Summer Soundtracks

What does summer sound like to you? Think of the sounds that take you back to childhood, when one long summer day blended into the next and the idea of school starting again next fall was too far into the future to even think about.

Does your particular summer soundtrack include the hum of skates or bicycle tires on the pavement? The shrieks and splashing of hordes of little kids at the swimming pool? Or maybe the crack of baseball bats?

None of those sounds evoke childhood summers for me. I didn’t have a bicycle or skates. They wouldn’t have been very usable for kids who lived 15 miles from town at the end of rutted gravel and dirt roads.

I do have a few memories of the swimming pool; they just aren’t happy ones. My introduction to swimming involved chilly June mornings, a gaggle of little kids I didn’t know, and an inexperienced teenaged lifeguard whose theory of discipline was to threaten to dunk anyone who acted up. None of that helped me get past my fear of putting my nose under the water. Most of the time my teeth were chattering as much from terror as temperature, and I was always greatly relieved when it was deemed too cold for us to actually get into the water.

Baseball? It’s not a game you learn when the entire student body of your elementary school consists of five kids. I know that my father sometimes was the umpire for neighborhood baseball games, but that was when I was too little to remember much about the games. My only real baseball-related memory is of driving home from a game once after a heavy rain. The lane between the road and our farm was so muddy that half the time the Jeep was driving sideways, and I was very impressed.

Here are some of the sounds that say “summer” to me:

The strongest one is the clear, melodic trill of a meadowlark. That sound takes me back instantly to being in a car, traveling along a gravel road on a prairie summer day, and the sudden sweetness of the meadowlark song caught through the open window.

Another part of my personal summer soundtrack is the crisp rustling and tearing noises of ears of sweet corn being twisted off the stalks and stripped of their husks. Freezing corn was an all-day project, starting with picking half a pickup load of corn first thing in the morning, then husking it, then blanching the ears, cooling them, and cutting the kernels off the cobs. Which brings back another sound—my grandmother’s knife, the blade worn thin from years of sharpening, scraping along the cob to get every bit of the milky half-cooked kernels.

A summer sound that I heard myself just this morning is the plop-plop-plop of chokecherries hitting the bottom of an ice cream bucket. It took me back decades to chokecherry-picking expeditions with my mother, grandmother, and sisters. I reminisced as I stripped all the berries I could reach off of the tree that stands right outside my own front door. Two ice cream buckets full—Grandma would have been proud. Well, until she saw how many leaves and stems ended up in my buckets along with the fruit.

I greatly enjoyed myself, too, in spite of (or maybe because of) missing two sounds that were definitely part of my childhood chokecherry picking experiences. I didn’t once hear the whine of a mosquito buzzing past my ears. And I didn’t once hear the whine of my hot, bored, little-girl self asking, “Haven’t we picked enough yet?”

Categories: Remembering When | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Making Tracks

Everything I know about tracking I learned from Rolf In The Woods, by Ernest Thompson Seton, who as well as being a naturalist and writer was one of the founders of the Boy Scouts of America. The book was among the contents of the single bookcase that made up the library in our small country schoolhouse, and I read it several times. Still, my ability to decipher the secrets of wild animals by the tracks they leave behind is limited at best.

Even so, going for walks along the gravel road that leads to my parents’ house, I sometimes notice clues about who has been out and about. Especially, like the other morning, when it has just rained.

That day, I could see that several deer had been out even earlier than I was. Maybe, unlike some people, they hadn’t taken time for a cup of coffee first. Two or three of them had meandered in and out of the ditch, crossing and recrossing the road. A doe and fawn had taken the same route I was walking, leaving parallel sets of tracks for a quarter of a mile. The doe’s dainty hoof prints made a straight line along the edge of the road. The fawn’s delicate little toe marks showed it had walked on one side of mom for a while, then on the other, and sometimes it had wandered off to the middle of the road. I could easily imagine her flicking her ears and looking back to remind it to stay close. I was pretty sure they were whitetails. Not from the tracks, though Ernest probably would have been able to tell, but from the fact that I had seen a whitetail doe along the same stretch of road the day before.

Checking out the machine shed near the house, I could see clear tracks in the soft dirt of the floor. I recognized them immediately as porcupine tracks that were about 24 hours old. You can attribute this to my superior tracking skills if you like. In fact, I really wish you would.

It’s possible, though, that my conclusion may have been based on the coincidental fact that the previous morning, as we sat at the breakfast table, we had seen the actual porcupine. My mother first spotted it as it went into the machine shed, silhouetted against the morning sun that turned its long fur and quills into a spiky halo.

Apparently it didn’t find whatever or whomever it was looking for in the building, as it came out a minute or so later. Supposedly these animals move slowly, but this one headed across the yard at a brisk pace like a porcupine with a purpose. It waddle-marched across the driveway and past the porch, paying no attention to the mere humans when we went to the door to look at it. It made its way around to the back yard and disappeared into the windbreak trees behind the house. We never saw it again, but at least now I know what porcupine tracks look like.

On my way back to the house, moving with purpose myself because it was time for breakfast, I came across some odd marks in the gravel. They almost looked like ripples. One of the things Ernest neglected to mention is that gravel, even wet gravel, doesn’t take tracks very well, so I couldn’t be sure. I wondered briefly whether they might mark a place where a hawk had swooped low after a cottontail or mouse.

Then I saw more of the odd marks and realized they seemed to follow the road. Looking more closely, I figured out what they were. They marked the passage of a bipedal brown-eyed perambulator.

I was looking at my own tracks. Ernest would not have been proud.

Categories: Odds and Ends, Wild Things | Tags: | Leave a comment

Cookie’s Chuckwagon Blues

This is not exactly a sad country song, but it probably qualifies as a cowboy’s lament. With thanks (or apologies, whichever is more appropriate) to Nancy, who started it.

 

Cookie’s Chuckwagon Blues

With my chuckwagon and my old Dutch ovens,
I’ve cooked a lot of years out on the range.
But I don’t know about these modern cowboys;
Their ideas of grub is passing strange.

Tex won’t eat no more of my hot biscuits
Because his diet now is gluten-free.
He has a rice cake with his beans and bacon.
Cowboys sure ain’t like they used to be.

Slim is munching carrot sticks and celery.
“I got too fat,” he tells me with a sigh.
“Why, I can’t even see my own belt buckle,
Until I can, it’s no more apple pie.”

High cholesterol is Shorty’s problem,
So now he don’t eat butter, eggs, or lard.
He says, “Trans fat is gonna kill ya, Cookie.
Better buy some olive oil, old pard.”

“More beans,” says Joe, as he comes back for seconds,
And it reminds me of the good old days,
Until he adds, “I need to eat more fiber.”
Whatever happened to old cowboy ways?

I miss the days when me and this old wagon
Served cowboy grub as good as grub could git.
But the day some cowpoke asks for tofu burger,
That’s the day I tell the boss, “I quit!”

Categories: Food and Drink, Just For Fun | Tags: , , | 3 Comments

Losing One’s Composure

Suppose, theoretically speaking, a person decided to wash the pots and pans from last night’s spaghetti dinner the following morning, and that person had an appointment so she was in somewhat of a hurry.

Yes, she should really have done the dishes the night before, when the plates and glasses and such got run through the dishwasher, but after a busy day capped with guests for dinner, she was tired. So the pots sat patiently on the stove overnight, which gave them a chance to bond fully with the bits of spaghetti sauce and pasta starch clinging to their insides.

This person first moved the composting bucket from the sink to the counter so she could fill the sink with hot soapy water to soak the pots. This bucket, a handy-dandy object she had made herself by cutting off the top of a square plastic laundry soap container, holds about a gallon of vegetable peelings, fruit rinds, egg shells, and such. It was full. And yes, she should really have taken it out the night before.

While the pots were soaking, the person opened the dishwasher, pulled out the top rack, and began to put away the clean dishes. Moving quickly—she had an appointment, remember—she reached up to put some glasses into the cupboard, pulled her arm down, and caught the composting bucket with her elbow. It promptly tipped itself in precisely the right direction to regurgitate its contents over the edge of the counter into the dishwasher.

The person responded with colorful language, including a word or two that some of her grandchildren would be shocked to know she knew.

Picking strawberry tops, carrot peelings, grape stems, and blackened banana peels off of cups and glasses that were clean and gleaming a moment earlier wouldn’t really have been so bad. But the fact that they were garnished with little worm-like spaghetti remnants and leftover sauce made the chore somewhat less than appealing.

Oh, well. If one is going to dirty a bunch of dishes in one fell swoop of a misplaced elbow, at least it helps to be efficient enough to do it when they’re already in the dishwasher. And if one is going to dump scraps out on the compost pile to return to nature, it probably doesn’t hurt to have them well mixed ahead of time. The person even managed to make it to her appointment on time, leaving a reasonably clean kitchen behind her.

And thankfully, no one was around to hear the colorful language, even though it was completely understandable. Nor would we want to further humiliate this person by revealing her identity. The whole experience, after all, was already decomposing.

Categories: Food and Drink, Odds and Ends | Tags: | 3 Comments

Things Not to Do in Your Skinny Jeans

There are obvious health and social risks associated with skinny jeans. The chance of injuring delicate body parts as you zip up, even though you hold your breath and suck in till you turn purple. The inconvenience and potential embarrassment of struggling to peel the jeans down, millimeter by millimeter, in the confines of a public restroom stall while nature is calling with increasing urgency. The risk of losing essential objects like your wallet, keys, or cell phone because you can’t put them into your skintight pockets. And, of course, the ever-present fear that if you bend over you might hear a ripping sound and feel a sudden breeze.

Not to mention the risk—especially significant for those who live alone—of getting stuck in your jeans while you’re getting dressed. If you don’t bend your foot precisely the right way while you’re trying to slide it through that teeny little opening at the bottom of the jeans, your heel gets caught and there you are, like Cinderella’s stepsister trying to squeeze into that little glass slipper. You can’t push your foot on through, and with the jeans halfway up your thighs you can’t exactly bend over to tug the jeans back down off your foot, and you’re torn between desperately hoping someone will come in and rescue you and desperately hoping no one sees you till you manage to extricate yourself.

But it turns out there is an even greater danger than any of these: nerve and muscle damage that can land you in the hospital. Seriously. A woman in Australia, helping someone move, spent a great deal of time squatting while she emptied cupboards. Her skinny jeans compressed nerves and blocked circulation in her lower legs. By the end of the day when she walked home, her feet were so numb she fell down and couldn’t get up until someone found her. Her jeans had to be cut off in the emergency room and she spent four days in the hospital.

The moral to the story, according to doctors who published a report in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, is not to squat in your skinny jeans.

There actually could be an upside to this, I suppose. For example:

Friend to friend: “You know how much I admire your collection of salt and pepper shakers, but I just can’t pack them for you. The doctor says it would be dangerous to spend that much time reaching into the bottom cupboards.”

Teenage girl to parent: “Weed the garden? But you can’t make me do that—I could be crippled for life!

Mom or grandma to toddler: “Sorry, sweetheart, I’d love to get down on the floor and play eleventeen games of Candyland with you, but it wouldn’t be safe.”

Of course, there is one simple and sensible way to avoid all of these potential problems: choose jeans that aren’t quite so skinny, or at least ones that stretch. But of course, we’re not talking about sense here; we’re talking about style.

I would, however, offer just one small piece of advice: if you must squat in your skinny jeans, at least don’t do it with your spurs on.

 

Categories: Fashion | Tags: | Leave a comment

The Green Grass of Home

“Green,” “lush,” and “western South Dakota prairies” are not words you’ll often find in the same sentence, unless there’s a “not” in there somewhere. This year is an exception.

We’ve had thunderstorm after thunderstorm this spring and early summer. Every little stock dam is full to the brim, every little creek and gully has flowing water, and the pastures are thick with rich green grass that ripples temptingly in the wind. It’s enough to make even someone who works at a desk and hasn’t been on a horse in decades indulge in brief wistful thoughts about going into the cow business.

Driving west a few days ago, with the long shadows of early evening showing the prairie at its loveliest, I was simultaneously enjoying the beauty of the present and indulging in thoughts about the past. My nostalgic mood came from the family reunion I had just attended, and it was further fueled by the “classic country” oldies radio station I was listening to.

Somewhere between Kadoka and Wall, a familiar song with an especially apt title came on: “Green, Green Grass of Home.”

The song is a tearjerker that starts with a man going back to his old home to see his parents and his sweetheart Mary, with her “hair of gold and lips like cherries.” Then he wakes up, in his cell on death row, and we realize the only time he’ll “touch the green, green grass of home” is when he’s buried under it. It’s the kind of song you are irresistibly drawn to sing along to, even while you hope no one catches you doing it.

Written by Claude “Curly” Putman, Jr., the song was recorded in the 1960’s by performers as diverse as Porter Wagoner, Johnny Cash, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Joan Baez. Tom Jones’s version became an international hit.

Hearing it this week, I was instantly transported in both time and place. It sent me to 1972 and a location far removed from both green grass and anything that meant home to me: an underground railway car in London.

My then-husband and I were part of a trip to Great Britain organized by the English and drama departments at our small college. The idea was to allow students to experience the culture of Shakespeare, Chaucer, Oscar Wilde, and Sir Laurence Olivier.

Late one night, heading home from an evening at the theatre, our group got onto the tube (the subway to us) and found ourselves in a car crowded with fans heading home from a football match (a soccer game to us).

These fans were a group of Welsh guys whose team had won. They had obviously been celebrating earlier with alcohol, and now they were celebrating with song: “Green, Green Grass of Home.” Just the rousing ditty anyone would choose for an occasion that called for jollity and rejoicing.

One of the singers, spotting me standing with the rest of our group in the crowded car, staggered to his feet. He waved me to his seat with an expansive gesture that almost sent him sprawling.

It was the first time a gentleman had ever made a point of giving me his seat. So I sat. It seemed only polite, even though it felt awkward to take a seat in the middle of someone else’s drunken party. I was much too uncomfortable to join in the singing, even though I did know all the words.

After a few minutes, my husband, who had somewhat more experience with drunken young men than I did, suggested quietly but with a certain urgency that I get up. I stood, with relief, and we sidled a few feet away through the crowd.

Just in time, too. The gallant who had so graciously given up his seat threw up right in front of it. Fortunately, on his own shoes and those of his friends instead of on mine.

To this day, it only takes a few bars of “Green, Green Grass of Home” to take me right back to that London tube car. I realize the melodic voices of drunken football fans and the aroma of regurgitated ale may not be exactly the atmosphere that Curley Putman intended to evoke when he wrote the song. But I can’t help myself. Sometimes you just have to take your nostalgia where you find it.

Categories: Remembering When, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Pepperoni in the Rain

If you’re having a tough day, there’s nothing like listening to sad country music to make you feel better. All your real-life troubles take on a new perspective after 15 or 10 minutes of listening to variations of, “You’re gone, and I’ll never get over it, and I’ve been here in the bar drowning my sorrows for 13 years now, but I still can’t understand why you left me.”

Then there are the times when real life just begs to be a sad country song. The other night, for example, I got a phone call from a family member while she was “delivering pizzas in the rain.”

With a line like that to start with, the rest of the song practically writes itself:

Since you left with all our money
All my luck went down the drain.
Now I’m out in my old pickup
Delivering pizzas in the rain.

My only hope is that one evening
When that phone begins to ring,
I will hear you ask me sweetly
For “a large with everything.”

With my heart as extra topping,
I will rush it to your door.
And the only tip I’ll ask for
Is to see your face once more.

Now, that’s extra cheese.

I don’t know about you, but I feel better already. Except for a slight craving for Canadian bacon and black olives.

Categories: Food and Drink, Just For Fun | Tags: , | 2 Comments

Oh, To Be a Child Again–Or Not

One of the many humorous/inspiring/possibly fake/probably plagiarized emails that periodically circulates around the Internet is about “resigning from adulthood.” It talks about turning in your driver’s license and becoming a kid again. In honor of its most recent appearance, here’s an update of a response I wrote to it several years ago.

Are you kidding? Who would ever want to be a kid again? True, adults have more responsibility: we’re expected to do grownup-type things like hold down real jobs and pay bills. But I’ll accept that responsibility any day in return for all the benefits of being an adult. Here are just a few of them:

• No algebra homework.

• You get to choose your own bedtime.

• You get to plan your own menus and decide for yourself whether to finish your vegetables.

• In the car, you almost always get to sit in the front by a window.

• You can paint your room whatever color you want.

• You can eat watermelon just before bedtime if you want to.

• If a telemarketer calls and asks “Is your mother home?” you can say something smart-alecky like, “I don’t know; I haven’t talked to her since Tuesday.”

• You can decide for yourself whether you’re cold and should put on a sweater.

• Nobody says you can only read one more chapter before you go to bed.

• You can pick out your own clothes.

• If you take a nap, it’s because you want to, not because someone says you have to.

• If you drop a glass and it shatters all over the sink, and you say a four-letter word, nobody threatens to wash your mouth out with soap.

• You can call teachers and principals by their first names.

• You get to do anything your older siblings get to do.

• If you want a puppy or a kitten, you don’t have to settle for a goldfish or a hamster.

Yep, I’ve been a child and I’ve been an adult. Trust me: adulthood is better.

Categories: Odds and Ends | 2 Comments

“Just Like My Mama Used to Make”

Biscuits for breakfast. Light, flaky, and fresh from the oven. Covered with sausage gravy. Paired with scrambled eggs. With butter and honey melted deliciously into them. Or even—my personal favorite—with peanut butter and homemade chokecherry jelly.

It’s a great idea. So great that, visiting my parents this week, I decided to surprise them one morning with baking powder biscuits. They would go perfectly with the leftover sausage gravy, made for supper a few days earlier by my sister the excellent cook.

In my somewhat misplaced enthusiasm, I overlooked one inconvenient detail: baking powder biscuits are not one of my kitchen accomplishments. Mine tend to melt in the mouth like, say, week-old sourdough bread. Or hockey pucks.

Up early in the quiet of my parents’ kitchen, I browsed through the recipe books. I found the perfect biscuit recipe, taped inside the back cover of one of the books. It was in the handwriting of my sister the excellent cook. How could I go wrong?

I mixed up the biscuits, following the recipe precisely. I spaced the biscuits far enough apart on the pan so they had room to rise. I preheated the oven and put them in.

When I took them out, they were only a little larger than they had started. They were slightly brown on top and very brown on the bottom. Their texture might politely have been described as “firm.” The only thing “flaky” about them was my unreasonable optimism that this time would be different from all the other times I’ve ever made baking powder biscuits.

My parents ate the biscuits and politely said they tasted good. Which, actually, with the sausage gravy, they did. No surprise there. The gravy, remember, had been made by my sister the excellent cook.

We agreed—my parents out of polite pity and me out of desperate grasping for excuses—that the problem had to be the baking powder. Sure enough, the expiration date on the can turned out to be six months ago. That was close enough to plausible excusability for me. At least this time; it didn’t necessarily explain why I never can seem to make baking powder biscuits as well as my sisters, my father, or my mother.

Then my mother said, “But why didn’t you just use Bisquick? That’s what I always do.”

Categories: Food and Drink | Tags: , | 6 Comments

You Never Miss the Water Till the Well Runs Dry

There’s nothing like knowing the water is shut off to make you immediately thirsty. Fortunately, today’s shutoff wasn’t an emergency, so we were prepared. The full pitcher, kettle, and assortment of water bottles on the kitchen counter ought to give us more than enough water to drink until the well is back in operation. (Of course, drinking all that water has inevitable consequences, but no worries—we have containers of water for flushing, too.)

Actually, the well hasn’t run dry. The pump has run out of oomph. Not surprising, when you consider that it’s been working away quietly and reliably for four decades. This morning, in a scheduled end-of-life intervention, it pumped its last drop. The well guys are out there right now, pulling pipe and checking for leaks and redoing wiring and whatever else goes along with replacing a pump in a well that nobody has paid much attention to for forty years.

This morning, in the shower where I usually think most of my great thoughts, I was thinking grateful thoughts about the luxury of having water that pours lavishly over my head at the turn of a faucet. Washing the breakfast dishes while the water was still running, I couldn’t help but notice how many times I turned the faucet on and off to rinse each plate and cup and handful of utensils.

I like to think I’m not a water waster. When I was growing up (fair warning: here comes a “walking to school in the snow, uphill, both ways” moment), scrimping on water was a necessary habit. Our farm had plenty of well water, but it was both destructive to pipes and dreadful to taste buds. I used to feel sorry for the cows, who had no choice but to drink the stuff.

In the house, we had water of excellent quality but limited quantity. It was hauled from the town of Winner, 20-odd miles away over first dirt, then gravel, and eventually partly paved roads. As far as I know, the man who delivered it made his living with his water truck. Every so often he would drive into the yard and back up beside the house to refill the cistern.

That cistern was absolutely forbidden territory to us kids. Its round steel top, maybe eight or ten feet in diameter, stuck up a few inches out of the ground, just right for sitting on or walking around the edge of. We were not allowed to do either. This rule was strictly enforced, as we were quick to explain to cousins and other visitors. I remember occasional reminders to “Stay off the cistern!” being shouted out the kitchen window. I don’t think any of us ever even thought about going so far as trying to open the lid.

I found it fascinating, then, that the water guy was so nonchalant about doing exactly that. The lid was a round metal cap perhaps 18 inches across, in the center of the cistern. He would pry it open, plop the end of his hose into it, and open the valve of his water tank. We weren’t allowed close enough to see it—to this day I have no idea how deep that cistern was—but from a safe distance we could hear the water gushing.

While I assume the water guy made deliveries on a regular schedule, every now and then we would run out of water. This meant a phone call and a dry wait until he could make it out with a load. It was always a relief to see his truck coming up the lane.

All these years later, I suppose I take for granted the fresh, pure water that pours out whenever we want it. Today, though, I certainly don’t. With the faucets all dry, and people I don’t know doing things I don’t understand out at the well, it’s a good day to stop and think about what a luxury that water really is.

Categories: Food and Drink, Remembering When | Tags: | 3 Comments

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