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.
On March 9th, 1973, I turned eighteen, and I had no idea what I wanted (with apologies to Alice Cooper). On March 10th, 1973, Pink Floyd released Dark Side of the Moon, and I listened to the album so often I could hear it in my sleep. In “The Great Gig in the Sky,” Clare Torry’s voice seemed to explain life—without a word. The firestorm of emotions in her voice, alternating between sensual whispering and wailing, suggested a profound sense of loss. She seemed to capture the very essence of high school: angst—in stereo. My 40th high school reunion will be held this summer in Dodge City, Kansas, and I am looking forward to the stories as we whisper and wail our way back through the maze of high-school memories.
Although I would have preferred focusing on music and my social life in high school, my parents had other ideas: go to school, work, do chores, and all of that boring stuff. My mother most likely knew all of the words to “Stairway to Heaven,” whether or not she really wanted to, and when my fabulous friend Susan made a poster of the lyrics as a gift for my 18th birthday, my mother quipped: “Don’t you listen to the Eagles or Carole King anymore?” Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin were just a few albums I played endlessly in my room. If my music began to drive my mother crazy, she would crank up some Tom Jones on the stereo in the living room to counteract the hippie music blaring from my room. If my father was home, his favorite phrase was: “Turn it down”—to both of us.
We lived in a small 1940s era farmhouse, and I had zero privacy in my room: A door from the kitchen led into my room. Door number two led into the bathroom, the only bathroom in the house, and door number three led into my parents’ bedroom. My parents had an additional door which led into the kitchen, so I eventually convinced them to keep the door between our bedrooms closed. In order to get to our bathroom, a person had to enter door number one, take a good look at my room, and then enter through door number two for the bathroom. Another door led from the bathroom into a closet where I stored my clothes, my mother stored the swearing jar, and my father kept an assortment of work clothes and odd items. My bedroom did not have a closet, so I dressed in the closet without a mirror to gaze into. Hopefully that will explain my lack of fashion sense for most of my life.
One day, as I listened to the Eagles on my stereo, my mother yelled: “Turn off your stereo; I want to hear the birds.” She was in the kitchen on the other side of door number one. I carefully lifted the needle off of the album. A minute or two went by, and in a much quieter voice she said: “The birds are gone. You can play your music again.” I dropped the needle at the beginning of “Earlybird” again. She yelled: “The birds are back! Turn off the stereo.” We repeated this process several times. She finally opened door number one, stepped into my bedroom/grand-central station and said: “The birds are on the record.” We grinned at each other like drunken fools. “I think I like it,” she said. We danced for a minute before she walked out of the room and left the door open.
I muddled through the rest of high school working part-time at the Kwik Shop, spent little time on homework, and a lot of time on my social life. I remember walking across the stage, my gown covering my t-shirt and shorts, and practically skipping as my sandals slid me into the future. It was the end of high school and the beginning of…what? Life? There was no going back. I could not change my grades or my lack of enthusiasm for any class that did not involve writing poetry. I did not want things to change. I loved my friends, telling stories, and listening to music.
Our music is considered oldies music now, and I still love being with my friends and telling stories. Now that I am older and forty years have passed since my high school days, I guess I have finally grown up. I miss dancing with my mother, and my father trying to control the noise pollution in the house after a hard day at work. I actually miss constantly being in trouble. Here’s to the class of 1973: Dodge City Red Demons! Let’s go!
Dodge City, Kansas, is a town rich with history. Known as the Cowboy Capital, its mainstays were lawlessness, buffalo, cattle, bars, fights, and the fictional character of Marshall Matt Dillon. Gunsmoke, one of the most influential shows my parents and I watched, provided an interesting look at how Dodge City was portrayed on television.
One of my favorite scenes from Gunsmoke is when Matt Dillon faces a group of men who want a prisoner released and says: “get out of Dodge.” Some of us did leave Dodge, but we chose to; no one forced us out of town. Nevertheless, after moving away, I could always count on someone saying one of three things: “Guess you got out of Dodge,” “Did you know Dorothy?” or “Are you a cowgirl?” Yes, these were typically pick-up lines, and, no, they didn’t work.
Gunsmoke aired in 1955, and Dodge City became even more popular. As I grew up, I noticed an increasing number of little girls wearing cowgirl outfits. I was reminded of this recently when several Dodge City cowgirl photos were posted on Facebook. Micki Holladay, Judy Neves David, and I were examples of cowgirls in our town, parading around in our cute cowgirl outfits, holding toy guns in our hands, and seemingly aiming at someone or something. In the photos of the three of us, I have to say Micki at least looks as if she knows what she is doing, or perhaps she is aiming the gun at whoever is taking the picture as if to say: Stop it or I will shoot. Eventually we tossed our toy guns aside, grew out of our cowgirl outfits, survived our teenage years, and moved on.
Micki “wanted to be a veterinarian” when she grew up. Her mother said she “could be anything she wanted.” Micki attended Dodge City Community College in 1973-1974 before getting out of Dodge in 1977, and moved to Las Animas, Colorado. She eventually moved to Greeley in 1978 and worked for Sears, a store she had also worked for in Dodge City. She returned to college in 1990 and began working towards a nursing degree, receiving her Bachelor of Science in Nursing in 1994 from the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. Micki’s mother always stressed the importance of “life-long learning,” and Micki continues to do so to this day. In 2010, she began working on her Master’s (MSN) degree at Regis University in Denver.
Judy wanted to be a teacher when she grew up. Judy and her sister would play school, and in sixth grade Judy met a “deaf education teacher that [she] admired,” and never “considered doing anything else after that.” Judy’s mother provided “exposure to the arts” and “encouraged her to write.” After graduating from Dodge City Senior High, she spent one year at Wichita State University before continuing her education at Louisiana State University where she earned her bachelor’s degree in Education (Speech and Hearing Therapy). In graduate school, she earned her master’s in Speech-Language Pathology. Although Judy did not grow up on a farm, she considers herself “an old farm girl.” Despite the outfit she had when she was young, the only cowboy boots she owned “were those ugly white ones with taps on the bottom that [she] wore for DCHS drill team.”
And what did I want to be when I grew up? I have no idea. I’m still working on it. My parents ran a restaurant, but we lived on a farm, raising cattle, pigs, and chickens. I had a horse until 1965, but Willie was just about as mean as a horse could be, and my father never brought Willie back to our house after the big flood that year.
I hated school. Despite the good grades I earned until I graduated in 8th grade from Wilroads Gardens, I took a sharp turn after riding the bus into town for 9th grade and junior high. By the time I hit Dodge City Senior High, I was more interested in skipping than actually attending class. My parents never seemed to be too upset about my report cards, and I finally found out why when I delved into my adoption information last year.
According to the State Department of Social Welfare of Kansas, circa 1955, my parents were “interested in family life” and “environment.” According to the document, “Scholastic achievement doesn’t seem to appeal to this couple as much as personality and ambition.” Unlike Micki’s mother who encouraged her love of life-long learning, and Judy’s mother who provided exposure to the arts and encouraged her to write, my mother was more interested in me having a good personality, and I did not let her down.
After high school, I wandered and made stupid decisions just about every day, and when I turned 21, I became a bartender at the Dodge City Country Club. My personality fit in well, but under no circumstances would my mother let me tell my grandmother I was a bartender. Cocktail waitress? Yes, I could admit to that job, but for some reason she did not want me to tell her I was a bartender. I made much better tips as a bartender, but that didn’t seem to matter.
One day, “get out of Dodge” seemed to burn a hole in my personality-driven brain. In August of 1976, I quit my job, boarded the westbound train to California, moved in with a friend, and got a job as a secretary at Laguna Sportswear. The personality child had found her space in the universe. College still didn’t interest me, but California boys and the beach certainly did. Life was good, and on August 26, 1977, I met a guy from Michigan who just happened to be visiting. Naturally, against my parents’ wishes, my friends’, and those of my boss at Laguna, and I packed up my car, convinced my friend Cari (originally from Michigan) to accompany me, and we drove from California to Michigan with a pit stop in Dodge City to visit my parents. I tried to convince them I wasn’t insane.
Instead, life got even better. I became a mother and settled into life in Midland, Michigan. Just as the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz thinks life would be better if he “only had a brain,” I decided it was time to see if mine actually functioned. At the encouragement of my husband and then seven-year old son, I went to college and earned a bachelor’s degree at Saginaw Valley State University in English/Creative Writing. I was actually in the Honors Program! I then went to Michigan State University for a degree in creative writing, and graduated with nearly a 4.0. At the age of 41, I had finally made my parents proud of me, found the ambition that seemed to go along with my personality, and realized I might turn out okay when I grow up.
I am a cowgirl. I am a farm girl. I am a mother, wife, daughter, and friend. Although Micki, Judy, and I wore our cowgirl outfits to please our mothers, or perhaps ourselves, none of us grew up to be cowgirls. But something always draws us back to the beginning, when the world was waiting for us, and we were waiting to pull the trigger.