Sunday, November 29, 2015

Merle Widmer's Obituary - Well, Sort Of - Part One of Many

I'm still kicking at ninety but I better start recording more of my life story that my daughters and grandchildren and perhaps a few others may want to read someday. Born as the last of nine children of Donat and Lillie (Witzig) Widmer, (Dad said he wasn't aware of birth control back then) I survive as does my 94 year old sister Viola and her 95 year old husband, Herb Kauffman. Herb was born in Congerville and all Widmer kids were born on a farm between Congerville and Carlock, Illinois. While we lived in Woodford County, we all attended a one room grade school half a mile away in McLean County. Most of us had the same teacher, Nellie Moline, nice but strict. The rules allowed spanking and my Dad said if we got spanked at school, we got another spanking at home, no explanations accepted. One spanking was enough to shape me up. Too bad we have become a nation of wimps.

Most of us attended a three year high school in Congerville. (back in Woodford County again) I graduated at the age of 16 from Normal Community High. Two of my older sisters were 'farmed' out to wealthy Peorians. One graduated from Peoria High and one from Woodruff high. My only brother Chester, only attended school for three years, as Dad needed him to work.

We didn't have sports in grade school and I never shot a basketball or threw a baseball until my Freshman year at Congerville. To while away the long winter nights on the farm. I cut the bottom out of a round Quaker Oats card board oatmeal container, mounted it on a top door hinge and used a small rubber ball to shoot one handed baskets while I listened on the radio where Illini greats like Phillips, Matthiesen, etc. were starring. When I went out for basketball at Congerville High, I tried to shoot the big ball one-handed. The coach who was also our Principal, finally told me I would never play at all unless I shot two handed. I still hear my teammates cheering when I finally scored my first basket in a Junior Varsity game. I scored one varsity basket at Congerville and didn't make the squad at Normal Community. Normal had good players and went to the "Sweet Sixteen" losing in the first round to Streator. More on sports later and why I eventually became a Varsity Basketball Coach

At the age of 8 or 9, my life on the farm was work 7 days a week. I still got to listen to Bob Elson as he reported play by play action on WGN of my team, the Chicago Cubs. Our longtime milk pickup man was Tevie Tevis, a really ardent Cub fan. Every now and then, I got to discuss Cub and Yankee baseball with Tevie. When the WW2 broke out, I was a senior in high school and Dad had me exempted from enlisting as I was the only boy at home and with Dad and a couple of sisters and Mom, farmed 300+ acres with all kind of animals to either milk, feed, cleanup, butcher, etc., he had me exempted with a 4D classification which kept me out of service until 1946 when I was drafted and served 20 months. More on my military service later..

Only twice did I get to attend a weekend without working. One was a 4-H camp near Lake Bloomington. The other was when my steer won a blue ribbon at a Woodford County Fair. Since the steer was actually owned by neighbor wealthy State Senator Simon Lantz, Senator Lantz offered to take the steer, my Dad and I to the Chicago State Fair. Unfortunately, I was more interested in sports and my Dad found me trying to play football instead of watching over and continually grooming my steer. I got a severe lecture. While my steer didn't win an award, the steer was lucky it did not have to return to Congerville. It sold for I believe, 13 cents a pound, which was a good price in 1938. Some wealthy Chicago people enjoyed some good steaks and prime rib.

Life on the farm bored me so badly that I told my older sister Loretta that I was day-dreaming my life away. I had serial day-dreams that lasted for weeks as I remember. I was day dreaming when I made too wide a turn with our disc and hit a fence post, bending two discs cutters. It was a bad day when Dad discovered the bent equipment.

There were no boys my age nearer than a mile or so. Then there was the time available. So in the summer I hunted ground hogs. Woodford County paid 25 cents a scalp. I would scalp the ground hog and nail their scalp on the blacksmith shop building wall. When day had to make a trip to Eureka, the County seat, he would take the scalps and I would get to keep all the money. Sometimes up to 3 to 4 dollars. Also, I fished in a couple of creeks that eventually outsourced into the Mackinaw River.  In the fall, I hunted squirrels.In the winter, I trapped and hunted. We ate the squirrels and the fish. Also, in the winter, I trapped,  skinned, dried and sold the muskrat, fox, mink and possum furs.(We would give the possum carcasses to a neighbor who sold them to the black community in Bloomington who considered the meat as a delicacy). I would get up at 5 the usually cold mornings, run my trap lines, come back and do the chores and then have breakfast with the family.

Congerville had a great fast pitch softball team but with all the stars drafted or enlisted in WW2 and since the games were played at night I became a player who looked forward to every game.  More on that later under my sports career. In the winter, I played Independent basketball. We would bribe the janitor with 4 bucks to open the gym for practice on some nights

One year, I trapped a skunk and stupidly tried to kill him. It turned its butt on me and sprayed me. My Mom was so mad she could have "fisted me". That was her expression after I became to old to spank.. She buried my clothes in the ground for about a week and after the smell had gone, she washed the clothes and I wore them again. As for my body, no one would come close to me as I washed and re-washed until the odor was gone. Another time, I caught a ground hog who had holed up in a steep bank. When I crawled up to kill it, It broke lose from the trap. I caught it by the front leg and started screaming for my Dad who luckily was near by. I hung on until my Dad killed the varmit. At any time, it could have turned on me and bit me as a mouse did when I grabbed it by its tail. Was that ever painful for several days. Luckily, I didn't get rabies.

Once in a while in the winter we would wait for the Mackinaw to freeze. Then Dad, my brother Chet and I, would take gigs fashioned from pitchforks, a bag of shelled corn and an axe; find a shallow spot where the river narrowed, cut a rectangular hole in the ice, sprinkled the shelled corn on the river bottom, go up where the river deepened and started pounding on the ice with heavy wood branches. Soon, the fish would start moving toward the area where my brother or my Dad stood with the gig waiting for the shadow of the fish to cross over the corn. Dad and Chet, who was 11 years older than me, had all the fun as I was always stuck with doing the pounding. I did enjoy eating the Channel Catfish that my mother, an excellent cook, prepared for us. What we were doing was highly illegal but fortunately, game wardens seldom were out on a cold winter day.

Occasionally, my Dad had business in Congerville or he needed a haircut. (My Dad cut my hair until I was at least 10) and he would take me along. When business was over, we would stop at the pool hall and shoot a few games of pool. Occasionally, on nice weather evenings during the summer, Dad and Mom would take us kids to Carlock or Congerville, to watch outdoor movies. When we were younger, we always waited up at home because they always brought us ice cream. What a treat on a hot night with only one fan, usually being in Mom and Dad's room, to cool the four upstairs bedrooms.

Susposedly, one night Lucille Ball, using a different name back then, came to Congerville barnstorming and put on a show.  Two of the strongest older boys got in a vicious fistfight over her. Rumor has it that by the time the fight was over, she was on her way out of town. The boys were alleged to have been Bobby Irions and "Mac' McCannon.

When I got old enough to drive, around the age of 13, I would take my Dad's pickup truck to town late on Halloween night and with older boys leading the way, we would topple outhouses, put bailed straw to block the main drag, rob chicken coops of eggs and throw same at one house of maybe two. One night, around midnight, I was driving the pickup truck with two of my friends in the truck bed firing eggs at Howard ......s house. Two shots rang out. Scared to death, I gunned my way, out of town, dropping my friends off near the edge of town and I went to a cornfield, and hid with the truck till three o'clock in the morning. Fortunately, Dad did not hear me come home. But next day, the Woodford County Sherriff came over and asked Dad if  he knew what had happened. Dad called for me.  Of course, I denied being the culprit saying I was out but was home before midnight.  Both knew I was lying but I was not arrested but my Dad gave me quite a lecture. Why did we pick on Howard......? Because his outhouse was toppled so many times that he anchored it down with railroad ties and steel cables. We couldn't budge it.

One night we toppled an outhouse and Sammy .......... fell in up to his waist. We fished him out but stayed downwind from him the rest of the night. A rumor was that some of the older boys took a cow out of a barn, hoisted it up on the roof and tied all four legs down where it's owner finally checked where the bellows of an animal in distress was coming from.The feat was the talk of the town for weeks. The culprits names were suspected but no one could prove who they were.

I wanted to save this to my computer but my software won't let me so I'm hoping I can print this as Part One of a series.


Sue said...

Wow! That title caught my attention! I am glad to be reading your story instead of the other!!! I love stories of long ago. I remember my Mom telling me of my great-grandmother delivering milk from their dairy one day, when the horse was scared by a snake. She fell off the buggy, and was killed when it landed on her! My grandmother was born in 1889, so her mother was born way before that! My Aunt had several old photos, some of which were tin! There are more stories, but I will watch for some more of yours!

Nancy Cripe said...

Dad, Some of these I have not heard and are definately entertaining. Sounds like you were out finding trouble pretty early. Love you

Gerald Craig said...

Merle, enjoying your OBITUARY immensely so far! Especially the stuff about Congerville high school and sports and etc. I look forward to much more of this! Thanks for doing it! I am just about done with the draft of student profiles for students from Congerville High School. Have two names that have surfaced in early 1943 high school basketball box scores, Tevis and Lloyd. Do you rememember a Charles Tevis (born 1928 in Goodfield)? Could he have attended Congerville for a period? What about any Lloyds?

Stay well!

Gerald Craig said...

Merle, enjoying your OBITUARY immensely so far! Especially the stuff about Congerville high school and sports and etc. I look forward to much more of this! Thanks for doing it! I am just about done with the draft of student profiles for students from Congerville High School. Have two names that have surfaced in early 1943 high school basketball box scores, Tevis and Lloyd. Do you rememember a Charles Tevis (born 1928 in Goodfield)? Could he have attended Congerville for a period? What about any Lloyds?

Stay well!

Merle Widmer said...

Gerald, Did you see my reply on my blog site?