Taken By Surprise, by Polly Smrcka

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(From Hatch Hollow Tomboy. Used by permission.)

Life on the stony, rolling acres of the family farm was never dull. There were always new and interesting, sometimes frightening, experiences to add to the daily humdrum of endless work. Never were two days alike.

One particular day from early childhood never dims in my memory with the passage of many years since its happening. Let me tell you about it.

It was my turn to help Martin drive the cows home from the pasture for the evening milking. It was one chore that I always enjoyed. It seemed more like play than work. There were all sorts of things to explore on the way to the farthest corner of the pasture where we usually found the cows.

The family dog, Peggy, was our daily companion. The mere presence of the shaggy, sable collie made us feel safe even in the darkest part of the woods that we had to cross to find the cattle. I was also her duty to heel any ornery cow into line with the rest of the herd. It was a duty that Peggy performed instinctively and well.

Although my extravagant imagination often convinced me that there were all kinds of scary things hiding behind every grassy hummock or perching on branches in the shadows of the hemlock thicket that we had to pass along the cowpath, waiting to jump out and scare the wits out of us, I was sure that Peggy would not let anything hurt us.

Dad always reminded us to “be sure you take Peggy along. She will protect you on the way.” Secure in this knowledge, Martin and I took our time to get to the back forty where the cows lay content, chewing their cuds. We took time to check out every bird nest along the way. We stopped at every rabbit hole and dropped in small stones to see if a bunny might scamper out of another hole a few feet away. We poked sharp sticks into every anthill and watched the ants race crazily in all directions, bumping into one another and backing off and heading in another direction.

“Let’s pick some wildflowers for Mom,” I suggested to Martin. “There aren’t any flowers in the garden yet, that Mom will let us pick, so we can pick some here in the pasture. The cows won’t care.”

“Aw, Polly,” scoffed Martin, “You’re such a silly kid. You know that Mom doesn’t like wild buttercups. They make her sneeze too much. C’mon, let’s git the cows home before someone comes lookin’ fer us.”

Martin was right. Mom never let us bring buttercups into the house. But there was still time to stop and pick a handful of ripe, juicy blackberries from a clump of tall brambles near the cowpath. A tomboy’s tummy always had room for a few succulent berries.

The old butternut tree on the bank of the small creek near the back of the pasture was always a favorite place to explore. There were three or four large holes in the trunk. Bushytailed squirrels lived in the biggest hole up in the crotch were several limbs branched toward the blue sky. Martin was a good tree climber and he never missed a chance to check the comings and goings of the squirrel family.

Girls in our family were not allowed to climb trees. My mother lived by strict European ideas. Those ideas held that no decent girl or woman would be caught dead climbing a tree. Think of the shame of it! Some man or boy might come along and see an inch or two beyond your long skirts. How would you ever manage to live down such a scandalous sight? Never mind that feminine legs were fully encased in heavy cotton stockings that usually sagged and bunched around your ankles.

It didn’t seem fair that only boys could do things that were the most fun. But there was no use in trying to change my mother’s views on the way her daughters ought to behave. So I had to be satisfied with poking into the holes closer to the ground. A redheaded woodpecker lived in one and I saw a skunk come out of the hole that went down under the roots of the butternut tree. I could never work up enough courage to poke a stick into the place where the stinky animal lived.

Martin often tried to goad me into disturbing the skunk. “I dare ya t’ even drop a little bitty rock inta his hole,” he taunted wickedly, “jes’ t’ see what the ol’ skunk’il do.”

“If ya wanna know so bad what he’ll do, smarty,” I retorted, “why’n’cha try it yerself. I’m not gonna do it an’ git myself all stunk up!”

Martin knew when his tomboy sister had bested him. He guessed that we’d better be getting the cows home. He walked away from the butternut tree and I followed after I made sure that Peggy trotted ahead of us.

I couldn’t swat fast enough to kill all the pesky deer flies that were out to get their dinner from my bare arms and legs. Martin at least had long sleeves on his blue chambray shirt and he wore long denim overalls to cover his legs. The flies did not bother him too much. But I was soon scratching at least a dozen places.

When we came to a shrubby place at the edge of the bog we walked into a cloud of midges and we knew that a thunderstorm was brewing not too far away. Otherwise the midges would have stayed in the shady bog instead of crawling into our eyes and hair and driving us wild.

By and by the herd came into view. There was a brand new calf trying out its wobbly legs while it looked for the right end of its mother to have its first meal. The cow, a large black and white Holstein, stood patiently while her baby searched and butted her belly. She kept nudging the calf in the right direction but it didn’t seem to understand.

Martin laughed and pointed to the bumbling calf. “Lookit that dumb calf. You’d think it couldn’t help but see where to go to suck for milk. That ol’ cow’s bag is as big as a washtub.”

“Well, how do you expect a new calf to know that? It was just born a little while ago,” I scolded my brother. “You didn’t know how to eat as soon as you were born, either.”

Peggy knew her job, and she lost no time in rounding up the cows and moving them toward home. Martin and I quickly counted heads to be sure that none stayed behind. Martin said we had one too many. I counted again. Sure enough. One cow too many. Where did it come from?

What we didn’t know was that a neighbor’s young bull had jumped over the fence into our pasture for an amorous interlude with one of our bossies.

I will never know why that angry bull chose to chase me instead of my brother. Maybe he simply hated towheaded tomboys, but he showed this one how quickly she could climb a tree.

It was a good thing that the gnarled wild apple tree was close by or I might not be here to tell this tale. I cannot tell how I climbed the tree. But climb I did, faster than you could say Aunt Fannie’s bustle. And there I stayed, precariously perched in the highest branches, my heart pounding a mile a minute. It was a close call.

I guess the bull realized that he could not reach me. But do you think he would admit defeat and go away so I could come down from the treetop? Not on your life! He stayed under the tree and snorted and pawed the dirt and made rumbling noises that sounded like distant thunder. I hoped that he really felt frustrated. Served him right! Maybe he would break off one of those long, sharp horns, too, if he kept on butting the apple tree.

Martin thought my predicament was the most hilarious thing that had happened on the farm all summer. “Ho, ho, ho, Polly,” he laughed, rolling on the ground and clutching his belly with his arms. “Ya better be careful so ya don’t fall outta the tree! It’s gonna be a long, long night up there cuz ya don’t know how ta climb back down.”

I held tightly to the sturdy branch and watched Martin and Peggy drive the cows home. It was the most forlorn feeling I had ever known. I shivered violently in the summer heat and turned my attention back to the ugly bull.

Martin may have looked forward to the prospect of his tomboy sister spending the night up a tree. But it was not to be. As soon as Dad saw that Martin was coming alone with the cows and Peggy, he wanted to know where Martin left me. What could Martin do? He had to tell.

Dad soon came to my rescue. Peggy came with him. The bull left before they came. Dad coaxed me to come down. I sat fast until Dad reassured me that he fixed the broken fence that the bull tore up when he jumped over into our pasture. Dad even pointed at the diminishing form of the bull in the distance in his own pasture, heading for his own barn.

I knew that fright made me climb the apple tree. Now it was fright that kept me from climbing down. But Dad was patient and slowly guided my trembling hands and feet until I felt the solid ground under me and Dad’s strong arms around me.

It was a long, long time until I got over the surprise in the pasture. Martin drove the cows home alone for the rest of the summer.

Copyright © 2000, Polly Smrcka


About Polly

polPolly Smrcka is the author of Hatch Hollow Tomboy and The Way It Was, and wrote the column “Farm Grandma” in the Sunday edition of the Erie (PA) Times-News.

It was the beef boycott of the 1970s that started Polly’s writing career. “Suddenly beef prices at the grocery stores went sky-high,” she recalls. “Everybody blamed the farmers. As a farmer’s daughter and a farmer’s wife, I knew the farmers were not getting all that money. I wrote a letter to the editor of the Erie newspaper about it. The managing editor, Larie Pintea, liked my writing style and asked me to write more about my life growing up. I didn’t think I could do it. I graduated from an eight grade one-room school in seven years, but never considered myself a writer! What could I write about?

“Larie said, ‘Polly, write about your life. Your memory tank will never run dry,’ he said. And it never has. As the newspaper columns about life on the farm in the 1920s and 30s began to pile up, I did think of putting them in a book. But I didn’t do anything about it until someone suggested I contact the Erie County Historical Society. They agreed to publish Hatch Hollow Tomboy in 1999.” Its companion The Way It Was soon followed.

Polly’s books can be purchased by mail from the Erie County Historical Society, 417 State Street, Erie, PA 16501, phone (814) 454-1813, or at The Erie Book Store, or any Barnes & Noble, Borders, and WaldenBooks stores.

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