Prairie family memories for Christmas

Americans typically are very thoughtful this time of year. We have retrospective thoughts about the past year and we ponder the future as to what the coming months will bring. We wish each other blessings at the celebration of the Christ Child, and glad tidings for the New Year. Our wishes include good health, happiness and prosperity. With prominent people from Illinois taking up a lot of the air time these days, my thoughts revert back in time to the folks in the Land of Lincoln that shaped my life and gave me the tools necessary to be a productive, law-abiding citizen. This year, prosperity and the lack thereof, are foremost in our minds. Yet, when I remember my parents and grandparents that weathered the Great Depression, I know our current economic climate is still a better place to be than where they were a few days before Christmas during the early 1930's. By example, they taught me what courage, sacrifice, and hard work are really about. There was a humbleness to those generations. There was no giving up; there was no thought of throwing in the towel and sitting on a street corner with tin cup in hand. They knew by instinct that within themselves they had the tools necessary to survive and make a better future for their families. Hard times had befallen them, but better days were within their power. It was their responsibility to make it happen. When stock markets crashed and torrid heat and relentless wind sucked the life and productivity from farm land, basically everything besides their faith and trust in God, the roof over their heads and their determination were taken from them. From scratch, they started over again. There was no time to complain or bemoan their fate. There was work to be done. Maybe there was a temporary WPA job to help keep the family fed, and some fortunate souls had a family member with a little more excess than average and that person shared a little to help sustain life.

It is important to remember that few families did not come back out of those hard times. It took varying amounts of time, but my ancestors--hard-working, frugal Germans--got busy and made good things happen in their lives. Some gave up along the way and some fell prey to illness and lack of food and medical care. Many infants and young children did not survive the Great Depression, but the will of most people could not be destroyed. Today, no matter how poor any of us are, we still have the blessing of being able to walk into any hospital in this country and receive emergency medical care, regardless of ability to pay.

My parents, born in 1927 and 1928, grew up in large families. They slept, 4 and 5 to a bed in unheated upstairs bedrooms of old farmhouses. Wood and coal stoves worked 24/7 to try and heat non-insulated wood frame structures. My grandmothers used every scrap of cloth they could find, including feed and grain sacks, to sew quilts and clothing for their many children. Not a scrap of food was wasted and had both of my grandfathers not known how to hunt, their families would have surely starved. Back then, gun control and gun rights were unheard of social issues. A loaded gun hanging on wooden pegs on the back porch meant the difference between having some form of protein to put into your children's stomachs and watching them try to survive on boiled potatoes. At age 5, my father was given the responsibility of keeping wood cut and chopped to fit the kitchen stove. He apparently was so accomplished at it that he was given the same job at the one-room country school were he received his entire formal education---8 years.

As did other young farm boys of his generation, he knew that his life's work was already determined. After volunteering to serve his country during WWII, he returned to the black loamy soil where he would live his entire life to embark on his career. He would be a servant and steward of God's fertile Illinois farmland until his death. He accepted his pre-ordained calling with pride and enthusiasm. He never failed at his work. He endured drought, flood, crop failures caused by insects and blight, and yet, many years he watched in renewed awe as bumper crops of golden grain flowed from the combine auger. During profitable years, break-even years, and years of loss, he always kept his eyes focused on the Heavens above, from which he knew all his blessings flowed and from whence his help came. His work was never done and the tremendous productivity of just his pair of hands always amazed me. He fed untold numbers of people throughout his career which ended at age 65. Thousands of head of cattle and hogs were raised and sent to market as a result of his efforts. He worked tirelessly, starting every morning at 4:00 a.m. Baby pigs came during the coldest months, Dec-Feb. He and my mother sat up many a night in a bitter cold farrowing house assisting little pigs into the world and getting them quickly under the heat lamp. When calves came in the Spring, he endured biting winds and sleet, walking the pastures to check to see if any of his herd needed shelter, a shot of penicillin or other attention. His calloused hands broke up ice in livestock watering tanks with the claw end of hammer several times during sub-zero nights. I remember those very coldest nights, he couldn't sleep because he worried about the livestock and would bundle up several times and go out to check on all of them.

The person that designed those heavy denim bib overalls had a man like my father in mind. Every little pocket and loop was re-loaded each morning with the tools of his trade--pliers, nuts, bolts, nails, a little spool of electric fencing wire, a little baling twine, electrical tape, a small livestock syringe and bottle of some type of medication, tape measure, book of matches, carpenter's pencil and more items I cannot remember now. He could predict the weather by the look of the moon or the sunrise or sunset, knew when a cow was about to calf, for the most part, could repair all his farm machinery himself, had a brilliant mathematical mind, being good at predicting the markets and knowing when was the right time to sell grain. He was a man of many talents, gaining all his training from hands-on experience. He was a woodsmen, chemist, vet, hunter, teacher, patriot, devoted grandfather, and a father I will always admire. He was a loyal neighbor, always willing to put his own work aside when a friend needed a helping hand. He could be counted upon, no matter what. He was shrewd and practical and frugal, but his heart was as generous and giving as the wide open spaces he dearly loved. He taught me to count the rings in a fallen tree stump to determine the tree's age. Riding shotgun with him in the pickup to go pick up feed in town or taking a ride to check all the rain gauges he had installed on fence posts at intervals around his fields after a shower, he'd point out wildlife and where to always look for them. He was smart, he was tough and he was a survivor. From my parents and grandparents in east-central Illinois, I never saw corruption and I never saw success taint a person's future. Instead, success was the result of hard work and a kindly nod from God above and certainly nothing to brag about, but rather, count your blessings and be grateful because hard times will come again.

Our country is seeing some hard times now. Sometimes I can't decipher between what is really horrific and what is media hype. My world, and that of my immediate family is secure for now. For that, I am humbly and greatly appreciative. I know there are struggles this Christmas for some families, but I know that is the case each year. Whether a lot of people are hurting or a few, the fact remains suffering and want never go away. That is the result of an imperfect world. Those that came before us knew the true definition of worry about tomorrow. They knew what it was like to put sick children to bed that needed a doctor but there was no money for that luxury. They used gasoline sparingly, and for many children of those generations, a truly wonderful Christmas would be the gift of a new pair of socks or maybe an apple or an orange. I was born in the 1950's when prosperity was abundant. In my lifetime, I've taken for granted much that my parents and grandparents would have considered absolute luxury. Some among us are giving things up now and it is painful. We aren't accustomed to a feeling of want, and we should be grateful to our ancestors for the bounty we enjoy. We should also look to ourselves to make straight our individual courses and make better choices if we have failed to do so.

There's a lot of talk right now about corruption in Illinois, and other places, for that matter. Power and prestige does that to people. A young governor from my home state comes to mind, along with John Edwards, a man that admitted to not having the fortitude to keep his personal life in check. He was lured into bad behavior as a result of a cult following that made him believe he was special and invincible. We have a new president coming in that is someone that has seen unprecedented laud and honor and glory showered upon him. Before even taking the Oath of Office, expectations run high that he will cure every ill around the world. Every problem that inflicts pain upon Mankind will somehow be reduced or eliminated. Two thousand and some years ago, a Child was born that filled the world with hope and the promise of change. To be lumped into that category must be very frightening.

Whatever 2009 brings to us as a nation, it is my hope for the coming year that our readers here, and Americans across this great land, stop once in awhile and think about how we got here and who in our lives allowed us to stand on their shoulders in order that we may prosper and thrive. In every life, someone came before that sacrificed and did without so that this nation would go forward by the grace of God, yet another year. Whatever challenges come, and come they will, as a united people, we will weather the storms of change and with God's help, the hopes of our Founding Fathers and the remarkable documents they authored with which we govern ourselves will prevail. God bless each of you at this Merry Christmas time, and may your prayers unite with mine that God will continue to bless these United States in the New Year.