One thing about Dave Allen’s stories of growing up – they make you appreciate your own children. And they make you realize how thankful you are that the stork left Dave with Fred and Ruth Allen. No offense to our great friend Dave Allen, but we do have a lot of sympathy for his mother, dear Ruth, as she faced each day with her own personal, “Dennis the Menace.”
Great Uncle Bob was 98 and lived with his two younger sisters; Great Aunt Teresa, 97 and Great Aunt Cordelia, 95. Their house was a large, three-story Victorian mansion with gingerbread embellishments. In back of the house, on the north side was a unique, enclosed three–story Dutch windmill complete with interior gears and mill stone. On the front of the building was a revolving apparatus with four panels attached, which when in motion, would almost touch the ground with each sweep. Entry to the interior had to be timed precisely to avoid those windmill blades as they swept by. Moving too slowly, you’d find yourself knocked sideways and rolling on the ground. I soon learned that with proper planning and swift execution, there was great fun to be had on these swirling vanes.
The plan was to stand forward but very close to the area of the vanes. Then as a vane reached parallel to the earth, on its way down, you would step forward as it came down toward the ground, grab hold and hang on for dear life as it began its assent. When your vane reached the summit, you were 72 feet in the air. Exciting? Your bet! But not nearly exciting as the descent because now you were upside down, digging in your heels and clutching your fingers against the rough boards for all they were worth. It didn’t take more than the initial revolution for you to realize that you needed to rotate to the trailing edge of the vane as it moved in rotation.
Up and over and down I went, letting out a “Ya Hoo!” as the vane made its way upward and a long “Whee!” as it made its descent accompanied by the “Whoosh” of the vane and the groaning, squeaking, and clacking of the gears. It was like having your own private Ferris wheel.
Now, I don’t know if it was my vocal exuberance, my tattle-tale little brother or my Mother’s “sixth sense” that gave me away, but soon, my whole family was assembled below me. They were each, in not too polite terms, requesting that I cease and desist. The main problem was that the wind had picked up and I was afraid to let go and get off my little Ferris wheel.
Each time I ascended, my mother’s mouth would gape wider and wider. Each time I would descend, she would hide her eyes with her hands and yell to Poppa, “Do something, Fred, I can’t look. Get him off there before he kills himself.”
Poppa gravely stepped in front of the vane ahead of me, to try and stop my rotation and was promptly knocked flat by its force, while I whizzed past Momma’s outstretched arms. When Poppa regained his senses, his next form of attack was to try and peel me off the vane when it came close. He caught my legs, prying them loose as he ran along side, only to stumble, lose his grasp and fail. Now, I was in a pickle, dangling sideways off the vane, trying to get my legs back onboard. I managed to swing one leg up and over the top of the vane, when I was halfway up, but I forgot to rotate to the trailing edge and now I was in the process of descending while in the upside-down position. Everything was topsy-turvy and I had progressed from excited enjoyment to dizzy nausea punctuated by my screams of “Get me off, get me off!”
It was great Uncle Bob who saved the day by going between the whirling vanes into the heart of the beast and applying the mechanical braking mechanism, slowing the vanes and eventually bringing them to a halt. Unfortunately, when the vanes halted, I was at the top, 72 feet in the air. “Now you’ve done it,” exclaimed Momma. “Fred climb up there and get him down.”
Great Uncle Bob had a better idea. He explained that he would gradually let off the brake and slowly lower me to the ground. Uncle Bob said, “Fred, as he slowly nears the bottom, you shout and I will stop the windmill.”
As my vane started its jerky, clicking descent, my hands grasped it tight, probably tighter than Momma’s grasp on Poppa’s arm or Great Uncle Bob’s grasp on the long oak brake arm. When I neared the bottom, Poppa yelled, “STOP!” and great Uncle Bob pulled the brake in tight. Poppa pushed against the vane and it came to a groaning halt.
It was Momma who pulled me off, prying my fingers loose from my protective grip. When my feet hit the ground, my legs were too wobbly to support me, and I fell on my back. Everything was a whir. As I looked up, I was surrounded by a circle of faces, all rotating around and around. “You’ll be the death of me, yet” said Momma. “I hope this teaches you a lesson.”
“Never taught you, Fred,” said Great Uncle Bob as he joined the circle. ‘You and your brothers were all the time ridin’ when you uns were young whipper snappers. Got to where I had to chain the brake every time Ed brought you over to visit.”
So … was Uncle Bob saying my shenanigans were inherited? Was Poppa to blame? Momma just smiled and shook her head.
After the windmill episode, Great Uncle Bob located a padlock for the windmill (as if that could keep a young man out!) Great Uncle Bob was 98 years of age, and he was somewhat winded by the exertion of rescuing me from the windmill. It was with no little labor that he mounted the steps… very slowly as he made his way to his favorite rocker.
Once he reached the rocker, he carefully lowered himself into position, but halfway down, his arms gave out, and he completed his seating with a plop and a groan. Now situated, he pulled a red bandana from his overalls and mopped his brow. It was a couple of minutes that he just sat there … motionless except for the heaving of his shoulders as he regained his breath. A mason jar full of 97-year-old Great Aunt Terse’s iced tea aided his recovery to the point where he felt comfortable enough to lite up his corncob pipe. As he smoked his Prince Albert, each puff was synchronized with each creaking rock of his rocking chair.
Those creaks from the rocker were a signal for all of Great Uncle Bob’s tamed squirrels. They would scamper down from the tall oak trees, scurry up the veranda steps and bound onto his lap, climb onto his shoulders or set on his head. Each squirrel as it arrived would make the same circuit, eagerly chattering for a treat. As many as 12 to 15 squirrels would be climbing all around on Great Uncle Bob’s torso in frantic anticipation, vying to be the first to be rewarded. As the last squirrel joined in the chaos, Bob would pry the lid off of his tin container that he kept by his chair for this daily ritual. The tin was well stocked with field corn and chick peas. The squirrels would go into a feeding frenzy. Some would were patient enough to eat from his hand. Those who could not contain their excitement boldly dove in head first causing quite a few squabbles that added to the already fevered commotion.
Only when the tin was completely empty did they descend from his body to fight over errant scraps that had fallen to the floor. Once every last morsel had been consumed, they would continue to search for more, sitting upright and begging until Bob would tamp on the empty tin and say “all gone!” Sometimes, a disbelieving few would linger, but for the most part, it was all over in short order. They would return to their trees with full tummies and settle in for an afternoon squirrel siesta.
Jeanne’s new book, “The Zinc City, Webb City, Missouri” is now available at Webb City Chamber office and other local retailers, such at Maggie Jane’s Gifts, at 8 S. Main St.