I can’t believe September has reared its cool, crisp, leaf-changing face already. Where has the summer gone? I’ve participated in road races, had company, visited a friend in Colorado for a few days, taken photography classes, avoided cleaning my house, and spent four memorable days in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with my cousins. During one of our numerous adventures, my cousins and I were so fabulous and beautiful that one young comedian performing in the Blue Whale Comedy Festival at the Inner Circle Vodka Bar referred to us as the Golden Girls during his set. As he pointed at us, clearly the oldest patrons in the bar, the young crowd managed a few laughs as they turned to look at us and make sure none of their mothers were in the bar. At least I think that is what they were doing. Well, Mr. Comedian, let me take the microphone now and tell you a bit about us. You should only be so lucky to sit at our table.
First of all, we are a force to be reckoned with. Among the group, we’ve battled breast cancer, a brain tumor, the loss of a child, and the deaths of our parents due to various types of cancer, MS, Alzheimer’s, and other serious illnesses. If the worst thing that some punk comedian can come up with is to refer to us as “golden” because of our age, well, there’s nothing worse than the scorn and ridicule from one of those very “golden” girls. I won’t hold Mr. Comedian’s young age and lack of experience against him. I know it’s his job to insult people, but it’s my job to write about an experience and figure out what the hell happened. I admit that when Mr. Comedian walked past me with a smug little smile on his face at the end of the evening, my initial instinct was to slap him upside the head. It did cross my mind that assaulting a comedian in a bar might be something he was hoping for! Since I don’t remember ever watching an episode of the Golden Girls in my life, I wasn’t sure if I might be playing into some episodic fantasy of his. I sure wasn’t going to provide ammunition for his next comedy shoot out. My cousins and I walked out of the bar with our heads held high, and our tongues razor sharp with insults about comedians who aren’t particularly funny.
My cousins and I are all over the age of fifty. Perhaps we do resemble the Golden Girls of television lore. I have never watched the show, and I refuse to watch it now. I do know that as a collective group of cousins, we rely on love, our family history, a sense of adventure, and a glass of wine or bottle of beer at the end of the day as we celebrate with each other. A little vodka might be called for now and then, and a comedian that might actually be funny. As cousins, taking a walk down memory lane and telling true stories about our own mothers can be a lot more fun and entertaining than any joke or story Mr. Comedian would ever imagine or invent.
Margaret Lyn (my mother), Barbara (LouAnn, Amy, Audrey, Julie, and Sybil’s mother), and Jean (Teena’s mother) all raised some very fabulous women. My cousins and I miss our mothers terribly. They put the spine in our backbone. They created the funny for our funny bones. They taught us to love from deep within our hearts, and insisted on kindness to others as a ruling principle. My mother had a wicked sense of humor, and I think she might have taken that microphone from Mr. Comedian and said something truly witty and funny as a rejoinder to his weak attempt at insulting us. I realize that the television show the Golden Girls was fiction. Hell, I grew up in Dodge City, Kansas, and people still ask me if I knew Dorothy. Well, no.
I have lived in Michigan now for almost forty years, but my Kansas roots and my family were the foundation for the person I have become. When I get together with my cousins, we laugh, cry, and honor our mothers and fathers. We all have a great sense of humor, and we will laugh if a joke or story is actually funny. If the best joke telling that Mr. Comedian can come up with is to toss a weak Golden Girls lob at us as an insult, well, he might want to think of another line of work to help him survive his golden years.
In the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Butch tells Sundance that he’s “got vision and the rest of the world wears bifocals.” Bifocals, or not, vision is critical to anyone’s success. Different activities require varying degrees of vision, and on April 23rd, my “vision” skills were put to the test.
Early that morning, I tapped into my “do not break anything” vision skills. At the start of the Houghton Lake 5K Trail Run, my son and I, along with about two hundred and thirteen other runners and walkers, listened carefully as the gentleman starting the race gave us some advice. He warned us that we would be running through mud, puddles, tree roots and rocks (marked by orange spray paint), and “you’ll see.” Since Matt and I had both run the race the previous year, I wasn’t too concerned about the mysterious “you’ll see.” Instead, I found myself preoccupied pondering the presence of bears in the woods and my mostly rehabbed iliotibial band. One of my neighbors had recently told me that her daughter had photos of a bear wreaking havoc in her daughter’s back yard at Higgins Lake. I had visions of bears wandering away from Higgins Lake, swimming across Houghton Lake, and hiding in these particular woods waiting to pounce on unsuspecting runners. I reminded myself to stay in a pack with other runners at all times. The whoop-whoop sound of a State Police Trooper’s siren signaled the beginning of the race.
I quickly lost sight of my speedy son as he surged ahead. I kept pace with a large group of runners for about the first mile, and then I hit a section of very deep ruts. A large pile of cut timber lined one side of the trail, so I assumed the ruts had been caused by trucks and equipment. I lost sight of people in front of me, and I could not hear anyone behind me. I felt the slip-slap-slop of my hips trying to realign themselves after each awkward lateral move. As soon as the ground smoothed out, I picked up the pace as I avoided orange rocks and tree roots, crossed over swampy areas, hip-hopped over hula-hoop-sized puddles, and somehow prevented myself from falling when I tripped over an unmarked tree root. I crossed the finish line mostly intact. My “do not break anything” vision skills had guided me along the trail. It was time to head home and prepare for the day’s next event. My vision for a poem the previous year had led to an opportunity to read it in public.
When I was young, I never imagined myself as a runner, even though I racked up some blue ribbons at track meets. I stopped running when I graduated from my small country school and started ninth grade at the junior high in Dodge City, Kansas. I did, however, start writing at a young age, and I had visions of being published as early as my teenage years even after I received my first rejection letter from Seventeen magazine for my heartfelt poem about being confused about boys.
My inspiration for the poem that the Dunes Review had recently accepted for publication stemmed from a vision I had while visiting my cousin Audrey in Kansas in 2015. One night the cicadas were so loud that the stars in the sky seemed to vibrate. Birds shimmied to the beat. Dogs in the neighborhood howled. I scribbled down lines in my journal. A writing prompt from writer Laura Kasischke’s workshop at the Bear River Writers’ Conference a few months earlier popped into my head. I imagined myself standing in front the house I grew up in out in the country east of Dodge City. I began working with the lines. Was I under the spell of poetic vision? I seemed to be breathing in images from the past, both real and imagined. The poem began to take shape, and after months and months of revision work, my vision paid off in the best of ways: publication and the chance to read it to an audience.
As my friend Julie and I began our journey to Traverse City, I told her that when she, friend Jeri, and I had been at Brilliant Books the previous fall, I had mentioned to them that the Dunes Review hadn’t accepted any of my work since 2010. Over the years, I had submitted a piece occasionally for the biannual lit magazine, only to have it rejected. I convinced myself that this vision during my previous visit to Brilliant Books had somehow led to the subsequent acceptance of the poem for the new edition of the journal. I was scheduled to read about midway through the list of writers, and when it was my turn to read, I stepped up to the podium. In a voice that only the ghosts of dead authors could hear, I said the title. Fellow writers and audience members quickly encouraged me to speak up. I stopped, placed my right hand on my sore right hip, and said, “Hello” in a weird sort of British accent, and started over. I have no idea why I used a British accent, since I grew up in Kansas and lived there for twenty-one years before moving to California for two years. For the past thirty-nine years, I have lived in Michigan. As Hoyt Axton once sang, “I’ve never been to England, but I kind of like the Beatles.” Apparently my vision skills had somehow been affected over the years by listening to the Fab Four, reading a gazillion books by British authors, and watching the movies Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility far too many times. Most likely my Michigan/Kansas accent worked its way into my reading, but I can’t seem to remember.
After the reading, Julie and I headed back to Higgins Lake via the backroads. We quickly realized that we would both have our “driving at dusk and then into total darkness” vision tested. Anyone who lives in Northern Michigan knows that if you are driving at night, you are destined to encounter deer making poor decisions. They will lurk silently around every corner. They will stand idly along every straightaway glaring at you with their cataract-like eyes. I turned on my “deer-vision” as I slowed the car down and prepared for the one hour plus drive.
Deer mocked us on each two-lane stretch of highway. At various locations along the backroads, we felt as if we were characters in a horror movie. Night of the Deer Zombies seemed like an appropriate title. At one hilly curve, nine deer nonchalantly watched us as I slammed on the brakes. I had a brief vision of MDOT renaming this part of the road “Dead Women’s Curve” in our honor. The vehicles that had been following us since Traverse City willingly played this game of hop-scotch with us as I alternated between complete stops and sixty miles per hour. Not once had the other drivers attempted to pass us. They somehow sensed my “deer-vision” while they were probably wearing their bifocals. I briefly considered stopping at Military Road, jumping out of my car and demanding a thank you for guiding them through deer hell, but, alas, I could not convince my hands to un-grip the wheel. Julie and I figured that we had avoided over forty deer.
By the time I pulled into my driveway, I was worn out and wound up. My legs hurt from the morning’s trail run. My husband inquired about the reading, and I launched into a ten-minute soliloquy about reading my poem and the exhausting drive home. I grabbed a beer and sat down on the couch. I closed my eyes for a moment and imagined myself riding off into the sunset à la Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I don’t plan on robbing any banks and going out in a barrage of bullets. My vision for a happy ending goes like this: I will be running a road race at the age of ninety (certain to win my age group), composing a poem in my head that the editor of the Dunes Review will love, waving at the deer hiding in the woods, and dreaming of a nice cold beer after I cross the finish line.
*This essay was previously published in the Bear River Review 2014.
I stood at the end of the dirt road and tried to breathe. Posted signs on an old gate suggested potential problems, but their warnings, obscured by weathered vines, failed to clearly state their objectives: “No Dump” and “vate erty.” The house I grew up in glowed in the sunlight as if taking on the importance of a museum or a church. I felt the strange collision of time moving me forward, and memories spinning me backwards. A centrifugal force seemed to define me in this space. I grabbed a handful of dirt, and tossed it upwards into the steady Kansas wind. Dust and pebbles covered my body, glitter and gold, an elixir returning me to my childhood. I imagined my mother at the kitchen table, scratch-carving an elegant owl on an ostrich egg that had been dyed with onion skin. My father sat in his chair smoking a large cigar and drinking a beer after a hard day’s work at his café. I wanted to walk through the front door of the house and hear their voices welcoming me home. The taste of dirt in my mouth was bittersweet.
When my parents were dying, they returned to this house at the end of the dirt road in their memories. My mother died of Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 88. She would question me frequently to see if our stories meshed. Was the Chief, as she began to call my father, working in the field or at the livestock sale barn where our café was? She referred to my husband and son as “the boys.” She wondered what kind of pie my grandmother would be bringing for lunch after church on Sunday. Cherry? Apple? Rhubarb? Why hadn’t her sister come to visit her? How many dogs did we have now? And then one day, my mother could no longer speak. She would often wave at me upon my arrival at the memory care facility as if I might be someone she knew. Her wave reminded me of a homecoming queen in a parade. She had waved at me similarly from the platform at the train station when I left Dodge City at the age of 21.
My father’s body began to fail at the age of 92. Prostate cancer, or “prah-straight cancer” as he referred to it, became painful, unmanageable. His cocktail of cherry juice and water no longer seemed to help. Between the pain medication and dementia, the evil twins of illness and aging, he began to flicker in and out of reality. I imagined him walking in our fields, memories covering the buffalo grass and little bluestem in a silky glaze like morning dew. Although my mother had died four years earlier, she often came to see him at the nursing home he was in for the last three months of his life. He would tell me I had just missed her.
I began to tell my father stories like the one about the night we slept on the front porch: “We made beds out of sofa cushions and blankets. Mom slept inside. A small plane sliced through the stars overhead, and you told me you felt a breeze from that one.” My father smiled at me, remained silent for several minutes as if to let the story settle in the air, and then looked up at me. “I know the people in the kitchen. They used to work for me at the café.” He grinned as if this was the best day of his life. I had learned from my mother’s illness, so I did not correct him. The cooks to which he referred were once in Dodge City, and they had passed away many years ago. I wondered if he remembered selling the house at the end of the dirt road in 1992 and moving to Michigan. His world was spinning backwards, and he pulled me in, towards him, with each and every story we shared.
Before their illnesses, my parents shared stories of their hometowns as children. My mother lived in Council Grove, Kansas, and my father was raised in Bath, Illinois, before circumstances landed them both in Dodge City. They were in their thirties when they adopted me, and they moved to the small, circa-1940s farmhouse in Wilroads Gardens, five miles east of Dodge City. And yet as their memories began failing them, something brought them into a circular path of memories of which I seemed to be a part, yet from which I was always separate.
For a long time, I felt as if geography defined me, and, in some ways, I believe it does. When I tell people I grew up in Dodge City, Kansas, the inference is that I am tough and could possibly outrun a tornado if necessary. For me, however, it is the place where a man and woman brought me into their home to raise. Born in the Salvation Army’s Booth Memorial Hospital in Wichita, Kansas, I was adopted at two months of age through the Kansas Children’s Service League. I have no memories of this place to which I can return. Instead, when my mind and body begin to fade into the gloaming, I imagine I will see this clearly: a long dirt road, a house, and me walking through the front door, waiting.
Recently I attended the Bear River Writers’ Conference at Walloon Lake in Michigan. I had attended this conference seven times over the last thirteen years, so I wasn’t a newbie. As a retired creative writing and literature teacher, I knew the dynamics of a writing workshop, and I also understood what it was like to be both teacher and student in a writing class. Since I had not been to a writing conference, taught, or read my work in front of other people since 2010, that little anxiety bug that resides in my head and utters nonsense in times of stress started yakking at me much like the voice little Danny hears in The Shining. Instead of “redrum,” I kept hearing “go-home” as if it were a single word. What was I afraid of?
After turning off of US-31, I sped up and down the roller coaster hills of Camp Daggett Road, before turning onto Camp Sherwood Road. Camp Michigania was one mile ahead. I had time to turn around or to “consciously uncouple” as Gwynneth Paltrow recently said of her split with her husband. But as with any tough relationship, or the prospect of one, I forged ahead, parked my pickup truck in the parking lot, and wobbly-walked up the steps of the Education Center. I had promised myself that I would absolutely not mention my SBT (stupid brain tumor) to anyone at the conference. I knew the writer whose workshop I was in because I had been in his writing workshop at Bear River in 2006. He had also come to SVSU several times to read his work and had come to one of my creative writing classes. A friend of mine who knew him had told him about my SBT at one of his book signings. On Thursday evening, he came over to where my friend and former SVSU colleague Chris and I were sitting and said hello. I started feeling a bit better about things at this point.
During the first workshop Friday morning, we worked our way around the table introducing ourselves. Everyone sounded so fabulous. I was last to speak, and suddenly I felt as if Pepto-Bismol vomit was spewing out of mouth: “I have a brain tumor! I couldn’t write or read for the longest time! I still have problems with words!” As I realized what I was doing, I prayed that the floor of the Nature Center where our workshop was located would swallow me up, and my body would be devoured by the masses of mosquitoes lurking in the shadows outside. “Go-home, go-home, go-home” reverberated in my head like the heartbeat of a dying woman.
As my fellow workshop participants headed out of the workshop to their chosen happy places to write, I stayed behind for a few minutes to apologize to the author at least fifty times. He was very kind and gracious. As I headed towards the gazebo to write and wait for Chris, I thought about all of the reasons I should leave. Immediately. With the vibrant blue water of Walloon Lake in front of me, birds singing in vibrant staccato-like trills, and bumblebees buzzing the nibs of flowers in the tall grasses, I decided I might as well work on my writing assignment even though I had no intention of returning to workshop the next day. I wrote as if mosquitoes were biting my fingertips.
Before long, Chris arrived, and it was time to head in for lunch. After asking about his workshop, I launched into a babbling rant about my inadequacies as a writer, and that I thought it was best if I headed home. The worst part, I confessed, was that I had blabbed about my SBT, and I was convinced that everyone in my workshop hated me. I’m surprised Chris didn’t dump his salad on top of my head or stab me with his fork. The acoustically awful cafeteria seemed to be morphing into a madhouse for my whininess. Before I could find something else to complain about, a woman named Shanna from my workshop walked towards our table. I prepared myself for a verbal smackdown. Instead, she asked if she could join us for lunch. Chris gave me the snake-eye look that seemed to suggest that not everyone hated me.
Saturday morning, I woke up with a word hangover. As I drove from Charlevoix to Camp Michigania, I cranked up some blues music and sipped on some tea. My head hurt from thinking about writing. After breakfast, I headed for my workshop. I hadn’t felt this whiny since I used to get my period.
In writing workshops, each person reads his or her work. Everyone then offers feedback on how to improve the piece. I awaited my fate: Fix this. Fix that. What? My piece wasn’t perfect? I had work to do! My meadowlark was out of place! My unfinished triangle was confusing. The dreaded “R” word raised its head: Revision. I felt like a student from my one of my teaching days. I wanted to shout, “But I worked so hard on this piece.” Weren’t they impressed with my metaphors? My structure? As part of the assignment, we had only been allowed 250 words. I had followed the assignment. Although I received positive feedback, I completely blocked it out. Everyone else’s stories were so much better, and they had all been told to expand their pieces. I was told to pick out one thing from my piece and write a new piece, and I had to keep it at 250 words. What fresh hell was this? Waa—Waa—Waa…I just wanted to go home and feel sorry for myself. Instead, I went to lunch. I needed some fresh chocolate chip cookies.
As Chris, Shanna, and I ate lunch together, I tried to focus on the conversation about writers, readings, observations, etc. While they spoke of positives, I just whined. I was a pain in the ass. Chris and Shanna told me to stay at Bear River and just write. What? Just write? Crazy advice. Shanna went to her cabin to write, and Chris and I walked over to the Education Center. We picked a room with comfy chairs and sat down to write. A rattling ceiling fan sounded like a washing machine. I complained, and Chris moved with me to another room with uncomfortable chairs. We sat down at a round table and began to write. A man showed up, parked himself at a table next to us, and began typing on his computer. I thought of the shower scene in Psycho with its screeching music. I searched my surroundings for a knife, but luckily for the stranger sitting next to us, none were available. As I tried to focus and write in my journal—by pen—I noticed people outside smiling. I could not imagine what they had to be happy about. People breathing fifty yards away bothered me. I had to leave. I munched on chocolate chip cookies from my bag as I drove away from camp towards US-31.
I drove back to Peggy’s and found two wet dogs and no sign of my hosts. They had left me a note: “Gone sailing.” I stomped to the basement and began writing on my computer. Revision! Delete! Word choice! Imagery! Sentence variety! Coherence! Grammar! Structure! Will I put my readers to sleep! I killed it at 251 (rebel!) words, changed my clothes, and headed back to BR for dinner and the evening’s “famous-writers’” readings. As soon as beer became available, I sucked down two and listened to the first two of the three authors. After listening to two poets, I had to get out of there. I couldn’t even stay for the big name author who had flown in for the conference. Chris followed me out, and we sat on the front porch and talked about his writing for his workshop. Eventually I headed towards Charlevoix and watched the sun slip down over Lake Michigan. Hypnotized by the pinks, blues, and purples surrounding the orange orb, I pulled into a scenic area and snapped some photos. The world suddenly seemed beautiful again. I slept soundly that night.
When my alarm went off at 6:30 a.m., I tossed all of my bags into my truck and headed to the last day of the conference. I met up with Chris, and we headed to the cafeteria. As I stood in line waiting for my omelet, one of the “famous writers” from the conference stood next to me waiting for her omelet. Once again, I had diarrhea of the mouth, as my mother used to refer to my incessant babbling. Even though I had never spoken to Ms. X in my life, had never actually read any of her work or knew much about her, I blabbed on and on about how fabulous she was. I couldn’t believe what I was saying. Who was I? As we parted, she smiled and said it had been nice meeting me. I thought, “Really?” We hadn’t exchanged names, and the entire conversation had been about how wonderful she was. Is that really meeting? I wondered if I was having some sort of hormonal meltdown. Tampons, anyone?
When the final workshop began at 9:00 a.m., I was thankful I was up third in the rotation of readers. I felt like a bloody leg in the middle of a shark-filled ocean. Despite my intense desire to jump out of my chair and leave the room, I listened to my fellow workshop writers and realized they were giving me some sound advice. After my moment in the hot seat, I thanked my fellow workshop comrades for their comments and settled back into my chair for the remaining workshop stories. I gave feedback when I felt as if I had something worthwhile to say, and I marveled at some of the stories people in my workshop were sharing.
After lunch with several people from my workshop, I located some cookies for the ride home and stuffed them in my bag. Chris was busy with his own workshop group, so I slipped out of the cafeteria and headed for my truck. As I headed out of Camp Michigania for the last time, I sipped on some tea and reached for a cookie. In less than two hours I would be home. I thought about the pieces I had worked on for my workshop, and I realized they each had some good things going for them. I had written about growing up in Dodge City, Kansas, subject matter I had written about often, but I had not explored in depth yet. I thought about the advice writer Natalie Goldberg gives in Old Friend from Far Away: “What you fear, if you turn toward it, will give your writing teeth” (13). I guess that could be sage advice for just about anything. It was time for me to go home and get to work.
In 1973, I graduated from Dodge City Senior High, home of the Red Demons. My hometown, viewed through a skewed lens of Hollywood-based thematic structures, was much more than a town filled with Matt Dillon wannabes, girls named Dorothy, and tornadoes. If you haven’t heard, read, or said “get outta Dodge” in your life, well, you aren’t paying attention. Some of us did leave Dodge City when we were younger, but many of us returned for weddings, funerals, and reunions. Since I had never been to a reunion, I recently decided it was time I got outta Michigan, where I have lived since 1977, and join the party. Although I had mixed emotions about returning to Dodge City, I looked forward to spending time with friends and reconnecting. As it turned out, music would play a pivotal role in my reaction to the weekend’s events.
Our reunion, billed as “40 Years of Peace and Love,” promised to be a spectacular party with the main events held at the Dodge House. The reunion committee, Jon Jambor, Jeanne Beilke, Micki Holladay, Rachael Livingston, and Cindy Day, worked tirelessly for over a year to create our three-day event. Along with all of the seventies-style memorabilia as table decorations, the seventies were also artistically represented by classmate Tara Hufford Walker’s 48″ x 48″ acrylic on Masonite reproductions of album covers adorning the walls.
Each piece, part of a silent auction during the evening’s festivities, would find a new home before the night’s end. On Friday night, we had a meet-and-greet, and on Saturday, the day started off with a golf outing, followed by a wine-tasting event. Saturday night began with dinner and conversation before Birth, our band from junior high and high school days, hit the stage. What better way for the class of 1973, a product of the seventies and its strong musical influence, to celebrate.
As Birth took the stage and began playing the unmistakable chord progression from “Smoke on the Water,” it seemed as if we had travelled back in time to those angst-filled teenage years. By the end of the first verse, I could hear the crowd singing along: “Smoke on the water…fire in the sky.” People started dancing, but I stayed in my seat near the stage and listened. I had this overwhelming sense of nostalgia and sadness, but I couldn’t figure out why.
To quote Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, “there’s no place like home.” But what was home for me? Was it the house I grew up in, the neighborhood now run-down and a place that would break my father’s heart if he were alive to see it? Or was my house in Michigan where I now lived, with its display of photographs and memorabilia of growing up in Dodge City, my real home? What exemplifies the concept of home? What role does the town itself play in one’s sense of belonging? Why was a song like “Smoke on the Water,” creating such angst in my rock-n-roll state of mind? My geographical markers seemed as if they had been hit with a flare gun. I felt as if I were returning to family, albeit a symbolic family, but nevertheless, a small part of a larger group of people I hadn’t seen in forty years.
As I began to make this connection, Birth walked off the stage after their first set, and classmate Linda Schnitzler Hungerford stepped up to the microphone. She read a poem dedicated to our deceased classmates. As she said their names, family members of friends stepped up to the microphone and said a few words to honor his or her loved one. Although the memorial, somber and funereal, created an awareness of our own immortality that perhaps had not been felt until that moment, it would be another classmate who would help us move from our sense of loss back towards our celebration.
Judy Neves David had heard Linda discussing the memorial on Friday. Judy, now a resident of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, suggested a “New Orleans tradition,” using a bit of “poetic license” as a way to segue back into Birth’s music as they began their second set. After Judy’s brief introduction, the song “Second Line” erupted from the sound system. Judy, taking the lead with a purple umbrella that would become our talisman for the rest of the evening, led a group of us through the crowd, dancing and tossing Mardi-Gras style beads to classmates seated at their tables. Other classmates jumped up and joined in. By the time the music ended, our “Second Line” had shifted our sadness into joy as we remembered the friends we had lost. And with that, Birth climbed back upon the stage and broke into an old familiar tune: The James Gang’s “Funk 49.” We moved from funk to funky in a short amount of time.
The night went by far too quickly. As the band started its final set, Birth’s guitarist and vocalist, Lewis Mock, strummed his acoustic guitar as he led us into Don McLean’s “American Pie.” According to McLean’s biographer, Alan Howard, “’American Pie’ is partly biographical and partly the story of America during the idealized 1950s and the bleaker 1960s.” Additionally, Howard says that “by 1971, America was deeply troubled. The Vietnam War was out of control.” In 1955, when I and most of my classmates were born into this idealized version of America, we could not have foreseen the changes in America that would take place before our 18th birthday and our graduation from high school. We had to rely on our parents, the nightly news, and, most importantly, our local radio stations to give us a perspective of the world we could only imagine. And it was through these radio stations and local bands that we began to make sense of our lives as we either stayed in Dodge City or left town in search of something else.
And here we were, a group of us on the dance floor singing and dancing to the music of Birth and Don McLean as if 40 years had not gone by. Although it seemed as if no one could remember all of the words to “American Pie,” we filled in the blanks for each other. The song turned into a giant sing along with some dancing thrown in. Many people spread their arms wide at the refrain “this will be the day that I die” as if it just might happen. It was as if this symbolic family had come to pay its respects to the past, the present, and the future. Not only had classmates joined in during other songs as the band played, but we engaged in what Daniel J. Levitin refers to in his book The World in Six Songs as “individuals who could bond into groups for the purpose of collective action” (183). Levitin further suggests that “something special happens when a group starts to sing together—something extraordinary” (182). Birth may have been the vehicle for our “collective action,” but friendship and our love of music seemed to take on a life of its own.
Later, I told a friend that our reunion, billed as “40 years of peace and love,” was so much fun that it should have been illegal. I’m not sure what I really meant by that statement, but I know that when my roommates for the weekend, Gretchen Leonard Steffen and Susan T., and I drove by my old house on our way out of Dodge City, I remembered one warm and windy Kansas day when I was inside that house and used music as way to argue with my mother without actually speaking to each other.
Our war of the stereos consisted of Tom Jones “What’s New Pussycat?” on her stereo in the living room, and in my room, a mere thirty feet away, I dropped the needle down on Led Zeppelin’s “Dancing Days.” As Jones’s and Robert Plant’s voices clashed in midair somewhere in the kitchen, I smiled when my dog, Charlie Brown, barked as if in recognition of the collision of sounds. I turned off my stereo and went outside with Charlie, and as I glanced up at the kitchen window, my mother waved at me. We both knew it would not be long before I would head out of that door one last time and into my future. Indeed, several years later, my mother would watch me pack my most important possessions, some clothing and all of my albums, into a black army trunk as I prepared to move to California. The Kansas wind, relentless as always, blew through my bedroom window that afternoon, creating an almost elegiac symphony for the last day I would ever live in the house I grew up in.
As Gretchen, Susan, and I drove down the dirt road I grew up on and headed out of Dodge City, I realized I was not ready to leave. I felt as if there was something I had left behind or as if I had forgotten to do something essential while I was in Kansas. Perhaps that is why we stopped at my grade school. As I stood in the doorway that led into the gym, I felt as if ghosts were lining the hallways waiting to remind me of the stories that took place in this building where I spent my days from first grade until 8th grade. But I heard nothing, so I stepped back outside where my friends waited patiently for me. I felt the Kansas wind against my skin, and I swear there was music in it if only I would listen.
Birth, comprised of keyboardist Chris Cave, bass player and vocalist Jon Jambor, guitar player and vocalist Lewis Mock, and drummer Bill Warshaw, formed around 1966/1967. According to Lewis, Birth’s name grew out of artwork he had been working on, and “it was more about something being created than the actual birth of a baby. The bloody logo (which [their] mothers hated) symbolized the blood and sweat involved in the creation of something.” Their first posters, based on “artwork and lettering from the Fillmore concert posters,” included the logo along with a ‘drip’ of blood coming down from the bottom of the word ‘Birth.’” Their mothers were charged with the task of taking their posters to the printer and had the drip of blood removed. When Mock confronted his mother, she said, “‘you’ll never understand until you have given birth.” As it turns out, mothers would influence more decisions regarding the band.
In their original formation, Robin Spencer, now deceased, had played guitar with the band. According to Jon, Robin’s mother was responsible for the band getting together, and she even lined up gigs for them. Birth performed at talent shows, birthday parties, and the Elks club, and eventually the band started renting venues. For a birthday party held at the Spencers’ home, the band “borrowed all of the equipment from Friar Tuck and the Monks,” a well-known band in Dodge City.
The dynamics of the band shifted after an event at the VFW. According to Lewis, the “VFW was the end for Robin. Banned from Birth by his mom.” Robin, Jon, and Bill’s older brother Eric, decided to visit Goddard’s Billiards after the band played at the VFW. Jon said that Goddard’s was about to be “razed for ‘urban renewal,’” and it seemed as if “it would be a pretty good idea to empty out its cabinets of the chewing gum and tobacco…since it was unlocked and going to be torn down anyway.” Unfortunately, the police caught on to this, and were waiting outside to greet the young men. According to Bill, Eric’s punishment was to get a job. Eric found a job as a disc jockey at KEDD and eventually moved to KGNO. Eric passed away in 1994.
As Birth forged ahead with its new configuration in the late sixties and early seventies, they played gigs at teen dances held at Fort Dodge, various churches, the Elks Club, Kitty’s Kitchen, the Demon’s Den, the Warehouse, the Bandshell at Wright Park, and the VFW. As Birth’s popularity grew, they continued improving their musical skills although as Jon says, “[they] made three times as much at the concessions stand than they made at the door.” Since they also lacked transportation most of the time, classmate Micki Holladay became their “transportation captain.” The band had a lot of heavy equipment, and Cave remembers when they had to “cut his Hammond CV organ in half, leaving the bass pedals intact” so that it could be loaded into a truck with the use of “a refrigerator dolly.” Whatever it took to get to a gig, the members of Birth did it.
According to Chris, the band members were “the best of friends,” and he says that they were “fans of the Beatles and started a Beatles club.” Jon says that Bill was a “member of the CBS Record Club and got all of the good albums. So many great songs, and [they] wanted to play them all.” Bill remembers “being asked to bring [his] drums over to the Cave’s house to fill in for Rod Mitchell. ‘Midnight Confession’ was the first song” that he learned. Jon says they played “Midnight Hour” and “Mustang Sally” because “they were the tunes that the big kids (e.g. Skip Cave) played and since they needed songs to fill their sets, they went with what they knew. According to Lewis, “Kick out the jams mutha@#%%^^^&&**(*!!!!!” became one of their songs, and Jon says “it was a song [he] sang with an obscene intro, and quite a bit of fun to yell out at dances [they] held at church facilities.” Not only was the band having fun, but Birth’s fans were also enamored of the guys in the band. Jon shares the following perspective from one of the band’s groupies who chooses to remain anonymous.
She states: “From the perspective of the small town girl…Birth was our local, home grown rock stars. All the other community dances had records to play, but there was nothing like having [the] guys up in front playing live. Just thinking about how everything was changing around us as a generation…all we are saying is give peace a chance…if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with…and then there was Woodstock and Viet Nam, and we all changed except for men like my father. They were the Archie Bunker models that were afraid of the changes. Birth was our glimpse of the world beyond 50 highway. We loved [them] because [they] represented something beyond Boot Hill and wheat fields. I really enjoyed the practice sessions and all the teenage angst. All the girls loved [the members of Birth] and I liked being one of those girls. It made me feel special.”
Anonymous has it right. We loved the music played by our local bands, and Eric Warshaw’s voice on the radio as he played requests from giggly girls calling in from the Kwik Shop. Yes, I was one of those giggly girls. Music fed our souls in a way that parents, teachers, and preachers could not come close to fulfilling. For our 40th high school reunion, it seemed as if we had taken a step back in time, and Birth played songs that mattered to us during our younger years but seemed to matter even more forty years later.
Q and A with the members of Birth:
What is your current job?
Lewis Mock (Colorado Springs, Colorado): I am a full-time musician. I am the bandleader at the Tavern at the Broadmoor. For twenty-two years I was also in private practice as a Doctor of Chiropractic, and for ten years was a professor at the Colorado Springs Conservatory where I taught musicianship to young people of all ages. Throughout all of these years of teaching and practicing Chiropractic, I always was playing music. (Please see the attached Mock Bio.)
Bill Warshaw (Dodge City, Kansas): Right now, I am newly retired. I still haven’t gotten used to it. I sold liquor, beer, and wine for a distributor for the last eleven years.
Chris Cave (Dallas, Texas): I work for myself. (Please see http://www.ccave.tv/ for a full description.)
Jon Jambor (Lawrence, Kansas): President, Kennedy Technology Group. (Contact info: firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Are you in a band now?
Mock: As I said above, I’m the leader of the “World Famous Tavern Orchestra” at the Broadmoor Resort in Colorado Springs and have been there for almost 22 years. I have also performed as a sideman to Grammy Award Winner, Suzy Bogguss, and recording and Broadway star, Maureen McGovern, as well as Emmy winner, singer/songwriter, Jim Salestrom, and recording artist Nelson Rangell.
Warshaw: No, just Birth.
Cave: Yes. http://www.jumpbilly.com/
What musical moment at the reunion meant the most to you?
Mock: My favorite memory of the reunion was playing again with Birth.
Warshaw: I think it was watching people get up and dance with big smiles on their faces. Also, “American Pie,” even though we had never played it before.
Cave: When it was over. Pressure!
Jambor: Bill’s drum solo on “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.”
Will you be playing at our next reunion?
Mock: I don’t know for sure about the next reunion.
Warshaw: Sure thing. Looks like we will be playing next summer at the class of 1974’s reunion. The whole thing was such a blast, and it is just easy for me to play the drums when surrounded by such great musicians.
Cave: I don’t think anyone has committed yet.
Jambor: “You better believe it, baby!”
Growing up in the country allowed me to wander freely as long as I followed these basic rules: Stay on our property and under no circumstances cross the Arkansas River that cut behind our house. The song “Walking After Midnight,” sung eloquently by the late Patsy Cline, reminds me of that freedom to explore without fear. Although the narrator of the song is looking for her lost love, the narrator could also be someone in search of the past in order to understand its significance. Grieving for someone seems to force us into a cycle of memories and what ifs. Since my father died last year, the month of June and Father’s Day seems so bittersweet now. Some days my emptiness is as big as the midnight sky.
Last year’s June brought many changes. My father’s health had taken a turn for the worse in May, and I knew he would not be with us much longer. After my mother died in 2008 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s, my father seemed to rebound, and he enjoyed his life to the fullest. He was stubborn, opinionated, and very loving. I inherited my father’s stubbornness, and I believe I inherited his kindness and friendliness. He would talk to anyone, anytime, anywhere. When we camped at Cedar Bluff or the Sandpit, I could count on a lineup of people outside of our camper, formerly a small school bus, waiting for one of Bob’s famous breakfasts on Saturday mornings. He never turned anyone away.
People used to comment that I looked a lot like my father, and I always found this rather strange, since I was adopted when I was two months old. My father and I were so much alike that any slight similarity in temperament translated to a physical correlation in the mind of strangers or acquaintances not familiar with our story.
I am still figuring out my story as I discover information about my birth family, but I know that I could never imagine a life without the father and mother who adopted me. I have wondered if I look like my birthfather, but I cannot imagine a life with him even if I knew who he was. Would my birth father have allowed me the freedom to walk after midnight? To make mistakes and suffer the consequences, and still feel a father’s love even as I was being grounded for a month? Would he have allowed me to paint our camper a bright pink? Would my birth father have choked up before walking me down the aisle and told me how much he loved me? Would my birth father have held me at my daughter’s funeral as if I were a little girl again? No, I cannot imagine what my life would have been like without the father I ended up with. Isn’t that the way life is? A lucky roll of the dice or an incredible sacrifice by someone that ends up being someone else’s blessing?
My birth mother gave me up for adoption: Sacrifice. That story is long and complicated, and I am working up the courage to write that story. I have seen pictures of her, and it is as if I am looking in a mirror. Lillian died in 1998, and I did not start searching for my birth parents until 2011, oddly enough, about nine months before I found out I had a brain tumor. When my original birth certificate arrived, my birth father’s name was listed as “unknown.” When I sent away for my adoption records, I had hoped to at least find out my birth father’s name, but all I learned was his date of birth and that he was of German ancestry. He was “not interviewed” for the adoption proceedings. When I asked the woman at the American Adoption Congress in Kansas why my birth father’s name was not listed, she replied that “unknown on the BC made it quicker to process the adoption at that time.” Even in 1955, expediency was the name of the game. Isn’t that what we do in life? We sometimes take a chance and do what feels right for us, but it may not be in the best interest of others. All I wanted was a name and perhaps a picture of him, but these are things I will never have.
In a way, it does not really matter. I grew up loved. My adoptive parents wanted me, and my mother reminded me of this frequently. In 1955, they had no genetic markers or family stories to obtain a sense of who I might become. I was a tabula rasa in human form. They drove from Wichita to Dodge City, Kansas, and Connie Jo, my given birth name, became Melissa Jean. Family and friends welcomed me as if they always knew I would end up as Wilmer “Bob” and Margaret Lynn’s daughter. As I grew older and began to carve out my identity, I was allowed to ride my bicycle or my horse near the river or along the roads that defined the Wilroads Gardens community.
The freedom I had to explore changed in 1965 when I was ten years old. I remember walking down the two-tracker that ran parallel to one of our fields to the river one day and sitting on a ledge above the dam. The Arkansas River flowed next to our land. I was allowed to be near it, but I was forbidden to cross it and head for Fort Dodge. Despite my parents’ adamant stance against crossing the river, my friends and I did this as often as we thought we could get away with it. But on this day, I had little time to waste because newscasters had warned of an impending flood. I wanted to see the river one last time. I looked at the small gates that were used to divert the water into an irrigation ditch, the concrete ledge that supported the gates and was the perfect spot to cross to the other side of the river, and the dirt-covered bank on the side of the river where I used to fish from. A wall of water heading our way from the mountains of Colorado would forever change the landscape.
Our friends and neighbors in Wilroads Gardens and all low-lying areas of Dodge City, Kansas, moved quickly in preparation for the flood swiftly moving towards us. My father and several men loaded our cattle and my horse into several livestock haulers. I would never see those cows or Willie again. My mother packed everything she could into our cars, and she placed what she could not take on top of the furniture we had to leave behind. After spending a few minutes staring at the river that day, I left my favorite spot and ran down the two-tracker towards home. My mother seemed relieved when I returned and put me to work.
My mother told me to pack my favorite things to take to my grandparents’ house where we would end up living for over a month. Content with my dog “Stinker” and purple Stingray bicycle, I said I was done. She suggested I pack some clothing. My mother and I drove into Dodge City and headed towards the north part of town and safety. My father stayed behind to place sandbags around our house, and then he and a large group of men worked feverishly near the dam, throwing sandbags down onto the hard ground in the hopes that they could save Wilroads Gardens from the brunt of the water’s destruction.
As we listened to the radio that night, the announcer’s anguished words described the wall of water as it rolled towards Dodge City. I imagined my father standing near my favorite spot above the river, ordering the water to bypass our house. Luckily, my father and all of the men working near the dam were warned to head to higher ground long before the churning waters roared into town. They headed to a campsite on some rolling hills overlooking Wilroads Gardens and waited.
Meanwhile in Dodge City, my mother and I waited—and worried—about my father’s safety and wondered if we would have a house to go home to. Later the next day, when my father finally called, we were relieved that he was alive as were the other men who had worked so hard to save our community. He said our house, east of the dam and south of the dike, had suffered some damage, and our fields and barns were destroyed. Everything left behind in our garage washed away, including a trunk filled with pictures of my father’s side of the family, and Willie’s saddle and bridle. If our animals had been left behind, they would have drowned as they were swept away.
According to my father, when the dike that formed a ridge on the south side of the river broke, the main current somehow turned away from our house. He said we would not be allowed to return home until it was safe, and he did not know if it would be days or weeks. After the water receded, quicksand filled our yard, and rattlesnakes crawled aimlessly through the destruction. My father sold Willie and all of our cattle. It would be a long time until our land recovered.
We, however, were luckier than some. Many people in our neighborhood had to start over with only the things they had taken with them. One of my best friends lost her house completely. It ended up in a dry river bed downstream from where it used to be. Although forbidden from entering the house, we went inside anyway. A child’s game sat in the corner, mangled and covered with mud. When we thought we heard someone coming—perhaps it was the house eerily moaning as the foundation shifted—we ran as fast as we could to escape. For the rest of that summer, we passed the time riding our bikes, playing with our toy cars in piles of dirt now covering our yards, and tried to ignore the smell that the floodwater left behind as it worked its way eastward. People in our community cleaned, salvaged, and rebuilt. My father warned me to stay far away from the dam and out of our fields. Life had become dangerous. As I climbed into bed every night and looked out my window, I could imagine the area next to our driveway where Willie used to roam and snort at me when I yelled his name out my window. West of Willie’s special pen, our field, once filled with grazing cattle, remained empty with only a border of cottonwood trees to remind us of the Arkansas River flowing nearby concealing the stories of its devastation as if a card player holding a pair of aces and eights.
When my father died last August, I held his hand as he had once held mine as a child, and I thought of that tiny farmhouse I grew up in. My parents sold the house years ago when they moved to Michigan. I wish I could see that house again and my father standing by the back door asking me where I had been. I would like to thank him for everything he ever did for me. Father’s Day is going to be tough this year, and I know I am not alone in my sadness. Perhaps I will take a walk after midnight if only to the water’s edge in front of the house I live in now. I will close my eyes and remember the house I grew up in, and a river that could not wash it or a father’s love away.
During Memorial Day weekend, my husband and I went for a walk, and I wore my very bright, hard-to-miss pink running shoes. Since it was a holiday weekend, when the lake is overcrowded with “trunk-slammers” as my late father-in-law used to call them, the roads were filled with runners, walkers, bicyclists, people with dogs, garage-sale enthusiasts, and drivers on the road using their vehicles as weapons of mass destruction. Because I tend to focus on the latter with fits of anger, it is easy to forget there are also a lot of friendly people who are more than happy to strike up a conversation on a beautiful day.
Anyone who knows me is quite aware that I will stop and have a twenty-minute conversation with a complete stranger on just about any topic. Sometimes a 45-minute walk or run can turn into a two-hour morning event, which is why I usually walk or run solo. When I return from my solo runs or walks, I always have stories for my husband whether he wants to hear them or not. I tell him the latest about a neighbor’s health woes or about the truck driver I flipped off and yelled “f*****” at for almost running me off the road. My husband shakes his head in an all-too knowing way. Yes, I have a potty mouth, and I wear pink running shoes. My father would be so proud, and my mother would have handed me the swearing jar. Sometimes I walk with my husband though, and I try to behave myself.
On a beautiful Saturday morning during Memorial Day weekend, Jim and I approached our local shopping area which consists of a hardware store, bank, grocery/booze store, and a tourist trap that sells fresh fudge, t-shirts, and knickknacks. A young woman, perhaps 30 years old, stood in the parking lot snapping photos, turned towards me, smiled, and said: “I love your pink shoes!” Even her eyebrows were exclamation marks! I thanked her, and Jim and I continued on our way. I could tell people were admiring my shoes as we continued on our Treasure Island Loop, named so because we end up on a dead end road where we look out across the water towards a small island in the midst of the big part of Higgins Lake.
As my husband and I continued our walk, I practically bounced along in my pink shoes while he pretended to ignore my rapid-fire monologue about everyone we passed by. As we rounded the corner near Detroit Point, a very nice woman, perhaps a few years older than me, holding a garage sale in her driveway said: “I love your pink shoes.” Well, damned if I wasn’t forced to stop and talk to her about my pink shoes.
As she inspected them, she told me that she had recently been to an outlet shoe store and wanted to buy some “aqua-colored shoes,” but the salesgirl told the woman she was “too old to wear aqua-colored shoes.” My new friend and I cackled in delight at the salesgirl’s stupidity. My new friend said she would soon be shopping at another store for some bright aqua shoes. We cackled again and agreed that at our age we could wear any color shoes we wanted. As I caught up to my husband, who was clearly not interested in a philosophical discussion about shoe colors, I began thinking of guidelines, masked as restrictions, of what women are told to do, or not to do, as they age: No long hair after age 40 (or 50 depending on which magazine you like to read). If your hair has ugly gray sprouts, dye your hair as soon as possible or you will look OLD. Never, ever, ever wear a short skirt. After all, someone might fall over dead from seeing an attractive, in-shape woman’s knees if she is over 40. I remember walking down the hall with a male colleague at Saginaw Valley State University one day, and a young woman walked out of the computer lab and into the hallway in front of us. She wore low-rise pants and a shirt that was cropped off somewhere between her pierced belly button and her amplified cleavage. As she turned, and we caught a glimpse of her thong underwear, my colleague said to me: “Well?” as his eyebrows rose into very large question marks. Well, indeed. At least she wasn’t over 40, or we would have had to call the campus police and have her arrested. When I went to college as an undergraduate and eventually graduate school, I was a hockey mom, always on the run, and basically wore blues jeans and t-shirts.
High school was another matter. I graduated in 1973, and I am sure a few teachers at Dodge City Senior High probably got an eyeful of legs and breasts as they traversed the halls. In the late sixties and early seventies, we wore mini-mini-skirts, crop tops, low-rise pants, and bell bottoms, and many of us tossed our bras, instead of burning them, as we began to wear whatever the hell we wanted to wear. But gossip spread quickly around my high school, and my wardrobe choice one day became a minor cause célèbre. I made the mistake of telling one of my girlfriends that I had decided not to wear a bra, safely hiding my lemons behind the pockets, breast high, of my dark blue t-shirt. It wasn’t long before I was walking down a hall on my way to class when I felt the end of a finger, like the pointed end of a rifle, roll down my back. “No bra,” the teenage boy snickered, as he ran to tell his friends. By the time I got to my next class, I felt as if I had a “Kick Me” sign taped to the back of my shirt. Good grief. Free from the restraints of the horrible bras we had in the sixties and seventies, my lemons held on for dear life as I was continually attacked from the rear. Somehow I survived that day and never told anyone after that if I was wearing a bra or not. As I got older and bras became more comfortable, I felt a little more compelled to wear them. I still hated them, but when I realized that breasts, even lemons, will sag as the aging process robs of us our loveliness, I decided to wear a bra on a regular basis.
Now that I am somewhere between fifty and death, there are some things I miss. I do miss my long hair, and I am trying to grow it back out. I refuse to dye my hair any longer. The money I am saving from not being blonde, blonder, or blondest will be well used for a nursing home somewhere in my future. As for short skirts, yes, I still wear them, but not the really short ones I used to favor. Years ago, a student of mine asked me if I was a runner as she stared at my calves. To my horror, I realized my calves were larger than my lemons, didn’t sag, and were very well defined. Such is life.
If my new pink shoes can help me return my calves to their glory days, then I will have made a very smart purchase. Even if they don’t help my calves, they have already paid off, as clearly the pink shoes are a conversation starter, and the envy of at least two women. So I will keep wearing them as I head out on the roads listening to Bruce Springsteen singing about a “Pink Cadillac,” my footfall in line with the beat of the drums, and my lemons tightly snug in the sports bra du jour, I will feel the wind blow through my short gray hair, and I will try to keep my swearing to a minimum. I will run past houses and businesses flying the American flag, and glide into memories of days of the past, missing my father, a veteran of World War II, and my mother who encouraged me to wear whatever I wanted to wear as long as the dishes were done before I walked out the door.