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In My Father’s Footsteps: An Introduction

“The goal isn’t to live forever.
The goal is to create something
that will.”

My father was a great teacher. He taught me how to tie my shoes and how to climb a tree. He taught me the words to some of his favorite songs, and how to savor the last bite of ice cream in my bowl. He taught me many things, but the one thing I value most is the legacy he left behind.

My father made a few mistakes during his lifetime, but he was honest, sincere, and genuine. And when he said he was going to do something, you could be certain he’d do it. He was a true friend to anyone who needed one.  He did his best to be a good person, and taught his children good values.

My dad died Sept. 6, 2008, and donated his body to the University of Iowa Hospitals, his way of paying them back for saving his life after a car accident in 1967.

He went peacefully, but unexpected, and we all grieved in our own way. I kept busy, helping my mom go through his things and decide what to give to Goodwill.

As I was cleaning the storage room out one day, I opened a box full of computer paper. As I started reading it, I realize it was his life story. He started writing it when he had his knee replaced in 1994 and became obsessed with it.

“I think it was really good therapy for him,” my mom told me later. “Unfortunately, he never finished it.”

I thumbed through the pages, stopping on a memory from his childhood.

“Another sound recorded on my relatively unblemished memory was the old Jewish junk man who made frequent trips down our alley with his horse and wagon in the summertime. His horse wore an old hat with holes cut out for its ears.

Long before I could hear the creak of groaning wheels and soft clomp-clump of hooves in soft alley ashes, the warm summer air carried to me Mr. Golad’s sad, low litany of monotony: ‘Rags? Old rags,’ Old Golad intoned. ‘Rags…old rags…’ And I waited for the magnificent parade to lurch slowly past our place.

Sometimes the trio paused-horse, wagon, and Mr. Golad-and I could see both horse and human were in state of semi-siesta. The junk man comfortable in the shade of the umbrella, horse content to occasionally startle a fly with that fantastic control of its skin muscles, until the old man clucked gently and the wagon creaked along down the alley toward 16th Street, until the warm summer air covered up his unforgettable song:

‘Rags. Rags? Old raaa-a-a-a-ags.’

I would listen for a long time before it would evaporate into silence. Or perhaps it would simply blend with the burr of a bee and my attention would turn to this busy bug invading some unsuspecting blossom.”

As I read the words, I envisioned myself there with him, experiencing the sounds and smell of the glorious summer day. I read the next page, and the next, and before I knew it, an hour had passed.

His story was too good to just leave in a box. It needed to be shared, if only with his family.  I gathered up all the pages I could find and took them upstairs.

My mother told me my brother had more of Dad’s story, and once he brought them over, I began the task of transcribing them onto my computer, so it would be easier to share with my family.

As I typed, I read his story, and I soon realized I was experiencing my father’s life as he lived it, from his point of view; his innermost thoughts, his dreams and aspirations, and even his darkest fears. Some of the stories were familiar, but many I was reading about for the first time.

Like many children, I didn’t always appreciate my father, and suddenly it was too late. But I have been given a great gift. I was able to know my father as a man, and to appreciate him for who he was.

Chapter 1

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In My Father’s Footsteps: Chapter 14

“The best things in life are the people you love, the places you’ve seen, and the memories you’ve made along the way.”

I’ve told you before how my dad loved to laugh. He’d actually look for opportunities to make a joke. I’m sure some people may have seen that as a sign that he wasn’t taking life seriously, but then, when you have nine kids under one roof, you have to do something to keep your sanity.

No doubt he saw humor as a way of venting his frustrations. You know the old saying: “If I don’t laugh, I’ll cry.” I’m sure Dad thought that a few times in his life.

Growing up in a large family with one bathroom was pretty tough. Imagine three teenage girls screaming at the tops of their lungs at 7 in the morning, all trying to get ready for school. Suddenly, a piercing scream echoed through the house:

“Get your stuff off my bed! Take off my shirt!  Get out of the bathroom! I’m telling Mom! MOOOOOOMMMM!”

One of two things would happen: Dad would lose it, and  burst through the bedroom door, threatening to smack the closest kid, or he’d make a silly joke, and make everyone even madder. But at least it quieted us down and no one got hurt.

Having four kids of my own, I know how maddening their fighting can be. But I think a sense of humor is necessary, if just to maintain your sanity.

The Finn kids all loved to sing cowboy songs and some of it rubbed off on me. So when they were asking for volunteers to sing solos in a recital at St. Matthews, I raised my hand.

“When the work’s all done this fall,” I told them when they asked the name of the tune. A couple of the Finn boys were going to play guitar and sing “The Streets of Laredo.” Or was it Ring-Dang-Do?”

You people all know I had to be hiding behind the door while the self-confidence was being handed out. So, my rehearsing of the number, “When the work’s all done in the fall,” was behind closed doors.

Correction: My solo was the cowboy lament that begins,  “May I sleep in your barn tonight, Mister, for it’s cold lying out on the ground. And I have not tobaccy or matches…”

And so on. To the tune of Red River Valley.

I think the title is, “The Letter.”

And got the song down so pat, this old cowboy-western Iowa twang and all-had to fight back the tears.

“Now the note said my wife and the stranger,

 Ran away and had taken our son.

Hmmm….Hmmmmm…Hmmmm, only God up in Heaven,

Ever knew what that stranger had done.”

But during the dress rehearsal, the heart breaking news filtered back. “Tommie, your song had to be cut; the program’s running long.”

My first thought was, (That hatchet man must have heard me sing!)

Confession time: Inwardly I was so relieved. I wondered no one saw that the weight lifted from my shoulders automatically turned up the corners of my mouth.

The back side of their decision was a little ego imp that nagged my quiet time back in the third grade classroom.  Maybe I do go a little flat in spots…Sure, I admit I squeaked a couple real high notes…But heck, Sister, I ain’t a professional. So why the B in music if I can’t sing?

That wasn’t my first trauma at St. Matthews. Rhythm band tryouts in First Grade I yearned with my heart to be chosen for the drum, triangle, or tambourine.

I ended up with the sticks.

“This old man, he plays six; he plays knick-knack on my sticks. With a back pack paddy whack Give a dog a bone, This old man came rolling home.”

“Tommie Meis, are you daydreaming?”

I couldn’t admit my  heart wasn’t in a couple sticks being banged together.

Besides, they stung my hands on the downbeat. That wasn’t the first time I felt disappointment. But there was another emotion; rebellion. I decided if I couldn’t have my own way, I’d break the rhythm.

I marched to a different drummer.

A lot of old thoughts relate back to St. Matthews . The Christmas show they called a Christmas Cantata. All these musicals were lots of fun. And outdoor things like the Fall Festival were happy times.

I remember (Dr.) Billy Franey and his older sister, Alicia, dancing a tango in costume. Another time, Father Kearn lifted little Mike Hines up on the stage and the crowd applauded until he sang “My Wild Irish Rose.”  Mickey was the grandson of Father’s housekeeper and a beautiful boy soprano. Mickey’,  brother Jack, was one of my very best friends at I.C. The only time Jack ever got in trouble with the nuns was when he got caught drawing airplanes in study hall.

Of course, he grew into a fine artist. Jim Duggan was in a grade ahead of us. He had a similar creative flair, later attended the Chicago Art Institute. But Duggan got sidetracked by the love bug. More practical painting (living room, bedroom, and bath) pre-empted the fine arts, Jim never regretted it.

Jack Hines, Pat McPartland, and Jack Campbell; we were all pals over at Cottage Grove Dick Morrison and Chuckie, his brother, and Ann his little red-head sister, were neighbors of ours. But something about the Morrisons, something aloof, a dignity, kept them out of reach.

I think of how proud Dick was of his Indian Blood. Ben loved their sister, Ann. He ran across Dick in Dallas.

The bunch of us used to play a lot of catch, and I usually ended up jamming a finger or a thumb; cramped my style. Or I’d see how far I could throw it but all I ever did was strain my arm.

That took the fun out of sports for me. Besides being clumsy and inept I had a big butt to boot.

I guess I should have kept up my piano lessons. My love of the lyrical was certainly on my side. On the debit, my grasp of things mechanical, coordinating all 88 black and white keys into a pleasant sound-gave me musical nightmares. Sister Mary Virginia was on my side in theory, in spirit, in fact. She had deduced, “sister needs someone nearby to stay after school to help her clean the classroom. But it isn’t in the budget. Sister Therese is willing to exchange piano lessons for the work.”

Mom was amenable. It was I who proved undependable. See, I daydreamed of music pouring from my fingertips. But I’d forget to bring my practice book from home on piano lesson days.

In these situations, teacher sought to incorporate memory into my piano forte; Thomas no book? Thomas no lesson.

Birth defect has a nasty sound, right? I find it infinite easier to accept Dad’s argument: “Did we drop you on your head?” Takes it out of the realm of possibility into the area of probability.

I’m talking about credence!

Whichever school of thought you attend, I’m tied to the millstone of a poor memory;  and people won’t let me forget it! Call it daydreaming or absent-mindedness or lack of interest. It boils down to not remembering when or what to do this or that. Most always this is accompanied by the equally unnerving How or Why.  (The topic keeps sliding dangerously near News Writing I-the Five W’s.)

The upshot, memory served, is that I kept forgetting my songbook from home on the piano lesson days. And since sister teacher was an adamant Eve—no book; no lesson—I found myself tipping strips of desks for sister to sweep under, after school, for free!

Funny how my love of music has been a life’s companion, including boys choir.; but instruments musical—even reading music—escaped unscathed.

The closest thing I came to sight singing was to go up when the little birdies on the telephone wire went up; and go down, when they were on a lower perch.

Familiarity. Memorizing is really the only sure way I knew of personally possessing a beautiful song.

I take it back. At 65, (1990?) I’m alert to the fact that the simple note needs more time; and lots of little filled in black notes—often side by side—are warning flags. Don’t dilly dally.

I’m no dumbski!

The bane of any dream of a musical career, however, must be blamed on the limited range of my vocal cords. I know how a guitar string feels…strained.

Let me hasten to state, the early demise of my musical aspirations was not without positive effect; remember, “Summer Days are made for Hiking,” with a certain fondness. Maybe it’s why I loved those walks out to Indian Creek with my dog; out Cottage Grove.

I’ve mentioned Jack Kolar from 19th Street, Dad’s first Meis Food Shop. We were true friends so it hit me hard when they moved to Dixon, Ill.

Melancholy was my middle name and I brooded about the house at 224 as though he had died, instead of just moved. But I took it personally.

It was a quiet day. Guess I was the only one in the house. I didn’t know where Carolyn  Davis was working. Absently, I picked out several notes on the lower end of the keyboard. I repeated them again and again. Started humming a sad dirge. Suddenly overcome with the magnitude of my loss, I sang, “Poor Jack Kolar…”

Now, I have never studied anything approaching the Anatomy of Creativity, but I know what I like. And I like the expressive depth of the words, “Poor Jack Kolar,” so I sang them again. With feeling.

And this time, I made the simple unadorned notes THUNDER! When I rendered this requiem to a friend a third time, I only not assigned emotion normally reserved for immediate family, and expanded the sound until it filled the house. I made my whole body sway dramatically into each doleful note. And back out, gracefully retarding just a mournful moment, energy drained, before attacking the next segment of Poor Jack Kolar.

My first conscious inkling of a possible interruption wasn’t something heard; it was entirely sensory. I ignored it.

There it goes again. I made a mental pause, but nevertheless lunged headlong into another glorious rendition of “Poor Jack Kolar.” My mistake.

I paused, like a person does when he is talking to himself, and senses the two of them are not alone. The first sound I heard, or thought I heard was a titter. I couldn’t believe anyone would spoil the sanctity of one’s spiritual experience.

Actually, I was thinking, “What a rotten thing to do!” I’d been caught in an unguarded moment, and I knew it. I recognized Carolyn’s giggle from the kitchen. By this time, I was standing by the piano bench; defensively, I suppose.

She stuck her head around the corner and I have never witnessed such pure glee on the face of a grownup. Her face was bright sunlight; a bit triumphant, if you’re asking. And he laughing eyes couldn’t contain the pleasure of the moment.

Dick Morrison was there, too.  He had knocked on the back door for me. Carolyn quietly let him in, lifting the universal sign for silence. After all, no one enjoys a recital alone…

I closed the piano, fortissimo. I could feel my face flush.

“No, no, go on. It’s good. We like it!” But they couldn’t stop laughing; the magic stopped.

I’d been had.

If you discover me repeating something, bear with me. It may add some small sparkle to complete the mosaic. The thing is, there’s no rhyme or reason to the order which I set things down. Lately I’ve been going back to 1620 E Avenue; I keep thinking there’s something I left out.

For instance, there’s this great big coconut-it may have been from the Wells’ things from the attic—that challenged me to crack it open. From this I learned the meaning of frustration.

Unfortunately, all I ever managed to find out about what’s inside is recorded in the deep scratches on the tough shell. Eventually, these also faded subsequent efforts and their polishing affect.

This kind of recall gathers in a little group in our backyard; homemade hammock between twin oaks. Huge limb of one of these hardwoods that crashed into the kitchen corner of the house in a terrifying storm. The “ice machine we mad geniuses put together with pick-up.

That’s what Dad called the early refrigeration that frequently kept him up all night to keep the meat from spoiling.

I marveled, watching while Mr. Hess strung together barrel staves with wire, and hung the gently rocking hammock between the oaks. But you had to be real careful when you gingerly approached this homemade marvel. If you didn’t measure the balance of your body with the unpredictable sensitivity of that hammock, it could flip-flop and dump you on the ground.

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In My Father’s Footsteps: Chapter 13

“Every summer, like the roses, childhood returns.”
– Marty Rubin

I bought a horse when I was 11 at an auction. I didn’t intend on buying a horse, but when the bidding started at $10, and only one person was bidding on it, I saw my chance to make one of my biggest dreams come true.

I went to the auction in Walker with my friend’s family. They were looking to buy some new horses and asked if I wanted to go along. “And if you see a horse you like, we’ll lend you the money and you can pay us back.”

This was way before cell phones, and since I had no way of asking my parent’s permission, I decided to give my folks the benefit of the doubt and throw caution to the wind.

Seeing as how this was my first experience, Jenny’s mom, Ann, told me how to do it; if I wanted to bid, I should hold the sign up to let the auctioneer know I wanted to continue with the bidding.

The bidding rose a dollar or two at a time, and when I looked over at the man bidding against me, he smiled, and then shook his head at the auctioneer. I bought Star for $27.

When we got back to my friend’s farm, I called my mom and dad and excitedly told them the good news.

“Horses cost a lot of money,” my mom told me. “Where are you going to keep it? How will you feed it? Who will pay your vets bills?”

Honestly, I hadn’t really thought about it, but those were minor details. I owned a horse!

My dad didn’t say much. But he was generally supportive, and bought cereal from Quaker at wholesale, which he gladly shared with Jenny’s family. He also paid the boarding fees every month. Every Wednesday he picked me up after school and drove me out to the farm, just off of County Home Road, so I could care for Star, bringing with him a little snack, just in case I was hungry.

I don’t think I ever thanked him for doing that for me, but I think he knew it was an unforgettable experience for me.  That’s what parents do for their kids.

But I know for a fact, there aren’t many kids who can say their parents would understand if they bought a horse without asking first.

Some of my very fondest memories involve my cousin Nute Anderson. He was my second cousin; mother’s first. Her Aunt Ella’s youngest and only son. This family of mostly girls was full-blooded Norwegian and I loved them dearly; the few visits to their various farm homes mostly!

I think the first summer’s visit was to a big farm house just this side of Fairfax, You can still see it on your left, set way back, probably a thousand yards; all by itself…on the way to the Amana Colonies.

Imagine a relaxed manner of living, when sitting in a swing watching the sun go down blesses the eyes. Thousands and thousands of sunsets have come and gone and I still remember the ones then.

Aunt El and her husband Andrew, thoughtful pipe smoke curling sun-cured features, put their arms protectively around small shoulders. There was Nute and Margey and I, sitting there in this kind of aura of family love; silent at the sense of awe spun in the peace and quiet. A pleasant black dog lay obedient at our face.

Nobody spoke; just a gentle sigh from the swing.

Nobody told me that moment was giving birth to remembrance.

But another incident that trip terrified me. Andrew let us boys ride the huge plow horse back from the creek, after taking it there for watering. Nute and I would go wading to cool off.

This night of the accident, Nute’s father was leading the horse and we were bouncing about this broad back, too wide to straddle.

I never knew the details. Andrew let out a bellow; the poor dumb beast of burden had stepped on his foot. I recall vividly the measured moans of most the excruciating pain that escaped his lips with each lips.

Like tears men cry seem wrenched from somewhere inside their souls, this man’s misery orchestrated silence in the presence of unutterable agony.

No cursing. No retribution. Andrew Anderson was leading the animal loosely when the mishap occurred. He continued to precede the cause of his discomfort.

Only his groans and a slight limp gave it away.  When he took his shoe off on the porch, a Guinea hen startled.

Already the man’s foot had turned a dark blue, almost black. Made me sick.

Next time I visited Cousin Nute was in a little house near Bertram. East of town between Mt. Vernon Road and Highway 30, not yet built then. a few thing stand out.

One was, my cousin warned me about the kids in the house down the road. “Mama won’t let me play with them,” he said. “Not since I told her they took baby sparrows and nailed them to the end of an orange crate then skinned them alive to watch them writhe.

This was a violence visit then, because besides the baby bird bit, Nute and I walked over the fields with a nickel each, Aunt El gave to us, to spend at the only store in Bertram.

Come here, Nute hollered. And he showed me a sheep, bright red blood splashed on white wool where a sheep-killin’ dog had torn its throat out. “Just for the thrill of the kill.”

“Oh, they’ll shoot the wild dog eventually,” he told me. “But not before it does more damage.” It was prophetic; we found two or three more carcasses within the hour, before we even reached the dusty road that was Bertram.

My cousin explained that dogs often go bad when folks abandon them. But a good farm dog can get into trouble without meaning. Sometimes they find it’s so much chasing sheep, it becomes a habit.

“Once they taste blood, Tom, that dog is a no-good dog forever. You can never trust ‘em again.” Nute paused. “Looks of all these dead sheep, Novak’s up against a whole pack of wild dogs.”

I was glad when we got back home.

Their place by Newhall was my favorite; maybe because I was older. But more likely because Nute introduced me to a Tumbling Turd Bug. No, I’m not kidding. That’s what he called it., and I was enthralled.

he didn’t know the scientific name, but don’t you think turd bug says it all? Let me describe the routine. You walk along until you spot a cow pie or road apple (horse’s). You probably think this sounds like the old Snipe Hunt; but it’s on the level. Remember you have to be fast; these little critters scatter fast, and if you blink or look away, you may miss the show!

This sunny summer’s day, the two of us were moseying along a gravel road. Nute had just cut a willow whip from a beautiful weeping willow near a little rivulet on their property. Might have been a small pool.

He showed me how to slip the bark, intact, on a short length of willow to make a whistle. Don’t know exactly, I thought he said t notch it—dip it in the water a few times; and slide the sleeve of the bark back and forth over the willow wood to form different notes. Needs a sharp knife.

Couldn’t do it today f you paid me. But back to de gold bug.

Lift the dried dung very carefully. But very quickly. If you’re fortunate enough to surprise one of these delightful denizens of the droppings, watch them scamper.

They run along a bit and then go into this acrobatic that, frankly, takes your breath away. (That is, unless their habitat hasn’t already done this. It’s the only creature who truly eats himself out of house and home!)

Look for the tiny beetle-I forget what design’s on its back.  I recall a metallic purple, maybe blue, sheen. Who knows what inspires this little bugger to go into his remarkable routine?  Maybe it’s a nervous tick. or some built-in motor response to protect it from the cowbirds…

Whatever. I had to admit to Nute that this skeptic became a believer, “Isn’t it something?” marveled my cousin. “Amazing,” I said “I think we could take it on the road. Couldn’t call it the Tumbling Turd Bug, though. How does the Somersaulting Insects sound?”

We just let it lay.

I neglected to tell you about Nute’s sisters. They were mostly old enough to be his mother; several already married. In fact, Aunt El was raising her granddaughter, Margey, with Nute. Several sisters, including Ruby, lived at home with their mother. They all smoked; money was as scarce as a hen’s teeth. Every day they’d send little brother over to Highway 30 to pick up cigarette butts.

So when I went to visit, I naturally accompanied my cousin out to the concrete to look for smokes for the girls.

I can’t speak for our mother, but things she said, ways she said them, told me the Andersons left something to be desired on the social register.  But rather than her feelings being construed a snooty, I like to think she left the family short-changed in opportunity, She admired Aunt El’s spunk!

The girls spent a lot of time in her rooms. Fixing their hair. Smoking. Experimenting with makeup. Listening to hillbilly music. trying on clothes and jewelry. Dabbing perfume and spraying colognes. Puffing powder!

Those girls ALWAYS smelled good.

I firmly believe their mother groomed them above every other consideration to land a man; the older and richer the farmer, the better.

But beyond all these high hopes, the attractive gals-short term-were dying for a smoke. They fussed over us and the pathetic collection of cigarette butts of various lengths and various brands, Nute pushed at them in the bottom of a shoe box.

They didn’t think the stogie butt he snuck in a bit funny.

I loved to listen to all the sad hillbilly records-granddaddy of our today’s fantastically popular Country & Western music. I love the memory of Aunt El sewing by light of the kerosene lamp.

I probably suspected but didn’t dare voice the fact of their pitiful and proud poverty. They didn’t look at it that way. This was the lifestyle of their choice. They didn’t feel the need to come hat in hand to anyone.

The light came the sultry summer night when the cicadas were singing a swan song to the long-run sun. And we hadn’t had supper.

Nute and I crossed the road and returned with as many roasting ears as the fence admitted. And they were A-gourmet. Often mused about the farmer-donor; I’ll bet they looked the other way.

ha a few chickens, of course, and one milk cow. Show you how much my cousin was grateful for blessings. he was milking the cow and the foam in the bucket was thick as the rich milk.

When he had finished and was carrying the bucket toward the house, Nute dipped into the foam and savored it with eyes that rolled up in appreciation. He winked.

“Better than ice cream.” And he meant it.

We ran into each other from time to time. He learned to play the electric guitar. He chose steeple jack as a profession, for the good money. Swore had to get half swacked to paint those water towers that dominate all Iowa’s towns.

He was an alcoholic, too; his undoing. I understand he was drinking while on antibuse when there was this relatively small accident.  When the ambulance arrived, Nute was sitting on the curbing; he collapsed. He was D.O.A.

At Beatty-Beurle funeral  home, BB Beatty’s grandfather—I felt like a fish out of water.  Didn’t know anybody, rather, didn’t recognize people.

Waiting for Nute’s services to start, I noticed a young lady come in, diminutive, blond, terribly distraught among mourners generally subdued. Her pretty Scandinavian face was wet, tear streaked, eyes red. That was most likely her husband who came in with her.

Natural impulse brought me to my feet.   She appeared rather shocky, a stranger in a strange land. I told her my name. It was Nute’s daughter; she’d gone away with her mother years ago.

“He’s my dad,” she sobbed. “This is my husband Merle. We’re passing through on vacation.” Brushing away the tears. “I just wanted to see him after so many years. Let him know…”

His little girl looked over at the casket. She lowered her head and sobbed. I guided the couple over to Margie and Margie slipped a circle of comfort about her grieving cousin.

That was the last I saw of any of them.

A couple years before, I visited Nute’s sister, Pansy at Turner Mortuary. She lay all alone. I happened on her by accident; my visitation was for a black friend, James Brown. He’d been shot dead over some shady gambling action. His wife supported the family at Collins Radio.

I made the sign of the cross on his forehead with my thumb, first time for everything. I spoke. “Sleep well, my friend. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

A dead person feels funny. Like parchment.

James-no one called him Jim. He said his name was James—showed me around the Cougar one night I was slumming. We were drinking a few beers together. He took me upstairs where a bunch of Blacks and white guy were gambling.

A woman invited me to help myself to hog jowls and chittlins on the 9th Ave. side of the room. I just watched; didn’t even have enough money to open! Retrospect reminds me to thank my lucky stars for going light that night.

The Gazette didn’t give a great deal of details. From the address, 10th Street below 8th Ave. it sounded like a house where you could pick up a pint of bootleg booze on the weekends.

I liked James; I think he disappointed himself; his family loved him. James reminds me of that black actor with the broad brow and the proud level look. Penetrating. Askance.

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In My Father’s Footsteps: Chapter 12

 

“We don’t own our family history;
we simply preserve it for the next generation.”
-Rosemary Alva

 

I wish I would have asked my dad more about my grandpa’s store. I learned later, from his stories, that he practically grew up working there, but I didn’t hear much about his experiences.

I think entrepreneurship is in my blood. It was sparked when I opened my first lemonade stand and has been burning ever since.

My 7th grade social studies class at McKinley taught me how stocks and investments work.  We made up our own “business” and sold stocks to investors, our parents. We took the money we raised and bought the products and sold them after school.

My group decided to buy candy bars, which sold out quickly, but because we didn’t charge enough for the candy and ate a few of the candy bars, we ended up breaking even.

It was a great experience, but it was years before I was able to turn the dream of owning a business into a reality. I worked as a server for years before I decided I wanted to do more with my life.

My dream was to own a restaurant. But in the end, I didn’t have enough money to get it started. So, I saved my money (and borrowed a little, too) and started a newspaper in Hiawatha after I graduated from Mount Mercy University in 2012; the Advocate. I did all the writing, photography, editing, graphics, publishing and distribution.

To say it was a lot of work was an understatement, but I loved it. The weekly 8-page newspaper was printed for 37 weeks. I was heartbroken when I had to fold it up, but it was clear it was draining me dry.  I lacked the one thing that was needed to keep it going; advertising. No one wanted to spend money advertising in a newspaper that was only seen by a handful of people. Even I knew that.

But I didn’t give up. After taking a couple years to regroup, I started a digital marketing business, Meis Communications, and created a website that promotes good news in our community; tributecr.com.

I guess you could say it’s the best of all worlds.

I mentioned to Mary, Herman Schloss lives behind Betty and me on Brockman. I knew his younger brothers, Paul and John, better. Mary asked, “Remember the night their house caught fire and the fire engines came? (I didn’t remember…) It was the middle of the night. Scared us all half to death. Oh, sure you remember.”

There were other folks on our block. A blind family. A child also was blind. They didn’t use white canes in the early ‘30s; they didn’t know about seeing-eye dogs. But these folks were a source of wonderment. Moving their way tentatively along, always on the other side of the street.

I doubt whether I was allowed to cross; most likely a sense of apprehension tempered any curiosity. Gramma Larson’s brother, Miltie, was the only blind person I know about in our family.  Imagine a romantic soul naming her sightless son in memory of the blind poet.

I think Mama’s Uncle Milt was known to tipple a bit and I can’t say I fault the poor guy. I’ve see blind drunk, but can you imagine a worse combination than blind and drunk?

I only saw him once. And the sight of Milton Henderson’s eyes sunken in their sockets moved me to pity. And I was just a little boy. But the years mercifully erased this memory until the day mom passed away.

When nurse lifted mom’s eyelids to confirm death, moments after pronouncing “It’ll be over in a minute,” I was stunned at the swiftness of life leaving; the eyes luster fled in that soul moment.  Only now, in retrospect, the sameness of mother’s eyes in peace, Milton’s in emptiness, seem similar.

I tuned off the computer to avoid another heat lock while Cindy and I suppered. Ben phoned from Dallas and I mentioned things got lost in earlier documents. He told me not to mourn, but rather to write, not what I want to write, but what people want to read.

Bright spots in the Meis family have to include the interlude we celebrated with a feathered orphan that wandered in off the gravel when we lived on Cottage Grove.

We named her Henrietta, partly out of a certain circumspect respect-awe-we held for Henrietta Dows; partly because the uninvited was wholly chicken!

Whatever the circumstances-one of us must have let her in, the baby adopted her. Therese Ann was the baby and when we moved to 6th Ave. by the store, Terry made sure Henrietta moved with us.

Terry couldn’t talk yet, but she could walk. And although she didn’t notice the loyal little bantam’s eyes popping when she carried it around the house. Terry understood clearly the meaning of possession.

And when baby Therese was particularly focused on a thought, or in a hurry, she’d hug the bug-eyed Banty tighter under her arm.

Like a teddy bear. And the loyal little loner never uttered one squawk. I don’t think she ever laid an egg, come to think of it. Maybe Therese’s fierce possessiveness served as sort of natural birth control.

I have a theory that the feeling we’ve been there before, but it’s impossible, may actually be a tiny tape we carry in our chromosomes, that plays back what we interpret as bad information; misread as fantasy or things dreamed.

In reality it could be incidents our ancestors lived out, passed along in us to be saved in perpetuity.

So, Henrietta Banty: Hen’s chromosomes simply telegraphed the message, her contribution to the Meis family history is this: To be a surrogate Pooh to baby Terry until Santa could afford to bring her very own Baby Tears. There’s nothing documented to show what might have happened to the children with the boogey-buggy eyes.

I think one day around Thanksgiving, the plump little darling wandered away from the ranch never to be seen again.

Only thing I remember clearly, the day Henrietta wandered into our circle of love, her little feet and wattle were so frostbitten they had blisters!

Or, was that a different chicken story?

All of us Meis sons and daughters have a natural love of animals and the outdoors. So I love to tell the story of King, the Catholic dog. Herman was in his 40s’s when he had the bajesus scared out of him –I only heard the account.

Never mind the circumstances. Dad had broken a lot of tiny blood vessels in his throat, as I remember it. And the resulting hemorrhaging reminded him, he was no spring chicken. Shortly, following this spiritual experience, he began daily mass.

King figured anything Dad did was OK with him; he followed Herman to church and waited outside on the front steps. When Mass ended, King jumped up and they walked home together.

Came the day—very seldom did dad ever miss once the daily mass began-he stayed home with flu. When Dad recovered and resumed Mass and the store hours, a fellow daily communicant came to him after church, all smiles.

“You have some Catholic dog there, Mr. Meis,” he said, enjoying every word. “Remember the day you had the flu? King came to Mass in your place. Waited outside until people walked out. Then he trotted home, pleased with himself.”

Dad loved animals; but somebody else had to drive King out to be put to sleep. He was just too tender-hearted.

At his funeral, his brother, Father Carl, choked up talking about Dad carrying families on the books; he never expected to collect. Father said it was because he remembered when they were kids and they were hungry.

I had the bad fiscal habit of buying all the groceries we needed from Dad; taking advantage of him, only paying $50 of a $75 bill. Herman was a man of great patience; wouldn’t dream of labeling me a deadbeat. I knew I was a deadbeat.

But this one Friday or Saturday I was in settling up, or as close as I could come. I was standing beside the slicer at the end of the meat counter. Dad was curled and slouched around the stool, adding up the bill.

He never really looked up and frowned at me; he didn’t have to. He just looked back over the added up pages, muttering, “Dog food…dog food….dog food.”

Finally, he looked up quizzically, cocking his glass eye. “Ain’t you shot that damn dog yet?”

Names come back to me. Ike Shaver from E Ave. His good hearted sister was mom’s friend, worked switch board for the telephone company.

Song.

“Where do you work, Marie?”

For the telephone com-pan-yee.

“And what do you do, Marie?”

I push-a, push-a plug…

(She transferred to Milwaukee)

Riddle. There was a mill. And by the mill there was a walk. And on the walk there was a key. What town am I?

Ruth Shaver moved to Milwaukee to keep moving up in the organization, I think. And she was missed.  But I used to see Ike every long once in a while; he stayed behind.

And there was the Reverend Mr. Huff, whose wife earned enough in the little family grocery store to keep everyone fed and in school and in shoes. It was around the corner toward 3-Minute Oat, between the coal yard by the tracks and the Skelly station on the corner.

Herman called him a half-assed preacher because he was soused most of the time. One day he came in dad’s meat shop with fire and brimstone in his voice, and salvation in his raised index finger.

He backed the surprised butch into a corner ad exchanged the raised finger for a meat cleaver. That’s when dad sent me after his wife. And he never came to Newcastle looking for coals after that.

I’m chewing cabbage; I’m nearly certain you heard the story about Rev. Huff and Wally Hansen and me. Wally and I were playing wagons on the sidewalk one pleasant afternoon.

The kind of a sunny summer afternoon when bees crawl all over the flowers. You can hear that kind of a day even now: close your eyes and listen to the music: “It’s a lazy afternoon.” Sad and sweet.

Heady stuff from the innocent time, until now even.; the innocuous years, when I have time to brush back the book of life-skipping the boring pages-to home on the Sugar and Spice.

That particular day, Wally and I and his dog, Boots, were fiddling around. I remember picking a scab on my big toe. That means it must have been well into the month of June; long time since the first time I’d stubbed it on the sidewalk step, sent screaming home at the sight of blood.

With a jump on summer like that, it took a gash stepping on a broken pop bottle to send me hopping into the house…blood all over.

One time, a cruel, green shard curled deep into my left instep, exposing a wormlike tendon. I didn’t know, and pulled on it until it broke, still not comprehending.

And no ill effects, unless that has something to do with my left leg being shorter. Another time of poor-to-no-judgment, I was in the kick-the-can mentally with a Shoeless Joe reality. Get the pic?

I was daydreaming. That means idle thought, cloud-hopping, but nothing registers. Absent-mindedly took aim at a coffee can to send it end-over-end over the fence.

Darn near separated the little toe from the power pack. And bleed? The blame centered on the razor-sharp rim; it had lost its safety lip. I should have had it looked at. But I think I feared the doctor as much as the damage,

So nature took its course (got a D-) I remember still seeing that scar after being home from the Navy and registered in college.

OK, back to Reverend Huff. He paused and pleasantly looked down at us. “I have a new nickel for the lad who can tell me, who made the world?”

Without batting an eye, Wally Hansen answered with authority, “God made the world.” Without another word, Mr. Huff gave Wally the coin and patted him on the head. And I made myself a promise to use God’s name in public, if ever the opportunity presented, in the interest of free enterprise.

After all, isn’t  “in God We Trust,” found several places on both coin and currency?  Sadly, we learned a decade or so later that the only home that would accept Mr. Huff was a sanitarium in California. Picturing this sandy hair thinning preacher-definitely an Oral Roberts character-I can see him sitting in a rocking chair.

He spends all day looking longingly out over the blue Pacific. There’s a look of peace in his pale blue eyes that don’t recognize and annual visitor. By chance, Mrs. Huff’s parents, the Samsons, lived across from our house at 1548 6th Ave. by the store. Mrs. Huff was their only child.

Roger Huff was about my age. I liked him. A younger blonde brother played football for the Hawkeyes; and he was good! I may have imagined this, but the older sister seemed defensive when I asked to wait on her. I wondered if she resented me carrying the secret from the old neighborhood.

There was a hardness, a challenge, in her eyes. A stark, paleness expression she shared with a younger sister. You’ve seen it in children who’ve known hunger. It’s a haunting look, a shadow of desperation tempting despair.

Poverty and grief each paint age on little faces in different looks; but similar. Like the sailor heaves a line and brings up the bottom of the sea etched in sand and wax.  Roger Huff’s sister’s face, too, revealed the depths of her unspoken sorrow.

Regardless, I felt anger when her answer; “bread and milk” snapped like an accusation.

But dad taught us all early on to treat everyone with politeness. And that meant everyone; a discipline that’s followed me all these years, no questions asked. I get a charge out of the look on a teenager’s face when you hold the door open for them.

Even more embarrassing and more recent; the neighbors used to complain at every opportunity, loudly, about the candy and ice cream wrappers littering. I’ve even looked up a-while I was picking up and stuffing into a brown sack, to see some kid, paper in one hand and candy in the other, staring.

It wasn’t a challenge, merely indecision. When the wrapper fluttered from the open hand, I felt my throat tighten, swallowing pride. I swear he purposely rode off on his bike-ankles exaggerating angles to keep his socks out of the chain—just so he could look back and watch me have to bend over and pick it up.

I silently prayed he would go too slow and fall over. It never happened.

Damn!

Well, that habit of keeping papers picked up stayed with me all the way to Quaker Oats security; especially just outside the office looking out on 2nd Street. Facing the river. One fella from groundskeeping even accused me of trying to take his job!

The problem compounded when I tried to get my children and grandchildren not to throw their wrappers on the floor. They get half the message. They learned not to litter, but they brought their wrappers to me to throw away.

By the same token, I got in trouble with Dick Nye, chief of security, for carrying a bunch of junk around in my pocket.

“No part of the uniform…”

Hooo-boy.

Chapter 13

tributecr.com

In My Father’s Footsteps: Chapter 11

     

“Family is like music; some high notes, some low notes,
but always a beautiful song.”

My older brother, Tim, would have celebrated his 67th birthday today. He died in June 2014 of “an undetermined nature,” but because of Tim’s history with alcohol abuse, we figured that was the most likely cause.

Tim was a kind soul with a good heart; soft-spoken, always willing to keep the peace. Though he was a quiet person, he had a loud and hearty laugh when he found something extremely funny.

He wore his hair long and curly, sometimes in a pony tail, and grew a beard during the ’70s. With his long and thoughtful face, I thought he looked a little like the picture of Jesus we had hung up in hallway.

Tim served in Germany during the Vietnam war and sent my mom and dad a cuckoo clock home from the Black Forest, where the Meis family originated. It never did work right, but it was still pretty cool.

My dad was married to Tim’s mom, Gloria. They also had a second son, Robert, who went with Gloria when Dad and Gloria divorced.

When my dad met my mom, Betty (who had three kids of her own), divorce, especially among the Catholics, was basically unheard of. They dated five years before they were married, and then had five more kids. I was one of the last, the second to the youngest.

I’m sure I met my brother, Bob, at some point growing up, but I didn’t have the opportunity to talk to him until Tim died.

Bob lives in the mountains of Colorado, and does work for the forestry department, or did, anyway. I haven’t seen him since the funeral. I did get a Christmas card the year after Tim died, but didn’t hear back from him when I sent him one a few years ago.

He was quiet, with mannerisms that reminded me a lot of Tim, and though I’m not sure exactly where he is, I think about him often.

I have many fond memories of Tim, who called me Cindy Lou long after I grew up, a nickname I hated, but didn’t mind so much from him.

Tim once owned a baby blue metallic Cadillac, which I’m sure he bought for cheap. It was about 20 years old, but it had electric windows, which, back in 1978, was a luxury.

I had just received my permit and I begged him to let me practice driving. I suddenly got cold feet when I slipped in the driver seat and he told me, “Don’t wreck my car.”

Of course, I hadn’t really thought about it, being 15 and invincible, but now the vision was planted in my brain.

“You’ll be fine,” he told me, with a reassuring smile, and buckled his seat belt, which concerned me even more.

Did I tell you about my friend Father Joe Heineman? His parish is Harpers Ferry. Joseph loved Jesus more than anyone else but the Father; but who’s measuring. The Lord healed him from cancer and he is repaying the favor by sharing his faith with everybody who’ll listen. At least once a year, Joe says a healing mass, distributes prayer leaflets and little bottles of blessed oil to anoint those you pray with.

Believe me, when Father Heineman begins to talk about the love of Jesus, his voice gets husky and chokes up, and his faith drops-Plink! Plank! Plunk! like tiny flames on all the believers.

But my favorite memory of this strapping man the love of God reduces to the most grateful of humble servants, is his reply to a letter. I’d told him my letter writing came few and far between; mentioning that I expected either him or John Wayne to answer. I had also written the Duke.

Meantime, John Wayne died. Joe wrote, “Since John Wayne isn’t going to answer, I’d better.” But what convicted me was the way Father signed the card: “Tom remember the Father loves you very much.”

I don’t know why those few words grabbed me like they did—they still do—but my sinuses bubbled over and I was thankful to share the moment with no one else but Jesus. being exclusive isn’t all bad.

Side note: I had mentioned working at Quaker Oats in John Wayne’s letter; referred to them as the “Crunch Bunch.” Wonder of wonders, several weeks later I spotted those clever words on a placard with the LA Rams.

Do you suppose whoever read the Duke’s letters is also the publicist for the Los Angeles?

NNAAAAAA!

I haven’t mentioned speaking in tongues, singing in tongues, or otherwise expressing oneself through the Holy Spirit. At the time my class was prayed over for the baptism in the Holy Spirit, those preparing us suggested we pray for the gift of tongues at the same time. “Just try. Make sounds. The spirit will help.”

A few received the gift immediately, several in subsequent meetings, and a few never. We learned a candidate need not necessarily speak in tongues as proof. All one needs to do is believe and ask. This is included in a prayer recited when the elders believe he or she is ready.

My first attempt was maybe yes, maybe no.  It approximated “Shanna Shanna Ya No Sabacthani.” I wish I had the gift of interpreting tongues. I said this same phrase over and over again for several months before the Holy Spirit released the gift completely.

The songs of praise well up from my soul. Only upon several occasions have I sung in tongues. Dozens of mornings I rose early at Cedarwood Hills and copied page after page of endearing words God entrusted to me personally.

if I remembered correctly, these conversations with God pretty well correlated with my incensed love of the Bible. Probably one of the most gratifying signs of my closer walk to Jesus was when I opened the Bible to the same reading as the day’s Gospel. Or when someone stood in the meeting and read the same scripture I was prepared to offer, or an adjoining one.

These are called confirmations. They build faith and community.

This is the third time for the beginning this document, but I’m not charmed. Tony’s dog Gretchen is lying on the front room floor beside Cindy’s couch. Betty left this morning for Minneapolis, the latest news that Kris is programmed for maternity.

The first time I burned four hours of writing. I filed it in the dumper by mistake. I turned the computer off inadvertently; the hum bothered me when Betty was trying to catch 40. That’s OK, too. So, unruffled, I adjusted the scabbard and sallied forth undaunted. the writer was right; it’s darkest before the daunt!

Ever get the feeling you’re one of those gerbils in a treadmill? It’s convinced running is an all right vocation; study the expression. Nothing but determination.

That’s me.

I’m convinced writing is why God permitted to venture so far past puberty. But since that’s the case, why does he allow me to get hung up on document TPMLIF16?  The first loss was because it was purely poor writing; I rambled; meaning was often vague; I can appreciate that kind of divine editing.

I can live with that,

About the second time I wiped out: I look back and recognize not only self aggrandizement. It got a little dirty. And the seque didn’t track well. I went from a very heartfelt description of my closer walk with Jesus….

…Bang! Into an intimate anatomy of an old girlfriend. Clearly the Lord found it objectionable; not the bod, the clod!

With an editor who clearly wants his cub to stay straight, I pledge the effort. There’s so much to cover in my life, I’ve decided to include the mistakes, sure, but skip the graphics.

Being a Christian, I learned in the last go round to salvation, that following a horoscope in day-to-day survival, is about as dependable as say, writing a book report after seeing the movie!

Still, you can’t ignore the way my birthday influenced my life. Reaching school age at the semester break put me in the embarrassing position of starting kindergarten too young.

But I was fortunate t have Miss Johnson for our teacher.  Good Lord, if reminiscing qualifies as a legitimate measurement of her tenure, this lady surely quantifies for some Guinness record.  I swear, everyone from youngsters to deceased, anyone who lit up at the very mention of old Polk School, had her in the beginning.

There was another Miss Johnson; but not in the children’s garden. (Just so you know, I’ve picked up a little German. Bob Whitters also taught me Kuenchen.  And Dubuque folk of German descent-check my spelling-exaggerate a point.

“Everything but the Kuenchen zink!”

I can’t swear the tears shed for the privilege of starting school when I was 4 ½ instead of waiting, showed good judgment. I was embarrassed when the school nurse saw me naked for the entrance exam.

It’s true; an innate sense of modesty comes with the cluster.

Listening to stories was my favorite subject. Somehow the afternoon nap on a throw rug didn’t jibe with my idea of school. I’d sneak a peek, sort of a spot survey to see the reaction of other boys and girls. They seemed resigned. One or two developed eye flutters when Miss Johnson silently creaked between the tiers of prostrate peers.

I learned about discipline quite quickly. I guess I insisted on ignoring teacher’s request for quiet. Still, if the cloakroom window was open on nice days, punishment wasn’t altogether unpleasant.

The bad part was being singled out a dumbski. I couldn’t spell it and Miss Johnson never used the expression; but Thomas Patrick knew dumbski!

Chapter 12

tributecr.com

In My Father’s Footsteps: Chapter 10

 

“We are not in the hands of fate; We are in the hands of God.”

I mentioned my dad’s accident a little in a previous chapter. I don’t remember the accident itself; I know what I know from stories through the years, and the toll it took on the family for years to come.

I just know that after the accident, everyone went into survival mode and everything changed. I think we all became painfully aware that life was fragile and could end at any moment.

I found the articles (bottom of the page) about my dad’s accident in my Grandma Myers’ things. It was strange to read about the accident; the details seemed so impersonal to me. My dad was more than that, and I was angry at the way it was written, and that headline on the first article… please, don’t even get me started. But then again, I was 4 when the accident happen. What did I know?

Later that spring, Dad was in his hospital bed when the tornado sirens went off. We all ran downstairs, but Dad had to lift himself up (in a full body cast) and heave himself under the bed. Everyone was fine, including Dad, but I remember sitting downstairs in the dark basement, waiting for the tornado threat to pass, scared that a tornado was going to whisk our house away like it did in “The Wizard of Oz.”

I think it was the same tornado outbreak that destroyed parts of St. Charles, which is north of Cedar Rapids, in 1968, but I can’t be certain.

For years after, on the anniversary of the accident, we’d talk about how different life would be if the doctors hadn’t revived my dad on the operating table. But for the first few years, no one even uttered a word about it, perhaps for fear that superstitions were real and it would jinx him.

When Dad died in 2008, I remember thinking how lucky we were to have him as long as we did. By all rights, he should have died in 1968, but we got him for 40 more years.

I’d say we’re pretty darn lucky.

Holy Saturday at 1707 D Avenue found me at a matinee at the Paramount. Prizes were live Easter bunnies and the final winner was about to be drawn; I couldn’t believe I had the number! But there I was, dream-walking down the main aisle all the way from the back seats.

Kids on the aisle were craning to glimpse the winner of their waning hope. Some hissed, some muttered variations of “lucky so-and-so; Some people have all the–; Lucky Stiff! Lucky Duck!”

It was a big white rabbit with pink eyes. I wanted to name it Harvey. My mother was afraid “Harvey” was going into labor. And she did. And then she ate them. Mom thinks it’s because she was terrified of the strange environment.

I’ll always maintain my pregnant prize preferred to practice some primordial birth control.

I can’t explain the sudden swerve toward unhappy thoughts, but Inez Finn comes to mind. Inez was still a little girl when the speeding car struck her in front of the house and tossed her 150 feet to her death.

Nine years old must be old enough to understand death, but short of knowing grief. I felt bad for her brothers and older sister, Geraldine; but actually, Inez was so pretty in her white dress and hair ribbon, she looked like the happiest person in the room.

That was when they still brought people home to their living rooms. And members of the family stayed up all night to keep the death watch. And neighbors and passersby knew when tragedy struck a family, a black funeral wreath decorated the front door.

There was an awkward feeling walking up the steps; like life itself was taking this loss personally. The lovely fragrance of banks of flowers was everywhere. Nobody spoke above a whisper.

There was much low key conversation to the parents, Nettie and Leo, and to the Finn kids. Handkerchiefs were out and dabbing at tear streaks or twisted in knots.

Funerals are never fun, least of all, a young person.

Inez Finn’s was no exception. Her brothers gathered out on the porch-the older, Don Leo and Will, swore dire revenge to be dealt the unrepentant driver, but that never materialized. I heard they pelted his porch down the street with broken bricks. Just as well.

The morning of the day I went into a coma that carried me through Christmas of 1967 and New Years of 1968. I broke my fast with a tall glass of rhubarb wine from the Amana Colonies.

Dave Ashby came by and picked me up to bring back the car he wouldn’t let me drive home the night before. The rub was, I started drinking again after he dropped me off and I’d assured him I was getting a haircut.

Eyewitnesses said the oncoming car on Center Point Road saw me float toward the center line and got out of the way. That set up the pickup truck behind, which had no chance. I was so happy when the first report revealed I was the only injury; later learned that a four-year-old boy suffered a broken leg.

A compound fracture of my right leg and the windshield wrapped it around my neck. The nicest car we ever owned was totaled. Betty rode in the ambulance with me down old 218. Later told me, everyone ignored the emergency lights and siren.  No one moved over. That’s the reason we always pull over and stop today.

A dozen doctors worked to save me. At one point Betty mentioned going home to be with her children. The surgeon said she better plan on staying over; I wasn’t expected to live.

Early in the 12 hours, a doctor called Betty aside and asked, “How much has this man had to drink? Usually they jump at oxygen.” A tracheotomy seemed to do the trick.

My wife said I glared at her like a demon from hell those days I don’t remember. All I remember is peace and paradise, perhaps a spiritual experience from the way I’ve heard them described.

No tunnel with a bright light at the end. Only complete rapture and a sense of well-being. Now comes the insanity. While I was on the mend my barber came to see me and we split a pint of bourbon.

But later on, with time to reflect on the close call, I began to wonder why precisely I was spared, when young kids not yet 21 checked out alone in one-car accidents. Maybe God didn’t want me to leave Betty with all those kids to raise by herself.

I know for sure—all things on balance, life in no way, shape or form, was ready to meet my maker. So reprieve made sense to me.

Months later, I was in the county court house on the island, final day for license plates, when I ran into my neighbor from 12th Street, Mary Mills.

“Tom, do you know Jesus?” she asked straight out.

I chuckled. “What a question, Mary. You know I’ve been a Catholic all my life; Mass every Sunday…”

“I mean, have you ever publicly accepted Jesus as your personal Savior? Turn your life over to him completely?”

Uh oh, I told myself. May Mills has become a holy roller. Poor girl has flipped out.

I started to look for some way to back out of the conversation; but Mary had pie-she was the operator upstairs in the island switchboard of the main lobby—and I ordered coffee.

“I can see you have some reservations,” she said. “Just keep an open mind. Pray about it. Ask our Lord into your life and turn your will over to God. Great things begin to happen.”

I can’t recall the exact order of asking Jesus into my life. Whether lifting my arms to praise his Glory, or repeating the “Come Holy Spirit” prayer.

But weeks later I ran into Bob Miller in the alley behind his job at Cedar Rapids Paint. He invited me to the next prayer meeting that Friday, of an ecumenical prayer group meeting at St. Matthew’s.

At that time New Life Community had as much stability as Damon Runyon’s floating crap game in “Guys and Dolls.” And like Blanche in “Street Car Named Desire,” they too relied on the generosity of others.

Actually, we met for weeks at one church till they needed the space, then moved on. Finally we ended up at St. Wenceslaus in the south end.

“Glad to have you,” Bob said, with the warmth of an old friend and neighbor. “Will you need a ride?”

We lived on 30th Street Drive at the time, rented from Roy Choate from the old LaPlant-Choate factory there below the viaduct.

I mentioned uncertainty of the chicken and the egg, but wishing to prepare for the prayer meeting and not being certain of the words to Come Holy Ghost, I phoned Sister Raymond and promptly misplaced her version; had to phone a priest rather than admit she’d been dealing with a dummy.

The Holy Spirit was truly inspirational. Somewhere in autobiographical notes documenting my closer walk with Jesus-two single space pages tells all in greater detail.

What I remember, without rummaging, are pertinent verse from scripture like, “Sit there at my right hand until I ask thine enemy thy footstool.”

I sang songs, “They will know we are Christians by our love,” and the prayer of St. Francis. It became second nature to me to raise my hands when I prayed or sang God’s praises, especially when I began making the weekly meetings on a regular basis.

I was transported by this fellowship; actually ecstatic covers it better. So when the leaders offered the next Life in the Spirit series, a weekly preparation conducted by community member leading to baptism in the Holy Spirit, I raised my hand.

Some persons with purer theological senses prefer to call the experience “infilling of the Holy Spirit.” Or indwelling. Suggesting by surgery of terms that this beautiful and exceptionally personal interrelationship with God may or may not really take place, depending on the depth of one’s faith.

Without asking, I had misgivings about the laying on of hands; that is, praying with those members of the community petitioning the Holy Spirit: I feared all this attention suddenly paid the least acknowledged of the Blessed Trinity, somehow suggested holy mother church hadn’t touched all the bases in the matter of the sacraments.

I received the Holy Spirit with a dozen other brothers and sisters when the meetings were held at St. Patrick’s. Father Bill was in the class, Bruno from Germany and Oscar, who became a deacon at St. Pius.

I get the feeling, meeting me from time to time, is a source of embarrassment to him. A bit of a twist under the heart; but like gas, it too passes.

Overall, the glory of this shared experience could be compared with your graduation or the day-to-day camaraderie of boot camp. Love made us one in the spirit.

First thing you want to do is bring everyone you know into this select circle, especially your family. Father Carl carefully declined, as well as my mom, both citing it was more suitable for young people; although mom conceded to her first meeting. After that, she pled experience; “I’ve been to a meeting.”

But I think Ben declining was the classic. When his car pulled up to Mom’s house, I jumped up, flung open the door, eager to share paradise with the deprived guy.

“Ben!” I shouted, reaching out to share God. “Let me tell you about the beautiful things that have been happening to me since I saw you!”

Ben-her must have recognized all the classical symptoms of the beatific vision. He backed up. Forearms crossed defensively, as he turned his face away.

“Spare me,” croaked Ben, obviously startled by the intensity of my opening remarks.  Equally obvious; I’d left pins standing.

But I was busy in the prayer group for the next 10 or 15 years, frequently attending the national conference at Notre Dame, one for all the faiths in Kansas City ten years ago, a regional in the Twin Cities where our group stayed with Bob and Ann Miller’s family. And just two years ago, in New Orleans, when Betty and I lived like the rich and famous, flying over to Miami; then wrapping it up with a drive to the friendly Cubs confines.

Just a tug and a shrug skirting Louisville northward; guilt I’d struck out twice, trying to slug my way onto the ad scene. More guilt, we decided not to stop at friend, Jim Petersmith, and Bill Vogl’s daughter, in Louisville.

Too tight travel time.

Always too tight travel time.

Many blessed memories from Born Again. Several from South Bend. Father Art van Cleve’s sister needed support to make the bus.  Extensively handicapped by crippling arthritis, or MS or such. I think it was Sister Sally Sattler and I who were there to sustain Marilyn to make the bus.

I used to wonder why God spared me when I totaled the Plymouth at Christmas time. First I figured He knew I wasn’t ready. Later in a heart to heart, He gave me the insight that perhaps the reason he saved me is something I won’t even recognize. Perhaps when all that person needs is a kind word.  Perhaps it was just to be with Sally when Marilyn Van Cleve needed someone.

The first Cedar Rapids annual city-wide prayer conference at LaSalle High School. I was still on the honeymoon. The guest speaker was a charismatic priest from West Virginia. We passed in the hall that Sunday morning.

Catching my eye, he stopped. “You belong to Jesus, don’t you? It shows on your face. Happiness.”

I can’t remember when anything pleased me more. Unless it was during a lunch break on the Notre Dame campus. Men and women, many religious, were criss-crossing diagonal walks, hither-thither-and yon. Hurry, hurry, hurry. Suddenly there was this little nun looking up into my face, obviously agitated.

“Excuse me. I’m all turned around. Could you direct me to dining room C?”

“Certainly Sister,” I smiled. “It’s the brick building straight ahead and to your right.”

She smiled with such warmth. I felt the honor was all mine. “Thank you, Father,” Sister rang out, almost bubbling.

“You’re welcome,” I called after her. (Not very often I’ve been confused with the priesthood.) But on one of those charismatic excursions, I was blessed with an opportunity to carry a priest’s duffle bag that extra mile. It was the final day of the conference and this short little bearded padre was struggling with more pieces of luggage than he had arms and hands.

We passed one of the most colorful habits on a nun I’ve ever whistled softly over. I wondered if religious orders in India or the Middle East adopted dress with ethic identity. Frankly, I didn’t see any bells on her ankles with final vows written all over them.

Well, this little lady was hustling everyone else in South Bend. And when she bustled all those bright full-dress colors ballooned like a spring garden. I tried not to stare.

It did cross my mind, maybe she’s a welfare worker from the inner city.

We reached our destination and the little gray-haired guy with the baggy pants heaved a big sigh: “I’ll wait here for the taxi.” He extended a firm handshake that was no stranger to hard work.

“I am Father Mancini. Come visit me if you are in Jerusalem…”

I was thrilled. Sure. I was in the Navy. I’ve been around the horn a time or two. I had been to college, though newspaper writing may not have been the best choice, but it was through the GI Bill. God let my second shot at conjugal, take. I struck out in broadcast journalism. But I played catch-up with life’s work, thanks to some fantastic benefits at Quaker Oats.

And now I get a bona fide invitation to visit the Holy City … or was that Rome?

Switching now to Kansas City conference. Betty really trusts me; she let me go to the conference in Arrowhead with four gals. That about balances out. True, they stayed pretty much to themselves.

Funny thing, I was in this he conference hall sponging up a lecture, when I spotted Dick Hansen from Cedar Rapids lounging against a back wall. I rushed up to him and shook the bored look off his face. He said, “Hello, Tom.”

It was Jimmy Maher!

Strange coincidence. Number one. The Dick Hansen I had mistaken Jimmy for, and his nurse wife—Lutherans, resisted by overtures to bring them into a closer walk with Jesus. Lutherans are noted for the low percentage of members that buy Born Again.

They also predicted the tidal wave of Christians turning to the counsel of the Holy Spirit would subside and lose its initial impetus.

Another thing, Jimmy Maher’s brother, Bill, ran into me in one of the Notre Dame gift shops. His beautiful family was there, everyone eating ice cream cones. Bill explained they were heading home after vacation. I admired his guts; the day was hot enough to test the endurance of mom and dad and kids…especially on the downside of vacation.

Other things happened on that trip, all blessings; exciting for me, but prosaic. But I gotta tell you about the little old lady in the back of the Cathedral near downtown. It was conference end. The Bishop was speaking to hundreds, high on the Lord.

The Bishop of Kansas City was saying, “I don’t know what you people have, but I want it, too.” And the crowded house burst into prolonged applause.

I was in the back of the church—standing room only—and a skinny little old lady sitting in the last pew hollered, “What’s all the noise and clapping in a Cath’lic Chorch?”

I took a step in her direction. “We’re here for an ecumenical meeting.” I shouted to overcome obvious hard of hearing. “Economical…” she muttered and went back to her beads.

The Kansas City meeting was memorable for a glimpse of Heaven on Earth. I’d been receiving the Holy Communion since becoming born again. I hesitated because of the divorce from Gloria and life with Betty. But Mary Mills reminded me, Jesus came to heal the sick, not well people. So I started receiving again. And love covered my world like Noah’s flood.

As a matter of fact, Betty received her first Holy Communion at St. Wenceslaus one night. The whole community from New Life, 25 maybe, gathered at the altar to receive the Divine Promise. Only Betty and a young man remained behind. Father saw the contradiction and invited them to come up higher.

One or two times Betty received Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament; once at Notre Dame. But at home, in public, I’d asked her if she was going to receive and she’d shake her head no.

I know how she feels.

Her friend, Pat Arenas, went through channels to have her marriage to Jesse fixed up; he’d been married before. Little wonder she got her back up when I began to receive again after falling into a closer walk with Jesus.

“It’s not fair.” It had taken them a lot of time and effort to find favor. Why should we be permitted to simply take things into our own hands? Pastor called me aside one day and asked me not to receive until our petition was approved.

I guess when I gave myself completely to Jesus, man’s mandate lost their luster. But I kept an agreement made in the dawn of my new ecstasy.  If a priest or anyone else exalted ever asked me to discontinue my Communions, I would willingly; that request prompted certainly, by my Lord and my God. The contact has a few Albeits.

Because the only impediment I personally ascribed to for not embracing my lord daily is scandalizing the faithful, I swipe apples from the top of the tree, and this blessing at every opportunity.

Chapter 11

tributecr.com

 

In My Father’s Footsteps: Chapter 9

 

“The most painful good-byes are the ones never said and never explained.”

My first experience with death was when my Grandpa Meis died in 1970. I was 7 and didn’t quite understand the concept of “dying in your sleep.” For weeks after his death I was afraid to shut my eyes for fear of dying in my sleep, too.

My folks assured me that I was going to be fine, but their words of encouragement couldn’t console me as I lay in bed, contemplating my death.  My fears were eventually put to rest when I kept waking up every morning.

I didn’t understand what death meant at that point in my life, but I learned as the years went by that it is a normal and natural part of life. It’s something we all have to come to terms with it. I think it helps to believe that death is not the final destination; that there is something more after we leave here.

I also believe as long as we keep those we love close to our hearts, they aren’t really gone.  I miss my dad, but I can still feel his presence, especially when I read his stories. And I can see him, too, in my children and grandchildren, and in the love he had for his family, and I know he is watching over us.

One memory that is hard to let go of is Ron Kelly drowning in the Wapsipinicon. 

A soul in turmoil describes those five years of missing him; turmoil dressed in a gown of guilt. We’d both had friends visiting from the country, so most likely jealousy was responsible for the petty falling out.

Before we had a chance to make up, Ron took leave. I was left with a frustrated, overwhelming sorrow. Like Rachel who lost her baby with the other innocents, neither could I be comforted.

So when God took pity on that poor Meis boy finding sanctuary in the shrouds, and brought back Ronnie in a dream, he did the whole family a big favor.

I was in a golden aura of light. This beautiful spiral staircase rode dizzily to infinity. At first I saw no one. I don’t recall any heavenly choir; it may have blended with the beautiful light.

When I looked up again, I saw Ron about half-way up; he was smiling, and there was a peaceful expression on his face; like days we hadn’t a care in the world.

Neither said a word, but I knew he’d returned to say good-bye. I waved and Ron waved back. The scene faded, sealing our friendship forever.

After that I could get on with my day-to-day living again. Ten years later, I wrote a story about it at Loras college; “Comin’ through the Rye.”

I justified the title by arranging for us to meet in the dream in a field of golden grain. What really prompted the title was a remark Ron’s dad made the following summer during threshing time.

Walt Kelly scooped up a handful of the rye, let it flow slowly between his fingers. And smiled a faraway gleam, remarking, “I’d rather this was liquid.” And I’m certain he said it with all the sincerity of his drinking problem; a propensity that superseded good intentions and steered him subsequently, over to his daydreams.

Gambling was the other side of Walt’s preoccupation with alcohol. Every year when summer came down his fiddle foot started itching. And the only relief for it was to follow the race tracks.

I’m going to tell you how I heard the news of Ronnie dying, then I won’ mention that awful unraveling of life ever again.

I was working in the store the morning Gramma Schultz came in crying. When she saw me, she went to pieces. Out of the tearful hysteria and grief, I heard, “Ronnie’s dead.”

After a numb moment of realization, I just buried my face in the crook of my arm and bawled.

Ronnie was 12 and I was 11, and we saw the pretty much through the same pair of glasses. However, when he told me one day how mothers and fathers make babies, I was ready to fight.

“You’re crazy! My folks are too nice. They would never do anything like that; Commit sins? Naked?”

Then it hit me. Like Santa Claus, I’d always considered that bit about the stork a little hard to swallow.

Maybe he was right. So after that, if the subject came up, I elected to listen and learn. And when the overwhelming evidence supported Ron’s declaration of sex, I got serious about the art of graceful acceptance, self-taught.

Ron Kelly went to a couple of Troop 1 scout meetings in Scotus Hall, in the church basement with me. But I knew he never went overboard. Too much a free spirit. A daredevil says it better.

Once when they lived on the farm, about where Life Investors stands, or maybe further upstream, Mohawk Park?-he scared me to death. There was a hole in the ground like the Grand Canyon. For fun, Ron bounced around the rim of this deep abandoned quarry. And we dislodged huge boulders, clearing away any small rocks that wedged them in place, sending them silently through the void, counting how many seconds it took before they thundered with resounding crash on the quarry floor below.

I watched Ronald and he was exhilarated! When we got tired of this, he suggested exploring the old abandoned machinery beside the river, where barges were loaded. I thought this was pretty cool until my foot slipped through a rotted-out conveyor.

I paused to watch first the metal plunk into the water, then the lighter rotting wood and canvas fluttering down. I thought how dumb it was, playing over the water; Ron couldn’t swim either. And I thought how everything about that place would look better with a coat of paint. Not remembering for a moment that time had abandoned this gravel pit; its usefulness had ended when the limestone pit ran out.

But the peace and tranquility affected us two boys. Maple leaves cartwheeled along the water’s edge until they finally pushed off from shore, drifting like time to the river’s timeless tryst with the Iowa below.

One day, Ronnie came over to my house fighting back tears. His dog had been run over by a driver that didn’t stop. “He just turned around a few times and laid still,” the boy recalled.  The dog’s death was prophetic; his master followed later in the season.

I cleaned up the day they brought him home, and went over to his house in the next block. Bill Stewart was just leaving, and saying good-bye to Walt Kelly standing on the step holding his little girl.

“Yes, you can be proud of your son,” Bill was saying. “Put up an incredible fight for life. Ruptured his left lung.” Ron’s dad murmured thanks.

“Ronnie’s sleeping,” his little sister said to anyone listening.

For the dozenth time I thought of the Gazette story about Ronald Kelly stepping into a hole in the Wapsi. My claustrophobia grabbed me when I put myself in his place.

The heavy pieces of junk metal fastened to his waist kept the swift current this beautiful treacherous river with the Indian name is known for, from sweeping him away wading to an island.

If he’d returned the same way he crossed over Ron would have made it. Instead he chose a kind of half circle. The same currents the unsuspecting boy countered with weights were responsible for the other danger that makes this river equally infamous. They call them holes; but actually they’re shifting bottoms, which the current may fill in while scooping out a new drop-off nearby. All in a matter of hours.

Sand bars that appear and disappear are similar phenomena. Ron just forgot that if he stepped into one of those shifting sand traps, the heavy junk at his waist would turn on him and claim his life.

Now, when Betty and I turn north to the Twins to visit Kris and her family, we cross this river way up above Waterloo. I’m surprised it looks so peaceful so far away from Troy Mills.

I’m forever grateful to Bill Stewart. He let me ride in the hearse to the Catholic Church at Walker, then on to burial in Van Horne cemetery on Highway 30.

I am reminded of visiting Dad’s room the night he died. He had tubes sticking out all over. Later I was to regret not kissing him goodbye; “Don’t scare the poor guy to death with a farewell kiss,” was my excuse.

Remembering those final moments of silent exchange, his smile through the tears, I think dad was anxious to convey to our family, “It’s OK-I know you love me, too. I’m not afraid. Goodbye.”

I’ve forgotten about that after all these years. Several times a month we drove out that way to service the new Olds Betty and I bought with AAA discount from B & B Motors in Belle Plaine. Didn’t realize until we attended Father Schallau’s funeral.

Betty and I were there as sort of surrogate mourners for my boyhood friend Bob Whitters. Bob’s emphysema prevented him from going with us—he’d met him through the AA program and liked him.

Alcoholics Anonymous reminds me of my true personal story. I’d made my initial involvement with the program when we lived on 26th Street, but I hadn’t attended a meeting in several years, suffering attendant guilt.

One afternoon, Betty was working at Collins, I was in the bathroom shaving when our daughter, Sue, called out. “Dad, there’s a man here to see you from AA.”

My heart did a half-gainer. They’ve caught up with me. “Be right down!!” I called.

In fear and trembling, I strode across the room, shaking hand out to receive.

“Mr. Meis, I understand you used to be in the program. Why did you quit?”

“Oh,” says I. “You know, you stop attending meetings and the next thing you know, you’re back on the sauce.”

He looked perplexed. Then his face broke into a grin. “Oh, no. You misunderstand. I’m from Triple A.”

So help me, I was so relieved, I could have kissed the guy. This perfect stranger who I thought had come to drag me kicking and screaming back to life without booze.

Little wonder I’ve been with Triple A ever since.

Chapter 10

tributecr.com

In My Father’s Footsteps: Chapter 8

“Let your soul be built on a collection of moments. These are the moments that will become who you are.”

 

I included a short video of clips from one of my dad’s favorite movies, “Somewhere in Time,” at the bottom of the page.

I’m not sure what he liked most about the movie, but maybe he saw the same intriguing elements I did; time travel, romance, a twist in the plot, and an ending that wasn’t quite what the audience expected.

I think it was after watching this movie that I first became interested in time travel, or the notion of it, and sought out other movies that dealt with the subject. The “Back to the Future” trilogy, and other sci-fi movies and TV shows were my favorites, and I dreamed of writing my own books that included traveling through time.

My first attempt at authoring a self-published book  (Between Worlds) were eye-opening, to say the least.  The writing was fairly easy, compared to the editing. I began to second-guess myself and ended up changing the story’s path several times, until I came to my senses and reverted back to the original story.

I can see how my dad’s story-writing is similar; a bit of wandering, followed by a few random thoughts thrown in, but eventually coming back to its true path.

Which, I am beginning to see, is always better in the end.

But I didn’t escape into daydreams to sidestep life. I guess I wanted to rise above it, like an out of body experience. I feared failure and letting people down.

When we played a simple game of cards and I said, “Give me all your sevens,” Mary Margaret or Ivan French would say, “Go Fish,” it got away.

But maybe losing nine out of 10 games of chance kept me honest; it probably sent the right signals, that if you really want something, you better plan on investing the necessary effort.

Worked for me.

I think it started when I raised my hand to recite, and I was wrong. For years, I proceeded in the shadow of a wrong premise; that stand-up can substitute for study, or that somehow wishful thinking, good intentions, could bring about impossible results, results that only a desire to excel, together with photographic memory, can meld to a miracle.

If I tell you the same story in three or four contexts, I come by it rightly. Herman Meis told a joke to the first salesman that walked into his store any morning. If the salesman laughed, Dad corned every drummer who walked in the walk to the same beat!

Dad had a good sense of humor; good and clean. He was a good role model. I used to tell people I got my sense of humor from my father, until he overheard me one day.

Crooking his finger one day to indicate petty palaver, I bent close so he wouldn’t have to shout.

“Look,” he said, his ‘Look’ was kinda hush covered.  Dad had that way of punching one palm with his pointy finger to make sure his words come complete with understanding.

“Son,” Dad said.  “Don’t tell people you get your sense of humor from me. I don’t think you’re a bit funny. OK?”

I can live with that.

Come to think of it, Herman’s jokes are short and sweet. When Fran walked out the door mad, and the dog trotted out beside him, Dad’s “Good-bye, King” was hilarious.

Yes, he’s right. Dad’s jokes are definitely visual. Like the summer we were working together. Every time Herm opened a bottle of Pepsi, he’d take the top off in one big draught, and that would be his last have at it. And when he put it back, I drank the rest; all but half a swallow of flat cola.

One day I watched him open a bottle beside the door of the walk-in cooler, as I swept the floor in front of the meat counter. He took a long pull on the cold Pepsi, watching and waiting for dad to go downstairs for his regular nap, so I could claim the rest of his Pepsi.

“Tom,” Dad said in the flat voice of a hustler about to announce to the room, he’d never he’d a pool cue in his hand in his life. I looked up just as he pulled an imaginary booger from his nose, wiped it off on the lip of the bottle, gently tapped it into the neck.

Without another word, the proprietor put his Pepsi back into the cooler. And that was all the instruction I needed to keep my dirty mitts off Pop’s pop!

Clay Arnold worked for dad for a while. He earned the nickname Pepsi by always sucking on one on the one hand, while trying to work with the other. Little wonder his first words uttered in the recovery room after an appendectomy were, “Pepsi, please.”

If I ever act silly, remember, I fell out of the Plymouth coming home from Sunday Mass with mother and her friend. I hadn’t reached the age of shooting off my mouth; I sat there on the sui-cide just listening.

We’d been having trouble with the latch on that side; it simply opened on its own, with no encouragement. That day the door learned the meaning of unilateral. Next thing I knew, I hung suspended by the toes outside the car, my head doing a catchy paradiddle on the bricks.

I was blessed; somehow my toes got caught under the seat and Thank God I needed a haircut, the precision clearance was such that only an occasional barely bouncing, but quite audible, blow, gave mother time to brake.

I remember looking at the world upside-down an instant before she let out her shriek for divine intervention.

I thought the lady in the backseat would have a conniption. Can you imagine a God of Mercy who loves little children so much, he holds them gently by the heels? So they won’t miss all the good stuff he plans.

All I can say is that I’ve led a charmed life.

I have a couple memories from A Avenue; some good, some not so good.

I thought a chivaree was fun. That’s when you beat on pots and pans and washtubs—after dark, until the honeymoon couples comes out on the porch, smiling, and waving and blushing and passing out treats. Or gives one of the older kids money for ice cream for all the boys and girls. It was awesome to realize that love makes you do crazy things, like being generous.

This was over on A or B avenue between 16th and 17th Street. Made you feel grown up, that you could wander so far beyond the neighborhood and still find your way back home before deserving a good thrashing.

It was neat when we were just a small family, Mary and I and Jody and maybe little Hermie Ben. I remember mother had time to rock the baby then; closing her eyes so her face was beautiful in repose. Listening to the subdued music of her sorta sad lullaby made me be quiet, watching her nurture the baby she’d brought to us out of love.

The monotony of the rocker and mama’s warmth, the quiet of the living room except occasional insect buzzing, usually was enough to shuffle her baby off to dreamland. So she’d gently slow the motion until her hair stopped gently to and fro. She would look over and smile and, holding breath, lift the little one away from her shoulder, sweating jewels of baby perspiration sweetly beading.

We all loved to go for a ride in the car hot summer nights. Not just because that was before air conditioning; that ice-cold sudsy A & W root beer stand gave away miniature mugs with every large root beer. We’d take turns and I always thought I was being taken to the cleaners.

Johnny Vittengl had a room somewhere between our house and the dairy. He also had a Harley-Davidson and belonged to the local motorcycle gang; I think they called themselves the Night Riders.

Wallace “Sonny” Darling, our second cousin, published a novel based on the Night Riders and how they grew. Only kidding, it’s a story about the initiation rites of this exclusive organization; romantic intellectualizing.

In other words, kinky but thinky.

But at the age of 4 or 5, I never had the good sense to say No, when Johnny asked if it would be ok if he take me on a spin around the block on his pal Harley.

I think they had black leather, even in 1929/1930; no helmets, but Johnny Vittengal carried the colors. And he hoisted me up behind him as if to say, “So long CR, hello LA.”

Every time we took a corner, I swear I caught Johnny’s profile; I noticed for the first time, my neighbor had a moustache! And say, I take it all back, bikers back then did not have safety helmets. However they did sport those aviator caps.

Do you know about the Great McGill? You who knew him would tend to agree that he was one unusual Irishman, God have mercy on his soul. And that’s not derogatory, nor standing in judgment. It might be a suggestion that, in the pursuit of a certain zest for living, Joe McGillicuddy often stood perilously close to the edge.

Joe and I used to tip a few shells of lager beer. One night close to last call at the Picadilly below the Roosevelt Hotel, I was chit chatting with Delores, my wife Betty’s best friend, God rest her soul. I thought Joe had gone to take a leak. Next thing I knew, Joe was getting the bum’s rush, physically and unceremoniously ushered out the archway. Then it was my turn.

“You two came in together; you two go out together,” the manager said. “We don’t want your business.”

I was in a dizzy about what was going on and asked him why. He said Joe was going table to table chugging glasses of any brew left behind.

I’d had just enough 3.2 myself to make Joe’s logic not too bad an idea, knowing first-hand my friend Joseph was usually a bit light financially. But public embarrassment tends to strain relationships. So the odds were against our chance meeting, repeating.

Still, my warm affection for the great McGill survived. After all, Joe was part leprechaun, pedigree that rivaled most, if not all, the mounts Joe rode for the money at county fairs all over the Midwest.

I didn’t know McGill loved horseflesh, until he explained one summer why he was avoiding the circuit. It seemed he had a fast pony; but his speed discouraged the local entries. So Iowa’s Willie Shoemaker filled in the white places of his filly with some shoe polish!

Like McGill’s outstretched hands appealed, inconclusively, “How was I to know that when the field turned into the home stretch, a sudden rain ran my horse’s true colors right off the track?”

Sir Valance never raced again. Joe said “tar and feathers” and “banished for life” were a few of the threats that caught up with him as he fled just ahead of the angry mob. At first, he’d considered hiding until dark, but Joe gave up that option when threatening voices grew too close.

“Tom, what we city boys pass for good clean fun, loses its levity when Iowa farmers feel the laughter reach deep into their pockets,” explained the Great McGill. “When anyone makes them feel that they been had, you’ve had it.”

But the funniest McGillicudy story to come out of the IC Greyhound era goes like this: Joe was devoted to high school. He’d played at least three years cross town at St. Patrick’s, who had laid first claim based on ethics.

Maybe the Great McGill had sat out a season or two for educational reasons. Whatever. The year he came to Immaculate Conception High was the culmination of a summer of uncertainty whether he’d grace the halls of St. Wenceslaus near the packing house, or follow through on the primary promise.

We welcomed him with open arms. But when tournament time rolled around and trimming the travelling squad, Father White took aside the only basketball player that shaved twice a day.

“Joe,” the good padre said. “I’m afraid you won’t be travelling to Dubuque this year with the team. It’s your grades.”

Joseph was crestfallen. “Father, I have to make the diocesan tourney; I been planning on it all year!”

Father was shaking his head no as Joe continued, adamant: “Give me some examinations to bring up my grades!”

“There isn’t time.”

“Ok, what about an oral quiz?”

“All right, McGillicudy, we’ll base your eligibility on a single question about English. Consider it carefully; your answer decides whether you travel with Phil and the boys.”

“Go ahead, Father White, I accept.”

“All right, Joe. Define Synonym.”

Joe McGillicudy mulled it over briefly. Then the dawn of understanding spread over his face, breaking into a grin.

“Got it, Father, a trick question. You had me for a minute, but I got it. Synonym is something you sprinkle on rolls, to make them taste good.”

And that’s what kept the Great McGill from competing his senior year at the great shootout on Loras College campus in Dubuque.

There are a lot of stories about the tournament in the key city. One is that Katie Wilcox and I always managed to get there, even if I had to hitch-hike. It was a platonic friendship and we played it for laughs. One time we got a ride with others in high school and got there early. So we drove around Dubuque studying the natives.

Suddenly, Catherine sat straight up and swiftly cast her eyes from one pedestrian to another, then to another truck driver, and so on.

“Look!” she marveled. “People in Dubuque all have big noses!” I know this won’t track, anthropologically speaking; but so help me, at that moment in time, she was anthropologically proper.

“There’s one!” she whispered in a hiss bordering on hysterical. Then I’d spot a history-making honker turning toward us just as we rounded a corner and we’d collapse into mutual spasms of laughter.

It was like laughing in church; you can’t stop even of your life depended on it. “That lady saw us staring at her,” I said. “I don’t think she was flattered in the least.”

Maybe big breaks makes some folks self-conscious, suggested my big beautiful friend. So the conversation shifted to analytical. One determined it could be the German-Irish heritage of so many living there. But the other thought, No, more likely, the prevalence of larger-than-life schnozollas probably could be traced to the water; or even the effect of atmospheric pressure upon developing offspring.

No matter. Whatever the cause of our teenage disrespect for the citizens of the Seven Hills, we’d forgotten it by game time; by game’s end we were rejoicing with the rest of the IC fans, Our Greyhound had another memorable Class A trophy at Dubuque.

And without the athletic backup of the Great Joe McGill.

We miss him, but somehow I think we’ll all run into the leprechaun. Just look for the select crowd of good ol’ boys and girls, laughing at his Irish antics. With prior approval, of course…

The Dubuque tournament, although a February extravaganza, actually was the beginning of the rest of the school year for seniors, the downward wrap up of the semester leading to summer for the rest of the students.

One time, I was fortunate to ride home in the back seat with a carload of cheerleaders who were also upperclassman. I remember one of the girls was Eugene and Bob Thoennes’ sister. Another was Rosie Robinson.

They were cute girls; I think that was one of the requirements to try out. Anyway, on the way home, I found Rosie Robinson sitting on my lap. And one of the other girls must have dared Rosie, because all of a sudden, she was kissing me.

And you can imagine how I struggled to get away. The rest of the trip is hazy; all’s I know is, it seemed like an unusually short trip. I vaguely remember Rosie being very patient with the new kid, more her sister Rita’s age. Rosie whispered, “You’re a good kisser, but what are you planning with that arm? Just going to let it hang there all the way home?”

And that sweet child gently draped it over her shoulder. And there was something comforting about those blue, bulky knit letter sweaters.

No wonder, Meis mused. (Closing mein eyes in comparable, compromising situations like this, set me adrift in the sea of tranquility.) No wonder the varsity squad wins so many games. With inspiration like this, who could lose?

I felt like rhyming a couple of couplets. At least, I thought, it’s something I don’t have worry about stumbling over…

…or did I?

My sister, Mary, started singing the praises of the annual tournament when she was a freshman on the girls’ basketball team. I was in the sixth grade, the year of my $1,000 nose bleed—another story.

Actually, it was $100, but you know about inflation.

All the Loras students turned out to watch the girls compete.  One of them was a handsome guy from Cedar Rapids, who later went to Law school named Joe Severa.

Joe still has an office in a little old brick building on the corner of picturesque Czech Village, a quaint tourist attraction in southwest Cedar Rapids.

Well, Mary Margaret’s glowing accounts of the girl basketball tournament included glowing accounts of Joe Severa, Big Man on Campus. I really knew his brother, Bob, better. I think Bob was one of the handsomest kids I knew. He died young. Once or twice I took time to look up his stone in the Czech section of Oak Hill Cemetery, just to assure him friendships live on.

I liked to watch him when he was a switchman on the railroad. Seeing him work, you knew that this young man loved what he was doing, loved life, and he told the whole world. The confidant assurance, waiting for the step to reach him; the graceful swing of man in rhythm with the rolling train. Lantern in one hand, life by the other.

Little wonder even a heart of such magnitude could sustain this prince. When it gave out, I was shocked.

Ben was the baby of their family. He ended up working for Ma Bell, and a good one. I was maybe 14 and Ben was 11. We lived on 5th Avenue and Severas across the neighborhood on 4th. We were playing over at our house at 1833. I made the mistake of calling Ben a dumb bohemie and compounded it by turning my back to the exception he took it to. Now, Ben was solid, and so he came out me running full force and knocked me to the ground.

I don’t think Benard Severa ever forgave the thoughtless remark. And I don’t think he remembers why I make him glare. He just knows that sometimes in the dark dim past, Tom Meis sullied his image. And no puny lifetime can hope to make up for it.

Chapter 9

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