The House on Main Street
Nearly sixty years ago, a little girl was born in Medicine Lodge in south-central Kansas in the Red Hills region of the Great Plains. The small town of about 2,000 residents sat immediately north of the joining of the Medicine Lodge River and Elm Creek, situated on the northeast side of the river. Her dad, soon after she was born, purchased with a loan from the bank, the family home. A two-story white clapboard house located just one block north of the small downtown business area at 321 N. Main.
All around the house were homes of friends of the family with names like Newsom, Frisbee, Ferrer, Rhea, Strack, Pratt, and dad’s boss and his family, the Williams. The little girl never looked for friends; she was born into this fold on Main Street. Like many small towns, the people of Medicine Lodge, were tight-knit and everyone knew everyone and everyone’s business whether you wanted them to or not.
The western migration of whites in the United States and a treaty established near Medicine Lodge back in 1867 with the Cheyenne, Arapahoe, Comanche, Kiowa, and Kiowa Apache, resulted in the tribes’ cruel removal to Oklahoma. This legacy was part of the town’s history and the reenactment, produced every three years, compressing 300 years of history into two hours is what the locals called “the pageant”. The town, 100 years later, was ethnically homogenous with a common belief system based on Christian principles. Geographically, it was located in the middle of the breadbasket of North America named so for the vast amount of wheat harvested in this region. Adults got their news from the local market basket radio program, the Barber County newspaper delivered twice a week and three television stations, ABC, CBS and NBC, broadcasting from Wichita about two hours straight as the crow flies. Some homes shared telephone landlines, called party lines, but most homes had a dedicated telephone number only needing to recall five digits to dial out. Writing handwritten letters using stationary and cursive handwriting in pen was the more common way of sharing news. It sometimes took a week or more to get a letter from Topeka. Life in Medicine Lodge was slower, more relaxed by today’s standard. No one locked their doors at night and nearly everyone left their keys in the ignition of their cars and trucks.
Most men worked shifts at the Gyp Mill that made gypsum board for the inside walls of houses, or farmed land passed down in their family. Most women did not work outside the home but some took jobs in cafes, shops or as school teachers. Everyone went to church each Sunday except for the small number of Seventh-Day Adventists who worshipped on Saturday just down the street from the little girl’s house.
As far as the little girl could see, people who loved her surrounded her and her three brothers, and her mother and father. The town’s two-lane main route, which ran directly in front of her house, was filled with station wagons and rusty trucks traveling downtown to the grocery store, small retail shops, and the little girl’s favorite store, the Probst Pharmacy, which had an old fashioned soda fountain inside. The soda fountain mixed syrup flavors and carbon dioxide, with cold water to make soft drinks from scratch. The girl liked to sit at the counter on a very tall stool and sip sugary-sweet Green Rivers, a lime-flavored bubbly drink, while peering out the wide-pane front store windows, looking out over Main Street, as she day-dreamed about where that street would take her next. While she was afraid of twisters, horses and sometimes her brothers, she was not afraid of the unknown.
The little girl’s name is Tracy Lou. She slept on the main floor across the hall from her parents in her own bedroom, as she was the only girl in the family. Her three older brothers slept upstairs in shared bedrooms during the winter months but escaped to the cool, cement walled basement in the summers where it was windowless and so dark you could not see your hand in front of your face with the lights out. They tunneled underground just like the local prairie dogs.
When Tracy Lou was born in the spring of 1961, one of the last years of the Baby Boom generation, she joined an established family of five. Her oldest brother, Michael Owen, would soon turn eight, followed by Edward Lewis at six and Thomas Dean at four. Tracy Lou called them Mike, Ed and Tom. Her Mom’s name was Katherine Eileen but Dad called her Katie. Katie was thirty-one when her daughter, Tracy Lou, was born in the local hospital by Dr. Ball, one of two physicians’ serving the entire county. Tracy Lou’s maternal grandmother, Katherine Calahan, called her daughter, Eileen, to distinguish between the two of them with the same first name. Calling children by their middle name was a common practice during these times that can be confusing when you are trying to learn who is who in a family.
When her parents first brought Tracy Lou home from the hospital, she caused quite a stir with the boys at diaper changing time according to her mom’s memory. Mom said, “My boys had never seen girl parts and were naturally curious.” She said, “The novelty wore off quickly after seeing up close what came out of those parts”. She was born with jet-black hair that quickly turned to apple butter brown.
The summer after her birth, the entire family packed up and drove the family station wagon eight hours west to Boulder, Colorado, so that Dad could attend graduate school at the University of Colorado. His plans were to move up in pay from a Biology teacher to a high school counselor. The family had spent the prior summer out in Boulder as well but Tracy Lou was not born yet. Both summers they lived in a Quonset hut, the family housing offered adjacent to the University and affordable for a family of now, six, living on one income. The Quonset hut’s sides were corrugated, steel sheets, having a semicircular cross-section with the two ends covered with plywood that had doors and windows. Many Quonset huts, made during World War II, were repurposed by the military to just about anyone that wanted to buy one after the war.
The brothers share fond memories of the summers living in the Quonset hut — kind of like staying in a cabin by today’s standards. The family hiked together up and down the cool trails of Boulder Canyon, spotting hummingbirds, jays and warblers and skipping rocks over the chilly pools of the mountain creek. They frequently picnicked at the foot of the Rocky Mountain range. The same mountain range that inspired Katherine Bates to write the poetic lines “for amber waves of grain, for purple mountain majesties” that the family sang on road trips and in music class at school.
The picnics were eventful with three young boys under the age of eight and a newborn along for the ride. Ed, the middle boy, known in the family as a “picky eater”, drove his parents crazy with his food preferences. They both expected all children to “lick their platters clean” and “remember the starving children across the world that went without anything but paste to eat.”
Ed, however, had a different point of view. He was likely lactose intolerant, which was never diagnosed. Allergies back then were ignored for the most part. Ed was born in Japan when Dad served in the military after college. Mom said Ed could not keep a bottle down until they switched to soy which was popular in Japan but not in the United States at that time. Ed ate corny dogs, fried chicken, and burgers but did not eat many fruits and vegetables except for canned fruit cocktail and corn on the cob.
On one of the family picnics, Dad was determined that Ed try a slice of tomato before they continued on the hike. Ed refused. And he refused again. He even refused a bribe of cookies when he got back to the hut if he ate one slice of tomato. He could be hard headed like that. Dad was not used to disobedience from his children so he took the slice of tomato, forced opened Ed’s mouth and pushed the tomato in, held his jaw shut and said, “Chew, boy.” Well, Ed, chewed, gagged, and then promptly threw up an entire bologna sandwich, potato chips and the tomato all over Dad’s lap. The picnic ended, and everyone had a cooling off period back at the Quonset hut. From then on, if Ed didn’t eat his supper he was allowed to go into the kitchen and fix himself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and then come quietly back to the family dinner table and eat it. However, no one was allowed to make a bad comment about Mom’s cooking. We either ate it or shut up. I think this experience is why Tracy Lou learned it was wiser to try all kinds of foods even when they tasted weird.
Going to Church
Tracy Lou’s earliest memory of her Mom are of her hands not her eyes as you might imagine. Hands taking care of her, patting her, bathing her and combing her hair. Cooking hands, chopping onions and carrots and kneading bread as well as hands at rest, at home reading a book or writing a letter to her mother who lived far away in Washington State.
At the one Methodist church, where the family were members, Mom taught vacation bible school; even though she confessed, she was not sure she was a true believer. It was while teaching bible school, pregnant with her fourth child that she decided not to name this child, Susan. Mom was sure this child would be a girl. Susan was the name she had always admired, after Susan B. Anthony, and she intended to name her daughter, if she ever had one, after this famous suffragist. However, there were already four little girls in the class named Susan and Mom wanted her daughter’s name to be less common than that. Mom knew someone from her past, named Tracy Louise, who she admired for her strength of character, so the switch was made without much more thought. Mom shortened the name to Tracy Lou except for the times when Tracy Lou was in trouble, which was not very often, because her little girl learned to follow rules like most little girls back then.
Mom made sure her children had the proper, clean and ironed clothes to attend church. She sewed them with her own hands. As a young child, Tracy Lou found the Sunday sermon hour restless and Mom would distract her with her hands. They intertwined fingers, made steeples, and exchanged gentle rubs, traced veins to quiet Tracy Lou’s energy until she was released to the fellowship hall and the feast of unlimited store-bought cookies, Kool-Aid and games of hopscotch. Tracy Lou was an easy-going child with boundless spirit. Her mom described her as “coltish” since her arms and legs seemed to grow faster than her body.
Going to Grandparent’s House
Tracy Lou’s earliest memory is her dad carrying her into her grandparent’s house from the car after a long ride, after dark, from Medicine Lodge to Newton, Kansas. The family frequently visited Dad’s parents, Lawrence and Helen, especially on holidays or for birthdays. The retired couple lived in a two-story house, located alarmingly close to a busy Santa Fe railroad track. Tracy Lou remembers shadows dancing off the tall walls of the dining room, the smell of the waxed hardwood floors, and her Dad putting her to bed on a nubby, green sofa. The train whistles rattled the window panes. She may have been three.
Tracy Lou looked forward to visiting her grandparents because there she played with her five girl cousins all about the same age as her. Cecilia, Deanna, Susan, Michelle, Karen and Tracy Lou played together using only a little more than their imagination. Grandma Helen saved packaging from the grocery store, stuffed the items with newspaper, and sealed them back with tape to look just like the real items purchased from the IGA. The makeshift grocery store sold cold cereal, eggs, milk, oatmeal, tissue paper, and prunes. The grandchildren had one plastic grocery cart, that they learned to share, and they played grocery store for hours in a small room off the kitchen. One cousin would play the role of the checker, another a bagger, then a stocker, and a shopper and sometimes a shoplifter! Then they would exchange roles and start all over again. Grandma always requested her grandchildren to attend service with her at a Baptist Church on Sunday morning, as she wanted to show off her beautiful, well-mannered grandchildren to her friends in the congregation.
The sermons about evil and talk of hell frightened Tracy Lou. She hated the part in the service about coming forward to be saved. Saved from what? Life in a small town? From her brothers? From the ornery Shetland pony, penned along the alley? All she knew is that the sermons made her think about life after death. She hoped it would be like going to sleep on the softest bed and just never waking up or maybe coming back as a tree. Please not an old, sour cherry tree. She prayed for something sweeter. She learned that life is finite at a very young age.
Back at Home
Back home on Main Street, the house did not have central air conditioning until much later but relied on a rackety swamp cooler to keep the main floor livable from June to August. If you have ever tested the wind by holding a wet finger in the air, you have used evaporative cooling just as the swamp cooler provided her family back then and at its best – it was fleeting with relief.
At night, when Tracy Lou lay awake trying to get to sleep in the heat, she listened and could not hear anything at all outside her open window but for the sound of little frogs chirping or the clicking sound of the cicadas in the summer. Sometimes, her dad stayed up late, eating ice cream out of an old ceramic bowl, and the little girl could hear the solid clinking sound of the metal spoon hitting the edge of the bowl before each bite. When Tracy Lou asked why he ate ice cream after she went to bed, he sheepishly said, “it wasn’t ice cream, I was just enjoying some Cheerios.”
The house was a comfortable house. Upstairs, there was a porch on the side of the second story looking out over an elm tree. Lining the porch on three sides, were a series of screened windows and after the first freeze, her Dad and brothers would put up storm glass windows while hanging dangerously off tall ladders. The little girl liked to play in the porch with her Barbie doll designing furniture out of cardboard that her mom saved for her to use to cut and paste into little couches, tables and beds for her doll. Barbie too lived in comfortable house. Sometimes she played in the mothball smelling air of a little closet where her mom had a trunk full of old clothes hidden in the corner under the rack of scratchy wool coats. Tracy Lou created costumes fueled by her growing imagination. Sometimes she put on all the clothes, layering up, all mish-mash just as she saw old Mrs.Spriggs do as she roamed around town with her grocery cart full of found treasures. Mrs. Spriggs dressed unconventionally which the girl noticed and asked her mom, “Why does Mrs. Spriggs’ wear so many clothes at one time?” Her mom said, “I guess she likes to dress in layers in case the weather changes.”
Downstairs, in the house, the floors were made of oak with area rugs in the living room. Back then, her Mom taught her how to buff the floors with a can of SC Johnson paste wax, a torn-up sweatshirt for a rag, and what her Dad called “elbow grease”. This simply meant getting down on her hands and knees, and applying a coat of the paste wax with the rag, letting it haze over and then buffing it with all her strength until the hardwood shined so well, she could see the outline of her face when she peered back at it.
All around the house there was a weedy yard with mature trees for the children to play under and often up in, and her parents planted beds of purple, bearded irises and Knock Out roses propagated from the neighbors’ gardens. They rarely purchased plants directly from the local nursery but borrowed and shared different varietals with neighbors and friends. In the end zones of the makeshift football field, down back, behind the house, were two tidy vegetable gardens including a watermelon and potato patch tended reluctantly to by her brothers. There was a cherry tree, which produced chili-red cherries so sour that no amount of sugar would sweeten them for a pie. Mostly, the sour bombs were left for the birds or used as ammunition in games of backyard war.
Dad and Mom collected bean, pea, squash, and watermelon seeds from their garden each year to use the next season. Dad was especially proud of his Jersey Giant asparagus crowns as he nursed them for over three years to maturity. Magically, one spring day, up popped up from the ground, cranked from the soil like a jack in the box, were rows of edible, green spears. Tracy Lou loved munching on asparagus; she ate all kinds of fruits and vegetables, but asparagus, while tasty, sure made her pee smell like rotten eggs.
Behind the house, was a sloping backyard that leveled off into flat area perfect for pickup games of football and baseball. In the side yard, positioned on a regulation height pole was a basketball goal surrounded by a concrete driveway turned impromptu court. Dad and the boys had formed, mixed and poured the concrete themselves. There was even a tetherball pole, made from metal plumbing pipe, concreted into the ground. Tracy Lou and her friends paired off under the shade of an old elm tree, slinging the tetherball back and forth. Dad certainly knew his way around a bag of cement, a shovel and a wheelbarrow. The basketball court was a draw for neighborhood kids and there was nearly always a pick-up basketball game of some sort happening at 321 N. Main.
Weather was an important topic to the town people and especially to farmers as their livelihood depended on it. Medicine Lodge was located in tornado alley, a study of tornadoes reported one-fourth of all tornadoes occur in this zone. The house on Main Street set directly across the street from the town’s one tornado siren. It was a hair-raising sound when it blasted off, alerting the town’s people, from a night of peaceful sleep, to take cover. To Tracy Lou, it sounded like the warning signal was blaring in her ear from inside her pillowcase.
Tracy Lou knew that tornadoes killed as she had recently listened to a local radio program that a F5 tornado killed 17 people and injured hundreds in Topeka, the state’s capital. The family had relatives living in Topeka. She overheard them talk about how cars flew through the air, and huge stone sections of a university building peeled away with the winds. While very frightened, she felt safer when the family quickly gathered in the basement to ride out the spring and summer storms. Her dad would stand outside in the backyard scanning the skies for signs of the tornado. Tracy Lou called for her dad, “come back inside, pleeeeeease!”, but he only did if the skies turned a greenish-yellow color, the winds kicked up even more violently, and the rain softened. These were sure signs, as he explained, that a twister was in the vicinity.
The family, during the summer, frequented the drive-in movie theater located just a mile or so east of town. For a set price per car, the entire family watched one, sometimes two features a night. The young Tracy Lou loved movies especially films like Herbie, the Love Bug starring the handsome Dean Jones or Mary Poppins, the Sound of Music and Bambi but she was routinely outvoted by her older brothers who preferred themes about war, science fiction and westerns. The best part of the drive-in movie to Tracy Lou was the popcorn that Mom popped at home, on top of the stove, moving a lidded frying pan quickly back and forth over the heat until the last kernel popped. She made several batches in order to fill a large, brown grocery bag full of buttery, salty popcorn for the whole family to share. Tracy Lou, so much younger than her siblings, often fell asleep in the back of the station wagon but not before gorging on her share of popcorn.
Mom’s Perfect Stovetop Popcorn Tips
Use a good, heavy-bottomed pot. Cheap pots do not distribute heat evenly, and you can end up with hot spots that burn the popcorn.
Do not crank the heat up too high. It is too easy to burn oil at temperature higher than medium heat, and if you catch even a whiff of smoke coming from the pot, your popcorn will taste burnt.
Start with two popcorn kernels to gauge the temperature. Once those pop, your oil is hot enough. Add the remaining kernels and remove the pot from the heat for 1 minute. This primes the popcorn to pop without burning the oil.
Tip the lid ever so slightly while the popcorn is popping. That way, the popcorn does not steam itself in the pot and lose crispness
Season with salt carefully. You can always add more, but you cannot take away too much
Use ratios of 2 tablespoons to ½-cup popcorn. Mom used canola oil.
One night during a movie, Tracy Lou woke from her nap as her mom roughly pulled her into the front seat of the car from the back. The sky was lit up with cracks of lightning, and her brothers tumbled back into the car, their clothes soaked from the sudden downpour. The movie screen went black. Dad started up the engine of the station wagon and slowly followed a line of taillights exiting the drive-in via a gravel road.
The rain was coming down so hard that Dad could not see the taillights in front of the wagon. The wagon started shaking and rocking and Dad said, “We need to pull over and get down in a ditch. Take cover.” Mom took a pillow, told Tracy Lou to lay over her lap, and placed her head as close to the floorboard as she could. Mom then covered her body over Tracy Lou and put pillows and a blanket over both of their heads. The boys did the same in the back seat. Dad said, “It sounds like a freight train is coming, just like they say.” Tracy Lou screamed but kept her head down and felt the car shake side to side. Mom said, “do you think the windshield will hold?’ Dad said, “I don’t know but keep your heads covered.” The rocking continued in the car but gradually it slowed and the howling wind subsided. As quick as the storm assaulted them, it left, moving across the terrain to the east.
Dad revved up the engine but the tires just turned in the muddy, rain-filled ditch. The boys jumped out and pushed the vehicle out of the ditch, mud flying everywhere, but the wagon lurched up and back onto the road to town.
It was dark outside but tree debris littered the road and out the left side of the window, Tracy Lou saw a farmer’s hay barn, the wooden roof beams scattered over the nearby field of wheat. The next day, the local paper reported a twister touched down just across from the drive-in, destroying a home and several outbuildings but no one died. At church that morning the talk was all about the tornado; sharing details of what they were doing when the tornado came through, where they were at the time, what they heard and felt. Sharing stories seems to help heal in hard times. Tracy Lou felt proud of her family because they banded together and weathered a tornado. She was never as scared of storms again.
When it snowed, Mike, Ed, Tom and Tracy Lou, along with all the neighborhood children, played outside in it. To Tracy Lou, it seemed like they were out there for days using strategies similar to those seen on shows about survival. At the first sign of snowflakes, Mom would assemble all the assorted black rubber galoshes with the gazillion hooks and snaps in a pile on the kitchen floor. The children would layer up with long johns, then a thick pair of jeans. Tracy Lou did not wear any downy snow gear until she was in college.
Preparing for a snow day meant pulling over her head two shirts and a sweater followed by a sweatshirt and then a wool coat. Layering was the key. After covering the core, the attention moved to the all-important feet and toes. To protect her toes from the cold snow, Tracy Lou slipped on two pair of white tube socks (the kind with the two blue stripes around the top), then she retrofitted a sandwich bread bag over the socks and secured it at the top of her calves with a large rubber band used to tie up newspapers for delivery. Then, another tube sock slipped over the top of the plastic bag before she pressed her foot into the warmest, water-resistant shoes she owned. After that, she squeezed the shoe into the black, rubber galoshes. This often required assistance from a brother or a mother in order to wedge her shoe inside before snapping the hooks down tight. Tracy Lou often wore two layers of gloves and always a warm woolen hat and if windy, a wool mask that fitted over her face with three holes in the spots where her eyes and mouth were supposed to be but never were.
Tracy Lou did not dare drink anything because it was impossible to go the bathroom without taking everything off and starting all over pulling on the layers. Tracy Lou trudged behind her brothers, unable to bend her bulky knees, so she slid along the snow-covered sidewalk with her wooden sled behind her shuffling the five blocks over to Wheat’s Hill. The hill was a paved road that when covered in snow created the perfect launching platform for sledding. City road crews never cleared the road from falling snow but instead allowed the kids to pack the snow down tight by walking up and down the hill stomping the snow down with their feet. They placed traffic barriers at the bottom and top to keep the cars off it. The hill was named for the Wheat family that lived in a house at the top of the road not for the summer crop that grew in the fields surrounding the small, rural community.
The children of Medicine Lodge sled in tandem on Wheat’s Hill, in trains of sleds, they held races, slid down the hill backward while cutting cookies, creating a circular skid-mark pattern in the snow. The boys competed to see who could make their sled go the farthest down the hill. If a sledder could make it under the bottom traffic barrier, across the intersection and reach the next street, he was declared the winner. We lived dangerously back then and without much adult supervision. Children sledded standing up and laying on top of one like the thin layers of a German chocolate torte. Tracy Lou perched herself on the backs of several bigger kids as they flung themselves down the hill, all on top of one sled. The danger was if the sled hit dry pavement or a hidden rock, and came to abrupt halt. All the passengers sailed off the front of the sled, fortunately into the soft snow that surrounded them.
Tracy Lou, not as resilient as her older brothers, felt the cold seep through the layers to her toes, and she begged for one of her brothers to take her home. Eventually, her tears convinced one of them to peel from their pack and take her, grudgingly, home. Her toes burned with the cold but each piggy slowly thawed out after discarding the layers of wet socks and the plastic covering. She would place her little toes directly over the heating vent, rubbing the red ring, from where the rubber band scarred her calf, and she read Little House on the Prairie adventures while her brothers continued their sledding expedition. After snow days like this, the brothers ate vats of Mom’s chili or homemade beef stew and stacks of buttery bread to feed their exhausted bodies. They shared tales of the day’s events at Wheat’s Hill while all sitting around the family dining table.
Mom’s Chili Recipe
|2 lbs. of ground beef
|1/3 cup of brown sugar
|2 tsp garlic powder
|1 tsp cumin
|5 cloves of garlic, chopped
|1 large sweet yellow onion, chopped
|1 large green bell pepper, chopped
|3 tsp red chile powder
|¼ cup tomato paste
|1 large can of V-8 juice
|2 (15.5 oz.). cans dark red kidney beans, drained
|2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
|2 cups of water
|In a large Dutch oven or large pot, brown the ground beef over low heat, add the chopped onions and green pepper until soften. Add all of the other ingredients and simmer on low for 2-3 hours adding water as needed if it thickens too much. Serve with saltines to crush into the chili along with sharp cheddar cheese. A side of pickles and cinnamon rolls goes great with this dish.