Ow my leg hurts! Beginning of the book proper

By Larry Rettig (LarryR) on April 6, 2019

“Ow my leg hurts!  Ow my leg hurts!”  Lance wailed incessantly.  He had broken his leg and found himself in a hospital bed next to mine.  It wasn’t until my parents translated his lament into Amana German that I actually understood what he was saying.

It had been a traumatic day for me as a four-year-old.  My parents had rushed me to the hospital in Cedar Rapids for an emergency appendectomy.  I was overwhelmed with relief to see them sitting in my room as I came out of the anesthesia. I was also nauseous, a result of the ether mask placed across my face that served as an anesthetic during the operation.  To this very day I can still conjure up that sickening smell.

The pre-op had not gone well.  As I was wheeled into the operating room a wave of panic swept over me.  My parents had been taken from me!  Where were they?  Would I ever see them again?  I screamed in German at the nurses and the doctor, imploring them to find my parents.  I could not understand their language nor they mine.

It was Christmas season, so Mom and Dad had brought with them a small artificial Christmas tree for the table beside my bed.  It became my link to them and carried me through the coming night until I got to see them again tomorrow.

 

A Bucolic Life

 

As I look back on my childhood, the life I led back then appears idyllic compared to lives children lead today.  The modern pace of life continues to accelerate as new inventions impact our daily comings and goings.  Cell phones and the internet provide instant communication, instant purchases of goods and services, instant banking, instant gratification.  We move through our lives at warp speed, compared to my boyhood spent --winter or summer--exploring the natural world and playing games with my friends in the real world, not in a world of violent video games.

 

The Gräwel

 

One of my favorite haunts as a child was a small creek north of town called the Gräwel (literally meaning small stream or ditch).  It was spring fed, so the water ran cool and crystal clear.  Minnows and frogs plied its waters.  Both offered a challenge to snag them by hand.  Oftentimes a friend and I might compete to see who could catch the most fish or frogs.  Or we might team up together to pursue a particularly difficult catch.

 

I still remember my amazement at my first encounter with frog eggs.  They were small black dots encased in a slippery, gelatinous mass anchored in the water by grassy plants.  Not knowing what this strange substance was, I decided the next day to carry a bucket with me and bring some of that strange substance home.  Perhaps my parents could tell me what it was.  To my delight, they could and did.

 

Dad led me to the basement, where there was a large cement trough, a remnant from communal days when the coolish water it contained was used to keep the milk for the communal kitchen from spoiling before it was used.  He had repurposed it as a tank for minnows that served as his fish bait.  We dumped the frog eggs from my pail into the water and watched the mass swirl slowly in the water’s lazy current.

 

Each day thereafter offered new excitement as I watched the eggs develop.  Finally, one day I discovered small roundish black blobs with eyes, mouths, and tails swimming in the tank.  I was mesmerized.

 

But that event couldn’t hold a candle to what happened next.  Those blobs grew feet!  Wow!  I had no idea.  They continued to swim around, feet simply along for the ride.  I also noticed that their tails were getting shorter.  Finally, they simply disappeared.

 

The blobs began to look more and more like frogs.  When the metamorphosis was complete, they began to escape from the tank occasionally, hopping about on those legs they grew in the water.  It was time to round them up and take them outside, where they could begin their new lives as the frogs and join the ones I’d been catching in the Gräwel.

 

One summer day as a long, often heavy, rain was reduced to a drizzle and then subsided completely, I made my way to the Gräwel.  It was during the first year that I began to frequent its waters.  I was not prepared for what lay ahead.

 

The Gräwel had been transformed from its usual peaceful, pristine state to an angry brown torrent that escaped its banks, propelling debris at breakneck speed downstream.  I was deeply disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to play in my creek that day.  My beloved brook now aroused in me a sense of dark foreboding, of danger.  Dejected, I returned home and had to content myself with grabbing a hoe and draining into roadside ditches the puddles that had formed on and along the two dirt and gravel streets that ran past our house.

 

In the early spring, I would accompany my Opa Rettig to the Gräwel, often with snow still on the ground and a thin layer of ice on the water.  Our goal was to find willow trees along the banks and inspect their branches to see if they were in suitable condition to gather as switches for basket weaving.

 

My grandfather had been a basket maker in Old Amana.  He enjoyed his work and saw no reason to stop making baskets just because the communal society was no more.  He preferred to work with switches that had been debarked.  That meant filling and firing up the old wash kettle in the basement.  The long, pliable switches, immersed in the water, curled around the inside of the kettle.  The water was brought to a boil and then left in the kettle to cool, once the fire underneath went out.  This process allowed my grandfather to easily peel off the bark, exposing the wood underneath.  It gave his baskets a unique whitish-tan look, the exposed wood being silky smooth to the touch.

 

Even as a teenager and later as a college student, the Gräwel continued to play a role in my life.  Close to its banks grew not only the willows I mentioned earlier, but mulberry and wild plum trees.  Everyone in my village knew when the fruit on those trees got ripe.  We made daily pilgrimages to those trees then.

 

On one occasion we got a surprise when we reached the mulberry grove.  Raccoons were gorging themselves on OUR berries!  We climbed the trees and yelled at them.  Most of them hastily retreated except for three juveniles.  Reaching the branch on which they sat, I shook it mightily.  All three raccoons fell to the ground, two of them scurrying away.  One seemed dazed, so I picked up a dead branch from the ground and gently poked him with it.  He grabbed it, climbed onto it, and hung on for dear life.  I felt badly that I might have injured him.

 

We decided to see if we could carry him home on the stick.  I carried one end of the stick and one of my friends the other.  Remarkably, the raccoon clung to the stick the whole half-mile back home without moving.

 

He recovered nicely and eventually ended up in a now-deserted henhouse on our property.  I built him a large floor to ceiling pen with a branched tree trunk for climbing.  Herkimer was the name I chose for him, Herky for short.  I let him out of his pen daily and gave him the run of the whole building.  He was quite friendly and would sit on my lap while I petted him.  He always greeted me with a happy chatter.  I did have to watch him closely, because he had a tendency to run at me and climb me as if I were a tree.

 

I once made the mistake of bringing Herky into the house.  When I put him down, he made a beeline for the kitchen, jumped up onto the counter, and began opening cupboard doors.  There was loud clashing and clanking as he dug out pots and pans and let them fall to the floor.

 

My mother came running.  “What’s going on in my kitchen?!”  I saw the horror on her face as she entered.  I tried to apologize while chasing Herky from room to room in a vain attempt to catch him as he continued his romp.  I finally cornered him in the dining room and scooped him up.  Mom gave me The Look, as only moms can do.  “Out!”

 

Herky was with us for two years.  When I turned 18, I developed a serious illness that required an emergency two-week hospital stay.  Since I couldn’t care for Herky then, I asked my parents to release him.  It wasn’t long before one of the neighbors complained that a raccoon had taken up residence in his chimney.  I didn’t offer an explanation.

 

 

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About Larry Rettig
"An enthusiastic gardener for over 50 years, my first plant was a potted Ponderosa Lemon tree ordered from a comic book ad at age 15. I still have it, and it’s still bearing lemons! My wife and I garden on 3/4 of an acre, both flowers and vegetables. Our garden, named Cottage-in-the-Meadow Gardens, is private and is listed with the Smithsonian Institution in its Archives of American Gardens. It is also on the National Register of Historic Places. We garden organically and no-till. Our vegetable garden contains a seed bank of vegetables brought to this country from Germany in the mid-1800s by my ancestors. My latest book, Gardening the Amana Way, is available at Amazon.com.

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