The Hard Way — Part 3

James Huffaker
13 min readJan 24, 2021

The world was a big place

Back to some early events, it was the late fall or early winter I turned six that summer. It had to be during one of the school breaks Thanksgiving or Christmas. My sister called me up shortly after this was first published. She was crying. She assures me the trip was Christmas. We were at relatives in Long Beach, California. The relatives, while possibly not rich, were rich compared to us. That whole event didn’t even come up on my radar, I guess there was nothing in the sock for me. My sister related how sad that Christmas was for us, she had been counting on a certain doll, I have no idea the value. The relatives had a daughter the same age. Christmas morning, they opened gifts. The cousin received a large classic American Girl doll. Mom gave my sister a package containing a small 5 and 10 cent store doll. She was heartbroken for years. Like I said, nothing in the stocking for me.

Not solid on all the details, but we had opportunity to go to Disneyland and not knowing what that was, it sounded more exciting than what had been going on. It seems that the relatives must have funded the trip, perhaps to get us out of their house for a time. I am certain it was like the hillbillies coming to the city for them.

I remember lots of walking at Disneyland. There was the home of the future, which looked like a flying saucer. I was big enough to go on a little river ride through miniature settings. My sister related that trip on the little boats inspired her to garden all the rest of her life. She is quite the gardener today. It all seemed so real and big to me at the time. Nearly everything that my brother could ride, I was too small to get past the gate. No one else remembers this but I remember baseball diamond squares where kids were flying airplanes on cables. That had my interest for some time. I became separated from whoever was responsible for me and found myself taken to someplace called Missing Children. They gave me water and there were books and toys. That was the best part of Disneyland. Eventually mom came for me. That was pretty happy. Going home sounded like a good idea.

While we were in Long Beach, I learned about boards on skate wheels. All the boys would go up to a long hill, lay down on the boards and sail down to the bottom. This was much safer than being strapped to the go-cart without a brake. Oh, did I mention the boards didn’t have brakes either? We dragged the tips of our sneakers on the pavement to slow down. Some of the boys could steer theirs to end up on well manicured lawns. Not very good at that, I just slowed down and rolled off the board. For the rest of my life I never managed to skateboard. They became faster and more technical, but my only way to ever stop was to fall off.

We must have gone back to Disneyland one more time that trip. Because we ate spaghetti or something in a nice restaurant with table cloths. It seemed fancy to me. Things had been really good on the trip, no VFW on the corner and not much alcohol consumed. This restaurant apparently broke that rule because somehow dad was able to get loud drunk. It was too good to last. Mom was also probably over her limit, but it was always harder to tell with her unless she got mad. I don’t remember how we made it back to the relatives home that night. My brother and sister both have what they call blank spots in some of these places. Parts that no one wanted to remember.

Back in Colorado, springtime and windy, inexplicably the three of us were split up. I went to live with my dad’s mother in an extremely small town of Mannasa, Colorado. My brother said he went to California to live with my dad’s half-brother and their kids. The oldest sister went to live with mom’s sister where-ever they were. We stayed like that for some time. Never knew why or if we were going to be together again. Then we were all shipped back together. Not one of us knows why or really how long it was. There were many things going on that were over the understanding of the kids. Our family was a failure at communication with the children.

Lots of things were different. Dad was working day and night it seemed. We opened an office supply, copy shop right next to the Theater in town. It must have been some time between not having the house in town and buying the house in the country. Going up the ladder to the attic crawlspace, dad had placed cardboard and blankets and that was where we slept. I remember the bright bulbs from the theater lighting up our small space through the vent. The change in dad was obsessive, he was really focused for a time. I don’t have many memories of mom being involved in things. After a while mom was missing. I didn’t understand those things yet. Dad went to the hospital and brought mom and a baby girl home or at least to the shop. There is still a bright picture in my head, clear as the sky, of this little thing in pink and white laying on one of the counters in the store. Too young to grasp the idea of having another sister. Just trying to get by in a world that was changing fast around me.

The office supply store was a good idea in the wrong place and time. Our town was very small. The local newspaper office carried all the supplies that anyone needed, if not the 5 and 10 store had it. He moved the business to what must have been a less expensive location away from town center. Quite literally about that time, we bought the farm. A large frame and adobe farmhouse on 23 acres of pasture and alfalfa. There were barns and stocks, water ran through the pasture and there was a small hill (mountain to a 7 year old) of clean adobe dirt. Dirt is the wrong word. Adobe clay is a very fine dust nearly cement. Much harder to get off than dirt.

The hard times were just starting. Dad was working all the time at various things. Somewhere he had managed some training in book-keeping and found clients. We bought chickens .. no there is a name for just hatched little chickens, pullets. They are nasty chirping monsters that have to be kept warm or they die. We could not afford for them to die. They lived in the kitchen of the farmhouse. Some sort of a propane fired incubator kept them and us warm. I am certain we should not have had that in the house. Almost 300 of these nasty messy birds and it was dead winter. Winter there lasted from anytime after September to the middle of May. The birds got water, food, warmth. Oh hey, with the incubator running the house was almost warm enough that the water in the pipes didn’t always freeze. Just a little interesting tidbit from my sister, it seems that same time we were were raising a small pig and it .. yes, it had to live in the enclosed back porch to stay warm. Starting to sound like a movie, but I promise it was all too real.

The only other heat in the house was an old square oil heat stove. If you have never seen one of these you are fortunate. The oil supply drum must be higher than the stove so the fuel will flow. There is a lever that controls how much fuel can come into the flat bottomed burner surface. Also a little door where you throw in a lit match to ignite the oil. That whole thing probably didn’t belong in a house either. Temperatures were well into the -20 degrees many nights in a row. If you were almost in contact with the stove, it felt warm. Two feet away and you felt nothing. The good news was during the day it would often get up to 30 degrees. A funny thing about the warm spots in the house, we were apparently on top of a garter snake habitat. In the winter especially and most of the year you could walk in and if not careful, step on a snake.

It was about that time that I became paranoid. I didn’t know I was paranoid but we had large outside spiders just outside the windows. We had snakes in the house. Something happened that I do not remember, but I began having livid dreams of giant spiders. So bad I even hallucinated the things going up the wall after I was awake. Another really strange behavior that seemed to be related, I could not fill a glass with water and drink it. I could only put one or two seconds of water in it, then drink that and repeat. All the people trying to kill me were watching for me to take a glass of water and they were going to poison it. That lasted for years. This is the first time I have ever written that down. I am surprised that no one ever noticed.

One might think that us kids had the latest in warm weather clothing. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I used old socks for gloves. None of us ever had a real winter jacket. We would wear several undershirts when we could because at that time life became harder. Dad traded for, acquired, or agreed to take care of some pigs. He didn’t agree to feed the pigs. That was the job of my brother and I. Five o’clock in the morning, every morning of the world a 12 year old and 7 year old made a fire under a large iron caldron which we had to fill with water, grain, vegetables and other pig food. Once it all became hot, at -10º F, we had to scoop it into pails and carry it to the pig pens and pour it carefully into the troughs. Pigs are pretty hardy animals, but they can’t eat ice. Trip after trip until we got all the food to the pigs. Then we went inside and sometimes had cold cereal, maybe hot cereal, more than once nothing. Then we got to walk to the end of the lane, only about a quarter of a mile, in the cold to wait for the school bus.

It wasn’t all just hard. Parts of it were educational. Dad bought me a small Kelsey Printing Press. I didn’t remember asking for one. But I learned to set type, print envelopes, business cards and statements. Whenever I was not in school or tending chickens or pigs, I was printing. He even bought me a larger hand powered printing press without me asking at all. Then I could print much larger business forms and still the old envelopes, etc. He somewhere realized this was working out, and he bought my brother an electric duplicator, something called a mimeograph, that didn’t do what was expected and we traded for a Multilith Offset Press, ran mostly on electricity. Loud, lots of moving parts, just what you want a kid running. Rotary Printing Company was born. That somehow didn’t take any workload off me. The hand press kept clanking along.

When people ask me, I tell them that I have been working since I was seven years old. That is the absolute truth, every morning there were the pigs, the chickens, in the summer the garden, school and everything else. You would have thought we had plenty to eat. We were not doing so good in that area. Dad was drinking again, mom was busy with the baby. Everyone else didn’t get much attention. I was as bad as the chickens, I would go in the garden and eat whatever was close to being food. I had friends that had as little as we did. Together we tried all the local growing herbs and grasses. . Mom sent me down this long irrigation channel we called “the ditch” with a bucket. My job was to locate and pick asparagus. Also a delicious weed that was locally called pig weed, because the pigs liked it. We liked it fine also. Here is a funny thing about the food I was bringing home off the ditch banks, pastures and isolated areas of the countryside. When I was in my 30s living in Los Angeles, the better restaurants served fancy salads with much of the same weeds as I used to pick.

Often we got too much attention, each of us developed different eating disorders as a result. Mostly we would have beans or potatoes. I remember dad bringing home day old bread. If we had enough we had beans with potatoes, usually fried. My brother only puts one thing on his plate at a time then something else if there is something else. I would take food and was hungry. I wanted to get it in me and that was the problem. Dad picked at everything I did. Too big of bites, chew too fast, on and on. Soon it would be a fight with mom and him and supper was over. That happened a lot. One meal mom had made biscuits, she proudly put them on the table to go with our beans. Dad picked up one of the biscuits and dropped it right on the floor. She asked why he did that and he responded “to see if it would bounce” and the fight was on. Didn’t get fed that night either. But it was so funny I have it permanently recorded.

My parents seemed to know many people, I think we received potatoes from my cousins family. They visited us when they could. One of the best games we had was chasing chickens. Beans came to us from another friend or someone for whom he was doing book-keeping. Alcohol came from everywhere. One time mom sent me with him to collect money owed us by a large scale farmer. Once out there, I was told to stay in the car he would be right back. It wasn’t even a surprise that we were there between four and six hours. I was so hungry I explored the open cellar near the building where we parked. Looking intently in dim light I found two potatoes that were not completely rotten and I had a pocket knife. I cut them up and ate them like they were good. Eventually dad staggered to the car and drove us about 14 miles home, by some luck, safely.

Another time, while I am on that topic, mom sent dad and I to the grocery store. She sent me because the grocery store was only a half of a block from … the VFW. Dad gave me the list and told me to pick up the groceries and he would be back in a few minutes. I filled the cart with everything on the list. He didn’t show up. After waiting by the groceries until almost closing time for him, the store the manager called mom. Mom had a friend bring her and the spare keys down to the store, she left dad in the bar and picked me up and we went home. If I knew, that certainly caused a fight.

Life wasn’t all driven by alcohol, my brother found refuge in golf. He was good and received many trophies. That made dad and mom both proud of him. One night were to go to the golf club for an awards dinner. We all cleaned up and left. There was no telling how much dad drank before we left, you know just to clear up any social anxiety. Once at the dinner they had what we call an open bar set up outside. No supervision, just bottles of alcohol and mixer. Dad was so drunk before the awards that he was repeatedly face planting on the lawn. Mom, my brother and someone I didn’t know managed to drag him to the car and we took him home. It’s pretty hard to get up in front of people after a scene like that.

That was about when I learned not to bite the hand that fed me. I was lying on the floor in front of the television watching ‘Laugh-In’ when he came in the door. Never sure if he said something I didn’t hear or what happened, but I was kicked and kicked and kicked until I was trying to get under the sofa at the other side of the room. That hurt for a long time. My little sister remembers it as clearly as myself. It changed her. She became the perfect little girl, went to church, played the piano, received excellent grades. Once again, me — not so much. It wasn’t the first or last violence we would see. I did learn to be more covert about anything I did to avoid that type of attack.

Money was tight, non-existent. We had our phone turned off, I don’t clearly remember but it seems we had electricity cut off more than once. Without the phone, dad’s accounting business was in trouble. I remember talk about the owners of the house foreclosing. I didn’t know that word yet but could tell it was serious. The farmhouse had been vacant for some time, almost abandoned, when dad found a way to buy it and move us there. Life was on a short string it seemed looking back. If we could get evicted from an abandoned house we were not doing well. Some friends of moms turned out to be our closest friends, gave us some venison from hunting. That added meat to the table for a while. When things got real bad a little later on, as you will hear, we had half a horse in the freezer. We had got used to having some meat.

Dad went into a partnership with someone to clean, bag and ship potatoes, by the rail car load. He had managed to get a purchase order from the government for the Army. My brother and I both remember working down at the potato warehouse; Shoveling these small potatoes that today get premium prices. Back then they all went to the Starch Plant. That was all interesting and different. We had money for a minute. My cousin remembers coming out to the house and seeing one of the first actual color televisions. Dad bought it to watch the football game and some parade. She thought we were rich. Then it suddenly ended. Apparently dad’s partner delivered the potatoes, took the money and disappeared. I distinctly remember driving around parts of town looking for the address we had for this person. It seemed to be an empty lot. Dad had been scammed and we were down to nothing again.

This next part you are going to say isn’t true. It is true, my brother, sisters and I lived the experiment. This might have been the biggest thing in our lives to convince us we could succeed if we tried.

Come back and read how someone with nothing became an important someone with nothing.

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James Huffaker

aka Ben Moreland, retired. Interested in science, technology and future of earthlings. Sometimes I see things a bit different.