July 17, 2009

Sale Barn Nights (Sketch #14)

Category: News — Ira @ 6:36 pm


“Play us a tune on an unbroken spinet, and let us hear
the actual voices of old fairs; Let us move backwards
through our memories…Let us relive the million forgotten
moments of our lives….”

—Thomas Wolfe

We made it probably three, maybe four times a summer. It was a rare treat, to be allowed to go. An experience to be savored and treasured, for the delightful thing it was. To partake of the bustle and stir of the great city market that was the Aylmer Sales Barn. Every Tuesday was market day.

It was a ramshackle ratty place, consisting of a few acres of cracked and rolling pave-ment and dirty broken gravel, lined with row upon row of vendors’ stands. Inside the main auction barn they sold cattle, and in later years, furniture. A dilapidated side wing housed a number of “English” vendors, who sold mostly cheap Japanese trinkets. And antiques and just plain old junk.

Amish vendors too, sold their wares from little market stands, outside in the elements. Of a Tuesday, the laden old top buggies lumbered down the main gravel road through the community, en route to town. Uncle Abner was a consistent mainstay, selling his eggs. He made the weekly trip to market until he no longer could because of age, a period of close to fifty years. LeRoy Marners sold baked goods. And maybe several other Amish families sold things too. I can’t remember. In the early 1970s, Sam K. Yoder also had a stand.

To us, the Sale Barn was a huge affair, a far shining vista of glittering treasure, a vital part of the pulse of the Aylmer settlement. A place that throbbed with life and lights, full of exotic and wondrous sights and sounds and tastes. Where one never knew the exciting adventures that might unfold.

Sometimes I got to go with Dad, sometimes one of my older brothers let me tag along. We usually went to town first, walked and shopped the great stores on the Aylmer square. Stedman’s. Canadian Tire. IGA. Then ended the day at the Sale Barn.

Outside the main building entrance the French Fry wagon sat parked, windows opened, the delicious tempting odor of hot oily fresh cut fries permeating the air. We always bought fries. Sprinkled them liberally with strong sour vinegar. Canadians don’t put ketchup on their fries. That’s for sissies. And Americans. I wasn’t even aware such a strange and frightful practice existed until I was probably ten years old.

There was a small café in a corner inside the ramshackle Sale Barn building. Beside the serving window stood a metal water tank filled with ice and shimmering bottles of cold soda pop. Mountain Dew, Coke, Orange Crush, and the swirled glass bottles of biting red Cream Soda. There, beside that tank, through the sliding serving window, auctioneer Les Shackleton bought me an ice cream cone one summer night. I was a penniless curly-haired little five-year-old kid, wandering around on my own, staring with hungry eyes at all the mouth watering ice cream and pop other people were buying. He was a nice loud man, who took pity on me and kindly asked my name and claimed to know my father. “So you’re David’s boy,” he boomed as he handed me the cone. Barely able to speak English, I nodded. I slurped the Maple Walnut ice cream, and marveled that such people existed, who for no discernible reason bought little Amish boys such treats. And I savored every bite.

Sometimes a few of my friends were there as well, and we hung out, absorbing all the sights and sounds. The fruit and vegetable man, hollering his prices at passersby. Dad usually stopped by that stand late and haggled for a box of overripe blackened bananas to take home to feed his ravenous family. And down the line, vendors selling clothes, shoes, sunglasses, toys, junk, and old used bicycles I would have killed for. Anything imaginable was available at the Aylmer Sale Barn.

The Pigeon Man sat parked off to one side. The back of his truck was lined and stacked with rows of wire cages. Pigeons and other birds fluttered and bounced inside the cages. Amish boys from around the community, including my older brothers, slipped out at night with dim flickering flashlights. Like squirrels, they scrambled and shimmied up the hand-hewn beams in the empty yawning lofts of great old red barns in pursuit of as many pigeons as they could grab. It’s a wonder someone didn’t fall and break his neck. The pigeons they caught were deposited into burlap feed bags and delivered to the Pigeon Man each Tuesday at the Sale Barn. For thirty-five to fifty cents apiece.

The action lasted until late; it was always dark when things shut down. The vendors wrapped up and loaded their leftover wares and headed out of town. I don’t know if uncle Abner usually sold all his eggs or if the Marners sold all their baked goods. I imagine the prices dropped as closing time approached.

And then one night, it happened. A strange and terrible thing. As the Marners were heading home, a car slowly approached from the rear. Pulled around, and stopped. It was pitch dark; the gravel road was devoid of all other traffic. Young Paul Marner and one of his sisters sat in the large top buggy. A man emerged from the car and approached. Paul pulled the horse to a stop. At his side, the man on the road held something that might have been a pipe, or a gun. He wasted no time with greetings, but gruffly demanded their money.

They gave him all the day’s proceeds, a grand total of twenty-seven dollars. The man returned to his car and roared away. Greatly shaken, the two headed on home, glad to be unhurt. The news flashed across the community the next day. It was all people talked about for a week or two. I was in the second or third grade, seven or eight years old. So it must have happened in 1968 or ’69.

I don’t remember all the details, but somehow the local police got on the case. And somehow they caught the guy. I don’t know if there was a trial, or if the Marners ever testified in any way, but the robber spent some time in jail. Probably a few years at least. And that’s about all I can recall of the Great Aylmer Buggy Robbery.

My father was a man of many trades, and once a year, for a few weeks in July, he too joined the vendors at the Sale Barn. He shipped in fresh cherries by the truckload, from the fertile orchards down close to Lake Erie. A smiling elderly man named Alfred C. High rattled in on a Tuesday after lunch. On the back of his old blue flatbed stake body truck, he had loaded stacks and stacks of lidded wooden baskets with half-loop handles, filled with some of the world’s most luscious black cherries.

Somehow Dad had located the High Farms and made a deal. He paid them just a smidgen above wholesale price, then sold the cherries at the Sale Barn for retail price. It was a money making proposition. By the time I came along, Dad’s reputation as a seasonal cherry vendor was firmly established in the Aylmer area. During the season, people flocked in to buy his cherries.

Alfred C. High usually delivered a few baskets of cracked cherries, or seconds, with each load. These were never sold at the Sale Barn, but were always snapped up by the local Amish because they were cheaper. One Tuesday about mid-morning, William and Fern Kramer, an elderly couple from the nearby Mt. Elgin settlement, trundled the fifteen miles in their horse and buggy to buy some cracked cherries from that day’s load. They sat for hours and hours, waiting for the truck to arrive. About the time the old blue truck pulled in, Neighbor John from half a mile down the road rattled in with his old hack to pick up a few baskets of cracked cherries for his goodwife, Martha.

Unfortunately, that day there were only three or four baskets of cracks, instead of the usual dozen or two. There was tension in the air as Neighbor John and Fern Kramer faced off on who would get to take the cracks. Standing there, hands on her hips, Fern struck first.

“I guess I’ll take them all,” she said authoritatively. Neighbor John looked extremely grieved. As Fern moved in to seize the baskets, Dad intervened. They would have to share and each take two baskets. That’s the best he could do, Dad said. And the fairest thing. Neighbor John looked slightly less grieved. It was not a good day for the Kramers, who had to trundle fifteen miles on their horse and buggy clear back to Mt. Elgin. After waiting for hours and hours. I don’t know why they didn’t just take a few baskets of good cherries. But they didn’t. Guess it never crossed their minds to spend the extra money.

Once in awhile, I got to go along to help sell. On Sale Barn day, we pulled into the vendor area and located a stand. Alfred C. High then backed his old stake body truck to the site. And we unloaded maybe a hundred or more covered baskets. Dad helped unload, but he was already busy selling, engaging anyone who showed even the slightest interest. To verify that the cherries were of good quality all the way to the bottom, Dad would pour a full basket into an empty one, slowly rolling out the delicious fruit. He even allowed people to taste a few before they bought. After tasting, few could resist a purchase.

And here, at a vendor’s stand at the Aylmer Sale Barn, I was introduced to my first real taste of commerce. Of selling a product, taking money, giving change. The bustle and stir of the crowd, the characters who stopped and talked and tasted and bought. “English” people, the old, the young, the fat, the tall, the long-haired hippy types of the age. Scraggly hillbilly hicks, most of them. As were we. We just didn’t know it.

And we engaged too, in some minor commerce of our own. Lugged in cages and boxes with baby rabbits and bantam hens with cute little fluffy chicks. Sold them for a few dollars apiece. We weren’t allowed to own large livestock like calves and goats and sheep. Dad said they ate too much feed. But we did raise small stock, rabbits and such. What we sold was ours, we pocketed the money, to save or spend on things we wanted, hockey equipment and occasional contraband like sports magazines and comic books.

When things slowed down a bit, or most of the cherries had been sold, Dad left us at the stand from time to time and went off to do his shopping. One evening, I stood there all alone. Selling baskets of cherries right along. Two long haired young thugs approached. Well, maybe they weren’t thugs, but they sure didn’t have any money to spend on cherries. One of them stopped in front of my stand and pointed at the sky.

“Look at the plane,” he said. I turned around and looked up.

The young long haired thug grabbed a handful of cherries while my back was turned. The neighboring vendors all roared with laughter. The two young louts walked on, snickering, munching on their pilfered cherries. I was helpless, mortified and hugely embarrassed. I resolved never to get fooled like that again. Like a country simpleton.

And once as I stood there alone at our stand during the early hours of a summer evening, a great ruckus arose from the fruit and vegetable vendor across the way. A bald giant of a man, he was particularly aggressive that night, staggering about and accosting passersby with loud, crude shouts. He was slosh-faced drunk, but I would never have been able to tell. I thought he was just a loud English man. Eventually someone notified the owner of the Sale Barn, and he emerged to confront the loud bald vendor.

The bald giant vendor stood there, red-faced with drink and breathing hard, as the owner curtly ordered him off the premises. The giant bellowed a slurred curse, then slowly cocked a massive paw and unleashed a wide slow looping swing. The owner ducked, then dove in and grabbed the giant behind each knee and yanked. The giant abruptly sat down on his rather sizeable butt. Confused, he slurred more curses, then slowly stumbled to his feet and attacked the owner again, cocking a massive menacing fist. Again, he swung a wide slow looping arc. Again, the nimble owner ducked and dove at the giant’s knees and tugged. Again, the giant sat down abruptly. This time the owner turned and walked away. A few minutes later, two cops arrived and escorted the drunken giant to their car and took him away.

In my memory, that was the first real violence I ever witnessed. I stood there, gaping in awe and disbelief. No one, I figured, would believe my tale.

The Aylmer Sale Barn. There never was one like it, before or since. A place where small children sailed on great voyages of adventure into a strange and mysterious world. A place never forgotten by those who shared the grandeur of its glory years.

It still exists. Vendors still gather of a Tuesday afternoon to sell their wares. Old timers still hang out in the café and speak of bygone times to those who will listen. On the morning of my uncle Abner’s funeral in January, I drove by the Sale Barn with my sister Rachel. We didn’t stop or get out, just drove by and looked. I barely recognized the site of so much drama and wild adventure all those years ago. The place looked sad and desolate. A small cluster of tattered, forlorn buildings is all that remains.

Maybe that’s all there ever was. Maybe it always was a sad forlorn little hick country place. And not the great distant shining vista I remembered as a child. Maybe. To most people.

But not to me.

July 10, 2009

Just Chillin’…

Category: News — Ira @ 7:03 pm


Take it easy, take it easy.
Don’t let the sound of your own wheels
Drive you crazy.
Lighten up while you still can.
Don’t even try to understand.
Just find a place to make your stand.
And take it easy.

—The Eagles, lyrics; Take it Easy

It’s always the same. The anticipated event approaches. At long last, the day arrives. The festivities begin. Savored as they unfold. And then, all too soon, they’re over. I’ve just returned from six days on the road, my last excursion for the summer. I’m quite grumpy, and don’t want to be back. So on this expedited post, I’ll share a few general reflections and fill in some space with pictures.

We have a lot to learn, in fast paced PA. About chilling, relaxing, and just letting it all rest for a day or two. It wouldn’t hurt us, not to be rushing around like madmen through each minute of each day. Finishing this project post haste, so we can start the next one. And so on, ad infinitum.

It’s been awhile since I was exposed to southern culture. I lived it a few years, back in the early 1990s while attending Bob Jones in Greenville, SC. But since then, decades of running the northern/eastern rat race got to me. I’m a full fledged clock-watching, totally scheduled northern boy.

On Friday afternoon, I set off for West Virginia and the home of my friends, Dominic and Jamie. They were hosting their annual great July 4th party the next day. I arrived by mid-afternoon, and hung out with Dominic. We lazed around his pool, ran a few errands, got stuff together for the next day’s big bash.

They have a little suite in the basement. Bed, bath, everything one needs to stay a few days. Dominic grilled some fine steaks that night, and we retired to rest up for the big bash the next day.

Saturday dawned, beautiful, bright and clear. Perfect day for a celebration. We ambled about, prepping everything. Setting out food and plates and coolers full of every imaginable drink. People would arrive at 2. The party would last until the fireworks around eleven.

Jamie and Dominic before the party.

And promptly at two, the guests began to trickle in. Friends, coworkers, friends of friends. We feasted on BBQd pork, coleslaw, chips, and a vast array of other delicious dishes. Then sat around the pool, threw darts in the garage, and generally just laid back. I was more laid back than I have been for years. Utterly, and I mean totally relaxed. Even allowed myself to be coaxed into playing a few games of horse shoes. I had never played before. And it showed, against some of those WV hustlers. But I scored a point or two, salvaging a tiny shred of honor. My team lost both games.

Some friends who had attended last year’s party didn’t make it this time. I missed them.

Around ten, Dominic and a few of his buddies unveiled some long, hefty dangerous-looking tubes. Fireworks. Unlike any I’d ever seen in PA. The crowd hung back a safe distance as the boys fumbled with lighters. The flickering flame, a sharp hiss, increasing to a high scream, and off they soared, straight into the skies at least a few hundred feet, before exploding into fiery colorful shreds. I don’t know where Dominic and the boys got those fireworks, or what exactly was in them. But in PA, they would have been immediately arrested after lighting even one.

I retired around midnight, still utterly relaxed, and fell asleep in minutes.

The next day around mid morning, after a good southern breakfast of eggs and bacon, I took my leave. Thanked my hosts for the great experience, and departed for Kentucky. My rented Dodge Charger pulsed along through the Sunday traffic on the WV back roads. Eventually I reached the Interstate and headed south and west.

On Monday, I putzed around eastern Kentucky, ending up in Lexington for the night. Horse country. Lexington is surrounded by hundreds of tidy, fenced horse farms. Huge ornate barns, more elaborate than the owners’ houses. With the economy, the horse business is hurting as well, I gathered from reading the local newspapers and from a few conversations around the area.

On Tuesday, family members would gather at the Blue Lick Battlefield State Resort Park in the Mays Lick, KY area. The site of the last Revolutionary War battle. My nephew John got the idea for the reunion a few months ago. He reserved rooms, took care of all the logistics. Invited everyone to come. Not all of us would make it. Even my parents had left their home in Mays Lick to spend the summer in Aylmer. So they wouldn’t be there.

But we had another reason for gathering at this particular time.

In January of this year, after a battery of tests and scans, my oldest brother Joseph was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, a rare form of cancerous blood disease. Once you’ve got it, you’ve got it. It will never leave. You’ll deal with it the rest of your life. Most people who get it develop some sort of program and live relatively normal life spans. Some get wiped out in short order and die.

After his initial diagnosis, Joseph and his wife Iva headed to Mexico for treatment. One particular clinic specializes in cancer treatments, with an emphasis on natural solutions, and some chemo. The treatments seem effective. He’s surviving well, just tires easily. Has to watch himself, not overdo things. Because of his situation, his family decided to get together this summer in his honor.

Slowly we trickled in, those of us who came. And we came from all around. My niece Janice from Phoenix traveled the longest distance. Steve and Wilma Wagler from PA. Jesse and Lynda Wagler from Abbeville, SC. Lester and Rachel Yutzy from Hutchison, KS. Ray and Maggie Marner from Due West, SC. A vast assortment of nieces and nephews. And of course, most of Joseph and Iva’s children, from various Midwestern states.

We’re graying now, the siblings, and no longer young. Nieces and nephews who were always underfoot as squalling children now amble about, full grown adults, some of them married with their own families. It seems strange. Rightfully, time should be frozen somewhere, and we all should remain as we were ten, twenty years ago. But it just doesn’t work that way. Sometimes it seems like I’m dreaming, and need to pinch myself to wake up.

The park has a few cabins and a sprawling comfortable lodge. Most of us booked rooms at the lodge for the two day, two night stay. We greeted each other familiarly, as if we’d last seen each other yesterday. We settled in our rooms and gathered at the main pavilion, which John had also reserved for two days. Coolers full of drinks and baskets and boxes of food were soon strewn about. We sat around and visited as the women laid out the late afternoon meal.

Joseph looked and seemed normal. Just as I’d always remembered him. He is very upbeat about his condition. Determined to do all he can to live and enjoy life. And watch his grandchildren grow.

He grumbled a good bit about my perspectives in the Wicked Pony story. He claimed that I have a very vivid imagination. That I tend to embellish my stories. I laughed and cited artistic license.

At five o’clock, the meal was served. Hot dogs, salad and numerous side dishes. For dessert, homemade, hand-cranked ice cream.

After supper, as dusk settled late, we sat around a camp fire and just hung out. Caught up with the latest news and gossip. There was a minor uproar earlier when one of my uppity nephews slyly accused me of inventing a word in last week’s blog. Ostensively, he said, was not a word. He even drew support from a few other loafers who lounged about, gleefully stirring the flames of dissension. Of course, I was out-raged and defended myself rather stridently. The issue was resolved only after I googled the word on my Iphone and presented the proof to my accusers. So I successfully beat back that little attack. Make up words indeed. Can’t have my reputation besmirched like that.

And that was the start of two lazy, laid back relaxing days. We just chilled. Relaxed. No schedules whatsoever, except for the five o’clock evening meals. Otherwise, everyone was on their own.

Some hiked. Some swam in the pool. Or played mini golf. We staged mock duels with old style flintlock cap pistols purchased at the camp store. A referee carefully counted the step-off, then proclaimed the winner. We visited the graves of Revolutionary War soldiers who had died on that site. We toured the park museum.

I never met any moonshiners, although I chatted with several people who claimed to have contacts. I have no doubt they did.

We brewed strong pitch-black cowboy coffee late at night and sipped countless cups. Retold old stories. Roared at the old jokes. Both the stories and the jokes somehow always grow more vivid and more detailed with each retelling.

On the second night, sisters Dorothy and Janice sang the songs they used to sing as teenagers. Dorothy strummed her guitar and Janice sang harmony as they played the old songs. In the darkness and the flickering shadows of the campfire, they looked exactly as they did twenty years ago, and it took me back. Two little girls, my nieces, singing their hearts out.

We hung out late the last night, then straggled off to bed. And then, on Thursday morning, it was over. Everyone took off for their own homes, returned to their own busy lives.

It was an outstanding gathering, one of the most relaxing in my memory. Only one small problem. Two days wasn’t long enough. Next year we’ll make it three.

John, Dort, Rachel and others

Jesse and Lester

Jesse and Rachel

Me and my Dodge Charger

Breakfast of scrapple, bacon, eggs.

Janice and Ira

Dueling: Lester and Ira

Dueling: Glen and Ira

Firing: Glen and Ira

Happy Grandpa Jess presenting Ira a SC walking stick

John, Lester (standing), Maggie, Joseph, Rachel

Assortment of nephews and nieces

From rear: Nancy Ann, Joseph, Iva, Rachel, Ray J.

Glen brewing Cowboy coffee

Siblings: Rachel, Jesse, Steve, Ira, Maggie

The entire group (minus Joseph)
Less than half of the extended family attended.

Dorothy, Rhoda, Janice. Sisters singing