Thursday, March 29, 2012

Joy of the Day of the Thresher by Abbi

© 2012

There was no greater joy in the life of a child in rural Ireland than to wake up on a sunny September morning with a promise of a day off school and a threshing in the neighbourhood. It was anticipated with excitement and wonder.  It was up there with First Communion, Confirmation & my older sister's wedding.  It was also  one of the major social events in the farming calendar, giving both farmers and their work-men the opportunity to gather and exchange news and ideas.  The wives too, gathered round to lend a hand  with the 'feasting;'  they helped with the preparation of huge amounts of  food;  tables creaking with bowls of lovely floury potatoes, fresh garden vegetables dressed with home-made butter.  There were sides of bacon and generous proportions of mutton on the table and jugs of porter.    There was a lot of organizational skills required of these ladies but they rose to the occasion and produced fine meals for the hungry workers. As for the youngsters,  underfoot they were,  being scolded but also praised for their 'help,' for them it was carnival time. 
     Not every farm in the locality would have a threshing, only those  who  specialized in grain growing – such as  barley, wheat and some oats.  We didn't live on a farm, therefore we didn't enjoy such an annual event but how we longed for an invitation to a neighbours'!   However, we were generally  invited along under the guise of 'helping.' I doubt whether we were of any help, more like getting in the way and under foot.   We looked forward to that day like no other.  
Having harvested the grain crop it was  left in stooks to dry then brought in to the haggard to be stacked into reeks for threshing.  Arrangements were then put in place to book the machinery  and to have it delivered.
The  sun invariably shone  as the work could not go ahead if it was raining. The grain had to be protected from rain, so dry and hopefully, sunny conditions prevailed.  My last remembered threshing  was held on our neighbour's farm about a quarter of a mile away.  I remember it especially for the sense of anticipation and sheer joy of the day that lay ahead.  I 'threw' on my clothes, bolted down to the kitchen begging to be left go now!  I suppose it must have been just about dawn.  Children were not allowed in the haggard  until everything was ship-shape and safe.  At least as safe as was possible in those days when the phrase 'Safety in the Workplace' was not given the same importance as now. The whole farm yard was set up for the job at hand.
This was still in the days prior to the tractor and the machine was moved by a big steam engine.  The sight of this black monster trundling down the road with its roaring whistle and hauling the equally brown monster was enough to fire the imagination and sometimes frighten smaller children.  The thresher itself was a huge contraption;  as big and as high as a large delivery van.   It had belts,  bolts,  small wheels  and shutters attached to its sides on the outside  and who knows what compartments and gadgets the inside held, which could be viewed only from atop the actual threshing machine itself.  
How  the  mill  and steam engine,  both of which were unwieldy contraptions, were moved along our narrow country lanes is hard to imagine, however move they did, followed by a merry bunch of youngsters  shouting and cheering.  The engine and thresher would have been placed in position the night before, beside or between the reeks of sheaves, ready for start-up before dawn.  I remember waking at an unearthly hour to the whistle blow of the engine, calling all hands.   I set out just as soon as I was set free and with a song in my young heart and my toes scarcely touching the ground, I flew the road like a bird.   When I arrived the threshing was under way, the big day was here - my cup 'runneth over'.  
So began my last day at a threshing and to write any more about it and to do it justice would take many more pages of sweet memories.  Here's a taste of the poet Patrick Cavanagh's  thoughts on his day of the threshing: 

"And then I came to the haggard gate,
And I knew as I entered that I had come
Through fields that were part of no earthly estate."
 Patrick Cavanagh

Friday, March 23, 2012

Tale of a Talking Doll by Victor Sullivan

Unfit for purpose? No way!
© 2012
The doll's name is long forgotten, even by its owner, but I clearly recall the ache in my ribs from laughing, as I write this almost forty years later. Perhaps some tool had slipped, perhaps I had over-tightened a screw, perhaps it was something I should have done differently but the outcome will go down in the annals of our family history.

The doll was quite a novelty. She talked; and when she did she spoke quite clearly. This was years before the era of miniature electronic speech implants that are now commonplace in many toys.
A string with a knob on the end dangled from the doll's back which, when pulled and released, randomly initiated a typical toddler expression such as "I want a drink of water,"  "Please put me to bed," "Kiss me goodnight" and a few others in similar vein. Our daughter made good use of the talking feature and was always glad of an opportunity to show off her doll's verbal expertise.

Came the sad day when a tearful little girl appeared with a silent doll in one hand and the mechanism's activating string in the other. She approached me, her technically orientated Dad, fixer of everything.  I confidently gave comforting assurance that it would be quite a simple matter to restore the doll to her former verbosity and thus produced a hopeful smile on that tear-stained face.

There followed an exploratory examination of the doll necessitating the use of scissors on clothing and other indignities that eventually exposed a clever sound reproduction device. It operated on Edison's mechanical principle using a tiny plastic disk with several short mechanical sound-tracks recorded on it. A stylus and diaphragm reproduced the child-like voice as the disc revolved. The disk was driven by a speed-controlled clockwork motor, wound by pulling the string.  On release, it activated the mechanism. My technical experience and understanding of such basic principles would clearly be of benefit in the circumstances and my daughter would soon hear the the familiar accent of her doll's voice once again. Simple!

Kitchen table cleared for doll-surgery, tools laid out, (most of which I knew I would not need but I had a most impressive-looking tool-box in those days and it made a good impression), temporary lighting was set up, a magnifying glass ready for use and with my daughter's anxious and challenging eyes staring from the opposite side of the table, the operation commenced.

Dismantling the mechanism appeared straightforward – at first. Things became a little tricky when I attempted to attach the winding cord. More in-depth dismantling of the  intricate mechanism was needed. The watching eyes became increasingly anxious, perhaps justifiably, as the critical reassembly steps commenced. Eventually I uttered a triumphal, "DONE! Now test it."

The six-year-old looked doubtful but she gingerly reached for the cord, prepared to test her beloved doll's vocabulary. Watched by both parents and two brothers she slowly pulled the cord and paused for dramatic effect before releasing it...

From the doll came a ponderous, very deep, male, (very male), voice worthy of an XX certificate, that requested: 
"Please put me to bed."

The audience exploded with helpless laughter. Somewhat bemused initially, then upset, the doll's owner quickly succeeded in sobbing and laughing simultaneously. Then she pulled the cord again and released it. In a tone that would have made the toughest Chicago gangster sound genteel by comparison, the slow voice growled threateningly: 
"I want a drink of water." 

We shrieked and doubled up in uncontrollable paroxysms of mirth, eyes streaming. Through my tears I saw a new, mischievous glint in my daughter's eye as she reached once more for the doll's cord and pulled.
"Kiss me goodnight" said the eloquent doll in a deep, sexy tone worthy of an XXX certificate and a red light above the door.

My offer to undo the damage was voted down by everyone, including our daughter. That night and for weeks afterwards members of the household could be caught stifling a snigger every time a deep, inappropriate voice could be heard coming from her bedroom. 

During the days that followed the operation the doll was taken to visit our neighbors in order to demonstrate the result of my attempted repairs. They all laughed as expected and I felt that they looked at me in an odd way whenever we met thereafter. If life became dull in our house the doll's cord would be pulled and we would all be laughing again. I remember hoping we wouldn't be obliged to attend any funerals. Choking down suppressed laughter on such solemn occasions is rarely successful and is prone to being misconstrued. The possibility was a source of worry as the sound of any low-pitched male voice could easily trigger a memory of that doll's demanding voice, three octaves below normal: 
"Where's my potty?"