Sunday, September 27, 2015

I Missed the Charlie Brown Special

Scars. I have a couple. One came from stitches. Here's the story.

For a farm family, it was rare to be invited to a neighbor's on a week night, but that's just what happened in the Fall of 1970 when Pauly G. Walter and his wife Becky invited us to their place for the evening. They lived a mile or so north.

Mom put supper dishes away. Dad cleaned up and got dressed. And I sat on the kitchen floor watching a Charlie Brown special off our little black and white TV, the only television in the house. It sat upon the dryer, also in the kitchen. I don't know why I was sitting on the floor instead of the wooden chair directly behind me.

That choice changed the course of the evening.

scene of the incident, a year later  ~ chair was like this, but had a ragged edge

I liked going to PG's, for he made me laugh, but I doubted they'd let me watch the show, and there was no way Mom would have the nerve to ask because we'd be in their living room visiting. That's were their TV was.

My little girl mind believed that only the rich had a TV in the living room.
And an attached garage.
And a fireplace.
And more than one door to the house.

PG and Becky met two of my criteria, so they were only kind of rich.

I was whining around about missing the rest of the show and Mom said, "I know, honey. It's too bad this couldn't be on a different night."

I turned around to respond and my head hit the corner—the rough, ragged corner of that old wooden chair behind me. It cut deep into my skin right above my left eye.

I screamed, and Dad, no doubt, came running. They loaded me up into the car and drove to Huron, some 22 miles away.

me with my stitches 1970

I laid in the back seat with something pressed against my cut. Mom must have been back there with me, for I remember overhearing her conversation with Dad about stitches.

I thought that if I fell asleep, they wouldn't do anything. They couldn't give me stitches if I wasn't awake. So, I faked sleep. Funny how a child's mind works.

My plan failed. I got stitches. Maybe seven. I'm not sure. I don't know how I got through it because I don't remember being sedated.

Any traumatic injuries in your past? Any stitches to show for it? How about a time of disappointment for missing a television show?

Writer's Note: Thanks to Canadian mystery author Mahrie G. Reid for the inspiration for this post when she wrote about her scars. Click here for the story on her blog.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Scariest Place in an Old Farmhouse

Our farm house cellar was a place of dread for me. Damp, dark, pungent. Cracks in the foundation floor. I didn’t dread it for those reasons though. I feared the salamanders under the wooden stairs.

Mom would tell me to get a jar of pickles, canned pears or peaches, or sometimes a few more eggs. I’d whine that I was scared of the salamanders. They might run up my leg, bite my toes, or hiss at me, I thought.

Mom would hear none of that. “Those buggers are more scared of you than you are of them. Just go real fast and they’ll run away.”

And they would. Every time.

But I still didn’t like doing it. 

Funny how the daddy longlegs that lived among the pots and pans and the store-bought canned goods in the stairway on the way down never bothered me.

That cellar, stench and all, still exists. The hot water heater is down there, and my dad put a water distiller in there years ago. One time he had jugs of extra water all over the place.

The room carries a wet-earth odor. A small screened window to the east lets in light along with a single light bulb. Maybe Mom had a board she’d put up there in a big rain storm to keep it from flooding, but I don't remember. In the South Dakota winters, Dad would pile straw bails in front of it.

The cellar houses a couple old wooden chairs and some makeshift wooden shelves for all the home canned goods. In the middle of the room are a couple poles with a table top. It is taller than counter height. Mom kept her canning supplies on it with the cleaned out jars.

I remember only one time taking cover in that basement, ah, I mean cellar, during a storm.

I was already teaching in Kansas, but was home for the summer. My sister Priscilla and her daughter Angela were up for a visit when Dad came in yelling, “You guys take cover. Get in the basement.” Then he headed back outside.

After Mom questioned where he was going, he hollered, “I’m going driving. Gotta see what’s coming around the trees.”


We grabbed our purses, a couple of blankets, and Grandma Katie’s old transistor radio and headed to the cellar. I wasn’t concerned about any salamanders then.

We hadn’t been down there very long when a loud bang startled us.

“That’s the front door,” Mom said. “Wind must have blown it open. It’s banging back and forth now.”

Angela mentioned our family dog, Jupiter, our black and white cocker spaniel who showed up one July day in 1994 after a comet hit the planet, thus the name.

“She’s in with the boars,” Mom assured Angela.

The door kept banging, so I said I’d go up and shut it and come right back. Neither Mom nor Priscilla protested, and I don’t remember being scared to do it. After all, my dad was out in this. It was just a terrible wind, right?

I think this was the storm that my brother Elliott, his wife Doris, and daughter Suzanne stood by one of their kitchen windows and watched an old hog barn (which as little kids, we’d dubbed the Laura Ingalls Wilder playhouse), roll back and forth towards the house. If it wasn’t this storm, then it must have been another one. That building never did hit their house or vehicle, but it rolled itself out of existence and ended up as a pile of boards.

Back at our place, I was able to close the outside door and return to the cellar unharmed. When it was all over, I don’t recall any major damage to our farm.

A few years ago, the family was talking about Dad's cellar, and Angela, now a full-grown adult with a family of her own, remembered the evening we took cover. She said she was so scared. Not of the storm. Not of any salamanders. Not of the creepiness of the place, but of losing me.

She said that she thought she’d never see me again when I went up those stairs to close that door. She described her feelings so vividly. She'd never told me that.

Salamanders or storms, I’ve never spent much time in that cellar.

But my Grandma Elizabeth did when my two older sisters were littlejust enough time for Priscilla to cut Brenda’s hair while Grandma was down there sorting eggs.

Oh, if those cellar walls could talk.

Do you remember a room from your childhood home that gave you the heebie-jeebies? What about now? Is there a place that gives you the willies?

Sunday, September 13, 2015

A Bus Ride Friendship Endures the Test of Time

Every little kid has a best friend. Mine was Gail Piper, a girl on my bus who was two years older.

I plopped down on the seat next to her one day and said, "Hi, I'm Mel."
Gail celebrates my birthday with me in 1976.

I guess I'd seen that she'd been sitting alone. Gail said she wasn't quite sure what to do, so she read "Beauty and the Beast" aloud to me.

We shared orange Tic Tacs, school gossip, and developed a friendship so close that when I got home some 10-15 minutes after she did, I'd be upstairs on Dad's office phone talking to her for 30 minutes or more. And then maybe again that same evening.

Those were the days of “The Partridge Family” reruns. In her basement, we set up a bunch of tin Schwan's ice cream pails to serve as a drum set, pulled in a vacuum cleaner for a microphone stand, and found something to act as a keyboard. We lip-synced to David Cassidy and his TV family.

We'd pretend we were Barbara and Julie off the show "One Day at a Time" starring Valerie Bertinelli and Mackenzie Philips. A tiny unused oven served as my school locker when we'd act out a scene. I wrote about my fascination with that show here.

We’d act out scenes from “I Dream of Jeannie” too. Click here to see what I wrote about that this summer. And because of Gail and her mom, I’m a life-long “The Young and Restless” soap opera watcher.

Maybe Gail helped me develop my imagination, for she, like me, was the only child in the house—only she didn't have any siblings. Mine were just all grown up.

Gail also had an entire plastic kitchen set from when she was younger, and we probably played with it well beyond when we should have. She introduced me to the Tiffany Taylor doll, a fancy Barbie that could change hair color. I've written about that doll before. Click here

Gail had a built-in closet in her room, unlike the antique wardrobe in mine. She’d wanted a canopy bed, but her mom said the room was too small, so they did the next best thing. Put knobs on the wall above the headboard and draped scarves as a headpiece. I was jealous of her straight walls, for my bedroom consisted of the slanted upstairs walls of a 100-year-old farm house.

another birthday with Gail by my side ~ 1977
Her parents had a TV in the living and her mom cooked in a galley style kitchen with a dishwasher that wheeled over to the sink. Her phone had a plunger, so one could eavesdrop on the party line without being heard. They had a bathroom upstairs and one downstairs.
The Pipers had two house dogs, Boo-Boo and Bridget. Both dogs would chase toys and return them to us. They'd trained them to hit bells on the back of the door to go out to potty, and I used this method in training my first house dog, Lexy. Read about that here. And for more silly stories about Lexy, click here.

One time I had to hide out in the basement for awhile after I'd touched Boo-Boo's chocolate chip, our affectionate name for where the poop comes out. She did not like that one bit! Her high-pitched yapping sent me into hiding.

Gail's dad Bill enjoyed teasing the dogs near the fire place, and Gail and I often did too until her mom told us to stop. Seems one time, their rubber toy ball went into the fire, and they couldn't retrieve it. So anytime someone touched the supplies on the hearth, they'd bark and growl and whine.

It's the fun I had with their house dogs, seeing them sleep soundly with Gail's parents and greet you with joy when you came in the door, that made me want to have a house dog when I grew up. And until recently, Gail's always had one too.

Meals at Gail's house were served at the dining room table, the only table they had—where at my house, we had a kitchen table and a separate large dining room. I didn't think Gail was rich, but she lived fancier than I did. And I loved it there. It was like being on vacation.

a quick visit with Gail one summer
We lived seven miles apart, so our moms drove us back and forth. When a play date was done and I'd pout around the house with an ugly disposition, Mom would say, "If that's how you’re going to be, we won't let you two get together anymore." 

When Mom thought I should learn to swim, she and Joyce, Gail's mom, agreed to take turns driving us to the Y in Huron for our lesson. After a couple weeks, the teachers split us up and moved Gail to the advanced group.

I didn't learn much after that. I was scared of the water and barely got through the jump-in-the-deep-end-and-fend-for-yourself ending test. Mom still thought to her dying day that we were messing around, and that's why we got split up.

After lessons, we'd go to Gail's Grandma Burrell's in Huron. She lived in an upstairs apartment building—and oh, how I loved going there too. I never experienced going to Grandma's house, so this was the next best thing.

My brother-in-law Rick remembers Gail and I swimming, well, just cooling off since I never learned to swim, in the cattle watering tank at the end of the feedlot. We didn't care if the cattle came up to us. We’d go wading at Lake Byron too when her older cousin Brad Davis from Doland drove us down there.

Sad thing. Brad was killed in a train accident a few years back. I loved it when he'd be at Grandma Piper's when I visited Gail. He'd tease us, play with us, and act up—something a brother near one's age would do.

When Gail would come to my house, we'd play stewardess using the stairway as the aisle of an airplane and serve our invisible passengers plastic food. We'd drive like mad women on the three-wheeler. We also played around on the cassette recorder making radio news broadcasts.

Gail & son Billy visit me at Mom & Dad's one winter day when I was in SD.

One year in the middle of the school week, I got to stay at Gail's overnight for three days because Mom was in Kansas helping my sister Brenda get ready for a move. Joyce and Mom had arranged this so Dad wouldn’t have wake me, feed me, make sure my clothes matched, and get me to bed on time. 

This was every little kid's dream—three nights in a row at a friend's house.
When we got up for school the first day, Gail's mom said, "You can go back to bed, girls. No school. Snow storm."

Same thing happened the next day. And the next.

I was snowed in at my best friend’s house for three whole days!

We made snow forts, drank hot chocolate, listened to her mom tell us stories about the Bermuda Triangle, the Nazis, and other educational topics my parents never talked about. Joyce was an avid reader and had stacks of books by her recliner.

When the weekend arrived, Dad came to get me because Mom had called from Kansas, where she too was snowed in, and told him I’d spent enough time over there and that the Piper's need their privacy back.

Dad drove a tractor over to get me—the roads were that bad. I climbed up the steps to the red International with my little suitcase and looked back. I felt like I'd never see my friend again. But in reality, it was only a couple days until I'd see her on the bus on the way to school.

Dad drove diagonally across the hard-packed snow. It didn't matter if we were on a road or not. I came home to eat cereal and toast and watch him sleep. I was bored stiff. What a letdown.

One school year the bus routes were switched and Gail was on a different route. Sure glad that didn't last long. When she got to high school, and I was stuck in jr. high, I found new friends to cling to. Had too.

But we sat near each other in band, for we both played clarinet. She was lucky though—she had Mr. Wiens as a teacher many more years than I did. Read about him here.
1984: Gail gets married

I visited Gail at college once when she went to SDSU. My friend was all grown up, living a different life than I was—again.

But conversation came easy, and the age gap of two years didn't keep us apart for long because when we were both in our late teens, she chose me to be her maid of honor.

Throughout the years when I’d travel home from Kansas, I’d often make an effort to see Gail. Once it was in Brookings when she was a newlywed. Another time I drove to Iowa. Now they’re near Vermillion. Technology and cell phones make it easier to stay connected.

We’ve lived different lives. She married early, raised three kids, and taught Sunday School. I teach public school, took forever to get married, and have a step-daughter.

Me with Gail: summer 2012

Each visit with Gail brings reminiscing, talk of current events, discussion of our lives and families. Laughter and love come easily. It’s like time has never passed.

Gail has a birthday this week, and if I lived nearby, I know I’d be celebrating in her presence like we did when we were kids.

Instead, I write from miles away about the girl who let me sit with her on the bus.

Is there a simple decision you made as a child that changed the course of your life? What is your favorite memory from times spent with your childhood best friend?

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Kindergarten Registration: Fearful Memory

It's been 44 years since a kindergartner lived on my dad's farm. Now his great-grandson does, my great-nephew, Kaden.

Kaden lives a couple stone throws away from the house I grew up in, and this is his first year of school. He attends James Valley Christian School in Huron. Family friends serve as his bus driver.

Kaden with me in 2014
Seeing a picture of Kaden all dressed up with his backpack, coat, and rain boots reminded me of when Mom took me into Hitchcock Public Schools to register for kindergarten. 

Mom didn't take any pictures of that or my first day on the bus. Probably a good thing. I was scared to death.

My teeth chattered like they would in cold weather. I shivered in fear too.

On the drive there, Mom reassured me that I would be fine, but I knew I wouldn't know anyone. Kids my age from church, like Carissa and Karleen (whom I wrote about here) attended Doland. And a boy a year older, Greg Gross, wouldn't even be nearby. Grades one through eight were in a different part of the building.

The room was located outside the superintendent's office in the high school right near the large set of stairs. We didn't have a bathroom in our kindergarten room, but the girls used one located under the other narrower staircase across from the superintendent's office.

kindergarten room located here in my childhood school (picture by Frank Podraza)

Years later I learned from Dad that this kindergarten room was a dorm room when he attended HHS—back in the 1940s when country kids stayed in town during the week and weren't bussed. For more about my dad's high school years, read this.

What about me and the school bus? Wasn't I worried about that too?

Mom had already arranged with our neighbors, Lydia and Gearhard Hofer, that I would sit with their daughter Ranae, a freshman, for the first few days. Imagine that. A high school girl putting up with her little neighbor girl for the start of her high school experience.

But I was still scared. And this was just for registration, a time to meet the teacher, see the classroom, and get acquainted with my school.

How was I ever going to make it coming on a big yellow bus all by myself? And worse yet, going home on the mini-bus all by myself because we had half-day kindergarten. I wouldn't be eating lunch at school like my classmates because I lived the furthest away, 12 miles, and the bus needed to get back to take them home after lunch.

But not having to encounter the lunch room was probably a blessing at this point.

When we pulled up on the east side of the building, a man was walking on the sidewalk. He wore a suit and tie and carried a book under his arm. It looked like a maroon colored Bibleit probably wasn't a Bible, but who knows.

Mom said, "Look, there's Mr. Schneider, the superintendent, and it looks like he's carrying a Bible." I guess that made me feel better.


Funny what my mind remembers.

He stopped and Mom introduced me, and after that, I calmed down. No more shaking. No more teeth chattering. No more whining about being scared.

Dale Schneider (picture courtesy yearbook)
Mr. Schneider made me less scared.

Anyone who ever attended Hitchcock had a healthy respect of Dale Schneider and his steel blue eyes. The man ran a tight ship.

Imagine me, a five-year-old, not scared after talking to him. I don't know what he said, but I sure wish I could remember.

Mom said, "You're going to be fine. He runs the school. And see how nice and friendly he was to you? There is nothing to fear here."

I don't remember anything else about that day except him walking away towards his house across the street.

I did have other moments of fear that year. The mini-bus ride home with Red Hawkison sometimes scared me. He'd tease me that he was going to throw me in Foster Creek south of our house.

Since really didn't know him, it scared meespecially the times he took out a cigarette and starting smoking. Remember, this was the 70s.

I'd go home and complain, and Mom would say, "He's just teasing. He's not going to throw you in the creek."

She would not dream of chewing him out for scaring me. She reminded me of my Uncle Jean who smoked, and that I didn't need to be scared of a man with a cigarette.

Every once in awhile at the end of the week, Red would give me a long piece of bubble gum. That put me at ease. I knew he liked me, and that was his way of making me know that. Maybe Mom really did talk to him, but I doubt it. Parents just didn't do that sort of thing back then.

Like Mr. Schneider, Red ran a tight ship. Kids on his regular big bus route said they had assigned seats. Wendel Danielson was my morning big bus driver, and he let us sit where we wanted.

For country kids like my great-nephew Kaden and me, attending school for the first time is a big deal. Especially if we're only used to being around our church friends. Read more about that here

I'm thankful for the couple of adults and older kids who made me feel safe attending my pubic school miles away from home.

A few days into the school year, a girl two years older on my morning bus became my best friend. She recalls how I plopped down by her one morning and said, "Hi, I'm Mel."

That girl was Gail Piper and I'll be writing about her in a future post.

Do you remember your first day of school or your first encounter there? What about your bus ride or form of transportation?