Farmboy skills lost in time

🕔May 22, 2008

A sure way to guarantee that no one reads this is for me to begin with, “Why, when I was a kid…” Put your hand up if you like to be told that your health-threatening stress level is nothing compared to mine when I was a kid.
Times change. Kids living in northwest BC today have different stresses than I had back in the 60s—but not as health-threatening. Just watch the frantic anxiety of today’s youth when a power outage shuts down the computers, GameCubes and cell phones. Why don’t they just do the things I did when I was their age? The answer is simple: they don’t know how.
I have provided a glossary for young people who are losing the language of the ancient past.

Make a whistle from a willow stick.
Any farmboy or farmgirl today would be able to bring this old craft back to life, if only he or she knew how. Only one tool is required, though it is rarely seen now: a jackknife.
In the early summer, when sap is plentiful under the bark, cut down a willow stick that’s about as thick as the joystick for your video games. You need a straight piece approximately the length of your cell phone.
You will have to bash the entire surface of the bark to bruise it, causing it to separate from the wood. Bash it gently if your choice of willow has thin bark—about as hard as breaking an egg—but you’ll have to hit it around a thousand times. If you happened to choose a cottonwood willow stick, you’ll have to bash it more like smacking a ketchup bottle.
When you get tired of tapping the bark, hold the stick in both hands and twist. If the bark separates from the stick without ripping, you have achieved a critical part of the process. If the bark doesn’t separate, bash it more. If the bark rips, the whistle is dead. Get another stick.
The bark is now a tube that will slide nicely off the stick. Set it aside.
At this point, the experienced farmboy whistle-maker suddenly realizes that he forgot a key step, so the bark tube must be carefully slid back onto the stick. Since the wood surface has begun to dry, you may need to lick it all over to aid the replacement of the bark. After making many whistles you will know by the taste that not all willow sticks are created equal, and a cottonwood willow stick is the yuckiest.
The critical step is to make an airhole in the bark. It has to be located where your lips won’t cover it when you blow the whistle. An accurate measurement of your lip thickness is not required; the width of your little finger will do fine. Which little finger doesn’t matter, but the one on the hand not holding the knife is the easiest.
Although whistle-carving is not a science, the size of the airhole is important. Start with a hole about the size of your little toenail.
Remove the bark again. Now cut away most of the stick so there’s a cavity inside when the bark is replaced.
Here’s a critical step. You need to slice away a bit of the wood under the place where your upper lip will be. This is the air passage when you have the bark back in place. Of course the size is important, so cut away just the right amount. (Hint: cutting more away later is easier than putting wood back if you cut away too much.)
Lick the stick again and slide the bark back in place. Your creation is finished! We are not yet calling it a whistle because if it doesn’t whistle when you blow into it, it’s still just a stick.
Since we are not whistle scientists, the failure rate is frustratingly high. There’s no fun at all in walking around blowing into a stick that won’t whistle. If and when you are successful in creating a whistle, there is plenty of fun to be had in walking around blowing your whistle because its ear-piercing pitch is very irritating to others.
If your whistle is still just a stick:

1 Throw it away and start again.
2 Throw it away and don’t start again.
3 Make the hole bigger. If the hole is already too big, refer to #1 above.
4 Make the cavity bigger. If this is not possible, refer to #1.
5 Make the airway bigger. If it is already too big, refer to #1.
6 Other…refer to #1.

Farmboy Olympic skills
Farmboys have never been completely out of touch with important world events. Even back in ancient times, CBC-TV brought Hockey Night in Canada into homes every Saturday, immediately following the Bugs Bunny-Roadrunner Hour. Having only black-and-white TV was not a problem because hockey players, wearing no helmets, were recognizable. We always knew when it was Gordie Howe who had the puck…and we knew that he had been a farmboy on the prairies before he became a rich and famous hockey player.
We farmboys also knew that a career in the Olympics was possible because farm work made you strong. But we had to practice the skills, and we did.
Javelin was a definite favourite, and a late-summer patch of fireweed was a natural training facility. All the required equipment was there: fireweeds and enough space to safely launch them. Safety was always a primary concern because spears—I mean javelins—could kill someone, and killing a friend or sister would be very inconvenient because the training session would be interrupted for at least an hour. We would NEVER consider throwing them at each other, because our silly parents might disapprove. None of us ever lost an eye, despite our parents’ predictions.
With fireweeds, size matters: the taller the better. To pull a fireweed javelin out of the ground, one must pull straight up. Pulling sideways at all can result in the shaft breaking off without the bit of root on the end. That bit of root is heavy, helping the spear—javelin—fly straight.
Most of the leaves have to be removed from the spear’s shaft, to reduce drag while it is in flight. However, you need to leave a few at the top to act like the feathers on an arrow. They help the spear fly straight, which is useful when throwing at someone (which, as I said, we never did).
To remove the leaves, quickly slide your hand down the shaft, stripping them away in a single motion. The handful of leaves you end up with may be dropped on the ground, but throwing them at a friend or sister is another perfectly good option.
We had seen black-and-white javelin throwers on TV, so we were well aware of the unique footwork required to make a correct throw. It didn’t work very well for us though, and was funny-looking besides, so we developed our own,
superior, technique. If we’d known how to contact the Olympic people we’d have told them about our better way.
Throwing for distance like they do on TV was okay, but throwing at targets was more interesting, and moving targets were the best. Occasionally the session transformed into something more like Cops and Robbers…but we definitely never aimed to actually hit anyone. (My mom might read this, so I’m sticking to my story.)
Discus—The discus event was another that we occasionally trained for, but we needed the right kind of weather to have usable equipment. A critical farmboy skill that is being lost, however, is the ability to identify when a cow-pie discus is ready to use.
A good stretch of hot weather created perfectly dried-out platters in the pasture. They could be picked up off the ground and needed no modification. In most cases bugs had eaten away enough to make them fairly light-weight.
Important hint: gently kicking a prospective discus will reveal whether it is dry enough. If it’s still a bit too fresh, you might not want to pick it up. It will probably be ready tomorrow—or you could suggest to your sister, “Here’s a good one. Do you want it?”

Using a rotary phone
The use of any ancient technology included certain skills and knowledge that have been lost as improvements are made. Farmboys developed an active social life when rotary phones appeared in homes from Prince George to Prince Rupert in the ’60s. Phone calls to friends became quite frequent, with the more socially oriented guys making as many as three calls in a single month.
Several of the skills required to use a rotary phone (there was only one per home—how could more than one ever be necessary?) have been lost.
First, the desired phone number had to be found in the phonebook. This is not as easy as it sounds—you have to be able to read. Next, pick up the receiver. Although it is approximately 20 times the weight of your cell phone, you must be prepared to hold it for the duration of the call.
Listen for a few seconds to determine if someone else is already using the line. Yes, in ancient times a phone line would be shared by several parties, which is similar to a conference call today but didn’t cost as much.
Now the hard part: dialing. Locate the first number, located somewhere on the dial. Rather than being arranged in a grid pattern, the numbers were mysteriously arranged in reverse order, starting with “1” and ending with “0.”
With your finger, turn the dial clockwise; then remove your finger and wait while the dial returns. This seems like an eternity, but really it’s only a few seconds—much like the frustration of waiting for a slow computer. Repeat this process for each digit.
Other parties on your line might pick up their phone, allowing them to participate in your conversation. Although a quick “sorry” was common before that party exited, occasionally that neighbour was wanting to talk to you anyway—one advantage of the party-line system. Another advantage was that there was no worry about anyone recording your call. Invasion of privacy had not yet been invented.
In ancient times, when the power was out, a farmboy could just dial up a friend and blow that ear-piercing whistle into the receiver, inviting him over to practice for the Olympics. It’s sad to think that today these are vanishing skills.

Ancient past: any date starting with 19— or earlier.
Bark: outer layer which must be removed from a willow stick. Also the sound a dog makes if you tease him by not throwing a willow stick.
Bash: strike repeatedly. Also a huge party, like when all your friends come over to check out your new wireless whistle.
Black-and-white: a picture with no colours. This technology likely preceded cave paintings, which had colour.
Bruise: dark sore spot on your skin resulting from injury, common in ancient times when kids were active.
Career: anything that old people do when they grow up.
Clockwise: an ancient method of determining the direction of turning an object. Does not refer to the clock’s level of intelligence.
Ground: dirt or soil in which plants grow. Ancient kids were known to to actually get it on their hands and clothes.
Jackknife: cordless, multi-purpose folding knife, carried 24/7 in your pocket. Must be opened manually.
Safety: the rules set out by parents to take the fun out of an activity, just because some dummy got hurt somewhere a long time ago.
Willow stick: a branch from any bush or tree.