Memories of a Childhood Outdoors – Summer

Part Three – Summer


This is Part Three – as you can see – about my life growing up in Iowa. As I said in Part One and Two we grew up in a time where things were pretty peaceful. Our dads went to work and came home for lunch and in the evening went to work on the cars and trucks or in the garden. Our moms kept house and had long phone conversations with the other mothers and were there for us when we wanted. We kids spent the vast majority of our time outdoors. If the weather was halfway decent, which it usually was, and even if it wasn’t (read Hot and Humid) we found something to do. The only time we were indoors was if there was a thunderstorm, a tornado warning or just too friggin’ hot and humid. Then we would go to the library (did I say I love libraries?) and read, read, read! We had a gorgeous Carnegie Library in town.

The “brood” on the front steps with Dad.


The best thing about summer were the road trips. Mom and Dad packed us in the car and set off but not before they had a fight over how long my Mom took to get ready and then, of course, forgot something. My Dad just wanted to go and once he got going (because he did all the driving) he didn’t want to stop until he got wherever we were going. Bathroom break? What does not kill you makes you tougher.

Once we were on the road – because my mom found what she forgot – we all settled in for adventure and everybody was happy. Road trips were the best part of my childhood. I’ll say that now. When I was a kid my folks argued a lot and it made the house unpleasant to be in. Maybe that’s the biggest reason I spent so much time outdoors but on road trips they didn’t argue. They were having fun, too. Thank you!

We had a lot of different cars when I was growing up but the main vehicle I remember was a long Chevy station wagon. I can’t tell you what year or make. I can just say it was one of those classic kinds that were bigger than a football field in the back seat area. Mom would put down the back seat, lay blankets and a thin mattress there and we kids would hang out (no seat belts) and watch the world go by. (No video games. No TV. Are you kidding? Even no air conditioning. We are all wusses now.) Sometimes we rolled down the back window and threw out wadded up pieces of white bread just to watch it bounce away on the pavement. We were easily entertained. We also made up games to pass the time. For example we’d watch all the other cars to see what states they came from. We’d look for horses on the passing farms and ranches and play “I Get Those Horses” to see who could tally up the most animals observed before anyone else.

Montana, Yellowstone, the Black Hills. We also took a long trip to Los Angeles to visit my mom’s sister and her family. There was the ferocious thunderstorm outside Amarillo, Texas where the air crackled with lightening and ozone . After the storm passed my dad was bent on finding pinto beans. We stopped at a market in the dark and the pavement smelled like rain and my dad came out with the prize. The endless Kansas prairie was flat like the ocean. The red dirt of Oklahoma glowed in the sun. At the Petrified Forest in New Mexico we stopped and I found a horny toad lizard next to the car in the brush. Come, little horny toad. Hey, where are you going? Come back. I was 10.

C’mon Mom!

Sometimes we went east to visit my dad’s mom and her husband Ephraim, also known as Ed. They lived in eastern Ohio and they had a giant two story rooming house with no roomers. They also had a huge empty barn where we spent hours exploring. In there we found abandoned implements from the farmer who had lived there before. Pigeons roosted in the rafters and flew down at the slightest provocation. It must have been a dairy barn because the upper level was a huge cathedral of empty space 3 stories high. This was where the hay was stored. The lower part had rows and rows of dusty, broken down milking aisles and feeding troughs. I never want to be a dairy farmer. Can you imagine getting up in the dark to milk 50 cows every morning and then do it all over again every night?

Gramma Daisy had a sense of humor.

Gramma had a good size pond ringed with willow trees. The pond was full of aquatic weeds and in the weeds hid frogs of a shapes and sizes and also crawdaddies. We took Grammas’ row boat out to the middle and did our best to catch the frogs but they were too good for us. We never caught one. The crawdaddies were another story, though, because the nature of a crawdaddy is bad ass. Those little suckers will go mano a mano with you and your stick. They’ll grab on to it with their pincers and you hoist them into the air and then they let go and fall back in to the water. Woe to anyone who gets too close! Those little pincers hurt! And they won’t let go of you!

Sometimes we’d go to my mom’s mom in Illinois. She lived in a sleepy little eastern Illinois town and about all we had to do was swing on the porch swing. We cranked up that puppy like it was a playground swing. It’s a wonder it didn’t come loose! My Gramma also had what was called a “stereopticon” which showed “3D” versions of pictures when you looked through the viewfinder. Old Mrs. Roberts lived next to my grandmother. In between the two houses were a lot of black berry canes from back to back, side to side with a narrow path down the middle. Mrs. Roberts (Sadie) was about 150 years old and looked it. She was really skinny and the veins in her hands stood out in bas relief. Her sunken eyes were rimmed with dark circles. We kids were a little bit scared of her because she looked so cadaverous. Gramma would send us over to visit. We didn’t want to go but we were obedient children so go we went. Once we got there we quickly realized that she was nice as pie. When she started talking about her younger days we soon forgot our fear and enjoyed hearing her tell how she “bobbed” her hair against her mother’s wishes and ran off with the neighbor boy to the dance.

Out on my Uncle Louis and Aunt Leona’s farm we rode the pony through the corn rows to make him go faster and we jumped all over the steers in the pens like crazy things. We were in our element. Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” couldn’t have been more perfectly set. This was our version, too.

Back at home we went swimming at Riverview park every day. We ate Slo Pokes and ice cream bars and terrible stale popcorn from the snack bar. There didn’t seem to be fear of stomach cramps from swimming too soon after eating back then. Maybe life was cheaper. I tried going off the high dive board once and had enough of that immediately when my stomach went into my mouth. Not literally. It just felt that way. It wasn’t even that high of a dive board. I was a timid child.

After the hot humid day was nearly over we’d play Annie Over behind the house. Our stand alone garage was perfect. If we had a cloudburst we’d wait until it was over and go out to the street in front of our house where the storm drain couldn’t handle all the water and splash around in the flood  and ride our bikes through it at high speed. If my dad was going fishing we’d go out after dark with our flashlights and try to pull those giant earthworms out of their holes. They were fast. You couldn’t contemplate. You just had to grab and try not to pull them in half (barbarians!)

Here are some highlights : old fashioned key skates that clamp on to your shoes, pickup sticks and jacks on the front porch, hop scotch in the driveway with tiny chains that don’t roll away like a rocks do, mashed potato-style dancing in Jamie’s basement, Fudgcicles, bomb pops, Slo Pokes on a stick, Neco Wafers, frozen Snickers bars, Milk Duds, candy cigarettes, corn bugs and potato salad.

I have an emblem of summer in Iowa that will be with me to the day I die. On my right forearm there’s a scar about 4 inches long (remember this when you’re identifying my dead body) I got his catching fireflies in our back yard. Years ago the farmers who lived on an acreage behind us (the Schultz’) had a real size farm. It had been much larger and when our subdivision was built our back yard was right where their garbage dump had been. So here I am, little child, running to catch a firefly and the next thing you know I’m tripping and coming up with a bloody arm. A broken glass jar was right where I fell. I still remember the trip to the emergency room and the doctor examining my arm. Mercifully I have forgotten the part where they sewed me up!

I would like to write more about finding river clams while canoeing on the Iowa river and fishing at Quarry or Nancy’s horse Tony but I’m running out of steam

Summer in Iowa growing up was the absolute best.

Her Royal Highness

6 thoughts on “Memories of a Childhood Outdoors – Summer”

  1. Love this, Renee! Similar memories of summer vacations to MN & MI, SE Iowa to see the Grands, all points west to SD, ND, WY, & CO, IL to spend time on my Uncle’s farm, etc. And around town – Little League baseball @ the Old Soldiers’ Home & off East Main, Elmwood, caddying for $$for those vacays. M’town seemed so big back then. Kick the Can @ nights with lightning bugs for lighting, hearing your mother telling you to come in late @ night and to clean up before going to bed. Darn lucky growing up in Iowa indeed.

    1. Yes, we were. Lucky, I mean. Of course, we had our share of unhappy moments but then that’s life. M’town did seem big but it wasn’t, was it? Back then you could ride your bike from the east end to the west end in a half hour if you hustled. I think we had 2 public buses that belched diesel fumes and they made the rounds. Sometimes after my piano lesson at Smith Music (remember the basement where the lessons were given?) I would think “I’ll ride the bus home.” and then I’d start walking with the idea that maybe the bus would show up and I’d get on. Most of the time I would make it to my home stop before the bus finally came roaring by. Thanks for reading. I think memoirs are really fun to write.

  2. I think we come from the same era. Your summers sound a lot like mine – but not like my grandchildrens. They don’t have much interest in playing. I’m constantly pouring them off their electronics. Playing outside instead of bein in the AC? Who would want to do that?

    1. Even if we aren’t we have the same mindset! (I’m 67) I can understand not wanting to play in heat and/or humidity (I grew up in Iowa where the weather can be beasty!) but can’t there be something more tactile or mind involving than electronics!

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