Blue River Boy
author's background notes
He walked dirt roads to the one-room schoolhouse every day. He milked the cows by hand twice a day. He tangled with tornadoes and he carried his little sister home through a blizzard. He used an outhouse until his early teenage years, and he saw his first TV shows on a black-and-white set in the window of the town bakery shop. Blue River Boy is the first in a series of books for kids about the true-life boyhood adventures of my husband, Ron, on a Nebraska farm during World War II.
Here is an excerpt from one of the book's chapters.
A Sunday Question
Outside, the prairie wind growled around the corners of Grandma Jennieís house and slapped the thin glass windows until they shivered. Fresh flakes falling from low gray skies mixed with snow scuffed off high drifts to swirl in long, grainy ribbons around the barn and the corn crib. In the chicken house, Grandma Jennieís little Banties pulled away from the tall, cross Rhode Island Reds to crowd together and puff their feathers for warmth. Two miles away, across fields sniffing the March wind for any hint of spring, the town of Stromsburg settled in for a nap after a big Sunday dinner.
Inside Grandma Jennieís great room, hot coals softly popped in the big heating stove in the back corner. Cozy warmth radiated across the room and under the heavy top of the long wooden dining table to hug Grandma Jennieís rocking chair, Grandpa Edís daybed, and the easy chair in the opposite corner. >From his position flat on his stomach between the stove and the table, young Ron Burke listened to the houseís familiar Sunday hymn: Grandma Jennie humming in the kitchen and Grandpa Ed harrumphing once in a while as he read the front page news; crackles from his fatherís magazine as he turned the pages and occasional soft, thoughtful noises from his mother as she read her ladiesí magazine, all carried by the chorus of the wind outside.
Ron turned the page himself on the colorful Sunday comics. He smiled at the wild grimaces of the Katzenjammer Kids, and was quickly lost in their hijinx. Ron was a slender boy, wiry-strong, with a quick smile and hazel eyes that sometimes shone a little greener, sometimes a little browner. His skin was tanned and his brown-black hair bleached around the fringes of his face from hard work and easy play under the strong Nebraska sun.
"If we had a dog, would you take care of it?"
Startled, Ron pulled himself away from the antics of Hans and Fritz. He sat up to see his father, who sat at the table. Mr. Burke had lowered his newspaper. When Ronís face appeared, he asked again, "If we had a dog, would you take care of it?"
Now, young Ron Burke didnít spend all his time thinking about how much he wanted a dog. He wanted one pretty bad, but there were too many other things to keep him busy on his fatherís farm. He had no time to mope. Once in a while, especially when he went to play with his best friend, Dickie Anderson, and Dickieís dog ran around with them, he keenly missed having his own dog. Many of his other friends had dogs, too, but Dickieís dog was a collie, just like Lassie. That was Ronís favorite book, Lassie Come-Home. He was deeply in love with the beautiful collie called Lassie, who risked her own life for the sake of the boy who loved her. It would be an honor to raise and love a Lassie of his own.
He had asked his father before if they could have a dog. He had made several solid, sensible points. Dogs were useful for keeping away rats, for herding cattle, for guarding the house against strangers. Every farm place needed a dog. He always finished very politely, "Please, sir, may I have a dog?" He had asked just as many times as he thought he could before Mr. Burke would get angry. Each time, the answer was a firm "No."
So he was surprised when his father lowered his newspaper and asked, "If we had a dog, would you take care of it?"
Ron looked up from the funnies, the first section of the newspaper he grabbed every Sunday and spread out to read. His heart beat hard, pressed against the cool linoleum on Grandma Jennieís great room floor. "Of course!" he almost shouted.
He heard a faint warning noise from his mother, seated in the far corner of the room. From his chair at the dining table, Grandpa Ed scowled above his newspaper page but said nothing. Out in the kitchen, Grandma Jennie broke off humming to listen.
Ron lowered his voice, but still it shook a little. "I mean, sure Dad, Iíll feed it every day, and...and...." He wasnít sure what else you had to do to take care of a dog, but whatever it was, he would do it. He would do anything to have a dog. Excitement took over his tongue. "Are we getting a dog? Can we get a collie? Like the Andersons?"
Mr. Burke gave him a long, thoughtful look, then shook his paper out, murmuring, "Andersons got a good dog there...collieís useful on the farm...."
Ron dared say nothing more, though he was bursting with joy and curiosity and two huge slices of Grandma Jennieís sour cherry pie. His dad, he saw, was reading the Capperís Weekly, a lighthearted farmerís paper published in Kansas. It was delivered earlier in the week but always lay unopened until Sunday, when there was time to read it.
Ron realized now that his dad had been looking at the advertisements in the back. This was the best part of the paper. A whole galaxy of goods was available for special purchase, like carbide cannons, for firing on the Fourth of July. Cattle, hogs, feeders, seeds, fruit treesĖall could be ordered by mail. Religious books. Guns. Coats and shoes, hairbrushes and jewelry. Magic coins and trick cards, for amazing your friends. Guinea pigs, minks, pigeons and parrots.
Ron tried to get a look at his fatherís paper for a hint but couldnít see it clearly. Mr. Burke went on reading. Heís thinking about it! Ron thought joyfully. A collie, let it be a collie! He had heard that Lassie Come-Home would be a movie soon. His whole family would go into town one Saturday night to see it at the Rialto theater. That would be grand, too.
No more was said about a dog that day, or the next day, or even for many weeks. But Ron never forgot it for a moment. Everywhere he went, his dog trotted faithfully at his heels, sometimes a pointy-eared and intelligent German Shepherd, sometimes a loyal firehouse dog, the black-spotted Dalmatian, but most often a noble collie, with a huge ruff of sable, golden and white fur around her face and neck, and her soft ears gently drooping.
His very own Lassie.