Dad and Old Bob

by Sandra Keifer Szalinksi

My father worked. He worked from early in the morning until the daylight faded. He often worked by the shadowy rays from a trouble light. He swung a pick, heaved a shovel, lifted, pulled, and threw. He cut wood and steel. He nailed, screwed, welded and built. Late in the evening he sat quietly reading, studying, figuring out the things he needed to know, and sketching the drawings of how things needed to come together.

Pictures of my father in his 20s show a striking figure, standing tall and erect. In a photo with his Army Air Corps buddies he has his cap turned jauntily to one side, boldly conveying a sense of pride and invulnerability for his wartime mission. The mission for those young men didn’t end with the end of World War II. For many, it was just the beginning.

My father symbolized the energy of America during the 1950s. Like the country as a whole, he was building. By day, my father worked as a skilled welder, who mended broken tracks, engines, and other pieces of railroad equipment for the Erie Railroad. He came home each day to work on building his home and feeding his family. 

I was a year old when my parents bought the run-down farm in northwestern Pennsylvania. The overgrown, 40-acre property included a ramshackle two-story, wood frame house; an out-house; a couple of small storage sheds and a huge old barn that was constructed of hand-hewn timbers assembled with wooden pegs. An electric line ran to the house, a steel hand pump in the kitchen provided water from a well, and the chimney flu rose from the living room where a coal stove provided the only heat for the house.

Dad had a vision and there was nothing that my Dad couldn’t build, fix, or improve upon. Running hot water and central heating were high on his list and toward that end he needed space beneath the house, which had no basement. However, there was a small area under the house that might have been used as a root cellar. It had earthen walls, a door to the outside, and wooden steps that led to ground level. 

I remember a moment, probably summer of 1952, when Dad was excavating a basement. I crouched down on my haunches near the horse’s big rear hooves, hugged my knees to my chest, and peered down the ramp through the open door of the dirt cellar. My eyes adjusted from the twilight to the bright trouble light hanging from the ceiling illuminating the small room. I could see the back of my father’s right leg and lower back and his right arm swinging the pickaxe rhythmically, pulling off chunks of the damp, brown clay that landed with a dull thump. The air felt hot and humid, and I swatted at a mosquito buzzing near my ear.

“Goodnight, Daddy,” I yelled.

Dad stopped what he was doing and walked toward the doorway.  He pulled off his dirty work gloves and with his forearm wiped the beads of sweat from his forehead.  He looked out at me, “Is it bedtime already?”

“Yes, but I don’t want to go bed. It’s still light.” I pleaded, “I want to catch lightening bugs?”

“Didn’t Mummy already tell you it’s time for bed?”  Dad looked at me wearily.  “I’ve got to finish this load, unharness Bob, and go to bed myself. Got to get up early to get to work.”

Without further argument, I stood up and took a few steps up the ramp to Bob’s head.  “Goodnight, Bob,” I said as I rubbed his chin. Bob thrust his head forward, showing his pleasure and silently asking for more.   He stood patiently waiting for the next command, occasionally swishing his tail or tossing his head to fend off a fly or other biting insect.

Dad finished digging and shoveled the pile of dirt into the steel scoop that was hitched behind Bob. The scoop, known as a horse drawn Buck scraper, looked somewhat like a huge version of a typical kitchen scoop. It had two long, wooden handles at one end and a large flexible collar to which a chain was attached to pull it. The horse, with the scoop attached to his leather harness, stood where the wooden stairs had been. Dad had dismantled the stairs and created a smooth earthen ramp from the basement to the outside. With the pile of dirt loaded into the scoop, Dad walked up beside Bob, checked the harness, rubbed Bob’s forehead and quietly muttered some soothing words to him. Then he picked up the long reins, backed down the ramp, and positioned himself to one side at the back of the scoop. Dad gently slapped the reins against Bob and shouted, “Giddy up.” 

The horse lowered his head and strained against his harness, unable to budge the scoop. Dad gave the reins another sharp slap against Bob’s rump and shouted louder, at which the horse jumped forward, overcoming the inertia, which seemed to glue the bucket to the ground. The sudden motion caused the chain, which connected the scoop to Bob’s harness, to crash against the scoop with a loud clang that pierced the quiet evening. Bob snorted, the leather harness stretched and groaned, and Bob’s hooves thudded onto the hard soil. Once in motion Bob continued moving forward and the scoop slid up the ramp and onto the grass, whooshing softly along to the rhythmic sounds of creaking leather and stomping hooves. Dad guided the horse forward and kept him moving away from the house to the place where he was dumping the extra soil. By the time he had emptied the load, removed the horse’s harness and turned him out to pasture, and returned to the house, it was dark and I was in bed.

Dad’s routine of digging and hauling took many months. He toiled at home in the evenings after working his welding job during the day. It didn’t occur to me, as a young child, how hard those long days of work must have been, but I can remember Dad’s face covered with beads of sweat and the veins in his forearms and biceps protruding from the skin on his dirt covered arms.  Similarly, when the horse strained in his harness to budge the heavy load, I could see the veins bulging in his chest and legs.

Bob was a mixed-breed draft horse with sinewy muscles, large hooves, and a shiny black coat. He knew how to pull a plow and work on the farm. He stood patiently when told to do so and started, turned, or stopped upon verbal command. During the early days of our small farm, Dad used Bob to plow his garden and fields, to cut and rake hay, and do other tasks.

Dad and Bob made an excellent team. Dad always treated Bob kindly and Bob worked hard, responsive to his master’s commands. Every spring my parents planted a large vegetable garden. The process began in late April or early May when Dad plowed the garden plot. I recall walking beside Dad or near Bob’s front left leg, following them up and down the rows. My father walked behind the plow pushing down on the handles so that the blades dug into the soil, while Bob dragged the plow forward, the aroma of damp, freshly turned earth permeating the air. Dad draped the reins over his shoulders and seldom used them. Bob knew voice commands like “gee” and “haw,” so he would turn right or left at the end of the row. The two of them worked as a team with Bob knowing what to do with only a gentle tug on a rein, a click from my father’s tongue, or a single word.

Through the years, Dad undertook some incredibly hard jobs.  After he dug the basement Dad constructed the concrete floor and cement block walls.   He did everything by hand: building forms, lugging stones and cement to make the concrete, shoveling the concrete into the forms and leveling it into a smooth surface. Eventually, Dad saved enough money to buy a Ford Ferguson tractor at a country farm auction, after which he did not need Bob to support his labor. 

I loved Bob and rode him bareback around the pasture. Though he wasn’t trained as a saddle horse, he tolerated me on his back. He never bucked or reared, but sometimes I believe he tried to rid me from his back by purposely walking under a low tree branch. Sometimes I would just sit on his back while Bob grazed. One day, when my younger brother and I were sitting on Bob’s back facing backwards, pretending to be circus clowns, Bob sauntered under a branch that scraped us from his back. We slid off Bob’s rump and landed in a heap among some brambles. Slightly bruised and scratched, we brushed ourselves off and ran to the house where Mum cleaned our wounds. I continually pestered Mum and Dad for a sleek riding horse.

My parents could not afford the luxury of a riding horse, nor did Dad want the added work.  Caring for a horse in the summer wasn’t too bad when there was plenty of grass in the pasture and water flowing in the creek. But the long harsh winters in the snow belt south of Lake Erie meant feeding animals with costly grain and hay, carrying water and shoveling manure. Dad would tell us that the only reason to have animals was if they served a purpose. Our cows supplied milk; the chickens provided eggs and meat, and the barn cats kept the rats and mice from eating the grain. A riding horse for occasional entertainment was not a sufficient purpose to justify the cost and added work.

Even though Bob lost his purpose, Dad kept him and cared for him. Replaced by the tractor and growing old, Bob spent his days grazing in the lush green pasture or munching hay in the barn. Every now and then a man would stop by the house and ask Dad if he wanted to sell the horse. Dad would say no.  Occasionally, he would muse, almost to himself, “I should sell old Bob.” and then, sadly, “They would only take him to the glue factory.”

One day, when I was twelve or thirteen, Dad observed that Bob, then in his mid-to-late twenties, was not well.  It was summertime, but Dad put him in the barn. Bob stood listlessly in the stall for a couple of days and finally laid down. I frequently went into the barn to see Bob. My heart ached as I watched him lay there occasionally thrashing his legs and trying to get up. I longed to go into the stall and stroke his head, but I feared getting hurt. I saw him draw his last few huffs of breath and the barn fell quiet. Tears rolled down my cheeks.

Dad was at work at the time. Later that afternoon I sat on the back porch waiting for Dad to come home. When he pulled into the driveway Mum went out to tell him the news. When she came up the porch steps carrying his lunch pail, I ran to follow him into the barn. For a few moments, Dad just stood looking at Bob, who laid silently on his side, legs outstretched, as if asleep. The expression on Dad’s face conveyed his sorrow. Wordlessly, he picked up an axe and shovel, walked to a wooded area bordering the north side of the pasture and began digging. He dug a hole big enough to safely encompass old Bob. Then late on a summer evening, Dad attached ropes to Bob, and with the tractor, its headlights flickering in the dusk, pulled Bob across the grassy pasture to the edge of the woods. I walked along to say my final goodbye.

photo of the author on Bob, credit: Paul M. Keifer, the author’s father