Grandpa's Harmonica

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Chapter 2

Jamie and his grandpa were on the porch again when Jamie’s dad walked up from the barn. “That Aaron?”

Jamie’s grandpa said, “Yep, and Homer too. They picked up them things for us in town and the boys toted ’em ‘round back. We’re just fixin’ to take the swing down.”

Jamie’s dad lifted his hat and scratched his head. “Jamie has chores to do. Can’t you do it by yourself?”

Sitting down on the swing, Jamie’s grandpa set it in motion. “Well now, I believe I could.”

Jamie slid on next to his grandpa and rode along.

Jamie’s grandpa swung them back and forth as if they had all the time in the world. “But there’s a lot more to it than just unhookin’ the chains from the ceiling and cartin’ it off.” He patted the seat of the swing and said, “I been takin’ this swing down right about now for more than fifty years. It’s how I celebrate the end of summer and the start of the harvest. I can’t have a celebration all by myself and that’s why I need the boy here. We’ll be done in no time.”

Jamie’s dad opened his mouth to argue, but decided against it. He adjusted his hat, pushed his hands into his pockets and stalked off toward the barn.

Patting Jamie’s knee with a hard, work-worn hand, Jamie’s grandpa chuckled and said, “Your pa’s one of the best farmers in these parts, boy. And don’t you forget it.”

“No, sir, I won’t. But why’s he been so cross lately?”

“Times are hard and makin’ a livin’ by farmin’ ain’t easy. Awhile back, that stock market in New York City crashed and now everybody’s poor. Newspaper’s been callin’ it the Great Depression.”

Jamie scratched his head. “I don’t get it. How can something that happened back east hurt everybody clear out here in Iowa? We’re almost in South Dakota.”

“Well now, I don’t rightly know. But it sure did.”

“Grandpa, are we poor?”

“That we are, boy. And compared to city folks, I guess we always been poor.”

“But we get along okay. Why are people back there having such a hard time?”

“Bein’ poor in the city’s a whole lot different than bein’ poor in the country. We grow our own food, hunt, make things and trade and barter for what we need. City folks can’t do that. They gotta have cash money for everything. Fact is, some of ‘em are movin’ out here to live with kin just so they can eat.”

“Do you think that’s why that new kid, Sam, is coming to live with Mrs. Lily?”

“Could be. This Depression’s splittin’ up families and that ain’t right, but folks do what they gotta in order to get by. Now let’s get this shindig goin’ so we can get back to work.”

Jamie’s grandpa pulled his harmonica out of a pocket and shook it out of the flannel sack he carried it in. He rapped it on the heel of his hand and then played a song he called O Lang Sign. Jamie didn’t know the words, or even what the name meant, but he liked it. His grandpa said people played it when one thing ended and something new started. Jamie thought it sounded right for the end of summer.

At planting time in the spring when they’d put the swing up, he’d play Happy Days are Here Again. Jamie liked that song better because he knew the words and could sing along.

Jamie’s grandpa played the song twice while swinging in time to the music. When he finished, they got up and Jamie lifted one end of the swing while his grandpa reached up and unhooked the chain. They did the same at the other end and with his grandpa’s help, Jamie turned the wicker swing upside down and rested it on the top of his head so he could carry it by himself. Jamie’s grandpa played O Lang Sign again as they marched to the barn where they stored it in the hayloft.

Walking back to the house, Jamie’s grandpa put his harmonica away and then searched the pockets of his bib overalls. Jamie said, “Grandma isn’t going to like that.”

“Humph! Just what I’m needin’ at my age, a twelve-year-old conscience. If you don’t tell her, she ain’t gonna know.”

“Oh, yes she will. And I won’t have to tell her, neither. She always knows.”


Pulling out a packet of cigarette papers and a bright red tin of pipe tobacco, Jamie’s grandpa made a cigarette. It took him five seconds flat. With his right hand, he creased a paper and shook tobacco out with his left. He gave the paper a quick lick and rolled it up while he flipped the lid closed on the tin and put it back in his pocket in one motion. When his hand reappeared, a wooden match was in his fingers that he snapped alight with his thumbnail as it rose to the cigarette he’d put between his lips. As many times as Jamie had seen his grandpa do it, he still admired his speed.

Taking a long pull on his cigarette, he blew out a plume of sweet-smelling smoke. “Ahhhh. That’s better. I been smokin’ these goin’ on to sixty-five years and I can’t see what the fuss is about.”

Jamie stuffed his hands into his hip pockets. “Grandma says the doctor told you to quit.”

“Humph! What’s he know? He smokes ‘em too. Ready-mades. Anyway, I cut down to two, maybe three a day and by my reckonin’, that oughta be good enough.”

Jamie frowned and cleared his throat.

“Well, all right then, Mr. Conscience.” He flicked the ash off his cigarette. “Sometimes I have a few more than that, but your grandma don’t need to keep watchin’ and countin’. I’ll do as I durn-well please.”

In spite of his bold statements, they walked slowly so he could smoke his cigarette to the end before they got close enough to the house where Jamie’s grandma might see him.

Flicking the dead ash away, he said, “Well, that takes care of our celebration.”

“Yes, sir. What do we do next?”

“Your dad wants us to get the harness ready. He’ll be needing it soon.”

“Okay. I like that job.”

For the rest of the afternoon, Jamie helped his grandpa scrub and oil the leather collars and straps they used on their workhorse team that pulled the machinery to mow and bind their wheat. They’d just finished when Jamie’s mom banged on the triangle hanging on the back porch to call everyone in for supper. Jamie whooped and ran to the outside pump to clean up.

In Jamie’s opinion, his mom and grandma cooked a supper that he’d happily work hard all day to get. He was glad they did because this summer for some reason, he couldn’t seem to get enough to eat. He’d stuff himself at mealtimes, but a couple of hours later, his stomach was empty and growling.

At supper, he concentrated on eating and didn’t pay attention to what anybody said unless someone asked him a question. He considered a third helping of stew, but Grandma had made apple pie that afternoon and if he left some room, maybe he could squeeze in two pieces.

When he had a slice, Jamie’s mom said, “Jamie, I heard you’re going to have a new boy at school.”

Between bites, Jamie said, “Yes’m. He’s from back east and he’ll be living with Mrs. Lily. His name’s Sam and he’s in my grade. That’s all I know.”

“I guess you’ll find out more at school tomorrow. By the way, I put water out on the porch so you can take a bath.”

Jamie choked on a bite of apple pie and his grandpa thumped him between the shoulder blades.

“But... but… I took a bath Saturday night. That’s only two days ago.”

“I know, but you’re still going to take one tonight.”

“Look at me. I’m still clean. It’s Monday. Nobody takes a bath Monday night.”

“You will. I want you to be neat when you go to school tomorrow. Get your water as soon as you’re done eating.” Jamie opened his mouth to make his case, but she jabbed her fork at him. “And if I hear any more about it, I’ll come out there and do the scrubbing myself.”

To save his pride and his hide, Jamie gave in. “Yes’m.”

His grandpa gave him sympathetic looks as he finished his pie, which didn’t help Jamie’s mood at all. Then when he went outside to get his water, he grumbled the whole way.

On summer mornings, Jamie’s mom set metal buckets full of water out in the sun. By suppertime, he had gallons of warm water for his bath. He didn’t have as much in the winter because the water had to be heated on the cook stove.

He had more privacy in summer too because he took his bath in the machine shed instead of the kitchen. Usually, he didn’t mind a bath, but two in one week? That wasn’t fair. Now he knew what Homer meant when he complained about being too clean.

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