“Happiness is not the absence of problems, it's the ability to deal with them.” Steve Marboli
“Why don’t you go on the porch and pick cars,” Mom suggested often to us, usually when her patience was nearly gone. Eleven children, aged one through sixteen, filled our tiny rented farm home to capacity. And sometimes nerves were raw. Shooing the lot of us outdoors gave her a bit of respite from the commotion.
My brothers and I lined the edge of the gray faded floor of the tired porch and watched the traffic on Highway Twenty drive by. A white picket fence separated our lawn from the ditch. The concrete beyond was a main road in our county and a steady parade of cars, pickups and semis passed. What we lacked for in space, we made up for in imagination. A game of collecting the vehicles was one that provided hours of entertainment. As various types of motorized transportation whizzed by, each of us claimed them for our own. “I got a convertible,” “That semi is mine,” “You got a clunker,” exclamations of our fortunes drifted in the open windows to let Mom know our whereabouts. The eclectic collections of wheeled treasures, commandeered by unsuspecting motorists, were dictated by the positions we were arranged on the porch. It was our way of determining fairness. We would hoot and holler when a fancy car drove by and laugh and tease if a dilapidated one rumbled by. On occasion Dad would sit in his lawn chair, quietly listening to our game of chance and enjoy the coolness of the summer evening.
Other times my brothers and I retreated to the apple orchard that held a multitude of possibilities for our amusement. One summer we scrounged for scraps of lumber, tin and cast off carpeting and created a tree house. We cut, hammered and willed it together until it rested precariously in the apple tree with the lowest branches. Our creation was just right to hold two pint sized people. In turn we swung our scuffed knees over the branch and hoisted ourselves in the tree. We folded our bodies into the cramped quarters until our knees touched our noses. The remainder of the brood would find rotten apples on the ground and throw them at the structure. There were plenty of nooks and crannies that allowed the bits of apple to pepper the tree dwellers. We worked on our aim and the captives in the house hollered in delight when they were splattered. For some reason we thought this was lots of fun. Mom never said much, just hosed us off and washed the apple scented clothing.
We also fashioned game sticks out of apple tree branches. We chose slender, but sturdy twigs, using our pocket knives to sharpen the ends. We found walnut sized apples and slipped them on the end of our whittled branch. In the spirit of our competitiveness we made a contest of throwing the apple the furthest. We grasped the two or three foot twigs, launchers to us, with our musket balls apples stuck to the end. Arms held high over our heads, the windup began. It was important to release correctly with the right amount of force as our wrists whipped the apple into the air. Once mastered, the miniature rocket would glide over rows of standing corn in the field. It wasn’t long before the thrill of sailing our missiles over stationary objects was gone. “Hey, let’s try and get them to fly over a semi,” one of my brothers suggested as we turned toward the busy road beyond the orchard. Our attention was devoted to sending the apple artillery over the sides of passing semi-trucks. All too quickly the excitement faded. “I’ll bet I can hit the side of a truck,” one brother proclaimed. This proved to be a worthy challenge and we flung apples from our whipping sticks at unsuspecting truckers and their loads. “Wah hoo,” we shouted as the thud of the apple against the truck side reached our ears.
“Oh no,” my brother exclaimed when a badly aimed apple entered the open window in the cab of an eighteen wheeler. The trucker slammed on the brakes and the rig came to a screeching halt near our neighbors’ yard. We scattered from the orchard in all directions. Later that day, my brothers and I were in the living room when I heard an impatient knock at the kitchen door. The door creaked eerily as it swung open, followed by the clump of heavy boots on the kitchen floor.
“Mr. Kies,” we heard the deep bass voice boom, “there has been a complaint.” Six sets of brown eyes opened wide and blinked hard at each other.
“Yes, sir, what can I do for you,” I heard my dad ask. The conversation was muffled and we were silent, trying to catch snatches of the conversation. “You tell them yourself,” we heard dad exclaim and I wished the wool rug on floor would swallow me. The heavy heels of the black boots resonated on the wooden floor as the tall stranger strode into the living room. I looked up. The dark brown pants seemed endless until my eyes reached the tan, buttoned shirt. A dark brown neck tie pointed the way to the glint of the golden star on his left chest. I gulped and thought I heard a chorus of gulps around me. “Line up on the couch,” Dad commanded. Five tow haired boys in horn rimmed glasses rose quickly and took a seat on the couch. I, with my short straight, chocolate bob and steel blue glasses squeezed in beside them. No one said a word. Dad’s face told us he meant business. The sheriff, with his eyes of steel, loomed over us. My heart sunk to my toes. I was terrified we would be taken from our parents and thrown in jail.
We sat in grim silence, eyes peeled on the officer. I don’t remember the exact words spoken in the room that day. I know we were scolded mercilessly by a uniformed officer. Dad and Mom held their tongues. The impact of the sheriff’s words was more painful than any punishment they could dole out. We learned our actions endangered the lives of many, most importantly the trucker who called the authorities. The apple had hit him. We were forced to imagine the consequences if he had lost control and hit another car, perhaps a vehicle filled with a family, such as ours. When the lecture was over, he turned and strode out, nodding to Mom and Dad as he passed. The silence was deafening, images of what if’s haunted me. That day was the end of my shenanigans in the apple orchard. I didn’t need to be told more than once.