Travels with the Red Dirt Girl

Travels with the Red Dirt Girl

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.

 Quonset Hut

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.

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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.

Twister

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.

 Snow Day

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.

 

1979

1979

1979.  That is the year I graduated from Holton High School with a class of a little more than 80 students, the same year as the release of the Sony Walkman.  Mobility — the idea that you could take music with us – was HUGE. The music channel, MTV, launched just a few years later — who remembers listening to the release of Video Killed the Radio Star? It was so cool.

We were all about the music as a class. We listened to My Sharona by The Knack, and Hot Stuff by Donna Summers. Songs by the Bee Gees, Blondie and the Village People’s enduring YMCA were hits in 1979.  We loved country music tunes like Eddie Rabbit’s hit,  Every Which Way but Loose and some of us were into hard rock by Led Zeppelin, Judas Priest and AC/DC. We snuck into the local club, the Jolly Troll, to listen to local bands close up and personal. Many of us turned 18 so we were legal to drink beer in Kansas at the time.  Our favorite was Coors.  The music sounded better with a cold can of Coors in my hand.

We sang, danced and acted in school iconic musical productions of West Side Story and South Pacific.  We played music in our cars, many decked out with an 8-track, cruising around the square.  At lunch, jammed into the old gym for some free time, John Denver sang Rocky Mountain High from a delapidated jukebox.

We whistled along to KISS FM radio from Topeka while swimming at the city pool on lazy summer days.  Some of the last lazy days for most of us as we launched into adulthood.  We Are the Champions, by Queen, was released in 1977, and the pep band blasted that catchy anthem repeatedly during warmups and timeouts at boys basketball games.

Our class had a diverse set of interests outside of music and many of us played dual roles.  We marched in the band, sang in the choir and competed in sports.  We held leadership positions both at school, in our churches and other affiliations preparing us for our futures in science, engineering, business, logistics and a wide variety of fields.  We were multi-taskers.  We almost all worked outside of school either paid or unpaid helping on the family farm, checking groceries or filling up gas tanks.  No job seemed too small to us.

Next week, we celebrate our 40th reunion together as a graduating class.  I am unable to attend this year but from the social media chatter, it looks like there will be good attendance over Memorial Day with our class featured on a float in the local parade as well as a dinner and an after party.   Mostly, we just spend time catching up and sharing stories. We often laugh about embarrassing tales from those days that we would not share with anyone else except our high school friends.  Likely, because our current friends cannot relate or do not really care as much as our high school friends about our stories from back then.  Who would you talk to about the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat after making it to the State Basketball Championship back in 1979? Alternatively, that time, some classmates snuck into the city pool and skinny-dipped?  Some of these stories certainly change and get better over time.  Hell, who can remember at our age?

We are on the cusp of 60, trying to hold off the inevitable aging process so that we can stay active, travel and enjoy life after so many years working 9 to 5 or dusk to dawn.  I like to see ourselves now after all these years as joyful people who are at peace with who we are and why we are.  Our foundation was first built in our childhood when the importance of purpose, interconnectivity, selflessness, and service were first taught and demonstrated to us by our families, our teachers and our community.  In retrospect, our lives speak for themselves well after we are gone.

So, this is what 40 years since graduating high school looks like for each of us. Who knew? So, raise your Coors cans high and celebrate, because my classmates from 1979, we are all champions of our own little neck of the woods.

Below is a card I found tucked inside the jacket holding my high school diploma. My main takeaway from this rather stuffy pronouncement, 40 years into the future is, yes, Principal Versch you are correct: ere life has flown.

 

Fried Bologna Sandwich

Fried Bologna Sandwich

After reading a Rick Bragg short story in Southern Living magazine in which he describes in salivating detail the assembly and devouring of fresh garden tomato sandwiches, my memory returned to lazy summer days eating fried bologna sandwiches with my brothers.  My mother worked as a county social worker so when we were home alone on summer vacation, she left lunches up to us to prepare.

Sandwiches were our specialty including:  tuna melts, peanut butter and jelly, and margarine, brown sugar and cinnamon — all slathered on soft Wonder white classic bread.  Later, mom learned about the importance of fiber and switched us to whole wheat.

One of my favorite combos in those days was a fried bologna sandwich with mustard and catsup (my mom always spelled it catsup, not ketchup). We didn’t toast the bread, it was better soft so it could absorb the grease.  We took pre-sliced bologna, usually Oscar Meyer (those ads even got to our frugal Mom), melted margarine (no real butter existed in our home in those days) in a frying pan, placed the bologna slices carefully in the grease to fry gently on both sides.  We made tiny slits on the edges of the bologna with a knife so it would lay flat in the pan and not curl.  I liked my bologna very crispy (SPAM too but that is for another blog).  We put one or two slices of fried bologna between slices of bread, spread liberally with mustard and catsup, and enjoy.  I liked mine with a side of baked beans or fruit cocktail (always wanted the single cherry in the can) if we had any in the pantry and always a dill pickle spear.  It is not a prize sandwich without a pickle on the plate.

bologna
Delicious, yes?

I don’t eat bologna sandwiches anymore in fact I don’t remember the last time I ate one.  Most likely, I last consumed one in my youth or maybe in desperation during my college days when I lived off bad dorm food and free happy hour tacos.

I doubt if I made a fried bologna sandwich today it would taste as good as I remember.  Like in Rick’s experience, when he described his tomato sandwiches to kids today, they say “yuck”.  They would rather slather avocado on multi-grain toast, top it with flaxseed and microgreens and call it a meal or go by Starbucks and order a latte with a tomato basil panini.  We couldn’t even purchase avocados in Kansas in those days, they were not part of the produce section, neither was kale, flax seeds or microgreens. And we made our own coffee, on the stove, in a percolator.  What the hell is a panini?

Back in the day, bologna was so cheap, lasted forever in the fridge, and filled the bottomless pit of my brothers’ tummies with salty, fatty, cured meat parts. The catsup added sweetness and mustard that spicy, tart compliment. It was all we had at the time. Which explains why we learned to love bologna sandwiches

If you want to read more by Rick Bragg, check out some of his stories and books at Rick Bragg Southern Stories

Amsterdam

Amsterdam

My brood and I are traveling to Amsterdam for the holidays.  Amsterdam is the same size as Fort Worth, Texas, about 800,000 citizens, and it lies on the same latitude as Saskatchewan province in Canada.  Brrr…   Amsterdam is famous for canals and cannabis cafes and is considered a most liberal place — free, open and permissive.  Just what we need after the last few months living in the land of “make America great again.”  The city is also architecturally unique and culturally important to us in the United States.  New York City was originally called New Amsterdam.

It is also the land of herring.  The Dutch cornered the herring market and this led to an unusual degree of cooperation around water management.  Building up dikes and dredging canals were massive communal activities.  Herring merchants demanded the local government to get involved.  Hence, the canal systems in Amsterdam are often compared to Venice. About 1500, as Michelangelo was working on his David statue, Amsterdam was a lively shipping port and one of the most Catholic cities in Europe.

Amsterdam’s tolerance attracts people with alternative lifestyles, even way back then in the 1500’s.  After many wars and much strife including some gruesome beheadings, Calvinist worship was permitted and then in turn the Catholic priests, monks and nuns were brutalized.  Between 1500 and 1700,  those were dark times in the city’s history with many conflicts, wars and changes in governance.

Rembrandt got his start by painting scenes from the Bible that were highly sought and fairly affordable to homeowners in Amsterdam at the time, particularly women.  Rembrandt even painted himself into the compositions. At the Rijksmuseum,  we can see not only the largest but also the most representative collection of works spanning his entire career.  I look forward to spotting him in these paintings when we visit.  We can also tour his historic home and workshop in the heart of Amsterdam. Dutch born painter, Vincent Van Gogh, has many of his masterpieces, including my personal favorites of sunflowers and Wheatfields with Crows, showcased at the Van Gogh Museum.  No doubt, I am attracted to these particular pieces due to my Kansas upbringing.

Shipping played a huge role in the economy of Amsterdam and made the city rich in the 1800’s. Shipping companies, like the Dutch East and West India Companies, sought resources by sea from places like Indonesia, West Africa as well colonies around the world including a party that landed in an area that would become New York. Multatuli wrote Max Havelaar in 1860 in protest against colonial policies told through the eyes of a coffee merchant. It was an instant success at the time and quite influential in Dutch literature and politics of the day.  I have it downloaded to my Kindle to read during our travels.

These explorations resulted in a large population in Holland who identify themselves as Indisch, Indo-European or for short, Indo.  After the Indonesian revolution, hundreds of thousands of these people, who held Dutch passports, were given the choice:  renounce Dutch citizenship and become Indonesian or leave the country.  Many left Indonesia and settled in the Netherlands.  Indisch now means yummy food while eating in Amsterdam including rijsttafel, the Indo version of an Indonesian multicourse feast.  I am seeking out such a feast as I don’t care for pickled herring.

The Nazi occupation essentially channeled Amsterdam people into distinct categories.  There were the hunted Jews, Gypsies and other undesirables.  There were collaborators, who out of either conviction or self-preservation aided the occupiers.  There was a small section of society, numbering probably in the tens of thousands who formed active resistance. Most people just tried to protect themselves , their families and their property.  Approximately 80,000 Jews were in Amsterdam at the start of the war, an estimated 58,000 were dead by the time it was over, most of them in concentration camps.

The story of Anne Frank and her family weaves in and out of this narrative and provides insight about a surreal world and time that must never be forgotten.  Especially as we listen to influential leaders censoring legitimate news outlets as “fake news” sources. We will visit Dam Square where the Canadian forces arrived after the German surrender as well as a visit to the Anne Frank House where she went into hiding and wrote her diary.

Currently, the social welfare system in Amsterdam reflects a real commitment to individual rights with a nod to the understanding that what is good for the whole must be part of the national priority. Amsterdam has found a way to blend economics with social liberalism.  And it helps that it is small and according to writer, Russel Shorto, a bit of a “pokey place”.  I look forward to a week of poking around and trying my best to be a bit more pokey myself with my dear family in the Venice of the North.

If you want to learn a lot more about the history of Amsterdam, please read Amsterdam:  A History of the World’s Most Liberal City by Russel Shorto.

Why I Played

Why I Played

I fell in love with basketball when I was a very little girl of six or seven, maybe even younger.  I still love it and plan to play a game of HORSE with RM this week-end if the weather cooperates.  If you don’t know what HORSE is, I am sorry because you have missed out.   I have probably played a thousand rounds of HORSE in my lifetime.  Such fond memories of time spent with my dad out on the concrete basketball court shooting hoops. He always had a court poured immediately,  at each house we lived in, before he thought to remodel the bathrooms or applying a fresh coat of paint.

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Dad – third tallest.
Basketball was a big deal for my dad and for our small Kansas town. The grownups started us early learning to dribble, pass and do layups from either side (left or right).  I played with my brother and their friends which improved my game considerably.  I practiced all the time on our court and started playing on teams as soon as that was an option.  Coach Groves focused on the fundamentals and we practiced those skills over and over again until we mastered them.   We didn’t have select teams back then but Dad would get the keys for the Jr. High gym so we could get in and shoot around during the summer and on school breaks.  He challenged me to make 25 free throws without missing and I eventually developed such an accurate shot that I was asked by coach to shoot most technical foul shots for my hometown team. Older girls from the high school team mentored us early on and we scrimmaged against them when we were in middle school.

My dad paid for me to go to basketball camps during the summer where I developed my skills even further and also made new friends and learned from other girls. These camps were held on university campuses.  It was a blast but I don’t know if I have ever been as tired as I was after a week of basketball practice all day long for a week. And the blisters on my feet proved it.

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But what I now appreciate from the years I spent playing point guard is what it taught me for life.    I played and learned to:

  • be physically active and fit
  • develop life skills like leadership and resiliency
  • have fun and provide for emotional well-being
  • be with my friends (boys and girls)
  • be on a team

Playing basketball helps young girls learn basic coordination and team-building skills with an added bonus of making new friends along the way. My father and I have passed the love of the game onto my family as we are in the middle of March Madness with our beloved University of Kansas Jayhawks on the road to the Elite 8.

So if you have a young girl in your life, pump up a basketball, find a basketball court, and play a game of HORSE with her.  It may change her life, like it did mine. Thanks, Dad.

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Combining love of basketball with love of travel
RULES of HORSE

H-O-R-S-E is a game played by two people on a basketball court. The idea of the game involves matching baskets. The player who makes shots that the opponent does not duplicate, wins the game. Example: The second person shooting must duplicate the first person’s shot, if it is made. If the second shooter misses, he/she receives the letter “H”. If the first person’s shot is missed, the second shooter may attempt any shot. If his/her shot is made, the opponent is obligated to duplicate it. Each time a shooter misses a shot that he/she attempted to duplicate, a letter is “awarded”. The game continues until one person accumulates 5 letters or H-O-R-S-E. The Rules 1. The person who will shoot first will be determined by coin flip or basket shot. 2. Shots can be attempted from anywhere on the court. No dunking or stuffs. 3. Shots may be “slop” shots or “called” shots. “Called” shots must be made as the call indicates or counts as a miss. “Called” shots must be called before the shot. “Called” shots are as follows: a. Bank – off backboard and into basket, may touch rim. b. Bank Swish – off backboard and into basket without touching rim. c. Straight In – must go into basket without touching backboard or rim. d. Swish – directly into basket without touching backboard or rim. e. Opposite Hand – if shooter is right handed the shot is attempted with left hand and vice versa. f. Jump Shot – both feet off court when ball is released. g. Set Shot – both feet in contact with court when ball is released. h. Hook Shot – ball is released in arch over the body. 4. Trick shots involving spins and ball movement prior to release are not allowed. 5. No shot may be attempted twice in a row from the same spot to give the opponent 2 consecutive letters. 6. All games will be self-officiated on the honor system. 7. Match – best 2 out of 3 games.

Casserole Queen

Casserole Queen

Not everything retro needs to return and the highly processed casserole or hot dish is one that needs to remain in the past.  My mom was the casserole queen of Main Street (we really did live on Main Street) in Anytown, USA in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Give mom a pantry stocked with Campbell’s Soup, a freezer full of Birds Eye vegetables and a protein and she had a hearty meal on the table in 30 minutes or less.  Oh, yeah, don’t forget the carb (rice, noodles, or biscuit).

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Queen of the Casserole

Casserole was her nightly “go-to” for this busy working mom due to its versatility, as well as the time-saving aspect of literally throwing everything in the ingredient pool at once. But most importantly how economical these oven-baked creations were for her raising a family of four kids, three of the growing boy, eating machine variety.  Casseroles were everywhere back then.  In school lunches, at potluck dinners and always at church suppers. Taste was never the point, it was how quickly and cheaply, it could get to the table.  These dishes were so full of salt and other highly addictive, unnatural, preservatives that we soon grew to love, crave, the comforting taste of the goo.

Recipes from Attendees at my Wedding Shower

I still love the stuff. Green bean casserole anyone?  But I no longer use canned soup (RM still tries to slip celery and mushroom soup into the pantry), use more fresh vegetables and limit the fat, sugar and salt content in our dishes. I still make some of the old dishes especially the ones from my hand-written or typed recipe collection but I have found ways to lighten them up and get rid of all the preservatives.

The first dish I learned to make in my youth was a goulash casserole.  Mom’s recipe went like this:

Brown two pounds of ground beef.  Add one can of tomato paste, one can of mushroom soup, one can of corn, 1 /2 lb. of Velveeta, liberal dash of salt, pepper, paprika (it’s why we called it goulash) and cooked egg noodles.  Place in your Corningware French White casserole dish (still have one) and bake at 350 degrees until hot and bubbly.  What’s not love?  It’s a heart stopper!

Other favorites from her recipe box included tuna casserole with canned peas, tuna, celery soup and generous amounts of Miracle Whip with those same egg noodles and bake it until heated through. Or my personal favorite — hotdog casserole made with cut up hot dogs, chopped bacon, canned baked beans, dollops of catsup, mustard and Worcestershire (say that three times fast) sauce, and topped with slices of American cheese. Bake until processed cheese is melted and browned. Takes less than 30 minutes. Good gracious those hot dishes were good. Good eating!  Easy fixing! As the ad below reinforced. And so bad.

To my mother’s credit, she learned that cooking like this was harmful to our health and she changed our diets considerably in the late 70’s with weekly, scratch made bread, Czech-style noodles and yogurt, seeking out local, farm raised eggs and chickens, and lots of dark greens from her garden including tons of fresh herbs.  So like her, let’s leave these greasy gratins and other overly processed colon clogging combinations behind us, where they must stay, for the sake of our hearts, and only in our memories.

Memorial Day Memories

Memorial Day Memories

Memorial Day week-end is officially the start of summer for most of us, especially for kids.  I have so many fond memories of this relaxing three-day week-end including some that I am sure I share with you. Here goes!

  • Boating and water skiing on a nearby lake.  Our favorite was Lake Perry outside of Topeka, Kansas.  One time I camped there with a childhood friend and nearly drowned in our tent from a torrential thunderstorm and a nearby tornado.  We barely escaped to sleep the night away on higher ground.
  • Swimming at the Holton public swimming pool, trying to learn to do a one-and-half, and listening to the radio always set to V100.
  • Working as a grocery clerk and thinking everyone else was outdoors having so much fun without ME!
  • Visiting graves of relatives and leaving bouquets of peonies.
  • Churning homemade ice cream and brain freezes.
  • Visiting my grandmother in the assisted living apartment in Newton – taking her out to lunch at the local truck stop.
  • Spending the entire day at the Lockheed pool, catching my girls off the side, over and over again.  Remember the concrete turtle in the wading pool?  Remember my sore arms the next day?
  • Playing my flute in the city’s  memorial park to honor our veterans.
  • Flying the flag and decorating the house in red, white and blue.
  • Hoping I will one day attend the Memorial Day Concert in D.C.  But we often watch it on the telly.
  • Working in the garden.
  • Making Texas sheet cake.
  • Spending quality time with family.

This year, RM’s older brother and his wife are visiting us and we plan to vacation in Fort Worth enjoying the Botanic Gardens, our great museums and restaurants, and walking along the Trinity River.  What are your plans?  Be safe, use bug spray, and wear sunscreen.  Happy beginning of summer 2016.  What adventures will it bring?

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