A bright sun in a cloudless early morning sky created an almost blinding burst of yellow from the birch trees behind our house. It was November 1.
So much for the brown, boring fall predicted for this autumn due to the ongoing drought. Timely rains around here may have helped. Maybe climate change had something to do with it. Whatever the case, the colors of the trees and bushes have been stunning and long-lasting.
It seems that most years by Halloween the trees were bare, the leaves were mostly raked and the city was about to pick them up from the boulevards – back when they did that. This year’s nice fall weather has allowed, even forced, us to procrastinate. Now we race to finish buttoning up our homes to prepare for maybe six months of mostly indoor life.
Autumn during my formative years of the early to mid 1960s at our home on East Seventh Street meant pretty much what it does now – prepare for war with winter. Preparation then was much the same as now but there were some notable differences.
Back then Willie Wilson filled the tank at the back of the house with heating oil. Dad located the retread snow tires for each of his two cars and swapped them with the rear summer tires. There was always a discussion of putting some weight in the trunk for added traction. But, of course, that would decrease gas mileage. It was a gamble.
The oil and oil filter were changed, and the spark plugs and ignition points were cleaned. The antifreeze was tested for 30 below. A hotter thermostat was sometimes swapped with the cooler summer one so the car would warm up faster and heat the car interior better. A piece of cardboard, used to block the air flow to the radiator and warm the car up quicker, was stowed in the back. You just had to remember to remove it before the car overheated. If there was time, the good car got a quick wash/wax routine to protect it from salt damage. And the plain water in the add-on windshield washer was replaced with a mysterious fluid that was good to 20 below.
Leaves were raked and hauled to the woods. Dad turned off the outside water faucets and rolled up the hose. The storm windows and doors were hung. Sometimes they were even cleaned. We didn’t put straw bales around the house foundation but some did. The snow shovels were located. And we found our sleds so we’d be ready for the first snow.
Mom did what moms did back then. Now that the blast furnace of summer was gone, she could finish any canning she had left and then start baking for Thanksgiving which was just around the corner. She also dug out our winter clothes – hats, boots, mittens, scarves and snow pants.
That led to the annual hand-me-down event of trying everything on to see what still fit and what needed mending. There was always some squabbling over who got what. If I was lucky, brother Dave’s coat handed down to me was in such bad shape, I got a new one. Sometimes Mom would swap winter clothes with neighbors. Wearing your brother’s old coat was bad enough but having to wear a coat worn by Jimmy down the street just seemed wrong.
Then, as now, there was a satisfying feeling when all of this was done. We were snug in our home and prepared for whatever weather was thrown at us.
Our house was supposed to be our family’s starter house. But it ended up being the forever house for my folks. It really was an old farmhouse. The “farm” was one of the many like it, built on what was once outside of town. A photo taken around 1870 from Memorial Park and recently posted on Facebook shows many of these small farms near the area where East Seventh and West Seventh streets meet. Our place had shrunk to less than a half acre. The garage was the old barn. In fact, we called it “the barn.”
“Where’s the good shovel?” someone would ask. “Did you look in the barn?” was the usual reply.
It had a dirt floor and was so small, there was only room for one car and a lot of old junk. Some rickety stairs led to what was likely the hay loft, filled with more dirt-covered junk. We never played in the barn. It was too dark and dusty. There was only one dim light in the whole building. The barn was too dirty and scary even by kid standards.
The yard was littered with remnants of old foundations sticking out, probably where they kept chickens and a few pigs. Probably an outhouse, too. A milk cow and a horse to pull a wagon must have lived in the barn. With all of that, the place could provide an essential part of a family’s survival. Maybe even a little income.
They probably heated the house and cook stove with wood. They weren’t far from downtown, but getting there on a snow-covered wagon path must have been an adventure. One can only imagine what it was like getting ready for winter and surviving it in those days.