Sunday, January 17, 2010

Trotten Hard Cider at School

The last two stories I posted here were on the subject of illness. I have been wanting for some time to post some stories from my past and get away from this subject but somehow the theme of illness crept into this one too. However there were no doctors involved and telling it from the perspective of forty five years later gives it a considerably different spin. I hope the reader will enjoy reading this one as much or even more than I enjoyed writing it. 

Every year as the days get shorter, the kids go back to school, the air gets that invigorating and nippy coolness commensurate of autumn in Virginia, and the harvest season begins its downward descent towards the dead and delightfully dreary doldrums of winter, my thoughts invariably go back to the days of my childhood when—sooner or later, Dad would gather up a half dozen or so glass gallon vinegar jugs or better yet, the old 20 gallon oaken vinegar barrel, and have them filled with fresh pressed apple cider at the local mill. Apple cider in those days was not like the pasteurized and sometimes syrupy apple juice currently sold as cider since the USDA successfully instilled in the minds of the American public the fear that a little deer poop in the cider might make it lethal for little children.  Deer poop or not, unpasteurized apple cider contains sufficient bacteria to give it that distinctive flavor that marks it as real cider several days to a week after it has been pressed.  A real apple cider connoisseur will of course immediately recognize the superior taste of the fresh unpasteurized product and how a few days of aging will make it even better. We were a large family of seven boys and one girl so it didn’t really take that long to put down five gallons or more of fresh apple cider before it “went too far”. “Went too far” of course, was that vague designation of cider that had either gotten to taste too much like vinegar or had developed enough alcohol content to “knock you on your butt” if you drank too much. We were a conservative Mennonite family which had grown up with the dictum that “a tablespoon of wine or rum used to flavor a fruitcake” was absolutely verboten!  But somehow good Mennonite church going folks like us could get away with occasionally having a stash of slightly hard apple cider in the cellar or the back shed.  It never really occurred to us that cider that had not been completely cleaned up in a week’s time and had gotten to that fizzy and yellower stage, most likely had an alcohol content equal to or greater than most beers.  Never mind, frugality was enough a part of our culture that we must not throw it away.  If the delightfully aged cider was in a glass jug we usually went ahead and drank it up.  If it was in the barrel we would drink it as long as we thought it was safe and then leave the rest to go to vinegar.  This was the stuff I really liked!

It was Halloween night in the year 1962.  Most of us boys were into our teenage years and I was in the ninth grade. That was the year that Dad had decided to drag out the wooden keg which had been stored behind the kerosene tank in the cellar and have it filled with cider.  As best as I can recall we had already gotten cider in glass jugs for drinking and his intention was to allow the cider in the barrel to go to vinegar.  Unbeknownst to him sometime during the several years while the keg was in storage next to the kerosene tank, the delivery man had spilled some kerosene onto the keg while filling the tank. The kerosene had soaked into the wooden container and as the cider gracefully aged it acquired an interestedly different flavor. I don’t know who had gone down to sample the cider but apparently they had noticed the off flavor and had brought the keg up from the cellar to the back porch.  I do remember several of my brothers complaining about the funny taste and entertaining some discussion about whether or not we should consider throwing it out.  I could taste a little kerosene but it wasn’t that bad.  Otherwise the cider was at the perfect stage of fizz and bite and I didn’t really mind the extra flavor.  So that evening as I did my algebra homework, I kept on going back to the back porch and getting myself another nip. 

I crawled out of bed the next morning at the usual early hour of 5:30 AM and helped to do the chores of feeding and milking the 40 head of dairy cows. Then I came in and wolfed down the usual breakfast of two eggs and toast, three or four pancakes, and a big bowl of cereal washed down with another glass of my beloved cider, and dashed off to the school bus. The first class of the day was in the woodworking shop, my favorite. I was at the wood lathe thoroughly engaged in transforming an old discarded bowling pin into a nice table lamp. I hardly noticed when sometime near to the end of the class period a little jab of pain shot somewhere down in my lower guts. Now farm boys usually don’t get excited about such things so I just went on to the next and least favorite class, Algebra I. 

It couldn’t have been more than ten minutes after settling into the algebra class that a much stronger pain surged through my innards and reminded me that all of that cider I had been drinking might have something to do with it. When an even harder pain hit about five minutes later, I stared at the minute hand on my watch (showing twenty minutes after ten) and realized that this thing just might get serious! As I looked around the room I began to realize the predicament I was in. Being the shy boy that I was, I had always chosen the desk in the farthest corner of the classroom from the doorway to the hall, at the back of the room next to the windows. To make matters worse, the school had recently made this stupid rule requiring anyone needing to leave the classroom during a class session for any reason to secure a pass from the teacher in the form of a wooden paddle on a leather thong with the room number engraved on it. Upon granting permission to leave, the teacher was to give the student this paddle which was to be carried with him all of the time he was out of the classroom and returned when he came back. As I contemplated the real possibility that I might have to make a dash for it before the end of the class, I realized that had I been smart enough to choose a desk near the door I could have been out and gone before anyone knew what was happening. Now I would have to run to the front of the room, and cross over by the teacher’s desk in front of the entire class in order to make it out the door. I wasn’t about to stop and explain to the teacher in front of all my friends why I needed to leave the room so urgently and to get that dumb paddle! So my only alternative was to scrunch and squirm and hope that I could hold it til the end of the class. As the pains kept getting more frequent and stronger I bore down with ever more determination until that blessed bell finally rang and I was up and out of there like a bat out of hell. 

I fled down the hall, having to run to full length of the school building to find a boy’s room, but the instant I opened the door I realized that luck was incredibly in my favor. Right straight inside the door from the hallway was a row of toilet stalls. Some hoodlum had seen fit to rip off the privacy door to the toilet stall nearest to and facing the hall door. Evidently whoever had done this deed had thought it would be really cool to be able to enter from the hallway and to get a direct visual shot of someone on the loo as soon as they opened the door. Little did that hoodlum know that he had done this favor just for me. All I needed at that instant was the path of least resistance provided by that open stall. I was hardly through the hall door until my body was into a reverse spin and my pants were a falling. In the same nanosecond that my bare bottom touched the seat, what felt like a big wet cork the size of a baseball exploded from my nether end.

A minute or two later the hall door opened again and two guys came in and began lighting up cigarettes. One in particular swaggered in sort of an Elvis Presley like style directly in front of me as he held his weed between thumb and first two fingers with the last two fingers extended. He would glance at me occasionally out of the corner of his eye as I sat there totally involved in blowing out the rear and trying my best to ignore him. After about five minutes or so they finished their smoke and left. I remained on the pot, continuing to purge as long as I could, and finally as the bell rang signaling the beginning of the next class rang, I decided that it was now safe to get up and go. I sneaked into the next class, a little bit tardy but unnoticed. 

Once more about ten minutes into the class period the pains returned with a vengeance and I found myself again surveying my emergency escape plan. I was in the same dire situation as before—sitting near the back of the classroom and in even deeper trouble. I knew that I had already blown the first plug and that the possibility of a really serious accident now loomed more eminent than ever! This was Miss Driver’s third period English class and she was really cranky about enforcing that room paddle thing! If I didn’t make it through this crisis there would be no way that I could ever live this thing down! Don’t ask me how I ever made it to the end of that class period! It had everything to do with a shy 14 year old's shear determination to avoid getting into an unimaginably embarrassing situation, no matter what. The final bell rang and I shot out of the room again, this time deeply grateful that I was only a door or two up the hall from that wonderful boy’s room with the open fronted toilet stall that had served me so well less than an hour earlier. I made the much shorter dash and made the same landing on the same pot. 

About a minute later just as I was really “cutting loose” the hall door opened and right on cue my two smoking friends walked in again. The one who swaggered like Elvis stopped bold in his tracks, his mouth fell open, and with eyes as big as saucers, he stared straight at me and gasped. “Have you been setten thur since I was here last time? Gaw wood die-eee-yum! You mus reee—uuly have thuh sheee—yuts!” 

The next period was lunch hour followed by home room study hall. I dared not eat lunch that day and I made darned sure that I knew exactly where the doors to the boy’s rooms were as I walked to the remainder of my classes. By now getting through the classes was not nearly as bad, but I did have to continue making “the dash” at the end of every class. By the time the final bell rang dismissing classes at the end of the day I made my last trek to the BR before getting on the bus. I was then good for the 45 minute bus ride home plus the quarter mile walk down the side road from the bus stop to our house before going inside and giving it my final shot for the day. By then I felt thoroughly cleaned out and I couldn’t resist getting off the stool and peering into the bowl. What I saw there looked a lot like what one would have blown out of his nose with an average cold. I knew then that I was on the road to healing. 

I never remembered what was done with the remainder of that kerosene tainted apple cider.
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