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 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 Organ copycat 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!”
Pretzel Tour Three
In the summer of 2009, Jeanne Beilke phoned me from a road trip she was on with Christopher Cave and Jon Jambor. All of us had gone to Dodge City Senior High together and graduated in 1973. Jeanne, Chris, and Jon had been touring the roads of Kansas, Colorado, and Oklahoma on their motorcycles. After hearing how much fun they were having, I wondered if Jeanne would agree to hit the road with me the following year. Since Jeanne and I had not seen each other since we had graduated from high school, I wasn’t sure if she would want to spend time on the road with me. When my mother died in 2008, I found myself wanting to see Dodge City, a place I had not been to since my parents moved to Michigan in 1992. Were Dorothy’s words true? Is there “no place like home”?
I contacted Jeanne, and she agreed to travel with me. To visit friends and family in various locales, we planned to fly into Denver, Colorado, head south to Route 66, head east to Tulsa, Oklahoma, and finally wind our way north and west to Dodge City, Kansas. After viewing the strange route we had planned, Jeanne came up with the name of our adventure: “The Pretzel Tour.”
We posted our ideas on Facebook, and our simple plans grew exponentially. Micki Holladay and Rachael Livingston joined the tour. Destinations and parties were planned. I had not seen Micki or Rachael since the mid-seventies before I moved to California. Friends constantly asked me if we would all be able to get along. I had no idea.
Jeanne flew into Detroit from Virginia Beach, Virginia, and I saw her for the first time in thirty-seven years. After we were together for about ten seconds, it seemed quite apparent that we were going to have a very good time on our trip. We flew out of Detroit and into Denver. We rented a car, and tried to find our way to Aurora, Colorado, to meet up with a high school friend, Richard Osborn. I managed to get us lost, pointed out the “swirly things” in the distance (tornadoes), and we eventually met up with Richard. Jeanne told me I had been out of Kansas too long if I referred to tornadoes as swirly things.
Jeanne and I headed to Denver. She drove us to her sister’s house, and my cousin Julie Bowline picked me up. The next day we met up with a group of high school friends who lived near Denver: Susan Maynard Wolfe, Marty Goff Hahn, Robin Troyer Friesen, Mickey Webster Winfrey, and the other half of the Pretzel Tour gang, Micki Holladay and Rachael Livingston. Some of us had thirty-seven years of catching up to do. We laughed so hard my stomach hurt. I am surprised the Wynkoop Brewing Company did not kick us out.
Two days later, Jeanne, Micki, Rachael, and I headed to Boulder, Colorado, in Micki’s car to meet up with Ted Larson, yet another person originally from Dodge City. Part of our Pretzel Tour plan was to head south to Route 66, and Ted suggested we take the back roads. We hit CO 286 and the Collegiate Peaks Scenic Byway. Every time we saw a spot that looked interesting, we stopped. We were in no hurry. As Micki drove, we settled into a routine of telling stories and listening to music. When Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” came on, we talked about how much we loved this song when we were in high school. Rachael and I declared it as our “favorite-favorite.” All of us sang along softly, each of us lost in some memory we decided not to share as Robert Plant’s voice seemed to take us back in time.
We worked our way to Alamosa for the night, and hit the road the next day. During the days ahead, with Micki always behind the wheel, Rachael riding shotgun, and Jeanne and me in the backseat, we eventually worked our way towards New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. Rachael and I drove out to the house I had grown up in, and I felt strange as I stood in the driveway. I had been thinking about Miranda Lambert’s song, The House That Built Me, and realized the significance of wanting to go home again. There are a million stories to tell, but I will save those for another day or in a book.
At one point along the way, an old friend asked us who was in charge. We all started laughing. Was one of us supposed to be in charge? Unless you count my penchant for bossiness, we all got along splendidly, and Jeanne, Micki, and Rachael put up with me.
We discussed the possibility of Pretzel Tour 2 the following summer. A friend of mine from California, Denise Manson Torres, joined us. Because of our various schedules, it seemed as if Michigan would be the logical place to tour. We hit Northern Michigan with a vengeance. During the trip, I started missing turns when I was driving. Places I had been many times before seemed confusing to me. Micki, Jeanne, and Rachael gave me the ribbing I deserved, and they found a beer koozie for me with this saying: “I’m not in charge. I just know what you should be doing.” Not only was I missing turns, I was becoming bossier by the minute.
As we parted in early August, we discussed our plans for Pretzel Tour 3, but we did not decide on when or where. Three months later, I found out I had a brain tumor. I figured that would be the end of just about everything in life I loved, including my trips with this fabulous group of women.
Pretzel Tour 3 begins August 1st. Jeanne, Micki, and I will meet up in Chicago and begin the trek on Route 66 as we head towards our destination at the Lake of the Ozarks. Rachael will join us as we spend our days at Gretchen Leonard Steffen’s house. We will tell stories, drink beer, and enjoy each other’s company. All of us have been through many challenges in life, and somehow we have managed to work our way through the losses and disappointments to become the women of substance we were destined to be. We are all damn funny, and we like to tell stories. My friends are willing to put up with me as I make this journey, knowing I will mess up my words when I talk, and my memories will be suspect at times.
Ladies, I am ready for the adventure to begin, and I am still working on getting rid of my bossiness, but I will bring my beer koozie just in case.
Couldn’t Stand The Weather
The cover of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s album Couldn’t Stand The Weather shows him playing his guitar as a tornado approaches him. Unlike Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Vaughan seems unconcerned with the approaching storm, seemingly playing through the twister as if his guitar will protect him from danger and potential death. Sadly, Vaughan was killed in a helicopter crash in 1990 at the age of 35. I was 35 at the time, Matt was 8, and Jim and I had celebrated our 12th wedding anniversary the day before Vaughan’s death. From the moment I first heard music by Vaughan, I was hooked. In 1988, his music became a talisman for my broken heart.
There were no signs of my brain tumor in 1988 when my daughter Nicole was born and died four days later. She died of anencephaly; her brain did not develop fully. A line in Vaughan’s song “Couldn’t Stand The Weather,” seemed to speak directly to my sorrow: “Like the train that stops at every station, we all deal with trials and tribulations.” Was this my trial in life? In 1988, the answer was yes, and despite watching my mother die of Alzheimer’s in 2008, and finding out I had a brain tumor in 2011, the answer to that question is still yes.
Parents expect to outlive their children. That’s a basic fact. Peggy, a very dear friend of mine, learned this cruel twist of fate when her son Johnny died on Easter Sunday, April 20, 2003, when he was twenty-three years old. Not a day goes by that our families don’t think about our children. I know many other parents whose children have died, the reasons vary, and when I hear someone ask how one gets over the loss of a child, I say: “You don’t get over it; you just learn to deal with it better.”
As I began researching information on meningiomas, I couldn’t help but think of the connection between my mother, my daughter, and myself. Even though my mother is not my biological mother, I started asking myself: What the hell happened to our brains?
Since Nicole lived for only four days, I can only imagine what she might have been. For my mother, I watched her slow decline into something unimaginable as she changed from the loving mother she was into someone who would not recognize me towards the end of her life. My mother the prankster and storyteller slipped into the land where memories and words no longer existed.
My father is now slipping into the land of dementia. Even though he lives in a nursing home not far from me in Michigan, his mind seems to have erased the past years where he and my mother lived in Michigan after moving here in 1992. He is convinced that people he knew in Dodge City are running the kitchen and working the night shift at the nursing home. Most of these people he refers to are dead. I pretend they are alive.
One night I dreamed that my mother called me and needed help. She said: “Your dad and I are in danger. Help us.” When I woke up, I told my husband about my dream, because it was so upsetting. I also wrote about the dream in my journal. Later that day when I visited my father at the nursing home, he said: “What does your mother think about me in the nursing home?” My father had not brought up my mother’s name since mid-April when he was still in the land of memory and remembering she was dead. My response to my father: “She is concerned about you.” As I walked out of the nursing home, the dream seemed like a snake crawling inside my skull, warning me of danger, but for whom? Was the dream purely for my father? For me? For the family?
In “Couldn’t Stand The Weather,” Vaughan sings “Ain’t so funny when things ain’t feelin’ right; daddy’s hand helps to see me through.” What would I be like without my father when he could no longer help me as if I were a child? At Nicole’s funeral, I remember leaning into my father, sobbing, holding me as if I were the child, not the almost thirty-three year old daughter. When my father learned I had a brain tumor, he was supportive, caring, and came to the hospital to watch my Gamma Knife surgery on a closed-circuit television. The memories of that seemed to have disappeared now, and he no longer asks me how I am. He’s more concerned about his checkbook and escaping the prison he thinks I have placed him in.
I have heard from quite a few friends of mine that they admire my positive spirit through my losses in life and dealing now with my brain tumor. What choice do I have? We all deal with things in life, and I am no different than anyone else. When my beloved dog died recently, I had a moment where the pity party in my brain began its full dance again, but, as typical for my blessed life, my family, my cousins, and some very dear friends did the one thing that seems to get overlooked in times of grief, of sadness: They listened to me.
If I look at the big picture, I have to say I am damn lucky. I have lived a life full of adventure, have a wonderful husband and son, have grown up with some wonderful cousins who are like sisters to me, and met wonderful people who became my friends. So whatever ride I am on now with my father and his fading away, and the brain tumor that radiation has hopefully begun its magical shrinking act, I’m facing the storm like Stevie Ray Vaughan did. I’m slinging my guitar like a talisman around my body, and playing my songs no matter what is headed my way.
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.