Country Chaff
Country Chaff

Country Chaff

by Jerry Easterling

The Editor’s spot this issue is dedicated to Jerry Easterling, my Uncle, my friend, who we lost to lung cancer on February 27th of this year. He was a remarkable man and I would like to share a little about him and some of his writings with you here.

Jerrold D. Easterling was born August 18, 1925 in Kearney, Nebraska to Robert B. and Bernice Easterling. The family moved to Oregon in 1936. When asked where he was from, you would usually hear Jerry proudly say “Nebraska originally.”

As a young man he helped with the family auction business and went on to auctioneer sales all over Oregon and the Northwest (he was calling sales as recently as last Fall) . He joined the U.S. Navy upon graduation from High School and served four years as a Naval Air Corp radioman during World War II.

Although he received a degree in journalism from the University of Oregon shortly after the war, he spent the next 20 years doing the things that became fodder for the weekly column, “Country Chaff,” that he began writing for the Salem Statesman Journal in 1977, until his retirement almost 20 years later. He had worked as a “pitchman,” logger, sawmill hand, truck driver, carpenter, plus various other odd and unrelated jobs. But most of the time he was busy writing, or in the auction business, which he called “one of the wildest businesses you could wind up in.”

He won the Best of Gannett award for writing in 1982. Writings from his “Country Chaff” column were later compiled and published in three books.

Jerry had a special knack with people and an appreciation for the common man. He had a love of the land and it’s raw beauty. He’d just recently told me how he really felt as though he’d been everywhere in Oregon, traveled down every backroad and highway, and interviewed just about everyone. If you were lucky enough to hear any of the stories he could tell (and no one could tell a story quite like “Jer”) of the places he’d been and the people he’d met, you would believe he had indeed been everywhere.

Jerry wore many hats and was blessed with many special gifts. A loving husband, father, farmer, auctioneer, writer, and good friend to so many. He lived a rich, full, diverse life, and took advantage of every moment. He enjoyed meeting new people – he never met a stranger. He was a storyteller who could paint pictures with his words and has left us a legacy with his stories, and his philosophies of life.

He was so many good things, anyone who knew him, loved him.

We will miss you Jerry, “Dingo” (a.k.a Kristi)

Country Chaff


Barns are at their best in the fall, with hay jammed tight against the rafters. They feel good then, when the sky begins to fill with clouds and winter makes its coming known by the sharp, chilled edge it whets on autumn’s whisky winds.

To be fully appreciated they need some age, because barns are like people: they reveal their character as they season. It isn’t something new barns have. It doesn’t come in a can of paint. It can’t be nailed on, or hung like a door. If it isn’t genuine it isn’t there.

It’s not something easily described, but if you’re a barn addict you can feel it. It’s a sense of time. And place. And a feeling of persistence, of steady reliability. And dignified patience, of course.

Barns are masculine, just as houses are feminine. Some may dispute that. Those who beat the drum for equality in all things will probably say that sex has nothing to do with a barn. Or a house. Or with men and women, for that matter. But I stand my ground. Some buildings, such as those that rise like gleaming stilettos stuck into the sky, may be a neuter gender. But that’s not what barns are.

An old barn is rough, with drooping shoulders and a tired back that may sag toward the middle. It’s tough, rough-cut and splintery. But it’s not stingy. It possesses a quality of tired gentleness. Just by looking you can tell that it will never turn anything away. For every stray a place will be found. Inside that scarred old door every creature is welcome. You-all come.

They’ve got to be built of wood. No other material will do. Nothing reflects time and change the way it does. In time it will crack and brown. It may even warp. But it will persevere. Never will it quit as long as it can hang by the nail that put it there. Its true grain doesn’t begin to show until it’s been exposed to stress and strain.

Barns are homage mankind pays to the livestock he domesticates. One is for the other. Without livestock barns are just another building. It takes life to give them warmth. Without purpose barns become empty, hollow shells, just as people do.

In the spring their personalities change. With the hay fed down they seem to open up, to expand. Without something crowding up against the rafters, their roofs rise too high. But winter is past and they have done their duty. As the cattle leave for grass turned green by a friendly sun, old barns fill up with a timeless, restful hush.

Through the cool gloom a fly drones an aimless course, and a thousand tiny, shiny points of dust poise with delicate indecision in a shaft of sunlight squeezing through a crack. A sparrow chitters softly from under the eave, then all is quiet. It’s time to relax in the drowsy silence. To doze like tired old men taking the first warm sun of spring.

Then it’s summer. And then it’s over. And suddenly it’s fall again, and mornings come fuzzy with frost. And a silvery stream of fog lingers upon the dark river water like a lover’s caress. Soon winter will fill the sky with clouds, and the wind will come hissing around the corners. Old barns seem to squat a little lower then, crouching slightly like tired old fighters. But they’ve done battle with the elements before. The pain may be gone, but the spirit’s still strong.

Inside cattle crowd up against the manger. They are lazy and content. Hay rustles softly as they eat. With patient dignity old barns shelter all those that come to them.

Country Chaff


Each dawn lights a new world in the spring. It is a time of change. It is new sights and sounds. The air smells different in the spring, and nature’s touch is lighter.

Spring comes in green: the pale light green of new things growing, and the deep, dark shiny green of fields fortified with fertilizer. In the hills, where grow the fir and spruce and hemlock, the green is of a more somber tone. It looks older, weathered, more permanent than the new-growing greens of the meadow and the valleys.

Spring is the good feel of the sun-warmed earth, and the way it shines in long straight rows behind the plow that rolls it over. Soft, ruffling breezes blow and big whipped-cream clouds drift without hurry across a sea-blue sky. The sun shines brighter then, and stays longer, and no longer glares with winter’s cold indifference.

Spring is strong damp odors and oily splotches floating blue and strangely iridescent on puddles of trapped water that never had a chance to run. It is polliwogs wriggling like dark, plump plums in their pools, and the earth still spongy with dampness, and the spear of swamp grass along the ditches.

A meadowlark’s song in the pasture is answered by the impudent crow of the pheasant, flaunting his feathery rainbow in the sun near the thicket beside the fence. Spring is a killdeer dragging along the ground, trying to draw the intruder from its nest by faking a broken wing. It is a snipe bursting like a tiny explosion into flight and the zig-zag pattern it flies to safety.

Spring is the time of those soft velvety nights, those dark, star-jeweled hazy moonlit mysteries that shimmer with a suspended, breathless quality, and a sense that some great invisible force awaits the coming of the sun, just waits, as the frogs croak away the stillness and a meteor streaks to a flaming end out there somewhere in the vast reaches of silent space.

Then comes the sun and dark shadows in the peace of early morning. The dew sparkles and spider webs stitched along the fence look fresh as laundered doilies. Birds chitter softly in the deep night-cooled silence and flex their wings. And on a morning in the spring there is something sadly comical in the way a robin tugs and pulls until there is no stretch left and the worm snaps from the ground like a broken spring.

Time becomes important in the spring. It is a pulsating, life-fulfilling time. It can be felt. It can be seen, sprouting and swelling. Expanding. Exploding. Later will come the slow slumberous, ripening time of summer, but it must wait its turn. Spring must come first. The undeniable force of life must be born to bloom and blossom.

Spring is a time of great potency. The earth is fertile then, and all things thrive to be reborn. A flower attracts a bee, and with the pollen it carries away another will be fertilized. The seed that autumn’s chill wind scattered in November now finds the strength to sprout and grow.

There is something willy-nilly in the way nature does her thing, but it works. Hers is the grandest plan of all. And there is no equal to the show she puts on in the spring.


At odd times, in strange places, I think about it.

When I see wind rippling grass in dark green fields, it comes back to me. When I watch clear running water, and sprinklers firing salvos into the sun, I see it again.

Rain makes me remember. And the wind. Long, dark, moist furrows – freshly plowed – bring it all back, and the rich, thick, musty smells of harvest.

In contrast they make it all so vivid: the Great Plains – the 1930s – and the drought.

And the dust: always the dust, rising and swirling, forever shifting.

And the wind that created it: a nervous prowler, sweeping across the prairies like a dark, relentless demon. And dust hanging wearily in the air when it sometimes halted, tired clouds looking for a place to rest.

But there was no rest. The wind returned. Day after day it came back. It couldn’t ignore the 450,000 square miles of dusty playground the Dust Bowl became when the drought descended upon it.

It came slyly, in great stillness, as intruders often do. I remember the strange hush that settled over the vast corn fields near the road my sorrel pony Joy and I were following. We were going home from school, where she spent the day with other ponies in a small barn while classes were in session. It was 1932.

We were three miles east of Kearney, Nebraska. We were going south, toward the farm my folks owned near the Platte River two miles farther on. It was an afternoon in the fall, and nothing stirred, not even the faded leaves that hung from the willows growing along the ditches.

In the silence I could feel tension, like a force being contained against its will. Joy could feel it too. She flicked her ears uneasily, and swung her head from side to side. There was a peculiar thrumming in the air, the sound that no sound makes.

In the corn fields great flocks of ducks and geese had taken refuse. During their long southerly migration in the fall, the Great Plains became their breadbasket. The fields supplied the fuel that kept the big birds pumping across mile after mile of deep curving sky that ended on the straight, flat line of the horizon.

They, too, sensed something. They ballooned up out of the fields in flurries, then settled back down again. They were fearful and confused. They flew low. In the sky they sensed a danger that being on the ground did not allay.

The clouds had been indistinct, a haze on the horizon, but soon they began taking shape. Slowly, like a towering range of mountains, they advanced upon us. As they drew near, huge billowy peaks loomed over us. They were clouds such as I had never seen before. When I touched her with my heels, Joy broke into a full gallop. She was also worried.

The storm struck late that afternoon, just after we got home. The wind announced its arrival with a roar, and everything went dark. Dust filled the air, and we blindly groped around. In an instant, daylight had disappeared.

The Great Plains were on the move. The dust we breathed had come from farms in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. The next day the Dakotas got a taste of Nebraska.

The dust came to stay. It filled everything, and tainted all. It seeped into the houses, the food, the water. With wet cloths Mother tried to seal around the doors and windows. When that failed, we used the cloths as masks to filter it out of our breath.

Landmarks blurred. Everything ran together in murky vagueness. At times we couldn’t see the ground in front of our feet.

The drought was the fault of men, the experts claimed, men who upset the fragile balance of things. With their plows, they said, farmers set the Great Plains free when they rooted out the native grasses with which nature had controlled them.

When moisture was sufficient, they kept the land in place with crops. But when the rains no longer came, and nothing grew, dust rose up like an eager host to greet the wind.

But people persisted. They continued to plant, and watched their labors go up in dust. Some seeds never sprouted. Those that did soon died in the hot, dry fields and their tattered leaves rustled in the wind. Livestock grew lean and gaunt as dust formed like goggles around their eyes.

That’s the way our cows began to look. And they didn’t milk as well because feed was short. The land had rebelled.

I can still see them: the cows, humped up in the wind with their heads down, still as dusty paintings. I can still hear them bawling wearily as they waited like dusky phantoms in the corral.

The relentless wind was an artful sculptor. It rippled the fields with soft, dusty dunes, and buried the fences in long smooth swells. With an artistic flourish, it laid dark wreaths upon a dying land.

For many it was a time to leave, a time to search for more promising places. Among the searchers were my folks. And we were luckier than lots of families. We were rich compared to those in Texas and Oklahoma who had nothing to take when they got ready to leave.

I have before me a sale bill dated Tuesday, November 1, 1936:

“As I am leaving the state,” it says, “I will sell my personal property at Public Auction at my farm…

“Sale starts at 1 o’clock,” and “Barney Shepers Lunch Wagon on the ground.”

Bob Easterling was the owner and W. W. Wimberly was the auctioneer. The clerk was Lloyd Ferrell.

November 1, 1936, was a raw windy day, and those who came to the sale huddled up in their coats and didn’t say much. They didn’t bid much either. They couldn’t. The pockets they shoved their hands into were about as empty as they could get.

I rode Joy around the ring of silent, sober faces to show that she was sound as Col. Wimberly sold her. Then I rode her back into the barn and tied her up. After I had hugged her hard around the neck, I ran out into the waiting wind.

The next day we started west.

NOTE: The preceding story “Farewell To Joy,” was honored as first place winner in the Best of Gannett competition among the newspaper chain’s many dailies across the nation.


Mother died in 1985, and during a sleepless night recently I tried to determine how much influence she’d had upon my life.

I couldn’t, of course, because men never know the effect their mothers have upon them. But this I knew for sure: she had offered much more than I had been kind enough to accept.

It is all so obvious now. And in the dark of night, without distraction, I saw more vividly than ever before the gifts she had quietly offered me.

It was there in the softness of her eyes, and the gentleness of her smile when she was pleased. And she often was because she knew there was more to life than we ever learn to appreciate. She saw where I was blind.

To her a bird was a source of delight. So was a flower. Dew sparkling in the grass was a field of jewels that money could not buy. Each new day was an adventure.

In an old pair of shoes she traced the history of the child. In an antique bedspread she saw a house standing stark and spare at the end of a long lane winding back in time.

Intuitively she knew, as mothers often do, that long winter nights are less frightening if children are sent to bed with something besides a mournful wind blowing through their imaginations.

So she read to us as we crowded up close to the old black heating stove that turned back the chill. And when we went to bed, the demons of the dark had to compete with knights on snow-white charges.

As I lay there the other night, with the moonlight seeping like golden mist through the open bedroom window, I remembered the stack of Ripley’s “Believe It or Nots” that she had clipped daily from the newspaper because she thought we would enjoy looking at them some wintry night when we had nothing to do.

But we never got that chance because I burned them all. I don’t remember why. I was mad about something, and I wiped them out in a senseless act of revenge.

Mother didn’t say anything, but I remember the hurt in her eyes. Worse than that was her lack of comprehension. She couldn’t understand revenge. It was alien to her nature.

She forgave me, just as she forgave me a thousand other times. And I’m amazed now that love could overcome so many hurts that cut so deep. Mother proved to me that love possesses healing powers beyond all understanding.

By modern standards hers would have been a life of drudgery and desolation. Wives who lived on farms worked hard, without the conveniences that gleam in homes today.

Sometimes, I know, her existence must have looked bleak and barren. But she had a gift that lifted her above despair. She was endowed with the belief that life is a wonder, a miracle.

The perfectly developed hand of a newborn infant, she once told me, was a sight that inspired her awe and reverence. Her mind remained fresh because it refused to take things for granted.

Recently, while looking through some pictures in her bedroom, I discovered a scrapbook that she had been adding to for more than 50 years. It is filled with clippings from newspapers and magazines.

They were inspirational, but not in a strictly religious sense. They dwelt upon the beauty that surrounds us. As they called attention to the near at hand, they spoke in muted voices of the far beyond.

She had never said anything about the scrapbook, not that I remember. But I’m not surprised. The quiet way was her way.

As I slowly turned the yellowed pages, I was reminded of a flower coming into bloom, one petal at a time.

I was out of bed by then, I was standing by the window, and all the world shimmered in a moonlit bath of beauty. I hope Mother saw it. And I hope that I saw what she would have seen. No mother can contribute more than that.


With binoculars I watch Momma Kitty glide like a sleek, grey phantom across the field. She looms large, wide-eyed and alert.

She’s hunting. She doesn’t have to. Her dish on the back porch is full of her favorite food. I can only guess at her reason for slinking across a hayfield in a hot midday sun.

Some say it’s an instinct so deeply embedded in Momma Kitty’s brain it cannot be ignored. Even if she were surrounded by mountains of Crave, they say, she would remain a predator.

Now she’s flattened out on her belly. She’s still as a graceful carving, one small package of deadliness poised for plunder. It’s still, as though time itself is holding its breath.

So slowly it’s almost imperceptible, she lifts one front foot and moves it forward, tentatively, the way a chess player does when the game is coming to an end.

The tip of her tail flicks, but there’s no other movement for a full minute. Then she takes another agonizingly slow step forward. She’s time arrested – time stopped.

I cannot see with the binoculars what she sees. But I feel my hands and arms grow tense because there’s something about death and violence that intrigues the human mind.

Perhaps it shouldn’t: it’s so elemental, such a fact of life. Maybe our fascination has increased as we have tried to rise above it. Maybe we’ve drawn closer as we’ve tried to draw away.

Like a coiled spring Mama Kitty explodes into the air. Her back is bowed and her head is down. She hangs there for a moment in the sun like a halfdone question mark.

Then she falls, and there is no question any more. I can imagine the wild terror of the field mouse the instant it sensed danger. Perhaps her soundless shadow was the signal it saw too late.

With it trapped between her paws, Momma Kitty lies there as she looks around. Then, with a practiced dip of her head, she picks it up and starts for the house.

She comes easily down through the field. She flows smoothly like deep water, and I know where she is headed. We’ve been through this before.

Once or twice she stops to rest her jaws, I suppose, while she holds the mouse with an unrelenting paw. Then she comes in, daintily picking her way through the stiff brown stubble.

When she reaches the yard she stops again and looks toward the house. When she sees me on the deck, she seems relieved. She seems to wait a moment longer with the mouse trapped beneath her paw so I can appreciate the thing she’s done.

I move over to the edge so she won’t bring the mouse up on the deck, which she’ll do if she doesn’t think I’m paying her enough attention.

For a while she plays with the mouse on the grass. She sits down and watches it scurry away. Then in one long leap she captures it, and looks around to see if I have noticed.

I assume Mother Nature knows what she’s about. She seems to. Every time we humans upset the balance she tries to maintain we seem to pay. But I’ve never understood the meaning of this cruel game that Momma Kitty plays.

To the victor goes the spoils: that’s what is appears to emphasize. And when victors tire of the game, they end it just as Momma Kitty will.

When she looks up at me, she meows. She’s very vain about her predatory prowess. As I watch her I think of victorious armies on parade – and cemeteries – and miles of small white crosses.


While walking across a small hayfield I saw what I thought was a string lying on top of the grass. It was 200 feet away from the highway that runs by our place, and I assumed the wind had blown it there after it had been thrown from a passing car.

But I soon changed my mind. Even though I don’t know how long strings are supposed to be, I knew it was longer – lots longer – than most strings are. I yanked on it a couple of times but it wouldn’t come free. It was fast on both ends.

From the center of our field it ran toward our neighbor’s pasture and crossed the fence that separates our places. From there I could see it swooping like a tiny green wire up into a fir tree 100 feet farther on. When I pulled I could see branches jerking in the top of the tree. It finally broke free, but it was tough stuff. It took a real pull before it parted.

I began rolling it up as I walked back toward our barn. It didn’t seem to have an end. It crossed the fence next to the barn, and threaded its way across a lot before it rose gracefully into an oak tree near the house. There it had become tangled. When I tried to pull it free it broke.

At first I thought it was the string from a kite some kid had lost. But there was no sign of a kite in the oak tree. And there was none in the fir trees across the fence in our neighbor’s pasture because I went back to see.

As I tramped across the field it occurred to me that I had undoubtedly discovered the beginning of a space age spider’s giant web.

I assumed it had evolved in one of NASA’s think tanks. And I decided the one whose web I’d found had been a rudimentary model on a test run that had been aborted for some secret reason.

It is just the beginning, I thought. As future generations were genetically engineered, I figured NASA would be able to create spiders big enough to spin webs as large as hawsers on a ship.

It was really an exciting breakthrough. There would no longer be any doubt about our supremacy in space. The Russians had better take note, I thought. With webs such as those it would be a simple matter to net their satellites the way most people net butterflies.

But that wouldn’t be their only practical use. They could also be used as giant seines to fish the oceans clean. And just think what one sweep across the Pacific from San Francisco to Hawaii might yield. There would be fish, millions of them probably of who knows how many varieties. And seals and whales, a sun-tanned surfer or two, a Soviet fishing fleet taken off the Oregon coast, 1,500 feet of trans-oceanic telephone line and Lord knows how many interrupted long distance calls. It didn’t look like Ma Bell was going to be too happy.

It would be quite a haul, no doubt. And when all those fish had been deposited on the outskirts of town, Honolulu would enjoy the distinction of being the last place anyone would want to live.

But one of the world’s greatest worries would be eliminated. By depleting the sea of all its life in one fell swoop, we wouldn’t have to agonize about doing it over a longer period the way we’re doing now.

But the real treasures would be taken during a sweep of the South Pacific. Off the bottom would come battleships, great carriers, destroyers and cruisers, airplanes and subs. There would be enough to convert Australia into one great museum – a memorial – to Ares, the mythological god of war, at whose alter mankind worships with such destructive insanity.

When I told my wife, Jeannie, about the string, it didn’t take her long to unravel my theory. It was a fishing line, she said, that had dropped off some fisherman’s boat. Since it is spring, she explained, a bird picked up one end of the line to build a nest with. And it was so light, the bird had no trouble stringing it across the field and two fences before it got tangled up in the trees. Undoubtedly, Jeannie is right. She always is.

But I’ll bet that fisherman was surprised when he found his line missing. I bet he would be even more surprised if he knew what a monstrous breed of spiders he almost created.


They are supposed to be lifeless, inanimate objects without vestige of pulse or protoplasm. But don’t believe it. That’s propaganda disseminated to deceive the unwary.

When a plastic garden hose gets cold it lives; I’ll guarantee it. I found out not long ago when I decided to coil up one I had used last fall to wash the car.

I was motivated by a desire to procrastinate no longer. Had I known how things were going to turn out, I wouldn’t have taken myself so seriously.

It was a brisk, chilly morning and everything was furry with frost. In the early morning sun the lawn sparkled like a swatch of green velvet sprinkled with a million jewels.

I remembered dragging the hose up next to the fence when I was through so it wouldn’t be in the way. I finally found it stretched out in the grass that had just about obscured it.

It began resisting immediately. When I tried to pull it out on the driveway it wrapped itself around a fence post. I gave it a yank, and it hooked the fence with a brass fitting on one end. It wouldn’t let go until it had been twisted loose.

I should have given up then. I should have dragged it back along the fence and let the grass have it. By now it would be out of sight and out of mind. Alas, I did not. I had paid for it, and it was going to obey.

Not willingly however, it flexed like a long green plastic snake when I started bending it into a coil. The tighter I coiled, the more contorted it became. While I was winding up three circles about two feet in diameter, it writhed around my legs like a 50-foot boa constrictor.

I hadn’t realized it was so cold and I hadn’t worn gloves. My hands were beginning to get numb and I was in too much of a hurry when…


I thought I had been smacked with an old soupbone when the end of the hose slipped out of my hand and slapped me in the face.

My grip slipped when it hit me and the coils I was holding in my hands took off like hula hoops. When they finally came to rest, they formed two angry circles around my feet.

I kicked at them as I went to get some gloves, and they snapped back as I walked off. It wasn’t lifeless, as you can see. A Walt Disney cartoon couldn’t have been more animated.

Before I started in again, I went to the barn and got some twine I had cut off a bale of hay. This time it wasn’t going to get away. I would hog tie the hose as I went along.

As soon as I had rounded up the first coil, I tied it in place. I didn’t use any fancy nautical knots, either. No rolling bowlines for it. I secured it with good old hard-to-untie granny knots, reefed up snug and tight.

Each coil I tied. And each one I tied with the same old granny knot. If a surgical incision had been tied the way I tied that hose, the stitches would have lasted longer than the patient.

The hose is hanging in the shed now, and round and round it goes. I don’t think I’ll ever untie it. I’ll use it the way it is. After going through all those circles the water should come out round enough to roll wherever I want it to go.

Country Chaff