Mother could make something out of almost anything. She took old castoff clothes that others had thrown away, ripped them apart and sewed us clothes and blankets. She did everything well and she did everything. She wall papered, painted, gardened, hunted, canned and anything else that a woman with a large family needed to do to keep her family cared for. But, most of all, she was known for her cooking. Dad was the envy of all the men in his potato house crew because of the luscious food mother packed in his rusty old lunch pail.
She used to take steel wool pads and rub them on the top of the old kerosene burning Glenwood range until the tops of the four burners were shining and clean. After that, she'd rub the burner covers with a little salt pork or bacon grease. Then she'd take a bunch of peeled potatoes and slice them very thin. Once the top of the stove was hot enough to make water dance across it, she'd drop the potato slices on the stove and leave them there until they were toasted a golden brown. Then she'd flip them over until both sides were crisp and golden. She'd scoop them off the stove, sprinkle a little salt on them and then give them to us to eat. They were our very own home-made potato chips and they were delicious beyond description.
That old black stove also served as dad's distillery from time to time. Mother hated liquor and she made no bones about it. But every now and then "loooove" would slide thru her mind and she'd forget exactly how much she detested it. If she especially wanted to please dad, she'd buy him all the ingredients to make home brew. Dad, thinking he'd died and gone to heaven, would haul out the old enamel wash tub and put it on a small wooden stool behind the stove. Then he'd add all the makings for his homemade beer. Yeast, hops, sugar and boiled water were very carefully stirred together and then the tub was covered with a clean cloth and left to ferment.
We used to stand by the hour by the side of the stove and watch as the mysterious mixture bubbled and shifted as it fermented. The tangy smell of hops, yeast and sugar filled our kitchen until it came time for it to be bottled.
If Mother wasn't around, my brothers Walt and Jake, would sneak into the kitchen every chance they got and steal sips of the green brew. If the fermenting mixture was still too green, the boys usually found themselves with a good case of the runs and they spent a lot of time in the outhouse.
By the time they'd entered their teens, much to mother's chagrin, both of them had developed a keen liking for dad's homemade beer.
Mother and dad had some of their finest arguments when it came time to bottle the brew. They never could quite agree just what the length of the proper fermenting time should be. Dad stated that he couldn't see how someone who had never drunk a bottle of beer in her life could really be expected to know when the brew was really ready. Mother would stand behind him as he ladled the amber liquid into the prewashed bottles and make remarks about the whole bottling process every now and then.
I'll never forget the time that dad won the final argument and commenced to bottle the brew over mother's strong protestations that the brew still needed to work a few days longer. Dad scoffed at her comments and proceeded anyway. He capped all the bottles, lovingly washed them off, dried them and carefully carried the bottles up the stairs to the attic. He set them down in their regular spot close to the kitchen chimney, closed the door and went back downstairs.
Dad's choice of storage rooms always set off another lengthy debate between mother and dad. Because the attic was located just off the boy's bedroom, mother felt that having all that freshly brewed beer so accessible would be too much temptation for the boys. And it usually was.
Sometimes, they'd steal a couple of warm brews and after drinking them, sneak the empties down stairs and refill them with water. Then they'd take them back upstairs, pound the bottle caps back on and put the bottles back. When Dad found one that had been "doctored" he'd look at the boys with a little grin on his face and say to mother. "Guess this one wasn't capped tight enough." And he'd quickly pour it down the sink knowing full well what the boys had done.
It was nineteen sixty and the government was in the midst of a cold war with Russia. We, in the county, felt especially insecure because less than thirty-five miles away, by air, was Loring Air Force Base and the Strategic Air Command which was filled with B52 bombers with nuclear warheads, jet planes and all kinds of weapons that could blow the whole of Aroostook County off the face of the earth if anything went wrong. We knew that if the Russians attacked, Loring would be one of the first places that they'd hit and if they hit Loring, then we'd be gone too. Our close proximity to a place that could easily for-tell the annihilation of mankind left us feeling insecure and paranoid all of our growing up years.
During the long days of summer and fall, we often looked up into the clear, blue sky of Aroostook County and watched as the planes from Loring flew practice maneuvers in the air above us. Day after day, dad, as he planted, cultivated, sprayed or harvested his potatoes, became used to watching the comings and goings of the planes. He became quite adept at identifying the different types of planes that were constantly landing or taking off from Loring and he would help us to identify the different ones.
Because our home on the old Goding Road was located along what they used to call the "bombing run," we often got to see some of the planes up close and personal. The planes would take off from Loring with a full tank of jet fuel and they'd fly across the nation to various other bases and then turn around and come back to their home base of Loring. When their practice run was over, they'd fly along the State Road, down through Ashland, over our house and follow the Aroostook River as it wound its way through the county until they turned off to reland at the base.
If they still had a large reserve of unspent fuel, and they usually did, they'd jettison it over the fields that ran along the edge of the river. This fuel jettisoning wasn't common knowledge amongst the townsfolk's at that time and it wasn't until a decade or two later that this fact came to light when there was an outbreak in the county of weird cancers that nobody could explain. Women miscarried, children who lived in that area were diagnosed with brain tumors and old folks and children developed full-blown leukemia. We lost a lot of people to cancers that back then were downright unexplainable.
Mother used to tell everyone that we went to bed "with the chickens" because dad worked such long days and he always went to bed early. And there was an unwritten rule at our house, when dad went to bed, so did everyone else.
About three nights after dad had carried his newly capped beer up to the attic to age, all hell broke loose. It was about two am when we were suddenly awakened by loud popping noises coming from the attic. Dad, in his union suit, came running up the stairs two at a time and he had a surprised look on his face. He rushed past the boy's beds and wrenched open the attic door and the odor of spilled beer wafted out into the boy's bedroom.
Dad switched on the attic light and took a long, slow look around. He looked like he was going to cry as one after another of the beer bottles broke and the foaming brown liquid ran across the attic floor and seeped down through the cracks to the kitchen ceiling below. With a sound of disgust, he closed the door and made his way back down the stairs at a much slower pace than he'd come up. Mother's voice, as it came floating up the stairs, contained a mixture of happiness and "I told you so's" as she announced. "I knew that the beer was too green to cap!"
Early the next morning, there was ample evidence that there had been a catastrophy in the attic. Mother's immaculate house was permeated with the strong smell of beer and being a total non-imbiber all of her life, she was not amused to say the least! She kept looking at the huge, brown beer stain that was growing ever wider in the middle of her white kitchen ceiling and dad knew that he was in deep trouble.
Walt and Jake offered to "help" clean up the mess in the attic but mother decided that their offer was a little "suspect" and she sent them outside while she mopped up the mess. Mother told dad later on that night that she had heard Walt and Jake talking about what a shame it was to have all that "good beer going to waste" and she heard Jake say, "You know Walt, when I first heard all those popping bottles, I thought it was machine guns! I really thought that the Russian's were coming!"
Mother wouldn't allow any company to come over until she'd repainted the kitchen ceiling and "Lestoiled" the attic. Need-less-to-say, it was a very long time before "looove" slid through mother's head again and dad got to make another batch of home brew.
Martha Stevens-David Column Magic City
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See also Vengeance is Mine a short mystery novel published at Magic City over 4 days.
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