They came in the mail every November in the 1960’s. Particularly important was the Monkey Ward’s catalog because there was a Montgomery Ward Catalog Store in Belmond on Main Street. Mom and Dad could order, pay for, and pick up things there, particularly Christmas and birthday gifts. The four of us; my little brother, my two younger sisters, and I would argue about who would get to look at it next for hours at a time (the catalog, not the store… although the man who ran the store sold tropical fish in the back, so I could look at that for hours).
I, of course, dog-eared different pages than my sisters Nancy and Mary did. And David was eight years younger than me and was into baby toys, blocks, and books.
I am amazed at how cheap things were back then compared to now. Of course, things were more easily destroyed because of the cheaper plastics and simpler ingredients and materials common in the 1960’s. So, it is truly amazing how many of those toys I still have. And how many survived me only to be destroyed by my own children.
And it often wasn’t enough to look at just the Monkey Ward’s catalog. (Grandpa Aldrich always called it “Monkey” instead of “Montgomery”, a pretty standard old-farmer joke in the 60’s). Grandpa and Grandma Aldrich always got a copy of the Sears catalog. And we would pour over that to find treasures that Monkey Ward’s didn’t have. That was inconvenient for Mom and Dad. The nearest Sears store was in Mason City, 50 miles northeast.
Just the mention of Christmas catalogs of old when discussing with sisters flashes me back to the time when I was in grade school and Christmas time was all about being good for Santa because… well, toys.
And old Christmas catalogs still fascinate me. I love to look back through ten-year-old Mickey-eyes at a simpler, kinder time. Although, if I’m honest with myself, it probably wasn’t really any better than now. I just choose to believe that it was.
This has been a terrible week. It takes a good deal of explanation to make clear what fundamentally went wrong. But the ignition of the raging fire of black-luck can be traced back to the explosion of the upstairs toilet that unexpectedly started a cascade of bad luck and rather icky events.
Yes, you heard me right, the toilet exploded, not with actual fire, but with an unexpected gusher of the household water supply that disrupted and defeated a simple toilet-repair procedure. And went on to mess up the rest of the week.
The problem was first apparent when the float broke off from the bar that is supposed to stop the water from flowing into the toilet when the tank is full. So, it began pumping water into the bathroom relentlessly through the overflowing tank. Three inches of water on the floor later, I noticed what was happening and cut off the water to the toilet at the shut-off valve. I then went to Lowe’s and bought a new refill stack (a really cheap plastic one because I am really cheap) and I planned on repairing that toilet the same way that I did twice before. Easy-peazy.
What I didn’t know before beginning the repair, (and would soon learn to my horror half-way through the job) was that the shut-off valve was secretly out to get me, and put into action its twenty-year-long plan for exacting rust-revenge right before it’s gruesome demise. I discovered as I removed the broken piece of plumbing that the broken piece of plumbing was the only thing actually holding back the gusher that became a geyser while I was trying to fix it. And of course, once I knew what the problem was (several gallons too late) I managed to jam the piece I was putting in with such gusto that not only could it not be put in place over the geyser, it was also jammed hard enough that it could not be removed.
The only thing I could do was to shut off the water to the whole house. So, I went out to the spot by the front door where I remembered the shut-off valve to be. But where I thought I remembered the valve being, there was only a new bit of PVC pipe where the city had made changes to the old sewer lines two years ago. So, I began to panic. I don’t pay the water bill. My wife does. And she works at the Dungeon in her middle school’s basement where she can’t call out or get calls in. And I didn’t know the number to call to get help from the city. So, I went back upstairs to find something jammable to stuff in the geysering hole while number-two-son continued to hunt for the shut-off valve. I tried electrical tape and duck tape (though I didn’t actually have a duck to tape with it) and even considered briefly using one of my daughter’s many soaked socks that littered the bathroom floor (or rather, floated above it). As I went downstairs defeated, contemplating calling 911 for a drowning victim’s rescue, my son came in shouting that he had found the shut-off valve. It was under the replanted hedge that my wife moved two years ago.
So, we got the geyser stifled, and the rest of this week we have been living a comfort-free lifestyle with the water shut off while I have been contemplating my Joe-like ability to make bad things happen around me.
I have had to adapt as I work out how to undo the plumbing damage already done without being able to afford a real plumber, and attempt to prevent further damage from happening. And our luck with things like midnight bathroom runs by auto to the nearest all-night-Walmart-store restrooms, my daughter getting ready for school with limited wet resources, and even the car accident I had today between paragraphs two and three of this essay (no kidding… I had to run and pick up my son and got clipped by the car behind me going around the Walmart corner) has been Joe-Btfsplk-esque.
I have had a bad, bad, icky-Mickey week. But I did publish a book. And I got a fairly-funny essay out of the whole thing, though, sadly, every detail is truthfully accurate.
Kyle Clarke came storming into the Zeffer house before
either the sheriff’s deputy or Mrs. Philips could arrive. He was angry to the point of curse words over
what apparently had happened to Valerie.
He made Mrs. Zeffer and Ray repeat the story of how Ray found her three
times before he even started calming down.
He made it clear he wanted the story from Ray, not Valerie. Once he had learned she had been unconscious,
he didn’t even want to hear her version of events. He told her she would not be able to make
sense of things until she was well rested and recovered. He wanted Mrs. Philips, a registered nurse,
to examine her before any other investigation took place. Valerie could only imagine in horror what he
“Mrs. Philips! We
need you to examine little Valerie Clarke,” said Mrs. Zeffer as Mary’s mother
arrived at the Zeffer home. “She’s been
attacked by someone.”
Mrs. Philips was very pale, and also seemed shaken.
“What is the matter, Mrs. Philips?” Kyle asked. “You seem unwell.”
“My daughter Mary and her boyfriend Pidney Breslow are
missing. I’m afraid it has something to
do with what happened to Valerie.”
“Oh, no! We’ve phoned
the sheriff already and he’s sending Deputy Harper from Belle City to
investigate,” Kyle said in a concerned tone.
“Do you know what happened?” asked Mrs. Zeffer.
Ray was sitting on the bed in Bobby’s room next to Valerie
who was already wearing the clothes Kyle had brought her. Both of them looked at the adults standing
just outside the bedroom doorway.
Valerie’s fear for what might’ve happened to Mary and Pid was
overwhelming. She leaned against Ray’s
shoulder and began to cry softly.
“It was the strangest thing.
The three of them were all in our basement, reading some old book. Then, suddenly there was a purple fog in the
house. It smelled so sweet it made me
sick to my stomach. It apparently
knocked me out. When I came to, I found
my daughter Amy and her brother Jason were both sleeping on the floor. They had been knocked out too.”
“And the kids were taken from your house?” Kyle looked alarmed and upset.
“Yes, all we found were their clothes in the basement. I have never seen anything so strange. Whoever took them must have stripped them
“Oh, you poor dear,” said Mrs. Zeffer, taking hold of Lady
Philips’ shaking hands and guiding her to a chair in Bobby’s room. “Sit here.
Let me get you some tea.”
“Was there any indication who might have done this terrible
thing?” asked Kyle.
“I… I don’t know,” Mrs. Philips said as Mrs. Zeffer bustled
out of the room to make tea. “We found
the empty clothes… and then you called asking me to come here and examine
“You should’ve said something then,” Kyle said.
“I… I just felt numb.
I told Jason to look after Amy and came right here to see what I could
“All right… um, Mrs. Philips… I called you over here to
examine my daughter Valerie. I was
worried someone might have… well, she was found naked in the alley,
Lady Philips made a small strangling sound in her
throat. Valerie knew immediately what
she must have thought had happened to Mary.
“I’m okay, Daddy. I
know for a fact that nobody did anything like that to me.”
“Valerie, princess, you were unconscious. Somebody drugged you and stripped you
naked. We need to be certain what
happened.” Daddy Kyle was trying to be
comforting and soothing, but there was a cold, desperate edge to his voice that
actually scared Valerie. She looked at
Ray. Ray’s eyes were frightened too.
“Your dad is right, Val.
You need to be checked. Mrs.
Philips is an RN, a professional nurse.
She’ll be able to tell.”
“Okay, Ray,” said Valerie’s dad coolly, “You should go help
your mother in the kitchen. Deputy
Harper will be here soon.”
Ray reluctantly let go of Valerie and stood up. “You know, sir, that I would never hurt your
Kyle’s angry glare softened a bit. “I… I do know that, son. And believe me, I am grateful for the way you
rescued her and brought her somewhere safe.
I’m on edge right now. I don’t
know what was done or who did it. You
know what I mean?”
“Of course. If I were
in your shoes, I’d be afraid for my daughter too.”
Ray nodded resolutely.
Then he went out of the room.
“I will examine her in private, Mr. Clarke. I will be able to tell. I have treated rape victims before. I don’t have a kit with me, but I will know
if one needs to be used… Only…”
“What?” Kyle asked.
“After we know, I am going to need you and Deputy Harper to find Mary.” Valerie’s dad was grim-faced, but he nodded his agreement.
I know this title sounds like a total bummer of a post written by a sixty-plus-year-old loser in poor health and totally obsessed with his own imminent mortality. And I know why you might think that based on the general trends you have observed in my reflections-on-life sorts of posts, especially if you actually do more than only look at the pictures in this goofy blog. But it is not the ending of me that I am obsessed about. It is the ending of a novel.
I wrote the first draft of When the Captain Came Calling in 1996, twenty-three years ago. And I knew then that it was not finished. And I thought, perhaps, that it would never be finished. It was a hard thing to write. And I knew from the writing of the novel Snow Babies that I could not write this book without writing directly about the suicide. Something like that can’t just happen to a major character in a series of novels in between what happens in novel one and the start of novel two. It has been a twenty-three-year struggle with a plot-knot that was almost impossible to untangle.
You see, the most important character in the patchwork-quilt-book that is Snow Babies, is Valerie Clarke, a skateboarding thrasher of a girl from the 80’s based on a girl I taught in the 90’s and named after a classmate I had a hopeless crush on in the 60’s. And she could not have been the character I wrote about in that book without having survived the fact of the suicide in the previous book. But when I completed Snow Babies, the Captain still didn’t have the suicide in it. And believe me, writing about suicide is hard. It is something that has been a life-long hardship to explain and to deal with.
You see too, that suicide has been a thing I have had to deal with in real life. Ruben got himself killed in a car accident in a car-theft joy ride. Osvaldo took his own life with a gun after getting out of prison. J.J. got drunk and ran his pickup truck into a train. And they were kids I taught and learned about from talking to them about their lives. And two of them I loved like they were my own children because that’s how teachers do… And I have spent three whole days in emergency rooms and one terrible night in ERs with suicidal teens, two long conversations with kids over the telephone when I had to talk them out of hurting themselves, and I had no idea where they actually were. And I have talked to counselors at three different schools about suicidal things kids shared with me more times than I can count accurately. And some of those incidents I am listing are about family members. And my cousin’s son… Well, you can see how that kind of battle can make a suicide something hard to write about. Especially since all the scars it leaves makes you hyper-aware of how precious and fragile life really is.
But you see three, now that I have taken time out to cry a bit for having written that last horrible paragraph, that it is important, as a writer, to share your truth with the world in the best way you know how. And as the spirits of Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and Terry Pratchett nod knowingly from beyond, I can honestly say that the best way that I can deal with it is by writing comedy, making readers smile and laugh and feel good about enough good stuff to make up for the bad stuff that everybody faces… even suicide. And I have finally passed the test. I wrote the chapter about the suicide. I have written about Valerie’s recovery, and I am nearing the end of the book, my current Work In Progress, When the Captain Came Calling. A good story can heal the world, the way Oliver Twist did, or the way The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn did. And while the jury has not yet convened on this book of mine, and I can’t begin to compare my book to those, I don’t hate it now the way I did for the last twenty-two years. It is going to get finished. And then the whole world can ignore it the way they have all my other books.
Every year that passes, life becomes more challenging, more difficult.
Ill health denies me many things. The poverty that comes with ill health and teacher retirement denies me even more. But I made it home to Iowa to visit the family farm once more. It could well be the last time. My parents are in their 80’s and more ill than I am. I lost my aunt a little more than a week ago. She passed away one day after her 80th birthday. Nothing is permanent. But those things that resist the ravages of time, the places, the people, the culture, the wind in the corn…
Of the people in the school picture from Rowan Rural School #4 (a one-room schoolhouse from Midwestern history and lore) all the ones who survive are octogenarians. Three of the survivors were at our family reunion for Great Grandma Hinckley’s descendants. My mother and uncle were there. Their cousin was also there. The school house stood on the Aldrich corner, near the house where my Grandpa and Grandma Aldrich lived, the farm house of a farm that’s been in the family for over a hundred years. My mother and Uncle Don and Uncle Larry could easily walk there. The rest came from country miles around by horse-drawn wagon.
Uncle Larry is now gone, but they have survived from the time of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the time of Criminal President Doofenschmertz Jehosephat Trumpennoodle. Things have changed. The house I now sit in was, back then, a place with a windmill and hand-pump for water, an outhouse for bathroom chores, and a radio for entertainment.
If they hadn’t endured through World War Two, and Joe McCarthy’s Red Scare, and the assassination of JFK, we wouldn’t even be here. We are the children of hardship, endurance, and conviction of the rightness of life on Earth.
We saw progress through the creation of Disneyland, landing the first man on the surface of the moon, Bugs Bunny cartoons, Scooby Doo, and the Pink Panther… Nixon and his Watergate break-in, Hee Haw and Lawrence Welk, Laugh-in… President Ford falling down stairs, Saturday Night Live, the Peanut-farmer President, Reaganomics… the Iranian hostage crisis… Saved by the Bell, Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones… The invasion of Panama… Operation Desert Storm… the second war in Iraq… the downfall of Saddam Hussein… Thundercats, Jerry Seinfeld, Friends, the Wonder Years…
I am especially impressed that they lived through all those Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethons. And Leisure Suits… Aagh!
And their time is not completely up. Mother and Dad and Uncle Don still move on and go to reunions and bury loved ones… and tend to the needs of grandkids and great-grandkids… And pass on the good things to the next generation… and the next. So it goes, towards times not yet dreamed of.
Mom loved to cook.
She could do wondrous things with a casserole. In fact, her Tater Tot casserole was such a
hit that it had spread to households all over the county and people from as far
away as Illinois were writing her letters to get the secret recipe. It wasn’t such a secret. Browned and loose ground beef, Campbell’s
Cream of Mushroom soup, Tater Tots from Ore-Ida, and real cheddar cheese went
into her magical casserole. But friends
of friends and family were practically rabid about wanting to get their hands
on the special secret recipe. They
didn’t realize until she told them that the recipe came from the label of a Campbell’s
soup can to begin with.
So the house smelled wonderful because Uncle Dash and
Valerie’s cousin Stacey were coming to dinner.
Stacy was college age now, and Valerie looked up to
her. She was smart and independent, and
she knew how to dress up like a fashion model whenever there was an excuse to
do it. As Val and Stacy set the table,
the two had a brief moment or two to catch up on cousin stuff.
“I hear the Pirates are re-forming,” Stacy said. “And they tell me you are going to be one of
“Well, yeah… so?”
“Don’t bring it up tonight.
Daddy will get mad. I mean, more
mad than he already is.”
“Uncle Dash is mad?” Valerie was slightly taken by surprise. Uncle Dash was the kind of guy who was always laughing, always joking. Valerie had relied on his sense of humor and mature wisdom her whole life long. She believed he was even wiser than Daddy Kyle. He was a farmer. He had the wisdom of the Earth.
“Your Uncle Dash is mad at me,” said Stacey.
“Why would he be mad at you?”
“I told him a secret today.
One I have to tell everybody sooner or later.”
“Really? Tell me.”
Stacey was obviously biting her own lower lip for some
reason. Why would she do that? It didn’t really make sense to Val. There were tears in her cousin’s eyes.
“I mean it, Stacey. I love you. You cantell me.”
“Well, I…” Before
Stacey could spill it, the adults came into the room.
“Really,” Uncle Dash said with a frown on his face, “We
could sell that sixty acres southwest of town and the big pasture along the
Iowa River. That would give us enough
money to at least bargain for more time… maybe another growing season.”
“But, Dash, that’s all your land. This is my debt. I can’t let you sacrifice from your share. It should be some of my land.” Kyle sat down at the head of the table with a defeated-seeming kerplunk. Valerie knew her dad’s basic onomatopoeias, the sound-words of his soul, and kerplunk was definitely not a good one.
“But it is some of the less-valuable land I am offering to
sell. All of your land is better, and we
should be trying to keep all of it.”
“Yeah, well… I still don’t want you to make sacrifices to
pay my debts.”
Uncle Dash took the seat next to Daddy Kyle where Valerie
would’ve sat if they didn’t have company.
Mom came in carrying a big casserole dish full of
steaming-hot tater-tot casserole. She
proudly set her work of art down in the middle of the dining room table. “Stacey, will you help me get the peas and
the mashed potatoes?” Mom said. Then she
dashed back out to the kitchen.
“You’re my brother, Kyle.
You have to let me help you. And
it is all family land. We have to work
together, even though we divided the farms when Dad died. It is all one large farm, really.”
“Well, yeah, but…”
That conversation died too as Mom and Stacey brought the
rest of the supper to the table, and Mom insisted that everybody sit down and
eat. Valerie said Grace and food was
passed all around. Everybody at the
table had a farmer’s healthy appetite, and soon mouths were too full to
talk. Conversation was suspended for the
more important thing… at least until all were stuffed and satisfied.
“It’s a shame that Patricia couldn’t come with you this
evening, Dash,” Mom said.
“She was sorry to miss it, but she really wasn’t feeling
well. She needed to take some medicine
and go to bed. Which reminds me… Stacey has some new she needs to share with
everyone in the family.”
Stacey looked at her father with a distinctly angry expression.
“Well, you may as well tell them.”
Stacey’s glare at Uncle Dash made Valerie suddenly worried for
her cousin. What could be wrong?
“I’m… not going to college anymore.”
“Oh, Stacey!” Mom said.
The pause was unbearable.
Stunned silence followed.
Uncle Dash’s face was so sad it almost made Valerie burst into tears. Stacey did cry, and that was almost worse.
“How, I mean… who?”
Daddy didn’t know what to say. He
was kinda tongue-tied, right up until the answer hit him square in the
memory. “Not the Toad! Oh, Stacey!”
“His name is Brom, not Toad.
I don’t know why everyone needs to call him that.” Stacey’s tears were replaced almost instantly
“It’s the way he drives.
He reminds everyone of Toad in the Disney movie Wind in the Willows. You
know how recklessly he roars about in that yellow Ford Mustang of his.” Uncle Dash was very direct and
soft-spoken. It was an argument Valerie
had overheard before.
“He also has a big mouth like a frog,” said Valerie timidly.
“Oh, Val…” Stacey
shot her a wounded look. Whose side was
she supposed to be on, anyway?
“Well, I have to say, it isn’t such a big surprise. You have been in love with that boy for a
while now, haven’t you, Stacey?” Daddy Kyle said.
“Yes, I love him with all of my heart.”
“Is he going to do the right thing by you?” Mom asked.
“He’s willing to marry me… if Daddy doesn’t forbid it.”
“Dash, you can’t forbid it,” said Daddy Kyle. “That’s no way to start off a life… for
Stacey or Brom either one.”
“You would take their side, wouldn’t you,” Uncle Dash said
harshly. “You know, as my little brother,
it wouldn’t kill you to take my side once in a while.”
Daddy stared straight at his plate. His mouth was a tense and very straight
line. “Stacey would be good for
Brom. As Mrs. Brown, she’s bound to
settle him down at least a little bit.
Like the way Julie settled me down.
You remember what a wild kid I was, right?”
“We haven’t decided how it’s going to be, yet,” Dash said
calmly. “There is a lot to be decided
“You really can’t decide for her, you know,” Daddy Kyle
Uncle Dash got angry at that. “How would you feel if it were Valerie in
this situation? Maybe with somebody like
that Murphy kid… or Richard Martin’s little rag boy?”
“It’s not the same.
Valerie is still too young to be a mother.”
“And Stacey isn’t?”
“Kyle, Dash, please!” said Mom, “don’t discuss this in front
of the girls. They can hear everything,
and I don’t think it helps anybody to hear you two argue about this.”
It was quiet for a few moments, but a very tense quiet.
“Julie is right, Dash,” Daddy said. “Why don’t you and I go for a drive in your
pickup, and the girls can spend some time together here.”
“We have a lot to talk about, Kyle. But it won’t do a lick of good if you don’t
listen more than you talk.”
The two brothers glared at each other. But they were family, and too much alike not
to smash heads together like a couple of rams in springtime. So they both went out and got in Uncle Dash’s
Chevy pickup and drove on into town.
“Headed for Martin’s Bar and Grill,” said Stacey, blowing a
stray hair out of her eyes to show disgust.
Valerie wordlessly snaked her thin young arms around her
beloved cousin and gave her a distressed and tearful squeeze.
“It will all get worked out for the best,” said Mom in her
most comforting voice.
“I hope so,” Stacey said.
Then after a long pause she repeated, “I hope so.”