Old Timer

It is worth repeating, the last day of school and Christmas were always the two happiest days of the year. They were followed close by birthdays and Fourth of July celebrations. Certain events of those special days pop up so clearly.

I wonder why it is that some events or actions seem to stick and others fade away. The folk’s habit of taking pictures of so many events definitely helps to spark recollections but even a few of those photos are fading like the memories they detail.

I can recall the yellow Tonka dump truck I received on my sixth birthday and it being so warm that November day I could play with it in the tractor tire sandbox.  I also remember the day dad and I rolled the tractor tire home from the OK Tire Shop and the thing almost getting away from us coming down Seventeenth Street.

The last days of school have their own set of memories for me. Our tradition for a couple of years were strawberry milkshakes at the drugstore up the street from Browns shoe store. The drill of the milkshake machine would drown out conversation until the metal cylinders were brought to the table, each one of them in a cold sweat. Pink brain freeze sucked through paper straws was the official start of summer vacation. The squishy squeaks of the imitation green leather booths and chrome trimmed tables and mom pulling extra napkins from the dispenser as fast as they would pop out making sure we didn’t “leave a mess” are pictures that aren’t waning.

But,

Over the years even the last days of school seem to run together. When you think you only have twelve of them to remember, you would think a person could do a better of job with the details.

However,

I can tell you, with clear recollection, my last day of high school.

It wasn’t for any prank I pulled or remarks I made to the administration. Although I did miss a golden opportunity to leave a mark. If you recall from previous stories I was at this stage, signed and sealed to go to the seminary in the fall. So, in retrospect, I probably could have gotten away with just about anything and the nuns would have overlooked it.

I can say that safely now because everyone that taught me at this stage is dead.

They can give their response at a later date.

On the last day of senior high I came home for lunch which was my usual routine. We had a half hour for lunch and in that time I was able to make it home, eat a sandwich or whatever mom might have ready, have dessert, which one could never miss, read the cartoon Pogo in the Lincoln Star (which was the only reason we subscribed to the paper) and make it back to school before the bell. As much as I hated school, I enjoyed the walks back and forth up and down Eighteenth Street. I could probably still do it with my eyes closed.

It is what I received on this last day which made the day different and I have carried that day with me almost every day since.

Sitting on my plate was a small box about the dimensions of an average smartphone and a half inch in depth. “Old Timer” was etched across the top of the box in black calligraphy the style of the old west wanted posters. The lid of the box lifted off with precision as if it was made by a master craftsman. The box had another unique quality, the tag did not read from, “Mom and Dad,” this time it only said, “From Dad.”

Lifting the lid revealed a Senior Old Timer pocket knife nestled in a form fitted piece of black foam.

The knife’s side handles were made from stag horn and secured with three rivets on each side. It sprouted three open reflective steel blades, each still a virgin to the work expected out of pocket knife.

There was also a note inside the box,

“Every man should always carry a good knife. Dad.”

And I have every day since.

Pocket knives were important to dad, and I am going to say even to Grandma Casey. Maybe that’s where the habit of always carrying a knife started. The first knife I ever received was from Grandma Casey as a Christmas present when I was nine. The knife was double wrapped. On the outside was Grandma’s thick wrapping paper, the kind that you saved and could easily be used again, and the second layer was a note, “This belonged to grandma, I thought you might like to have it.” It wasn’t a particularly masculine knife. The handle was decorated with glitter imbedded red, green and yellow stripes but the blades were as sharp and mirrored  as any blade found on a Tenderfoot Scout’s new Boy Scout knife.

I carried that knife in my pocket until I joined scouts and bought my first of many scout knives with grass cutting money.

In an effort of full disclosure, I don’t have perfect recall of such things as Grandma’s knife…I still have the knife wrapped in the note tucked safely away.

I never knew dad to be without a pocket knife. Every birthday and Christmas morning, dad would produce a knife to slice the ribbons that Santa tied so tight or cut the tape that Santa also seemed so fond of using.

When we were out for picnics it was dad’s pocket knife that sharpened the sticks for hotdogs or s’mores.

When dad opened envelopes, I never knew him to use a letter opener, out came the pocket knife to slice a clean edge.

When dad passed there were enough pocket knives in his drawer to pass around to grandkids, Teresa and Mary. I should have put one in the coffin with him, but I missed that opportunity. I am sure today, walking around heaven, he has reached into pocket looking for a knife only to be frustrated not finding one.

Please tell me they allow knives in Heaven.

I went back to school that last day with a knife in my pocket. Something today that would most likely have me thrown in jail, be labeled a threat to the community and my life ruined. I am also confident if there was a shakedown of my class that day, you would probably find most of the guys with a knife in their pocket. That’s just how life was.

The Old Timer and I have been through a lot since that day. We been separated a few times by neglect or carelessness but we always found our way back to each other. Today, the knife blades are tarnished but they still get sharpened on a regular basis. The horn handles are a worn a little smoother from in and out of the pocket but it has aged well.

My Old Timer has sliced open birthday cards, gifts that were taped with more tape needed and on occasion even a few pieces of meat when the flimsy plastic knife of carry-outs failed. Old Timer has tightened screws, scraped paint, cut ties to hold up tomato plants, dug deep to remove splinters from the palm of my hand,  gutted a few squirrels and catfish and has been on every successful or unsuccessful trip into the woods. The trusted partner has also cut the tip off every cigar I have had since 1973.

That’s a few cigars.

And, the Old Timer was with me on the motorcycle trip from Philly to Connellsville and it was with me every day I worked on staff at our Boy Scout Camp.

The last thing the Old Timer and I did with dad that I cherish was sitting on the back porch smoking our pipes. Dad would pull out a different model of the Old Timer, pop open the blade and scrape the carbon from the inside of pipe bowl with the precision of a master carver. He clicked the blade back to its base with a firm metallic snap. I performed the same action with mine, sliding the longest blade around the inside of the bowl and then clicking the pipe against the ashtray that always sat on the porch table.  We would both load our pipes, dad tamping his down with a practiced finger, me, I used the solid end of the Old Timer to tamp mine down.

We sat on the porch like two Arab sheiks puffing on their hookahs watching the slow passage of the world up and down Eighteenth Street and the squirrels performing their high wire act on the 220 power line.

It was often up to me to start the conversation;

“Nice night.”

“Yes it is.”

“Won’t be many more like this.”

“Pass me the matches.”

“Need my knife?”

“Thanks’ dad, I have mine.”

Then the porch was quiet. Blue jays would holler or a turtle dove would sound a mournful coo to break the silence as smoke from two stokers would weave out through the screened porch.

When I pass, (and I am putting it out there now to whomever is responsible for me,) slip my Old Timer in the coffin with me so that I can take it to dad on my last day on earth so we can celebrate the way we did, the last day of school.

All part of growing up is, always having a good knife in your pocket.

“Every man should always carry a good knife.” Francis H. Casey

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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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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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