I watched our oldest granddaughter, Addison, as she chased Edgar, the cat, around the house. We tried explaining, “He is never going to come to you as long as you keep chasing him.” Being impatient, she didn’t want to wait and continued her quest. From the living room, through the dining room, into the kitchen, then back into the living room; around and around they went in circles, one lap after another, the sleek black cat was always in the lead.
Occasionally, Edgar would double back, running around the dining room table, reversing the direction of travel. Addison kept with him, staying in hot pursuit. She tried to outsmart Edgar by stopping in the opening between the living room and dining room. She waited for Edgar, thinking she would head him off and pounce on him. But Edgar never came. Reversing her direction again, Addison ran counter-clock-wise in an attempt to find the elusive feline. In vain, she pressed on but couldn’t find him. Edgar was hiding under the corner booth in the kitchen, watching as she sprinted by, looking for him.
As a spectator, I was amused by it all. A chase that was only possible because we live in a “circle house.” Circle houses provide a natural racetrack by having at least two doorways in different rooms, connecting them together and creating “the circle.” I suppose such houses were built for convenience, allowing people to move through the structure more efficiently; saving steps. But that wasn’t always the case.
Many parents were worn out after chasing a bare-bottomed, laughing child who fled from the bath, or, a kid wearing pajamas whose mission was to delay bedtime. I’ve seen all these things growing up. As a child I assumed all houses were built this way. Hands down, the coolest circle house I ever lived in was our old farmhouse on rural route #5 in Ottumwa, Iowa. It was actually a double circle house, as the solarium made its own smaller circle with doorways into the dining and living rooms.
Back then, my Dad was the general manager of KTVO-TV. The station aired a program called Candyland. Kids were invited to be on the show, where they sat in little bleachers to watch cartoons. The host would play games, tell stories and provide other entertainment. Each kid would get something small like a coloring book or a paper hat. If you were lucky, you might get a certificate for a free ice cream cone at Grahams Dairy, A&W, or Briggs Ice Cream. Usually, the prizes were kind of cheesy, but everyone was happy to get something.
One year around Christmas, my brother Gerard and I got to be on the show. We were five and six years old at the time. I don’t remember what cartoons we watched, but the gifts were awesome! I left with a big yellow Tonka dump truck. It was all metal, the tires were real rubber and the bed of the truck was hinged to actually dump whatever I loaded into the truck. It was big enough that I could sit in the box, hang my feet out the back and push myself along backwards until I stopped by running into something.
Gerard got a red cement truck with a white mixing drum on the back. It had an oval on the sides with red letters spelling Tonka, in the center. The drum really turned. We pretended to mix concrete by putting sand and small rocks into the opening, then turning the drum. We played for countless hours with those trucks. As two young brothers often do, we became somewhat competitive.
My dump truck was much larger than his cement truck. Sometimes, to boast the size and power of my truck, I would snatch his fully-loaded cement mixer and put it in the bed of my truck. With a hand on each side of the dump box, I would lean into it and take off running, pushing the truck as fast as I could go, stealing his truck. He would chase me, eventually catching me. A wrestling match always followed.
“My dump truck is a lot faster than your cement truck.” I told him. “No, it’s not.” He replied. “Yes, it is. It’s bigger and it’s a lot faster.” I justified. “My truck is faster,” he argued, “because it’s not fat like your truck.” “Oh yeah?” I said, “Yeah.” He replied. After an exchange bantering of “Oh yeah?” and “Yeah!” It was obvious a race would be needed to determine who had the faster truck
Inside the house, a course was plotted. The first one to cross the start/finish line, the second time, would be the winner, earning bragging rights for owning the faster truck. We lined our trucks up in the double doorway between the living room and the dining room. Because Gerard’s truck was smaller than mine, he couldn’t lean on his truck like I did. That gave me a clear advantage. “On your mark. Get set. GO!” I immediately pushed Gerard over, then took off.
He was quickly back on his truck and hot on my tail. We sped across the Living room. We made tire screeching noises as we rounded the corner, heading down the hallway. A hard-right turn at the end of the hallway would require slowing down for most drivers, but not me. I picked up the speed, losing control in the turn and rolled into the open bedroom door. Gerard passed me, laughing.
I put my truck back on its wheels and raced past the bathroom. Gerard had just passed the door that went upstairs. He stopped long enough to open the door, throwing an obstacle in my path. I didn’t even slow down, I just rammed the door, pushing it out of my way and slamming it shut, making one heck of a racket! Mom was in the kitchen, “What’s going on?” She wanted to know. “Did you boys break something?” Before we could answer, Gerard raced through the S-turn at the end of the hall and into the kitchen. He was headed for the butler’s pantry. “Hey! You didn’t do your lap around the kitchen table.” I called out to Gerard, as I was going around the table, speeding between Mom and the sink. I stopped for a moment in the pantry to make sure he went all the way around the table. Passing Mom, he ran into her foot. (Remember, these were metal toys.) “Ouch!” She yelled. Mom was mad, “Knock it off! Right now!”
It was a heated race. Tempers flared and we both became more determined to win. Bumping into each other several times, we sped through the dining room. Once past the glass French doors, we turned left through the living room, into the solarium, back to the dining room. Two laps were required around the little circle. Then we began the second and final lap on the big circle. In the kitchen, rounding the table, I wiped out on a slippery floor, knocking over a trash can. Gerard took over the lead, but not for long.
The swinging door between the pantry and the kitchen was closed, which was quite strange as that door is always propped open. Gerard pushed through the door and I followed, bouncing the heavy door off my shoulder. Uh, oh! Mom was in the dining room. Gerard couldn’t stop and crashed into the now closed French doors that led to the living room. Looking for an escape route, I headed for the solarium, but that glass door was also now closed. Mom was really mad.
She grabbed me by the wrist and picked me up. I tried to hold onto my truck, but it fell to the floor, landing on its side next to Gerard’s upset cement truck. She opened the door with her free hand, then grabbed my brother by the wrist. Mom’s lecture began: “If you two think you’re going to disobey me and keep running around the house after I told you to stop, you’ve both got another think coming!”
The two of us were being taken, actually dragged, to the back bedroom. Spankings were imminent. “It’s not fair!” I protested, while trying to dig my heels into the carpet. “I’m not the one who ran into you. It was him!” Protests never did work with Mom. When she felt you had it coming, you were going to get it!
As I recall, Gerard got three swats on the behind, where my tushy was graced with six or seven stinging whacks. The extra whacks were the result of my attempted protest. Mom put us in bed and went back to the kitchen, pulling the bedroom door closed behind her.
A debate ensued as to who won the race. Gerard insisted he won, since he reached the doors first. “You didn’t reach them, you crashed into them. That’s why we got sent to bed.” I told him. “Besides, since the doors were closed, neither one of us actually crossed the finish line.” I explained. “We’ll probably have to have a rematch.” Gerard said. I agreed, “Fine, but you’re just going to lose again because my dump truck is bigger and faster than your cement truck.”
Gerard snuck out the door and down the hallway. He came back and reported Mom was in the kitchen at the sink, doing something. Another advantage to a circle house. It offered us the opportunity to tiptoe, unnoticed, down the front hallway and out the front door. We were going to go out to the apple orchard, but Mom would see us through the kitchen window. Instead, we ran around the front of the house to the garage, to see if the mother cat and her kittens were still under the porch. They were, so we stayed to play with them.
Back in the present-day kitchen at our house, Addison walked towards me. Looking up, she asked, “Papa, do you know where Edgar is?” I smiled, “Sweetie, you need to leave Edgar alone for a little while. He’ll come to you, but you have to stop chasing him.” From under the bench, Edgar watched as she walked to the living room.
A few minutes later, Addison went running by with June’s stuffed moose in her hand. June trotted along behind, hoping she would throw the toy for her to catch. Addison wasn’t going to throw it. She just enjoyed being chased by the dog, as she ran laps through our circle house.
I cannot do it. I absolutely cannot throw out a clean sock just because it has a hole in it. It’s a waste of soap and water, not to mention my labor and the senseless wear and tear on the laundry machines. Because it’s clean, I feel obligated to wear it one more time, then discard the worn-out sock when it’s dirty…that is, if I remember.
This oddity of mine goes beyond socks. I’ll openly admit: I have a few “garment attachment” issues – okay, maybe I have a lot of them. My wife has pointed out my inability to throw away old, worn out, damaged or faded clothing. Rather than addressing the problem and seeking a resolution, I find it much easier to head straight into denial. In an attempt to justify my bad habit, I’ll declare, “I can wear this as a work shirt,” or, “This will make a good rag.” The other day I had a fabric experience that gave me a real scare.
We had company coming for the weekend and I needed to prepare the guest bedroom for them. Flannel bedsheets are really nice and cozy in the winter months, but it was time to replace them with regular cotton sheets, for the milder spring days ahead. I set the decorative pillows, with shams that match the quilted bedspread, on the chair in the corner. I pulled off the pillow cases and tossed them into the laundry basket.
I removed the bedspread, folding it neatly and placing it on the chair. When I tried to take off the brown fleece blanket, it clung to the top sheet. The two pieces were stuck together. Grabbing a corner of the flannel sheet in my left hand and the edge of the blanket in my right, I would separate them so I could put the sheet in the laundry basket. I lifted my arms like an Olympic swimmer doing the breast stroke, I yanked the two pieces in opposite direction. That’s when the incident occurred.
“Sweet Mother Mary, Joseph and Jesus, save me!” I was nearly electrocuted! Bang, bang, bang, snap, snap, pop, pop, pop, crack, crack… Hundreds of little bluish-white static sparks flew wildly, every other one striking me, creating a racket that sounded like the Fourth of July and I was screaming like a girl. I honestly thought someone lit a whole package of firecrackers, tossing it at my feet as a prankster would do to his buddies.
The noise scared my dog, June. She went scurrying down the hallway with her tail tucked in between her legs. When the fireworks settled, I inspected the blanket for burn marks or possible open flames. Not finding any, I walked to the living room. June was curled up safely in the leather chair with her head hanging over the edge of the cushion. “Get back in there and help me; you’re a dog, not a chicken. Act like it.” “No way, man,” she said, “I don’t get hazard pay. You’re on your own.”
I returned to the guest bedroom (alone) and carefully removed the remainder of flannel bedding. The static had gotten on me! Every hair on my arms, and most on my head, were drawn toward the bed, pointing toward that fleece blanket like it was magnetic. My T-shirt was sticking to my chest; my blue pajama pants were clinging to my legs. My whole body was fully charged. I was more than a little on edge. Each aftershock of static caused me to jump again, whether it popped me or missed.
With the flannel sheets in the basket, I walked to the master bedroom to check for anything else that could go in with this load of laundry. On the end of the bed were a few of my favorite flannel garments – two shirts and a pair of pajama pants. Throwing them into the basket, I laughed to myself. Women spent decades teaching men the proper way to do the wash; separating whites and colors, using hot or cold, etc., but I might be the first man in history to do a load of flannels only.
With the laundry basket on my hip, I started walking toward the basement. June was still sitting in the chair. “Do you want to come downstairs with me?” I asked her. Recognizing the scary, blue plaid flannel sheets that made all the sparks and noise, she declined.
At the washer, I turned the load size to extra-large; set the temperature to cold, pulled the knob outward to start the water flowing and added a capful of liquid detergent to the tub. While I waited for the soap to mix with the water, I took the green flannel shirt from the basket, holding it up and looking it over. Both sleeves were shredded near the elbows. The back and front both had various large holes and rips in them. I thought about throwing it away, but I could keep using it for a work shirt. Besides, it had sentimental value.
On my dresser there is a framed photo of Melissa and me. I was wearing that very green shirt, back when it was almost new. The shirt was one of the first gifts my wife gave me. I knew if I washed it, I wouldn’t throw it away until after I’d worn it again. “I don’t have to decide right now.” I said, then laid the shirt over my shoulder to take it back upstairs.
Next, I took the orange, plaid shirt from the basket, holding it up and looking it over. The color has faded, but overall, it was in pretty good shape, with just one or two small holes in the tail and some damage to the collar. I thought about throwing it away, but I still wear it, especially around campfires, when I don’t want a good shirt smelling like smoke. Besides, it had sentimental value.
One night I fell asleep in the papasan chair in the living room. Melissa was going to bed and didn’t want June, who was just young puppy at that time, roaming freely around the house. (She wasn’t fully potty trained yet. She, meaning June, not Melissa.) Melissa put June on her leash, then placed the loop of the leash over my foot and around my ankle, leaving the puppy with me. While I was sleeping, June hopped up in the chair, crawled up onto my shoulder and gnawed the collar on the back of my shirt. I was wearing that very orange plaid shirt. As I ran my hands over the chewed collar, I remembered it was a gift from my wife and one of my favorite shirts. I knew if I washed the shirt, I wouldn’t throw it away until after I’d worn it again. “I don’t have to decide right now.” I said, then threw the shirt over my shoulder with the green one, to take it back upstairs.
Next, I picked up the red plaid, flannel pajama pants. I held them up and looked them over. The fabric was worn so thin I could see daylight through it. The hems on both legs were tattered and there were a couple holes in the jammies. The seams were weak and even the cloth around the waistband was giving out, allowing the white elastic inside to show. The seat was blown out with about an eight or nine-inch tear. I thought about throwing them away, but I still wear them as long as I have on boxers, my derriere wasn’t showing. Besides, they had sentimental value.
That was the first pair of pajama pants my wife ever gave me. I knew if I washed them, I wouldn’t throw them away until after I’d worn them again. “I don’t have to decide right now.” I said, then flipped the pajama pants over my shoulder along with the two shirts to take them back upstairs.
Pulling the sheets from the basket, I could hear June snickering upstairs as they snapped and popped a few more times from static. “It’s not funny, dog!” I hollered toward the stairwell. I stuffed the sheets into the washer, positioning them evenly around the agitator. I gave final consideration to throwing in the garments that were draped over my shoulder. Old, worn flannel sure feels good to wear and it’s taken a dozen years to get these special articles of clothing to this level of satisfying comfort. “I don’t have to decide right now.” I said, then closed the lid on the washer and went upstairs.
In the master bathroom, I held up the two shirts and the pajama pants, looking them over one last time. “Sorry guys,” I said to the mass of flannel in my hands, “I think this is the end of the road for you.” I dropped the pajama pants into the trash can, then the green shirt and finally the orange shirt. The three pieces overflowed the top of the can. I turned off the bathroom light and said, “Farewell my good friends, it’s been a long, fun ride, but your journey has come to an end. Rest in peace.” I pulled the door shut, then went to the living room to sit with June. Together, we would mourn.
Thinking about what I had just done and not sure I felt very good about it, I was trying to convince myself, “You did the right thing, Tom. They were tired. It was time.” Suddenly, I jumped up and walked, with conviction, to the master bath. June followed close on my heels. I flung the door open and grabbed the orange flannel shirt from the top of the trash can. “This one still has plenty of life in it. I’ll be darned if I’m going to throw away a perfectly good shirt.”
I returned to the living room chair with my dog and my orange flannel shirt. Still second guessing my decision, I was thinking about the pajama pants and the green flannel shirt. They were about the same age and now deceased, laying together in a shallow, plastic grave. I also thought about the sheets I took off the bed and how much static energy they discharged. Wondering if there was any possible resurrection for the shirt and jammies, I considered Dr. Frankenstein and how he brought his deceased creature back to life with a charge from a bolt of lightning.
“Lightning is just a static discharge.” I told June, with a fleeting glimmer of hope in my voice. “Just like the sparks from the sheets – also a static discharge. It’s the same thing, albeit the voltage is substantially less than lightning.” June looked upon me with pity and compassion and said, “Dad, you’ve got to let go.” I pleaded my case, “But it worked for Dr. Frankenstein…” June interrupted me, “Frankenstein was just a movie. It wasn’t real.” “But...” June warned, “If you keep this up, Mom is going to have you committed, you know that, right?” I hung my head low, surrendering, “I know.”
Later, when I heard the buzzer sound off on the dryer, I went down and gathered the bedding. I decided I was going to put the flannel sheets back on the bed for our company coming on the weekend. The nights were still chilly and I’m sure they would appreciate sleeping on them. I began making the bed. I like working with warm sheets. T
hey smell so fresh and clean right out of the dryer. I put two dryer sheets in with them so, they were static free, too. Ahhh…
I stretched the fitted sheet over each of the four corners, smoothing out the wrinkles in the middle. Then I snapped and waved the top sheet, letting it settle gently over the mattress like a parachute. I gave it a few more light shakes for alignment until it was centered on the bed. I tucked the sheet under the foot of the mattress and began making my hospital corners, just like mom taught me when I was little. As I smoothed the first corner, I felt a lump underneath. I pulled the top sheet loose, lifting the elastic corner from the bottom sheet, to investigate.
“Would you look at that?” I said, with a big grin, as I removed a grey, athletic sock that was trapped inside. We know washing machines steal socks, but they rarely give one back. That sock wasn’t there when I put the load in the washer, so to find a lone sock in with the clean sheets? That was every bit as lucky as finding a four-leaf clover in the yard.
I knew there was another single grey sock in my dresser drawer. I held the sock up and looked it over. It had a small hole in the heel. Still smiling, I carried it to the master bedroom to reunite the two single socks, as one pair. Even though one sock had a hole in it, you can bet I wasn’t going to throw away a pair of perfectly good, clean socks – especially after the day I’d had!
Not all parts of the country get them and not everyone likes them, but I do. They scare the daylights out of some people and pets, while others look forward to them, anticipating their arrival. They’re loud, powerful and can be very destructive and yet there’s still a gracefulness; a mystique and romantic charm about them that draws in many. I am talking about a meteorological-phenomena called the Midwestern thunderstorm – thunderstorms cooler than any place else in the world. I really miss them. Folks, such as myself, like to pull up a chair and watch the storm as if it was the single performance of a show coming to town for one day only.
The best seat for spectating is under a covered porch, an awning, or, maybe out in the garage or a barn with a large door, opened. Your vantage point needs a view to the west – the direction from which the storms arrive. Occasionally storms move in from the east, but that’s pretty uncommon.
People are often caught off-guard. Their first sign of a storm approaching is thunder. Unsuspecting souls will hear it before ever seeing the storm. It starts with a dull noise coming from the far distance, invoking the obvious question: “Was that thunder?” A look to the west might reveal a dark sky, or massive, brilliant white cumulus clouds, still billowing and towering upward toward the heavens. Sometimes, the sky might have a brackish green color. Or, a very dark grey, nearly black line will define a squall line. When either of these appear, you know you’re in for a real doozy of a storm.
I always enjoy hearing loud crashes of thunder, even stronger than fireworks. I will listen as it booms and echoes, rolling off into the distance, dissipating to silence - until the next clap sounds off. Flashes of lightning put on spectacular displays in the sky. Sometimes, the lightning jumps horizontally from cloud to cloud. Other times it shoots down vertically, striking out at the earth. I love to watch lightning by day or night. It’s power always leaves me in awe. If I’m really lucky, I might catch a bolt hitting an object on the ground, discharging its energy. Lightning strikes, though fascinating, are both dangerous and damaging.
As much as I enjoy watching the lightning, I always cringed whenever it was close to our radio station towers. A 400-foot-tall steel tower is the easiest target in the area for lightning to hit. Our equipment had the best lightning protection and grounding systems available, but lightning has a mind and a will of its own; it will find a way to get in. In my 35 years as a radio broadcaster, I saw some severe lightning damage and the cost was always measured in the thousands of dollars. The visual damage inside a transmitter building was never as impressive as the outdoor damage. Lightning is very capable of splitting a massive oak tree in half, setting structures on fire and is often fatal if it strikes a person. All of the damage is done in a split second and if you blink, you might miss it all. Lightning has to be respected, as do all elements of a severe storm.
Hail is kind of cool when it’s pea-sized, or even the size of nickels and dimes. It can cover the ground, giving the illusion of a snowfall in the spring or summer. But when hail is the size of golf balls, it starts denting car hoods and tops. When it gets as large as baseballs and softballs, it’s not fun anymore. It smashes through windshields, breaks house windows and destroys siding and roofs. It becomes very destructive and dangerous!
The wind is a sure sign that a pending storm is about to break loose. It always kicks up just before the rains that are often torrential. When driven by the wind, rain can be pushed horizontally, in defiance of the laws of gravity. While lightning damage is isolated to the object it strikes, strong wind will tear up anything in its path. Wind will knock down power lines, snap off large branches, uproot tall trees and remove rooftops without effort. The wind, too, has to be respected. Just because the winds die down, it is not an assurance the storm is over. Frequently, it is just regrouping, finding new energy and about to wallop you with round two. A person has to be prepared for storms to flare up at any time – even when they’re not forecast. It’s just a Midwest thing. A common question asked when away from home and a storm is brewing: “Are the windows closed?”
Last weekend, while in Ottumwa, Iowa, I took the opportunity to visit my old friend, Mike, at O’Hara Hardware. It was after hours and we were sitting in his office, reminiscing when I heard a rumbling. “Was that thunder?” I asked. “It sounded like a truck outside to me.” He replied. Content with his answer, we resumed our conversation. A second and louder rumbling was heard. Mike said, “That was thunder.” I knew I had to get going and was getting ready to say farewell. Then came a really familiar sound that I hadn’t heard for a while.
I cocked my head and listened, to make sure I was hearing what I thought I was hearing. It started softly, then rapidly got louder and louder. It was a booming noise, that can be deafening when heavy rains are pounding down on a metal roof. I jumped out of my chair, “I have to go!” I announced hurriedly. As Mike followed me to the front door, I explained. “My dog June, is in the car waiting for me.” Are your windows opened?” He asked. I replied, “Yep. The windows are down.”
At the front door, I looked out across the parking lot. Since the store was closed, Mike’s truck and my car were the only two vehicles out there. The rain was pouring straight down; water was running across the pavement toward the gutters on the street, where it was already pooling faster than the storm sewers could take it in. It was an icky feeling that settled into my stomach, seeing my car, sitting in the rain with the windows all open halfway. The visibility was reduced by the heavy rain, but not so much that I could see my sunroof was open, too!
Mike unlocked the door and held it open for me. I said, “Next time I come to town, I’ll try to let you know ahead of time. Maybe we can go out to dinner!” “That sound good. Let’s do that.” He was saying as I ran away, through the rain, toward my car.
In stride, I unlocked the doors with my fob. Quickly jumping into the car, I was hoping to find shelter from the rain – but you don’t get out of the rain when sitting under a giant hole in the roof. I put the key in the ignition and turned it, simultaneously holding the button to close the sunroof. June was sitting in the back of the car, where she was protected from the rain. Sarcastically, she said, “Nice work boss. Next time, maybe you’ll listen to the dog and let me come inside with you, so you can lock the car…with the windows rolled up and everything.” “Hmfph. Smart aleck.” I grumbled. Adding insult to injury, June reminded me, “You’re in Iowa now, partner. You can’t trust the weather.”
The seats, the steering wheel, the center console and everything under the sun (roof) was soaked. My back was cold; my shirt was already wet and the seat back finished it off. My jeans were as drenched as if I had sat in a puddle of water – which I did, as there was literally a puddle of water in the front seat. “June Bug, do you want to sit with me up front?” I asked, while patting my hand, splashing the water in the passenger’s seat. She lowered her brow, “I think not, Dad.”
“Hey Dad?” June beckoned from the back of the car. “Yeah Bugs, what’s up?” I responded. Is this part of that ‘Midwestern meteorological-phenomena,’ that you love and claim to miss?” We shared a good laugh about that. “Actually June,” I answered, “this is a part of it. Yes. Getting caught in the rain.” What the heck. Getting upset over wet seats wasn’t going to make them dry, one might as well find humor in the situation.
I shook the water from my right hand and put the car in first gear. I felt warmer inside – a nostalgic feeling, that, for me, is another element of a thunderstorm - a true meteorological-phenomena that can only be experienced this way, in The Midwest.
It was close to 7:00 p.m. when I snuck into the radio station, the same way a teenager sneaks into the house at 2 or 3 in the morning, when they were supposed to be home by 11. I was hoping and praying not to get caught, which would give me until the next morning to come up with an alibi. I knew I would have some explaining to do.
The first office inside the front door was my Dad’s and his lights were off - that was a good sign. My office was all the way down the hall, in the back of the building, next to the production room. Since Dad’s lights were off, it seemed the coast was clear. I breathed a sigh of relief and walked freely to my office, placing the key in the door. Dad stepped out of the production room. Wearing his long beige dress coat with the belt tied around the waist and plaid Stetson hat, he didn’t look or sound happy. “Where have you been all day?” He demanded.
I always liked that Stetson hat on Dad, but strongly suspected, this was not the time to offer flattering comments on his apparel. Not having the luxury of waiting until the next morning, I had to think on my feet and fast. “Well…Dad…” I cleared my throat and stammered, “I was seeing a new potential client. I think they might be spending a lot of money advertising with us in the future.” His arms were folded across his chest. He looked at me with strong skepticism, waiting for a full explanation.
The truth is, I was out selling advertising, as I was supposed to be. It was a nice day in the early spring and I was riding my motorcycle to my sales calls. It was a brand new, dark blue 1981 Kawasaki, KZ1100 with red and gold pinstripes. She was fully dressed with a matching fairing and windshield; saddlebags and a trunk, not to mention a cool sounding stereo system, complete with a cassette tape player. I taught dog Harry to ride on the motorcycle and he was with me most of the time – even when I went to work.
We stopped at a gas station around noon to fill the tank, where we ran into a couple of friends, Jerry and Donna. They were fueling their bike as well. “Beautiful day for a bike ride, isn’t it?” I asked them. Donna was sitting on the seat of the bike, which leaning on its kickstand. She agreed “It sure is.” Jerry added, “It’s a great day for riding the bike.” “You guys just cruising around town?” I queried. “Nope,” Jerry answered, “We’re going to ride to Keith’s Café for lunch. Have you ever been there?” “I’ve never heard of it. Where is Keith’s?” I asked. “Memphis, Missouri.” Jerry said, “About an hour or so from here. They’ve got the best steaks in the whole Midwest.” “That sounds like fun.” I said.
The thought of going with them was enticing, but I had a lot of work to do. I had clients to see, commercials to write and record and I was way behind on paperwork. Besides, I wasn’t invited and asking to tag along just seemed weird.
Jerry offered, “Were going down with a few other couples, you’re welcome to ride along.” Being 21-years-old at the time, I didn’t always make the wisest decisions. “I really don’t have much to do today,” I said, “we’d love to go along with you.” I nodded toward my dog, who was sitting patiently on the seat, “Is it okay if Harry goes along as my date?” Jerry laughed. “Sure, why not? He’s a lot better looking than you, Palen.” We shared a good laugh over that, then planned to meet at their house where the others were waiting.
They pulled away from the pumps and rode off. With a scornful eye, Harry warned, “You’re going to get in trouble for this, you know.” “You worry too much, Harry. Sometimes you just gotta live a little. Besides, we’re going to be back in three hours. No one will even know we were gone.” Harry and I rushed home to change clothes.
I took off my suit and tie, and put on a pair of jeans and a black T-shirt with the radio station logo, “K-98” across the front. Harry groomed himself a bit, then asked me, “Does this red bandana look okay? Or, should I wear the blue one?” “You look smashing in red, my friend.” Harry blushed a bit and I gave him a rub on the head, saying, “Come on, let’s go. They’re waiting.”
When I got to Jerry’s house, four bikes were parked, backed up to the curb, side-by-side. A group of people were gathered in the yard talking. I knew most of them and met a couple new people, too. “Are you guys about ready?” I asked in gest, “I’m tired of waiting.” We all shared a good laugh about that, mounted our bikes and headed down the road.
We weren’t in a hurry, so we took the county roads and less traveled highways – all paved of course. Since they knew the way, Jerry and Donna led the group; Harry and I brought up the rear.
The Iowa countryside was pretty. It was just starting to turn green and the air was so fresh. The further south we drove toward Missouri, the greener the landscape became. It was a warm, sunny day, and the wind felt good rushing around the sides of the windshield. Harry sat behind me with his rump on the seat and his front paws on the saddlebag; his neck stretched out to see around me and look down the road. “Do you want to come up front for a better view?” I asked him. Still holding the throttle, I raised my right elbow high in the air. That was my signal to let Harry know he could sit up front. I had a special cover made for the gas tank so that he could sit on it without sliding or scratching the paint.
While moving down the road, Harry walked around me, stepping onto my right thigh, then in front of me. He sat upright between my legs on the gas tank, looking curiously through the windshield, almost as if he was the driver. Taking in all the scenery, he watched cows in the fields, farmers on tractors planting their crops, people out working in their yards and more. His ears flapped in the wind, occasionally brushing my face and tickling my cheeks. “You’re a good boy, Harry Palen.” I said, then turned up the stereo when an old Waylon and Willie song came on the radio.
Watching the bikes in front of me, I saw something that didn’t look right. I raised my arm again, “Go back, Harry.” I said. He promptly crossed over my leg the same way as before, taking his seat behind me. Leaning against my back, as if bracing himself for trouble, Harry was looking over my left shoulder to see what was going on. Doug, a new guy I met that day, on the bike ahead of me was slowing down. His motorcycle was wobbling from side to side; he had a flat tire. I turned on my flashers and backed off even more, not knowing if he was going to hang on, or lay it down on the pavement. As he continued to slow down, his bike jumped each time the rim rolled across from one side of the flat tire to the other. When he had slowed down enough, Doug pulled off the highway onto the gravel shoulder, walking along, straddling the seat with both feet on the ground to steady the bike. His wife climbed off first, then Doug got off and put the bike up on the center stand.
The other riders noticed he was having trouble and turned around to came back. Harry and I pulled off the highway behind Doug. He looked a little pale and shaken; who wouldn’t be? Anyone who has every had a flat tire on a motorcycle at highway speed, knows the gut wrenching feeling and anxiety you experience while trying to stop the bike and stay upright. “Nice job keeping it up.” I said. Doug nodded, “Thanks.” Doug was able to remove the back wheel. I don’t remember if someone ran him into town with his flat or what, but the tire was repaired and we continued down the road toward Memphis.
In Memphis, we arrived at Keith’s Café, a small building with white siding, on the corner of Market Street and US Highway 136. We pulled into the gravel parking lot. Uniformly, one bike at a time pulled up to the building until we were all in a row. We shut down the engines, put down our kickstands and climbed off our bikes. After ceremoniously stretching and bending, we all stood upright. “So, this is Keith’s Café.” I said. Two or three people answered at the same time, “Best steaks in the Midwest.”
They all started to walk in. “I’ll be in in a minute.” I said. Harry looked at me and asked, “Do I get to come in this time?” “Sorry, bud. I need you to stay out here and guard the bikes.” I said. I got his water bowl and a bottle of water from the side compartment. Filling his dish, I said, “There’s shade next to the building for you.” I gave him a rub on the head and said, “I’ll be back in a bit and I’ll bring you something to eat.” I didn’t put Harry on a leash; it wasn’t necessary. Harry knew to stay close to the bike until I came back.
Walking inside the restaurant was like taking a step back in time. The tables were mostly old kitchen tables with chrome legs and Formica tops and a chrome band around the edges. Mismatched chrome chairs, with a hodge-podge of shiny red, green, blue, yellow and turquoise seats tops, sat around each table. There was a counter with chairs and stools, the flooring was square vinyl tile that made a checker-board pattern of sorts. Coffee mugs hanging on the wall had red Dyno-Label Maker tags, marking each hook for the mug’s owner. The feel indicated this was a favorite spot for the locals of Memphis, Missouri. The décor, atmosphere and friendly staff made tourists, such as ourselves, feel right at home, too. It was like sitting around the table at your uncle’s house with family and friends. The ambiance of Keith’s Café was indeed welcoming – but the food? Oh my!
I ordered a big T-bone steak, medium rare, a baked potato with butter and sour cream and a side of green beans. I substituted the salad, for cottage cheese and a warm dinner roll came with the meal. The steak was tender, juicy and cooked to perfection. The baked potato was just right. Everything was delicious. I was very full, but, against my better judgement I ordered a slice of homemade apple pie…a la mode. My friends didn’t steer me wrong – it was quite possibly the best steak in the whole Midwest; it certainly was the best steak I’d ever had.
We enjoyed good conversation and plenty of laughter, both during and after dinner. The waitress came by with our checks, asking, “Do you all need anything else?” “Can I get a doggie bag, please?” I asked, when she set my ticket next to my empty plate. She looked at my dishes. Somewhat perplexed, she smiled and said, “There’s nothing left to take.” “Actually, I want the bone for my dog. He’s been waiting patiently outside.” “Oh,” she said a bit excited, “Are you the one that has the dog outside by the motorcycles?” I smiled and nodded. The waitress added, “That sure is a good-looking dog and so well behaved to sit out there without a leash or anything.” “Thanks.” I said. “I’ll go get you a doggie bag.” She said, turning away. Jerry seized the moment to remind me, “I told you Harry was better looking than you, Palen.” “Hmfph.” I grunted while everyone else laughed.
We enjoyed a leisurely ride back home, taking in all the beauty Missouri and Iowa’s country roads had to offer. When we got to the edge of Ottumwa, we said our farewells, and Harry and I rushed home to change clothes. I put my suit back on just in case Dad was at the radio station when I got there. Which of course, he was.
Dad stood in the hallway outside the production room, in his long beige dress coat with the belt tied around the waist and plaid Stetson hat. He wasn’t happy. His arms were folded across his chest the entire time I told my story. When I was done, the lecture began. “Son, you have to start using better judgement. You can’t go to Missouri to make just one sales call. You have to make better use of your time. Plan to spend the whole day there and see several clients. And, you need to let me know when you’re working out of town for the day, otherwise the rest of the staff will think you were just out joy-riding on your motorcycle.” “I will, Dad.” I promised.
I immediately started thinking of additional clients I could call on next Friday. The Coho salmon season on Lake Michigan was starting to peak and I was just sure I could sell some advertising to Schiller Sporting Goods, in Port Washington, Wisconsin.
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