Friday, September 22, 2017

More Than a Thorn

As I mulled writing about devil’s claw plants for this week’s column, my thoughts skittered across a dozen bunny trails. So, hang with me. Folks who grow up on the plains frequently repurpose seemingly unrelated items into functional uses. Stephen Ambrose noted this ability in his book Band of Brothers. He praised the ingenuity of American farm boys who welded metal to fronts and undercarriages of tanks and other military vehicles, permitting them to plow open centuries-old hedgerows. Their problem-solving saved lives and permitted the U.S. front to advance across Europe. Though nowhere as dramatic as Ambrose’s story, I’ve watched friends and relatives turn what seems unusable into functional objects.

Consider those nasty stickers that thrive at the edges of corn and milo fields. Once they dry, they split into two wicked hooks that attack intruding humans and beasts. Like Norman hedgerows, this natural armament prevents hunters and farmers from getting where they want to go easily. When one embeds itself in the calf, ankle, or foot of you, your hunting dog, or livestock, it’s difficult to imagine them as anything but excruciating torture.

This did not hold true for Grandmother’s creative friend. Southwest Kansas has as many of these evil thorns as we have in Northwest Kansas, so this woman transformed them into art. She’d wander borders of fields carefully collecting them. Somehow, I never thought to ask how often they tore holes in her flesh. She’d dry them further and shake out their seeds so they didn’t expand territory before she turned them into magical creatures.

Following the summer molt, this artisan explored near the artesian well and other springs where a large flock of Meade Lake peacocks quenched their thirst. The noisy, pretty males dropped iridescent tail feathers. Instead of collecting them in a pretty container, Grandma’s friend recognized their potential for combining with her collection of devil’s claws to create tiny replicas of exotic birds.

Somehow, this craftsperson stabilized each massive thorn so it stood on its own. Then she trimmed blue, turquoise, and green feather eyes to fit inside the now dry claws. Satisfied with their fit, she glued each one in place. I know she spent time on this because they survived each of us grandkids’ close and frequent inspection. I’m guessing more than one adult handled them as well. When she finished, she had folk art renditions of courtly birds who dance prettily with fanned tails.

I looked forward to visiting Grandma and Grandpa’s each year for many reasons, but one was to see the new little peacocks lined up on Lottie’s shelf. Granddad had already introduced the grands to his favorite birds and entertained them with his imitation of the males’ obnoxious call. This combination made it easy to fall under such a beautiful creature’s spell.

The carefully crafted peafowl imitations in Gram’s house changed my perspective about thorns. A local artist’s imagination and skill increased my appreciation for beleaguered farm boys’ ability to adapt equipment and win WW 2. Funny how something as simple as creating folk whimsies out of what most consider trash connects dots across time. Head down the hole, bunny. Don’t come out until next week!

Friday, September 1, 2017

Good for Body and Soul

As daylight wanes and nights grow longer, neighborhood kids return to classrooms. While much of these kiddoes’ work involves the three Rs combined with social studies, science, technology, art, and music, don’t forget all-important recess. Seeing little ones walking to school made me wonder if youngsters still love to jump rope as much as I did when I headed to school, pig-tails bouncing and dressed in plaid dirndls and black and white saddle oxfords. While I loved learning to read and figure math problems, I adored breaks where we took turns turning the rope for one another and jumping in time to catchy rhymes.

As a youngster, I never considered the history of my favorite playground activity, but after some research, I discovered it’s been around more than a while. That’s not surprising when you think ancestors had to deal with vines, fallen trees, big rocks, and deep ditches. The ability to leap high and far made a difference between eating and being eaten our DNA contributors.  I’m guessing this aptitude is programmed into bone and muscle, even if we haven’t consciously developed it.

Somewhere over centuries, folks learned to weave lengths of cord and then turned that object into skill training for boys. By the 1600s, painters captured scenes of children jumping rope on Europe’s cobblestone streets. Soon afterward, Dutch immigrants brought the game to America, where English settlers titled one activity Double Dutch. I bet that rings a bell with older readers.

Yes, those of us who attended elementary school from the 40s through 60s recall gathering a minimum of three participants—two to turn long ropes in opposite directions and one to jump into the spinning midst while also reciting a memorized verse. If you were lucky, friends spun those lanky cotton twists at a speed you could manage without hurting yourself.

Once you’d developed stamina and agility, the chants required the performance of tricks while simultaneously leaping over cement-slapping cordage. My favorites included, “Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear turn around, Teddy Bear Teddy Bear touch the ground…” and “Not last night but the night before 24 robbers came knocking at my door. I asked them what they wanted, and this is what they said: Spanish Dancer do the splits, Spanish Dancer do the twist, Spanish Dancer turn around, Spanish Dancer touch the ground, Spanish Dancer go out back, Spanish Dancer please come back, Spanish Dancer read a book, Spanish Dancer 1, 2, 3, …” and continued till the jumper missed or got tired. Girls interested in romance could skip rope while counting the number of Cinderella’s fella’s kisses.

What good memories! We thought we were just playing while, in reality, we refined coordination and agility and practiced counting skills, verse memorization, and turn taking. It didn’t take new kids long to learn that they had to play nice if they wanted to be included.

I know modern youngsters participate in Jump for the Heart and other physical education class challenges. I hope my little grandchildren have the chance I had to join friends on the playground and take turns either spinning ropes or jumping in the middle of crazy egg beaters. It does them good physically and socially.