By Lawrence Landwehr
Ever since my mother and I had come to live with her parents on their farm and ranch, I had access to small hand tools such as hand saws, pliers, wrenches, etc. As a boy, the tool I liked most was a hammer. Once taken in hand, the hammer multiplied my arm’s force tenfold and bestowed in me a palatable feeling of power. And here’s the best part: Everything—Everything needed pounding.
One summer day my empowered right arm and I were patrolling for objects needing our attention. I settled on a bullet from the family’s small arsenal, placed it on a concrete step and pounded on it—BAM, BAM, BAM. The bullet fired, and I heard it strike the concrete and zinggggg into the distance as its tone dropped. At age five I knew that Death had just granted me a second chance.
One might wonder why a small boy would be unsupervised and free to be so creative. My mother was no longer around; she had taken a job out of state. My grandparents were very much present, but were working long and hard raising wheat crops and beef cattle to build their small enterprise into a much larger one. My contribution to the effort was to entertain myself and not interrupt the adults when they were working. That left me to find ways to pass the day, especially during harvest or roundup times.
What was I to do? No Cat in the Hat would be stopping by. Television could not come to the rescue. If radio had children’s programs, no one told me (but I did hear FDR giving a “Fireside Chat”). Climbing trees was out because our only tree was not shaped for climbing. Going out to play in the neighborhood was not an option because, well, because there was no neighborhood. The nearest neighbor, the Simon family, was five miles away.
One of the Simon children, Jerry, was my age, and on rare occasion, an adult would drive one of us to the other’s home so that he and I could have playtime together.
My most reliable time filler was being outdoors watching the hired hands working and observing my grandfather as he organized the work and solved problems throughout the day. I watched the crop planting and harvesting, care and use of horses, branding and care of livestock, milking a few cows, butchering, sheering of sheep, repairs to equipment, erection of new buildings, etc.
Other ways in which I at age five through eight did my part included
- churning butter
- building things from scraps of lumber,
- dousing hills of large red ants with gasoline and then igniting them
- helping my grandmother with her small brewery in the basement
- being alert for rattle snakes
- reading comic books
- and, of course, watching paint dry.
At any rate, by adapting well to being alone and finding ways to entertain myself, I did my part building the family financially. The enterprise grew—ultimately into a farming and ranching operation of 10,000 acres. I was so proud of my grandparents! Incidentally, I got my work ethic from seeing their work rewarded. But I have yet to hammer on another bullet, although I’m sure plenty of them need it.
- The notion that a small boy with a hammer will think that everything needs pounding has been previously noted by others. Psychologist Abraham Maslow saw applicability of this behavioral pattern beyond childhood and wrote that if you only own a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.
- In 2013 I was in contact with my old friend, Jerry.
- On the decline in the amount of children’s unsupervised time outdoors , see Pamela Riney-Kehrberg, The Nature of Childhood: Growing up in America Since 1865.
Lawrence J. Landwehr resides in Middleton, Wisconsin and is retired.
Great story! My sister and my version of a childhood near death experience is that one night when our parents were out and we had a babysitter the light’s went out and we talked the babysitter into letting us have a candle between our beds. Of course we melted the plastic cover off a picture of Jesus and then proceeded to “brown” a kleenex. The next thing we knew we had a burning kleenex on the rug between our twin beds. Screams! Chaos! Babysitter running in and stomping on the fire. We pleaded with her not to tell our parents but… (Right! no explanation for the burned place on the floor between our beds. Of course she “told.”) And… she took away the candle. We soberly went to sleep in the dark. I’m still alive to tell the tale! : )
I absolutely love this essay! It’s been a joy to read all of the essays here. In this one, I can feel what it was like to BE that five-year-old boy. And I like the Notes at the end – I always appreciate insight into another writer’s process. Well done!