As the kids go back to school, I am introspective. Memories of past summers pop into my head like the whack-o-doodle games at the county fairs.
I grew up in a small town in central Nebraska, population around 3650 in the 1950’s. The summer before entering junior high, my family moved to Broken Bow, similar in size but located out in “the middle of nowhere.” At least, my previous home town was on a main highway and had several other small towns nearby. It was a farming community and I was a “town” girl whose dad was the hospital administrator.
Broken Bow was called the “Foothills of the Sandhills” with many canyons and ravines surrounding it, more conducive for cattle ranching. Cowboy country. People rode horses into town. I went from large combines and farm equipment blocking the highways to cattle in the road. From smelly alfalfa mills to stinky feedlots.
Stars and Sputnik
My early summer memories were filled with picnics at the park, going to the city swimming pool, helping Mom with the garden, picking cherries from the tree in our backyard, playing with the neighbor-kids and sleeping out in the backyard with my friends, sometimes in a tent, but oftentimes just in sleeping bags, “under the stars.”
The stars in both small towns were amazing. I remember Mom taking me outside on a warm summer evening and gazing at the stars. She was an expert in the constellations and pointed out several. I learned about Cassiopeia, Orion’s belt, the North Star and of course, the Big and Little Dippers. All were so clear on summer nights in towns where very few street lights pierced the darkness.
I remember when the Russians launched Sputnik. Mom and I went out to look at the night sky and see if we could spot Sputnik traveling across the darkness, shining among the billions of stars that twinkled above. I had a hard time imagining a little dog inside that bright light as it passed overhead.
Vacations and camping
I recall several of our family vacations when I was preteen and younger. Our relatives lived back East, so every few years, Dad would rent a camper and we would take off for Pennsylvania, camping along the way. Campgrounds were pretty rustic back then. No KOAs until later. With six kids, Mom and Dad organized us. We each had our duties. My big brothers helped Dad set up the camper (we usually had a “roll-up” or “pop-up” type camper like JayCo, Starcraft, Coleman brands.) Mom and I would start the food preparation while one of my other brothers looked for firewood and a water source. Usually the water source was a pump sticking out of the ground. Campgrounds used to cost around $2-5 dollars and some were even free! No plumbing, so my oldest brother always sought out the outhouse. If it was too rustic, he refused to use it. A less rustic outhouse would have a toilet seat over the hole instead of just a hole in a plank.
When KOA campgrounds came into vogue in the 1960’s, we were happy to finally be able to take showers and use “real bathrooms.” (I’m sure our awaiting relatives in Pennsylvania felt the same!) Of course, the price of camping went up, but it was worth it!
Camping was great fun for me. I loved the outdoors and meeting other campers. We didn’t seem to worry about any “Deliverance” type people. I don’t know if Mom and Dad scouted for unsavory types or if they chose campgrounds that looked safer. The worst part of camping for me was tick bites. I hated having ticks burrow under my skin. Mosquitoes were bad, too, especially when we camped in Minnesota where mosquitoes are the “state bird.”
We tended to travel the “northern” route on the way to Pennsylvania, going through Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio and the “southern” route coming home–West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois. Before I went to college, I had visited every state east of the Mississippi with the exceptions of the New England states and Florida. My parents made sure we took a different route every time we traveled so we saw new places. When I was in 4th grade and got my first Brownie camera, we even drove up into Canada and came down through Niagara Falls.
School Starting Soon
The end of summer was marked by back-to-school plans and buying new clothes, shoes and supplies. School supplies didn’t show up on store shelves until late August back then. And school didn’t start until after Labor Day.
When we moved, my 12-year-old self lost interest in star-gazing and was more curious about my new surroundings and making friends. It was a difficult summer and beginning of school year as I had spent 10 years of my formative years in the farm community. I missed the friends I had grown up with. Everyone was concerned about my older brother who was being uprooted his Senior year of high school, but he adjusted much better than I did. After all, Broken Bow welcomed him because he was a big football player. I was a mere awkward pre-teen, very insecure and lonely. At first… Then the kids found out that I was the sister of the big football player!
As a teenager in Broken Bow, there wasn’t much to do. Churches would have an occasional ice cream social or picnic and the merchants had “Crazy Daze” where there were sidewalk sales and merchants dressed in crazy outfits, sometimes a parade was held to encourage shoppers to dress up as well. One summer, my little brother went as a “doomsday” guy carrying a sign proclaiming that the world would end tomorrow. (Of course, he thought it was funny to say, “Tomorrow never comes. It’s always today!” Smart little guy.)
“Driving around” was the preferred entertainment on summer evenings. Friends lucky enough to have their own cars would load up those of us who were car-less and we would drive around town and honk at each other. We could waste an entire tank of gas just driving up and down Main Street. We drove out to the drive-in theater area, turned around and drove to the Texaco station, turned around and made the loop over and over all evening. Of course, we listened to the radio.
In Broken Bow, very few radio signals could be picked up. And those we could get, we didn’t like. They played old-time country music, the twangy “uncool” kind, or polka music. In the evening we were able to pick up KOMA from Oklahoma City. They played “modern” music, so that was our mainstay. Tape decks in cars came out in my late teen years. We thought we were in hog heaven if we were in a car with a tape deck! Most kids drove old “junkers” which added to the charm of driving around. (I will save the car details for another blog post.)
As summer wound down, county fairs popped up. In the farm community of my early years, I was in 4-H which meant we girls got ready for the fair by practicing singing for competition, creating items like decorative trays for demonstrations, baking cookies and sewing dresses. Our leaders took us to the county seat, 16 miles down the road from our town, to compete. If we were lucky, one of our projects would win a ribbon; purple and blue went to the State Fair in Lincoln. I made a tablecloth and matching cloth napkins that went to State one year. I was so proud!
4-H in Cowboy Country was much different. I didn’t get involved because it was about raising livestock. Some of my friends had lambs and calves that they raised for the fair. Living in town made it hard to do anything like that.
Broken Bow was/is the county seat, so the county fair and rodeos took place just outside of town at the fairgrounds. The fairgrounds were also the site for the Fourth of July fireworks. When fair-time arrived, a big carnival would move in, setting up rides and the arcade. There were always comments about how you would get cheated at the arcade games, but that didn’t stop people from trying to win the big stuffed animals. Many a guy spent well over the worth of the teddy bears they won for their girls at the fair.
The summer evenings at the fair were electric (figuratively and literally) as the colorful lights and musical sounds attracted us. Riding the ferris wheel or octopus seemed much more thrilling in the dark. Smells of cotton candy and popcorn also allured us. There was usually a street dance at the county fair, too.
Looking back, summers seemed so carefree, but that is probably just my mind reworking the events to fit my chosen memories.
“Time is a dressmaker specializing in alterations.” ~Faith Baldwin