Friday, August 26, 2016

Jack and Elvis and Thirty Nine Years

Three hundred and fifty eight thousand. That's what rolled up in green lights this morning on the odometer of our 2002 Dodge Ram. Three hundred and fifty eight thousand miles. I'd sure like to see it turn over to 400,000. Picture a distance runner with the finish line in sight. Every time I climb in those creaking doors, buckle up and push the plastic seat belt holder back into the front seat, I'm rooting for the old darling to rumble on and on. Fourteen years and three hundred fifty thousand miles is quite a lot.....but not enough.

As many years and as many miles of gravel, terraces, interstate, and two lane oiled state highways as the brown pickup has traveled, they are just a drop in the bucket compared to the miles and years accumulated by this pair of middling married folk. Thirty nine years is the tally this year...thirty nine years! That's the sum made famous by Jack Benny...perpetually thirty nine years old after declaring "there's nothing funny about 40" ,(how about it, Matt?) and adopted thereafter by legions of adults facing the imminent departure of youth and arrival of middle age.

Soo...what about thirty nine years ago...that would be 1977, right? What was going on in 1977, the spring we went to a jeweler one afternoon and picked out a ring, that I ate lunch with my mother at Katy Station and told her we were engaged, that Blake and I wrote letters (snail mail!paper!)every day I was in D.C. and talked on the "Watts" line (remember that?!) once a week?

January...Apple Computer is incorporated, it snows in Miami, and Jimmy Carter, newly inaugurated, pardons Vietnam era draft evaders.

March...Three Washington DC buildings are seized by Muslim gunmen who hold 149 hostages. Negotiators include three Muslim ambassadors who urge the gunmen to surrender, citing passages from the Quran.

April...The Mariners and Blue Jays play their first baseball. Optical fiber is used to carry live telephone.

May....Space Mountain opens in Disneyland. Star Wars opens May 25.

June...Jimmy Carter cancels the B-1 Bomber program (revived later by Reagan). James Earl Ray escapes but is recaptured. Apple sells its first Apple II computers. The Supremes perform for the final time.
August....Jimmy Carter signs a bill creating the Department of Energy. The Son of Sam murderer is captured. Groucho Marx dies at age 86.

And.... Elvis Presley dies at Graceland on August 16, age 42.

Sad to say, that last news item is the one indelibly imprinted on my brain. I'd spent my summer earnings on an unfinished table and chairs, a dresser, and a nightstand. The week Elvis died, I borrowed my parents' car to drive over to Columbia so I could stain and varnish our new furniture in our soon to be duplex. Solid Gold Elvis was the soundtrack of every radio station all day long, imprinting my ears and memory for, apparently, the next thirty nine years!

We have celebrated...and not celebrated...our anniversary in many different ways over thirty nine years. Many years, we have spent August 27 in some small town in Missouri, eating ham, or chicken, or brisket, with a roomful of Farm Bureau friends. Late August is prime time for both county annual meetings and delivering mums. And other years, it's just been another pleasant summer night to raise a toast over grilled steak or burgers...then watch baseball.

This year, August 27 is a golf date with friends and family in Mound City for our Community Hospital. Since we are celebrating thirty nine years, why not top this piece off with another bon mot by Mr. Benny, this time concerning golf....
Hey, I've got a great partner!
Here's to thirty nine years...

And beyond.....

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Movin' Out

Coleman's little sister said you better act right, Coleman
Daddy's gone to Louisville he'll be back tonight
He's gonna get another wagon and a good pair of mules
And we gonna move to Texas we just waitin' on you.

Now you all been movin' west since the day you got married
Well I'm gettin' off the wagon, daddy, I'm too old to be carried
Gonna stay here in Kentucky where the bluegrass grow
I'm gonna play it all night down the new cut road......Guy Clark
To catch you up on my progress along the Oregon Trail with modern day muleskinners Rinker Buck and his brother Nick, our heroes have spent the 4th of July at Fort Fetterman in Wyoming and are now restocking and repairing their wagon in Casper, getting haircuts and buying work gloves, preparing for the next leg over the dry high remote ruts leading up to South Pass. 

And in Tarkio, boxes are stacked and marked, carried upstairs and down.  Plastic tubs and dresser drawers, sleeping bags and high school trophies, winter coats and mantle clocks: all and sundry slid into the back of family pickups.  Sweating the big stuff: the hard maple dining room table, the new leather chair, the 8' long hand-me-down leather couch....legendary by this, its seventh to-and-fro through doors it was never designed to egress.

Movin' out, it's an American past time....and family trait, I guess.

Blake and I sit on our front porch and tally moves...kind of a parlor game, a trip down memory lane.  Our first move: to a duplex south of Columbia for our final year of college and first year of marriage. Contents: a turquoise couch, a double bed, a gold Maytag washer and dryer, the repossessed tv of a Nigerian college student. I didn't love the couch and immediately covered its tweedy glory with a nondescript brownish throw.  Foolish '70s girl!  That 50s/60s artifact is probably Pinterest fodder these days. Yeah, and maybe Harvest Gold appliances will be stylish again, too.

Next time, it's a short move into town, making room for baby number two.  We add a big old upright piano, its bulk establishing our family as solid, serious...... and settled.  Well, not so much, as that piano went out the door and down the three steps of N. 4th and up the three steps and in the front door of RR#1, Westboro just three years later.  

Let's talk about the kids. We took Lee to college and up the elevators of Jones Hall in one load. During four years at Mizzou, she lived in three different apartments after the dorm, all involving moves across town and two of the three involving flights of stairs.  No pianos, but I did make one trip north driving blind with my insides in knots and Lee behind me with her car's hazards blinking after the electrical system on the pickup and trailer threw craps.  I blew right by the scales with a hard luck story on the tip of my tongue and one stop by the Highway Patrol already under my belt. Some moves are more stressful than others.

Moving Ann to Washington DC for a summer didn't involve furniture, but is memorable as a classic example of being penny wise, pound foolish.  With an entire summer's worth of bedding, clothing and other indispensables compressed into a backpack, a roller bag, and a six foot long canvas duffel, we decided to catch a shuttle bus from BWI (cause we were saving money) to the train station (cause we were saving money) that would end up at Union Station in D.C. where we would board the Metro (cause we were saving money) and wind up walking the last six blocks to American University, our final destination (cause we were saving money).  Five hours later, blisters on our hands and feet and holes worn in the duffel from dragging it behind us, we limped into Union Station, whereupon I did not pass GO or collect $200, but put an end to the madness by hailing a cab.....Some moves are more stressful than others.

Ben's moves have both logged the most miles...and contained the most tortuous staircases. Soggy stairs at the dorm, narrow fire escape stairs on Wash Ave., dicey basement stairs on Clemens, and four flights up to the steamiest summer residence ever, the torture chamber just off Kingshighway.  Fortunately, St. Louis eateries reward those moving experiences with tasty meals and frosty mugs.....

The staircase tally is relevant because Ben currently holds the family record for furniture most likely to protect you in case there's a tornado, the 4 or 5 foot square massif of slate and wrought iron that is categorized as a coffee table and has proven impervious to all efforts to dismantle, destroy or discard it by those charged with moving it during the last decade.  It's a beast. I fully expect that coffee table to accompany Levi to his first apartment years from now...but I don't know who will volunteer to carry it!

For now, the dust is settling and the trucks and trailers will return to their normal duties of hauling pigs and hauling plants.  My piano left its own trail ruts in the hardwood floor at Spruce, but has now held down its corner of this front room since October of 2002, the same month Lee and Ryan moved into Lee's childhood home.  That winter, Ann and Matt made it three for three with their purchase of the painted lady on College.  That's the kind of transience our forebears recorded routinely in Oregon Trail days when kith and kin got the movin' fever bad and hit the road for new lands with high hopes.

A better place to call home:  to carry your house on your back, drag it behind you, set it down again, and ultimately, pull a Brigham Young and declare "this is the place".  

Movin' out.  Just the prelude to 'comin' home'.

You've been saying for the longest time that the time has come

You've been talking like you're of a mind to get some changing done
Maybe move out of the city, find some quiet little town
Where you can sit out on your back porch step
And watch the sun go down.......Mary Chapin Carpenter


Saturday, August 13, 2016

This Old Porch and The Farmer's Wife

This old porch is like a big old
red and white Hereford bull
Standing under a mesquite tree
Out in Agua Dulce.
And he just keeps on playing hide and seek
With that hot August sun
Just a-sweatin' and a-pantin'
Cause his work is never done.

And this old porch is just a long time
Of waiting and forgetting
And remembering the coming back
And not crying about the leaving....
Lyle Lovett
There was a big crack in the southwest corner of the porch foundation when we moved to Spruce 14 years ago.  It didn't make me happy at the time; an obvious major project for the future, just another addition to all those repairs and renovations one comes across while living in an old house, to be dealt with depending upon the level of duress and emergency.  Example one: tree roots plugging up sewer line while wedding party stays at house over the Christmas holiday..major stress, red lights, sirens screeching, ambulance, 911, emergency repair.  Example two: leisurely removal of wallpaper from two different rooms with repainting as a pleasure, not a pain...a nip here, tuck there, touch up the hairdo, new outfit discretionary type remodel.

We lived with the crack for a decade or so, fixing other big ticket, a new chimney, guttering, a new paint job...but a few years ago, water began to run into the basement around the washer and dryer and the pier at that corner seemed to be settling underneath the massive concrete floor of the crown jewel of 502 Spruce, the front porch. 

Repairing our foundation climbed to the top of the to-do list....

Here is a short version of the efforts to secure someone to take on "This Old Porch":  Two different firms that made appointments to look at the job and make a bid...and not only didn't show up, but argued with Blake about the dates and times of the appointments they had scheduled.  One guy that wanted to be paid just to come look at the porch and provide an estimate. One firm that did look at the job and made a bid so over the top our mouths fell open in shock and awe....but when he didn't show up for six months to work on it we assumed he didn't need that much work no matter what the money.  

Moral of the story: Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys, but by all means, encourage them to become mudjackers.  They'll thank you when they retire to a condo on a beach or a dock on the Lake..with their future secure!

There is a happy ending.  This weekend Blake and I will sit in the shade of the sycamores under in the shelter of our newly repaired, square and straight, jacked up and squeezed together century old porch.  Yes, indeedy, the task was begun, interrupted, reconsidered, reconceived, and then completed, all within this week. The front garden took a hit, but, as I told the man in charge, I can always plant more daylilies...I cannot repair a foundation.

That was one to mark off the to-do list for this week...and another was scanning all six years of Millie's "The Farmer's Wife" articles and saving them digitally.  This task proceeded as one would expect: the computer running Windows 10 would not communicate with my handy scanner precipitating a return to Windows 7 (fine by me, I was forced against my will to "upgrade" as it was.) But once that hurdle was overcome, it was just a matter of feeding each week into the scanner and watching the images and stories appear on the screen.  

What a joy to revisit these pieces!  Like opening a grab bag gift or taking a bite out of that proverbial Forrest Gump chocolate! Sometimes she wrote about a chapter of local history like the articles about St. John's or the bomber that crashed east of Tarkio in 1944. She followed the perennial parade of the seasons with notes about the birds in her yard and garden and feeders, how the crops were faring, the work on the farm, the good weather, bad weather, drought and floods, storms and sunshine here in northwest Missouri. We kept up on the activities of friends and family...and whoever isn't part of Millie's family is her friend and laughed with her at the antics of her kids...her grandkids...even other people's grandkids.  Millie is a humorist of the most generous kind; she is never afraid to tell a funny story on herself.

But amid the humor, there are stories of great poignancy, reminding us that all the great lives come with sorrow and loss: the week she wrote about tearing down her childhood home, the week she remembered the fire that destroyed their house, the short tribute to one of her very best friends.  

We take for granted the ability to run a "Google"search whenever our curiosity is piqued. But my very favorite kind of history is this type of personal recollection; part experience, part storytelling, built on a foundation of ties to people and place. These are stories that celebrate "remembering the coming back" and "not crying about the leaving." I am so grateful Millie has saved all these 'hard copies' of her efforts in tidy chronologically ordered notebooks. Millie has always told us she'd write a book someday; I'm here to tell you she already has!

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Pioneering Spirit

"The Peter Schuttler wagon was the minivan of the plains, and by the 1880s, at least thirty thousand Schuttler wagons had crossed the frontier". Rinker Buck, The Oregon Trail.

After reading this, I look up from my navigator's position in the passenger's seat of this 2014 Chrysler Town and Country and take a peek behind me.  Like the pioneers in their Peter Schuttler, (NOT Conestoga, wagons, contrary to popular myth), there is no room to spare in our vehicle.  Every seat has a kid and every kid has a life support system, a comfort zone built of books and movies, teddy bears and a stuffed pink pig. Within an hour of our departure from Kansas City, jumping off place for many wagon trains, the van's floor is completely covered with the kids' scattered possessions.  The front seat is no different with coffee in the cup holders, iPads in the chargers, and last but not least, a six year old Rand McNally Road Atlas for those roads less traveled where cell service falters and paper is still relevant.  The westward travelers had a wide variety of guidebooks and maps from which to choose, available not just at outfitters' establishments, but even at bookshops in places like New York and Chicago. I cannot imagine what the floor of those wagons looked like after months of dust and ruts and wind.

"My own comedy of discarding began that first morning....I had slept peaceably enough, but across the thirty-eight-inch span of the wagon, my head was wedged between a barbecue cooker on one side and a stack of books on the other." Rinker Buck, The Oregon Trail

 Unfortunate, ill-informed or gullible pioneers took outfitters' advice and found their wagons bursting at the seams with useless and superfluous gear that would be discarded in vast quantities along the trail as the emigrants came to their senses. We are not green tenderfeet when it comes to long road trips; a cooler of drinks and a cooler of snacks are close at hand.  The kids have been hugged and kissed by their parents and told in no uncertain terms, "You go to the bathroom every time the car stops!"  Today's pioneers obeying the modern rules of the road.....

The pioneers slept among their belongings too...or underneath them for safekeeping.  Our road warriors are spread between four queen beds and two bathrooms...not exactly roughing it.  But there's a fair amount of negotiating.  Experience and compatibility come into play whether one is bunking with the pots and pans....or your cousin with the restless legs.  Blake discovers early on that Aaron is not exaggerating when he says he won't sleep with Gabe: "He kicks!" Gabe nods complacently...he is guilty as charged and yet innocent of conspiracy by reason of slumber. For the remainder of the trip, Gabe is the one child who will have a bed to himself.  One morning Blake and I awake to find the bed next to us empty of dreaming children.  First Aaron...and then Lizzie... have been driven to find less comfortable, but quieter, places to lay their heads by their Grandpa's snoring.

"Perhaps we possess a dimly repressed but nevertheless accessible memory of how much community was formed by the necessities and sheer obstacle-climbing along the trail.  That's what the covered wagon represents....We have always called this the "pioneering spirit". Rinker Buck, The Oregon Trail

Last night Blake got a phone call from a friend of ours who was in some distress.  Members of his family traveling from South Dakota in a pickup towing a trailer had broken down near Rock Port. They were moving an aged parent who was waiting inside in the air conditioning.  There was no chance of finding someone to repair their truck on a Saturday night, so we brought over one of our pickups with a bumper hitch so they could hook up their trailer and continue on their way.
Stranded travelers and broken wagons..runaway mules or lamed teams....part of the rough road the pioneers trod, but one that translates seamlessly to any hot August day when the interstate highway is littered with "gators" and the shoulder punctuated with overheated tourists with their car trunks... or hoods.. up.

Ann and Matt are packing up the fourteen years of their life in the painted lady on College.  Aaron says it's not so hard to think about moving when the pictures are off the walls and the books are in boxes.  Like the pioneers, they are choosing what to discard and what to store.  Pots and pans, books and dishes are easy to move. A garden...not so much. And so there are some newcomers to the plot of soil behind our garage: some roses, some iris, of sentimental memory.  They are watered in and pruned back and will grow patiently amidst the veggies until their new home is ready and a new garden begun. Our pioneer ancestors pulled up roots.....but they didn't sever every one.  The yellow rose we called the "Corner Rose" from the original bush at a bin site was no doubt an immigrant from some other farmstead miles away. The two fern leaved Mother's Day peonies in Lee's garden at the farm are hand me down posies brought to Missouri in a wagon. Ann and Matt will also move the limestone stepping stones picked up from the creek that runs through Redbarn.  Such are the seeds we plant to build new homes from old memories.

"On our 1958 covered wagon trip, my father wanted the automobile drivers backed up behind us to know that we appreciated their he had a sign maker in New York City paint a simple explanation in black and red letters...

We are Sorry For The Delay--But We Want The Children To
Rinker Buck, The Oregon Trail

Alas!  Our black minivan is under more of a time constraint than the Bucks' family.  But our wagonload traversed eight states, saw cotton and rice and peanuts,climbed the Mississippi River flood wall at Greenville and showered in tannic cypress stained waters, ate ice cream in Arkansas, tunneled through an Ozark mountain and under a Florida bay, tried eggplant fries, blue crab in a basket, and Key Lime pie.  We saw tows and barges (Josh: Is that an aircraft carrier?)  and a guy in a jetpack turn flips in the air.  We bobbed in the Gulf and built a magnificent...if ephemeral... white sandcastle.

We know our way around a Holiday Inn Express breakfast.

No..we didn't ride the Oregon Trail in a Peter Schuttler wagon....but we sure had "pioneering spirit"!

Monday, August 1, 2016



They give us those nice bright colors

They give us the greens of summers

Makes you think all the world's a sunny day.

..Paul Simon

I guess you could say it's just bred in the bone. The crisp new leather camera bag front and center with the toddler in the fifty plus year old snapshot was omnipresent during my childhood, sometimes in the foreground therefore unintentionally starring in the recorded history of our family. Over time, the shiny saddlebag took on the character and texture of a Pony Express rider's satchel after a couple of trips cross country. The camera bag was a signal that Something was going to be Remembered.

Does anyone outside of professional photography even own a camera bag anymore?

I do. Current incarnation is a compact little LowePro just the right size for a DSLR, battery charger and two lenses. wallet and two lenses, if, as is my wont, I hang my camera around my neck for easy access.

To be quite honest, if you count the uber-rugged, heavy-duty, closest-thing-to-Kevlar, tips-the-scale-at-twenty-pounds Tenba bag I now carry, I am never without a camera bag. I bought it to replace the super convenient little Swiss Army backpack I treated as combination gear and hand bag. When the zipper broke two years into use, I was crushed and disappointed. Firstly, because I replaced it sight unseen with an overweight over engineered monster that may never wear out...and secondly, because Swiss Army gear should last more than two years even when thrown carelessly on the floorboard every day and stuffed mercilessly into crannies in cars and overhead bins in airplanes. I guess that's why they don't make them anymore. Brass and tanned cowhide like my mother and father's heirloom beats a two way zipper any day. The Tenba will hold not just a camera, but a Kindle and an iPad too. It's more like a steamer trunk than a briefcase.

from the Island of Misfit Toys

At this point in my diatribe, you may be asking, "Your iPhone 6 is always at hand...can be shared instantaneously...edited on the spot....why on earth are you whining about cameras?

It's a sad truth. Consider the contents of one drawer of my cupboard: a whole array of outmoded superseded camera equipment. Heavy metal, not plastic, precisely machined, created to capture a moment unique in time and bring it back to life. Now, as discarded as the inhabitants of the Island of Misfit Toys, blind eyes turned upwards. Generations of German and Japanese engineering gone by the wayside.

My first camera was a Kodak Instamatic.. I bought it in high school and carried it right through college and into marriage, recording school trips to New Orleans, a summer spent in Washington DC, our first home in Columbia, a weekend getaway to Kentucky, our first summer on the farm....and ultimately, the first year of Lee's life. The Instamatic shot a cartridge of 24 pictures and used a flash cube for low light shots. The ultimate in point and shoot. It was a big deal to finish a roll of film and take it to the drug store to be sent off for developing in Omaha, and a little bit like Christmas to open the packet of prints when it returned after a couple of days.

These prints look older than I feel! The colors have deteriorated and faded; to an eye accustomed to the wonders of auto focus and HD, most are either under or overexposed and fuzzy. But I try to salvage what I can digitally, preserving a snapshot, so to speak, of when we were very young. I have but a few Polaroids of Blake's folks in their youth, even fewer photographs of our grandparents when compared to the black and white albums and carousels of color slides (Kodachrome or Ektachrome....I don't remember which) of my Zeiss and Canon toting parents.

I had a Fujica SLR for almost twenty years, a birthday present in 1982. It was completely manual...the photographer chose the shutter speed and the aperture based on the ISO of the film loaded. No auto focus and no built in flash. But it did sport a metering system, a big step forward from the hand held light meter my folks used for difficult shots. I always shot 200 film, walking the line between detail, what tech calls pixels, and a lack of sharpness caused by movement. Life was recorded 24 shots at a time, except for vacations, when I would load up on film, buying 8 or 12 rolls at a time, even a couple of rolls of 36, just to be safe. Finding film in some of the places we wound up was not a sure thing and I was paranoid about running out. Even so, the number of pictures I took from 1982 to the first digital camera Blake bought me in 2008 average one album a year, not counting weddings, graduations and the births of grandchildren.

One night the Fujica shutter locked wide open and moved no more, almost as if it sensed the end of the film era. It's last picture was taken through Ben's telescope: the moon.

Don't misunderstand me. To have a camera in my pocket for the sun behind a cloud, dew hanging of a flower, or even a classic car at Casey's adds to the sum of my happiness. Taking four shots at blowing out birthday candles and keeping just one wasn't an option with film. Digital is a license to be silly...not just historic. Pixels encourage creativity...visual jokes, panoramas, way out close ups, in a spontaneous outpouring that amateurs would never have attempted before this freedom of expression was....well, free.

What's to be done with this voluminous recording of minutiae and the mundane? What will our grandchildren do with it all?

In my case, there will be physical books and albums, not just files and .jpgs. I am in the minority; I still print. All these artifacts will wind up, I suppose, where people's great great great aunt's gravy bowls and wedding dresses reside: a local or county museum hard by someone's once treasured tools and someone else's wedding dress, too old to dispose of and too arcane and personal to be historic.

In the meantime, I remember the old ways, paying homage to the blind lenses and camera bodies good for naught but paperweights.

Long live Kodachrome.