LIFE IN PLENTYWOOD

Leona Bangsund

 

In 1919, Dad, Mom and Arnold moved from the farm to Plentywood and Dad set up his machine shop where he would work until 1942, when he and Eleanor and I moved to Seattle.

 

They lived in the small house in which we three kids grew up.  The living room extended across the front of the house.  An enclosed porch extended across the back of the house.  In between were the kitchen, a bedroom, and a tiny closet.  A dirt-floor basement was accessed through a trapdoor in the floor of the porch.  It was very simple, but probably was an improvement over the homestead building.

 

Life must have been uneventful, as I have very few memories from my early years.  One that does stick in my mind is getting ready, with Mom's help, for my first day at Sunday School.  I must have been really looking forward to that day.  I can even remember the dress I wore.  Church and Sunday School attendance were an important part of our lives.  This, I feel sure, was a matter of a strong faith handed down through the generations in our family.  The newspaper clippings of both of my grandfathers' obituaries indicated that they had been instrumental in establishing a church in their community and had continued to support it over the years.  I'm sure Grandmother Smith and Grandmother Hanson had a hand in this as well.

 

Like all our neighbors, we had a vegetable garden in the back yard.  After the potatoes and carrots were dug, they were stored in sand in the basement for use through the winter.  Those carrots were pretty limp before spring came.  I remember walking through the potato patch looking for potato bugs.  I must have been small at the time because I didn't have to bend over to reach them.  This was long before insecticides came into use, so the only way to get rid of bugs was to pick them.  I suspect Arnold was the one who had that job.

 

These were lean times, not only in Montana, but throughout the whole country.  The farmers had very little money with which to pay for any machinery repair, so Dad sometimes received a half a pig or a quarter of beef for his work.  Butchering was done late enough in the fall that the meat could be stored on ice.  We had a big tank beside the house

that held rainwater, which provided a good storage place once the first hard frost froze the water in it.  I liked the beef and pork, but very often there was also salt pork, which I hated.  Maybe having to eat salt pork accounts for the fact that I have never liked salt.

 

Arnold, as the oldest and the only boy, ended up with the disagreeable jobs.  During one period, we had a cow pastured just outside of town. It provided milk for the family, but it also meant a morning and evening milking, which was Arnold's responsibility.  I never heard him complain, but I knew he really disliked that job.  At times we must have had more milk than the family could use, because Mom made cottage cheese and sold it to the neighbors for twenty-five cents per bowl.  I was quite astonished that she knew how to make cottage cheese.

 

I recall my grade-school years as a seamless passing of time, studded here and there with incidents typical of small town life in the Twenties and Thirties.  At the same time, the change of seasons marked the time with relentless precision.  During a Montana summer, there is no doubt in anyone's mind about what time of year it is.  The transplants to California who miss the change of seasons at their former homes are not from Montana.  One does not grow nostalgic about Montana weather.

 

A short fall often quickly transported us from the blinding sunshine and searing winds of August and September to a bone-chilling gale from Canada.  Sometimes this happened before we kids got moved from our beds on the back porch to the warmth of the house.  Those were chilly nights.  That was when the coyote skin robe appeared on the bed Eleanor and I shared.  This was a heavy woolen robe adorned with three coyote pelts.  I hated that thing!  First of all, it smelled of the tobacco that had been used to keep moths away while it was stored.  Second, I never was able to decide which end was worse to have at the top; the glass eyes that stared at me from the heads or the flapping tails.  The total effect was enhanced on the nights when coyotes would assemble on the hill behind our house and howl at the moon.  It is a funny thing about coyotes - three or four sound like two dozen and can raise an eerie, hair-raising din.

 

 

For me, as for any child, Christmas was the highlight of winter.  I remember being fascinated by the Christmas tree trimmed with homemade trimmings and lighted candles.  I don't remember ever hearing of any houses burning at this time of year, but the possibility certainly was there.

 

It is strange how simple, insignificant things stick in one's memory.  The sound of hard candy and nuts in the shell being poured into bowls when my mother prepared our Christmas Eve treats was magic for me.  During the years my own children were small, I religiously bought hard candy (the ribbon kind, and the round ones with a flower in the center) and reveled in the sound as I poured it into bowls to serve with our Christmas Eve treats.  No one ever ate it, so I finally regretfully gave up the practice.

 

One year we joined our Danish neighbors, the Rasmussens, for Christmas Eve.  After dinner, we formed a circle around the Christmas tree that stood in the middle of the living room.  We held hands and sang as we walked around the tree.  I listened carefully to the words and finally joined in and sang, "New Happy Hooligan" over and over as I happily circled the tree.  It was not until years later that I came to know that everyone else was singing "Nu vi har Jule igen" ("Now we have Christmas again", in Danish).

 

I still remember my grade school teachersí names: Miss Rusdahl, Miss Roble, Miss Winn, Miss Granger, and Miss Brix. I considered them all beautiful.  This may or may not have been true, but it tells me I was happy to be in the classroom.

 

Things were not so pleasant for the country at large.  These were Depression and Dust Bowl years and Montana was not spared.  I remember the discouraged expression on Mom's face as she stood looking out the window to watch an approaching dust storm.  She knew she would soon be cleaning off the fine grit that would pile up on every windowsill and sift into every surface in the house.  The land was parched, crops failed, and incomes were non-existent.

 

Eventually, weather conditions became normal and life improved for everyone.  Arnold provided us with a bit of entertainment when he somehow managed to capture a crow, named him "Pat", and built a cage for him.  Pat was not your ordinary crow.  He was a quick study.  He learned to mimic Mom's voice as she called Arnold.  He also developed a cackle that sounded very much like a mischievous laugh.  Later, Arnold caught a second crow and called him "Mike".  He never displayed any talents.  He was just a crow.

 

One day they both escaped from the cage.  Mike took off for parts unknown, but Pat stayed around.  He would sit in a tree and call Arnold and then laugh.  Several times he followed Arnold to school and appeared at various open windows to have a good laugh.  Mr. Skor, eighth grade teacher, athletic coach, and sometime-taxidermist was heard to exclaim , "If I ever get my hands on that bird, I'll stuff him!"

 

In 1936, Arnold went off to college at Jamestown, North Dakota, with the goal of becoming a math and science teacher.  Somehow, he managed to put himself through with a scholarship and by joining a small band that played for dances.  Music continued to be an important part of his life.  He directed the high school band, where he taught, and when World War II broke out and he was drafted, he played in an Army band.  Years later, he became a church organist, a job he dearly loved, and continued until arthritis in his hands finally made it impossible for him to play.

 

In 1938, Mom became seriously ill with a blood disorder - the name of which I have never known.  She died in April.  Life for the family suddenly seemed very bleak and empty.

 

Dad hired a farm girl to do some laundry and cooking.  The first one was fairly competent, but she was a little odd.  She kept up a sort of whispering conversation with herself.  Another who didnít whisper replaced her, but neither was she competent.  After I discovered the washing machine filled with dirty wash water frozen solid, I convinced Dad we would be better off without "help" and she was dismissed.

 

I was 15 years old and ill-equipped to fill the role of homemaker; but our dear Swedish neighbor, Mrs. Antonson, came to the rescue.  She taught me many things, among them how to make bread.  I think I made better bread during that time than I have ever been able to make since.

 

 

Dad continued with his machine shop.  During the winters there was little, if any, work; so he kept himself busy building a miniature steam engine and threshing machine.  He also started to do some inlaid woodwork.

 

On several occasions he took the steam engine and threshing machine to county fairs to show them.  One summer, he and Eleanor and I went to a series of fairs and carnivals, equipped with a large tent in which to show the machines and a small one, in which we slept.  Tickets cost ten or fifteen cents (I can't remember which) and it was my job to sell them.  I hated the whole business with a passion only a teenager could muster; but I realized Dad thoroughly enjoyed chatting with the men who admired his handiwork, and it did bring in a few dollars.

 

In 1941, I graduated from high school, then spent one year at Montana State College at Bozeman.  On December 7th, I had the radio on while I studied in my room.  Suddenly the program was interrupted and the attack on Pearl Harbor was announced.  The world was changed and the future of our family was changed along with it.

 

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