Looking Backwards … Seeing Tomorrow

KSSilly as it may seem, while sitting in my idling pick-up, looking east, I’m observing the westernmost edge of a fairly large Middle America town. Exurbia at its best!  I’m scanning a ridge of sorts, running north, running south, depending on your directional point of view. Cresting the ridge are several large, expensive homes. “Starter castles,” some like to call them. I like to be a little more generous: many are beautiful, reflecting a kind of architecture Frank Lloyd Wright might even approve of.

My vantage point is a rarity these days: a dusty gravel road probably destined to be replaced by concrete with curbs and sewer gratings someday soon. It is also the boundary between two distinct ways of life.

 The view I like best is west of me. Open fields and a nearby creek lined with cotton wood trees get my attention. There’s a small white bungalow, circa forties, with red geranium ruffles skirting the house. Neat as a pin!

 A small one-car garage stands at the end of a short two-track gravel drive. I wonder about the one car limitation but maybe back in the day a family didn’t need more than one vehicle. If they did, the ole pick-up probably weathered just fine outside.

 There is a sand point pump next to the house mounted on a lead plumbing pipe six feet into the ground. To this day I fondly remember the feel of the wonderfully cold pipe as the water came gushing out on hot days. A wood pile is slumped next to the house. An old dog is napping on the narrow front porch just under a swing; a four seater – depending on your girth – ready for a visit as the hot evenings begin to cool.

I like the view just fine. It makes me happy! It makes me look backwards from a too-busy world. I bet myself the kitchen floor is still covered with linoleum and not marble tile. I’m looking backwards and that takes me to places where I want to be … memories tell the stories of our lives…




The house was located at 758 Burke Street, Fort Scott, Kansas; just where the cobble brick ran out and the road turned into gravel; weedy ditches on both sides. A sturdy two-story house with a large wrap-around porch sat on an expansive corner lot next to an apple orchard, the source of many of my Aunt Marie’s pies. She baked pastries and pies dutifully, even in the heat of the 1952 summer.

The front door opened onto the big porch facing another cobble brick street crossing Burke Street. Hardly anyone ever came to the front door. The black-trimmed screen door on the side porch was the port of entry for family and friends. When a rare knock was heard at the front door, Aunt Marie would say, “Bobby go tell whatever Bible salesman that is, we’ve got all the holy books we need!” Like I said almost no one (of any consequence) came to the front door.

backCALLOUTNear the house, just off the gravel road, was a small white garage. Behind its sliding doors was a busy collection of tools and gadgets used by my Uncle Leonard to fix his aging pickup truck or just to change the oil. The floor was covered with saw dust, absorbing spilled oil, filling the air with a rich mysterious smell.

On the wall over the work bench hung what I thought was a long fishing pole with a wheel on it. Later when I described it that way, asking Aunt Marie about it, she could barely contain herself. “Bobby, it’s a fly rod! It belongs to your Uncle Len. He’ll tell you all about it.” And, so he did; many times over the ensuing years when I would visit, sometimes all summer. Often we would fish nearby ponds for bass and brightly colored sunfish. He schooled me in the mysteries of the fly rod. He was my first mentor.   Many times we just sat and talked.

In those younger years my life was focused on that house, stately under tall shade trees, evoking warmth and a kind of magic I could never quite understand but never fails  to call me back again and again.

There were vegetables to be picked from a large truck garden each day, eggs culled from the hen house and dogs to be fed and watered too. Most were what my Granddad back in Pittsburg (Kansas ) called block head English pointers; not overly-friendly but reliable quail dogs.

There was a beautiful young English setter in the pen. Her name was Penny and we hit it off from the first time I fed her. We were constant companions and I let her out of the pen every day and we’d be off chasing some imaginary adventure suited only to ten-year-old boys and young dogs. Life was good then; open-ended with all kinds of possibilities, while the eventual first day of school was an eternity away.

A cow barn down behind the chicken coop and dog kennels had a resident milker named Daisy … of course! Uncle Len taught me how to milk her in just a few lessons and I really took to it fast. I loved the cadence and the sound, “one-two, one-two” as the milk hit the metal bucket. I would gently push Daisy’s side with the top of my head, while rocking back and forth on the milking stool. I think she liked it because one day right after I finished, she turned around, took a step and licked the back of my head.

Not realizing I had a certified cowlick, with my hair standing straight up I carried the milk into the kitchen, giving the Aunt I loved so much yet another episode of comic relief. I had never seen an adult laugh so hard they cried.

Those times, I would guess, were my formative years, when I was building some kind of a value system while learning about the consequences of impulsive acts. More importantly, I was in the pulse of good people’s lives, people who almost always did the right thing even when no one was looking. I noticed!

This all might seem like just another “who cares” story, a bit too Pollyanna-ish. Maybe so, but one thing is certain: prince or pauper, we all need to have some kind of a clue in the mad scramble to find our destiny. Who we are is often seen in bits and pieces through the prism of the lives around us. In some fashion, everyone needs a cowlick from a brown-eyed Daisy, a winsome pup named Penny and a lasting memory of an Uncle Leonard and an Aunt Marie, saying grace over a chicken dinner fried in a cast iron skillet, while a warm apple pie cools on the counter-top.




By Bob Johnston