[The theme of the following does not actually fall into the definition of the “Inscriptions,” but since I am completing a book on the DICKSON DIARIES, I thought the scope of the following message might teach a very important point that folks today should consider, and thus, count their many blessings that they often take for granted.]
The usual—as in every winter of midwestern America—a great monster of a winter blizzard was bearing down upon us in the old farmhouse. At the time of the relentless onslaught, it was just a few degrees above freezing Fahrenheit, that is inside our old farmhouse in central Kansas that had absolutely no insulation. It was the same in all those farmhouses that were built at the turn of the last century. And because of the cooking and human humidity, ice froze on the inside of the windows. Because there was only a thin layer of wood on the outside of the wall studs, and plaster on slats on the inside that stood as a barrier between human flesh and those miserable conditions outside, we could only sit there cocooned in cotton blankets. We sat there listening to the howling northern monster coming through the trees that our father had planted years before on the north side of the house in order to somewhat cushion the house and those frail human occupants from those invading “Northerners.” In all this typical winter blizzard, we believed we were all fine in such a lockdown. Sometimes we were mostly inside that house for weeks, busying ourselves with our own entertainment.
Thankfully, and without any prodding by our father, we three brothers had during the fall chopped and gather enough fire wood to stoke a homemade furnace in the basement. Our father had knocked the end out of two fifty gallon drums, welded the two opened ends together, welded on legs, and then cut a log-size whole in one end into which we would faithfully, as railroad engineers, stoke the fire with wood. This was the main heater of the old farmhouse because it was in the basement. Convection would take its life-preserving heat to the second floor, and then on to the top floor where we slept in somewhat refrigerated comfort. On the intermediate floor there was an added diesel-burning heater that was likewise laboriously puffing away in the living room. With the two sources of survival running full blast, and with winter sweaters cloaking our tender bodies, we could survive any demon out of the north during those cold winter nights in central Kansas.
When one of those Northerners came through, the temperature outside our survival cocoon would plummet to as low as -10 degrees Fahrenheit (-23 Celsius), and sometimes much colder. I remember—I do not know why I remember this—that on one winter night the weatherman reported that it was colder in Goodland, Kansas for the day than any place on the entire northern continent of America and Canada, even in Alaska. It was -17 degrees Fahrenheit (-27 Celius). We somewhat took pride in that historical fact of Kansas cold, for it toughened us to live longer—people who live in colder climates live longer. I also remember that for three years from 1960 to 1962 there was very little snow. The reason I was told that there was little snow was that it was too cold to snow. And indeed it was simply fridged during those years.
But back then we did not know how good we had it. When Kansas was first settled by the early pioneers in the middle 1800s, including the Dicksons, there was no fire wood in those regions. In our day when we cut firewood for the blast furnace in our basement, we were cutting wood from trees, particularly Cottonwoods, that had been planted in central Kansas when time turned the calendar to the 1900s, and specifically when America went through the great tree-planting, job-creating New Deal of the Great Depression. But back in those pioneer days of the 1800s, there were only “buffalo chips” to burn. And if you do not know what a buffalo chip is, it is, or was, the sun-dried mature of the buffalo herds that had wandered throughout the region. Little did those buffalos know that they deposited survival possibilities for a future civilization by relieving themselves of “fire wood” for settlers who would later follow in their footsteps. Once dried in the sun, the manure made good “fire wood.” At least one advantage of the old sod houses was that they had tremendous insolation, and thus a little heat from the buffalo chips would allow the occupants to survive. So in my day in growing up on the farm, we really had it good. At least we could cut existing wood and not wander around the Kansas plains searching for and picking up dried buffalo manure.
So what do humans do in such conditions? They go into real lockdown. These were the days before central heating was installed in homes in the northern hemisphere. These were the days before anyone ever heard of insulation. These were the days when vehicle batteries were so cold that they could barely start an engine. If a cold snap surprised the diesel fuel industry, the diesel fuel would congeal and not flow through the fuel lines because the oil companies did not have time to put a special additive in the fuel in order that it not become like jelly in frigid conditions. Those were the “good ole days” only because we were totally ignorant of any better days.
Now suppose you lived in such conditions for three to four months out of every year. I remember what we did in those lockdown days, which conditions are now almost totally foreign to those today who “suffer” through a few weeks of lockdown during a pandemic. I can remember that during the “winter lockdowns” we played a lot of monopoly, and then spades, hearts and bridge with cards, and then dominoes, and then whatever board game we had in the house. I am not certain, but I believe that the creativity of many people inspired the creation of games during those years that later made them a great deal of money when the games were sold on the market.
Sometimes we would just dream up some game, like sliding down the staircase on a mattress, or roller skating in the basement. We had no television, and rarely listened to the radio. There were more exciting things to do than idly sitting in front of the TV or listening to a radio. For example, my bother and I once made a sand box in the basement of the old farmhouse wherein we crafted our own tractors and vehicles out of wood and Coke bottom caps for wheels for our miniature farms we carved out of the sand. My oldest brother had his trains with which he played endlessly. In other words, we busied ourselves with ourselves. Being alone was not frightful.T
here was no such thing as video games or computers, or even Zoom. No telephone. Well … we had a telephone, but the ice in the middle of the winter often collected on the telephone lines and subsequently brought down the lines. We were out of touch with the world, and the house itself became our only world. We were isolated in an icy world, and sometimes snow drifts behind the farm buildings were so high that you could dig a cave in them. Because we were in such isolation, we created our own little worlds. I must confess that I do not ever remember being bored. The winter lockdown forced the development of our creativity, and thus we entertained ourselves. Those were the days when family members were interdependent, not disconnected from one another during the week with countless individual activities of people outside the immediate family.
Other than going out to the barn dressed with coats, clothes and shoes that almost weighed as much as our bodies, we fed the cows, and then scurried back to the house. When we came in from the cold, we welcomed the warmth of the lockdown, realizing that if we were stranded outside, we would certainly end up being just another ice cycle.
So for all those depressed grumblers out there who complain today about lockdowns during pandemics, I would suggest that you be thankful that every winter you do not have to go about chopping wood, or even worse, scavenging around the prairie collecting buffalo chips. Nevertheless, I can remember that when I left the farm I told others that I did not want to ever be cold again.