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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A Day Trip through my Brain

If you were able to take a day trip through my brain, it could be scary. Some would say it would be like a journey through the wide open spaces. Sometimes I don’t even want to take the trip myself but, my wondering self does not seem to have any real control over what I want.

When I step into the little city that is inside my head I end up walking down so many different paths. The trip always seems to take me to the center of town where there is a billboard loaded with my list of memory sparks. Someone is always posting new listings on the billboard so it is worth my time to visit it often. When others think I am aimlessly daydreaming I am really on a journey of great importance.

Who am I fooling, I really am just daydreaming hoping that i stumble on something valuable. I am like the guy with the metal detector working the beach. The odds of finding something is rare, but as long as I keep searching I might just be surprised with a gem.

If you have followed the blog a few of the memory glimpses will be familiar, others will get their time in future stories.

It’s possible that a few of these sparks may challenge deep memories of your own. If so, let me know.

So, this is not a story but rather my notes for past, present and future stories.

Of course I couldn’t resist adding a few notes to the notes of the notes.

Sounds

  • A green wooden screen door slapping the frame when you let it go.
    • Along with that, the sound of the spring as it stretched, sometimes to its max as I would often do, swinging the door wider than necessary. When the door came back it would slap against the frame then bounce back for a lighter bounce. These slaps were usually followed by an order, too late, “Don’t let the door slam.” Today’s screen doors with their fancy latches and soft closing hydraulic cylinders lack just a little bit of character.
  • One lone dog barking in the night. Don’t you wish you knew what the poor guy was trying to say?
  • A freight train passing through the local crossing.
    • Paul Simon’s song “Train in the Distance” says “everyone likes the sound of a train in the distance.” Many nights sitting on the back porch the town was quiet until the Burlington Northern passed through. It would sound the horn at the various crossings and you could follow its’ path from Stanton Lake on the north side of town, passing the crossing of a few country roads then rounding out through the south side of town running parallel to the Nemaha river then on out to the corn fields. When it passed the last crossing you could judge the length of the train from the time the horn blew at the crossing until the final car clicked on the rails.
  • A mother’s voice on the phone.
    • Nothing can bring you more comfort than to hear “hello” from mom. I would like to hear that one more time.
  • The first robin of spring singing in the morning.
  • Taptap taptap of a manual typewriter.
    • There was a rhythm to work when you heard a manual typewriter. A few years ago I downloaded a program to simulate the sound on my laptop. Every now and then, I return to that sound. The tapping takes me back to the office at the J.C. Penney, or Dr. Brennan’s office while I was sitting with mom waiting our turn.
  • Cicadas droning.
  • Cottonwood trees rustling in the August wind, sounds like onions frying in a cast iron skillet.
  • Splat of a snowball hitting the trunk of a tree.
  • Wind in your ears when you are all alone.
    • When you stand in the Catholic cemetery east of Falls City there is nothing to block the wind. Most of the old pines that once shaded the departed have joined their ranks. It is now, for the most part barren and wind whipped. Standing at a grave site you are now the tallest element in the patch. (Not a good place to be if there is lightening in the air.) There are very few vehicles that pass on the highway running alongside the cemetery. When they do pass, they break the stillness a little but the rolling of the wind in your ears still wins. Put your hands over your ears right now. That faint roar is what you hear when stand all alone on the open planes. The wind never stops.
  • Dry leaves crackling under foot.

Smells

  • First whiff from a new can of coffee.
  • Thanksgiving Day dinner. (Someone needs to make a candle with this scent.)
  • New red rubber overshoes.
    • The red rubber overshoes that mom would send us out to play in the snow had a particular smell. I can’t tell you what it is but if you ever wore the rubber overshoes with the elastic piece on the side that crossed over to a little button that was usually lost after the first day out, you know the smell. As your foot grew, the smell was mixed with the left over bread fragrance of the Wonder Bread wrapper that you slid your shoe into first to help slide the now slightly oversized shoe into the rubber shoe.
  • Freshly sharpened pencil.
    • A freshly sharpened pencil will transport me immediately back to my first grade classroom. I can’t tell you the name of the nun that taught us but I can tell you where my seat was and how we were split down the middle with first graders on the window side and the second graders near the wall with the door. Next to the door was where the pencil sharpener was attached. It was located first grader height from the floor. Today, we have a traditional sharpener attached to the support beam for the basement steps. Going to the basement to crank out perfect pencil points floods the subterranean region with the essence of old ink-welled desks, chalk dust and Dick and Jane readers.
  • Ivory soap.
  • Peonies on Memorial Day.
  • Dad’s pipe tobacco coming up from the basement steps.
  • Rain on fresh cut grass.
  • Burning leaves in the fall.
    • Many complain about the practice of burning leaves. It will kill the ozone. It stinks up the neighborhood. It is dangerous. Communities legislate against the practice. But, despite those objections I still fly in the face of the community voices and strike a match to a single fall leaf just to have the smoke take me back fifty years. It transports my dreams like incense raising prayers to heaven. I can see dad, pipe clenched, his worn denim barn coat, yellow felt work gloves, standing at the end of the driveway rake in hand, stoking a leaf fire. The sun setting behind the now bare Dutch elm trees. They stand in watch as their sheds provide a delicious aroma that evokes the images of late fall apple pie, geese flying over and football games under the lights. In the evenings when the fire died to coals I looked forward to going back out after supper and staring into the pile. The coals glowing behind spent leaves looked like a city at night hanging on a mountainside.
    • For years I looked for a pipe tobacco that mimicked the fragrance from those leaves. Field and Stream had one for a while but I think they mixed a little too much outdoors into it for my taste buds.
  • Movie popcorn. (microwave just doesn’t make the grade)
  • Methylate, mom used to paint us with it for every injury.
  • Old libraries and Post Offices.
    • Walk in to any old Post Office or library across the country and you will be greeted with the delicious smell of decomposing paper, oily leather, shellacked dark wood, and pine scented cleaning fluid. Even after the Falls City Post Office was updated, it still retained enough of the original fixtures and wood to preserve its’ particular aura. When we met dad after work he would take us in through the loading dock on the south side of the building. The outside air had the smell of diesel exhaust from the trucks up and down HW73 this mixed with multiple burning barrel smells in the alley. Stepping inside brought the perfume of the world. You might be detecting a letter home from a soldier in the jungles of Viet Nam. The jungle humidity sticking to the envelope and letter. Or it could be a box of cookies from a grandmother to her favorite grandchild in town. There was always the possibility of a body. The cremains of someone’s love one might be sitting reverently on the big desk that occupied the center of the back room. There was a single light that stretched out over the desk to give the sorter focus on how to dispatch the incoming mail. That is usually where we found dad, finishing up the last few dispatches before the Post Office was locked up.
  • Old Spice aftershave.
  • A bakery where they actually bake.
  • A fresh fish market.
    • Most people would turn up their nose at the smell of a fish market. But a fresh market is different. The saltiness in the air and the smell of the ocean is evident. It is a clean fragrance like the steam coming up from a cracked lobster tail. If I was going to give color a smell, the open market aroma is what blue would smell like.
  • Real Christmas trees.
  • A good cigar.
  • Hot dogs over a charcoal grill. (One of Teresa’s favorites.)
    • Every now and then, dad would fire up the grill around 10:00 at night. I am sure the neighbors had little understanding or appreciation for the late night bouquet of charcoal, which has a smell of its’ own and hotdogs which will move anyone to an appetite. Mom would wake us up and we moved sleepily down to the kitchen which had collected much of the aroma from the grill sitting just outside the kitchen window. The table would already be set with ketchup, mustard and other fixings. Dad would bring in the semi-burnt dogs on a paper plate along with a few buns that were toasted over the grill. We sat there in our pajamas eating hotdogs and sharing cans of crème soda or root beer. When the hotdogs were consumed, it was time for s’mores. The late night tradition became so entrenched that when we came home for visits after leaving the nest, weather permitting, we always roasted hotdogs before we headed back to our respective homes.

Visuals

  • Sandwiches wrapped in wax paper. (I don’t know if this should go in visuals, textures, smells or sounds. It would qualify for all if you imagine hard enough.)
  • Old barns, weathered wood leaning against prevailing west winds.
    • Roger Welsch, a Nebraska folk writer, says “if the wind ever stopped blowing in Nebraska, half of the barns would fall over.” I have an affection for the old wind whipped barns. They show their history on their face and let very little move them. They have seen families come and go. They have witnessed crops succeed and crops fail. They have provided shelter to new animals and comfort in summer storms and winter cold to veterans of the farm yard. Some old barns have been forgotten all together. They stand watch in the middle of wheat or soybean fields, their usefulness over but no one has the heart to tear them down. They drop slowly back to Mother Earth with whom they have partnered most of their life…then they are gone.
  • Pigeons flying in a flock over red brick buildings.
  • Rusty trees against a steel October sky.
  • A polished black car.
  • New moon on fresh snow.
  • A perfect Windsor knot against a white shirt.
  • A hawk lazily gliding over a stand of leafless timber.
  • Burning barrels, rural mailboxes and galvanized watering cans.
  • Raindrops racing on the kitchen window.
  • A red-winged blackbird perched on a swaying cattail.
    • Red-winged blackbirds have always been a favorite of mine. The indigo sheen set of with the red and yellow wing patch is a striking combination set against any background. But, there is something to see one hanging on to the side of a cattail swaying as if it was the bird’s own personal porch swing. There are other more solid perches around but distant relative of the common grackle and the meadowlark seems to favor the slow sway in a Nebraska breeze of the four foot tall cattail. Fishing at Stanton’s Lake north of town, we were often serenaded by red-wings as we stared at red and white bobbers lapping against shallow ripples just waiting for a carp to pull it under.
  • Copies of Boy’s Life magazines 1950’s era.
    • A friend recently loaned me copies of 1950 era Boy’s Life magazines. The ads alone remind me of a time when there was less emphasis on political correctness and more on personal responsibility. There are countless ads for rifles, knives, axes and sling shots. Interesting, with all those available to young men, I can’t recall any reports of a scout utilizing any of these options in anger against another scout. A scout is trained to look at this list as tools, not weapons. Just saying. Numerous articles and cartoons dealing with how to treat individuals and yourself with respect and grace can be found in each issue. One article even detailed how a young man should act on a first date.
  • The first glimpse of hometown after a long drive.
    • It doesn’t matter where you live, big or small town, when you get that first view of home you feel different.

Textures

  • Knitted afghan.
  • Metal drinking tumblers filled lemonade.
  • Mom’s cotton apron.
  • Sanded pieces of pine just waiting to be painted.
  • A vintage hardbound book.
    • I am a true participant in the digital age. However, cracking open a classic hardbound book with yellowing pages stitched to the spine of the book still brings a different experience. The paper is heavy and turns with a rustle against your index finger. The cover has the texture of mom’s throw pillows on the couch. You treat a hard cover book with a different level of respect. There is not a fancy cover illustration to grab you. The title does the work. There is no glossy “about the author” or summary of the book decorating the inside. You open the front page and jump into and adventure that takes you through time and drives you to distant lands.

All of these memories were, all part of growing up.

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There is a first time for everything

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grandma Casey was the essence of Grandmotherhood.

Grandma Casey was the picture of Grandmotherhood.

Talk about pulling a kid in two directions.

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

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

Who says you can’t have it both ways!

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

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

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

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

it actually started to rain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dakota campsite in better weather.

Dakota campsite in better weather.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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