W. F. Bellais II
The conversation began with a question, “Have you ever eaten groundhog?” My response was, “Not knowingly.” Well, the elderly gentleman went on to tell me about some “good-old-boys” who would come to his father’s farm to hunt groundhogs to take home to eat. “It was all right with my father,” he said, “but he told them boys don’t aim your guns in my direction; the boy here and I will be down in the pasture bringing back the cows.” From there I got the full description on how the groundhogs were lured into close shooting range. I supposed that groundhogs would not make a good meal, but maybe their fur coats could be used for something.
That led to eating raccoons. No I hadn’t ever eaten a raccoon, as far as I know. “Well don’t,” he said the meat is too fat and not much real meat on them anyway.” I suggested they may make a good hat or something like that.
“Well,” he goes on (and I am really caught up in his memoir), “when I was a boy I had to ride a one-eyed mule. Its right eye was knocked out by an accident.” I listened and encouraged him to go on. “My brothers got to ride horses, but I was left with this dang mule. As long as I was going straight ahead, it seemed to be all right. But one of my brothers would always come over on the mule’s right side, twist its ear and the mule would go crazy in circles trying to find the source of the irritant. The result was I always got thrown off. My brothers would laugh and thought it was a great joke. I didn’t. It hurt when I fell off that dang mule.”
There were other stories about times past. The elderly gentleman doesn’t have much to do these days. He tends a garden and hopes to see his tomatoes ripen before he dies; he may not. Nevertheless, his attitude is good. He has not only those memories of the days he spent in rural Missouri on a farm as a boy, but he has sad memories of loss—a spouse, children, and friends all have gone before him. Sadness, however, is not a part of his way of approaching life. He seems to have a profound sense of joy in simply being alive.
I think about all of those stories the elderly have shared with me; the stories of their lives in the early and mid years of the twentieth century. Life for them, as they look back, seemed simpler than it does today. Yes, there was an attitude of following the rules of one’s station in life. But following the rules made life uncomplicated. Nevertheless, think about what was going on in the twenties, thirties, and forties of the twentieth century.
Criminal gangs ran rampant over the Midwest spurred on by the challenge of Prohibition. During that era a major depression impacted the lives of everyone. Poverty, the reality of the time and commonly shared, resulted from the slightest downturn in fortune. Then there was the biggest war the world had ever experienced; a war from which few were excused. The truly difficult times in those days seemed to build character as well as challenge existence. My own memories of childhood in the late thirties and through the war years are filled with scenes of people struggling to have enough food on the table, long absences of family members, mothers caring for families while fathers were away at the war in some distant place in the Pacific or in Europe. Our memories seem to turn all those bad times into good times. The reason I think this is so is because the people of that generation faced calamity, poverty, and war with aplomb. They successfully met the challenges of their times. They remember the problems from that past only as problems, not the end of things. The necessary efforts they expended and their sacrifices for the future meant they had a future.
My hope is that the generations that followed will have the same good sense of their pasts as my elderly friend had. My hope is this, that when the youth of today become the elders of their times they can sit with younger people and tell them stories about riding one-eyed mules or eating strange wild animals (or at least something as homey and earthy as that). My fear, however, is that we are losing our connections with the land, with our histories, with each other.
People are more isolated now than they have ever been. Oh yes, we are in contact, but that contact is over and through technological miracles. Because we stick to our chairs and stare into computer monitors, or talk over our Smart Phones and Blackberries, face-to-face (or as the French say, tête à tête—meaning head-to-head) time with friends and strangers can be a rare occurrence.
When this and future generations remember their pasts, will they remember the adventure of riding a one-eyed mule or seeing some “good-old-boys” hunt for groundhogs. Of course, I don’t mean these events in a literal sense; what I am suggesting is that we need to move away from isolation of riding alone in our cars, sitting alone in office cubicles, and spending mindless hour after hour in meaningless activity on our computers and our cell phones and spend more time in the company of friends.
When friends gather they share their life stories, they make new stories by their associations, and they encourage the generation that is coming behind them to love, to share, and to be human beings who have memories of the past and hopes for the future.