Charles’s Boots Weren’t Made for Walking
(a recap by Will Kaiser)
Title: 100 Mile Walk
Airdate: September 25, 1974
Written by Ward Hawkins
Directed by William F. Claxton
SUMMARY IN A NUTSHELL: Hail damages everybody’s wheat fields, so Charles goes to work in a stone quarry, where a friend of his accidentally explodes. Meanwhile, Caroline bullies all the women in town into trying to save the harvest.
RECAP: We open on a closeup of wheat. Real close-up.
Through the . . . sheaves? Oh, God, I don’t know anything about wheat. [TIME LAPSE]
Okay, I guess they’re called heads. Through the heads of wheat we see a familiar stripy pink shirt. It’s Charles, who’s holding some wheat kernels in his hand. He blows them away – doesn’t that defeat the purpose of gathering them? But we get it, the season’s been good, and there’s so much wheat a few lost kernels won’t matter.
Seeing there’s mature wheat ready for harvest, we can deduce it’s the fall. There is an interesting history of wheat-farming in Minnesota that will tell you more about the kind of crops Nineteenth-Century farmers grew, why they stopped or switched, and other things if you’re the type of person that wonders about them. Well, it’s interesting as far as such things go.
Charles looks skyward and thanks God aloud for the bounty. He walks through the (very big) field, and the title appears. Though Amazon calls this one “The Hundred-Mile Walk,” the actual title is “100 Mile Walk.” (My own style preference would be to insert a hyphen between 100 and Mile, but it’s cool, anything goes these days.)
This one was written by Ward Hawkins, apparently the brother of the John Hawkins who wrote “A Harvest of Friends” two episodes ago. Apparently they operated as a sort of package deal as TV writers – I wonder how that came about? As kids, did they read Laura Ingalls Wilder books together and fantasize about bringing them to a mass audience? It’s hard to picture, but then again in my own youth a friend and I once tried to write a musical based on Clive Barker’s Nightbreed, so anything’s possible.
Cut to the common room in the Little House, where Carrie’s face is covered in glop.
Charles is projecting the harvest – he says he’s got 100 acres to reap. (In real life, he had 172.) “Come on, everybody, write that down – one hundred,” he says, and the girls start scribbling on their slate and tablet. Charles estimates he’ll get 35 bushels of wheat from every acre, each of which he can sell for 75 cents a bushel. How much does it add up to? Like one second later, both the girls have the answer: $2,625! ($52,500 in today’s money – not bad for a dirt farmer.) I don’t get it, last week Laura couldn’t read, and now she’s the family bookkeeper?
They all start making extravagant plans for how they’ll spend the money (which include buying new dresses for the girls, even though they just got some). Significantly, Charles shows us his boots are falling apart, so a new pair is at the top of the list. As Al Swearengen put it, “Announcing your plans is a good way to hear God laugh,” but let’s not get ahead of ourselves either.
They go on making the list, putting things on it like curtains and a rocking horse for Carrie. “Why would they buy that stuff?” said my daughter Olive. “Pa could make the rocking horse, and Ma could make the curtains.”
“Charles loves to throw money away,” said my wife Dagny. “That’s why they’re always poor.” That, and Mrs. Oleson is constantly screwing them at the Mercantile, I suppose.
Then Charles announces he has a surprise. Everyone follows him out to the barn, where he shows them two enormous draft horses. (How did he sneak them in? Wouldn’t they hear them whinnying in the night, or something?) Charles says, without a hint of self-awareness, that he’s financed them with Mr. Hanson using the oxen as down payment. You’d think he’d have learned his lesson about that in his experiences with Shifty O’Crafty, wouldn’t you? Cash on the barrel my ass.
Poor Charles. That night comes a heavy thunderstorm, and he stands at the window, worriedly staring into the pouring rain. (“Do you think Michael Landon wishes it was raining vodka?” said Dagny, but I told her I’m not allowing that kind of humor here.)
Caroline comes out with her bed-head wig on again.
She asks what’s wrong, and we see Charles do what he often will in stressful situations: lie outrageously. “Nothin’!” he says. “It’s just a little rain. . . . We could use it!” Seriously, he does this many times, doesn’t he? He characterizes things as exactly the opposite of what they are under the banner of optimism. He’s the king of denial. You think this is bad, wait till Mary starts having all her “issues.”
Caroline knows it’s a lie, and this is what’s a little weird, instead of just leaving him to fret in peace, she asks, “What about the wheat?” Come on, Ma, that is just not helpful.
“Oh, it’s real good for the wheat!” he says. “Long as it’s standing . . . soak it real good!” I was reminded of that Twilight Zone where the evil kid has powers to kill people, make groundhogs explode and do all sort of other horrific things, and his family is so scared they keep telling him over and over it’s real good he does all this stuff.
But then he offers to make Caroline some coffee, and that makes you like him, because in moments of stress, his first instinct is to be helpful, to do something for somebody else. Caroline compassionately says she’ll make him coffee instead.
“It’s really comin’ down – that’s good,” he goes on, smiling. “We could use some rain,” he adds, as if he’s only just thought of it and didn’t say the same thing seconds ago.
Then he starts nervously talking about Mr. Hanson’s new McCormick reaper, even though Caroline points out he already told her about that.
There is another crash of “Castle Thunder,” and soon the roof starts rattling. “Hail!” Charles screams, and rushes outside. The hail effect is pretty good. Carrie is crying, so Ma goes to tend to her. You can see the wall in Carrie’s corner of the bedroom is unfinished and looks like shit. WTF, Charles?
Some time later, it seems, Charles returns. “I’m soaked to the skin!” he says heartily. Then he’s like Mmmm, fresh coffee, my favorite! and you really start to feel for him. I suppose people with happy personalities do retreat into smiles and small-talk in a crisis. It feels kind of tragic here.
Finally he lets the dream die and turns to Caroline. “The wheat’s gone,” he says. (“Not the weed!” said Dagny.) He tries to keep it together, and smiles at his wife, more genuinely this time. “I guess you might say we’re back where we started,” he says, without bitterness, and they embrace. Good for them.
The next day, Hanson and some other men are discussing the disaster, which hit all the farmers equally hard. The other fellows ask Hanson to borrow money, but he says sadly he can’t swing it. It seems there’s no bank in Walnut Grove at this point, so people have to come crawling to the richies for loans. Remember, Mrs. Oleson said they also give credit to some people. I wonder what that application process is like.
Charles comes riding up on one horse and towing the other. Mr. Hanson greets him as “Charlie.” Nobody calls him that. Charles is returning the horses of course. I expect Hanson will give him the oxen back, too, though that isn’t mentioned.
WILL: Is Mr. Hanson the richest man in town? He also sold them the farm, remember.
DAGNY: Well, he’s single, owns a lucrative business, has no children. . . .
WILL: Maybe not so single – remember Doc Baker?
OLIVE: Yeah, I totally ship the two of them.
DAGNY: Doc has his own successful job too. They must be rolling in it.
WILL: True. But Doc gets paid in chickens.
Anyways, Charles says he’s going to wander on foot to look for work. And in fact, we then cut to him getting ready to leave. He says he’ll write, but he may have to walk as far away as Sleepy Eye or Mankato to find work. They all go out to see him off on his journey. He says goodbye to each one individually – really quite touching. I notice Karen Grassle blinks a lot, but doesn’t actually cry – I’m not sure we saw any tears when she cried at Laura’s speech last week, either.
We last see Charles walking up a hill; then when we come back from the commercial break he’s walking down a hill that’s so similar I thought they just left the camera in the same position and hoped no one would notice.
A dramatic French horn solo plays us into an ominous closeup of Charles’s bad boots. “Charles’s boots are not made for walking,” said my stepson Roman.
He passes another little country house. After he’s gone by, three new characters emerge: a father, a mother and a son maybe about Mary’s age? All blond. The father is an Englishman with a Manchester accent who’s apparently in the same boat as Charles. The son is a Jodie Foster lookalike, only a boy, and the two frisk about in mock-fisticuffs before saying goodbye. The kid says he’ll take care of Ma and the farm.
Then he turns to his wife, and her acting is worth commenting on. It’s very big, with every gesture sort of overemphasized as if to reach people in the very back of an opera house. A stage actress? She kisses her hand, then throws a playful punch to his cheek. Seriously, she’s not bad, there’s just something about the way she moves that looks weird and over-the-top on TV, almost like a mime.
The English guy catches up to Charles. He’s friendly and introduces himself as Jack Peters. He gives Charles a piece of rawhide to tie up his boots with. “Charles should just strangle him with it and take his boots,” said Roman.
Back home, messy-haired Ma goes out to look at the squashed-down wheat field.
That night, Charles and the Englishman are eating something around a campfire. I’m not sure what, but the Englishman loves it. A big guy with a Scandinavian accent comes out of the woods and joins them. (Scandinavians at the time were nicknamed “Squareheads,” but dictionary.com says that the term is “extremely disparaging and offensive,” so I shan’t use it.) He twice refuses Charles’s offer to share the food, but finally gives in. Charles says otherwise it would go to waste, “unless you can figure out a way to put stew in your pocket.” If you can’t put stew in your pocket, how’d you get it there in the first place, Charles?
The Scandinavian guy says his name is Jacob Jacobsen (so he’s probably Norwegian). He is played by non-Scandinavian Rick Hurst, whom some of you may remember as Cletus from The Dukes of Hazzard.
He farms by day, and makes boots by night for fun. Well, it was before the Internet. (Do you ever wonder what we might all accomplish if it weren’t for this great horrible time-suck that draws everyone in? Maybe you’d be making boots in your free time too.) Of course he happens to have a perfect Charles-sized pair of boots with him, presumably complete with the four-inch lifts Michael Landon wore on the show to seem tall. Charles protests that he can’t pay, but the big Scandinavian just smiles and says “Someday.” He’s a generous guy; today the people of Minnesota are not particularly known for their friendliness.
They start to talk about the work they hope to find. The English guy says wheat-threshing is for losers and they should come with him and work in the stone quarry. “Ever do any double-jacking?” he asks, which inspired some filthy talk and cheap jokes from the members of my household.
But what he’s talking about is working in a team driving chisels into stone so explosives can be placed in it for mining. The Scandinavian guy actually says “Yumpin’ Yiminy!”, a phrase that originated in a comedy routine mocking Swedes in the days of vaudeville and that probably has never been seriously uttered by a Scandinavian or anyone else in human history.
Surprisingly, Charles and the big Scandinavian have no questions; they’re willing to try it. “You’ll get a chance,” the Englishman says, rather tantalizingly. Unfortunately, Steve Winwood had not yet released “While You See a Chance” so we don’t get that song playing us into the commercial break. Would have been perfect.
They arrive at the stone quarry. “Are there going to be people sacrificing themselves like in Midsommar?” said Dags.
We’re not told how far away from Walnut Grove they are. If it’s actually a “hundred-mile walk” (fifty miles each way), they’ve passed by Sleepy Eye (forty miles) but not gotten as far as Mankato (eighty). Perhaps they’re near New Ulm? It’s in the right direction, about the right distance, and there’s a stone quarry there that opened in 1861. It would take them about seventeen hours to walk there, which they could have done over two days. Let’s pretend that’s where they are.
So, the first thing they do is watch a couple guys demonstrate double-jacking. It really does look horrifically dangerous. I saw an interview with Michael Landon where he said they used a rubber sledgehammer for the principals, but I wonder if some of the other “jackers” aren’t doing it for real. Maybe too much of an insurance risk?
A big old man who looks like somebody put Trump in a blender with Fred Gwynne comes up to them. The English guy introduces him as Tom Cassidy, the owner.
He makes the “experienced double-jack team” of Charles and the Scandinavian guy bluff their way through a few questions and then demonstrate their skills. There’s no point describing it in detail, but the scene is well directed and pretty nerve-wracking.
The big Scandinavian looks sort of John C. Reilly-ish in this scene. It occurred to me that if Charles killed him, he’d never have to pay for the boots, but he doesn’t.
After a couple minutes Charles breaks off the demo and says, “My partner and I work a lot faster when we’re getting paid.” Tom Cassidy gives him an I-like-the-cut-of-yer-jib smile and says they got the job.
Back in Walnut Grove, Caroline has rounded up all the women of the town, at least the younger ones. Absent are Mrs. Oleson and Grace Snider. Mrs. Foster is there, so Grace must be minding the Post Office, and Mrs. O I’m sure isn’t going to leave the running of the Mercantile to old “Your Pa and I Can Settle Up Later” Nels.
Caroline has a plan for saving the wheat harvest. She tells them since the broken stalks can’t be harvested by machine, they’ll have to do it by hand. One of the younger women objects with some practical concerns. Caroline responds by quoting the story of Ruth from the Old Testament (and Torah): “‘And she gleaned until even, and then she beat out that she had gleaned,’ with flails and winnowing.” Not remembering this gem from my own Sunday school days, I looked it up, and it appears “with flails and winnowing” is Caroline’s own little addendum.
The story of Ruth does have resonance with their situation, as it involves women having to work the fields themselves after their husbands die. (Ruth also seduces a man, Boaz, by climbing under the covers with him while he sleeps, but that’s another story.)
Here’s a rather naughty painting of her by Francesco Hayez. Lucky Boaz!
Anyways, the woman who complained doesn’t seem any more convinced by this quote than I would be, but when Caroline calls for a vote even she goes along with it. It is a pretty crazy idea, since presumably they’re going to do all the area fields, not just the Ingallses’ 100 acres. (One hundred acres is approximately the size of 800 NBA basketball courts.)
But, it’s TV, so they get started. The complainer, who doesn’t appear to be working at all, says, “My back is killing me, and we’re gettin’ nothin’ done.” A plump woman working hard alongside her says, “Well, I’m losin’ fat!” and laughs. That’s fat jokes two episodes running, people.
The complainer continues to go on, saying they won’t be able to harvest enough to get them through the winter. “We certainly will go hungry, Willa,” says Caroline, “if we all work like you do.” (“She can be such a bitch,” said Dagny. “Not everyone would be good at this.”)
Back at the quarry, the English guy is carrying a crate labeled Dynamite. The introduction of explosives into any Little House on the Prairie storyline always means the rest of the episode will be very watchable. He greets Charles as he passes him (also calling him “Charlie” – WTF?). Charles asks what the dynamite’s for, which is really dumb because not only has this already been explained, it has to do with Charles’s own job in the quarry. But the Englishman says his specific job is being a “powder monkey,” viz., scrambling over the rocks to plant dynamite in the holes the jackers have made. He says this was his vocation until his mimey wife made him take up farming instead.
Then we see the explosives at work; a man shouts “Fire in the hole!” and everyone takes cover. (The origin of that expression is a little obscure, but it does seem most sources agree it started with miners around this time.)
Meanwhile, Charles and the big Scandinavian continue working hard, so hard Charles’s hands bleed from so much hammering. You’d think they’d switch off at that point, but neither suggests it. They take a break and Charles suggests they enter a double-jacking contest Tom Cassidy is holding with a $50 prize ($1,000).
Then the English guy joins them under the shade tent and they talk about missing their families. “Did I miss the Scandinavian guy’s backstory?” said Dagny, right before we get it. He says he’s got a wife, Elna, but when asked if he has any kids, he says, “I don’t know,” and the show gives us a second to consider whether that’s a salacious remark. But it isn’t really that sort of program, and the Scandinavian guy reveals his wife is actually pregnant and he doesn’t know if she’s had her baby yet. It’s kind of a nice scene, well played by the three actors.
Back in Walnut Grove, all the townswomen are lined up at the Post Office to see if they’ve got mail from their husbands. Speak of the devil, first in line is Elna Jacobsen – strange that Charles didn’t know these people already if they’re Walnut Grovesters.
Caroline also has a letter from Charles. It begins:
I was just saying to one of my new friends that 100 miles is not a long distance, except when it lies between you and the ones you love.
Now wait just one second. Unless Charles is exaggerating for effect, he seems to be saying he walked 100 miles one way to get to his current location. That shoots down my New Ulm theory, so maybe he’s in Faribault, which is the right distance away and also has a mining tradition. But that seems a hell of a long way to go to find a stone quarry. It’s practically to Minneapolis. Alternatively, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, is also 100 miles from Walnut Grove, but in the opposite direction of the way Charles started out walking.
So, all right, let’s assume they’re in Faribault. That works out better anyways, since I found this old photo of miners in that region – it’s undated, but looks about the right period. But it would have taken them at least four days walking ten hours a day to get there.
Anyways, blah blah blah, Charles loves them and misses them. They’re relieved to know he’s okay, plus he sent some money along to boot. (To boot, get it? My own wit makes me delirious sometimes.)
The Englishman’s mimey wife, Peggy, also got a letter, as it turns out (so they’re Walnut Grovesters too?). Her husband spelled both Dear and Peggy wrong, but oh well, it’s pioneer times. She and the Jodie Foster kid get into an argument about whether spelling’s important. He’s proud of his pa and thinks spelling be damned, he’s not to be mocked.
We then get a montage of the men blowing stuff up at the quarry while the women are literally bringing in the sheaves back in Walnut Grove. (That’s the hymn I most associate with this show, though we haven’t heard it yet.)
The women, Caroline included, are quite sweated up, and probably look as sexy as anybody ever will be allowed to look on this show . . . except Charles, of course!
Seriously, I have a friend who in high school had an enormous hard-on for Karen Grassle. He lived for moments like this.
The montage includes a rather stupid bit where the English guy tosses a lit stick of dynamite into the outhouse while somebody’s using it as a prank. We cut away before it blows up, but it takes us out of the realism of the thing somewhat.
Anyways, I think the whole “work” montage would be more effective if they played Loverboy’s “Working for the Weekend” over it, but that wasn’t written yet either.
Now it’s time for the double-jacking trial. It’s nice that Tom Cassidy gives them a bit of fun like this to break the monotony. I wonder if they used stunt men or what for the nonspeaking jackers. A lot of them don’t really look like actors.
Long story short, Charles and the big Scandinavian win the contest. They’re all smiles, and the Englishman yells his congratulations from up on the rocks. He teases them a bit, saying it was just luck and “a real hard-rock miner wouldn’t let you carry his” – but before he can say “jockstrap,” he takes a single step and there’s a tremendous explosion. It’s quite well edited; I can’t really see a cut at all. It’s a shocking moment. Charles screams and the smoke floats up into the sky.
Cut to Charles standing in the pay-line, looking stunned. Tom Cassidy gives him his pay and his winnings, and asks him to deliver the English guy’s money to his widow. Seems a decent chap. Charles and the Scandinavian guy begin sadly walking home. Charles drops him off at his house, but before he goes the guy gives Charles a big roundish pack – the Englishman’s belongings, though I’d love to say it’s his severed head, as it’s about the right size and shape.
Oh, and the Scandinavian’s wife comes running out holding a baby.
So, Charles delivers the pack and the bad news to the English guy’s family. Not-Jodie Foster runs about twenty feet off to soliloquize in sorrow. Charles of course has to put in his oar and follow him for a manful talk. Why wouldn’t he trust the mime lady to handle her own child? He doesn’t even know these people. For all he knows she could be a professional grief-counselor. More than that, Charles tells not-Jodie he plans to “stop by every once in a while” to check on them. Michael Landon, you’re already surrogate dad to millions of viewers, you don’t have to do it for every character you meet on the show as well. Then he invites him to go fishing! My God, man, leave the poor weeping child in peace!
But of course it works instantly – the kid pulls himself together, spits in his hands (a disgusting habit of his father’s) and suddenly says, “Now that my pa died, I’ve got a lot of work to do.” Charles puts his hand on not-Jodie’s shoulder and just leaves it there, and after a while even the kid seems to think the scene’s getting a little weird and pushes off.
Then Charles heads home, apparently swinging by Hanson’s place first to pick up the draft horses again. Everyone comes running out. They don’t even tell him about the wheat, just hug him. What’s up with that? Oh well.
So with the double-jack pay, the salvaged wheat harvest and the contest winnings, they should be flush for a while, huh? Think again – in just a few episodes they’re back to being super-poor. Bum-Bum-Ba-Dum!
STYLE WATCH: Tom Cassidy wears interesting plaid trousers.
Charles appears to go commando again.
THE VERDICT: This one’s quite good. Charles’s meddling at the end aside, his adventure with his two new friends has tragedy and depth, and Don Knight is good as the English guy. One’s tempted to say he got what he deserved after throwing dynamite into an occupied privy, but I know that’s not taking things in the right spirit.
UP NEXT: Mr. Edward’s [sic] Homecoming