Stilted Friendship

During the hot, dry days of late July, the circus bug bit me and my neighborhood cousins the year I was eleven-years-old. We had no interest in the lions, elephants or clowns. What fascinated us were the intriguingly dangerous skills of the tight-rope walkers, fire eaters and stilt acrobats.

Our interest in circus acts wasn’t prompted by a visit to a big tent show, but through the relatively new form of entertainment; a television special. My cousins had had a television for several years. My family only got one when my brother-in-law gave us theirs because he and my sister were moving to Germany for a military assignment.

In 1962 there was only one station available. Good old channel 7! I considered it was all we needed and memorized the evening programs for each day of the week. When my friends and I got together, we never had to ask, “What did you watch last night?” We inquired, “Did you see…?”

The day following the circus special, I hopped on my bike and peddled up the hill to my neighbor’s home. The three girls closest to my age were sitting under the shade trees in front of their house. After greeting them I gushed, “Did you see the tightrope walker last night? Wasn’t that neat? I want to try doing that!”

Alice, who was a year younger than me, enthused, “How about when the man swallowed the flaming sword?”

Our responses were, “Oh my gosh! I couldn’t believe it!”, “I wonder how that was done?” and, “It’s so hot today, I don’t even want to think about handling a flaming sword!”

Barb, who was a year older than me, ruminated, “The guy on stilts walked around and did things so normally, you’d never guess he was on them.”

Donna, who was my age suggested, “Flaming swords are out. So are stilts because we don’t have any. Why don’t we try tight-rope walking? I know where there’s a coil of rope in the shed.”

Practicing rope walking under the shade trees sounded like a good idea. Always the practical one, Barb ordered, “Tie the rope close to the ground. That way we won’t get hurt falling off until we get good at doing it.”

With great difficulty we tied the rope to two trees. Our goal was to have the rope tight like the clothes lines. The rope sagged more than we liked. We tried again and again, but couldn’t get past the wobbles. Even with a person on each side of the walker holding them upright, it was impossible to cross the expanse.

One of my older boy cousins came to watch for a while before smiling and pointing out, “It’s called tight-rope for a reason. To be able to walk on a rope, it has to be solid as the ground.”

That evening at the supper table, I told my family about how I had spent the day. My brother Billy said, “I can make you a pair of stilts. They’ll be more fun to play with than a rope tied between two trees.

True to his word, Billy found two five-foot posts that were 3 by 3 inches. He nailed sturdy foot rests on them 18 inches from the end and painted them the same red as our barn. They were heavy, but I was determined. Before long I was walking all over our farm yard.

I let my cousins know that I would visit them the following afternoon, so they would be watching for me. At the appointed time I got up on the red stilts and walked the quarter mile from my yard to their yard. Even the soft gravel on the side of the road wasn’t a problem for me. We had fun that summer taking turns.

Four years ago, when my brothers were no longer able to live on the farm, I cleaned out our family belongings so a new family could move in. When I found the red stilts in the garage, I had a strong urge to step up onto them and walk around. I knew how to do it. Stilt walking is like riding a bike; unforgettable. I placed them in the starting position and prepared to step up onto the foot rest.

Coming to my senses, I put them down. I was 65 years old and my knees didn’t work like they did when I was eleven. I could get hurt! In my mind, I recalled striding up the gravel road to surprise and impress my cousins, feeling totally grand.




Custard’s Last Stand

I rode through the countryside on the school bus for an hour, mesmerized by the other students who got off the and walked to their houses. At eleven years of age, this was my first experience riding a bus. I lived only three miles from school and this morning I was the last person picked up. That bus ride lasted ten minutes. This afternoon was a different story. Following the morning route, It appeared that I would be the last to get off.

Finally, it was my turn. The bus driver pulled to a stop and opened the door. I plodded down the steps into the fall sunshine. Tree leaves were just beginning to change. Crickets and other bugs were singing a September chorus in stands of tall grass. Summer wasn’t finished with the countryside, but my sixth-grade school year had started anyway.

Stepping into my family’s farmhouse, I gasped in surprise. My brother-in-law was crouched on the living room floor behind a television. We didn’t own a television! My neighborhood cousin’s family did, but I didn’t think my family ever would. As I watched, Bozo the clown flipped across the screen. Jim turned knobs to adjust the picture. After alternately buzzing and more rolling, the image finally settled down and stayed in place. Continue reading

Sunday Afternoon Oasis

I rushed around the kitchen preparing supper. My nerves were strung as tight as guitar strings. I didn’t know when it would begin, but wanted most of the supper prep done before then. Tammie, my two-month-old daughter began wailing before I had the potatoes pealed. Glancing at the wall clock I thought, “She’s starting early tonight.”

The pediatrician told me Tammie suffered from colic. He said eventually she would stop her incessant evening-into-the-night cries; cries that sounded as if she had great pain; cries that nearly drove my husband and me out of our minds.

Tammie had been born missing her fore arms and with a bleeding disorder. I was well past feeling upset about her missing bones. My fear at this point was that all her straining while crying for hours every day would cause an internal bleed. When I examined her in the mornings while she was calm, I noticed that her skin had freckles of broken capillaries from her waist on up. The roof of her mouth was bruised from suckling. Nothing was easy with this baby.

Dumping the unpeeled potatoes into a kettle with some water, I put it on the stove over a medium flame and went to scoop my infant out of the bassinet. I knew from experience cuddling, bouncing, back pats, diaper changes, sips of food or water wouldn’t calm her. Placing Tammie on her stomach on my shoulder, I trudged from one end of the house to the other. Walking reduced her crying a little, but she continued wriggling as though uncomfortable. Continue reading

Wooden Heart

Clouds sailed majestically across the sky like big white sea-going ships. Each cast large moving shadows on the roads and farmland below. I stood with my bike in the farmyard driveway watching the clouds and shadows, marveling at how slow the clouds seemed to move, while their shadows traveled more swiftly on earth.

Daddy’s first crop of hay was in the barn already and his corn was about ankle high. Summer vacation had started long enough ago that I’d forgotten school routine, but recently enough that I felt as if my free time still stretched long and deliciously ahead.

Hopping onto my bike, I peddled uphill towards my cousin’s farm. I found the three girls closest to my age under the shade trees in their front yard. Getting off my bike, I stretched out on the cool grass and asked, “Would you like to go for a bike ride with me?”

Barb considered the idea before suggesting, “It’s hot today. We shouldn’t go far and get overheated.”

Nodding her head, Alice insisted, “And I don’t want to take the road where we go down the steep hill. Peddling back up is murder!”

Getting onto her bike, Donna informed us, “I don’t want to take the road toward the highway, because it’s bumpy.” Continue reading

Literary Produce

The doorway into my imaginary home was the branch I used to pull myself up into the crabapple tree. The branch next to it was my kitchen and the branch beyond it, the living room. On the backside of the tree was the bedroom branch.

At the age of five, cheered on by my siblings, this was the first tree I had learned how to climb. For the rest of my childhood, despite climbing many other trees, the crabapple stayed my favorite. I spent hours in it, thinking, imagining, making up stories and eating frozen chocolate chip cookies I’d filched from the new chest freezer in our farmhouse basement. Each year, when my tree’s small apples had rosy cheeks, I’d sit on the kitchen branch munching on these close-to-hand snacks.

Like the garden of Eden, the farmyard I grew up in was filled with many beautiful flowers with names I learned as well as the names of my siblings. Flowerbeds bordered the front and back of the farmhouse where there was a shrine to the Virgin Mary. Lawn chairs and a lawn-swing provided wonderful places to sit. Continue reading

The Crossing

My brother announced after dinner that he was going to walk to the woods on our farm’s back forty. I excitedly begged, “Take me with you! Please? I promise to keep up.” Being nine-years-old, I no longer needed to be carried home as I did when I was five.

Moments later, equipped with apples to munch on, we left the muddy cow yard and turned down the cow lane. Wide enough for a tractor and farm wagon, this long narrow fenced area served as an alley for cows who wanted to go from the barn on our front forty acres to the woodlot on the back forty. A lush corn-field bordered the fence on one side and an oat field on the other.

I stopped to admire the yellow flowers of a tall, fuzzy-leafed mullein gently swaying in the breeze next to one of the fence posts. A red-winged black-bird swooped low overhead, scolding excitedly. My brother explained, “He has a nest nearby and doesn’t like how close we are. Let’s move on!”

I ducked and ran, swatting the air overhead in case the crazed bird tried to peck me. By the time we were several yards away, the bird had calmed down.

When we crested the hill, we saw the small creek with our field and woods lying beyond. I wasn’t as interested in visiting the woods as I was in visiting the creek’s two crossing spots. As I walked, I stared at the stream of water. My brother snapped, “Watch your step! You almost stepped into a cow pie!” Continue reading

Life Dancers

I spun from the refrigerator to the sink. Dumping a bundle of carrots on the counter, I twirled toward the stove where a kettle lid was jiggling noisily. My fifth grade daughter Tammie, sat reading a book in the corner of the kitchen. Ninth grader Niki, leaned on the counter next to the sink eating an apple.

Earlier, when I picked them up after school, I had asked, “How was your day? Tell me about it.” They’d each given me the typical non-verbal shrug.

I knew from experience that I’d opened a channel of communication. If I was patient and listened, by the end of the evening their experiences of the day would slowly unwind for us to share.

Tossing her apple core into the wastepaper basket, Niki proudly announced, “My gym teacher asked me today if I was a dancer.”

Looking up from my gravy-making, I inquired, “What gave her the idea that you danced?”

Niki answered with a chuckle, “She had the class doing stretches. I was able to do them easily. She told me people who dance are usually more flexible than those who don’t.” Drawing herself up as tall as she could, she proudly proclaimed in an exaggerated drawl, “I am flex-i-ble!”

Laughing, I instructed, “Ok, flexible girl…show me those stretches!” While I finished supper preparations, both Niki and Tammie were on the kitchen floor doing splits. Continue reading