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More Stories - The Way We Were
Who Do We Owe?
In 1949 I was eleven and just starting seventh grade and 4-H (Future Homemakers of America). My father, pastor of a small-town Baptist church for several years, announced one day that he was accepting at position in Lincoln, Nebraska at the Back to the Bible Broadcasting Co. as a counselor.
I was too young to know all the reasons he was dissatisfied with his pastorate or if they were with him, but he held a strong belief in the purity of faith and church, and therefore forbid all efforts to allow rummage sales, fund raisers and so on, all customary and enjoyable social gatherings by the ladies of the town. He held that it went against the New Testament teachings against money-changing in the temple of God.
This move was hard for me for several reasons: I had to part with my dear yellow tiger cat, Sunshine. During the move, most of my tattered childhood treasures mysteriously disappeared, never to be seen again (Parents, don't DO this to your kids. Their stuff is their stuff!). (See a surprise subsequent explanation!) I left my friends, so important to a pre-teenager, and the beautiful hills and wild beauty of western New York state for the dusty rolling plains of Nebraska. Initially we left behind my mother, confined to bed in the final stages of a difficult pregnancy with my late sister Priscilla.
In an effort to make me easier to care for and give my spirits a boost, Mother sent me to the town beauty shop the day before we left, and had my thick long hair, previously confined in braids, cut short and fashionably permed with one of those old fashioned octopus-looking apparatuses that seemed as if it would electrocute one's entire head.
With a house rented for us by a future co-worker, at November's end, Daddy, my two-year old brother Nathan and I started driving across country, trailer in tow, just before Artic winds plunged the Midwest into a blizzard. True to form, my brother Nathan came down with a terrible cold the first day out and ran a fever most of the way. Late at night on December 4th we pulled into the outskirts of Lincoln, snow still falling, and laid up in a motel for the night. As the snowflakes covered everything with a clean glistening mantle, I optimistically vowed it would be a new start for me, leaving my troubles, worries, problems and shortcomings behind. Little did I know that it works in reverse at that age and especially in a new environment! And a good thing, too, that I didn't foresee how hard it would really be.
First surprise; mother had left my hair in curlers for the trip, and the morning of the 5th of December, anticipating arrival at our new house, I took them out. My hair was perfectly straight, ugly and completely unmanageable! It took three or four more tries with perms before I accepted that for some reason my hair absolutely will not take a permanent or keep a curl.
Second surprise! I didn't know my father knew how to cook or do laundry. He muddled through, and I helped but not very efficiently. Every day I came home from school to an empty house, a first for me, to sit by the heat register trying to get warm while listening to the radio and reading the newspaper. I will never forget reading about the escalating Korean war, although I usually just scanned the battle maps and headlines and went straight on to the funnies and crossword puzzle. Up until that time, war was something that, while having a large effect on one's daily life, didn't have great personal consequences for me because everyone in our large extended family either wasn't the right age to be drafted, was already in a needed position stateside, or was a civilian employee during World War II. The maps of troop movements in Korea were abstract exercises, like playing with toy soldiers.
Our new home faced a city block of low, grassy vacant land, a catch-pond for floods and part of Lincoln's street drainage system. A couple days after we arrived, a city parks employee turned on a fire hydrant full blast until the basin filled with water; freezing into more than an acre-sized ice skating rink.
Each afternoon and evening I would watch from the window as people of all ages skated, flirted and gathered around a large bonfire surrounded by old chairs, logs and orange crates. Young children skated early, teenagers and adults at night. I'd skated a little in New York, always with someone's worn-out cast-offs, and had outgrown the last pair. For Christmas my dad put a box under the Christmas tree, but suggested I open it several days early. There was a beautiful pair of bright red figure skates, exactly my size!
Imagine where I spent the next few months, after school and on weekends. Winter nights fell early, and when Daddy picked up my brother at the baby-sitter, he called me in to help with chores, as did my mother after she arrived with my new baby sister. I was rarely ready to come in despite numb toes and nose. My parents finally decided that I could stay out on the ice until 10 PM or so on Friday or Saturday nights.
"Cruising Down the River" and "Ghost Riders in the Sky" were two of the most popular songs, and frequently on weekends someone from the Parks Department brought in a sound system to play those and other latest hits. In between, much of the more serious talk around the bonfire was about the war.
It was greatly unexpected. World War II was so horrific and widespread that peacemakers afterwards naively assured everyone it had been the war to end all wars, all the tyrants having been destroyed. In disbelief, many kids my age watched brothers and others close to them being drafted for the Korean conflict, or worried over those who were eligible for the draft but not yet been called up.
One late evening as I skated back to the bonfire to rest and warm up a little, I discovered an attractive young man I'd never seen before, sitting alone, rigidly and a little apart, with no skates on. I was struck by the look on his face, as if he'd just lost his mama, his best friend and his dog. I looked around, but every seat was taken. The fellow, probably about 19 or 20, called to me and patted his knee in invitation. I shook my head, horrified. A stranger? I knew better than that! But something in his manner convinced me, and eventually I came over and gingerly sat on his knee. Then I noticed that although wearing a heavy black overcoat, he had on woolen khaki pants and army issue shoes.
"I've been drafted and I'm shipping out to Korea tomorrow morning," he said bleakly. "I just came home to say goodbye." He put his arm gently around my waist.
We sat like that without speaking or moving for perhaps a half hour while the skaters whirled by, watching the sparks fly up into the night sky. Finally he gave me a little hug and said, "Thank you. I have to go now." We got up and he walked off into the dark. I didn't have the heart to skate any more that evening; the fun had gone.
After that I read the entire news about the war. I never knew who that draftee was or where he lived. I didn't have any romantic illusions about him, but I worried throughout the entire conflict. Every massacre described in the paper made me wonder if he was there. Was he injured? Did he survive? If so, how would the experience affect him when he came back? War had a face.
Spring came early that year; the pond thawed, the owner of the house came back from Florida prematurely and we had to move to dreadfully substandard slum housing temporarily. The war went on, finally winding down, as most do, without resolution.
Barely recovered from the Korean war, the USA joined the Vietnam conflict, a horror from which thousands of veterans-- those lucky enough to have survived-- have never recovered physically or emotionally. Nor have many of the protestors or even those who fled to Canada to avoid a war effort to which they were adamantly opposed. One of my son's friends was at Kent State during that tragedy and relived it for years.
And so it goes. As long as there are shortages of food, clothing, shelter, fuel or land, or there are riches or power to be gained, or dogmas to uphold, human beings will enter into conflict. Too bad we cannot settle disputes by playing games to see who wins... but then, consider the Aztec games and the horrific consequences to the losers!
A contributor to Ann Lander's column wrote about a website for those still grieving or otherwise suffering the effects of Vietnam: The Virtual Wall. Take a look. And when you're sitting down to your next excellent meal, thihk... who do we owe?
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