I was born in and grew up in one of the strangest little towns in the country. Mobridge, “Missouri Bridge,” South Dakota. Home to anywhere from five hundred to five thousand people from its beginnings to the present. Located in the middle of some of the flattest territory in the Western Hemisphere, located about three miles from the Missouri River, the “Muddy Mo” that Lewis and Clark followed on their trip to the Pacific almost two hundred years ago. I wonder how many people are convinced that their hometown is the most unique place in the world, that no one else ever had such an odd, interesting, magical, hateful, extraordinary, suppressive, wonderful place of birth and growth as they did. Probably everyone. But they would all be exaggerating. And I’m not. There is no other place in the world as unique (and all those adjectives I used above) as Mobridge.
I’ve had a love-hate relationship with it all my life.
My very first memory of it, at least the one I remember in the most detail, involved Christmas morning, 1937. The four of us—I, sister Helen, brothers Dick and Bob—all slept upstairs in two relatively unfinished bedrooms in what I’ve always thought of as the Jackson house. This was a small white house just off “the trail” on Fifth Avenue West. I say “the trail” because that’s what virtually everyone called the main road through town, U. S. Highway 12 running east and west, a two-lane cracked, humped, pot-holed piece of blacktop beginning somewhere in an east too distant to consider and running straight as a Sioux arrow west through town, under the “vidock” and out two miles to “Deadman’s Curve” where it swept down and south along the river basin, then back west to cross the “wagon bridge” and up the steep west-river bank to the plain where it passed the phallic monument to Sacajewea, or as we always called her “Suh-cock-uh-WE-uh,” and on through Sioux reservation land to northwest South Dakota and into Montana. Once upon a time early in the century it would have been just that, a dusty dirt trail leading down to the Missouri River ferry, and folks in Mobridge three or four decades later were more than content to continue calling it that despite the modern and un-dusty tar atop it.
Now, where was I before Highway 12 took me rambling? Yes, my memories of Christmas past, 1937 to be exact. I would have been four years and one month old. We must not have slept very long or very well, anticipating the glories to come the next morning. And when morning finally dawned, I remember being led down the narrow staircase in the center of the house and directly into the kitchen where we had to eat breakfast before we could go into the living room to drool over the presents around the tree. Many today, in an age of overindulgence of children, may view that detour as cruel. But it certainly honed our interest in what lay in wait for us. I have no idea what we ate, probably cereal. I know we must have consumed it rapidly. Then we were allowed to go into the living room. I remember a bike beside the mantel, a 22 rifle above it, presents under the tree, an unwrapped child’s workbench with wooden hammer, wooden spikes to hammer into wooden holes. Yikes, could a child be happier? The bike was for Dick, the rifle for Bob, I don’t remember what Helen got. Maybe nothing. No, I’m sure her memories of that morning would probably focus on details different from mine. That’s all I remember, but it must have been a glorious morning for me to have it so fixed in my memory.
And memories are what memoirs are all about. My favorite female singer, Barbra Streisand, once sang, “Mem’ries light the corners of my mind, misty watercolor mem’ries, of the way we were.” What an appropriate lyric. I’m fascinated with the way the mind establishes certain memories, freezes them with crystal clarity in the mind and yet totally discards whole segments of time. How much do we actually remember with accuracy and how much do we “water color” into scenes we only imagine or wish had happened? Lawrence Block, in another of his Matt Scudder novels, wrote, “The memory is a cooperative animal, eager to please: what it cannot supply it occasionally invents, sketching carefully to fill in the blanks.” Our lives in retrospect are strings of pearls, polished and reshaped with handling. Looking back, we realize how short the strand really is. All the more reason to take those pearls out of the mind and store them on paper, if only for our own satisfaction or the curious eyes of our children, or their children.
I never intended to do a chronological detailing of my life. How boring. How . . . lockstep. When Twain’s editors discovered the mountain of autobiographical manuscript he’d left after his death, they didn’t know what to do with it. It was monumental, and entirely out of sequence. So they put it together as best they could, grouping anecdotes and episodes as Twain must have intended, by association. Twain would begin with a memory, then associate it with whatever his personal links were for that event, then wander around linking one to another by his own connections, but not necessarily temporal hooks.
My first association hook is a rather general one—Mobridge and my youth. So let’s first associate with a place I mentioned in connection with highway 12, the “vidock.” I learned much later in life that the word was really viaduct. Where the trail ducked down under the railway as it went west toward the wagon bridge (the railway going north until it too turned west to cross the Missouri on the railroad bridge) there was a wooden bridge everyone in town knew as the vidock. It was a nasty but fascinating place for young people to play—tag, hide ‘n’ seek, campin’ out. It was dark and cool and kids could dig in the earth around the creosoted timbers and build whatever castles their imaginations could create. Never mind that creosote stains never washed out of bib overalls or white t-shirts. It was a wondrous place to while away a summer day, especially when the trains rumbled overhead and deafened the players below, raining dust and traintrack debris onto innocent heads. Those were good times.
I guess most of the memorable times from my youth involve the summers. The season of play seemed endless, even though I know now it was only three months compared to the endless nine months of school. I don’t really remember what the rules of our house were, or what the childhood rules of Mobridge were. Nearly all my friends had total freedom of movement from the time we rushed out on a summer morning until we had to come home at night. Didn’t we eat anything all day long? Or did we actually take time out from our games to come home for lunch? I don’t remember. I know our parents cared for our safety, but possibly they never knew how many dangerous places we found so enchanting.
Like the vidock, we also found the railroad tracks fascinating. We would hike out from town to the west, a mile and a half from the vidock to the railroad bridge. A mile from town, between the tracks and the river, were the Indian burial grounds. These were mounds that had been worked over by any number of amateur archeologists as well as professionals. I know the University of Wisconsin sent out a team of students to spend all of the summer of 1954 to examine the grounds. Maybe there had been others before that. I know that I and my generation as well as the generation of both my brothers sifted through them, finding the treasured arrowheads, spearheads, bits of pottery, bones, digging tools, cooking tools, sewing tools. I can still smell the rich earth as we dug down and sifted the moist dirt through homemade screens.
Bill Sherman and I once spent an entire afternoon there digging. We were very deep, in two holes, trying to connect them by an underground tunnel. I was on one side, he on the other. We were using our small Boy Scout entrenching tools, the kind where the shovel part folds down along the handle, the shovel end coming to a point like a chisel. I heard him digging and I called to him to help him locate the closest avenue, my head pressed close to the shovel sounds. The next thing I knew I was on the ground with blood pouring from a wound in my left eyebrow. Bill’s shovel had come through right where I was staring, calling out my location. By that time it was nearly dark, and somehow we stopped the bleeding and hurried home. I remember how angry my mother was that I got home late for supper, but that I also had nearly lost my eye playing at the Indian burial grounds.
The railroad tracks to the east led us to the abandoned park near Old Evarts, about three miles from town. It was one of the many places along the Missouri we used for camping out, for boyhood games, for fishing in the river. The tracks gave us our sinkers—heavy spikes and nuts we found along the way. My Uncle Ray Travis’s hardware store, the Coast-to-Coast, sold us our fish line—forty pound test, green cord, wound onto one-foot pieces of tree branch or wooden spike. The heavy hooks were threaded onto the line, then each tied by knotting them off with about a six-inch leader of cord, each hook spaced three or four feet apart, about six hooks all together. Then the sinker was tied on the end. It was a Huck Finn art form, throw-line fishing. We would unwind our line along the shore, about fifty feet of it, ram the winding stick into the moist clay of the shore, a large rock on top to hold it in place. Then we would bait the hooks with worms or chicken guts or cheese—whatever we thought sounded disgusting enough to attract the strange denizens of the Missouri’s muddy waters. Then came the throw. One had to be especially careful with the throw because of the baited hooks. The first trick was to hold the line in front of the body with the left hand, take the last three feet of line in the right hand, swing the sinker in a counterclockwise circle until it gained enough speed that upon release the entire fifty feet of line would go out into the river perpendicular to the shoreline. The second trick was to avoid the hooks after the throw. If all went well, then you could set out a second and a third line, however many lines you could afford or cared to tend. We spaced our lines far enough apart that they wouldn’t get tangled if a fish or the current pulled them up- or down-river. Then we sat and watched the muddy water, watched the lines, watched the sky, kept a wary eye out for rattlers.
Occasionally we would get up to feel the line between index finger and thumb for that exciting tug tug of fish. Sometimes the sinker wouldn’t be quite heavy enough to stay on the bottom and the line would be swung back to shore by the current. The line would be pulled in, rebaited, more weight added to the sinker, and recast. Then more sitting and watching. If the fishing was good, we might pull a line in with two, three, or four of the hooks occupied by a wild variety of Missouri fish. We caught bullheads, catfish, sturgeon, carp, shiners, suckers, eel, buffalo fish, something we called a golden-eyed herring. The sizes also varied enormously, the bullheads fairly standard at 8 to 12 inches. But the catfish and sturgeon, oh my. They could be nearly any size. I once pulled in a sturgeon that was about six feet long from tip to tail. Granted, a sturgeon’s tail was very long and slender, but that was still a big fish. I can’t remember what my biggest catfish catch would have been, probably about five or six pounds. But there were stories of catches as big as forty pounds. Lloyd Hamre always told of leviathan cats he’d caught. But he was a loner and I never fished with him. My fishing buddies were almost always Bill Sherman, Don Sieler, Gene Schlect, and Benny Thompson.
I don’t remember exactly how many summers I spent fishing the river. I can’t believe my mother would have let me go to that dangerous place any younger than twelve or thirteen and I would have been done with such summer play my last several years in high school. Summers then were filled with baseball and golf and days at the municipal swimming pool. But those are memories with a different association.
So, for about four years I fished the river. During this same span of years, I and my buddies roamed the town playing other summer games. I remember spending entire days at various billboards in town. We would climb the support timbers behind the billboards, playing tag, hanging out. These billboards were about fifty feet long and twenty feet high and the climbing could be dangerous. Looking back now, I can’t imagine spending a whole day doing just that, but in that long ago time of my youth it seemed like a whole day. We must have done other things as well, like digging tunnels and underground rooms in one or the other of the vacant lots in town. It’s a wonder that more of us weren’t killed doing all those dangerous things, like drowning in the river, dying of snakebite, smashing heads in a fall from the top of a billboard, suffocating in a cave-in. But we didn’t. The only death I remember was when Lloyd Hamre’s older brother drowned in the mouth of the Grand River. He and his friends were swimming there. He stepped off the shore, went under, and was never found. At least that’s the story as I remember it. I did swim a few times in that river, but never far from shore or far from a friendly log stuck along the shore. There were too many frightening possibilities associated with the river, like malicious undertows, underwater snags, lurking monsters in that brown water just waiting to bite a toe or leg, or pull the whole child under. As a boy, I never felt comfortable in any water deeper than my nose.
The river changed so often, shorelines tumbling in during floodstage, shores sometimes like quicksand, or quickmud as we called it, sometimes made up of flakes of black shale, all of it always covered with river debris—bits of cottonwood long soaked white and porous from the water, making wonderful smokewood cigars; dead fish; bottles and cans and candy wrappers. And the next storm would swell the water and sweep away the old and replace it with more upriver refuse.
In the winter the river froze solid enough to walk on, but that too was dangerous with possible weak spots beneath your feet. And in the spring, sometime in March or April, the ice would go out. I mean literally go out. One moment the entire river would be ice, the next moment it would break and begin its crashing crumbling tumble downriver, smashing bridges and trees and whatever else got in its way. Townspeople would drive to the wagon bridge to stand and watch the glacier chunks slam into the pilings, feel the weight of the ice below them, daring the river to do its worst, all of us probably trembling inside at the possibility that the river would take us up on the dare. And the ice would often jam a mile or so downriver as it bent to the east, forming an ice dam, the water backing up and flooding the lowlands all the way to the edge of town. We would sweat it out until the ice finally unjammed itself and the water continued to the southeast. The river breakup was always the unofficial start of spring, and we waited for it with grand anticipation.
When I was about eight or nine or ten (one of those magical years) spring was always heralded in by a certain smell in the air, the smell of recently thawed earth. One day it was there, and little boys’ noses turned up simultaneously, led as by a piper to an open field. It called us eight- or nine- or ten-year-olds to migs, marbles to the uninitiated. After school or on weekends we would find a vacant lot (not hard to find in Mobridge in the early Forties) and mark out mig pits or mig squares to use for the winning or losing of our stashes of marbles. As I recall, the pits were used for lagging. Each player would put one or more marbles into the small hollowed out place in the ground and then each of us would take turns trying to lag our shooter into the pit. Whoever managed it won all the migs in the pit. This game didn’t require much talent, just a feel for lagging. The game with the square was more difficult because it required an ability to shoot a marble with thumb at a target, one of the marbles we’d put at the corners of the square or another’s shooters. Whatever marble the shooter hit was his to keep. The players would never put one of their really good marbles on the corners of the square, and they’d never use any of their true favorites as a shooter for fear of losing it. The difference in skill levels was considerable. There were boys (never girls) who could hold a marble between tip of index finger and thumb and rifle that marble very accurately at another marble, some at distances of five or six feet. The shooter marble would travel through the air like a bullet at its target, often smacking into the target with enough velocity to send the target marble awesome distances (awesome to eight- or nine- or ten-year-olds). I was always wary of these experts and seldom played migs with them. I was one of those who held the marble in the crook between the first and second joints of the index finger with thumb under it. And I almost never held the marble very far off the ground, preferring to roll it on the ground at my intended target. This was the sissy method and loudly scoffed by the experts. But for the majority of us, rollers rather than shooters, we never referred to it as sissy. To each his own. We let the experts play against each other. We had our own game. The shooter kept his turn as long as he kept hitting marbles, pocketing each won mig as a comfortable trophy. And when the one whose turn it was missed he left his shooter marble as a potential target for those who followed in turn. When all the migs in the square were gone, that round was over. Marbles came in all sizes and colors. Some were called “steelies” because they were like large ball bearings, shiny silver and metallic. Some were called “cat’s eyes,” for obvious reasons. Cat’s eyes were rare and coveted by us all. Some were called “aggies” (short for agates) and were swirling browns and tans and grays. Most marbles were standard size, about half an inch in diameter. Some were larger, about three-quarters of an inch in diameter, and called “boulders.” Marbles smaller than the standard were called “peewees” or “pebbles.” In the early days of migs, marbles were not mass-produced as they were after WWII. The early ones were lovingly crafted by glass artisans who made each one individually different—creamy solids with swirls of various colors, transparent glass of varying colors and also streaked with contrasting colors. The later migs came out like thousands of clones. If the machine made clear with orange streaks, it made hundreds of thousands of exact duplicates. How boring. How uninviting. The season for migs seemed to us to go on and on, but it usually petered out as spring passed into summer. And the number of seasons seemed greater in memory than in actuality. I’m sure that I quit playing migs around ten.
Other games that came and went seasonally and lasted for only those magic years between eight and ten were jacks, hopscotch, and jumping rope. Jacks was mostly for girls, although my wife and I enjoyed playing jacks for a short while soon after we got married. We played on the kitchen floor of our first apartment, and she beat me with regularity. Hopscotch was also mainly a girls’ game, but some of us boys, unafraid of being called sissies, also played, although this too, like migs, had to be abandoned after age ten. Otherwise, the sissy brand would be simply too appalling and too permanent. I remember how we all searched for special glass pieces for the game. It was vitally important that the glass be a special shape and color, thus giving us with the most unusual piece a decided magical advantage over the other playe In the summer we played “Kick the Can” in the block on which my cousin Gordon lived, with the Applebys just across the alley. I remember when the Hepper girls moved to town—Jackie and Gwen—and all of us boys were so fascinated with their youthful beauty, with their exotic place of origin, Java, South Dakota. During those summer days we biked all over town and played “Cops and Robbers” and “Cowboys and Indians” on our bikes and “Run Sheep Run” on foot. If there were only two of us we would find a vacant house or garage roof and play a game of “Annie I Over,” which involved one person rolling a ball of some kind up one side of the roof and over and the other person catching it and returning it. And in the long summer evenings we played “Red Light, Green Light” and “Father, May I?” and “Simon Says.” Then we would all go on an extended rubber gun kick. We would beg the filling station owners for old inner tubes, cutting them into a variety of ammunition. We would carve and nail together guns from pistols to rifles to machineguns, our mothers’ clothespins for triggers. Then we’d form teams and spend the day racing through the city park trying to hurt each other with our knotted rubber “bullets.” It all sounds terribly violent now that I write it down, but those were times when we had to use our own resources for entertainment, and somehow we all survived. Or nearly all of us.
Most of our toys were handmade, not that our parents couldn’t or didn’t buy us toys. But the ones we made ourselves were better. A button threaded onto a three foot piece of string, the string then tied, provided us with a spinning button as we held the string in both hands and then wound it up, then pulling out with both hands to start the button on its furious spinning journey. Another was a match gun made with one of our mother’s clothespins. I can’t remember how we did it,. Something having to do with turning the one clothespin arm around, fastening on a rubber band, then inserting a kitchen match on, and shooting the match at someone or something, the match igniting as it left the clothespin “gun.”
But as sure as spring and summer came, they also went. In the fall, we grudgingly returned to school. I spent my first seven years attending General Beadle Elementary School on Sixth Street, between Third and Fourth Avenues West. It was a square brick building with grass in front and a dirt playground in back, and we who attended would forever be known as Beadle Bugs. One of my most vivid memories of Beadle School was the sound of a swing chain slapping against the metal support pole as a South Dakota afternoon wind blew outside my third grade classroom. Another is the taste of a gum eraser. Another is the time I first encountered Craig Hamilton. He was a new student who came to town in fourth or fifth grade, and he was bright and clever. By way of introducing him to the class, Mrs. Paul had him go to the blackboard to spell his name for the class. He did and I was so taken with a certain flourish he put on the “g” that I’ve copied it ever since. It is the nasty habit of making a figure eight lying on its side whenever I get to a letter that dips below the line. Thus, my signature has always had an infinity sign loop under the "J," and the word "Egypt" is just a mess.
Another is the time in second grade when I needed to go to the bathroom and the teacher wouldn’t excuse me. I held it as long as I could, but then I could hold no longer and I soaked my pants, deep yellow urine dripping down under my desk and forming a little telltale pool. Mary Ellen Bailey took delighted notice of it, and when school was finally out, she followed me down the hall and out the front door trying to see just how wet my pants were. Another is the time Bill Sherman first entered our class. He was the new kid from Big Piney, Wyoming, and would become one of my best friends throughout my school years. The two teachers I remember best were Pearl Paul and Florence Anderson. Pearl Paul must have been young once but I remember her always as gray-haired and tired-faced. She taught us all how to write properly, with the Palmer Method. All those tiresome exercises of circles and slanted lines—“push pull, push pull, circle circle circle.” Florence Anderson taught history among other things and we all knew her as Miss Andes Mountains because of her enormous breasts. Young boys are always very aware of large breasts, but these were mountainous. Another time that stands out in my mind is when in first grade Leefa Lesher impressed us all by getting up and counting to a hundred as fast as humanly possible. My memory comes up short when I try to remember what I actually learned in those years. I remember learning nothing. I know I must have learned important things, I just don’t remember what.
I do, however, remember the school games. We played “Pum, Pum, Pullaway” and “Squash.” The only requirement of the latter game was to form a line of people with shoulders against an outer wall. Then everyone on the ends would try to squash the ones in the middle. If I had to guess at the elements of “Pum, Pum, Pullaway” I would say it involved one team trying to pull the opponents’ arms off. I’m sure that’s not right, but I don’t remember the rules. It may have involved two teams facing each other, each team with a captain who would alternate calling out someone’s name from the other team and someone from his team. The two combatants would then have at it, the one trying to avoid the other. Something like that. I think we may have made games up as we went along.
And speaking of combatants, I remember having two fights while I was a student at the Beadle School, one with Richard Winger, Sir Richard the Big-Nosed. Richard had an enormous proboscis and was nearly always stuffed up and adenoidal. I don’t know what caused the fight, but I do remember a time when Bill Sherman and I discussed a potential fight with Richard. We agreed that if you just hit him on the nose the fight would be over. Thus my strategy in the actual fight, just hit him in the nose. I did and the fight wasn’t over. I don’t remember who won or lost (though I think I was probably the loser), I only remember our fight strategy as a failure. The other fight involved a Reiger boy who lived kitty-corner from the Wingers. It was another of those after-school affairs that get started for no good reason, or maybe over a buildup of hurts and insults over a month or two. This was not a fistfight, but a wrestling match. I remember the fight starting in a vacant lot across the street from the school. I can still picture us being in each other’s arms, rolling and twisting and turning, a circle of fans surrounding us, South Dakota dust in our eyes and noses. I remember finally getting him in a position that called for an “I give,” and I stood and brushed myself off and felt so very good about my victory, the crowd around us now silent as they watched me make my victorious exit. That was my last fight . . . ever. Here, my memory is accurate. I never fought another person with fist or embrace where a win or a loss was involved. I never struck another person in the face or body with a fist. I don’t think it was cowardice on my part; I hope it was good sense.
Years later, Lloyd Hamre and I would go barhopping together, and Lloyd was a brawler. He would go out deliberately looking for a fight, and he almost always found one. I remember one night in back of the Palace Lounge when he and some little west-river brawler had at it. The sound of fist on face is much more like striking a side of beef than the exaggerated nonsense we often hear in filmed fights. And the damage is much more real. Lloyd won in short order, his opponent a puffy, bloody mess. Lloyd so enjoyed fighting that one night at the Bridge Club, when there was no one around to challenge, he suggested we each put ten dollars on the bar and go outside to see who would be able to return to claim the bet. I declined. I’m sure it wasn’t cowardice on my part. I like to think I had better sense than Lloyd did.
The Upper-School Years
After seven years as a Beadle Bug, my classmates and I went to the junior high connected to the high school, where we first co-mingled with that unsavory group from the other elementary school in town, the Lincolnites. The middle school was the original high school, a two-story red brick building with a fascinating red metal tube attached to the west side. This was the fire escape down which we would have occasional fire drills, singly stepping into the upper end that began in the band room and sliding on our butts to the grass below. Such fun. On weekends and weekdays after school, children would climb to the top using sweaty hands and feet for leverage for the ascent, then slide down, climbing and sliding endlessly. I’m sure it was endless only in my young imagination, since a little of that went a long way.
I remember most vividly Mr. Giles, our science teacher, who evidently hated adolescents. Or possibly we as a group were hateful. I remember how we would unite to drive him to the brink of sanity and then over. One or the other of us would punch someone across from us or throw a paper plane or spitwad, and Mr. Giles, nearly foaming at the mouth, face livid, would come rushing down the aisle to grab the miscreant and shake him like a bag of twigs while the rest of the class cheered him on. He had the unfortunate habit of making all his points with his middle finger extended toward his palm, other fingers up, sort of a reverse “bird,” and we all loved to do a Giles imitation behind his back. I don’t know how long the poor man taught or even if he made it through the entire year. Probably not long, because his daily bouts of anger must have been physically and mentally exhausting. Did I learn any science? I don’t know. I don’t remember.
The ninth grade was a mixture of classes in the middle school and the high school, a kind of bridge between pre-puberty and puberty. I remember the sound of those wooden stairs creaking as I crossed the bridge between the second floor of the old building down to the first floor of the new. My high school career was an odd mixture of good grades and bad. I did well in whatever caught my interest; I failed whatever bored me. I was very good in math and science. I failed Latin. I got C’s in social science and English, more because I was more interested in watching the girls and reading forbidden paperbacks than because I was stupid. I know I read a lot of books during my classes, westerns and murder mysteries and science fiction instead of textbooks. I know I looked at Madeline Scherr and Norma DeSart and Dorothy Denoff with lust in my eyes and fear in my heart. But more on that later. Oddly enough, two of the tiny bits of information I remember learning were from my failed Latin class: the meaning of sub rosa and that consensus already suggests opinion and that anyone who says “consensus of opinion” is a dolt. I have never once been guilty of saying “consensus of opinion,” and I have often sneered inwardly at those who did. I remember having to cut up a starfish and a perch in biology. The starfish cutting is especially vivid because of the formaldehyde stench associated with the raspy feel of the outer body, the mushy inner. I didn’t care much for dissection. I remember as a sophomore reading The Merchant of Venice and memorizing the “Quality of Mercy” monologue. I remember in my senior year having to memorize the Prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in middle English and I can still recite it today as well as I did then. The only other thing I remember about senior English was Mary King Larson’s devotion to The Reader’s Digest as her basic teaching tool. I remember trying to achieve the magic number of 40 words per minute in typing. In our compulsory speech class, I remember the agony of getting up in front of the class to give a speech.
I remember how my classmates and I would sneak out of study hall to wander the school. I remember on weekends sneaking into the school through an unlocked window to play basketball in the tiny high school gymnasium. I remember going to high school dances in that same tiny gym strung with crepe paper, a juke box in one corner playing Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” and “Moonlight Serenade” and “String of Pearls,” the boys on one side of the gym, the girls on the other, the faculty chaperones standing around or trying to coax the boys to ask the girls to dance. I remember Bill Catey jitterbugging the night away. I could shuffle around in a kind of two-step, but I could never jitterbug. Nor did I want to. My psyche was always a strange mixture of shyness and daring. I loved to show off athletically but I was painfully shy when it came to speeches or dancing or singing. One of my most painful memories of high school is the time I was coerced into running for president of the student council. Who coerced me? Some faculty member who believed in me, believed in my ability to be a leader. I proved him wrong. I had to introduce people at assemblies and I simply couldn’t, wouldn’t, do it. I vaguely remember that sometime during my senior year I was displaced as president of the student council.
I remember parties in my junior and senior years. Parties at someone’s house where we would listen to records, dance a little, snack a little. Parties where we learned how to smoke. Parties where we sort of paired off, the pairs shifting from time to time as we shuffled around trying to find soul mates. Parties where there was some necking and petting but never much beyond that, forbidden territory beyond that, having to use our imaginations and our hands to slake that forbidden thirst. Parties at Molestad Lake or Hiddenwood, parties at the river with huge bonfires and bottles of Four Roses we’d gotten an older buddy to buy for us. Or the gallon jugs of beer purchased for one buck down at the White Horse. More smoking and drinking than we should have been doing. It was a ‘40’s and ‘50’s version of the drug use several decades later. I’m not very proud of a lot of what we, I, did when I was in my teens, but I remember it, or at least most of it.
Some of my after-school activities were playing pool, playing cards, reading paperbacks, collecting stamps, studying. Studying? Isn’t it strange that I have no single memory of doing any homework? That means that I’ve either blocked it out or that I never did any. But I know I spent a good many hours in the pool hall just a few doors up from the end of Main Street. It wasn’t a very nice place for a young man to hang out but I’m not certain my parents realized how many hours I spent there. I began by learning the fine art of slop, the game on a regulation pool table that didn’t require calling any of your shots, just hitting the lowest numbered ball on the table and getting to claim anything that went in. Thus, “slop.” I graduated to “8-ball” and “pill pool,” two games we played regularly for money, 8-ball usually for two-bits to the winner, pill pool in which five or six of us would take a numbered pill from the pill box (a leather bottle-shaped container with a neck just narrow enough to spill out one of fifteen numbered marble-sized pills) and the first one to make his pill, or numbered ball, collected two-bits from each of the other players and that game ended. But the game I most enjoyed, the one we played almost exclusively if a table were available, was “snooker.” Snooker was the sophisticate of pool games (that is, if one doesn’t consider billiards, the most sophisticated pool game of all). A snooker table was longer than a slop table and the pockets were much smaller. A shot had to be hit more purely for it to go in than on a slop table. The snooker game involved fifteen red balls and six numbered balls from two through seven. And the orange six-ball was “wild” and could be played at any time, adding six points if you made it, losing six points if you missed. The first player broke the triangle of red balls and if one went in he continued by selecting one of the numbered balls. The player collected one point for each red ball plus the number of points that coincided with the numbered ball made. A scratch cost a player four points and a non-hit of either a red ball or the numbered ball you were playing cost another four points or five up to seven, depending on which numbered ball you were shooting at. A “snooker” by definition was when one put his opponent in a position that didn’t allow him to shoot directly at the ball he was supposed to hit, forcing him into some kind of bank shot. A miss cost the player four to seven points. The game was over when the last ball, the seven-ball was made. Score was kept by moving beads on an overhead wire from the neutral side to the positive side. There was never an insurmountable lead as long as the six-ball was still on the table. One could mount a six-ball barrage and make up a lot of points. I remember playing with nearly all of my school friends, but mostly with Sherman and Sieler. The best player was Lloyd Hamre and I played against him only when no one else was available. And as I remember it, I was never foolish enough to play him for money. Catey and Baer were two others that were good but not as good as Hamre. The rest of us were about equal and I remember having to force myself out of that smoky, beery place late afternoons in order to get home in time for dinner.
The pool hall and Miller’s were the two places that always kept little gambling devices under their counters, usually punch boards of one kind or another. We all knew the boards were set up to gain the house about fifty percent profit, but we punched ‘em anyway. On the simplest of the boards, called “Give ‘n Take,” you punched the board with a little metal key, out the bottom dropped a tiny packed piece of paper that told you whether you were going to give or take money. What a thrill it was to find a $1, $5, or $10 punch. How seldom any of those happened. How often we had to give as little as a dime, as high as a quarter.
Miller’s was the place most kids in school hung out. It was the soda place, the ice cream place, the breakfast or light lunch place. It had a jukebox and booths and tables and wire racks of paperbacks. We played Hearts, Casino, Seven-up, and Whist and Widow Whist. We played and drank fountain drinks or ate one or more of the chocolate things they were just beginning to call soft ice cream. These were more like slush cups. And on the jukebox we listened to Glenn Miller, the Dorseys, the popular ballad singers of the day. The song I most remember from those card-playing afternoons was “Heartaches” as whistled by one of the day’s best players of that seldom-heard instrument. I have, thanks to the Internet, learned that his name was Elmo Tanner. My sister Helen always used to make fun of me by calling me Elmo whenever she’d hear me whistling up a storm, which was quite often. I didn’t know at the time what she was talking about. I can still hear this whistled arrangement as vividly now as then, and when I hear it in my head I can still almost smell and taste the atmosphere in Miller’s. Another memory of that place had to do with the paperbacks. The paperback publishing phenomenon was in its infancy in 1950. Twenty-five cents a book. The one we boys discovered was Erskine Caldwell’s God’s Little Acre. We were interested in it not for its literary qualities but for its, to us sixteen-year-old South Dakota innocents, sexual content. One of the pages early in the novel was always dog-eared on the rack because of the youthful thumbing it got, a scene in which one of the male characters, one not very bright, had to apply ointment to the bare buttocks of a very sexy young lady who had just suffered a spanking from her father. We hung on every word that described that scene. It would probably be interesting to find Caldwell’s book and reread that scene to see how much my memory has altered what was actually written. That would have been about the time I began reading the Mike Hammer series by Mickey Spillaine. Mike Hammer was the first of the really tough guy private eyes in fiction, lots of violence and hinted-at-sex—My Gun Is Quick being the first and best known of the lot.
Then there’s my short-lived life as a philatelist. I think I must have started collecting stamps when I was thirteen or fourteen and continued to collect them up to my junior year in high school. After that, philately would have been considered too nerdy. I had a stamp book and I would insert stamps with little hinged glue strips, one side adhering to the stamp, one side to the book. No one at the time told me you’d ruin any good stamps by using hinges. I don’t suppose I had that many really good stamps. I had one, from Spain, a stamp with Goya’s Naked Maja as its centerpiece. It was a large stamp, maybe an inch and a half long and three quarters high. It was a clean stamp, never released, and the colors were vibrant. There she was, reclining on her left side on a love seat, left arm raised and resting on her head, legs demurely crossed at the ankles. And she was buck naked. Oh, how the young adrenaline pumped. She was large breasted, voluptuous, a mother-earth figure to make a boy’s heart yearn. In Yiddish she would be described as zaftig (juicy, succulent, or in slang, a full-figured, shapely woman). I really liked that stamp, and sometime after I’d given up the pursuit of stamp collecting, I noticed that my zaftig Maja was long gone, taken away by the borrowers or some other philatelist or sex-fiend . . . or by my mother. I can’t imagine why my mother would cart it off. Could she have thought it was some kind of salaciously bad influence on her little boy? I guess so. That’s sort of the state of affairs of South Dakota sex education. We learned on our own, no matter how wrong or warped the learning was. No matter how ill-informed. I still have that book of stamps to this day. Last year I took it to a stamp dealer and asked him how much it was worth, thinking it should, after over fifty years, have appreciated in value by huge amounts. He told me I should give it to some favorite grandson or granddaughter. So much for all my youthful diligence in the pursuit of stamps.
1958 - 1959
There is a summer I can’t seem to put in the right slot. I know I was still in college. I know I went to two summer school sessions. I know I worked one summer building bridges and one summer building the Mobridge Hospital. But I also spent one summer, or nearly one whole summer, on the road with four of my college mates, trying to sell encyclopedias to gullible military recruits. I’m not sure which company it was, either World Book or Compton’s. The set cost about $240 and the commissions were pyramidal. On each set sold I made $40 and my immediate supervisor (one of the four of us) made $20. And his supervisor also made $20 on each set sold. Now that comes to $80 right off the top of the $240. There may have been another layer of supervision above the two above me who also dipped in the pot. I don’t know.
We set off from Vermillion in June and traveled straight down through the belly of the country, visiting military bases along the way—Nebraska, Kansas, Texas, over to New Mexico, then back up through Colorado. My first encounter with the art of salesmanship was unpleasant, to say the least. To make a sale, I had to lie, as nearly all sales people do, and too often lie to young men who needed a set of encyclopedias like they needed a pair of ballerina slippers.
I remember when I was a freshman (the second time around) at USD. One afternoon a well-dressed, handsome dog of a man pulled up outside the Phi Delt house in a mile-long white Cadillac and came striding up the walk with a large valise in hand. He was there selling the Encyclopedia Americana, and we hung on his every word. The hook and main selling point was the free service for doing research papers: twice a year we could send in a topic and the company would return a footnoted research paper of whatever length we required. Whoa, did that sound good. The cost was $340, paid in 36 installments, and with the interest and carrying costs, nearly $800 in all. I bought a set, I paid it off in three years, in thirty-six of those little monthly chits that seemed like a thousand. That afternoon at least a dozen of us went for the deal, each of which must have netted the salesman at least $80 apiece. That would explain how he could afford to drive the lengthy Cadillac. I even bought a few of the annuals. I never once used the research paper service. I carted that set of encyclopedias around with me for over thirty years before finally giving it away to one of Rosalie’s co-workers at Sears. I guess my children got some use out of them. I never did. It was just another case of a bad decision on my part, not the first and certainly not the last.
My experience with selling books wasn’t quite as lucrative as that of the man in the white Caddy. In fact, I may have sold fifteen or twenty sets in our southern swing, but not all of them came through for the whole deal. I remember that after signing the agreement, the buyer had to put down $20. Some of them later decided to give up their down payments and refuse delivery of the books, which meant I didn’t get the second $20 of my commission on those sets. During the last several weeks, I often told potential buyers the deal was so good that if they didn’t have the down payment, I’d lend it to them until their next paycheck. Thus, even if I never received the “loan,” I’d still realize a $20 profit. If the company ever heard about such selling practices, I’m sure I’d have been history. I now understand why I don’t remember what summer that must have been. The selling trip couldn’t have taken all summer, more like only the month of June. I must have come home from my unsuccessful venture with still two months of the summer left, and that must have been when I became a brick-layer’s helper, the summer of 1958.
Despite the unsuccessful selling spree, I learned one thing—that I would never be a salesman, could never be a salesman, at least not one that made enough to keep himself in hotdogs. The other thing that made the month worthwhile was the golf. Why else would I agree to go out selling books if it didn’t include my fill of golf? One of my buddies from the university golf team, Jim Houts, was on the trip, and we managed to play at least one round at each of our stopping places. I remember playing the university course at the U. of New Mexico—flat, dry, little round pot bunkers all over the place. But the courses I remember best are at the last city we visited, Colorado Springs, where we spent about ten days selling at Fort Carson and at the new Air Force Academy. Daily we played one of the two public courses there. I can still see one shot I made at a par-4. I’d hit my drive into the right rough behind a tall pine tree. I took out my 9-iron, the most lofted club in my bag, opened the face, and hit it as hard as I could. It went up and over the pine, stayed in the air for what seemed like a year, and landed about a foot from the pin. Naturally I’ve forgotten the many bad shots I must have hit. It was on that same course that I hit down on a 3-iron so hard I bent the hosel, turning the 3-iron into a 2-iron. As I write this journey of my life, I’m amazed at how much of it was dominated by golf. It seems that many of my decisions about the direction my life would take hinged on golf. My decision to take that summer sales trip down the central states and back up again must have been made because of the temptation of golf on many new courses. That summer must have been my first attempt at the state amateur, that year being played in Aberdeen. I met Jim Houts there in mid-August, and we decided that if we could just shoot two pars for every bogey we’d wind up with 78’s, good enough to qualify for match play. We both qualified for the first flight (not the championship flight) and I won three matches before losing in the first flight final. Jim lost his second match so we never had to play each other. I was still playing with that silly little starter set my father had given me on my fourteenth Christmas, with the bent 3-iron and the gooseneck putter.
In September I went back to Vermillion to finish my senior year, the year I decided to change my major from geology to Spanish education. Bill Pilgrim must have been my main motivator behind that decision. He was going to be a teacher, a career I’d never even considered before 1958. The more I thought about it the better sense it made. I was making average to good grades in geology, but the job outlook that year was bad for geologists. I knew then I’d never go on to become an archaeologist, the only reason I’d started in geology in the first place. Teaching made so much better sense. Good clean job, fair money, respect from the community, job security, short hours (hah!). And the summers always free for . . . what else? . . . golf. Another case of a life decision based on golf.
I was living that year in a second-floor apartment with two fraternity brothers, and I had a blond Magnavox phonograph I’d bought in Colorado Springs with some of the money I made selling encyclopedias. We had a small room just off the livingroom that we used as a sitting room, makeout room, music room, drinking room. The phonograph was there, the lights were blue bulbs (for atmosphere), the sill over the entry was stacked to the ceiling with beer cans. I guess back then we thought that was pretty cool, pretty classy. I don’t ever remember inviting a girl up to that room. I don’t think I was dating anyone at the time. I don’t remember having more than one or two dates with any girls other than Patty Prostrollo, so my senior year must have been a celibate one. The reason I mention the phonograph is that it came up in a police investigation in the spring of 1959.
I don’t know why I did what I did that year. I guess for the adventure, the thrill, the late-night attraction of it. A band of us from the Phi Delt house began running the sub-level accessways beneath the university campus. Well after midnight we would go down one of the several manholes to the underground tunnels connecting the buildings of the campus. Why they were so accessible, I still don’t know, but they were. And we could get into virtually any building, including the dorms. The only people patrolling the areas at that time of night were occasional night watchmen, and they were no more dangerous than I was when I was patrolling my factories throughout the nights in western New York. That skunk that wandered by my post nearly caused me to fall in a faint. But back in my youth, the thrill of the nightly engagement in the tunnels was overpowering. We could get into buildings that housed faculty offices, offices with potential semester exams waiting to be run off. Or exams that had already been run off and the master copies in the wastebasket. Did I really need access to semester exams? Not really. But if they were there for the taking, why not? It was only one felonious stage beyond the prevailing use of every fraternity and sorority house’s extensive test files. And the thrill, as I said, was overpowering. As addictive as heroin.
I recall that only one test was ever actually taken, and that one was changed between the time we took it and the time it was given. Apparently the instructor discovered the theft and changed the test. It was a government exam and I was doing C work, didn’t bother to study for the final except to look up answers to the test we’d taken, failed the final, and wound up with a D. If I had just studied for the exam, I would have done much better than I did spending too much time in night raids on faculty offices.
Another time we got into the geology department and I took—stole—one of the mineral samples, a petrified pear that I’d noticed in one of my classes and decided I had to have. So I stole it. I have no idea to this day how much it was worth, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that I stole it. I’ve always felt bad about my theft, guilty, but not guilty enough ever to send it back with apologies. It was one of those acts one justifies by saying, “Who does it hurt? Who suffers the loss?” Just like what tax evaders and insurance cheaters must say. But what to do about it? Make restitution? Mail it back to the department after years and years had passed? No. And I’ve had it for all these years and never felt like displaying it.
One time, late in our forays, actually after I’d given up such night journeys, the local police came to our apartment and asked about my phonograph. I told them where I’d purchased it and showed them the bill of sale (I actually still had it). It seems that one of the dormitory rooms had been robbed of exactly the same kind of phonograph, by thieves who had broken in during the night and taken a few valuables, the phonograph among them. I don’t know how the police happened to know to come to our apartment, I don’t know if my roommates had done the pilfering, but I strongly suspect they did. Nothing more ever came of it, but it’s always bothered me that I was, if not in fact one of the thieves, one of those who actually got started in that sort of thing, and that my roommates may have been the culprits.
My senior year ended. Nearly all those I knew from my four years graduated in the spring. I was still short of hours and had to return in the fall of 1959 to finish my new major, Spanish education. I even had to pick up hours in summer school. That was the summer of my bike. I biked in early morning and evening, as hard and as fast as I could go. It was one of my many attempts at self-improvement. I had a 3-speed I would take out in the country, out about ten miles and back ten miles, as fast as I could go. I remember stopping at Dorothy and Mahlon Baer’s trailer to visit. They must have been finishing up their degrees at that time. I remember living in a one-bedroom apartment on main street. I remember eating dinner with a young Vermillion High graduate and her family who was just then beginning college work. She was very bright and I was very attracted to her. Her mother and father were intellectual, as were most of their children, one of whom was a mentally retarded boy. I was so enamored of the daughter that when she asked me if I would take one of their Dalmatian pups, I agreed. What a mistake. I kept the pup, whom I called Benjy after the idiot in the Faulkner novel The Sound and the Fury, in my apartment while I was going to school. The pup really hated living with me in that one-bedroom apartment. I hated having that pup living with me in that one-bedroom apartment. At the end of the summer session, I drove home to Mobridge with my new pet, a now healthy and growing Dalmatian pup. I finally talked the couple living in the upstairs apartment in my father’s house into taking the dog off my hands.
He was not the only Benjy in my life. After Rosalie and I were married and started teaching in Redfield, South Dakota, we got another Benjy, a miniature Collie that was truly an idiot. And we were idiots to think we needed to have a little furry companion waiting for us at the end of every day. Benjy was hyper, to say the least. But we loved him. The problem for us was that he didn’t care much for anyone else. So we couldn’t have visitors unless we shut him in the bedroom. We were living in a forty-foot mobile home and the bedroom wasn’t all that far away from the living room. Thus, he just wouldn’t shut up if he heard strangers in the house, and he didn’t much care to be imprisoned. With Benjy, life for us was a test.
One Christmas, probably our first together in 1960, we went home to Mobridge and stayed with Rosalie’s parents, Bill and Lily. It had been a long drive from Redfield to Mobridge, about three hours. We arrived in early evening and went right in the house. Benjy, who hadn’t taken time out to hit a tree when he got out of the car, went directly to the Christmas tree, raised his leg, and wet down a good number of the packages. Bill and Lily were not amused.
The following summer, we were in Mobridge staying with the Zimmers. I took Benjy down to the Oahe, straight south down Fourth Street East from the Zimmer house to the big water. I was throwing sticks for Benjy, trying to wear him out a bit before going back to the house. Benjy had never been in any water, so I thought I’d test his natural ability as a swimmer. I threw a stick out into the water and Benjy went right out after it. He got it in his mouth, turned around, and started doing a reverse dog paddle. The more he paddled, the farther away from shore he got. I went in after him—shoes, clothes, watch and all—and hauled his silly self in to shore. He may have been the only dog in dogdom that couldn’t swim.
Another time in Redfield, that same summer or the summer following, Benjy and I were at the local golf course, Fisher Grove Country Club. It was a tiny sand-green course, only nine holes, a few miles east of Redfield. In early afternoon there were seldom many people on the course, so Benjy and I had it pretty much to ourselves. The first hole doglegged left around a bend in the James River, a small, shallow stream some thirty feet across. Small trees and bushes lined the riverbank where it fell rather steeply down about ten feet to the water below. I had hit my drive across the corner of the dogleg and Benjy and I were walking down the fairway to my ball. Then Benjy decided he had to explore the bushes to the left. He stuck his head in a bush, lost his balance on the bank, fell down the slope and into the river. This is a dog who can’t swim, and by now I’m aware of this fact. I slide down the bank, using small tree trunks to hold myself from going in the river with him. I reach down and grab his collar and hoist him out of the river. So far so good. I get him in front of me and give him a big shove up the hill. He lopes up the slope, gets right to the top . . . and tips over backwards. Down the slope, into my chest, and we both go in the river. Right—shoes, clothes, watch and all. I get us out again and together we struggle up the slope to dry ground above. I was grateful no one ever saw us in our totally graceless act. I was muddy and wet, Benjy was muddy and wet, my golf was over for the day, and I was so mad at him. But when I looked back at how it had all happened I could only laugh at the ridiculousness of our actions. I really did love that awkward, non-swimming dog.
We suffered through five years with Benjy, three years in Redfield, one in Greeley, Colorado, where I went to get my masters degree, and one in Barstow, California, where I went to teach after leaving Greeley. We, the five of us—Rosalie and I, Jeri Lynne, Benjy, and our adopted dog Lucy, whom we had acquired from Tom and Kaye VanderVen while they were going to school in Boulder—made our way across the Rockies in our 1958 Edsel, the five of us on the Million Dollar Highway, so named because it cost a million dollars per mile to build, not because it was magnificently beautiful, although the views across those deeeeep valleys and up to the summits of those hiiiiigh mountains were breathtaking. We, however, Rosalie and I, were too busy watching the edge of the highway where it crumbled away dropping hundreds of feet straight down, thousands of feet straight down, to enjoy the view. It was a long, scary, hot trip from Greeley to Barstow, and having Benjy with us didn’t make it any easier.
Some time after we settled in our new home, the same mobile home we’d lived in since we were married, having had it hauled first to Greeley, then to Barstow, we were at a drive-in movie with Jeri, now about three years old, and Benjy. They were in the back of our new used Ford station wagon. We heard a growl and a scream and looked back to see blood pouring from Jeri’s cheek where Benjy had nipped her. That was the end of the movie.
That summer of 1965, we drove to Mobridge to spend part of my school vacation visiting families and friends. We stayed with the Zimmers again, but life there with them and with Benjy was simply intolerable. After much soul-searching and discussion, we decided to have Benjy put to sleep. What a hard decision that was. But our lives together just couldn’t continue with him. There wasn’t anywhere else we could put him, and no one else who wanted him. I took him to the vet on the lower end of Main Street, signed the papers, paid the fee, and left him there. That was maybe the worst thing I’ve ever had to do, and I was weeping like a baby when I left the office. But I didn’t look back and I kept going, and eventually we both got over it. Our lives were much saner after that. But I can still see Benjy whenever I call up the one image I remember best and am fondest of—seeing him struggling up that slope, then falling back into me and the two of us locked together going for a swim in the James River.
There were no more Benjys in our lives, no more dogs to worry about after we took poor blind Lucy Baines back to the VanderVens in mid-summer 1969. I swear, dogs are tougher to take care of than babies. They require so much of your attention. We became cat lovers while we were living in Barstow. Our first cat, named KittyKat, was a stray that a neighbor of ours picked up and then left for an extended time while they were away on a trip. We sort of took over her care and the neighbors never asked for her return. She was a Manx, and she had one litter of kittens while we had her, one of whom we kept. Sometime later KittyKat was killed on the highway and I buried her in the desert just behind our house. The kitten we kept was black with white feet. So we called her Sox. Sox had one litter of her own, all of which we managed to give away. We left Sox with my sister Helen at her country home outside of Kenosha, Wisconsin. They took her in while I was spending the two years from 1969 through 1971 trying to earn a Ph.D. at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Sox was always a little spooked by strangers, so our attempt to get her a nice home in Wisconsin didn’t work very well. Shortly after we left her there, she ran away and was never seen again.
We got our next cat just after we got to Lakewood, New York, where I would spend the next twenty-two years teaching at Southwestern High School. We bought a kitten at a local pet store, but when we brought her home she was so full of fleas and mites she was going crazy and wasn’t eating right. We had tentatively named her Dipper, but decided we just couldn’t keep her. We took her back and got another, an orange tabby male we named Dipper. The first was Little Dipper; thus, the second became Big Dipper.
We had planned to have only one pet at a time, one cat. But our children had other plans. Daughter Jeri acquired two cats, both of which wound up with us—Tweakie and Tuffy. Tweakie was a shorthaired calico and Tuffy an orange-eyed, all black mutt that might have been the dumbest cat I’ve ever known. My judgement of Tuffy may be unfair, however. When he was about six, he fell into a lethargy we couldn’t figure out. He stopped eating, lost weight, just lay on the floor and acted like he was deathly ill. We couldn’t see anything wrong with him, but we took him to a vet for an examination. The vet discovered that Tuffy had encountered something right on the end of his nose, maybe someone’s toe, maybe Tuffy’s running full-tilt into a wall. In any case, his septum was split wide open and his sinuses had become so infected that his head literally was full of maggots. The doctor cleaned him out, sewed up the split in his septum, and sent him home with us. Tuffy regained his appetite and became a roly-poly black cat. But his sinuses never did heal completely, and he would go into sneezing fits that caused him to sneeze out gobs of green pus. We all learned to jump well away from him when he looked like he was about to go into his act. It became so bad that I finally had to take him to the vet to be put to sleep. Jeri never forgave me for doing it, but I couldn’t think of anything else to do. Tuffy wasn’t happy living that way, and we who had to live with him weren’t happy living that way. And one can spend only so much money on a pet. We decided we just couldn’t take any more heroic actions to cure him.
Dipper, meanwhile, was sick and seemed about to die. He would have been nine or ten at that time. Rosalie decided we needed to buy a new kitten to replace Dipper. She and Michael went to the pet store and found a tiny calico, the runt of the litter. They brought her home and our daughter, then attending Camp Onyasa on Chautauqua Lake, chose to name her Stephanie. Dipper didn’t die and went on for another four or five years, dying just after Jackie was born in 1985. So at one time we had, counting Laura’s short-lived cat Dale, five cats living with us. And Stephanie managed to survive all of them, and may yet survive Rosalie and me.
Tweakie and Stephanie were never friends, always hostile housemates who kept wary eyes out for each other. But Tweakie got cancer in her jaw and we had to leave her with the vet. Daughter Laura, after graduating from high school, moved into an apartment with a friend and decided she had to have a kitten of her own. So she got Dale. And when she later moved back home, Dale moved with her. But Dale wandered out onto Summit Avenue soon after she came to live with us and was killed. Now, the next to last of all the cats in our lives, Stephanie, was eighteen years and three months old just a day or two before I wrote this tribute. She outlived all the other contenders for our affection, she survived all the beatings Tweakie gave her, she survived a most traumatic trip in our moving van when we brought ourselves to Sun City West, and she survived deafness, arthritic front legs that gave her a cowboyish bowlegged appearance, and a hyperactive thyroid that caused her to be nervous, finicky about her food, and prone to vomiting several times a day or night. But we finally had to decide, when she started vomiting liquid foam and refused to eat a thing, that she was beyond any more help. We put off the decision for the five days she didn’t eat anything. We were more afraid of losing her than willing to release her. Those last few days she was more than ready for release, almost readying herself for it.
When the time finally came, Rosalie drove and I held Stephanie and Stephanie didn’t even get big-eyed as she usually did in the car, almost as though she knew what was going on. I carried her into the clinic and one of the ladies behind the reception desk asked me what was wrong, meaning what was wrong with my cat, and I literally burst into tears. Like a baby. I’ve always wept at Hallmark commercials, so my maudlin display was no surprise to me. And I said I didn’t think I would be staying there with my cat until she died, I just wasn’t strong enough for it. And the lady who had taken Stephanie from me patted me on the back and told me it was all right, that they’d be very gentle with her. And I blubbered a thank you, signed the euthanasia certificate, wrote the check, and got out of there.
We got home, both spilling tears all over the place, and without a word we both started picking up all her things—all the papers, all the accumulated drinking glasses, the food dishes, the litter box. I immediately thought of one of the Dickinson poems about death: “The bustle in a house / The morning after death / Is solemnest of industries / Enacted upon earth. / The sweeping up the heart / And putting love away / We shall not want to use again / Until Eternity.” Were we ever bustling around, and sweeping up our hearts. After putting our love away, we cocktailed, as always, and supped on a salad. Then we watched tv a bit until we fell asleep in our chairs, then stumbled off to bed to dream of Stephanie. And wept another silent tear into our pillows.