Fall 2021, Volume 31

Humor by Richard Short

Blowing Smoke

Our family lived on a farm in the backwoods of Northern Minnesota.  When one of us got sick, we didn’t go to a hospital or call the doctor, we depended on Granny and her old, time-tested remedies.  For example, if someone had a bad chest cold or pneumonia, Granny used a secret formula to drum up a recipe that would cure the malady. This mixture included mustard seed, goose grease, spider webs and dried giblets from dead bats, and eyeballs of newts. Lord knows what else. She then added a cup or so of home brew moonshine, and would stir them together in a big iron kettle hanging over open flames in the barnyard. The concoction would simmer, and I remember the smoke and fumes would rise up in a kind of mist that killed every insect within half a mile.  When the mess boiled down to a kind of putty and reached the texture that Granny wanted, she would ladle the scalding potion onto the patient’s chest, and level it out with a trowel. As it cooled and hardened it was supposed to draw the infection out of the sick person’s body. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. When the plaster cooled off, Granny would take a hammer and chisel, and break it up. This was an extremely painful event for the ailing person. You could hear the screams miles away. Granny’s methods of treatment, however, were surprisingly effective. Everybody in the family became really careful not to get sick.  Or if we did come down with something, we sure as hell didn’t complain or tell Granny.

If someone had a bellyache, Granny had another cure. This was much simpler. The main ingredients were turpentine and molasses. The dosage was three heaping tablespoons. This seems humorous today in retrospect, but I can tell you one thing--Granny was no Mary Poppins!

One winter Granny was visiting her relatives in Iowa, (She liked to go south for the winter) the snow was deep back home in Minnesota, the wind was blowing up a storm from the northwest, the temperature registered forty below on the big old thermometer that hung in the porch outside our back door. I’ll always remember that thermometer, it had “HARVEY’S FEED STORE” written across the top in big black letters. This was the time I picked to get sick. I had chills and was sweating profusely and felt really bad, so when Uncle Bunky went to town with the eggs and the milk, the family asked him to stop by the doctor’s and explain my symptoms to him. Unfortunately, the doctor was out on a call and not available. Uncle Bunky did the next best thing. He went to the county veterinarian. This was an ancient practitioner who did to horses and cows and other animals what Granny did to people. Each could substitute for the other in an emergency, however.

The old vet listened to Bunky enumerate my complaints and said I should have my temperature taken. He than loaned U. B. a thermometer, and gave him directions on how to use it.  I was lying on a cot near the open oven door in the kitchen when Uncle Bunky got home. I had been in a kind of stupor, but this changed when I saw the family whispering together. From time to time they would glance over at me with serious looks. My apprehension turned to terror when I heard the word ‘thermometer’ and they explained the mechanics of how they were going to stick it to me. I had this mental image of Harvey’s huge instrument.  “No! No! No!” I screamed and bounded out of bed half naked and barefoot, and ran through the door out into the freezing snow. The family ran after me and caught me when I lost traction trying to climb the steep icy hill behind the barn. After they explained and showed me the vet’s thermometer, which was a lot smaller, I calmed down a little.

Not all of Granny’s treatments were painful. One thing she believed in was the curing power of smoke. “After all,” she said.  “If smoke can cure ham, why can’t it cure skin rash?”  So when I got an earache, out came the old pipe and tobacco. She would blow several puffs of smoke into my aching ear, and then she’d spit on a ball of cotton and stuff it into my ear, trapping the smoke. The warm smoke sometimes made my ears feel better.  One time she did this right before I went to school. When I got to the one-room schoolhouse, the teacher had built a big fire in the heater. As I sat there at my desk, the heat in the room dried out the cotton balls holding the smoke in my ears. Wisps of smoke started to escape from my ears, and slowly curl up towards the ceiling. The teacher became alarmed and sent me home early with a note to my parents. This was fine with me because I was happy to get the heck out of there.         

Grandpa's Legs

Grandpa grew up on a farm away back in the hills of Northern Minnesota.  One day he was out in the woods, up in a tree, scooping raw honey out of a hole, when a black bear climbed up behind him and chewed off his leg.  Grandpa was poor but resourceful, and he carved out a series of wooden legs for himself.  The first was a disaster. Cut from green dogwood, it shrank and caused him to walk with a limp.  Also, few people know this, but if you remove the bark from dogwood, it creates a pungent odor that only dogs can smell.  The result was wherever Grandpa went he was followed by a pack of yapping, over-stimulated canines trying to have a go at his dogwood leg.

He carved legs that had practical uses, like his “Corn-planting-leg” that he hollowed out and filled with seed.  Sharp on the bottom, when he walked across a plowed field he would plant corn or beans at every step.  In his prime he planted forty acres in a single day.

After he got married and had several teenaged daughters, he carved a leg with a special foot he filled with lead.  He would sometimes come home and find a daughter in the parlor with some over-amorous boyfriend.  He would escort the unfortunate swain to the doorway and apply his “butt-kicking-leg” to the seat of the pants and the boy would fly off the front porch, learning a valuable life’s lesson.

But the leg Grandpa will always be remembered for was his masterpiece.  Taken from a section of twisted ironwood, Grandpa carved it into the shape of a giant screw or auger.

Now, in the spring of the year it was the local tradition for all of the farmers to get together and mend their broken fences. Some would bring the new fence posts.  Some would stretch out the wire.  Others would pound in the staples.  Grandpa’s job was to dig the postholes.  First he would take a few slugs of Granny’s potent home brewed moonshine.  Next he would secure his auger leg, strapping it tightly to his hips and waist and stick the sharp point into the ground.  He would then stiffen his body, which was already pretty stiff, extend his arms straight out to the sides as if in some hypnotic trance, and two of the strongest men in Arago Township would seize an arm from opposite sides, and twist old Grandpa into the earth.  It was no trick at all to then jerk him up leaving a perfect posthole.

But, with the coming of machinery and tractors and automation, the demand for Grandpa dropped off.  The farmers had only to drive the mechanical post-hole-digger into place and with the touch of a button the posthole was dug.  His wooden legs became infested with termites and dry rot and Dutch-Elm disease.  He finally pined away and died. 

In his last request he mumbled to us all gathered around, “Now boys, I sure enough don’t want no kind of a fancy funeral.”  So, in a simple ceremony we carried old Grandpa out behind the barn and screwed him into the ground.    

When Ben Franklin Met Arnold, the Near-Sighted Eagle

One of the stories my Grandpa told to me, when I was a little kid about five years old was about Ben Franklin conducting an experiment with electricity. Grandpa said,

“Ben was an inventor, a printer-publisher, and diplomat-statesman who had signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  He wrote articles and opinions and ‘wise sayings’ like, ‘if your head is wax, don’t walk in the Sun’.”  He published these in a newspaper called, Poor Richard’s Almanac.  He also thought that our National Bird should have been a turkey instead of an eagle. Grandpa’s story about Ben Franklin and Arnold the Eagle went something like this:

“Arnold was an eagle, old, baldheaded, and his eyes were growing dim. He had once been wild, free, and fiercely romantic when he was younger. But now, as he circled high in the sky, he would dive toward what he thought to be a tasty rabbit, only to find that it was a sheep. Or something he thought looked like a mouse turned out to be a horse.  His love life was non-existent as he had not engaged in amorous relationships with a female eagle for a long, long time.”

I listened with my mouth and eyes wide as Grandpa continued,  “So the scene was set, storm clouds were approaching, Arnold was circling in the sky, looking for food.  Ben Franklin was unwinding his kite into the air.  He had cut the kite from silken cloth, and attached it to a hempen string. These are materials that conduct electricity easily. The other end of the string was tied to an iron key attached to a wooden stake driven into the ground.  He hoped that when lightning struck the kite, electricity would pass down the string to the key, and a spark would flash from the key to the ground.

“Just as the dark rain clouds were about to reach the kite, which was making undulating movements in the rising wind,” Grandpa went on, “Arnold saw it, but what Arnold saw was not a kite.  What he saw was a beautiful female eagle with flashing eyes and a hot body in a seductive flight pattern.  What he heard was not silk rustling in the blustery storm, but the sound of a sexy voice saying, ‘Kissss meee—Kisss meee’. Arnold didn’t hesitate, he decided to make his move, because he realized that in his depleted physical condition this could be his last rendezvous.”

At this point Grandpa interrupted his story to explain to me that for Arnold to mistake the kite for an eagle was not unusual because some beautiful, graceful, soaring hawks, that resembled eagles, are referred to as “kites”.

I grew more excited and gripped Grandpa’s hand as he continued with the tale,  “So, just as Arnold reached what he thought was his dream girl, and grasped her with his ancient, arthritic talons.... Lightning struck!  There was a loud and thunderous explosion. The kite was ripped into a thousand pieces.  Singed feathers swirled away with the remnants of the kite. Arnold, completely naked, in pain and mortally wounded, was carried along by the storm.  He relived the passionate affair, ‘She might have been thin-skinned and bony’ he thought, ‘but WOW!  That lady had wallop in her kiss!’ Then he died.

“On the ground, B. F. watched his kite destroyed, his experiment aborted. He could only shake his head in disgust.”  Grandpa looked at me and concluded, “And that, my boy, is why Ben Franklin always thought our national bird should be a TURKEY.”

—Skyward in the air a sudden muffled sound, the dalliance of              the eagles,
         The rushing amorous contact high in space together,
         The clinching interlocking claws, a living, fierce, gyrating             wheel,
         Four beating wings, two beaks, a swirling mass tight             grappling,
         In tumbling turning clustering loops, straight downward             falling,
         Till o’er the river pois’d, the twain yet one, a moments lull,
         A motionless still balance in the air, then parting, talons             loosing,
         Upward again on separate diverse flight,
         She hers, he his, pursuing.
                                   —Walt Whitman: The Dalliance of Eagles




BIO:  Richard Short has two children (daughter Jeanette decreased), seven grandchildren, ten great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren. The last few years he has been writing his memoirs.