From a photograph by Solomon D. Butcher of four daughters of rancher Joseph M. Chrisman, at their sod house in Custer County, Nebraska. From left to right, Harriet, Elizabeth, Lucie, and Ruth. Photographed in 1886.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Driving Home in the Dark

The airport beacon light at Ainsworth, Nebraska, and other early memories



My family lived out in the hills south of Johnstown, Nebraska until the end of my first-grade year. From those early years of my life, I have many memories. Many of them are just fragments, but like a picture in a book, each has a little story, even if I don't know the entire plot.

I have quite a few memories of driving home at night. Usually, we had been to Sunday night or Wednesday night church services, or perhaps a revival meeting.

It was always very dark when I looked out the windows. Along Highway 20, between Ainsworth and Johnstown in the mid-1950s, there weren't many lights, and after we turned off Highway 20 and drove out into the hills on a little sand road, the lights became sparse indeed.

At night, I couldn't enjoy my favorite sights along the way -- the bandstand in the Ainsworth park; Bone Creek, meandering through a meadow just west of Ainsworth; the tall slide on the Johnstown school playground; the viaduct west of Johnstown where we crossed over the Chicago Northwestern Railroad; and the long stretch of picket snow fence nearby that was supposed to keep the highway from drifting shut in the winter.

However, the beacon at the Ainsworth airport could be seen only at night. Its lights rotated at the top of a tower, and their brilliant beams swept across the runways, the land around the airport, and the highway. The light even swept through our car as we drove by it. It traveled much faster than we were driving, so I could watch several rotations as we approached and several more as we drove away.

One night while we were at church, the weather turned bad. We drove home in a snowstorm. After we turned off the highway onto the sand road, we came to a place where the snow had drifted so deep that we got stuck. My mom took the wheel and my dad pushed and shoveled and pushed and shoveled but we couldn't get out. Finally, he decided to walk home and get the tractor. He wasn't wearing a heavy coat, so my mom gave him her coat.

I don't know how far my dad walked, but it must have been a fearful trip, in the dark, in the storm, knowing his wife and little children were waiting for rescue. I was too little to understand that, though. I went to sleep and when I awoke, Daddy had returned on the tractor. A few rough jerks, and we were out of the drift and on our way home, following the tractor through the wind-blown snow.

When I mentioned this memory to my mother many years later, she told me how hard she had prayed for my dad while she was waiting.

A tired little girl, riding home in the dark, sometimes goes to sleep along the way. I remember one time when my dad carried me in the house and laid me on their bed. He tucked my mother's coat over me so I wouldn't get cold. I could feel its scratchy wool. I moved it around a little so the smooth satin of the lining was against my skin. The luxury of falling back to sleep, on my parents' bed, warm under my mother's coat, cannot be described.

Another time, we waited at Johnstown late at night to get my mother off the train. Johnstown didn't have a train station, but the train would stop there to let passengers off. Mama had been to Omaha to stay with her father, my Grandpa Harry Sees, at the hospital.

Finally the train's light glimmered in the distance, growing bigger and brighter as it drew near. The cars clanked and shuddered to a stop, a door slid open, and my mother emerged.

On the way home, my mother told us her train car had been full of cigar smoke. Her clothing smelled terribly of it, but I didn't care -- I was glad to see her! I still remember the fabric of the suit she was wearing. It was a brown and black houndstooth check.

My parents were young then -- just in their early thirties. My brother was in his first few years of grade school, and I was a preschooler. Most of these "dark memories" were made before my sister was even born. My goodness, that was a long time ago.

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8 comments:

Collagemama said...

My son called this evening to report on his dreadful Washington, D.C. subway commute. A hot day, and deleted subway train runs led to a sardine ride hanging to a strap nose-to-armpit with the next commuter.

Your post reminded me of waiting during blizzards for my dad to wade home through the snow. The Lincoln city bus would get stuck in the drifts somewhere on Randolph Street, and Dad would tromp home as the crow flies, appearing through the backyard poplars all encrusted with snow and ice.

Genevieve said...

Your son's trip home today sounds really miserable. I can sympathize, having had a similar train ride when we lived in West Berlin. On the day that East Germany and West Germany were reunified, we took the S-bahn (commuter train) to and from the ceremonies in East Berlin. I have never in my life been packed so closely with other people as I was on that train.

Michael Leddy said...

Great post, Genevieve, and pretty Proustian. As a kid, I always liked the slightly mysterious feeling of driving home at night -- past closed stores and businesses, lit-up apartment building vestibules, and so on.

Genevieve said...

Thanks for your comment, Michael. I suppose the post is a bit impressionistic. I am glad that I asked my mother about some of my early memories and found out that I actually remembered those things correctly. It gives me a little more confidence that many of my memory fragments are accurate.

stephanie said...

You've described my childhood driving at night experiences to a T. There is something about the dark, dark Nebraska roads on the way home from a football game, a church service or a night visiting with the neighbors.

You are a lovely writer.

Genevieve said...

I think you're right, Stephanie -- the roads are really dark there. Late at night, out in the country, many times the light from your headlights is the only light you see.

Collagemama said...

The most mind-altering night drive was on a backroad across the Pine Ridge Reservation between Mount Rushmore and the Badlands Cedar Pass Lodge. With two tiny sons asleep in the back of the Toyota Corolla, we drove without headlights or radio to maximize the visual impact of the stars.

Genevieve said...

I have been to the Pine Ridge Reservation, and I thought the whole place had a unique aura. That sounds like a memorable and beautiful drive, for sure. I can imagine that you went miles without seeing many artificial lights.

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CONTENTMENT: Keep your heart free from hate, your mind from worry, live simply, expect little, give much, sing often, pray always, forget self, think of others and their feelings, fill your heart with love, scatter sunshine. These are the tried links in the golden chain of contentment.
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