About 45 miles west of Cedar Rapids, Iowa is Keystone. It is a small farming town set in the midst of corn and soya bean fields. There are silos reaching for the sky, a few dilapidated stores, the remnants of a railway line, and many quaint Victorian houses. Head south-west about three miles through the fields and past the farm houses, one per forty acres, and there on a rise left by a retreating glacier is the ugliest house in the county.
It probably started life in the early 1890s as a standard issue rectangle; about twice as long as wide, and two-stories high. The main structure was erected over a deep basement with undressed sandstone block walls. Maybe in the thirties or forties the foot print was doubled, making it an ungainly cube. The addition was built over a shallow crawl space. Sometime in the sixties a mudroom was added, and then it was left unpainted for decades to weather to a non-descript ash-color.
A single car garage from the early days of car ownership clings precariously to life at one corner of the house. And all around are barns; big barns, many-times the size of the house. They too are in various states of repair; but uniformly they are filled with a warm-smelling dust and old straw. And old tractors. Every square inch of every barn is chock-a-block with old tractors: all the faded green and yellow metal of John Deere originals, no longer viable on a modern farm, but collectors’ items of sentiment and investment. The most noticeable feature is the increase in size of the seat as the years pass by and it was necessary to provide bigger and broader seats for the increasing girth of the farmers growing comfortable on farm produce.
For five years, each spring and each fall, I would move into this farm house for a few weeks. And each weekend six grandkids would arrive with various adults. Entertaining them was the challenge of each weekend. Sometimes it was easy; sometimes it demanded vigilance; and often it took initiative. Here are some pointers that I learnt from those happy days on the topic of entertaining kids on the farm.
When the sun is shining and the breezes soft, it is best to take them outside and to encourage them to the small stream that flows near at the base of the rise. This is a varied and intriguing place. There is mud and diverse plants. There are stones to step on to cross the water. There are sticks, branches, and logs of all shapes and sizes to be floated on the water, to be stuck to stand upright in the mud, to be wielded to hit a brother, of simply to sit on and to watch the passing sun and clouds.
Follow the stream to a bend where on a bank is an enormous tree once struck by lightning and now split in two: one half still standing proud, the other half bowing to the ground to form a ramp up which the kids clamber to climb and gaze out to the horizon to dream of far adventure and heroes—that is until one falls and you have to take them back to the house for a Band-Aid and candy to still the crying.
When the sun is hot and the wind is dry, best to guide them to the barns where they clamber over the old tractors. You try to encourage them to play farmer, ploughman, tractor driver, and mechanic. Try again—for they care not for these honorable pastimes or professions. With five boys, the game inevitably becomes a struggle to mount the tallest tractor and to maintain possession thereof against the other brothers. Every guile and negotiating tactic is employed. And if you do not keep close watch it devolves into to outright violence as they try to dislodge each other. Try as you might to persuade that quality, diversity, beauty should be a criterion in taking possession of a different tractor—forget it. It all boils down to elevation—the higher the seat of the tractor, the more prized is its possession.
As the sun sets, put them to gathering old newspaper, straw, twigs, sticks, and planks of which there is a seemingly endless supply dumped by the locals on the burn pile. A few matches and you have a roaring open fire. Pre-cook the sausages. Have at least twice as many sausages as you think they will be able to eat. Let them “cook” the sausages over the open flames. Be sure that each kid will drop at least one sausage into the fire where the incineration will cause much delight as the fat explodes and the flames jump higher. Finish this out-door-cook-out with smores, that strange American tradition of burnt march-mellow, chocolate, and a sweet cookie. By the time these are eaten, the kids will be covered in soot, ash, and sugar and ready to bath and shower. You can them pull out a drink and relax as mother takes over to get them to bed.
Except they first need to watch a movie. There is no TV reception, so you must keep a stock of DVD movies suitable for kids from three to thirteen. It is of course impossible to choose a movie that satisfies them all. This is the trick to peace. Take them into Belle Plaine, another small town whose main street includes a DVD rental store. Let them each choose a movie of their own liking. A little guidance re violence and “we have seen that and are not going to watch it again,” and with luck you will have five or six potentially suitable movies. Once back home, and it is time for the lottery. This involves pulling numbers out of a hat. He, who pulls number one, is allowed to put his movie on first, and so on through the weekend until each has had a chance to see their chosen movie. They complain about each other’ s choice, but inevitably watch—for the alternative is to go to bed, or read a book.
Saturday dawned clear and bright. Today is the day to paint the garage, or the side of the house where the wood is slowly dissolving away. Only the older boys care to clamber into the car to make the journey to the hardware store and there to pick paint and brushes for what they know will be work. Each is allowed to choose his own brush; color, shape, bristles, and size are debated in detail and each gets a brush that mirrors his character. One brush is large and bold, making gaudy, untidy streaks. A second brush is small and precise, almost delicate and spending hours over one plank.
Back to the farm, to old clothes, to an individual can of paint, and that very individual brush. Each is assigned a part of the wall to paint. The coveted position is atop the ladder, where you can drip paint on your fellows below. Nobody ever succeeded in fully painting the assigned area. I would have to follow up with a covering coat of paint. At best they had fun and spread a bit of paint on the old wood.
After lunch it is time to install a swing from the branches of the big tree on the front lawn. After many vain attempts, we get a thin rope thrown over a high branch. Follow with thicker twine and hence a stout rope and you are ready to tie the rope to an old tire. Hopeless confusion follows as the fight for primacy to sneak into the tire ensues. You need firm discipline to set an order of turns and to keep them quiet as one tries to get a longer turn than pre-arranged. Keep a box of cookies handy and bribe those not swinging to eat one in return for good behavior. That is until you grow impatient yourself and set up two more tires. By which stage they are tired of swinging and your nest of swings has to await another weekend to be fully used and enjoyed.
One of the kids is a natural naturalist. He will bring in wigs, worms, insects, birds’ feathers, leaves, and grasses almost incessantly. You wish to encourage, but there is a limit to the number of worms and grubs you can accommodate in the kitchen. One is a geologist by instinct, constantly finding another rock amongst the glacial detritus swept down with the black clays from Canada. You insist that these rocks be kept in the garage, for too big a pile is just dangerous in the kitchen—you trip over it while cooking. One is the aspirant wood worker—forever pleading that you help him with a plank, a hammer, and nails. He makes a bizarre contraption that alternates as a plane, a space-ship, a rocking horse, a racing car. The other kids grow envious—they cannot make the same themselves—and so they demand you make them similar. Then there is the artist: always pleading for paper and pen, water-color and charcoal. His drawings and paintings spill from the table, down the benches, and over the floors. I have many of the best now framed in my city home.
On cold days we stay indoors. We read, watch DVDs, fold origami, cook, and play games. But those are topics for other essays on entertaining kids.