The Corner of 18th and Morton

 

No one speaks.

There’s no need, there is enough other conversation going on.

Crickets are chirping signaling a muggy night. Nighthawks screech in their search for high-flying insects. The ghost of a breeze blows across legs, tickling as well as refreshing. The wind brings with it a mildewed perfume from the journey over the Nemaha River.

A coal train out of Colorado passing through on the way to an eastern seaport, blows a horn as it comes to the Fulton street crossing south of town. The tap click tap click of the wheels crossing the joints talks back to the crickets. The train fades, passing through cornfields surrounding town.

A chain on the empty flag pole in the neighbor’s yard across the street sends a sporadic ping as the draught convinces it to move.

The fragrance from a bowl of tobacco makes the rounds of those gathered for the evening. The earthy smoke gives a hint of fall, a season still far off.

Occasionally a car passes. Not fast, just passes.

….That is what a night on the Casey back porch was like.

Back Porch

Back Porch

All of the stories which I have shared so far dealt with events. Actions and situations are what shape our lives and let emotions live outside our bodies. From the comments, which I cherish, I know the stories have triggered happy memories for readers. Now, I am going to change it up for a couple of weeks and talk about special places that fashioned my growth pattern.

I invite you to share in the comments section your favorite places or the secret corners you retreated to.

If I could visit one room of the old house it would be the back porch. The room was screened on all sides and supplied with the most comfortable chairs of the house. It was easier to fall asleep on the porch chairs than it was on the living room sofa.  Mom guarded those chairs with more care than her indoor furniture. Every year they received a thorough washing down as well as a nightly rub off with an old wash cloth that was stored by the back door. Like any good screen porch it had a screen door with a spring when stretched played its own distinctive tune.  If you didn’t catch the door on its return, it would wake the cat-napping residents with a loud slap. I believe mothers across the country share a common phrase which I heard over and over, “Don’t let the door slam.”

A set of wind chimes hung in the corner. Over the years they became pitted from acid rain and dents from windstorms. When you called home to talk to the folks, who were usually on the porch, the chimes would invite themselves into the conversation. Their music seemed to improve with natures shaping and each season they played a different tune.

The porch floor was made of tongue and groove wood that was painted dark green every couple of years. Sometimes mom took on the job but most of the time it fell to dad. In later years the task was surrendered and old bones and arthritis won the fight preventing the usual maintenance. When we finally sold the house after dad’s passing, paint was peeling and the porch deck lost much of the gloss of the latest painting.

Between the two chairs was a small round stand covered on top with a left over piece of the kitchen linoleum. Permanent items on the table were dad’s pipe of the day, a fingernail file to manicure his perfect nails, the ashtray that looked like a rubber tire from a lawn mower (which found a way to my smoke stand) and a newspaper folded around the crossword puzzle that dad would work on until the day’s light faded.

Mom’s contribution to the porch were a few potted geraniums which she nursed through the hot summers. A blue plastic watering can was kept in the corner where a broom stood at parade rest waiting for the next order. Sitting beside this working class team was a plastic jug filled with the latest concoction guaranteed to nurse the geraniums to their full bloom. I think each year mom tried a different potion. To be honest, each year looked just as nice as the last.

The porch faced due south with the east and west sides being just as open as the front. This openness gave the porch perched participant (say that three times fast) full view of the neighborhood of Morton Street as well as the activity in numerous backyards. On the porch you were blessed with an unobstructed view west of the traffic on highway 73 and a good perspective east up 18th street towards Saints Peter and Paul Church.  If nothing was happening in any of those directions your entertainment was in the backyard which was filled with the attics of rabbits, the high wire acts of the squirrels and the popular bird bath along the back walk. The bird bath was the great critter equalizer. It was like the watering holes of the African Serengeti. No creature dared violate the code of fresh water which belonged to everyone, although, I do believe a few ornery blue jays tapped on the kitchen window from time to time wondering when dad was going to refill the bowl.

Looking up 18th Street

Looking up 18th Street

If you positioned yourself just right on the porch, you could command the neighborhoods coming and goings like Oz behind the curtain. If Mrs. Young across the street let her dog out, that was logged. If the guy renting the apartment down the street above Butch’s grandmother’s place pulled out, you knew he was making a cigarette or beer run. The people living in the old Saul place on the adjacent corner all worked different shifts. One would come home, park the pickup and within minutes, it was moving again for the next shift worker. There was never a need for a clock on the porch. The neighbor activity was as reliable as a sundial.

On summer days, before air-conditioning, the porch was where you went to feel some real air. When the folks grew older and blood became thinner, they would retreat to the porch to warm up while the rest of us weaklings opted for the fake air of the house. There is a fact about Nebraska and that is the wind always blows. It is not always a cooling breeze, but at least it is air moving. Wind in Nebraska feels like turning a blow dryer on your face. On the porch you could at least position yourself to feel some of the breeze over your sweaty skin. On hot days you were often accompanied on the porch by metal drink tumblers filled with ice water or lemonade. I think they kept drinks colder than any modern attempt at insulating. The cups themselves would sweat as much or more than us. By the time you finished your drink, you had a trail of drips up your shirt from the wet tumbler as well as a substantial puddle on the table.

The Casey porch was a family room, counseling center, neighborhood gathering place and also a place you were confined to if you deliberately violated one of mom’s rules. More than once I heard the words, “If you get off this porch before I tell you, you will be in bigger trouble.”

The porch was the place to enjoy mom or dad’s dessert of the week. The dessert menu was always planned in the house well before the main courses. Dad made sure there was always a bread or a batch of cookies, mom covered the pies and cakes. Dessert was considered as much a part of the meal as pass the salt please. For that reason, it was always served before the kitchen was picked up and the dishes washed. No fancy trays made their way to the outside. Every person carried their cake and coffee delicately balancing them passing through the door to the porch. Once outside, we settled in to monitoring the neighborhood activity until someone declared bath time. At that point the porch population would come and go depending on whose turn it was in the tub. When a freshly bathed family member returned, they declared a ritual saying, “Now I am the cleanest one in the house.”

When mom passed, the porch lost some of its attraction. Dad kept up the porch tradition. He maintained his chair and the geraniums with the same attention that mom would extend. As Teresa and I would come and go spending time with him, the porch was a retreat with him. Teresa and dad would share a love of reading while spending time together on the porch. Dad and I would share the evening smoking our pipes and every once in a while, he would share a childhood memory maybe evoked by the gentle roll of tobacco smoke.

Francis Casey and his pipe

Francis Casey and his pipe

The night before dad’s funeral, as a family, we all gathered on the porch for a true Irish wake. Combinations of alcohol, stories and booze inspired philosophical declarations carried us well into the early morning hours. The porch was put to rest in the same way as the last of the Casey clan would be the next day.

Time spent on the porch was… all part of growing up.

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Cobbler, Guns and Coffee, Oh My!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was all part of growing up.

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