Category Archives: Parenting

In Cold Blood

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                                                        In Cold Blood

I’m sure that the horrible, violent and senseless murders described in Truman Capote’s book In Cold Blood captured the imaginations of most of us in the U.S. Unaccustomed to such vivid descriptions of such violent acts, what small town family did not start locking their doors at night?

The slaughter of the rural farm family occurred on Saturday night, November 14, 1959; and although Capote’s book was not published until 1966, the press made much of it at the time it happened and I was well aware of most of the details of the murder of the father, wife and teen-aged children—a boy and a girl––as well as the capture of the two men who had murdered them. I was especially affected by the sad detail of the discovery of the girl’s Sunday School money tucked into her shoe in the closet. Whether she heard the men breaking in and hid the money so it would not be found or whether she placed it there so she wouldn’t forget, the detail has the same poignancy

After the murder, as I lay in bed at night––especially on summer nights when I found it even harder to surrender to sleep than during blustery cold nights in the winter––I often thought to get up and check the doors again: the front door, the door to the garage, the door from the garage to the mud room, the door to the basement and the back door off the pantry that led to the back porch. All had push-locks accessed by a key from the other side.
On one night in particular, that summer that I turned 13, I lay awake listening to the night sounds that streamed in through my screened window. My window adjoined the front door stoop and it suddenly occurred to me that anyone could slice the screen and easily enter. I got up from bed to close the window and open the air conditioning vent in the floor under it. While I was up, I decided to check all the doors again. All were securely locked except for the lock to the back “porch” which was really just a platform four or five feet wide with a hand railing that ran the entire length of the house from the back garage entry to the pantry/kitchen area.

The pantry held a sink for my dad to wash up in when he came in from the ranch, and since we rarely locked our house, many times he would just walk along this platform/porch and enter the house from the back where he pulled off his boots and emptied his cuffs off the back porch so he wouldn’t track wheat chaff or mud or other souvenirs of his day’s work through the house. Then he’d wash his hands and neck and face in “his” special sink and make his way to his rocking chair in the living room, where he’d spend the rest of the day resting until supper and reading before bed.

This platform/porch was actually quite a distance above the ground because our lot was on a small hill that sloped from front to back and right to left. This enabled the windows in the basement to be above ground level, whereas there were no windows at all in the front of the basement. On this particular night, I stepped out onto this roofless sideless porch platform. I could see the big dipper and part of the little dipper and the thousands of other stars in the summer sky, but I didn’t know the names of any of the other constellations.

I could smell the newly cut grass that my mother had mowed in the early evening of that day, after the sun had gone low in the sky. I remembered when I was little how my dad was less tired by the time he got home and so he’d mow the huge lawn around the old house. My mom would come after him with the lawn sweeper that collected the grass cuttings in a huge canvas cube open at the top to dump the grass into a huge pile by the gravel road where we kids would build nests and play bird. I was the baby bird fed imaginary worms or, if we’d had the right dinner, sauceless spaghetti, by my older sister.

By my teen years, however, my dad would be too tired when he got home from a day that started at 5 or 6 in the morning and often didn’t end until 8 or 9 at night if they were cutting wheat. His life was a hard one and I often wondered if he resented coming home to daughters reading on their beds or talking on the phone to friends.

Did it seem unfair to him that he worked so hard to support daughters and a wife who had such a life of ease? Although I had not yet started to really write, except for a diary I once kept for a few months or assignments for school, I did have an active imagination; and from a very early age, I had concocted elaborate stories all involving imaginary selves of the future.

Now on this night, I wondered why that door that I had checked before coming to bed to read was now open! Who and why would anyone open a locked door? As I lay thinking, I heard the door to my parents’ bedroom farther down the hall open. I could hear my father’s heavy barefoot tread turning not to his right—to the bathroom between their room and my sister’s––but instead to the left. Down the long hall to my room, the entrance hall, the kitchen, the mudroom and the back porch. I could hear the door opening and a few minutes’ delay before he padded down the hall again and closed his door.

Chill. I felt it zoom down my spine, hit my tailbone and ricochet back up to my brain where it froze the back of my head. I waited. For five minutes, and ten. Barely breathing. I cracked my door and when I could again hear my father’s loud snores, I sneaked back out to the door to the back porch, which was once again unlocked. As quietly as possible, I pushed the button lock in, then returned to bed where I remained vigilantly awake for the rest of the night. Twice more, my father got up to unlock the door. Twice more, I got up to relock it.

During all those long hours before dawn, I imagined the scenario. My father, formerly my protector, allowance provider and generous benefactor to the pleasures of my life—turned in my mind into plotter. He, too, had read all of the coverage of the Kansas murders, and it had given him ideas.  He had hired a man to sneak in, to bind him up and leave him helpless and then to kill us all. He wanted to be free. He was tired of his idle daughters, tired of his wife.

My father had, previous to this, gone through one of his week long silent periods where we knew he was upset about something—cattle prices, the threat of hail before harvest, my mother or us. We never knew what caused these silent periods where he would speak to none of us and sometimes even move to the basement to sleep. They never lasted over a week and afterwards he would be our same joking, generous, hard-working dad. But during those times, we tiptoed. We tried to cajole and charm, but it didn’t work. If we asked if he wanted his head rubbed, we were met with a curt sideways bob of the head or a “Not tonight!”

This was unheard of at other times, when we’d ask for money for a new dress or the show and he’d answer with, “Ya. Rub Pa’s head!” We’d do so, and then the wallet would come out. Not that we didn’t rub his head gratis as well. It just got to be a joke—this returning of favor for favor. Then he’d hand us his wallet and put his hand over his eyes, like he didn’t want to see what we’d take. We’d always show him, though. Was this okay? It always was.

At times other than his silent periods, he was our loving dad. Proud of us. Funny around guests, and talkative, but when home alone with us, usually tired––sleeping or reading one of the piles of magazines and books that lay on the long coffee table beside his chair. I mention the silent periods as an explanation of why I might even in my most fertile imagination conceive of an idea that my dad would be capable of planning to “off” his entire family.

But, imagine it I did. I became the protector of our family that summer, lying awake for as long as I could to listen for my father’s footsteps down the hall. And this was not the only night that he got up once or twice to unlock that back door. I never said a word to my mother or sister. I perhaps told my best friend, thinking if my protective efforts failed, at least one person could point the way to insuring the perpetrator of my demise came to justice.

In later years, I forgot about that terrifying summer and went back to loving and admiring my dad almost as much as before, but by then there was a difference. Whether it was caused by radical ideas picked up in my sixties college life and my need to define myself as more modern than my parents—who were themselves quite liberal––or a vestige of that summer of distrust, I’ll never know.

By the time my dad died eleven years later, they’d sold the house in town and moved to a smaller house they built a mile out of town. It was to escape town taxes, my dad always said, but I’ve always thought that for him it was a return to his early homestead days in another house with nothing in view but prairie grasses and a big weathered barn. This new “country” house built by my parents after I left high school was closer to town than the homestead of my grandparents, but was within sight of the big red barn of a farm he’d bought years ago for a hired man and his family to live in and afterwards rented out. The barn sat squarely between my parents’ new modern modular and the old farmhouse. There was a small lake nearby with otters and where the wild geese landed overnight in their migrations.

It was one summer night when I was home from college for vacation that my dad got up from where he’d been sleeping in his chair and walked through the hall and kitchen and out the back door of the house.

“Where do you think he’s going?” I asked my mother.

“Oh, he likes to go out to sniff the night air and have a pee in the dark,” she said with a chuckle. “He loved to pee off the back porch of the house in town at night, even though it was so much farther away than the bathroom. I never could convince him not to do it. I worried that the neighbors would see him. But I think he thought it saved water, or perhaps it just reminded him of his youth—peeing out the back door of the house into the night air.”

This post was written in response to Elyse’s scary babysitting piece which you can read here:  http://fiftyfourandahalf.com/2012/08/01/all-the-cool-kids-are-doing-it/

 

 

Hail, Hail

                                                                        Hail, Hail 

My farmer/rancher father’s boots grew older with him, their wrinkles—like the back of his neck—born of weathering: rain, snow, mud and hot Dakota sun. They were so much a part of him that when he died, they were all my pre-teen nephew asked for, and he wore them out the rest of the way, until the soles peeled back and the leather with patina already long worn off, began to crack along the wrinkles and peel off.

Those boots reflected my father’s life, where things wore out. His clothes, his favorite chair—none were replaced for aesthetics or style alone—this practicality motivated neither by penury nor cheapness, but by growing up in a house where “making do” was a necessity.

But as in most things, there was one defining vain compulsion in my father’s life that broke him free from his mold. He loved new cars, as much for the pleasure of making the deal as for the smell of new leather and metal. The car dealers learned to call him when they got a car fully loaded, the way he liked it: automatic windows, power steering, power brakes, seats that tilted and slid back and forth and up and down by the touch of a switch. Whatever automatic feature was new that year, my father was up for it—big cars with fins, when they were in style, of every color.

The car salesmen would wait until the wheat crop had been harvested and then make the call, driving the car for sixty miles over the prairie to bring it to him for his perusal, like a new bride brought to a shah. They knew him well, and so when the bargaining began, they would accept his peccadillos. It was not the price he quibbled over, but rather the trade-in. “Well, I’ve got a combine that I need to trade in.” Once, three horses. And they learned this joy of trading was often what sealed the deal.

Later, when my sister married, her husband claimed my dad traded his cars whenever they needed washing, but this was not true. Three years was a car’s usual shelf life, before he’d hand it down to whichever daughter of driving age needed a car the most. Packards and Cadillacs and Pontiacs were his choices of brands. For some reason, he reviled Fords. So that July of my thirteenth year, when the salesman brought the bright green Oldsmobile for my dad to view, we were sure this was the car he would turn down. My mother was not sure about the color and my dad was not sure about buying an Oldsmobile. He had no real reason. It was just a brand he’d never considered before, but it had all the bells and whistles. I think it was the first year that cruise control was offered, so it possessed that allure of new technology. And so it was that the car made it past any first inhibitions on both my mother’s and father’s parts and when the salesman drove away, it was in our “old” Cadillac and the shining green Oldsmobile became the new resident of our garage.

My oldest sister was married and gone, my middle sister seventeen—a year past legal driving age. Summer camp in the Black Hills was nearly 200 miles away, but over easily-navigated straight roads through bare prairie, the wheat having been cut early that year. So it was that my mom, worn pliable from 20 years of driving daughters hundreds of miles to doctor appointments and eye appointments and ball games and church rallies and singing contests and summer camps, decided my sister could drive me to camp that year.

My sister Patti and her best friend Patty Peck piled into the bench front seat. My best friend and I piled into the back. The trunk was full of two weeks worth of camping clothes. The pleasures of riding in a brand new car, just one week removed from its purchase, equaled the thrill of being off on our own. We rolled down the windows, stuck out our arms and let the hot July air stream through our fingers, stopped at Wall Drug for milkshakes, sang at the top of our lungs, and when our bare legs started sticking to the vinyl seats, closed the windows and enjoyed the air conditioning.

Three hours later, the black outlines of the hills that were our destination grew close enough to define the ponderosa pines that gave them their name. We cruised past Rockerville Ghost Town—a tourist trap where my oldest sister had worked a few years before—and turned off into Coon Hollow. My sister steered the car carefully over the dirt roads, fearing chipped paint or a chipped window from the occasional rock in our path. “Take Me Back to the Black Hills” we crooned, as we always did when we approached our favorite vacation spot. We rolled down windows once again to enjoy the scent of ponderosas and to hear the gurgling of the water as it rushed down the small river that paralleled the course of the dirt road that led back to the campsite.

“Black Hills Methodist Camp” read the sign. We stopped to take a picture before veering off onto the divided dirt road, and we had just caught site of the large log cabin that served as the mess hall when the first loud “Whump!” occurred. Then another and another and another. Terrified, my sister steered the car off into the trees as the hail grew larger and larger. We were facing the creek, which had grown wild with the churning of the hailstones hitting the water. They grew rapidly from quarter-sized to golf ball-sized to baseball-sized. The front window began to shatter. When one large hailstone seemed to pierce the roof of the car and land in my lap, I was out of my seat and over the back of the front seat onto the seat between the two Pattys before I could even think about it. As I remember it, I somehow managed this shift in position without ever removing my seat belt, but this, perhaps, is an exaggeration that occurred more in memory than in actuality. My friend, still in the back seat, held up the white ceiling light cover that had popped off when a huge hailstone had hit directly on top of it—showing that the rooftop was still unbreached

The entire hailstorm probably occurred over no more than a ten-minute period, but at the end of it, the stream in front of us was completely white with floating hailstones and the ground was covered. We climbed from the car, pushing through the hailstones in a shuffling motion to avoid slipping and falling on the huge balls of ice. The front windshield was completed marbled, every inch of our shining new car dimpled with deep depressions that equaled our own depression over what was going to happen when our mom and dad saw their brand new car! We were teenagers all and accustomed to that guilt that arose from a whole string of iniquities: dropping our mom’s favorite crystal bowl, staying out an hour past curfew, eating the last piece of pie. My sister backed the car out of the little turnoff she’d turned into hoping for some scant shelter from the hail and drove me and my friend the rest of the way to the registration in the mess hall, then she and her friend drove away. On the way home, they encountered a plague of grasshoppers that coated the windshield and they had to use bottles of Squirt to dissolve them from where they had become embedded into the marbled windshield; so this stickiness, dried in puddles on the hood of the car, added to the total devastation that greeted my dad’s eyes when his new “baby” was returned to him.

The feared recriminations never occurred. “Accidents happen. It wasn’t your fault,” said my dad. “I never really liked that color of green anyway,” said my mom. When my folks came to pick me up at camp, it was in a brand new rose-colored Pontiac Bonneville with a cream-colored top—the most beautiful car we ever owned. We met with no disasters on the way home, and four years later, it was the car I drove off to college six hundred miles away. My parents’ newest brand new car was a beige Buick that possessed none of the charm of the car now relegated to me, but did possess several new electronic features that I’m sure, for my dad, compensated completely.

The Prompt: You’re at the beach with some friends and/or family, enjoying the sun, nibbling on some watermelon. All of a sudden, within seconds, the weather shifts and hail starts descending form the sky. Write a post about what happens next.