The fourth article in a series on Small Town America.
When I was seven years old, my parents decided to move to Wyoming. My uncle Ken lived in Casper, Wyoming where he taught at a very small two year college called Casper college. He talked my father into applying for a job at Casper College which Dad subsequently got.
In May of 1947 we all piled into our 1946 Plymouth Sedan and headed for Wyoming. This was a momentous moment in all of our lives. We were leaving the rolling tree covered, green, comfortable hills of Michigan for the wide open, treeless, big sky plains of the West. This was especially traumatic for my mother. She had fallen in love with Wyoming in an early after-college trip to the west with her good friend Roberta. However the Wyoming she had fallen in love with was the Wyoming of the Tetons and Yellowstone National Park. And Casper was not the Tetons. It was located on the open plains of central Wyoming that were famous for their lack of trees and ubiquitous winds.
My reaction to Wyoming was totally different. For me Wyoming was the West, the land of cowboys and indians and adventure. Even at this age, I knew that Wyoming was a land of wide open plains and the big sky country where the pioneers had struggled along the Oregon trail. It was a land where you had to be manly and tough to survive.
And of course all this appealed mightly to a small boy who was already well on his way to being an overly protected mama’s boy, a boy who already had yearnings for robust, manly adventure. Where all this came from at the tender age of seven, I have no idea at all. I must have seen Hollywood’s version of the West at some point. I also have vague recollections on a picture book of Wyoming showing pioneers and cowboys and Indians in romantic western settings.
At any rate, the concept of the West as a land of romantic adventure was instilled in me at a very early age, and in various guises or another. And I think it has remained with me all of my live, maybe even as the central set of guiding mythological symbols.
When our family moved to Casper,Wyoming in the spring of 1947, Casper was a small town of about 18,000 smack in the middle of the Wyoming plains. Casper mountain, part of the Laramie Range, rose to maybe 7,000 feet south of the town; the town itself was 5000 feet high.
The Platte River flowed thru the north side of town out of a very desolate Western Wyoming. Casper was basically an oil town. Standard Oil, Texaco and Enron all had refineries in town and there were rich oil fields to the north all the way to Midwest where the Salt Creek Oil Field and the notorious Tea Pot Dome were located.
My parents purchased a home on Poplar Street, on the far south side of town, shortly after arriving. This was supposed to be a temporary house until they found the real thing; they ended up living there for the next thirty years. At the time Poplar Street was the last street on the south end of town. All the houses on our part of Poplar were recently built; all the lots were still dirt with no lawns, trees or landscaping. By the time I left Casper to join the Army, Casper had grown at least five miles south toward Casper Mountain. The population of Casper is now around 50,000.
In those early days in caster, the open range began across the street from our house to the west. Futher west was a magical place we called Kid Jungle. Kid Jungle consisted of Garden creek, a small creek never much more that five or six, or at the most ten feet across, that meandered thru a miles long thicket of willow and elm and god knows what other kind of scruffy, gnarled trees. It was a great place for the neighborhood kids though. Garden creek itself was full of eight and ten inch fish Wyomingites called suckers, just begging to be caught. And the woods crawled with all kinds of little rodents.
From the time I was seven until I was twelve of so, I spent lots of time in Kid Jungle with fishing rods, slingshots, bows and arrows, bikes and whatever else we was handy. On the western edges of Kid Jungle, Dead Horse Hill rose maybe four or five hundred feet high. Dead Horse hill was basically jack rabbit country.
South of our block, again out into the prairie, was an old irrigation dam we called Cement Falls. At the base of the three foot high concrete falls, a long underground cement tunnel about three or four feet in diameter ran for what seemed at least a mile off to the west. Actually it was probably about 1/4 of a mile or maybe a litte bit less. There was no way you could see the end of it by looking into it as there were several shallow curves in the tunnel. The big scary, nasty challenge of my young boyhood was to crawl along the tunnel to its far end. We knew where the end was but we didn’t know what lay in between.
One day when I was about ten I finally decided I was going to do it. So I set out with a flash light with almost worn out batteries that cast a very dim yellow beam. I think I was completely alone that day. It was a long scary trip thru endless cobwebs and big scuttling spiders, and jammed in tumbleweeds and lots of smaller cross pipes that I had to squeeze over or under, but I finally made it. The light at the end of the tunnel never looked so good. I think maybe I did consider flash floods and such things rather vaguely, but luckily I didn’t run into one. I crawled through the tunnel two or three more times in in childhood but never without fear and dread; it never was a really fun thing. It was just a thing you had to do if you were ever going to be a real man.
That fall I started Garfield Elementary School which was three blocks from our house. I walked to school which was fine and dandy until I met up with one of the neighboorhood bullies who lived half way in between my house and school. I remember him as much bigger than and a year of two older than me. From then on I lived in terror. I never considered contronting him or, heavens forbid actually fighting him. I put all my resources into figuring out new and creative ways home. I have no idea how this problem was resolved, but I guess it must finally have been as I don’t remember constant confrontations with him.
Second grade was almost as scary as the bully when I first started. Somehow I didn’t seem to understand anything that was going on: not arithmetic, not reading, not anything. At one point we were going to have to take some kind of a big standardized test and I was terrified. I was sure I would have no idea how to deal with it at all.
At one point I was so traumatized that I remember thinking that I would gladly trade the last joint of my little finger for a good grade on the test. I even fantasized on how I would open the big sharp blade on my new pocket knife and hold it right on the last joint of my little finger and have my friend smack the knife blade a good one with the back on the teachers big, thick heavy dictionary. The end of my little finger would pop right off and that would be that, oh yeah, a wonderful trade. I was definitely up for it. How’s that for feeling pressured about school. My Mom and Dad must have really let me know just how important they felt school was. Well, no one really called me on the finger and the test turned out to be no big deal after all.
On a more positive side, I had a better experience with reading. At first, I just couldn’t get the hang of it. My mother spent a lot of time trying to teach me words but it just didn’t seem to work. However, one day, it was a Sunday, I remember, Mom was reading Lassie to me, the whole real-deal, big thick book; at least that’s the way it seemed to me. She put the book down to go and do something and I picked up the book and all of a sudden, for no apparent reason, I could read it.
By the time Mom got back I was a couple more pages into it and I didn’t stop. I read and read and read all the rest of the day and into the night until I finished the whole book. That was definitely the definitive experience of my childhood. From that day on, I started reading everything I could get my hands on and I never stopped. I doubt there have been more than a dozen or so days since that I didn’t spend at least several hours reading. I had discoved a magical world where bullies didn’t terrify me, where I was the center of all activity, where the world was always wonderful, exciting and adventurous.
As a kid I read everything I could find, constantly. First it was books like Lassie and simple childhood stories but I very quickly discoved the town library where they had endless Nancy Drew mysteries, the something brother’s mysteries and the Lone Ranger and tons more wonderful stories to read. By the time I got to Junior High I was reading Moby Dick, the Magnificent Obsession, the Way of all Flesh, the Scarlet Letter, Robinson Cruso, Journey to the Center of the Earth, the Posiden Adventure, Sherlock Holmes and whatever else I could find. It was a great if somewhat lopsided education and I loved every minute off it. Nobody ever mentioned how hard I was evading reality to escape into fantasy lands of romantic illusion. And it was probably a good thing. At least I had a happy, if somewhat ingrown childhood.
Thank God for the public library. It was a great old pile of red bricks with a big white Roman looking dome on top and big white columns up front. It was one of those libraries built with money Andrew Carnegie donated to small towns all over the US.
Not everything was books though. There were a of kids about my age in the neighboorhood. Next door live Alan who was an off and on friend and enemy. I always thought he was a kind of aloof kid who thought he was much better than all the other kids. The other kids agreed and we didn’t spend a lot of time with Alan. Morgan was a year younger than I was and I spent a lot of time playing with him. At the end of the block was Stan, the son the the math teacher at a Casper College. My play dates with Stan seemed to consist mostly of throwing rocks at each other. I still remember how much a good smack in the head by a flying rock hurts. Lumps also. One time, he really caught me a good one, right in the back of the head with an egg sized rock he flung at me from twenty feet or so; that one put me right down on my knees seeing stars.
Now that I think of it, we neighborhood kids spent a lot of time throwing things at each other. A kind of softball version of the hardball game of throwing rocks was throwing dirt clods. Dirt clods didn’t hurt nearly as much and the rumor was that they really wouldn’t put your eye out if you got hit there. We had some pretty special dirt clods though. Wyoming was real gumbo coutry. Gumbo is a slick, heavy kind of clay. The gumbo back roads of Wyoming were a real nightmare if they got wet; if you were unlucky enough to get caught on fifty miles or so of gumbo roads out of town when a gully washer hit, it was very, very bad. The dry surface of the road first turned to a slick slime something like thick crude oil and rapidly progress in bottomless mires of tapioka slime. Like I said, bad, very bad.
Anyway, we had lots of new construction in our new neighborhood and any time the ground was dug up the resulting piles of dirt were really piles of rock hard dirt clods anywhere from marble size to cantaloupe and watermelen size. We specialized in the egg size clods. They were especially fun because when they hit anything really hard, they exploded in puffs of dust just like little bombs.
The kids on our block had an ongoing battle with the kids on the block across the alley, lead by the Tyson brothers as I recall. Louie Tyson was the most fearsome. They, of course, were bad boys and we were afraid of them. We didn’t want to get too close to them, but dirt clod range was OK. As time passed we developed a more sophistocated technology for launching dirt clods. One was the basic sling gun; you simple took a short piece of pipe, dropped the approprite sized dirt clod into it and whipped the pipe toward the target. The added leverage really shot the dirt clod out at high speed. This worked even better after we learned how to wet the gumbo and then roll it into nice smooth, perfectly round balls.
Then it was dirt clods in slingshots which rapidly developed into artillery sized sling shots powered by huge forked tree branches and bike inner tubes. It’s a miracle we didn’t kill someone. Once in a while a parent would discover what we were doing and ask us, “What in Gods name do you kids think you’re doing?”
In these days I was probaly somewhere between eight and eleven years old. I really didn’t spend all my time getting in trouble but there was one more incident that was a real doozey. Down on the corner of our block was a deep concrete pit, maybe eight or ten feet deep. The top of the pit was covered with a grating of iron bars. At the bottom was a bunch of natural gas pipes and valves and meters and whatnot. In amoungst allthe natural gas stuff were a lot of dry leaves and old papers. After looking the situation over for a long time, I naturally wondered it I could set all the stuff in the bottom of the pit on fire if I dropped lit matches in. Sure enough, half a dozen lit matches later, the whole thing was a roaring infurno. About then I had the brilliant insight that maybe this wasn’t too hot a thing to do what with all the natural gas pipes and whatnot in the bottom of the pity. A bit later I was horrified at what I had done. I had a huge fire going and no way to get at it to put it out. So I did what all little boys do in such situations. “Daddy, I think I have a little problem, maybe I did a really bad thing.” And so Dad rushed down with many buckets of water and put the fire out. Yup, you guessed it: big time spanking and forever grounding.
Oh yes, there was one more little problem I got the belt for. All of us little boys were fascinated with smoking. All the really cool guys in the movies smoked like chimneys in those days, plus most of the adults we knew did too. There was no real hope of getting getting real cigarettes of course. So we settled for what seemed the next best thing: cotton pulled out of this old matteres we had in the garage. Cotton out of a mattress rolled in newspaers. I can still remember how that tasted. Really, really bad.
Anyway for some stange reason I have never figured out, I decided to stash my still burning stogie in the refrigerator, maybe I thought it would cool it down a bit, like real Cools you know. So that’s what I did, stuck the stogie in the ice box where it promptly burned a great big hole in one of the vinyl bags my mother sewed by hand to keep her homemade loaves of bread in. This was the time my father told me that the spanking was going to hurt him worse than it did me.
It was somewhere around this time that I learned I had Grandparents. Before we moved to Wyoming, Grandparents were not a part of my life at all. Not too long after we moved to Wyoming, I’m not quite sure when, but it must have been in 1948 or 1949, my father’s mother had a heart attack and died. Not too long after that my father’s father lived with us for a short period of time, less than a year.
I don’t really remember much about my Grandpa Hanselmann. He was a Luthern misister and lived most of his life in Greeley, Colorado. My only personal contact with him was the short time he lived with us. About all I remember is that he smoked a pipe and always smelled of funky smoke and that he was always telling me what to do. I do remember not liking him much; I was always looking for proof that he was wrong, dumb, and bad, which of course I kept to myself. I would listen carefully to everything he said and analyze it carefully for contradictions and errors; I was always very smugly pleased with myself for all the little errors I found. I definitely wasn’t a very nice or loving grandchild.
My most vivid memory of him was his pocket knife. One day I found an old pocket knive that belonged to him on a table in his room. I somehow managed to cut myself pretty badly with it on the back of my left thumb. I still have the scar there as a matter of fact. Granmpa came along and found me hiding in the basement workroom. Did he take me on his knee and soothe my hurt thumb and my even more hurt feelings? No way, he spanked me soundly for getting into his stuff and being such a klutz as to cut myself and bleed on his table, and for being such a bad boy in general. He told me something about this teaching me a good lesson. Grandpa was clearly a stern man who had definite ideas about the proper place for children.