Telephones and Sloppy Joes, Five Scenes from Childhood

I wasn’t quite seven years-old when the lineman from the phone company in Janesville, Minnesota, installed a wooden box – a Western Electric – on the living room wall. A crank projected from the right side, and the receiver hung in its cradle on the left. The daffodil-shaped mouthpiece jutted from the front. It looked like a museum piece Alexander Graham Bell himself had used – even when it was new. We moved onto the farm in 1947 but had to wait until 1950 to get it when post-war shortages ended. When we needed to call, we used our neighbor’s phone. The neighbors on either side of us had phone service from two different towns and the ten miles between the towns necessitated an expensive ‘long distance’ connection. At the time, we had the best of both worlds. We shared our phone line with 11 parties. Our number – 57F4 – had four rings.

My parents called by lifting the receiver and listening to make certain no one was on the line. Then then they cranked to call the operator – a pleasant-voiced woman called ‘Central.’ They gave her the number and she made the connections. When any of the others received a call, our phone rang too. My parents soon knew the other parties’ ring pattern. Rings invited snooping and sometimes my parents asked eavesdroppers to stop breathing loudly when they listened in! Lightning nearby made the phone’s bell ‘ding.’ Decades before Doppler radar, we knew an approaching storm’s ferocity from the frequency of the ‘dings.’ This wooden box with the daffodil served us for 15 years. In the early 1960’s the company added direct dialing and soon everyone had a private line and a rotary phone. The advent of private lines ended phone-sharing and eavesdropping, and with it, we all lost some of the close-knit feeling of being a community of farmers who knew each other’s business (discretely, of course). Privacy replaced community.

For a short time in my young life, I feared the telephone in certain weather. As a boy of ten or so, I feared lightning. Not the string lightning that zapped the earth from cloud to ground. I liked to watch that! No, I feared something I had never seen, and – so far – have yet to see. My fear began with an eerie story an adult neighbor told me. Heinz said balls of blue lightning sometimes formed on telephone lines during thunderstorms and entered farmhouses through the telephone. Then the balls rolled on the floor.

Southern Minnesota is muggy from late June to early August, and muggy, summer nights breed thunderstorms. On such nights, when the night air is absolutely still, you can hear the corn growing. It is a faint sound – or rather, millions of faint sounds – as expanding corn leaves split their sheaths. Nights like this often produce ‘heat lightning’ or ‘St. Elmo’s fire,’ a burst of static electricity without thunder. On hazy nights, it was possible to see lightning flickering malevolently, far away, along the horizon. I dreaded the still, summer nights when my parents left me to baby-site my seven-year-old sister while they went to play bridge in town. What if that awful ball of fire shot out of the telephone and rolled around on the floor? I soon out grew out of my fear and grew into a fascination for Southern Minnesota weather, such as early spring thunder snows with lightning.

Our farm had 160 acres of arable land and another 120 acres of woodlands south of the meandering LeSueur River. The woods were magic – a place where a boy could have adventures, real and imagined. For most of the year, the river flowed slowly over a bed of silt and sand. It wasn’t deep, and as children we waded across it. After a little parental guidance, we swam in it. After the age of ten, I went to the woods whenever I could, with or without the Remington .22 rifle, just to slip the parental leash and the endless chores of pulling weeds.

A low, T-shaped ridge ran north for a quarter mile from our south line to a high cut-bank above the river. I loved to hunt fox squirrels there among the burr oaks with low crowns and spreading branches. In the spring, I watched migrating mallards and teal dabbling in the flooded meadow below the ridge. A few deer lurked in the flood plain forest of soft maple, black walnut, black cherry, and cottonwood trees. In the early spring break-up, the flooded river pushed up spectacular ice dams. Later, a cloud of warblers, orioles, catbirds, and thrushes filled the woods with songs. My Scout troop often camped in an opening below the ridge. In the fall, I hunted ducks and learned to snapshoot as they rose from the river’s surface. Before I got a driver’s license, the woods was a haven, a hangout to be safe but adventurous. My mom and dad loved the woods, and sometimes camped on the ridge during the songbird migrations, when the wild phlox carpeted the woods. We buried their ashes, but not their spirits, in an opening where they used to camp. Some things defy the grave.

At puberty, I began to think about serious, grown-up careers. One of Dad’s friends, an older man named Ed, had been a U.S. Forest Ranger and advised on us our woods. He was almost a member of the family, and often stayed for a meal and conversation. Ed knew more about hunting, fishing, and camping than anyone I knew and I eagerly learned from him. When dad was too busy with farming, Ed and I often went hunting, fishing, or camping. In his wool shirt, and puffing his pipe around a fire, he told wonderful tales of his life as a ranger. I idolized him for a few years because he had lived – or said he had – the kind of life that appeals to a 13-year-old boy.

Ed’s stories fed my dreams of a career as a game warden or forest ranger. It was manly, adventurous outdoor work. I would be a well-armed game warden looking for poachers, or a forest ranger battling a huge fire. Rangers and warden had to know a lot of natural science, but I already knew a lot about biology from simply living on the farm. By high school, however, I knew the old-fashioned woodsman’s life I idealized didn’t exist – if it had ever existed. Instead, I grew up to be a historian, camp and fish when I can, and wrote a book about rangers, forests, and the conservation of wilderness because some dreams are too good to let die.

‘Sloppy Joes’ are one of my favorite foods because the dish is tied to memories of a particular ritual on our farm. A ‘Sloppy Joe’ is a hamburger bun filled with a loose, hot filling of ground beef, onions, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, and seasonings. My mother made them each fall for the opening day of pheasant season but we rarely had it otherwise. In truth, there was nothing intrinsically special about the taste of ‘Sloppy Joes’ except as an essential part of the day, along with several hunting dogs, our shot-guns, and canvas hunting coats.

Pheasant season opened each year at noon on the second Saturday of October. By then, Dad and I had posted the farm with ‘No Trespassing’ signs to keep out all but our hunting party. It was the one day in October when he didn’t pick corn, regardless of how ideal the weather. Our usual gang of hunters arrived about 11 a.m.: Mom’s cousin John, Ed the ranger, Al our dentist, Irv the feed mill manager and his son Buddy. We ate buffet style, and helped ourselves to buns, ‘Sloppy Joe’ filling, dill pickles, potato chips, coffee or pop, and Mom’s chocolate chip cookies. Well-fortified with lunch, we went out to hunt. Part of the ritual lay in the way we swept the fields, moving in almost military formation along the fencerows, through the weed patches, across corn stubble, and then skirting the river before hunting back toward our house for a second helping of coffee and cookies. I haven’t carried a shotgun or hunted pheasants in more than 40 years. Yet, the passage of time hasn’t dulled my delight in a plate of ‘Sloppy Joes.’ The goodness doesn’t come from the ingredients but from the memories.

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