Back in the 1930s and up into the early ’50s Ed Wells, a friend of the family who hailed from Crossville, Tennessee, would come down to our farm in early winter and stay for a few months each year. Ed was a sort of itinerant farm worker, spending the winters in Florida with us and going up to Idaho in the summer to work in the potato fields. He helped around the farm, doing whatever needed to be done, maybe brush cutting and ditch cleaning in the winter, and then later helping with spring planting before he hopped the Greyhound north.
Ed had a comfortable bunk house that he and my dad had fixed up in one of the sheds near the grape arbor. He usually ate with us, but he sometimes liked to do his own “fixin’” in the bunk house for breakfast, or sometimes dinner (which we called supper back then).
A tough, wiry man with a shock of curly black hair and an infectious grin, Ed was always ready with a story for us kids about his travels, or possum and coon hunting in the Tennessee hills, and quick to tune up his old guitar for a country tune. Fond of kids, he was always ready to give me a hand with one of my projects — or to suggest one of his own to help me with.
One day Ed pulled a sheet of roofing tin out from under the pigeon house and leaned it up against the end of his bunk house. Later, when I went over there — just beyond the clothes line yard and across a little ditch from our house — Ed called my attention to the 7 or 8 foot long sheet of tin, and said to me, “Reckon what you could build with that ol’ piece of tin?” I said, “Maybe a dog house,” but he said, “That ol’ dog sleeps real good under the house. I thought maybe somethin’ for you to play with.”
I made most of my own toys out of pieces of wood, using short pieces of round sumac trunks about 2 or 3 inches in diameter for wheels, but I couldn’t think of anything I could make with that piece of tin. Then Ed said, “Maybe if we bent one end of it in half and nailed it to a short piece of wood, we could get started on makin’ a canoe.” While I was still running that idea through my mind, he said, “Then if I took the wood end piece out of an orange crate, and rounded it off on the bottom, and bent the other end of that tin around it, that ought’a make a good back end and you’d have yourself a canoe. You could ride that up and down the ditches to go fishin.”
Of course that sounded like a good idea to me, so we got out a saw, a hammer and some nails and went to work. Ed sealed around the wood on both ends with roofing tar, and I had a canoe. It wasn’t pointed on both ends, because Ed said it would be steadier in the water with the wider back end, but we still called it a canoe. He cut two small flat pieces of wood, about 6 inches square, that I held in my hands to paddle with. It sure was a lot of fun canoeing in the ditches. I also spent a lot of time turning the canoe back up and getting the water out.
Yessir! On warm days, I did a whole lot of paddling up and down the ditches, getting wet and muddy, but I never did any fishing from that canoe. Ditch banks are for fishing. That canoe was for riding!