“It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good.” I was too young to understand the truth of that old proverb when a fire damaged the drugstore on Main Street in Hayward. Clearly it was an ill wind for the owner of the store, his employees and customers, but it proved to be a bonanza for a boy with a very limited budget who wanted to buy Christmas gifts for his family.
I think it was shortly before Christmas in 1948 or ’49 that a truckload of smoke-damaged goods from the drugstore appeared in Mr. Ramsdell’s bait shop next to the Chrysler garage where my father worked. The shop was closed for the winter, and planks were laid over the empty minnow tanks to display the salvaged bottles, boxes and bars of soap.
I remember the bars of soap most clearly, because I bought them as presents for my grandparents and even a special scented one for my mother. I don’t remember whether my two sisters also received soap bars carefully, if not artistically, wrapped as well, but they probably did. I was into soap. When I proudly showed the purchases to my father in the garage, he asked why I had bought so many bars of soap. My answer stuck firmly in his memory, and he reminded me of my logic for the next four decades: “Everybody can use a bar of soap.”
This is still true today, and occasionally Jerri and I will buy a nice bar of soap in a gift shop or from our neighbor Jill, who with her husband started the New Richmond Soap Factory to make and market all-natural soaps. When you give someone a bar of soap that didn’t originate in a vat the size of a swimming pool, you can be almost certain that it will be used and appreciated.
I’m not sure, but I think that I found other Christmas gifts in the bait shop besides soap. I vaguely recall buying some bottles of cologne with only slightly discolored labels and a packet of razorblades for my father that looked completely undamaged and was priced at only a nickel. In fact, everything I bought cost a nickel. This was a good thing, since I hadn’t been able to save much over a dollar during the year.
Dad gave me a nickel allowance when my family went shopping on Friday nights, but I squandered at least a couple of pennies on candy or bubblegum at the Five and Dime that same evening and another penny or two on the walk back from school the following week. My main source of income the year of the Christmas fire sale was from a business arrangement I came to with Mr. Ramsdell at the bait shop. If I had named the endeavor, it would have been called Chuck’s Frog Supply.
I have always enjoyed learning new things, so I peppered business owners and employees with questions about what they did and how they did it. Mr. Williamson, the fuel dealer, and the blacksmith were frequent victims of my curiosity. They never made me feel unwelcome and were always polite when they explained they were too busy to answer my questions.
One day I stopped at the bait shop and asked Mr. Ramsdell how much the leopard frogs in the live bait cage cost. “A nickel each,” he told me.
“So you’d give me a nickel if I brought you a frog?” I asked innocently. That was the day I got my first lesson in capitalism.
“If you bring me two frogs,” he said, I’ll give you a nickel. I have to make some money on the deal.”
Visions of wealth popped into my head. There were lots of leopard frogs along the lakeshore a couple of blocks from my home. Before I got out the door, Mr. Ramsdell cautioned me sternly. “Only leopard frogs, now. And no toads.”
I got a large vegetable can with the lid still attached on one side to hold the captured amphibians and began my first commercial frog hunt. Already at the age of six I had caught a few frogs and had observed my father catching them for bass bait since I was old enough to walk. It seemed to me that wealth was mine for the grabbing.
After an hour or so, however, I began to learn what it meant to work for a living. I started thinking that the frogs I had caught earlier must have been lame or very unlucky. When I tried sneaking up behind the frogs that were going to make me rich, they hopped into the water and when I got between the water and the frogs, they just disappeared into thicker grass. Even more frustrating, when I managed to get close enough to have a hand poised over what seemed to be a sleeping frog, he would suddenly jump a foot out of the way in the time it took me to slap the ground where he had been sitting.
However, I finally managed to collect two nice leopard frogs. They stared at me from their bed of wet grass at the bottom of the can as if to say, “Well, okay, you caught us. We give up.” I put the can next to the back door when I came home for supper and carried my merchandise to Mr. Ramsdell the next morning.
I walked into the bait shop and put the can on the counter, proudly announcing that I had two frogs for him. Mr. Ramsdell carefully pried the lid up, looked in and told me that there was only one frog in the can. Sure enough, only one set of bulging eyes starred up at me when he held the can out to me.
“That musta been an extra strong frog,” said Mr. Ramsdell, “to jump up and push that lid open far enough to squeeze out.” I was nearly in tears. No nickel after all that work, and my deal with Mr. Ramsdell was probably finished before it began. He couldn’t count on me to supply him with frogs.
But then he took a nickel out of the cash register and gave it to me. “Frogs get away sometimes. Don’t take it to heart. You owe me another frog. So get going and bring one soon as you can. Bring more if you can catch ‘em. There’ll be bass fishermen coming in this afternoon.”
As I headed out the door, he called after me, “And put a hunk of firewood on the can lid to keep those frogs inside.”
That summer I caught enough frogs to buy slightly smoky Christmas presents for the whole family.
As I was writing about Christmas presents and frogs I was trying to think of a recipe that would tie the two topics together. Here is one from Dorothy Olaf, a friend of my mother. Dorothy named it Cranberry Kitchen Cookies. Fresh cranberries are still available at Christmas, and since they freeze well, you can bake these cookies in the summer when the young entrepreneurs in your home or neighborhood might need sustenance to strengthen them on their frog hunts.
1/2 cup butter (1 stick)
1 cup granulated white sugar
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 large egg
1/4 cup milk
2 T orange juice
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup chopped nuts
2 1/2 cups coarsely chopped cranberries
Chop the cranberries. Many cooks use a food processor. Lacking one, I simply quarter the cranberries with a sharp knife. Chop the nuts. Either walnuts or pecans work fine. Set the cranberries and nuts aside in a bowl.
Preheat the oven to 375º and grease two cookie sheets.
Cream the butter and sugars together in a mixing bowl. Beat in the egg, milk, orange juice and vanilla. Measure the flour, baking powder, soda and salt into a sifter and sift the dry ingredients into the sugar mixture by thirds, stirring well after each addition. You may need to add a small amount of extra milk or juice to moisten all the dry ingredients. Stir in the cranberries and nuts and mix well.
Drop the dough by heaping teaspoonfuls onto the greased cookie sheets and bake the cookies on the center shelf of the oven for ten to fifteen minutes until the cookies begin to turn golden brown on the edges.
NOTES: It is much easier to cream butter and sugar if the butter is at a warm room temperature, so take it out of the refrigerator an hour before you need it. If you use unsalted butter for this recipe, add an extra eighth teaspoon of salt.
We buy cranberries in bulk at a marsh in late September or early October. We use some of them fresh but wash and freeze most of them in bags holding three cups each. Chopping either fresh or frozen cranberries is a snap, though it does take a few minutes.
And a confession about using frogs for bait. I tried using a live frog as bait one time, but I couldn’t stand watching him try to pull the hook out with his little front legs. The frogs I use today are made of soft plastic. They’re easier to catch than live ones. Just use dollar bills to lure them into your tackle box.