You Really Can Go Home Again

Urban legend always hints that people who live on the east coast – NYC, Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia – don’t even know that Nebraska exists. Hmmmm. Nebraska? Is that somewhere over by Idaway or South Mexico? Isn’t that where all the Indians live?

I don’t know if it’s true that the Great Plains states remain a mystery to New Yorkers or Californians – just one of the so-called flyover states – but I will tell you that even as one who left Nebraska to put roots elsewhere, I never fail to be proud that I grew up in the Midwest.

All my life – both when I lived in Nebraska and after I moved to Colorado – I have heard people complain about that long drive on I-80 through ugly Nebraska. The sentiment makes me laugh because, while certainly the mountains of central and western Colorado are magnificent, the eastern plains are, well, less than splendid. But the cattle that graze on that land and the wheat that grows both summer and winter in eastern Colorado feed all of us throughout the United States and frankly, the world. So to me, it’s beautiful. It’s all beautiful.

And once you cross into Nebraska and start following the Platte River past field after field of corn and soybeans, the scene is frankly bountiful and gorgeous. It reminds me of the vineyards in Tuscany in sort of a weird way.

Midwesterners work hard, whether or not they are farmers or ranchers or city folk. Hard work, family, faith, and the Cornhuskers are what make most Nebraskans tick. It’s as simple as that. And if you spend your formative years in Nebraska, it is always part of you, even if you call yourself a Coloradan or an Arizonan.

Bec tells a funny story about a time when she was driving around her town of Chandler, AZ, shortly after she had moved there. She passed a field of something green. Hmmm, she said to herself. There’s a field of sorghum.

Wait, what? She reminded herself that she didn’t have the slightest idea of what sorghum was or even its purpose. But when she got home, she googled it. Yes, you guessed it. The field was, in fact, sorghum. Somewhere inside her head that had lived in Germany and Alabama and Washington, DC, for way more years than in Nebraska, she recognized sorghum.

The recent few days that we spent in Nebraska for my family’s reunion were wonderful, and made all of us nostalgic. Those cornfields are so beautiful, one of us would say about every 15 minutes. It looks like there’s been a lot of rain, another would say, interest in weather being a perfect indicator of a Midwesterner.

Here are some of the things we saw and did while in Nebraska…..

Beautiful old houses surrounded by magnificent trees (Do you know that Arbor Day started in Nebraska? Do you even know what Arbor Day is?)….

Nielsons house

We drove on the Lincoln Highway quite by accident while in Omaha. Bec instructed her car’s GPS to take us the shortest way to St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Valley, Nebraska, on Saturday evening, and the GPS took us on old Highway 30 – the Lincoln Highway – which at that point is a brick road. Lincoln Highway was built in the early 20th century and passes through a total of 14 states, 128 counties, and more than 700 communities across the United States….

Lincoln Highway Omaha

My immediate family has history at Husker House Restaurant in Columbus. It was where we went for celebrations. My mom and dad celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary at Husker House. We celebrated birthdays and first communions and confirmations at Husker House. So, it’s a command performance when we are in Columbus. This time, Bec, my cousin Marilyn, and I toasted my parents with a Grasshopper following our fried chicken dinner….

marilyn bec kris grasshoppers

And the reason we chose fried chicken, my friends, is because by that time we had practically eaten nothing but beef because NEBRASKA. Bill, Bec, Jen, and I ate our first meal in Nebraska at a steakhouse. What else?……

bec bill jen kris sullivans 2016 omaha

And finally, what do you suppose I found on the shelves of a Hyvee Supermarket in Omaha, NE? Stewart’s Diet Orange and Cream soda. Yay Alastair!….

Kris Stewarts Hyvee Omaha

While I consider myself a Coloradan — at least mostly, deep down inside me, I am a Nebraskan-at-heart. And, by the way, Go Big Red!

Micekville

In the town in which I grew up, the railroad tracks divided Columbus into two areas — the north side of the tracks and the south side of the tracks.  It wasn’t any kind of a formal division. Streets didn’t become avenues; street names didn’t change from North Whatever to South Whatever; there was no West Side Story or Hatfields and McCoys. The railroad tracks simply went all the way through the town, and trains passed through Columbus, dividing the town into two, about every 10 or 15 minutes, or at least that’s how it seemed. There was only one viaduct, so residents either drove out of their way to cross the tracks on the lone viaduct west of downtown or waited for the long train to makes its way past your street.

The Miceks — my family — lived on the south side of the tracks. And many proudly lived – at least for a period of a few years back in the post-WWII days when Baby Boomers were just out of diapers – within spitting distance of one another.

I learned about what I – and I, alone – call Micekville at the family reunion. Oh, I vaguely recalled that my mom and dad rented a house across from Grandpa Micek when Bec was a toddler and before I was born. By the time I came along, Dad and Mom had built their own home a full 10 blocks or so away, across the tracks. And I, of course, was also aware that my mom’s brothers Elmer and Leonard (along with their families) still lived near each other in the area just south of the railroad tracks even when Mom and Dad sold their business and their house and dropped anchor in Leadville, Colorado.

But I never knew that there was a point in time when my Grandpa Micek, then a widower, took in my mom’s sister Anne who had recently been widowed herself after a bolt of lightning killed her farmer husband, leaving her to raise five children on her own. Along with Anne and her children, my mom’s bachelor brother Ray moved into that same house across the street from where my folks lived. Just down the street, Leonard and Elmer had their homes, as did my mother’s brothers Bob and Ted and their families.

See what I mean? Micekville.

And just for good measure, my dad’s parents had a home just a stone’s throw from there. It was a village.

Eventually, two of my uncles moved their families not just out of Micekville, but out of Columbus altogether. Anne’s kids grew up and she and Ray moved near our home, as did my aunt and uncle, always called Cork and Jeep. It might have been on the north side, but the reality is that it was only a short bike ride away.

I'm happy to say the men standing in front of Glur's aren't my relatives. At least I don't think so....

I’m happy to say the men standing in front of Glur’s aren’t my relatives. At least I don’t think so….

Columbus’ original downtown was on 11th street, just south of the railroad tracks. At some point the downtown moved two blocks north to 13th street, which is where my folks had their bakery. After that change, 11th Street consisted mostly of bars or somewhat lonely businesses. But one of the businesses that wasn’t lonely was Glur’s Tavern. (Interesting article here.) Supposedly the oldest continuously-running tavern east of the Mississippi, it was just a hop and a skip from Micekville. Stop in any afternoon or evening, and you wouldn’t be surprised to see one Micek or another at the bar sipping a beer or a pop. Bec recalls the Micek clan gathering some evenings in Glur’s beer garden where she and her cousins would run and play, drink root beer and eat popcorn while the parents yakked. By time I came along, the beer garden wasn’t part of my parents’ leisure activities because they had a business to run. But I have vivid memories of walking hand-in-hand with my grandmother (who by that time lived in an apartment above the bakery) to Glur’s Tavern to get a strawberry ice cream cone. Always strawberry. And we inevitably had to wait for a train before we could cross the tracks to get to Glur’s. That was okay because we got to wave goodbye to the cabooseman. He always waved back.

The day after the reunion, Bill, Bec, Jen and I decided we wanted to stop at Glur’s Tavern to see if it had changed (it hadn’t, not even the towel in the bathroom) and to maybe have a burger and a pop. We walked into the door, and Glur’s was nearly empty except for one large group sitting in the middle of the room where several tables had been pushed together.

Guess who it was? Miceks. Billions and billions of Miceks. (Well, not really, but it almost seems like, doesn’t it?…..)

Miceks at Glurs

Sometimes, things don’t change as much as you think.

Chameleons

horseIn the early 1970s, Bill packed up his family and left the south side of Chicago – where he had lived his entire life, along with bad, bad Leroy Brown – and moved to the Wild, Wild West of Denver, Colorado. I’m pretty sure the engine of his station wagon wasn’t even cool before he went out and bought a pick-up truck, a horse, a trailer, and a pair of cowboy boots. It was Colorado, after all, and that’s how he rolls.

Quite frankly, my dad did the same thing when he moved to Leadville, Colorado, in 1974. While living almost an entire life in Columbus, Nebraska, doesn’t exactly qualify a person to be a city slicker, the reality was that though we lived in a farm community, we weren’t farmers. We didn’t raise crops. We didn’t feed cattle. Mom and Dad were business owners and town folk.

But when Dad bought the bakery in Colorado, the owner also offered to sell him a horse and a horse trailer.

Done.

So we were the proud (?) owners of Mike-the-Horse. None of us rode horses. In fact, horses made me fairly nervous (now that’s a shocker), though it didn’t make much difference since for the time the Gloor family owned a horse, I was still attending the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.

I’m pretty sure it was my brother’s responsibility to take care of the horse. Clearly, as the bakery was in the city limits of Leadville, Mike was stabled elsewhere. So my brother – who would have been maybe junior high age – had to somehow get to the stable, feed the horse, and probably give him a bit of exercise as well.

Mike didn’t live with the Gloors for long. I’m not sure what happened to him. I’m hoping he was sold to a nice horse-loving family and not to Purina. Let’s go with that.

For a period of time while still living in Columbus, Mom and Dad bought a cabin at Wagner’s Lake. I believe for the most part, Wagner’s Lake now is mostly the location of permanent residents, but back in the 60s, there were a lot of just rudimentary cabins. We owned one of them.

We actually spent a surprising amount of time at our cabin at Wagner’s Lake, though I have no recollection of ever sleeping there. Since Columbus was fairly small and you could drive anywhere in the town in less than 15 minutes, it likely made no sense to my mom to sleep at the cabin (which might be home to mice or other critters) when in 10 minutes she could be at home sleeping in her own comfortable bed. I’m with you all the way, Mom.

But, like Mike-the-horse in Leadville, this cabin either included or had thrown in at a bargain basement price a small motor boat. I don’t want you to even BEGIN envisioning a fancy boat with which you could water ski or even cruise around the lake drinking beer and eating sandwiches. It was a crappy-looking boat with a small engine that required Dad to pull on a starter rope – over and over again — to get the engine started. It was basically a floating lawn mower.

My cousin John tells a funny story about Dad inviting some of our relatives to the cabin to celebrate some holiday or other. Dad was apparently very excited to take some of the men out on “the boat.” John was envisioning the fancy boat, and it was a surprise that he saw what basically amounted to an aluminum can. When they all got on the boat, it would barely move because of the weight. I’m pretty sure the story includes getting hung up on a sand bar out in the middle of the lake. I’m SURE it includes beer.

The boat – like Mike-the-horse – didn’t last long. The cabin lasted until they moved to Colorado. We learned that a cabin can be fun if you simply suck up to the neighbors and use THEIR boat!

Given my dad’s and my husband’s stories, I guess you can take the man out of the testosterone but you can’t take the testosterone out of the man.

Surrey With the Fringe on the Top

Chicks and ducks and geese better scurry
When I take you out in my surrey
When I take you out in my surrey with the fringe on top. – Rodgers and Hammerstein

la-oc-970918-oklahoma-movie-jpg-20140409

Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae (didn’t he star in every Rodgers and Hammerstein movie ever made?)

I recently finished reading a book that had to do with my secret addiction – anything having to do with the British royal family. I am embarrassed to admit it, but I can’t get enough of the Dysfunctional- Family-To-End-All-Dysfunctional-Families. We all have our dirty little secrets and being a Windsorphile is one of mine.

One of the more useless pieces of information that I learned from the book was that the Queen’s favorite song is People Will Say We’re in Love. She loves it so much, in fact, that she has it played every morning for her, by a piper outside her bedroom window. I think it’s a pretty song, but after about 5 minutes’ worth of Rodgers and Hammerstein on a bagpipe, I would ask them to stop. Please, please stop. Never come back. Off with his head.

Anyhoo, if you’re an avid musical fan, you will recognize, as did I, that People Will Say We’re in Love is from one of the many Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. I couldn’t, however, recall which one. Carousel? South Pacific? State Fair? Something where the main female character wears a dirndl skirt and looks longingly into her soon-to-be boyfriend’s eyes as she sings to her. That much I knew. So, like any intelligent person in the 21st century, I Googled it.

It’s from Oklahoma. Shirley Jones sings it wearing gingham. I’ll bet Queen Elizabeth II has never owned a single item in her life made of gingham. Nevertheless, it was the first song that she and her prince danced to, so it’s “their song” and her favorite. She has a right.

Princess Elizabeth and Lt Philip Mountbatten after their wedding November 1947. Mirrorpix/Courtesy Everett Collection (MPWA574514)

Princess Elizabeth and Lt Philip Mountbatten after their wedding November 1947. Mirrorpix/Courtesy Everett Collection (MPWA574514)

But it got me to looking at what other songs of note came from that particular musical. I can’t say I knew a whole lot of them. There is, of course, Oh, What a Beautiful Morning. But I don’t think Pore Jud is Daid, or The Farmer and the Cowman ever made it to the Top 40. But then I saw it: The Surrey With the Fringe on the Top.

And I thought of my dad.

He never owned a surrey with or without fringe, at least as far as I know. But I have a VIVID recollection of him singing that particular song as part of a men’s musical choir originating in Columbus, Nebraska, when they performed on a local Omaha television station. Chicks and ducks and geese better scurry…..

My dad had a beautiful tenor voice. He was, as I have mentioned before, a gifted musician. He was part of the Navy band during World War II. More importantly, at least as it relates to me, he played clarinet and saxophone as part of a dance band directed by one of my mother’s brothers. It was as part of that band that my mom and dad met. She collected money at the door and he sat and stared at her with his tongue hanging out (those would have been my mom’s words). The rest, as they say, is history.

I actually never heard my dad play either one of those instruments. He had long ceased playing in the band by time I was born. I have long suspected that music was how my father WISHED he could have earned his living; baking, however, was more realistic for a family man.

I did, however, hear my father sing on many, many occasions. He sang in the choir at St. Bonaventure Catholic Church in Columbus for many years. And he would still sing loud and clear with the congregation long after leaving the choir.

And then, of course, he sang as part of the Apollo Club, a choir started in Columbus in 1946, headed up by the local musical guru Forest L. Corn. Mr. Corn owned Columbus Music, and also taught band at the public high school where my dad was a student. In fact, it was Mr. Corn who persuaded my father to join the band, thereby changing the course of my dad’s life. My dad always felt a bit guilty because he admitted to me one time that he only joined the band to get out of working in the bakery after school.

But back to my father’s singing voice. It was beautiful, as anyone who heard it would attest to. It was the clearest tenor voice I had ever heard. Well, there was Andy Williams, but hey! I was 6 or 7, and it was my dad! Seriously, however, he really did sing beautifully, and kept the clear tone until he was pretty darn old. God bless him. He’s undoubtedly singing now with the angels.

I think the Apollo Club dissolved sometime in the 70s. But I can still picture the group of men in their matching tuxedoes singing that song on our little black and white television. I think of that every time I hear it. Every. Single. Time.

Watch that fringe and see how it flutters
When I drive them high steppin’ strutters
Nosey pokes’ll peek thru their shutters
And their eyes will pop….

For that tiny little surrey with the fringe on the top!