I recently came across a copy of the “Injun Summer” cartoon that appeared in the Chicago Tribune for well over 50 years. It is in two parts, with the upper section showing a grandpa and a grandson sitting under a near-bare limbed tree. Grandpa’s rake is cradled in his arm, and he draws on his corncob pipe while watching leaves burn in a small fire on the edge of a cornfield. The corn stalks have been cut and stacked into shocks, and as the smoke from the burning leaves drifts upward through the last of the still-falling leaves, the artist has captured, in the bottom half of the page, the scene as it might have been in his mind’s eye. The shocks are converted into lines of deerskin-covered tepees, the swirling smoke was now coming from many campfires, and in the distance, the shadows were changed into dancing Indian braves.
I first saw and admired this McClutcheon drawing in the long-ago days of my youth. It appeared every fall in the Sunday comic section, causing the Katzenjammer Kids to be moved to another page. The scene was one I could well relate to. The cornfields, with their huge hand-cut shocks … the knee-deep piles of leaves that made dandy cushions for diving into and wading waist-deep along the ditches.
Officially, Indian Summer is the warm period that invariably follows the first freeze of fall. It seems summer is reluctant to give way to the cold weather, or else is taunting us with a remembrance of just how beautiful and colorful nature can be, with its array of gold, yellow, purple, orange, copper and dozens of variations of red. First the sassafras and sumac – almost overnight – become bouquets of deep wine, sprinkled with a few yellows. Then, as the days shorten and shirtsleeve warmth gives way to sweater needed nights, the maples, hickories and oaks join the color parade.
In those long-ago days along Muddy Creek, the willows, sycamores and the birch trees tried to outdo each other in showing the waterlilies and cattails that they, too, had something to brag about.
As we dawdled along the shores of that august stream, one could see the newly-turned soil from the dens of the muskrat, and make mental notes of where traps might be set when the season opened. The cattails had headed out, and were about ripe enough to be picked and dried. These would later be dipped and soaked in coal oil to make dandy (if not very safe) torches.
By then, the bridge swallows had abandoned their mud-glued nests under the steel bridge, and joined the monarch butterfly in a migration to Mexico and points south.
With the leaves thinning out, we could see a bushel-basket size paper wasp nest hanging by the north bridge abutment. Happily, the wasps were long gone, so we could claim this trophy without fear of retaliation. The black walnuts were still hanging on to the newly-bare trees, but the hickory nuts could be heard dropping into the piles of leaves, where they would soon be retrieved by those with a desire for their succulent meats. The banana-flavored Paw Paws were beginning to turn yellow, and the hazelnut burrs were starting to pop open. We nibbled on the tiny Red Haws, but left the persimmons be until we were sure someone else had tried them first. In the previous fall, we had puckered up for several days after trying an unripe tidbit.
Some mornings, myriads of canvas-backs and mallards could be seen resting and feeding in the back waters of Muddy Creek, and, as we trod the dusty road toward Spring Hill School, we watched them in their V formations, heading south. Occasionally, a few Canadian geese would “drop in,” along with a great blue heron or two, but their visits were infrequent, to say the least.
Injun Summertime is cider time, and the mills were busy. Dad had us kids picking up the “drops” under the Wine sap and Jonathan trees, and when the wagon box was full, he would have them ground and pressed, with the juice stored in 55-gallon barrels. After a few days of drinking our fill, the bung was driven in tight, and the apple juice was stored in the basement to become vinegar. I might say that Uncle Walter was known to claim a few jugs for his personal use after it aged a mite. One time me and Lewie sampled one of his jugs, and it tasted good, but within minutes, that basement was starting to spin, and we found seats on the floor mighty quick. Wow! Never again! FC
Perry Piper’s recollections of his childhood on Muddy Creek – “which lies astraddle of the Indian Boundary Line that old Chief Tecumseh and William Henry Harrison laid out back in 1803” – have appeared in newspapers in Illinois and Indiana for the past 12 years. He has collected the columns into two volumes of memoirs, available from him at 71 Concordia Drive, Paris, III, 61944.