π Prologue October 1934
“Wake up, Andy; you’re four years old today. Time to work and earn your keep,” Oscar Schneider said to his son at five in the morning that bleak October day in the little farm near a Nebraska town. Bushy black eyebrows over a full ruddy face made him look mean and angry even when he wasn’t. Andy rubbed his eyes and slowly rose from the iron cot. His sandy uncut hair tousled over his rosy cheeks. He was so sleepy he could barely keep his eyes open. It was still dark outside and Andy wanted to snuggle beneath the covers and go back to sleep, but he didn’t dare disobey his father. “Hurry up, don’t be so slow. Come out to the barn when you’re dressed,” his dad said as he left the room. Andy dressed in jeans, shirt, and coveralls of heavy denim. He stopped at the bathroom, then went to the kitchen where his mother was lighting the wood-burning kitchen cook stove. “Do I have to go out there?” He asked his mother. “Happy birthday, son. Yes, your father thinks four is old enough to work some,” Josephine said. She regarded her youngest son. He was not robust like his brothers; in fact, he was puny. She had begged Oscar to let Andy grow another year before making him milk the cows, but Oscar was adamant. The country was recovering from a long drought and a major depression. Every penny counted. Oscar’s sons would have to work the farm while he worked for Lee County as the assessor. He was thankful for the job because the farm grew most of their food, but there was not enough produce to sell, and no one would buy it. He needed money to pay bills and clothe his family. 11
Josephine had a teacher’s degree, but in the 1930s women were not allowed to teach school if they were married. She often did a man’s work in the field and in the barn along with her young sons. Orphaned at a young age, she had been sent from relative to relative, feeling that she didn’t belong at any particular place or to any family. A great aunt had encouraged her to attend a teaching college after she graduated from the local high school. She taught in a small oneroom school one year and then fell for Oscar; or rather he fell for and pursued her. Only eighteen, slim, with long black hair, she was the prettiest girl he had ever seen. They were married after a brief courtship. Childbearing and hard farm work had made her once fine figure a stout one. She wore her long black hair wound around her head in a tight braid. Her heart ached as she watched the little fellow walk slowly toward the barn. He should have been born a girl. Then he could have stayed in the house with me, she thought. Andy just stood there uncertainly in the open door of the smelly barn. His oldest brother, Pete, handed him a milk bucket. The big black cow looked at him suspiciously even though her head was secured in the stanchion. Placing the three-legged milking stool on the side of the cow, Andy sat on it and fumbled for her teats. “You have to clean her bag, dummy,” Tom, the middle child, said. He brought a damp rag and showed Andy how to wipe off the cow’s bag and teats. They were sometimes caked with mud and manure. This cow was clean. Little Andy tried to get the milk into the large pail. Pull, squish, pull, and squish. The big old cow relaxed as her bag slowly emptied. Andy tried to use one hand on each teat like his big brothers did, but his pudgy little fingers couldn’t wrap around the teat. He had to use both hands on one. He milked for fifteen minutes, and then his father took over. “I’ll finish this time, Tootsie, but tonight you come out with Tom and Pete and milk this cow on your own,” Oscar said. “You’ll get the hang of it, don’t worry,” Pete said. He was a handsome boy of twelve and was fond of his littlest brother. His laughter was heard often throughout the farm as he found delight in 12
teasing his brothers and mother. His favorite thing was to hide behind a door and jump out, scaring his mother every time. Oscar disapproved of the frivolity, but Josephine enjoyed her oldest son’s antics. Pete was a hard worker, big for his age, and he looked after Andy as much as he could. Tom said nothing, but followed after Pete. He was ten, fat, solemn and morose. He caused trouble by tattling on everyone in the family and at school. His teacher was concerned about him, but she couldn’t get him to talk about his problems. She talked to Josephine about him, but Josephine couldn’t find out what was bothering Tom. Too busy to get involved in what he considered women’s work, Oscar said and did nothing. Tom still wet the bed at times and was so ashamed of the fact, that Josephine said nothing to him about the soiled sheets, but patiently changed them when the boys weren’t around. Tom ignored Andy and told his father he thought Andy was lazy. He caused trouble for his young brother at every opportunity. Andy idolized his older brother, Pete, and stayed close to him as much as he could. “Come here, Tootsie,” Oscar said that morning after milking. “Why are you calling me Tootsie?” Andy asked. He and his father were now alone in the barn. The cows had been turned into the pasture and were fed hay to supplement the sparse fall grass. Oscar’s fat round face crinkled in cruel laughter as he regarded little Andy. “Because you’re a girl, I wanted a girl,” he said. He picked up the milk can and left Andy alone in the big empty barn. Andy thought I don’t know why Dad wants me to be a girl. I don’t want to be a girl. The little boy sat down on the floor of the barn. He felt ashamed of his maleness and thought of cutting off the offending portion of his anatomy, but how then would he pee? Tears came running down his cheeks. He wiped them with the sleeve of his blue denim shirt. Tom approached him from the side door of the barn. “Don’t pay any attention to him. You’re just like the rest of us and there’s nothing 13
wrong with you,” he said. They stood in the big barn that smelled of hay and manure. The wind rattled the big double door and the chickens squawked as they came into the barn looking for the grain in the droppings of the cows. “Dad used to watch while the hired man played with me and made me take off all my clothes. Don’t ever let anyone do that to you, Andy. Scream and bite if you have to. Mother thought something was wrong, but I didn’t tell her. Dad stood and watched, but he never touched me. I was glad when the old man died. I’d rather work my butt off than have another hired man,” Tom said. “I don’t remember him,” Andy said. “Of course not, you were just a baby. You’re still a baby,” Tom said nastily and he ran to the house. Andy walked cautiously through the gate of the wooden corral and on past the A-frame little chicken houses. He was so short he could have walked right into them, but the chickens ruffled their feathers and clucked until he left. “Dumb chickens,” he said. Bare-branched lilacs lined the pathway to the house. They were beautiful in the summer but they looked drab and naked on this dismal morning. Andy broke off a dead lilac branch and waved it like a sword. He slashed at the bushes and shouted to the imaginary dragons. “Leave me alone or I’ll kill you!” After vanquishing several big dragons with open mouths blowing fire, he turned his attention to the imaginary hired man. Slash, slash, he used the branch to vanquish his fears. He did this all the way to the house; then threw away the branch before he walked up the porch steps. His mother had breakfast ready when he entered the sprawling ranch house. She was a woman whose prime purpose in life was to care for her family. She wore a flowered housedress with a plain white apron tied securely to her portly frame. A wooden stool stood handy in the large kitchen; Josephine needed it to reach the cupboards. She was barely five feet tall. Andy used the stool to reach the cookie jar sometimes. “Don’t forget to wash your hands,” she said. A metal basin filled with warm soapy water sat out on an old table 14
on the porch. Josephine insisted they wash up out there when they came in from the barn. She loved her modern bathroom and didn’t want farm dirt in it. The water was quite dirty by the time Andy stood on the stool and put his hands in the basin. Oscar took his place at the head of the long wooden table. Pete was at his right; at Pete’s right was Tom. Andy sat near his mother at the foot of the table where Josephine often jumped up to refill the serving plates. This seating never changed even after the boys were grown and came home only occasionally. “Dear God, bless this food we are about to eat, and bless the hands that prepared it. Forgive us our daily sins, and help us to walk in thy steps this day, in Jesus name we pray, amen,” Oscar said. He often prayed many lengthy prayers, but he was hungry this morning. His bushy eyebrows met in the middle of his forehead as he frowned in a concentrated effort to contact his Lord. Fried potatoes, sausage, eggs, and biscuits were eaten in silence. The menu never changed except on Sundays when they had oatmeal, cinnamon rolls, and fruit that Josephine had preserved in jars. Heat from the kitchen cook stove filled the room. Josephine wiped the perspiration from her forehead as she sought to keep the serving dishes full of food. Oscar ate at a fast pace; he had to be at work at the courthouse in Leesville by eight 0-clock. He changed to his starched shirt, tie, and business suit. “You boys muck out the barn and chicken houses and fill the stock tank with water as soon as you get home from school,” he told Tom and Pete. He said the same thing every morning, and the boys always replied, “Yes, sir.” They took the lunch boxes Josephine had filled with roast beef sandwiches, a wrapped pickle, an apple, and two big chocolate cookies. It was a mile to the little one-room schoolhouse. In nice weather the boys walked to school, but when the storms came Josephine took them in the old pickup. A big yawn escaped Andy’s lips as he lay down on the cool linoleum kitchen floor. He watched his mother’s sturdy legs going to 15
and from the table to the kitchen sink as she cleaned up the kitchen. The new oilcloth on the table smelled clean and the red and white checks were pleasing to his eyes. He slept, but dreamt of his father leering at his genitals. Sobs came unbidden from his dry throat. “What’s wrong, Andy?” his mother asked. “Nothing,” Andy wouldn’t tell on his father. Tom didn’t tell, so Andy felt that he shouldn’t either. He helped his mother by drying the dishes she washed. They sang London Bridge is Falling Down, and Itsy Bitsy Spider, until every last dish was back in the cupboard. “Mother, will you read a story to me? “ Andy asked. “Just as soon as I put this frying pan away,” Josephine answered. Mother and son sat on the living room couch while she read a story about three little pigs. “Read me the story about the dragon and the brave man who killed him with his sword,” Andy pleaded. Josephine had that story almost memorized as it was one of Andy’s favorite ones. He fell asleep on the couch before the story was finished. Josephine listened to soap operas on the radio for a while. The living room had cooled after the fire in the cook stove had been allowed to go out. Josephine sighed. It wouldn’t be long until she’d have to fire it up for their evening dinner. All too soon the evening milking time arrived. *** In time Andy began to do a better job milking. His hands grew as he did, and he was soon able to milk with both hands. He avoided being alone with Oscar and he always walked back to the house with Pete.