It is a hot, steamy day in the Mid-West. The kind of day that is great for the corn growing so fast that the farmers swear they can hear it in the night, but wilts the mere mortal who dares stir. A good day for idling, if you can get away with it, for letting your mind drift back to other summers long ago and far away.
Take those in Cheyenne, Wyoming a half a century or so ago. Which one to pick? Each was a little different as I drifted from childhood into my early teens. Let’s pick, say, 1963 for no good reason other than it popped into my head first. I would have been 14, between years at Cary Junior High.
We lived, as we had since a traumatic move in second grade, in a ranch house with a single car open carport on Cheshire Drive, the last block after a steep hill before the town suddenly ended in open prairie. The long runway of the air port ran on the other side of a barbed wire fence along the alley behind our house. You could while away some hours some days watching the National Guard play with their Air Force hand-me-down F-100 fighters, or United Airlines jet liners from Denver practicing take offs and landing over and over with their pilot trainees. But between the jets, which did not fly every day, and the ever-present wind, it was a remarkably quiet neighborhood where the Meadowlarks sang their sweet song from the fence wire every morning and evening.
That summer the old neighborhood gang that had spent summers in endless imaginary games of backyard war, or cowboys and Indians with a little hide and seek and backyard baseball with red rubber balls thrown in, was drifting apart. My twin brother Tim, the good looking one, had gone off with the older boys led by King Van Winkle. I was allowed, grudgingly, to tag along occasionally, but was not really welcome.
That summer they resurrected a half tumbled down dug out they had built the year before in a futile attempt to turn a stretch of prairie burr, sage brush, button cactus, and tumbleweed into a ball diamond. This year by scouring/looting construction sites for 2x4s, 1x6 planking, and plywood they had built the most elaborate two-story fort ever from which to base their operations, which were not always as innocent as Little Rascals short.
There was a crawl through door with a school combination lock on the hasp—I was never trusted with the combination—leading to the dug-out first floor. Then a trap door led to the second level, which was divided into two small rooms. Since the first floor would fill with water after a rare thunderstorm, the second floor was where they kept their treasures—girly magazines and liquor pilfered from their parents—and did their most secret stuff. Which was mostly smoking. You could see clouds of smoke ooze between the ill-fitting wall planks and smell the place a hundred yards down wind on a good day. I was told King knew certain girls who would come over and put-out for booze and cigarettes. This may or may not have been true. There was also card playing, the stakes often being stuff shoplifted from local stores or liberated from open garages. It was that kind of place.
In late summer, just before school started, some irate neighbor, maybe the father of one of those legendary girls, pushed the place down with his pickup truck.
Meanwhile the younger kids, led by Joe Miranda and his hoard of siblings just down the block, were still playing the kid games that had lost interest for me most days. Or they were busy afternoons with Little League. I had washed out of baseball—the only organized sport that ever interested me—a couple of years early after I suffered the humiliation of being sent down to a lower age group because I was ball shy in the outfield, slow on the bases, and unable to connect at the plate except for dribbling ground balls that faster kids might have beaten out, but which I never did.
My Dad, who used to play lazy catch with me and my brother after dinner on summer evenings, was mostly gone that summer. He had finally been forced out of his job as Secretary of the Wyoming Travel Commission, the last Republican agency head hold over after the Democrats took over the Governor’s mansion. He had converted the bed room my brother and I used to share into the office the important sounding Willard Murfin and Associates—but there were no associates, just Dad. He was busy running from Omaha to Salt Lake City trying to organize the Highway 30/Interstate 80 association, recruiting motel and restaurant owners, local Chambers of Commerce, and the operators local tourist attractions. The Association would hire his fledgling company to promote tourism along the route. It was a struggle and he was clearly worried that this venture would not work out.
Mom, no-longer a Den Mother, had immersed herself in one of her new projects. That year I think it was making copper jewelry, or maybe it was reupholstering all of our living room furniture with nubby, uncomfortable nylon fabric and then moving on to the neighbors. She was too busy to be much concerned with me as long as I was home for dinner. Which was good, because after one of these manic spurts of activity was over, the depression took over and she went, well, crazy taking a keen interest in my many deficiencies and embarrassments to the family and meeting out discipline with beatings from the sharp wire handle of a flyswatter against by naked ass.
So I was pretty much on my own that summer. Which suited me just fine. My nerdiness was ready to come full flower left on my own.
Since Dad had taken over our upstairs bedroom, Tim and I were happily ensconced in the unfinished basement, which Dad had been puttering on ever since we moved in. He had managed to get up the paneling on half the exterior walls of the basement and studded out the future rooms. These were now divided by hanging up Mom’s evidently endless supply of chenille bedspreads. Dad had also got around to putting up pegboard on the furnace room walls to hold his tools.
Tim made his bedroom in the windowless corner of the basement on the other side of the peg board. He had painted the walls black and illuminated his room with strings of Christmas tree lights and decorated with his collection of vintage monster movie photos and model cars. He had custody of the record player. He was officially the hippest 14 year old in Cheyenne.
My room across the bedspread had the light of a window well in the morning. My books were on steel shelving and a little steel study desk with an attached lamp from Woolworth’s sat in one corner. I had the family’s old wood cabinet Atwater-Kent radio with shortwave band which I used mostly to listen to far away night baseball games or to try and pick up foreign stations like the BBC or Radio Cuba.
The rest of the basement was divided between the laundry room and the Den where we had the old Motorola console TV and a couple of chrome and Naugahyde chairs dad had got from some friend when his office closed. My personal collection of Time Magazines was stacked on a low table. Our old toy box sat neglected at the far end of the room. Mostly we watched the Tonight Show down there after our parents had gone to bed.
On a typical summer morning I rose late—9 or 10 and made my own breakfast, usually a bowl of Cheerios and buttered toast with strawberry jam. I had to attend our black Dachshund Fritz Von Schlitz. I usually unchained him from his dog house and took him for a walk then cleaned up the lawn.
My other summer chore was lawn care, for which I was paid $5 a week. Mowing had become easier that year. Dad had finally replaced the old push mower with gas power motor from the Coast to Coast store. It was powder blue and I could get it started after a struggle. With this improvement I was able to finish the whole lawn in two or three hours. Previously I would work about two hours a day doing part of the lawn and when I was finished I would have to start all over again. This freed up my days considerably.
In the evenings I had to water which meant putting out little sprinklers in the small front yard, but setting up a major irrigation project in the long back yard that stretched toward the airport. I had one of those rotating sprinklers that turned every time the stream of water was struck by a little arm—you know the type. And on many hoses strung together I ran a cast-iron crawling tractor. I would have to move the hoses every couple of hours.
But all of that left my day mostly free and I was on my own to roam Cheyenne at will.
Picture me that summer as I set off on one of my daily trips. I had outgrown the old gray felt hat pinned up on one side with an Army insignia on one side in honor of my childhood here, Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders. And Dad’s World War II oversees cap that I had worn during a later period of re-enacting the old war movies I saw on TV. I was going for a more grown up look. The hat of choice that summer was battered white Panama straw with a snap brim I had obtained at some thrift store.
My glasses were plastic tortoise shell and thick. I was wearing last year’s warm weather school clothes. Mom had bought six identical short sleeve sport shirts in pale green, tan, and powder blue at J.C. Penny for a couple of bucks a peace. They were getting a little ratty and too tight. In the breast pocket I had a plastic pocket protector from a gas station in which I carried a Schaefer cartridge fountain pen, and a Scripto mechanical pencil, a little leatherette covered notebook, and a pocket comb. I was surely the only kid in Cheyenne who went abroad on a summer day ready for school.
My jeans were by then worn out at the knee and repaired by Mom’s iron-on patches. I had a coin purse and a Cub Scout pocket knife in one pocket and a bill-fold with a picture of Ava Gardner still in the little widow containing, if I was lucky, a dollar or two in a back pocket. A dingy white handkerchief hung limply out of the same pocket for wiping my face of sweat on a hot day. In the other back pocket I jammed a paperback book. The look was finished off with black Wellington boots, the toes by then nicked and scuffed, the heels worn down.
Sometimes I hopped on my red and white Firestone coaster break bike with the wire basket on the handlebars, especially if I planned to bring anything home. But usually I set off on foot. I always enjoyed walking, just ambling along gaping at anything that caught my attention. Among my frequent destinations were downtown for a visit to Woolworths and maybe get a slice of pie at the Luncheonette if I had money to spare or to the Carnegie Public Library to drop off or search for books. Both of these were a good walk from home, close to two hours at my pace.
But most days I headed to Holiday Park over by Lincolnway where Highway 30 came through town. On the way I would likely stop at Hoy’s Drug/MainDiner to look at the magazine racks and check out the rotating paperback book rack for new arrivals. That summer I was spending a lot of my money on those books—Bantam, Cardinal, Dell, Gold Seal, and Fawcett editions, mostly 35 cents each but 50 cents for a big fat one. That’s where I procured the books I stuffed in my jeans. While there I might, if flush and the day was warm, get a black cow at the soda fountain.
It was a good hike to Holiday Park but on a hot day I was rewarded by the ample shade of many mature trees. If there were no little kids at the playground, or any adults to see me, I would stop to push the merry-go-round with the diamond plate deck, each pie wedge shaped section painted a different color. When it was going as fast as I could make it spin, I would jump on and lay on my back looking at the arching cottonwoods and the puffy white clouds against the blue sky whirl. I might amble over the swings, too, and pumping as hard as I could swig up even with the bars, leaping off at the very top of the arch when I was finished. But never if anyone could see. It would have spoiled my new adult image.
That was the summer that they rolled the Big Boy locomotive, one of the biggest steam engines ever built, down Lincolnway from the Union Pacific yards and shops putting rails down in front of it and picking them up from behind. I had watched that operation and watched them push the engine down a slope into a corner of the park where it was put on display. Back then it was not fenced off and I could go over and climb aboard, lay my hand upon the throttle and poke my head out the side window of the cab. As a younger boy I had seen these huge engines come through town and make up the two mile trains they carried over Sherman Hill. I had watched them take water from the tanks and waved at the conductor and brakeman in their yellow caboose.
But those things were a distraction to my real destination—a certain ancient willow tree that stretched a comfortable, sturdy arm over the muddy waters of the pond the city grandiosely called Lake Minnehaha in the center of the park. There was a perfect perch. I settled in with the book from my jeans for two or three hours of uninterrupted—except by occasional day dreaming—reading.
And what was I reading that summer? Well, I remember Horn of the Hunter: The Story of an African Safari by Robert Ruak, a memoir with—the boy sang hallelujah—sex scenes as well as hairy chested hunting in the Hemingway mold. Indulging my taste for history and war there were editions of Bruce Canton’s Stillness at Appomattox and The Longest Day by Cornelius Ryan. On the fiction side of the same interest there was Fifty-Five Days at Peking with the cover featuring the lovely Ms. Garner and rugged Charlton Heston, and Hemmingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls from my mother’s bookshelf, not the drug store rack. I also enjoyed a good laugh. Nothing did that better than Leonard Wimbley’s The Mouse that Roared and Jean Kern’s The Snake Had All the Lines. And I picked up some show business memoirs—Jack Parr’s I Kid You Not comes to mind. There were more—I plowed through a lot of books, good and bad that summer.
When the shadows on the water lengthened and my but grew numb it was time for the long walk home, with maybe a stop at a gas station to drop a nickel into the ice chest and weave my bottle of Coke through the maze. It always was super cold from the icy water. Nothing was better on a hot day. And after polishing it off, always a peek at the bottom to see where it was made.
I generally made home just about the time Mom rang the brass dinner bell she had mounted on a post of the porch. On a good day I may not have spoken to another soul except for maybe the soda jerk.
My brother would trail in reeking of cigarette smoke, which my mother never noticed because so did she. We ate on TV trays in the living room and watched the summer re-runs with a bowl of ice cream about 9.
Before heading downstairs at ten, I often stepped out into the yard with Fritz. No matter how hot the day had been, Cheyenne summer evenings were cool and crisp. In the back, away from the street lights, I could see the whole brilliant smear of the Milky Way arching across the sky, millions of stars so clear it seemed I could reach out and touch them. In the distance a UP freight could be heard clearing the crest if the high plateau Pine Bluffs on the Nebraska line.
Downstairs I would watch the Tonight Show then climb into bed with a book. Over on his side of the chenille curtain, Tim would be playing stacks of 45’s.