Random musings on a writer's life & times, with occasional input from acquaintances


Monday, September 01, 2003

Hi, there. I’m back. Did you miss me?

I noticed that Writeright has been blank since June 1, so I thought posting something on Sept. 1 might be appropriate. I’ve been on the road much of the summer, but I’m back in my Portland tree house (as my wife refers to my attic office in our home) now.

Where did I go this summer? Well, let’s see. First, in June, I went to Falls City, Nebraska. Then in July I went to Boston and upstate New York. Then in August I went to Paulina, Oregon. I get around, boy. Little town, big town, no town at all (Paulina has a general store, a school and four or five houses -- that’s about it).

My family roots are in Falls City, a town of about 4,800 in southeast Nebraska, about ten miles north of Kansas and seven miles west of Missouri. My three sons have heard me talk about it forever, but none of them had ever been there, except Joe, my eldest, who flew with my wife and me to a family reunion there when he has about two months old in 1980. He claims to remember little about the experience.

So . . . in June I accompanied Joe, Mickey and Andy, plus my mother and my Uncle Milan, to Falls City for a visit. Mom and Milan stayed with their sister Jean, who lives in Falls City, but the boys and I had separate rooms at the Check Inn motel. What a garden spot! Hot and cold running bugs, and all the coffee you can drink as long as you get it from the office before 6:30 a.m. (Nebraska folks rise early). Actually, there were only a few bugs, but the Check Inn will never replace New York’s Plaza Hotel as the most fancy joint I ever stayed in. And the maids had a disconcerting habit of opening the windows and turning on the air conditioning. I couldn't figure out what that was about.

We stayed in Falls City for a week. The boys found it culturally enlightening. “I never realized how isolated Grandma’s hometown was,” said Joe. “I feel like we’re a long way from anywhere.” Actually, we were about two hours from Omaha and ninety minutes from Kansas City. But that’s a lot of empty farm fields, when you look at it. Falls City used to be a semi-busy oil and railroad town, with a population around 7,000, but the oil played out and the two train-repair roundhouses closed in the 1950s. All that’s left to keep the town going is agriculture, and farmers have struggled for years, so there is a palpable feeling of economic decline mixed with the sense of distance from city lights.

In some ways, Nebraska felt like a foreign country to the boys. We went out to Barada, a little community north of Falls City where the family farm was located for sixty years or so, and visited a graveyard on a hill overlooking the town. “Wow,” said Joe, looking at the names on headstones, “two-thirds of these people are related to us. It makes me feel so . . . connected.” Then he and his brothers went out and stood in a corn field, because they had never been close to one before. Also, there was the car trouble Mickey experienced. He chose to drive a 13-year-old Volvo to Nebraska -- “Road trip!” he exulted -- rather than fly with the rest of us, but the thing had started hemorrhaging oil by the time he reached Falls City. We took it in to the garage reputed to be the best in town, but the mechanic who owned the joint shook his head and muttered and mumbled and let us know that folks in Richardson County don’t drive durn foreign cars and allowed as how he could try to fix it but he wasn’t sure he could do it right and we would be better off driving it to the nearest Volvo dealer -- in Omaha, 100 miles away. I called three or four other shops, but they all said pretty much the same thing. Buy American, bud! That was the basic message. So Mickey took the Volvo to Omaha.

While we were in the Midwest, we took a side trip to Manhattan, Kansas, where I taught journalism at Kansas State University for a couple of years a million moons ago. I took the kids over to my old house and learned from a beer-bottle-toting student who greeted us in the yard that the place had been rented by five K-State boys. It’s not a professor’s domicile any more, alas. No one stays up until 3 a.m. grading papers or rushes out the door at 7:49 a.m. with lecture notes for an eight o’clock class flapping from a jacket pocket. A lot of video games get played and a lot of beer gets drunk in the house, though, our bottle boy said, so the place isn’t going to waste.

I lived in Falls City until I was 5 years old, and I’ve always considered it home, so I enjoyed our visit a great deal. Somewhat to my surprise, the boys got a kick out of the trip, too. Andy, my youngest son, who is 15, even developed an affection for the Check Inn. When we traveled together to Boston a month later, we stayed in the classy Inn at Harvard Square, but Andy allowed as how her preferred the Check Inn. It was less pretentious, he said. He felt like he fit in better there. I guess at heart he’s just an old Falls City boy like his dad.

I’ll tell you more about Boston and upstate New York another day. Paulina, too. (And maybe even Spray and Antelope). Right now, I gotta go stalk the wily dinner.

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