My maternal grandfather operated a drycleaner’s on Broadway at 74th street, just north of the old Jackson County line.
For years he took in other folks’ soiled laundry until, through scientific alchemy buttressed by brawn, he had transmigrated their dirt into a 400 acre farm east of Carrollton, Missouri. He signed the papers on the land, passed over the shop’s keys to the new owner and relocated his wife and thirteen children all on the same day. He never returned to Kansas City.
The farm came equipped with the standard accessories: a two-story white clapboard house with a wrap-around porch; cold well; barn (complete with an ever varying rotation of cats); root cellar; tumble-down storage shed; chicken coop; fenced pasture; pig sty; a two-hole outhouse (that fertilized a bountiful cherry tree); a reasonably sized pond; seemingly endless fields and one roan Percheron about a gazillion years old, as coldblooded a horse as one could wish.
Red stood 21 hands, would plow all day without complaint but suffer no saddle.
Some of my earliest memories are of mid summer mornings when my grandfather would throw me up on Red’s bare back. He’d hand up a brown paper sack that usually held a note for the neighbors, and always had an apple each for Red and me. Grandfather would pat the horse on the shoulder and say “G’won now, Red. Take a walk” and off we’d plod down the dirt road that ran in front of the farm to the nearest neighbors two miles away.
Those hot dusty ambles lasted so long I would often doze on Red’s back and not rouse until old Mrs. Brody, standing on the top step of her back porch and still needing to reach up uup uuup uuuuup, would take the brown bag from my hand, pluck out the note and feed Red his apple. Red and I’d sit munching apples until Mrs. Brody came back out of her house with a different sack of…something –lots of times rhubarb or cabbage; now and again flour; once in a great while mail from the General Delivery in town; one time even a young girl’s dress (that puzzled me for a week) — and a piece of hard candy. Then she would shoo Red out of her yard like an unwanted possum, “Shoo, shoo shoo – on with you now, Red. You git that boy back now, you hear? I said on with you! Shoo shoo shoo!”
The sun would be approaching its zenith on the return trip, the slow ride home always hotter, dustier as Red’s deliberate gait pounded the already beaten dirt road. A dirt spray, as fine and delicate as any mist, would puff upward with each massive clop of Red’s shod hooves – a ton of horse flesh striking hard earth compressed by years of iron-wheeled tractors lumbering up and down the road.
Back at the farm Red would plod over to the barnyard’s closed gate and stop. From there I would slide off his broad back to the fence’s top rail, then ladder down the bottom three rails to the ground and throw open the gate. Red would still be 60 yards shy of the barn by the time I had reclosed the gate and scooted over to my box of toy soldiers.
The box sat at the base of the back porch stairs. Within the old cardboard were about 100 green plastic infantrymen, all in the usual poses: an estimated 20-25 prone riflemen; perhaps 30 standing riflemen; a dozen kneeling rifleman; 2 treasured sitting riflemen (I could never explain how or why they came into my collection and have never seen one since); the rest were an eclectic mix of suicidal idiots standing straight up with their weapons at ports arms, a couple of guys sporting flame throwers, one radioman, a couple of those morons holding their rifles straight over their heads as though fording a raging river, one guy with a mine sweeper for pity’s sake, and three obvious officers – I mean, they’re only carrying .45s and waving, as if to say “Head on out, men! I’ll be right there!”
I would sit down on the hard earth between the back porch and the chicken coop and root cellar and wreak utter martial havoc. Left-over firecrackers were deployed; a nearly empty can of Zippo lighter fluid would spray a few prescious drops on unlcuky men who were then ignited from a pack of matches (swiped from the bowling alley in town.)
The dirt in this yard was every bit as fine at that of the road; it covered the ground like a 2 inch layer of brown talcum powder – flaming infantrymen barely touched the powder, the minature conflagarations merely annealing the packed ground to itself, sealing it like the blackened and blasted surface of an asteroid from beyond Saturn’s cold cold rings. Firecrackers stuffed into drought-sprung cracks barely moved the earth. This was earth that were you to take a hoe or spade to, as I knew to my sore sorrow, the blade would slide through the silky powder like butter only to slam to a shoulder jarring stop when it hit the iron hard ground beneath.
The hard packed dirt road, the beaten dirt back yard – both covered with the soft and beguiling dirt dust, a dirt that when it gets really hot you can smell, dirt an echo of the hardship that drove Tom Joad and his family west a few of generations ago…this is almost fearful dirt. This is dirt to be reckonded with.
So, the sand traps at Royal Meadows this past Friday afternoon? Yeah, like that.