I grow stuff, and I know things…

Like most of us, the Covid quarantine has kept me home a great deal more than I have been used to. All that time at home has “allowed” me to give more attention to the yard and gardening.  The title of this article is more tongue in cheek than anything else…I saw it on a t-shirt on Facebook and thought about the simplicity of it all, but built on a lot of experience.

Growing things is not all that hard if you just let nature have her way. I can declare I’m going to grow the best crop of dandelions ever, do nothing, and my yard will fill with them…but figuring out how to bend nature to your will does take some knowledge and a bit of voodoo when dealing with picking seeds (surprisingly hard this year!), spacing, pruning, watering, fertilizing, powdery mildew, end blossom rot and all the other plant diseases, worms, bugs, beetles and critters, poor soil, and on and on.

As the oldest child, I spent so much time doing yard work in the horticultural chain gangs of my mother and father that some of it was bound to rub off, no matter how much I resisted. Whether by osmosis or having it beat into me, I picked up some “stuff” over the years.

Now, I have always had a love/hate relationship with yard work and gardening. Like many, I grew up being an indentured servant, doing yard and garden work for my parents for the proverbial room and board.  This of course turned it into a chore rather than an enjoyable past time. I have had full gardens, herbs in pots and boxes and everything in between, but I have always, at the least, thrown a few tomato plants in the ground.

I am not suggesting I am a master gardener by any means, and the incremental knowledge gained over time was almost imperceptible…but just how much I do know started coming into sharp focus after I joined several “garden groups” on Facebook, well, because that’s what you do on Facebook.

As I read through the various posts I became aware that I know a great deal about “growing things”, in no small part due to the influence of my parents. I would read a post and think: “good grief, any idiot knows how to do that”, but it became apparent just how much I had picked up from mom and dad over the years, as well as my own experience. Much of this I have taken for granted, because “you just do it” without much thought, as it has become a part of me.

As with all of my long-winded stories, I’ll start from the beginning.  Both my parents were avid gardeners.  Dad on the practical side with vegetables, and mom loving her flowers and decorative plants. Even while he was in the Army with our temporary housing, dad would grow at least a few tomato and onion plants.  

Me at Ft Knox in 1959 with my first pet. Dad’s tomato patch to the left behind me at Ft Knox.

I remember dad coming home one night at Ft. Benning after a neighbor had hacked his tomato plants all to bits chasing a black snake off our patio.  “It’s not even poisonous!” (with a few more colorful words thrown in) he said after seeing the decapitated snake.  “We told him dad, but he wouldn’t listen” we said…dad had, by then, explained the differences between venomous and non-venomous snakes to us many times.  

Me and Greg at Ft Benning, with the tomato patch that was destroyed by the snake hunter.

With our backyard bordering a swamp, we knew most of the local snakes already anyway. We thought dad was going to kill the poor guy because we got a butt whooping if a ball bounced into his ‘mater patch, causing damage or not.

My earliest memories of doing actual yardwork begin when I was six years old in 1965.  We had just moved to Ohio from Georgia when dad was sent off to fight in Vietnam, leaving mom, me and my two brothers and sister in a brand new house, in a brand new development, mostly still under construction. 

Barebones new construction 1965. The topsoil is spread and straw is keeping the new grass from frying in the sun.

Being brand spanking new, the yard was a blank canvas…well more like a clay and limestone moonscape where nothing was growing. Mom made it her mission…our mission, to whip the yard into shape and make things grow by the time dad got back.  

Sad looking back yard, no fence yet. Note the new apartment building going up in the background.

Making anything grow entailed having many dump trucks of topsoil delivered, to be spread on top of the insufferable bare clay left by the builders. Mom had me and my brother out there with shovels, rakes, and wheel barrows distributing the massive piles of topsoil evenly over the front and back yards.

I’m not sure how helpful we actually were, but I remember it being real exhausting work. This took many days in the hot Ohio summer of 1965…which then led to painful sunburns for all of us.

I still can’t stand the smell of vinegar as my mother’s homegrown prescription was to slap strips of vinegar soaked brown paper grocery sacks all over our backs and tell us not to move. We had blisters on our backs and blisters on our hands, but we eventually got all the dirt moved, spread with grass seed, and covered with straw to help it grow. 

Mom then created her first flower bed, a small round one, bordered with broken bricks we snuck from the apartment building going up behind us. Greg and I had befriended a construction worker over there and he told us it would be “alright as long as you don’t get caught by the boss-man”.

Hey, those flowerbed bricks match the big building behind us…

The bare clay yard was “landscaped” by the builder with a few minuscule Arborvitae shrubs against the house and two Silver Maple twigs in the front yard…just like every other house in the development.

Photo mom sent to dad in Vietnam to show her our hard work on the yard. 1965. Note the Silver Maple “tree” to her right.

Of course, the servitude did not stop with getting grass to grow…when dad got back from Vietnam, my parents decided the house needed a hedge around the entire front yard.  This required digging a trench a couple of feet deep in that same limestone filled clay. Since the dirt was so hard, dad’s preferred tools were Army entrenching tools, which he was very familiar with.  

Army “eTool”. Great for making blisters. The pick was very useful to pry out Ohio limestone chunks.

These could have the blade bent 90 degrees to get into the narrow trench.  One of them even had a pick on it for levering the large hunks of limestone out of the trench.  Little did I realize then that my experience digging that long trench would come back to serve me well digging foxholes in the Army years later.

After the trench was dug it had to be lined with peat moss, manure and top soil as the native gray clay was terrible for plants. Then all the hedge shrubs had to be planted.  This hedge was to be my bane for as long as I lived there, as not only did I inherit cutting the lawn as soon as I was deemed able, but also trimming the hedge.  I’m not sure what kid assumed those duties when I went off to the Army.

1972. The hedge has filled out and the Arborvitae have grown up. The Silver Maples are branching out and dad’s willow tree is growing fast behind the right one.

Dad trimmed the hedges himself for many years, as he demanded that they were perfectly level and flat and didn’t trust me to get it right when young.  He accomplished this topiary perfection by pulling a string tight, from one end to the other, with a string level on it to use as a guide for his hedge trimmer. The corners and openings had to have square-cut raised platforms to set them off.  

He sounded like the father working on the furnace in “A Christmas Story” when he found the neighbor kid and mailman were cutting through the hedge as a short cut and making unsightly gaps.  Using his military training, he strung some hidden barb wire booby traps inside the hedge to thwart the hedge violators.  After a few years though, the novelty of a perfect hedge wore off and it was handed off to me. Yippee.  

Woe to those that try to pass through my hedge…

In the meantime, mom was still on her mission to beautify the landscape.  She absolutely loved flowers and plants and had already filled the house with Violets, Begonias, Spider plants, Dieffenbachia, Philodendrons, Rubber plants, Calatheas, Air plants, Jade plants, Aloe, Dragon trees, Bromeliads, Snake plants, cactus, Hens and Chicks and numerous other succulents, and especially ferns…of all shapes, sizes and descriptions.  If she could beg, borrow or steal a start she stuck it in a jar to root and coaxed it to grow.

A few Spider plants, ferns and other plants in the living room. Every window sill was covered as well.

But she had more space outside, so she ordered the crew (me and dad) out to cut up the grass along the entire perimeter of the yard and driveway to make flower beds.  Again, the entrenching tools were perfect for cutting up the sod and rolling it up to go somewhere else.

Phil showing off the flowerbed along the driveway.

She filled these to overflowing with every plant imaginable.  Canna lilies, Day Lilies, Black-eyed Susans, Daisies, Oxeye Daisies, Peonies, Primrose, Poppies, Dahlias, Marigolds, Hyacinth, Sweet pea, Petunias, Snapdragons, Honeysuckle, Crocus, Daffodils, Tulips, Phlox, shrubs like Lilac, Pussy Willow, Forsythia, you name it…but especially her beloved roses that reminded her of her mother.

Laurie showing off the flower bad along the front walk.

Some of my personal favorites back then were Snap Dragons and 4 O’Clocks. Snap Dragons simply because they had a cool name and looked like tiny skulls when they went to seed.

Snap Dragon seed pods…

The 4 O’clocks I liked not so much because they looked pretty and colorful mind you, but because the seeds were perfect for using as GI Joe hand grenades.

Pull pin and throw GI Joe…

When the perimeter beds got full, she had us widen them a foot or two here and there…eventually adding large triangles to double the square footage.  Of course, all these flower beds needed weeding, so I got double my usual rate of nothing to keep these under control. The yard had become a jungle.

Fully matured jungle.

Growing up a farm boy, dad’s focus was always food related. In the meager space that mom allowed him around the house, he planted apple, pear and plum trees, a Concord grapevine, Rhubarb and even transplanted a Poke plant he found out in the woods for Poke Salat (caution, you need to know how to prepare this as it can be poisonous). Every year mom put up grape jelly and jam, frozen apples, apple butter, apple jelly, and pears…but dad could never get a good crop off the plum tree. He would go down to old homesteads by the river and cut off flowering plum branches to help the bees cross pollinate, but what we got back looked more like prunes than plums.

Dads very green lawn with the apple tree right behind our dog Inky. There is a plum right behind it and a pear tree along the right side of the frame.

He also liked Willow trees, and cut a small branch down by the Miami river, stuck it in the ground and soon it was a big tree in the front yard. Of course, seeing this wizardry, I started sticking Willow branches in the ground all over the neighborhood…until I learned that they make great switches to swat misbehaving butts.

Dad’s main focus for decades though, was his vegetable garden.  With a family of eight, keeping food on the table was no small task.  Around the house, he only had room for a small garden with a few tomato plants, a row or two of table onions, lettuce, a cucumber plant or two, a few bean plants and various herbs.

But he always managed to find a place for a big garden from a relative that had extra space and bartered back with the produce he grew. Whether it was over at the Shores by Aunt Jeans or behind my Aunt Gladys’ house, he planted every vegetable known to me and many I had never heard of, and in such quantities that the season’s bounty would tide us over until the next year with all the canning and freezing mom did. 

Unfortunately for posterity, the big garden was a place to grow food and hard work and there was no phone cameras or Facebook, so I can’t find any photos.

He would buy seed packets that filled his old ammo cans and started the finicky ones off from scratch in the house when it was still cold out.  He used egg cartons, butter tubs, cottage cheese containers…anything that could hold a dab of dirt to poke a seed in and filled the window sills down in the basement. 

As soon as the ground wasn’t frozen I would help him load his big rototiller in the back of the station wagon and haul it over to the “big” garden.  

This was brutal work with a big garden, but better than the mules he grew up with.

Then he would spend several days tilling up the soil to make nice, straight rows.  I got to run it once in a while, but it was a beast for a small boy and would try to run off with me. He wore out the tines and broke metal bits on it all the time.

Well tilled soil…

Dad would get the cold weather crops seeded…lettuce, peas, spinach, carrots, radishes, cabbage, beets, turnips, garlic, leeks, onions, broccoli, collards, and so on.  Then, when he was sure the frosts were done, he would plant row after row of corn, beans of all kinds, squash, peppers, cucumbers, pumpkin, cantaloupe, tomatoes…all of many varieties.  

Then he had stuff that I didn’t even know what you did with it, until I saw mom do something with it and she had to learn from Mamaw for some of it as well.  Plants like okra, dill, mustard, chard and horseradish. What the heck is an okra? Something that mamaw and mom put in vegetable soup and pickled, that’s what.

What the heck is an Okra?

Dad also had his failures, but they were few and far between, except for two crops. Watermelon and peanuts. He tried them many times, but always to disappointing results compared to the rich bottomland results he knew as a boy.

The watermelons turned out the size of grapefruit and he would barely get enough peanuts to put in a box of Crackerjacks. I remember him dumping bags of sand in the peanut rows to loosen up that clay, but nothing seemed to help.

Once all of this was in the ground it was a daily grind to go to the garden and hoe each row for weeds, pull the horn worms off the tomatoes and dust the cabbage and broccoli to keep the cabbage worms off of them.

In the driest parts of the summer he would haul water over in 5 gallon army jerry cans and dole the precious water out like it was gold to each plant. If I got sloppy with the hoe or water dipper I got chewed out, so I learned quickly that our food was serious business and to be respected.

One of these full of water is HEAVY!

As veggies grew to a pickable size there was a continuous flow of them while in season. Every night for dinner there was a bowl of cucumbers and onion slices in vinegar water, a plate of sliced tomatoes and another dish of small table onions and radishes.

This was in addition to the ever present giant green Tupperware bowl salad of fresh lettuce, tomatoes, cukes, radishes and whatever else was good that day. You could have any flavor Italian dressing you wanted…and this was always already mixed in… kids couldn’t be trusted to dole out their own.

Once the crops started coming in in large numbers mom was soon overloaded with all the work involved with canning and freezing all that produce. Stuff piled up in the kitchen everywhere: hundreds of pint and quart Ball-Mason and Kerr jars, torn paper sacks full of jar rings and lids, pressure cookers and giant pots for cooking and blanching, paraffin and pectin for the jelly jars…it happened every summer.

Canning paraphernalia…mom had it all and more.

Tomatoes were probably the king crop…dad would bring home bushels and bushels of them, so many we ate them like apples with one of those big silver salt shakers.

Could never have too much salt on a ‘mater

They would soon be covered with zillions of gnats, driving everyone crazy. The ‘maters were processed whole, turned into sauce or paste and fried up green before they turned red and after the frost hit the vines.

They were the foundation of the ever-present kid food: elbow macaroni with tomato sauce and hamburger that seemed to be served every other day.

Greenbeans were probably second in stature…they accompanied almost every meal during the winter from the jars mom put up. It was a typical chore in the summer to be sitting watching TV and snapping beans in the big Tupperware bowls. If they had runners you’d have to have a paring knife to slice the end enough to pull the runner off and then snap them into bite size pieces.

So many beans…

Green beans were canned and also frozen in quart freezer bags. Once you had a big bowl or two they would be dumped into the big blanching pot for a quick dunk then either put into the freezer bags or jarred up to put in the pressure cooker. It was a common and reassuring sound to hear that pressure cooker relief valve dancing around all day long…it meant we would be eating that winter.

While I liked green beans, especially with a hunk of bacon or pork in them, I liked other types of beans as well…kidney beans meant big pots of chili, so I wanted as many jars of these put up as possible. But there were also white beans, lima beans, pinto beans, black beans and so on.

These dry beans were easier to work than snapping green beans: you just ran your thumb up the dry hull and spilled them into your bowl, you didn’t even need to look away from the TV.

A pot of soup beans with a ham bone might have been my dad’s favorite food. He would pour some pepper juice in them from a jar and be in heaven with a big hunk of buttered corn bread.

Ham and beans with cornbread…mmmmm good!

While I ate them just fine, I was not a fan of sauerkraut and pickling season. As mentioned, I had a negative Pavlovian reaction to the smell of vinegar from mom’s sunburn treatments, still do. And the entire house smelled like vinegar for days when mom processed the dozens and dozens of cabbage heads into Kraut. I still have nightmares about shredding the skin off my knuckles and fingertips from grating the cabbage for kraut.

Cucumbers were turned into every kind of pickle mom could find a recipe for from mamaw or other relatives. Dad provided all the dill and other pickling spices from the garden. Mom then made the cukes into brine pickles, bread and butter pickles, dill pickles, sweet pickles, relish, you name it.

Pickles galore…

She left them whole, hacked them into spears, sliced them into chips and other ways. Add to this pickled corn and okra, pickled peppers and beets and assorted other pickled vegetables and I tried to stay out of the house as much as possible…to avoid the work as well as the smell. But I did enjoy eating them, except for the beets and sweet pickles…blecht!

With a big family, we always had two freezers down in the basement: one filled with a side of beef and a whole hog from Uncle Chet and Aunt Shirley’s farm, and the other filled with all the frozen produce and store bought stuff. If there was a power outage you were not to open the freezers under penalty of death lest all the food thaw out and spoil.

We also had a pantry room in the basement to serve as a root cellar. It was full of shelving for all the jars of produce, empty jars and canning equipment as well as cool storage for potatoes, onions and squash.

The old pantry room just before we cleaned it all out to sell mom and dad’s house. Wonder how old those beans are?

Thinking back on it all, our primary sources of food were relatively unprocessed, but hardly entirely organic. While he did use a lot of manure and composted everything, I remember dad powdering tomato, cabbage and broccoli plants with Sevin, but he probably also used other insecticides to combat the various types of pestilence that descended on his precious plants. Hornworms were the devil…they could chew an entire tomato plant to dust overnight.

The Devil…a hornworm on a tomato plant.

You knew when he found one as he would cuss up a storm and graphically squish the daylights out of it. One of my early tasks was to systematically go down each row and check closely for these spawn of satan, but while I was a dead-eye on these vermin I was also prone to putting one or two of them in a jar to see if they turned into moths, which grow quite large.

Hornworm moth…

This of course, was consorting with the enemy in dad’s eyes, after all, he was raised in the tobacco fields of Kentucky where these things took money from the family’s pockets and food from their mouths. His decree was “show no mercy”. After all, it was about feeding his large brood, not feeding the critters.

Whew, that took a while...so?

That long-winded summary is an explanation of how gardening seems to come fairly naturally and makes sense to me, even as I have studiously avoided it over the years for more adventurous pursuits.

Whether by repetition by watching my parents, unconsciously by gradual osmosis, or perhaps there really is a genetic element from so many years of ancestors growing their own food, I somehow know what to do to coax life out of the earth, and it still brings much satisfaction.

As mentioned, I joined a number of Facebook groups having to do with gardening, partly out of boredom, and I have realized just how much I do know by watching the endless hordes of new gardeners failing to get anything to grow and the amazing amount of bad information given out on social media.

Some of this researching and navel gazing over gardening was also caused by not being able to buy seeds and plant starts from the usual suspects this year due to Covid. Everyone seemed to be sold out or on a huge delay by people doing the same thing I was.

Wanting to get plants going sooner rather than later, I bought some seeds on Amazon. One set of seeds was supposed to be for an entire garden of 20 different vegetables for $18.00. Open-pollinated, heirloom, non-GMO…such a deal!.

Note there is no indication of Chinese anything. At the time there were no ratings…the 2 stars have come from people like me complaining about the Chinese instructions.
An entire garden…complete with Barbie sized tools and watering can…All in Chinese!

I was not thinking for a moment that every Amazon seed pack I got would come from China. Most of these arrived with all the information written in Chinese, or with no information at all. Some I still have not received, even though I paid for them.

Still haven’t arrived 7 months later…

Not to be thwarted, I got out my trusty iPhone and Google translate app to decipher this mess. Some of them were straight forward translations:

Leeks I can understand…

Other translations were a bit more concerning…I decided maybe I wouldn’t plant this one:

West’s Corpse? That can’t be good.

Others intrigued me, but not enough to plant them…at least not yet:

Chicken Feathers? Is that a real thing? Szechwan style?

In any case I ordered them all in March and April and they didn’t start showing up until late May. I was pretty sure my season was a bust until a friend (thanks Terri P!) offered up some tomato, pepper and pumpkin starts. I hastily accepted and I’m very grateful. I did plant a bunch of starts from the Chinese seeds though, as I didn’t have many options at the time.

Chinese Seed starts production…

Meanwhile, among many other Covid projects, I had wanted to build some new raised beds for several years. The ones I had were rotting out and it so happened I had a pile of cedar 2×14’s that have sat unused since I decided on a gazebo rather than a pergola for my deck.

2- 10’x4′ raised beds down, 2 to go.

It took no time at all to cobble 4 big raised beds together, but getting them filled with soil took over a month for delivery due to Covid. I ordered the topsoil/mushroom compost mix and waited. And waited.

Finally! My soil has arrived!

I wasted no time in planting my starts once I filled the beds up.

Dirty work done…
Starts in the ground!

While gardening is, at its most basic, a straight forward and relatively simple endeavor, toss seeds in dirt, water, weed…I am a nerd at heart and need to reach the Nth degree with most things I do. I read voraciously on whatever subject or glittery object has caught my eye…every single time.

So where dad just piled everything in a heap, called it compost and turned it once in a while, I bought one of those “fancy” compost tumblers to keep the critters away from my inviting kitchen scraps and recycled Liam’s old playpens into compost bins. Very colorful.

Compost row…I can hear my dad chuckling now… “you spent money to make compost?”

But that wasn’t enough of course…if I’m going to do it I’m jumping in with both feet. These tomatoes are going to cost $100 a pound by the time I’m through.

So I also bought soil test kits, PH test meter, watering timers, more soaker hoses, hose manifolds and splitters. Doing my part to support Amazon, FedEX, UPS and the Postal Service.

I have long looked at yard work and gardening simply as necessary work, something you just do to maintain your property or get some better tasting produce, or because that’s “just what our family does”…but the situation this year has given me the time, wanted or not, to get back to my gardening roots and again find enjoyment from simply watching all of it grow.

I have never bothered to take photos of my garden in the past, and neither did my parents. It was just part of life. It seems crazy to me that so much of my parents time was devoted to growing things, and there is so little record of it other than these memories.

So snapping photos of my efforts along the way to serve as a record of what happened for next year has been a bonus…it’s pretty cool to look back and watch it all come together and compare then and now pics. Maybe it will serve as motivation for next season when this pandemic is over and life returns to “normal”…whatever that might look like. If nothing else I have done more than my part to feed the bees and squirrels.

The Local Family Watering Holes on Miami Chapel Road

 

Way back in the 60’s and early 70’s, when my Mamaw and Papaw lived on the Westside of Dayton on Miami Chapel road, there was a small strip of blue-collar bar & grills just down the block, right across from the large Delco Moraine plant and caddy-corner to George’s Barber Shop.

My cousin Rhonda reminded me what the names might be, and I managed to find them in old Dayton City Directories and Newspapers.  Mamaw and Papaw lived at 1010 Miami Chapel, and Matty’s Tavern was right on the corner at 1100 Miami Chapel, and The Sportsman Bar and Grill was next door at 1116 Miami Chapel.

A number of my relatives frequented these watering holes, along with many other factory workers, as they were close to their employment at Specialty Paper and Delco.

Specialty Papers Co 1958 The Specialty Papers Company was locacted at 802 Miami Chapel Road, just down the street from Mamaw and Papaw’s house.

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In those days, it was not unusual to have a couple of beers for lunch along with a nice greasy burger or patty melt.

My memory doesn’t allow me to fairly rate which was the nicer of the two, but judging by newspaper accounts, the Sportsman seemed to be in the news more for being robbed and robberies performed right outside their premises.  These joints could easily be called dive bars, but they were a second home and family for many.

Here’s a shooting in their back parking lot:

Sportsman Shooting 25 Aug 1970

They also got shut down:

Sportsman Permit Suspended 20 Jun 1957
Sportsman Permit Suspended 20 Jun 1957

A break-in:

Sportsman Robbery 5 Dec 1955

Both of them advertised for Bar Maids and Porters on a regular basis.

Sportsman Bar Maid Wanted 20 Apr 1955

Matty’s Waitress wanted 17 May 1951

Darkly lit, with multiple neon and spinning bar signs for locally made brews like Bavarian, Wiedemann, Hudepohl, Burger and Schoenling.

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TV ads back then were full of beer slogans that made their way to these signs on the walls of the bars.  These included:

“Vas You Efer in Zinzinnati? (Burger)

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“It’s Too Good To Be Beer” (Little Kings Cream Ale)

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“All the Way with 14K” (Hudepohl)

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“It’s registered pure” (Wiedemann)

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“Bound to Be Better” (Schoenling)

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“A Man’s Beer” (Bavarian)

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“It’s Happy Hudy Time” (Hudepohl)

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Tax returns even show that Mamaw worked at Matty’s for several years, at least from 1956-1959…she may have quit when the owner she knew decided to sell the bar in ’59:

Matty’s for Sale 19 Jul 1959

Papaw was one of the grand patrons of both bars after Mamaw stopped working at Matty’s.  I think his allegiance may have varied based on where his tab was lower or whichever bar maid was being nicer to him at the moment.

After retiring from Specialty Paper, he was at one or the other quite often, as a man of leisure.  As grandchildren of some of their best customers we were fawned over by the bar maids each time we went in, either with papaw or my parents, getting a bottomless fountain coke full of maraschino cherries to spear one at a time with a swizzle stick.

cherrycoke
Top me off with your finest coke bar maid!

We usually got scooted away from the serious bar talk by being bribed with a few coins to go play the electric shuffle board bowling game or pinball machines in the back. These are the type of games you only see in old “retro” arcades these days, but they were king back in the 60’s.

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One time I remember thinking that if a little corn meal made the puck slide better, a whole can should be just the thing to create a rocket-speed puck slide. The bar maids did not agree.

Dump plenty of cornmeal on there!

Food was typical greasy-spoon bar food consisting of burgers and patty melts, with maybe a roast beef sandwich and some kind of daily special like meatloaf with a soup of the day.  A particular kid favorite was just a big plate of french-fries covered with ketchup.

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There were also the usual displays of beef jerky, pretzels & chips, Slim Jims and big jars of pickled eggs and sausages that somehow became appetizing when you were drinking…as long as you didn’t think of how many hands had dipped into the jar.

pe7
Reach in there and grab a pickled egg son…

As times changed, bringing kids into smoky bars became much less socially acceptable, if not illegal, not to mention that we had gotten older and more adventurous and there were a lot more of us to keep watch over.

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We were then condemned to sit out in the old blue Chevy station wagon on the street, waiting for mom and dad to finish having their fun.  Can you imagine leaving a car full of unsupervised kids outside a bar in West Dayton these days?

The West side eventually got too racially charged and dangerous for the rest of the family to allow mamaw and papaw to continue living there. Pawpaw was mugged walking between the bars and his house, at least twice that I remember, getting beat up pretty bad and hospitalized in one instance, so they eventually moved back down to Moraine, in Miami Shores, where they lived until they both passed away.

 

 

Running Wild and Free

Growing up in the small town of West Carrollton as free-range wildlings in the 60’s-70’s, it never occurred to me at the time how truly lucky we were to be able to wander around our neighborhood without fear or being subjected to the long parental leash of a cell phone, not to mention the seduction of video games. We weren’t as crazy as the Lord of the Flies, but we were left to our own devices and would be gone the entire day, coming back in time to avoid a spanking for missing supper and then head back out to play hide and seek or catch fireflies.

There were no hovering parents in my family…quite the contrary.  Dad was always working and mom preferred us not to be underfoot. On a non-school day when the weather was nice or on summer vacation, we got chased out of the house and were on our own as soon as we woke up.

Breakfast?  Get your own bowl, typically a recycled margarine tub and fill it with Trix, Apple Crisp or Cap’n Crunch after rummaging through the box to see if there was a prize.

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The prize is how we picked out our cereal, as long as it was sweet we would eat it. Dinosaurs, super balls, glow in the dark stuff, submarines, you name it…prizes ruled! There were even records on the back of the box you could cut out and play on the old Close and Play. The Archies “Sugar Sugar” comes to mind.

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Of course, the tooth-rotting amount of sugar already in the cereal was not nearly enough, so we emptied the sugar bowl into our Jethro Bodine size bowls (Beverly Hillbillies reference for y’all young-uns) to the point where it wouldn’t even dissolve, leaving big spoonfuls of milky sugar at the bottom as dessert.

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Monster cereals!

With six kids, food in my family was done on a military scale.  The main food groups us kids were in control of, beyond our morning cereal, were milk, bread, peanut butter and jelly and baloney and cheese…and it was always baloney, not bologna.  And there was always a big basket of tomatoes for snacks once they started coming in from the garden.

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Milk was delivered by an actual Borden milkman in glass bottles and left in a galvanized box on the front porch to keep it cool. 4 gallons of milk were delivered every couple of days, along with butter, cottage cheese, butter milk for dad and other assorted dairy products.  Elsie the cow even made the glue we used at school!

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When they came out with those 2.5 gallon plastic dispensers there were always at least 2 of them in the fridge. We helped keep dairy farms in business as dad still might have to pick up a gallon or 2 on his way home from work to tide us over.

The bread was typically whatever white bread was on sale the cheapest at Woody’s, but  if we got Wonder Bread we thought we were farting through silk and would immediately sacrifice a piece slathered with peanut butter to the dog.

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The peanut butter served as the glue to stick to the roof of the dog’s mouth, and the soft Wonder Bread made an almost impermeable barrier once compressed and licked by the dog, who would spend the next 15 minutes trying to lick through the bread shield to the delicious peanut butter hidden beneath. Cheap entertainment.

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Wonder Bread is now “Classic”?

The peanut butter came in 5 lb plastic buckets, bought at least 2 at a time. These buckets then became cheap utility Tupperware. Arguments over whether the next bucket was going to be smooth or crunchy style were fought with the gusto of an MMA fight. Jellies, jams and preserves were made by mom and in a seemingly endless supply from our cellar pantry.

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Apple, grape, strawberry and rhubarb were standard as we had those fruit trees and plants… maybe some peach, plum if dad picked up a few flats at a roadside stand. Wild blackberry, mulberry and raspberry depended on us kids getting out and picking peanut butter tubs full of them…usually paying dearly with days of suffering relentless chigger scratching.

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Making a PB&J entailed slathering peanut butter on as thick as possible and dumping jelly out of the jar so it would ooze out of the bread every time you took a bite.  You had to eat it like an ice cream sandwich…licking the sides after each bite.

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There were no Ziplock bags in those days, you used a sheet of wax paper or foil to wrap it up or if you were lucky mom bought some of those new-fangled sandwich bags that you had to fold a flap back over the sandwich and pull the top of the bag inside out to form a loose seal.  Which leaked if you fell in the creek.  We ate a lot of soggy sandwiches.

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We called them “Baggies” I can’t remember if that was a brand name or just what we called them.

Lunch meat was just baloney, and was named Oscar Mayer. Mom bought it by the cart load in the 1 lb packages and our family could decimate several packages a day like locusts.

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Chicken lips and pig snouts?

Cheese (and I use the term loosely) was a box of Velveeta.  Seriously, we thought that’s what cheese was for many years.  At some point after Kraft invented the individually wrapped American Cheese slices, they became the standard, as it was not unusual for a kid to cut hunks of Velveeta an inch thick to put on a sandwich. After all, American Cheese is really just Velveeta squeezed thinly into a sheet of plastic, right?

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This is not cheese

You would slather that with yellow mustard and what we commonly called mayonnaise, but was actually Miracle Whip, a cheaper version of mayonnaise full of fructose, soybean oil, sugar and other nasties.  I remember tasting Hellman’s for the first time and feeling cheated all those years…thanks for fooling us again mom!

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Accept no substitute!

Thus invigorated with a bowl of sugar fortified cereal and maybe a sandwich crammed in our pocket, we were good for a full day of exploration and adventure.

The first order of business was to try and sneak off without the younger kids noticing or receiving a mandate from mom to “watch you brothers and sisters”.  This was not an easy task, the youngsters were on to us and stuck to us like white on rice.  Sometimes we employed the “outrun them on our bikes” method until they gave up or simply tried to lull them into boredom, as if we weren’t going to do anything and then creep off. It really depended on how adventurous we felt, creek walking was open to anyone.

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Pulling a fast one to escape younger brothers and sisters…

One of the first adventures I remember was exploring the new 3 story apartment building going up behind the house.  What was formerly just an empty field, suddenly sprouted into a building site, with heavy equipment, excavation, framing and so on.  As soon as the workers left for the day we would climb all over the bulldozers and trucks, checking out the construction and playing in the endless mud puddles.

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Laurie and Greg in backyard with only 1 story of bricks laid on apartment building. October 1969

We soon became a little braver and made friends during the work day with one of the construction guys.  I can feel moms everywhere shuddering with the notion of “a friendly stranger”, but at least it seemed a bit more innocent in those days and the worker turned out to just be a friendly guy.

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Backyard with apartment building still under construction

He would share bits of his lunch, sugar packets from his coffee breaks and so on. We would climb up and around everywhere in the 3 story building, watching the workers do their thing, fetching boards or tools or just getting in the way.  No one seemed to care and OSHA had a low profile in those days.

But more typically, a good day of adventuring started in the nearest creek, which happened to be about 2 houses away if we cut through neighbor’s yards.  We always cut through the neighbor’s yards. Fences, dogs and gates were just obstacles to be negotiated like we were on American Ninja.

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Once in the creek we were in our natural element. We tried to stay clean and dry for about 5 minutes…until we saw our first crawdad or frog and all bets were off as we splashed right in after our prey.  We would then wander up the middle of the creek, stopping to build a dam to make the water deeper and then wandering on, flipping rocks and poking in holes to see what was hidden away.

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Down towards the old Kimberly- Clark paper mill, in the creek along Gibbons that ran in-between White Villa, there was a retention pond that settled out some of the solids before being discharged into the creek from a big pipe.  You could tell what color paper they were making due to what color the creek water was that day.  You could dig into a sand bank and see multiple layers of colors in the sand, like someone made a colorful cake.  We thought it was cool at the time but who knows what chemicals we were wading around in.

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In that part of Ohio limestone is the dominant geology, and it was so full of fossils that we became immune to the commonplace seafloor fossils, with seashells by the millions.  Reading my fossil books, I was always on the prowl for a cool T-Rex tooth or mastodon tusk.  It took a while to understand they did not walk around on the ancient seafloor of Ohio.

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Typical looking hunk of Ohio Limestone

I really got into collecting rocks and minerals along with fossils. Pardon while I nerd out for a minute…I found brachiopods, crinoids, cephalopods, gastropods, cool horn corrals that I first imagined as dinosaur teeth, and eventually a trilobite or two.

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Typical Brachiopod Fossils

I had boxes and boxes of all these rocks in my closet, many mounted and named on cardboard, in little sectioned boxes and just loose in bags.  I still can’t help picking up cool rocks but I try to limit them to one or two per trip as a memento rather than trying to find one of everything possible. When we were selling off mom and dad’s house and cleaning it out, there was still a couple hundred pounds of rocks down in my old bedroom in the basement. I kept a few just for old times’ sake.

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A few artifacts of a once mighty collection…

We also collected every form of fresh water critter found in southwest Ohio. Mom was into tropical fish for a while and had collected many fish tanks and paraphernalia of varying sizes. As her interest faded, we took control of the tanks and created terrariums and aquatic re-creations of the creeks and ponds, filled with frogs, toads, turtles, mud puppies, snails, tadpoles, crawdads, fresh water clams, hellgrammites and any other unusual insect larvae…everything but snakes. Oh, we caught them alright, but we had to hide them in the garage, as mom drew a hard line at snakes in the house. There may have been a death penalty involved.

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Good days catch…

As we wandered up the creeks, we often got side tracked by various woodlands around our area, many of which have been developed these days.  One that hasn’t, was the woods right next to our elementary school, Harry Russell.  I believe it was part of the school property and classes occasionally went up into the woods on field trips to study nature.

There was a house that had a long, private drive just off of Bishop Drive that wound to the top of the hill right next to the Russell woods. I used to remember the name of the folks that lived there, but it seems to elude me at the moment.  In any case, as kids we of course placed a sinister reason for them living in their relative seclusion.  They had to be rich and evil, as they had their own bridge across the creek and long driveway with acreage.  Worst of all, they had no trespassing signs, the nerve!, so who knows what kind of sorcery went on in there and which were as good as a blinking neon sign saying “enter here”.

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We would sneak up the drive, cautious for any sign of approaching cars or guards.  We knew they had to have guards at such a house. We would dive and roll into the bushes at any indication of danger, which might be noise from a bird or cicada or just a giggle. I don’t think I ever saw any people, cars or activity of any kind from that house.

We would stealthily creep our way past the house, along old animal and kid trails, through what is today called Hintermeister Park (maybe the Hintermeister’s are the ones that owned the property and house?) at the top of Mayrose Drive, to enter the school woods proper. This woods was a playground for kids around the entire area, but we thought of it as our own.  After all, when we first moved to our brand new house there were no other houses past the creek bridge on Primrose and they had just opened Harry Russell my first year there in first grade. We obviously had seniority.

It was a wonderful little woods filled with all kinds of possibilities for adventure.  It was situated up the side of a hill, so it had gullies and ravines with little water courses to wander up.  There were the more or less official trails through the woods, and then there were the “secret” trails…these were the more interesting ones of course.

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Did you hear something?

They might take you to the edge of one of the ravines where kids had trimmed back the undergrowth to clear a path for swinging on a big vine out over the ravine.

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This should work…

There were a lot of wild grape vines in the woods so when one dried up or got ripped down a new one would be created somewhere else.

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Yeeeee haaaaaw

The trails would also lead to makeshift clubhouses, tree houses and secret clearings in the woods. You could tell the hangouts of the older kids by the stash of playboy’s, beer cans and cigarette butts littering the area.

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Warning, Danger!

We knew to tread cautiously in these places so we didn’t get into a turf war. That didn’t stop us from climbing tree houses and ransacking clubhouses for usable booty, that all seemed to be part of the game.

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At the very top of the hill, along the property line, there was a fence enclosing a large meadow where the owners kept horses.  The horses were always happy to see visitors and would come trotting over to say hi. In a little suburban town, this seemed like we were a world away in the country, in a place where we could call the horses, pet their heads and feed them grass or maybe even a carrot or apple if we had thought to bring them.

A couple of the creeks had steep dirt cliffs, where we became mountain climbers for the day.  We had an old army rope of dad’s that we would coil up and use to act like Sir Edmund Hillary.  The cliffs were eroding and dangerous as they were just clay and dirt, but that didn’t stop us from scaling them and getting into precarious situations where we were afraid to go up or back down.

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Kid climbing dirt cliff…

This was made all the more exciting by throwing dirt clods at the person already in meltdown mode on the cliff to break them even further.  I have no idea why we didn’t have more broken bones and injuries.

We didn’t limit ourselves to above ground either.  When they were building out the then new Sherwood Forest development, they had built the sewer infrastructure but hadn’t yet built any houses.  I thought this was a great opportunity for becoming cavers and exploring the subterranean.

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Enter if you dare…

The storm sewers were still clean and new, so we didn’t need to worry about nasty surprises like dead animals or people dumping nasties down the drains.

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Still Nice and Clean

We would gather a collection of candles, matches, flashlights and string each time.  We accessed them from an outfall pipe in the creek and would walk in as far as possible, then crawl on hands and knees, eventually traveling through even smaller pipes on our bellies with no way to turn around.

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Nice to be able to stand up!

Claustrophobia was always in the back of our minds down in the black depths of the pipe, and we inched forward with a hopeful wish that there would be a manhole station at some point ahead where we could gather our courage and continue on or turn around.

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Manhole exit

I ended up mapping the entire system with drawings of the size of the pipe, where the manhole access points were and which ones made good clubhouses to stash candles and booty.

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Roomy chamber to turn around or turn into a clubhouse…

Occasionally a summer thunder storm would come up and begin flooding the pipes, but this again we didn’t really acknowledge as real danger, just heightening the adventure a bit more.

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Got to map the system…

Over along the now buried creek under Liberty Lane next to White Villa, by a chigger filled raspberry patch, there was an old tree house notable for how high up in the tree it was and how rickety the steps were to climb to the top.  When we “acquired” it, the past builders had, by all appearances abandoned it for some time.   There was rotten wood, rusty nails, loose boards and so on. Maybe someone fell, or parents got wind of it and banished them from such a dangerous place, or maybe they just got older and pursued other interests, who knows.

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In any case, we planted a flag and claimed it as our own. We began the rehabilitation by dragging more building material from dad’s stash of second hand lumber and banging in yet more rusty, bent nails into all of the many loose boards creating a ladder going up the tree trunk.  Old school tree house ladders were just boards nailed onto the trunk. They  loosened up regularly as the still living tree grew.  We figured if 2 nails were good, 10 nails were great.

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More nails!

I recall there were a couple of places that had extended sections where you had to climb the tree, possibly to keep the squeamish from continuing to the top. This thing was easily 50-60 feet up in the tree…any fall would be a broken bone or worse. We continued adding nails, rails and new boards until we eventually lost interest as well, leaving it for other kids to discover.

As we all got older, adventures took us farther afield on our bikes, perhaps fishing at a pond or walking out on the dilapidated spillway on the Miami River. Eventually, I started hanging out more with my school buddies rather than my brothers and sisters and they had to create their own new adventures as I began stretching my teenage wings…but that is a different set of tales.

 

 

Senior Adult Orphan Reporting Sir!

Adult orphan, senior orphan, next in line to die…these are some phrases and ideas I have run across the past few months that resonated or at least tickled my fancy enough to prompt some thoughts. First, I apologize to actual orphans that never had the support of your biological parents from a young age…I hope you found some love and support at some point in your life.

Second, this rumination started from seeing others in the family dealing with the passing of their parents and loved ones and me wanting to offer some hope that it gets better.  I had thoughts on being, at least theoretically, the next one in my family to be in line to die…but as usual I meandered into a stream of consciousness over dealing with the death of parents, coping and getting through it all.  This message has sat for several months with me wondering if I even wanted to publish it, as I am by no means a therapist or sage, and cannot even begin to imagine ever going to a therapist being as independent and bull-headed as I am.  So, please think of this as entertainment with a smattering of hope if you are a member of the Dead Parents Club.

Senior Adult Orphan Reporting Sir!

My mother passed away in 2004, dad following her 2 years later in 2006.  It seems to be the time in my life where friends, cousins and acquaintances all start working through the process of dealing with the loss of their own parents.

I have had some time to process my parent’s deaths over the last fifteen years, but memories still flood back all the time.  I think you continue working things out until you give up the ghost yourself.

People that still have their parents may believe they understand the loss of a parent, but they really have no way to personally understand until it happens. They may offer you their sympathies and kindnesses for a few weeks or months, but after more time goes by they seem to just want you to get over it, which I think is human nature and I can’t blame them.

But you won’t get over it.  Your parents are the ones that gave you life, your name, sustenance, really everything you needed until you developed into an individual that can exist on your own.

Initially, you are consumed with dealing with the mechanics of their deaths, especially after the last one passes and you have to deal with settling their estate (estate seems too grandiose a word for what my parents had remaining at the end of their lives). Things like selling the home you may have lived in all of your life, the months or even years dealing with lawyers, insurance companies and settling medical bills.

After the initial shock of their deaths, all of this bureaucratic stuff steals time away from the thoughts of your parents, yet the thoughts still manage to sneak through when you have a spare minute, or when prompted by a scene in a movie or even just a stupid Barry Manilow song (mom loved Barry). They come to you in your dreams, some dreams reassuring you everything is well, some leaving you wishing you had just another moment or two with them.

I hope you don’t have any unresolved issues that needed to be cleared up before they pass away, that has to make it even more difficult.  I think I was in a pretty good place… I just want more info about specific points and places in time as documenting family history has become more important to me.

After a while, perhaps years, the sadness of their loss gradually loses its sharp edge and dulls a bit. But it always remains present, easily set off by the emotional booby traps of long standing family habits, rituals and certain words used by the family that have been there for a lifetime.

No matter how independent you are, and again, I am independent with a capitol “I”, the loss of the home you grew up in and all the “stuff” that surrounded you, stuff that felt like it was always there and filled with the memories they evoke, unanswered questions, not having them there for the milestones of your own family, all add to the chipping away of the solidity of your life and begin creating an enduring sense of loss. One at a time, maybe not such a big deal, but over time they just keep accumulating.

Unless you have been very unfortunate, your parents could always be counted on to be in your corner no matter what. I distinctly remember my mother telling me (many times) when I was a little feller and had gotten into trouble over something not even important enough to recall, “I will always be your mother and I will love you no matter what”. I think this is what she typically said after she busted my butt for some transgression. Dad’s wisdom was “if you wind up in jail, don’t call me to bail you out, but you’re still my son”.

Now, mom may have deemed it necessary to beat you within an inch of your life at the time but she still loved you and supported you no matter what…to give you a few bucks to help you pay rent. To send a box of food from home on a holiday when you are thousands of miles away. To give you a place to stay to get back on your feet and so many other things.

The list becomes endless over the years, but most of all, they were that lifeline to talk you in off the ledge when life seemed hopeless, or to be your biggest cheerleader to listen at the moments you feel most proud of your accomplishments.  You knew they would be as proud or even prouder than you are. Then all of a sudden your cheerleaders have suddenly left the game…and are not coming back. You wonder who will ever care as much as they did. And the honest truth is, probably no one.

Now, when I was young I thought I was a being a good son to call home once a month, not counting holidays, so it was not unusual to build up a list of stuff to talk to mom about, and check the weather back in Ohio so I had something to talk to dad about…he was not a big conversationalist until he got older. So when they first died I can’t even count the number of times I would think “I need to call mom and dad to tell them…” and remember half way through my thought that they were not there to call anymore. That is a very lonely feeling.

The void that is created when they die is like a massive black hole…emotions and feelings get sucked right in and you can feel alone even with all your family, friends and loved ones still around you. It feels like nothing you do matters much anymore, that the forces that have always mattered the most and served as your compass through life are gone.

The compass needle starts swinging wildly (can’t help the compass metaphors, I was an Eagle Scout, Cavalry Scout, mountaineer and sailor, I like knowing where I am!). You aren’t sure if North still points North and even if it does, what direction should I go now?

It gradually dawned on me that “I have become the senior adult orphan of 5 other adult orphans.” I am the next one “in line” to die in my family if the rules of life were fair. They aren’t fair of course, and I actually hope that I am the next one up and that myself and all of my brothers and sisters have long and happy lives.

That is how life should play out.  I’m really not one to get lost too deeply in an existential crisis, and the irony of my choice to write all this is not lost, I just hope to show that I stared this situation in the eye for a while and managed to climb over it as we all must, and do eventually. Your needs and your path will differ from mine, but it is a path we must all travel. Your route and mileage may vary.

At some point you have to do what every child has always had to do…go on living.  You think back to how your parents reacted when their parents died (although I never knew my mother’s mom) and what they did.  So you go on being the wise one for your children, giving meaning to your life by providing and sharing things that are important to you.

I do know that when your parents die you become part of “the club”. It’s not a club you want to be a part of, but eventually you will. It’s a club where you hopefully try to take care of the other club members a little more, even though your own loss, at times, can be as painful as it ever was. It’s a club where when a conversation comes up concerning parents passing away, members cast a knowing glance to other members without a need to explain.

One of the reasons I started this blog was to not let myself forget the stories that are important to me as well as to prompt other family to create their own stories. As the years pass it becomes harder to recall all the memories of them. The stories begin to fade a little more every year.

I scour the internet looking for stories, documents and connections to previous family members that all have stories to continue telling  I don’t want them to be forgotten, and I want to create new stories, a record, that can be passed down so grand children don’t have to wonder what tragedy and suffering as well as joy great great grandmaw experienced building her big family.

I want future family to know that great grandad didn’t just serve his country from this year to that year…that there are many stories showing he was tough and brave, a hero in every sense of the word, not only the school bus driver and janitor that some know him as.

Hopefully you can get to the point, as I feel I have, where you can remember the good stuff and laugh at the bad stuff.  Maybe you’ll write stories like I do, where you see holidays, birthdays or other milestones as a chance to remember and celebrate their part in your life. Or maybe you’ll be able to sit around with your friends and family telling the stories, laughing about how crazy it used to be without the stabs of pain.

I take after my father in the sense of being the strong, tough, silent, self-reliant type, not the kind of guy that plasters good thoughts of the day all over Facebook.  But I am rather sentimental.  I try to bring meaning by helping my friends and family when they need it or when they can just use a hand. By sharing the things I have found value in, whether it is discovering family stories, building or making things, fostering adventure in the mountains, sailing or simply sharing a good bottle of whiskey.

I try by remembering and telling the stories of my family, if for no other reason than some person down the line may be like me, looking at names and wondering “who were those people, what were they like?”

While I am not ready to hand the reins over to the next-in-line senior orphan yet, I have seen and done things I could never imagine as a young boy growing up in a tiny mid-western town named West Carrollton. I’m not done yet, I hope I have a few more good chapters to write.  To quote Jimmy Buffet (there’s a Jimmy quote for everything), “Some of it’s magic, some of it’s tragic, but I’ve had a good life all the way…” You do the same.

One of those, three of these, please…

I know most of my brothers and sisters and older cousins can relate to the activities in this story, because we did them together many times back in the 60’s and early 70’s.  Like many things from our past, I’m afraid this experience is all but gone now. I’m talking about that classic kid activity: Going to the corner store for Penny Candy.

Penny candy galore!

This is my recollection of something that went on constantly over 50 years ago…your mileage may vary.  Please let me know in the comments what you remember.

First of all, you would be hard pressed to find anything for sale for a penny these days. In fact, a penny even costs more than a penny to make. It costs the U.S. Mint 1.55 cents per penny in 2016, even though all pennies since 1982 only have 2.5 percent copper, the rest being zinc.  That means that the U.S. government loses around $50 million a year making a coin that many people just toss in a jar or that is absorbed by their couch.

The poor penny is just not worth the trouble any more. Now, you might get lucky and find a 1943 1c Lincoln penny worth $5,450.00. Wouldn’t that be sweet (see what I did there?). I shudder to think how many collectible, high-value pennies and coins we mindlessly tossed on the counter for our sugar highs.

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Poor penny

Wait a minute you say, I saw an item on eBay or Amazon that only costs a penny. Sure you did…was it Amazon Prime, with free shipping?  Nope. Not at that price. That one penny item will cost you $5.01 with shipping. Such a deal.

Even when a penny was worth something you still needed to get those pennies into your hot little hand. So, if you wanted to get some penny candy the first thing you needed to do was conjure up some cold hard cash.

Need to make some cash quick!

We were basically slave labor as children at my parent’s house.  We didn’t get an allowance no matter how many chores we did.

We worked hard…but saw no cash!

Mow the lawn, trim the hedges, rake the leaves, wash the dishes, hoe the garden, clean the garage, weed the flower beds, watch your brothers and sisters… (mom) “You want an allowance?  Your allowance is food in your belly and a warm place to sleep, now get back to work!”.

So fund raising was key. And you had to be crafty. You couldn’t just beg from mom because she would ask “why do you need money?” Candy was not the right answer. We weren’t even allowed to go all the way to Ridges Carryout when we were young, even though we walked to school every day to Harry Russell elementary, which was right across the street from Ridges.

Made us walk all the way to school, but couldn’t cross the street to Ridges!. Also shows the bottle collection route down in Owl creek along Gibbons Rd

So still being stealthy, the first stop was to check all the furniture cushions. Everyone else had this idea as well, so it was not typically a big money maker. If you were really jonesing for a sugar fix, you might check out your brothers and sisters piggy banks, but these were usually well hidden or empty anyway.

There would be war if you got caught…

Not mentioning any names, but some of the clan may have stooped to pulling a Jesse James robbery by getting into the old metal cash box my parents kept in the back of their closet.

Weakest strongbox ever

This is where they “hid” (we all knew where it was) things like bonds, insurance forms, souvenir money from Germany, Italy, Vietnam, Korea and so on, along with my 2 dollar silver certificate papaw gave me and so on.

There was also a collection of dad’s blue coin collection folders for nickels, dimes and quarters. These folders were the kind that had a place for a coin for each year, so trying to not get caught you might just take one or two from each folder and other assorted loose change that included buffalo head nickels, wheat pennies, and other old coins.

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No bueno when too many coins were picked

The problem was that there were 6 kids, so 2 or 3 might have the same idea over time without thinking that others are doing it as well. The next time mom or dad looked into the cash box it might have been robbed blind. The end result was tanned hides for all, as no one ever fessed-up. Snitches may get stitches, but justice always prevails in the underworld of the sibling mafia.

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If no one speaks up, we all get a buff bustin’

The surest way to get your stake was to actually work for it and search the neighborhood for pop bottles. You could make 2 cents a bottle for returning them to the same place they came from…the stores selling the penny candy.  What a racket. It reminds me of the Hudson Bay Company, where they sold the trappers the flour, beans and other trade goods to live on, so they could bring back the furs and exchange them for flour, beans and trade goods to do it all over again.

Of course, every kid in the neighborhood was in on this secret and was doing the same thing…unless they were snotty rich kids whose parents simply gave them money or the poor, deprived, only-child that had no siblings to compete with. Does anyone even say only-child anymore?

Every kid had their own secret methods to track down bottles, kind of like the trapper had his trap-line.  You didn’t tell anyone your bottle route and if you ran across another kid on your line there might be a turf war over the bottles.

In those days you didn’t pull out a Glock or AK to fight, you just yelled or threw dirt clods at each other until someone gave in or their mother called them for dinner.  When I say called, there were no cell phones, they just yelled at the top of their lungs.  When’s the last time you thought of a dirt-clod fight?

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Dirt clod fight!

I liked walking the creek bed right along Gibbons road as it was on the way to Ridges.  People would drink their cold pop on the way back to their house, and finished up, huck them over into the creek so they didn’t have to carry the empty bottle any longer.

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I know there’s a bottle in here somewhere…

Some broke as they hit rocks in the creek bed, but bottles were thick and substantial back then as they were used over and over. Some would miss the rocks, hitting the water, mud or grass.

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Old school bottles…

If I didn’t have enough by the time I got to Ridges I would scour the dumpster or go into the neighborhood side streets, checking trashcans and other places where people leave trash.  Often down at the paper mill workers would leave a few empties behind where they had lunch.

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Two cents each please!

Depending on your mood…whether you just wanted a quick fix or a full bag of candy, it might take an hour or just a few minutes.  You might already have a start with a bit of birthday money or a quarter from papaw, or maybe you squirreled away some lunch money…who wanted to eat a deviled ham sandwich and succotash anyway?

So with your pocket jangling with coinage or your wagon rattling with bottles, you had to make it to your local penny candy emporium to redeem them.

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Money in the bank

Back in the days before corporate bean counters created “fun-size”, candy was very cheap…people actually handed out full size candy bars on Halloween. Every neighborhood or small town had a pharmacy, five-and-dime or small neighborhood market on the corner that sold penny candy.

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Where do I start?

We had a penny candy dealer staked out in every neighborhood, waiting for us like a corner drug pusher to show us their multi-flavored wares to give us that sugar rush we couldn’t live without.

Closest to our house in West Carrollton was Ridges Carryout, at the corner of Gibbons and Elm.  Today it is named Lynn’s but it is now a Trophy shop after several name changes over the years.

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Ridges as it looks today as Lynn’s Trophy Shop

This was a classic old wooden building that was raised up above the typical flood range of the creek along Gibbons road. The local creeks used to flood several times a summer back then. Sounds like they have fixed that with better engineering.

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I see on Google Maps that it has had a face lift with vinyl siding, and missing all the old metal signs (and charm). Probably sold them for a nice profit as they became rare and more valuable.

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I actually played on Ridges little league team for a year or two and after each game the team stopped in for some free candy and a coke.

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Playing left field, number 13! We beat Cox’s Army 6-2 and I got the game ball for 5 hits, including a double and 8 steals. Only game ball I ever received 🙂

You would walk up the wooden steps to the covered porch, past all the metal signs for Coca-Cola, 7-Up, RC Cola, beer and cigarettes and pull open the screen door, hopping inside before it snapped shut on your butt if you weren’t fast enough.

Once inside, it was like you had entered Willy Wonka’s factory, albeit on a much less grand scale and with a worn wooden floor that squeaked.  There you would gaze at the counter full of glass jars full of gumballs, jaw breakers and peppermint sticks.

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Too much good stuff!

There were wax root beer bottles, cherry lips and mustaches…

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candy cigarettes, Atomic Fireballs, Black Jack Taffy, Dum Dum suckers, Bull’s Eye caramel creams with that weird white creamy stuff in the middle, gum drops, taffy, Necco wafers,

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Typical goodies

Caramel cubes, root beer barrels, Smarties, Tootsie Rolls, Bottle Caps, Chuckles, various flavors of stick candy and the ever popular candy necklace…you just stretch it around your neck and chew a button off whenever you want, sticky neck be damned!

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Around, your neck, around your wrist…quick snack when you’re on the go

We had the usual spot figured out. If we wanted to range a little further afield from Ridge’s we might go to Reeds Drug Store or Bob’s Carryout.

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Good ole Bob

Bob was always super friendly but Reed’s had a “newer” more upscale vibe since it was a pharmacy, not like the old-school mom and pop stores with the humming and squeaking fan-belt refrigerators, old reach-in Coke coolers that you could barely see into and shelves crammed so full the aisles felt like canyons.

Find yourself over at Mamaw and Papaw’s house on Miami Chapel in West Dayton?  There was The Moraine Market, caddy-corner to Delco Moraine and across from George’s barbershop.

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Papaw Profitt on the porch of his old place with the Moraine Market over his shoulder

This was one of the first local markets to close down, I don’t remember going here as much as the other places.

Going to Miami Shores to visit Aunt Jean and Uncle Jim?  Before they rebuilt the Sellars Rd bridge, our favorite place for candy was the Tradin Post

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My favorite of all time…

You had to make a quick dog leg to the right as you came over the Shores bridge on Sellars Rd. The Benson’s house was right around the corner to the left.

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Showing where the old dog leg road and the Tradin Post used to be.

When the new bridge came in they expanded the road on both sides and renamed Sellars Rd Main Street.

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New bridge going in, old bridge on the right.

It was a sad day for everyone when the Tradin Post was torn down to make room for all the construction.

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Where the Tradin Post used to be

But we are talking candy so we easily switched our allegiances to the store down the road a block, called the Family Market.

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One of the versions of the Family Market

Today, after a tear down and rebuild, and a remodel or two, it’s called K&R Supermarket.

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K & R today

In between was also Buck’s, who moved here after Woody’s success chased him away from West Carrollton.  I don’t remember going here very much either.

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Where Buck’s Market used to be

If we were over at Aunt Janice and Uncle Ronnie’s when they lived on Orange Ave? We had to hoof it 3 blocks or so over on South Dixie to Speaks Market.

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Sneaking off to Speaks Market when the Crider’s lived on Orange

The hardest part of the whole process, and the most fun, was choosing what candy you wanted in your sack.  So many choices. You had to balance quantity and quality for the change in your pocket.  You might get several items for a penny, like simple hard candies, or 1 item might cost 2 or 3 cents, like chocolates.

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One of those, 3 of these, please…

I can only imagine how much patience it took being a clerk waiting for a group of 6-8 year olds to get done picking candy.

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Picky, picky, picky

But no matter what, you could fill a small paper sack for a quarter.

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Can I get 3 more Pixie sticks?

Decisions made, we would all go running out to play with our cousins and ruin our appetites for supper.  If we were at the Tradin’ Post we might grab some cardboard from the back and go up on the levee to sled down the dry grass to the river bank.

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High speed down the levee…no helmets back in the day

I remember sliding down and having a piece of broken glass slice through my cardboard like it was a devilish set-up to kill James Bond…the glass slicing closer and closer to the family jewels until I rolled off. I was careful to clear my slide path after that.

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Watch out for glass!

Where ever we were, high on sugar, we would run wild with our many cousins around whatever neighborhood we were in, playing tag, red rover or 4 square, chasing firebugs, climbing trees or playing hide and seek well after the street lights came on.

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Favorite summer activity, collecting firebugs

As the penny’s purchasing power was reduced to nothing, a lot of the mom-and-pop stores also disappeared as they were run out of business by the big chain grocery stores like Kroger super stores, Cub’s and Mega this and that.  Penny candy just seemed to fade away, tucked away in our dusty memory banks as we grew older.

Not for a penny and just not the same

In researching this story, I do see that there are candy companies selling bulk bags of old-fashioned taffies, wax-coated root beer bottles, Smarties and Dum Dum suckers. Can you buy any of this retro candy for a penny?  Nope. Even if you buy in bulk you need to bust out the nickels, dimes and quarters for each piece. Plus shipping.

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Not for a penny anymore!

But if you ask me, the most important thing missing today is the experience of running into that corner store a sweaty mess with grass stained bare feet, with a handful of pennies, looking at all the incredible choices and picking exactly what your pleasure was for that exact moment in time.

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As you recited each item you wanted with meticulous care and laid that sweaty money on the counter for the clerk to count out, you felt like a million bucks, all for a few pennies.

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Brawling Cowboy Style

My younger brother Greg and I used to get into some real “two men enter, one leaves” cage style fights when we were growing up.  It was pretty much classic sibling rivalry between a suave, sophisticated older brother and a younger, bull-headed brute of a younger brother. It’s my story and I’m sticking to that.

Two hardheads in 1966. Mom got more milage from our jeans with those iron-on knee patches.

Most of our dust-ups started out innocently enough, as sibling brawls go…the Saturday morning cartoons are over, mom and dad are out grocery shopping… we switch over to old school “Big Time Wrestling” on the TV.  After a few drop kicks from Flying Fred Curry, a coco-butt from Bobo Brazil and a stomach claw from Killer Kowalski, one of us would wind up doing a flying elbow drop onto the other from the back of the couch and it was on.

Bobo Brazil has the Shiek in a headlock after a coco-butt or two.

Our fracases generally started out as merely intense wrestling matches, but as we grew tired the moves got more more and more desperate… eye gouging, biting, nard punching, and even the odd wet-willy were all a fairly standard repertoire of moves.  As we advanced to back-flip reversals and moves learned about during real wrestling from elementary school gym class, everything intensified.

Bobo cranking it up a notch.

If you really wanted to escalate you would act like you were going to spit in the other guys face while you were holding him down…seeing how far you could let a spit goober ooze out before sucking it back in two or three times would drive the other to go full clobbering time Hulk. The goal was to make the other guy cry uncle or tap out, and with two hardheaded Profitt’s, bones would have to come close to snapping for that to happen.  These death matches could be brutal and go on for 20 or 30 minutes, with no bell to save you.  Big Time Wrestling, the 3 Stooges and Looney Tunes cartoons showed us the way.

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Learned from the best

Dad had more or less encouraged this rough-housing among us boys from an early age.  It was all fun and games until someone got hurt and mom got involved. When we got to the point of breaking furniture and each other too bad he did the classic old-school dad thing and bought us 2 pairs of boxing gloves.

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Classic way to settle things

I think he figured this would at least cut down on the eye gouging and finger biting since he could referee.  However, having spent 20 years in the Army, where personal issues were settled with gloves, Pugil sticks or in a bear pit, he got a real kick out of us going at it until one of us cried uncle or got a bloody nose. I can still picture him giggling like Dick Dastardly’s dog Muttley as we pummeled the snot out of each other.

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Muttley found humor in everything,

While he tried to explain the basics of keeping up your guard, jabs, hooks and uppercuts, we always rapidly devolved to a school-yard free for all with us rolling around on the ground…except with boxing gloves on.

As the oldest, I had more of psychological advantage than a physical one. Greg is a year and a half younger but was on the husky side compared to me, so he was pretty close to my size. Our blood would get to boiling until we were like two jacked-up pit bulls waiting to be released at a dog fight.  I can’t remember for the life of me what started one of these incidents, but it ended up with me speeding through the house after Greg and out the back door.

This happened in the mid 60’s while dad was still in Vietnam. We had just moved into a brand new house in West Carrollton and the back porch was more a six foot tall set of steps leading down from the 2nd story than the porch it would become years later.

Scene of the infamous porch jump, 1966.

Greg had a bit of a lead on me as he ran down the steps, so I thought I’d outsmart him by diving off the top of the porch and landing on him cowboy style like all the westerns show.  I timed it just right as he cut right, gave a mighty leap and landed…right on a tomato stake.

Stunned, I found I was not on my brothers back ready to pummel but impaled in the back of my upper right thigh deep enough that I couldn’t pull myself free.  The force of my jump jammed the stake even further into the ground. My left foot could barely touch the ground as I stood on my tippy-toes to help relieve the pressure of the stake that was nearly up my ass.

Laurie and Phil had run out the door behind us, always wanting to participate as audience rather than being “in the ring” themselves.  Mom was inside the house and they started yelling loudly that I had a stick up my butt and to hurry out before I died.

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Such well behaved children. That couch suffered.

Mom tried valiantly, but could not manage to lift me off by herself without doing more damage. This was before 911 and dad was off fighting the war, so she called Aunt Janice, our father’s baby sister that was our chauffeur and 2nd mother while dad was gone.

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Aunt Janice in front of our house, act 1966

Janice wasn’t sure that even together, they could pull me up and off the stake high enough, so she called her brother, Uncle Densil, to come over as well.  They got there about the same time, and after Densil cracked a few jokes about sticks and asses, stopped laughing and pulled me off the stick with an awful sucking sound.

Then it was off to the emergency room at St. Elizabeth since mom thought it was too deep for her standard nurse treatment of flooding it with peroxide and slapping on a butterfly bandage. When the doc came into the treatment room I’m almost sure I remember Densil saying something like “Doc, the boy got a stick up his ass and needs you to pull it out”.

He put me belly down on his examination table and poked around a bit, making me wince.  He gave me several shots of local anesthetic, again making me wince. Everything numbed up back there and he really went to town.  Poking and prodding, describing everything he was seeing as he went. “This is pretty deep, I’ll probe to see if I can find any splinters or dirt…this is just fat protruding out of the wound, no muscle, that’s good…oh, what is that…poke, poke, poke”

Meanwhile I’m listening to all of this face down, bare butt open to everyone in the room, unable to see what is going on with my leg. This being my first experience with a local anesthetic, I’m thinking “oh my god, I can’t feel anything, my leg is dying” and expressed that to the Doc.

He reassured me that was a good thing, otherwise I would feel intense pain. I relaxed a bit and assumed playing the role of a morbidly fascinated sub-teenage boy, asking “what did it look like, was it gross, how much blood”, etc., and the Doc played along, describing what he saw and what he was doing.

It felt very weird when I felt the tugging of each stich, yet nothing else.  “How many stiches” I asked, trying to determine how much neighborhood street cred I was going to get out of this.  “Only 4?” I replied when the Doc told me. I knew I needed to pump those numbers up if I was going to compete with some of the local kids.

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Only four stitches?

“It’s not a very big hole” he said, “it is just very deep”. “OK, good”, I thought, “I’ll go with the very deep thing.”  After all, mom would have just put a butterfly on it and called it good, and I had a score to settle with little brother.

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Brotherly love