© WARREN WASHBURN
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FRIGHTENING TIMES IN WANN NEBRASKA
I dreamed of snakes chasing me. They were a mixture of thick bull snakes, fast Blue Racers, green and black Garter snakes. There were dirty snakes with diamond shaped heads covered with ugly warts. Twilight time was always a terrifying time for me. The stillness of their movement made me want to freeze, hoped they wouldn’t see me. Cottonmouth made it hard for me to draw a breath. I could barely move my legs, they felt cramped. If I could just reach the cement slab in front of our red brick house, I would be protected. I would be home free, time out, safe.
I woke with a start, and then relaxed as the awareness of the dream cleared the cobwebs from my head. Took a couple of deep breaths to calm the pounding in my chest. I opened my eyes. There was a weak bulb spreading light not far from me, but the edges inside our house were shadowy. I kept my body still, but could feel a dampness on my chest and arms. My legs felt lweak and covered with goosebumps. At age ten, I was scared of many things, but bad dreams always faded away with the light of day. Besides, I knew what caused the dream. My brothers and I had killed a snake the afternoon before.
“Come on, guys, a snake!” Norman, my older brother was in the ditch across the gravel street in front of our house, the former First Bank of Wann building. He raised a tree branch and smashed it down into the ditch. My two younger brothers, Mick and Ken, and I ran across the road and picked up fallen cottonwood branches.
It was a large bull snake, trying to escape into a hole underneath the cottonwood tree growing up out of the ditch.
“Head him off, head him off!” Norman cried as weeds and dust flew up from our strikes.
It bothered me to see living animals die, but I couldn’t stand by and let my brother down. The two little brothers had more of a warrior way of thinking; in certain areas of life, I was way too chicken. They joined the battle without fear, smashing their sticks down onto the snake that was fighting for its life.
“Get him, get him!” Norman cried.
The bull snake began to twist toward us. We smacked his head and any part of his long body we could reach, while staying far enough away from his mouth. Fear and excitement charged me up as I took a turn with my branch; I was secretly glad when the branch broke. I stepped back out of the way. Seeing the smashed brown skin and the pale red of blood on the snake’s slimy hide made me sick to my stomach.
Gradually the snake stopped moving except for its tail, which continued to twitch.
“Push him out to the road,” Norman commanded, “but watch out, he may be faking it.”
We used branches to move the snake out to the edge of the gravel street, and then stretched him out. Already flies were settling on bloody areas.
“I’m getting a yardstick to measure him," Norman said.
“Why you boys always killing things?”
We looked up and there stood Grandpa, leaning on his hoe. He had been working in his sweet corn field. He wore a grey railroad man’s hat; bib overalls covered his long-sleeve, dark blue shirt. And he was right. For reasons I never knew, we killed most wild animals on sight, or tried to.
I didn’t look at him, just kept my eyes on the beat-up piece of meat lying there, fear and excitement gone, replaced with a sick feeling in my gut. Norman was Grandpa’s favorite grandson, but even he kept quiet.
“Don’t you boys know that bull snakes eat the mice and rats you see in those old sheds out behind your house?”
“I thought he was going to bite me,” Norman said, but not with a lot of confidence.
“You boys straighten up; I need you two oldest hoeing tomatoes by seven in the morning." Grandpa turned and walked down the road toward his house.
We watched him until he turned back to us and said, “Getting a television set this Saturday. I want you boys to come over and watch some rassling with us.”
As we looked down once more at the dead animal, the late summer sun began to set in a red haze of dust. We gave the snake a couple of kicks with our clodhoppers, just to make sure. Then from our house, we heard our mother.
“Supper,” Mom called.
We threw our branches back into the ditch. Then became quiet as we walked across the junk filled cement slab and entered our main room. It served as an eating-place, part kitchen, and a bedroom. Norman and I slept there on the pullout couch at night.
Dad was away at some horse race track, gambling. We pulled up our chairs and sat, looked at the small pile of mashed potatoes on our plates.
“Mom,” I said, “Grandpa says they’re getting a TV this Saturday. Can we go watch it?”
“We’ll see about that.”
“What we having for supper”? Norman asked.
“Goulash,” Mom said as she spooned a helping of mixed tomatoes and hamburger onto our potatoes. One glance and I was up and running outside, holding my mouth. The red of the tomato sauce and the brown of the burger meat and the smashed body of the snake made me vomit. I couldn’t eat anything that night so went to bed with slight hunger pangs, not for the first time.
The next night, the fright of the snake came back to me in the nightmare. I laid awake from that dream, waiting for my heart to quit beating so hard. I knew I was afraid of many things besides snakes. My dad’s temper, getting outran by any girl at the elementary school, my grandpa for unknown reasons, and the Schulz boys who would beat me up when Norman wasn’t around.
As I laid there on my half of the couch, something began to scare me. I had never believed in imaginary monsters, but I could sense something was wrong, something besides the nightmare. The house seemed too quiet. I forced myself to be still, trying to figure out why I felt frightened.
If Dad were home more often, I wouldn’t be scared. I could sleep soundly. This dark night he was gone, like so many others. I was wide awake on my half of the couch, my older brother asleep on the other half. Our small building had two regular beds; Mom in one, and Mick and Ken in the other. Those two little farts. Never had to do any work as far as I was concerned. Sometimes Norman had to pound on me to show he was toughest. Soon after, to make myself feel better, I would catch one of the younger and pound on him.
Our couch took up part of the living room. I faced out toward the room, looked at the small light bulb hanging at the top of the box of twenty-five baby chickens. The box was about four feet from our couch. The chicks were sleeping and only an occasional peep sounded out. The light and the peeps were not what woke me. Even the sour smell from the chicken droppings onto the newspapers lining the box bottom was not enough to wake me. I was used to that smell. No, there was something else.
The hamlet of Wann, population of about thirty, did not have streetlights. When people turned in for the night, blackness settled around the village. My eyes turned toward the large front window, which had no curtain. It did have shades, but they stayed bunched up at the top, broken. I thought I saw a few cottonwood leaves fluttering in the breeze. Then, not believing my eyes, I saw a shape move. I began to breath harder.
I thought I saw the shape of a man’s hat moving sideways. My heartbeat increased to the point that it seemed like it was going to pound out of my chest. The hat stopped its movement, and then slowly disappeared. How I wished Dad was in Mom’s bed. I tried to holler out but only a croaking sound came from my mouth.
Norman stirred next to me. My heart began to thump hard. I forced my eyes away and then back to the window. Nothing but a few branches. Then, again, a shape moved slowly into the center of the window. I froze, except for my pounding heart. The head and hat stopped as if someone was staring straight at me. The sight brought to mind what happened at noon that day.
Late 1940’s, Wann was located in eastern Nebraska. We were poor and the awareness of that condition was beginning to settle in my mind. I blamed my dad. He was not even looking for a job, he would leave to go to a horse race track to gamble, and then send money home sometime for groceries.
At lunchtime, my three brothers and I were sitting on our worn-smooth wooden chairs waiting to eat. I realized that for unknown reasons, I was pissed off too often. Sick and hurting at times, but today sitting there wearing bib overalls seemed to make me mad. Other kids wore blue jeans to school, why couldn't I?
Mom walked out from the small vault-size kitchen holding a pan and said, “All we have is one hot dog apiece and one slice of bread.”
No complaints from her sons. We had lived that way so long we knew better than to ask if there was any dessert. “Here you go,” she said as she placed a slice of white bread on our plates, and then forked out one boiled wiener for each of us. I had a finicky stomach so the smell of boiled hot dog water almost made me gag.
“If you’re still hungry,” she told us, “pull radishes out of the garden and wash them off at the pump. This afternoon we’ll walk by old man Larson’s farm, look for apples in the ditch.”
She looked around at us to see if anyone had a better idea to gain foodstuff. Then she said, “Drink a half glass of water before you eat your hotdog.”
Just then we heard the screen door creak on its hinges and a soft knock on the door. Had to be a stranger, our nearby relatives would have walked right in. I looked quickly at my older brother, then at Mom. The fear in their eyes caused my gut to tighten. We sat there; eyes glued to the door as Mom opened it slightly, blocking the hobo from looking in, protecting her brood with her own body.
We heard a soft mumble, and then Mom closed the door. She picked up a sheet of newspaper, placed her slice of bread and wiener on it and wrapped the paper around them. She opened the door and handed out her care package. Coming back to the table she said, “I’ll bet he’ll be surprised to find a warm sandwich for lunch.”
Norman asked, “Mom, what will you eat?”
She walked back to the kitchen and rattled a couple of pans. She came back out munching on a saltine cracker.
I got up, and peeked out of the large, front window. The hobo was walking away on the gravel street that crossed in front of the Wann General Store, heading toward the railroad tracks. He was bundled in rags, wearing a strange hat pulled down over his ears. He didn’t even glance at the dead snake.
Going back to my lunch, I said, “Maybe he’s a gandy dancer.”
“A hobo,” Norman stated.
“A bum," Ken said.
The hobo is back, looking in, I thought. Again, the shape moved sideways, and then disappeared. I felt like I might pee in my jockey shorts. When the screen door made a slight creaking sound, I thought about our dog, Woofer. He usually slept indoors, right by the door. His problem was that he was a heavy sleeper, he could sleep through thunderstorms. Slowly I slid off the couch and crawled on my hands and knees past the table toward the door and Woofer. I thought if I could wake him, he might hear the hobo and start barking.
I knew I couldn’t stop anyone. The Schulz boy said my arms and legs looked like toothpicks. Melissa Nitz said I looked like an Ickabod.
Nearing the door, I saw Woofer’s closed eyes, his paws showing a twitch. I heard a muffled sound against the door. As I looked up, I saw the door handle turn slightly, then stop. As I reached out to shake Woofer’s head, a hand grabbed my arm causing me to jump, almost out of my skin.
“What are you doing?” Mom said.
“Sshhh, there’s someone outside.”
“Nonsense,” she said, “you’re probably imagining it, maybe you heard Woofer bump against the door.”
By this time, Woofer had sat up. He began to scratch his head; he paid no attention to any outside noise.
“Mom, I saw someone in the window and heard the screen door open.”
Quietly we moved to the window and looked out one corner.
“There,” I said, and pointed to a shadow moving across the road, by the cottonwood tree.
“I see it,” Mom said, “now you go back to bed, the door is locked, I’m going to sit up by Woofer for a while.”
I climbed back on the couch but not before looking to the back of the house. I saw the bed the younger brothers were sleeping on. Above them was also a large window. A shadow moved there but it was just a tree branch. With my heart still pounding and my eyes over at the door, I drifted off to an uneasy sleep. The chicken poop smell is getting worse, I thought.
“Mom, Norman doesn’t believe me that the hobo looked in our window last night.”
“Now stop that kind of talk, you probably just saw a tree branch.”
That’s fine I thought, but I’m going to get Woofer to sleep beside me tonight.
Before school, we sat down to a meal of mushy oatmeal.
“We’re out of milk,” Mom told us, “I put a small piece of butter in your oatmeal, just sprinkle a little sugar on it and stir it up.”
The meal didn’t suit my stomach, I ate just a bit. Then I walked outside and looked over at the tree. By the road, pieces of the bull snake were covered with ants and gravel. I walked over by it, and then looked hard at the tree. Nothing, I saw nothing. Still uneasy to my gut, I walked the one block to the Wann Elementary School for lessons and recess.
After school, I started to walk home until I saw Dad’s old black Chevy sitting out front. I broke out into a gallop until a reminder thought brought me up short. If he had won at the races, we were in for some treats. Maybe a bag of store bought cookies or a ten-cent toy. But, if he had rotten luck--not one of us would dare ask for a nickel for a pop or candy bar at the store.
When I walked in, he was bending over the chicken box, looking in. He took one look at me.
“Butch, Get the hell over here and look at this,” he said, and motioned me over.
Oh-oh, I thought, now I’m going to catch it. My real name was Larry. When he called me Butch he was pissed.
“Why the hell aren’t the papers clean at the bottom?”
“Guess I forgot this morning.”
“Dammit, clean this mess up now. Look at the waterer, doesn’t it look empty? And look at the chicken shit in it. What the hell good does it do me to spend money on chickens when you can’t even do a simple job?”
I had had enough experiences with him to know when it was best to keep my mouth shut.
“You’re lucky I don’t take the yardstick to you.”
“Quit being so hard on him,” Mom said, “he’s been sick you know.”
“Yeah, well what was this time? Hope you didn’t take him to the doctor, I can’t pay bills or buy medicine.”
“He had the mumps, but got over it. Stayed home for one week from school.”
That word “mumps” made my glands ache on both sides of my jaw.
Eating the small supper that night, most of us kept our eyes down. We tried not to raise his wrath. Mom had boiled a ring of bologna and sauerkraut. Dad didn’t like it. Sure, he probably was used to eating in racetrack and stockyard cafes. I figured he was broke, no “happy days are here again” for us boys. My stomach couldn’t handle cooked bologna and sauerkraut. I forced down a little, and then when no one was watching, I gave my piece of meat to Woofer.
Before supper ended, Dad started in on Norman.
“Why’d you have to stay in after school?”
“Just a little fight at recess with Nathan Schulz.” I knew that was a lie but I kept quiet. At noon recess, he and another boy had tried to raise a girl’s dress and she told on them.
Dad grabbed the yardstick. “Get out here in the kitchen.” We heard the five whips Norman got. He came back out with red and misty eyes but he wouldn’t cry out loud. I wished I could be as tough as he was. Mom sat at the table with her head in her hands. Whenever I was whipped, I started crying on the first strike, trying to gain sympathy.
Going to bed once again with an uneasy stomach, at least I felt safe. Nothing to be frightened of tonight, no snakes, no hobos, don’t even look at the window. Even the chicken box was clean, no bad odor. With my old man sleeping here tonight, I planned on sleeping soundly.
I caught some talking coming from the kitchen.
"Staying for a while this time, I hope."
"Yeah, I'm quitting those damn races. Maybe get a job."
"Guess I've heard that before."
I thought I heard Dad cuss, but just then Norman nudged me with his elbow.
He whispered, "Do you remember Grandpa telling us that when there is one snake, there has to be two? Let's go digging at the hole in the ditch tomorrow, maybe we can kill another one."
I was silent for a few seconds before saying, "Okay." Inside I was hoping that by tomorrow he would forget about it and that a lot of other activities would occupy our time. All I really wanted was a good night's sleep and a normal family life. Dad was home, I felt secure.