That winter, there had come a spell of light snow that would melt a little before the temperature dipped below zero, producing a sheet of ice over the ground. Joe walked into the kitchen and spoke in a low voice to Ida, who promptly told the boys to put on their parkas, stocking caps, and gloves. She had to take Joe to see Dr. Scheurich.
Robert felt a wave of apprehension as he quickly followed his mother’s instructions. He had thought that only he and his brother ever had to visit the doctor, not one of his parents. When he saw his father sitting in a strange posture on one of the kitchen chairs, his face pale and gray, Robert felt his apprehension deepening into anxiety.
Ida ushered the boys toward the car. Joe came slowly from the house. She held open the passenger door for him. He ever-so-slowly sank into the seat. Ida slammed the door, ran around the car, and, with considerable agitation, put the key in the ignition. When the Chevy started, she did not wait for it to warm up. She backed fast down the driveway and out onto the state highway. In a heartbeat, she was driving to Oxford.
Joe had been checking on the Chester White sows that were soon to have litters. One young sow had been pushing against the wooden panels that held her captive in a small exercise area beyond the door of an individual hog house on skids that Joe had pulled into place with his Minneapolis–Moline Z tractor. Painted red, the house had a V-shaped roof, half of which consisted of hinged doors that could swing over, permitting a view of the interior. Joe bought his hog houses from the grain elevator, where they were built at the lumberyard. On this day, Joe had decided that he needed to sink one more metal post to support the panel that the sow had been abusing. He had brought a tall fence post and a sledge hammer. After looking over the situation, he had decided to put the post on the inside of the small lot, so he had climbed over the panel.
Hammering the fence post into the frozen ground was a time-consuming job. Ping–ping–ping! His hammer had sounded a short bell-like tone each time that he had struck the post. Finally, he had driven the post into the ice deep enough to prevent the sow from working on the panel.
He had brought several strands of baling wire, with which he had secured the panel to the post, being careful to push the ends of the wires to the outside so that the sow would not be scratched. With a snap of his wrist, he had used a heavy pair of pliers to give each twist of wire two additional twists, tightening the wires. Finally, he had taken his sledge hammer and had climbed back outside the panel.
That is when it had happened. His feet had become cold, even though he had been wearing boots, high-top laced shoes, and brown woolen socks. He could barely feel where he put his toes in between the boards of the panel. As the gap between the bottom two boards was narrow, he had not pushed the toe of his boot through far enough. His foot slipped and dropped down on the ice. His balance thrown off, Joe had lost his grip on the panel but not on the hammer. Meanwhile, the foot that had suddenly reached the ice skidded out from under him, pivoting him. He had fallen on his side. As bundled up as he was with long johns, a flannel undershirt, a work shirt, a lined denim coat, and a regular denim coat over the lined one, he might have withstood the fall, but he had landed on the handle of the sledge hammer. He had writhed in pain for a few minutes before he had realized that, pain or no pain, he would have to get back on his feet and go to the house.
For the first few steps, standing had felt somewhat better, but then the pain had intensified. He felt certain that he had broken a bone.
Before he was married, he had been helping the members of the threshing ring to separate his wheat, and he had fallen from the grain wagon. His left upper arm had gone between the wooden hound that supported the wagon tongue behind the doubletree, and he had broken the bone with a spiral break. On this day, he remembered that pain.
While Dr. Scheurich examined Joe, Robert and Charles sat quiet as church mice in the waiting room. Before they had entered the doctor’s office, their mother had told them to behave themselves by sitting still and not causing trouble. She had accompanied their father into the examination room. Robert’s fears were mounting. Tears were gathering in the corners of his eyes. He had never seen his father look so pale, so gray, and so unsmiling. Robert still did not know what had happened, although Charles had whispered to him something about ice.
Eventually, Joe emerged. Ida was at his side. The nurse was close behind. Ida and the nurse walked with him down the front stairs to the car. Robert and Charles followed. On this occasion, Robert had ridden in the back seat of the two-door car so his father could sit in front. Robert had managed not to have motion sickness, but, on the way home, he felt the dizziness starting. Still, he listened carefully to his parents’ conversation. Little by little, he felt his worries subside as he began to understand that his father had fallen on the ice, that he had cracked some ribs, and that there was nothing that could be done except take aspirin and wait for the bruising to heal. Dr. Scheurich had wrapped a stretchy bandage around Joe’s side and over one shoulder to keep Joe steady, as much as anything; otherwise, the bandage had no effect, as the doctor had readily admitted.
“You’ll have to milk the cows and feed and water the sows,” Joe was saying to Ida. The doctor had advised him not to move about much for the first two days and for Ida to handle the chores. “I’m sorry for you to have to do my work,” Joe said.
“It’s only for a few days,” Ida reassured him. “The boys can help me.”
After school, Robert and Charles helped their mother all they could. They threw down hay from the mow. They scooped ground feed into buckets to be carried to the sows, each sow in her own paneled lot. They mixed feed and water for the ducks. They scattered feed for the chickens and the turkeys. Robert thought it was funny to watch Ida at work. She wore four-buckle boots that made her feet seem too big for her body. She did everything differently than the boys’ father did. She positioned the stool differently when she sat beside the cows to milk them. She spoke more jokingly to the cows—as if they were people! “You like that clover, don’t you, Flossy!” Ida would say. At the end of each day, Ida had completed all the same jobs that Joe would have accomplished, even though she had done them in her own way.
Eventually, Joe had begun to move about in a gingerly fashion and had resumed doing the chores himself.
“Don’t let your dad try to use his sore side,” Ida had warned the boys. “Think ahead, and help him lift things that he shouldn’t be lifting!” she ordered. Robert and Charles were good about providing as much assistance as they could to their father.
Then, one cold night, Ida set a bushel basket in front of the Norge heating stove in the kitchen. She arranged an old blanket in the bottom. Joe came through the door to the porch. The gloved hand on his good side was holding something that squirmed. He put it in the basket.
“She may have another one before I get back out there,” Joe said, as he went through the porch and out into the night, a flashlight in the hand on his sore side.
Robert peered into the basket. A pink piglet was standing on the blanket. It looked up at him with its inquisitive eyes beneath white eyelashes. Soon, Joe brought another pink piglet and deposited it in the basket.
The boys’ mother prepared a second basket. Later that night, there were nine piglets all in all.
“I think they could go back to their mother now,” Joe said.
Robert put on his coat, hat, and gloves and walked with his mother as she carried the first basket out to the hog house containing the sow that had just had her litter. It was the sow that had given so much trouble. Robert stood on a straw bale to look down through the doors that Joe opened in the roof of the house. A heat lamp cast a reddish light around the inside, which felt warm on Robert’s face. Ida was handing each piglet to Joe, who was setting them down in the fresh straw inside. When the first basket had been emptied, Ida brought out the second basket of piglets. Before long, the newborns were lined up along the belly of the sow and were having their dinner.
“We’d better close the doors now,” Joe said to Robert, who stepped down from the bale. The piglets were so cute that Robert silently questioned why his parents never kept one for a pet. Then he thought about how big the sow was and how it was not nearly as cute as a piglet, and he answered his own question.