Once Upon a (Life)time
Growing Up Years
Growing Up Years - Part 4

Mildred learns to cook in order to help Uncle Bill.

Another September came along and Lillie was ready for school. We were awakened, washed and had our hair combed, then ate our bread and butter and oatmeal in our petticoats to avoid spilling milk on our dresses.

This time we beveled to the O'Keefe schoolhouse about four miles from the Mackie cabin. We left home at daylight and sometimes got to the classroom by nine o'clock. The little one-room brick schoolhouse sat at the edge of an orchard and the students (most of us) took our lunch pails home full of apples and brought back a cupful of applesauce the next day. The Missoula orchards had so many apples they didn't know what to do with all of them, so no one stopped us. The building is long since gone, but at this writing, the little foundation sits crumbling near a new housing development. Aunt Stella came to meet us with the rig each evening, but there came a day when she took us as far as the end of the O'Keefe Canyon Road and headed her horse and buggy toward Evaro. When all the students were accounted for, the teacher dismissed us, instructing us to tell our mamas that she had been ordered to catch Kelly's stage, (a touring car with the top down) to Missoula for a teachers meeting. Well, our mama wasn't home. Should we wait all day at the schoolhouse? Should we follow the horse and buggy to Evaro? Or should we just go home? Evaro seemed a long ways to walk. We looked up O'Keefe Canyon toward home. We looked back a mile toward the schoolhouse then trudged off in the wake of Aunt Stella and her buggy.

Each of us carried a five-pound lard pail with our lunch, and last, but not least, I was carrying a pint jar of milk for us to share. That blasted, cumbersome pint of milk! I debated whether to hide it in a culvert or behind a pile of rocks. No, somebody might come along and steal it, or somebody's dog might paw it around and break it. Jars, like everything else at our cabin, were not in plentiful supply. I wrestled it the whole four more miles to Evaro. We knocked on Uncle Ollie's door just as they and my aunt and the small kids were sitting down to their noon meal. We opened our lunch pails to find our bread and butter, boiled egg and applesauce intact—but that blamed, unwieldy jar of milk had soured!

As September came to an end, Lil and (had some sort of differences with the other kids and went home crying. My aunt went to the schoolhouse to get our report cards and we were next enrolled at DeSmet, about an equal distance (about four mites) to walk. Now the days were getting short and the few times that Aunt Stella couldn't find the horse, we went dawdling along and reached the cabin as dusk was settling down. We also did considerable dawdling in the mornings, drawing pictures in the dust where the road went through John R. Daily's corrals or maybe we took time to play in the creek wending its way through Latimer's meadows. We stood and watched the coyotes playing around Latimer's hay stacks and further down, in sight of the schoolhouse, in fact, we played hide and seek in Harry Danforth's grain field that was ready to harvest. We must have trampled some of his grain crop. I don't know why he didn't chase us out. We could see the Latimer ranch house as we walked past, and there were three kids who sometimes happened along in time to walk to school with us. We hit upon a signal so that we would know whether "the Latimer kids" had already gone. If so, there would be three little wet spots where they had crawled under the fence! We almost never got to school on time, but we had a wonderful, understanding teacher. I want never to forget Miss Hilda Nyberg. We would see her out on the school porch frantically motioning us in. I don't believe she ever marked us tardy and moreover, she rang the bell ten minutes early and washed all thirteen of our faces and slicked back our hair. "Because we might have company,"" she said.

We were practicing for a Halloween program and a party at school but we "Mackie kids" didn't get to go. Uncle Bill came home and announced that we were moving from wherever he was working to Evaro so that Lil and I wouldn't have so far to walk to school. He had never quite gotten all the letters in my name and it came out something like "Mild'd. In the next couple of days they packed all of our belongings, including the kids and a couple crates of chickens. The milk cow was dragged, protesting and tied to the back of the wagon.

"Mild'd, you walk behind the cow," my uncle said. "But don't get too close." He handed me a long willow switch. "If she won't lead, you can use this on her." Old Bossie started with a bellow and dragging all four feet. I applied the switch and found out right away that a cow can kick backward as well as forward. She missed me though. It was approximately seven miles to the little three-room shanty of Peter Perry in the Evaro Canyon and long before we reached there, the cow had capitulated, though grudgingly, and it was Mild'd who needed the switch.

Spring came. I had another birthday, then school was out and I thought I was a whole lot smarter than I really was. We played in little O'Keefe Creek that ran through our front yard. The little meadow was full of water snakes which I didn't really mind-until Lil wrapped a dead one around my neck, from which I've never really gotten back down to earth!

We dipped our water from a spring that bubbled up in a barrel that had both ends knocked out and was sunk in the ground almost to the rim. Julie Lynn and her husband were now both gone and the Lynn brothers, Terrence and Russell, left the Lynn homestead and moved to the Evaro area also. On the way past our place they left us a box of "whatnots" part of the contents being several very pungent old pipes with a compliment of Peerless smoking tobacco. Alone one day with mischief on our minds and time on our hands, the pipes seemed a clear source of diversion.

"I'll bet we could smoke them things if we laid by the spring and drank a lot of water," I pondered. Lil's face lit up, "Let's do it!" she agreed excitedly. So we filled those instruments of the devil with Peerless tobacco as we'd seen men do many times and we got a couple of matches which we'd been forbidden to touch and we got those old nicotine-saturated pipes a'fogging. Lil had coined a nickname for me that she had used from her first words: "Meer." We lay down beside the spring and began to drink water, puff-puff.

"Meer, I feel sick."

"Well, drink some more water," I advised. Puff-puff.

We didn't know that those old pipes had been laid aside because they were too potent for a tough old lumberjack. Before many more puffs we were there for the afternoon because we couldn't get up. Sometime later we staggered up and put the offending objects back in their box and that was the end of any desire to smoke on my part.

One day a cowboy in woolly chaps and boots and a big beaver hat came galloping up to our door. "Keep back, keep back," he warned. "There's buffalo a comin'." We kids sat on the doorstep with the open door behind us, ready to make a dive inside while half a dozen men drove a dozen or fifteen of the shaggy critters to the Missoula Stampede where they were a favored attraction. When there was money to be had we got to go to the stampedes, now called rodeos, where the bachelors and lumberjacks kept buying us "sody pop", Hershey bars, ice cream cones and what have you Everything melted and ran down the fronts of our white dresses. Our long stockings were snow white and our shoes, if the shoe polish can happened to be dry, were shined with a rag dipped in thick cream and rubbed in the soot on the underside of the stove lid. Our hair was put up on rags or kid curlers to give us cork screw curls topped off with a leghorn Straw hat with streamers down our backs and all this finished with a generous dab from a twenty-five cent bottle of perfume. Oh, we left home speckless and altogether presentable, but by the day's end, Aunt Stella would shake her head in frustration and say, "Let's get these kids out of town!" Then she would spend the next two or three days getting everything washed, starched and ironed and ready for the next go 'round.

That first summer in Evaro Canyon was a new world to us and we sat on our doorstep and watched it go by. We could hear an automobile laboring its way up the hill before we could see it and usually ran out to the gate to wave at the occupants as they whizzed by at fifteen or twenty miles an hour. Some days Uncle Ollie's or Grandpa Johnson's would be the only "flivvers" or "Tin Lizzies" that passed by. We watched as big bands of Indians with buggies, wagons and saddle horses went past on their way to the flats around Missoula to dig bitterroots. Later in the year came bands of Gypsies with their women begging a chicken, milk, eggs or what have you, for the perennial "sick woman with a baby" and while the begging pair had you in a corner, another one would be stealing everything that was loose about the place.
Twice we were awakened in the early morning. "Come and see the sheep!" We kids stood in the door in nightgowns and bare feet to watch the seemingly endless flow of bleating woolies file past on their way to summer grazing, bells tinkling, herders' commands, and the barking of the dogs intermingling. It was something worth waking up for.

And one time my aunt looked out the window. "Now what is he coming here for?" A man had stopped his auto at our gate and came walking toward our door. He wore a uniform of some kind and brown leather puttees. Aunt Stella's face wore an expression of concern which she managed to cover when she answered his knock. We kids looked on from behind in curiosity as he tipped his hat politely and asked directions to someone else's place.

"Who was that man, mamma?"

"That man," she answered, "was Sheriff Bill Houston."
Bill Houston was a real old gun-slinging western style sheriff who had served one term in office. After a number of years he was elected to a second term. His was a man to be reckoned with-a name mothers could use to scare unruly little boys into obedience. I have read that liquor was his downfall in his second term, but his name has gone down in the records of famous lawmen. I was privileged to see him that one time only.
Then we began to hear about the war. The long troop trains of World War I snaked their way up the steep railroad grade, khaki-uniformed men leaning out the open passenger car windows, whistling, yelling, waving as long as there was a man, woman or child in sight. My aunt would watch somberly.

"How can they be that way? She would shake her head sadly. "They know that some of them will never come back."

"Why?" we queried.

"They're going to war," she answered. "They have to fight for their country and some of them will be killed."

"Why? Why? Why?"Our questions flew. In our young lives there had never been a war.

The country went into patriotic frenzy. Red Cross nurses soon became my ideal and everyone was doing something for the soldiers, even small school children knitting squares for afghans. Supplies were rationed. People were required to buy a certain amount of cereal flours and substitutes to be able to buy a sack of white flour. We ate some pretty awful breadstuffs because we didn't know how to use the other cereals. There were shoddy materials and terrific prices. There were slogans, "Get the Kaiser!" Everywhere people were singing war songs, "K- K-K-Katy, Over There, If You Don't Like Your Uncle Sammy," and intermingled with it all was veiled menace, whispers of IWWs (Industrial Workers of the World) and pro-German secrecy.

Some people would do whatever they could to try and hinder the war effort. Forest fires were set to thin down the manpower and the two big railroad trestles had to be guarded to prevent their being blown up in front of the troop trains. Once Lil and I grabbed buckets of water and wet gunny sacks to help Aunt Stella beat down flames that were eating their way across our little meadow, threatening the buildings. This was from sparks carried by the wind from forest fires that were all too near. After what seemed like a long, long time, it was over and the soldiers began trickling back home.

My aunt's younger brother, Jesse Johnson, was just eighteen at the end of the war, and hadn't enlisted in the army when soldiers began coming home. Jesse had been rambling around, "seeing the rest of the world," working at odd jobs in Washington state and deluging us with comic post cards. He was just a big happy kid ready to romp and play with us, calling himself our "Dutch uncle" We kids were elated when we were told that Uncle Jesse had come home, but it developed that he was very sick. In fact he had come home to die and a week later he was gone. Aunt Stella had been with him at their father's house and she walked home to tell us through her tears.

"Will he come back again? Why? Why?" the questions flew. In time the undertaker's car went past our house with a long basket sitting crosswise behind the driver's seat. When it went back there was a body wrapped in the basket. I felt a terrible sense of loss and bewilderment that I could not comprehend my first experience with death. We were told that Jesse died from a new sickness called the Black Plague. People said the soldiers were bringing it back from Europe. Later, it took the name of Spanish Influenza and soon thereafter became the well-remembered 1918 flu.

Then Remilia got very sick. This time it wasn't the flu but she was taken to St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula. Aunt Stella stayed close by her for the next three weeks. That left Uncle Bill to cook and care for us and try to work out enough money cutting ties for the railroad to meet expenses.

By now I had outgrown mud pies and had developed a yen to cook. If I could make the biscuits for our supper, Uncle Bill wouldn't have to. There was no such article in our kitchen as a cookbook but Aunt Stella had let me mix biscuit dough a time or two. I had an idea how to proceed. When she shaped loaves of bread dough she entertained us by throwing them up in the air and catching them before putting them in the greased pan. Well, a little entertainment wouldn't be out of order here, and I drew more laughs because I didn't always catch the biscuit dough and it didn't always fall on the table. After a while I decided I'd better bake it. Well, it did bear some resemblance to a pan of biscuits so I grew overconfident and my next try was a rice pudding. It was plainly rice something. It was pretty gummy and extra sweet, but there was no food thrown away at our house. They brought Remilia home with a drainage tube in her side and when they had to take her to Missoula for doctor visits, I cooked. One of my favorite dishes was dressing, so when they come home one evening I had baked a pie pan full of dressing. "Good Lord," my aunt exclaimed. don't you know that you have to have a chicken or something to make dressing?"

I waited patiently for their next absence because now I had applesauce on my mind. My aunt threw up her hands in despair. Any female ten years old, she thought, ought to know better than to throw the peelings into the kettle too. (I hadn't wanted to waste anything...) My good uncle ate all that awful stuff that I concocted, saying, "Let her alone now, she's tryin' to learn."