Tony Vagneur: Raised in Woody Creek
People still occasionally ask me what it was like growing up in Woody Creek, and it always seems to give me pause. I generally think of all the pleasant things, but not everything was exactly exciting.
Getting up in the morning was a huge struggle for me, a problem my dad never had, so he and I could never be on the same page as he barreled into my room, “Time to get up, Sunshine!” And as he strolled off, he’d sing a little bit of “My, oh my, what a wonderful day.” It could make me dislike him as he strolled off to make breakfast.
There was always a plate of pancakes waiting for me at the kitchen table as I reluctantly faced the day, and they were cold, every morning. If I’d have gotten up when called, they would have been warm, but that never happened. The warmth of the kitchen would cheer me up and a bottle of dark syrup always waited near the top of my plate.
Then, I’d stumble out the door with a partially full tin milk bucket with a large, white nipple at the bottom on one side. Cross the road and up the hill to the small pen with a straw lined floor where we kept the “bucket babies,” orphaned calves who needed to be fed by hand. This would happen at about 6:45 on a March morning, long before the sun hit our domicile and cold was a partner in my morning chores.
A calf drinks so much so fast, and there is no hurrying such a thing. There was nothing to do but stand there and hold the bucket while the calf suckled, waiting for the process to play itself out. And between us, those calves and me, we formed a camaraderie, a relationship based on life and death for them, general responsibility for me. The process would be repeated in the evening.
When the school bus dropped me off in the afternoon, there was time for play — climbing the hills behind our house, horseback riding, doing whatever kids do. Digging — I loved digging, something it appears my grandson has picked up.
Depending on the time of year, I might spend some time on the slalom hill set up through the steep cow pasture in our orchard or play with my toy boats in the irrigation ditch that ran in front of the house. We lived in the middle of 1,200 acres, and it didn’t seem as though anyone wondered much about my whereabouts until dinner time.
As the sun went down, it was time to cut kindling for the woodstove in the basement. It was my job to start a rip-roaring fire, warming up the water in an adjacent tank so we all could take showers or baths after dinner. Forget to build that fire and there might be another trip to the woodshed for a different reason.
There once was a time when Madonna appeared on “Late Night With David Letterman” and asked David if he ever peed in the shower. Embarrassed, Letterman ducked the question, but I can tell you that most ranch kids who, with the responsibility of building a crackling fire in a woodstove, haven’t at least once partially relieved their bladders on the searing hot steel there in front of them. Strictly out of curiosity, you understand.
It takes only once to satiate such inquisitiveness. The olfactory sensation soon permeates the entire house and your mother, who is no fool, begins to hate you as she purposefully opens all the windows and doors.
One of the worst things about living out on the ranch at a young age was the necessity to catch the school bus home at the end of the day. If a promising social situation developed during school hours, it was fairly certain that I’d be forced to ignore whatever it was.
“Missed the bus” caused a great deal of trouble for those involved, as in how to get me home because other people in my life, such as my parents, had their own issues to deal with and getting me home hadn’t been one of them.
When I was in the sixth grade, I bought a three-speed Raleigh state-of-the-art bicycle with profits from a steer I’d raised and suddenly found freedom from the unrelenting school bus. I rode that bike to school most days in the spring and fall, about 11 miles each way, depending if I followed Highway 82 or McLain Flats Road. All the roads were dirt except 82.
Clearly, not all of it was pleasant, but in retrospect, it was all pretty damned good and I wouldn’t trade a day of it for anything. Well, maybe a day here and there, but you know what I mean.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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