Posts made in April, 2005

The Day the Water Tower Burned

Posted by on Apr 20, 2005 in Dad | 0 comments

If anyone has not heard of Bill Monroe, the father of Bluegrass music, then you have obviously not spent much time in rural USA. You don’t have to know anything about Bill and his brother Charlie to understand the story of the water tower, but it does provide some prospective. They are both dead now; buried on the sloping graveyard in Rosine that is also the final resting place for my Aunt Delora, Uncle Leslie and their stillborn son, Phillip. If you are a Bluegrass fan and have a morbid desire to see where Bill and Charlie’s bones are resting, you only need travel to my hometown, Beaver Dam and turn right onto old highway 62. Take the pleasant drive of about 10 miles through a slightly rolling landscape inhabited primarily by farmers and cows. You will pass through Horton, but if you reach Horse Branch, you’ve gone too far. If you arrive on a warm Friday night you can go over to the Rosine Barn Jamboree to listen to a free concert given by local Monroe wanabees. They play in or outside the barn next door to the Rosine General Store, depending on the weather. I hope you get there before the lawsuits are settled and they build a multimillion-dollar amphitheater and memorial. The cemetery is on your left and usually staffed by some young barefoot entrepreneurs who will be happy to sell you Monroe memorabilia at a very reasonable price. Bill and Charlie would probably have smiled at their resourcefulness and asked for a percentage of the profits.

The railroad that was the reason for the existence of Rosine, Horton, Horse Branch and my hometown, Beaver Dam was built between1852 and 1896. By the time Bill was born in 1911 and my father in 1914, the Paducah and Louisville line was a thriving operation, carrying the coal and other mineral of the area to distant places and bringing romance and excitement to children of all ages. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show came through in 1901 and 6 million dollars worth of gold was brought to Ft Knox in 1936. Once a year, circus cars were added to the passenger and freight cars. The big circuses did not stop in small towns, but sometimes the animals came out to get water and exercise, eliciting the same excitement as a space ship landing in the yard would today.

My father loves circuses and would always travel anywhere to see one. I don’t understand the appeal. I once thought it was because of the exotic animals, but he might have been checking out all those girls in tights and feathers. He thrived on risk taking, so he may have been considering a job as the man on the flying trapeze. He indulged his need for danger by being the chief of the local volunteer fire department, giving Mother another reason to ring her hands. Once he crawled into a smoke filled, burning building to see if anyone was inside, secured with a rope around his waist so his unconscious body could be retrieved. Well. unless the rope caught on fire but what were the odds on that happening?

Before cell phones and pagers, the firemen were alerted by the alarm at the fire station, which also rang at noon each day, except Sunday, loud enough to be heard throughout the town. Dad owned his business, so he could drop everything and be the first man at the station. That’s why he happened to be driving the fire engine the day the water tower burned down at Rosine. I’ve questioned him, and he no longer remembers the year, but all other details are fresh in his mind. The last steam engine was retired in 1962 and I only barely remember the event, so I’m guessing the Rosine fire was in the early 1950’s. The water tower was built before the remembrance of all but those too feeble to be in attendance on that exciting day. It was made of timber harvested locally, probably hickory, and covered in and outside with pitch, making it watertight. The structure was very near the tracks in order for the engine to be filled at each stop, the water providing steam for the pistons. On that fateful day, as the smoking engine arrived in town spewing cinders and sparks from its stack, a wayward ember landed on the top of the wooden water tower. Before the eyes of the passengers and crew of the train, the tower burst into flames. The cry went out to Beaver Dam, but before the truck could travel the 10 miles to Rosine, the tower was an inferno. It was certainly a sight to behold, the steam engine sputtering on the track, the passengers and townspeople agape, the firemen spraying water, and the tower collapsing, dumping its contents over the scene.

When Dad tells the story he begins with, “Did you know that Rosine was the only city in the USA where they burned down the water tower?’ By the time he finishes it seems a bit like a Doctor Suese story. You begin to imagine the circus elephants and performers also lined up to watch, and perhaps an old time Bluegrass band playing on the side. For good measure, he always mentioned the local baseball team, the Rosine Redlegs, but never actually placed them at the event. The glory days of the railroad are gone now, as are my fathers. Still, when he tells the tales of his prime, he is that man again, showing me extraordinary things that I would have missed if he hadn’t been my Dad.

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Fairy Tales My Mother Taught me

Posted by on Apr 15, 2005 in Mother | 0 comments

I come from a long line of strong women, much to the consternation of the long line of men also associated with my family. I remember reading the stories of happily ever after women in fairy tales and imagined myself in those settings. After a few minutes I would realize that I was bored and went off to climb a tree or build a fort. I would sit in my imaginary tower for about 5 minutes waiting for the prince before I went off to do something more exciting. When I started dating I listened to other girls describe things their boyfriends did for them. I puzzled over why I never attracted the sort of man who threw his coat over a puddle for me, figuratively speaking, of course. I recall one day after I married my first husband when my girlfriend said, “Michael shampooed the carpet for me yesterday.” When I questioned her, she recited a laundry list of chores that her husband routinely did because he considered her too “frail” for hard labor. Thinking to shame my husband, I spoke up at the dinner table that evening,
“You know, Michael shampooed the carpet for Carlene yesterday.”
“Maybe he’ll shampoo ours too,” came the reply from behind the newspaper.

Now my first husband and I came to a parting of ways, certainly not because of the carpet, but I will never forget going to his apartment one day where he and his current girlfriend were living. I knocked at the door several times before he answered. “Sorry, I didn’t hear you”, says my x. The scene before me was the girl, sitting at the table reading the newspaper, and John, hand still on the vacuum he was running in the apartment. At that moment I realized a great truth. It wasn’t the men, it was me. It started me thinking about my grandmother, hoeing a half-acre of corn in the midday sun, in a bonnet she made from one of her chicken feed bags. I also remember her with an ax, cutting the head off one of those chickens for Sunday dinner. She taught me to scald the bird and pluck the feathers, soak them in salt water, then bread and fry them up on a coal oil stove. She gave me the basics of gardening, taught me how to make soap from wood ash and bacon drippings, crochet fluffy things to sit annoying under lamps and ash trays, and how to keep the dogs away from the rabbits she kept in a pen out back.

Now this was my dad’s mother, and she and her daughter in law had little good to say about each other. My mother could do all those things too, but she was a modern woman, a generation removed from the farm, and glad to see it gone. She had a hatred for dirt and poor housekeeping that gave me nightmares before my children were born, anticipating her arrival in my less than immaculate home. Not that she was afraid to get her hands dirty, which she proved by raising a garden, putting up wallpaper, making furniture, canning and freezing and even bathing a baby raccoon my dad brought home from a hunting trip. When my dad started his business selling auto parts, Mother proved herself an astute businesswoman, learning more about cars and their components than most any man in the county or even the state. She was caught in the odd time warp that occurred between WW II and the woman’s liberation movement. She had never been able to attend college, but she sent both of her daughters with the money she earned running a business in a man’s domain. When time came for us to work, she objected, telling us that our husbands should be able to support us and we really should stay home with our children.

The strange dichotomy that was my mother has haunted me all my life, but in many ways I am the living legacy of all my mother was, and all that my grandmother was too.
My grandmother, born right before the turn of the century into a poor rural family, knew a respectable woman must work from dawn to dusk if she expected to have a good life. Mother came of age in the depression and her image of herself varied strongly with the reality of the person she became. Both of them were pioneer women and my grandmother held to that image even though she had to support her family for a time. She knew that women, the weaker sex, required a husband, so she married and buried three of them. My mother was steel, inside a silk glove, but she believed herself to be more of a wildwood flower. My generation burned their bras and talked about free love, disdaining the materialism that our parents and grandparents struggled so hard to provide for us. Through all generations the tremendous magnitude of the relationship between mother and daughter continues to drive women crazy. We want to please, we want them to be proud of us, but at the same time we hate the part of ourselves that desires that approval. At least that is the way it is with strong women. I don’t really know about relationships between mothers and daughters that are of a compliant mindset. I’m not even sure they actually exist. For years I thought that my father was the boss in our house. I thought that because my mother told him he was with such skill and adroitness that I think she believed it herself at times. Perhaps the women who appear to be frail flowers are actually just cleverer than I. They don’t feel the need to prove anything, so they get their carpets shampooed and the chicken’s heads chopped off without having to compromise any parts of themselves. If that’s true, don’t tell me, just let my daughter know in private and maybe she won’t have to work as hard as I have.

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