Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Category: Waxing Nostalgic (page 2 of 14)

My Favorite Ice Cream Summer Memory

I think right now it would be going to the Tastee Freeze with my friends. One of my best friends is back in the area where we grew up back in the 70s and I was thinking today about how we would pile into his family station wagon and drive out to the west end of Peru, Illinois to the Tastee Freeze for a banana split.

This was a time before there were Dairy Queen’s, at least in the Illinois Valley. Almost every town had a Tastee Freeze. There was the one on the west end of Peru and another one in Spring Valley.

Even John Mellencamp sang about one.

Sucking on a chili dog outside a Dairy Queen just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Lou-J’s Café, 1968 – Oglesby, Illinois Part 2

The summer went by too fast, but he was excited to get back to school. He liked buying new notebooks, pens, and pencils. His mom even bought him some flared pants that had become the latest fashion craze. This year he is in the fifth grade. The teacher’s name is Ms. Snell, but some kids have already started calling her Ms. Smell.

Being a teacher has got to be rough, he thinks when you have a strange or funny name.

He’s halfway through grade school and as his mom told him when school started, it’s all-downhill now. He’s not quite sure what “downhill” means but hopes it means something good and not something to do with the reports his teachers have been sending home to his mother.

Teachers tell his mother that he is a good listener, but that he’s a little lazy. Doesn’t pay attention enough in class. He learns the word daydream. He doesn’t always do his homework, but he’s good in reading, spelling, and social studies. He’s a voracious reader. On library day, he checks out four-five books. Likes to read biographies of Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, James Whitcomb Riley and George Washington Carver. The other kids laugh at him and call him a bookworm.

Poor in math.

Poor in science.

If you ask him, he can tell you a little about the USS Pueblo, Tet, Vietnam, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy and Apollo 1.

The night he went to the carnival with the Sharpe boys was the night Bobby was assassinated.

He can’t add or subtract fractions though.

“He reads a lot Mrs. Miller,” one of his teachers tells his mom during a teacher-parent conference after school one day, “but he doesn’t pay attention in class. His mind wanders. He has the tendency to daydream.”

He can name all fifty states and capitals.

This past summer, he got to visit seven of those states when his grandparents took him on his first long vacation to Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky. His grandfather wanted to go to South Carolina and visit Fort Jackson where he had been stationed in World War II.

They got to drive right on base after the MP’s manning the main gate asked his grandfather what was the nature of his business.

“I told him I had been stationed there during the war,” said his grandfather whenever he had the chance to tell his story. “Well, he took one look at me, probably thought I was someone important, nodded his head and then waved us right through.”

Of course, much had changed since 1944 and his grandfather had a hard time finding any familiar buildings. They drove around for almost thirty minutes trying to locate the barracks his grandfather had stayed in but it had been demolished. The only thing that hadn’t changed was that America was in another war. They passed hundreds of soldiers marching and running. Some were carrying M-16s. Maybe Danny Sharpe is here, he thinks.

He wonders if any of them will come home in flag draped coffins like the ones he sees on the evening news.

“This week in Vietnam, there were 25 killed and 100 wounded.”

He likes Archie comics.

Someday I am going to write to the Archie Fan Club he tells his friends.

“They pay five dollars for the best letter,” he tells Sam and Glenn one afternoon.

“Pay you five dollars?” Sam laughed. “In your dreams.”

The Cherry Coke comes in a tall, plastic glass that is scratched from months of use; the fries are served in this red and white checked cardboard tray. The fries are greasier than usual, but he doesn’t mind. Soon, they’ll be swimming in a pool of ketchup. Why is ketchup sometimes spelled catsup? He ponders this as he squeezes out the red sauce from a red bottle. He’s been doing that a lot these days: questioning everything.

He likes the simple things in life, like these red and yellow bottles: red for catsup, yellow for mustard.

He hears the door open and a group of seventh and eighth graders come in. They’ll take over a corner of the room before the noisier L-P freshmen and sophomores arrive.

Johnny Lucas, one of the eighth graders walks by his table and steals some of the boy’s French fries. Lucas’ friends laugh.

Bonnie intervenes before Lucas can take some more of his fries; she used to baby-sit him but he probably doesn’t remember or is embarrassed to admit it. Either way, he knows that Bonnie is not someone he wants to tangle with and plops down on a padded chair. The same kind of chair made at Spiller & Spiller, this furniture factory on Brunner Street in LaSalle, where the boy’s mom works the dayshift from 8-5

His mother bends tubes of steel on a machine called a “bender” into chair and table legs.

“You kids want something?” Bonnie asks.

The way she says “kids” puts them in their place, at least for now. She snaps her gum again. Loud enough to sound threatening.

A round of Cokes is ordered. Three orders of fries.

“Hey Jude” ends. There is a grating sound emitting from inside the jukebox as a mechanical arm is lowered to retrieve another record and place it on the turntable.

The next song is “Green Tambourine.” Good choice because Lucas and his friends like this one a lot. The single reaches Number 1 in 1968.

Another semi rumbles through town shaking the plate glass window. The boy looks up at the clock. 4:00. His mom will be home in another hour. She’ll be tired again and smelling of grease and oil. Tonight she has to work at the Holiday Inn. It’ll be pot pies or a TV Dinner again. That’s okay. She promised to order some fried chicken from the Mel Rose Tap on Saturday.

He finishes off the last of the fries, now coagulated with ketchup and takes a sip of the Cherry Coke. A bus from the high school passes outside. The high school kids will be in soon. They are always loud and a little rowdy. They won’t bother him but Lucas and his friends will have to be careful.

Mary Hopkin’s “Those Were the Days” begins to play.

He likes her voice. It sounds so sweet. Makes him think about two girls in his class, Janie and Debbie. They have sweet voices, too. He sits next to them in music class. They don’t seem to mind.

Those were the days.

We thought they’d never end.

We’d live the life that we’d choose.

Something like that.

Lou-J’s Café, 1968 – Oglesby, Illinois Part 1

The ten-year-old boy stops in at Lou J’s Café on Walnut Street in Oglesby, Illinois, a small town of 4,200 (1960 census) just across the Illinois River south of LaSalle and Peru and 90 miles southwest of Chicago. He comes here about two or three times a week after school has let out at Washington Grade School.

Oglesby’s business district runs for a couple of blocks down Walnut and includes a Ben Franklin store, Lou’s Grocery, Royal Lanes Bowling Alley, two drug stores, a dry cleaners and a dozen bars. Across the street from Lou J’s is Clydesdale’s Furniture Store that at one time had been Oglesby’s movie theater. That piece of Oglesby history might have been lost on him, but what isn’t lost on him is that he has enough allowance for a Cherry Coke and an order of French fries for the times he comes here each week.

School has already started and there’s a hint of autumn in the air. Sometimes he stops in with a friend from school; other times he is alone. Makes no difference to him. At least when he’s alone he doesn’t have to share his fries.

He passes men hunched over the afternoon edition of the Daily News Tribune at the lunch counter seated on wobbly stools, the linoleum around their base worn from years of traffic. Some grip heavy, white mugs of freshly brewed coffee. The aroma of burgers sizzling on the grill (each patty with a slab of onion on top) wafts through the café. A basket of frozen, crinkled fries is dropped into boiling, bubbling oil.

There’s a television tuned to a ballgame but for the team, the Chicago Cubs and this late in the season, it’s wait until next year.

The owner of Clydesdale’s is one of the customers at the counter; he’s engaged in a heated debate with the druggist from Dittmar’s and the jeweler from Marzetta’s about Humphrey and Nixon, George Wallace, taxes, the war in Southeast Asia.

When the boy shuffles in, a few heads turn then its back to newspapers, the ballgame and the heated discussion Clydesdale is chairing.

Outside, a semi from Schwermann’s, a trucking firm in town, rumbles down Walnut returning to Marquette Cement for another load. Most of the men in town work at the cement plant that is the life and blood of the town. Others work at Westclox, more aptly and perhaps affectionately referred to by locals as the “clock factory” in Peru, or Sundstrand in LaSalle.

At the “clock factory”, they don’t make clocks. They make fuses for bombs.

There are a couple carloads of men who commute daily to Caterpillar in Aurora, Peoria, or Pontiac about an hour away. There’s a new steel mill coming in at Hennepin not far from Oglesby. It’ll be good for the local economy.

There are a lot of French-sounding names in the Illinois Valley. Joliet. Marquette. LaSalle. Tonti. Hennepin. Creve Coeur. These French explorers and missionaries are remembered with the names of towns and streets.

Oglesby was once called Portland due the cement mined and manufactured in area. Later Portland was renamed Oglesby in honor of Richard Oglesby the governor of Illinois, 1865-1869.

History is what reminds us of who we are and where we have come from.

The boy and his family (mother and younger brother) live on Magnal Avenue (a couple of blocks east of Lou J’s on Walnut). If you stand on Magnal Avenue and face south, you can see the giant storage bins of the cement plant rising up in the distance. In the morning, there is always a fine layer of cement dust on everything. Likewise, on most mornings you can hear the drivers at Schwermann’s starting their diesel engines that screech and shimmy before engines turn over and rumble.

The neighborhood is also the closest thing that Oglesby has got to an ethnic neighborhood with dozens of Italian families, some who are related to one another living east of Magnal Avenue. Get within a block of this neighborhood and you get a good whiff of Italian cooking seasoning the air and the omniscient pungent aroma of garlic. On Saturday nights, especially in the late spring and summer you can hear men shouting as they bocce ball on a court behind Angelo’s Tavern.

In an adjoining room, the boy plops down at a table in the rear and grabs a menu stuck between sugar, salt, and pepper shakers. It’s strictly out of habit; he knows what he wants already: Cherry Coke (a little heavy of the cherry syrup) and an order of fries, but it makes him feel important with that menu in his hand.

“Are you ready to order?” asks Bonnie, who has to work the counter, waitress the tables, and also work as cashier.

She’s not a tall woman, but she towers over the young boy who hasn’t looked up from the menu yet. It’s got to be her hairstyle. It’s 1968, but her Beehive hairstyle, heavy on the Aqua Net hairspray says otherwise; more like circa 1955. She snaps her gum and taps her foot knowing that the young boy is going to order the same darn thing.

He looks up from the menu and smiles. “A large Cherry Coke and an order of French fries, please.”

“Extra cherry syrup?” she asks. She knows the drill; knows what all the regulars like.

“Yes, please.”

She smiles and writes down his order. He’s got good manners, she thinks as she walks back to the counter. He’s not like the noisy older grade school students or the freshmen and sophomores from L-P High School that stop in later.

There’s something about that kid that’s special but she can’t put her finger on it.

She knows his mom and has seen her out a few times at some of the local bars. One time she bumped into her at Sparkle’s Cleaners and Laundromat. She knows how hard it is for her working two jobs and raising two boys. She’s got two boys of her own at home and waitressing six days at week at Lou J’s is also barely enough to make ends meet.

With his order on the way, the boy gets up and walks over to the Wurlitzer jukebox. He fishes for a quarter in one of his pockets. A quarter still gets you three plays and he knows what songs already: “Hey Jude” by The Beatles, “Those Were the Days” by Mary Hopkin and “Green Tambourine” by the Lemon Pipers.

He likes music but he hasn’t gotten into it as much as other kids his age. His mom has a lot of records she’s always playing: Johnny Cash, The Beatles, The Supremes, Elvis Presley, and Gene Pitney. Sometimes his mom drinks a lot when she listens to Johnny Cash.

Two years ago, he started watching The Monkees on television. He knows all the lyrics to the theme song. He doesn’t know that they are not a “real” band. He likes their music though. They’re cool and groovy.

Groovy. He likes the way that word sounds. He picked up that word from watching The Monkees and Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in.

He started using the word over the summer. The first time was at a carnival in Spring Valley when he rode the Double Ferris Wheel.

“Wow, that was groovy,” he told Tommy Sharpe after he had ridden the Ferris wheel.

He had gone to the carnival with the Sharpe boys: Tommy, Ray, and Danny. It was the first time to go anywhere without one of his parents or relatives. Danny was the oldest and had left for basic training during the summer. Now he was in Vietnam.

The song remains the same but not the memories

The other night, a song reminded me of a girl from a long, long time ago.

It is funny how the mind works and what you might remember at any given moment; or what memories might be triggered by something you smell, hear, taste, or see.

The other night, I was listening to this song “Hospitality on Parade” (1975) by the group Sparks and it reminded me of eating Christmas cookies my grandmother baked and Pat Hardy, this girl I sort of had a crush on back in high school. I had bought the band’s 8-Track Indiscreet and was listening to it a lot back in 1975 around the holidays and when I was hanging out with Pat and some of her friends on the east side of LaSalle, going to lunch with her and friends to McDonald’s, or stopping to visit her at work at Bergner’s before I went to work across the street at K-Mart.

One memory begets another memory.

I was walking down the street, coming home from a long day at the language institute the other night, with this song on my iPod when I happened to look up at the second floor of this beauty shop across the street and noticed a light on in the window. The building looks more western in design than most of the homes and buildings on this street—western in that it didn’t have a blue or red tile roof.

For a split second, when I saw that light on in the window, with the drapes drawn, that song by Sparks playing, the cold, foggy night, thinking of Christmas, I was instantly teleported back in my mind to December 1975. It reminded me of Pat’s house and the times we hung out with each other.

Those days and nights back in 1975 were a fleeting moment of innocence that would be gone forever. Six months later, I was in the Air Force and although Pat and I exchanged many letters the first couple of months I was in the military, I would only see her four times in the next thirty-three years.

The other night though, for as long as it took for those memory tumblers to click into place, I got to see an old friend in my memories as I walked home.

Oh Tannenbaum!

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree,
Your branches green delight us.
They’re green when summer days are bright;—
They’re green when winter snow is white.
O, Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree,
Your branches green delight us!

I don’t remember the exact year that we went “artificial” with our Christmas tree instead of purchasing a fresh one, but it was the year after mom had it out once and for all with one hapless Douglas fir that refused to stand up straight.

Mom never had much luck when it came to choosing the best tree. I mean, they always looked good in the parking lot of Moore’s A&W where we had picked up ours, usually the first week of December (back when people started thinking about Christmas after Thanksgiving and not sometime in the middle of October). However, more often than not, once we got that “good-looking” tree back home, it wasn’t as good as we had thought when we picked it out.

There were some underlying factors that explained this. Maybe it was choosing it at night when it was too cold to spend a little extra more time scrutinizing the Douglas firs on sale. Maybe it was the poor lighting; you know the strands of 60-watt bulbs illuminating the lot created a lot of shadows that could make any scrawny, crooked tree look good. Then of course there was the timing—get to Moore’s too late and all the good ones had already been picked through.

There were one or two good Christmas tree years when the one we had bought at Moore’s cooperated when Mom placed it in the red and green metal stand and screwed in the three butterfly-like screws to hold it up.

And even if there were some bare spots in the tree, we could always turn it around so they would face the back or fill them in with some extra ornaments. Problem was you sometimes didn’t know what the tree was going to be like when you did get it home. Once it “warmed up” inside the house, those bare spots suddenly appeared.

Then there were the needles. Unless you cut down your own there was no way of knowing just “how fresh” your tree really was until after you got it home. It smelled fresh at Moore’s—you know that wonderful and delightful Christmas tree smell that is one of the top ten great smells in the world, just after a new car smell—but just how fresh it would be in your living room was another story.

Needles that might have seemed fresh when first inspected now suddenly appeared dry. It was not like you could go back to Moore’s and exchange the tree for a fresher one; nor could you get your money back (at least I never knew anyone of trying) for having been sold a potential fire hazard. Caveat emptor as far as I know does not include Christmas trees.

“We just won’t be able to leave the lights on too much,” Mom would say when it was determined that the tree posed a potential fire risk.

At night, we could hear the needles dropping—which gave new meaning to the expression so quiet you could hear a needle, in this case, needles dropping. Of course, you could keep your tree “fresh” if it hadn’t already been dried out by filling up the stand with water and adding some concoction for keeping it fresh through the holidays, at least until the day after Christmas when most trees were thrown out. Mom always swore that plain tap water and a few Bayer aspirin worked best to keep one fresh.

That was a lot to keep in mind when it came to having a “real” Christmas tree and if one were lucky, that Douglas fir purchased from Moore’s would be fresh, would stand up straight, and have minimal bare patches.

That was not the case the Christmas mom threw the tree out the door.

I know it was tough for mom being a single parent and when the holidays rolled around it got tougher for her because she always went all out to make sure my brother and I had a good Christmas.

Nothing it seemed was going mom’s way two weeks before Christmas that year with the tree she had bought at Moore’s. A friend from work had taken up to Moore’s one night after work and she picked, what she thought was a decent one, but when she brought it home and started to put it up, it just wasn’t going to cooperate.

It all started when she couldn’t get the tree to stand up straight. No matter how many times she positioned it in the middle of the stand and tightened the screws, it kept on leaning to one side. Finally, when it cooperated and stood straight up that was when she noticed the bare spot. She tried to turn the tree around, but it started to lean again. She tightened the screws in the stand again and turned the tree around one more. Now she had a real Leaning Tower of Pisa on her hands and no matter how many times, she tried to get that Douglas fir to stand it up straight, it refused to cooperate. That must have been the breaking point.

“Open the door,” Mom said as she grabbed the tree and started toward the door. This was followed by a few expletives—the ones if we ever used would result in our mouths being washed out with Lava Soap.

“What?” I asked, looking up from the box of ornaments I had been going through.

“I said, open the door.”

“Mom, you’re not serious are you?”

Suddenly, I had this terrible image of a tree-less Christmas. My younger brother, waiting in the wings to start hanging tinsel knew that something was up when he heard the tone of our mom’s voice.

“Out of my way,” Mom said.

And that’s when mom threw the tree out the door.

Well, not exactly threw out. The tree still had some fight left in it and refused to go through the door. Had my mother given it one more chance to stand upright and spread its branches she might have kept it. Instead, the tree was halfway out the door now. Two hard pushes later the tree was out the door and its wake a trail of needles and broken branches.

My brother and I were too stunned to say anything. Then my brother started crying when he realized that Santa might not come because we wouldn’t have a tree.

“What are we going to do,” my brother sobbed. “S-S-S-S-Santa won’t come now because we don’t have a tree.”

“Shh,” I said. “Don’t worry. Santa will still come.”

After mom had cleaned up the needles and the broken branches she started to fix dinner. Not another word was spoken about the tree that was still on the front porch. She hadn’t put away the decorations so that was still a good sign that all was well and that Christmas for the Miller family had not been canceled.

The next day was Sunday and the tree was still on the porch but on Monday when my brother and I woke up it was gone.

“Oh, no we’re doomed,” I said doing by best Dr. Smith (Lost in Space) impersonation.

“What are we going to do?” my brother asked.

There was only thing we could do now: call our grandparents. They would know what to do.

“Don’t worry,” I assured my brother, “everything’s going to be okay.”

As soon as our mom had gone to work that morning, and before we trudged to school, I was on the phone with my grandmother. I told her what had happened. Of course she told me how terrible it was and that I shouldn’t worry.

When my brother and I came home from school that afternoon we were surprised to see another tree on the porch.

“See, I told you that everything would be all right,” I said.

My brother grinned. In my brother’s eyes I had worked some Christmas miracle, but more importantly, he knew that Santa would be coming.

Mom had already gotten home from work and had started dinner when my brother and I walked in. She didn’t say anything about the tree.

“Wash up boys,” she said. “Dinner will be ready soon.”

I knew if mom found out that I had called my grandmother she would be angry so I decided not to say anything about it at all. Play dumb, that’s what I would do.

Dinner that evening was meat sauce over mashed potatoes—kind of like Shepherd’s Pie. It was served to us in the school cafeteria and I liked it so much that I had persuaded my mom to cook it for us at home. I was probably the only kid in Illinois who liked cafeteria food so much that he could persuade his mother to cook the same dish.

“That’s a nice tree on the porch,” Our mother finally said as we began to dig into that mound of spuds topped with thick spaghetti meat sauce. “That was very kind of your grandmother to get us a tree this year.”

“Huh?” I asked, as I broke one of my mother’s cardinal rules—talking with my mouth full of food. Was there something I didn’t know? Was there something I missed?

“She wasn’t sure if we already had a tree and wanted to buy one if we didn’t,” our mother explained. And then she looked at me from across the table and smiled. “Don’t worry if some things don’t always go the way you want them to at first.”

I never did figure out if my grandmother had called my mother or if it was the other way around. Nothing more was said about the tree that was soon put up and decorated with all its lights shining brightly. This time it stood straight up and I was also probably walking a little taller, too.

Cheeseburger, fries and a vanilla shake

McDonald'sFriends and other people who know me have often been astonished with my good memory—the way that I can remember specific dates, events, and other reminiscences.

I don’t think my good memory is anything to get excited about—though some people seem to think so. Perhaps a lot has to do with where I am at—you know, living alone here in Korea where waxing nostalgic is one of my hobbies. I have to admit, when it comes to waxing nostalgic, I am pretty good at it.

There are some things that I just haven’t forgotten because they were special and important when they happened—like the first time I went to McDonald’s and had a cheeseburger, fries and vanilla shake.

That’s what I was thinking about today when I went to Mickey D’s on the first floor of Home plus—about a mile-and-a-half down the road from the Woosong Language Institute and the Fifth Floor Fitness Club. I was thinking about the first time I had a cheeseburger, fries and vanilla shake while I was ordering, you guessed it, a cheeseburger, fries and vanilla shake.

I know what you are thinking about right now—especially if you read my blog last week about tips for a successful workout and my concept of a “cheat meal”—what the heck are you doing ordering this? Well, I didn’t say that I had to eat all my cheat meals on one day—I like to spread them out over the week and with my weight still at 75 kilos, give me a break, or in the parlance of McDonald’s, I deserved a break today—a McDonald’s break. You know, how that jingle used to go, “you deserve a break today, yada yada yada….”

Now about that first time I went to McDonald’s—it must have been back in either 1965 or 1966 in Bloomington, Illinois. I was with my grandparents and we were coming back from a suburb of St. Louis after visiting my Uncle Ron. My grandfather was not too keen on taking I-55 to St. Louis, so after having gone south on Rt. 51, he crossed over to Rt. 66 in Bloomington—yes, the Rt. 66 all the way to St. Louis.

And that’s the way we had come back, stopping off at that McDonald’s in Bloomington on Rt. 51 that ran through Bloomington and Normal.

As soon as I saw those Golden Arches, which to me will forever remind me of the first time I went to McDonald’s, I jumped up and down in the backseat of the orange Plymouth, about as much as an eight-year-old could in the backseat and begged my grandparents to stop. Well, you know how grandparents are when it comes to spoiling their grandchildren and it didn’t take too much begging on my part for my grandfather to navigate that 1959 or 1960 Plymouth with the “shark fins” in the back.

Cars were like tanks back then and required some darn good driving skills to get in and out of parking lots. Come to think of it, today’s SUV’s, luxury cars or Humvees have nothing on those classic cars of the 50’s or early 60s when it comes to cruising the streets in style. Give me a car from that time period any time.

After my grandfather found a parking place big enough to park a bus, he pulled in and I bounded out of the car; well, not exactly bounded out. I had to wait for my grandmother to put down the seat for me (it was a two-door Plymouth) for me to get out, not to mention give me a few dollars. Then I bounded, no I think skipped is probably what I did, into McDonald’s.

And when I emerged a few minutes later with my food, my grandmother who would often tell this part of the story, told everyone how I was grinning from ear to ear when I walked back to the car, and what would be another first for me—to eat that cheeseburger and fries and drink that shake in the backseat.

It’s nice to remember something special. My own cheeseburger in paradise—the paradise of my youth and the memories I cherish.

Cherry’s Merry Pranksters

If you asked Eddie Parker what happened on Halloween 50 years ago, he would swear on his father’s grave that he wasn’t afraid that Old Man Brown was waiting for them with a rock salt loaded shotgun on that fateful night.

“I swear he knew we was coming and was loaded for bear,” said Eddie taking a sip of his beer. “We had tipped over this outhouse the year before and he wasn’t about to let it happen again.

A small crowd has gathered around Eddie in Vinnie’s tap on a Saturday afternoon, a week before Halloween. Those sitting along the heavily varnished bar and who had heard the story before rolled their eyes or shook their heads in disbelief and turned back to a college football game on TV. They had heard this story just one too many times and all the embellishment that went along with it.

On this particular Saturday there were a few patrons who hadn’t heard the story and cajoled him with the promise of a few beers to hear him tell the story. Not that it would take too much cajoling; he loved to tell the story every year right around Halloween.

“It was cold and raining on that Halloween night,” Eddie begins in his raspy voice, “the night myself Larry, Sammy, and Bernie, better known as The Cherry Bombers decided to have one last Halloween fling before we graduated from high school.”

For four years running—ever since Eddie his cohorts starting terrorizing the community—they had become notorious for their Halloween pranks—from soaping windows to tipping over outhouses—pretty common pranks back in the late 1950s and early 1960’s in Cherry and other small communities when people still had outhouses to tip over.

However, on that fateful Halloween night 50 years ago they were about to meet their match when they pushed—literally—Floyd “Old Man” Brown too far. Brown, who had passed away in 1980 wasn’t that “old” back in 1958, he was only 50 but to everyone in town, especially the kids he was always referred to as Old Man Brown.

The “gang” had assembled at Elsie’s this popular diner for grade school and high school students on main street early in the evening for burgers and Cokes. Located just down the street from the two-story dark brick grade school that they had graduated from four years earlier, Elsie’s was the perfect starting point for their last night of Halloween shenanigans, and also good for an alibi—just in case they got arrested later and had to explain where they had been that night.

“We started off slow, just soaped a few windows and turned the metal bike rack that was in front of the grade school up on its end,” recalled Eddie. “Pretty harmless stuff. Then someone said, I think it was Sammy, God rest his soul, suggested we hit Old Man Brown’s place.”

“Sammy?” someone whispered.

“Vietnam,” one of the old-timers at the bar whispered. “Pleiku.”

There was a moment of awkward silence—reserved for such moments when you just found out that someone had died too soon in life. Eddie motioned for Jake the bartender to top off his glass. Old Style. He pauses, thinking about Sammy. Wanted to make a career out of the military. Remembers a catchy jingle for Old Style back in the 80’s – “Pure Brewed in God’s Country.” That would have been Wisconsin. Funny, that Wisconsin was God’s country.

He took another drink, remembered his place in the story.

“There were still a lot of outhouses in Cherry 50 years ago and Floyd Brown had one in his backyard. He still used his as most people did theirs. He had it all painted up really pretty like which made it all the more attractive for us to tip over which we had done the previous year.

“Well, as you can imagine he was pretty pissed about that and went around town at places like Waite’s Gulf Station and Sam’s Diner telling everyone that he was going to catch the culprits that he had done it. However, a few weeks later after he had cooled down and stood the outhouse back up, he had forgotten all about it. As for “us” culprits, we were off the hook.

Eddie took another drink.

“He must have known we had targeted his outhouse again that year because he was waiting for us,” Eddie continued. “Someone must have tipped him off.”

That someone, who was at the end of the bar, snickered—Tom “Tommy” Smith. When he was a kid he had lived next door to the Browns. Eddie shot him a dirty look. Tommy turned back to the football game.

“What happened?” asked Rich Davis, who had recently moved to Cherry from Aurora.

“Well, he was right about us coming back because he was out in it waiting for us. He figured that when we pushed it over like we had done the year before he would greet us with some rock salt from his double-barreled shotgun,” Eddie said grinning.

Some of the regulars who had heard the story before still liked to hear what happened next. This part of the story never got old.

“Except Old Man Brown never had time to get off a shot,” said Eddie. “He thought we would tip it over from the front; instead it was much easier for us to tip it over from behind. He never heard us coming.”

What happened next had passed into Cherry’s Halloween lore—at least for some of the people at the bar who had heard the story and had known Eddie and his gang. When they tipped the outhouse over, they tipped it too hard and it knocked Brown feet first into the open septic hole filled with months of putrid excrement. And in a flash of lightning, that was what Eddie and the others saw—an angry Old Man Brown shoulder deep in that septic hole. Fortunately for them the shotgun was out of Brown’s reach.

“That’s right, standing shoulder-deep in all his crap or someone else’s crap,” laughed Eddie. “He was so pissed and I swear we could see his face turning red in the darkness. We were laughing so hard we nearly pissed our pants.”

Everyone around the bar laughed.

“I’ll never forget that expression on his face,” added Eddie. “It was one of shock, anger, horror—all rolled up into one very pissed off man.”

“What did you guys do,” asked Rich sheepishly, as though he should have known what happened next. “Did you go back to Elsie’s—you know, to make your alibi stick?”

“Well, we could see that he was okay. It was a good thing we had pushed it from behind. Maybe if we had pushed it from the front he would have fallen in head first,” said Eddie grinning. “We just took off running and went home. The next day the sheriff came around. Old Man Brown hadn’t gotten a good look at us but he figured it was us. Except he couldn’t prove it.”

Tommy Smith, down at the end of the bar grunted and motioned for Jake to get him another beer.

“The sheriff gave us a stern warning. That’s all he could do,” said Eddie. “Well, we must have been too much for Old Man Brown because the following summer that outhouse came down once and for all.”

“What that was some story,” Rich said. “It was a good thing you did push it from behind.”

“That’s right,” added Eddie, “Otherwise I am sure myself and the others would still be carrying some rock salt scars.”

“Thanks for telling it again,” said Jake smiling as he brought Eddie another beer.

Eddie smiled and nodded.

“Don’t you ever get tired of telling that story?” asked Tommy Smith who had moved down the bar and now stood behind Eddie.

“Not as long as I know it still pisses you off that we didn’t get caught that night,” said Eddie grinning.

Corn Detasseling: A summer rite of passage

CornFor many teenagers growing up in America’s Midwest their first summer job is often not working at some fast food restaurant or other service-related employment, but instead detasseling corn.

The neat thing about corn detasseling was that you didn’t have to be 16 to work, but instead only 13.

Back in the summer of 1971, my friend Jim and I decided that was what we were going to do that summer having just turned that magical age of 13. So one summer afternoon, we hopped on the bus from Oglesby, Illinois to LaSalle—about a 20-minute ride—and went to the Unemployment Office where we signed up. (We had gone to the Social Security Office a few days earlier to get our Social Security Cards with that all-important Social Security Number which entered us in the system and allowed us to work and pay taxes.)

It took us longer to get to the office than it did for us to fill out the application form. And when we had finished filling it out, we were told that we would be given a call when to report to work—actually meet in the parking lot of the A&W Root Beer Stand where we would get on a bus to take us to the fields—sometime in the middle of July.

For those of your unfamiliar with this agrarian rite of passage and the science of hybridization, corn detasseling is the crucial last step in producing hybrid corn seed. It involves removing the pollen-producing top part of the plant, i.e., the tassel, so the corn can’t pollinate itself. Now if you had been paying attention the day in biology or botany class when your teacher was explaining how pollination works, you would know that if the corn couldn’t pollinate itself, pollen from another variety of corn grown in the same field would be carried by the wind, pollinating the detasseled corn. The result is corn that bears the genetic characteristics of both varieties and can produce healthier crops with higher yields.

Although that bit of pollination lore might have been lost on me back in 1971 and again a few years later in a high school biology class, it wouldn’t in 1986 when I took a biology class at Eureka College. I’m sure my college biology teacher Dr. Mike Toliver would be proud of my explanation.

Despite technological advances in agriculture, detasseling is still a task that for the most part needs a hand—a human hand or two, if you can excuse the pun—and that’s where the need for manual labor comes which must be done quickly because the detasseling season is short, around three weeks from mid-July to August. And that’s where all those teenagers come in (migrant workers supposedly want nothing to do with this minimum wage job); approximately 100,000 teenagers, according to some estimates by seed companies and detasseling contractors, have corn detasseled during the summer.

Now that I was officially employed I had to break the news to my grandparents who had planned to take me on a trip out west to the Dakotas and Montana where my grandmother’s grandmother was buried in Hays City, Montana. For months they had been talking about and planning for this trip and looking forward to having me along for the third summer in a row.

Well, suffice to say they did not take too kindly to me giving up this chance to go out west with them and of course, in my pubescent wisdom, it was more important for me to make money instead, of going on some “dumb trip with my grandparents.” After all, I was a teenager now and it wasn’t too cool to be hanging out with your grandparents when you could be making money.

Don’t worry, that wisdom, or should I say the lack thereof, would come back to haunt me over and over, time and time again every time I would see Mt. Rushmore on TV, in a movie, or in travel article, and think, “gee, I could have seen that in 1971.”

When the day finally came to start detasseling, I had to get up before the crack of dawn, which if I am not mistaken is still pretty darn early to have to start anything. My Mom, who was already up early waiting for her ride into work at Spiller & Spiller (a furniture factory where she bent tubes of steel into legs for kitchen tables and chairs) had already made me a couple of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and packed them in a brown paper sack along with some Twinkies. She had even frozen a can of Coca-Cola in the freezer the night before and wrapped it up in some newspapers for me.

Of all the things I might have done wrong that summer and would do wrong in the summers to follow before I finally went into the Air Force five years later, I have to say my Mom was pretty darn proud of me that I had a job that summer of 1971.

It took Jim and I about 30 minutes to walk from our homes to the parking lot of the A&W where there were about 50 other kids waiting for the buses to arrive. I recognized a few kids who had been in 7th grade with us; however, most of them were 8th graders, and high school freshmen and sophomores.

There was some older looking kid, probably a junior or senior in high school with a clipboard and calling off names. Looks like I had gotten there just in time. A few moments later, our names were called off.

It suddenly dawned on me that this was the first thing I had done without any parental supervision or adults around telling me what to do and what not to do. This was so cool. However, before I could revel with this sudden epiphany, two yellow school buses pulled into the parking lot. Of course Jim and I were expected to sit at the front of the bus with the rest of the younger kids while all the cool, older kids got to sit in the back.

From there, it was about a 30-minute ride to the fields we would be working that day. There was a kind of a staging area where the buses let off all the detasselers and everyone was put into smaller groups with a kind of squad leader or supervisor whose job it was to make sure that we did our job and if we left any tassels to get them and of course bawl us out for not doing our jobs.

There is not much to corn detasseling. All you had to do was reach up and snap off the tassel. That was it. Pretty easy and menial and back in 1971 worth every penny of the $1.25 an hour minimum wage we got.

First detasseling machines were used to detassel the corn—which detasseled about 50 percent of a field. Then that’s where the detasselers came in. Some of the older kids got to ride on these huge machines that carried eight to twelve detasselers for taller corn; however the majority of us would be walking the fields and snapping off those tassels that had been missed by the machine.

The first row was a piece of cake. This was going to be easy, I thought. Easiest money I had ever made. Unfortunately Jim and I were not in the same crew so there was no one to talk to as I slowly walked down the rows reaching up and snapping off those tassels. The two detasselers on either side of me must have been old hands at this because they left me in a cloud of pollen as they quickly moved down their rows.

It was right about now that I had wished I had brought along my transistor radio to listen to some music. It got pretty lonely out there.

That’s when I started to think about all the money I was going to make. Let’s see that was $1.25 an hour, eight hours a day, five days a week for three weeks. Yeah, that was going to be a nice lump sum of money. And to think I would have missed out on this had I gone out west with my grandparents.

I thought about what I was going to buy when I got my paycheck at the end of the detasseling season. First, there was this really cool electric guitar that I had my eyes on. Never mind that I didn’t know how to play the guitar; I would learn later. Next, with the money that was left over I would pick up some bell-bottomed jeans from Arlan’s Department Store. Finally, if there was any money still left, there were some cool beads at the 9th Circle Stonehenge Head Shop in LaSalle that I would like to have. And when I started 8th grade in the fall, I would be so cool in my new jeans, beads and playing my guitar.

And that’s what I thought about as I walked down that long, seemingly never ending row of corn snapping off the tassels. The day had gone on forever and when I asked my squad leader, who checked in on us from time to time, what time it was, he told me it was only 8:00.

I had only been working for one hour.

And then it started to get hot. July, sweltering, sticky, hot. It was a good thing I had remembered to wear a cap with that July sun blazing in the sky. It seemed hotter in those tall rows of corn and any breeze, was a welcomed relief. Suddenly it wasn’t so easy reaching up and snapping off those tassels. My neck started to hurt. My shoulders grew stiff. Pollen rained down on me and got inside my sticky, sweaty shirt and began to itch and itch and then really itch.

I never thought corn could be so tall.

When is this row going to end?

Thirty minutes later I emerged from the field. Fortunately, I was not the last one out. That would have been doomed me forever in the annals of corn detasseling not to mention make the other kids angry at me for having to make them wait. This time it would be some other poor soul. Once we had finished that field, we walked across a blacktop road and started down another one.

As the sun climbed higher in the sky, the day got hotter and more humid. I heard one of the crew leaders yelling at one of the detasselers for missing some tassels. My crew leader was pretty cool and spent most of the time hitting on a girl working the row next to mine. He was going to be a junior at LaSalle-Peru Township High School in the fall and she was going to be a sophomore. She had stripped down to a bikini top and made quite the impression on the crew leader. He had no time to check my row to see if I had missed any tassels. Good thing, considering how my young mind was wandering the few times I did get a glimpse of her snapping off them tassels.

Lunchtime and those peanut butter and jelly sandwiches never tasted better. And my Mom’s brilliant idea to freeze the Coca Cola the night before gave me an icy cold beverage to wash down those soggy, warm sandwiches.

After an hour, it was back to the fields and back to another seemingly endless row of corn with tassels waiting to be snapped off, but now with my arms, shoulders, and neck sore, it wasn’t as easy as it had been in the morning. My mouth was dry, my body was itching from all the pollen and the shimmering waves of heat that blanketed the field I was working in made it all the more miserable.

I thought about the guitar, the bell-bottomed jeans, Stonehenge, and the girl in the bikini top. I started to calculate how much money I was making with every tassel I snapped.

One more row finished. Then another. And then one more.

Finally, it was quitting time and a long bus ride home. Jim and I didn’t say much. We had only seen each other at lunch and he looked and felt just as beat as I did on the bus home.

When I got home I took the longest cool bath of my life and for dinner had BLT’s and iced tea. Good thing. I was too tired to eat.

That night when I went to bed and closed my eyes, all I could see was corn. Fields and fields of corn stretching as far as one could see into the distance. Corn, corn and more corn. Not exactly what you would call a field of dreams, either. I never saw so much corn in my life. And that was the last thing I remembered before I fell asleep.

“Jeffrey. Jeffrey. It’s 5:00.”

“Huh? What? 5:00?”

“Jeffrey, honey. It’s time to get up.”

“Just five more minutes, Mom.”

I rolled over and slept for another three hours.

That night my Mom didn’t say anything when she came home from work and made my favorite meal, spaghetti. In fact, she never said anything about whether or not she was disappointed with me for not going back to work. She would have something else to be disappointed with me by the end of that summer.

Jim never made it to the second day either.

My grandparents were disappointed when they returned from their vacation the following week and found out that I had quit after just one day. I wouldn’t hear the end of it for the next year—until they went on vacation again. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t be inviting me along.

The following year I went corn detasseling again and that time I lasted the entire two weeks and made enough money to buy a cassette recorder, tapes, and some other cool stuff. I never got that electric guitar though but I did see the girl in the bikini top in high school two years later.

Rain on me

imagesIt’s another rainy day in Daejeon—the kind of rainy day when you know it’s going to rain on and off all day. There are the occasional cloudbursts, not what you would call “raining cats and dogs” but more along the lines of a swirling, blowing rain that is accompanied by gusts of wind rushing down from the hills and mountains that make up so much of Korea’s topography/terrain.

Now when you talk about some real cloudbursts—when it rains so hard you can’t see anything in front of you—well that reminds me of this time when I was stationed at Howard Air Force Base in Panama and I got caught, better yet, stranded in one of them. I was working in the After Hours Support Unit—this section in the 24th Supply Squadron—where I took supply requests and delivered whatever had been ordered “after hours” (on weekends, holidays, and night). It was a real cushy job, one day on and three days off, but on the weekends or a holiday it was a 24-hour shift.

One Saturday afternoon, this call comes in from maintenance for a C-130 radome (a large, black cone-shaped covering for the radar on the front of the aircraft). This C-130 was from a squadron of Air Force National Guard C-130’s on TDY (temporary duty) rotation as part of the Southern Command’s mission in Central and South America. The radome came in a wooden box about the size of a Volkswagen and I had to use this enormous forklift to deliver it to the aircraft.

It was a beautiful day, the sun was shining, and the sky was this lovely azure blue accented with clumps of white, billowy clouds. Just a glorious day on the Isthmus of Panama. I started chugging down the flightline with this img_3374radome, soaking in the sunshine and humidity. Didn’t notice at first how those lovely, fleecy white clouds had turned gray and ominous. And when I did glance up the sky, wondering what the heck had happened to the sun that had been hidden by those clouds, it was too late.

The skies just opened up with a torrential downpour. There was nothing I could do but stop where I was. I turned off the engine and waited. The rain came down so fast and hard,  I couldn’t see beyond the forklift. It rained for about 10-15 minutes and then stopped. Those gray clouds turned white and fleecy and then the sun reappeared along with that lovely azure sky. I swear I could see the steam rising from the flight line.

As for myself, I was soaked but once the sun came out; my fatigues started to dry. I started the forklift and continued on my merry, chugging way down the flight line to the C-130’s. By the time I arrived, about 10 minutes later, my fatigues had pretty much dried.

Knee-high by the 4th of July

CornI wrote this blog post a year ago and the other night, I looked at it again after a friend had mentioned “knee-high by the Fourth of July.” Like a fine wine, it reads so much better now than when I first wrote it. I like this essay a lot. It’s one that I feel deserves a much wider audience.

It was back in the summer of 1981, right around this time in late June and I was riding in a van with Dick Verucchi and Alan Thacker on our way to Dixon, Illinois for a gig at a youth center. The owner of the youth center knew Dick and Alan from their Buckacre days and had been trying to get them—now as The Jerks—to play in Dixon for some time.

That was the summer—that rock and roll summer—of roadying for The Jerks, hang-ing out with Chris, going to Chicago Fest, and later a road trip to Atlanta.

As we drove to Dixon that hot, humid, summer afternoon, crisscrossing through America’s heartland of corn and soybean fields, Dick remarked that the corn seemed a bit taller than usual for this time of the summer.

“I remember growing up and listening to old timers say, ‘knee high by the Fourth’ but it’s not the way anymore,” said Dick. “Look at that corn out there, Sparks. That’s some mighty tall corn for June.”

“What do you think is the reason?” I asked, wondering if this was either another Dick Verucchi joke, or if he was really serious.

It wasn’t a joke. And Dick wasn’t really being that serious. He was just talking about corn and that it just seemed taller than in the past.

Today I was wondering what I’d be writing about or blogging about if I were back home right now? Would I be thinking about going on the road to Dixon with The Jerks and writing about Dick’s quip about the corn? Or would I be writing about an-other time and another place?

Sometimes when I am thinking about what I am going to write my mind and my soul begin to wander and invariably I am brought back to the Midwest; brought back to places like Cherry, Oglesby, and LaSalle three towns that I grew up in before I left home once and for all (or so I thought), but three towns that I still call home.

I guess it’s only natural to want to go back in your mind; kind of like some invisible umbilical cord to your past. But it’s more than that. It’s more than being a little wistful. It’s more than waxing nostalgic.

The death of one of my childhood friends this past week brought me closer to “back home” and reminded me of my humble roots. It really shook the tree as it were and made me think about “home” a lot.

I was thinking that if I were back home right now, how much I would love to go for a ride in the country. Of course, that is some really wistful thinking—not just for me, but for anyone back home with the price of gas the way it is now—but I was thinking how nice and perhaps how romantic it would be to head down some lonely stretch of blacktop, between the fields of corn and soybeans with the windows rolled down.

Perhaps in the distance there would be some giant gray and black thunderheads rolling in from the west. Maybe you know the kind I am talking about, this amor-phous rumpled black and gray mass of clouds filling the sky and reaching to the heavens. And if so, I’d probably be able to detect a hint of the impending rain in the stifling afternoon heat.

And later, if I could still find one somewhere, I would sit outside a Tastee Freeze with its yellow and pink neon framed against the night and enjoy a banana split or maybe—as that John Mellencamp mantra about Jack and Diane went—sucking on a chili dog.

And just about then, with those storm clouds overhead and mottled purple flashes and streaks of lightning shooting across the sky, you could feel the night getting cooler and smell that rain in the air and hear crickets chirping away—sounding the alarm before the first crack of thunder resonates across the land.

And you know, right now that would seem more exotic and charming than all the Golden Buddhas, mountain temples, and ancient Khmer ruins that I can see over here.

I haven’t had my fill yet of these things because I a migratory bird by nature and I need to see what is out there to report, document, catalog, interpret and under-stand. You know, the unexamined life is not worth living and all that stuff.

I am happy that I have had both worlds as it were, but right now this Friday evening in Korea I am wondering if the corn is already knee-high back home in Illinois.

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