Sole Searching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then the try on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lorenzo's Repair Shop

Lorenzo’s Repair Shop

Or, maybe the space was made just for Lorenzo.

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

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

“Soles and heels please.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Picture courtesy of Google Earth 2015

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A Chewy Gooey Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“I Knew You Would Never Be a Priest”

“I knew you would never be a priest.”

Those were the words that Mom uttered to me when I nervously told her that I decided not to continue with my Catholic seminary studies. Of course, you need to understand that along with this statement came a hand wave as if she was chasing away a pesky gnat.

Months of nervous introspection and practicing just how to tell her all vanished with the wave of a hand. It would have been helpful for her to share some of her insights maybe six years earlier. But then, I wouldn’t have any good stories to share.

There are many misconceptions about life in a Catholic seminary. If you have followed this blog series you have probably had a few of those myths shattered and buried. “Thunk” (October 17, 2014 or “Christmas or Bust” October 26, 2014

By the time I am done with this edition, a few more myths might bite the dust.

The road to the seminary is different for everyone called, and it is a calling. You receive small invitations that you don’t recognize until you start putting all of the pieces together. Like playing priest and setting up an altar on your mother’s kitchen table. Or, being the on-call altar server for the parish. You become the server that Father looks for in the congregation when the assigned server sleeps in.

Then there are the nuns who would just come right out and say, “You ought to be a priest.” I think they saw every boy who managed to stay out of their discipline radar for more than a year as a potential candidate. I was never the favored student. Matter of fact, the nuns probably secretly voted me most likely to fail. Proof of this theory was when it came time for the SAT tests. Sister, who will remain nameless, refused to let me sign up for the test. “Why would you take the test, you are never going to make it in college.” I know she meant well and was probably just trying to give me a free Saturday morning to go fishing.

One year later, when I announced my intention to go to the seminary, the same “blessed” woman elevated me to just below valedictorian status and somehow my poor algebra skills, which she was convinced would hold me back, vanished out of importance.

I wish the call to the priesthood was as clear as Paul being knocked off his horse or Moses and his bush of fire, but it wasn’t. Of course it is very obvious from Scripture that those two key figures didn’t understand subtle hints as clearly as I did or God would not have used such dramatic signs.  (I’ll probably need to answer for that statement somewhere along the line.)

When the day arrived to head to the seminary in Kentucky a whole crew of seminar recruits assembled in a parking lot in Lincoln to form a caravan of priestly hopefuls. We looked like the Crusaders sent east to conquer and convert the Kentuckians. We had no idea what to expect and the peaceful Seminary of St. Pius X in Erlanger, KY also was not prepared for the onslaught of Midwest culture.

The lane leading to the Seminary building

Entrance to Seminary Lane

Back to Mom.

Mom and I argued about this for years, but I know what I saw. After tearful good byes we pulled out of the lot to start our new adventure. Looking back I know I saw mom dancing a gig in glorious celebration. She finally had me out of the house. In her defense, she said a bee was chasing her around the lot. I think my version is more believable.

Move in day in the seminary is a little different than move in day at any other college. There are no buff fraternity brothers jumping in to help hoping to recruit some new pledges. There is a notable absence of cute girls in shorty shorts checking out the new freshmen. There ARE numerous upperclassmen, dressed in black clerics, standing around carefully assessing the class of freshmen to see if there is a future Bishop or Cardinal in the pack that they may need to buddy up to. In our case, they were more curious to see what a likely priest from Nebraska looked like. We disappointed them on this trip and left our bib-overalls and seed company hats at home.

After going through a week long induction process the real seminary life began. In chapel by 7:00AM for Morning Prayer followed by a half hour of spiritual reading. Required dress for prayer was a cassock. For those not familiar with clerical attire, a cassock is a one piece black covering with a clerical collar. What was great about these was you could get out of bed, slip on a pair of socks and shoes, roll up your pajamas if you were so inclined to wear them, and head to chapel with no further decisions to be made. I have little doubt there were many of my brother seminarians who had less than what I just mentioned under their frocks.

For prayer, the seminary body filled the chapel with the faculty perched in the last row like a flock of white throated crows keeping an eye on tasty morsels carefully analyzing which to keep and which ones to discard. Chapel had assigned seating so the faculty always knew who made it up for prayer or who came in late. The prayers volleyed back and forth in true monastic style. It is a moving experience to hear a hundred plus men praying in unison in the stillness of the morning. It gives the morning a voice that should start everyone’s day rather than the staccato blabbering of news anchors. The stain glass windows would cast angelic rays across the student body giving the look of pure holiness and innocence to the whole body of men. The scene made you appreciate all that nudged you to this point.

God's View of the Seminary

God’s View of the Seminary

After prayer you moved right into spiritual reading. During this time you were to read something from the lives of the saints or any other tract that would keep you focused. You obeyed that rule for the first six months. After that, you realized that no one was keeping tabs on what you were reading.  You knew that most of the faculty were gone after prayer, retreating to their private dining room for breakfast and I am sure a grilling of the personalities of the student body. What was considered spiritual reading then became a matter of your own censorship. There were guys reading the latest bestsellers, copies of Sports Illustrated were smuggled in under loose fitting cassocks as well as class notes for the day and letters from home.

When the hour of chapel came to an end, the bell would ring announcing time for breakfast. We filed out of the chapel based on class rank with the seniors leading the long black line to the refectory. (fancy word for cafeteria) If you could get an aerial shot of this procession out of chapel it would look like a stream of black ants one following the other with one goal in mind…food.

Now I have no proof of this next statement but it is one of those things that just seems glaringly obvious. I believe they replaced and hoped to repress any sexual inklings of a student body made up of twenty something year old men with food! Breakfast and lunch, which were served cafeteria style, could outpace the finest smorgasbord you can imagine. Eggs prepared to order, always more than one breakfast meat choice, pancakes, waffles, coffee, juice all made up your choices. Three saintly nuns, who must have started in the very early hours of the day, prepared each meal as if they were cooking for the Pope himself.

Supper, a community event, followed immediately after evening prayer. Supper was served family style with six guys at a table. Two people were assigned to the table as waiters. One was the server. He was in charge of coming in sometime during the afternoon and setting the table in preparation for the evening meal. Once everyone was seated for supper, it was his job to bring the food to the table from the kitchen. If seconds were needed, again, it was his duty to retrieve them. The other guy, had it a little easier. When the meal was over, he cleared the table. His biggest worry was stacking the dirty dishes. There was a very specific way to stack the dishes. Violating this order gained you a scolding from the guys on dish crew.

One of the specialties of the nuns was scratch carrot cake. Its thick cream cheese icing and moist cake made it such a desired treat that guys traded favors for cake. Bargains were made to spend a day on dish crew or take a turn on a work crew for an extra piece. If we were in a prison, (well we kind of were) carrot cake would be the equivalent of trading cigarettes.

I had the good fortune in later years of rooming with the Joe Pat who was assigned to work in the refectory. He had the keys to the kingdom of carrot cake. More than once, in the middle of the night, Joe and I would help ourselves to some of the leftover cake.

Tuesdays and Thursdays were work crew days on campus. Every man was assigned a job with little discretion as to class ranking or position in seminary society. Two seminarians were in charge of the work crew details and they floated around the campus making sure that the assigned jobs were being completed based on the job list handed down by the faculty. For some reason, the first detail that came down to the new Nebraska residents of the hill was operating the tractors to cut the twenty-five acres of land or to plow the cornfields or…to drive an Army surplus dump truck loaded with a tractor and slop for the hogs down to the seminary farm.

You can probably see where this is going. I was tapped to drive the truck, the only question asked was, “Do you know how to drive a standard shift.” After several years of driving my VW Beetle around, I answered with a confident yes. I should have kept my mouth shut. The priest in charge of the grounds directed me to a truck with a cab so high it had steps. The truck had more gears than my eighteen speed mountain bike and each one, as Father made note of, needed to be double clutched.

The journey to the farm followed every twisted, hilly road Kentucky could throw at me. To make things worse, I shadowed a school bus that would stop every time I managed to get through gear five and six. Once I finally made it to the farm, I had to back this monster up to a loading ramp using only the mirrors. Come on! I signed on to save souls not piglets.

Little did I realize, God intervened and did me a favor. From that successful trip I was now the official driver of the big blue monster as well as enjoying being allowed many hours of solitude on the tractors, cutting grass and plowing fields while others were scrubbing urinals, waxing floors and dusting shelves,

Grand silence fell on the building at 10PM. Every student was expected to be in their rooms with no talking unless the building was on fire or you were addressed by a faculty member. If you were in the halls, you had better be on your way to or from chapel or one of the common bathrooms. It was moving to hear the silence descend on the building. It was a peacefulness that inspired prayer, study and gin rummy.

My room was gin rummy headquarters. I made a lot of pocket change after 10PM helping my brothers learn the finer points of the game. It wasn’t necessary to talk through the game other than to quietly utter the word, “gin” at the appropriate time so we weren’t breaking too many rules.

Once a year we had a seven day silent retreat, usually after our return from Christmas vacation. I am sure the idea was to help restore us to the saintly practices that we left behind at the start of the break. What it really was, was the start of the gin tournament which ran for seven nights. When the retreat was winding down, the parallel tournament was also coming to an end. The winner walked away that week enriched spiritually and financially. I think that is called good stewardship.

Retreats were not all about gin rummy. My senior year in the seminary, Bishop Connare, the then Bishop of Greensburg, PA and one of the authors of the Vatican II documents, was our retreat master. You will never find a more down to earth and saintly Bishop than this man. During one of our chapel sessions with the Bishop, a freshman seminarian presented a question he asked, “Bishop, when do you get a handle on, you know, these urges?”

Bishop Connare, dressed in full bishop regalia stepped off the altar, walked up to the now shaking seminarian sitting in the front row put his face almost next to the freshman and calmly said, “When they put the last nail in your coffin.”

That settled that discussion.

You often hear people say that every young man should be in the military. I can’t totally disagree with that. In my opinion however, the seminary could run a close second. Behind the walls of the seminary you learn to live in a community, looking out for others first, then yourself. Orders are followed because they will make life easier for everyone. Your daily attire, black clerical shirt or cassock, unifies the body of men, (plus you don’t have to make any decisions as to what matches with what.) The prayerful atmosphere and ample time for meditation and introspection gives you time to understand and appreciate the soul that is trapped in your body. Whether you go on to be a priest or decide to leave based on the urgings of those who know better “that maybe you should pursue other career options,” the seminary has a lasting effect.

For my part, I still wear black socks with almost everything I put on.

Learning about yourself. Challenging yourself. Changing directions. It is all part of growing up.

If you would like a copy of the “special secret carrot cake” recipe send me an email at yesac1@gmail.com

Photo’s Google Earth, 2015

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“How Much is that Doggie in the Window?”

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

Dickens

Dickens

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

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

“A dog.”

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

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

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

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

Our first meeting with Bella

Our first meeting with Bella

Bella's first night in her new home

Bella’s first night in her new home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The teacher had arrived.

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

King Tut Casey

King Tut Casey

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

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

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

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

Bella today

Bella today

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

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

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

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

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There is a first time for everything

Adventures appear when you least suspect them. Growing up, escapades and new experiences are around every corner. As we grow we are faced with so many first time experiences. Some of these situations and occurrences we miss by no fault of our own. Few of us remember our first experience of snow, a first birthday celebration, or the first time we heard birds singing. Those around us marked those events with excitement and in many cases, pictures. I think that is why as parents cherish those first in children’s lives.  As grown ups we are capture and record something we missed out on the first time around.

Then, there are those events which happen later in life. Being older you recognize them as firsts. For some events, you hope it is also the last time. For me two first time events happened in the same week in 1968. Both events made an impacted growing up and both I hoped not to repeat soon: Grandma Casey’s death and my first week of Boy Scout camp.

Camp was on my radar well before I was every officially a Boy Scout. Scout camp was as much a part of our family as vacations were to other families. The camp lodge, lake, staff quarters and several of the campsites were all comfortable places to me when I was making my plans to attend camp. During Tom’s camp staff years, we visited camp almost every week and it wasn’t long before I was roaming camp like it was my personal neighborhood.

My earliest memory of Tom heading off to camp was watching the troop load up at their meeting place on Harlan Street. The troop along with all of their gear was loaded in the back of an open cattle truck. I can remember dad handing up to Tom a homing pigeon carrier loaded with one bird ready to be pressed into service.  Once Tom arrived at camp, the plan was to send the bird back announcing the troop reached their campsite safely.

To demonstrate how important the camping experience was to our parents, they were sending a son off, who was enduring all of the limitations of Cystic Fibrosis, to a hot dry camp, traveling twenty plus miles in the back of an open truck and relying on a pigeon to let them know he arrived safe.

In 1968 it was my turn to make my first official trip to camp. Scout camp in 1968 was $24.00 for a week of camp. That may not seem like a large sum but when you were earning .50 a yard cutting grass or the same amount for snow shoveling, it took a while to reach the required amount. I worked hard to get all the money together and rallied each week when I turned in my deposit at the meeting to see another step closer to the full amount marked off my bill.

And then, Grandma Casey’s health started to slip.

Mom and Dad would make visits to the nursing home and come back talking in hushed levels. It wasn’t hard to understand this independent woman was not going to be here for long. When Grandma passed, it was the week before the troop was scheduled to go to camp and her funeral was scheduled for Monday morning; the troop was set to leave that Sunday.

Grandma Casey was the essence of Grandmotherhood.

Grandma Casey was the picture of Grandmotherhood.

Talk about pulling a kid in two directions.

I can still remember mom sitting on my bed telling me it would be okay to miss the funeral and go to camp. But that wasn’t an easy decision on my part. If you remember from earlier blogs, I was  the unofficial MC for funerals and weddings at St. Peter and Paul. I couldn’t let Grandma go without being the one to orchestrate the characters needed for a proper funeral.

A phone call to Bill our scoutmaster cleared the way for me to join the troop on Monday afternoon and still attend Grandma’s funeral in the morning.

Who says you can’t have it both ways!

With Grandma’s funeral behind me, Mom and Dad packed up in the Dodge Dart, (Black Beauty was out to pasture at this point) and headed for camp. It was an oppressive July day, the kind that makes you not want to touch another person and also check yourself to make sure you have no embarrassing sweat marks. Arriving in camp I checked in at the lodge and hiked down the road to the troop’s regular campsite. Scout troops are a little like church people selecting a pew. There are always many to select from but the same one is always picked. The troop’s favorite site for years was the Dakota campsite. It was close enough to the main lodge to make it convenient but far enough out of the way to create a little scout mischief and not get caught. There was a stream that ran behind the site which provided plenty of entertainment that mothers would never approve of and most important, the best latrines in the whole camp.

I arrived in camp in just enough time to participate in the evening flag ceremony. The entire camp population circled the flag poles as the colors retreated for the day. Troop 393 was positioned facing west to the setting sun. To this day I have not witnessed a sunset with the vibrancy of colors painted in the sky. It was as if an artist took the shades of fall, brilliant oranges, purples, reds and yellows and smeared them together like kindergarten finger painting. As the colors were lowered, a warm breeze blew around our ankles and red winged black birds hollered back at the bugler in competition as he played taps.

I was not a weather watcher at this age. If I was, I would not have been so enamored with the colors of the sky and would have paid more attention to the signs around me. The tints in the sky were the front runners of a massive storm front moving in. The warm breeze around our legs was the effect of heavy air pushing weaker air down and the black birds were just trying to warn us to get off the hill before lightning started.

The rain started as a gentle summer volley. The first drops released the fresh smell of rain. A few lightning flashes cleared the air and filled it with more nitrogen infused drops. Nightfall came and everyone retreated to their tents ready for a gentle rain. No one worried about a little rain, we were all experienced campers, at least we thought that until,

it actually started to rain.

The rain started hitting the canvas of our A-frame tents with loud pops. The stretched material bounced as the drops became bigger and stronger. Lightning flashed casting a green light, the color of the tent canvas, through the two man tent. The flaps on the tent were tied to the upright poles in the front and back. The side flaps, which were usually rolled up to get some air on hot nights, were now down and staked to the ground. If you hadn’t checked the ropes leading to the stakes earlier, it was too late to make any changes.

The rain began pelting the tents with the force and sound of a bathroom shower. Lightning flashes were coming at a rate so steady you could have read a book by their light. The light display also revealed the inches of water flowing through the floor of the tent. My tent mate and I were lucky enough to be sleeping on old army cots inherited from our dads. We could watch the water come through and still stay dry in our sleeping bags. Scouts sleeping on air mattresses or directly on the ground were not so lucky. One member of the troop, a sound sleeper, floated out the back of his tent and was finally brought to life by the pouring rain on his face.

Our gear did not stay dry. It was a choice, dry bed or dry clothes. It was too late to save the packs and suitcases stored under cots. Boots and tennis shoes were tied to the cots already, so for many those, items were up and dry.

The creek that ran behind the campsite seemed like a great amenity to the site until this night. The roar from the water was enough to make most of us look out the back flaps of the tent to see the gentle stream now bank full and threatening to spill into the campsite. Canoes from the lake made their way down the torrent as the lake spilled its guts into the stream. The canoes banged as they lodged in the trees along the stream. Their hollow thumping pleas for help could be heard when the thunder decided to take a break.

The storm parked itself over the Humbolt Boy Scout Camp and sat on us until early morning.

The closer it came to daybreak the more homesick I became. Less than twenty-four hours ago I was with family, dry and not worried if I was going to be lit up by the next lightning strike. I was missing Grandma and wondering if this scout camp thing was everything I thought it was going to be.

In the morning, as the sun crested over a distant hill it silhouetted the trees and cast long rays into the campsite. Leaves sparkled as if they were touched by ice rather than rain. The air had the freshness that follows a summer storm when dirt is washed away and the air is purified by countless cleansing flashes of light. The red-winged blackbirds returned yelling at their cousins the blue jays while they both competed for new food.

The daylight also revealed the flattened grass from the rivers running through Dakota site. Several tents were collapsed and their residents, who took refuge in neighboring tents, popped their heads out to survey the damage. Two canoes were t-boned behind the site, both fighting to get free from the raging water that brought them together. The troop slowly started to gather in the center of the campsite around a picnic table that was now three feet closer to the edge of the woods than it was the night before. Each scout started sharing experiences of the night. No one had dry clothes. Most of the guys appeared in swim trunks, because they feel good wet anyway, boots trailing muddy laces and wet camp T-shirt. We were about as far away from a Norman Rockwell painting of Scouting as you could get.

After making sure everyone was okay, we were dispersed with assignments to get the site back together. Once our jobs were finished, we were free to tend to our personal gear. It wasn’t long before the campsite looked more like a laundry facility than a campsite. Every available branch had a line strung from it holding a week’s collection of clothes.

A camp staff member came to the site to check on us. He brought with him news of the rest of the camp. The staffer detailed how in the middle of the night the staff was moved out of their tents. The staff area was below a new dam for the lake. With run off and rain the lake was not expected to reach the dam for another couple of years. This would give the dam plenty of time to settle and firm up.

The lake reached the new capacity during the storm and there was fear the dam cold not hold it back.

All of the canoes and rowboats docked on the shore of the lake were either down the feeder stream or floating around in the middle of the lake.

The staff member told us you couldn’t tell where the camp pool started and the mud around it stopped. The hill above the pool slid down to the pool leveling the area out around the deck of the pool.

Roads to campsites were washed away or so muddy one dared not walk on them for fear of sinking in the mud. The staffer told us we were all confined to our campsites until further notice by the staff.

One of the great advantages of scouting and a lesson you take with you when you leave the program, is anything can be accomplished with team work and selflessness. We operated on the patrol system which meant everyone had an assigned job. To do your job meant the patrol would succeed. The patrol leaders started rounding up the cooks and fire starters. The picnic tables were moved back to less soggy locations and the dining tarps over them were resurrected.

It wasn’t long and the smell of charcoal fires were filling the campsite followed by frying bacon, eggs and pancakes on the griddles. The night’s experiences were getting farther from our memories and our bellies were getting closer to being satisfied.

The last notable event of this experience takes place while I was in the latrine. Most camp latrines are not structures that encourage lingering. On a humid 100 degree July day you are in and out. This morning was a little different.

The storm cleared the air. It was cool and the torrential down pour must have helped to purify the fragrance normally associated with the outhouses.

Dakota campsite in better weather.

Dakota campsite in better weather.

While doing my business I was in no particular hurry as this was the first private moment I had since arriving in camp. That is, until the walls of the latrine began to shake. There was a thunderous drone that vibrated the ground where my feet were resting. I could see the only tree that shaded the outhouse bend down as if some giant was pushing it over from behind the structure. A wind wiped through the outhouse and almost pushed me off my pedestal.

I figured this was it. This was the second coming for sure and I had been caught with my pants down (secretly everyone’s worst fear when that time comes.) God tried to get us with lightning and rain, now comes the earthquakes and wind.

Not wanting to appear before my Maker in a compromising position, the process I was involved in quickly accelerated. Stepping outside I realized God had come in the form of a twin prop, troop transport helicopter labeled with the Red Cross emblem and He landed just outside our campsite. When the cargo bay doors opened four horsemen, (no intended apocalyptic reference here but it works so go with it) made their way down to the campsite.

The chopper was dispatched by the main scout office in Lincoln after reports reached them of the devastating weather in Richardson County. All phone lines were down. Power was out through much of the county. Roads and bridges were either washed away or closed. The riders started working their way through the campsites to make sure we were all in one piece so they could report back to our parents that they needn’t worry about the Boy Scouts.

The rest of the camp week was uneventful compared to Monday night. There was no swimming in the pool for the rest of the week. So what, we had a new lake twice the size of the old one. Within a day, all of the merit badge classes were back on schedule so no one lacked for any activity. Uniform requirements were eliminated causing the evening flag ceremonies to be attended by what looked a band of ruffians set on taking over the camp.

The closing campfire on Friday night was held on the shore of the new lake. We were all bonded by the shared experiences of the week. Scouts who would never see each other again sang campfire songs together louder than any church gathering. When the campfire was over, boys and leaders exchanged good byes and safe travels with brother scouts. The scene looked more like a class reunion breaking up than a group of teenage boys and leaders anxious to get home.

Years later, as Camp Director, I enjoyed walking down the road to the Dakota campsite at night with only the moonlight to guard against stumbling. On these nights I would stand outside of the site undetected and listen to the boys enjoying the campground in the same way we did years earlier. I could picture where my tent stood on that July night. The faint leftover essence of charcoal from the troop’s evening meal would take me back to the morning of eggs, bacon and pancakes when breakfast outside never tasted so good.

First time life events that help you decide who you are and what you can endure are after all just…all part of growing up.

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I Won’t do this Again!

On the list of dangerous and stupid things I’ve done, the following story might get close to top billing.

All of us look back on some situations and say to ourselves, “Why in the world did I do that.” Then the other response is, “How in the world did I survive doing that?”

The fall of 1978 I was living in the north end of Philadelphia sharing the top apartment with another ex-seminarian. Our apartment was at the end of a typical Philadelphia row house. It was a far stretch from the wide open space that separated neighbors back at 1804 Morton.  Picture the neighborhood from the first Rocky movie and then take it down a couple of notches. It was one of a few places that I am happy Mom never had a chance to visit.

Every work day morning I hiked through Fairmont Park to the opposite side, caught the underground to the Broad Street station, then walked up to Samson Street to Holt’s Tobacco Shop. The good men at Holts were kind enough to give me a job right out of the seminary. The only qualification was the ability to smoke cigars without gagging and know a little bit about pipes and tobacco.

I fit right in.

Holts was an old Philadelphia family run business with ties deep in the downtown culture of Philly. The store serviced many of the elite of Philly. This included the mayor, celebrities when they came to town, church officials, as well as regulars stopping by for handfuls of cigars and to  pass time with Morey in the walk in humidor.

Morey was Mr. Cigar of downtown Philly.  Morey worked at the store from the day it opened and like the rest of the inventory, was passed down to the next generation when the store changed hands.

Morey was a stubby little man who always wore dark pants held up with suspenders. Most of the time he sported a narrow black tie that cinched a yellowing white shirt loose around his neck. Over all of this he wore a black wool sweater year round. The front of the sweater always hung a couple of inches longer than the back. This draping only contributed to his hunched posture and shuffling stride. His black wire framed glasses rested on a prominent nose while the temple pieces disappeared under grey curls around his ears.

In his mouth was a cigar, most of the time, just the stump of one that he started early in the workday. Morey carried the cigar tucked on the right side of his face between his cheek and teeth. He could talk all day with the cigar never leaving its position with the exception of a few times when he would pull it out and use the chewed end as a pointer to an imaginary suggestion floating somewhere in front of him. Morey was small enough that looked up to most customers but no one ever looked down at Morey.

To this day Holt’s Tobacco proved to be one of my favorite jobs. Working with Morey all day, enjoying any cigar I wanted, and helping others find the perfect cigar was not a bad gig at all. But, the winds of change always seemed to blow in my ears in those days. It was time to move on from Philadelphia and start a new foundation in Connellsville, PA.

By this time I had sold my ’72 Pinto to purchase a brand new Yamaha 400 Special motorcycle. When I bought the bike I had three small obstacles to overcome.

I didn’t know how to ride a motorcycle, I didn’t have a motorcycle license and I had very little money to finance a bike.

Not real obstacles, just a few challenges.

On my days off and after work I would push the bike to a nearby football field to practice riding. Once I felt brave enough, I ventured out to the city streets and from there, I started taking longer bike rides to build my courage and skill.

The day finally came to leave Morey and the gang at Holt’s behind and head west.

Living the life of a seminarian for the past six years did not leave me with too many worldly possessions. What I owned fit in an army surplus duffle bag, and a few backpacks all of which were tied to the handlebars, gas tank and rear of the bike. I looked like a refugee fleeing across the country.

When I left Philadelphia the sun was hot on the back of my neck and a slight head wind kept me cool. Once out on the PA Turnpike, the wind picked up a little but not a real problem, nothing I couldn’t handle,

until,

the first eighteen wheeler passed.

That was when I realized I was like a sparrow trying to fly west with a flock of geese. The duffle bag tied to the back of the bike worked like the rudder on a boat, steering me closer to the massive wheels of my brother road warriors. My only protection was kissing the pack tied to my gas tank to relieve some of the wind resistance. In this position, I was no taller than the semi wheels themselves and was actually in a perfect position to be sucked under as if I was tempting the mouth of a whale.

The wind from the west continued to pick up speed and worked hard to push me back. I felt like I lost a mile of progress with each wind gust and tractor-trailer passing. The sunny blue sky day that I left behind me in Philly was now spitting at me and making sure what little distance vision I had left would be clouded by the spray from every passing vehicle. To date, no one has invented a wiper blade for the face shield of a motorcycle helmet. I needed that feature.

And then it was night! I was supposed to be in Connellsville before nightfall.

You know how you wrestle with yourself, “should I take the short cut or go the long way around?” “Is it better to take the tried and true or see if you can improve your lot with a different approach?” I had an opportunity fast approaching of either getting off the Turnpike and away from the traffic or staying on the pike and taking my chances with a good road but poor conditions. This whole conversation was going on in my head while I was working to keep the bike,

upright,

on the road,

and moving forward.

I finally made the move to get off the Turnpike and take my chances on a road I thought was running parallel to the turnpike. If you have ever traveled across Pennsylvania you soon realize nothing runs side-by-side. Of course this whole trip was before the friendly GPS lady that politely tells you that you are going the wrong direction.

When I started seeing signs for Maryland that was a suggestion I was not in Kansas anymore.

Somewhere on a dark Maryland highway, I turned around and retraced my path.

It would have been helpful at this point to have a stronger headlight on the bike. There are few conditions more unnerving than driving into a wall of blackness. I believe my light was being sucked up and absorbed by a light eating monster that was only steps ahead of me. My world was the pack on my handlebars and the few feet of highway in front of me. I was too nervous to see what was behind me.

When I finally found the right path west, the rain was coming down harder, it was colder than I was dressed for and the old bike needed some fuel (and, so did I)

The only thing I accomplished on the new path was solitude. There were no vehicles passing me. I had the road to myself which was a good thing because when I crested the top of a long climbing mountain, what I found on the downhill side was snow. The Lord Himself had to be on my handlebars. Anyone who has been on a bike knows that ice and snow are two enemies of motorcycles. That blend is even worse for an inexperienced biker like myself.

The front of the bike felt like I plowed into a bowl of Jell-O. Something grabbed my break hand and foot and kept the panic that was inside the helmet from reaching my extremities. I geared down the best I could, thankful that I was already going slow. I pointed the bike, not steered it off the road just hoping there were no close fence posts or ditches that my flashlight strength headlight was missing.

My heart was pounding in my ears to the point that it felt like someone was slapping the sides of my helmet. All around me it was white and quiet. The instruments on the bike glowed faint and something told me to flip the flashers on the bike just in case another vehicle should crest the hill. The consistent flashes reflected back off the snow gave the area around me an alien landing look. I am sure it was my imagination, but the flashes seemed to be sending a coded message; idiot-idiot-idiot.

I walked the bike down the rest of the mountain all the while talking to it as if it was a horse gone lame and needed it’s rider to take it easy. It was just the bike and I alone on the mountain, we had to support each other although he wasn’t contributing much to the solution. Probably half way down the mountain the snow turned back to rain. Not dressed for this changeable weather, I was soaked, cold and tired from a ride that should have taken six to seven hours and was now stretching into ten.

I started looking for a friendly farm yard that might allow me to sleep on the porch or in the barn but each one I past that looked at all inviting also had a big dog guarding the family. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have opened the door to me. Here is a guy at your door that looked more like a left over hippie, soaking wet and probably smelling more like their barnyard dog. Not a real inviting picture. I finally found a bar stacked with four wheel drive trucks and I figured I could at least get a cup of coffee and get out of the weather.

When I walked in, it was one of those scenes where everyone turned to the door to see the stranger. I was, at that point, the only one in the bar that did not have a buzz cut hairstyle, was not wearing some form of camouflage and was not clean shaven. I made my way to the bar, ordered coffee, which tasted like the road I had been on for hours and left without out ever making eye contact with any of the natives. I truly believed I would go out and find my bike under one of the monster trucks but they spared both of us. Thinking back now, they might have been more afraid of me, a crazy guy out on a night like this, than I was of them.

The bike cooperated and started up with the first kick. I think he was as anxious to get out of there as I was. We motored farther down the road and finally ended up in a motel outside of Somerset, PA. It was now after 10:00 PM and I had been on the road for over twelve hours. A bed and sleep was all I wanted, but sleep kept running away from me. The motel was so close to the highway all I could hear through the night was the road noise which made me feel like I was still fighting the battle. Every time I closed my eyes all I could see were the massive wheels and spray from the tractor trailers.

The next morning didn’t bring any relief from the rain, but it did let me start with dry clothes and a good breakfast. Across from the motel was diner with an Army/Navy store next to it. I purchased a new bright yellow rain suit and waterproof gloves. With my gear re-secured I continued west.

Riding down the road with my new suit and white helmet I looked like a yellow stemmed Q-tip sliding on the road.

The last challenge was Three Mile Hill on Rt. 31, a long downhill roll that would bring me to a level where the quarter size snowflakes at the top of the mountain turned to rain by the bottom. I could finally stop wiping the accumulating snow from my visor and concentrate more on the road.

About noon, a day after I left Philadelphia, I pulled into Connellsville.

For a week my hands were bent in a position mimicking the shape of the handlebar grips. My rain suit was black in the front from the road spray while the back was bright yellow. The gear mounted on the front and back weighed an extra twenty pounds from the rain and snow absorbed on the trip but that was okay, because I think I lost twenty pounds from fear and nerves between Philly and Connellsville.

The bike and I went on to travel around Connellsville for another year until the time came when Tina and I needed a refrigerator for our new apartment. The bike gave himself up to make sure we had cold milk and frozen vegetables. The fridge is still going strong in our basement thirty-five years later. I think in some way it is paying quiet homage to its ancestor that brought me to Tina and my new home in Connellsville.

In the end it was a dangerous (stupid adventure) but after all, aren’t those all just part of growing up?

###

Memory Hooks

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

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

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

  1. Grandma Casey’s Corner

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

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

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

Grandma's outhouse/shed

Grandma’s outhouse/shed

Who needed air fresheners?

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

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

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

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

The Old Oak, King of Morton Street

The Old Oak, King of Morton Street

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

Grandma’s house is gone.

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

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

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

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

  1. Fishing at Stanton Lake

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

The long hill out of Stanton Lake

The long hill out of Stanton Lake

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

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

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

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

By late day this changed.

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

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

a slow day at Stanton Lake

a slow day at Stanton Lake

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

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

  1. Movie Popcorn

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

Friday night was usually popcorn night.

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

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

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

But

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

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

But,

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

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

The Rivoli on Stone Street

The Rivoli on Stone Street

  1. People Watching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Illustrations by BWC

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

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

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

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

Everyone and everything was moist like a used bath towel.

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

Flowers arched over waiting for their evening watering.

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

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

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

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

The day moved on like many other August days.

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

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

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

After supper, the evening most likely included porch sitting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Art of Forty Winks

It is almost impossible to watch TV for more than an hour and not be subjected to a mattress ad. If you watch a little longer you will be exposed to various sleep aid prescriptions all of which carry side effects longer than the commercial itself. Or, open most popular magazines and you will find articles on how to achieve the proper amount of sleep, how to fall asleep quicker and wake up more refreshed.

I have one response for all of these suggestions and products.

Amateurs.

When you have perfected the art of napping the way we were trained in the Casey household, all of the sleep aids and suggestions border on the ridiculous. There are tools the true siesta professional utilizes which the market has ignored. No company has launched a campaign to save the Sunday paper and use it as a heat reflecting napping blanket for the forty winks between Sunday morning breakfast and afternoon porch sitting. None of the big book retailers are marketing their best sellers as a sleep aids with the guarantee that minutes after opening the book you will be treated to a relaxing drug free snooze. Lawn chairs on a porch, cool cement floors, and warm air vents on cold winter afternoons, all have the potential to be marketed as sleep inducers, but it is obvious the big name companies research and development people have not caught on.

Napping, in the Casey house, was considered a right and an obligation. You were required to find your own style and posture. Once you had a routine, no one would argue with a proclamation of, “I will get to that after I take a nap.” If a person with evil intent slithered into the Casey house on any given Sunday morning between breakfast and lunch they would think someone beat them to the punch. They would have witnessed bodies scattered from recliners to rockers, mouths open like fly traps and heads contorted in ways one would never hold in a conscious position; a scent of fried bacon, eggs and coffee would be in the air and sections of the Omaha World Herald covering bodies as if purposely placed to cover the most vital organs of the unconscious victims. The only thing missing from the crime scene would be a chalk outline on the living room floor.

Sunday morning forty winks

Sunday morning forty winks

The fine art of napping followed each of us as we ventured out to find our fame and fortune. It also became a quality anyone wishing to spend time with us, was compelled to accept. This can be a little tenuous when your chosen mate does not come from a sleep valued tradition. Fortunately, each new member of the Casey family soon learned it was easier to join the movement rather than fight it.

The best endorsement of this snoozing habit came from one my professors in the seminary. He was a wise man, blessed by God with insight and understanding. He made a statement one day which gave credibility to every nap, forty winks, catnap, and siesta that has ever been or every will be. He said, “Men…(with a long pause for effect,) sleep is a gift from God to those who have a clear conscience.” With that, the sandman and I became close personal friends and together we have embarked on some truly amazing journeys, not always with the best outcomes, but restful if nothing else.

I am a firm believer in the best place to enjoy one of God’s gifts is in His house. It was from the long theological drenched homilies in the seminary that I first learned to appreciate His gift. Each priest would try to out preach the other with their homilies, droning on and on like a senate filibuster. If you were fortunate enough to be seated at the back of the chapel, it was an easy task to roll your handkerchief into a ball that fit between your chin and chest. This gave your head a great resting place and provided a reverent tilt to your posture that appeared to the faculty seated behind you that you were an open receptor to the message being delivered. The only trick, you needed to be conscious enough when the preaching was finished you stood with the rest of your brothers. There were a few awkward times when brothers who claimed, “all for one” let me sleep a few seconds to long while they stood for the next portion of Mass.

With little shame, I still find sleeping in church one of the best snoozes that can be found. It is usually quiet, comfortable and as long as I don’t snore, I am not a distraction to anyone else. However, this is not without embarrassment for Tina.

One Saturday night Mass, I was enjoying a particularly generous blessing of God’s gift of sleep. It was a long day of work and we arrived for Mass very early for the purpose of winding down and enjoying some quiet meditation.

You can imagine what happened.

Within minutes of me saying my hello prayers to Jesus, I was deep in dreamland. We were in our usual Catholic appointed spot, second row from the front, center aisle, end seats. While napping, the church filled behind us to almost full capacity which is typical for a Saturday night. Deep in my relaxation I had a dream in which someone was poking me on my left arm. I am sure you have experienced a dream when what is happening in your dream, is happening outside your dream state in reality, phone ringing, alarm going off, someone calling you, you get the picture. In my dream state I turned to the person poking me, and, in a very agitated voice I said, “What the hell do you want.” Yes, regrettably I said those very words.

Now, I didn’t just whisper this question to my distracter, and no, I didn’t say it just in dreamland, no, I said it with power and volume, to a little altar server standing in the center aisle tapping me on my shoulder. The phrase echoed back through a quiet church quickly followed by gasps and laughter. Tina, sitting beside me slid under the pew with embarrassment and I am sure at that point considered the practicality of an annulment. The little server, looking at me with saucer size eyes and nervous voice said, “Father wants to know if you will read tonight?” As I wiped the drool from my face, I told him I would be back there in a minute. I turned to Tina and it was a very easy read on her face of “I can’t believe you.”

I took my place on the altar, a little embarrassed, but not ashamed of enjoying a gift.

So, you might think this is the pinnacle of sleep embarrassment but it doesn’t stop there.

On one of my many solo trips to Nebraska, my flight was delayed and plans rerouted because of storms and air traffic. A trip that should only take a few hours to Kansas City, turned into a twenty-four hour adventure. Part of the trip back-tracked me to Philadelphia arriving there around midnight.

Midnight in Philadelphia International is a lonely experience. I walked down the gate ramp under the greenish cast of inconsistent fluorescent lights flickering like a set from a cheap horror movie. As I sauntered up the ramp, my tag-a-long clicking over the tiles I believed the next skycap or maintenance man would be Freddie Kruger in an airport uniform. Conditions at the gate were not much better. The lights were out because it would not be used until 8:00AM for my flight. The only illumination was drifting in from the hallway. A peaceful scene of runway lights and rolling aircraft filled the window of the gate and contrasted against the Friday the 13th movie set I was stuck in.

A Nebraska cowboy spirit kicked in from somewhere. I found a row of seats that would double as a bed, fluffed up my computer bag as a pillow and shoved my wallet where I won’t go into right now, slung my tag-a-long over the other end of the row as a place to prop my feet and pulled my sport coat over me like the bed roll it was becoming. The only thing missing was a campfire with a tin coffee pot hanging over it. Thanks to my years of perfecting the art of sleeping anywhere and in any position, it didn’t take long to drift off.

When I woke up the next morning, the gate was packed. Mothers were pointing at the bum camped out taking up more seats than he should and admonishing their little children to not grow up and be like that man. I calmly wiped dribble from my cheek and sleep from my eyes, double checked my wallet, (without giving up its location,) gathered my gear and made a graceful exit. I thought about bowing but that would have been even more inappropriate at the time.

One last story but there are more in my arsenal.

My primary job for the seminary community was managing the photo lab. I was the official school photographer which meant hours in the darkroom. Back in the days of 35mm film, processing was done first in total darkness, then under a red light until all photos were finished. Total darkness, means absolutely no light, you cannot see your hands in front of your face. To accomplish your tasks, you practiced the movements with the lights on, then switched to darkness when you removed the film from the canister.

One night, after a few beers at the local pub, I realized there were rolls of film which needed processed for printing. I made all of the necessary preparations under the watchful eye of the overhead light. When it was time to move to total blackout, I positioned myself in a chair with the intention of loading several rolls at a time. Murphy’s Law kicked in when the lights went out. With two rolls of film out of their containers, the developing canister hit the floor. At this point, no lights can be turned on. After many frustrating minutes, I finally found the mischievous canister and settled back in the chair.

It must have been the beer or the lateness of the night, either way, I drifted off for a little nap. Nothing unusual there. When I woke up, I had no idea where I was. In total darkness what you see with your eyes closed is the same as your eyes wide open. Well, I must have had more beer than I should because the first panic which swept over me was… “Oh my God, I am blind!” and another question immediately followed… “And where am I?” Thankfully, reality settle in and with my heart thumping in my ears, I completed my task of feeding the film into the developing canister and was never so happy to see the dawning of red light.

There are two more stories, one involving a Philadelphia subway and the other a giant pig on a Nebraska highway. If you would like to hear those stories subscribe and send me your email for a personal version.

Right now, I am seriously thinking of taking a nap and I am sure I have caused a yawn once or twice with all of this talk of sleep.

After all, a good nap is….all part of growing up.

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