong,” she says.

“Bill?” Darlene is astonished. “You know Bill? He never goes out. He stays home and fusses with things in his basement. Electrical things. Things that go.”

Jackie has seen Bill DeLong working at the grain elevators, though she never spoke to him. He is her age, and tall and nice looking. Their fathers know each other. His little brother and hers have gone to Phantom Lake together. “Well, try him anyway,” Jackie says. “I bet he’ll go with me. Tell him who I am. Tell him I’m a Dougan; Dougan Seed Corn.”

Darlene is dubious, but she calls the DeLong number. She talks to Mrs. DeLong, tells her they need Bill for a date for the movies, that his date would be Jackie Dougan. She puts her hand over the mouthpiece and says that Mrs. DeLong has gone to ask Bill; she listens while Mrs. DeLong comes back and speaks to her again. Jackie and all the girls wait and listen.

Darlene hangs up. “Well,” she says, “I was right. Bill doesn’t want to go. What can we do now?”

There is no reason why he should go, even with Jackie Dougan, but Jackie feels spurned.

Darlene’s father has been in his easy chair in the corner, smoking and hidden behind his paper. Now he looks around from behind it. “I’ll be Jackie’s date,” he says.

The group walks to the movies. The laughing and chattering couples go first, two by two down the shoveled sidewalks. Jackie and Darlene’s father bring up the rear. But they are not a couple, they are a threesome.

For an extra boy materializes when the others come, and he is walking with them, on the other side of Darlene’s father. His name is Alvin, and he and Mr. Brakefield chat; they know each other. He’s a junior in high school, but then so is Helen’s date. Why didn’t Darlene call Alvin?

They go under a streetlight, and Jackie, glancing sideways, realizes why. Alvin is disfigured. One whole side of his face has long scars down it, as though a bear scraped him repeatedly, and a bear with dirty claws, for the scratches are black with lumpy unevenesses in them.

Jackie feels anger, first toward herself for her instinctive recoil, then toward Darlene and the noisy couples ahead. She joins with animation in the conversation with Darlene’s father and Alvin.

At the movie, Mr. Brakefield buys the tickets for the three of them and sits between them. Alvin is not a date. Afterward they all go to the ice cream parlor, the one that Jackie knows, for it’s the only one in Clinton, the one she has gone to with Grampa and Gramma. The three sit in a booth, Darlene’s father and Jackie on one side, Alvin on the other, and eat hot fudge sundaes. Jackie, facing Alvin, can study him casually. If it weren’t for the terrible cheek, he would be pleasant looking. He needs to grow a couple of inches, but that will probably happen. And he does not seem self-conscious, nor embarrassed to have come along uninvited. He seems merely accepting that he isn’t part of the laughing, flirting group. He seems, Jackie realizes, used to it. Again, Mr. Brakefield pays for the three of them.

Later, Jackie asks Darlene’s father about Alvin. He had an accident when he was little, Mr. Brakefield says, and his face got dragged on a driveway. The marks were made by the cinders he was dragged over. The family never took him to a doctor or the hospital, and so the scars healed with all the black in them, and even small cinders.

“It’s a shame,” says Mr. Brakefield. “It was probably money, the Depression. And it’s probably too late to do anything now. But it doesn’t seem to bother him.”

Again Jackie feels anger, a diffuse, helpless anger.


She’s glad when the weekend is over. She doesn’t know whether her friends’ boyfriends were taught a lesson. She writes a thank-you note to the Brakefields. An odd thing—her letter crosses in the mail with one from Mrs. Brakefield, who writes an effusive note to her, thanking her for coming and being Darlene’s friend, and hoping the Beloit girls will invite Darlene over to some of their parties. She’s surely written a similar note to Curt and the others. Jackie, pondering, realizes that Darlene’s mother must see Beloit as more cosmopolitan, a step higher than podunk Clinton. The house party has been a bid for Darlene to move up the social ladder. But Jackie cannot help anyone climb that ladder. She’s in the country, halfway between Beloit and Clinton. She’s not going with anybody. She cannot even get a date with Bill DeLong. She still feels diminished about that.

But, she thinks as she reviews the weekend, nothing can ever take away that blissful afternoon of skating on Spring Brook. Nothing can ever sully Clinton Corners.

Friday, July 1, 2011