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Leather straps, ice cakes and snowplows
BUCKFIELD – 93-year-old Donald Keene may be the oldest citizen in Buckfield, but he is young at heart and has quite a sense of humor.
He recently took time to tell us about his life.
Q: When were you born and where were you brought up?
A: I was born on August 17, 1917 and it was in Sumner. It was a home birth out in the country. It was a Dr. Atwood that came all the way from Buckfield over the hills.
I moved to Buckfield when I was two – it was at the Keene Homestead on what is the Keene Road now. It was always just called the Keene Road because that’s where the Keene farm was. Many years ago my grandfather lived up there.
Q: Did you have many siblings?
A: I had one sister. I had a brother and he died at two weeks. My sister's name is Agnes and she passed away in the mid nineties.
Q: What did your parents do?
A: Farmers. It was one of those small farms that we lived off the land and made a little money. You could do that in those days; not now.
Mom helped on the farm too; she was pretty amazing. She did some haying and hoeing and planting beans and corn for the factories. One year she even planted squash for the factory.
Q: What was it like growing up?
A: I didn't have electricity till 1937, when it finally got to the country. I think it was $4 for the month whether we used it or not. When we got it, there was hardly one light in each room.
That’s about the time we got a refrigerator. We had an ice box before that, but it was never inside the house. It was one of those big tanks filled with ice. It was half way between the shed and the barn. It had two covers on it, like doors and there were rods across where we would hang milk bottles with heavy string.
In the winter we would go down to the pond and use big saws and cut out ice cakes. It was a neighborhood thing as three or four families got ice there too. We would put the ice on a dray pulled by a pair of horses. We would slide them up on a plank. When we got back to the farm, we would put the ice cakes in the ice house and cover them with sawdust. It was quite a system and a lot of hard work, but no one else did it any different.
We had five or six head of cattle and a pair of horses. Chickens and hens were always around and we had enough so we could sell the eggs once in a while.
We only had to go to the village about once a month ‘cause we were fed off the land. We filled the old cellar up with apples and potatoes and mom made butter. It was a big churn that she would sometimes make me help with; I didn’t like that job.
I went skiing and sliding and that was always a lot of fun. The sled factory over in Paris was in full swing back in those days and you could go over and get the ones that weren't quite perfect for 50 cents; they may not even be painted, but we didn’t care.
We had a collie dog and he was the best dog that ever lived. He and I were pals.
My sister was two years older and we played together sometimes, but sometimes she wanted dolls and I wanted to play boy stuff.
My sister and I would help hay and pick beans and on the corn. She worked down at the Hebron sanatorium one time babysitting for the doctor's children.
On moonshiny nights, my parents would go out on the main road and we would all go sliding. There were no TVs to keep you in the house.
I did some fishing and bring them home if they were worth it.
Q: Was there anything you wanted to be when you grew up?
A: I think I was quite content with farming. Being four-five miles out of the village, that’s about all I knew about life. I didn't even know too many people.
Q: Where did you go to school?
A: I went to the Brock School. It was a one-room schoolhouse. I think it went to eighth grade and it was a miserable school. I never liked school. There were probably 10 or 12 kids. When I got out of that little place I knew it all and didn’t go any farther. My folks never forced me to go to school.
I hated that the kids all would fight. They would walk to school and decide who they were going to beat up every day. That wasn’t for me.
Q: Did you get into mischief or play pranks?
A: Pretty much. I broke a lot of windows, but it wasn’t like I was throwing rocks. If I threw a ball at a tree ... over there ... it would always manage to find a window over here.
My sister had a porcelain doll and I smashed it on the granite steps. I am not sure if it was my temper or my deviltry, but I got in trouble for that one. I got taken out to the woodshed and he got me with a leather strap that you sharpened razors with.
A: I worked for the town a few years plowing snow and then on May 6, 1942 I joined the army. I went to the Pacific ... the first place was the Hawaiian Islands. That was my first stop; then I went to Quadralien, a small island for two weeks. We took that island out and then went back to Hawaii. We built up forces and went to Leyte in the Philippines. I was in the tank battalion and I was a truck driver and did maintenance. I lost part of my thumb closing up the tailgate of a truck. There were 4 of us closing it and it got in the way.
Then we went to Okinawa and that was a rough place. I got hit then with a shell fragment on my collar bone in April of 1945 and it ricocheted across and lodged in my lung. I also have a little piece in my hip. They fixed me up quick and I was back in action around June or July. I got out of the service in October. My dad passed away in August and I was overseas and didn’t get home.
We were getting out on 85 points and when I got hit I had 81 and got out.
I got home in November and tried to rehabilitate. It was tough; I stayed and worked on the farm for a while.
One piece of shrapnel came out of my face 17 years later; they just kept popping out. It’s like you feel a pin prick and it comes out. I had one that the doctor had to take out because it was where my t-shirt rubbed.
Q: Did you stay on the farm?
A: Yes, but that winter I helped open up the roads, mostly shoveling for the town. By spring they had me plowing in the truck and I really liked that.
Q: When and how did you meet your spouse?
A: Well, she had gotten out of her diapers ... no, she was in high school. Laura lived on Streaked Mountain Road and I had a little Ford pickup. Finally I went to Twitchell’s and got the truck painted blue and I don't think after that she could resist cause one day she started chasing the truck; I made sure I was driving. OK, no she didn’t; she was a good old fashioned girl.
I courted her for about a year and we got married in 1950.
Q: Where did you live?
A: We lived at the Keene farm when we first got married and lived with my mom.
Then we built this house down the road.
We had three children: Donna, Grover and Loretta. Donna lives across the street, Grover, and Loretta live on this road too. We have eight grandchildren and ten greats.
Q: What did you do for work?
A: Worked a lot for the town and when I started, I worked driving plow trucks ... so the rest of my life I wanted a steering wheel.
I always seemed to do odd jobs at different seasons, like working at the saw mill in the spring or working in the apple shop in the fall.
When I was 50, I went over to CB Cummings and I worked over at the mill. I worked the tannery some too, and then later came back to plowing snow ... working on the old country roads again.
Laura worked at Worthington’s and she also picked apples and cared for the children. She has gone through many trials with me, but she’s been pretty good to me and she's been a damn good wife.
Q: Anyone said you look like someone famous?
A: No, I’ve gotten this face all by myself.
Q: Did you do much traveling?
A: Not really. We went to Alaska once when our son was there working for the telephone company. I didn't go for flying too much though. Laura would say ‘look down there’ and I'd look the other way.
Q: Which place was the most fascinating and why?
A: Alaska. It’s the one trip in your lifetime. We went to a small, fishing town and you could only get there by a little plane.
The glaciers were something you would never believe. Eagles and bears were everywhere. The bears had long, brown hair, not like the shorter-haired ones we have here. The eagles were thicker than the crows here at home.
One thing I really liked was that the people were so relaxed; nothing bothered them.
Q: Do you collect anything or have a hobby?
A: Besides deer hunting, vehicles were my hobby. I think I was born with a set of keys in my hand. I used to love to buy cars and then change them. Then it got pretty strict with all the paperwork; so no more fun.
We eventually got down to one car and that kept us busy enough.
Q: What is the last book you read?
A: I read the paper once a week, but that's about it.
Q: What is the one thing you could not give up?
A: My wife! Who knows how she’s ever put up with me.
Q: Do you have a hidden talent or a talent you wished you had?
A: If it's hidden, I don't want to blurt it out do I? I really don't think I've had much talent – I liked my cars, but I wouldn't want to take ‘em to the track.
I must have some kind of talent for living because I just got the Boston Cane for being the oldest citizen in Buckfield. They don’t give out the cane anymore, but I got a certificate.
Q: What is the one thing you would happily do over again?
A: I know it wouldn’t be back in school. It would have to be behind a wheel and plowing snow.
I’d love to see how those new big plows go. I haven’t plowed much since they tarred the roads. If you got out of the tracks, you go down and would get stuck tighter than the devil. At least four-wheel drive came; that was a help. We had to have chains on every tire.
Q: What would you like people to know about you?
A: I guess they would have to use their own judgment on that. I love my family and I have quite a sense of humor, which always gets me in trouble with the wife. Gosh, those poor nurses and waitresses, but they all know I’m having fun.
I am a proud person, but I don’t want to be too proud.
Q: Any regrets?
A: I should have spent more time with my father and maybe gone through more schooling.
Q: If anyone could walk in right now, who would you most want to see?
A: I would like to see both of my parents, but that would scare the hell out of me because it’s been so long. I would tell them I’ve seen a lot of changes in the world and I'd tell Dad I miss him and tell Mom I love her; she lived to be 102.