Casting a New Light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday Rides to Nowhere

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

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

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

Somebody had to give something up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Glimpses of Sounds

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

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

But,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But,

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

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

And the crickets keep chirping,

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

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

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Black Beauty was not only a Horse!

Cars have lost much of the character they once had. Long gone are the heavy real metal bumpers that could push another automobile out of a ditch and never sustain a scratch or dent. You don’t see moon hubcaps that could reflect your image like your own personal funhouse of mirrors or trunks big enough to stuff a body into, (not that anyone ever did.) How about the steering wheels, many were as big as the wheels they commanded. Cars are no longer described using words such as, “a buoyant restful ride; or, a gentle easy-going boulevard ride.” Those words just inspire the image of a big Packard rolling down Main Street on a Saturday night.

Gone are the little side windows you could pop out to funnel just the right amount of air to keep you cool without blowing you apart or impaling you with passing grasshoppers. And, you will never again find the most convenient feature of all, the headlight dimmer mounted just to the left of the driver’s foot.

What genius took that away?

Today’s automobiles spend more time thinking for us and protecting us than they do transporting us from one place to another. Cars can email us, they can give us updates on their condition and we are getting very close to self-driving cars. Almost every car today can tell you if someone is beside you, behind you and if you are too close to the car in front of you, it will stop you. I am waiting for the day when in the middle of a July downpour it pumps its own gas so the driver stays dry or after hitting a Pennsylvania pothole, it drops a new tire to replace the flat that is whopping along like a deflated basketball.

Cars of the present have short lives and are often replaced with ones bigger, better and faster after a few years of ownership. They rarely stick around long enough to become part of a family history.

None of this was the case with our first family car a 1948’ish Desoto, “Black Beauty.” Yes she had a name just like everyone else in the family. Dad never said I need to take the car in for service, it was “I need to take Black Beauty to Rich’s tomorrow.” Rich Hall, who owned and operated Hall Motor’s in town was Black Beauty’s doctor. Dad never brought “the car” around for us on Sunday mornings. Instead, once he was in shirt and tie he would announce that he was going down to get Black Beauty. We would finish dressing and then we met the two of them at the corner and loaded up for church. Once all the doors were closed, dad would proclaim, “Okay Mrs. S, we are all in.” Mrs. S was the neighbor directly across the street from our loading point. She must have mentioned to mom somewhere along the line that we disturb her sleep on Sunday mornings and that, “you Catholics go to church way too early in the morning.”

I can’t tell you the exact date when Black Beauty came into the family but I can tell you about the day. I was uptown, probably at the movies or library with either Tom or Mary and walking down 18th street I could see a strange car parked in front of the garage. We didn’t call that area a driveway because there was never a car parked in it until this day. But on this day, in the driveway sat a black, long nosed beauty. She had moon hubcaps which were framed by two inch wide white walls and a glass, naked lady that flew in the face of the wind as a hood ornament befitting the figureheads of the finest sailing ships of old.

Black Beauty

Black Beauty

If you are a follower of these stories you have already met Black Beauty several times. It was Black Beauty that drove me to the hospital the snowy morning after a birthday to have my tonsils removed. It was Black Beauty that dad would park in a prime spot uptown and then we would join her later in the evening to “people watch” and eat popcorn from the Rivoli Theater.

And,

It was Black Beauty that made an attempt at a career as a tree trimmer.

After one rough Nebraska windstorm, the Dutch elm tree on the front terrace shed a limb that was hanging precariously over the street just waiting to drop on an unfortunate driver. Dad thought it was his civic duty to remove the impending danger.

Where Dad found the rope to start this operation is still a mystery to me. The rope was as thick as my young arm and long enough for him to somehow get it up in the tree, over the dangling limb and back down to earth. The next step was to tie the rope to Black Beauty’s rear bumper.  A bumper that was definitely strong enough to tackle a little ole limb.

Dad climbed into the saddle of Black Beauty and Tom, who at that time was probably thinner than the rope being used stood to the rear to give guidance. Tom slapped the back of Black Beauty like he was sending a race horse down the track. Dad gunned her engine and she pulled with all of her might until,

She ran out of rope.

The limb, which we now know was not totally broken off, pulled back like a deep sea fisherman hooking the fish of a lifetime. Black Beauty lifted her rear wheels off the ground and dangled on her front two for a split second. And then, with a few more like bounces the battle was over. The limb held its position with a taught line waiting for the fish to be cut free. Black Beauty if she could talk probably would have the same stunned reaction that dad did stepping out.

Tom and Dad both looked at the situation like guys do thinking that a careful and intent stare will magically yield and answer. Then one of them came up with the solution, simply cut her free. When the rope was cut, which was now under enough tension we could have used it as a Middle Ages catapult to launch stones to the other side of the neighborhood, Black Beauty immediately settled all of her weight back to the street and tree took back what belonged to it.

The rope and limb both stayed up in the tree until years later when the tree finally died of Dutch elm disease. Black Beauty never volunteered for hazardous duty again.

Black Beauty became a mobile command center for Tom’s Ham Radio hobby. Dad fashioned a sign to the license plate with Tom’s call letters WA0DFX. For a while she sported a long white whip antenna mounted to the bumper. Tom served as the emergency coordinator for the Amateur Radio Club. For that job, Black Beauty was ready to spring into action when called on.

Tom learned to drive with Black Beauty. Tom was never a tall man and in his early driving years he sat on multiple cushions to see over the long nose and utilized built up pedals to reach the brake and gas.

Black Beauty was not above playing a few practical jokes and some of them were at Tom’s expense. One night Tom and I were returning from probably a Stanton’s Lake run or maybe to drop something off at one of his radio buddies when she decided to test his loyalty and honesty. As a good law abiding driver Tom signaled for a right turn coming up. I can remember it as a right turn because we were heading east  on 21st street just passing the One Stop Café and turning onto Stone Street. When the turn was complete, the turn signal failed to stop blinking. We were approaching the next intersection with a blinking right turn signal. Tom felt obligated to make the turn since that was what Black Beauty was signaling. Now, Tom was not one to get flustered except when it came to potentially breaking the law. Tom was always a “by the book” man. We have now made one planned right turn and one obligated right turn. We are coming up on the next intersection with the blinker still going, we made another right, and again, and again, and again. Finally, breaking all rules, and I am sure after he checked every mirror for the local constables, stuck out his left hand to manually signal a left hand turn to get us home.

I never remember Black Beauty having an owner’s manual. If there was a manual, it would have had no problem finding room in the bucket size glove box next to a coffee thermos, peanut butter sandwich, pliers, first-aid kit, sewing kit, flashlight, extra batteries for the flashlight, gloves worn for putting on the chains in winter, a bottle of Pepto Bismal, and Blackjack chewing gum.

Black Beauty was our family ride until she was replaced with a 1960 something Dodge Dart with push button drive and this new advantage called air-conditioning. The dart never had a name other than the car or the dart. The dart was the car I learned to drive and it was also the car I managed to get royally stuck on a muddy country road, but that will be another story.

When Black Beauty was traded in for the dart, she made her rounds with several people in town but was eventually put out to pasture. I mean she was parked in a pasture just at the edge of town within sight of the fly saucer water tower of Falls City. For a number of years I watched the weeds grow up around her and secretly wanted to rescue her when I was old enough. She sat there staring back into to town, the sticker I placed on the back side window from Mary’s Navy days was slowly faded by the Nebraska sun and her tires all lost pressure like an elderly person finally surrendering to gravity.

One day Black Beauty was no longer there. Sometimes I imagine when I see an old Desoto at car shows that… maybe Black Beauty donated some of her parts so that others could ride on.

Ya never know.

But I do know that not only people, pets and places come in and out of our lives, but also machines that make our lives easier and they share in some of the same family memories that add to…all part of growing up.

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“Yep, we are going to cauterize…”

I guess, if you live long enough, you have the opportunity to experience many of life’s little annoyances. Most of these come as reminders that our bodies are not immortal and they will eventually break down. It begins slowly as muscles start to ache, gravity exerts its influence and Mother Nature seems to make the winters colder and summers hotter.

Too often I boast that even though my soul carries around a sixty year old body, I have been immune to many of the slow downs, bathroom trips and pill popping of others in my generation. Funny how life has a way of catching up to you and… it is usually at a most inopportune time.

For example…

Tina, Bella our little pup, and I recently spent four days hidden away in the mountains of Pennsylvania. The days were filled with hikes, staying up late, eating too much and sleeping in later than any work day. It was an uneventful long weekend, just as get-a-ways should be,

Except for…

My gushing nose bleed the third day of the trip. At sixty years of age I have never had a nose bleed. Even as a kid being smacked in the nose by balls, elbows and occasionally a few doors that might have jumped out in front of me, I have never had a nose bleed. But this changed when I stood up from the couch with hope of joining Bella in her chase for chipmunks and in the process I dripped a trail of blood a bloodhound with a cold could follow.

The last time I was this bloody was when I fell off the back porch into a rose bush. Then I looked like the looser in a cat fight; now I looked like a prize fighter that forgot to dodge a punch.  Without getting too graphic which I almost need to, the blood was coming in clots as I leaned over the kitchen sink trying not to make a mess all over the floor. Tina was throwing all of her remedies for stopping bleeds and none of them were working.  I tried pressure on the nostril, then pressure on the lower lip with an ice cube pressed against it. None of that worked. I continued to drip blood into the sink like a leaky faucet. I think somewhere along the line a tourniquet around the neck was suggested but I opted out of that idea.

Poor Bella was just wondering when we were going to get back to chasing chipmunks.

It finally came to an end and we chalked it up to weather, dry heat in the cabin or maybe thin blood from a few drinks the night before. All was fine until…

We went for a hike along one of the public roads near the cabin. Bella was having fun checking out all of the new smells along the way. I was afraid she was going to get a blister on her nose from rubbing across the grass and gravel exploring the world. At one point, when I bent over to check on her latest discovery, on comes the crimson. I was turning the grass, road and the few Kleenexes I had stuffed in my pocket redder than the fall colors in the hills.

When the new episode started, we were probably a good mile from the cabin and I was quickly running out of practical things to shove up my nose. The thought even crossed my mind at one point to start using the leaves but that just didn’t seem like a safe route to travel. As I mention, this was a public road which all of a sudden seemed to be the most traveled path in the mountains. It was getting harder to hide the massacre look to my face and hands from passing motorists. I am sure I was the topic of more than one dinner conversation that evening.

What hurt the most though was giving up the cigar that was only half finished, but it was getting harder to juggle blood, Kleenex and cigar. To pitch a cigar, with so much left is like eating half of the best steak you have ever been served, get half way in and then say, “okay, I can eat the rest, but I just don’t want to.”

Anyway, Tina wisely convinced me the cigar was probably not helping my cause and since I couldn’t convince her or Bella to finish it, I had no choice but to snub it out.

The next morning brought another bloody round. Waking up I could feel something wet on my face. My pillow, t-shirt and sheets were red. It looked like a crime scene from movies when they find the deceased in bed and some astute detective says, “Looks like he’s been shot.”

How were we going to explain this to housekeeping? I thought about placing one of those fake hands that hang out the back of car trunks under the sheets and pillow but they probably wouldn’t see the humor in that. We opted for a few extra dollars in the tip and a note of explanation as to what happened. Again, probably good conversation back at housekeeping headquarters.

When we returned home from the cabin in a rare moment of correct action and after much prodding by Tina, I set up an appointment with a doctor to check out the situation. Not what I wanted to do, but every once in a while a bit of common sense works its way in.

A week passed before I could see a doctor. Everyday brought a new bleed, usually first thing in the morning. By day seven, I became a master at stopping the flow and my evolved technique included one of Tina’s cotton balls shoved up my nose as a plug. It never failed, once the cotton was up the nose, Bella gave the signal that she was ready to go outside. If you would have driven past the house during these outside bathroom breaks you would have seen a cute little schnauzer leading a person around with what looked like the beginning of a nice bird’s nest hanging out his nose.

I have no dignity left.

The day of the appointment was the first day I did not have a bleed. Kind of like taking your car to the mechanic and the noise stops. So, my first thought was cancel the appointment, well I wasn’t getting away with that.

The doctor I used was one who many years ago fixed another problem with little hassle and minimal discomfort. The doctor, who I do have great respect for, is not your ordinary modern doc. He is more of a Norman Rockwell doctor with his silver reflector wrapped around his head and a no nonsense bed side manner.

“So you been having nosebleeds.”

“Yep first time in my life.”

“Well let’s take a look.”

The first thing he did was check my ears. I am not a master of human anatomy but I was pretty sure the nose and ears were not that connected to be the source of my discomfort, but he is the doctor.

The next thing he did was flip his reflector down and grab what looked like a pair of needle nose pliers from Ace Hardware, pushes my head back against the chair, peers through the hole of the reflector and spreads my nostril with the prongs of the pliers.

“Yep, we are going to cauterize those capillaries.”

Those are words I never wanted to hear. I’ve heard stories of people with broken noses or bleeding situations which would not stop until they were cauterized. My image of this process was fresh from dad’s experience with skin cancer and uncontrollable bleeding from the surgery. Late one night dad and I made a trip to the Falls City emergency room to stop bleeding which we both felt was out of the ordinary. To fix the problem, the doctor fired up what looked like a pen with a glowing tip. He touched it to the bleeding and what smelled like hamburgers on the grill filled the ER.

The ER doctor said, “Now that should do it. You take this home and if it happens again, just touch this to the surface and he will be fine.”

Right.

That pen stayed in the junk drawer of the house until we closed up Morton Street and said good bye to the house.

My image now was of the doctor pulling out his junior wood burning kit and sticking it up my nose. Instead, he pulled out a hose and with little finesse stuck it up my nose and gave what felt like a blast of freon. It was like shoving an ice cube up my nostril. Don’t ask me how I know what that feels like.

“Doesn’t taste too good does it?” was his only consolation.

I agreed.

“We will have to numb it a little more.” With that he shoved more stuff up the nostril and left the room.

Once my nose started to thaw I could sense the numbness settling in. My teeth and upper lip were getting numb, I was hoping that was what was supposed to happen. After what seemed like an hour but it probably wasn’t, the doctor came back in and announced,

“Well that should be numb now.” My first thought was,

“Should be?”

I was bracing for fire up the nose when he pulled out three sticks, each with what looked like some chemical on the end. Up the nose he goes. Now if this is what it felt like numb, I would hate to know what it would have felt like without all the prep. But I was brave and only one tear welled up in the corner of one eye.

Next he shoved what looked like a cigarette up my nose.

“This is packing that will dissolve on its own. You will be fine with it. Have a good day.”

That was it.

I exited through the crowded waiting room with every eye turning towards me. Each one of my fellow patients hopefully thought, “Well he survived, maybe I will also.” I tried to look like nothing happened as I walked a straight line to the door.

I didn’t realize how bad I looked until we were back in the car and I flipped down the visor mirror. I looked like a coal miner with my blackened nose. The tip of my nose was black and the packing was already dissolving and running down into my moustache as a black drool. The rest of the day was spent wiping away the packing that came out the consistency of hair gel. I was not fit for public appearance.

The next day, when it was time to go to work, I had to clean myself up. I figured a little rubbing and all evidence of the day before would be gone. Not quite. Soap did not take the black away. Nail polish remover didn’t touch it. Toothpaste, my go to for stubborn stains, no effect. Shave cream, nope. It was Tina’s suggestion to use the mechanic degreaser soap. The degreaser made some progress but by this time I think I had the start of a good size chemical blister on my nose from all of the rubbing and mixtures of various cleaning agents.

Just a note for you should you find yourself in a similar situation, toothpaste and nail polish remover were probably never meant to go up the nose. They burn worse than the acid sticks

But, all is well now and I can add one more experience to life’s repertoire and just explain it with… its all part of growing up.

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“How Much is that Doggie in the Window?”

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

Dickens

Dickens

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

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

“A dog.”

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

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

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

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

Our first meeting with Bella

Our first meeting with Bella

Bella's first night in her new home

Bella’s first night in her new home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The teacher had arrived.

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

King Tut Casey

King Tut Casey

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

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

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

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

Bella today

Bella today

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

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

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

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

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Memory Hooks

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

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

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

  1. Grandma Casey’s Corner

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

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

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

Grandma's outhouse/shed

Grandma’s outhouse/shed

Who needed air fresheners?

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

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

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

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

The Old Oak, King of Morton Street

The Old Oak, King of Morton Street

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

Grandma’s house is gone.

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

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

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

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

  1. Fishing at Stanton Lake

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

The long hill out of Stanton Lake

The long hill out of Stanton Lake

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

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

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

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

By late day this changed.

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

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

a slow day at Stanton Lake

a slow day at Stanton Lake

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

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

  1. Movie Popcorn

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

Friday night was usually popcorn night.

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

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

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

But

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

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

But,

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

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

The Rivoli on Stone Street

The Rivoli on Stone Street

  1. People Watching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Illustrations by BWC

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

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

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

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

Everyone and everything was moist like a used bath towel.

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

Flowers arched over waiting for their evening watering.

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

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

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

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

The day moved on like many other August days.

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

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

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

After supper, the evening most likely included porch sitting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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Behind Closed Doors

The stories many could tell about what went on behind the closed doors of their homes could fill volumes. To select which of those stories to share or better yet, which stories are shareable is a delicate task. Parents cringe when children start to tell a story that borders on “too much information.” I have little doubt people wondered what went on behind the doors of 1804 Morton Street. Few stories leaked out through the cracks of casual conversation because as kids we were well trained in the art of what happened in the house stayed in the house.

Mom and dad were not real social butterflies. I can’t recall people coming by the house for parties or the folks visiting friends just for the sake of a visit. Mom never worked outside of the house so there was never a meeting of work colleagues or business meeting in the house. She did a stint as a 4-H moderator which at times filled the house with an occasional ban of teenage girls. During these meetings I was required to stay in the basement. I don’t know if this was my mom’s rule or my sister’s request. There must have been an Igor like quality about me that they wanted to hide.

Dad worked a split shift at the Post Office and was a member of the local National Guard unit. Like mom, he never had a reason to have work buddies at the house. We heard the names of the other carriers but never really put a face to them. While dad was with the guards he helped with the Explorer Scouts sponsored by the guard company. This pretty much sums up the extent of the community outreach from the Casey household.

A visit by a relative to our house was a rare event. Even the few that lived in Falls City were only seen at Sunday Mass, funerals and an occasional catch up conversation at the local Hinky Dinky grocery store. The exception to this was mom’s sister Aunt Betty. She was good for a weekly visit to the house. Aunt Betty would pull up and I knew for the next two hours the house would be filled with the smell of cigarette smoke and coffee. Betty would go through numerous cigarettes while mom downed cups of coffee poured from the green glass percolator on the stove. While this was going on, I would sit listening to these two sisters complain about their siblings, recall stories about their parents and share recipes back and forth.

Neither mom nor dad’s families were big on reunions. Mom’s family tried to have a few reunions but that soon fizzled out or maybe they just stopped telling us when and where they were having them. If you asked me to pick out relatives in a line up, I would be hard pressed to identify the right suspects.

Allow me to illustrate:

One summer day while home alone, the phone rang with the disturbing ring characteristic of the old rotary dial phones. The caller said, “We are from California and we are just passing through Falls City and Rose Schlosser said to give you a call and say hi.”

I politely informed the caller that they must have the wrong number, and that we did not know any Rose Schlosser.

Within minutes the caller rang again. This time they verified they were calling the right number. In the most polite way I could muster, I assured them that we did not know anyone by that name.

That evening, we were sitting around the supper table just having casual conversation. I shared with the folks the strange phone call I intercepted while they were gone. I told mom and dad I reassured the caller that we did not know any Rose Schlosser.

Mom, sitting to the left of me, was getting that look on her face of, “Oh no, my special son has struck again.” With her typical calm but you knew your where in trouble look she said, “you idiot, (this was the only time I ever heard mom use this word) that is my sister in California!”

How was I to know? I never heard about her and I certainly never met her.

You know, I don’t ever recall hearing about her from that point on either.

When holidays came around we never had to round up extra chairs and there was no such thing as needing an extra freezer or refrigerator to store large amounts of food. Occasionally we were visited by one or both of the grandmothers but even that was a rare event. Most often it was the six of us around the table enjoying a simple holiday meal. Mom was not into any fancy dishes and it wasn’t until I married into my wife’s Italian family that I found out there was more food than turkey and ham for holidays.

We did however celebrate holidays and special occasions in ways that would make those around us wonder what was going on in our house. St. Patrick’s Day was always a special day in the house. On St. Patrick’s Day the house was loaded with shamrocks, leprechauns and green top hats. Dad would bake his special Irish tea bread served with orange marmalade. Mom would set out cold cuts, cheese and crackers and we were allowed to drink a whole bottle of root beer or cream soda. To make the day even more special, dad would fly the Irish flag from the back porch and place stereo speakers in the upstairs window with the goal of filling the neighborhood with Irish melodies.

Halloween was another special day in the Casey house. Dad was always cooking up something special for the day. One year between the characters he created and the sound effects produced by Tom, there was very little candy passed out. You could see mothers and fathers moving their little goblins across the street to safety.

For several years in a row, the Casey kids took top costume prize in the annual Halloween Parade. The costumes that dad created in his basement workshop were some of the most anticipated creations of the season. Of course we won’t go in to the details of dads little disturbing the peace incident years ago at a local parade. Let’s just say it involved a costume that the horses didn’t like. His defense, the riders should have had more control of their horses.

Two of dads Halloween creations. Teresa and Brian

Two of dads Halloween creations.
Teresa and Brian

Despite some of the evil and twisted tendency you might be attributing to the Casey clan from the previous stories, we were for the most part a spiritual family. Prayer was always a part of life and I am sure it is what inspired my years in the seminary.

The four weeks of Advent season leading up to Christmas was probably the most solemn and challenging for the Casey spirituality. Every year at the start of Advent mom would drag the Advent wreath from storage. She took special care in decorating the base with pine and pine-cones gather from the area. Once it was set up, every evening after supper, we would retreat to the living room to pray the rosary. All the lights were out but as the weeks progressed, the room was filled with more light as additional candles were lit marking off the days till Christmas. Dad would lead the rosary saying the first half of the prayers in a droning monotone, (that I wish I could hear today) followed by our response to the second half of the prayer.

This appeared to be a very pious ritual. If someone was spying through the windows they would see this religious family gathered together around the holy candles praying.

That is what they would see.

What they didn’t see was Tom, who was quite adept at making shadow puppets, expressing his talents on the opposite wall. They couldn’t hear the snickers which we were able to contain until about the third decade of the rosary. From that point, an infectious laugh caught us all and no one could stop laughing in the darkness. I don’t remember if it was dad’s determination to get through one full rosary that broke us up or if it was Tom’s wall antics. If the peeping tom stayed at the window, they would see there were very few times when the rosary was completed in one sitting.

These are memories we share as a family. Memories that people outside the walls maybe suspected but never had enough courage to ask about. For us, it is what made home so special and leaving it so hard.

Years ago I thanked the folks for creating a childhood filled with so many memories that it was painful to leave behind. I always felt a little sorry for my friends when they claimed never to be homesick.

For me, being homesick was the best compliment I could give to my parents.

It was after all, all part of growing up.

 

The Last Leaving

 Our old house watches as we pull away for the last time.

The furniture is gone.

Mom and Dad are gone,

Their souls stand at the window.

 

We all know this is the last leaving, but no one has the courage to speak.

 

The old girl knows she will be alone on cold Nebraska nights.

Her eves droop as she wonders;

Who will watch out for me when the storms blow?

Who will I protect?

Who will dress me for the change of seasons?

 

She stares at the back of the car like a kindergarten student left on the corner waiting for the bus.

She knows we won’t be back for her and life will be different.

She has done her job well.

The flowers around the foundation reach up to hug her trying to convince “it will be okay.”

The new oak in the front lawn doesn’t understand.He is too young to know what is happening and giggles his leaves as he waves his lower branch, “good bye, see you again.”

As we pass the last block before the highway, her handkerchief shade flaps reluctantly like a loved one waving good-bye.  She dips the shade back occasionally to wipe a tear from the corner of her door.

Good-bye kids she whispers through screens.

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