Oct/Nov 2014 Nonfiction

Onions and Firecrackers

by Robert Joe Stout

When I was in grammar school, my dad leased part of what had been a bean field and we planted onions. I followed him along the rows, poking tiny green sprouts into the furrows he gouged with a rattly contraption he'd built around a tireless bicycle wheel. It took forever.

We'd obtained the sprouts at little or no cost from the Experiment Farm, a small compound of sheds and a greenhouse a mile or so along the Lingle Highway, one of the three paved roads connecting Torrington with other little hubs of rural Wyoming civilization. The sprouts, gummy slivers tangled together by hair-length roots, came in bunches of "a hundred'r'so" according to the Experiment Farm attendant, a part-time farmer wearing oversized overalls and a G.I.-type fatigue cap.

"Three inches apart," my dad told me. Then amended, "More'r'less, that is."

My dad wasn't like a lot of my friends' dads. Although he'd grown up on a farm in southern Colorado, he'd spent a year or two as a college broad jumper and had seen hundreds of different places as a booking agent for musicians and lecturers, a happy-go-lucky career that had bottomed out with the Great Depression. My uncle found him a job at the sugar factory where he worked, and there the two of them stayed.

The only way to align the onion slivers three inches apart was to crawl along on hands and knees, separate a sliver from the gummy clump, and forefinger its roots into the furrow. Separate another, poke it into the furrow, separate, poke, separate, poke, the knees of my patched jeans absorbing clumps of wet earth as I crawled.

Since it was only April—maybe early May—the wind had nip enough to redden ears and stiffen fingers, making manipulating the sprouts off the clumps more difficult. Never having lived anywhere except Wyoming, I accepted the cold as I accepted all local phenomenon: pigs being butchered, winds so strong one could hit a baseball hundreds of feet but couldn't throw it back to where it came from, seeds from the cottonwoods filling the spring air with billowy white parachutes.

After my dad rewound the twine he'd tied to stakes at each end of the field to follow so the furrows would be uniformly straight, he helped me plant, but I only was partially aware of his presence. Once the routine became automatic, I was leaping past defenders to catch touchdown passes, veering through tempestuous waves in gun-mauled PTs, slashing through Borneo jungles to rescue kidnapped missionaries. When it became so dark I was separating and poking by instinct rather than by sight, my dad would chirp, "Time t'call it a day," and we'd walk home side by side, each absorbed in separate swirls of memory and imagination.


Imagination was essential to growing up in Wyoming. Despite the generally accepted "only-what's-real-is-what-I-can-touch" Will Rogerish rural philosophy, imagination pervaded everyday life. In eastern Wyoming religion was essentially imagination based on a barefoot and bearded prophet with a gold ring around his head. Except for the Holy Rollers, churchgoing was a social event (and was called "churchgoing" not "worship"), and Bible stories were absorbed with the same acceptance as stories in The Saturday Evening Post and Mickey Mouse Magazine.

Love as an emotion was not that different. Not that one didn't feel something, but what one felt only could be defined by a process of the imagination. Marriage on the other hand, like work, school, or Monopoly, was visible, an entity—man and wife. A lot went on within that entity, just as a lot went on in school, at work, in planting onions, but the thing-that-it-was was out where a boy growing up could see it.

Love was like leaping over defenders to snag a touchdown pass, like boarding a Spanish man'o'war in the Caribbean or parachuting over the Pacific after blasting half a dozen Zeros out of the sky. It was felt but not real, that is to say it was not touchable or visibly perceptible, so one veered away from trying to define or describe it just as one stayed away from describing touchdown catches or pirate ships that no one else could see.


The 1950s prosperity much of the nation was enjoying bypassed storm-wracked and often drought-stricken prairie communities. Few among my friends and I knew—or cared—that we were growing up in an impoverished region where chocolate cokes at the drugstore fountain and homemade cinnamon rolls for Sunday breakfast were the only luxuries our uncomplicated lives offered. We hooked carp and catfish in the North Platte River, trapped muskrats, and tried to sneak into Old Man Root's pasture to ride his huge work horses when we weren't plowing, planting, weeding, picking, and canning what we and our parents had grown in backyard gardens or little rented plots of bottomland.

Memory can be deceiving, for memories adapt to the circumstances of later life. For years my memories of Wyoming were a gray haze hovering in distant recesses of my perceptions, obscured by the dominance of high school years in northern California, college in Mexico, the year my first wife and I spent in Europe. Then one of my daughters, fascinated by what seemed to be a strange and far off land, chose Wyoming as her fifth-grade school project, and I told her about walking to school through cold so severe our words froze when we spoke and couldn't be heard until the spring thaw. I described the wonderful Wyoming disappearing emus, long-legged ostrich-like birds that fled from danger by jamming their legs into their mouth and swallowing themselves. And as an afterthought, I told her about onions.

I weeded those damned onions all summer. Because the rows were so close together, I couldn't use a conventional long-handled hoe. My dad gave me a tool he'd made at the sugar factory. It had a sharp curved blade and fit the hand like a wrench. The onion field was just large enough that by working diligently for an hour or two every day, I could finish weeding the last row in time to start over again the following day on the first.

Monotonous? Ah! But imagination was my escape. I wanted to become a war correspondent like Ernie Pyle or an adventure writer like Richard Halliburton and dive from foxhole to foxhole covered with mud, my pencil and notebook intact. Or confront rhinos in Africa and hunt tigers in India and sail across the Pacific in a Chinese junk like Halliburton tried to do on his last adventure.


Although Torrington's little movie house showed Saturday and Sunday matinees during the summer, Little League didn't exist, there was no YMCA, and only the saloons remained open after nine o'clock. Clod fights were popular, so was Run Sheep Run!, and now and then boys found it diverting to throw rotten eggs at someone's car, house, or children. Baseball was called "work up"—both bats and balls were as much electrical tape as they were wood or leather—and we played football without pads and tightly stuffed the no longer inflatable pigskin with rags. Fishing, climbing trees, racing dented single-speed bikes down the hill west of town and firing rubber band pistols from ambush at passing girls substituted for the later-to-be-invented television and video games.

Holidays were special. Soaping windows on Halloween, turkey and cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving, fighting through freezing temperature and four-foot-deep snowdrifts to celebrate Christmas, egg hunts and candy at Easter. Fourth of July lasted from the time the first skyrocket was sold until the last cherry bomb had been thrown. Fireworks in Wyoming were legal, and no age limits or restrictions were imposed for buying them. Money was hard to come by, but firecrackers, Roman candles, and skyrockets were more important than candy or movies—or than haircuts or shoes.

I remember when a schoolmate—I believe his name was Donald—ran over to re-set a tipped over can that had extinguished the firecracker propped beneath it. Just as he knelt to strike a match, the firecracker exploded, shearing away one eyebrow and a hank of hair. As he staggered backwards, face as scorched as a hotdog that's been cooked too close to the flame, somebody ran to the nearest house for ice and butter, both of which were thought to be good for burns, while Donald blubbered, "Don't tell my parents! Don't tell my parents! They'll never let me have a firecracker again!"

He appeared the next day with half of his face and one hand bandaged. He wasn't supposed to remove the face bandage, but even the girls wanted to peek under it. To prove to us that the experience hadn't daunted his courage, he had us light firecrackers for him so he could compete hurling them into the air and ducking as they exploded overhead, although left-handed he couldn't hurl them as high as the rest of us could.

In some album somewhere, I have Fourth of July snapshots of me and my cousin Joyce decked out in 20's-wear, perched on the narrow seat of a little buggy hitched to a huge St. Bernard as we inched along Main Street to the applause of several hundred bystanders. The St. Bernard was one of several that belonged to traveling companions of my mother when she was a Chautauqua "Junior Girl" before the Depression. Clarence and Lenore drove up from Denver, towing their little trailer house every summer, and they brought the St. Bernards with them.

In the photo I'm holding the reins and Joyce her bonnet to keep it from being blown away. Where the buggy came from I haven't the vaguest recollection, and I doubt that I knew—or cared—as we assumed our place behind the little marching band and a brightly decorated fire engine. I do remember being somewhat miffed that Clarence insisted on walking beside us instead of allowing me to assume full control of the St. Bernard-powered vehicle.

I wrestled those accommodating monsters, rode them, pulled their ears, talked to them, my face almost touching theirs as they peered at me, their big sad eyes absorbing whatever nonsense I was offering. Often they would emit deep baritone wruffs, their tongues flopping out one side as they nodded their huge heads, confirming what either they or I had just said. Unlike farm dogs that always had a calculating look in their eyes, or the mean little fox terrier that nipped my heels as I pedaled past delivering the morning Denver Post, the St. Bernards were playful monsters that could roll over, clap their furry paws together, and play dead at Clarence's command.


After the Fourth of July, the adults went back to work, the kids to the chores their parents had devised for them and the dogs to sleeping in the shade. Memories of picnic meals, charred faces, and out-of-town visitors lingered for awhile as most of us returned to clod fights, work up, catching carp, and wistfully wishing that we had saved at least one big firecracker to scare the milkman when he showed up for his morning deliveries.

Planting, harvesting, canning, school occurred in unalterable sequence. I was a good student—occasionally a discipline problem for being unable to curb mischievous instincts—but always somewhat of a loner. My inability to conform to commonly held attitudes unwittingly made me an intermediary among various social groups: town kids with farm kids, orphanage kids who were Catholic with Holy Rollers, immigrant Mexicans with third-generation Westerners. Often I was entrusted with secrets, confidences—even possessions. These included dime store trinkets that Donna Hansen gave me to guard. She sat in front of me in the fourth grade, a big plain-faced girl seventh-grade age but held back because of failed classes and poor attendance.

Donna's family lived out in the sand hills an hour-and-a-half school bus ride from town. They conserved snow water in hand-dug reservoirs and raised chickens and hogs. Some days Donna would come to school without anything to eat and I'd share my baloney and peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches with her. Despite having been beaten down at home (and physically and probably sexually abused, I realized much later), Donna was stubborn—defensive—to the point that most of our schoolmates avoided her. But I found her companionable and went dime store shopping with her at lunchtime when she had ten or 15 cents to spend.

Feeling myself to be different, I identified with Donna and others like Carol who because of their backgrounds or circumstances seemed "different" or "outsiders." Carol lived in the Catholic orphanage, a Medieval fortress totally separated from the rest of Torrington. Isolated behind iron fencing and set well back from the road on a large acreage bordering the railroad tracks, it was a world unto itself. The nuns shuffled around in stark black habits and stiff white cowls, and the kids who lived there were not allowed to be away from the orphanage except to attend school.

Why the orphanage was in Torrington, I never learned: The town was predominately Protestant (actually predominantly non-religious) and most of the orphanage kids were from mining towns in Montana and Colorado and had names like Amicich and Lynas and Fojtacek. My first conversations with Carol were brief commentaries about Martin Amicich and Pete Lynas and others we knew, but gradually we developed a sort of rapport that though often critical ("Pete can do nice things for you, then all of a sudden he's a jerk") was also personal ("I remember the last year that I was with my mom, I wanted Santa Claus to come and I pretended to sleep, but when I sneaked out I saw her putting the little presents under the tree and I went back to my bed and cried and cried because Santa Claus wasn't real").

One afternoon after class I saw Carol scamper towards the bus that came for the orphanage kids after school, then turn away, confused. Some kids already on the bus shouted to her to hurry, but she seemed unable to move. Seeing me approach across the snow-tufted gravel, she shuffled towards me as though at each step uncertain whether to stop or to run.

"My, my book, my homework, I, I think someone took it. I was looking for it and I missed the bus."

I started to take her hand, but feeling suddenly self-conscious pulled away.

"We'll go look for it. I'll walk you hom- ...to, you know, the orphanage."

"I—I left it right there." She pointed towards the swings. There were some other books nearby, but none of them were hers.

"Let's go check by the building."

Carol protested that she'd left it beside the swings.

"We'll find it!" I had to reassure her. She nodded and trudged across the playground beside me.

"I'm sure we'll—" Before I could finish the sentence one of the girls in our class came running towards us. She'd grabbed Carol's book my mistake and had gotten halfway home before she'd realized it.

Carol checked to make sure that nothing was missing.

"I have to go now. They'll be mad that I wasn't on the bus."

"I'll walk with you."

Silently, hands pocketed and shoulders hunched against the chill, we followed the sidewalk past sturdy one- and two-story houses skirted by brown lawns and clumps of lilac and privet, towards Main Street. I suggested we stop at Robey's store and buy "you know, some candy or something."

"You have money?"

"Sure," I blinked. "That is, I mean, a little bit."

"I never have money."

"Doesn't your mother send you any?"

She shrugged and told me her mother always had been very sick. Her mother had been born in a country called Hungary and didn't speak very good English. When Carol's father left and didn't come back, her mother no longer could take care of her and her brother. They had gone to live with a relative in Butte "for a while, but they couldn't take care of both of us. So I had to come here. To the orphanage."

Talking about her parents seemed both to make her anxious and to bring her out of her lethargy. Sometimes, she said, she pretended that her father would come for her and take her to a nice house somewhere to live. "But it's just pretend. He doesn't even know where I am."


Sister Ana was at the orphanage gate to meet us. I started to explain that I'd helped Carol find her book and walked back with her, but the nun lifted her militantly forged chin and refused to acknowledge my presence.

"He—he helped me," Carol added. "He—"

"He?" The nun squinted past us towards the depot, then in the other direction towards the bridge that crossed the river. "He?" she peered over my head towards the Mobil Station on the corner across from the orphanage. "Who is 'he'?"

Her black-robed arm swept out to encompass Carol. "I think it is time to say some prayers."

Off they marched, leaving me alone, invisible, and suddenly shivering with cold.

I didn't see Carol over the summer; when classes renewed in September, Pete Lynas handed me a note scribbled on the back of crinkled homework paper in which she explained that she was moving to Riverton to live with some kind of relative. Donna dropped out of school, and I never was able to contact her, although one of the sand hills kids said she'd gone off to work for a family in Denver. Such comings and goings seemed to me to be as normal as the staunch permanence in Torrington of my uncle and other town families. Those who were different and outsiders were migratory birds or animals fluttering around an immoveable core. That I also was an outsider—or at least identified myself as such—made me feel that I was growing up in a foreign country that I someday would leave and to which I would never return.


The summer I finished the seventh grade, my father was given a promotion to a foreman's position in another sugar factory, this one in northern California. We moved, leaving only Fluffy my cat behind, and I embarked on a new outsider's life among almond groves, state college students, and rice fields. As I moved again and again, the Air Force, universities in Mexico City, journalism jobs, marriage, a year in Europe, children, those growing up years whisked into seldom accessed distances supplanted by the adventures, dilemmas, struggles, and joys.

But now and then—more frequently as time passed—I reminisced to friends who had grown up in very different surroundings—South Side Chicago, Guadalajara, convents in France. They'd listen—bored, amused, puzzled—and accuse me of having read too much Mark Twain, especially when I'd describe Sheriff Nolan, who had a handlebar mustache and toted a six gun. Or chasing runaway pigs down Torrington's Main Street, or rafting down the North Platte River half submerged because Neil McCarty and I really didn't know how to build a raft.

I confess that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn seemed like a very ordinary narrative when I read it for the first time, not at all as stimulating to the imagination as Price Valiant in the Sunday funnies or Richard Halliburton confronting charging rhinos in the dark jungles of deepest Africa.


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