Chocolate Bar Nostalgia On My Birthday

When I was a kid, on my birthday, I'd get to take a box of Hersey candy to school to distribute to my classmates and teacher.  All these years later, I decided to try a repeat and pass them out to all the others at work.

When I was a kid, on my birthday, I’d get to take a box of Hersey candy to school to distribute to my classmates and teacher. All these years later, I decided to try a repeat and pass them out to all the others at work.

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Holiday Road Trip and Day Trips To Boot–All Made for a Great Winter Break

Wind turbines of the Smoky Hills Wind Farm line the wintery horizon in pastures along the Lincoln and Ellsworth county line, not far from Wilson Resevoir.

A wet, grey afternoon with some unexpected early hours off from work make it a good time to try out one of my Christmas gifts.  I received a set of silicon baking pans, so the square one is being used for brownies–mix-type–with a lot of goodies added.  We’ll see if I pack them up to share at work.

I can hardly remember a better Christmas since I was a kid back in the Santa Claus days.  I can’t put my finger on it exactly, maybe mostly because I was prepared and things went as planned.  I even enjoyed the shopping and wrapping gifts, which sometimes I find tedious.

With the car all loaded the night before, Annie hopped onto her place on the passenger seat, and we headed out the morning of the 23rd for Kansas.  Even at the more than 11 hours (mostly stops for gas and a dog walk here and there), the drive wasn’t that bad.  The weather was mild and putting the car on cruise for long stretches of the interstate made the drive almost easier than my two hours each week day of commuting to work.

Needless to say, it was one of those Christmases of too many presents and too much food, what with a table-filled buffet spread at my sister’s and her kids and families.  Then the next day we headed off to my brother’s, the second year in a row that I was together with my two brothers and sister for Christmas dinner.  Until last year, there were a good many years in between that for one reason or another we all hadn’t gotten together for the holiday.  I think we all realize that we are a pretty lucky group that have our health (yeah, we all have a prescription for high blood pressure, but, hey!) and get along well to boot.

I headed back to Houston on the first day of the new year, but before that I spent some relaxing day drives with my sister as part of what I would say was one of the best vacations for a long time.  One of my goals during the trip was to load a cooler with some Kansas cured meat.  I like to go back to the very store that I went to with my dad when I was a kid and pick up smoked sausage.  Back in my tag-along days, it was called Klema IGA; now it’s Wilson Family Foods, in Wilson, Kansas.  The store hasn’t changed all that much, but it’s still a good store for a small town.  I wish I could have broad back some of the fresh meat from the cooler because there’s no comparing  it to plastic, no-taste stuff I find in the big name super markets out here in the suburbs.

Another place we like to go is Brant’s Meat Market in Lucas, Kansas, about a 20-mile drive that passes by Wilson Resevoir, which is much more impressive to me these days than it was when I passed by it back when I was a college kid going to and from a summer job.

Locally, it's called Ralph's Ruts (Rice County, Kansas). This is one of the few places where you can still see the Santa Fe Trail, which was dug out by the thousands of teams of wagons that passed through in the 1800s.

Geese feeding in a field near Odin, Kansas. These are part of the large numbers of ducks and geese that stop annually at Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area not far away.

The parking lot at Meridy's Restaurant in Russell, Kansas. The buffet is loaded with mounds of fried chicken, homemade mashed potatoes, and gravy that rival Mom's. It's basically a "have-to" on every Kansas trip. (It's right off I-70 if you're making a trip through western Kansas.)

Over the several day trips, we didn’t go but a county or two away from my sister’s house in Lyons, Kansas, but each outing held a new discovery or re-discovery in the central part of the state where I grew up.  My car brought back with it some dried Kansas mud from some of the few dirt roads that had not but a few days before been plowed clear of snow.  I can say that even though I’ved lived a good long time outside of Kansas, I’ve still got some of that same dirt in my blood.  (I’ve got other photos that I wanted to include, but WordPress is kicking my butt right now as I try to insert them.)

This old limestone schoolhouse has been empty and looked the same since I was a kid riding by on the school bus. This is one of the landmarks I was looking for on a day trip filled with memories. This was also the road that kicked up all the mud onto the sides of my car.

The train still passes by the local wheat elevator in my hometown of Dorrance, Kansas, pretty much the way it has for many years.

A Christmas Road Trip, Digging Up History, and a Garden for the New Year

It’s a little late to say it, I suppose, but “Happy New Year” to anyone who slips and falls upon this page.  This is the first post of the new year, as other interests, including just lying around, have gotten in the way of writing.

I haven’t made any New Year’s resolutions, but on January lst, I felt motivated to plant a “winter garden” in my little plot behind the garage.  There were already several pepper plants still producing from last summer and a couple of tomato plants that I planted in November with several tomatoes on each; now I’ve set in 80 red onions and 10 shallots (let’s see), a couple of rows of yellow beans, and several varieties of lettuce.  It’s been a rainy evening here, with more than an inch already, so this moisture should get everything going.  Although the thermometer has read 29 or 30 on several occasions, everything down inside my back yard seems to have been protected.

A few days before Christmas, I loaded up the car, and with Annie for a co-pilot headed up to Kansas for the holidays.  Even with quite a number of short stops for gas, dog walks, and grab-and-go food, we made each way in between 11 and 12 hours.  Both driving days were grey and dreary, and coming back took longer because we ran into rain and, of course, more traffic coming into Houston. 

Driving that far in one day is always a bit grueling, but stopping to stay somewhere along the way just never seems worth it, and it’s always so good when I arrive up there, and just as good when I get back home.

The Christmas festivities carried on over several days, of course, with a lot of presents and too much, but really delicious, food and goodies.  Even though Mom is now gone, almost every one of her kids and grandkids (including in-laws) seems to enjoy cooking and is pretty good at it as evidenced by all the variety.

My sister and I are both history buffs, and whenever I get back to Kansas, we take some kind of road trip to “the old stomping grounds.”  The beauty of the mostly treeless, somewhat stark, rolling plains of central Kansas, where I grew up, always amazes me.  When I was living there, it was something I couldn’t see.  Another noticeable thing is that life is changing; there are fewer and fewer small farms, and you have to drive more and more miles between farmsteads where someone actually lives.  And thus, the small towns, and even not so small ones, are losing population.  Some of the smaller places will soon be just a spot on the road.  This is not something new, though; if you look at the census numbers, the decline in rural counties in Kansas started as far back as the 1920s.

We had a good drive, though, taking us back down memory lane, and finding answers for some of the questions about places that we had been talking about.

The Smoky Hill River from the Dlabl Bridge southeast of Wilson, Kansas. We encountered this new bridge after taking a scenic sand road north from Holyrood.

An old tombstone with German inscriptions in the tiny Immanual Cemetery southwest of Wilson, Kansas. The Smoky Hills can be seen in the back.

One of the markers that were erected to show the route of the Butterfield Overland Despatch (sic) that followed the Smoky Hill Trail through Kansas. Down the draw from this marker is the spot where I believe the Hick's Station was located.

Rolling farmland (winter wheat in the foreground) surrounds my old hometown of Dorrance, Kansas.

Memorial Day: Enjoy It But Don’t Forget What It Means

Memorial Day falls at a time when I can never get more than just the three days off from work, so although I’d like to go back to Kansas and my little hometown of Dorrance every year, the short time and the chunk of change I have to cough up for the airfare just doesn’t make that feasible.  (I’ve written about why Memorial Day is important to me before.)  This year I’m going to enjoy the still-newness of living in my house, putter in my yard and garden, and take advantage of some discount coupons to do some shopping.  I hope whatever you’re doing this weekend that you’ll take a few moments to remember those who have passed on, whether Veterans or not.

It’s still early on this Saturday morning, but though I was sure I would want to climb back into bed after taking Annie out even before six, I I was lured by the garden and other things I can do, having the luxury of three days before me.

With the sun a bit more up, I checked out the garden more closely and see that I will be able to pick my first beans in just a couple of days.  Altough all the plants in the garden look lush and full, I’m afraid that the poor soil keeps them from producing as many and as big of vegetables as they might if the soil were better.  This first year is a learning experience, and with the compost and more good soil, I’m sure next year’s crop will be better, but I don’t know if it can be any more fun!

This little garden seems to grow and change week by week. (5-29-10)

There are lots of blossoms. How many will become beans is a question.

This ruellia (ruellia elegans) was given to me by a friend and just keeps blooming and blooming. (And, yes, the grass will get mowed this weekend.)

Grandma’s House and A One-of-a-Kind Photo Collection

Calendar Plate--The Citizens State Bank, Dorrance, Kansas from 1911--I probably admired this plate so many times that my grandma finally gave it to me. It's one of my treasures.

Calendar Plate--The Citizens State Bank, Dorrance, Kansas from 1911--I probably admired this plate so many times that my grandma finally gave it to me. It's one of my treasures.

For a kid, my grandma’s house wasn’t the most fun place to visit, especially if you went there almost every day. It was pleasant enough on summertime evenings, when the grown-ups sat on the front porch and we kids sat on the “stoop” or ran down into the ravine (which wasn’t really a ravine, but a low place where the water ran when it rained) to catch lightning bugs.

But other times, when you had to be inside, there wasn’t much to do. Grandma was quiet and serious, and kids were expected to behave. There were no toys to play with at Grandma’s. Thinking back on it, I wonder why the folks never left a few of our toys there for us to have something to do when we went there, but they didn’t.

I say there were no toys to play with at Grandma’s, but there was –“the wheel”. The wheel was a miniature tire, about 6 inches in diameter, and had probably been a promotional give-away from one of the local filling stations, most likely originally with a glass ashtray in the middle. So when a very small child came to Grandma’s, she dug out “the wheel” for them to play with. And even when you got older, the wheel still had some fascination when it was gotten out for a younger relative.

But when you got older, there were other things at Grandma’s house to get your interest, if you had sense enough to keep your adolescent mind focused.

Grandma’s house had a parlor, and the parlor, indeed, was treated as that, a special room. In fact, it was on the other side of the house from the front room (living room) with a bedroom in between. It was not often that Grandma would “open up” the parlor. Opening up the parlor meant pulling back heavy, velvet, dark burgundy drapes that closed off the bedroom from the parlor. In the spring and summer, in order to help the air circulate, it also meant opening the parlor door, which was a second entrance to the house.

There were some odd pieces of furniture in the parlor: a library table with photos of grandkids on it, and a leather and wooden sofa, which was the hardest thing I’ve ever sat on. The biggest attraction in the parlor was the secretary, one of those old-timey pieces with a tall cabinet with a glass door on one side and a pull-down writing desk on the other side. Inside the cabinet, there were various knick-knacks and pieces of glassware, but the real gold mine was the two velvet-covered picture albums that held family photos, some so old they were tin-types.

I remember sitting with my mom looking at them. Grandma never had the desire to sit and look through a whole book, but she’d help to identify unknown faces. After Grandma’s death, some of the relatives got the albums and I have never seen them again. Fortunately, I do have a lot of old family photos given to me by my mom or other relatives.

Maybe I’ve got “the cart before the horse” in my memory lane narrative, but a discovery I made last night has got me thinking about those old photos.

I’ve mentioned my hometown–Dorrance, Kansas before. You can take the kid out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the kid. Well, that’s me, not a kid, except at heart, by any long shot these days, and I’ve lived in one of the biggest cities in the U.S. now for almost half my life. But Dorrance will always be a part of me, even as I get older and Dorrance’s population dwindles even smaller and smaller.

Dorrance is very lucky, though, and, unlike many small towns, has a way of keeping its history, thanks in part to a young budding photographer, who lived there a hundred years ago. His name was Leslie Halbe, and for a period of about four years–1908 to 1912, he took pictures of the people in and around Dorrance, both in portraits and in daily activities. This was done with one of those old cameras that used glass negatives. Although Leslie moved away from Dorrance in 1912, by luck and maybe some foresight, most of these negatives finally ended up in the Kansas State Historical Society in Topeka. There have been different exhibitions of Halbe’s work through the years.

The Citizens State Bank, Dorrance, Kansas, May 26, 1909, by Leslie Halbe.  This building is still standing on Main Street in Dorrance.  It was the office of the Dorrance Telephone Company when I was a little kid and more recently was a barber shop.  Notice how the negatives of the old photos had two images.

The Citizens State Bank, Dorrance, Kansas, May 26, 1909, by Leslie Halbe. This building is still standing on Main Street in Dorrance. It was the office of the Dorrance Telephone Company when I was a little kid and more recently was a barber shop. Notice how the negatives of the old photos had two images. This is the bank my plate came from.

Sometime back, I discovered that part of Halbe’s photos were available on Kansas Memory (click in the sidebar or below). Then last night, I found that they now have all of the 1500+ photos online. I still haven’t looked at them all. But I will.

I know that some of Leslie Halbe’s photos had to have been in those album’s kept in Grandma’s secretary. I remember also that one of the “Halbe boys” had been one of my mother’s elementary school teachers. One of the articles said Leslie Halbe’s parents ran a candy shop. If what I remember is correct, it was the drug store, which in the early days might have been called a confectionary. The drug store closed in Dorrance when I was in grade school, but not only did they sell over the counter drugs and bits of what a Walgreen’s might have today, they had a soda fountain, where you could buy ice cream, soft drinks, and sandwiches.

Halbe’s photos leave a record of the people and life of not only my hometown, but really of small town America on the Great Plains during the early 1900s.

  • If you’re interested in learning more about Leslie W. (Winfield) Halbe and his photos, read here and here.
  • If you want to access the Halbe Collection photos and Kansas Memory, go here.

These are some of my favorite photos from the collection, so far:

Dorrance, looking at Main Street and southwest, circa 1910

Dorrance, looking at Main Street and southwest, circa 1910

Dorrance Telephone Operators and Office, Nov. 6, 1909.  This photo is probably one of the most popular from the Halbe Collection.

Dorrance Telephone Operators and Office, Nov. 6, 1909. This photo is probably one of the most popular from the Halbe Collection.

Belle Bickell and Miss Browne, June 3, 1911

Belle Bickell and Miss Browne, June 3, 1911

Harvest Crew, July 7, 1912

Harvest Crew, July 7, 1912

Winds of Change Come to Kansas Both in Energy Producers . . . and in People’s Hearts

Change has come to the Kansas landscape:  the Smoky Hills Wind Farm, Ellsworth and Lincoln Counties

Change has come to the Kansas landscape: the Smoky Hills Wind Farm, Ellsworth and Lincoln Counties

Some complain that Obama and the Congress aren’t doing enough to bring about changes for gay equality. But for real change to happen when it comes to beliefs and prejudices, it has to happen in people’s hearts.

I was raised in a part of the country where big changes don’t seem to happen very fast–no matter what kind of change we might be talking about. That place is western Kansas (central Kansas if you think of the state as having 3 regions), where the wind never seems to stop blowing from one direction or the other.

I read an article today that reminded me of an event I had wanted to write about before. Both of these show that changes in the way others feel toward gay people are being made.

In my little ol’ hometown of Dorrance, the biggest event of every year is Memorial Day weekend. It’s the time when alumni go back for school reunions and other get-to-gethers on Saturday and Sunday. On the Monday holiday itself, there is always a parade that goes from downtown out to the flower-filled cemetery, and the local American Legion post puts on a moving service and tribute. That particular event is so much a part of our local heritage. (And me too. You know, I can’t even explain; it’s something that maybe only people from small towns can understand, but I’m getting choked up as I write this.)

But, anyway, back to the point. I don’t think I have ever been so proud of my hometown and its people as a couple of years ago when I went back for the holiday weekend, and the main speaker at the Memorial Day service was the youngest sister of one of my old friends, who is now a university professor and an out lesbian. I had met her partner the year before at the same event, but I was completely overwhelmed with happiness to see how my hometown of not even 250 people was so accepting and welcoming.

Today an article from the Garden City Telegraph also made me proud, proud of a young gay kid from Kansas. A senior at Garden City High School had taken it upon himself and gotten a GSA (Gay Straight Alliance) started. Even though GCHS is one of the largest high schools in the state, the town of about 25,000 does sit out in the flat southwest Kansas plains, surrounded by farms and feedlots full of cattle. By reading the Comments to the article, we find that not everyone is accepting: his father kicked him out of the house. However, all but one commenter had very positive things to say. Except for his father, this young man seems to have a good support network and a very positive attitude. Hopefully, there are some PFLAG people in the area that will help the dad get some better understanding of his own feelings and that the two can once again have a relationship.

Only a few years ago, people thought that tall wind chargers would destroy the unique beauty of the rough Kansas pastureland, but once put in place, the wind farms have seemed to add their own beauty to the landscape, not to mention their benefit as clean energy producers.

I think that’s also what happens with people’s prejudices too: get to know what you fear and you find there’s really nothing to fear, and more possibly there’s something even more to endear.

Grandfield, Oklahoma, Small Town Teachers, and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”

photolaramiepjct1I feel sorry for Grandfield, Oklahoma, its people, and its school. I’ve never been there, but I feel like I know it. I doubt that it’s much different than many small towns dotted all over the Great Plains.

Bigger than many similar little prairie towns, Grandfield has a population of around a thousand people and sits out in what some would call “the sticks” between Wichita Falls, Texas and Lawton, Oklahoma. The high school itself is a small one (74 students in the 2006-2007 school year).

But now this small town and its school are getting national attention because of the dismissal of one of the high school’s teachers, whose students were working on a production of “The Laramie Project”, the story of Matthew Shephard, the Wyoming college student brutally murdered in an anti-gay attack a decade ago. (Read the story from the Lawton, OK newspaper here and here.)

If you look at the school district’s website, you realize that Grandfield probably has a good school. The fact that a school this size even has a website is evidence of this, but aside from the fact that some of its sports pages could do with some updating, the school’s site is well done.

From what I’ve read about the main players in this controversy (the superintendent–a Mr. Ed Turlington, and the dismissed teacher–Debra Taylor), it seems likely that there probably have been some “philosophical differences” between them. Added to that, by looking at the school’s schedule of classes, it’s not difficult to see that there could have been some varying points of view among the faculty members about what should be taught in classes in this school.

In most small schools, the teachers generally have an overlap of the subjects they teach; for example, a math teacher might have to teach some of the science courses too, or the physical education teacher might also teach history and driver’s education. Sometimes, because of class size or lack of funds, even the superintendent or the principal (who might also actually be the same person) has to teach a class or two.

On the other hand, because of the small size, teachers who have a special interest may be given the opportunity to teach more topic specific courses. By looking at the class schedule again, this looks as if what might have been the case in Grainfield. Ms. Taylor’s schedule includes an Ethics class and a Street Law class, not your run-of-the-mill courses generally taught in small rural schools. Likewise, there is a class listed as the Bible as Literature, taught by a C. Turlington, (whom we can assume has some relationship with the superintendent), also not a course that we’d find in most small public high schools, nor for that matter, even large public high schools.

Just looking at those course listings, at first one might think how lucky the students are to have such choices. But courses like those are not instituted without some push from somebody who wants them to be taught or who wants to teach them. When you see the outcome of the teacher’s being dismissed, it’s seems like there probably was some undercurrent of discord because of differences of opinion about what should be taught in this school and in these classes long before the “Laramie Project” situation.

Even so, this problem seems to be one that should stay a local one. The biggest story about this small school should be one about a sports team winning a championship or an FFA member taking a Grand Championship ribbon at the state fair.

PFLAG groups getting involved on the side of the teacher and the Phelps family coming to town to rail against “The Laramie Project” should not be what brings attention to this school and town. Issues in small towns are small town issues, no matter what they are. In the end, it is the locally-elected school board that decides what is best for the school.

Outsiders getting involved only exacerbates the conflict and will make it much harder for those in the town itself to come back together. Because come back together they will have to, one way or another. You just can’t avoid people in a small town like you can in a big city. People who do not grow up in a small town just have no understanding how close-knit the people who live there are. People from outside trying to favor one point or the other are going to be looked at as “meddlers”. That’s why I feel sorry for the people of this community. They don’t need all of that interference.

But even I am taking a side here. First of all, there is no reason for a class like “The Bible as Literature” to be taught in that school or any public school. If students need more literature than they are getting in their English classes, the school should offer AP (Advanced Placement) Literature to get them ready for college. I’m sure Grandfield has a number of churches that have Bible Study classes, Sunday School, and Summer Bible School, from which anyone interested could get all the Bible Lit. they wanted.

On a more personal note, years ago, I had a “Debra Taylor” as my English teacher. Her name, though, was Mrs. Anna Herman, and she was my English teacher for all my years at Dorrance (Kansas) High School. Not only was she the English teacher, but she started a speech and debate program in one of the smallest schools in the state at that time (about 40 students in grades 9-12). This gave us the opportunity to compete against schools much larger in size, something that sports usually doesn’t do.

virginia-woolfWhat makes this situation in Grandfield seem so similar is that when I was a senior, Mrs. Herman suggested that my classmate and I do a piece from Edward Albee’s play, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”. At that time, this controversial drama had just come out as a movie with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton cast as the leads. The cutting that our teacher wanted us to do was from some of the Taylor-Burton scenes. However, before we could work on the piece, she asked that we get our parents to go watch the movie at the theater.

Back in the 60s, the film’s subject matter was considered raw and the language strong, but when compared with today’s films, or even TV shows, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” would  seem fairly “tame”. But in 1966, it was a cutting-edge movie, and not an easy one for 17-year-olds to watch with their parents, let alone 17-year-olds with farm parents from a town of about 300 people .

The 15-mile drive home from the show was a very quiet one.

However, we got to do “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” as our speech competition piece because our parents trusted and believed in Mrs. Herman. To this day, after all these many years, I’m proud to say that we got a first place in every speech contest that we entered, including the state competition.

We also presented our piece in front of the school and parents a couple of times, and always got a positive reception; even though the people from my little town were both conservative and religious, they also were the type of people who recognized the importance of their kids’ getting an education that would prepare them for life beyond the farm and our little town.

And you know what? Mrs. Herman wasn’t some sort of liberal interloper from the outside. She was a farmer’s wife who had gone back to school later in life to get her degree and teaching credentials, but she was a teacher who gave her all so that her students would have more opportunities and realize that the world goes a lot further than just the county line.

I don’t know Debra Taylor, but I have an idea that she might be the same kind of teacher.

This may be the problem with some of the people in Grandfield, Oklahoma: that narrow-mindedness is interfering with giving kids an education to help them prepare for the world beyond their town.

(Just for the record: Anna Herman was the sister of Johnny Locke, who coached basketball for many years at Natoma High School in the 1950s and 60s and was one of the winningest coaches in Kansas high school history.)