By Larry Rettig (LarryR) on April 22, 2019



Ralph lived diagonally across from our house.  He was a bit younger than I, but we formed a strong friendship despite our age difference.  He was one of the kids along on the raccoon-in-the-mulberry-tree adventure.  We spent many a summer afternoon in the Gräwel together, wading barefoot along its course.  Aside from catching minnows and frogs, we would spend time on one of the stream’s many small sand bars, fashioning mini villages with wet sand and clay and searching for weeds that we could use to simulate trees.


On rainy afternoons, and to banish our boredom, we would think up little pranks to play.  One of our favorites involved the henhouse.  It was a relatively small, gray clapboard structure with an attic.  The attic was used to store grain to feed the chickens.  It had a purposeful hole in the floor.  One simply scooped the grain down the hole.  It landed on the henhouse floor, and the chickens would come running to feast on the manna from heaven.


The prank involved a length of rope that would reach from the attic, through the hole, and down to the floor.  We fashioned the floor end into a noose, like a lasso, and held the other end in one of our hands up in the attic.  The person not holding the rope would shovel the grain down in the usual fashion. 


Once the chickens were gathered together, busily pecking at the grain, we would yank the rope and see now many chickens we could snare.  There was loud squawking, wings flapped, and feathers flew.  We hauled the lassoed chickens up through the hole to the attic, undid them, dropped them back down, and hightailed it out of the henhouse.  Our goal was to leave the scene of the crime before Ralph’s father caught us.  One time we could hear him fuming as he came to check out the rukus.  “Those goddam kids!”


Nowadays our caper would be viewed as serious animal abuse.  How times have changed!


Ralph had two older brothers.  On rainy days they and a friend or two would play board games.  Ralph and I were often just observers, but we enjoyed the comradery.  Usually the radio or the phonograph played what were known back then as “cowboy songs.”  Some of the artists I remember include Eddie Arnold, Gene Autry, Tex Ritter, Hank Williams, and Tex Williams.


Shortly after I got my driver’s license, Ralph and I were out for a spin one summer afternoon.  We decided to check out a hilltop north of the main village of Amana where locals sometimes had picnics or camped overnight.  After parking the car, we headed up the hillside.  About halfway up, we came upon a rare sight: a dead and decomposing bull.  “You know what?” I proposed, “We could use his head as a trophy for our clubhouse!”  Ralph was a bit dubious.  “Opa Rettig still has a bone saw from his days as a butcher.  I think it’s hanging on a post in his basement.”


Sure enough, there it was, hanging on one of the huge wooden support beams.  I grabbed it, and we headed for the hill once more.  Where to cut?  We decided on a spot just behind the bull’s skull.  Taking turns sawing, we sawed and we sawed and we sawed.  Finally, success!  We each grabbed a horn, and together we carried the head to the car and put it in the trunk.


Some skin was still attached to the bull’s skull, and remnants of his brain were stuck to the inside.  We puzzled about how to best clean our trophy up for hanging.  Ralph suggested the wash kettle inside the old communal washhouse on his family’s property.


We pumped water from an old cistern directly into the kettle with the assistance of a length of old eavestrough spanning the distance between the pump to the kettle.  Ralph lit a fire under the kettle, and we lifted the head up off the floor into the water.  We checked for any progress every ten minutes or so until it became clear that this would be a long process.  We were glad for a respite, as the cooking process produced a decidedly disagreeable odor.


After several hours we returned for an inspection.  It was quite obvious that the head was done.  In fact it was overly done.  All the teeth had fallen out and the horns were loose.  We kept the head in the washhouse for several days to let it dry.  After gluing the teeth back in and the horns back on, we mounted the head in our clubhouse across the street on my parents’ property.  Perfect!  We congratulated ourselves on a job well-done.


Every Fourth of July my village had a fireworks show in the small park north of the Gräwel.  Ralph and I knew that there would be “duds” in the grassy area where the fireworks and firecrackers were lit.  Armed with a pack of matches, we and our respective sisters we went in search of them the next day.  We gathered them on a picnic table, broke them open and created a pile of powder.


We thought it would make a sparkly display when we lit the pile.  We were horribly wrong.  It was somewhat windy and the match kept going out, so Ralph’s sister cupped her hands around the pile.  I bent over it and struck another match.  Without warning, the whole pile exploded!  For a moment, I feared that I was blinded by the explosion.  Then I took my glasses off and discovered that the explosion had left a thick film on the outside of the lenses.  Most likely, my glasses had saved me from actually being blinded.


It wasn’t until several minutes later that Ralph’s sister and I discovered that our hands were badly burned.  The pain became intense.  Instinctively, we ran to the Gräwel and bathed our hands in its cool water.  That offered some relief, but we realized that we had to leave the Gräwel behind to get home.


As soon as I showed Mom my hands, she gasped and said, “We’re going straight to the doctor’s office!”  Fortunately for me, one of the three doctors in the Amana villages was just two blocks away.  There was an oscillating fan in the waiting room.  I immediately held my hands up to it and followed its oscillations back and forth.  Ralph’s sister soon appeared and joined me at the fan.


When the doctor came out and asked who was next, Mom explained what had happened and asked him to take us next.  He usually had a stern expression on his face when he treated his patients, but occasionally it morphed into a wry smile.  There was no wry smile this time.  He grabbed my cheek, pinched and twisted it, and pulled me into his examining room.


We got the expected lecture about the dangers of fireworks.  He mixed up a salve, put it into a circular tin with a lid, and affixed a label to it.  Before he closed the lid, he slathered the salve on my hands and wrapped my right hand in gauze.  That was the hand in which I had held the match, so it was closest to the pile when it exploded.  Ralph’s sister received the same treatment, except that both of her hands were wrapped in gauze.


When Mom and I returned home, I went directly to bed, even though it was still daytime.  I thought I could fall asleep and escape the pain, but that plan fell through.  In the following days it became obvious that all the skin on my right hand was dead.  It had turned white with big, ugly wrinkles.  And it smelled.  The doctor assured us that that was normal.  He told us to come back in about a week, and he would cut off the dead skin.  When he did, I was relieved to see new, pink skin emerging from beneath that ugly dead skin.


Lesson learned.

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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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