While the bitter snow/ice storms of earlier this year are just dim and unpleasant memories to most, I am pretty sure that those who were forced to spend the night in unfamiliar and often uncomfortable places and conditions will carry some of the memories for long while.
For this aging curmudgeon, the conditions evoked memories of my youth on a badland farm/ranch in west Texas, at the tail end of the Depression. One unpleasant memory stands out very vividly. Country music singer Little Jimmy Dickens recorded a song based on an old poem on the subject.
“Did you ever sleep at the foot of the bed, when the weather was whizzin’ cold,
When the wind was whistlin’ around the house and the moon was yeller as gold?
You give yore good warm mattress up to Aunt Lizzy and Uncle Fred.
Too many kinfolks on a bad night, so you went to the foot of the bed.”
For those who have never been subjected to this indignity, words cannot adequately describe it. For those who have, nothing can erase that memory.
It was common, back then, for families to visit other families and stay for days at a time. Travel was difficult and news did not get around quickly so when folks went to see other folks, they made the most of it.
Mostly, the experiences were pleasant ones, even the ones occurring around Thanksgiving and Christmas, when it was not uncommon for three or more families to share the same house for several days.
There was ample gossip and family news for the women to catch up on, while the men consumed their time discussing weather, crops and tractors. There were some lively discussions on who made the best tractor, John Deere or Farmall. There were other tractors in use, but these two were the most widely used. The former had a tendency to make popping sound as each cylinder fired. That trait earned it the nickname “Poppin’ Johnny.”
Meanwhile the kids occupied themselves with games like tag, red rover, or, if there were enough kids, a crude form of baseball utilizing a broom handle and a sock filled with cotton or corn shucks. Money was too scarce to afford anything so extravagant as a “store-bought” ball and/or bat.
We could anticipate being “Sunday fed” and even the prospect of being relegated to a “second or third setting supper” could not dampen our enthusiasm. At my Grandmother Middleton’s house the main course was always chicken and dumplings. She made dumplings the size of a phone book and the consistency of venison. But, she could make one scrawny chicken and a bowl of flour feed a lot of folks.
However as pleasant to contemplate as was mealtime, there was “bedtime” to think about. In the spring and summer, we could count on being able to “camp out” under the stars.
But, fall and winter brought quite a different bedtime story. There is a measure of folks who think that it does not get cold in West Texas. They have never experienced a “blue norther,” wherein the temperatures plummet from the mid 50s to the mid-20s in less than an hour, pushed by winds of 30 mph or more. Let me assure you that is COLD.
When a norther blew in, it was a sure thing you were heading for the foot of the bed. Before king or queen size beds, beds could comfortably sleep two or three people. The “foot of the bed” technique made it possible to sleep, miserably, five or six people. Three people would lie in bed normally, then, with heads pointing toward the foot of the bed, up to three, more people could lie between them.
The foot of the bed was, of course, relegated, to the kids. Adults, with smelly feet and long cold toenails, coupled with insufficient cover and the footboard banging your head, made for a most unpleasant night. A couplet from the song/poem sizes it up.
“To rassel for cover on a winter night, with a big foot settin’ in your face,
Or cold toenails scratchin’ your back, and the footboard scrubbin’ your head”
As I said, unless you have a lived this experience, you cannot understand why we might view sleeping alone in a car, or in a warm schoolhouse, as a minor inconvenience.
As the song proclaims,
“I’ll tell the world, you ain’t lost a thing never sleepin’ at the foot of the bed.”