As a child growing up in tornado alley having a clean, warm, dry, safe, well lit and regularly exterminated cellar was truly a luxury. My grandfather William (Bill) (Will) Reiter dug cellars. His were always cut into the downwind side of a knoll or small hill. The only water one of his cellars ever took dripped off an occupant coming in late out of the storm.
Our personal cellar was huge. It was large enough to hold our family and all of our close neighbors, who by the way, knew they were welcome and were thankful for it. Our last country cellar was like none other that I’ve ever known or been told of. It walls were lined with homemade bins of garden produce: fresh dug and aged potatoes, winter squash, turnips, onions and paper wrapped pears. There were shelves on two sides filled with a couple thousand jars of home canned tomatoes, ketchup, chili sauce, pickles of all descriptions, relishes, green beans, corn, carrots, green peas, black eyed peas, sauerkraut, pimentos, jellies, jams, preserves, marmalade’s, juices, applesauce, apple butter, peaches, plums, pears, fresh honey, honey comb and so much more including home made wild cherry wine.
There were 3 or 4 cots, pillows, blankets and lots of flashlights, fresh batteries, candles, box matches, kerosene lamps and their trimmings. Dad ran electricity down to the cellar in 1951 and added a working toilet in what he called the water closet a tiny room in the corner nearest the pond which was out behind on the flat meadow. Grandpa kept board games, card decks, a supply of books and magazines and 1 or 2 of his old fiddles. There were folding tables and chairs and a couple old rockers in case we had babies to tend. My folks ran a grocery store so there was soda pop and a large air tight chest filled with chocolates, potato chips, cookies, crackers and assorted goodies.
When Grandma Reiter made trips to the cellar which she called the root cellar to fetch groceries she always grabbed the broom and dust pan from the corner along with a clean rag or two and tidied up which meant our cellar was always clean and fresh. There were a couple of buckets of fresh sweet well water kept down there in storm season. It never froze in the cellar and it was never too hot.
My Grandpa Reiter witched wells in a five state area using a native peach bough in spring and a straightened old-time metal coat hanger other times of year. It was not something he set out to do professionally but his reputation preceded him and people would call asking for his help. The cellar digging began the same way but over the years they both paid well and his name became well known in our corner of Oklahoma. If someone was old or ill or in need he was known to refuse pay. He and my dad were both like that and looking back I realize that it was this trait that kept us richly blessed.
Grandpa Reiter played the fiddle at every opportunity. He was a regular at family barn dances, square dances and pie suppers all over northeast Oklahoma from Centralia to Bunker Hill and beyond. He had the opportunity to play with celebrities like Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, Marvin Rainwater, Arthur Godfrey, Leon Mcauliffe and more. Square dancing held a favorite place in our hearts. Dad and Mom put together a prize winning square dance club called Quivers and Pins, Grandma Reiter made their beautiful outfits. Grandpa played of course and my fondest memories were of him dropping that fiddle down, grabbing it with both hands and jumping it forward and back, bringing it back to his shoulder without ever missing a beat at least once at every performance. It always drove the crowds wild.
He was also known for taking 1st, 2nd and 3rd place ribbons year after year for his sweet and juicy 90 pound diamond back watermelons and his 13-17 inch Burpee “Big Boy” tomatoes. Grandpa Reiter was a beekeeper and I loved to watch him don his gear complete with metal mesh hood and gloves. Often when harvesting honey he would be head to heels covered in a swarm of bees, but oddly enough he was rarely stung. He raised his bees on red clover. His honey was award winning and we always sold out after reserving enough for our own use. He would always save me little pieces of honeycomb dripping in honey which I would chew til there was nothing left except a tiny bit of bees wax. Grandma Reiter used old honeycombs melting it down and straining it to make paraffin for sealing jelly and decorative candles.
Well that’s enough personal background. My mission here is to talk about perception. It was a unanimous perception in the community that when spring came and the storms started that the safest place to be was in my grandfather’s cellar. Friends family and neighbors brought their favorite dogs, cats and an occasional parakeet and filed in. Once the door was tightly shut after the last arrival the fear left and the laughter took its place. Up top a storm raged. Our poultry were safe in their concrete barns but their molting feathers left in the pens were driven deeply into the bark of solid oak, elm and pecan trees, driven by tornado force winds. On more than one occasion roofs and porches and wooden barns were highly damaged. We even came up to find trees uprooted and equipment blown away but down below in that cellar in the side of the knoll, the fiddle was going, the women were quilting or crocheting as Grandma always had an unfinished project tucked away. Dad was busy attempting to beat the socks off any takers at pitch, checkers or dominoes. The babies were snuggled down surrounded by dozing dogs and cats that would have taken on a grizzly to protect them. The teenagers were huddled in giggling masses girls in one corner and boys in another. There was warmth, music, faith and camaraderie in that cellar. That storm could wreak havoc but gathered safely together all was right with our souls.
When those storms were over we always found the livestock safely tucked down behind the huge pond dam. We never lost stock or pets. There were safe planned places for them to gather and their instincts took them there. We usually took our sweet time coming up to access the damage. Then everyone just pitched in picking things up and putting them back together again. It was old school neighbor helping neighbor. That’s how it was in northeast Oklahoma in the 50’s and still is for the most part now. With that being said you have my childhood perception of right. I have nurtured that perception for what will soon be seventy years. I admit that over the years I have experienced some personal changes, but as concerning Grandpa’s cellar, that was a shining example of right.
As an adult setting out to buy my own place, it had to be in the country and it had to have a warm, dry, well lit cellar. Searching for properties in the seventies I encountered some diverse cellars. I found damp cellars, spidery cellars, cellars so moldy you were safer facing the raging storm than you would have been locked in with those carcinogenic spores. I came across a cellar in the midst of the August drought that had what appeared to be 5 feet of standing water preserved inside. Shining my flashlight into the depths I spotted triangular heads swimming, some little and some not so. One was as big around as my elbow. Being a country girl I recognize a water moccasin when I see one. I did not get close enough to tell you if they were cottonmouths or not. My mouth did turn as dry as cotton as I left a cloud of late summer dust and flying gravel hightailing it out of there . It was at that point in a state of full blown perception, that I perceived both fear and speed.
I actually came across a cellar that I wanted to burn out before filling it in. That was the day I quit looking at places with existing cellars and asked Grandpa if he was up to supervising the digging of one last cellar. Later that same evening my family attended a local high school concert. One of the large local churches had opened their choir section and auditorium in order to handle the anticipated crowd. Their dining hall and gymnasium was used for a pie supper and box lunch supper afterwards to raise funds for the school. I enjoyed these affairs, I miss them and sorely wish some group would reinvent this type of fund raiser. The performance was excellent. I’d say one of the if not the best ever held. It was not surprising to any of us as we had some superb talent attending schools in Oklahoma at that era. WE all perceived talent at its finest that night.
When the last boxed meal was auctioned off and the crowd was all seated at long folding highly decorated lunch tables the participants began opening their purchases to find the treasures held inside. We had bid on and purchased our own box knowing it contained mom’s home fried chicken, original potato salad, slaw, homemade cloverleaf rolls and lemon meringue and coconut pie. We paid way too much as the auctioneer read our name off the bottom of the box and asked, “Is this fried chicken and one of Helen’s pies?” before he started the bidding. He did that with all the regulars that he knew had put forth their best efforts. Those baskets and boxes were always so beautifully wrapped and covered with curled ribbons, lace, fresh cut flowers, paper mache flowers, exquisite bows and more. To the crowd the perception of this event was absolutely right.
As the dinner conversation started I began to fully realize the true meaning of individual perceptions. I’d thought the boys acapello barbershop quartet was the best act of the night. Brother, was I soon schooled in being wrong. The lady across from me thought it was the soprano solo. No! came a booming male voice, It was the German number!” His wife said, “Honey it was the military march.” “It was not,” said a sweet elderly female voice , “It was the Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy!” That was actually my second choice. Then began the, “Did you hear my child?” portion of the conversation. The top comment of the evening evening came from a woman describing her perception of the piano concerto. To me it had represented a thunderstorm. I envisioned lightening and torrential rain, but she perceived the pianist as a construction worker handling the piano as a jackhammer and anticipated the piano and its player falling through a self drilled hole in the platform at any second. Have you ever choked on fried chicken? It is not safe to eat while listening to a visionary speak.
It was that lady who set my mind to pondering. people’s varying perceptions. I have since wandered through such wonderment’s as the “brick cheese debate.” Now seriously, concerning the term brick cheese do you think someone perceived this cheese to be as hard as a brick? Was it so named because it was set in a brick shaped mold or a mold made of brick? Maybe Mrs. Eloise Brick created the recipe. Now ponder that. Can you add an option or two? This type of pondering eventually leads to thoughts like: who perceives soft or hard, quiet or loud, fast or slow, sweet or sour and even rough or smooth. At what levels are perceptions formed and change and turned into unchangeable personal and public facts? Think about a single hawk feather floating down onto a motionless pond in pitch darkness. Was its landing soft and silent to the fish underneath the water’s surface or did it make a loud, hard, explosive sound? Did the bull frog on the pond bank think its dissension was too fast, too slow? Did the night sky notice if the water rippled? Was the earth moved or in the still blackness was it noticed not at all?
With such pondering’s I have come to realize it is our free choice to deliberate and perceive. As a people it is this freedom of choice that leads to a multitude of black, white and various shades of gray perceiving’s. And further to the “What if only’s?” and “whys?” This explains the myriad of personal perceptions created within individual imaginations allowing each of us to see things differently. The results open doors and pathways to do things, “my way” or “your way,” or our way,” or someone else’s way.” Once this process is complete we must find our personal ways to the correct and appropriate way. The way that brings peace and stability within and shining outward.
Deep down below just like a properly executed and well dug, well lit, safety cellar each of us has a personal place where right lives and wrong even our very own conceived and orchestrated wrong is still recognized within as wrong. Grandpa I’m so thankful not just that you knew how to, but carried through discovering deep sweet water wells, playing first fiddle, growing record setting delicious produce, providing and nurturing God’s honey bees and their product, digging warm dry faith filled cellars and hand crafting character in our family and your personal corner of this world. I rejoice in my internal knowledge of right and I’m thankful to still flinch when contemplating wrong,
The greatest gift you gave this earth was not doing all those great achievements your way. It was leading those whose lives you touched to do things, “the right way.” you are my hero of heroes. Just so you know I’m still using Grandma’s torque down 35 pound canner. I have it tested at the extension office in the courthouse yearly and it still holds pressure with precision. One of Sissie’s boys still has your claw-foot dining table and your bible and my daughter has dad’s bible. God is continuously my light in the darkest storm and I’m not afraid of storms nor are your great grandchildren or your great-great grandchildren. I will forever love you for that.
In loving memory of William Raymond Reiter, July 1889- March 1978.