Studebaker

The last time I saw Denny, he drove up to Sioux Falls in my junior college year at Augustana  to see me. His wife and child had died, killed in an automobile accident, if I remember down Hwy. 59, down that curved road south of Denison. I hadn’t seen him since my high school graduation, when I noticed him sitting towards the back of the auditorium. He came to graduation, I thought for me; but I found out after, he and another female classmate, another graduate, were riding around together.  Somebody told me, somebody I don’t remember but someone I felt she said as a dig.  I was devastated, felt betrayed.  But my parents took me to graduation and I had to leave with them, and I didn’t drive.  In fact, my father refused to teach me to drive.  I wound up teaching myself the year after I graduated from college when I bought a Ford for $150, one that sucked more oil than used gas.

That night, to find Denny, to see for sure if he was with another,  I snuck out of the house and into the shed that served as our garage. The trickiest part was sliding open the shed door without waking up my parents, for any night on an Iowa farm, the cherished quiet was the norm.  I started up the Studebaker, that I knew how to do, but didn’t turn on the headlights until after I had left the land and drove west a quarter of a mile.  After a mile I turned south and headed towards Manilla. About a mile north, I got cold feet, didn’t want to make a fool of myself, as I was often warned not to do by my parents, and tried to turn the car around and head back.  I knew my father would be quite upset.  In a farmer’s driveway, one whenever I drive by heading to Ridge Road on the way to and from Denison, I cringe, from shame more than likely the result of  my stupidity,  I hung up the car in a ditch.  The right wheel spinning in air on the side of the culvert.  I don’t remember how my father was notified, or if he was notified at all, but just happened to show up.   But if my parents were called  by the farmer, the quiet of that night betraying me then, it was because then everyone in that small community  knew which  car was  what family’s.  In a short time it seems,  my father came down with the tractor and pulled out the Studebaker. Nothing was said that night to me, nor the next day.  Nothing happened that night to me, nor the next day. And I don’t know how the car got back to the farm, but I know I didn’t drive it.

Three years later, Denny said on the phone  that he wanted to see if we could work it out, if he missed something.  I hung out with Augie theatre people then, and as we all know theatre people are pretty wild, and maybe we were then, wild as theatre people can get in a Christian college, which is not wild at all.  I lived off campus with two other girls in the basement of a home owned by a female real estate magnate, at least that is what she seemed to us.  She acted  pretty mysterious too.  We often joked about all her brothers who came to visit;  one in particular.  We drank a lot in that basement.  A huge furnace, one with thick stacks like an octopus, centered the apartment. We skirted around it to enter the one bedroom on the east with two huge beds. The room next to the bedroom on the north  and to the left of the furnace was a small living room in which we pilled empty  beer cars on top of one another against the walls as sort of decoration. In there, no television then, not much of anything to listen to at all in that place, a radio in the kitchen I remember, and a vinyl record player in the living room.  Barbra Streisand, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Janice Joplin, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul, and Mary.   In that room we necked with our boyfriends.  At the bottom of the stairs that led in from the west,  a galley kitchen with a small white porcelain table and two chairs.  One day I counted over 70 visitors came in and out of the place, down the steps, slamming the door, getting something out of our refrigerator, to smoke a cigarette or drink a beer in the afternoon, some the same.  Grand Central Station across the street from Tuve Hall.  Needless to say, what studying we girls did was done on campus, which was less than a block away.  But we were all smart, remembering what we read and discussed what we remembered, synthesizing our information to make sense of the world.

Denny and I didn’t do anything that night either, although he tried, as all boys tried.  Not that I was virginal; I just didn’t want to anymore.  I think he married again, but I don’t know.  Someone much later told me that she saw Denny mowing the grass in front of this business in Denison.  I think he’s dead.

Shotgun

That guy from Earling and I never did anything more than neck–of course he tried, as all boys tried back then–but my father somehow would have found out, and there would have been hell to pay. Before, a guy who was dating someone I called a friend then, not now by any means, told her that he wanted to break up with her and date me. He was so tall, 6’7″, that at the Denison theater he had to drape his legs over the seat in front of him. Stretch, he was called. Mutt and Jeff, we were called. Never knew why that moniker stayed with us. That movie house was known then and now as the Donna Reed theatre. Denny bragged that he shook Donna Reed’s hand when she rode in a 4th of July parade. I only saw her on the Donna Reed show and in It’s a Wonderful Life.

I liked him, but I broke up with him when he tried to go too far. One night on the way to Manilla, Denny pulled over and opened some beer.  He wanted me to drink some, but I refused.

We dated during my junior year and senior year. In the summer, he would come and pick me up in his ’57 Chevy. One hot, humid, sultry night, a night with little breeze, we came back to the farm before curfew and started necking right there in the lane under the yard light, the kind of necking where heads do not rise about a rolled-down window. Funny thing about memories, some images last forever. I remember hearing the shotgun before I saw my father, the click, click to put the shell in the chamber. A hot night, and through the window, hot and heavy on the seat, I heard it in that quiet night. Denny raised up and said, “I best be going.” Then I did too, and saw my father standing in front of the screen door, the shotgun in his hands. I don’t think I kissed Denny before I left the car. I remember that still, the raised head right after the sound, my seeing my father with the gun in his arms ready to be shot.

Five-mile House

South of Westside, Iowa, on bloody Highway 30, and north of Manning stands a lone building, at least that is what I remember, called the Five Mile House. If not a dance at Manilla, sometimes in addition to a dance at Manilla, the Five Mile House would be rocking. It was sort of off limits, my parents not wanting any of us kids to go there. It was wilder, tougher, fights were known to break out. And there was Rock ‘n’ Roll, and lots of hard liquor. My folks would go once in a while, but we could never tag along. But one summer when I came home for a time from college, a guy I was dating took me there, and, yes, he fought over me. Apparently someone was flirting with me, or I was flirting with him, and my date pummeled the guy. Today I still remember the booth, towards the back on the east of the dance floor. It happened so fast, the guy who flirted I can’t even remember a feature, no grin, nothing, three punches and he was laid low. Later in my life after I read Joyce Carol Oates‘ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” that scene comes to mind, but my date was Arnold Friend and Ellie all rolled into one. My date was short and stocky, like Ellie, and he had a funny laugh, like Ellie, but the eruption of violence, the threat of stepping out of line, he was Arnold. I remember my date reached across from me to hit him, sliding up at the same time, then over the side of the booth until all was quiet, at least in our little area. But nothing else surrounding us stopped. The band kept playing, the couples danced, conversations so loud that it seemed we were in the midst of cicadas. I dated him off and on over the next few months, until we had a flat tire in Earling, and I crawled in the door at 3 am. My father got me up at 4, ordering me to do chores, saying over his coffee the later I get in, the earlier I get up. I did date one of his friends later, that I regret a lot more.

I had been around violence before, for although my father was at heart gentle, he raised us tough, in much the same way that he was raised I assume, but I can’t believe that of my grandfather. I disliked and feared my father until in my 20s and feared and was timed around men for much of my life because I feared my father.

Memorial Hall

I am participating in Diane DeBella’s #iamsubject project http://www.iamsubject.com/the-iamsubject-project/. Here is my #iamsubject story.

In Iowa, up until I graduated from high school, our family lived on four different farmsteads, on one prior to my first memories when Dad had hired himself out to the Holloways, a man who always respected my father. I was born in a nursing home before my father came home from the service, conceived before they married: Foderberg’s Nursing Home. In fact, all three of us, the second batch of children, were born at Foderberg’s, a two-story clapboard house with pillars in front, modest and unassuming even in those times, I’m sure. Mother pointed it out to me once as I was driving her back from uptown. I remember thinking why I never knew before where it stood, and I had lived around this area up until I graduated from high school. My older sister’s father died when she was five from tuberculosis. I am not sure where she was born.

Foderberg’s is still standing. It is a little ways south of Main Street, or what surpasses as main street in that small town of Manilla. Then it was probably more livelier than the town is now with its three bars, mini-grocery store (I think Tiny’s is still there), two gas stations kitty-cornered from one another: one a mini-mart; the other, just gas. One gas station for conversation, ice cream cones, sundries on the weekends, and lottery; the other just gas. Both for cigarettes still, I assume. A seed company still exists down from Rocky’s I believe, although the last time I went home, I thought the place looked pretty bare. The doctor’s office is now gone. Mom always complained about the doctors that practiced there after Dr. Hennessey retired.

During my teenaged years, on the drag down the center of town, ’57 Fords and Chevys and others braked and squealed and rolled down windows and chatted and exchanged girls, from one back seat to another, that is if the girls pushed the seat forward and shoved the driver into the steering wheel to scoot out or if the boys in the other car enticed the girls from the other car. We knew we had to move, if the driver in the other car, opened the back seat so we could crawl in behind. I never learned the unwritten rule.

The other stop we teenagers made at that time was the bowling alley, especially after football. I played in the marching band, piccolo or cymbals, the oboe too fragile for kicking up clods in the turf. In the girls’ bathroom at the bowling alley, cheerleaders sprayed themselves stinky with perfume to hide the sweat from doing the splits high in the air. I remember a couple of them dousing themselves with perfume, squirting their blue felt skirts front and back, suffocating the rest of us who were smashed in that bathroom like sardines.

The dark-haired cheerleader was the first to call it whore juice in my presence. Linda, the cheerleader in my class, laughed. My mother would have slapped my mouth if I said such a thing. Those two had a reputation, at least that is what I was told, having been at this new school since March of my junior year, a tough time for a teenager not skinny as a rail.

I didn’t smoke then, at least openly, although I would sneak one of my mother’s sometimes when I did chores, slopping the hogs especially, for I could hide it while carrying a slop bucket up the hill from the barn to the hog pen; the five-gallon slop bucket on my left side and a lit cigarette between my fingers on my right, the side away from the bay window, just in case she peeked out. A five-gallon bucket full of slop is heavy; one usually has to balance the weight with the other arm raised like pump handle and that was tough to do with a lit cigarette between the fingers. From the slop to the troughs at top of the hill, as long as I was in sight, I never put the cigarette to my mouth, and kept it hidden, that is until my aunt nudged my mother with a notion that I was smoking a cigarette, for she saw smoke trailing behind me like a pendant. At the top of the hill, out of sight from the bay window, I put the cigarette in my mouth while both hands lifted the bucket over the fence and sloshed the dregs from milking, the potato peels, leftovers, if there were any, into the hog trough.

And then there was the Memorial Hall. Almost every week, especially in the summer, dances with live bands who made the circuit throughout the small southwestern towns stretching out of Omaha, Nebraska, up through to Carroll, Iowa, and back, playing polkas and waltzes. Once in a blue moon, a rock and roll song excited us teenagers. We went because our parents went. Dad glided around the sanded floor waltzing with Mom, with this neighbor lady, with that, with me or my sister. I learned to waltz following the rhythm of my father’s shoes; polka still is beyond me.

The dance hall was on the upper level; beer and sandwiches in the lower level, all ran by the Legion. Two sets of stairs on either side led from the hall down to beer and sandwiches. Mom served sandwiches along with the others in the Auxiliary, and Dad tended bar along with the Legionnaires. On the landing of the front set of stairs, a door opened directly to street level. If I mix myself in with others coming down the stairs, Mom wouldn’t see me and I could sneak out the side door that opened on street level and go for a ride with some other kids, in one of their cars. Once when I came back on a weekend from college, a handsome boy asked me if I could have a drink. I asked mom, and she said, “As long as you don’t act silly. Out the side door we went, and there we kissed. I still think about him today, almost 50 years later.

 

Wine

In the 1950s, the end of my childhood and my teen years,  my father would come home on a Friday night after playing cards with a few guys in the local pool room in the small town about four miles from our place, most often with a carton of Pall Malls that hopefully would last my parents a week, more if there was a blizzard or the roads muddy, and a gallon jug of whiskey, usually Windsor; and once in a while a gallon of Betty Anne Wine.  A sip of that would settle us kids down quickly, settle as meaning dead to the world.  I don’t remember the ritual of going to bed, but I do know that if we resisted, there would be hell to pay.  Usually after the night news at 10 pm, a quick undress, and under the stack of covers, if cold as a Witches’ teat as my father would say,  or a sheet, if hotter than Hades. I still remember the taste of that wine, sweet, almost like sherry, both of which I can’t drink now.

Other than an occasional small glass of wine, we kids were not allowed to drink, although once in a while we took a sip of Mom’s or Dad’s beer, Schlitz, if they had some.  We were quite poor; any type of imbibing would have to be few and far between.  Today I know that in my father’s later years, when the strength in his limbs was no longer there, that beers in the afternoon on the back porch was the only thing that he enjoyed, besides the Cubs, that is.  The Cubs kept my father hanging on, the tv on the porch blaring, disturbing my mother who sat at the kitchen table drinking coffee and writing letters to old friends and relatives, once in a while drinking a beer too.