There is a first time for everything

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grandma Casey was the essence of Grandmotherhood.

Grandma Casey was the picture of Grandmotherhood.

Talk about pulling a kid in two directions.

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

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

Who says you can’t have it both ways!

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

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

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

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

it actually started to rain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dakota campsite in better weather.

Dakota campsite in better weather.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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