View from the Suburbs: Bug Love (not the VW kind) and Taxing Taxes

Just by chance--a very appropriate containerThis Monday has been a long one (and by the time I finish this, it’s sure to be Tuesday), but at this point, I know I’ve made some accomplishments.

Tonight I finished my income taxes.  They are not in the envelope yet, but the “written-in-black-ink” forms are all done, and I just need to make copies before sending them on their way.  Yeah, I know–I’m a procrastinator, but his year was all new to me.  I’m not a 1040 EZ kinda guy anymore.

I had felt it was going to be a bit of a daunting task, but I also knew that by asking a couple of questions and reading all the instructions I could do it.  And, yes, the 1040 along with Schedules A and E and–dum-ta-da-dum–Form 5405, the first-time homebuyer tax credit form AND accompanying supporting documents, are all checked and re-checked, laying  on my kitchen counter.  And I just want to say, if you’re chucking out bucks for someone else to do your taxes, unless you have a wide variety of financial goings-on in your life, you can do your own taxes.

I heard some tax preparation companies advertising on the radio that they would do 1040 EZs for $29.  Hey, that’s why they call it EZ.  Unless you flunked 2nd grade math, you can do the EZ forms and keep the $29 in your own pocket.

I know now that even with the additional forms that I needed with the 1040, next year I won’t procrastinate.

Speaking of ads on the radio, now with the commute to and from work, I’m listening  a lot more than I have for a long time.  I’ve mentioned before that Houston radio is pretty awful.  I just have 5 stations tabbed (Is that what it’s called? It’s late, and I’ve just done taxes.): 104 KRBE, NPR, Mix 96.5, Pacifica, and Mega 101–kinda eclectic, I guess.  I’m one of those guys that can’t leave the channel button alone on the TV remote, and I’m almost the same with the radio stations.  And I love it that the button is right there under my thumb on the steering wheel.

What usually gets me home most evenings are the mixes from DJs Manny Lopez and Sunny D on Mega101.  I’ve never gotten over dance music, and these guys definitely help make my drive home a bit more manageable.  It doesn’t matter if you like music in Spanish or not; if you like club-type music, you’re going to like driving home with the music these guys put out.

This evening, though, I had a different sort of entertainment as part of my drive home.  Over the weekend, I bought more bedding plants, and as I was checking out, the cashier said, “Hey, you got a lady bug!”  Sure enough, there was a big, fat one right on one of the leaves.  I paid and went on my way, took the plants home, but left them in the car for a few hours until evening when I could set them into the ground without the sun beating down.  By that time, I had forgotten about the lady bug.

Then tonight when I got in my car and was driving onto I-10, I noticed this small, busy orange bit, right at the point where the windshield meets the dashboard.  With me hurrying on my way a few miles over the speed limit, this little guy (some lady bugs gotta be guys, right?) kept trying to climb up the windshield.  He’d get about 3 inches or so up and then fall  onto his back and then rock himself to get back onto his feet. He kept this up, to no avail.  I kept worrying that he was going to fall into the vent, but he didn’t.

The question is: Will he take up residence?

I wanted to try to rescue him, but me, (yeah, I know “me” is and object pronoun, not a subject pronoun), the guy that complains about distracted drivers on cell phones, was not going to do anything while cruising along among those thousands of other cars out there on the freeway.  Finally, though, about two-thirds of the way home, I guess he got worn out from all his attempts at climbing higher and just stayed put right there in the corner between the glass and the dash.

When I exit the Beltway, there’s always a big line of traffic because there’s a stoplight about a quarter mile down on the feeder.  When the vehicles stopped, I reached down for an envelope that was on the floor on the passenger side, stuck it gently under Mr. Lady Bug, and surprisingly, he climbed aboard.  In the console was a little tin box that has been there forever, that still held one solitary, heart-shaped mint.  I opened it with my other hand (no hands on the wheel, that’s not usually me) and slid my little friend off the envelope and inside.

Finally, when we got home, I took the lady bug, still inside the candy box shelter, out to yard and ceremoniously shook him out onto one of my tomato plants.

Sometimes, something as small as a lady bug helps put other things, like doing taxes, into a completely different perspective.

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Greece in a $100 VW Bug

A gypsy encampment in northern Greece (taken about 1974)

One of the things that I have spent some evening hours doing is going through boxes of slides that I haven’t given much attention to in a long time.  The move to my new house has made them more accessible, but viewing what’s on each of the little colored transparencies hasn’t been easy.  The projector and small box-type viewer have long since disappeared, so I have been trying to glean through them with the aid of a flashlight. The majority of the slides were taken when I was in the Air Force stationed in Greece.  I’ve written about having been in the Air Force in other posts.  I was lucky enough to have an exciting job and be stationed with the 6916th Security Squadron at Athenai Air Base.  I was also fortunate to be able to have a job where I worked six days in a row, then had three days off.  I spent a lot of those days traveling around Greece, mostly on day trips, in the beat-up VW Beetle that I had bought for $100 dollars soon after I arrived at the base from another guy who was being transferred.  That little bug had a loose steering column and wobbly back wheels, but it took me and friends on many jaunts about Athens and to quite a few places out into the Greek countryside.

The photo at the top gives you an idea of some of the amazing sights this country kid from Kansas encountered.   My old boxes of slides are certainly bringing back a lot of memories.  However, cleaning off all the bits of dust and lint isn’t easy, and getting the slides digitalized so that I can see and share them isn’t cheap either.  Consequently, I’m doing all of that a little at a time.

The quality of the photos is pretty good (if I do say so myself), so I’m planning to enlarge a number of them and frame them to use in my house.  Hopefully, my writing fingers will get into the mood once again as I have a couple of posts started about those days back in Greece, and some of the photos would make good accompaniments.

Remembering Mom

bouquetMy mother passed away the day before Barack Obama was elected to be the next President and gay marriage lost in California.  Three days ago was her birthday.

My mother had lived a good, long life, so because of her age and recent deterioration of health, her passing was not unexpected.  Even so, because of losing her, my reaction to the election, both Obama’s victory and the defeat in California, was more of numbness, than of a mixture of elation and dejection, which I might otherwise have experienced.

One never knows what his  feelings and reactions will be to a parent’s death until it actually happens, but having lost my dad more than 20 years ago and a bit more unexpectedly, I had an idea what I would feel, and in reality, what I have felt is not so different than I had thought.

These days, I just find myself remembering different times spent with my mom, things that happened, which I haven’t thought about for a long time.

I don’t have any regrets about having left anything unsaid as some people do.  My family was never one to share a lot of personal feelings openly, either verbally or physically.  Somewhere, though, after I had grown up, my mother began to show that she cared about others more physically, so when I came home from the military, I was surprised, and somewhat uncomfortable when she wanted to hug me at the airport.

My mom and I never had “the talk” about my being gay.  She gave me (and my brothers too, I think) firey warnings about getting some girl pregnant when I was in high school.  Then she kept up the question, “Got a girlfriend?” after I was in college and later on.  After many years of that, she finally stopped, but I could see her ears perk up the times when I would mention some female colleague or friend.  She finally stopped all of that after she came and spent some time visiting me.  I’m sure she saw the photograph of me and my long-distance boyfriend, which I had purposeful left on my dresser.  He called me during her visit, and she later asked me how he was doing, but we never talked anything about exactly what our relationship was.  I think she had known about me all along though, maybe not exactly, because sexuality would have been far from any theme that would have been discussed.

That was the way we were in my family, never being able to talk about much of anything we felt inside with each other.

With my dad, it was even more so, because he rarely talked much, even though he was a pretty easy going guy, but I could never have talked to him about anything I was feeling. 

Though they didn’t show it much with words or touch, my parents cared a lot about me.  I was the baby, by quite a ways, and they spoiled me, even into adulthood.  One time my mom told me, “You’re what makes us stay young.”

I pre-enlisted in the Air Force, just before my college graduation, so I spent a month or so staying with my folks before I actually had to go.  I couldn’t believe it the morning of the day I was to leave when they told me they had a doctor’s appointment out of town and wouldn’t be able to see me off.  My sister-in-law was the one who took me to the bus station that day when I went to join the Air Force.

It wasn’t until many years later that I realized seeing me off to go into the military was just something that was too hard for them to do.  There hadn’t been any doctor’s appointment that day .

VW Bug–College Life: The Selective Service and Student Teaching (Chapter Five in the VW Bug Chronicles)

draft-lotterySometime during my junior year in college (69-70), many of us guys sat nervously around the radio, waiting to hear what our draft number would be. I’m not sure how the Selective Service had determined the order of eligible young men to be called up for military service prior to that time, but at the end of the 60s, a lottery system was put into place, and the order a date of birth was pulled from the jar determined how high or how low a guy’s chances of being called up would be. Therefore, if you had a low lottery number (under a 100 at least), your chances of being drafted were very high. If your number was larger, say in the 300s, your chances of not being drafted would much better.

There were other factors involved also. Each county had its own draft board, which received a quota for the number of young men that it was required to send (probably based on the population of the county), and a guy’s lottery number within that smaller county pool might also determine whether he would be called up or not.

I don’t recall anyone in my group of friends or even others on the Fort Hays campus that were very “gung ho” about going, but if someone had a low number, he was surely resigned to his fate of either being drafted or enlisting. There were a few anti-war protests and counter-protests on campus; however, in reality, there were more students who chose to be onlookers, rather than participants for either side.

By this time, the Vietnam War had been going on with U.S. involvement for more than seven years. Everyone had seen a lot of the fighting and other images of the war on TV. (Here we are forty-some years later, and what we can see is that there was a lot more openness in what was shown of the war then, than is shown of what is happening in Iraq in this war. Every day the names of the soldiers who were killed and where they were from could be found in the newspaper. (These days unless it’s some local soldier who has been killed, the rest of the country has no idea whose life has been sacrificed. And everyone–both those for and those against the war– knew there was a sacrifice in fighting a war–something the Bush government has always seemed to want to hide from the American people.) Many of us had brothers who had already gone off to the military, and, very likely, to Vietnam. If not brothers, at least, we new of other relatives or local guys who had been called to service.

So, for a those of us guys there at Fort Hays and other schools across the country, getting our draft number in those days was part of college life, and, of course, the lower the number, the more heavily it probably weighed on one’s mind.

Even before the lottery, the draft system was something involved in our lives, because if you were in college, you had to get a deferment from your local draft board. When you turned 18, you had to sign up with the draft board, and if you weren’t in school, you were eligible to be called up. That meant college guys had to have a deferment, in order not to be drafted, but it also meant that you had to maintain passing grades and be taking a full college course load. The deferment was only temporary, though. When you graduated, you could be called up right away. Consequently, while you were still in school, what was going to happen to you afterwards, especially in respect to going into the military, was never far from your mind.

My number was 156. It was neither a good number nor a bad number. It wasn’t low enough so that the certainty of being taken was there. On the other hand, it wasn’t high enough that it was likely that I would not go. It was a middle number–a sort of “in limbo” number.

College life went on, though, that year or so, with the usual studies, parties, and vacations back home. Mixed into that life, some guys looked for alternative means, if not to avoid the draft altogether, but, perhaps to delay the inevitable. Some decided that getting married and starting a family–earlier than they might otherwise have come to that decision–was their way to hold off Uncle Sam (Think Dick Cheney). A few went into grad school in order to get an extended deferment (Think Dick Cheney again). There were others who chose to commit to the National Guard or the Reserves (Think GWB) because in those days very few guard or reserve units were called to go to Vietnam. However, in those days with so many wanting to go that route, these more local units had limit restrictions on the number of men they could take; consequently, in a lot of cases, a guy had to “know somebody” in order to get into the guards or reserves. (One thing that really irks me about the Iraq War: If the country really had been ready AND WILLING to go to war there, they should have re-instated the draft in order to have the manpower to complete that task successfully and fully maintain the military’s strength all around the world.)

At some point during my senior year, I got orders to go for my pre-induction physical. I had to go to Kansas City by bus, stay overnight, and was given my physical, lined up with hundreds of other guys, at the induction center which was in KC back then. The Selective Service made you take this physical early so that there would be no doubt about your health situation before they actually drafted you.

My final semester of college was my teaching block semester, so I spent part of it doing my student teaching at Great Bend High School. For the six weeks that I did my student teaching, I rented a basement apartment in a little old bungalow near the high school. Some people drove the approximately 50-mile drive each way from Hays every day, but I had opted not to do that. However, I drove my purple VW back to Hays to spend time catching up with my roommates every weekend, and even sometimes during the week when I had meetings or a big basketball game to watch on campus.

I had two cooperating teachers (the real teachers of the class), and for some reason, the one I worked with most, felt threatened by me. I don’t really know why. He was pretty well known among the teaching circles in that subject and had won different honors, and I was just this kid, having just turned 21, but looked even younger. Maybe that was the problem: that I wasn’t much older than most of my students. I learned a lot during that time, for the practical experience was real, and what we had studied in our “block” courses hadn’t really prepared us for the reality of the classroom. On my last day of student teaching, one class of my seniors gave me a going away present–a mini keg of beer–in class nonetheless. My cooperating teacher was just about beside himself–irate is probably more like it, but he didn’t do anything, maybe because it had happened on his watch. Or perhaps in those days, it wasn’t such a big deal. I can’t imagine anything like that happening these days, but, heck, these days they bring guns to school.

I was a bit worried about how that might affect my student teaching report because I still had to return to campus for a few weeks to finish up my courses and get my final student teaching evaluation. Despite my nervousness, the evaluations from my cooperating teachers were good, and there was no mention of the mini keg.

VW Bug and College Life on the Great Plains (Chapter 4)

I went to college in the middle of the Vietnam War years. Though I’d had my VW painted purple and maybe even had a peace sticker on the back window, I was hardly a hippie or a protester. Right at the time I started college, my brother had just come back from Vietnam and gotten out of the army, so I was personally aware of the war and its consequences, but I’d really never thought about whether I was for or against it.

I went to college in Hays (Fort Hays State) and sometimes drove the 44 miles home on the weekends. Forty-four miles seemed much further in those days, and some of the trips back to school on a Sunday night felt long, especially in the winter. The VWs of the 60s had terrible heaters, and sometimes the car never got warmed up the entire ride, and if there was snow or sleet, it would freeze on the windshield because the defroster had so little effect. I know there were times that it was so difficult to see through the windshield and through the blowing snow that it was only because the car knew its own way that we got back to Hays.

However, being light-weight and having the engine in the back, the car got really good traction. Because of that, if the streets around Hays hadn’t been plowed clean, my roommates would always get me to drive. My last year at Fort Hays, we had gone back for inter-session ( a short 2-week mini-semester) early in January, but there had been such a big blizzard that they called off classes for a few days. Of course, we had to get out of the apartment anyway. We found out that the movie theater downtown was open, so we got into the VW and headed out. With the weight of four guys in the car, we moved pretty well through the snow-filled streets, but sometimes we’d run into a drift in the road and the car would just get stuck; then, the other three would jump out of the car and push it through, jump back in and off we’d go. When we finally made it downtown, there weren’t many other cars out and the crowd inside the movie theater was a meager bunch of the most hardy of souls, or maybe the craziest. I guess we felt something like pioneers for being able to get ourselves through all that snow to watch a movie.

The student population at Fort Hays was very homogeneous in those days. The farm population of western Kansas was already dwindling, but not nearly as much as it has in more recent years. Most little towns still had their own high schools as consolidation had just barely started. Like me, the majority of the students came from small Kansas towns and from a more or less isolated existence. There were some out-of-state students and a few foreign students, but most of us came from the same rural background. The first black guy I met was at Fort Hays, but he too was from a small western Kansas town. (Nicodemus, Kansas was started by the exodusters, freed slaves from the South, who settled in western Kansas after the Civil War.) The people I went to school with were basically nice people, really good people, but I think most of us had grown up relatively naive to what was going on very far beyond our part of the state.

Even so, there were a few anti-war rallies on campus, but they were tame in comparison to most, and certainly there were no campus buildings damaged or destroyed by war protestors like happened at KU and some other campuses around the country.

There was a “head shop” that sold mostly black lights and black light posters, but drug use wasn’t that big. Like most college towns, there were a few bars and clubs that attracted students, but aside from weekends, I didn’t know that many people who drank that much. However, one of my roommate’s dorm friends was a pothead of sorts. Through him, I had my first and only experience in Hays of getting high. He had this stash–and, yes, it was truly stashed. One night four of us went out to the college farm to this pasture testing area. There were some test plots, which had fences around them in order to let the native plants grow and prevent the cows–or maybe buffalo (they had some buffalo out there too)–from eating them. We drove all over the place until we located the right plot, and the guy who had the pot stashed went and dug out this big bag of pot–I mean it was about the size of a bread sack. (I wonder how much that amount might be worth today.) He got back in the car, and we drove to another place there on the college farm, which looked out over the city. (At about 15,000 it was a city to all of us from towns of 300 or so.) He rolled some, and we proceeded to smoke it, looked at the glowing city lights, peered through the swirls on glass Pepsi bottles, and laughed a lot. I don’t know whether I got high from smoking the marijuana or just from the excitement of that new experience, but whatever, it all felt a bit dangerous but nonetheless fun.

My social life was typical of most of the “dormies”. Most of the students at Fort Hays were either dormies, lived in a frat or sorority house, or lived at home and commuted. Of course, like my roommates and I during our final year, some of the dormies eventually moved into apartments.

Looking back, the four of us probably could have been classified as nerds, but I don’t think there was such a stigma of being studious as there is today. The three of them were science majors of one kind or another and I was an English major. They studied more than I did, but we all ended up getting good grades. On the other hand, after living in the dorm for three years, we did like to have parties. About once a month, on a Saturday night, we’d throw a party, inviting everyone we knew. Of course, it was always alcohol-centered. If food was involved, there was never anything much more elaborate than some bags of chips. Sometimes, we’d have a “trashcan party”. We’d get some cans of Hi-C, pour it into a big plastic trash can, then everybody would add whatever booze they’d brought into the can. Sometimes, there would be 60 or 70 people inside our small two-bedroom apartment on Custer Drive, with the majority of them spilling out onto the balcony that ran all along the second floor. Well, maybe we weren’t such nerds (and maybe some people did drink quite a bit) after all.

Somehow I got this girlfriend, the first semester of my senior year. I had had a few dates before then, but for the most part, I was scared of girls. Don’t get me wrong; I liked girls, and always had lots of friends who were girls, starting from grade school. Dating, though, was a different matter. In college, I was pretty out-going and involved with student government and other organizations, and lots of other guys I knew were dating, and even getting married, so I guess I felt it was something I should do. I really never felt pressured to do it, for sure not from my roommates, who had less going on in that part of their social lives than I did.

Anyway, that fall, I started dating this girl, who was a year younger than I was. I guess you could say she was on the aggressive side when it came to making the moves. No doubt, she was more experienced than I was, because I had never had any kind of physical relationship with a girl up till then. She seemed to really be into me, so at the beginning I liked going out with her. She liked to come out to our apartment and get me into my shared bedroom, even with the roommates out in the living room, which sort of embarrassed me. There were two things, though, making me reluctant to go all the way: one, I just wasn’t quite as interested in doing it as she was, and second, my mom had put “the fear” in me when I was back in high school about getting a girl pregnant. So while we can say there was sometimes a lot of frenzied action, “no deal was ever completed”.

We soon “started going steady”, exchanging high school class rings and framed photographs. Then not too far down the road, she got me even to look at some engagement rings in a downtown jewelry store. I didn’t think about it at the time, but in hindsight, I realized that this girl was one of those who went to college to get an M.R.S. degree. One weekend, we drove out to meet her parents in Ulysses, where her dad was a school administrator.

Saturday of that weekend, we went around town looking at different churches because the church she and her parents attended would just not do for the wedding she was thinking about; it wasn’t big enough nor nice enough. Mind you, I had not even asked her to get married, but to her it was a foregone conclusion. Sunday morning, we all went to their church, a Baptist church. (Growing up, I went to the Methodist church in Dorrance with my family, and it was pretty low key: a lot of singing of hymns, which I liked, and listening to the boring sermons, which were mostly about how to be a good person, and probably sometimes about how people needed to give more money. When I was about 13 or 14, there were three of us who took catechism classes at the church parsonage in Wilson, taught by the grizzly old preacher that we had at that time. We had to learn Bible verses and other lessons in order to become full members of the church. I really didn’t like going because this old geezer thought that he really had to put the “fear of God” in us. He treated us like we were stupid and primarily terrified us. In the end, I did become a member of the church, but I never liked going after that.) I knew people who were Baptists when I was growing up, and they were no different than any of the rest of us Methodists, Lutherans, Catholics, or whatever. I guess maybe they weren’t supposed to dance, but I think at that time if you were really a strict Methodist, you weren’t supposed to dance either.

But this Baptist church in Ulysses was really different. The preacher was one of those “fire and brimstone” types, and he said that if you weren’t a Baptist, you were going to Hell, but you couldn’t be just any Baptist; if you weren’t a member of that particular Baptist church there in Ulysses, you were going to Hell.

Needless to say, I was beginning to feel like a runner caught between second base and third base in a squeeze play. That drive back to Hays was one that I couldn’t wait to end, and over the next few weeks, I began to distance myself. I knew I didn’t want to get married to this girl, (and somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew that I didn’t want to marry any girl), not because of what had happened during that weekend, but I knew I wasn’t in love with her.

She still had one more card to play; a couple weeks later, she called up and told me that her period was late. I didn’t do anything but worry for a couple of days, wondering how her being pregnant was biologically possible and what I would do if she were. Then finally convinced by a mutual friend, she told me that she had made it up. The one thing I wanted back was my class ring, so I went over to her dorm with her ring and picture. She still had a couple more scenes left in that little drama of hers; when I took her ring and picture back over to her dorm, she started screaming and threw my ring and framed picture down the stairwell at me, shattering the glass all over the place.

Sometime after I had graduated and was already in the Air Force, I heard that she was able to get that M.R.S. degree. Over the years, I’ve thought back on that fall of my senior year and what a miserable mistake it would have been if that relationship had gone any further.

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You may also want to read VW Bug and a Summer Job, VW Bug and a Summer Job, Chapter 2, and VW Bug and Saturday Night in a Small Town.

After Hurricane Ike: Getting Back To a Routine, But Thinking About Blizzards and “Bierochs” (Recipe Included)

This week really felt good–getting back to a normal schedule, after being at loose ends without electricity and not working. I feel so fortunate to have pretty much everything back to normal, when there are so many who don’t, from those still without electricity here around town, to those down on the coast and other places inland, who lost so much–homes, jobs, and, in some cases, even loved ones.

A Clean Fridge

A Clean Fridge

It’s actually nice to start with a clean, fresh refrigerator. I threw everything out the next day after Hurricane Ike came through, knowing that even though the fridge was still cool, the electricity probably wasn’t going to come back on soon enough to save anything, and, in fact, it didn’t.

Somehow restocking the fridge and just going through being without utilities for a few days got me to thinking about the blizzards that we used to have on the farm when I was a kid. If there was an ice storm, or the winds were strong enough and snapped a pole, then there’d be no electricity. And the electric crews couldn’t get out to repair the lines until the snow plows opened up the drifted roads.

The worst storm I remember was when I was in maybe second or third grade. The drifts in front of the house were lots taller than Dad, and some of the drifts on the roads covered them completely, so it was hard to know where the roads and ditches were or where the stone post and barbed wire fences were alongside them. That year, the National Guard flew out in helicopters or airplanes and tried to throw hay bales down for the herds of cattle that were stranded out in the snow. Apparently, they missed their target somewhere between our place and town, because they ended up tossing some of the bales down onto some power lines, and made getting the electricity back on much more of a problem. It took two weeks to get electricity back and for the snow plow to come make a way for us to get out.

During the time the lights were out, the biggest problem on our farm was getting water because there was an electric pump on the well. There was a tank in the well, but even if there was electricity, sometimes the pipe from the well to the house would freeze up. If it didn’t freeze, we’d try to make the water from the tank stretch, just using it for drinking. For washing, we’d go out and get snow to melt or go to the creek, break the ice on top, and bring it back, then strain it with the milk strainer to get it clean enough to use.

A lot different than these “modern” days, when a hurricane comes through during the hot months, keeping food and cooking it was never really a big problem when the electricity went off during a blizzard. Things from the fridge that needed to stay cold could go out in the wash house, where they would stay really cold or even frozen. Also Mom always kept cupboards stocked with the basics like flour and lard, and there was milk and cream from the couple of milk cows that we usually had, which needed to be milked blizzard or no blizzard. We also used propane for the cook stove and heating, so we always kept warm and ate well. Out back, we had “the cave”, which held the jars of canned vegetables and fruits and a bin filled with potatoes. (The cave is another story altogether.)

Mom cooked a lot on cold days because it warmed up the kitchen, which helped keep the entire house warmer. It seems like we always had a lot of soups on those cold winter days. Because we had chickens, we had homemade noodle soup and from our own meat, vegetable beef soup, and, well, chili too. Mom made the best angel food cakes, and I usually got a chocolate angel food cake for my birthday. (You’re thinking I’m changing the subject, but I’m not.) The angel food cake Mom made took a dozen egg whites, so then the yolks were left over–Just what is needed to make homemade noodles. Mom would roll them out on the linoleum-topped kitchen table into big round circles, and then hang them over the backs of the chairs to dry a bit. Then she’d lay all of them one on top of the other, roll them up, and slice them into thin, curly strips, spreading them out on the table to dry some more. That’s when we’d try to sneak a few of the fresh, uncooked noodles without her seeing us. Well, I did that; being the youngest, I know I did. And I got away with it most of the time.

We had our own meat from the cows we raised. Dad would get somebody to take one of the younger ones that had been born the spring before into Klema’s in Wilson, where it would be butchered. Klema’s also had a locker plant, which rented lockers where you could keep the meat that had been butchered frozen. I’d go back in there with Dad when we went to get groceries; it was so cold that they had extra coats hanging on some hooks that you could wear while you were inside the locker part. Dad had his own key for our locker, which he opened and got the meat that we wanted for that week. There was no cellophane or styrofoam on those packages of meat; everything was wrapped in white butcher paper, taped closed, and stamped with whatever cut of meat was in the package: Pike’s Peak roast, round steak, hamburger, and the like.

From our own ground beef, one of the best cold weather dishes that Mom made was bierochs (pronounced beer-rocks). (Actually, now that I’m writing this I’m thinking that I’m going to make some when the first really cool weekend arrives here in Houston. But who knows when that will be?) Not many people are familiar with beirochs unless they’ve got some German-Russian in their heritage. And I don’t mean German or Russian, I mean German-Russian. In the area of Kansas where I grew up there were lots of people whose heritage is German-Russian. I don’t know the history of it all because our family was not of that descent, but apparently, for reasons of not wanting to be in one military or another military, at some point, large numbers of these people immigrated from Germany to somewhere near the Volga River in Russia, and then in the late 1800s and very early 1900s, many of them or perhaps their descendants immigrated to the US, especially to parts of central and western Kansas.

And one of the best things they brought with them was bierocks. It was one of those dishes that many people in my little town of Dorrance made (and still make), and my mom was one of them. I guess she may have learned how from an aunt. We didn’t have bierochs too often at home because they’re one of those delicious dishes that take time to make. Basically, they are a meat and cabbage filled bun. The filling is the easy part, and it doesn’t take exact measurements. How much of the few ingredients you use depends on how many bierochs you want to make.

In a big skillet, you need to brown up some ground beef (a pound or two) and some onion, just like you might do if you were making spaghetti sauce. Then drain off any grease that cooks out. Then add at least a half of head of shredded cabbage. Again, you might want more cabbage if you’ve used more ground meat. (My mom used to complain that some other women were cheap and didn’t use enough, or maybe any meat.) Salt and pepper well because the cabbage, especially, will absorb the seasonings. (I’ve lived in Texas so many years that sometimes I also add about a quarter teaspoon of cayenne pepper.) Put a lid on the meat and cabbage mixture and let the cabbage cook down some. The cabbage can stay a tad on the not-so-cooked side because this filling will cook a bit more when baking the bierochs themselves. When cooked, let the mixture cool down some before filling the dough. I’ve seen some recipes that add ketchup and mustard and a few other ingredients, but ground beef, cabbage, a little onion, and salt and pepper is “the Dorrance way”.

To make bierochs quickly, some people like to roll out dinner rolls from the dairy case to use for the outside. I’ve tried that, but the results are just “OK”. You really need a good recipe for homemade rolls, or “buns” as we’ve always called them, for the bread covering of the bierochs, if you’re going to make “real” bierochs. As I said before, the filling is the easy part, so if you’re going to make homemade dough, you have start it first. And if you’re going to have bierochs for supper, you might want to get the dough started in the morning, depending on how fast your dough rises. Making bierochs really is not difficult, but because there are several steps, it does take time.

Here is my mom’s “bun” recipe, but I’ve also used one that included a mashed boiled potato and the potato water. Both are good.

1/4 cup warm water, 1 package yeast, 1/2 cup sugar, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, 3 tablespoons shortening, 2 beaten eggs, 2 cups boiling water, and 7 cups flour

Dissolve yeast in the 1/4 cup of water. (Add a teaspoon of sugar to make the yeast rise.) Put sugar, salt, and shortening in a large glass or crock bowl. Add 2 cups of boiling water, and let cool. Add beaten eggs, yeast, and four cups of the flour. Beat well (with an electric mixer). Then add the rest of the flour and stir in gradually. Let rise until doubled.

For bierochs, take a portion of the dough and roll it out on a flour-covered surface until it is about 1/4 (or less) inch thick. Cut the dough into pieces about six inches square. You’ll probably need to roll each piece again as it tends to pull back together once you cut it. Using a spoon, heap about 1/4 cup of the filling into the center of the square of dough. Then fold the corners in so that all 4 corners meet; pinch all of the seams tightly closed. Then place the bierock in a greased baking pan, seam side down. Continue making the individual bierocks and arranging them in rows in the baking pan. The bierocks do not need to touch in the pan because they need to rise one more time before baking. Place a tea towel over the entire pan (or pans depending how many you have made) and let rise until they look like soft pillows. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Bake the bierochs until they are golden brown on top. (If you have made more dough than filling, you can make the rest of the dough into “buns”. With your hands greased, roll the dough into balls a bit larger than a silver dollar, place them in a greases baking pan, let rise, and then bake at 375 degrees for 25 minutes.)

Some people like to make much bigger bierochs, maybe because they think they can make them faster, but I like them about the size of a hamburger bun (only square). Plan for two or three per person. These are great with a nice salad or vegetables alongside. Some people (including me) like to dip bierochs in a little ketchup; however, some people are purists and like them plain. They are great right out of the oven, but they can also be kept in the refrigerator and heated up in the microwave. They also freeze well if they are kept in a very tight plastic bag or container.

Still today, after eating foods from all over the world, if someone asks me what my favorite is, I’ll still say the same thing that I would have said when I was about 10 years old: bierochs.

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If you liked this article, you might like Hamburger Gravy, Puddin’ Meat, Coffee Milk and Hopalong Cassidy, and Sex in a Pan.

VW Bug and Saturday Night in a Small Town (Chapter 3)

When I was working at the depots at Sylvan Grove, Luray, and Natoma, I drove back and forth every day to the folks’ farm, where I was staying for the summer, so I had no rent to pay. With only to supply my own lunches, I didn’t have much to pay out of pocket for food since I rarely ate breakfast, and Mom always made supper. Most all of my summer wages I could save for college. For entertainment at home, we watched TV in the evenings like we had always done since we got the first TV set.

But every Saturday night, I “went to town”. Town was my little hometown of Dorrance, where I had graduated from high school. Going to town was what almost every country boy who had his own car did on Saturday nights. It was also kind of a tradition for the boys in my family. My older brothers had gone to town on Saturday nights after they had their own cars. And those summers after I had my own car, I went to town.

Not that there was all that much to do in Dorrance on Saturday nights. By that time, the drug store had been closed quite a number of years, and I’m not sure if there was even a restaurant any more. There was the pool hall, but I didn’t spend time in there because my aunt and uncle ran it. I had been taught at home that it wasn’t the kind of place to hang out. I did go there sometimes in high school when some of my friends went there, and we played a little snooker or 8-ball. It was such a weird situation because we grew up in this little town, but we were never close to most of our relatives, so the aunt and uncle who ran the pool hall didn’t really seem like relatives; on the other hand, to hang out in the pool hall and drink beer in front of my aunt and uncle seemed like something I shouldn’t be doing. Though, they, of course, were the ones who sold the beer! (That’s really convoluted thinking, isn’t it?)

So those summer Saturday nights, I would buy a six-pack of beer (maybe at the pool hall or maybe I would go to Wilson), and do the only thing there was much to do in Dorrance for a young guy with a car–drag main street. Of course, dragging main street in Dorrance could be pretty repetitious–because the part of main street that we would “drag” was only one block long. You drove one way to the corner, made a u-turn and then drove the other way and made a u-turn, hoping some of your friends would be doing the same thing. If they were, sometimes you’d stop in the middle of the street and shoot the breeze for awhile because there probably wouldn’t be any other cars for awhile, and if there were, the street was wide enough that they could get by with no problem.

Of course, dragging main got old after a while, so then you started driving around the rest of town, which even if you drove only about 20 mph would only take about 15 minutes, and that would be all of the streets on both the north and south sides of the railroad tracks. I usually didn’t find too many of my friends because by my last two years in college, many of them had gotten married or moved away.

If I didn’t find anyone to talk to or hang out with, sometimes I would take off the seven miles down Old 40 to Wilson or even the fifteen miles to Russell and drag main street in those towns. The only object was that it was some place to drive to, because more than likely, I wouldn’t find anybody I knew, but for sure in those towns there would be more people “dragging main”.

At the end of the night, I would have finished my six-pack. Probably not the most exciting thing to do on a Saturday night, but I’m sure it wasn’t so different from what a lot of young guys in rural areas with their own cars did on Saturday night. (After all, both beer and gas were cheap back then.)

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If you liked this one, you might want to read “VW Bug and a Summer Job and “VW Bug and a Summer Job, Chapter Two”.