Every family has its customs, from eating dinner at the Outback Steakhouse on Sunday nights to the family vacation trip during the summer. There are special rituals that stand out in my memory: the coming of age ceremonies that transformed my cousins and me from boys into men.
My grandmother’s farm was the focus of the family while I was growing up. We’d visit almost every weekend, often staying the night during the summer. Their property and surroundings were in Midland, Texas, near the outskirts of the city. Oil pumps and mesquite bushes dotted the dry, dusty landscape. Randy and Ronnie, my two closest cousins, lived nearby. It was our Adventure Land and could easily rival staid, packaged and sanitized parks like Disneyland.
There we would find snakes, mice, jackrabbits, and our favorite: horned lizards. We called them horny-toads, and they were all over the place in West Texas. I’d put one in my pocket and it would kind of flatten out. They aren’t fast like other lizards, so I could easily catch them. Grabbing one of these was brave when you were only five years old. I’d carry them around for a few hours and let them go.
Grandmother’s house had this rock and weed garden in the front where the horny toads could be found. They also owned wide swaths of land around their house. I remember cows, a few horses, some chickens, a mean old bull and lots of alfalfa. That’s what they mostly farmed: alfalfa. My cousins and I came to know those fields very well. We would be assigned the task of moving the irrigation pipes during the hot summer months. They just lay on the ground, so we’d have to move them from one part of the field to another. That was a real chore. I’d remove the connection collar, then slide the big pipe out. The pipes were twenty feet long and had a nine-inch diameter. They weren’t too terribly heavy – at least I didn’t dare show they were heavy in front of anyone. One of us would pick up an end to dump out the water, and possibly dump out any rabbits that may have wandered into the nice, cool, water-filled pipe. We’d carry the pipes about fifty yards to a new spot and hook them back up, then walk back to the next set of pipes and do it again. Over and over. Hour after hour. All three of us were about eleven years old at the time, and it sure seemed like a lot of work for a couple of silver dollars. We were happy to do it: you knew you were “growing up” when grandpa invited you into his truck for a day in the fields.
Once all that alfalfa turned into hay bales in the fields, I worked hauling it onto a flat bed. Attached to the trailer was a hay elevator. It picked up square bales of hay and carried them way up in the air where they dropped out of the top. Sometimes they became stuck in the top. I’d pull them out with big hooks that resembled the ones used by that homicidal rain slicker slasher guy in I Know What You Did Last Summer. I’d stack them neatly on the trailer, hour after hour, layer after layer, until I was perched on top of five layers of hay bales on a rickety, swaying flatbed and hoping not to fall into the hay elevator the next time the wheels hit a bump.
Near the fields were some rent houses that my grandparents owned. At the end of the block was an old fireworks stand that we would operate around the fourth of July. It wasn’t a big stand: not much demand for fireworks out there in the sticks. What was really cool was to light a bottle rocket and hold it until just before it went off, then toss it high into the air. If I timed it right, the rocket would gain extra altitude from the boost. If I didn’t, the rocket would be pointed randomly at the dry grass, someone’s car, the house, or the person who threw it into the air. Then there was a mad scramble to avoid the widely careening firework before it exploded. I don’t think we burned too many things down.
Grandmother’s house needed burning down anyway. It was built in the 50′s, but it wasn’t vacuumed until the 90′s, if then. The pipes were almost totally corroded away from the super-hard water. I think they pumped it straight out of limestone or something. We didn’t dare drink the stuff. Using it to brush your teeth was torture enough. I’m not sure if I got cleaner or dirtier taking a shower, but I certainly gained a nice, shiny coating.
The backyard wasn’t any cleaner. There were random holes, snakes, flies and bits of unrecognizable metal lying around: farm implements that had seen better days. The fence was made of concrete blocks but it had no top. That made for empty holes where the blocks were with unknowable creatures living inside. Only the bravest of us would dare to walk on or near that fence. There was a rickety old wooden gate at the back. It led into the barnyard and the fields beyond. Sometimes the bull would get into the yard. I think. Maybe that’s just vivid nightmares of the bull getting into the yard or something, but I know there were bees around the side, near the extra front porch. If you had to mow over there, well, just make sure you were a fast runner.
On the opposite side from the bees and way in the back, there was a big hay barn. When we were old enough to go exploring on our own, probably about twelve, we could walk through the field with the bull to go play in the barn. I’d stay close to the fence, but there was a problem with that strategy. The entrance to the barn faced the road, and we came up on the backside of the barn. Therefore, I had to either risk the run in the field with the bull or else climb over the fence. The climb wasn’t a big deal; it’s where I was climbing to that was the problem.
Bees. Lots of bees. Hives of bees. They were kept at the end of that field behind the barn. I guess they helped pollinate the fields of alfalfa. Maybe that hive on the side of the house was founded by Columbus Bee. All I knew back then was that: 1) Bees made honey, and 2) Bees stung little boys. However, they were near the hay barn, and although it was a good walk from the house, it was fun to play in the stacks and stacks of hay. It was also the shortest path to the gravel pit.
After working in the fields all day, we’d go down to The Pit and play around. It was big, probably a football field in length and forty feet deep. It had a mucky, yucky, water-filled end where we would swim, usually with cousins and sisters from five to fifteen. We had to wear these ratty old shoes because the bottom of the “pond” had the sort of trash you’d expect in a gravel pit: old tires, rusting re-bars and other pointy, infectious objects. There was a sort of platform (too generous to actually call it a “dock”) on one side. It was just barely possible to jump off and sort of dive into the water, but we first had to walk around out there to make sure we wouldn’t impale ourselves on something. Usually we had to aim to the side to avoid hitting an underwater obstacle, and it seems like only we twelve-year-old boys made that leap of faith. The water was only about four feet deep, and we couldn’t see the bottom.
All of these adventures helped shape the boys in our family, but there was one final exam before you could say that you ran the gamut and survived.
Grandmother’s house was near, way too near, a sewage treatment plant. When the wind was just right, which was all too often, the smell would waft over the house and fields. We boys were drawn to that place like flies to carrion. We just had to go see what a sewage treatment plant was like. It was at the outer edge of walking distance, just past one of the fields and across a highway. I don’t know why the plant drew us, but draw it did. We would talk about it almost every weekend.
“Let’s go to the plant!”
“Nahh, I saw a truck and a bunch of people when we came up. They’re doin’ somethin’ over there.”
“Let’s go see what they’re doin’!”
And so the dialog went, always discussing but rarely taking the chance until the need to visit overcame the obstacles of distance, highway and danger. First we’d plan the attack.
“Right after lunch,” I’d whisper to Ronnie, “We’re goin’ to the plant.”
“What are we gonna tell Mom?”
“Nuthin’, let’s just go to the other block and play around. We’ll head off down the road when the coast is clear.”
“I’ll tell Randy.”
It was rare that we’d attempt the trip when the wind was blowing the stench across the farm. It couldn’t really be that much worse close up, right? We’d work our way toward the plant, down the road and across the highway. It was at least a twenty minute walk. We ignored the “Keep Out!” signs and clambered over the low fence to stare at the pools of ooze before running out of stench range.
This was the pinnacle of our coming of age rituals: visiting the sewage plant and getting the blast full on. It was our final family test of manhood.