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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A World Down Under

Grandma’s kitchen on a Sunday afternoon; sauce bubbling on the stove and steam coating the windows; a favorite easy chair worn in the proper places with a light beside it that cast just the right amber glow of an old incandescent, which is the perfect illumination for reading well into the late hours; the back porch of the old homestead, (read The Corner of 18th and Morton.) Everyone has a favorite place and most of us have more than one.

Anyone who lives in an old house knows the pros and cons of an old sandstone basement. It is a portion of the house rarely seen by company. There is nothing in these old dugouts worth showing to visitors. It is also where things go that are out of service and forgotten until it is time for the neighborhood yard sale.

Old basements are the dwelling places of the fire breathing monsters that come to life and roar just as you get your hands on the can of cream corn mom sent you to fetch. You hit the first step with the speed of an Olympian and close the door tight behind at the top of the stairs. The upstairs world is much safer but not nearly as entertaining.

The basement is a hiding place from the storms which plagued the plains and it is also what requires bailing out when the rains become so intense and the sandstone turns to sponge allowing all the surface water to poor through its walls.

With all of its challenges, the basement of our old house, is still one my favorite places.

Ours was a sandstone basement with a cement floor. Family legend has it when the house was built over one hundred years ago, the original owners lived in the basement until they could build the upper floors. Under the steps, in the darkest corner of the dungeon, was an old hand water pump remnants of the days when this was the most modern of conveniences, a form of indoor plumbing. The ceiling was a good ten feet high and lined with all of the wires and pipes snaking to the rest of the house.

The steps of the sandstone hole ran nearly straight up from the basement. When you stood at the top it was almost like you were going to jump to the lower level. At the bottom was a landing with three short steps to the basement floor. Somewhere along the line, the steps and railing was painted a light robin egg blue. That color did not show up anywhere else in the house, which leads me to believe it was a purposeful color choice. The walls to the right of the steps were lined with peg board on which held everything from mom’s favorite popcorn pot to dad’s flour infused baking apron. The ledge below the peg board was lined with car waxes that had seen better days, bug sprays, and a few mixtures of Miracle Grow that I think might still be fermenting under the watchful eye of the new owners. Since the house did not have a pantry (that space was turned into a second bathroom) the basement ledge and wall was a sufficient stand in.

The last three steps served as my work bench for many years. I was too short to work at dad’s bench so any sawing or hammering was done on those step using them as my sawhorses. Many kite ribs were fashioned there along with a few homemade skateboards and pigeon perches. Each of the last steps carries scars from my over cuts with the hand saw. Mom was convinced I was going to saw right through the steps someday, but they held up ok in spite of my poor carpentry.

The “ground level” was divided into four rooms, each having its own purpose and history. The main room housed dad’s workbench and several sub benches dedicated to different sanders and saws for his toy making projects. Off the main room was the home of the monster. It sat like Jabba the Hut with tentacles reaching to all parts of the house. It had an opening where you could look into the pit of Hell as it fired up to heat the house. It erupted to life on a regular basis but every once in a while it required dad to pay it some special attention just like Mr. Parker “the Old Man” in “The Christmas story.”

When the house was updated with a new gas furnace, dad and I spent several days dismantling the old furnace. Tearing it apart was like being the victor of an epic battle and now we were allowed in to see the secret workings of the enemy. A few hard blows with a sledge hammer brought Jabba to his knees and we carried him out piece by piece and spread him out on the yard for all to see his defeat. We loaded the heavy pieces in Jim Riders old lime green 1948 Ford truck. (This truck will play a key role in a future story Flight 250) We had the back bumper almost scraping the road when we took the pieces to the scrap yard. My share of the scrap bought my first pair of pigeons.

What was left behind in the basement was now a room matching the size of the main room with the exception of a pit better than a foot deep and almost six feet across. There was a tunnel leading from the pit which was the cold air return when the monster was alive. Dad challenged me to crawl in which I did, making it all of the way to the upturned shaft. After a brief panic of how do I get out of here now, dad talked me back to the light of day but I knew I had been where no man had gone before and never will again. The pit was filled in with cement but the tunnel was blocked to save on the slurry mixture. Someday when the house comes down, they will find the tunnel and wonder if anyone ever explored this part of the planet.

The space left behind was eventually sectioned off and one part became a “Ham Shack” for Tom’s amateur radio hobby the other side became an additional workroom for dad. This workspace was more for finishing work on his toys, making new patterns from ideas he gathered from books and magazines as well as some of his writing and sketching.

At the end of the newly created workspace was what was always referred to as the monstrosity, the real name for it was a Hoosier Cabinet. What was a piece of prairie kitchen luxury with all of its cupboards, pull out cutting boards and flour dispenser, now housed pens, brushes, countless sheets of tracing paper, tobacco and a few pipes.

Dad worked in this space often late in the evenings when he couldn’t make noise with the power tools in the main room. The space was also directly below the cold air return in the “playroom.” When dad would smoke his pipe, the sweet scent of pipe tobacco came up through the gates and if positioned yourself just right, you could look down on dad sitting in his chair working his perfect penmanship recording some of the family history or putting the finishing touches with fine brushes on his latest toy creation.

The main room was where dad’s primary work bench was stationed. Two windows high up on the wall opened to the brick patio on the east side of the house. The windows looked down on the bench like two bright eyes of a face the objects on the wall filled in for a nose and the bench itself provided a smirk of a smile turned up on one end by a large vise. It was a space you walked into bathed with creativity and turpentine. Books lined the wall to the right of the bench. Each book took the creator into a world of ferris wheels, merry go rounds, and wooden puzzles. Tacked to the wall were tracings ready to be moved to wood someday. All around finished toys, boxes, puzzles and various creations sat ready for a new home or a view of the upstairs world for a few weeks, or until mom got tired of dusting.

Dads basement work bench.

Dads basement work bench.

It was from this bench that dad crafted a treasure box presented to me one Christmas. It is not an easy task making a wooden box. Anyone who has worked in a house where they thought the room was square, can appreciate the accuracy of making a small wooden box that meets on all corners. This box has lasted through countless yearly cleanups, moves, and numerous fits of “should I keep this.” The purpose was to place things inside that I valued. Over the years that changed but in writing this, I pulled it out to see just what remained. Some items I can tell you with no hesitation why I saved them, others I have no idea other than it had some importance at one time.

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Creations from this bench have found their way across much of America. In later years when there seemed to be more visitors to the house, the inventory of wooden toys, and other creations began to find new homes. Many times dad was asked if he would sell his creations but that was a process he refused. However, if you wanted or admired a piece it was yours. As Teresa’s friends started spending time in the house on college breaks, dad would bring his latest construction up from the lower level. This usually prompted a visit down under to see the rest of Santa’s workshop. When a piece left the house it fulfilled two important roles. It relieved mom of having to say, “When are you going to start clearing some of these out? and…it made additional space for a new model.

You could leave the basement by way of the outside cellar door. You need to understand in the Casey vocabulary, there is a difference between a cellar and the basement. If you wanted to go into the basement you went down the death defying steps through the downstairs half bath. If you were going to the cellar, it was outside, open the cellar door, never called the basement door, and go down the always cold, slimy wet steps to a “cellar way” which was actually the space under the back porch. Along the cellar way you passed a window to nowhere, once again a remnant of days when they lived in the basement. This was probably their only real view of the world while trapped in the subterranean chamber.

At the end of the cellar way was the door leading into the basement. It was childproof in that you had to have reached some level of physical maturity to be able to bust through the door as it swelled shut with dampness and stretching of old wood. The cellar way was the safe haven from storms. Many nights we were rousted from bed to the sounds of sirens blaring a warning of approaching storms. Huddled in the cellar way you could hear the rain slamming the porch side of the house and an occasion crack of a branch from the numerous Dutch elm trees lining the 18th street side of the house. Once the all clear was signaled, we made the trek back up the incline and worked on trying to get back to sleep.

In 1973, the basement took on a new character. A deluge settled itself over Falls City and the rain came as if it was trying to float the Ark once again. It was a late August storm which sometimes is Mother Nature trying to get her last licks in before Jack Frost moves in to claim his territory. This makes for a lot of showing off among the nature gods. Well, the old basement had enough of this and gave up the fight. Water poured through the sandstone with more fury than the mighty Missouri River at spring thaw. What was the area of the old hand pump became reactivated from the spring underneath. Water poured through the walls and bubbled up from the floor. The bucket brigade of Caseys trying to bail a sinking ship and dodging lightning bolts when pitching buckets outside would have made a good 60 Minute segment. Bucket after bucket carried across the floor, up the cellar way, pitched to the yard, repeat…turned the haven of peace and relaxation into a cement swamp of floating sawdust, never to be used again bath towels and grass brought in from the yard. The next day, I loaded up with fourteen other guys from Nebraska and took off for a seminary in Kentucky. The rain of the night before was quickly climbing back to its homeland as steam from the August heat. The folks were dead tired, Teresa was spent, and I was just ready to start a new adventure. Scared as heck, but ready.

It was, all part of growing up.

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The Bad Speller’s Dicshonary

The Bad Speller’s Dicshonary

Ghoughpteighbteau?

 I am a victim. I am, however, not alone in my victimized state. You might be one also. Many suffer in silence shouldering the shame and heartache of imposed phonics. We are…bad spellers.

In Sister Marie’s third grade class it was drilled into us, “If you don’t know how to spell a word, sound it out.” That was a cruel hoax played on those of us across the English speaking world who carry the scars of that phrase. In my early years, I thought a system for written expression was the answer to book reports, essays, and letters to Santa. Following Sister’s instructions there were no words which I needed to shy away from. But, the academics would not leave well enough alone. After teaching us the master key to literary greatness, they came along and added another phrase. “Well if you don’t know how to spell it, just look it up.”

What a death blow to a struggling phonetically challenged young man. If I could not spell a word I would sound it out but no one told me I was also pronouncing the word wrong. What I was saying and what I heard were two different sounds. “Sound it out or look it up,” did not even connect in my world.

I was a freshman in the seminary when I realized The Lord’s Prayer, The Our Father, was not the Are Father as I had been spelling it. I sounded it out. This mistake was made clear to me on my first trip to Connecticut for Sunday Mass with my sister. I was the only person saying the “R’s” through the whole prayer. I was a Nebraska boy surrounded by a bunch of Kennedy sounding locals.

I could never figure out the signs which demanded, “Do Not Litter.” I thought it was illegal to throw out your cat droppings. If you didn’t want me to trash your roadway then why not put up a sign, “Do Not Lidder.” My personal nemeses is the word history. I just saw in a hymnal at Sunday Mass, the word spelled in a way familiar to me, histry, makes sense to me. As a matter of fact, I have experimented with spelling it as, histery which is how I hear it or my favorite, histary, they all work for me.

Write now, my spell chek is reddy to blow up. I am saving a few of these words to my dictionary for future use.

My brother Tom, who will always be an influence in my life, was an amateur radio operator or “Ham,” as they are called. I wanted to be one also and join him communicating with people around the world. The first license required the mastery of Morse code. I had no problem committing the dots and dashes to memory and recognizing them tapped out on the key. To pass the test required the sending and receiving correctly of so many words in a measured time frame. Piece of cake, until it came to sending back a message. You really needed to be able to spell to communicate effectively in code. The person on the other end of the dots and dashes would receive a message that was more like code than the code they were trying to decipher. It didn’t take long for Tom to encourage me to pursue a different hobby.

Mom came to the rescue. She must have noticed that her special child was struggling and racing rapidly to a life of flop houses and bread lines with his inability to master the written word. She found what was to save my life and lead me to a somewhat successful educational experience. Random House publishing company, recognizing that there is more than one way to spell a word, published The Bad Speller’s Dictionary.

The volume was a God send in the form of a little pocket book. It was affirmation that those who can only spell a word one way, lack any form of creativity.  Within this gem one can find philosophy under the “f’s” where it has a place right next to philanthropy and fizicks. (See, you knew what I just spelled.) The manual has followed me to job interviews where I knew I would need to write in a way that is accepted by the general hiring climate. It is in my briefcase before my computer and never out of reach when I am working from home.

Those of us who suffer from Ortographobia, the fear of misspelling, also know that there are trick words hiding in every sentence. Words such as to, two and too, there and their, and countless others.  The Bad Speller’s Dictionary has me covered in this area also.  At the end of each alphabet section there is a listing of words that look alike or sound alike.  As a self-diagnosed ortographic, I cringe whenever I need to write away from spell check, or my trusty Random House book. Those trick words without any conscience on their part, rear their ugly heads and bring my writing to a grinding halt.

Many who suffer from bad speller’s affliction will just ask someone how to spell a word. That is great if you are in the presence of a retired grammar teacher, or a saintly nun who recognizes the signs of this crippling phobia. Otherwise you are on your own. What you find when you issue the challenge; “Does anyone here know how to spell Cincinnati?” (Which if you ever lived in Cincinnati, you soon learn they pronounce it Cincinnata) this just further compounds the problem. The question only serves to bring out the closet Ortographics. People begin to stumble over their letters and you soon learn it is better to resort to a different city or find a new way around the word.

I spent five and half years studying in the seminary. I regret not one day living and learning behind those holy walls. I have no doubt, God led me there for the salvation of my soul, although I am still waiting to see if His plan worked. However, as they say, the devil is in the details. While there, my phobia reached a clinically dangerous level which could only be comforted with occasional retreats to the local pubs. I had steeped to the lowest point in my spelling life.

The introduction of foreign and classical languages did me in. I gave up. I admitted I had a problem. I couldn’t take the constant correction, the embarrassment and shame among my peers. My downward spiral was brought on by violent contrast such as; my Latin instructor, who was female, Jewish and a Doctor of Classical Languages; my Greek instructor, a German Lutheran minister. My ability to keep any proper spelling was lost. Then, the condition grew worse, Spanish was introduced. The devil of spelling won.

On what was a cold November night (probably not but we will use it for effect) I grabbed my Bad Speller’s Dictionary, retreated to my room, huddled in the corner, a broken man, I surrendered my spelling soul to the gods of grammar, dictionaries and thesauruses, where ever they might be.

Of course none of it was that dramatic but it makes for a good story. The truth is though, I am free. No longer trapped by the chains that bound me with fear and embarrassment. I welcome the corrections. I rally in the variety of ways I can approach a word and not feel like I am the only one that has the same view.

Today, individuals who have no knowledge of my condition will ask, “How do you spell history?” That my friends is a very different questions from, “What is the proper way to spell history?” I respond with every bit of honesty I can muster, “This is how I spell it.”

I appreciate that embracing my weakness is, all part of growing up.

If you would like to know what ghoughpteighbteau really is, you will only find it in The Bad Speller’s Dictionary.  Send me a request using the comment section and I will tell you what ghoughpteighbteau really spells. Once you find out, you will never raise your eyebrow to a misspelled word again.

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