Sunday, March 24, 2013

Sounds From a Small Town

On summer nights you could hear the music of the neighborhood. There was everything from Big Band and old Victrola records in our house, to the hip sounds of the day from the "youngsters next door". The music, whatever the genre, was played on old records, the windows open as the music breathed through the drapes. Even in other seasons, when the cold, faint rain hummed all day down upon the house, you could hear the murmur of the music within as we played upon its floors.

It was suburban America in the last days of the 60's. The houses on this block were all were erected in the 50's, sprawling across what used to be farm fields, rich soil that lay at the foothills of the mountains, small squares of cedar and brick, laying in the shadows of tall unaxed trees and the log train that serenaded a little girl to sleep.

The houses weren't "cookie cutter" similar in style, no two looking exactly alike. The back yards were big enough for about any child's adventure and the one lone pool was an anomaly, a great vast ocean of fun for those of us lucky to be invited. It was only in returning to that house as an adult, when it was sold and Dad and I went over to meet the new neighbors, that I realized that the in-ground pool was not much bigger than our kitchen, the original owner owning the local construction company and adding that small touch for his kids, one that most could not afford.

The neighborhood back then was different then the dynamics of a neighborhood now.  Families moved in and didn't move out. There weren't foreclosures popping up every few houses, and kids tended to live in the same home from the time they came home from the hospital until they went off to the lumber mills or college. It was a small mill town, most of the kids ended up there, drawn by the lure of a log mill wage at 18 that seemed like a fortune, until you saw the brutal tax on your bones and your spirit after 40 years of it. Only a few of us made our way out beyond those snow capped mountains.

I don't remember any of my friends parents getting a divorce. I rather doubt that was due to some magical formula of happy marriages, but society WAS different. Options for women were fewer and the choice of staying in a bad marriage versus the stigma of divorce with no real job skills was enough they they stayed, once loving people now just sharing a house, two ghosts from happier days, bound together by the ghost of chains.

But I remember the parents of the few kids that lived immediately around our house as good people, affectionate with one another and us, welcoming in the noise and the occasional dirty footprint onto linoleum.  We knew which Mom made the best chocolate chip cookie, and which one would be as stern a taskmaster as our own Mom when it came to playing quietly in the house.  (Look it's NOT a hallway, it's a Hot Wheels racetrack and I needed 6 extra kids as a pit crew).

Most houses had only one car.  With the amount of activities we kids were in, music lessons, scouting, band, Dad finally bought Mom this old 64 VW Bug to run errands.  Mom was grateful but not too cranked about the stick shift. I remember one trip to the store.  Big Bro was in the back seat.  I was actually sitting in that tiny little space behind the backseat for a suitcase or two, my favorite spot (car seats were for wimps).

Mom was at the local, non chain, grocers, when out backed a giant Winnebago, right into where we were sitting, likely on  its way to the mountains.  Mom gave a little toot on the Bug's horn, to let them know she was in their blind spot, and tried to get the car into reverse. The horn, shall we say, was a little anemic. A duck with laryngitis might have served more warning.

Toot!  It's still backing out.  No luck.  Toot!  toot! The RV continued to back out into the lane, Mom continued to utter words in Norwegian we'd never heard as they tried to get the stick into "R".  The tail lights were looming, albeit  quite slowly.  Reverse - FAIL.  Toot!  Toot!  the horn growing more frantic as my left-handed Mom laid out "Stop" in morse code with the horn with her left hand while she flagellated the stick shift with her right.

toot! toot! toot toot toot toottoottoottoottoot ! CRUNCH.

The damage was pretty minor but oh, how we teased her about that, the rest of her life.

That store was across a two lane 50 mph roadway that lead to the mountains. We were NOT allowed across it on our bikes without a parent, even if there was four way traffic light at the intersection with the grocery and the gas station. There was no even THINKING of breaking that rule. We knew the consequences of being reckless, and it was not a slap on the wrist or a taxpayer funded 'stimulus'. Outside of that, there were all kinds of places to roam, and in summer time we were pretty much outdoors from breakfast to supper, no helmets, no sunscreen if we could help it, no hand sanitizer, no shin guards.
We'd ride up and down the block, usually playing Man From Uncle (I always got to be Ilya Kuryakin whom I'm sure started out that Secret Agent stuff, like I, with training wheels).  We'd play soldier and spy or cowboys and Indians in our back yard where Dad and my favorite Uncle, an engineer, built a cool A-frame play house for me.  I could usually squirrel away some of the Hostess products from the kitchen, inside it's structure for the Indians to run raids on. I was ready, I had my cereal box Colt six-shooter and a BUS (back-up slingshot).

But, like the examples of our parents, and the lessons of TV, which did not yet involve drugs and spandex, we were careful with our weapons, even if they were plastic. We knew when to shoot and when not to, when it's appropriate to take a life to defend and when it is not.  Besides, should those rules be broken, we knew who the Sheriff in town was, and it was Mom, even if she gave up her actual Deputy Sheriff badge and an 18 year career in Law Enforcement, when we were placed in their home.

They ended up adopting both of us. Those were glorious days.  We'd drink from the hose or come in for KoolAid, and a hug, soda pop being something not in a budget of a single income family, reserved for a treat while on vacation to my Aunt and Uncle's ranch. We'd count marbles, candy money and coup, and we'd roam as far as we could without crossing that highway.

Many of the houses had fences, many did not, but there was an alleyway of grass that ran behind our house where we could run covert missions into a neighbor's place. The ones without kids were off limits, we were taught to respect others' property, but we did raid one retired couple's little decorative pond at the back corner of their place for the occasional frog which we'd use to scare some sissy kid, and then return it safely. (Seriously, if I ever give you a shoe box with holes in it with a big bow on top, don't open it).

On Saturdays, the cars came out to be washed, and sometimes waxed. I could earn spending money for candy by washing the station wagon for Dad, and gladly did so, learning early the correlation between labor and putting food on the table. Our Dads  would mow, and our Moms would get groceries and bake cookies for the week. A small town neighborhood was not necessarily a quiet place. There would be the sound of a piece of shop or yard equipment firing up, the mounting snarl of a small engine louder and louder, nearer and nearer, then suddenly cut off, ceasing with that certainty that is the vagrancy of machinery. There were dogs in the yards, barking at the kids who darted among trees, in bright colored tee shirts, like small schools of fish. There was the conversation over fences as our Mom's hung out the laundry on a line, at least until they got their first Avocado Maytag drier.
In the late afternoon, Dad would curl up with some sports on TV for a couple of hours, his only break in a long week of work and family. Mom would go to her needlework or crafts while the neighborhood kids continued to play those glorious summer games that were relegated to single days off during the school year for us. For Sunday was a day of worship, of rest, reading, board games and music, not raids on a local fort or trying to blow something up in the garage.

I go back now, Dad still owning that house of my childhood and find so much has changed. I see houses down the street where there's no money to repair a roof, moss taking over, plants growing in the gutter, but there's a new fishing boat and Hummer in the driveway of the very modest home. On others, there are bars on the front doors of the homes we'd run up to to ring the doorbell on Halloween, without any adult in trail.

Each time I leave there it is the same. I give my Dad a big hug on the front steps, tell him I love him, go to the car, climb in and start the engine, then get out and run back to him and give him one last hug. For each time, I do not know if it will be the last.  We are not related by blood but we are, by life lived, commitment honored and memories made. He touches my check, with work weary, dry, thin hands, an old man's fingers, yet still his hands, my Daddy's hands, touching my rosy cheek where the strength of his blood still flows within me, will flow, even after his long journey back to his reward.

I look at the house now as I slowly back from the long driveway, and all of those memories seem to condense in it, as if the house alone were the source of them, shining from it from that big picture window, glimpsed just for a second as my rental car pulls away, like that 10 point whitetail you see the split second after he sees you, when he's already gone, even as you yearn for him to return.

Dad's place and a few of the neighbors homes are still neat as a pin, but the decline of the community is apparent, young families not moving into the modest, older homes and fixing them up to maintain that little community, but looking instead to fancy looking but cheaply built Monopoly Game Piece homes with 4 bedrooms and 3 bathrooms and stamp sized yards, built to last at least 40 years, if there's not a good anti-cyclone.

I lived that way too, for a while, hated it, sold it, giving most of my things to AmVets.  Now my home, when I'm not working, is a quiet neighborhood, very old, modest houses, in which some people have lived 50 years, others are moving in to start their families or to downsize and retire.  It's the way I like to live now,  where what one possesses serves a purpose in alife, nothing is new, but you've mortgaged neither your wallet or your spirit to gain it.

I still want a  little place out in the country, with a stand of trees that holds some deer on a good spot of land.  But given the economy, the instability and cuts in many jobs, including mine, that's going to have to wait. That wilderness will continue to breathe until I find my place within it.

This here now, is the place I rest my head, and happily. There's kids bikes in the yards, flags proudly displayed from a porch.  If the older neighbor next door isn't feeling well, someone shovels their sidewalk and drive; if there's extra cookies or cupcakes, some travel across a fence to share.
Most everyone has a porch, and on any given summer evening, there's usually someone sitting on it, even if its the teenager down the street with the streak in her hair dyed bright blue and her gawky young suitor.  On those summer nights, if you listen carefully through an opening in the double paned windows that are 100 years old, you might hear the music of the neighborhood, the sounds of things that go back to our roots, our families roots, even as society changes.

It's not fancy and it is not the quiet of the country that I love.  But in the distance I can easily hear the trains, a sound that's as familiar as a touch.

I don't have a two lane highway to navigate across, just a place known as "Crazy Polish Corner" where the right of way seems to be written in a language I don't understand, but somehow survive.  I'll get across it, going into the lot of the small local grocers, smiling up for Mom in my giant black 4 x 4 that's bigger than anything in the lot with a  "No one's going to back into ME". If she can hear me, I know she is laughing.

Then I'm home, with my best friend, running up and down the stairs, playing with tools and toys and occasionally trying to blow something up in the garage, even if it just involves British auto parts. These are my new memories, but they are also my old, memories which cease to be old times and become one with the present, as if they happened, not yesterday, but still happen now, casting a shadow on the wall of the garage on the earth they will not quit until I cease to breathe.

It's not where I'll retire but it's where I am content.  It's not what I'd planned, it's everything I dreamed.  It's a piece of home, the way I remember.

 - Bigid


  1. "We'd count marbles, candy money and coup" Damn child, can you write.

  2. Comparing those times and circumstances from the past to the present... similar to memories of my childhood in the 60s and 70s... reminds me that sometimes... like in current times... more is actually less...

    Thank you for your words...

    Dann in Ohio

  3. I grew up in the 50s and 60s and I also don't remember any divorces back then. I do remember a couple of occasions where there were a few misery tears shared amongst the "women talking". And one gossipy affair. Can't say that they were happy in choosing to stay married. More like tolerant. At the time it didn't make much sense to me, but later on I recognized those tears.

    Great post. And further proof we never leave home, we just take all the good things with us wherever we go.

  4. Brigid, reading this on a lazy Sunday afternoon with a cold beer in hand did not suck. :-)

  5. Great word pictures, thank you! I need to get my butt back there and give your sweet dad more hugs!

  6. I was thinking about it yesterday, the plot of land I've always wanted, the fruit trees, the grill. Simple wants, maybe. Life is change.

    We have online communities, and it is a new way to reach out to others, united in common interests...but there is something very special about places where you actually share something with your neighbors other than geographic similarity.

  7. Being the son of a veterinarian, I had similar experiences, only on farms all over parts of 3 counties.

    I knew which farmhouses had good cookies and with which farm dogs I could play.

    At the time I didn't understand why my friends couldn't play when I came to their farms, but later I realized they were expected to help with the farm just as I was expected to help Dad by fetching stuff from the pickup or by remembering where he put stuff down when working in a dimly lit barn.

    I miss that life very much now.

  8. Did you use a British accent, like David McCallum, when playing Ilya Kuryakin? Or closer to Natasha Fatale of must kill moose and squirrel fame?


  9. As always you strike a good, nostalgic nerve in our 60's past(though I had a Johnny-7 shooty platform on which to vanquish foes...) ;)

  10. Well said, and evocative of a time long ago (at least for me)... Add in woods and .22s and that was us!

  11. Beautiful words, so evocative. Thank you.

  12. Family is not blood, it is love, my grandkids are mine no matter we share no DNA.

  13. Reminds me of the house I grew up in with 5 siblings, and Mom and Dad happily married (and still are). Ours was an early cookie-cutter town, built for Caterpillar workforce near Peoria, IL, but we kids grew up in the woods, creeks, backyards of the area. Fond memories; thanks for freshening them up! Oh, and I'm sure you know that Ilya is now on NCIS. Seems to be a fine man.


I started this blog so the child I gave up for adoption could get to know me, and in turn, her children, as well as share stories for a family that lives too far away. So please keep it friendly and kid safe. Posts that are only a link or include an ad for an unknown business automatically to to SPAM..