To get the flavor of growing up as country kid from Kansas, you should add sauntering down a country road in the back of a pickup truck to your bucket list. It should not matter to you that it is illegal. And, at some point, you need to add pick-em-up truck to your vocabulary since that’s what our Missouri neighbors call them.
Although some folks think that riding in a convertible produces the same wind-blowing-hair-in-your-face type of excitement, they are sadly mistaken. Nothing compares to riding in the back of a pickup and yelling snide remarks at cows grazing by the fence. Since we dared not yell at the cows in Hobson’s Pasture who ended up chasing us home each time, the protection of the pickup empowered us to insult the cows with reckless abandon. Discretion is the better part of valor.
There are numerous things we did as kids that could have maimed or killed us which is why we’ve all grown up to be well-adjusted adults. Chief among our unwritten codes was this; if the pickup is leaving the driveway and we can go, we are riding in the back. Seatbelts, schmeatbelts; we defied common sense as often as we could. Long before Big Brother decided to make it the law to wear seatbelts, we rode in the back of pickup.
Unless you’re a teenager out on a date, boredom quickly strikes a little kid in the back of a pickup. We’d make it about a hundred yards down the road and start looking for something to throw out. The girls seldom rode along leaving us without that option, so we’d stockpile rocks to throw at signs. On one occasion, we brilliantly decided to take firecrackers and toss them out the back.
Firecrackers in the 1960’s were lethal. Long before attorneys started suing anything that breathes, you could get enough TNT at the Maynard’s Bait Stand to blow up a small Buick. Consequently, I was instructed by my Mom to never light a firecracker in your hand and throw it you little dingbat or you’ll blow your fingers off.
I grew up with punitive justice swiftly meted out by either Mom or God, so I had a healthy fear of lighting a firecracker and throwing it. Naturally, my nephew Jeff (who was a year older than me) helped me overcome this fear by regularly checking my dipstick for testosterone levels. Come on, he would say, it’s fun, he would say, it won’t hurt you, he would say, don’t be a sissy, he would say. Jeff was to me what the serpent in the Garden of Eden was to Eve.
One hot July day, Dad loaded up the 55-gallon drums in the back of the pickup and hollered at us to jump in. Hot dang, it was time to go crawdaddin’ on Bird Creek! We never once thought of getting in the front, so we’d pile in the back and settle in for the ride. Only this time we had firecrackers and a punk. I have often wonder why firecracker lighters are called punks other than they are named after the idiots holding them.
We were forbidden to throw anything out while we were on Highway 54, but as soon as we turned onto the graveled road, every projectile we could scrape up started sailing. Only this time it wasn’t rocks, it was firecrackers. Dad did not have the same rule that Mom did about never light a firecracker in your hand and throw it you little dingbat or you’ll blow your fingers off. Dad intuitively knew we needed a fair amount of risk in our lives to make us wholesome adults.
After I grew up and had kids of my own, I waited until they got older before I trusted their capacity to reason with me. Little kids are not rational beings; they don’t understand cause-and-effect. It doesn’t matter how many times you tell a child not to stick the fork in the electrical outlet, they won’t believe you until they fry themselves a couple of times.
We obviously lacked these reasoning skills or it would have occurred to us that, on a hot July day in Kansas, you don’t throw things with shooting sparks on dry grass. The pastures were as explosive as a Joe Pesci getting the wrong order at a McDonalds drive-thru.
We made it to Bird Creek, filled the drums up with water for our critters back home, then commenced to crawdaddin’. I was tempting a big ol‘ crawdad under a rock with a piece of bacon tied to a string when the big water truck pulled up. The driver jumped out and threw a hose in our creek to suck up water.
“Hey Bill!” my Dad said, “How you doing?”
“Hi Bob, just needing a little water. The pasture up the road is on fire.”
They chatted above the din of the engine sucking water out of precious honey-hole and totally ruined our crawdaddin’ for the day. We were not impressed. Bill finally topped of the huge tank on the back of the truck, ground a few gears and raced off to fight the fire.
“Hey boys,” Dad said, “Want to go fight a fire?”
Does a bear poop in the woods? What a silly question; of course we wanted to go fight a fire! Adventure! Intrigue! Danger! Romance! Okay, well, maybe not romance since we hadn’t hit puberty, but we instinctively knew that one day soon reciting stories of dangerous encounters would woo the ladies. One day, puberty would finally sit in and totally screw up our value system.
We jumped in the back of the pickup and puttered up the road to the fire. Several water trucks raced across the prairie shooting out plumes of water on the line of fire, neighbors came from miles around with grain shovels and gunny sacks, and the sheriff deputies cordoned off the road with lights flashing.
The pasture belonged to Old Man Leonard who we feared about as much as we did the Russians (this was during the Cold War). Old Man Leonard lived in a haunted house that hadn’t been painted or had the windows washed since the Great Depression. Looking back, I often wonder where the fear came from because none of us ever had an encounter with him; it was more like a hair-standing-on-the-back-of-your-neck feeling. We’d see his skinny American Gothic body in bib-overalls carrying a shovel and we assumed it was to bury children. Remember that part I said about not reasoning with children? This is why.
We ripped of our shirts, dipped them in a water barrels and raced out to the pasture to fight the raging inferno. Now, in the springtime in the Flint Hills, the ranchers intentionally light pastures on fire at night when the wind is calm; it is a thing of beauty. But, during a hot summer day when the wind is blowing like the exhaust out of a jet engine, a pasture fire is something to fear. A summer pasture fire can move faster than paparazzi chasing George Clooney.
The fire was finally conquered and it was time to shake hands, swap exaggerated tales, compare this fire to the one back in ’53 that traveled 35 miles in two hours, and hand out awards to the bravest firefighters of the day.
We won the award for bravery in the face of grave danger. Sprite youth formerly despised by Old Man Leonard were suddenly thrust into great favor from pauper to prince. Former feelings of fear and hostility abated, peace offerings were extended, land was offered for our exploration, and iced tea passed out to thirsty heroes. It was a glorious day.
As we crawled in the back of the pickup enjoying a collective sense of pride hitherto unknown to our little tribe of miscreants, Dad leaned against the side of the truck and dropped the bomb; “You boys do realize, don’t you, that you’re the ones that set that pasture on fire?”
We waved at Old Man Leonard as we puttered off down the road with our soot-covered bodies being splashed with water sloshing out of the 55-gallon drums. We smiled like politicians but trembled in fear like feverish skunks. It’s a sick feeling to think you’re a hero only to find out you’re the criminal.
Mom was right; I was a dingbat. By the time the summer was over I managed to hang on to a firecracker too long. I retained all the digits in my right hand, but not without some serious blood blisters. After the firecracker detonated, I ran upstairs and laid in bed hoping I would die before Mom discovered me. She finally discovered me whimpering under the covers and assured me that my mangled fingers were not the punishment of God; they were the just rewards for being a dingbat.
You would have thought I would have learned my lesson. But I’ve managed to stick the fork in the electrical outlet a few more times since then. All of that experience added a certain gravitas when I relayed helpful information to my own children: never light a firecracker in your hand and throw it you little dingbat or you’ll blow your fingers off.
“Mater”: Photo is mine. Taken in Strong City, Kansas
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