Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Iowaville: Loafing Around

When I was brought into this world, Iowaville had seven gas stations including four on every corner of the intersection of the main highway that goes through the county and Main Street. It had the unofficial title of Oil City, a name that now only remains on some chipped and faded signs hidden in old buildings and basements if you know where to look. Although the railroad had stopped coming years earlier, it still had the tracks and the depot station so it gave us the feel of a much larger place. There was a grocery store, a couple restaurants, a roller rink, clothing store, doctors office and much more. As a kid who grew up on the farm, it had more than enough to get me in trouble and to pass the time on a rainy afternoon while my grandfather loafed down at Crooked's hardware store.

Loafing was an activity done by farmers who weren't farming for weather or season reasons and the occasional retired farmer who wasn't really retired but just had kids at home doing the work for him. My grandfather had my father at home doing the work so long as my brother and I were being looked after and so I ended up in more than one loafing session with grandfather. My grandfather would give us each a dime and we would race back to the pop cooler with the lid that you had to lift up and the rows of pop suspended by their necks between aluminum rails. By putting in the dime, you allowed the lock mechanism at the end of the rails to unlock and for someone to slide a bottle out before it relocked, in theory. In Iowaville, I suspect that the pop cooler hadn't worked this way in years. Instead, we just put our dime in a can sitting on the shelf nearby and slid out a bottle. Generally my brother and I would sit in the back with our own big bottle of pop, not the little bottles that my brother and I had to split at home and practiced putting our thumbs over the opening and giving it a shake before spewing the foaming contents into the back of our throats like the grownups did. To this day, I still remember my mortification from the first unsuccessful attempt that ended up with foamy pop all over myself, the counter and the dusty wooden planks on the floor. Once the sixteen ounces of liquid caffeine prevented us from sitting still, we often made our way to the counter where all sorts of gadgets captured our attention. There was the scale model outhouse with the slot in the top and a sign that said to not stick money into it. Of course we did and of course the walls exploded from the top of the mousetrap that the outhouse had been built on top. There were numerous games involving wooden pegs, marbles or interconnected shapes that seemed impossible to get apart. Now you can find many of these same games made of plastic, shrink wrapped in more plastic and sold at brain teasers. Once when I must have been exceptionally fidgety, I somehow ended up in the middle of Main Street with the fishing pole of another loafer in my hands controlling a kit at the end of a lot of string. You still had to play out line and run to get the kite up in the air but once it was aloft, you could release more string or reel it in as easily as while fishing. That man was a genius.

Occasionally an actual customer would walk in the store looking for something or other to finish a project. Back in those days, hardware stores consisted of a few shelves that contained a little of everything and an owner who would greet you at the door and ask you how HE could help YOU. Now a days you have to walk around with a blank stare in the area of a huge warehouse that you think your interests lie in hope of having the section manager stop and ask if he could help you find something. If you don't know what you want, he is of little use and often times since they have more things stocked than any one person could ever learn how to use in a lifetime, he doesn't even know what it is you are looking for with some hardware version of Pictionary. Your only other option is to track down a manager of a neighboring section and have them page the manager of your section only have the previous scenario happen after a long wait. But back in the day, the customer was actually expected to describe his project and the owner would actually come up with the solution, find the hardware you needed to accomplish said solution, ring them up and help you carry them out to your car. The added bonus was that the loafers would give you their opinions from their experiences to help you out, kind of like an early version of Google.

The hardware store wasn't the only place of loafing but it was certainly one of the more comfortable due to the seating capacity. It had a full half dozen chairs with plenty of space for another half dozen more up by the cash register where as one of the many gas stations usually only had a few chairs and the rest of the loafers had to sit on an unmounted tire or stand. You could occasionally find the loafers at Jake the Barber's shop where he was rumored to have snipped off a poor lads ear who wouldn't sit still or at Thomas Grocery store where they made sandwich meat with huge chunks of cured meats and a meat slicer that hummed as the owner slid the handle back and forth. Depending on your perspective, others might consider some of the restaurants as loafing spots but they weren't. If you lived in town, that is where you hung out over cheap cups of coffee which is why they never stayed in business very long. Yes farmers did frequent the restaurants and would talk over their meals but eating was the primary business at hand and where ever the farmers loafed, they supported the business.

Although some say loafing was a generational thing of my grandparents era, it was really killed off by the farm crisis like so many things. Those that survived were forced to get big in order to make a living from the high land costs and cheap grain prices. As a result, my father's generation never really had time for loafing because even between seasons or during rain when you couldn't plant, you were repairing equipment or doing some of the endless farm projects that needed to be done. So when my grandfather died, right about the same time I became of an age where I could truly be of use on the farm helping my father, the loafing stopped. Perhaps if people still stopped a bit from their busy lives and loafed for a bit with their peers of a icy cold bottle of pop, our lives would get a bit easier.


Eutychus2 said...

As a small town boy with aunts and uncles that all lived on farms I remember well what you're talking about. My mother, who still lives in my hometown, takes me to MickeyD's for breakfast every time I'm home and there will be a couple groups of retired folks sitting around drinking cheap cups of coffee and recalling earlier days. I told her she needed to get involved with one of these groups, but she had a line of excuses why she couldn't. I'm hoping that when I retire I will find a 'loafing' spot; I think its a part of Americana that we are not only missing, but was an integral part of community.
Thanks for reminding me.

R. Sherman said...

There was nothing better than a cold bottle of coke directly from one of those chests (or the more "modern" version with the four inch glass door allowing you to pull the bottles straight out by the neck."

As for hardware stores, I remember going with my dad for different things, including checking and replacing vacuum tubes for our "Hi-Fi" and televisions.

Good times.


geri said...

I love reading memories of the america of your child/teenagehood. It almost sounds like mine but also like how I picture the U.S. in the 50s would be. Did you ever play computer games? lol I didn't but my brothers did. It's just that you are a few years younger than I am and you lived in a rich country I thought the image would be more modern that what I read. Somehow I see Norman Rockwell and I would say that it was a much better world than how teenagers are living life today with their Wiis and Facebooks.

Ed said...

Eutychus2 - I too look forward to the day when I'm able to loaf around.

R. Sherman - I remember when the vertical bottle machines came around our area. They never lasted very long. I learned... umh... heard very early in my life how a hammer, nail, empty glass and a worked up thirsty kid could drain an entire row in the machine in not much time.

Geri - Though most of my memories are of the late 70's or very early 80's, because of the rural area, I'm sure compared to the east coast, we were closer to the 50's or earlier. I was in my teens when computers really hit the market and the games. I played a lot of Tank and Pong on the AppleIIe that my parents bought. By the time I graduated high school, I was writing my own programs on that thing even though it was obsolete by then.

sage said...

In 1988, I first drove across the country and remember stopping at a bar and grill in Kansas for lunch--I ate at the bar and there were many farmers there as it wasn't yet time for harvest. As a kid, it was my granddaddy, the tobacco farmer, at Aunt Liddy's store.

Beau said...

Great stories, and I can still feel those times. Not so much first hand, but from visiting similar places years ago. Maybe it's our generation, but it seems like if we stop too long we're missing something, or feel guilty for not getting enough done!

Ed said...

Sage - One of the reasons I wrote about this was because I was hoping people would be able to relate.

Beau - The other reason I wrote about this was because I was hoping that someday we would figure this out and realize that it is okay to loaf around with the neighbors.

TC said...

I think we called it "putzing." Loafing works though :)