Friday, December 15, 2017

The Gift That Keeps on Giving




It’s the season to count blessings and assess the past year. Once I finish listing family and friends, another favorite is the local library and its wonderful librarians. No matter where I’ve lived or worked, these book lenders are critical to a town’s success. If you don’t possess one already, head to the front desk, meet that guardian of knowledge, and arrange the power to check out books and movies throughout the year. Heck, get a Kansas Library card while you’re at it and add research services.

During early statehood, these institutions focused primarily on loaning books.  Over time, these magical passes permitted access to newspapers and periodicals affordable to few families. As one might expect, services have changed over the 150 years since community libraries first improved rural lives. Today, most patrons possess technology that lets them read on line so they don’t need to check out books.  If they don’t own one, they can borrow a library device. So what’s a good librarian do to make certain patrons keep coming through their doors?

Over the last few years, even dinosaurs like me who enjoy the weight of a book in hand and the sensory thrill of flipping pages have observed that library services evolve constantly. Because more folks read digital texts, librarians don’t need to buy as many hard copies. As a result, more of us now depend on interlibrary loan to get our sniff of lignin from the printed page.  Instead, limited budgets purchase videos, electronic games, audio books for travelers, and technology. In addition, small-town librarians design intriguing one-time as well as ongoing opportunities to explore the world. One friend serving a small library says it best--programming is everything.

Investigate your local library as well as those nearby. Enjoy tea parties and movie or game nights, receive homework help, listen to various speakers, learn genealogy, explore 3-D printing or robotics, and more. Every director works overtime to encourage residents of all ages to enter their doors several times a week.

Most facilities sponsor story time, which introduces toddlers to books and fun. Little ones might mime stories and march through colorful obstacle courses that begins a lifetime habit of recognizing characters and authors. One innovator creates a Lego based activity every week to keep little ones looking forward to their next visit.

Another friend in charge of a very small facility designed a teen corner where junior high and high school kids meet to play games, compare favorite books, and join a scavenger hunt. This creative lady took pictures of her town’s unique but rarely noticed architecture, trees, and other highlights. She ran off multiple prints of each photo and directed teams to find odd shaped windows, funky tree trunks, and other oddities. Combining laughter and learning built great memories. 

If you aren’t a regular at your library, stop and visit. The librarian has a book, movie, app, or program you’ll enjoy. If nothing else, suggest something to add to the schedule. Odds are at least one other person in town would appreciate your idea. Sure, it’s Christmas time when we’re supposed to give gifts to others, but using your local library is a present you’ll savor all year long.


Friday, December 8, 2017

Share What You Know and Learn Something New




If you ask, I’d bet every American believes they’re the real deal--100% red, white, and blue. Yet, media talking-heads highlight divisions, making us wonder what’s true or fake. The greatest cure for confusion is visiting other parts of the country and welcoming tourists to our state.   Regional and cultural differences exist and offer educational opportunities for visitors and locals. I’ve learned it’s best to keep a straight face when strangers ask about something I consider obvious. Their mistake may be sincere, so don’t blow an opening to correct confused folks without embarrassing them.

A friend who owns a western store has occasion to enlighten urban travelers who stop to shop. Many vacationing city dwellers end up in her rural community which is populated by boot and cowboy hat wearing citizenry. Outside city limits, deer and antelope defy fences to join domestic cows and horses in the satisfactory munching and digestion of local grasses. Both western fashion and  intermixing of wild and domestic herds seem perfectly normal to this shop owner and fellow residents. Chatting with out-of-state customers let this businesswoman know some see her world as unusual or exotic.

Several times during tourist season, folks stopping through inquire, “What’s going on in town today?”  Typically she hands them the weekly visitor guide and encourages them to tour area museums and nature sites. Eventually, someone was more direct and added, “No, why are so many people dressed up like cowboys?”

She peered out the door to notice locals dining at the hometown restaurant? “Like those guys?” she asked.

“Yea. Are they dressed up for a special event?”

Always striving to promote her town and encourage tourism, she considered her response. “No, that’s how many business people who live here dress. It’s lunch hour.”

Clearly, this confused someone used to urban professional attire. In their experience, places don’t exist where business people wear western shirts, jeans, and cowboy boots to the office. As a counter point, those accustomed to rural dress codes might stare if someone showed up on the job in an Armani suit or Manolo heels. It’s not what we’re used to.

Later that summer, out-of-staters paused to shop and learn about the area. This friend is very approachable so her customers started chatting about farms and ranches they’d passed on their way through the middle of the country. They were curious about how farmers and ranchers managed to raise cattle or horses and the deer and antelope browsing alongside their livestock.

A quick glance told my friend the curiosity was genuine. This wasn’t a joke, so keeping a straight face, she explained only the cows and horses were domestic. The deer and antelope were wild and could leap over fences or crawl under them anytime they wanted. Kudos for her ability to maintain her composure.

Our conversation began as we analyzed differences between Americans and what people know based on where they come from. That triggered her to tell these stories. Though we share a common government, it’s clear Americans don’t always understand one another’s regional and cultural differences. Anyone can take a lesson from this shop owner and make time to clarify misunderstandings. We’d all get along better.

Friday, November 24, 2017

So How Lucky Is a Wishbone?




It’s amazing what you can learn watching Jeopardy or reading their website. Who knew that one of my favorite Thanksgiving customs ties back to the ancient Etruscans who considered chickens and this oddly shaped bone to possess good fortune. These are folks that settled in much of what is now Italy and possibly contributed to the founding of Rome. Yes, the custom of snapping the wishbone is an old one, imported from a distant culture and continent. Guess it resembles many American traditions.

Despite learning about Etruscans in world history and reading about their art in archeological journals, I had to look up this culture’s homeland. They occupied what is now Tuscany in Italy. According to one source, their civilization contributed to the founding of Rome. Apparently, they appreciated chickens, considering them and the distinctly horseshoe shaped furcula or two fused clavicles of this creature to bring good luck to the individual who won the longer side of the snap.  

Anything that brings good fortune is worth sharing. According to Alex Trebek, this ancient custom made its way to jolly old England and from there to the American colonies. Clearly, sharing chicken husbandry was important as well. In addition, the tradition translated over to even larger fowl, the turkey--a new world bird.

Early in my childhood, my mom whose heritage is predominantly from the British Isles taught my brother and I it was lucky to possess the longer piece of the wishbone after a contentious battle. Somehow my sibling, younger no less, examined that interesting looking bit of bone and cartilage and pre-determined the winning side long before the two of us began tugging with all our might to break it. After losing too many times, I, too, learned the secret and then the real war began to see who controlled which side of this odd lucky charm.

If we happened to be at a family meal with cousins involved, the competition stiffened. Ironically, where I fought obnoxiously to gain the upper hand at home, I was my brother’s biggest supporter if an older cousin challenged him. As it is in the political world, alliances shift in a flash depending on the opposition.

Just as mom shared this tradition with her kids, I carried it on with mine. I discovered, after baking and boning the turkey a day ahead of our feast, extra hours drying on the window sill sped up the time necessary to snap the wishbone. No longer did the taller, usually stronger sibling have the advantage of exerting extra torque on soft cartilage and bendable bone. The sad news is sometimes we forgot the bone where it lay drying, delaying our fun until after the holiday.

Upon viewing Jeopardy’s presentation just before Thanksgiving, I was struck by its irony.  Etruscans considered this bird and bone to be lucky. So did the English and later Americans. Looking at it logically, I’m not sure chickens would agree. After all, they must die to provide the bone. Like a rabbit whose foot is carried for good luck, the contributor isn’t all that fortunate.






Thursday, November 16, 2017

Band of Brothers: Beloved and Celebrated




This year’s Veterans’ Day--a reflective time since so many family members have served our country—has passed. This one was more poignant than usual after I listened to a former student and current soldier speaking in honor of the occasion. He reminded me I’m blessed to know him and other young people who answered our nation’s duty call.

In his opening, he shared what he most values and loves, which is family--including fellow warriors. His respect and fondness for those he trained and served with in the 388th rang clear and true, making me think of Shakespeare’s lines in King Henry V, “From now until the end of the world, we and it shall be remembered. We few, we Band of Brothers. For he who sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.”

At the time he enlisted, so did many other western Kansans. A number of Ellis students in that four-year period joined the military, uniting to protect country and loved ones.  Many trained together and later deployed to the Middle East. Almost all still serve America in some fashion. When I see their FB posts, I think about their shared childhoods and history in the military. These new pictures of mature men and women make it difficult to recall them as youngsters who procrastinated endlessly over giving speeches or writing papers.

Several years ago, one former Ellis grad spoke at a political function in Phillips County. Like many students in public school, English and speech weren’t his favorite subjects. Imagine my pleasure while observing him present an enthusiastic, poised, well-organized presentation. I talked to him afterward and asked what he’d been doing post high school and active duty. At the time, he worked as a political advisor where public writing and speaking were keys to success. He shared a story about a classmate and fellow soldier who majored in English. That individual ended up ranking above him in their unit and insisted this former classmate rework reports until they met specifications, skills contributing to the speaker’s current employment. I chuckled to myself that some of the blood this band of brothers shed might resemble blue or black ink.

Many members of the 388th Medical Battalion Reserve Unit have earned advanced degrees or certifications. Several are authors and professors. Not only did they back each other in combat zones, they encourage one another’s home front success. I have no stats, but I’d guess this group has earned more than the average number of degrees or advanced accreditations. This explains how the gentleman giving the FHSU Veteran’s Day speech crossed my radar. He’s in school accomplishing a goal.

These soldiers have done more than serve their country. They’ve brought out the best in one another and modeled the meaning of strength.  While bravery during battle is part of the that definition, sometimes it means standing before an audience, telling them how much you love your wife and how her commitment has allowed you to perform your duties well. I’m proud to know many of the brothers and sisters in this particular band. Western Kansans have much to celebrate.








Masters of Everything and Nothing






Dramatic stories of natural catastrophes fill newsfeeds almost daily. Earthquakes, floods, fires, hail storms, tornados, and hurricanes dominate headlines, reminding us that humans hold little power over weather and geological activities.  Discussion of recent events led to an emotional discussion during art class the other day. Eventually our group wondered how people who lived here before us handled such phenomena when they occurred during their lives?

Depending on how far back we’re talking, we agreed that many of those individuals lived migratory lifestyles. It made me think about what I know about native people of the Great Plains.  Using human, horse, and dog power, they transported tanned hides and wooden supports used to construct temporary homes with them as they followed wildlife herds. These creatures provided not only food, but also materials used to construct homes, tools, bedding, and clothing. Their Walmart had hooves.

The nature of these transient beasts meant they constantly moved, seeking grasses that thrived across this region from Texas to Canada. Herds large enough to darken the plains for miles quickly devoured this solar generated calorie resource. When the grass was gnawed to the ground, they moved shifted locale, leaving it to regrow before their next pass through the area. As a result, humans whose lives depended on the great, shaggy beasts packed up and trekked after them.

While some imagine the hardships of such a life, researchers tell us it was beneficial. Food was fresh, and tribes usually abandoned camp long before human wastes fouled water and soil that sustained them. As part of nature’s cycles, they understood the waxing and waning of the moon as well as the always changing seasons. They knew where their food and resources came from and how to preserve them for later use. They were more in touch with the realities of existence than modern urban dwellers.

Like us, they were susceptible to natural disasters. Oral histories and records kept on animal skins reveal accounts of apocalyptic events. The difference is that their mobility encouraged a high degree of adaptability. Reconstructing a hide tipi required resources and labor, but it didn’t require a lifelong mortgage to replace it. Because they moved where game moved, fire meant a lost season of grass in one locale, not a lost herd that had to be rebuilt--if finances permitted.

When such events occurred, whole tribes moved on, lending support to the weakest in the group. They maintained their cyclical behaviors until cultural conflict made that impossible. Equivalent catastrophes today often isolate individuals or families who then depend on strangers or impersonal government entities to help them rebuild lives. Not only do people lose homes and possessions, businesses, farms, vineyards, and ranches succumb to raging floods and flames. Lifetime dreams vanish overnight.

While technology and civilization provide temperature controlled climates inside four walls, it’s worth considering what modern humans give up to enjoy such comfort. Unless we consciously contemplate our relationship with nature and its pros and cons, it’s easy to think we’re the masters of the universe. That is until a natural disaster reminds us we aren’t in control of anything but how we respond to what happens to us.


Mother Nature and Her Wily Assassins




Conspiracy theorists need to investigate Mother Nature’s actions against trees in Western Kansas. Yes, she’s conspiring to make this a treeless plain once again.

Western history buffs often read descriptions of the region called the Great American Desert. Explorers Zebulon Pike and Major Stephen Long documented journeys across this landscape, noting its aridity and incompatibility with agriculture. A lack of trees supported their conclusions.

Despite the region’s general absence of foliage, wayfarers noted groves along rivers and streams, naming several camp sites Big Timbers. Clearly, the soil wasn’t insufficient. More was involved. Those who came to stay observed fire’s role in eradicating trees and shrubs.

Great thunderheads built up on the horizon then as they do now. When lightning bolts arced and contacted dried prairie grasses, flames raced unimpeded across the landscape, searing emerging seedlings and delicate saplings.

 To encourage buffalo migrations, some researchers explain that natives utilized fire to encourage tender grasses to sprout. Between lightning and manmade fire, trees struggled to survive.

That said, photos of western Kansas communities in the early and mid-1900s reveal flourishing stands of elm, ash, cottonwood, and hackberry. Towering trees shaded neighborhoods, hiding structures and yards from photographers. More recently, property owners have included pines in landscape designs.

If you compare images from earlier times to now, they’ve changed. What happened to the dense greenery shielding rooflines and sidewalks from camera lenses? Not fire, but dastardly, insects! That’s what. Mother Nature doesn’t want western Kansans to enjoy shady siestas or hear wind soughing through leafy branches.

After settlement, families planted trees and controlled fire. Combining these practices led to aerial shots of shady lanes and sheltered yards.  That is until beetles invaded this continent to wipe out one tree after another.

Once hardy Dutch elms dominated neighborhoods across America. Now healthy ones are impossible to find. Walk through town and note tattered remnants of a once thriving population. It’s hard to think of small insects as assassins, but as their numbers multiplied elms withered.

While concerned about these striped beetles, western Kansans didn’t panic. Ash trees grew well, providing stunning fall foliage as well as hardwood to warm winter hearths. That is until the emerald ash borer, another Asian invader, arrived. In its native land, its populations didn’t grow out of control. As an uninvited guest, it’s multiplied until most American ash trees risk annihilation. Mother Nature clearly intends to vanquish prairie arbors.

Clever souls tried to outwit her by introducing Scotch and Austrian pines. Initially, it seemed a good strategy. Dense windbreaks protected yards, parks, and cemeteries while beautifying them. Then, (hear the Jaws theme in your mind) pine sawyer beetles arrived to alter the story.  Traveling from tree to tree, this invasive species introduces a nematode that weakens trees. Needles turn from green to tan, signaling a tree’s impending death. It can take only 6 weeks for the disease to destroy a mature evergreen. This killer is very efficient.

As the region’s tree numbers dwindle, it’s clear Mother Nature’s killers labor unceasingly. Insects have assumed fire’s role as destroyer. Clearly, it’s going to take more than a desire for shady respite to outwit this gal and her team of wily assassins.

Time Well Spent




Art day in grade school was so much fun. I looked forward to it all week and could barely contain my excitement through morning lessons. Throughout lunch, I’d mull what we’d create when the teacher told us to clear desks for art. My favorite activity was painting, but coloring, gluing, forming clay, whatever hands-on mess making was a hit as far as I was concerned. Art time meant dabbling, creating, and chatting with nearby classmates. What could make it better?

Well, as an adult, I have an answer. Sip or snack and paint class for grownups. The sponsoring artist provides the easel, paint, brushes, and canvas, while students bring beverages and treats.

Several area artists have discovered they live in communities filled with wannabe Picassos. They’ve learned they can offer classes several times a month and teach others to enjoy capturing a scene on canvas. Friends even plan birthday parties and showers involving such activities.

I’ve attended sessions in different area towns and enjoyed every one. In the hours leading up to class, I build the same anticipation that kept me on the edge of my grade school seat. My mind rehearses familiar questions: what are we going to paint, will it be hard, how can I avoid a mess, who’s going to sit nearby, will I like the finished product? Some personality traits never go away, and these have remained mine for decades, even those where I never touched a brush.

No matter whose class you take, teachers understand student limitations and the old adage that nothing succeeds like success. Every course I’ve seen advertised has a great picture for students to paint. Sometimes they focus on scenes involving trees, clouds, sunflowers, water, or farmsteads. Holidays offer options from pumpkins and black cats to big-eyed owls to trees silhouetted against a haunting full moon. Thanksgiving scenes involve everything from autumn leaves to jolly turkeys. My favorite’s Christmas snow men. These whimsical characters might be skating, sledding, trimming trees or even standing on their heads. I enjoy such charming and colorful scenes so much I could paint them year-round.

I credit instructors with setting up the perfect get together. By the time we “artistes” arrive, they’ve arranged plastic protected tables, canvas on easels, paint brushes, Styrofoam plate palettes, and paper towels for messy pupils. They’ve finished at least one if not more demonstration pieces that model what the end result’ll look like if students follow directions. It’s fun to listen to everyone’s remarks as they anticipate the task before them.

It’s interesting how a special energy happens when creative spirits unwind and loaded brushes starting slapping canvas. When colors fill in forms and designs take shape, everyone relaxes. Breathing slows as folks capture key elements of the painting. As participants relax, stories and laughter emerge, adding to a perfect event.

Thank goodness, local artists invite dabblers into their studios and offer opportunities to rediscover joys found in grade school art class. For some, this’ll be their only painting experience, for others this is aspringboard to more advanced skills. Regardless, it’s time well spent.


Rural Schools: A Perfect Fit for Skilled Labor Training Movement




Everyday my newsfeed runs articles supporting rural communities. I also subscribe to Mike Rowe’s of Dirty Jobs fame posts where he reveals America’s need for skilled, hardworking employees. Mike explains such occupations pay well and require less education debt than do four-year degrees. For the good of individuals and the nation, he advocates interested Americans master a trade to earn a competitive salary.

Many of my former pupils chose this route and tell me they make far more money than I did as a teacher. As one who earned a living doing what I loved, I celebrate such accounts. One of my first students, who ironically isn’t that much younger than I, shares frequently that he loves his auto body career and how it enables him to provide well for his family. It’s not all gravy. He mentions ongoing expenses for equipment updates and physical wear and tear. Despite these challenges, his skilled training didn’t leave him deeply in debt and afforded a lucrative paycheck for fulfilling work.

I could tell more success stories, but space is limited. Instead, consider how long it takes to get a plumber, electrician, HVAC tech, carpenter, or carpet layer to provide non-emergency services. I waited a year for floor covering. I’ve waited weeks to hear a plumber’s knock at my door or get my car tuned-up. These folks are busy. They could work 24 hours a day and still have customers waiting.

So many of our students grow up on farms and ranches or in towns where residents value and model a strong work ethic. What changes we can make in local school systems to better prepare more young people for skilled trades?

A Japanese practice is worth considering and adapting. Their schools teach an appreciation for labor by rotating all students through jobs in the kitchen and cafeteria. Students learn about serving as well as cleaning after others. Youngsters assigned to janitorial duties practice facility maintenance. I imagine country school attendees recall performing such duties during their school years. It’s beneficial to understand how systems work and what it takes to maintain them.

As students, parents, and school officials consider possible curricular changes, I hope they focus on fundamentals that translate into critical thinking skills. Every worker/voter/citizen needs to analyze data well. Everyone should read expertly enough to question text. Math skills require more than drill. One of the best math and physics teachers in western Kansas also utilized his skills to roof houses and build upscale homes.

Humans require experimentation to discover interests and talents. Many young people don’t explore them until they graduate. Can educational systems jump start these investigations as early as grade school? Can kids practice critical academics with a hammer, surveying tool, or water purity sensor in hand?

Santa Fe Indian School would say yes. Instructors teach native students to perform scientific and mathematical calculations as participants survey boundaries and assess water quality. They use writing skills to produce professional reports and media releases.  

Fortunately, rural schools are natural sites for practical education. Low student numbers guarantee involving every youngster in activities from growing and preserving food to publishing documents to performing maintenance tasks on facilities and vehicles to using CAD to design untold possibilities. Many districts have construction programs that produce tiny homes to full-size residences.

The challenge requires systems to teach fundamental as well as trade specific skills. Individuals need a springboard to further academics or to occupational training. Schooling shouldn’t limit possibilities; it should expand them.

While big cities create magnet schools to provide such offerings to select students, rural communities can educate every child in such a way that honors knowledge, interests, work, and promises little towns have skilled laborers to make their world operate.

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Rural Medicine: The Best


During four decades of living in Kansas, our family, like most in the region, has spent time recovering in a local hospital. Those visits provided an opportunity for reunions with acquaintances and former students while they helped us heal. Recently, Mom was a patient for 11 days in a rural hospital. Several weeks of outpatient therapy and treatment helped her rebuild strength and coordination. After watching these meetings between mom, me, and past pupils or friends, my brother who lives near a large Texas city commented several times that if he needs to be hospitalized, he wants to come to our hospital. He mentioned several times how lucky we are to have people who know us caring for our mother.

Part of our story involved a 911 call and an ambulance. Mom’s primary care provider showed up with the ambulance crew who arrived swiftly, assessed the situation, and applied necessary heart rate and oxygen monitors. Mom who was distressed to be not only ill but in need of EMT assistance was relieved to see that familiar face and hear his calming assurances. I second her feelings.

Once in the emergency room, nurses, physician assistants, and doctors coordinate efforts with lab and x-ray techs to identify specific patient needs. Sometimes this means staff members are on call at night or over weekends. In a scary situation, it’s a blessing to have someone you know caring for your loved one. Seeing a long-time friend’s wife, who’s also the mother of former students, smile as she collected Mom’s lab work soothed my spirit.

These little reunions occurred time after time during our loved one’s hospital stay. Former students are now registered nurses, and it’s a thrill to see them as adults in their professional roles. As their teacher or coach, I’d seen hints of their future talents. How gratifying to watch them in action as they inserted or removed IV lines, gave breathing treatments, monitored Mom’s vitals and medications, and assured her she was on the mend.

Many of mom’s friends and acquaintances also work at the hospital and made it a point to drop by and encourage her progress. When it came time to check out, these staff members helped us navigate paper work and follow up services. Their expertise helped us figure out the best plans for mom recovering at home. All made it clear we could call on them if we ran into questions we hadn’t considered. I can see why my brother was so impressed.

We’d been impressed with the quality of the food mom received during her stay.  When check out time neared, dietary staff introduced us to a reasonably priced meals-on-wheels plan which made the transition easier for mom. They even included me in their deliveries while I stayed to help her recover. It was assuring to know we had a tasty, well-balanced meal we didn’t have to cook during weekdays.

Support staff cheered mom on as she regained her health. Not only did she look forward to their smiles and cheery comments during her outpatient visits, I did too. As fellow community members, they offer encouragement and comfort to those struggling through unfamiliar medical issues.

Health scares are just that—frightening. Because we live in rural Kansas, local caretakers soothe some of that concern. My brother is right—such care is priceless. I hope our politicians help to keep our local clinics and hospitals open.

Friday, October 27, 2017

An Odd Combination



I love seeing leaves turn bright colors and magazines promote colorful pages full of Halloween costumes, d├ęcor, and party ideas. Shopping aisles full of colorful candy tempt my eye. Making this season even better, garden centers display net sacks filled with next spring’s tulips and daffodils. An Orscheln’s exhibit showcased 30 bulb packages, so after stocking up on October 31 goodies, I tossed one each of daffodils and tulips into my cart. I’ll tuck them into a fall garden bed and watch them bloom come May.

I’ve always loved growing vegetables and flowers. It wasn’t until I married that I planted rows of blossoms that start from a bulb. The first year was disappointing but those following provided multiplying reasons to love these perennials. As time passes, those bulbs double, quadruple, well—you get the picture. With patience, a skimpy beginning evolves into a blast of brilliant color waving in spring breezes. This motivates me to plant season after season.

Because marketers promote both Halloween candy and flower bulbs that must be planted before mid-November, the association tempts me to hand out flower bulbs to trick or treaters along with instructions to start their flower bed. Before long, good sense reigns and I instead stock up on sweets for costumed guests. However, I should mention that four-legged trick or treaters of the squirrel and deer variety do a happy dance when I throw a sack or two of bulbs into my cart.

Yes, these furry neighbors look forward to this time of year too. I swear squirrels hiding in trees a block away have spotting scopes they use to spy on where I tuck those tender orbs. Within a day or two, I find a couple of fresh plantings dug out and devoured. Once nothing remained but loose dirt—the bulbs vanished like the ghosties who wandered up our sidewalk with bags in hand.

Deer do their damage later when tender leaves and delicate blossoms first emerge. While squirrels don’t discriminate between daffodil and tulip, mature deer have a more selective palate. I suspect yearlings don’t know daffodils disagree with their stomachs and sample a few until they learn better. Older ones leave turn their noses up. Tulips are another matter. Based on the number these gluttons eat, white tails and muleys consider them delicacies.

When we lived by Big Creek, I counted myself lucky if half my tulips made it to full bloom. I rarely worried about protecting them from the fingers of curious toddlers because deer beat our daughters to them every spring. Odds for a successful full flowering haven’t improved much even though I now live in town and our girls are grown. Apparently, hooved gourmands can’t resist wandering through swing set-filled neighborhoods. They’ve discovered residents landscape with tasty treats that turn their junket into a candy store visit.

Over time, my brain has melded Halloween and spring bulb planting into a combined experience. Be careful when you check your trick or treat bag.  I may cave and pass out next season’s blooms instead of the traditional Hershey bar or Kit Kat.


Friday, September 22, 2017

More Than a Thorn




As I mulled writing about devil’s claw plants for this week’s column, my thoughts skittered across a dozen bunny trails. So, hang with me. Folks who grow up on the plains frequently repurpose seemingly unrelated items into functional uses. Stephen Ambrose noted this ability in his book Band of Brothers. He praised the ingenuity of American farm boys who welded metal to fronts and undercarriages of tanks and other military vehicles, permitting them to plow open centuries-old hedgerows. Their problem-solving saved lives and permitted the U.S. front to advance across Europe. Though nowhere as dramatic as Ambrose’s story, I’ve watched friends and relatives turn what seems unusable into functional objects.

Consider those nasty stickers that thrive at the edges of corn and milo fields. Once they dry, they split into two wicked hooks that attack intruding humans and beasts. Like Norman hedgerows, this natural armament prevents hunters and farmers from getting where they want to go easily. When one embeds itself in the calf, ankle, or foot of you, your hunting dog, or livestock, it’s difficult to imagine them as anything but excruciating torture.

This did not hold true for Grandmother’s creative friend. Southwest Kansas has as many of these evil thorns as we have in Northwest Kansas, so this woman transformed them into art. She’d wander borders of fields carefully collecting them. Somehow, I never thought to ask how often they tore holes in her flesh. She’d dry them further and shake out their seeds so they didn’t expand territory before she turned them into magical creatures.

Following the summer molt, this artisan explored near the artesian well and other springs where a large flock of Meade Lake peacocks quenched their thirst. The noisy, pretty males dropped iridescent tail feathers. Instead of collecting them in a pretty container, Grandma’s friend recognized their potential for combining with her collection of devil’s claws to create tiny replicas of exotic birds.

Somehow, this craftsperson stabilized each massive thorn so it stood on its own. Then she trimmed blue, turquoise, and green feather eyes to fit inside the now dry claws. Satisfied with their fit, she glued each one in place. I know she spent time on this because they survived each of us grandkids’ close and frequent inspection. I’m guessing more than one adult handled them as well. When she finished, she had folk art renditions of courtly birds who dance prettily with fanned tails.

I looked forward to visiting Grandma and Grandpa’s each year for many reasons, but one was to see the new little peacocks lined up on Lottie’s shelf. Granddad had already introduced the grands to his favorite birds and entertained them with his imitation of the males’ obnoxious call. This combination made it easy to fall under such a beautiful creature’s spell.

The carefully crafted peafowl imitations in Gram’s house changed my perspective about thorns. A local artist’s imagination and skill increased my appreciation for beleaguered farm boys’ ability to adapt equipment and win WW 2. Funny how something as simple as creating folk whimsies out of what most consider trash connects dots across time. Head down the hole, bunny. Don’t come out until next week!

Friday, September 1, 2017

Good for Body and Soul

As daylight wanes and nights grow longer, neighborhood kids return to classrooms. While much of these kiddoes’ work involves the three Rs combined with social studies, science, technology, art, and music, don’t forget all-important recess. Seeing little ones walking to school made me wonder if youngsters still love to jump rope as much as I did when I headed to school, pig-tails bouncing and dressed in plaid dirndls and black and white saddle oxfords. While I loved learning to read and figure math problems, I adored breaks where we took turns turning the rope for one another and jumping in time to catchy rhymes.

As a youngster, I never considered the history of my favorite playground activity, but after some research, I discovered it’s been around more than a while. That’s not surprising when you think ancestors had to deal with vines, fallen trees, big rocks, and deep ditches. The ability to leap high and far made a difference between eating and being eaten our DNA contributors.  I’m guessing this aptitude is programmed into bone and muscle, even if we haven’t consciously developed it.

Somewhere over centuries, folks learned to weave lengths of cord and then turned that object into skill training for boys. By the 1600s, painters captured scenes of children jumping rope on Europe’s cobblestone streets. Soon afterward, Dutch immigrants brought the game to America, where English settlers titled one activity Double Dutch. I bet that rings a bell with older readers.

Yes, those of us who attended elementary school from the 40s through 60s recall gathering a minimum of three participants—two to turn long ropes in opposite directions and one to jump into the spinning midst while also reciting a memorized verse. If you were lucky, friends spun those lanky cotton twists at a speed you could manage without hurting yourself.

Once you’d developed stamina and agility, the chants required the performance of tricks while simultaneously leaping over cement-slapping cordage. My favorites included, “Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear turn around, Teddy Bear Teddy Bear touch the ground…” and “Not last night but the night before 24 robbers came knocking at my door. I asked them what they wanted, and this is what they said: Spanish Dancer do the splits, Spanish Dancer do the twist, Spanish Dancer turn around, Spanish Dancer touch the ground, Spanish Dancer go out back, Spanish Dancer please come back, Spanish Dancer read a book, Spanish Dancer 1, 2, 3, …” and continued till the jumper missed or got tired. Girls interested in romance could skip rope while counting the number of Cinderella’s fella’s kisses.

What good memories! We thought we were just playing while, in reality, we refined coordination and agility and practiced counting skills, verse memorization, and turn taking. It didn’t take new kids long to learn that they had to play nice if they wanted to be included.


I know modern youngsters participate in Jump for the Heart and other physical education class challenges. I hope my little grandchildren have the chance I had to join friends on the playground and take turns either spinning ropes or jumping in the middle of crazy egg beaters. It does them good physically and socially. 

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Biggest Party of the Century


 

By the time this column hits the paper, the much prepared for, long awaited solar eclipse will be history. Most who traveled distances to share the moons total blockage of the sun  will either be home or well on their way to sleeping in their own beds. Folks living in the path of totality will be cleaning up after their guests and evaluating the success of their preparations for the big event. Some will simply enjoy returning to a sense of normalcy.

Many communities in the 14 state path of totality, meaning the moon completely obscures the sun, have spent the past two years planning for an influx of visitors who will require food and shelter as well as specialty eye glasses to protect their vision while gazing at this astronomical extravaganza. Shrewd business people have relished a marketing opportunity never seen before in their lives. Lodging sites and restaurants have advertised their services for the past 12 months. Despite increased rates, many are booked with waiting lists. Creative types are selling specialty t-shirts, jewelry, funny photos (the Marysville Black Squirrel in eclipse glasses), and other ephemera to local and tourists who join their celebrations.

Though the song says, “Dance like no one is watching,” this historic occasion is a time to move like everyone is watching. In some cases, that will be true. Many media outlets, including National Geographic, plan to film the actual eclipse as well as local activities that include everything from kid karnivals to car shows to concerts. For some tiny towns, this is a chance to focus the eyeball of the world on what makes them special.

This unique opportunity offers professional and citizen scientists a chance to study everything from cosmic data to animal responses to the eclipse. One meteorologist in Colorado provided a link so those interested could share their observations.

Speaking of observing, one friend headed to Oregon where she’d be one of the first to view the eclipse on American soil. Several others intend to double their pleasure while savoring more than two minutes of Totality near Grand Teton National Park. They sandwiched this once in a lifetime experience between stunning sunrises over some of the most majestic mountains on the planet.

Another lady told me she was heading to Marysville, KS, where she’ll enjoy a shorter sun blockage but  with the famous black squirrels. A fellow history buff is aligning past and present by viewing the eclipse from an ancient Pawnee campground in Nebraska. What a way to embrace two interesting experiences.

As for me, I now live smack in the path of totality. I’ve got my eclipse glasses along with extra water and toilet paper, just in case tourist numbers exceed expectations. It’s crazy to think so many people are willing to plan vacations around an eclipse, but then again, it’ll never occur again in our lifetimes.

I’ll enjoy nature’s big production. When it’s over, I’ll relish life returning to normal—whatever that is.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Hard Times, Strong People


Right now, Kansans who live anywhere near Wakeeney can only shake heads and wring hands. As they survey profound destruction wreaked upon homes and farms by gust-driven ice missiles the size of baseballs, they reveal the tenacity of prairie residents. They don’t lament, “Woe is me.” Instead, they count their blessings.

More than one battered resident has remarked that they lost property, but no one died. Even in instances where people lost livestock or pets, they express gratitude that family members are well. I can relate. I was relieved to hear my own mom’s voice telling me she was okay after that monster storm battered her house and yard.

Via radar, I watched that white mass layered in purples, pinks, and reds as it cut a swath across Western Kansas. I called Mom to be sure she knew it was coming. She didn’t need me to tell her. Her Nex Tech device alerted her to danger so she was heading for shelter.

Knowing she was protected inside her home comforted me.  At Brownie Scout camp decades before, we faced an evacuation through golf-ball size hail. I recalled welts and bruises ice balls rising on young campers and couldn’t imagine facing even larger wind-driven projectiles. After I saw storm-damaged vehicles, windows, and roofs, it was clear anything alive and outside suffered trauma during that assault.

A friend posted the storm in real time on Facebook so I imagined everyone experiencing that icy barrage felt like they were entombed in a continuously battered barrel. It had to be the closest to war that citizens who’d never served in the military experienced. Mom confirmed this when I contacted her following the storm.

Afterwards, the real ordeal began. As people inventoried damages, they found shattered windows, punctured roofs, damaged siding and fences, destroyed lawn furniture, naked trees, and vehicles pocked with more dents than a golf ball has. Some even discovered that the knife-like wind flipped trailer s, trucks, and grain bins topsy-turvy. It stripped fields of ripening grain to toothpick-like stalks.

While those viewing devastating photos bemoaned their friends and loved ones’ fates, I saw so many grateful responses. Caveats such as “Others had it much worse,” or “It can all be cleaned up,” echoed through social media.

A friend with his own troubles helped Mom patch her broken windows. A cousin with carpentry experience drove over two hours the next morning to seal a roof so punctured it could function as a colander. He found a reliable repair company to restore her property. His guidance is a blessing because he has insights the rest of us don’t.

My friend on the farm who noted that others had things much worse than she did brightened lives when she posted a story about her Great Pyrenees pup that found a storm-battered dove and carried it to her. She protected it and watched to see if it would mend enough to fly away. Distant and close friends smiled when she reported it flew off despite significant feather loss.


Right now, it’s hard to think about normal for folks living in this battered region. But like that dove, life will take off. 

Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Great Plains and Small Town Hearts


Over a decade ago, I attended a National Endowment for the Humanities Seminar titled The Great Plains: Texas to Saskatchewan. For five weeks, Tom Isern guided 20 teachers as they read and analyzed literary and historical texts, discussed conclusions, and visited iconic sites to better understand what it means to live on the plains.

One identifying characteristic of this land is its vast horizon with few vertical interruptions such as trees or skyscrapers. That distinction found its way into pioneer diaries and journals as early travelers moved from coves and hollows where tree groves cupped around them, making them feel secure as a babe in its mother’s arms. That sense of sanctuary vanished for those entering the Great Plains as my mom who worked at the Meade County Courthouse in the 60s discovered in early immigrant records. Many were institutionalized when they couldn’t cope with open space and frequent wind.

Fellow seminarians from other regions shared that the plains’ vistas disquieted them as well. Their responses reminded me of a Japanese exchange student I took to Oklahoma City. On our journey, she exclaimed repeatedly, “Why don’t you build cities in this land? Why don’t people live here? You should use this space.”

For those accustomed to much sky and little upright interference, outsiders’ viewpoints challenge us to consider where we live and what it means to be a plains person. Recently, I’ve traveled western Kansas’s isolated highways, stopping to explore almost-ghost towns like Densmore, Ogallah, Clayton, and Levant that once boasted thriving communities.
 Those isolated miles of asphalt stretching infinitely over hills and valleys bring a smile as I think how these trails confuse those who believe all Kansas is flat. Frequent high spots permit travelers to see across entire counties. Imagine Indians and early explorers standing on these ascents to view scores of buffalo, deer, elk, turkey, and antelope. In all directions, they saw a rich land that could feed everyone who crossed it.

Crumbling remains of once well-built churches, multi-story brick or stone schools, plaster and lathe homes that housed growing families, as well as peaceful hilltop cemeteries remind us that hopeful hearts believed in this abundance. These little hamlets every 15 to 20 miles across the prairie remind us of Jeffersonian Democracy in action. Here families worked soil, tended businesses, worshipped God, and educated children to create better lives.

When folks gravitated from these self-sufficient villages to cities, they lost something. These hamlets tied people to the land that fed them, schools required students to participate in declamations, plays, music, and sports; churches cared for not only spirits but also for physical needs of residents. These communities developed well-rounded citizens who united to survive. 

In forested regions, close-growing trees hold one another upright when the wind blows. In mountainous landscapes, one rock supports another. Nature doesn’t offer such protection in the open plains, so humans must sustain one another. Neighbors become one another’s rock, cove, hollow, and grove.

When I recollect that seminar and a place I call home, I acknowledge lifestyles change. Not everyone can live in self-sufficient villages, but every Kansan can celebrate open space that reminds us this rich land sustains many and offers space enough to teach us to look out for one another.



Friday, July 28, 2017

Tomato Twister II

Growing vegetables and flowers on the high plains of Western Kansas requires eternal hope much like a child’s expectant, devoted belief in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. Because we trust, we will harvest succulent, homegrown vegetables and fruits. Each spring gardeners across this region sift through garden magazines and seed catalogues or visit local garden shops with a gambler’s hope that this will be the year.

Eleven years after moving to our limestone hilltop, payday arrived. Yes, Virginia, that garden will produce a bonanza harvest. 

Due to a combination of timely rains and chicken poop, we had a dream tomato harvest--this despite hail that totaled our roof and left tender tomato plants shattered and broken. Despite the setback, vines began producing at the end of July, only a bit later than they might have without Mother Nature’s challenges. Produce was an understatement. The plants burgeoned with softball-sized fruits that tasted like captured sunbeams and covered chins and necks with flavorful juice.

That led to a dilemma. We had a small, raise-bed plot due to our topsoil- challenged circumstances. Based on past plantings, I’d left plenty of room between seedlings so they could stretch, grow, and still leave space to harvest ripe tomatoes.

That year’s timely, ample rains and the perfect addition of cured chicken droppings inspired legendary vine growth. The intertwining plants were over three and half high by three and a half feet wide. That’s a minimal estimation since it’s hard to tell how tall the plants might be if they weren’t weighed down by humongous orbs. I couldn’t get through that green jungle without playing a contortionist game.

My visiting mother explored the maze and discovered scores of ready- to-pick tomatoes. Other than the fun of digging hills of potatoes, I don’t think there’s much my mom likes better than finding every ripe tomato on eight very crowded, over-grown plants. She turned into a tomato General Patton as she stood outside the fenced garden and directed the placement of my feet and hands so I could pluck every mature fruit she’d spied. 
           
“More to the left, down a few more inches, don’t step too hard with your right foot, stretch, can’t you see it, oh look, there’s a great big one on  the other side of that plant, watch out, you’re bending that branch, oh can you get all four of those and pass them to me….”

I decided I was playing garden “Twister.” My limbs knotted so I barely kept my balance. However, in the real Hasbro game, you don’t have to worry about destroying producing tomato plants. The worst you can do is bruise a fellow player or black an eye.
           

By the time I followed all Mom’s directions, we’d filled a five-gallon bucket two days in a row. Taking our harvested trophies into the house, we rinsed, blanched, peeled, and quartered them until I had six  large freezer bags of ready-to-turn-into-salsa frozen tomatoes. I had to recover from that spine-twisting garden game before I could lift the jar-filled canner from the hot stove.  

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Pests Everywhere You Go

It’s the time when heat and pests aggravate the best of gardeners. It’s hard to keep tomatoes setting fruit when days and nights break record temperatures. To compound matters, grasshoppers and tomato hornworms appear and gnaw tender fruits, leaves, and stems to little nubbins. Plains green thumbs frequently face daunting challenges. So do horticulturists everywhere, I’ve learned.

Trying something new, I experimented with a high altitude garden in the Rockies. Of course, that means inhaling thinner air, but cool mornings and nights compensate for short breath. Despite planting later and facing shorter harvest dates, I sweat less and face fewer pests. Or so I thought.

 No one told me about picket pins, Wyoming rodents that love cruciferous veggies. Since this is an experiment, I rented a community garden plot. I figured I’d learn from locals used to the altitude and temperatures. My 8 x 4 foot raised bed came filled with fertile soil just waiting for me to show up with trowel and seeds. In no time, tidy rows of kale, kohlrabi, lettuce, spinach, radishes and onions absorbed soil nutrients, spring rains, and sunshine. I patted myself on the back, thinking my mountain garden would escape difficulties I’d faced back home.

Once sun warmed the earth in this raised bed, greens grew thick and plentifully. In no time, we enjoyed fresh spinach and lettuce, crisp radishes, and crunchy onions. It was lovely to harvest veggies that didn’t have a single beetle or grasshopper bite taken out of them. My pleasure didn’t last long.

Within days, something had nibbled away at kale and kohlrabi planted near the garden’s edge. I looked for insect droppings but found none. A high fence around the garden prevented trespassing deer so I couldn’t imagine what devoured my dream harvest. It was certainly healthy because it consumed entire rows of healthful greens.

Finally, I caught the thieves. Bigger than chipmunks but smaller than prairie dogs, they were speedy rodents. I learned they’re ground squirrels that natives call picket pins because of their tendency to stand up straight outside their holes , looking like stakes that keep a horse from straying. They also really like cruciferous vegetables.

A fellow gardener lost her cabbage plants to the hungry hordes. Yes, hordes. These creatures reproduce like rabbits so scores of them call the hillside near our fenced plot home. While deer can’t leap over the ten-foot fence, these intruders have no trouble sneaking between posts or under gates. I caught one perched on the wooden edge framing my rented garden. He unhurriedly nibbled what was left of my last kohlrabi plant before scampering out of reach. I swear he winked when he left.


Unconcerned with his human visitor, he didn’t run until I swung a canvas garden bag his direction. Ironically, this guy and his buddies have done far more damage than any grasshoppers or hornworms that visited my Kansas gardens. The verdict is still out about exchanging high plains planting for mountain tilling. What I have figured out is that no matter where vegetables grow, there’s a pest waiting to snatch them from my plate.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Weaving Past and Present


Articles and activities celebrating the 150 anniversary of Hancock’s War and the development of both Ft. Hays and Hays City have dominated the media. Those living in temperature controlled homes and driving vehicles down paved roads and highways easily forget what this region was like 1800 months ago. If you want to peek at prairie life then, read letters Dr. Theophilus H. Turner sent from Fort Wallace in 1867. To do so, link to Kenneth Almy’s journal article, Autumn 1987 Kansas History http://kshs.org/publicat/history/1987autumn_almy.pdf.

Dr. Turner was an easterner who served as a medical doctor during the Civil War. After mustering out in 1865, Theophilus re-enlisted in the army and found himself stationed on the frontier at Ft. Wallace, which is near Kansas/Colorado border. Little except the cemetery of that fort still exists, but pictures and drawings reveal a hospital, officers’ quarters, stables, supply, and administrative buildings. It was likely the most developed community on the plains between Fort Hays and Denver.

Dr. Turner, or Thof as family and friends knew him, relished life on the prairie. He enjoyed hunting and wrote that he’d hunted buffalo, ducks, and geese soon after his arrival. His early education prepared him to observe life beyond civilization. He remarks on the differences between white and native hunting practices. He remarks on the white’s wastefulness. In a letter to his brother, he explains three Indians spent the night with him and other officers in their quarters. He notes his guests were mystified by photographs, especially of people staying in the barracks with them. He commented, “a photography establishment among them would be a paying institution.”

Not only did he enjoy hunting and studying native culture, local geology intrigued him. Despite bad weather and Indian danger, Thof and Scout William Comstock rode over the country, noting landscape features and discovering marine fossils. One of these finds near nearby McCallaster Butte in what is now Logan County later fueled heated public disagreements between famed paleontologists. E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh.

Dr. Cope determined that Thof’s dragon, the 40-foot sea creature Turner and Comstock recovered, was an Elasmosaurus platyurus. When he assembled bones Turner found north of Ft. Wallace and sent to him, he mistakenly determined this was a long-tailed, short-necked creature. Marsh, his competitive colleague, corrected him, which led to the virulent disputes that constituted the infamous Bone Wars.

Unfortunately, Theophilus’s life ended soon after he retrieved and shared his ancient sea creature. He died at Ft. Wallace of acute gastritis in 1869. Before his death, he and Dr. Cope corresponded frequently. Fortunately, someone discovered those long missing letters as well as the ones Turner wrote to his family in time to enhance the Academy of Natural Sciences 1986 Discovering Dinosaurs Exhibit.


Currently, a group of local historians is filming a documentary about Dr. Turner and his life at Fort Wallace. Interested readers can keep up with their progress on the Facebook page, Thof’s Dragon. It weaves history and science from the past into the present, forming part of the tapestry we call Kansas.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Toad Buddies--More than Meets the Eye


           
While my sixth grade classmates loved listening to our teacher read Wind in the Willows, I found it silly. Toads talking and acting like people, no way. This attitude toward anthropomorphic creatures was a childhood peeve. I wanted critters au natural.

To this day, I find stories about talking animals silly. Despite my curmudgeonly attitude toward this popular genre, I like toads. Fortunately, summer provides daily opportunities to observe toads residing in patio planters and garden beds.

Looking at a toad, you wouldn’t think it overly bright, but one summer, two caught my attention because they were so clever and entertaining.

Before the solstice officially arrived, these fellows demonstrated their smarts. Our section of prairie made growing anything a challenge. Instead of investing in a big flowerbed, I decided a few well-chosen pots with bright blooms would make it seem summery without demanding water necessary to grow a lush flower garden. These neighboring green gents quickly determined which pots stayed cool and damp longest and moved in. Initially, they lived separately, one in my mixed bloom bucket and the other in a geranium pot. 

As May days lengthened and warmed, the geranium toad must’ve investigated the mixed bloom pot because next thing I knew, two amphibians rose, gasping for air, out of the same toad hole when I watered. They dug their cavern deep enough one could rest on the other’s head while leaving the top toad covered to his bulging eyeballs in potting soil.

For a while, they found their bliss in the mixed bloom pot, but as summer grew hotter and drier, both toads abandoned it for my herb garden. That soil must’ve stayed cooler, maybe due to the insulating brick border. Watering time became an adventure. I never knew where I’d find my garden buddies.

In addition to requiring cool, damp living conditions, these guys exhibited hearty appetites. As a result, their bodies grew wider and longer than my palm--a result of their canny hunting skills. 

While other toads in our yard gathered nightly under the yard light, these discovered the much closer patio light drew insects equally well and didn’t burn nearly as many calories making the journey. Patiently, they waited until evening temperatures dipped before emerging one green amphibian limb at a time from moist earth. Then they let the beam from the porch work its magic. 

One night, I interrupted their fashionably late supper to see why they were so plump. Both warty lads had rooted themselves directly under yellow lamp rays, gobbling beetle after beetle as freshly toasted insects sizzled and plopped to the patio. While I watched, these big boys didn’t move more than a couple of inches as they went through the equivalent of a twelve-course meal. I wish I'd stayed long enough to see them lug distended, white bellies back into the flower pot  where I found them the next morning.

As much fun as I had watching those toads, I may give Wind in the Willows another chance. Obviously, there’s more to that story than I realized in sixth grade.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Ol’ Swimming Hole


When the calendar flips to June, small town youngsters know it’s time to spend days at the local pool. Decades ago, this wasn’t a water park with a variety of fountains, burblers, and lazy rivers. It was a shallow baby pool and the BIG pool where water depth varied from three to twelve feet. It meant gutters to cling to when you first learned to swim in the deep end. It meant belly busters that made those tanning on the hot, cement deck groan in unison with divers who didn’t get quite into position to slice painlessly into the water. Talk to any adult who lived near a pool in western Kansas and watch their eyes light at the memories. This was the place to be whether you were three or sixteen.

To this day, I still see that cinder block bathhouse and smell bleach-scented locker rooms where we showered before entering Meade’s summer hot spot, the public pool. Lifeguards collected fees at a sun-warmed metal counter. From that point, males turned left and gals right into dressing rooms. Then everyone hotfooted across a sizzling cement deck where moms in sunhats watched youngsters, teens mooned over one another, and school age kids dare one another to jump first into frigid water. Accompanying shrieks of glee echo in my mind.

As kids, the blind hollering game Marco Polo was our chosen activity if we weren’t challenging one another to swim across and back without surfacing for air. The person designated IT, closed his or her eyes and maneuvered about using sound to locate and tag other players. A few minutes as the pursuer made you wish you had dolphin-like sonar.

Tiring of the chase, we tested our lungs. I still feel the sensation of mine screaming for me to surface. I ignored it and kicked even harder to reach the concrete ledge. Once there, gasping survivors clung to the rough concrete lip and refilled aching air sacs.

Accomplished underwater swimmers who’d crossed the pool and returned without taking a breath next challenged one another to climb the high board ladder and dive into the deep end. More than one youngster discovered the ascent wasn’t as scary as the board’s end, where they gazed into crystal blue water 10 feet below. Those who steeled themselves to face that plummet hoped they entered hands first. A minor shift meant excruciating pain. You knew you were okay when you saw smiling lifeguards still perched on their stands. Lucky divers swiftly surfaced, sputtering in front of laughing friends.

While the pool challenged adventuresome young swimmers and teen boys, it provided a stage for maturing females to display their charms. They sucked in stomachs and applied baby oil mixed with iodine over skin to enhance tans. Those with perfectly teased doos made sure their hair didn’t muss despite others’ efforts to splash them. Despite wishing they could join taunting males grabbing knees to create massive cannonball waves, they posed prettily on beach towels, cheering on favorite performers.


During summer, the pool was the town social magnet. Scents of chlorine and suntan lotion drew even the faint-hearted. Memories and legends waited to be made. Drive by your local watering hole and note that some things never change.