Early in the young life of Tracy Lou, her family did not take many summer vacations away from Medicine Lodge except for a few trips to visit relatives living in Kansas. During the summer, Tracy Lou’s dad picked up part-time jobs to supplement his meager teacher salary. One summer, her dad painted houses, and both her mom and dad taught swimming lessons at the public swimming pool situated on top of a tall embankment inside the town’s city park.
Tracy Lou learned to swim as an infant and by about the time she entered kindergarten, she could swim the width of the pool. Her parents taught her all of the strokes including the crawl, backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly, and sidestroke. She mastered how to flip over on the end of each turn for smooth and quicker transitions back and forth across the pool. She could dog paddle for thirty minutes or more without touching the bottom of the pool.
Tracy Lou loved to jump off the diving boards, even the high dive, when she was quite young. Her dad called her “a little fish”. She learned to do a front flip but she could never master more than a back dive in reverse. Back then, children were allowed to swim at the city pool without adult supervision so kids rode their bikes to the pool and spent the entire afternoon swimming, diving and playing water games with their friends. The pool manager would make all the kids get out of the water for 30 minutes to ensure everyone took time to eat a snack, frozen zero bars were Tracy Lou’s favorite, rest and go to the bathroom. These breaks also allowed the children to apply more sunscreen but they rarely did.
Tracy Lou’s mother loved to swim so in the summer evenings, her Mom would drive down to the pool in her station wagon to take a dip and Tracy Lou loved to tag along and swim laps beside her mother. Tracy Lou learned that the only sport her mom participated in while in high school was swimming. Her school, Topeka High, had its own in-door pool, which blew Tracy Lou’s imagination. “That school must have been rich to have an in-door swimming pool”, said Tracy Lou. The only in-door swimming pool that Tracy Lou had ever swam in was one in Alva, Oklahoma, located at a college the family visited occasionally. Tracy Lou thought it was odd that her mom did not play other sports as a kid because Tracy Lou loved games of all kinds and dreamed of playing them all, especially basketball.
Summer Road Trip to Quinault, Washington
Tracy Lou’s maternal grandparents owned a lake house on the Quinault Indian Reservation in the Olympic National Park in the state of Washington. The family took a few road trips out and back in the summers in the 1960’s. Dad worked as a ranger for the National Park Service for a couple of these summers.
On one trip, the family left Medicine Lodge in June for the week long National Lampoon’s Vacation-like, family road trip from western Kansas to the rain forest of Quinault, Washington in 1969. On this particular trip, Tracy Lou was only eight. The plan was to put all four kids in the back of the old green station wagon and drive nearly 2,000 miles; stopping when her Dad found a good camping spot or a place of interest to her educator father and social conscious mother. “Good places”, as defined by the parents, were state parks, historical sites, and nature preserves. Never a KOA campground or hotel for this family. Her parents rented a U-Haul trailer to connect to the back of the family wagon and then crammed both the wagon and the trailer with kids, sleeping bags, cookware, food, tents, coolers, blankets, and all the other necessary supplies for a two-week road trip to and from Washington State.
The family typically got back home just in time for the start of school. Her Dad borrowed heavily from the local scout troop for the necessary camping supplies. The boys were so involved in that club that there was a huge and ferocious hand painted wolverine on the cement wall of their basement for the troop meetings.
One day, at the half waypoint of the trip, Dad, Mom and Mike traded turns driving over five hundred miles to brake at a campsite adjoining the Snake River. The entire family escaped the stuffy car to stretch their tired and aching joints.
Before the kids could venture off, they normally helped set up the campsite. At that time, most tents, consisted of thick canvas with wooden poles and spikes, and were assembled by pounding the stakes into the ground to support the poles and then the canvas. This took the entire family pitching in to get the multiple tents upright because the ground was rocky and hard or muddy and wet.
This time, their parents allowed the four kids to head on down to the river before the tent raising ritual. Tracy Lou ran to the river’s edge and put both feet in. The river was wide and she could see small white caps as the water rumbled along across a few boulders and fallen trees peeking up out of the surface of the water. The water felt like hot ice on the back of her legs and on the top of her feet but it beckoned the four of them in. They noted the swift current but from where they stood, on the edge of the tributary, the stream massaged their stiff joints while they swam between each other’s legs, splashed, dived under, and threw some river rock to see who could make them skip the farthest.
They could see Mom and Dad heading down to the river edge so the siblings started to cross over to the other side of the river to a play a little game they liked to call, “running away from Mom and Dad”. Mike held Tracy Lou’s arm as they hopped up and down in the water, moving across the river to the other side. The bottom of the riverbed, covered in pebbles, hurt Tracy Lou’s feet, so she paddled along holding on to Mike. Tom was treading along beside them when all of a sudden; the strong current in the middle of the river sucked him under and pushed him down the river.
Tracy Lou and her brothers screamed for help from the shore. Dad sprinted down to the bank following Tom as he bobbed along unable to get out of the river. Tracy Lou could see his wet head but he was drifting faster, swept downstream. Just ahead of Tom’s head, lay a fallen tree. Tom smacked into the limb of the tree and went under. Then he came up again and then back under. Dad splashed into the water, reached under the limb and pulled Tom out of the water by the back of his trunks, all while struggling to keep his own balance in the strong current. If not for the tree and Dad’s strong swimming skills, it is not clear how this adventure would end.
Everyone slinked quietly back to the shore to put up the tents and reflect on what nearly happened. Rivers may look calm on the surface but can have fast under currents and that is dangerous enough alone, but with boulders, logs and other debris, Tom was lucky he was not seriously injured or drowned. From then on, Tracy Lou knew to avoid crossing fast moving rivers even if she was a little fish.
Often on these camping trips, Ed fried doughnuts outside over a propane burner like the way he learned at Boy Scout camp. He took an old pot, filled it halfway with oil, and set the pot on the stove on high. Using biscuits in a tube, Ed would take each biscuit; pull a whole in the center of the dough until it looked like a doughnut. Then, he would place it in the hot oil to fry. He fried several at a time. Then, he took an old paper sack, filled it with a little sugar and cinnamon and then placed the fried bread into the bag. He shook it all about and then brought out the hot doughnuts for us all to enjoy.
School’s out for the summer
Growing up in a small town had its advantages to young children, as there was a lot of freedom. Tracy Lou’s family lived on Main Street and she walked alone the two blocks downtown to the library, to her dad and mom’s work, to the grocery store, to the swimming pool, to the cool waters of the lazy Medicine River, to the vacant lot out back and to her friends’ houses that lived in town.
On her block, there were many families with children but Tracy Lou was the youngest. The Rhea’s, the Strack’s, the Newsom’s, and the many other families all had at least three children so finding a playmate was rarely an issue. Games included pick-up basketball, touch football, riding bikes, constructing elaborate forts from cast-off materials, and planning kid-directed block events like a carnival, track meet, or theatre production. The children charged family and community members to attend these events and they even had a banking account for safekeeping the profits. Tracy Lou’s brother, Ed, was the activity director but all of the kids participated in one way or another.
Life on the block was fun except when it was not. Since the children had so much freedom to play outdoors and away from their parents’ supervision, accidents did happen from time to time.
One involved Tracy Lou and a gallon of house paint. It was a hot, summer day and Tracy Lou was about nine years old. She lived just a few houses from the Rhea sisters so they often walked to the library to check out books together or she hung out with them while they did chores or practiced their musical instruments. Teresa and Jeanne were four and five years older than Tracy Lou. Teresa was willing to play Barbie’s with Tracy Lou and they often took their dolls outside and built tree houses for them in the bushes. Tracy Lou had the only Ken doll on the block.
Teresa taught Tracy Lou card games, jacks, and jump rope tricks. Tracy Lou was enamored with Teresa and spent all the time she would give Tracy Lou that summer. On the day of the accident, Teresa and her older sister, Jeanne, had a fight. Jeanne had a temper and she flounced off and went into the house. Teresa and Tracy Lou continued to play jacks and completely forgot about the angry older sister. They were playing jacks on the concrete behind their house situated at the base of a series of exterior stairs that led up to a tiny deck before entering the house. On the edge of the small deck, house paint cans piled up on top of one another.
Teresa and Tracy Lou were engrossed in flipping jacks and tossing the hard, red ball back and forth between them. Tracy Lou heard the screen door open above her. She noticed Teresa looking up at the landing above. Teresa yelled something at Jeanne. There was a loud noise from the deck and Jeanne yelled back. Tracy Lou suddenly felt something cold and wet running over her head and shoulders. She reached up to her face and first felt and then smelled wet paint all over her hair, over her eyes and in her ears. She did not know what happened. Later she learned that Jeanne had accidently kicked a can of paint over the edge of the porch and it opened in mid-air pouring paint on Tracy Lou, head to toe.
Tracy Lou sprinted the three houses home hysterically crying for her mother. Tracy Lou kicked in the kitchen door with her foot, and her mother ran to her and hugged her tight. She carried her to the bathroom and lifted Tracy Lou into the bathtub. She ran warm water and washed much of the paint down the drain and in time, with soap and a lot of rubbing, all of the paint rinsed out of Tracy Lou’s hair and off her skin.
Directly behind the houses on Main Street, a dirt alley provided access to trash bins, parking, and to the backyards. Cars and trucks bumped down it, blowing up dust. People on foot, instead of walking around each block, cut through the alley.
The children living on the block played in the alley a lot. They peddled their bikes along the tracks in the orange, Kansas, dirt, skipped along it for quick access to each other’s backyards, and often met in the over-grown vacant lot on the other side of the alley to play baseball or football.
Tall, thin, poplar trees lined the path, providing a natural barrier from the alley into the backyards. There were also a few hedge apple trees with chartreuse orbs of lumpy fruit bending branches low to the ground. These thorny trees provided the mushy bombs for games of war between platoons of youngsters. Tracy Lou avoided this game as the hedge apples oozed a white, slimy liquid causing her skin to turn red and burn wherever it touched.
Normally, the kids did not throw the hedge apples at each other but flung them at makeshift targets like the back of an old garage or a trunk of a tree. One time, one of Tracy Lou’s brothers broke out a glass window with a second-rate throw. Mike rang the neighbor’s doorbell, and confessed to Mr. Newsom his error. He asked Mike to walk down to the hardware store, get the clerk to cut him a piece of glass to fit the window, and then return it to the Mr. Newsom for repair. To pay for the glass, my brother did a few chores for him. Back then, people fixed problems without a lot of fuss.
There was a nursing home for elderly people located at the end of the alley. The children sometimes met up with the old folks slowly shuffling the alley to one destination or another. To Tracy Lou, they seemed so tired and sad. She always tried to greet each one with her best smile but most of the time; they did not even look her way. When she described how the old people acted, her mom told her to leave those poor people alone and she said, “They are living out their last days, the best they can.” Mom was not so generous, Tracy Lou noted, when she caught one of the old men, stealing ripe tomatoes from her garden.
One Sunday, four neighborhood kids stumbled upon an old man laying quietly in the middle of the alley. He was motionless and as the kids got nearer, they saw that his eyes were open but not blinking. Quickly, they ran to the nearest house and asked for help for the man. The ambulance came with sirens blaring, which got Tracy Lou’s attention. She ventured down to the back of the yard, near where the ambulance parked, but her Dad told her firmly to go back inside the house. Later, Tracy Lou overheard her parents saying he died. At dinner, Dad led a prayer for the old man’s soul. Mom was worried if the kids that found the man would sleep at all that night.
Of course, all the kids knew the exact spot of the old man’s demise so they cautioned each other to not step near it, sort of along the same rule in the old silly rhyme they sang together:
Step on a crack,
You’ll break your mother’s back;
Step on a line
You’ll break your father’s spine.
The alley seemed a place ripe for trouble. One time, a neighbor offered to keep his Shetland pony in the vacant lot for a couple of days so that the pony could eat the grass and no one would need to mow the lot. While grazing, one of the kids went up behind the pony to try to pet him, and was kicked in the jaw so hard he walked around with his teeth wired together for weeks and could only drink liquid through a straw that fitted perfectly between two of his incisors.
Another time, her brother Tom, played with matches in the alley, and inadvertently caught the entire vacant lot on fire. The volunteer firefighters came to put it out while Tom cowered under his bed afraid to come out. Tom thought he had burned down the entire town but only a large patch of grass turned black. Of course, this story was retold many times in Medicine Lodge homes about the danger of children playing with matches.