About Me

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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

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Friday, July 07, 2017

Signs of the Times of Yore

Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey

Memory is a funny thing.  Snippets from the past can lie dormant in the brain for decades until one day, quite by accident, a word, a picture, even a sound can unlock that storage and unleash a wave of sweet nostalgia.  It sneaks up on you and quite without warning transports you back to a time long ago, and almost long forgotten.

I don't have a FaceBook account myself.  I prefer to piggyback on my wife's account, mainly because it seems like too much work to set up my own.  One of the groups I (we) follow is one called "Growing up in Independence, MO."  This week, one of the members posted some pictures from the 1960's one of which was of the Mugs Up root beer stand.  Seeing the place was the key that unlocked that musty storage locker in my head.  We had a similar place much closer, a real classic of the drive-in era, called "Dog n' Suds."

I've lived a lot of places, but Independence was where I've spent the most time, especially my formative years.  We moved there from Los Angeles in 1960 not too long after the building containing my Dad's office burned to the ground.  We spent the first two years in a rental house before buying a new home on Mark Avenue.  Being six at the time of our move, and eight when we got the new place, I hadn't really been old enough to have been vested in Southern California.  I do remember how hot and muggy our new home town was, compounded by the lack of air conditioning, which my Dad considered an extravagance until he finally had central air installed a few years later after the onslaught of Missouri summers conquered his fiscal stubbornness.

There were those oppressive summer evenings when we would be sitting in the living room watching TV with electric fans whirring away until Dad would decide that we needed some relief.  We'd pile into the car (which was also non-air conditioned) and drive for about 10 minutes or so before pulling into a slot under the garish yellow lights which always seemed to attract a multitude of flying insects.  A teenager would come out and take our orders, and return a few minutes later with several iced glass mugs holding that treat of treats, the Black Cow.  This was, of course, the same root beer float we could have made at home, but going out, as rare as we did that, made it special.

I always drank the root beer first, then took the long spoon and went to work on the ice cream.  The root beer would have frozen in places on the ice cream, making a delightful sweet crust, which turned the vanilla flavor into something exotically delicious.  We took our time.  After all, this was a masterpiece, and it demanded our full attention.  After finishing, we would pass out mugs forward and Dad would place them carefully on the tray hooked over the top of his partially-raised side window.  He'd then honk the horn, and the teenager would return and collect the tray.  Then we headed home.  It was still warm and humid outside, but my insides were now delightfully chilled.

My memories of driving around on a summer's evening consists of a collection of sensations, sights and sounds.  I can still hear the sound of the tires on the pavement, and the feeling of the velvety air passing outside my window.  I would stick my hand out and it would become the wing of an airplane.  By tilting it up or down slightly, I could make it "fly" through the night.  Stopping at red lights, the sounds of the night would make themselves heard.  Cicadas, crickets, tree frogs; the aahhh sound of passing cars.  And if the traffic was light enough, I could hear the sound of the relays in that big yellow box changing the traffic light from red to green.  It would be late enough for me to feel that scratchiness in my eyes, sure sign that bedtime was close at hand.  Eventually, we'd pull back into the driveway.  Dad would get out and open the garage while we piled out and went through the front door.  Inside, I could hear the deep thrumming sound of the car pulling in, and the cacophony of the garage door being pulled down and locked.  Mom would shoo me into the tub for my bath, and then after donning my pajamas, I would slide into a bed that, at least for a few moments, was cool to the touch. And as the crickets sang outside my window, I drifted away to dreamland.

I think most people my age and older, have memories of the small retail establishment that populated the town squares of most places.  Woolworth's, Kresge's, and Ben Franklin are the ones that were in my home town.  Today's collection of monster supercenters and big box warehouse stores while convenient, really don't hold a candle to the charm of the small five-and-dime.  In the business district in Independence, which everyone called "uptown" for reasons that still remain obscure, there was a collection of stores in the square around the county courthouse which was a replica of Independence Hall in Philadelphia.  Woolworth's was on one side, Ben Franklin on the other.  Kresge's was there somewhere, but time has eroded my memory of its exact location.  My mother would go on shopping trips to The Square, visiting all three stores in order to find exactly what she was looking for.  I remember Ben Franklin the most because it was the only one with wooden floors.  These were original to the building which had been put up sometime in the 19th century.  They were old, so there was a bit of a flex to them as you walked the aisles.  During the summer, the heat would release a nice woodsy smell from the floors into the air, something I always liked.  The furnishings were stubbornly ancient, but on those shelves was a huge collection of really interesting things.  The men who worked the store all wore white long-sleeved shirts and bow ties, over which hung a dark green apron.  They were always friendly, making the store for a little boy, something like home.  Afterwards, we'd walk around the square, my mom and I, passing Gateway sporting goods, the Army-Navy store, a barber shop, the ice cream parlor Velvet Freeze, where we might stop if I had been a "good boy."  I lost Mom to cancer in 1982, and now I look back and wish I had been smart enough to treasure those times.

Every other Friday evening after supper, we'd head out east on U.S. 24 to the grocery store.  The area was called Farview, and nearby was the church where my wife and I would marry some years into the future.  Lew Richards was a friend of Dad's and even though there were other stores closer to home, he made it a point to support his friends in the business community.  Lew owned US Supers, in many ways a typical grocery of the era.  Big enough to stock what we needed, small enough that you could find it all.  I had the task of turning in our soda bottles, for which I would receive the magnificent sum of fifteen cents.  For that infusion of wealth, I could buy the latest Superman comic and one of the finest treats of my childhood, a Hostess Twinkie.  Thus with both my brain and belly fed, I was a happy little boy.  One of my enduring memories was once when we stopped for just a few things and as we walked out to the car, I remember my Dad grousing about how ten dollars of groceries now fit into one bag.  Now, ten dollars of groceries might just fit into my pocket.

We didn't eat out all that much because Dad would say it was cheaper to go to the grocery store.  Scattered around town were a few privately owned drive-ins (nobody as yet did drive-throughs).  One of them was a place called "Smaks."

The hamburgers were thin, the fries greasy, and the place didn't smell all that good, but it was still good eatin' for a small boy.  Another place was HiBoys.  

Here, the food was a step up.  The burgers were all hand made, and while still thin, they arrived in a bun soaking up the most delicious grease ever.  It was here where I made my first acquaintance with a treat called "tater tots."  In the restaurant's original configuration, you parked and went up to an open air counter and ordered, hearing the hum of those bright neon lights, and again, the presence of tons of flying insects bobbing and weaving.  The food, once completed, was passed to you through a different window, and you returned to your car.  The brown bags would already be splotched with grease by the time you sat down.  One of the true tragedies of life is that things that are good for you generally taste really bad, and things that are really bad for you taste oh, so good.  That was HiBoys.  Heart attack in a bag, and I didn't care.  Still don't.

On really special occasions, particularly birthdays, we would get dressed up and go to a really special place, Stephenson's Apple Farm Restaurant. 

The Stephenson family owned large apple orchards, and the restaurant had its start in 1946, opening a small place to feed folks who came out to pick apples in their orchard.  It grew steadily, eventually growing into a 350-seat institution that still brings fond memories.  Going in the front door, you checked in at the old wooded desk.  Nearby, a wooden cask of apple juice sat with a stack of small paper cups.  You could drink all you want while you waited for your table, and to this day, I've never tasted any sweeter apple juice.  We would be taken back into the dimly lit dining rooms, all smelling deliciously of any variety of the magnificent dishes on their menu.  Once seated, they would bring out little bowls of water with pieces of lemon.  We would use them to clean our hands, wiping them dry on the thick cotton napkins.  Opening the fare was the potato soup, a thick and filling piece of heaven.  Then the main course, for me, the most tender brisket ever sharing the plate with the smoothest mashed potatoes and gravy that ever existed on this planet, paired with a small pewter cup of green rice casserole.  When all that was done, then came the crowning glory of the meal, a serving of apple fritters and ice cream, and I could have made a meal out of just that.  If you looked up "scrumptious" in the dictionary, all you'd need for a definition was a picture of those fritters.  It was an expensive evening, which is why we only went occasionally, but for me, it was the best way to top off a birthday.  When the place closed in 2007, I understand that many people wanted to declare a day of mourning.

There are so many other memories, nearly all of them while making sweet sense to me would probably be boring to you.  But we all carry these memories inside.  They slumber in our brain waiting for that moment of unintentional stimulus when they will be awakened and will take us back to the past, a time that was always simpler, always nicer, and sadly, forever beyond reach.

But it was our life. And that is always something to be remembered.

Saturday, July 01, 2017

Giving Our Best to America

Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey

"America was not built on fear.
America was built on courage, on imagination, 
and an unbeatable determination to do the job at hand."
--Harry S. Truman

Every summer, Americans take a day off in July.  Businesses and government offices are closed, people flock to the grocers and the warehouse stores and lay in supplies from a case of burgers to tents, sleeping bags, and the other accoutrements of camping.  But whatever we do during the day, as the sun goes down through that universally warm and humid atmosphere, we gather in places great and small and wait with great anticipation for the night sky to explode in that cacophony of bright lights and booming sounds that are fireworks.

As far as I can tell, this custom was born on the long night of September 14, 1814.  British gunboats, in an attempt to take Baltimore harbor, shelled the keystone of that harbor's defense, Ft. McHenry for 27 hours.  When dawn broke on September 15, a huge American flag fluttered above the fort, stating without equivocation that it was still in American hands.

Out in the harbor on a truce ship, an American lawyer, Francis Scott Key, witnessed the bombardment and that breathless moment when the site of the Stars and Stripes pierced the fog and smoke.  Inspired, Key wrote the first words of a poem which would eventually become our national anthem.  Since then, on the evening of July 4th, skies across our country have been lit up with fantastic displays, emulating that long bombardment.  The thing I find most remarkable is that during that time, we all sit together without enmity and celebrate being Americans.

That transient moment of unity is, like so many other things, a facade.  As soon as the fireworks stop and the lights come up, we will go back to just being us.

It's hard to imagine an era when Americans have been as deeply divided as now.  I used to look at the example of other countries and opine, "Well, at least we're not shooting each other over politics."  The assault at the baseball field in Alexandria, Virginia in June was (and let's be frank) a political act undertaken by someone who had been seduced by hateful speech.  Was he crazy?  He certainly wasn't in a good frame of mind.  But there are a lot of others like him out there, balanced on the knife-edge between rationality and insanity who only need a bit of a nudge to fall on the side of violence.

Clearly, in the aftermath, there was a need to "tone down the rhetoric," to return some semblance of respectful discourse.  But across social media, and increasingly in the words and tone of the powerful, the hate, instead of being ratcheted down, exploded.  Some were glad the Congressmen were shot; others demanded that more of "them" should be gunned down.  Horrified, I began to wonder if I had just witnessed the first shot of America's second -- and last -- Civil War.

"Some of us grew up in households, for example, 
hearing that America is always right and never makes a mistake in the world. 
Others of us grew up in families that were so critical of America 
that the country was always described as a bully or an oppressor. 
In both cases, if we want to grow up to be free, 
we will have to unlearn the simple half-truths we were taught 
and develop the discernment to decide for ourselves.
 Always praising America is not patriotism. It is idolatry. 
But always criticizing America is not patriotism, either. It is ingratitude. 
The former is blind to America's faults; 
the latter is blind to America's virtues."
-Mark Gerzon

Humans have a sometimes regrettable characteristic of blindly following leaders.  This is probably a reflection of our desire to avoid blame or responsibility; if things go south, it will be someone else's fault.  Part of that desire involves accepting without question the statements leaders make.  Politicians and pundits are no different regardless of which side of the aisle upon which they stand.  If not held accountable to the truth by their constituents and supporters, they will lie -- with ease and without conscience.  In that context, followers are little better than lemmings, willing to walk off a cliff just because the person in front led them there.

The really sad part about that scenario is the certainty that the leader who took people over that cliff will only blame the Other Side.

“First, we are a nation of different races, nationalities, and ethnic groups. 
This brings us to the second commonality… we are all Americans. 
Yes, we fuss, we have differences of opinions, but we are all Americans. 
The third and most important commonality is the fact that we all bleed red. 
We are humankind. 
These are the bonds that unite us and make us better human beings.” 
--James Morris Robinson

We have a choice.  We can continue to blindly follow people who are making millions of dollars to keep us angry at each other.  Or, we can think independently.  We can demand proof, real proof, for what we are told.  We can think for ourselves; we can speak for ourselves; we can act for ourselves.  Or perhaps more importantly, we can think, speak, and act for each other.

One of the most amazing thing about Americans is that we are at our core, a compassionate people.  It is in our nature to drop what we are doing and lend a hand to someone in trouble.  And that troubled person does not need to be another American.  Whenever a disaster happens someplace on this planet, someone will park an empty semi trailer outside a WalMart or someplace similar, and Americans, most of whom are enduring financial struggles of their own, will fill that trailer with relief supplies.  The government doesn't issue an order.  We just do it.  That compassion for each other, and for the rest of the world is common to Americans of all walks of life.  It is one of the things that has defined us as a nation.

It is perhaps ironic that in these contentious times, the things that can unite us are those positives that have become second nature.  Beyond compassion, there is confidence.  We rarely believe anything is really impossible.  We are creative.  If we don't have to tools to address a problem, we just invent new ones.  We are a courageous people, not just those in uniform, but those who undertake the social issues that need to be addressed.  That willingness to stand tall and strong against the strong current of despair ensures that necessary change can be not just possible, but inevitable.  None of us are native to this place.  Those we call Native Americans are the descendents of those who came to this continent across the Bering land bridge.  Our ancestors were all immigrants in the truest sense of the word.  If we were to focus on those things, perhaps we could find that unity that has proven to be so elusive.  But I think we have fallen in love with hating each other, and that dark emotion is, regrettably, what dominates our thinking.

Gene Scheer wrote a song for the Ken Burns documentary "The War" about World War II, and was given voice by Norah Jones.  It was entitled "An American Anthem" and is a heartfelt expression of what is, or what should be important on the anniversary day of our country's birth.  Listen to the song; read the words.

"All we've been given 
By those who came before 
The dream of a nation 
Where freedom would endure
The work and prayers of centuries 
Have brought us to this day 
What shall be our legacy? 
What will our children say?

Let them say of me
I was one who believed
In sharing the blessings I received
Let me know in my heart
When my days are through
America, America
I gave my best to you."

I hope that all of us take these words to heart, that we will choose unity over division; understanding and tolerance over judgement and hate.  On this July 4th, let us give our best to America.