Salamander Summer

If I have any patience at all, it results from having lived with my grandmother, Beulah McKillip Casey, during my formative years as a child on a Shannon County farm.
Grandma was born in 1899 to Civil War veteran Alexander McKillip, who by all accounts was a mild-mannered man, and his wife Della, who, by many accounts, possessed a flinty disposition. Great grandma Della once killed a man with a pitchfork in defense of her husband, who was being beaten up by some ruffian. In her later years, when I was a baby, she threatened to stab a photographer who had the gall to say, “that baby isn’t photogenic.”  She had apparently mellowed with age, defending her darling great grandchild.
Great grandma Della, smoked a clay pipe and was supposedly one-quarter Native American, but given recent news coverage concerning family histories, I don’t state that as a fact. She had husbands other than Alexander. One came home drunk, and she sewed him in the bedsheets while he was passed out and thrashed him with a bed slat. The legal pleading might have read, “plaintiff was bruised, contused, and made sore and painful.” 
Speaking of punishment, she bought buggy whips for Grandma and her sister Fern at the county fair, which she promptly took from them once they got home, and strategically placed them over doorways to use as switches on the girls. 
These snapshots of Della are just a sampling, but provide sufficient evidence to suggest her nature and my grandmother’s perseverance. 
Thanks goodness, Grandma didn’t take after her mother. Surprisingly, I don’t recall Grandma ever expressing strong resentments of Della, other than once saying, “she was a mean old rip.” That’s amazing since Della also put Grandma and Fern in an orphanage after their father died. I have a sad postcard that Aunt Fern sent her mom from the orphanage. 
Perhaps, by the time I came along, after Grandma had endured a volatile mother, the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic, the Great Depression, two stillborn babies, her husband’s arm amputation, and two World Wars, she took the heat of Ozark summers in the1950s without breaking her stride. 
Just a toe-raise over five feet tall and stoutly built, Grandma worked hard with little complaint. During the day, she helped her one-armed husband with outside chores, and still found the energy to can tomatoes over a woodburning cookstove at 2 a.m. to avoid the heat.
Living in the un-airconditioned farmhouse, I remember those hot summers well. The uninsulated attic where my brother and I slept, which was as dry and hot as a sauna, had to be abandoned for army cots on the first floor. A window fan in the living room offered little relief.
Quoting Pat Guinan, associate professor of climatology with the University of Missouri Extension, the October 2013 Agricultural Electronic Bulletin Board reported that 1954 ranked as the third hottest summer on record. Moreover, “. . . between 1952 and 1956 southwest Missouri accumulated a deficit of 60 inches of precipitation.”  
This created a problem for our Shannon County farm. By 1957, the cistern ran out of water. We actually had a well, but it hadn’t been functional for years, and with no funds to fix it, the cistern was our only source of water. 
Our cistern was basically a cylindrical-shaped hole in the ground that collected rain water from gutter downspouts on the house. Constructed of concrete and about 10 feet deep and 8 feet wide, it could hold over 3,000 gallons. A rectangular wooden cabinet, with a hinged lid and an overhead pulley hoist and scaffold, covered the 3-by 3-foot opening. To get water, a rope and bucket attached to the overhead pulley took the place of a pump. 
Grandpa arranged for a tanker truck that held 2,000 gallons to deliver water from Mountain View. But first the cistern needed to be cleaned. After most of the remaining water had been bailed out, there still remained a layer of mud at the bottom that had to be swabbed. Grandpa was too old to attempt going down, so I got the assignment. 
With one foot in the bucket and holding on to the pulley rope, my skinny 10-year-old self, stripped down to my Fruit of the Loom skivvies, was lowered into the abyss. To this day, I vividly remember the feeling of stepping out of the bucket. It felt as if I had stepped into six inches of chocolate pudding. Dust filtering in over the years had formed a layer of slimy mud.
It was dark and creepy at the bottom of the cistern, but it wasn’t the damp and darkness that concerned me. Four feet away at the edge of the cistern floor, two large cave salamanders eyed me. One, orange with black spots, and the other yellow with black spots. Eurycea lucifuga. 
Now, this concerned me.
Grandma kept a salamander in a fishbowl in the living room as a pet. She called it a “waterdog” and cautioned me to stay away from it because waterdogs were poisonous. Her puny, grayish waterdog was only three inches, head to tail, compared to the plump six-inch monsters staring at me.
In my mind they had to be first cousins to Gila monsters. It didn’t help that my brother Jack, who was four years older, and too big to be let down by the pulley, taunted me that those lizards could jump several feet.
  As an adult, I always laughed that grandma had said they were poisonous. Researching this article, however, I was surprised to discover she was right. According to the Missouri Department of Conservation, salamanders secrete a neurotoxin if handled. I wonder where she got this, yet, another example of her country wisdom. 
With her usual patience, Grandma assured me that the waterdogs wouldn’t bother me if I left them alone, and I began dipping the bucket into the mud, while keeping an eye on the salamanders. When most of the mud was scooped up, she threw down some tow sacks (burlap feed sacks) to mop up the bottom. 
As a side note, I have often been curious why my grandparents called burlap bags tow sacks. With a little online investigation, I discovered it’s because they are made out of “tow,” which are waste fibers not suitable for better cloth. Another factoid: Chicken feed, on the other hand, came in more proper cloth, including colorful prints. I know because Grandma made a yellow shirt for me, from a chicken pellet sack, on her old Singer foot pedal-operated sewing machine. 
By the way, the salamanders were not removed prior to refilling the cistern, and I don’t think Great Grandma Della would have been afraid of them. She would have been searching for a fish gig.

Howell County News

110 W. Main St.,
Willow Springs, MO 65793

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