A Family In Luck
Even in those postwar 1940’s and ‘50s years posthumously stamped with the imprimatur of “the good old days” and the “true period of American family values” our family was not a storybook family. Well into late adulthood we, the get of the strange pairing that became our parents, railed at the Scot's harshness of our mother while holding the gentle amiableness of our father in utter contempt.
Like most ungrateful children, and all children are ungrateful, our every failure and disappointment was laid at their feet.
But then none of my friends had a story book family either and even within the tensions and failures of our own family I knew that we were luckier than a lot of other people.
Our neighborhood, in those years, was a quiet one with every third house being inhabited by a single woman or women. The three Ostertag sisters never married. Beaulah Rittermeyer never married. Mrs. Faucett was a widow, as was Mrs. Mathews, Mrs. Rientschler, Mrs. KirkPatrick, Mrs. O’Dell, Mrs. Crabtree and poor Mrs. Gallup whose husband, driven mad, it was said, by the death of their infant son, lived out his life at the St. Joe Asylum for the Insane. Shieldsy, a family friend, and Poppy lived quietly with Poppy’s damaged lungs..he was gassed in France during WWI… and visits from their daughter and occasionally one of their sons.
It was not a particularly bad neighborhood nor was it a particularly good one. Just a conglomeration of people whose generation, scarred and manipulated by two world wars, an influenza pandemic, (a 1918 global disaster in which 28% of the U.S. population suffered, and 500,000 to 675,000 died), a depression, a land killing drought, and in some instances, the struggle to figure out the ground rules in a new country or how to live after losing everything, lived their lives.
Three of my peers ..in the neighborhood… were victims of habitual incest, two of my closest friends lived on dirt floors, one of whose mother was severely mentally challenged, childhood entertainment at the home of another friend consisted of hiding behind the sofa and watching her mother entertain her men friends and the one friend I had whose family came closest to belonging to a storybook family..because they were catholic and attended church en masse.. lived, as did her mother and siblings, in real fear of her Irish father who liked to use his fists on them.
Three of my friends were raised in what was then referred to as basement houses, one of which had no partitions and one bed for a family of ten. These were simply basements upon which a house had never been built.
The boy that I was later to marry grew up, with his five brothers, in a basement. Stacked at night on pole beds to keep dry when it rained because the basement leaked so badly. They could tell you about wading through inches of water, carrying their shoes, to reach the door and starting for school without breakfast and with lunch (which was called dinner back then) just a fantasy someone else dreamed up.
But the biggest difference in the lives of my family and that of my peers was in the matter of entertainment.
We went places. We did things.
Wound together like a snarled ball of scratchy wool yarn harassed by an ill-tempered cat..we went places and did things.
Every summer we made our pilgrimage to Swope Park, home of The Kansas City Zoo and the infamous Swope Lookout. Often caravanning …the washtub with the watermelon, a jug of tea and a couple dozen bottles of Coca Cola and Nehi pop (orange for me, grape for my brother, Merle and Crème Soda for sister, Marion, with tea and Coke for the older people) in someone's trunk and the packed food boxes in another, we always made one stop on the highway at Leimkuhler’s Gas Station and Ice-house to buy a 25 pound block of ice to be chipped over the watermelon and pop and covered snugly with a gunny sack.
We went to the show at the Armour regularly, partly for the movie and more importantly for the newsreels. We went to Nelson’s, the neighborhood tavern/dance hall. We were regulars at the skating rink.
In the summer we would not have missed going to Winnwood Lake each weekend with it’s free show, outside dance floor and the multicolored juke-box that blared boogie woogie until mid-night, not to mention the on-grounds carnival. Occasionally we swam in the man-made lake but only when one of my sisters had a swimsuit to show off.
In the autumn and through the winter we were regulars at The Brush Creek Follies, a country music show that appeared regularly at the Shriners Temple Auditorium in Kansas City. We saw the young Minnie Pearl and Tex Ritter and Red Foley, Tiny Tim (who wasn’t tiny at all) and Herb Kratoska and Tex Owens and his daughter Laura Lee whom I was named after. Many of these entertainers became friends of the family and were guests in our home.
My parents knew personally members of the The Texas Rangers, a western harmony group franchised to KMBC Radio in Kansas City during that time. Among other things they did a noon-time music and news thing that we never missed. One of my earliest memories is being held high in Mother’s arms so I could listen to the little plastic radio on the shelf on the kitchen wall while the Texas Rangers sang Pony Boy (my favorite song) and dedicated it to me, little Nanie Stock.
There was a lot of spur-of-the-moment stuff. Someone would have an idea and off we would go! Like the time they installed the searchlight at the waterworks in North Town!
One night all of a sudden, off to the South West, a huge shaft of light, inspired by the great search lights over London during the War, swept the night sky. It was awesome..nothing short of miraculous. We all jumped in the car and off we went to see the actual item. There it stood. A huge beam of light seemingly coming right out of the ground there in front of the Water Works building! Piercing the sky farther than even the mind could see! Standing there in that family, dressed in varying degrees of shabby, we were one in our awe, connected like no other family.
It seems to me that this was our real story..…we ran and flew and crashed and rose to run again....like a kite with long tails, everyone clutching..no one allowed to let go. It's true, you don't choose your family. It is the luck of the draw.
But in many ways that mattered we were a family in luck!