A Day Trip through my Brain

If you were able to take a day trip through my brain, it could be scary. Some would say it would be like a journey through the wide open spaces. Sometimes I don’t even want to take the trip myself but, my wondering self does not seem to have any real control over what I want.

When I step into the little city that is inside my head I end up walking down so many different paths. The trip always seems to take me to the center of town where there is a billboard loaded with my list of memory sparks. Someone is always posting new listings on the billboard so it is worth my time to visit it often. When others think I am aimlessly daydreaming I am really on a journey of great importance.

Who am I fooling, I really am just daydreaming hoping that i stumble on something valuable. I am like the guy with the metal detector working the beach. The odds of finding something is rare, but as long as I keep searching I might just be surprised with a gem.

If you have followed the blog a few of the memory glimpses will be familiar, others will get their time in future stories.

It’s possible that a few of these sparks may challenge deep memories of your own. If so, let me know.

So, this is not a story but rather my notes for past, present and future stories.

Of course I couldn’t resist adding a few notes to the notes of the notes.

Sounds

  • A green wooden screen door slapping the frame when you let it go.
    • Along with that, the sound of the spring as it stretched, sometimes to its max as I would often do, swinging the door wider than necessary. When the door came back it would slap against the frame then bounce back for a lighter bounce. These slaps were usually followed by an order, too late, “Don’t let the door slam.” Today’s screen doors with their fancy latches and soft closing hydraulic cylinders lack just a little bit of character.
  • One lone dog barking in the night. Don’t you wish you knew what the poor guy was trying to say?
  • A freight train passing through the local crossing.
    • Paul Simon’s song “Train in the Distance” says “everyone likes the sound of a train in the distance.” Many nights sitting on the back porch the town was quiet until the Burlington Northern passed through. It would sound the horn at the various crossings and you could follow its’ path from Stanton Lake on the north side of town, passing the crossing of a few country roads then rounding out through the south side of town running parallel to the Nemaha river then on out to the corn fields. When it passed the last crossing you could judge the length of the train from the time the horn blew at the crossing until the final car clicked on the rails.
  • A mother’s voice on the phone.
    • Nothing can bring you more comfort than to hear “hello” from mom. I would like to hear that one more time.
  • The first robin of spring singing in the morning.
  • Taptap taptap of a manual typewriter.
    • There was a rhythm to work when you heard a manual typewriter. A few years ago I downloaded a program to simulate the sound on my laptop. Every now and then, I return to that sound. The tapping takes me back to the office at the J.C. Penney, or Dr. Brennan’s office while I was sitting with mom waiting our turn.
  • Cicadas droning.
  • Cottonwood trees rustling in the August wind, sounds like onions frying in a cast iron skillet.
  • Splat of a snowball hitting the trunk of a tree.
  • Wind in your ears when you are all alone.
    • When you stand in the Catholic cemetery east of Falls City there is nothing to block the wind. Most of the old pines that once shaded the departed have joined their ranks. It is now, for the most part barren and wind whipped. Standing at a grave site you are now the tallest element in the patch. (Not a good place to be if there is lightening in the air.) There are very few vehicles that pass on the highway running alongside the cemetery. When they do pass, they break the stillness a little but the rolling of the wind in your ears still wins. Put your hands over your ears right now. That faint roar is what you hear when stand all alone on the open planes. The wind never stops.
  • Dry leaves crackling under foot.

Smells

  • First whiff from a new can of coffee.
  • Thanksgiving Day dinner. (Someone needs to make a candle with this scent.)
  • New red rubber overshoes.
    • The red rubber overshoes that mom would send us out to play in the snow had a particular smell. I can’t tell you what it is but if you ever wore the rubber overshoes with the elastic piece on the side that crossed over to a little button that was usually lost after the first day out, you know the smell. As your foot grew, the smell was mixed with the left over bread fragrance of the Wonder Bread wrapper that you slid your shoe into first to help slide the now slightly oversized shoe into the rubber shoe.
  • Freshly sharpened pencil.
    • A freshly sharpened pencil will transport me immediately back to my first grade classroom. I can’t tell you the name of the nun that taught us but I can tell you where my seat was and how we were split down the middle with first graders on the window side and the second graders near the wall with the door. Next to the door was where the pencil sharpener was attached. It was located first grader height from the floor. Today, we have a traditional sharpener attached to the support beam for the basement steps. Going to the basement to crank out perfect pencil points floods the subterranean region with the essence of old ink-welled desks, chalk dust and Dick and Jane readers.
  • Ivory soap.
  • Peonies on Memorial Day.
  • Dad’s pipe tobacco coming up from the basement steps.
  • Rain on fresh cut grass.
  • Burning leaves in the fall.
    • Many complain about the practice of burning leaves. It will kill the ozone. It stinks up the neighborhood. It is dangerous. Communities legislate against the practice. But, despite those objections I still fly in the face of the community voices and strike a match to a single fall leaf just to have the smoke take me back fifty years. It transports my dreams like incense raising prayers to heaven. I can see dad, pipe clenched, his worn denim barn coat, yellow felt work gloves, standing at the end of the driveway rake in hand, stoking a leaf fire. The sun setting behind the now bare Dutch elm trees. They stand in watch as their sheds provide a delicious aroma that evokes the images of late fall apple pie, geese flying over and football games under the lights. In the evenings when the fire died to coals I looked forward to going back out after supper and staring into the pile. The coals glowing behind spent leaves looked like a city at night hanging on a mountainside.
    • For years I looked for a pipe tobacco that mimicked the fragrance from those leaves. Field and Stream had one for a while but I think they mixed a little too much outdoors into it for my taste buds.
  • Movie popcorn. (microwave just doesn’t make the grade)
  • Methylate, mom used to paint us with it for every injury.
  • Old libraries and Post Offices.
    • Walk in to any old Post Office or library across the country and you will be greeted with the delicious smell of decomposing paper, oily leather, shellacked dark wood, and pine scented cleaning fluid. Even after the Falls City Post Office was updated, it still retained enough of the original fixtures and wood to preserve its’ particular aura. When we met dad after work he would take us in through the loading dock on the south side of the building. The outside air had the smell of diesel exhaust from the trucks up and down HW73 this mixed with multiple burning barrel smells in the alley. Stepping inside brought the perfume of the world. You might be detecting a letter home from a soldier in the jungles of Viet Nam. The jungle humidity sticking to the envelope and letter. Or it could be a box of cookies from a grandmother to her favorite grandchild in town. There was always the possibility of a body. The cremains of someone’s love one might be sitting reverently on the big desk that occupied the center of the back room. There was a single light that stretched out over the desk to give the sorter focus on how to dispatch the incoming mail. That is usually where we found dad, finishing up the last few dispatches before the Post Office was locked up.
  • Old Spice aftershave.
  • A bakery where they actually bake.
  • A fresh fish market.
    • Most people would turn up their nose at the smell of a fish market. But a fresh market is different. The saltiness in the air and the smell of the ocean is evident. It is a clean fragrance like the steam coming up from a cracked lobster tail. If I was going to give color a smell, the open market aroma is what blue would smell like.
  • Real Christmas trees.
  • A good cigar.
  • Hot dogs over a charcoal grill. (One of Teresa’s favorites.)
    • Every now and then, dad would fire up the grill around 10:00 at night. I am sure the neighbors had little understanding or appreciation for the late night bouquet of charcoal, which has a smell of its’ own and hotdogs which will move anyone to an appetite. Mom would wake us up and we moved sleepily down to the kitchen which had collected much of the aroma from the grill sitting just outside the kitchen window. The table would already be set with ketchup, mustard and other fixings. Dad would bring in the semi-burnt dogs on a paper plate along with a few buns that were toasted over the grill. We sat there in our pajamas eating hotdogs and sharing cans of crème soda or root beer. When the hotdogs were consumed, it was time for s’mores. The late night tradition became so entrenched that when we came home for visits after leaving the nest, weather permitting, we always roasted hotdogs before we headed back to our respective homes.

Visuals

  • Sandwiches wrapped in wax paper. (I don’t know if this should go in visuals, textures, smells or sounds. It would qualify for all if you imagine hard enough.)
  • Old barns, weathered wood leaning against prevailing west winds.
    • Roger Welsch, a Nebraska folk writer, says “if the wind ever stopped blowing in Nebraska, half of the barns would fall over.” I have an affection for the old wind whipped barns. They show their history on their face and let very little move them. They have seen families come and go. They have witnessed crops succeed and crops fail. They have provided shelter to new animals and comfort in summer storms and winter cold to veterans of the farm yard. Some old barns have been forgotten all together. They stand watch in the middle of wheat or soybean fields, their usefulness over but no one has the heart to tear them down. They drop slowly back to Mother Earth with whom they have partnered most of their life…then they are gone.
  • Pigeons flying in a flock over red brick buildings.
  • Rusty trees against a steel October sky.
  • A polished black car.
  • New moon on fresh snow.
  • A perfect Windsor knot against a white shirt.
  • A hawk lazily gliding over a stand of leafless timber.
  • Burning barrels, rural mailboxes and galvanized watering cans.
  • Raindrops racing on the kitchen window.
  • A red-winged blackbird perched on a swaying cattail.
    • Red-winged blackbirds have always been a favorite of mine. The indigo sheen set of with the red and yellow wing patch is a striking combination set against any background. But, there is something to see one hanging on to the side of a cattail swaying as if it was the bird’s own personal porch swing. There are other more solid perches around but distant relative of the common grackle and the meadowlark seems to favor the slow sway in a Nebraska breeze of the four foot tall cattail. Fishing at Stanton’s Lake north of town, we were often serenaded by red-wings as we stared at red and white bobbers lapping against shallow ripples just waiting for a carp to pull it under.
  • Copies of Boy’s Life magazines 1950’s era.
    • A friend recently loaned me copies of 1950 era Boy’s Life magazines. The ads alone remind me of a time when there was less emphasis on political correctness and more on personal responsibility. There are countless ads for rifles, knives, axes and sling shots. Interesting, with all those available to young men, I can’t recall any reports of a scout utilizing any of these options in anger against another scout. A scout is trained to look at this list as tools, not weapons. Just saying. Numerous articles and cartoons dealing with how to treat individuals and yourself with respect and grace can be found in each issue. One article even detailed how a young man should act on a first date.
  • The first glimpse of hometown after a long drive.
    • It doesn’t matter where you live, big or small town, when you get that first view of home you feel different.

Textures

  • Knitted afghan.
  • Metal drinking tumblers filled lemonade.
  • Mom’s cotton apron.
  • Sanded pieces of pine just waiting to be painted.
  • A vintage hardbound book.
    • I am a true participant in the digital age. However, cracking open a classic hardbound book with yellowing pages stitched to the spine of the book still brings a different experience. The paper is heavy and turns with a rustle against your index finger. The cover has the texture of mom’s throw pillows on the couch. You treat a hard cover book with a different level of respect. There is not a fancy cover illustration to grab you. The title does the work. There is no glossy “about the author” or summary of the book decorating the inside. You open the front page and jump into and adventure that takes you through time and drives you to distant lands.

All of these memories were, all part of growing up.

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Timing is Everything

It’s another humid day in Nebraska.

The cicadas are groaning their rhythmic buzz. Every creature capable of sweating is doing so.

Dogs are camped out under trees with their tongues hanging out the side drool dripping to the browning grass around them.

Lawn mowers are cutting down what is left of the grass before the August heat turns it all brown.

Kids are playing in backyards immune to the heat and humidity. This was an era when there was more to do outside than in regardless of the weather.

Where am I through all of this?

I am laying on the cool linoleum kitchen floor, shirtless and almost pant-less, trying to soak up any fun that might be coming through the green screen door that separates me from freedom and friends. According to Mom’s records I am eight years old at this happening and covered in chicken pox.

Butch, and some of the other neighborhood kids are on the other side of the door. I am quarantined from them and anything exciting. I was the first to bring chicken pox to the neighborhood, who shared them with me is still a mystery.

This day is one of those childhood days that all of us can recall in some way. A day that sticks with you for some unexplained reason.

Butch had his army men set up on the chipping green slats of the back porch. He was set for the attack that was never going to happen through the screen. It was like those prison movies when you see the visitors talk through the visiting screen and they want so desperately to pass something through.

Butch and the others could escape to the whole neighborhood when the playing turned too boring, my only retreat was deeper in the house.

This is not where a kid should be on a summer vacation day.

I will admit with no hesitation, it didn’t take long in my young academic life to genuinely hate school. The chicken pox during summer vacation was, in the properly formed conscience of an eight year old, a cruel joke being played by the virus gods. Wasting good days inside when school was looming on the not too distant horizon was worse than the itch and threat of “don’t scratch, or you will be scared for the rest of your life,” that went along with the pox.

I must have listened to the threats and followed Mom’s prescription of care because I can’t find any evidence of scaring, or maybe that was just an idle threat just like the other I often heard, “this will go on your permanent record.”

I would like to know where those records are today, I have some amending to do.

I survived the chickenpox with no visible effects but there was a deficit in my vacation days which I will never get back. I think as a kids we should have been allowed to take equivalent days off in the school year if we were stricken during summer vacation with any of the common childhood trip-ups, kind of like maternity leave for minors.

This was not to be the end of the cruel tricks.

The German measles found me at the start of Thanksgiving vacation. I looked like I was used for target practice by an army of elves. Red hits covered me from top to bottom. Now instead of having free reign of the house, I was confined to the darkened bedroom because, as you know “you can’t be in sunlight and have the measles. I guess it’s a vampire kind of thing.

Now I am wasting Thanksgiving vacation and in no real mood to eat my favorite holiday meal.

I do have one fond memory of the measles.

Dad came home one night with a chart that had plastic fish representing the ocean going creatures attached to it. Each fish had a description beside it and Dad sat on my bed, reading the bio of each fish. For some reason, the plastic blue tuna from the chart has survived many a purging of past toys and mementos. I pull that fish out every now and then, and I can still see Dad sitting on the end of the bed holding each fish up as he reads their deep see exploits.

With the measles and chickenpox under my belt I am now up to about ten days that some school system owes me.

But the tally is not over.

Someone decided that it would be a great idea to remove my tonsils. I think doctors in those days figured if you had more than one sore throat a year, yank those tonsils out. I will acknowledge, I used to get some burning sore throats, so I was all for anything that might relieve them. Plus, the idea of the ice cream and Jello diet was not real offensive to me.

But,

I would like to know who came up with the scheduling for the surgery. This one I can tell you the exact date. It was November 20, 1964 one day after my birthday and seven days before Thanksgiving. Now, you might be thinking that this was getting me a few days out of school and you would be right, but it was also taking me from my second favorite thing next to summer vacation, snow.

The morning after my birthday the folks woke me well before the sun came up. A beautiful snow storm moved in during the night. Flakes were parachuting to the ground like an invading white army. They landed on every flat surface and piled one on top the other forming white pillows just waiting for a kid to plow through.

Dad pulled “Black Beauty” to the side of the house while mom and I waited on the back porch.  The flakes were coming down even heavier. The street light on the corner cast a cone of white through the snow with its light. Black Beauty plowed her way through the new snow up to 18th street down Harlan then west to the old hospital. We were the only car on the road at this hour in this kind of weather.

Either the hospital was very full, or someone thought it would be clever to put a ten year old kid in the maternity ward with the wailing and groaning of expectant mothers. I was stuck over in the corner of the room protected by a rolled up curtain divider. I had a window to my right where I could watch the snow spin in small cyclones up in the corner of the building. The only good thing was the promise of ice-cream when this was over and the absence of the prickly needle sore throats.

If you have had your tonsils out, you know the promise of ice-cream and comfort is a bold face adult lie.

When I woke from surgery, ice-cream was the farthest thing from my list of desires. My throat felt like I swallowed a bucket of nails followed by a good swig of alcohol. (Not that I would really know what that would feel like but I can only imagine.) For this, I was missing a good snow and burning school days.

Let’s raise the tally to about fourteen extra vacation days that I am now owed.

The summer of 1965 brought another round in the hospital. Once again, I couldn’t ignore or put off the curse thrown my way so I was convinced there was a conspiracy among those deities to ruin my vacation time.

Back to summer.

While spending the afternoon at the public pool I began to feel cramps in my side. I figured it was the predicted, “if you eat and go swimming you will get cramps and die,” warning. For some reason, thirty minutes was the required waiting period before you jumped back in. I probably had a box of those thin salty pretzels and a cherry coke, my favorite pool snack at that time and ignored the thirty minute warning.

When the cramp hit, I climbed out of the pool and stretched out on the warm cement decking figuring that waiting the full thirty minutes would solve the problem. And you know, after waiting awhile, I didn’t feel too bad. Back in I went.

Before I could swim to the opposite side of the pool where you could hold onto the side and watch the pony league baseball games going on down at the fields, I was hit with another cramp. This one made me realize something more was going on.

I made my way to the bath house, turned in the tarnished oversized safety pin with my basket number and pulled my tennis shoes out for the walk home. Why I didn’t ride my bike that day is still one those unanswered questions. By the time I reached Harlan Street, (Death Drives a Red Ford Fairlane 9/7/14) I was doubled over like someone had gut punched me and was stumbling like a town drunk.

Walking into the house mom could immediately tell there was something wrong. Two clues was my bent posture and the fact that I cut a day at the pool short. Her first question was the always famous mother question, “Do you need to go to the bathroom?” That wasn’t fixing this.

I spent the rest of the evening on the couch then to bed later in the evening. The next morning, I wasn’t feeling any better so after laying around on the couch again, off to the doctor we went. We walked to the doctor office because dad was working and mom did not drive at that time.

After waiting our turn in the packed waiting room, which always smelled of a mixture of antiseptic and cigarette smoke, we were finally escorted back to one of the white washed exam rooms.

Sidebar: This was an age when you never made an appointment to see your family doctor. You just showed up and unless you walked in carrying one of your appendages or you weren’t breathing, you took your place in the waiting room. It was also a time when many people, over the age of eighteen, smoked. About the only place exempt from cigarette smoke was Sunday Mass. Even then you would get a whiff of smoke as someone pitched their last smoke before coming in or those that thought they were being clever and stepped out during the homily for a smoke.

Back to the story:

The doctor walked in, cigarette hanging from his lips dressed in a long white lab coat covering what was probably his hunting or fishing clothes. The doctor never addressed me by name, instead I was Tiger, a name I am sure he used for every boy that perched on his examining table.

He started poking around on my stomach. Again, “Do you need to go to the bathroom?” Even at this age I was beginning to think this was every adults answer to health concerns.

“Does this hurt Tiger?” as he pressed on my belt line.

If I was an adult I probably would have responded, “Hell yes it hurts and you can stop anytime.” But I am sure with mom watching over me, my response was more like a nod and a grimace.

Taking a drag on his cigarette and fumbling with that contraption every doctor and nurse slings around their neck, “I think we better send you to the hospital, looks like appendicitis.”

“What??? I just ate too close to going swimming. I will never do that again. What do you mean hospital?”

I soon learned I didn’t have a say in the direction this was going.

Dad was called from work to run us up to the hospital. This was not a real inconvenience since the Post Office was across the street from the doctor’s office.

At this point I am hurting too much to really care and within a short period of time I am once again stretched out in the operating room counting backwards as they smother me with some mask. The same doctor that diagnosed the problem was the same one that cut the appendix out of me. That wouldn’t happen today.

I woke up with the same kicked in the gut pain I came in with. This was the tonsil lie all over again. I thought the surgery was to take the pain away, not add to it. I also gained a nice four inch belly scar that I have carried with me as a memento of the occasion. (Who needs tattoos, this is real battle scar.)

Now I am laying in a hospital bed. No air-conditioning. It is August when the humidity and temperature are often the same number. The annual 4-H Horseplay Days are in full swing. I am not only missing the rides, food, parades and rodeo, I am burning precious summer vacation days. Because of the lack of air-conditioning the windows are open and I can hear the rodeo callers at night and I can watch kids walking past the hospital with cotton candy, bags of popcorn and cheap carnival prizes. What did I do to the vacation gods?

I was in there for a week. Today, you are in and out in less than a day for the same operation.

So now we will add seven days to the total along with another seven for the days I was confined in the house before I could get the stiches out.

I’ll finish this off with one more example of wasting good vacation days with a malady that could have waited until September.

As a family, we never took vacations to exotic locations or areas of adventure. We had many day trips to the zoo, or hikes through the Barada Hills or maybe a picnic to a state park somewhere. It changed when the folks decided to visit relatives in Columbia, MO. This would be the farthest reaches of our vacationing experience. It was no ordinary day trip. This trip required planning and multiple overnight stays. We had hit the vacation big leagues.

Well, you can see it coming, about half way to Columbia I started to feel funny. Not car sick funny, just not right. Tightness in my neck, headache, and I am sure a few other indications I can’t recall at this time. I was not making anyone’s vacation pleasant at this point.

When we finally arrived at our Aunt and Uncle’s house in Columbia, the diagnosis among the mothers was that I had the mumps. One of the experienced mothers suggested I try the pickle test. According to legend, if you have the mumps, you won’t be able to tolerate the zing of a pickle.

Again, if I was an adult I am sure my reaction to the pickle test, once administered, would have been much different than that of my thirteen year old self. Let me say, it was a long time before I could eat a pickle again. Medical science proved beyond any doubt I had the mumps.

So, while the rest of the family toured beautiful Columbia, I stayed in the house, wrapped like a patient that just had teeth pulled, listening to boring stories from my uncle about his business, fishing trips and why he wanted to move from Columbia.

I did get a couple of good car models out of the deal which uncle and I put together to pass the time.

But, now I burned a vacation and missed out on yet another opportunity to legally and without argument, skip school.

When I graduated from high school, one last cruel joke was played on me by the forces that govern our lives. I was awarded the perfect attendance certificate for never missing a day of school. I am not proud of that honor and I think that someday, when the time is right, I will make them take it back in return for the twenty plus days they really owe me.

Oh well, school days, mumps, measles and chicken pox are all just part of growing up.

###

 

Sole Searching

I can’t remember the last time I bought a pair of shoes in a stand-alone shoe store. I’ve bought an occasion pair in a department store, but it has been a long time since I sat in the stuffed chairs and was waited on by an eager clerk, shoe horn stuck in his waistband ready to draw like a western six shooter, at the first sign of a stubborn shoe.

Growing up a new pair of shoes meant a trip to the Browns Shoe Fit Co. on the corner of 16th and Stone street, across from Falters Men’s Store. Walking in to the store the essence of leather and musty carpet greeted you.

In the summer months the over-the-door air-conditioner dripped on you but rewarded you with a place to shop in cool comfort. There was a sign glued to the door with an image of a polar bear inviting you in with, “come inside, we are air-conditioned.”

The entrance to the store was at the end of a funnel formed by two large display windows angling out to the street. The windows and entrance were protected by a marquee that extended on out over the sidewalk. The display windows were dressed keeping the sexes politely apart. On one side was the best of the men’s and boy’s shoes on the other side were the women’s and girls’ selection.

The displays played a key role for window shopping on evening walks.

There were only a few other places to buy shoes in town, but the displays in Browns made it look like they were fighting for every foot that passed their way. J.C. Penney had a shoe department as did a few of the women’s clothing stores along with Falters and if you were in need of good boots, Falls City Farm Store had those.

The door in to the store was a single door, none of the fancier up-to-code two door options you find today. Behind the main door was a screen door that in the cooler days, those between extreme heat and nail biting cold, acted as the only barrier between shopping and the then busy downtown activity. Late August, when the school shoe ritual would start, the screen door was a tease reminding you that inside was nine months of ugly, dreaded school work and outside was freedom, fishing and root-beer floats.

Mom was the official shoe shopper and it was her lead that every sales person worthy of a golden shoe horn needed to respect. There were rules which needed to be followed. Number one, there was a budget. Well, that eliminated all of the window shoes for us. The shoes had to last for more than a year (even if the child wearing them needed to curl their toes by years end), so this means style is now out and function in. This requirement also meant they had to have leather soles and hard rubber heels that could be repaired or stretched to last maybe another couple of months. And…the final looming requirement in my situation anyway was, “do you have anything in a B width?” Mom would whisper this to the clerk as if it was a social disease that her youngest son had feet shaped more like narrow ski’s than normal flipper based feet the rest of society was blessed with.

Then to add even more embarrassment, “Maybe you ought to measure him.” As if she thought my foot magically swelled to a normal D width over a summer of flip flops and tennis shoes.

The clerk, following her suggestion would stick my foot on this strange device move a few things back and forth as if he was preparing to measure twice and cut once, then announce the new foot size to the entire store as if he made a world altering  discovery.

“Yep that is a B width for sure. I’ll check and see what we have.”

Some kids had acne or an Alfalfa cowlick in the middle of their forehead, I got the 2×2 feet.

The clerk would disappear behind the magic wall of shoe storage land and emerge moments later with, if I was lucky, two boxes of shoes. Most of the time my selection was limited to one pair of plain oxfords that came along with a whispered apology, “that is all we have that will fit a foot like that.”

Then the try on.

As if tracing a ballet move on the floor, using one foot, the clerk, would slide the miniature slipper slide shaped stool up to the chair. It was one of the few times when a kid could actually feel like he was being waited on by one of the older guys in town. You felt like saying come on move it along and don’t make it too tight this time. But, kid wisdom also told you that you would most likely run into this character somewhere away from the protection of mom or dad.

As dad often reminded us, “A closed mouth gathers no feet.”

Once both shoes were on it was time to take the “the walk.” Mom would give the command, “walk to the end of the display case.”

“Lift your pant leg so I can see if they are slipping.”

So now I am walking through a crowded store looking half like a pony finding their new legs and a little girl lifting her new dress avoiding puddles.

Next the thumb test. Moms all across the nations must have some direct correlation between their thumbs width and the growth speed of their children’s feet.  Some geneticist is missing their shot at the Nobel Prize by not testing this theory. Even if the well-meaning clerk tried to use his or her thumb, that did not mean anything compared to the mother test. After all, the clerk is not genetically linked to the newly shod.

When the sale was complete the clerk would always ask, “Do you want to wear them home or put your old shoes back on.” It was like magic. My voice sounded just like Mom’s. “No, we will wear the old ones.” You never wanted to wear the new ones out of the store because you still needed to break them in on the carpet at home. Besides, the sale was still not official until Dad gave the second thumb test at home.

I never thought to measure the width of Mom’s thumb compared to Dad’s. Wouldn’t that be a weird finding to discover that mates selected at random ended up with the same thumb widths.

A shoe rack was not something you found in many homes when I was growing up. The pigeon-hole storage containers for shoes often depicted in modern closets was not necessary. Nobody had that many shoes! My shoes, two pair, fit neatly in the closet next to Tom’s two pair with plenty of room to spare. My boots and tennis shoes never made it to the second floor. Their place was the basement next to the shoeshine kit.

Every Saturday the shine kit made its way up to the kitchen for the polishing ritual. Shoes were polished with Parade Dress black to a gloss that stood up to inspection by Master Sergeant Mom. (You thought I was going to say Dad didn’t you.) I hated this ritual. I managed to procrastinate it long enough that it was often a last minute chore prior to going to bed.

It is just the opposite today. I enjoy the forced slow-down that comes with polishing a pair of shoes. The smearing of the paste polish, the old rag that is infused with all the colors of the shoes in the house and the horse hair brush brought from home that brings out the final luster. Sometimes I can feel Dad’s hand on the brush as I buff the parade dress polish to the shine it deserves.

Polishing was just one part of shoe ownership, the other responsibility was shoe repair. Walk up and down any small town and you could find several shoe repair shops. Matter of fact, shoe repair is in the Casey blood. One of the original businesses in downtown Falls City was a shoe repair shop owned by Great Grandfather Casey.

Before socks started showing through the soles and the heels reduced our height marks on the wall, we were dispatched to Lorenzo’s repair shop for soles and heels.

A trip to Lorenzo’s was an adventure in itself. The shop occupied a squeezed space between Gambles hardware and a car dealership. There was probably a time when the space was a walkway between the two businesses and someone got the idea to put a ceiling, and a door on it.

Lorenzo's Repair Shop

Lorenzo’s Repair Shop

Or, maybe the space was made just for Lorenzo.

In stature he was not a big man but in reputation and influence he was. More than once I watched him, cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth, dressed in pressed jeans restrained with a western belt that I imagined he tooled himself, a buckle that would make any rodeo cowboy jealous, western shirt and bolo tie all brought together with a shoe polish stained apron, looking up and tapping his finger on the chest of a much larger man, while making his point on a local political issue or the best load to use when pheasant hunting.

On entering the little corridor a bell would ring over the door signaling Lorenzo there was a customer in the shop but for the most part it was a useless fixture. Even though the shop was small it was one of the favorite hangouts second only to the Hotel Barber shop directly across the street. As a kid you often had to squeeze past well matured stomachs and a clouds of cigarette and cigar smoke to make it to the counter to deliver moms repair instructions.

“Soles and heels please.”

Waiting for Lorenzo was never a chore. The narrow walls were covered with a parade of guns, western belts with tooled stories stretching all the way to the epic buckles the size of a farmer’s hand. I enjoyed eavesdropping on the stories flying back and forth. The smell of Kiwi polish still takes me back to the dark little shop. When I was a few years older it was Lorenzo who sold me my first shotgun pulled off the wall of that shop.

Eventually Lorenzo closed the repair business and opened a gun shop next to the Journal on Harlan Street. It was still a local hangout for fishing tales and hunting escapades but it didn’t have the charm of the cubby-hole shop.

When I turned sixteen I secured an after school job at the local J.C. Penney store. I swept the floors with an aisle wide broom, made sure all of the waste containers were emptied, and the fingerprints removed from the front doors. It was a great job and the manager, Mr. Comfort seemed to take me under his wing and gave me additional duties in the store.

One night as we were closing up he pulled me aside and gave me a portable 45 record player and manual. It was a complete course in how to be a J.C. Penney shoe salesman. By the time I completed the course I was ready to tackle any foot that came through the door, the mantra of the program running in my head, “Every person that comes through the door is a potential shoe customer.”

The mysteries of the Brannock Device were revealed and I could now measure the smallest baby foot to the talcum powdered caked feet squeezed into pumps. My shoe horn was issued and I had a pass to the deep dark hallways of the behind the scenes shoe racks. Before long I was the professional who could swing a fitting stool in place, pop open a new shoe box and draw a shoe horn from my belt all before the customer was seated.

I was now on the other side of the chair when mothers tested the growing room and kids argued for the impractical while cost dictated the practical. I watched with a now trained eye as countless customers took “the walk” testing their new shoes for slippage. My role even necessitated a few trips just down the block to Lorenzo’s for heel pads and an occasional bunion stretch. This time the visits were different. I went to the front of the line. I was now part of the shoe industry and we were now, “sole mates.”

Today when I need a pair of shoes I sit down at the computer and pull up countless websites claiming to have the styles and sizes to fit everyone’s needs.

I see a pair of loafers that look like they would be a good addition to the collection. Filling out the order form and sending in the request, a magical cyber salesman hunts the racks of shoes and comes back with,

“Sorry, this is all we have to fit a foot like yours.”

A thumbs width to grow, kiwi shoe polish, and broken shoe laces were all just part of growing up.

 

Picture courtesy of Google Earth 2015

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A Chewy Gooey Christmas

Silver and gold candy balls the size of BB’s bounced across the table top. My sister Teresa and I scrambled under the table to round up the balls which was like trying to herd a trail of ants to one opening. Mom hated it when she stepped on the one that got away, making that crushed sugar sound on her perfectly waxed floor.

Rounded up, we didn’t worry that they were once on the floor. They still found their places as the knockers of bell shaped cookies or on the end of Santa’s hat on his namesake shapes and stand-ins for ornaments on green sugar coated Christmas trees.

Wire cooling racks sat on top of wax paper protecting the kitchen table. Red and green sugar grains covered the table along with a few more run-away candy balls.

It is the annual Christmas cookie decorating day, which, will soon be followed by the popcorn ball making night. Dad is the captain of the cookies, Mom, the popcorn balls. Two traditions, if I had a time machine I would enjoy reliving again.

I don’t know when the tradition started. When Teresa and I were old enough to help out, it was already an established event. Tom and Mary had their time in the production line, but they were eventually replaced by younger labor but only after passing off certain decorating skills and responsibilities.

Dad would start the Christmas cookie process well before the house showed any signs of the holiday. There was no last minute scramble to complete the baking by this Master Sergeant. I suspect he had it plotted out with the skill of a military tactician and the execution of the plan was carried out with the experience of a seasoned commander.

Nights before the baking marathon you could find dad, a white flour infused apron covering his usual pale blue short-sleeve shirt, khaki slacks (we never saw dad in blue jeans until later years) and dark brown house slippers, sitting at the kitchen table. A bowl in his lap, the apron spilling over each leg, with practice precision, cutting dates into small pieces all in preparation for his date pinwheel cookies. As the pile of cut dates grew in his lap so did the pile of date pits and discarded pieces climb on the table.

The next night, Dad would mix the dough, spread it out on a cutting board that had an old ribbed undershirt stretched tight over it and held on each end with two thick U.S. Postal Department issue rubber bands. Once the dough was rolled out, he painted the cut dates on the dough and then rolled it all together spiraling the date mixture through the rolled dough.

When baked the pinwheels were never round. He shaped them to form a half circle, flat on the bottom. My suspicion is some Casey sibling, prior to Teresa and I, must have tried turning them into real pinwheels, and thus, the new shape.

During the baking days, the house smelled like a bakery on a Saturday morning when they are making the treats for Sunday patrons. No one could be in a bad mood with that fragrance in the air. Chocolate chip, anise seed, oatmeal, sugar cookies and one of my favorite, orange slice cookies rounded out the dozens and dozens of cookies baked.

Living in a house of creative people meant that cookie decorating took on extreme importance. Candy cane shaped cookies received artistically sprinkled red stripes and Santa’s hat always had enough red sugar to mark where the white fur started. It was also a race to see who could claim the most cookies decorated before they went to the oven. Dad would cut the cookies from his dough using cookie cutters seasoned from years of use. A regular rhythm of press, lift, and one jerk deposited a flour tinged shape just waiting for the production crew to tackle.

When we closed up the house after Dad’s passing, ( read Behind Closed Doors, posted 11/3/14) Teresa and I saved the cookie cutters from potential auction house separation. Someday, some Casey will press and use them again.

When most of the cookies were baked, they were put away for Christmas Eve. Dad had an old tin box with a red lid and cream colored bottom that housed our supply of cookies. The tin kept any roaming mice or other sweat-toothed creatures from nibbling our creations. The box was stored in the basement under the steps until Christmas Eve. (read The World Down Under, posted 12/3/14) This same tin box I use today to store the nativity set from home. The crèche was one of the first things the folks purchased as a married couple at Woolworth Store on Stone Street.

I mentioned most of the cookies found their way to the hideaway, but, not all of them.

Dad was known, throughout town as a master cookie baker. Neighbors, his fellow postal employees, priest and nuns, and the few aunts and uncles in town, all shared in the Christmas cookie excess. Many trips were made in “Black Beauty” balancing plates of wax paper wrapped plates of cookies, each with a store bought bow taped to the top. If the recipients weren’t home, no problem, they knew who the cookies were from.

On Christmas Eve, when others might be feasting on the seven fish or making preparations for Midnight Mass, the Casey’s were sipping on oyster stew or chicken noodle soup and eating celery strips and carrots. When we ate enough of the listed menu to qualify as a meal, the Christmas cookies made their first of many trips from the basement to the cookie tray in the kitchen.

Once again the kitchen was alive with red and green sugar trailing from the cookie box to the tray and then to the table. Those little gold and silver balls more than once popped from Santa’s hat and rolled across the table and hit the floor where they always wanted to be in the first place.

The cookies were not Dad’s only creations. Every year he worked at perfecting peanut brittle, and his constant project, the Martha Washington fruitcake. One winter night I was tasked with taking out the garbage to the burning barrel at the end of the yard. Instead of putting on my winter coat I grabbed dad’s heavy canvas work jacket. Halfway back from the barrel I discovered a flat bottle of rum in the pocket. I thought “Oh my God, my dad is secret drinker, we heard about this kind in school health class.” It wasn’t until I confessed to Mom what I found that I was relieved to find out, the rum was what Dad took to the basement and poured through the cheese cloth, soaking the Martha Washington cake. I knew then why they never offered me a piece.

Closer to Christmas it was popcorn ball time. If you have never had a homemade popcorn ball, thick with kernels, held together with gooey Karo syrup, then, I am sure your dentist is thanking you. But if you have, then you know how good the combination of sugar and corn can be. You know the fun of working each piece free that is stuck to the roof of your mouth and between your back teeth. It is a treat that keeps on long after the last bite. They are the best snack to shove in your coat pocket when you are heading to snowy woods squirrel hunting or just something to nibble on while sledding down Eighteenth Street from the Paulson old place at the top down to Jim Rider’s house on the corner. If they were crushed in a mid-hill sled crash no big deal, you could just turn your pocket inside out and pick the pieces apart and still enjoy.

Popcorn ball making was as much a Christmas tradition as cookie decorating. On the designated evening, Mom would pop enough corn to fill two granite roaster. I can’t say I ever remember the roaster being used for anything other than to hold the popcorn on this night. Next coffee cups lined with Crisco, one for each of us, were scattered around the table. Once this was done, Mom started brewing the binding of syrup, sugar, butter, vanilla and food coloring. When this was ready, she drizzled one roaster with green syrup the other with red. Then, the race was on. Mom pushing us to go fast before the syrup cement hardened.  With greased hands we dove into the roaster scooping up handfuls of popped corn and pressed the glob into the greased cups. Your hands would get little shocks of burn from the hot syrup as you pressed and formed almost perfect balls.

Greased hands and hot syrup, it is a wonder that anyone in the Casey family has readable finger prints.

As you completed your sculpture it was placed on one of the wire cooling racks that earlier held a variety of cookies. With the production complete, pale red and green balls decorated the table. When the popcorn balls cooled, they found a hiding place in the basement somewhere between the cookies and Martha Washington until they too, climbed the steep stairs from the basement on Christmas Eve.

Years later, when all of us except Tom scattered to different states the “cookie man” and Mom employed the postal service to deliver our quota of cookies. Teresa, Mary and I, could always count on a box, expertly cushioned with popcorn, (not the Styrofoam kind, the real thing) filled with an abundance of cookies, popcorn balls, and fudge. The cookies arrived with such regularity the mailmen on this end knew when to expect them and treated them with the reverence and respect they deserved, never just leaving them on our door step or tossing them from the truck.

We have gone a couple years now without any “cookie man” Christmas cookies and even longer without popcorn balls sticking to our teeth. Maybe this will need to be the year we fill the old tin box and make a few trips to the dentist to dig out misguided kernels.

If we do, it will be a nice trip back to…all part of growing up.

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“How Much is that Doggie in the Window?”

This edition is dedicated to Dickens, a Golden Retriever who served his family well and was a friend to all he came in contact with.

Dickens

Dickens

“So Brian, what would you like for your sixtieth birthday?”

That was a question posed to me by Tina sometime in August or September of 2014. It didn’t take me long to respond to the question. I immediately said,

“A dog.”

After reassuring her that I was serious, the discussion started on the pros and cons of dog ownership.

We went through all of the usual arguments of why we shouldn’t be dog owners. The list of reasons why not to have a dog was long and included our schedule, housing, veterinary expenses, lack of experience and the restrictions that come with a pet. They were all good arguments but ones that I also had some good countering responses for.

After mustering up my best sad face and throwing in a few promises, which I have yet to fulfill, I won the debate.

In October, we visited a breeder and selected a six week old female miniature schnauzer named Bella. Bella, would eventually come home with us sometime in December.

Our first meeting with Bella

Our first meeting with Bella

Bella's first night in her new home

Bella’s first night in her new home

It wasn’t until we picked up Bella that I realized I was preparing for a puppy much of my life plus how much dogs have been a part my of growing years.

We never had a dog in the family. We had pigeons, chipmunks, an alligator, even a praying mantis that lived a very healthy life in captivity on tomato worms and grasshoppers and, there were even a few dime store turtles, but no dogs.

The closest to having a dog was a few strays that followed Dad home from his mail route. They would stick around a few days, never really giving in to ownership then they would move on once they realized this was not the family for them. I think of them now as the hobo’s of the dog world. They were free to roam where they wanted and find food from generous handouts by sympathetic humans.

Mom was probably the biggest opponent to a dog in the family. She tolerated the creatures listed above and I never remember her saying no to any of them. I know she was not fond of the snakes Tom brought home from Scout Camp but they made it in to the house despite her arguments. One by one they disappeared from the basement. To this day, I believe the garter, bull, and black racer snakes that inhabit the old neighborhood are all descendants of those basement snakes.

It was mom that helped me stitch up a racing pigeon when he came home with his crop split from one wing to the other. I held the bird while mom, an expert seamstress, stitched the old boy back together in between douses of peroxide that turned his whole front blonder than Marilyn Monroe platinum. So she had a sympathy and understanding for creatures, just not those that might eventually boss her around.

Then, Banjo came on the scene. Banjo belonged to the Grimes family who lived across the alley. I can’t tell you the breed of Banjo, not sure if he was any particular breed, but I hesitate to label him a mutt because he was much more than that. Banjo was a short legged, black curly haired creature who’s eyes were always covered with tangles of curls and his tongue always hanging out looking for a hand to slather with a good licking.

Banjo was ready to play just by hollering his name. He roamed the neighborhood ready to chase balls, cats, our pigeons or just roll over for a good belly rub. But, what was special about Banjo was his relationship with Mom.

Banjo and Mom had an understanding early on in his introduction to our yard. Mom had no problem with Banjo running at will through the yard and even now and then begging a drink from the garden hose while she watered her flowers. However, it only took a few attempts on Banjo’s part to follow her up the porch steps to learn he had crossed the line.

If you remember, the porch was part of the house, it was a room without walls and that meant it was no place for dogs. It was Mom’s claim that she taught Banjo to stop at the steps and come no farther into her territory. She was the first dog whisper that I ever knew. With a look and a stern no, Banjo quickly learned to respect the boundaries.

For his reward, Mom labeled him the best dog she ever knew. Mom would remark often how well trained this dog was to not venture on “her porch.” When Banjo mysteriously disappeared, as often is the case with free roaming dogs, it was Mom who missed him more than us kids. Even years later when we were all adults and talk would turn to dogs, Mom always brought up the legacy that Banjo left behind that no other dog matched.

As I got older, I needed a source of money that would supplement the grass and snow shoveling business. Dog walking became the weatherproof business. When the grass stopped growing and the snow was not flying, dogs still needed to be walked.

When I came home from school I had a regular circuit of house-bound dogs to tend to. One was Paddy, a young beagle full of energy and blessed with a typical beagle voice. The closer I would get to Paddy’s house, which was just a half a block down Morton Street, I could hear him wailing as if he was hot on the trail of a rabbit. I could struggled to get Paddy out the door and hooked to his exercise line because he was so happy to be outside. Once Paddy expelled his energy along with a few other things, it was time to move on to Bugle.

Bugle was a grossly overweight beagle basset hound mix. Bugle was the dog of one of the county judges and they both shared what I would list as a mansion on Lane Street. It was house filled with old wood, winding staircases and memorabilia from the Judges years of public service as well as his stints with some very famous Jazz artist. The house was later destroyed to make room for a modern grocery store. When I go home and visit the store, I can still picture back in the corner where the deli ends and the milk coolers start, that this is where the back door to the mansion would be. The back door is where Bugle and I would start our walks.

The judge never locked the back door. Many folks in town did not. I would open the back door, step inside the entrance parlor, and holler for Bugle. With the utterance of his name came the response from several flights of stairs above me of a bugle charged bark that would make any fox and hound fan proud. Barking at a volume that could be used as a warning siren, Bugle came slopping down the steps his nails scratching the wooden runners and his belly making a sweeping sound as it hung up on each one. Finally at the bottom he was exhausted. His exercise for the day was finished in his mind but the orders from the Judge were to walk him despite his opposition.

Unfortunately, Bugle was not in the habit of taking orders from the Judge or from me. Bugle would oblige me my job of attaching his lead and complying by walking down a few more steps off the back stoop. From there it was a tug of war between wills and dog fat.

One time I made the mistake of walking Bugle across Harlan Street. If you have followed previous stories, you know that Harlan was the main highway through town. Not busy all the time, but enough that one should probably not try to walk a reluctant dog across. In the middle of Harlan, Bugle decided to exert his rank as the dog of the high ranking county official and planted himself in the middle of the highway. We had tractor trailers passing us on one side and monster combine machines with their tentacle arms pointing at us on the other. Bugle was just taking it all in as if this was his kingdom and he wanted his subjects to see he was in control. All I could picture was a life in the jail on top of the courthouse where the Judge sent me for risking the life of his only family member.

Bugle and I eventually came to an understanding and returned to the mansion, never to speak of this event again. Bugle and I continued our relationship for a few more years and then, Bugle’s rich and lazy lifestyle eventually caught up with him. I tried to warn him but he never listened.

The early years with dogs did not always bring about the best results.

One night, mom, Teresa and I were walking down 19th street only a block away from the house. I was on the outside next to the street, where mom taught me gentlemen are supposed to be when walking with a lady, Teresa and Mom were on the inside. As we passed a house I noticed a black lab stretched out on the front stoop. With no warning the lab came out around Teresa and Mom and sunk his teeth into my, at that time plumb rear, and hung on as I ran down the street. The dog eventually released his bite on what was to him a tasty morsel and for me at that age a near death experience. I think to this day I still have two canine scars in my rear but I have never had anyone verify that.

When Mom and Teresa arrived home, trust me, I beat them home, my cuts were painted with methylate, the cure-all for any cuts. Later dad went over to the house, armed with Tom’s single shot .22 ready to defend himself against the monster. As he approached the house carrying the rifle, a well-meaning neighbor called the sheriff thinking dad was up to no good. The sheriff at the time was Dad’s half uncle (which is a whole new family history story.) Turns out the dog had selected another victim earlier in the evening, so the sheriff was really there to investigate. The poor dog was later moved out to the country where he was free to take on any creature that got in his way. He was probably secretly hoping his antics would get him out of town and out where he could roam free and pursue his wolf instincts.

Then there was Ginger. Ginger was Scoutmaster Bill’s Golden Retriever. Ginger went on every campout with the troop and if you bunked with Bill, you also bunked with Ginger. Ginger liked to roam the campsite at night checking on her boys. This meant that throughout the night, you had to tolerate Ginger stepping on you as she made her way in and out of your tent.

It was Ginger that taught me about pheasant and quail hunting. Bill, who would often call to take me hunting and he always brought Ginger along. Ginger was trained as great gun dog ready to flush out quail and pheasants and then retrieve the kill when a bird was brought down. If Ginger flushed a covey of quail and I missed them all, she would give me a look of “really, I worked hard and you missed them!”

Eventually Ginger taught me to be ready for what she was sniffing out along with the etiquette and respect that is required when using a working dog.

The seminary years brought a few more dogs to help in the dog education. Cheri, a German Shepard and Murphy an adventuresome Beagle.

Cheri roamed the halls of the seminary with free access to any room or quarter in the building. She was everyone’s dog and was happy resting in the TV room with the guys or visiting the faculty in their exclusive dining room. Cheri never ventured into the chapel. Like Banjo, somewhere along the line she learned this was crossing the line, but every morning and evening when prayers were finished, she was waiting outside ready to find someone to play with.

We don’t know how Cheri got pregnant. Well we know, but just couldn’t explain when she participated in activities outside the walls. Late one night, while sleeping over in one of the guy’s rooms, Cheri decided it was time to introduce her nine puppies to seminary life. That was the first time many of us witnessed a live birth. (For men preparing for a celibate life, it was most likely the last time.) The puppies were all dispatched to homes around the seminary and Cheri in proper time, resumed caring for her men in the seminary.

Murphy was a different type of dog. He was independent and had an adventurer’s spirit. Murphy would take off on journeys and sometimes be gone for weeks. When he returned, he was celebrated like the prodigal son returning. Announcements were made that Murphy was in the building and guys started feeding him scraps from their plates as encouragement to stick closer to home. Sometimes when Murphy returned home there was less of him. Often when he returned he was very thin, or maybe part of his ear would be missing. One time he came home with part of another creatures tooth lodged in a delicate part of the male dog anatomy.

Murphy did not roam the building like Cheri. He held court on the well-worn leather sofa in the game room. If you wanted to see him, you had to go to him. You were welcome to have a seat next to him but don’t try to encourage him to follow you from that spot.

One day Murphy left the seminary grounds and we never heard from him again.

Years later the “teacher” arrived on scene. The Buddhist have a saying that goes something like “the Teacher will arrive when it is time.” The pup that opened the door for future dog ownership was a little black schnauzer named Shadow. The grandsons thought that Grandpap needed a dog to keep him company. The idea set well with everyone except Grandpap. In less than a week, Shadow found a home with Craig the oldest grandson. Shadow endeared herself into the family and it wasn’t long till she was an expected member at any family gathering. Tina, who was never a real fan of dogs and even by her own admission was a little fearful of them, because she didn’t know how to act around the four legged ambassadors of licks and kisses. Shadow and Tina bonded to the point that she became a guest in our house for several dog sitting sessions. It was not unusual for Tina and Shadow to be curled up on the couch both enjoying forty-winks on a Sunday afternoon.

The teacher had arrived.

Next in line came the Berdoodle, King Tut Casey, Cleopatra and Christmas Wren, all dogs of our son’s family. Tut was never little. From the time we met him he was a big boy and soon grew to a size that would display his St. Bernard roots. What he had in size he also had in love. He only wanted to be near people and please those around him. Tina took to Tut with no fear of this large gentle giant. Shadow had prepared her well. Cleopatra was to Tut in size what a house cat would be to a tiger. The two made a Mutt and Jeff pair that was comical and loveable. Tut wanted to be the lapdog that Cleo was, and Cleo thought she was the size of Tut when it came to standing her ground.

King Tut Casey

King Tut Casey

Then Adam and Laura rescued Wren. A little thing that could easily fit in a shirt pocket. She needed round the clock care with feeding carefully monitored and room temperature kept high. It wasn’t long before she was included with the pack and the three musketeers became sources of entertainment no reality show could match.

Now we are back to Bella. With Shadow as the teacher and Tut, Cleo and Wren following to round out the class, it wasn’t hard to make room for Bella. She quickly made herself at home and I believe still it was Bella that adopted us, not the other way around.

Bella has brought life and comedy to the house. She has her routines which quickly became our routines. Her toys can sometimes be scattered from the bedrooms, down the steps and into the kitchen. More than once I have walked into a dark room only to kiss the ceiling after stepping on squeaky toy. Even as I type the words she is sitting on my lap fixed on the cursor and words as they pop on the screen.

With Bella I have been forced out on cold mornings before the sun climbs over the mountains behind Springfield Pike. Bella has given me a chance to view the constellations I’ve missed for years. Watching her wonder at a fly for the first time or the smell of grass greening up reminds me how fast life has become. Catching her wonder at birds chasing each other in the burning bushes and the predawn song of the robin sitting on the power line over the alley reminds me there is more entertainment than what I pay the cable company for. We’ve been out in the rain and snow together and according to Bella, it is okay to get wet and it reminds me how delicious snowflakes taste and how good the smell of rain really is.

Bella today

Bella today

A dog, I am convinced, takes you back to just far enough that you can start over again.

One afternoon I had Bella out in the front yard for exercise. A car passed with a young boy in the back seat. His gazed was fixed on Bella as they passed. He turned back to his parents in the front seat and the car was still close enough for me to see him mouth, “I want one.”

Hang in there kid, it will happen sooner or later, it may take sixty years, but it is just all part of growing up.

1.How Much is that Doggie in the Window? Bob Merrill 1953

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Memory Hooks

Funny how one word, image or sound will trigger a memory. Glimpses I thought were long gone came back quickly when I started cataloging memories. One memory morsel seemed to spawn the next.

The “Sound of Music” song,  “My Favorite Things” is a directory of memory images. Many of them are universal or at least the process it triggers is. You can’t listen to the song without having some memory ignited.

My list is not as universal and it would never make a good song but it might start a memory song for you.

  1. Grandma Casey’s Corner

Grandma Casey had a garden with raspberry bushes growing on both sides of a wooden planked path which stretched from one end of the garden to the other. When you stepped on the first plank it rose like a happy dog wanting to jump in to your arms. When the plank came back down it slammed a hollow spot starting a cadence of footsteps all the way down the path. With each rise and fall of the planks, a hint of raspberry touched the air.

I can still taste the cold milk and sugar mixed in a bowl of black raspberries all held in a heavy white ceramic bowl.

At the end of the wooden tightrope path was a two-hole outhouse and garden shed. It was years later I learned that Grandma built the shed herself. Grandma’s house was my halfway stop while walking from kindergarten to home.  I went to afternoon kindergarten and by three o’clock and a bottle of the coldest milk sucked through a paper straw, I was probably ready for a bathroom stop. The door of the shed never closed tight as you did your business. A ray of light through the door would drop on the dark wood making it look black as golden dust fairies descended on it from the outside. A hint of dill growing alongside the shed along with cherry trees dropping blossoms around the door covered any odor.

Grandma's outhouse/shed

Grandma’s outhouse/shed

Who needed air fresheners?

Grandma always had filled wafer cookies waiting for me in the kitchen ice box and it WAS an ice box. Or, for a special treat she had Hostess Snow Balls. their thick coconut covering always fell on the floor no matter how neat I tried to be. To make it to the kitchen I had to pass through a back porch with windows usually covered by sheets of foggy plastic. It was Dad’s job every fall to go up and “put up the storm windows.”

Hanging inside the door to the kitchen was Grandma’s outside apron. It always had smudges of dirt and a few clothes pins in the pocket.

Morton Street in front of Grandma’s was a dirt road for many years. Morton Street came to an end there and if you stepped off the street at that end you were in a field that sometimes was planted with corn or was often used as a temporary pasture for a few cows. It was also a favorite place to fly kites; many Casey experimental kites had their first solo in the field.

Usually once a year the road was oiled to keep the dust down. After fresh oil the road would shine like a street of gold. If the rain came shortly after oiling, there were oil slick rainbow reflection up and down Grandma’s street. The colors would reflect up on the white houses lining the street giving the whole block a “Wizard of Oz” effect.

The Old Oak, King of Morton Street

The Old Oak, King of Morton Street

A big oak sat on Grandma’s corner and stretched limps over the road as if it was holding an umbrella to protect the neighbors. It was the first tree on Morton Street and it ruled like a king. In an effort to show his dominance and title as well as to fight the intrusion on his territory, the oak raised the sidewalk walk which stretched across his roots. His powerful arms reached deep into the yard like a rescuer holding on desperately with one hand while stretching the other to save a passer in distress. The city decided not to honor his valor and instead opted to flatten the walk to make it safer for walkers. In the process they sliced the roots and the tree died a slow death but not until Grandma moved out of the house. He hung in there long enough to give her cool shade in the summer and plenty of leaves to burn in the fall. He arched over a patch of peonies  that bloomed every Memorial Day with a perfume that made roses weep with envy and the lilac hedge on the side of yard turn and bow in submission.

Grandma’s house is gone.

The oak is gone and lesser maples have replaced the oak along the now cemented street.

A double wide sits where Grandma’s house once filled the yard.

Three bunches of peonies and a lone lilac bush still stand on the corner and every spring they let the rest of the neighborhood know they are now the seniors on the block.

I can see the oak and Grandma sitting on the corner taking it all in together.

  1. Fishing at Stanton Lake

Many summer days were spent fishing at Stanton Lake on the west end of town. The lake was an easy ride from home on a bike and not a hard walk if you decided to take that path. the walking route took you straight up Morton and turned at Grandma’s corner then right on Harlan till you reached North School, past the water tower then down the long divided entrance to the lake park. The hardest part of the walk was coming back up the entrance lane. It was one of the few “hills” in town and it taxed your calf muscles climbing back up.

The long hill out of Stanton Lake

The long hill out of Stanton Lake

The lake was a place for many family picnics, a few rocket launches and numerous sunburns.

Stanton Lake didn’t contain any fancy game fish like bass or trout. It was a working man’s lake filled with carp, catfish and bullhead. The kind of fish you go after when you just want to sit and relax and let fish do all of the work.

There were two lakes on the property, a small lake which yielded mainly bullhead and few respectable carp. The big lake was where the big fish roamed but we rarely fished it, opting for the privacy and calmness of the smaller lake.

The small lake is all dried up now but in it’s day, it was surrounded by waist high grass that was cut away at favorite fishing spots around the banks. During the day it was in full Nebraska sun. Sometimes it felt like you were at mirage you see in cartoons where the dry dust crawler comes upon a lake in his sun baked surroundings.

By late day this changed.

When the sun dropped lower in the west the trees growing along the railroad tracks cast cooling shadows first on the west side of the lake then they rolled across the banks to give some relief to the opposite shore. The sun coming through the cottonwoods cast gold coins on the lake while swallows made strafing runs for insects venturing out in the cool water.

Your bobber would sit there in the midst of the entertainment. Not really a part of the natural order but allowed by its occupation and purpose. Focusing on a red and white bobber undulating in the trivial ripples of the lake tends to blocks out the rest of the world. You become absorbed in a slow motion world that squeezes troubles out and allows the drone of a dragon fly’s wings to be the loudest vibration. Even the Burlington Northern coal trains coming through on the tracks did not drown the water lapping sounds of the Zen zoned Buddhist fisherman.

a slow day at Stanton Lake

a slow day at Stanton Lake

As fish passed by and bumped the hook or took a nibble of Dad’s special doughball bait dangling from the surface bobber, radiating rings like code signals from deep in the watery world would begin to spread out. This indicator was usually followed by the bobber diving under like a panicked swimmer then immediately popping back up for another suck of air then, diving right back down as if it lost something on the bottom.

The unfortunate fish that took the bait was usually released to fight another day. The fun was in the wait and reward, not in the killing and eating. Besides, we were never sure if we were just catching the same fish over and over, or if there were more fish in the little pond than we anticipated.

  1. Movie Popcorn

As a Casey, you were raised on popcorn. Not popcorn thrown in a microwave or popcorn from a bag stacked on a convenience store shelf. No, we had popcorn created on the stove in a pot that was “the popcorn pot.” Mom stored the popcorn in the fridge in a sealed jar thinking that kept it fresh and popped larger kernels.

Friday night was usually popcorn night.

Mom would pull out the pot, corn, vegetable oil and an assortment of ceramic bowls, one bowl for each person. You knew you reached the age of maturity when on Friday night, you got your own popcorn bowl.

Mom was always in charge of the popping process until years later when she taught me the secret and I took over. Dad’s job was to crush the ice for the soft drinks. For some reason they were big on crushed ice. The manual ice crusher hung on the door frame going from the kitchen into the pantry/downstairs bathroom. Dad would fill the funnel shaped reservoir with ice cubes then on Mom’s command, he would start cranking the handle like he was trying to wind the prop on Lindbergh’s plane. Once contact with the ice was made the whole north side of the house felt the vibrations through the walls and down into the foundation. The crushed ice, timed perfect for the end of the popping process, was poured into tall glasses each with a knitted booty attached to the bottom to protect the furniture.

No one ever received a full can of soft drink. With the crushed ice almost three quarters of the way up the glass, Dad was able to fill three glasses from one can. A full can of soda was another great revelation when I went to the seminary. I never realized some people actually drank the whole can!

But

All of this ritual did not compare to the taste, smell and process of popcorn served at the Rivoli Theater up on Stone Street. If you didn’t know what was showing or even if you had no real desire to see a movie, the essence of popcorn lured you in like a puppy seeking a favorite chew toy. It was a smell and texture that had to be satisfied.

The lobby of the Rivoli was lined with posters in glass cases imbedded in the walls. Each one listed an exciting coming attractions. A glass ticket booth decorated with ornate iron work around the top jutted out into the center of the lobby. You paid maybe a quarter or fifty cents to one of the senior members of the managing family. The ticket booth was connected to a the refreshment counter filled with Snowcaps, Jujubes, licorice, Gum Drops and assorted chocolate bars and soft drinks.

But,

at the end of the counter was the crowning glory, the perfume factory extraordinaire, a buttery swirl of popped kernels and salt that could get you through the worst movie or provide you with a sense of calm and all is right with the world on a cold wet Saturday.

Rivoli popcorn rated so high on the approval scale with the Casey connoisseurs of popcorn that trips were made to the Rivoli, not for a movie but just to buy popcorn which, leads into my last favorite thing.

The Rivoli on Stone Street

The Rivoli on Stone Street

  1. People Watching

If you are not from a small town you might think this is an odd pastime, but in small communities across the country, people watching is cherished pastime.

On Thursday nights, when the stores on Stone Street were open late, Dad would park “Black Beauty” on his way home from work, feed the meter with plenty of dimes then come on home for supper. As a family, we would walk back up town and meet up with the car on the street in front of the Woolworth store between 17th and 16th street. Dad would load the meter with more dimes then Dad and I would walk to the Rivoli a block north and buy a bag of popcorn for everyone in the car. Mom and Dad would comment on the people passing wondering where so and so was tonight, or every once in a while, one of Dad’s guard buddies would walk past, stop and talk for a minute through the car window then rejoin their family.

You didn’t eat handfuls of the Rivoli popcorn. You savored one popped kernel at a time. The longer you could make the bag of popcorn last the longer we stayed parked enjoying the lights of town as they sparked on, the nighthawks chasing bugs above and the lounge chair size back seat of the old Desoto.

Thursday night’s, not Fridays are popcorn nights for Tina and I. We still pop it on the stove with the official popcorn pot. I store the popcorn in the fridge just like mom and I still use her timing for a perfect pop of almost every kernel. I still have  a hard time finishing a whole can of soft drink.

I haven’t wet a fishing line in years, but every year I say I am going to.

I zero in on Grandma’s corner using Google Earth just to check on the peonies but they have yet to add fragrance to the program so it just not the same.

Some things change, others don’t, it is just…all part of growing up.

Illustrations by BWC

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It Was a Dark and Stormy Night (really, it was)

We often fail to realize how lives interact. Many times, the intersections by strangers, lead to life changing events. The impact of these occurrences are often not recognized until years later when we start to comprehend how each of us is connected in some way. Part of growing up is looking back and learning how to connect the dots of experience. The marks on my timeline connected recently when I considered an incident which changed the way I would view the world, changed the town and touched the life of every citizen capable of logging it as a memory.

This is not going to be a fun trip backwards. There are occurrences which place in the role of witness. Because of this role, we are required to relate the story so that it is never lost. Sometimes we are the main character in the story, other times but we are simply called to give witness and honor those involved. Hopefully, when finished, the details by this witness will spark a significant memory in your life; a crossing of lives which changed who you are today.

August 6, 1966 I was eleven, soon to be twelve in November. It was a Saturday. It had all the makings of a typical Nebraska August day. The sky was the color of watered down milk. Cicada’s droned as they do when they are sending a warning of more heat to follow. There was a breeze, but only enough to move the hard leaves of the elm trees on the front terrace. When they moved, it sounded like onions frying in a pan of grease.

Everyone and everything was moist like a used bath towel.

Neighborhood dogs could still roam freely but each gave up their freedom of travel in favor of curling up under shaded porches or next to their water dishes.

Flowers arched over waiting for their evening watering.

Dad was working in the basement getting an early start on his Saturday chores. Our cousin, Bob Morrison was visiting with Tom so we had an extra member in the house for the weekend. Being eleven, I was still free from any real adult responsibility. There was no grass to cut which was my only real job.  By this time in the summer, lawns looked like burlap bags spread out in random order across terraces and backyards.  I was most likely sitting on the back porch doodling in a sketch book or re-reading comic books.

Dad’s project for the morning was draining an air compressor in the basement. Tom needed the compressor to pump air to the top floor to help with his daily treatments for Cystic Fibrosis. When the compressor kicked on, our house sounded like the local tire shop when they needed air pressure. We had to make sure we warned any visitors of its sporadic cycle.

To accomplish the draining, dad needed to lean the blue bellied tank towards him. When he tipped it on this morning, the compressor slipped and fell towards him. A piece of the compressor caught him  above his right eye. He came to the top of the basement stairs bloody and mad at the accident. Dad rarely showed anger, unless it was directed toward some inanimate object. I never heard a foul word come out of his mouth, rather his disgust was displayed in a look or an occasional “for crying out loud.” On this morning, we saw and heard both.

My memory is foggy how Dad went to the hospital to be stitched but I know Mom stayed home with Teresa and me. Dad’s little accident was probably the most exciting incident the emergency staff dealt with at this point; before the day was over, this record would be different.

The day moved on like many other August days.

By noon, Dad was back home and spent much of the afternoon holding a cold compress on his cut and being disgusted that his day was interrupted.

The sky continued to deepen in color and soon resembled an old gray suit draped over the city and a musty smell like wet dog, was working its way in to the day.  By evening, the usual weather alerts were being posted on the TV.

It wouldn’t surprise me if supper that night was sloppy joes. That was a favorite and easy dish for Mom to prepare on the rare occasion we had someone other than a true blood Casey in the house. Often when I brought guys home from the seminary it was, sloppy joes with a side of tater tots. I never want to give the impression that Mom was not a good cook. She just felt she never needed to put on a show to impress any one. We always ate well and I don’t remember anyone refusing seconds and you could always count on a piece of homemade pie or cookies for dessert. If you were special company like my friend Joe Traynor or Teresa’s husband Tim, you were allowed two pieces of pie, one of each selection.

After supper, the evening most likely included porch sitting.

Nebraska evenings with looming storms provide entertainment free of charge. You could sit on the porch and look to the open southwest sky broken only by the stucco house on the corner and watch a light display no laser show today could duplicate. Thunder trolled in the distance like a hollow barrel rolling slowly over a far off cobblestone street.

Four words were spoken by Dad, “Going to storm tonight.” Someone would answer as a response, “yep.”

There were times when we were all masters of the obvious.

Since Bob was staying with us, I lost my bed in the room Tom and I shared. I slept down stairs on a cot in what we always referred to as the “playroom.” It was a room that had windows on both the south and west sides of the house. A perfect storm watching room. The storm predicted earlier came over Falls City with the fury of rabid dog. Lighting flashed almost continuous like a dying light bulb and thunder barked back and finished off with a teeth baring throaty growl. Rain beat against the windows with the force of a shower head.

Jim Rider’s pickup truck (Read, “A World Down Under” blog 12/3/14) broke the storm drama like a misplaced relative at a family reunion. His truck had a distinctive sound which was known in the neighborhood. I looked out the south window without getting out of my cot and watched him pass the house and then followed him up 18th in the west window until he was lost on Harlan Street. As he passed the side of the house his volunteer fireman’s red light, mounted on the bumper mixed with the flashes of blue white lighting and rain soaked street creating a moving watercolor painting. The front wheels pushed the river of water away like the bow of a warship on a mission. He racked through the gears of the old truck hitting fourth by the time he passed the intersection.  A muffled fire siren sounded on Harlan Street indicating a truck pulling out of the station. I laid back down, the excitement was over and the storm was beginning to back into its dog house.

The next morning we followed the usual Sunday morning routine. We all gathered on the back porch while Dad pulled the Dodge Dart up to the side walk on the terrace. We had to step around the brave earthworms stretched out on the sidewalk tempting every available robin in the neighborhood. Dad never made Mom or any of us walk down to the garage and meet him. I think he believed it demonstrated more class to bring the car to this family.

We found our usual Casey pew. As good Catholics we never budged from that spot. Years later, when the church was demolished due to structure problems, Mass was moved to the school gym and even then, we sat in the same row of chairs on the gym floor.

Fr. Bill Kalin started the Mass with no indication anything was different. When the time arrived for his homily, he started with, “I just gave last rights to forty-two souls.” There was a collective gasp which spread through the church.

I could see the fatigue in Father’s face as he explained what occurred through the night. Even at eleven, I can remember seeing the ache in the man’s face and the slump of his shoulders as he told us that a jet liner crashed during last night’s storm. The plane came down just north of town in a soybean field owned by Tony Schawang. I don’t believe any of the congregation focused on the Mass after this announcement.

The days that followed, unified conversations were held around kitchen tables, gas stations and counter stools of the One Stop Café or Chat-N-Nibble on Stone Street. TV crews and newspaper people were all over town looking for anyone who might be a witness. The Stephenson Hotel filled fast with relatives and others concerned about the fate of Braniff Flight 250.

Pictures of the mud caked wreckage appeared on TV stations out of Omaha and Kansas City. The local newspaper, The Falls City Journal, ran pictures from the crash scene. Mom and Dad would not let Teresa and I look at the pictures. But as any resourceful eleven year old would, I found a way.

Rumors of a bomb on board began to spread. Every person had their own theory as to what happened. Stories of what was found at the crash scene also became exaggerated in a way that worked their way into local “factual lies.” You heard more than once from people with no knowledge about what happened, “I know for a fact,” and then they would knock out a string of half facts doused with a generous portion of speculation.

I can only imagine what Jim Rider and the other volunteers experienced walking into the mire of a soybean field, slopping through sticky mud that held them back like a scared wives, not wanting their husbands stepping into danger. Or picturing Father Kalin, unaware what he was facing when he walked into a field that hours before was a symbol of profit and growth, was now a stage of dim flashlights, bouncing seemingly in midair disconnected from their handlers. Or, the Schawang family witnessing smoke thicker than morning fog, mixed with steam, jet fuel and more human conversation than the field had ever experienced.

When Captain Donald Pauly and First Officer James L. Hilliker, the crew and passensgers lifted off from Kansas City heading to Omaha, none of them knew Jim Rider, Fr. Kalin, Falls City, or Tony Schawang, but now they all met in the most unlikely meeting place available.

In Omaha, anxious relatives ask what happened. When word spreads of the flight’s fate, more questions.

Where is Falls City? How did this happen? Any survivors?

Volunteers carefully combed the field for the souls who rested splashed by
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