Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Things We Keep

Tim O’Brien, a favorite author, wrote a powerful collection of short stories about his tour of duty in Viet Nam. He titled it The Things They Carried. Every time I read it, those young men who walked daily beside death remind me that humans treasure the logical and illogical. The personal items these soldiers added to already heavy equipment loads reveal that humans make room for talismans connecting hearts and memory. This trait isn’t singular to warriors. Those packing moving boxes must choose what to purge or save. What we keep tells our story.

We’re downsizing for the second time in five years. I hope our daughters appreciate that we’ve given away, donated, or sold numerous earthly possessions, saving them hours of labor when it’s time to move us into long term care or the cemetery. That said, we still own more than when we married four decades ago. After another move or two like this, I’ll have unloaded anything I never use as well as items of only sentimental value. During this process, I’ve discovered freedom exists in jettisoning belongings I think I might need vs. those I actually utilize. While I’m not yet a minimalist, I’m getting there. Why keep four pretty platters when one does the job?

Unfortunately, some belongings defy logic. I’ll never have a newborn baby again. I don’t require 35-year-old infant dresses. Yet, several went in the save pile. The moment I opened that crumbling box, impossibly small clothing transported me to those first days of motherhood when everything was so scary and miraculous. Looking at tiny dresses that fit our daughters for one or two wearings, I swear I felt the weight of little girls nestled in the crook of my elbow. Who knew that gingham and lace was a time machine?

A similar experience occurred as I opened a chest full of afghans and baby quilts my grandma and mom knitted, crocheted, embroidered, or cross-stitched. Even without the sensation of knobby yarn or tidy stiches beneath fingertips, I visualized these beloved women sitting in their favorite chairs, watching Lawrence Welk or visiting as they created family heirlooms. A person can use only one coverlet at a time, so a cedar chest protected them for posterity. The future keeps getting shorter, yet I still haven’t used all these treasures.

Who moves worn, scratched pans? A crumbling handle on its last leg and with more dents than a golf ball reminds me of decades of homemade mashed potatoes and chicken n noodle dinners. Whipping up a fresh batch of spuds in that shabby container works better than consulting a medium to connect me to the grandma who taught me to cook. Decrepit as it is, that well-used cookware goes with me.

Tim O’Brien’s characters carried girlfriend’s panty hose, letters, photos, and other non-essentials into battle. Until I’ve moved a few more times, baby dresses, handmade blankets, and Depression-era cookware will make the trip as well. My heart’s not ready to let go.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

What’s the Real Tumbleweed Capital?

Several years ago, mom gave me a sweatshirt advertising Hooker, Oklahoma, as the Tumbleweed Capital of the world. After a recent drive across the Oklahoma and Texas Panhandle, I’m certain Hooker is not the only center point of Russian thistle abundance. Winds that day blew an average of 40 mph so we saw droves of prickly Russian immigrants racing pell-mell across three states. Fence lines trapped enough to fuel miles of potential prairie fire. Clearly, this transplant’s adjusted well to arid western soils.

These herbaceous invaders adapted to the Great Plains environment better than many homo sapien immigrants who hit American shores during the same era. The tumbleweed’s human counterparts often left for easier pickings that included more moisture and less wind. This forb, however, took root and multiplied like creatures mentioned in biblical plagues. It prefers disturbed soil—so farmers breaking virgin grassland and then abandoning their efforts unintentionally supported the hardy newcomer. Aridity doesn’t hurt them, and winds strong enough to deform trees and make flags fly at 90 degree angles guarantees each plant sows its 250,000 seeds.

Think of that--one plant produces several hundred thousand potential offspring. Scientists have documented how many actually take root, mature, and reproduce. By the 1890s, researchers reported the first of these Ukrainian hitchhikers arrived in Scotland, South Dakota, in the 1870s. Before 1900, the government assigned U.S. botanist Lyster Hoxey Dewey to investigate this curse to western agriculturists. Dewey, wrote, “The rapidity with which the Russian thistle has spread, both in infesting new territory and in thoroughly covering that already infested, far exceeds that of any weed known in America.” According to writer Doug Main, the only two states that don’t have tumbleweeds are Alaska and Florida. That’s a record-breaking invasion!

The day I drove across the Panhandle, herds of rolling thistles bounded over barbwire fences, surging across roads. This dark force made me think of millions of roaming bison 150 years ago. Due to sheer size, these mammals halted train travel. The tumbling seed-sowers I encountered didn’t halt traffic, but they slowed it.

Due to wind speeds, thorny orbs, small and large, rocketed across flat grasslands. I was glad to travel protected in a vehicle and not afoot like pastured cattle or wild critters. A thistle scouring of this magnitude would leave a being picking stickers for weeks. Unfortunately, these dried plants came in numbers so enormous I couldn’t avoid whacking one after another and dragged several beneath my vehicle until friction shattered and scattered them.

While I smacked some, others slammed into the sides of my Toyota hard enough I felt vibrations through the steering wheel. I’d like to think these collisions halted their seed dispersion, but that’s a vain wish. In fact, I’ve probably introduced Oklahoma thistle DNA to Kansas varieties.

Hookerites may disagree, but that sweatshirt’s claim to fame limits the scope of this invasive plant. The entire Great Plains is the Tumbleweed Capital of America.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Worst Brings Out the Best

While last week’s high winds were unpleasant for anyone living in Western Kansas, Oklahoma, or Texas, they changed life for many. Our hearts ache for families learning to live with only the memory of lost loved ones, ranchers who’ve lost livestock, and those who’ve lost homes and possessions. Despite  the tragedy, Plains people  once again saw that catastrophe reveals our best nature.

Social media offered a peek into individuals, families, and communities who share this landscape. It’s comforting to see relatives supporting loved ones who traveled wherever necessary to battle raging flames or evacuate threatened residents. One post shared a photo of a young girl who fell asleep praying for her daddy and his squad working 24/7 outside of Hutchinson. You know she was concerned, but her peaceful face and clasped fingers revealed such deep faith. Her innocent confidence reveals how those affected by this firestorm will rebuild their lives.

In addition to individuals, communities contributed help. In short time, groups organized supply drives, collecting water, Chap Stick, eye drops, clean socks, and other necessities to support those willing to leap into an inferno. While many battled flames, others took their places at work or at home, so firefighters could focus on immediate dangers. Hundreds wrote heartfelt thank yous to men and women who dropped what they were doing  to protect distant towns. That said, you know these warriors are sad about homes and property they couldn’t save. Supporters' kindnesses offer a balm for those heartaches.

In other photos, junior high and high school students readied sleeping and eating areas for evacuees in gyms and cafeterias. These kids modeled what they’ve seen parents and grandparents do repeatedly during crises. They made certain people had shelter and food. School buses transported nursing home and hospital patients to safety. In this case, that wasn’t always enough. Due to uncontrolled winds and flames, some evacuation centers relocated. You didn’t hear complaints. People continued ministering to others experiencing the worst time of their lives.

Now that the most urgent firefighting efforts are winding down, truckers are hauling hay and fencing materials into fire-ravaged regions. Churches, clubs, and other organizations are collecting supplies and funding for those who’ve lost everything. First responders and others are reviewing their procedures. Those who weren’t affected are wondering how best to help during future events. Many are donating to local fire volunteer fire departments to enable them to repair and replace necessary equipment.

No matter what, it’s good to know we live where people sacrifice to keep one another safe. It’s worthy to note that residents support firefighters, first responders, and law enforcement. We let them know in various ways that their and their families’ sacrifices are appreciated. As more stories emerge, it’s clear that living on the Great Plains is a challenge. Those we call neighbors make it worthwhile. 

Some Things Do Get Better With Time

In the rush of daily life, it’s easy to forget indoor toilets are relatively new to housing construction. Those who’ve never relied on an outhouse don’t understand how relieved residents were when they had a solid privy resting on a concrete foundation. Thanks to Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, 600,000 American families enjoyed stable, sanitary facilities behind their homes.

The WPA focused on projects that improved life. Few communities could fund band shells, picnic houses, and swimming pools without federal dollars and the necessity to provide jobs. However, those weren’t the only projects that enhanced the USA. Health organizations had insisted from the early 1900s that Americans needed higher sanitary standards. Shallow pits and poor outhouse drainage led to epidemics related to fecal exposure. Scientists determined that concrete vaults at least 6 feet deep reduced such risks. This was a perfect goal for this department.

Most of us have visited WPA pools, buildings, and other monuments to hard work and hopes for better times. Depression era toilets add to the projects local labor teams and resources constructed. With so many built across the country, remains of facilities must still exist in western Kansas.

This information might help find them. Bureaucrats selected a standardized design that involved a poured underground vault planned so the top served as the outhouse foundation. Wisely, someone included a surface level concrete pot and vent hole. Cement flooring and seat construction offered better sanitation than wood construction did. Wisely, this design required screened vents to prevent fly-borne disease. Such models significantly improved public health.

While the vaults and seats were standardized and mass-produced, the actual wooden shelter depended on local materials and preferences. The plan called for a 4 x 5 frame and braced wooden door. While building crews followed similar plans, researchers note structures varied throughout the country.

Although labor teams installed over 600,000 outdoor commodes during that era, few remain. If you want to visit a Kansas WPA outhouse, you must get permission to search old homesteads for concrete foundations. Once you find one, don’t fall in the hole.

 If seeing the wooden “house” satisfies your curiosity, a landowner in McPherson County moved one onto his property years ago. The Sherman House Bed and Breakfast in Elk County transported another one to a site near their flower garden and named it “The Flower Pot.”

A trip to Franklin County Indiana offers the opportunity to check out ten such relics. For your reading pleasure, their museum has an edition of the “Indiana Community Sanitation Program Regulation Manual, Sponsored By United States Public Health Service, Indiana Division of Public Health Works Progress Administration.” This would be helpful if you want to install a reproduction on your homestead. In addition, they’ve posted official outhouse maintenance rules tacked to a surviving privy door.

Personally, I want to observe one of these as an historical object. While WPA construction has many charms, I’m happy with my indoor toilet.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Sandbox Bliss

Temperatures dropped and snowflakes flew long enough to blanket our yard and the field behind it. Despite a chilly reminder that winter isn’t quite over, I have spring on my mind. Recent days warm enough to wear short sleeves reminded me to deliver our grandkids’ sand and water table so they could enjoy it over spring break. Our youngest grand has already tried out hers out. Seeing a photo of that little blonde dumping shovels full of sand into her bucket recalled memories of her mom and aunt’s happy hours in their sand-filled tractor tire.

While we weren’t farmers with our own big equipment, friends who made a living driving a big John Deere offered us one of their gigantic discarded tires. We rolled it to a spot close to the back door so I could do dishes or cook while listening to our youngsters’ cheerful chatter as they sifted sand, wetted it, and used old measuring cups and bowls to mold castles and other fanciful structures inside their three-foot-wide rubber moat.

When I had time, I joined them in creating architectural wonders or baking luscious desserts concocted from ingredients available within their tire and the surrounding yard. Each of us selected a dainty plastic pan to form our pastry. Once we finished packing dampened dirt, we’d slowly remove our creation, hoping it didn’t crumble during the process. Using leaves and flowers we found in the yard, we decorated our culinary delights. The girls were wizards at designing inedible works of art. As good as these looked, only a chicken pecking for a little gizzard grit would enjoy eating them.

Every now and then, I’d hear wild shrieks and race outside to see sand flying. This signaled the girls had found a live bug in their dirt. Shovels flew like windmill blades to eject unwelcome intruders. Enough insect protein found its way into the sandbox so I didn’t have to worry a wayward amphibian would starve if it managed to fall or be placed inside that deep walled tire. I did intervene the year baby toads infested the yard.

Unbeknownst to us, the girls collected dozens of miniature toads and corralled them in their sandbox. These mottled -skinned creatures dug themselves shady holes and waited for flies and beetles to land within eating reach. At dusk, I discovered our daughters leaning over the tire to say good- night to their captives. This population was too great for the available resources so I intervened and made the girls relocate their livestock to a less restrictive environment. As they carried handfuls and pocketsful of toads to freedom, I heard them talking to them like I talk to my dogs. Gadfrey. Toads as pets in the sand box.

I suspect our grandkids will soon weary of bright colored sand and water tables. They live on ranches where discarded tractor tires abound. It won’t be long til our daughters join their tots to once again bake sandy confections and check for insects and toads. Heck, Grandma might have to see if she can still whip up one of those pies.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Learning to Read a Vanishing Landscape

Archeological training teaches students to look for human-altered landscapes. This includes out of the ordinary coloration, unusual shapes or formations that don’t match surroundings, or obvious construction such as cliff dwellings. Southwest Colorado’s sagebrush plain schools the eye to distinguish differing hues of greenery indicating soil disturbances or recognize mounds with donut-like collapsed centers. In western Kansas, students of vanished cultures work harder to identify signs of earlier occupation. That said, historic and prehistoric signs tell stories for those who care to read them.

A trip over Hwy 9 between Highways 281 and 183 is a good place to look for historic construction slowing melting back to the earth. This two lane parallels the old Missouri Pacific Railroad that wound through Gaylord, Cedar, Claudell, Kirwin, Glade, Speed, Logan, Densmore, and Edmond. Each little town had a depot where farmers picked up deliveries or shipped grain, cattle, milk, and other produce. In most places, those distinctive rooflines have gone the way of horse and buggy. However, locals in Cedar and Kirwin preserved their whistle stops in bright yellow that provide interesting photo opportunities.

From the beginning of this route, observers note an undulating rise out of place from the surrounding prairie. If they recall their history accurately, they realize Jay Gould’s Mo Pac crossed here, stopping at each hamlet. Humans and beasts scraped surrounding soil to build the foundation supporting those clacking wheels. Folks with metal detectors and permission to go on private property occasionally find their detritus at sites where these workers rested and ate. Until the line folded, train cars carried grass- fattened cattle and sun-ripened grain to market.

With such thoughts in mind, curious wanderers might turn off the main highway to investigate Kirwin Refuge. Just before their detour, those visitors passed well-constructed ductwork carved into a high hill’s base. Such conduits carried run off from the rail bed crowning the rise. After they turn, a straightway descending from the crown and vanishing into the west compels attention. It seems it has no purpose. Now a mowed bed bordered by wild plums, this was a section of the old track.

Over time, farmers have plowed portions of earthen foundations until they blend into surrounding fields. Inattentive passersby won’t notice the on/ off again appearance of the old Mo Pac. Then a couple of miles past Speed, a bridge abutment rising from the middle of nowhere draws attention. This structure is so out of place. Without knowing this was a once a busy avenue of commerce, curious sightseers leave wondering.

I hope that mysterious man- made formations will interrupt the rises and flats between Highways 281 and 183 well into the future. Historians and photographers, amateur and professional, can spend happy hours traversing what began as a game and Indian trail, evolved to a stage road to Colorado goldfields, then became a leg of the Mo Pac route. For now, it’s a quiet byway broken by unnatural colors and unusual formations out of place on a native prairie. Here’s to the stories those disturbances tell.

Skating: a Path to Great Memories

Those who’ve recently had to shovel snowy sidewalks probably aren’t thinking of these concrete trails in terms of fun. However, any kid who grew up near such a path knows it took little more than imagination to turn that simple structure into hours of fun. Old timers who let their minds wander down memory lane quickly recall happy memories involving metal shoe skates with keys.

The other day, my mom’s old sidewalk caught my attention. Time’s taking its toll on that decades-old fixture, yet a short walk along its divided squares triggered dozens of memories and the imagined sounds of metal wheels rolling across its gritty surface. I suspect more than a few old skate scars still decorate its mottled exterior.

I spent happy hours skating down similar lanes throughout my early years. I can still sense the feel of plopping onto a sun-warmed, pockmarked sidewalk while I clamped a pair of metal skates to my shoe soles. The length adjusted so a kid could wear them for two or three summers before needing a bigger pair. They came with a skate key designed to be worn on a string around the neck. That kept it handy to tighten skates after a particularly rough stretch shook them loose.

As a skater’s confidence grew, speed increased so trips around the block grew took less time. If several kids joined the fun, it looked a lot like later Roller Derby action on TV. Brave kids tucked elbows and squatted low to zip past slow moving friends. A neighborhood bully occasionally showed up and intentionally tripped skaters and sent them sprawling. Not every kid could respond. It took a cool and skilled character to fist fight on roller skates.

Unlike my experience with blocks of city sidewalks, our daughters grew up in a country home with a very short slab. To compensate, they adorned themselves in floofy tutus or their dad’s huge tee-shirts, turned on their record player, strapped on plastic shoes skates, and spun around our concrete basement. It lost much of the effect of whizzing down a city sidewalk, but they enjoyed hours of whirling around this makeshift rink. These practice sweeps prepared them for more fun at a real roller rink in a nearby town.

Mention skate rink and older people fondly remember weekend visits to the nearest one. It doesn’t take much prompting to get stories flowing. They recollect events like the Hokey Pokey, Limbo competitions, obstacle courses, and backward skating. One friend was a gymnast as a kid and loved doing backflips to astonish less agile participants.

The games were fun for everyone, but junior high and high school kids looked forward to the infrequent couple skates. For a few minutes, potential sweethearts could hold hands and circle a dimly lit rink. It would be interesting to learn how many romances began during doubles skating and then turned into long time marriages.

The old stories are so engaging it might be worth starting a skating resurgence both down the sidewalk and at the roll rink. Dig out those old shoe skates and keys; clear a path or an empty city building. Count on making great memories.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Best Bosses

I’m guessing a good number of readers in my age group, folks entering their 7th decade, grew up as I did, believing humans were intended to boss their pets. Over time, as I have, they’ve reinterpreted those early views and accepted that four-legged companions actually run our houses. 

A friend stopped to visit the other day. After we spent a couple hours catching up, she observed my little terrier sitting on my toes, staring intently at me. Unbeknownst to her, he was informing me it was nearly 3 p.m., aka his dinnertime. Noting his wrinkled brows and unblinking gaze , I excused myself to mix up his bowl of kibble. She teased that he had me well trained. I answered, “You have no idea.”

I’ve reluctantly acknowledged she stated pure truth. A fourteen-pound, thirteen-year old-canine dictates my actions from first thing every morning to mid-afternoon and just before bed. As soon as I awaken, his no nonsense path to the back door directs my mission to let this little guy and his furry, white sidekick outside for their morning constitutional. If I’m slow to respond, the toe-tapping pee- pee dance encourages me to attend to business. There’s no tolerance for this human to dress or brew coffee.

As the day goes on, my pointy-nosed guard dog perches at the edge of the sofa to survey the backyard. If he observes anything out of the ordinary—say a visiting German shepherd sprinkling his chain link fence or a brave squirrel creeping onto the grass—he races to my lap and implores me with sharp yips and pitiful whines to let him out to handle the situation.

Once he’s driven off the invaders, he directs his fuzzball partner to bark until I let them in. Once through the door, he examines the kitchen floor to see if I’ve dropped anything while he secured the premises. Usually, that’s a no, so he gives me the sad eye to tell me he’d really like a snack. If he happens to catch me eating a cheese stick, he plants himself at my feet until I give him and his begging buddy a nibble.

How this unschooled pooch tells time, I’ll never know. But he does. Once I wash and put away lunch dishes, he monitors house and yard--that is--until the little hand creeps close to the three and the big hand to the 12. Then this bundle of energy paces back and forth between his bowl and me. By 2:50, my self-ordained tyrant situates himself in my lap and begins a world-class stare down. If I haven’t looked at the clock, I know it’s officially doggy dinnertime.

If I want to read a book or write, I’m forced to serve my dictators . Both critters follow me to ground zero and strategically place themselves so I can’t leave the room until I’ve set their filled bowls before them.

It’s ironic I thought I’d train these dogs when they first moved in. I understand now that they meant all along to whip me into shape using those deep brown eyes and pitiful whines. I can’t imagine better bosses.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

A Recipe to Cure Winter Doldrums

Doldrums is a mariner’s term for windless conditions that becalm sailing vessels. For many, icy Januaries trigger a metaphorical emotional state. To help the winter-bound outlast every new year’s first two months, weather-induced blahs require creative solutions.

A friend inadvertently brightened this normally dreary season when she gifted me a copy of our church’s 1971 cookbook. Afterwards, I spent hours examining old recipes and familiarizing myself with  cooking preferences of women I’ve recently met as well as their mother’s who’ve passed. In short time, wimpy spirits vanished. Instead of longing for spring, exploring new ingredients and ways to cook familiar ones energized me. 

Decades ago, churchwomen in Meade gave me my very first hometown cookbook as a shower gift. Sorting through it to plan meals for my new husband taught me much about these friends’ culinary practices. In addition to following their instructions to bake irresistible breads and savory casseroles, I discovered a sour cream blackberry pie so delicious family still requests it at holidays.   

Over time, my collection multiplied. Favorites include worn books with spidery handwriting noting someone’s Aunt Gertie’s favorite meatloaf and similar comments. Despite loving these tried and true treasures, I don’t ignore brand new editions full of gastronomic delights.

 I find amazing batter-spattered texts while attending garage sales and auctions. Online ads offer the best avenue to seek specific titles. It took patience to find an out-of-print People Chow copy, but one eventually turned up. Newspaper ads and church bulletins highlight newcomers hot off the press.

Local collections display favorite regional foods with recipes unique to ethnic settlements. Area books frequently include instructions for making homemade sauerkraut, pickled chicken feet, blood sausage, or bean and noodle soup. A treasure I bought in Wilson contains familiar bierock recipes but also suggests a half-dozen ways to make kolaches and tomato noodles unique to Bohemian cooks.

A New Mexico purchase intrigued me with recipes requiring beef stomach as well as 1000 uses for red and green chilies. An addition from a mining town in Idaho offers pasty (not pastry) recipes to make meat pies that miners carried to work inside the nearby mountain. It’s also clear that huckleberries are the fruit of choice for jelly and pie makers in that town.

Speaking of fruits, few prairie cookbooks fail to include more than one way to make sandhill plum and chokecherry jellies or fruit leathers. Cooks can also find guidelines to prepare pheasant, venison, and occasionally raccoon, possum, or rattlesnake. Good local cookbooks explain how to make indigenous ingredients edible.

Ironically, recipe ingredients may be the same from one town to another, but titles can vary. A nearby village listed the same ingredients and instructions for concocting a dish residents called party potatoes. A burg down the road labeled the same item funeral potatoes. Guess it relates to when you eat it.

For a month that began uninspired, it’s a wonderland of possibility now. More than a dozen new recipes beckon. First, I’ll explore a locally favorite butterhorn roll formula. The tidy note written next to a previous owner’s favorite promises “A delicious batter for sweet rolls as well as dinner rolls.” I can’t wait to find out.

Friday, December 30, 2016

A Wish that Worked Out

This time of year is a good time to remember traditions that remind us of generations who came before us. One of the best culture keepers in this region was an Ellis County historian named Lawrence Weigel. He visited my classes each year in the early 90s to share tales about Volga German customs involving Christ Kind, Belznickel, and New Year wϋnsching  (winching) traditions with high school freshmen. Nodding heads confirmed that some youngsters’ families still practiced these Old World activities. At the same time, puzzled faces and blank looks revealed that others were clueless about such customs. My own Volga German family didn’t pass on these stories so I was thrilled to learn them. Every January 1, I think of Mr. Weigel’s anecdotes about families calling on one another on the New Year to share wishes for health, long life, good luck, peace and health, and eternal happiness after death.

As only a beloved grandfather figure can, our lecturer described a festive day of visiting, feasting, and a bit of tippling. Part of this practice involved parents teaching youngsters to recite a wish that ran something like this passage I found online, “ Ich wϋnsche euch ein glϋckseliges Neues Jahr. Langes Leben. Gesϋndheit. Fried und Einigkeit. Und nach dem Tod, ewig Glϋckseligkeit.” As families traveled door-to-door or farm-to-farm, children lucky to be the first visitor or a beloved relative earned a coin for their efforts along with a handful of nuts or sweets. I’ve listened to more than one elder tell stories of reciting this rhyme to collect spending money. Recalling such memories always brought a sparkle to their eyes and a lilt to their voices.

According to Mr. Weigel, this occasion was also a day for young men old enough to marry to court available local maidens. If I recollect correctly, he explained the Romeos announced their arrival with a shotgun blast to the sky. I’m not sure how romantic that was, but young women possessing several color-coded ribbons eagerly awaited noisy suitors. I can imagine girls biting lips and pinching cheeks to increase their rosy tint on an already cold morning. I’m guessing a certain amount of shy smiling and foot shuffling took place as well since adults and younger siblings stood nearby to supervise the show. Girls would pin their good will tokens on callers’ lapels, saving a particular color for a special fellow. I’d love to hear one of these stories firsthand.

Storekeepers certainly would’ve encouraged this custom since so many families produced much of their only holiday food rather than buying it. Despite their customers’ self-sufficient natures, demand for ammo and fripperies at the local mercantile would’ve increased merchant bank deposits during days leading up to this holiday.

This time of year on social media, I see folks sending one another this New Year greeting. I hope area families continue to share customs that crossed the sea and traveled overland with their ancestors. These are little traditions, yet they remind us of brave forebearers who left the familiar to offer descendants a better life. Many of us can honestly say this centuries old good luck wish has worked out well.

Friday, December 23, 2016

An Unexpected Cooking Lesson

It’s curious how common items either go out of use or their intended purpose alters. One of those is the nutcracker. Most people nowadays think this term refers to a seasonal ballet where they might enjoy watching children or grandkids dressed up as old-fashioned ornamental German nutcrackers wearing military-style hats or as dainty sugarplum fairies. Others may store treasured family heirlooms until they retrieve them to decorate their tree. I recently had occasion to realize that actual nutcrackers frequently found in auction boxes serve a real purpose.

As a kid, my family bought whole nuts at Christmas time and offered them in a decorative bowl along with a metal pincer-style device and a silver pick for getting at hard to reach nutmeats. This practice continued a custom both my parents grew up with during the Depression. Their frugal families passed on a ritual long followed by their ancestors.

At our house, one of those traditions included filling Christmas stockings with an orange, an apple, and either some unshelled peanuts or whole nuts. Knowing many generations practiced this holiday tradition reminds me of a time when fresh fruits and nuts were luxuries one enjoyed only on special occasions. Despite knowing I’d see nuts every holiday that required a special opener, I never considered the nutcracker tool an essential kitchen utensil until I recently received a 5 lb. bag of fresh pecans.

An Oklahoma friend lives near the many groves in Eastern Oklahoma and shared his bounty. When I first saw lumpy grocery sack, I imagined it full of ready to eat pecans. When I opened this treasure trove, I realized my mistake. This freshly picked harvest had gone through a mechanical cracker to make it easier to extract the tasty center. However, I had to peel away shattered outer husks and separate the two pecans halves each shell once protected.  

It didn’t take long to understand why nuts are holiday treats and why some people esteem pies, cakes, cookies, candies, and butters made with them. As a person who considers walnuts, pecans, peanuts, cashews, and almonds edible only when served by themselves but not in baked goods, I missed this message growing up.

After I spent a couple of hours freeing nutmeats from shells, I understand why I find nutcrackers at almost every auction I attend. They were essential in old time kitchens. Cooks didn’t go to the store to buy a sack of already shelled nuts. They roamed creek banks to harvest nature’s encased proteins and then spent hours extracting meats from hulls. Knowing how my grandmas made use of everything, I’m sure they saved the inedible material to create fabric dyes or enrich garden soils.

This lesson humbled me. I’ve enjoyed preparing family recipes from scratch for decades. I never considered how I take for granted buying already-ground flour or churned butter quarters at the market. This nutty experience reminded me that not-so-distant family cooks would consider such easy access to ingredients an extravagance.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Temperature Is Relative

It’s funny how different bodies react to weather this time of year. Take a gander next time you’re in a public parking lot and study folks wandering to and from vehicles. You’ll see eccentric sorts wearing Bermuda shorts and flip-flops like it’s the middle of July. Someone else will cruise from warm store to vehicle in jeans and a sweater-- lips and hands rosy with not a goose bump to indicate it’s below freezing. The woman shuffling to the car parked next to you might be covered Eskimo style so that you can’t tell a human is bundled inside that ski mask, sweatshirt, parka, snow pants, and boots. During your watch, you’ll see every fashion variable in between.

Each family has a mixture of these thermo-types to establish the range. Polar avoiders hate being cold and layer outdoor wear from top to bottom even on mild days. Auto-insulated folks, on the other hand, travel with a heavy coat in the car in case of bad weather but actually put it on only once or twice a winter. As long as those individuals wear long sleeves and pants, they don’t mind the cold wind’s bite, and they stride happily in brisk breezes that cause flags to fly at a 90 degree angle.

How two people with the same genes can have entirely different internal thermostats is a mystery, but it happens often. Schoolteachers see examples daily. Siblings arrive at school-- one in a tee shirt and no jacket while brother or sis sports long johns peeking from edges of multi-layered sweatshirts and jeans. 

Knowing this, remain alert to see who thrives in frigid weather. These folks are never happier than finding themselves somewhere that cool dawns and dusks require folks to wear jackets. Once temperatures go arctic, these individuals are in hog heaven. They come home from hunting, sledding, or feeding cattle with fogged up glasses, icicles hanging from eyebrows or mustaches, and Rudolph-style noses. As they peel away outer layers of clothing, they complain the house is too hot at 68 degrees.

Polar avoiders need to take advantage of such friends when temps plunge. Those early shiverers can stir up soup and cinnamon rolls while frostbite addicts cover heads with Stormy Kromer caps, zip insulated Carhartts, slip into heavy-duty mittens, and grab a big shovel. After an hour or so, the heat lovers can glance outside to see cleared driveways and evenly cut trails to garages and sheds. True cold devotees stay out long enough to scoop good size openings in the yard where pets can relieve themselves. They scrape snow and ice to the point wimpier loved ones could leave coats in the car because they won’t be outside long enough to need them.

This brings to mind a Wyoming road crewman. On a sizzling August day, he answered the question, “Do you prefer working outdoors in summer or winter?” After a moment’s thought, he grinned and said, “Winter. You can always add layers. In summer you’re limited to what you can take off.”

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Stories Are Important

I don’t know that celebrate is the right word for what Americans did December 7th, but we certainly should remember that date. Those who read news or social media were reminded throughout that day to recall military personnel who faced multiple enemy attacks at Pearl Harbor 75 years ago. History lovers followed up with FDR’s response to this event. What we can do less of these days is listen to stories of living survivors.

Western Kansas men and women answered duty’s call that December day. Hardly a family lived that didn’t send victory mail to loved ones serving in the European, African, or Pacific theaters. Those soldiers lucky enough to return lived among us. They labored as farmers, ranchers, teachers, entrepreneurs, preachers, law enforcement officers, bankers, and other occupations. They were our parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, spouses, friends, and enemies. Some shared recollections so others could better understand sacrificing for the greater good.

 As time passes, more of these heroes become memories. Over 16 million Americans served during WW II. By 2016, the Department of Veterans Affairs calculated that approximately 620,000 of those individuals still survived. As 2017 slides into view, that number drops daily. Unless families presently have a soldier in service, it’s difficult for children to understand the intensity that turned so many youngsters just out of high school into valiant warriors.

For us whose loved ones, friends, co-workers, and teachers wore a WW II uniform, their legacies influenced our lives. I grew up listening to an uncle’s stories of surviving the Pearl Harbor attacks. A Kansas farm boy, he never expected to experience such carnage when he joined the U.S. Navy in 1940. He returned to start a family and teach school. Two generations later, his granddaughter bravely served in Afghanistan.

Another uncle performed his duty on ships guarding the Pacific. He wasn’t a talker, but his service made his family proud and inclined my dad, his younger brother, to join the Marines and serve during the Korean Conflict. That, in turn, inspired later relatives to wear USMC insignia as they protected their country.

Getting out of uniform didn’t end a soldier’s service. Many filled post-war teaching positions. History classes in the not-too-distant past  included lessons from people who fought in hedgerows and survived torpedoed ships. I found t those instructors’ knowledge so valuable that when I began teaching, I asked my students to interview former veterans. Among those stories, we discovered a resident who’d seen the atomic bomb explode. Another pupil’s neighbor helped liberate Dachau. Interviewers learned a survivor couldn’t talk about some experiences without choking up even after 45 years.

These stories provided primary sources that taught the importance of protecting freedoms many take for granted. Suddenly, we’re discovering this information now exists only in books or on film. I hope Americans never forget such difficult times or citizens who left loving homes and comfortable lives to face unrelenting enemies. Their remaining messages remind us to capture the experiences of still living veterans. What they share is profound, necessary, and fleeting if it isn’t recorded.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Out of the Comfort Zone—or Joining the Local Christmas Cantata

I grew up in mostly metropolitan areas. To give you an idea of what that means, my high school graduating class included over 1000 students. In that world, youngsters don’t participate in every program that interests them because competition is stiff and resources are limited. While cities offer exclusive options, small towns require inhabitants to survive outside comfort zones.

During my school years, I played competitive sports, but I never participated in a music program. Yep, I was a BAD singer. This meant I never experienced the effort and cooperation it takes to produce a musical extravaganza. After contributing to my small town’s Christmas cantata as a narrator, I realize performers as well as audiences enjoy unexpected blessings. Individuals experience life more fully because they participate. They discover they’re necessary to the group’s success even though they aren’t as good as they wish they were.

I learned this early in my teaching career. Every student had to play sports and join music so our 1-A school could field teams or have a band. I know there were students who sang every bit as badly as I do, but they got better because they had to. How do I know? Because I coached youngsters who weren’t natural athletes, I learned that by the time they played several games, everyone mastered skills enough to contribute. This also rings true for those joining small town Christmas presentations.

Our director’s a wife, mother, and businessperson who serves along with her mother-in-law every year to extract maximum ability from locals willing to involve themselves in the project. She directs both bell choir and singers who perform beautifully year after year. I still can’t sing, so she and the choir invite me to narrate each holy season.

Since I never enjoyed such experiences growing up, I’ve learned much. Putting on a program requires tremendous effort and commitment. Volunteers leave dishes in the sink to practice for months prior to the final performance. Bell choir members concentrate and replay pieces until they function as a single musical unit. To complicate matters, each plays at least two differently toned bells in every song. It would be difficult to learn one new tune, but this group masters many.

A variety of our community members make up the choir. Young and seasoned-- from students to house wives to farmers to professionals, they gather  starting in early autumn to polish infrequently used skills. Seeing these folks uptown, who’d guess they are sopranos, altos, tenors, and baritones gifted enough to solo. From the narrator’s podium, I watch neighbors evolve from tentative, shy performers to confident, bold professionals who lift audience hearts on performance night.

If I didn’t live in the hinterlands of Kansas, I’d never have worked with so many dedicated fellow residents to produce a celebration not only of Christmas, but also of the best small towns offer. Anyone willing to participate belongs.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

An Unexpected Bonus

Two days before Thanksgiving, I heard distinctive turkey talk in my back yard. Tiptoeing, I crept with camera in hand to the deck so I could watch and photograph 20 Rio Grande poults, jakes, and adults. This flock wandered into town from a not-too-distant creek to inspect lawns and flowerbeds as their   keen eyesight located insects slowed by chilly morning temps. As I enjoyed this unexpected surprise, I realized that it’s only been in my lifetime that Kansans get to enjoy such a scene. From the early 1900s until Kansas Fish and Game reintroduced this once native species in the 60s, turkeys were extirpated from our landscape.

This conservation experiment took time to get off the ground. Early transplants got off to such a slow start that even in the late 70s, biologists were still trapping Texas and Oklahoma gobblers to rehome in Kansas. My husband helped release some these captured birds in western Kansas. I recall the thrill of spotting a flock foraging along a creek or river because seeing them was so unexpected.

In the beginning hunting seasons lasted only days and few drew licenses. Over decades, units and seasons expanded until almost all Kansans can now turkey hunt during spring and fall. In some units, hunters can buy more than one permit to harvest what some consider the best meat they can put on the table. Bird numbers are strong enough that modern nimrods can opt to stalk with bows, shotguns, or muzzleloaders.

While not every farmer appreciates this creature, many, like our former neighbor, are glad to see turkeys roaming wild again. That gentleman saved garden and table scraps to toss into the barnyard to attract them. The little girl who lived down the road used this flock as models for her 4-H photography projects and earned at least one first place ribbon for her pictures of nesting turkeys.

Supporting this game animal doesn’t benefit only our diets. Across America, wildlife departments have reintroduced these birds so that their populations have grown from 1.3 million to well over 7 million nationally. This has led to more than a $10 billion economic impact nationwide, with Kansas receiving an ample share of funds.

If you have a hankering to provide freshly harvested turkey for Christmas dinner, it’s not too late to buy a license and join the second half of the fall hunt. Camoup and pursue your bird in units 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6 from December 12 through January 31, 2017.

Maybe wild turkey feasts aren’t your thing. You can still enjoy a country drive to watch flocks forage along creeks and edges of fields. If you’re out at dusk, you might see these ungainly birds fly to roost in an old cottonwood tree. Seeing something built like a feathered basketball with a long neck and wings take to the air offers its own entertainment.

Thank goodness our state Fish and Game Department joined the national movement to restore turkeys to our state. Kansans can enjoy hunting, photographing, or simply watching them parade through the countryside or town.

I Nearly Didn't Make It

Those who live far from four lane highways and interstates must consider a new issue when we travel to distant appointments. In the past, you could figure a mile a minute on open highway in good weather. Tweak that for town speed limits and stoplights. Only during harvest season did you expect to deal with slow moving, oversized vehicles. Nowadays, travelers heading south down Highway 183 from Phillipsburg anticipate a slow jaunt not behind just one wind tower or blade in tow, but several. Fortunate drivers will cruise at a crawl until they pass those behemoths.

Recently, I’ve experienced instances heading to an appointment in Hays where I found myself thrilled that my family trained me to leave well ahead of time no matter what the reason. Here’s the dilemma. How early does one need to depart when caravans of wind turbine carriers take over a road designed for 65 mph traffic and roll along at 40 to 50 miles an hour?

The other day, my dentist worked me in for an emergency appointment at noon. I calculated mileage and slowdowns through the five communities along my path. Under perfect conditions, I’d arrive in 1 1/2 hours. In less than optimal circumstances, I’d need another 15 minutes, so I left 35 minutes early. You can imagine my chagrin when I spied slow-moving vehicle flashers at Glade.

Initially, I figured I’d pass the warning vehicle, turbine truck, and the pickup ahead of it with blinking yellow lights before Stockton’s city limit sign. No worries. I had yet to note two additional long, white, ultra-wide pillars and their escorts. My hopes sank when those became visible once I reached the region’s highest hill. Darn! I counted fourteen vehicles trapped ahead of me amongst these diesel tortoises’ creeping procession. I looked in the rear view mirror and noted at least four agitated drivers behind me. Nineteen of us were murmuring unkind thoughts about the economic benefits of wind generated electricity.

At Stockton, my bladder announced the arrival of that morning’s coffee. I’d passed one turbine team so there was no way I’d listen to nature’s irritating call. By Plainville, that organ screamed on high alert, but by then, I’d overtaken the other two units. Uncomfortable beyond belief, I writhed in my seat and set the accelerator for the speed limit plus tolerance once I exited town.

That 24 miles to Hays was miserable. Side roads called me to pull over until I glanced in my rearview mirror to see the bright orange end of that huge pillar trailing behind. In response, I squinched around until I found a tolerable position and maintained speed. No way was I letting either that convoy or a trooper slow me again.

By the time I reached Wendy’s, I had just enough lead for a pit stop that would permit me to stay ahead of my nemesis. I reached the dentist with two minutes to spare. That’s a close call for someone who’s been taught to arrive at least 10 minutes early to all life events.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Old Ideas Have Merit

Even though I clerked, waitressed, mowed, and lifeguarded to earn my way through college, I had only one career-- an English teacher. My husband’s path was similar. He worked first as a fish culturist for Wildlife and Parks, but when a game warden position opened, he applied and served in that field until he retired. Imagine learning during the last few years I taught that students currently graduating can expect to have 25 different occupations throughout their professional lives. How do you prepare youngsters for that?

 My colleagues and I offered students a foundation in basics along with practicing the ability to adapt. A task that seemed daunting until I discovered something important during genealogical research. Heavens, most of our ancestors’ jobs haven’t existed for generations or aren’t in demand today. Those dead relatives often recalibrated in mid-life when lost markets or industrial revolutions collapsed livelihoods.

Through family stories, I knew my genepool often worked as teachers, preachers, and storekeepers. Their other occupations surprised me. One fellow was a wool comber. I had to think about this until I realized he lived in rural England before factories existed, during a time when wool or flax was raw materials for clothing. Apparently, his task involved combing freshly sheared and washed sheep hair so that spinners could perform their magic. A weaver friend works with this fiber from the time it’s harvested until it’s turned into yarn and understands what this job entails. However, it’s her hobby, not her livelihood.

Another relative listed his occupation as tanner. This made sense since I know a professional who prepares elk and deer hides for those who make either furnishings or rendezvous apparel from scratch. However, he’s the only one I know specializing in this lost art on a grand scale. Besides, it’s a sideline to his western décor business.

A distant great-grandpa designated cooper as his profession. I looked that one up because I wasn’t sure what it involved. Before cellophane, plastic, and paper packaging were common, coopers either constructed or repaired barrels that families used for storage and shipping. While modern ones are molded from plastic of some kind, wood deteriorates. Finding functional containers at antique sales isn’t at all common while locating a cooper to repair one is nearly impossible.

One ancestor was a glover during Massachusetts’ early years. I wondered how he earned enough to support his large family before realizing colonial Americans wore gloves far more often than present day ones do. He’d have maintained a supply of sturdy hand gear sewn from hide as well as finer dress wear created from supple nubuck or suede. In addition, women bought cotton and wool gloves for fashion and warmth. Since he paid taxes and left a will, he must’ve had ample business.

A common factor in my predecessors’ jobs was that few required college degrees and most demanded specific skills a person could apprentice to learn. According to Mike Rowe’s Foundation at, many youngsters sitting in desks today could fill thousands of available jobs if they trained for a semester or two at a vocational school rather than spending four years in college. Seems like old ideas still have merit.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

What’s Gonna Happen to History?

One of my favorite pastimes is using primary sources such as letters, diaries, old account books, and news stories to interpret the past. Learning about history directly from someone who lived it sparks an interest that brings that era to life better than any textbook can. You can imagine the fun a retired English teacher and self-professed Cather geek is having reading The Selected Letters of Willa Cather.

Once I got over the guilt of reading postings my favorite author never intended for public consumption, I’ve relished every letter. I particularly enjoyed those offering insights into O Pioneers! My Antonia, A Lost Lady, The Professor’s House, Song of the Lark, and Death Comes for the Archbishop.

Her business correspondence reveals how involved this artist was involved in everything from the selection of covers, paper, fonts, and artwork and fascinates me. More personal missives disclose that she loved the West and those who called it home. Here’s a woman who left Nebraska to spend most of her life navigating life in the world’s largest cities. Despite her urban prowess, she tells one mail recipient that she’s “just a corn farmer.” In other notes, she details Southwest adventures and how she hopes her novels set in that locale make its beauty clear to those who’ve never visited.

Her letters aren’t terse communications. She writes so that you sense you’re eavesdropping on private conversation. I loved when she explained how novels poured from her pen. In one passage she mentions how writing is akin to channeling as if she’s the receiver of otherworldly signals. Though she’s been gone decades, I feel like I’m chatting with a friend to learn how her artistic process works.

In addition to insights into this Nebraska novelist’s published collections, Cather offers tidbits about life in the early 1900s. Her readers view Pittsburg, New York, Europe, and Red Cloud to learn about theater, opera, magazine editing, setting up apartments, socializing, and eventually World War I through her observant lens. Her commentary about editing is so frank that I’m sure she’s spinning in her grave to think private words are now public. Her anecdotes about France after the war personalize that tragedy more clearly than anything except battlefield photos can.

As I savor this peek into the past, it makes me wonder what future students of history will lose now that so few of us compose beautifully written conversations with friends, loved ones, and colleagues. Digital contacts are typically brief and to the point, sharing few insights into a writer’s character. Besides, once a computer program is outdated, it’s difficult to access stored material. How many of us have floppy discs we can’t open?

It’s a thrill to crawl inside the mind of a writer I’ve loved since I was a teen. However, this time machine made of postal notes sets off noisy alarms. Good historical research requires access to primary sources. If we have no well-written letters and journals for future historians to examine, scholars lose personal perspectives into the era they study. What a loss!

Friday, October 28, 2016

A Belated Sort of Ghost Story

Compared with the thin-veiled night of October 31, the more flamboyant July 4th doesn’t seem much like a time to expect a haunting. That may be true in normal circumstances, but when you live in Ellis County where you’ve heard stories about the Blue Light Lady roaming rolling hills southwest of Hays, one day is as good as another to encounter disembodied spirits. Our grown daughters still recall the scare of their lives on rise overlooking old Fort Hays.

The little girls’ holiday began with bags of poppers and sulfurous snakes that stained our sidewalk black for months afterwards. After they shrieked at those exploding, powder-filled tissues and lit licorice nib-size buttons that wound into stinky coils, we cooled off at the swimming pool. Later, we cranked ice cream, fried chicken, and baked chocolate cake while my husband patrolled Cedar Bluff. He promised to get home in time to watch Hays’ firework show.

Early July means the sun doesn’t set until after nine, so our sunburned blondes were tired by the time their father came home. Hearing the door open, they wrapped themselves around his legs, hollering, “Fireworks!” He stalled them long enough to grab cold chicken and cake before piling in the car.

Instead of following the highway, my hubs told us he’d drive the back way, south of Ellis. Eventually, he took a dusty country road that eventually overlooked the festivities below our lonely hilltop. A game warden, he’d driven these county roads and knew exactly where we’d have the best view. As neared our destination, a niggling memory inched from the recesses of my mind. I recollected students writing essays about spotting the legendary Blue Light Lady near our targeted parking spot.

Those teenage stories often included realistic encounters with a wandering spirit. Despite suspecting that many such sightings were designed to trigger scared girls to leap into brave boys’ arms, I didn’t want to meet this ghost.

My husband dismissed my concerns with a big grin, and big ears in the back seat begged to watch the show from Blue Light Lady Hill. Apparently, all my loved ones were game to meet a disembodied spirit. I, on the other hand, had encountered a ghost or two and wasn’t eager to hang out with ectoplasm.

We put the car in park just after dusk and lowered windows to catch evening breezes. Immediately, mosquitoes telegraphed every nearby bloodsucking insect, alerting them that dinner had arrived. While smacking buzzing torpedoes, we talked about the nurse who cared for cholera patients at the fort and succumbed to the disease herself. According to the story, she convinced her husband to bury her near the hill where she wandered the prairie every day. All of us were sad to think about her short life, but the irritating drone of invading bugs and the first flashes of early fireworks preoccupied us.

As darkness deepened and exploding diamonds punctuated black skies, my daughters and I stared transfixed at the magic of gunpowder combined with colorful chemicals. Perfectly timing his treachery, our driver cried, “What’s that?”

Our eyes flashed to his corner. Horrified, we spied a monstrous hand covering the windshield. We shrieked like actresses in monster movies. The instigator laughed hysterically. He’d pulled a good one on his gullible girls.

He laid the groundwork by taking us to Blue Light Lady Elizabeth Polly’s old haunt. Then he encouraged our ghost story recollections. In the dark with showers of descending sparkles to distract us, the rascal slipped his long arm out the open window, wrapped it over the glass before him, and scared the peewadlins out of his daughters, wife, and a horde of mosquitoes.

I’m guessing Elizabeth Polly’s ghost laughed heartily at our expense that night. If we’d have quit screaming, we’d have heard her chuckles accompanying sounds of exploding fireworks and droning insects.

More Than a Privy

Several friends recently gathered for supper. One thing led to another once our stomachs were full of home-cooked food, and childhood recollections soon had us laughing aloud. We discovered that rural Texans and Kansans share similar tales, with those growing up in the country contributing more than one outhouse story. These memories triggered mention of the fancy Brooks Lake Campground outhouse, which, it just so happens, thrives under the care of a Kansas couple.

The term “fancy outhouse” generates several mental images. If I hadn’t seen this facility already, I’d envision the multi-level crapper at the Encampment, Wyoming, museum. Designers constructed that particular two-holer to accommodate DEEP snow. Designers built one toilet a floor above the other so that summer users accessed the lower level while winter patrons crossed towering snowdrifts to the now reachable second floor. I’m not sure how functional this was, but it was enterprising.

Brooks Lake’s fancy US Forest Service pit toilet began as a standard single seater with the expected signage you’d find at any campground. These rectangular government postings instruct you to close the lid following use or explain how to avoid bear conflicts. Typically, camp hosts clean these sites and stock toilet paper and hand sanitizer. However, the responsible parties at Brooks Lake exercised originality to make their facility unique.

 When we fish the nearby lake and stream, we encourage newcomers to take a camera along when nature calls. While our friends shake their heads in confusion before they open the privy door, no one leaves without snapping a photo to share with loved ones back home.

So what makes this potty stop without running water, heating or cooling devices, and only the most basic of paper products special? Initially, you note a cozy rug softening your entry. Then bright posters identifying local wildflowers and birds catch your eye. These lighten the mood of the imposing bear warning posters that intensify any outdoor experience in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, including a visit to the loo.

 Finally, guests find themselves examining a table displaying a wilderness lending library stocked with popular mysteries, romances, adventures, and science fiction along with magazines. Fellow campers add to this collection as they finish books and periodicals brought from home.

For fun, these clever camp hosts included an old rotary dial phone in their display. I suspect youngsters visiting this latrine have no idea what this is, but the older generation chuckles when they spy this out-of-place décor. One clever camper commented, tongue in cheek, on his USFS evaluation that the phone didn’t work.

I once chatted with the caretaker of this loobrary and asked what inspired his clever efforts. This fellow Kansan couldn’t recall the initial motivation, but he mentioned the result was that users kept the facility astonishingly clean. Ultimately, this made an unpleasant job easier as well as more interesting because these custodians never know what books, magazines, kitschy doodads, or funny comments they might discover tucked amongst their own contributions.

As a writer and former English teacher, I seek life truths in every day experiences. The veritas in this story is that anyone can positively affect another’s day, even while cleaning toilets. Who doesn’t love finding surprises in unexpected places?