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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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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A World Down Under

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dads basement work bench.

Dads basement work bench.

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

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

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

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

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

It was, all part of growing up.

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The 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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