Casting a New Light

Remember the orders from mom, “When the street lights come on I want you home.” Or in our house it was the dreaded, “When the street lights come on its time to come in and get a bath and go to bed.” It wasn’t the bath part I hated so much as the bedtime. I always felt I was missing out on something going to bed that early. In the winter months it meant I was missing the latest episode of “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” in the summer, it was late night popcorn with its tempting aroma coming like incense up through the cold air vent at the corner of my bed.

Street lights, which were so much a part of anyone’s life who spent time outside after dark, have gone the way of chimneys, rotary-dial phones hanging on the kitchen wall with cords long enough to reach to the farthest downstairs room and TV antennas that graced the roofs of every house in the neighborhood.

The lights disappeared and we probably didn’t even notice because they are still here, just in a new package.

Instead of the soft yellowish-brown glow of light that complimented even the most threating neighborhoods, now we have harsh almost daytime lighting. Every flaw is revealed and much of the daytime ugliness that we wished to block out is now spotlighted front and center. The new light is white, cold and cast hard edged shadows unlike the amber light which softened features and diffused the shadows of the big elm trees which stood on our terrace. The light sketched a pattern across the lawn picking out spots of light to illuminate in little circles following the patterns of the leaves.

The shadows cast by the modern LED lights, whether street lights or car headlamps look more like ink stamps with defined edges with beginnings and endings. The old lights shadows faded away with no clear borders until the next one picked up the message and carried it on up the road.

The amber light could change the color of your clothes. Maybe you went outside after supper with a red shirt on but when the street lights came on you were the kid with orange shirt. Or it was possible for your blue jeans to turn a mysterious shade of purple that you kind of liked but would never wear in the light of day.

The old lights had bulbs. Big orbs that hung like tear drops from dainty skirts with fluted edges. Circling the elements was often a cloud of insects which danced in unison, sometimes kicking out one of the partners and then quickly letting them back in. Occasionally a Luna moth would appear in the crowd. It looked as out of place as a hawk joining a flock of sparrows. The moth would glide in and out of the amber, its green shade being converted to blue.

On foggy or rain soaked nights each intersection looked as if someone set yellow cones under each light with the tips reaching up to the top of the poles. Cars and walkers would pass through the cones and then disappear as if by magic until they reappeared in the next pyramid of light.

Street lights were something you played under, met your buddies by, stuck firecrackers in the cracks of the wood and nobody yelled at you and tacked yard sale signs and hand lettered lemonade signs to their splinted poles. Staples and thumb tacks from past events reached as high as the longest arm in the neighborhood. They were the neighborhood bulletin board and neighborhood watch combined into one constant you could count on.

There were those times growing up in Nebraska and they were frequent during the summer storm season, when the life blood to the poles was cut. The neighborhood went black and the world became just a little scary. It’s like when you call your parents and all you get is a ringing and no answer when you know someone should be there. Your mind begins to wonder and you see all types of disasters and monsters lurking. But, when they answer the phone and the power comes back on, you realize how much you missed them.

Many nights we sat out on the curb under the glow of the corner’s lamp. We solved the world’s problems or tried to figure out what might happen on the next episode of “Dark Shadows” all the while doodling in the sand left over from winter street maintenance. There were usually a few bikes belonging to kids from other corners thrown on the lawn or maybe someone joined the conversation late and decided the bicycle saddle was more conformable as they sat above us rocking back and forth on the asphalt. One by one the caucus would get smaller as one more reported for soap, suds and tub.

When winter came the snow was blown as a soft blanket wrapping around the base of the pole. The light from the corner beacon took on a new life. Reflecting off ever surface, shadows were eliminated and the neighborhood was painted in pale ochre. The colored light snuck around corners like a cautious cat softly stepping towards it target. From the blending of the color of light from the street lamps and the falling snow the sky over the town turned purple giving your eyes a new palate of colors to explore.

Today’s white light seems to make the winter nights just a little bit colder. The invitation isn’t there to venture out for an illuminated walk following tire tracks in the fresh snow like it was with the warm yellow glow.

The old lights came on slow like the night did when you were waiting for the lightning bugs to start flashing. The filament in the bulb would begin to glow and you knew the hours of play were being counted down. Slowly the light would invaded the approaching dark and games of catch or pick-up ball games were over and potentially more mischievous activities began to take their place. Today’s lights flash on resembling Dad’s old flash bulbs on his camera catching us all off guard. And, they go off just as quick with no warning.

Wouldn’t it be a terrible thing if sunrise and sunset was an instantaneous event?

There are many things of the night that are still the same. Fireflies have not gone LED yet and evening campfires will still light up the backyard with a glow that attracts kids and adults like the moths around the street lamps. As a personal protest to the changing color of light, I keep amber lights on the porch which paints our house and yard as far as the light will stretch with memories of nights and colors of days behind us.

I guess, seeing things in a different light, is all part of growing up.

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Sunday Rides to Nowhere

It has been months since I have been able to publish a new memory. Family illness and deaths have taken a front seat to writing. This is all behind us now. I hope this new story starts us on the road back. 

I remember when no one worked on Sunday. I am not even sure you could tune into news and weather on a Sunday morning. I know you couldn’t go shopping because the stores were closed and that included grocery stores. You were out of luck if you didn’t plan ahead for bread and milk. Wal-Marts were nowhere to be found and I only remember one filling station out on the highway that was open and they only sold gas; not coffee, hot dogs or beer.

Sundays for the Casey family always started with all of us taking our assigned seats in “Black Beauty” and Dad chauffeuring us on the pre-dawn drive up the hill for Mass. Mass started at 6:15AM and for some reason the folks always picked the earliest Mass of the day. This had to present a challenge with two small kids in the house. As an adult, thinking back, I know Teresa and I probably needed help getting dressed and ready for at least a couple of years. How did they coordinate all of us out the door at the same time? Plus, like many families then, there was only one bathroom in the house.

Somebody had to give something up.

After Mass, it was straight home for a family breakfast. Sunday was the only day I remember sitting down as a family for breakfast. Every other morning it was getting ready for school which often meant different seating times for everyone. But, on Sunday mornings the sound of frying bacon mimicked the shushing cottonwoods down by the river on an August afternoon and pork cologne floated through every room in the house like the incense from morning Mass.

I think bacon is one of the only foods that sounds as good as it smells when being prepared.

Dad was always on toast duty.                                                                                                                   “Who wants their toast buttered?” was his battle cry. I always thought that was a big deal, having your toast buttered when you sat down. Imagine my disappointment in college when they served up dry toast in the breakfast line.

After breakfast we would all lounge around the house. Maybe take a nap, read the funnies in the Omaha World Herald, or wait for the Protestant kids to get home from church and meet us outside to finish an Army battle we started on Saturday. If it was a cold and wet Sunday, my goal was securing my favorite spot on top of the warm air register in the “playroom” and reading copies of the “The Boy Mechanic” borrowed from the library. It was in this magazine you could learn to make a crossbow from the leaf spring of a car, fashion a lawn mower blade in to a cool knife or make a box kite that would fly better than the kid next door. Today, this magazine, and all of us who checked it out are probably on some terror watch list at the NSA.

Or, if we were real lucky, it was a day for a ride to nowhere in particular in “Black Beauty,” or later on in “The Dart.”

Rides in late September and October were the best. To prepare for the adventure, Mom would roll back the edges of brown grocery bags and crease them as neatly as she made the cuffs of our jeans. Then she would fill each bag with delicious, white as first snow, popcorn freshly popped in the seasoned aluminum pot with the glass lid. A polished johnathan or delicious apple with its four distinctive bumps on the bottom and loaded with juice that would leak through your fingers and down your wrist and snapped when bitten, were set aside for each of the passengers. Sometimes popcorn was replaced with peanut butter and butter sandwiches; two slices of bread, peanut butter on one side, plain butter on the other, the bread cut in half and tucked into wax paper wrapping with ends folded in triangles over perfect half inch seams. Or, if you wanted a real gourmet sandwich, you requested potato chips in the middle as an added bonus.

In the fall the favorite ride destination was the Barada Hills to view the fall color canvas and check out some of the local apple orchards.  The Barada Hills were nothing more than the bluffs of the Missouri river, the remains of the banks of a mighty force that cut through the drain of the Midwest during the melting Ice Age. For most of us, these bluffs were the closest relatives to mountains we would ever see. West of these bluffs, Nebraska leveled out like a kitchen table top with nothing between the bluffs and the Rockies except a few salt and pepper cottonwoods and willows to slow the wind down.

The hills provided the fall foliage similar to what people living along the east coast would brag about in letters back to their flatland relatives. The gentle valleys and hills of the bluffs looked like bowls of Tricks cereal spilling out over the landscape. And, if we were lucky enough to have an early fall snow, the white milk rivers filled the bowls.

At some point, Dad would pull the car off the road into a turn off leading into a pasture, blocked a few car links ahead by a gate. I often noticed there were no paddocks on the gates. Most of the time they were secured with just a piece of wire looped over a locust post. I don’t know if the farmers trusted that the cattle would not figure the loop out or they had enough faith in people not to disturb their animals or land.

Stopping was the signal for Mom to break out the popcorn or sandwiches. Those in the car not coffee drinkers would share a can of cream soda or root beer, the folks had coffee out of Dad’s old red and grey thermos with the ageing cork seal. The windows would all be rolled down and the last of the fall grasshoppers joined us looking for their last meal before winter snuck up on them. All of us would just sit there and admire the landscape in front of us and every once in a while catch a whiff of a leaf fire burning in some farm yard nearby.

I know Dad was restless sitting there. He wanted to hike through the hills in hopes of finding the remains of a Mastodon even if it was just a petrified tooth. He always wanted one to add to his fossil collection. Some of our Sunday rides were nothing more than scouting trips for the next hiking area that he would take Teresa and I to.

Many of the roads we traveled were still gravel or just hard packed dirt. On the dirt roads the car would leave trails behind like vapor trails of a jet. Rocks would kick up in the wheel wells sounding like bridge trolls knocking to get in.

I think the folks enjoyed these rides as much as we did. It gave all of us an appreciation for the countryside around us. The most fun came when Dad would say,

“I wonder what’s down that road?”                                                                                                           Many times we would take a turn down a road that led us to unexplored Casey territory. More than once barn yard dogs chased us down or the road became too rough to risk the family car on such an exploration.

When we would pull into home we would all get out stretching just like the shadows extending long across the back yard. Mom would be the first in the house and would open up the curtains and let the last bit of the Sunday light into the house. We were back to reality with school looming on the horizon of Monday and an early rise to work for Dad.

But, we had added to our repertoire of places and roads never explored before by a Casey and in many cases, never again visited because every Sunday ride took us on a new adventure.

I still have a habit of picking a road that might lead to a different way to work or home. Just the other day I turned off the “main drag” on to a road I pass daily. I had some time to kill and I just wanted to see where it would take me.

I was treated to a path that bordered a spring busting from a few days of rain. There were mini-waterfalls all along the creek bed as it dropped levels trying to keep up with the downhill slope of the road. It wasn’t too far down the road when the path began to narrow. The smooth pavement I pulled onto became a rut filled road with each dip holding water that didn’t make it to the stream from the rains. The car tiptoed on the road like a proper lady holding her white dress up crossing a muddy road. It took longer than it should for my inner voice to say, “You shouldn’t be here and you better turn around.” But by then the road was bordered by thick stands of trees on one side, and a quick drop to the creek on the other. I had no choice but to pioneer forward.

Finally, an opening appeared around what looked like an abandoned mine entrance. There was just enough room to make a three point turn and get myself out of there. I had the very strong feeling I was being watched, and not by human eyes. I kept thinking, if I broke down back in here or ran off the road into the creek, no one would know. As I came back out of the hollow the road slowly returned to the paved life I left behind only a few minutes earlier. A woman with a blue bandanna tied around her graying hair, standing at her mail box gave me a stare saying with her eyes, “I saw you going down there, and I knew you would be back…maybe. Now go home.”

“The Road Not Taken,” as Mr. Frost referenced is not always a bad thing and for many of us, it is all part of growing up.

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Glimpses of Sounds

We have all heard the stories of growing up in a small town. The closeness of neighbors, (sometimes too close,) the ease of getting around town, economy of living, friendly neighbors and general calmness are qualities of most small towns across America.

Of course small is a relative term. Our small town, Falls City, NE, was big compared to the surrounding communities. We were a flexible count of fifty-four hundred when I was growing, to down around forty-eight hundred at last count. Neighboring Rulo has a little over two hundred and Salem going the opposite direction up the Nemaha River is not much more but, to Straussville, where the population changes by the number of people living in the one house, Rulo and Salem seem like two bustling metropolises.

But,

something that is often overlooked in the tourist brochures and the Chamber of Commerce enticements are the sounds of small town life.

The symphony of village living is often missed until we stop and listen.

On many summer afternoons, away from freeway traffic and sirens, you can hear cicadas droning or cottonwood leaves rattling in a slow breeze sounding like bacon frying on a Sunday morning and the neighbor’s lawn sprinkler spitting darts of water phtt..phtt..phtt.

Children playing outside are unaware of the base melody they contribute to the neighborhood chorus. Laughing, yelling across front lawns, or just being children they add a sound like tiny bells chattering back and forth with each other.

When we played outside there was an added element that interrupted our song; our mothers whistles.

Now I am not talking about our mothers puckering up and blowing a simple tune. Nothing that easy.

The mothers in our neighborhood were too refined to stick their heads out the window and call their young’uns as if they were calling home a roaming dog. No, they had store bought whistles, each one a different tune, handpicked to be unique.

I remember going with Mom to the Woolworth store and her testing different whistles to make sure she could get the volume necessary to call her charges home. There was no embarrassment on her part blowing it at full volume to make sure it would do the job. She finally settled on a flat three chambered blue and red whistle that for years after we grew up still maintained a spot in the “junk drawer.” Every grandchild had their turn at blowing it around the house but in the end, it always found a way back to the drawer.

When lunch or supper time rolled around, the moms in the neighborhood would stand on porches or lean out doors and tweet their whistles. Each kid knew their tune as well as each another’s. It was the updated version of ringing the chow bell for farm workers and the preview of sending a “tweet.”

In Falls City, there was little need for a wristwatch or any type of time keeping device. I guess that is one reason why most of us didn’t get a watch until we graduated from eighth grade. (Still have it by the way)

First, if you were a kid of any skill you could pretty well judge the time of day by the sun.  You knew if the sun was casting long shadows out into the yard from the bird bath, garage and power pole at the ally, you knew it was about 7:30 or 8:00 in the morning.

No shadows and you knew it was high noon and when the bird bath shadow tipped to a long eastward direction, it was about supper time and almost time for Dad to make the bend on at 17th and Morton coming home from the Post Office.

If it was cloudy, no problem we had that covered.

The bells at St. Peter and Paul Catholic Church chimed on the hour every day. The church itself was planted on what is the highest part of town and the steeple made the house of God climb even higher so that the steeple and the flying saucer water tower on the other side of town were the two highest structures for miles around. The two had a long distance romance looking back at each other over the years separated by all us minions running around at their feet.  You could be down at Stanton Lake fishing and hear the bells or even as far out of town as the airport east of town and close to the Muddy River where some of the best squirrel hunting was and still hear the bells signal the hour. One could  rarely use the excuse once you learned to count that you didn’t know what time it was based on the sights and sounds around you.

Playing outside under open windows,  (because no one had air-conditioning,) another signal for food  was the clink of plates and glasses being pulled from cupboards as moms prepared kitchen tables with the every day  real china plates and stainless steel utensils. Styrofoam and plastic just don’t add the same notes to mealtime prep.

Every day, except Sunday, the noon whistle would blow. Mounted on top of the library it sounded the official start of the lunch hour and the slowing down of much of the business activities of the town. I don’t remember anyone ever getting offended when a business closed for lunch and polite people would never think of jumping into a business five minutes before the noon whistle with expectation of being serviced.

“When you here the noon whistle, (it was a siren but everyone called it a whistle) you make sure you come home for lunch,” was a common command by all the neighborhood moms.

As the whistle was winding down sounding much like the air raid sirens of the World War II movies the Angelus bells of St. Peter and Paul would be ringing in all their glory trying desperately to call the faithful to a minute of prayer before they jumped in for a grilled ham and cheese sandwich and chocolate malt at the Chat-n-Nibble café across from the Courthouse.

Those two noon day signals were also the starting gun for folks to tune in KTNC 12:30 on the AM dial to listen to the obituaries announced over the airwaves. This was pre-FM radio so the easiest signal to pick up was the local station. This meant every house and business you passed was on the same channel. Walking past open windows you heard the obituaries of some of the towns leading citizens. The list also provided fodder for conversation at the Dime Store lunch counter. The dearly departed were eulogized better there at the counter than at their funerals days later.

Following the obituaries was the “Farm and Market report.”

“Hogs finishing higher today with wheat slightly lower… milo steady.”

This same station during Nebraska football season, would broadcast the Husker games to the shopping public by way of speakers mounted at different spots up and down Stone Street. The sound of football glory mixed with the grain trucks ratcheting through gears pulling away from the stop light by the Post Office and the Union Pacific blowing its horn as it passed through the rail yard at the south end of town made a fall melody no orchestra can duplicate.

In the backyard red fox squirrels barking orders from the tops of old elm trees is another refrain that made up the orchestra of sounds. The squirrels yelled at the blue jays and the blue jays in turn screamed at the red birds perched on the feeder reminding them to leave some of the sunflower seeds for them. The turtle doves would observe it all sitting on the 220 power line and commenting on all the noise with their mournful “woe is me,” coo.

Night sounds are special in a small town. The crickets would start shortly after sundown and were with you the rest of the night. The leg rubbing insects sounded like mischievous little kids swinging rusty door hinges back and forth, back and forth, just waiting for someone to tell them to stop. The nighthawks circling above collecting mosquitoes and other tasty bird treats  blended their scratchy song to the evening chatter. Tree frogs contributed their two cents and if you were close enough to the city limits, you could easily pick up the cries of a coyote pack working their way across the field after a doomed rabbit.

And on muggy July nights…when no breeze blows and sweat beads up on your upper lip just because you moved and… it is really quiet, you can hear the corn stretching, groaning, and yawning like an old man standing up from his favorite easy chair after a good nap

The most subtle of sounds require you to be in an area away from sirens, traffic, and other metro noises.  It is the sound of the earth. Mother earth makes sounds all day but we often miss them. Sometimes we dismiss them as being unimportant. It is a sound you hear when you turn to someone and say, “Did you hear that?” and they turn back and say “What, I didn’t hear anything.”

What you hear is a low hum or bump. You almost think your ears are ringing but you really do hear something. It is the slow movement of the tectonic plates under your feet. It is the shifting of the earth in subterranean Russia, South America or just down the street that makes its way through channels and vibrations to the very spot you are standing sending shock waves for your ears only.

But,

The sound I miss the most from growing up was carried out as nightly ritual on the back porch on summer nights.

Someone would announce that it was time to “take a bath.” Slowly the evening porch perched people would make their way one at a time to the upstairs bathroom. When the last one came back down and took their post on the porch they would announce, “I am the cleanest one in the house.”

And the crickets keep chirping,

the Union Pacific train clicks on the rails and gives a last blow on the horn fades and is swallowed by the night symphony.

All part of growing up is listening to the sounds around you and learning from them.

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Old Timer

It is worth repeating, the last day of school and Christmas were always the two happiest days of the year. They were followed close by birthdays and Fourth of July celebrations. Certain events of those special days pop up so clearly.

I wonder why it is that some events or actions seem to stick and others fade away. The folk’s habit of taking pictures of so many events definitely helps to spark recollections but even a few of those photos are fading like the memories they detail.

I can recall the yellow Tonka dump truck I received on my sixth birthday and it being so warm that November day I could play with it in the tractor tire sandbox.  I also remember the day dad and I rolled the tractor tire home from the OK Tire Shop and the thing almost getting away from us coming down Seventeenth Street.

The last days of school have their own set of memories for me. Our tradition for a couple of years were strawberry milkshakes at the drugstore up the street from Browns shoe store. The drill of the milkshake machine would drown out conversation until the metal cylinders were brought to the table, each one of them in a cold sweat. Pink brain freeze sucked through paper straws was the official start of summer vacation. The squishy squeaks of the imitation green leather booths and chrome trimmed tables and mom pulling extra napkins from the dispenser as fast as they would pop out making sure we didn’t “leave a mess” are pictures that aren’t waning.

But,

Over the years even the last days of school seem to run together. When you think you only have twelve of them to remember, you would think a person could do a better of job with the details.

However,

I can tell you, with clear recollection, my last day of high school.

It wasn’t for any prank I pulled or remarks I made to the administration. Although I did miss a golden opportunity to leave a mark. If you recall from previous stories I was at this stage, signed and sealed to go to the seminary in the fall. So, in retrospect, I probably could have gotten away with just about anything and the nuns would have overlooked it.

I can say that safely now because everyone that taught me at this stage is dead.

They can give their response at a later date.

On the last day of senior high I came home for lunch which was my usual routine. We had a half hour for lunch and in that time I was able to make it home, eat a sandwich or whatever mom might have ready, have dessert, which one could never miss, read the cartoon Pogo in the Lincoln Star (which was the only reason we subscribed to the paper) and make it back to school before the bell. As much as I hated school, I enjoyed the walks back and forth up and down Eighteenth Street. I could probably still do it with my eyes closed.

It is what I received on this last day which made the day different and I have carried that day with me almost every day since.

Sitting on my plate was a small box about the dimensions of an average smartphone and a half inch in depth. “Old Timer” was etched across the top of the box in black calligraphy the style of the old west wanted posters. The lid of the box lifted off with precision as if it was made by a master craftsman. The box had another unique quality, the tag did not read from, “Mom and Dad,” this time it only said, “From Dad.”

Lifting the lid revealed a Senior Old Timer pocket knife nestled in a form fitted piece of black foam.

The knife’s side handles were made from stag horn and secured with three rivets on each side. It sprouted three open reflective steel blades, each still a virgin to the work expected out of pocket knife.

There was also a note inside the box,

“Every man should always carry a good knife. Dad.”

And I have every day since.

Pocket knives were important to dad, and I am going to say even to Grandma Casey. Maybe that’s where the habit of always carrying a knife started. The first knife I ever received was from Grandma Casey as a Christmas present when I was nine. The knife was double wrapped. On the outside was Grandma’s thick wrapping paper, the kind that you saved and could easily be used again, and the second layer was a note, “This belonged to grandma, I thought you might like to have it.” It wasn’t a particularly masculine knife. The handle was decorated with glitter imbedded red, green and yellow stripes but the blades were as sharp and mirrored  as any blade found on a Tenderfoot Scout’s new Boy Scout knife.

I carried that knife in my pocket until I joined scouts and bought my first of many scout knives with grass cutting money.

In an effort of full disclosure, I don’t have perfect recall of such things as Grandma’s knife…I still have the knife wrapped in the note tucked safely away.

I never knew dad to be without a pocket knife. Every birthday and Christmas morning, dad would produce a knife to slice the ribbons that Santa tied so tight or cut the tape that Santa also seemed so fond of using.

When we were out for picnics it was dad’s pocket knife that sharpened the sticks for hotdogs or s’mores.

When dad opened envelopes, I never knew him to use a letter opener, out came the pocket knife to slice a clean edge.

When dad passed there were enough pocket knives in his drawer to pass around to grandkids, Teresa and Mary. I should have put one in the coffin with him, but I missed that opportunity. I am sure today, walking around heaven, he has reached into pocket looking for a knife only to be frustrated not finding one.

Please tell me they allow knives in Heaven.

I went back to school that last day with a knife in my pocket. Something today that would most likely have me thrown in jail, be labeled a threat to the community and my life ruined. I am also confident if there was a shakedown of my class that day, you would probably find most of the guys with a knife in their pocket. That’s just how life was.

The Old Timer and I have been through a lot since that day. We been separated a few times by neglect or carelessness but we always found our way back to each other. Today, the knife blades are tarnished but they still get sharpened on a regular basis. The horn handles are a worn a little smoother from in and out of the pocket but it has aged well.

My Old Timer has sliced open birthday cards, gifts that were taped with more tape needed and on occasion even a few pieces of meat when the flimsy plastic knife of carry-outs failed. Old Timer has tightened screws, scraped paint, cut ties to hold up tomato plants, dug deep to remove splinters from the palm of my hand,  gutted a few squirrels and catfish and has been on every successful or unsuccessful trip into the woods. The trusted partner has also cut the tip off every cigar I have had since 1973.

That’s a few cigars.

And, the Old Timer was with me on the motorcycle trip from Philly to Connellsville and it was with me every day I worked on staff at our Boy Scout Camp.

The last thing the Old Timer and I did with dad that I cherish was sitting on the back porch smoking our pipes. Dad would pull out a different model of the Old Timer, pop open the blade and scrape the carbon from the inside of pipe bowl with the precision of a master carver. He clicked the blade back to its base with a firm metallic snap. I performed the same action with mine, sliding the longest blade around the inside of the bowl and then clicking the pipe against the ashtray that always sat on the porch table.  We would both load our pipes, dad tamping his down with a practiced finger, me, I used the solid end of the Old Timer to tamp mine down.

We sat on the porch like two Arab sheiks puffing on their hookahs watching the slow passage of the world up and down Eighteenth Street and the squirrels performing their high wire act on the 220 power line.

It was often up to me to start the conversation;

“Nice night.”

“Yes it is.”

“Won’t be many more like this.”

“Pass me the matches.”

“Need my knife?”

“Thanks’ dad, I have mine.”

Then the porch was quiet. Blue jays would holler or a turtle dove would sound a mournful coo to break the silence as smoke from two stokers would weave out through the screened porch.

When I pass, (and I am putting it out there now to whomever is responsible for me,) slip my Old Timer in the coffin with me so that I can take it to dad on my last day on earth so we can celebrate the way we did, the last day of school.

All part of growing up is, always having a good knife in your pocket.

“Every man should always carry a good knife.” Francis H. Casey

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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.

###

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.

###

 

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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