Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Forty Acre Club

I am guessing that it was sometime in 1955 when my parents scraped together the down payment on a cute little white bungalow that stood in a row of identical twins on a quiet block in the St. Louis suburban town of Berkeley being built to house returning WW-II veterans and their families during the post war boom. It did not matter that Garfield Ave. was located on the industrial side of town or that this adorable little house was the fifth house from the end of a street that ran parallel to the railroad tracks. It also did not matter that by the time my parents took procession and settled their meager belongings into their dream house, they had already outgrown the small, four room house with the recent birth of their sixth child.

What mattered was that this house was their first real home. What mattered was that, unlike many of the places they had lived, it had indoor plumbing, the roof did not leak, there was no broken down stoop or exposed wiring, and it was only a short walking distance to both their church and my father’s work. But, what mattered the very most was that it belonged to them. They were no longer living at the mercy of family or renting someone else’s substandard nightmare.

As happened with every house my parents lived in, that little house on Garfield Ave. soon became the hub of the whole neighborhood. Our yard was where all the kids came to play and our kitchen table was often the setting for Saturday night pinochle games or Sunday dinners. That table also saw many long hours where men swapped war stories and fish tales over endless pots of coffee, or where the women commiserated over each others problems and shared tales of childbirth or the antics of their children while sipping tea.

That little house was the first on the block to have a fenced yard, swing set, playground slide, broken window and a garage that never housed a car. It seldom had a empty clothesline and was the last house on the block to receive both a telephone and a television set. Rarely did a week go by that a ball, kite or some other toy had to be retrieved from the roof or the table could not be properly set for dinner without a search of the sand pile and mud holes in the yard for a missing table spoon.

It was not long after we moved in that Jim and Elsie Placker moved into the house next door but one, or to put that into American English two doors down. Elsie was the most remarkable person that I had ever met and the only one besides my Mother’s southern kinfolks who spoke with an accent. Elsie referred to her yard as the garden, her car had a boot and a bonnet, and she liked to drink hot ale straight from the bottle and always called the bathroom a loo. Elsie was soon known around the neighborhood as “that English War Bride” with those huge Airedales, because she seldom went out without her two large dogs in tow.

Elsie and my mother quickly became lifelong friends and Elsie became not only a fixture but a substitute Mother in our home. She would walk into our house without knocking at all times of the day or night and start barking orders at us kids as if she owned us and there was “Hell” to pay for anyone that did not jump to and obey. Elsie never visited without bringing her stainless coffee percolator with her. She said that the standard cup of American coffee was just wimpy dishwater and the junk my mother brewed was nothing more then colored water. Needless to say, the coffee Elsie brewed looked and smelled like crude oil and a spoon would stand up straight as if inserted into chocolate pudding.

I remember one night when all of us kids were sitting on the living room floor, in our pajamas, watching a TV program about thirty minutes before bedtime when in walked Elsie with her coffee pot, she stood in the middle of the room and calmly and firmly stated “bed, I said bed” as she began to scan the gathered faces. Before she could get to the third person the room was empty. Yep, there was nothing like Elsie to empty a room.

My Mother had always been good at inventing creative ways of keeping her growing brood busy during school breaks and what she did not think of, Elsie did. One spring she and my mother began to go on late night scavenger hunts the night before trash collection day and would drag home a odd collection of all sorts of castoffs. After several weeks we awoke one day to find Elsie hard at work in our driveway with a blowtorch and a assortment of pipes and several relics that once passed for bicycles. By midmorning my mother was also hard at work on the project and within several days we came home from school to find several brightly painted and completely functional bikes, one of which was to become the talk of the neighborhood. This bike was so tall that a stepstool was required for even an adult to mount it and if you happen to loose your balance and fall over you were destined to push it until the proper height object came along to give you a way to climb back aboard. That entire summer was spent at the park at the end of the street trying to learn to ride the giant bicycle. The park had a concrete stepping stone retaining wall that gave us our boost up and we could ride in circles around the baseball fields. That bike became the challenge of every adult and child in the neighborhood before summer’s end, and my tiny four foot eleven inch mother loved to show off by riding it around the block with one of the kids sitting on the cross bar.

Jim and Elsie were avid campers and in good weather would pack up their gear and head out every Friday evening and not be seen again until late on Sunday. All their vacations were also spend camping. Being the oldest child, I was the lucky one chosen to take care of their two monster Airedales. I was presented with my own house key and had to go over twice a day to feed, water and let the dogs out into the yard to run. The truth is that I found Elsie’s house to be foul smelling, and creepy and those dogs were huge and had the manners of spoiled children. I don’t know which I hated most, having to go into the house or spending time with the animals I began to call Brutus and Titian. Actually, they scared the tar out of me more than once and I was always so happy to see the Placker’s car turn into the drive.

Over time I not only began to like and respect Elsie for all she did to help my Mother over the years, especially during one long and confining illness, but I began to get a odd feeling that all was not what it appeared to be where Jim and Elsie were concerned. When I was in the sixth grade my sixth sibling was born so my parents decided it was time to move to larger quarters. Over the years my Mother kept in touch with Elsie and Jim and they would occasionally come for a visit. Once, after a visit, when I was in my teens I asked my Mother just how much she actually new about the personal relationship of her friends and if she felt that there was something odd about them. Instead of an answer Mom just told me to go and tidy up the kitchen.

Some forty years later my husband and I moved to a small town and I went to working nights at the local Wal-mart. One night in the break room during out dinner break several associates began to tease another associate and told them that they belonged in a placed called the “Forty Acre Club” Later I ask a co-worker to explain the joke connected with the teasing and was told that the “Forty Acre Club” was a Nudist Colony located in a neighboring town. With my interest and disbelief aroused I came home and did a web search and came up with not only the clubs webpage but half a dozen newspaper articles written about the club over the last half century. I was not only startled to find my parents good friends were among the founders of the Club but a photograph of a Seventy something Elsie doing a full Monty was included in the websites advertising. That is when I realized just where all those weekend camping trips they took during my youth were taking place and why the dogs were left at home.

Several years later I learned that both Jim and Elsie had passed away and I never had the nerve to mention to my Mother what I had learned. So Mom, if you happen to hear about this, I’m sorry but I just did not have the heart to tell you what I had learned, but I suspect that you have known for a very long time.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

My favorite time of year

July has always been one of my most favorite times of the year. As a child it may have been second only to Christmas, but since reaching adulthood, July has been my hands down favorite month of the year. All my favorite things seem to happen in July.

When I was a child my grandfather lived in a suburban area that had a wonderful park with everything a child could want. Besides a playground and swimming pool, there were great picnic areas surrounded by large expanses of thick green grass perfect for cloud watching and tumbling. Wabash Park was also the setting for the most elaborate Fourth of July picnics ever held in my young life, complete with old fashioned games, lots of hand churned ice cream, a parade and spectacular fireworks show.

Each year my grandfather would reserve the largest pavilion and host our annual Family Reunion, where we would have ringside seats for the parade, take part in all the games and contests, cool off in the pool, and stuff ourselves with barbeque and watermelon. Just before dark my brother Bill, cousin George, and I would get to help Grandpa blow out the candles on a giant birthday cake. Then we would all settle down with a huge slice to watch the sky exploding in a kaleidoscope of patterns and colors.

For years my brother and I were under the impression that Grandpa planned all those wonderful events just to celebrate our birthdays. Grandpa’s birthday was on July first, followed by Bill and George’s on the third and mine on the seventh. Years later, my sister Veda chose my birthday to make her appearance into the family and added another reason to celebrate. It must be some kind of family record, having five birthdays all in one week and all within a few days of the fourth. No wonder Americana themes with fireworks became one of my favorite ways of celebrating birthdays.

The year Veda turned 21, I gave her a huge surprise blowout of a party on the fourth that included everyone dressing in only red, white and blue costumes, and I even went so far as serving only foods that were all in patriotic colors. I spent months making thousands of red, white and blue stars, bunting and pendants that covered the siding, drive, walkways and every available surface of my house and yard. We had patriotic music blaring from a loud speaker on the corner of the house, released hundreds of red-white-blue balloons into the air at one point and had a man in an Uncle Sam costume on stilts walking around the yard greeting the guests.

The year I turned forty, Veda repaid me by helping to host a surprise red, white and blue luau in my parent’s back yard. She and my sister Nancy enlisted the help of dozens of friends and family members and they dug and hauled countless truck loads of river sand that they used to turn my parents yard into a beach; built palm trees complete with parrots, made a lagoon with a waterfall and lined hundreds of hand made luminaries along the drives, walkways and yard in addition to having roast pig complete with a red apple in its mouth on a spit.

This year I traveled to Omaha to celebrate both the Fourth of July and my birthday with my birthday sister. Veda was born on my fifteenth birthday and I was given the honor of naming her. As a teen I thought that rhyming names was cute so she became Veda to go with my Rita.

While we did not plan to do anything special this year in the way of celebrations it turned out to be one of the best birthdays ever thanks to the good citizens of Omaha. The people of Omaha take their patriotism seriously and go all out to celebrate our nation’s birthday.

July Fourth began with a neighborhood parade that most of the families in my sisters subdivision took part in. Entire families showed up at the starting point decked out in every conceivable red, white and blue costume ranging from the simple shorts and tees to the most patriotic ready to walk or ride anything on wheels that could be begged or borrowed for the day. There were Dad’s on skateboards, little ladies in Barbie cars, tots in decorated coaster wagons pulled behind parents bikes, kids on trikes they outgrew years ago and some on bikes where they could barely reach the peddles.
Even the family pets were decked out and joined in the fun. Those that could not walk or ride in the parade lined the streets to cheer on those that did. Beads and candy were flying back and forth as the parade made the circle of the neighborhood.

My brother-in-law was the Grand Marshall riding a star painted, flag adorned bike in the most unique super hero costume ever. Mark named his character J4 (short for July Fourth) and he sported a striped cape and star-studded wristbands along with a huge Mad Hatter top hat.

After the parade, the block parties got started and entire streets became one big smorgasbord as tables were set up and the ladies tried to outdo each other for the record of bringing the best dish. The air became pungent with barbeque and sulfur and a cacophony of sounds as firecrackers, boom boxes, and happy children drifted on the famous Nebraska winds.

At sunset the fireworks began and went on till almost midnight. I was told that it was illegal to sell, purchase or shoot fireworks in the city of Omaha but that did not stop the men from making trips across the state line into Missouri to purchase them by the thousands as friends, neighbors and entire blocks pooled their resources trying to have the best show in the neighborhood. For hours the fireworks went off in a 360 degree circle all around us. The streets became launching grounds as yards were lined with rows of people covered in circles of jewelry made from multicolored glow sticks.

I have been to some spectacular fireworks displays in my 61 years put on by places like Disney World, Six Flags, Opryland, Fair St. Louis and many communities and civic groups, but nothing to beat the size and style of the show put on by the private citizens of the city of Omaha, Nebraska.

You can bet that I can’t think of a better place to be than with my birthday sister as we celebrate July Fourth in her front yard. We have already reserved our spot for next year. Anyone want to join us?

Sunday, July 15, 2007

What will the verdict be?

There is no reason for weeks to go by without a single entry being posted here. In my word files I have dozens of articles I have started that just need a little tweak to be ready for posting . My only excuse is, I guess, nothing more than pure laziness.

My last post was made June 29th. Several days before I had been released from the hospital, and I was in a very tenuous mood while waiting for the verdict on my most recent health episode. I guess that accounts for the subject of my last post. I have to admit I have been giving life and death matters a lot of thought lately. Nothing like having a possible death sentence hanging over your head to get you thinking.

Well, I guess I should start at the top and explain. I have suffered from fibromyalgia for thirty years. I had the illness long before most doctors had ever heard of it or would admit it was a real medical problem, and long before the American Medical Association gave it status as an illness by giving it a name and a set of symptoms.

For years I went to doctor after doctor with my list of complaints only to be repeatedly dumped into one of two classifications. Some doctors would get that glassy eyed look wondering how fast they could get rid of this dingbat. A look that told you they considered you just another neurotic female in need of pacifying. You knew that the word hypochondriac was going to be written in bold red letters on your chart the minute you left the room. Others would lump all your problems into that quote-unquote “female bag” and refer you to the nearest gynecologist.

By the time I found a doctor that took my symptoms and list of complaints seriously and actually gave my mystery disorder a name (yes, disorder was how it was described back then) most of my family and friends and certainly my husband and daughter had already written me off as a nut case suffering from some mysterious mental illness. I was repeatedly told that my illness was not real. They would say, things like “its all in your head.” or “just get over it” or questioned whether I liked to be thought of as crazy.

After a while you actually begin to think that you really are a brick short of a full load, but in my defense I believe that all of you would feel crazy to if you went days without sleeping with diffused chronic pain, no energy, no life, no hope, and had been bounced from one doctor to another and given dozens of tests and took numerous drugs which didn’t help. All your lab results were normal and still you got worse year after year! Add to that numerous complaints including: anxiety, depression, fatigue, chronic pain, insomnia, IBS, MVP, tingling in your extremities, night sweats, headaches, reflux, and other symptoms. Are you crazy?

It is understandable, I guess, that others could not understand what I was going through. I did not understand it either. Over the years I learned that the only way I could avoid all the negative attitudes and misconceptions about my mental state was to suffer in silence. I tried to develop a way of coping that did not add fuel to the fire of already badly distorted ideas about me.

One major problem with a chronic pain disorder is that you become so used to having something hurt that you tend to ignore any new pain as being just a new wrinkle in the old package. This lack of pain consideration causes you to run the risk of ignoring symptoms of a new more serious illness in its early stages, thus causing an emergency situation to arise.

When I met my Frank, I made several mistakes. First, I told him I had fibromyalgia and left him to do his own research about the illness. Second, I continued to live my stoic suffer-in-silence way of life. As a result; when I had a flareup that put me out of commission, I not only scared the shit out of him but caused him to accuse me of lying about the real state of my health. So what happened? Here is the story.

With fibromyalgia you have eighteen trigger points throughout your body which react to different things and cause inflammation and pain. Rainy weather is one that most affects me and we had been having a lot of rain over several weeks. This caused a flareup of the trigger points in my back and chest and I was having lots of discomfort in those areas.

I have always been a fast walker. I have short legs and take short fast steps. Not many people are able to keep pace with me, but my Frank not only keeps up, but causes me to have to work at keeping his pace. Each night we go for a walk and I have to really work at maintaining the pace he sets. One night last month as Frank and I were out walking I began to get very winded and had to ask him to slow down. I figured it was due to the flareup in my chest and brushed it off as nothing important. Later that night I began to have some serious pain in my chest that woke me up. Not wanting to worry Frank, I got up and settled down in the recliner in the living room. Frank, found me there sometime later. As he said, I exhibited the classic symptoms of a heart attack: cold clammy skin, pain in my chest, very slow heart beat, shortness of breath and a general feeling of malaise. Before I could protest he had me in the car on the way to the emergency room of the local hospital.

After a overnight stay and dozens of test I was released with the assurance that I had not had a heart attack but no knowledge of what had actually taken place and a fist full of slips for appointments in the outpatient dept. for further testing to rule out other possible causes for my once again mysterious episode. Reassured that I was not in any immediate danger and with testing a week in the future we headed off on our previously scheduled trip to Omaha to celebrate the fourth of July holiday and the birthday my sister and I share on July 7th.

Since returning home, I have completed all the required tests and we are waiting for the results. My nerves are on edge and I am still in a pensive mood. Will this be just another occasion of more normal results with no answers, or will I be handed some major bad news.

Only time will tell. I will keep you posted.