Stories from Idaho's Hunters
Through the Field Glasses
‘Good Old Days,’ My Eye!
I have lived in Idaho’s rural foothills 12 years now -- long enough to persuade our rancher neighbors they’re stuck with us, but short of qualifying as true "natives" ourselves. Still, we try.
by Lewis Watson
(originally published in Ruralite, May, 1985)
We’ve learned the difference between heifers and Herefords is that of experience versus pedigree, not alternate spellings. We can navigate your average cow-patty minefield discreetly, if not gracefully. We’ve even learned to talk slowly on weather and politics while scuffing the ground and spitting at intervals, a country art that has contributed much to American history.
To hone my rural social skills, I recently had a "samwich" with neighbors, Clara and Bill Howe*, a ranching couple, and good friends in their sixties. You should understand that a "samwich" or "cuppa coffee" in Idaho ranching parlance corresponds roughly to a ten-course urban dinner. We therefore had plenty of time to try bridging the culture gap between city and country.
While Clara was preparing our ten-course samwich in the kitchen, Bill and I began preliminary sparring in their comfortable living room.
"Yeah, them city folks don’t know what they’re missin’," I drawled, in my best ex-English-teacher estimation of cowboy dialect.
"Waitaminnit, lemme turn off the TV if you wanna talk," Bill hollered. From the plush comfort of his recliner, he zapped his color TV with a remote control switch. "Now what’d you say?"
"I said, ‘city folks don’t know what they’re missing.’ All that noise and hustle when they could be out here in the peace and quiet with fishing and hunting out their back yard."
"You rattlin’ on about that simple-life stuff again? I keep tellin’ you it’s just a buncha’ sweatin’ and cussin’ and long hours! I oughta know -- I done it all my life!"
"Aw, comeonnow. I’ll bet back in the good old days, things really were simpler and everybody was happier."
Since Bill’s normal conversational tone is designed to turn stampeding cattle, his reflective silence seemed to suggest I had touched a nerve.
"Good old days, my eye!" he said finally. "Tell you what, lad. These are the good old days. Looky there at my purty TV set. And listen to Clara in there, cookin’ our samwich without us even choppin’ wood. I can turn that wall switch there and get furnace heat right now! Over yonder I got a phone I can call old Fred on, or my daughter in Oregon, or the President hisself, if Washington would talk to a poor dumb farmer.
"Yes, and I like my stove," Clara cut in from the kitchen. "You ought to try cooking for a big family or a hungry hay crew on a smoky old woodstove. No thank you, kind sir!"
"Shoot, she’s even got one of them miker-waves," Bill added. "Cook a whole cow in under a minute!"
"OK, I guess some modern conveniences are worth having," I said, "but don’t you miss the old, slow way of life?"
"Slow? Man, I’ll tell you about good-old-days-slow! Slow was when you wanted to go somewhere but you had to catch and harness the horses first, and then spend all day gettin’ there, and then feed and water the critters after dark when you came home tired and grumpy. That’s slow. I druther just jump in my car and, zoom, I’m there! Slow was trying to weld iron with a Popular Mechanics idee of two electric rods stuck in salt brine, because you couldn’t afford a real welder and the power company hadn’t got enough juice to us anyway in those days. That’s slow. And slow, back then, was trying to call your neighbor over a crank phone hooked to a barbed-wire fence line, when some dumb cow had broke the wire."
"Tell him about when Mary was born," Clara said.
"You tell him. I’m plumb wore out just talkin’ about the easy, simple life."
"When my baby sister was born in 1928, it was February and we were snowed in. The only way to get a doctor from town was to phone ahead, and then have Howard Wright and Dean Kellogg go fetch him on an open-body railroad ‘speeder.’ We were supposed to name the baby ‘Howard Dean’ in their honor, but ‘Mary’ sounded better after the delivery."
"Yeah, that’s slow," Bill grumbled.
We descended upon our sumptious meal and between mouthfuls pursued the subject of the good old days.
"Sundown was just when you left the fields," Bill said. "You still had to tend your team and do all sorts of chores halfway to midnight, seven days a week sometimes. The thing was, you didn’t just work longer hours, you worked harder hours. Everything had to be done by hand and the sweat of your brow -- and I mean everything!"
"When people nowadays talk about labor-saving devices," Clara said, "they can’t appreciate what that means, unless they worked on a farm in the old days. I remember Bill used to spend half the night working with cattle down at the barn, then get up again before daybreak to go at it again. And all by lantern-light."
"Shucks, we had good lanterns back then," Bill said. "Not quite as bright and convenient for tending a sick calf at midnight as our barnyard floodlight system now. Lanterns worked OK, though, if you kept rain off the hot glass, and squinted real hard, and didn’t set fire to the hay."
"I used to conduct school night events by gasoline lantern," Clara said, harking back to her 30 years as a public school teacher. "I suppose people would faint nowadays to think schools ever used such things around their children, but it was all we had."
"What we couldn’t do with horses and our own backs," Bill mused, "we did with our heads, and whatever odds and ends we could find. Before electricity came to this country in 1940, old Lee Curtis rigged up a car generator to a little turbine in the creek by his place. Lit up his house and workshop that way. We used to hand-saw ice on the Payette River in winter, and store it all summer in sawdust-insulated ice-houses. Didn’t have chainsaws, so we rigged an old diesel engine to a heavy cross-cut saw for makin’ wood. Horses turned their own grain-grinder, just like we hand-ground our house wheat and fruit into mush for jams. Clara here got by pretty good with a big spoon before she ever heard of a blender. She was a real terror with a broom, too, before I broke down and got her a vacuum cleaner."
"Yes, and a broom was real handy for chasing kids and dogs and men-folk out of the house when you needed to," Clara grinned.
"Honestly," I said. "It sounds like you two miss the old days just a little."
"Oh, we had some gay old times," Clara said, "but I don’t think I’d want to go back again."
"How about this cranky old cowboy here?" I kidded.
"Well, let’s put it this way, lad. You simple-lifers can have them good old days. Here, you take home some of them fresh garden carrots to the little lady, but mind you chop ‘em all up by hand, now! Me, come rain or shine, I got chores to do. But first I’m gonna watch my purty color TV a spell!"
*Names are changed to protect the peaceful rural privacy of these good folks.