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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 bottom of the bowl.

And while I am grateful for the lessons, what I cherish most, are the stories he left behind.

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 1991 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.

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.

Like most 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 Fathers Footsteps: Chapter 50

“You’ve gotta dance like there’s nobody watching, Love like you’ll never be hurt, Sing like there’s nobody listening, And live like it’s heaven on earth.” – William W. Purkey

This blog is a longer version of one story Dad told several posts ago, about when he was a paper carrier for the Cedar Rapids Gazette. I was a newspaper carrier, too, but honestly, I don’t think much about it. It wasn’t a great experience for me. I think I took it over from my brother, Jamie, but after a few months, I hung up my carrier’s sack and took a babysitting job.

I’m  finding out that my dad and I had a lot in common, including a love for music. I guess I knew that already, but it didn’t dawn on me until recently that it goes beyond a fondness for melodies; it’s an all-out love affair.

I was about 6 when I “borrowed” my big sister’s transistor radio and took it on bike rides through the neighborhood. I listened to the Beatles, The Doors, and the Who before they were classics.

I always wanted to play the piano, too. My friend, Jenny, took piano lessons when we were kids. One day, when we were really bored, she offered to show me how to play a few songs. She thought it would be easier to show me how to play with one hand, and I learned how to play “Love Story,” “Lara’s Theme,” “Brian’s Song,” and “The Entertainer.”

But that was as far as my piano playing went. That is, until I went to college and took piano lessons as part of my curriculum. Now I play as often as I can.

I took violin lessons in 4th grade, but I was so bad, I quit after a few lessons.  And then my brother, Tim, tried teaching me how to play guitar, but I think his lack of patience made me tell him, thanks, but no thanks.

But even though I couldn’t play music, I loved listening to it and practice singing on my dad’s tape recorder. My dad loved to sing, too, and it didn’t matter where he was. He’d belt out songs whenever he felt like it; walking through the house, in the car, or at the store. He didn’t care who was listening. He just loved to sing. And he was the loudest singer in church, too!

But if it’s true what they say, that people sing when they’re happy, it means my dad was happy a lot of the time. His life may not have been perfect, but he was happy. And that makes me happy.

Those years I delivered the Cedar Rapids Gazette on the north side of Fourth Avenue East packed a lot of living into the life of yours-truly. It coincided with those four years of high school at Immaculate Conception, but somehow they separated themselves in my heart.

That’s appropriate, too, because my paper route took me past the school six evenings and Sunday morning of every week. It started on Sixth Street next to the telephone building and carried me west six or eight blocks west past IC at 10th Street to the end of my route on the alley at 15th Street.

Now, I don’t wish to discourage you by starting at the first house, but this is where my first memory took place.

Preface. Jim McNamara had the other side of the street and naturally-him being Irish-we had a lot of laughs over the years. But I think the time I was late one night, and my reason could have helped give rise to the expression, “Died Laughing.”

“Where in the hell have you been?” Jim asked. “I’ve been waiting half an hour!”

I was embarrassed, but I looked him straight in the freckles and said, “I’d rather not say.”

But Jim insisted until I admitted, “I had to cut a cripple’s toenails.”

Well, I like a good laugh myself, but I though Mack was going to have a stroke! Besides, it wasn’t my favorite way to kill time.

This huge paraplegic pauper asked me to do him the favor of trimming his toenails; I couldn’t think of any excuse not to. 

I don’t gag easily, but I don’t think he, nor anyone else, had pared those yellowed horns that capped those poor little lifeless feet for years. What really scared me was, if I cut too deep, big fella didn’t have feeling enough to call me off. My first warning would be if the choppers-they looked like the forceps dentists get down with-draw blood.

So, it was more than a feeling of relief than guilt for late newspaper that zipped me through Route 84 that night. I would have forgotten the episode before dinner was over. But every so often Mack McNamara brings it up out of a clear blue sky.

“Gotta cut a cripple’s toenails? Tom, you have a better imagination than that. That is without a doubt, the poorest excuse ever made for being late.”

We picked up our papers downtown at the Gazette Building; a good bunch of boys. So it was kind of a natural thing for the press room boss to recruit us guys to stuff comics in the Sunday papers on Saturday nights. 

We made $5 for our 4 or 5 hour press run, good money in those days. Add to the magic of staying up all night. Top it off with breakfast at the Third Avenue Virginia after we knocked off after first light.

For twenty-five cents you got ham and eggs, tomato juice, coffee and toast. And jelly with the toast!

I’m sorry later generations can’t live those kinds of times. The Virginia was run by a couple of Greek brothers; right off the Fourth Street RR tracks. And if you weren’t hungry before, that good food fragrance changed your mind!

Country music didn’t enjoy the popularity like it does now. But one sad song indelibly presses on my mind from the jukebox of that midnight cafe. I could have cried; the injustice of it all. “Born to lose, and now I’m losing you.”

Some of the folks remember that side of Third Avenue across from Green Square Park; flower shops and the Karmel-Korn shop. The old Union depot that stretched two blocks along Fourth Street between Third and Fifth avenues.

This grand railroad station across the tracks from old Washington high school should have been preserved; but who has the money? You walk in and smell the musty smoke of decades of arrivals and departures, part of the imposing woodwork. Coughs magnified magnificently in flyaway expanses of vaulted ceilings.

But what really impressed me-I was a pigeon lover then, and now-were the several mornings I joined dozens of other men and boys releasing racing homers from the pigeon clubs in Chicago and the Quad Cities. 

These sunrise Sunday mornings had special significance for me because I had read stories of valor about a World War I bird who saved a trapped regiment, and how they’ll fly hundreds of miles despite storms and other obstacles, to reach their homes aloft.

So it wasn’t the quarter the station master plunked in our palms. It was my love for these domesticated miracles of flight that drew me to the stacks of wicker baskets lining the station platform.

Excitement mounted as the starting time neared.

The official stood with watch in his hand, raised the other as the sky grew lighter in the eastern sky; then gave the signal to release the birds. Sides of the wicker basket dropped as fast as they could be opened.

Then, in a storm of sound and beating wings, sometimes hundreds of birds, exploded in a flurry of home-bound heartbeats. They seemed to rise in a single cloud with a leader that turned in several widening circles.

Seemingly, satisfied the instinct was reliable, they vectored as one into daylight and destiny. 

Behind on the ground, the show was over, except to shoo some spooked flyer from the back of the basket out into the open air. And freedom.

Sometimes, when I would climb the long ladders up to the church belfry, a long-distance racing pigeons-telltale identification band on its leg-was there. These birds stood out from their dull-feathered cousins.

It makes you wonder what power on earth pulled them aside from the determined thrust of their inbred instinct to go home at any cost; perhaps they were sidelined by bad weather or they were injured by a predator.

I thought about raising pigeons over the years, and even had some in the backyard of the house on 31st Street. But after someone complained, I had to get rid of them. Some people just don’t appreciate the finer things.

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In My Father’s Footsteps: Chapter 49

Tom Meis and Max Hahn, together again. Dad played the judge.

 

 

“Every artist was first an amateur.”

I come from a family of creators; painting and drawing, writing, acting, photography, cooking; all of us, doing our own things. Some of us get paid for our work, while for others, it’s just hobby. In any case, the art of creating is in our blood.

Creative talent can be found on both sides of my family,  but to be honest, I thought I was the Black Sheep for most of my life. I couldn’t draw, I couldn’t paint, or even color inside the lines. I just figured the creative gene pool left me dry.

I first noticed this lack of talent in first grade, when I held my scissors upside-down. No matter how much the teacher tried to teach me, I just didn’t “get it.” It explains a lot; I still can’t cut straight. But it wasn’t just cutting. I had a tough time being creative with anything.

One project in particular, my first grade class was asked to create something we liked about a circus, using the first initial of our name. I was given a “C” and decided to create Cotton Candy.  All I had to do was glue cotton all over the template and voila, I’d be done.  Easy, peasy.

But, it didn’t happen that way. I got paste ALL over everything, except what I was trying to paste. The cotton all stuck together in a glob, and it looked horrible. I don’t think I even finished it.  It was pretty traumatic for a 6 year-old, and I decided that maybe “art” wasn’t for me. So ….

I started writing at a young age, (just like Stephen King!) typing stories on my dad’s manual typewriter. But creative writing didn’t come easy. I had the awesome ideas, but putting them down on paper proved to be challenging. (Looking back, I’m sure I was borderline ADHD.) The words got jumbled somewhere between my brain and my hand. When I read it back, it sounded stupid, so I threw it away.

I have always been my own worst critic.  And I still am. But I don’t throw things away anymore. Just the opposite. I have become a hoarder; saving every picture I’ve taken, every graphic I’ve created, every story I have written in the last 10 years.  Every few months I sort through the files on my computer and weed them out, which is hard for me, because of my fear of letting things go. But that’s another story.

I’ve noticed as I copy my dad’s writings onto this blog, that his memories can be divided in definite categories; his childhood, the Navy, working in Grandpa’s store, and his experience in Louisville. Just an observation. It could be these are the experiences that shaped his life. Or maybe I just haven’t gotten to his other experiences yet. I still have a box half-full of papers I haven’t gone through yet. I wonder what other treasures I’ll find.

I loved Louisville. Like Cedar Rapids, it’s a big beautiful city that still looks upon itself like a small town with lots of good ol’ boys! Both keep growing in spite of themselves. One day, after learning I had to find another job or leave town, I was feeling pretty frisky. I wrote one of those far-out letters, I thought was pretty funny, but got no response.

Jim Petersmith and his wife, one of Bill Vogel’s daughters, went to Louisville and stayed. I hope they make it big in theater, one of the finest.

The nearest thing I came to it was venture, tentatively, toward the building, located  roughly in what would be lower 4th Street, Sioux City or the south end of Cedar Rapids. I was hungry, but not thirsty. So I stuck my head in the door of a tavern that said “Sandwiches” at the bottom of the beer sign.

Get this. Perfect silence at dusk, outside; but inside, on the other end of the stools, friendly bedlam. I knew it was a neighborhood bar; me entering brought everything in the nature of celebration to a screeching halt. My ears hurt.

To a man (and woman), the place focused on the intruder. “Excuse me,” I ventured haltingly. “Do you serve food?”

I can’t say whether my Yankee twang incited instant revulsion, or it was a private party and I looked like a cop. 

The biggest guy in this entire melange, he had to be the boss, made an end rumble around the group. “No!” he yelled, closing fast, “What the hell do YOU want?” He needed a shave.

I needed to get out of there, post-haste; to quote the Shakespearian idiom in exit lines.

My luck  followed me to an open side-door at the theater. Several people were reading a script. The spokesman made no bone s about it, the theater wasn’t interested in idle conversation. Beyond this, I think they secretly admired anyone venturing into the flats alone, early though the hour!

Someone escorted me to the same door, and I heard the bar lifted and locked behind me. 

Let me tell you about Cunningham’s.

Ben would love this classy eating place. I’m sorry to think of it as having passed into history; it must be. All in the name of progress.

I never made a habit of splurging a lot, sending most of my salary home. But this weekend, I thought to myself, “The heck with it. I’m going to treat myself.”

I indulged myself in Louisville on a couple of other occasions. Once the traveling company of Fiddler on the Roof was playing downtown. The other time was the Kentucky Derby; a story you gotta hear.

But Cunningham’s was like going back in time. A survivor itself, I see a small, one-story building all alone. Not a quonset, like Johnny’s old place near the beginning of Ellis Boulevard, but a pretty weathered place.

When it was built, for instance, the well-dressed black waiters waited in an outbuilding that ran the length of the main facility, where they could smoke and talk and-I imagine-take their meals, as well as their breaks.

I’d gone in early, so the place was pretty much mine. Inside the dining room was what Johnny Greenway’s mother, describing the time just before dawn, referred to as “the half light.”

Booths were rich period pieces from post Civil War.  Any wonder I felt like a king? 

I don’t remember the menu, but I remember supreme satisfaction; good chow. The waiter brought me a Manhattan straight up. I can’t explain the choice. It’s just that, when it’s celebration time, Tom says, “Manhattan.

Well, of course it’s a prestige thing, but maybe also because the glamour of that fabled island represents the sum total of everything Iowa isn’t. 

Face it. It’s about as far away as you can get from the Midwest, and you can get there in a single word. 

“Manhattan, please.”

All right, two words.

Chapter 49

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In My Father’s Footstep: Chapter 48

      

“I do believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book.” – J.K. Rowling

The image on the right (above) is the cover of a book my dad talks about in this latest blog. I’ve honestly never heard of it before, but it sounds pretty good. I’m not much of a fan of war stories, but it sounds like there might be a lot more to it than meets the eye. Like the old saying goes, You can’t judge a book by its cover. It might apply in this case, too.

The other photo is the cover of the popular book by John Steinbeck, Grapes of Wrath. I had to read it for school, but I loved it. The reason i included it is because like the book my dad mentions, it had an effect on me. I think it was the first time I had ever thought about how good I had it; a roof over my head, plenty to eat, and toilet paper,which I deemed necessary, but to some, might be a luxury.

I saw the movie later, with Henry Fonda later, but it didn’t have nearly the effect on me as the book did. That’s just how books are. And imaginations are awesome when you get lost in a book. You become a part of it, as though you are right there watching, as the events unfold. Kind of like I feel when I read my dad’s stories.

I have always loved to read. As soon as I could I’d read anything I could get my hands on; little kid books, big kid books, cookbooks. And when I ran out of those, I started reading dictionaries and encyclopedias.

My Aunt Mary Collins sent us books for our birthdays and for Christmas. Not only was she very thoughtful and generous, she was thinking about our education, too! One year for my birthday she sent a book by Marguerite Henry; Justin Morgan Had a Horse. (You might know the author by her other books she has written, including Misty of Chincoteague and King of the Wind. Years later, I bought a horse at an auction that was part Morgan and part American Saddlebred. Just a coincidence I’m sure.

Mary also sent the “Little House” books to us girls. I read every single one, including Farmer Boy, which was about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s husband’s childhood.

Other books I loved were the Pippi Longstocking books and Harriet the Spy; Pippi, because she lived by herself and took care of herself just fine, even though she was a little girl; and Harriet the Spy because she wasn’t afraid of anything and didn’t care what other people thought of her.

I still like to read, but now I like to write them, too. I want to write a story that’s so good, people get caught up in it and become a part of it. I’m working on ti, anyway.

I knew my dad liked to read, but I guess I didn’t realize how much. It makes me  wonder if he ever read any books by Stephen King, and if he hadn’t, I’d be surprised. I think he’d like his writing.

Books have meant a lot to me through the years. And motion pictures. Plays and musicals I’ve acted in. And the music I alluded to, half a track back. On E Avenue, I loved to look at the pictures, drawings mostly, in the thin books Mother let me look at, behind the curtain at the bottom of her desk.

I vaguely admit to scribbling in some of them, from which I never fully recovered! There may have been a few National Geographics, gold mines of pictures. I think I identified drawings that went with the nursery rhymes.

Little Bo-Peep. There was an old woman. Heavy material. But what Mom gave me to read, after I’d learned how, made the most lasting impression.

Especially Chad Buford in “Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come.” And “The Mine with the Iron Door,” a story of two wizened prospectors that found themselves facing the prospect of raising a little girl.

“Trail of the Lonesome Pine,” may have been a third novel. But the book that shanghaied me on a slow boat to the Blue Grass was about a mountain boy and his dog.  It opened before the Civil War on a steep mountain trail, where the fog hung like torn curtains, and Chad, an orphan, concealed a heavy heart to match.

Blame my impressionable age or a hungry imagination, on the daydreamer side. Whatever influenced my experience, I literally took that lad’s life and lived it as my own. 

I told Betty last night, “Every time I near the end of a good book, it makes me sad; for O know the relationship is about to end, too.” Betty replied that it had to be exceptional before she’d take it to heart.

And “Kingdom Come” was. The Civil War saw families split between Yankee and Confederate, Kentucky in particular. The Commonwealth sent one son North and others South. That was the way the family was that Chad went to live within Lexington. 

And somewhere, before or after the war, Cholera stalked the mountains like a plague, quietly extracting a dreadful price. Chad returned to the cabin of his adoptive parents to find the only girl he ever loved, even as a boy, struck down. 

The writer described the plain pine box she lay in, a sight now no more unusual than smoke curling from the cabin chimney. 

I wouldn’t mind reading the “Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come” again sometime. I thought about it when I was in Louisville all those years ago, and even went to a library and asked if they had it available. I never did find it.

Chapter 49 

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In My Father’s Footsteps: Chapter 47

“Faith is not knowing God can; it’s knowing God will.”

I dreaded Sundays when I was a kid, because although it was a day off school, it also meant “church day.” I hated going to church because it was really boring; I didn’t get a lot out of it and usually fell asleep on my mother’s lap.

“Why do we have to go to church?” I whined, as rushed around to get ready. (It couldn’t be easy with nine of us looking for shoes and jackets and mittens.)

Without skipping a beat, and not wanting to get into a lengthy discussion, my dad would tell me, “Because I said so. Get your shoes on.”

I had other questions about God, but my timing wasn’t always the best, which made it difficult to get anything that could help me understand God better:

“Why did God make us?”

“Because he loves us.”

“But, why?”

“Because we are his children.”

“So, he’s my dad? But aren’t you my dad?”

Eventually, he’d lose his patience; probably tell me something like, “Go away kid, you’re bothering me.” (4-year-olds can be so pesty!)

My dad was a devout Catholic. He raised his children in the Catholic church, hoping, I’m sure, that we would all step right in line with the teachings of the Church.

But organized religion is not for me. I have explored different denominations over the years, which led me to the belief that while I consider myself a Christian, I am more ‘spiritual’ than religious.

In my opinion, organized religious has too many constraints, and I really just want to believe what I believe. I don’t expect anyone else to understand it, but I hope they can respect it.

Although I was confused about God when I was little, my dad made sure we knew there was a Higher Power, something greater than all of us, a deity, who created all of life, and would help us if we asked.

He’d make bedtime prayers fun by reciting the traditional “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep” as a rap song, clapping his hands to each beat, swaying in time with the imaginary band behind him.

I still have a lot of questions that can’t possibly be answered, such as why are we here and what does God want from us, but really, does anyone have the answers? All we can do is explore the possibilities and figure it out for ourselves.

That’s where Faith comes in.

Father Phil Schmitt  is leaving the parish and Karl Glovik is coming back to Immaculate Conception from St. Pat’s in Dubuque to take his place.

The good news reminded me  of a favor Father Glovik did for me when he was here years ago. Papa John Paul II was coming to Des Moines for his visit and they needed someone for the second or third bus to sort of represent the parish, count people, and so on.

Father asked me; maybe he knew I couldn’t really afford to go, and this was a freebie. I think it was catered sack lunches, a cut above the carton of milk and two Oreos … just kidding.

I can’t remember much about the trip itself, except of course, anticipation of maybe a glimpse of the Holy Father. Ad when we neared Living History Farms, site of his celebration of Mass, the drama of thousands converging upon the hills, by bus and by car and on foot, heightened our expectations to wide-eyed and smiling.

I’m every bit sincere when my imagination played back to the hills of Galilee; made it easy to be part of the crowd that pressed to see the Prophet from Nazareth. Maybe even wave, if he got close enough.  “Hey, I know someone who touched His robe! It’s true; it doesn’t have a single seam. His mother made it.”

“Wow!”

An older lady from the bus, and I, tired soon and didn’t draw as close to the temporary sanctuary as the others. God, it was cold. Fall, I think.  That cold breeze whipping down from the North, like there was nothing at all between the Polar Ice Cap and Des Moines, Iowa.

We were joined by several Franciscan nuns, who had just arrived by bus from the Quad Cities. We talked before Liturgy got under way. I think they were Novices and I know they were Polish and I know they were from Chicago and I know they worked with old people.

When I described the Sherwins’ house on the hill, they were pretty sure the place they worked was something like a stone’s throw.

I felt old when these two little daughters of San Fran chattered like the teenagers they were, ignoring the cold. Only effect that windswept hill had on my nuns, was adding color to their flushed faces.

One thing-makes me feel like a tattletale ’cause I feel guilty for enjoying it so much-when it came time for the kiss of the fellowship … Gosh! These kids kissed me on the mouth!

Halleluia!

And, Amen to that.

I hasten to add, it was a definite Goodbye-cousin-Come-Back-Soon kind of kiss. It just caught me off-guard, is all. While I was still sort of shocky, the announcement came around that women were asked not to distribute Communion. The Holy Father was not amenable.

But a nun came around with the Eucharist anyway, and gave us Holy Communion. And I was ticked pink because I don’t think anyone else covered our side of the mountain that day.

And that’s my story about the Pope’s visit to Des Moines. Shoulda taken my binoculars. People kept trying to see Pope John Paul for me.

“Ok. Now look to the left…” But even through the glasses one time, the lines fuzzed up. 

But the Grace was all over the place. I looked around and reflected on Jesus’ claim to the cattle on a thousand hills. He must have gazed at all those thousands gathered together, and remembering his promise told them: “If you embrace me as your Savior, my word, and you keep it, Salvation is yours.”

I was moved by the experience, a pilgrimage to share the air with the Pope’s momentous memento of Christ’s reclamation of mankind. 

The trip home to Cedar Rapids, to the parking lot at Immaculate Conception, was true anticlimax; so uneventful I can’t recall a single conversation. I remember thoughtfulness, which was never my forte.

Oh, I could hear ladies talking and occasional laughter; but I think the message they took home with them at nightfall, were the same words that brought a smile to the corners of my mouth:

“Finish the race. Keep the faith. Don’t give up the ship.”

Chapter 48

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In My Father’s Footsteps: Chapter 46

 

     

“Don’t worry; be happy.”

Dad loved that song by Bobby McFarrin. It is kind of catchy, and a good reminder all at the same time; everything will be okay. Kind of how Dad lived his life.

The photo on the right is a page from my Grandma Meis’ high school year book. I’m not 100% sure but I think she lived in the Marengo most of her life until she met Herman. I wished I would have known more about their life just starting out. But when you’re  a kid, you don’t really know enough to ask those questions, and you don’t really see your grandparents or parents as people, until you’re older and have some life experience under your belt.

Reading my Dad’s story, I can just see my Grandma sitting in the back seat of the car, telling anyone who would listen her stories about her friends and life in Marengo. She had a unique kind of raspy, loud voice that rose in pitch when she was really excited.

“Oh, Let me see her!” she nearly screamed, years ago when I walked in her house holding her new great-granddaughter, Holly (seen peeking around her leg in the above photo on the right).

Holly immediate woke up and burst into tears. But that didn’t bother grandma one bit, as she swept Holly in her arms and swayed her back and forth. It wasn’t long before Holly was asleep again. I think there’s something to that theory that babies and kids kind of gravitate toward mothers, even if when it’s not their own.

David Darling married Rex Conn’s daughter. Rex was the Farm Editor for the Gazette and his column was “In the Woven Wire.” Or maybe it was “Out on the Acres.” The couple lived in Florida when David died.

Rex Conn was from around Marengo, and driving to the Iowa County seat with Mom never failed to fill the back seat with the drama of a travelogue, for Mother tended to play the same tapes, the way she caressed a memory, conjured vicarious images that never failed to take us with her.

“That’s the Rex Conn place,” she’d point out as we passed. “They’ve kept it up pretty well. We went to a lot of the same dances. Rex was a good dancer.”

Later on, she saw another familiar house, treating it as though we were seeing it for the first time: “Oh my! That’s where Bernice (as in furnace …) Feller lived. Run down, isn’t it? Sad. We spent many happy times there when I was a girl. Such grand parties.”

I knew Miss Feller. She was on my Gazette route on Fourth Avenue, and lived in the Brown Apartments across from Bernie Hoy. Brown Apartments was a diamond-in-the-rough, a red brick apartment building, set smack-dab in the middle of frame houses.

Living there gave residents a touch of class. Jack Hines and his family lived in the coach house, “the annex,” for a spell. Bernice Feller worked at the Light Company when IE was Ambro Advertising’s bread-and-butter account, and where Betty and I fell in love. 

I edited the utility’s employee publication, “The Front Line,” and it occurs to me that Bernice wrote the column for Cedar Rapids, the main office. At least she had bi-lines. And I think she even went to our church, but perhaps not.

Bernice was a maiden lady.

And I mention that only because the only other maiden lady on my paper route, on the same long 1200 block, was Germ Crazy. ‘Course, now a lot of us are laughing out of the other side of our face masks.

This particularly small dried up old-fashioned lady-Thomas Wolfe described her as a little bird-came to the door defensive, like she’d caught me doing something I shouldn’t.

“Collect for the Gazette?”

She fluttered (like birds do) soundlessly into the half-light of the second-floor apartment. It reminded me of those pale wraiths that inhabited so many mossy old English castles.

After such an ungodly time, I strained for any sign of life behind the closed door. The door finally swung open and she handed me a waded dollar bill, keeping her hand held out for the change. No tip for me, I guess. I thought about keeping back a dime, just to see if she’d notice, and decided not to; I had other customers to collect from.

With a slight nod, she closed the door, but slowly, maybe to see if I was really going to leave.

I’m sitting here, trying to think of things you’re not aware of about me. Or even things I think you don’t’ know about me, but do. Did you know I used to walk into the Iowa Theater backwards? Don’t ask me why, but if you’re wanting my opinion, it’s prenatal.

Mom and Dad must have seen a horror movie before I came to term, and I just hadn’t been ready for that brand of off-wall Dracu-drama.

Or, like Little Hermie demonstrated genuine hysterics when we ventured near the entrance of an alley. “Are we going in the alleyway?” Screaming, “Please, don’t go near the alleyway!”

Prenatal.

We don’t’ know the basis for unfounded fears, of course, or we would call them something else. I’d like to make a suggestion, if I may. Why not re-name those fears in language the layman can understand.

In other words, fear of birdwatching could be called Phoebe-phobia.

Kapische?

Another of H.A.’s favorite sayings was, “Son, did anyone ever drop you on your head?”

My stock answer was, “Not that I remember.” Better safe than sorry.

But, looking back, there are subtle little sign posts suggesting brain damage while still in the comparative protection of Mother’s womb. (Did Dad kick in his sleep?)

The womb is something we all have in common. Plus a certain strain of silliness. Of course, I can’t be specific about the cause of the Kadiddlehopper syndrome; I just sense-no, I’m certain- it was responsible for me to be my own worst enemy in several (dozen) iffy situations.

Oh, sure; poor judgment, too. (Give the devil his due, huh? Done!)

But let me itemize. I flunked First Grade. Blame the teacher for being on sick leave. Blame Phonics, learning to read by sounding syllables.  Blame the sultry Rozella Fleming; a distraction, but not a factor in my failure.

Face it. Blame Tommie Meis. Whatever was needed to absorb knowledge, store it in a reasonable orderly system to be recognized and recovered on demand, wasn’t anywhere to be found.

Do you know those little capillaries that do such a great job in our blood distribution? I believe that somewhere in my figure-it-out network, some tiny important wires got crossed up.

F’rinstance; why in Heaven’s name would I ever, by the wildest stretch of imagination, have to wrack my brain for the simplest, best word to convey a meaning? And then have the stuffiest, stoggiest, most pompous, blown-up, top-heavy set of syllables on record, pop to the surface instead?

Brain damage.

Ok, people have been telling me my whole life that I’m too deliberate, too determined for my own good. Why not throw in procrastinator? Indecisive. Bold. How ‘bout disrespectful? Moody. A mind like a sewer. A lazy waster of time.

It’s Thursday, July 26, 1991. It’s expected to reach a sweltering 96 degrees today. I was outside putting water in the bird bath and watering the roses. The Blue Rose is budding. I looked up at the beautiful blue sky through a filigree of Maple leaves. I thought of the poet watching a condemned prisoner, alone in the walled-in exercise yard:

“I never saw a man who looked
With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
Which prisoners call the sky…”

It’s from the Ballad of Reading Gaol (Jail).

That line about contemplating Paradise, or freedom, whatever the poet intended, has a lot of meaning for me. When I think of being 65 and still holding grudges, well, I think I have a lot of housekeeping to do. 

Chapter 47

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In My Father’s Footsteps: Chapter 45

“Some days I wish I could go back in life, not to change things, just to feel a few things twice.”

I found the above calendars when we were going through memorabilia in the storage room at my mom’s. The calendar on the right is from 1939 and the other is from 1958.

My grandpa died when I was 7; my memories of him are fuzzy, at best. I have a difficult time remembering the way he looked, how he carried himself, my memories of his store on 16th Street.

I have pictures of him, of course, but I’m finding it hard to find much in my memory that tells me anything about his personality.

My dad’s stories about life with Herman are a great way for me to learn more about the kind of person my grandfather was. It’s totally from his perspective, of course, but I trust that Dad knows best.

In fact, he paints a pretty good picture of all of his life experiences, and with my gift (and curse!) of imagination, they come to life, as though they are my own.

I was on my way to my daughter’s house the other day, when I ran into construction on First Avenue and was forced to take an alternative route past Washington High School. Traffic was slow, but as I inched slowly along Cottage Grove, I thought about how Dad described the area when he was a boy; their house at the bottom of the hill; Colonel Dows’ Dairy Farm, playing along Indian Creek, and the pasture where his cousin boarded his horse.

For a moment, I was there, reliving my dad’s memories as if they were my own, imagining what it must have looked like, felt like; to experience life before paved roads, the rows of houses and condos, before urban development took over a once-pristine pastureland.

I knew Cottage Grove and the area surrounding it. We were chased off the green at the Cedar Rapids Country Club. It was close to my ‘old stomping ground.’ I briefly attended Washington High School and took 34th Street to Cottage Grove every day on my way to work for almost three years. But not once did I wonder, even imagine, what the area must have been like when my dad was little. I didn’t even know he grew up there until I read his stories.

It’s almost like looking through an old View Master (remember those?). You put a disc in the toy and look through the lenses to see a pretty picture. Reading my Dad’s stories is kind of like that, only opposite; as I read his words, my imagination kicks in, each image clickety-clicking through my mind.

I must have one hell of an imagination. Or maybe he’s just that good.

 

Dad used to call pretty girl customers, “Swenska Flicka.” So I asked him one day what it meant.

“Pretty girl,” he told me.

So I started calling my Betty, Swenska Flicka. Every time I did, she sort of came alive.

“Swenska Flicka? What’s that mean?” she asked with an edge of resentment.

After I told her, she said, “Why do you have to make it sound so dirty?”

Our dear old Dad didn’t believe in the romantic notion there’s only one person in the world for you. And if you miss her in the cake walk, mister, you got trouble with a capital ‘T!’

Herman was somewhat parochial in this respect; he was firmly convinced that, no matter what town you’re in, you’ll find a match! He believed, then, that suitable mates abound. All any man has to do is use common sense, together with a modicum of male pursuit; and the ideal trap-happy female, together with her more-than-willing counterpart, verbalize the conjunction!

(Did Margret know about this?)

Well, just to illustrate his point, the philosophy of multiple partners, like those thousand points of light and as many Venus Flytraps, Dad told me about meeting an old love, purely by chance, in downtown Des Moines.

When he told her he was married, she started to cry. And you know Dad; he was at a loss about what to do. The way he spoke of the incident, well, he seemed a little wistful.

I could almost see her; a nice person if Dad gave her the time of day. She was probably tickled pink to see him. And then the sunshine went out of her happiness when he told her about Mom. The tears were probably as much from shock as disappointment.

Can’t you see that little guy with one eye, standing there at a loss about what to do? You know, with his head kinda cocked to one side, waiting, drawing his tongue indecisively at his lower lip. Staring down intently.

Herman Meis, with his husky arms hanging there, wondering what his fingers were thinking, holding them away from his body a bit. He’d wait for her to stop crying, wouldn’t he? Then the hard goodbye. By mutual consent, they turn their backs and let the memories settle into its own little heap on that busy Des Moines street.

And walk away.

Something is mixed up in my memory regarding ‘Pa Clems when he died. I thought it was upstairs in the house on ‘A’ Avenue. But it seemed to me, Mom spoke of Dad carrying his body down the hospital steps on the way to the funeral home. I used to wish someone would straighten it out for me; but now I know, the only important fact is how much we loved ‘Pa and miss him. And how much fun it was to have him around.

I can’t fill in the why.

Remember how I told you how David Darling announced to the world when I broke wind on the trolley on the way downtown? He said, as if by rote:

“Ohhh, that’s not nice. You’re not polite. You shouldn’t do that in public.”

Well, years later in high school ( I went to IC, Dave went to Franklin), we got together with his dad’s new car; it might have been a Lincoln. And it was his idea. Dave offered to let me drive, but advised me to “take it slow.”

I hit the curbing, and with a bent rim, and flattened tire, Dave leveled me: “Dad didn’t know I took his car. I took it without permission.”

Apologizing for being a Joe Btfsplk, a Li’l Abner comic character who goes through life under a stubborn little cloud – Trouble comes looking for Joe – I was so crushed, that David Darling felt sorry for me and told me not to worry; he would somehow smooth it over at home with his dad.

And the little Darling did.

We never talked about it again, but I always wondered how the whole scenario played out. But then again, I’m just glad I wasn’t the one who had to face the music. Not that time, anyway.

Chapter 46

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In My Father’s Footsteps: Chapter 44

Charles Schulz

“The scariest moment is always just before you start.”
― Stephen King

This short story was buried between my dad’s childhood and his tour of duty with the Navy. Dad didn’t write his story in chronological order, so I’ve had to do a little adjusting. I imagine he probably wrote like he thought, out of order, because I know that’s what I tend to do, too.

In other words, I can relate.

This excerpt kind of reminds me of a short story I once read. I don’t remember the name of the story, or where I read it, but I remember it was about a man contemplating murder; a how-to manual for would-be killers.

I think what made it so riveting was the way the author made the plot believable, speaking through the main character, as he thought about the consequences, both physical and spiritual, of taking another person’s life.

The twisted ending was exceptional, because it was finally revealed, as he pulled the trigger ….

He had been contemplating murdering himself.

The entire story was about the hatred he felt for the person he wanted to kill, and why that person deserved to die. The reader has no idea it was the main character … until the very end.

I was in high school when I asked my dad for help with a short story for my creative writing class. He suggested a murder mystery, which I thought was kind of ordinary and boring. But with his help, I was able to come up with a story that didn’t put my entire class to sleep.

One thing I learned from him is that you can take any story, any piece of writing, and make it more interesting just by changing a few words. It’s Creative Writing 101, but it’s something that doesn’t come naturally to me, like it did for my dad. But reading his stories has helped me become a better, more creative writer.

A good story should be readable, but challenging at the same time; worth the effort, anyway. And it should be entertaining. The reader should be kept on the edge of their seat throughout the entire story, and be bummed when they get to the end and there is no more. It should be that good.

I think all us kids at IC heard the sirens the afternoon an undertaker took his life in the ambulance garage, over through the backyards from the school on Fifth Avenue.  But only a few of us — Louis Stramel, maybe, and Jack Hines — had the collective audacity to sneak a peek through the big doors to see the pool of blood.

The body was gone, but the police had drawn his outline in chalk, like every low-budget, small cast TV detective show you ever suffered through.

He must have shot himself in the head.

That’s all I know, to say about it. Except Mr. Monahan discovered the body…I guess that’s right. You wouldn’t say, “stumbled over,” or “ran across,” would you?

Everyone talks about suicide being a coward’s way out, but I think it takes a lot more guts than I have. There’s a lot more to it than writing a farewell, or looking for absolution after the fact.

Who wants to go through the trouble of learning how to fire a gun, anyway? I know my heart wouldn’t be in it. I cringe at the thought of graduation day! 

Ok, say you’ve taken time from a crammed calendar to go downtown to get a gun permit.  How much do they cost? Thirty bucks? Next stop is the public library to get information on gun safety and the proper way to handle firearms. 

Comes the moment of truth, when you finally choose your weapon. You already have the permit, so that part is cut and dried. You’re cleared to buy a handgun. Get a decent one that won’t misfire. Right, and no need for extra ammo.

(How many dum-dums does it take to clear your sinuses?)

Now you are what I refer to as the ‘getting acquainted’ period. Take as long as you want; there’s no deadline. Just close the drapes. Lay it on the table. Feel comfortable with the fact that there’s just the two of you. 

Psychologists feel this is the most critical time in the process; that it’s possible to develop enough rapport to last a lifetime. And they encourage the subject to talk openly with this … still life.

They claim hearing yourself carrying on a spirited monologue with a mindless gun builds confidence. But that doesn’t mean you can go at this half-cocked!

So, let’s focus our attention on learning how to fire that little sonovagun. Shooting at tin cans and bottles isn’t going to cut it. All you need is a mirror. And if you’re a little shy about staring at yourself in a mirror, take heart. It takes a special kind of person to keep from turning red, smiling back at that great big hunk, nobody can appreciate enough. especially if you’re standing there with unabashed admiration, gun in your hand.

It’s a contradiction.

I suggest substituting a familiar object for the you-know-what; study its reflection for the proper angle, correct elevation, and try to duplicate the gun as nearly as possible.

But then what do I know? I’m just talking off the top of my head. Just talking about it gives me the creeps …

Chapter 45

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