The Grapes of
On Burr Road, Part 6
Brocton school authorities ferreted out our little school in the upstairs hall only a few weeks after we started. Dad wasn't home when the pair of officials, a man and a lady, stopped in unannounced one forenoon. Mom let them in and tried to be friendly to them. Perhaps if she told them all about us and answered their questions, they'd understand. But nothing Mom could say seemed to make their conversation flow right, and she ended up being ashamed and defensive. Why on earth, she wondered, had she blurted out so many revealing things about the family—down to the fact that we had paid cash for our home?
Lydia, Lavina, Chris, Barbara, Rachel and I were all upstairs in school at the time. There was no insulation between our floor and the downstairs ceiling, so we could hear some of the conversation below. The visitors were not speaking in a reassuring way like normal people did, I thought. The lady's voice sounded threatening as she asserted, "We must see to it that these children attend school legally." I tried to stifle my heavy breathing so I could catch the words better. Everyone else around me had also fallen silent. I glanced at Lydia and was not at all consoled by the helpless look on her face. This was different from the good kind of suspense, when the perimeters of your life floated gently outward, ready to break open and let in the magic outside. This kind of suspense felt like the dark, sinister underworld had gaped open close around me. Any minute it could swallow up everything that made my life worth living.
Word got to Douglas Hayes, our employer of the previous spring, that the school district was going after the Lapps. Now Douglas was a member of the Brocton school board, as well as privy to the character and reputation of my parents. Evidently he told the school board what's what with our family, as well as exactly what they were not supposed to do to us. At any rate, we never heard from those school officials again.
Dad and a couple of the big sisters found plenty of winter work in the grape vineyards in Brocton. The same vines that had been tied down in the spring were now trimmed short with shears and the unneeded canes cut out. This job required much more training than spring grape tying. Rebecca and Drusilla, whose youthful ambition seemed to defy limitation, made it look easy and were soon earning more than Dad. The girls felt sorry for Dad. He'd pace about in one spot for minutes on end, rattling the frozen vines and sputtering, "Crazy conglomeration! How on earth can you tell one cane from the other?" When he came home at night, Dad would plop down with his head in his hands and sigh: "Those girls! I don't know how they make sense out of the whole mess!"
Winter was the time of year to butcher, so that we could stock our cellar with bacon, lard, liverworst, and dozens of jars of homegrown meat. Into the attic would go great heavy hams, and chunks of dried beef.
The young pigs we had raised had grown to about 300 pounds each and a couple of them were enough to supply our pork products. The big bull, Sylvester, would be our beef.
"Better not," Dad answered when I asked him one Saturday morning if I could go along to watch the mammoth creature being shot. He was sharpening our four long butcher knives on a special stone we kept for that purpose. The stone had a finely abrasive surface which Dad used only on butchering days, to give the knives a razor sharp finish. The knife, as he passed its edge over the stone, gave a rasping twang. Dad was too busy to discuss things with me, I thought, so I stood up close to Mom and waited for a chance to talk. "Mom, is it dangerous when Dad shoots the bull?"
"Oh, he knows how to take care," Mom replied.
Dad went upstairs and brought down the old .22 rifle that was always kept in Mom and Dad's bedroom. Drusilla carried a freshly sharpened butcher knife with a pointed tip. As soon as the bull dropped from the bullet between his eyes, she'd take the gun from Dad and hand him the knife. A deep stab to the jugular vein in the underside of the animal's great neck, and the blood would be let out. The blood had to run and run until it was all emptied out, they said. Even though the animal was knocked out already from the bullet, you could be sure it wouldn't wake up again once the blood was out. "Mom," I asked, "doesn't.. .doesn't..." It didn't sound right to say "Sylvester" when he was just going to be meat soon. "Doesn't the bull feel it when they cut his throat?"
"No," Mom assured me, "He can't feel anything after he's shot." "Now are you going to finish clearing off the table? Soon as you're done, you can go out and watch them butcher."
Sylvester's blood was all out and his legs had quit kicking by the time we children got outside. Dad was using a rope-and-tackle hanging from a limb of one of our large Maples to raise the rear end of the one-ton carcass. Until he had the rear quarters skinned, he didn't lift them far.
Dad started skinning a leg by cutting a slit the whole circumference of the foot just above the hoof. This part made me shiver and clench my teeth. The animal still looked so whole, and it was scary seeing the knife blade parting red and white body tissues just beside Dad's hand that was grasping the hoof. After the foot was started, the big girls could take on the skinning, following Dad's instructions. It was important not to poke holes into the hide while skinning, so that the hide could be sold.
"Get me one of those baler twines over there," Dad said, looking up from the folds of skin he had sent peeling down one of the bull's front legs. He knotted the twine securely round the hoof he was holding, then handed me the free end. "Pull on that...there! Stretch that leg for me, so that I can skin under it, see?"
I was lucky I didn't happen to be watching when Dad let his knife slip and jab his hand. He said "Wup!" and jumped up from his work. Blood was dripping down the side of one of his fingers when we crowded around to look. It wasn't bull's blood, I knew.
"Mom," I asked after she had bandaged Dad's cut and he was back at work, "Don't big people cry when they get hurt?"
"Well, not very often," she replied, "Sometimes, though," she added, lowering her tone like she did when she was letting me in on a serious subject, "sometimes things happen that make big people cry, too. Like when someone gets sick or hurt real bad, much worse than Dad."
"That mustn't happen to us," I thought, but didn't say aloud. Mom would just have reminded me that only God knows such things. "We have so much to be thankful for," Mom finished, "when everyone is well like we are now."
1971 came and we still didn't know how or where we'd acquire our dairy farm. Then one day neighbor George Farnam stopped in with a message for Dad. "Ernest Bernard says he wants to see you, Jake. That place of his in Cassadaga, you know—he still wants to sell it."
© 1994, Hannah Lapp