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Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2009 01:41 am

The trap line

A Christmas memoir


I would not be six till early May and it was only January. I had wanted a pair of knee-high rubber boots, the shiny kind I had seen in the catalog, and I did get a pair for Christmas. I was proud of my new rubber boots and wore them all Christmas Day.

But now it was past Christmas and into a new year. My older brother Jack was back to Hickory School in the third grade. My little brother was only two. I didn’t have much to do.

The weather had moderated some. Dad had about finished his chores of milking the Jersey cow, feeding the old sow, gathering the eggs and feeding his hounds.

Hunting season was over for him. Trapping season was over too. I think he had 10 days from the first of January to get his traps collected and to get rid of the fur. The weather had been so bad he couldn’t get to his trap line, but now with the weather moderating a little, he was anxious to go get his traps and have them ready for next season. It was a job he had to do. There wasn’t much pleasure in it for him.

It had been a good trapping season. Dad was a good trapper. He was called “Trapper Dave” by his friends and hunting buddies. He caught several mink, muskrats, dozens of raccoons, many red foxes and a number of possum and skunk, much to his disgust. You were allowed 25 traps per license. Dave had a trapping license, Mom had a trapping license, Grandpa had a trapping license and my older brother Jack at age 8 had a trapping license. That made a hundred traps Dad could have set out. He had three trap lines he would run every other day during trapping season. Mr. Griffin would come every couple of weeks. They would climb in the barn loft where Dad hung his fur and haggle over the price till all was satisfied. It was commonplace to see a check for fur of $80 or $100. That was a lot of money in those days, but it had to last till spring and carpenter work opened up.

But now it was time for him to go and take up the traps. Mom said, “Why don’t you take Roy Lee with you? It’s warming up some, the sun is out. Get him out of the house for a change.” Even though I was just a kid and didn’t care much for trapping, I was all for it. Dad didn’t much like the idea. I was born with some foot problems and might slow him up. He thought about that and said he’d take me on one of the shorter trap lines.

I said, “Can I wear my new rubber boots?”

Dad said, “Why don’t you wear the shoes you got on? You put your overshoes on. They’ll be fine.”

“No. I want to wear my new rubber boots. Can’t I?” I pleaded. “Well, okay. Go get them one,” he said.

I was a kid enthused. I put on a good pair of socks and slid my feet into the new boots. They felt good. I put on my coat, sock cap and gloves. I was ready to do what big men do. Gather the traps.

We went out by the smokehouse, walked by the garden fence, up past the barn and on to the gate that led to the pasture. Once through the gate, we were on our way to the trap line. We would cut up a timbered ridge on a well-worn path for about a mile to where Warner’s fence line ran. We would cross some prairie and come to a deep, wide hollow where Dad had a lot of traps set.

Dad was a strong walker. He’d get so far ahead of me that I’d have to run to catch up. It was tiring. I fell a lot but was quick to get up again and continue on. My boots were not gripping the ground like I thought. My right boot was eating my sock and was uncomfortable, but I walked on, not wanting to slow my dad or become a nuisance.

I was glad when Dad stopped under a tree. He said it was an apple tree. With his foot he felt around in the deep grasses and pretty soon he came upon a lump. It was an apple. He gave it to me. He said, “Eat it. You’ll like it.” It was a bit sour but cold and tasted good. He found another and we spent a few minutes eating apples. It would be the best part of the day.

He had a mink and a muskrat in his traps. Some were thrown with nothing in them. He took up a dozen sets in the stream that made its way through Pete Tyford’s pasture. He took up two fox sets up on the flats and continued on. I sat on the edge of a cow path by the creek and hurriedly pulled of my boot and straightened my sock.

We crossed behind the Reid place and headed west and crossed Hickory Road, then we made our way over to Charlie Barr’s land where Dad had more traps. He had a coon and some possum toes in those sets. He was loaded down with two dozen traps, a mink, muskrat and now a coon. Even with his load he was walking far out ahead of me and my right boot was eating my sock again and maybe I was getting a blister on my heel. Why didn’t I wear my hightop shoes and overshoes like Dad had wanted me to? I began to hate my shiny rubber boots I had gotten for Christmas.

I thought we’d be home by noon, but we weren’t. I was cold, I was hungry, and I was tired. And we weren’t near home yet.

I was lagging behind Dad quite a ways. We came to an old logging road cut through the timber. We followed it through the trees. Dad was getting father and farther ahead, but if I followed the old logging road, I wouldn’t lose sight of him. We came to a place where the logging road went down the hill. I lost sight of Dad and I was frightened. I ran ahead and caught sight of him at the bottom of the hill. He was crossing the creek where a log bridge had once been. With the traps and furs he made a run between the logs and rustled up the other side.

When I got to the creek there was a layer of slippery mud on top of the frozen ground thawed by the afternoon sun.

I tried to cross and climb up the other bank but it was too slippery and I fell in the mud. I was exhausted. I began to cry. I sobbed and sobbed while I lay in the mud and water in the creek bottom. I thought Dad had gone off and left me. I felt abandoned and all by myself.

It seemed like a long time. Dad had walked another 50 yards to Hickory Road, unloaded his traps and fur to get a little rest.

It was then that he came back to get me. “What’s the matter, boy? Can’t you cross a little creek?” he said. “Come on, give me your hand. I’ll pull you up.”

I stopped crying and reached up for Dad’s hand. He pulled me up. I was muddy and wet and glad to be on solid ground. I followed Dad back to Hickory Road. He picked up his fur and traps. We were only about a half mile from the house and I knew that part of the road pretty well. We trudged on home.

Something had changed in me that day. I didn’t care about trapping any more. I didn’t care for my shiny boots and most of all with my club feet, I found out that I couldn’t keep up. I realized I was not a favorite son and never would be.

It got dark early and the kerosene lamp didn’t do much to brighten the room. It was supper time. Dad recalled the events of the day, of finding the apples and getting the mink. I didn’t have much to say to anybody. My feelings were still hurt. When it was bedtime I thought about what I had gone through during the day. I had a lump in my throat and held back tears as I fell off to sleep that night.

The next day I stayed close to Mom. Followed her around the house. Spent time by the Heatrola heating stove. I was still trying to figure things out. Where was my place in the family? I remember playing by myself a lot. I played in the Schaad Creek watching the minnows, saw how ice formed over pools, found some pretty rocks, saw game tracks along the shores and followed rabbit tracks in the snow. I was a contented child, but from that time on I would become closer to my mother. She called me Roy Boy. I liked that.

Roy L. French, of Virginia, Ill., is 76 years old and has written a Christmas for Illinois Times  every year for about 30 years. He has plans to put his many stories together in book form, maybe by next Christmas, which is what we said last Christmas.


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