Christmas or Bust

Christmas, Yom Kippur, U-Haul, Terra Haute, IN

Try mixing these four elements in a bag and come up with a story. It’s true, that seemingly unrelated events scattered across the globe can funnel into one life changing event. This is the old butterfly effect. If a butterfly flaps its’ wings in China does it cause a breeze in California? December 1973 must have witnessed the largest flock of butterfly wing flapping in history because their wind hit hard in eastern Kentucky.


The first semester of seminary life was coming to an end. Along with my fellow Nebraska seminarians I was looking forward to Christmas vacation. This was the first extended time away from home for most of us and as you can imagine, the desire for a Christmas homecoming was strong. Each person was responsible for finding their own way home for vacation. I was blessed in many ways while in the seminary. One such way was by kind people from the parish along with a few other benefactors who supplied me with enough cash to fly home for Christmas. My reservation were set and I was to fly out of the Cincinnati airport on the last day of classes.

Yom Kippur

October 6, 1973 Syria and Egypt launched an attack on Israel on the holiest day of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur. This moment in the history of the Arab and Israeli conflicts intensified the already pressured oil prices. Gas prices began to soar as the oil embargo squeezed the supply to drips in the United States.

You didn’t know you were going to get a history lesson through all of this did you?

Back to Christmas

With my airline reservations set, the end of the semester with the first round of finals is all I had to worry about.

Seminary life tended to isolate you. You didn’t have ready access to newspaper, TV and of course, there was no internet. Most of us were not aware of what was happening outside the walls; the gas prices were rising faster than the December temperatures were dropping. Gas stations were closing all around the states and people were worrying how they were ever going to be able to drive to work.

We didn’t realize until travel plans were canceled the impact the events of October 6 would have on this small group of Nebraskans wanting to get home from Kentucky. One by one bus tickets were voided and plane routes scrapped. Finally, I received the call that my flight, which was only days away, was cancelled.

When the dust settled, there was not one Nebraska seminarian that had a ride home for the holidays. Twelve men ranging in ages from eighteen to twenty-two were stuck and none of us felt like spending Christmas in Kentucky.

Enter the bright idea!

Someone came up with the clever idea of renting a van. This made all the sense in the world. We would pool our resources and cut back on luggage. There was little doubt we could do it. As a group we dispatched the over twenty-on year old guys to rent our van while the rest of us stayed behind completing final exams and packing for the trip. The building slowly started to empty as other students finished exams and packed up to head home.

By mid-day only ten Nebraskans were left in the building; two were off searching for a van.


The two oldest seminarians returned with our ride, proud of their accomplishment. Our ride home was a U-Haul box truck. Our assigned negotiators explained that this was “a take it or leave it deal.” All other forms of traditional transportation was either on the road or non-existent.

On a snowy Kentucky afternoon (sounds like an Elvis song) ten men, luggage and food packed by the nuns in the kitchen, climbed in the back of the truck. The two older guys of course had the up-front cab. It was only when the door closed down on us, that we realized we would be making the almost thousand mile trip, in…total…darkness. With the gate closed, you could not see your hand in front of your face. We might as well have been dropped into a black hole of time and space.

With luggage as cushions and head props, we started down the highway like blind men at the mercy of their guide dogs. We felt the sway of the truck as it hit icy sections of the road. We would collectively slide towards the cab of the truck on sudden stops and then back to the tailgate as the drivers accelerated. The drivers seemed to ignore the effects of their actions on the living cargo behind them.

As you can imagine a variety of stories, jokes and comments flew with ease in the darkness. Also, there numerous exchange of gases which no one would ever claim or was it even necessary to do so. The air inside became a mixture of body odor, dirty laundry traveling home for mothers to work their magic on and Murphy’s smelly feet which no one had trouble identifying.

Terra Haute, IN

The farther west on Interstate 70 we traveled the colder it was getting inside the truck and the more slips we could feel as the truck plowed through a now snow covered interstate. More than once the truck came to a stop as holiday traffic combined with the snow storm formed mile long traffic jams. Finally relief came with the first gas stop just outside of Terra Haute, IN.

We could feel the truck pulling up an incline then slide back. Another run was made at the same slope with the same effect. After the last attempt, the tailgate was flung up. Much to the surprise of two senior citizens in the car directly behind the truck, ten bleary eyed and wrinkled men jumped out of the back of the truck. We must have looked like a band of escapees from the local pen.

Ten men put their shoulders to the back of the truck and we pushed it up the hill.

OH, I failed to mention, the temperature was now down to fourteen.

When we looked around after our pushing detail, we found ourselves in a superb truck stop. Amber lights combined with the multicolored lights on countless idling diesels filled the air with an illuminated fog of light and sound. It looked like a mecca of warmth and salvation.

We must have looked desperate because as we entered the truck stop restaurant it seemed as if they had a table waiting for us. In a back corner we sat around a massive round table fit for Arthur and his Knights.

The leader of our band ordered the same plate of food for everyone, which is what you do when you have been living in a community. Choices are taken from you and accept what is given to you. This probably also confirmed the escapee impression.

Our bodies warmed and our bellies full we reluctantly climbed back in the truck. I think a few considered walking from this point but we convinced them this was just the claustrophobia over taking their common sense.

Neither the road conditions nor the weather improved as we drove west.

Somewhere outside of St. Louis we hit another traffic jam. By this time the sun was high overhead. The moisture from our breath had unexpectedly been forming icicles on the ceiling of our box. They must have been hanging like stalactites on a cave roof. As the sun warmed the stationary U-Haul, the ice started to melt dripping on us like rain. After repeated banging on the wall next to the cab, one of the front seat passengers came to our rescue. As the gate opened, we were blinded by a scene that looked like they took a wrong turn and we were on the Arctic continent.

Once our eyes focused, we could see a line of snowbound traffic for miles behind us and a line just as long ahead. On both sides of the road were jackknifed trucks and ditched cars. One old grizzly trucker was talking to our driver and sharing what he knew about the road ahead.

“I think you boys have reached the end of your ride until they can clear the interstate. There is a hill up the road that is solid ice. Trucks a trying to take a run at it and ending up sliding backwards.”

I can’t remember how long we sat there or how cold it really was but I can tell you it was long enough to freeze a jug of apple cider and to send the sun lower in the western sky.  When we finally started to move we could have walked faster to St. Louis than were rolling.

Sometime after midnight, a day and half after we left Kentucky the trip for the two of us from Falls City came to an end. We were lucky enough to be the first stop. The others had another two hours to Lincoln traveling on a snow covered two lane highway. The last one to bring this fiasco to an end was one of the two adult drivers. He parked the truck in his driveway and I am sure, crawled to a warm homecoming.

The next day we checked on one another to make sure we all woke up with no body parts requiring amputation from frostbite. There were no casualties except for the truck. When the driver went to return the truck to the rental it wouldn’t move from his driveway. The transmission had locked. Further inspection revealed…there was barely any fluid remaining in the transmission.

I guess God wanted us all home for Christmas.

It was all part of growing up.




Your Hand Will Stick out of the Grave!


Anyone who attended a Catholic School has a wealth of stories in their back pocket. It’s not that those who attended public school have any less, it is just the Catholic system seemed to produce the “unusual” stories.

Many attending Catholic schools prior to the early seventies, were trained by holy sisters. Notice I said trained over taught. There was ample amount of teaching going on. We learned our times tables, history facts and English grammar just the same as any normal pupil. The training came in much more subtle ways and in some cases not so subtle.

For example, training in Sister Number 1’s class (I changed the name to protect the innocent, me, just in case she is still lurking in the halls of a convent somewhere.) As a boy, you didn’t walk into Sister’s class without a belt. I am sure it was not part of a fashion accessory model that she lived by. She truly believed that a boy without a belt was walking around advertising himself to the young ladies. If you didn’t have a belt, you were marched to the boy’s bathroom. Sister stood outside like Sergeant Schultz from Hogan Hero’s, while you were inside, feeding toilet paper through the loops for your missing belt. When you stepped out, she tied a big bow with the toilet paper so all could see you left the house without being fully dressed. To this day, I would never think of wearing slacks or jeans without a belt. I am trained.

The sisters, as well as the priest, were held in the highest respect. Not always by the students, but always by the family leaders. The old stories about getting into trouble in school, meant double trouble when you arrived home are true. If an incident occurred in school, it didn’t take long for your parents to find out about it. When a fellow student bit the dust of discipline, a collective gasp went up like a crowd watching fireworks. Everyone knew the poor student was in for a double whammy.

One of the most saintly of all the nuns was our third grade teacher Sister Marie. Sister was not much taller than the average third grader. Her Sister of Charity habit added an extra five or six inches to her but that still did not do much to make her stand out in a crowd of students. Sister Marie would remind you of Father Fitzgibbon played by Barry Fitzgerald in the classic movie, “Going My Way,” only in a habit.

Because I went home every day for lunch and my route took me past the convent I was assigned to walk Sister Marie across the parking lot to the convent for her lunch. This would usually shave about ten minutes off my lunch time but during those walks, sister shared some of her stories and thoughts. It was on one of those walks I found out that sister for years was the seamstress of the convent. This devout woman was content to mend and sew for her sisters and prepare vestments for the priest. It was only in the later years that she was allowed to pursue her lifelong ambition to teach. There are times when I can still feel sister’s tight grip on my arm.

Sister Marie was a great organizer of playground sports. During recess she would send the girls to play tether ball or jump rope, while she umpired the baseball game with the boys. Sister assigned the positions and teams. I suspect she was raised in a family of boys judging from her knowledge of the sporting world and the rules of the game.

During one recess softball game my fate was determined for my end time. It was my turn at bat and I approached the plate with a confidence that from this day on I was never to find again. I don’t know how many pitches it took to set the scenario up, but it only took one misguided swing to seal the deal.

The ball connected with the bat, but not in a way that sent it forward. Instead a foul ball was sent back in line drive fashion to the umpire, Sister Marie. The ball connected squarely on Sister’s habit. The ball ripped the habit from her head revealing a compressed clump of wiry gray hair and immediately shaving five inches off her height. Of course as the batter, I had no idea what was happening behind me but what I could see in front of me was a look of shock on every defensive player. When I turned around, I saw sister hurriedly fumbling with the habit dangling behind her. She was like a mother caught half undressed by her children. Immediately other nuns came running from all ends of the playground to sister’s aid. It was like watching a flock of crows descending on a fresh ear of corn.

No one paid any attention to me. I stood alone in my shame. The batter’s box was now a prison which held my feet solid to the ground. I knew at that point my life was set on a path of doom and gloom with the final end advertising to the world for all eternity my indiscretion. It didn’t matter who said it, but it might as well have been a chorus from the heavens, “You hit a Nun. Your hand is going to stick out of the grave for all eternity.” That was the rule. If you hit a nun or priest you knew that was the fate of the offending hand.

We were all ushered back to the classroom. Sister Marie was nowhere. I don’t know who filled in for her but my afternoon was lost anyway. All I could think about was how I was going to tell my folks. The shame I brought to the household was never going to be erased. I knew I would be buried in some far corner of the cemetery where the grass was never trimmed that way my hand would not show above the thistles and buffalo grass. The family secret would be hidden forever.

When the final bell of the day rang, I had no desire to charge down 18th street towards home. The longer I could stay in school, the longer I could delay the news to mom. We weren’t so well connected in those days, so the news was on me to share. All the way down the hill to the house I could feel the push of fate on my back like a grubby prison guard shoving me to move faster as I stumbled to find the next step.

When I got home, mom was upstairs ironing. She was sprinkling clothes with her coke bottle sprinkler. A pile of clothes rolled up beside her which had just come out of the refrigerator where they were stored to prevent mold. She had no idea the level of my sinfulness but she could tell something was wrong from the minute the screen door closed behind me. Mothers are like that. I confessed my sin to her. She didn’t seem to see the seriousness of the hit. To me, I would never see mom and dad in eternity because I was most likely going in the opposite direction while my hand stayed behind and waved a warning to all would be offenders. Then she uttered the words no kid wants to hear. “We will just wait until your dad comes home.”

This put a stamp on my salvation that I knew would not be erased. Dad, who the nuns thought was next to God himself, would now have to suffer in the shame of his son, the nun basher. When dad came home mom shared the story so that I did not have to relive it again. I can remember dad, still in his postal uniform, telling me to get ready to go see Sister Marie. “Did you apologize?” he asked. At that point I could not remember if I did or not. He loaded me in “Black Beauty” the family DeSoto and up the hill to the convent we went.

With dad standing behind me, I knocked on the back door of the convent, the one that led to the kitchen. The first nun to the door was Sister Number 1. I am sure I turned whiter than the white of her habit. Maybe they were going to eat me for supper, which would have saved my life at that point. We were invited in by Sister and led through the kitchen to a long dining hall. Waiting there for what seemed like a thousand seconds of silence, Sister Marie finally appeared. She walked in a determined cadence towards me and I prepared myself for a slap or a wrap across the knuckles. Instead, I was pulled close to her in an embrace that was so motherly for a woman who never knew that joy. I could smell the fragrance of Ben-Gay or some type of salve smeared on her forehead. Through scared tears I uttered “I am sorry” and to this day I can’t remember her response.

Until Sister was sent back to the Mother House, I continued to walk her across the parking lot, rain or shine. We never spoke of that incident again. But, I have this suspicion when I finally move on from this world I might be greeted by this little old nun at the gate smelling of Ben-Gay looking for help across the golden way.

All part of growing up.


Cobbler, Guns and Coffee, Oh My!

The late fifties and early sixties was an age before television began to lull us inside and present a distorted view of reality. Life outside of the house was exciting and adventuresome. Inside was for eating, sleeping and homework. Outside was for quests, socializing, learning and getting into trouble.  When we were ushered outside to play, mom’s words went something like this; “Go outside, play, have fun and don’t get into trouble.” The problem was, my idea of trouble and mom’s was usually different.

Trying to stay out of mischief often necessitated belonging to some youth organization which parents believed would somehow mold us into responsible adults. If you were one to push the limits, the threat of reform school hung over your head. For those who were not as rebellious, organizations such as 4-H, FFA, sports or Boy Scouts did the trick.  I tried the football route but quickly learned I did not care for my face being stepped on by kids twice my size. Boy Scouts became the route to salvation and a somewhat un-criminal life.

My brother Tom started the scouting experience in our family. Tom earned the Eagle Scout rank, which was an accomplishment for a young guy fighting Cystic Fibrosis. On a hot Nebraska July night, Tom, along with four other scouts pinned on the rank of Eagle in front of a crowd that required the Jug Brown Football Stadium behind the high school to hold all the guests.

Tom was my first lesson in dealing with a person of limited resources. I refuse to call him disabled as many people would want to today. For Tom, the disease was an inconvenience and he dealt with it as such. It might be better to label it as a distraction, but for him, it was never a disability. By fifth or sixth grade I was already taller than him, but in my mind he was bigger because he was after all, my big brother. Years later, I was honored to join him in the Eagle brotherhood. Today I measure each new Eagle Scout against Tom’s accomplishments and life style.

Scouting in Falls City was the adventure you read about in Boys Life or in the Boy Scout Handbook as you thumbed through it in the Boy Scout section of the J. C. Penny store. I couldn’t wait to be a scout. All of the tenderfoot requirements were memorized well before I signed on. I had visions of camping in the timber outside of town, wearing my uniform to school on scout days and leading a patrol through town at the start of a hike, each member dutifully following behind the flapping flag of the wolf patrol.  As a troop we never went on a fifty mile hike, saved a life or helped old ladies cross the street. But, when no one was looking and without even knowing it, we saved our own lives and helped each other cross the street from puberty to manhood.

We were a camping troop as well as one which believed in initiation ceremonies, PBA (pink belly association) flashlight army, snipe hunting and a few other things that might run counter to today’s Boy Scout philosophy or practices. We had fun and we learned valuable life skills. Skills such as how to ride in the back of a pickup without being pitched out or better yet, how to drive the same pickup, pre-license of course. Each scout in the troop eventually mastered the skill of boiling the hell out of coffee, making it the best tasting beverage you’ve ever had on a cold night, how to pop milo “borrowed” from a nearby field, and God forbid, how to shoot a gun.

Our Scoutmaster, Bill, was the father of two girls, so I believe he looked at each one of us as his sons. Bill worked in a local shop that made the cabinets for mobile homes. He was the first guy I knew who looked like he shoved softballs under his skin making his shirt sleeves stop above the biceps. He wasn’t showing off, he was a hardworking man who came by his muscles honestly. I used to do push ups every night hoping my arms would match his. I gave that idea up years ago.

On occasion, Bill would announce a shooting night for the next meeting. On these announced shooting nights, we were to bring our .22’s. On scout night, one week later, you would see a half-dozen pre-teenage boys walking down Stone Street, the main street of Falls City, toting guns. No one thought anything of it. Today, it would probably generate a SWAT team response and it would definitely create some form of national news coverage. After the meeting we would cut down through the city park (read, Death Drives a Ford Fairlane Sept. 7) then hike by way of an old service road taking us past the water and light plant down to the Nemaha River. Once there, we would plink at whatever we felt was a good target.

Old LP records were some of our favorite targets. We would roll LPs down the banks of the river and try to hit them before they ever reached the river bottom. Thinking back now I realize how dangerous that really was but somehow Bill controlled it. There were never any close calls that I remember. I also wouldn’t mind having a few of those LP’s back.  What should have caused even more alarm for the locals, was these same boys walking home in the dead of night carrying armament. How would you react today if you were sitting on your front porch enjoying the evening air and listening to the crickets and you saw four boys, dirty, sweaty and carrying on walking down your street, each carrying a rifle?

It was from these nights that I learned to shoot, gain respect and responsibility for what a weapon could do; lesson never taught, but lessons learned.

As a troop we were good at winter camping. Understand Nebraska winters are as cold as Nebraska summers are hot. There are many January days when the high temperature is still below zero. There is a description of Nebraska cold that says; “It was so cold outside that all the people’s words froze in mid-sentence. When spring came along, all the words thawed at once and you couldn’t hear yourself think.” Few people in their right mind venture out unless they were required to. That is unless you were a member of troop 393. Bill would sign us up every year for what was called the Winter Freeze Out camporee.

The winter I learned to sleep naked in my sleeping bag (well almost naked) was the most memorable of all of the winter events and a source for a few more stories that will follow. It was January. A fresh snow fell in the afternoon and by the time we got the tents set up, we were all ready to pack it in and go home. We were cold, wet and hungry. This changed when Bill made some of his ground coffee elixir; coffee boiled with the grounds then served in a tin camp cup, (which I still have.) You could smell the aroma of the coffee sneaking through the campsite like a winter butterfly fluttering from one bare branch to the next looking for some warmth. Once touched by the aroma, you were prompted to change your attitude and begin the task of fixing your evening meal. Many chose to fix easy camp food like hot dogs or “hobo” dinners. You made “hobo” dinners at home by throwing on to tin foil ground meat, vegetables, and whatever else you wanted in your meal. (I always liked a little A-1 in mine.) You formed a pouch around the concoction with the foil and packed it away. Once at the campsite, all you had to do was pitch it in the coals until the hamburger was cooked. When you opened the foil, the steam fogged your glasses and thawed your nose. The bouquet of smells made you feel like you were back at mom’s table with her special one pot meal.

Bill was in charge of dessert. His Dutch-oven peach cobbler was the crowning glory of camp food. I still get a little teary eyed when I reminisce about the taste of this delicacy. It is a lost taste, which cannot be duplicated without the old seasoned ovens and subzero nights. Bill would mix the cobbler in several dutch ovens, then bury the ovens in campfires around the encampment. No one dared lift a lid until Bill gave the orders to sample. Once done, the ovens shared an oozing peach and dough creation. The edges burnt from the coals and peaches on the bottom, caramelized. To make it even better, on this encampment, someone had the great idea to bring ice cream which of course needed no freezer. The vanilla ice cream, on top of hot cobbler, fresh cowboy coffee; excuse me while I wipe away the tears and the drool.

As the camp evening wore on, the younger scouts played flashlight army or buried themselves in their mummy bags thinking for some reason that was the way to stay warm.  The older scouts, those of us who actually had a few whiskers, sat around the fire, drank coffee and finished off the cobbler dished up in Styrofoam cups while Bill sat there blowing smoke rings from little cigars. They say that smell is great reminder. When I catch a whiff of tobacco smoke, campfire or coffee, it’s easy for me to conjure up those nights around the fire. When we stepped away from the fire we realized how cold it really was but for some reason instead of feeling colder, we felt older for the experience.

It was all part of growing up.


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The Falls City Dribbling Idiot

Every person growing up has those moments when they wish they could crawl back into the womb and start all over again. Visualize that for a moment. Anyway, some of us have more of these situations than others. As you follow my blog, you will realize I should have started over a long time ago. Again, for many, these situations seem to pop up during our teenage years. You remember them, the days when you thought you were mature and sophisticated only to find that you were still just an over grown baby stumbling over your feet.

There were numerous traits that followed me into the teen years which I wish would have disappeared. Two of them were crooked teeth and gagging. Real qualities every teenage boy wants, especially if he is trying to impress any one of the opposite sex unless it was the girl next door that you grew up with and was more like a sister. Of course, she was probably going through the same transition period.

Crooked teeth. Today, kids get braces as soon as their baby teeth are out and I guess even sooner in some cases. When I was growing up I think they were hoping that gravity or a fist would straighten them out before money needed to be spent to do the job. In my case, neither of the mentioned options worked. My front teeth were crossed like two scissor blades. You guessed it, I was the famous “scissor tooth” I am sure you’ve heard of me. The formation was great for one thing. I could launch water out through the hole made by the crossing. Unfortunately, this was not a talent that was in high demand.

Dr. Hoban finally convinced the folks that if this boy is going to have any kind of acceptable social life or career, it might not be a bad idea to fix those teeth. I also think Dr. Hoban knew priesthood was in my future and he did not want to be looking at his potential future pastor and know that he could have fixed a major distraction to Sunday’s homily.

There were several options presented by Doc to the folks. Pull some teeth to make room for the expansion and then place permanent wires all through my mouth. An expensive option at that time. The other option, the “dime store” version, (remember Dime Stores) was a removable retainer that would slowly move the teeth into a somewhat respectable position.

Now the folks loved me. Mom would often say I was her special child. She passed without ever clarifying what she meant by that. Dad, never seemed to argue with her on that description. Anyway, they chose the Dime Store route for their special child, only because that is what resources allowed.

Most kids today, as mentioned before are getting their braces at seven or eight, but not me nooo, they waited until those transition years of the teens. Like I needed one more thing to add to my scissor toothed fame. What I did possess at this time was a job. When most kids my age were running newspapers or car hops and Mutt and Jeff’s, I had a real job with a major corporation. I was the after school floor sweeper at the J.C. Penny store. I walked the four blocks down the hill, not really a hill but we called it that, drop my books off at home, and walk the four blocks up in the opposite direction to the Penny store. I stayed there until closing time, sweeping the floors, dumping trash, cleaning windows and whatever Mr. Comfort assigned me to do.

I was good at my job and the work ethics instilled by the folks soon earned me a promotion to weekend shoe salesman. I loved my Penny’s family. I was a kid in an adult world and they depended on me. I was so important that for my weekend work, I wore a tie and took breaks with the rest of the employees in the break room, which was really just a table in the stockroom next to an old refrigerator. You bought your pop right out of the fridge, leaving your fifty cents in the coffee can on top.

Ok, let’s jump back to the teeth, just keep in mind the Penny store duties. Dr. Hoban prepared the retainer that would eventually stretch my teeth like a muscle man pulling apart the bars of a jail cell. This was accomplished after several attempts at sticking oozing globs of paste in my mouth to construct molds for the oral device. This process was agonizing for me and Doc. Remember, I was a gagger. He would stick that glob in my mouth and leave the room while it harden. Meanwhile, I could feel my little toe trying to work its way out of the back of my throat. When he came back in the room, moving slow t do to his advancing age, I was all but standing on my head trying to ward off the impending gut wrenching that was coming. After two or three attempts, we got it done.

Early on a Saturday morning, the device was ready. I walked up to Docs office prior to going to work to sell shoes. He wanted to fit me with the retainer and make the final adjustments. A great plan until I walked out of the office.

The office was two blocks south of the store. It was early Saturday morning, the sidewalks were busy with shoppers and people just out to socialize. Even to this day, downtown Falls City is a hub of activity compared to other small towns. I am one player in this crowd. Dressed in the best style of the day, white shoes, white belt, plaid slacks, probably a silky shirt and a tie wide enough to use as a tablecloth. I didn’t stand out at all next to the bib overall, blue jeans and chambray shirts.

Now, let’s go back to the gagging bit. I am walking up the street with this new gizmo stuck in my mouth pulling at my teeth. Right about in front of Brown’s Shoe Store the gag kicks in. I look like someone mid-way between and epileptic seizure and being shocked by a cattle prod. I am hanging on to the light pole talking myself out of losing breakfast right there in front of all of Falls City. Sweat is dripping from every available pore as well as drool coming from both corners of my mouth. Mothers were moving their kids away from me, politely ducking into stores they never intended to visit. Thank God cell phones and You Tube was not even imagined at this time. I would have been trending social media for sure.

I finally composed myself and made it to work. My tongue was bloody from being cut from all the wires in my mouth and my whole mouth felt like a fist was shoved inside of it.

So you think this is the worst of it. Not even close.

I was standing at my post, just inside the shoe department. I am practicing the slow breathing exercises Doc taught me to ward off the gags. I sounded like a man practicing to make obscene phone calls. In walked probably one of the prettiest girls I had seen up to this time. She was definitely and out of town girl, most likely a college girl and all she had on were bib overalls. Let that sink in, only bib overalls! Make things worse, she was walking directly towards the shoe department. Now you have a heavy breathing, gagging teenage boy, dressed like a seventies used car salesman being approached by what looked like a girl right out of the pages of Playboy, the College Coed edition. Now we have a story.

With half a gag being suppressed I was able to mouth, “Can I help you?”

She told me her size and what she was after. In those days, shoes were stored in backrooms with racks of shoes from floor to ceiling. You could always kill some time looking for a pair of shoes which gave you the advantage to plan your conversation with the customer, a sales trick taught to us by our manager. I needed the time to compose myself, let alone figure out what I was going to say.

I found her size and style and made my way back out. Again, these were the days when the sales person actually fit the shoes on the customer. We positioned ourselves in front of the customer so that we could slide the shoes on with our ever handy shoe horns. Okay, now on this stool I am level with the bib portion of this Delilah’s overalls. When she bent down to inspect her new slides, my treat was, well you can imagine, remember nothing but bib overalls.

So far I was able to maintain a level of professionalism required by the code of shoe salesmen. But then, I was painfully reminded that I had an extra piece of plastic in my mouth.  The saliva that was being held back by the second artificial roof of my mouth needed somewhere to go.  In a very professional manner, I leaned over to check the fit of her shoe, the gag kicked in. With a gaping open mouth providing the exit, the biggest wad of spit slid out from behind the plastic, trailed down in a long stream and landed perfectly on her beautiful bare ankle.

It’s all part of growing up.

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Death Drives a Ford Fairlane

My  memories filter in before the invention of Kodacrome. My life’s movie reel runs in black and white. This probably has something to do with our TV was black and white until I went off to college, most of the family photos were in black and white and when my brother bought his first Polaroid, yep, black and white.  All newspaper pictures were in black and white, with the exception of my favorite Sunday funnies. At some point in time, God invented color and a different world opened up, but it was too late for me. The color connecting neurons were already connected to only two shades. I say all of this because the following escape episode runs in my head in the black and white version. The colorized version has not been produced yet.

When Mr. Death and I had our first meeting, and there were a few we will explore later,  the population of my hometown, Falls City, NE was around 5,400. We were a big city by Nebraska standards. The next closest city of any size was Nebraska City, fifty miles north.  Falls City, like many small Midwest towns, provided a public swimming pool. You paid a quarter for a day of hanging out with your friends, burning your skin to a nice crisp brown and bleaching your hair to a fuzzy blonde. No one worried about skin cancer or the effects of chlorine.  We were more concerned about the rule of waiting a half hour before jumping back in the pool.

The pool didn’t open until after the noon whistle blew. The whistle controlled the actions of the town like the bells in a monastery. At noon, some stores even closed so the employees could go home for lunch.  Imagine today having the luxury of eating a relaxed lunch in your own home.  Up until noon the pool was used for the Red Cross swimming lesson. Every year mom would sign us up for lessons. Mom could not swim but she was determined that each of her kids would learn. I don’t know if dad could swim. Thinking about it now, I never asked him.  When they say anyone can learn to float, they are lying. It took me two summers to get beyond the beginners level which all you had to do was prove you could float and you passed.

The public pool was set in the middle of major sports complex for the city. There were two tennis courts, horseshoe pits, where the State horseshoe championship was held each year, two ball diamonds one having a wooden grandstand which was the tallest wooden structure in town. It was also the first thing to come down in a windstorm in the early 60’s. The wind laid it down like it was part of a pop up card that you could open up and it would be right back to the way it was. I can remember sitting in this grandstand with mom and watching a reenactment of a wagon train being attacked by Indians as part of the centennial celebration for the city in 1957. Try getting away with that scenario today in this politically correct world.

In the park was a large pavilion for displaying 4-H animals during the annual Horse Play Days. Next to the pavilion was the Rodeo center. During Horse Play Days we could stand outside the wooden split rail fence and watch the contestants race their steeds around the barrels. I think secretly we were hoping one would wipe out like NASCAR fans watching a race.

The park was shaded by plenty of old elms, many of which died off in the Dutch Elm disease blight, Maples and Catalpa’s with their long strings of seed pods we always thought were coffee beans. The park was the place for picnics, family reunions, and a favorite activity of many Falls Cityians, people watching. If you told anyone around the Richardson County area, “Meet us at the Falls City Park,” they knew where you meant.

In the evening, big flood lights surrounded the pool. They would kick with power and then buzz as they came to life. The walls of the pool also had lights which gave the water a strange glow. In the evening the pool was never crowded. The noise level was down and you could hear the power generating station at the water and light plant just a few blocks away, the diesel generators pumping to provide the power to light up the night. The slow cadence of those diesels is one of my earliest memories as a kid.

I was usually pretty compliant to my mom’s time for returning home from the pool. There was a Pepsi clock mounted in middle of the bath house. You could read it from any spot in the pool and it was your surrogate mother while swimming, always reminding you when it was time to go home. I guess this day I was either having too much fun or I just out right ignored mother clock. When I realized I was late I rushed out of the pool, turned in the pin attached to my swim trunks that corresponded to my basket of tennis shoes T-shirt and towel. I am sure I did not even take the required exiting shower. Outside, my bike was waiting for me. Stretched out on the ground, it looked like a tired old horse that decided to stretch out while a bunch of young banana saddled stallions stood at attention afraid to move or get a scratch.

Dad bought the bike for me from Mrs. Grimes who lived across the alley. Her boy went off to the Army and I guess she figured he was not coming back for the bike. It was my first big bike. Fat tubed tires, a true saddle style seat with two massive springs to absorb the bumps and butt. Fenders arched over the tires that occasionally required creative bending to avoid rubbing. The bike and I traveled all over town and it probably kept me in the best shape I have ever been.

I rolled my towel up like a cowboy’s bed roll and wedged it under the springs of the bike saddle. We headed up 12th street toward home. We lived on the east side of town. Four blocks east of the main downtown and four blocks west of the St. Peter and Paul church and school. We walked up to town and up to church. The up part is the lie. There really is no places in Falls City where you needed to walk up. The ride home was flat and fast. If I pumped hard, I figured I might still be able to squeeze in under the supper time curfew.

Falls City was a biker’s paradise. Good wide roads, flat and little traffic. There were probably times when bicycle traffic outnumbered four wheels. I passed over Stone street which ran north and south and was paved from one end to the other with bricks. Stone was the dividing line for town. You either lived on one side of Stone or the other. The upper end of Stone makes up the main part of the business district. The south end of Stone was all residential including a four story apartment building covered with white stucco. Planted in the sidewalk around the building were trees with cast iron protective fences. This corner always reminded me of the apartments in New York City pictured in movies; black and white of course.

The next intersection was Nebraska Highway 73. You could ride H73 all the way to Hiawatha and St. Joe going south or travel north to Nebraska City. The Greyhound bus made regular runs up and down 73 and was the main connector for many people. At this time H73 was a tree lined two lane highway. The trees were trimmed by tractor trailers which formed what looked like a square tunnel of trees. There were no traffic lights on H73 it was the only road in town you needed to look both ways before crossing.

Traveling south on H73 was a Ford Fairlane with a white top. It passed the Greyhound bus station and was coming up on the intersection just before the old Wittrock Creamery, the corner of 12th and Harland.

So was I.

Intent on getting home on time, I committed the grievous sin drilled into every Falls City kid, right up there with don’t play on railroad tracks. I shot across H73 never looking in either direction. The heavy steel left bumper of the Fairlane passed within a breath of my fender. It wasn’t until the horn blared and the tires screeched that I even realized a car was there. Our eyes met, two strangers brought together by fate and timing. We each knew a defining moment just occurred.

In one pump of the pedals I was safe on the other side of the highway. I cut up the nearest alley knowing for sure the driver, who I knew would be hunting me down for the scare I just gave him. Few knew the alleys and streets better than me. I was confident I could stay off his track and make it home undetected. I was like the crook that took every back alley to escape the pursuing police. My fear was the driver might have recognized me. With Dad working for the post office there were few people in town who did not know the Casey kids. I figured I was a marked man.

I made it home undetected. I even used the bad guy trick of going one block out of my way then doubling back, just in case he was a better tracker than I was giving him credit. I rolled one half of the garage doors open. The doors made a distinctive noise as they rolled across their bearings. The sound amplified through the corrugated tin structure. The family car was parked inside. Dad always walked to work and there were times the car, a ’54 Desoto, never left its stall until Sunday. I slid my bike alongside “Black Beauty” as she was known to the family.  Black Beauty was our first car and the only one to be named. Cars after that were just “the car.” Black Beauty was literally put out to pasture after the next owner finished with her. For years she sat in a field under the city water tower. I always wanted to go rescue her or at least check up on her. She sat there like some old great aunt never visited and forgotten by the family.

Supper was ready by the time I got in the house. I was late but still in the grace period and mom was too involved at the stove to holler at me. I sat at my place at the table smelling I am sure of chlorine and sweat. No one at the table had any idea of the life changing experience which was setting next to them. That night, the phone which hung on the wall next to the porch door, rang twice. It was rare that any one called our house. My heart jumped with each ring thinking Mr. Death had tracked me down and was waiting to bring me out of hiding. Or maybe it was someone who witnessed the near miss and was calling to tell my parents to get me off the road. It ended up the rings were just part of the party line connections.

I went to bed that night vowing to always behave, never to tell a lie, honor my father and mother, and never fight with my sister, if God would just let the Fairlane drive on to Hiawatha or St. Joe and never return to Falls City again. I also knew that somewhere a driver was laying down to sleep thanking the same God that he did not kill a crazy kid today.

Today that same intersection has stop lights which control the traffic of the four lanes. The trees are gone, Wittrock’s dairy is no more and the Greyhound does not even come through Falls City. The pool is gone, moved to the opposite end of town as part of a tree-less Water Park. The landmarks might be gone, but I can still stand on the corner and see a kid pumping his legs off crossing the highway, a Ford Fairlane minding his own business followed by the sound of horns and screaming rubber; all in black and white of course and all just part of growing up.