Category Archives: stories of childhood

Temporary Rivers

Patty in mud 001-001

This is my sister Patti, college age, walking barefoot out to her last big adventure in the ditches of Murdo, South Dakota after a July rain. Not quite the gusher depicted in my childhood vignette below, but nonetheless, Patti’s final puddle adventure. She had taken my visiting niece out. The next day the neighborhood kids rang our doorbell and asked my mom if Patti could come back outside to play again! Ha.

Temporary Rivers

When the rains came in hot summer, wheat farmers cursed their harvest luck, for grain soaked by rain just days before cutting was not a good thing; but we children, freed from the worry of our own maintenance (not to mention taxes, next year’s seed fees and the long caravans of combines already making their slow crawl from Kansas in our direction) ran into the streets to glory in it.

We were children of the dry prairie who swam in rivers once or twice a year at church picnics or school picnics and otherwise would swing in playground swings, wedging our heels in the dry dust to push us higher. Snow was the form of precipitation we were most accustomed to––waddling as we tried to negotiate the Fox and Geese track we had shuffled into the snow bundled into two pairs of socks and rubber boots snapped tighter at the top around our thick padded snowsuits, our identities almost obscured under hoods and scarves tied bandit-like over our lower faces.

But in hot July, we streamed unfettered out into the rain. Bare-footed, bare-legged, we raised naked arms up to greet rivers pouring down like a waterfall from the sky. Rain soaked into the gravel of the small prairie town streets, down to the rich black gumbo that filtered out to be washed down the gutters and through the culverts under roads, rushing with such force that it rose back into the air in a liquid rainbow with pressure enough to wash the black from beneath our toes.

We lay under this rainbow as it arced over us, stood at its end like pots of gold ourselves, made more valuable by this precipitation that precipitated in us schemes of trumpet vine boats with soda straw and leaf sails, races and boat near-fatalities as they wedged in too-low culvert underpasses. Boats “disappeared” for minutes finally gushed out sideways on the other side of the road to rejoin the race down to its finale at that point beyond which we could not follow: Highway 16––that major two-lane route east to west and the southernmost boundary of our free-roaming playground of the entire town.

Forbidden to venture onto this one danger in our otherwise carefree lives, we imagined our boats plummeting out on the other side, arcing high in the plume of water as it dropped to the lower field below the highway. It must have been a graveyard of vine pod boats, stripped of sails or lying sideways, pinned by them, imaginary sailors crawling out of them and ascending from the barrow pits along the road to venture back to us through the dangers of the wheels of trucks and cars. Hiding out in mid-track and on the yellow lines, running with great bursts of speed before the next car came, our imaginary heroes made their ways back to our minds where tomorrow they would play cowboys or supermen or bandits or thieves.

But we were also our own heroes. Thick black South Dakota gumbo squished between our toes as we waded down ditches in water that flowed mid-calf. Kicking and wiggling, splashing, we craved more immersion in this all-too-rare miracle of summer rain. We sat down, working our way down ditch rivers on our bottoms, our progress unimpeded by rocks. We lived on the stoneless western side of the Missouri River, sixty miles away. The glacier somehow having been contained to the eastern side of the river, the western side of the state was relatively free of stones–which made for excellent farm land, easy on the plow.

Gravel, however, was a dear commodity. Fortunes had been made when veins of it were found–a crop more valuable than wheat or corn or oats or alfalfa. The college educations of my sisters and me we were probably paid for by the discovery of a vast supply of it on my father’s land and the fact that its discovery coincided with the decision to build first Highway 16 and then Interstate 90. Trucks of that gravel were hauled to build first the old road and then the new Interstate that, built further south of town, would remove some of the dangers of Highway 16, which would be transformed into just a local road–the only paved one in town except for the much older former highway that had cut through the town three blocks to the north.

So it was that future generations of children, perhaps, could follow their dreams to their end. Find their shattered boats. Carry their shipwrecked heroes back home with them. Which perhaps led to less hardy heroes with fewer tests or children who divided themselves from rain, sitting on couches watching television as the rain merely rivered their windows and puddled under the cracks of front doors, trying to get to them and failing.

But in those years before television and interstates and all the things that would have kept us from rain and adventures fueled only by our our imaginations, oh, the richness of gumbo between our toes and the fast rushing wet adventure of rain!

 

This is a rewrite of a story from three years ago. The prompt today was ascend.

Locked Secrets

Version 6

Locked Secrets

I’d just received my school’s math prize and my Uncle Jimmy, after handing me a twenty dollar bill, had, in his usual self-effacing manner, proclaimed that I must have gotten my smarts from him.  “How is it that you are both the pretty one and the smart one in your family?”  He teased.  My sister Eleanor was out of the room at the time.  If she’d been there and I hadn’t, he would have been proclaiming her the prettiest.  We all knew this about our uncle.  He adored us, and was not above flattery in revealing the fact.

This time, however, he had overlooked  both the precociousness and competitiveness of my two-and-a-half-year-old youngest sister, Stephanie.

“Elebben, eight, twenny, fiteen,” she recited proudly!

“Well, forgive me, Missy. Aren’t you a smart young lady, knowing how to count?” He reached into his lumpy pocket and tossed her a nickel.  Amazingly, she caught it.  Perhaps she was going to be the first athletic one in the family.

“Fohty-two!” she exclaimed proudly. “free, sebben-elebben, one, one, one.” This time he extracted his wallet, took out a one-dollar bill and handed it to her.  Putting his wallet back in his back pocket, he turned one side pocket inside out. “But that’s it, Teffie.  No more money. If you want to go on counting, it will have to be for free.”

His other pocket still bulged with its contents: coins, a rubber ball to throw for our dog Pudge, oatmeal cookie bits in a small plastic bag–also for Pudge.  My Uncle Jimmy always proclaimed that doggie treats were a real gyp and that no self-respecting dog would perform for such a dry, tasteless mouthful.  So, he preferred to bake his own dog treats.

My sisters and I agreed, and sometimes we would perform, hoping to be rewarded with one of Pudge’s treats.  We were all constantly performing for our uncle, whom we adored. He was the one person who paid more attention to us than to our parents when he visited.  He was our favorite babysitter, and our parents’ favorite as well, as he always waved away payment.

He would take us to Fern’s Cafe for strawberry malts, greasy hamburgers and mashed potatoes and gravy, since Fern didn’t have a French fryer. He took us for wild rides over cow pastures in his beat up old red Ford pickup.  Once he took us to a matinee cartoon show in Pierre, sixty miles away, and got us home and in bed again before my folks got home.  We were sworn to secrecy and so far as I know, none of us ever told.  I know for sure I didn’t.  My Uncle Jimmy had my undying loyalty.  I would have borne torture before giving away any of his secrets.

Sadly, Uncle Jimmy died during one of those wild rides across the South Dakota prairie.  This time he was flying solo over a dam grade and veered too far to the right, rolling the pickup.  He drowned trying to get out of the passenger door, the pickup mired driver-side down in the mud at the bottom of the dam.  We had always felt like such ladies as Uncle Jimmy graciously got out of his pickup to personally open the door from the outside for us.  We didn’t know then, as we know now, that it was a peculiarity of that door that it would only open from the outside.

“Thank God the girls weren’t with him,” my mother sobbed to my father, as they sat side-by-side at the kitchen table, my dad’s arms around her.  It was past midnight, and they were sitting in that room furthest away from our bedrooms, thinking we wouldn’t hear her sobs.  But, unable to sleep, we had stolen out to the living room to listen––all consumed by that missing of Uncle Jimmy that would last our whole lives.

“Oh, he never would have driven that wildly if the girls were with him,” my dad said.  But Eleanor and I and even Steffie just exchanged that look that we were to exchange so many times in our future lives together––that look that children exchange that would tell their parents that they know something their parents don’t know––if only their parents took the time to notice. Even Steffie understood.  And Uncle Jimmy was right when he proclaimed her wise beyond her years.  Even Steffie never told.

(This is a work of fiction.)

 

The prompt today was recite. (A repost of a story from a few years ago.)