Cue the violins ­ tales of woe are ahead

Cue the violins � tales of woe are ahead by Bob Karolevitz Unfortunately there are less and less people who did their homework by the flickering light of a kerosene lamp.

Phyllis was one!

She said her siblings huddled around the kitchen table, probably learning their multiplication tables and reciting the capitals of all the states. (There were only 48 then.)

It's a wonder that their eyes weren't ruined by that feeble glow.

I can just picture their mother darning socks nearby or doing some other household chore like sorting Navy beans. And I can visualize their dad squinting at the pages of the Dakota Farmer or groping through the darkness in the barn.

They had a radio, of course, but it was battery-powered, so its use was limited. After all, the charge had to be preserved for the livestock markets and the Amos 'n Andy show. No frivolous usage was allowed.

Phyllis remembers how the glass chimneys of the kerosene lamps got all sooted up and had to be cleaned periodically. That was one of her jobs. Her weekly tasks also included filling the lamps with the grimey oil from the 55-gallon barrel behind the machine shed.

(It brought tears to my eyes each time she told of her youthful deprivations. I should have had a violin to play background music as she carried on her recital.)

The Aladdin lamp, which came next, was a definite improvement as the flimsy mantel showered them with light. Then they got a wind-charger, which provided electricity all right, but it made so much noise as it revolved on the rooftop that they had to yell above it.

I guess they didn't sleep much either when the wind was blowing.

Phyllis went on to explain that they didn't have running water in the house, and they drank from a bucket with a tin dipper, too.

She recalled that their telephone number was 26F20 and that two longs would get them on the party line. They also had a two-holer out back � with catalogs yet.

(More violins are needed here!)

Being a town guy who had indoor plumbing and electric lights, I had trouble imagining the hardships she suffered, but I let her tell me � over and over � how bad it was in her younger days. It made my World War II stories insignificant by comparison.

When I stop to think of it, though, her ordeal was not unlike that of other South Dakotans on the farm during the Dirty Thirties and early '40s. In that context, she also told me about the dust storms, grasshopper infestations and how her father buried cattle which were victims of anthrax.

Her woeful tale included how they canned meat, how they put cream and other stuff down the artesian well to keep it cool and how she folded her long underwear over in her stockings so it wouldn't show too much.

Gee, and I always thought Phyllis was younger than that.

Needless to say, her reminiscences caused me to conjure up images of homesteading days: of sod houses and butter churns and horse-drawn carriages.

I may need violin music of my own!

© 2003 Robert F. Karolevitz

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