Category Archives: From High Plans to Deep South

How it looks now to a person who grew up on the High Plains but migrated to the Deep South

Going Home Again

As unlikely as it seems, it has been a month since I was in the heart of Plains country, attending the 55th reunion of my Kearney, Nebraska, High School class.

Marilyn Norla Me Mar 2013

Lins, Norla and Marilyn

To get there I flew into Denver, where my sister who lives in Aurora, Colorado, met me. We spent the night at her house and headed east the next morning. She had plans to meet some of her classmates (1956) for dinner, while I attended the opening reception for my class.

I had attended the 50th reunion and the next year, an all-school reunion, attended by my brother and older and younger sisters, all KHS graduates. Even though we’d met the year before, a good number of my classmates came back for the all- school. Now here we were again, getting together just 4 years later.

This reunion was a very special one for me, as friends who hadn’t attended any reunions came. It was so exciting to see those special friends as well as those who regularly attended and some who hadn’t been for 25 years!

“No matter how long it is,” said one of our group, “when we see each other, we just start talking again as if we’d just seen each other the day before.”

t’s true. That’s exactly how it is, and it was so wonderful to see our reunion unfold, to catch up with each other as well as with all our other classmates. There were fewer than 125 of us to begin with. Those who have died make a number that seems way too large, so maybe that’s why it’s so special to see those still here.

One thing we were all forced to remember was the constant wind. Those of us now living in California, Louisiana, Illinois, West Virginia and Mississippi were reminded every time we stepped outdoors and the wind slapped our hair across our faces — at least, those of us who had longer hair.

On the second day, we all met for a box lunch at the new Yanney Park in southwest Kearney. The gift of a former resident, this carefully planned and newly developed park is not only physically beautiful, but it is the site of some well-designed buildings for meetings and senior services as well as for some significant sculptures.

One of these spotlights the fact that the Platte River at Kearney is a well-known stop-over for migrating birds of all kinds, most important, whooping cranes – and sandhill cranes. They are joined by geese, ducks and others every spring and fall.

Interstate 80 at Kearney is the site of the unusual Arch Museum. This museum focuses on Nebraska history. Visitors see the exhibits unfold as they move up and over the interstate through the arch. One almost has to experience it to understand it. It is not only a very unusual in structure, but it does an excellent job of portraying the subject.

After the reunion was over, my sister and I headed back toward Denver, via higher and flatter and more western points. Our first destination was Norton, Kansas, home of our last surviving aunt on either side of our family. The last aunt on our mother’s side died earlier this year, so this surviving aunt, our father’s youngest sister, is especially important to us now.

She is not that much older than we are, either, and she played with all of us when we were growing up. I have photos and great memories of visiting the Albin family farm and riding the pony. (I’ve been horse crazy since I was very young.)

Linda and Cupid

Linda and Cupid

We had a nice visit with her, our uncle and their son and daughter –in-law before heading on west to Norcatur, Kansas, a dust-blown, speck of a town that is gradually disappearing. We stopped to visit cousins on our mother’s side as well as to visit the city cemetery, which happens to be where all the ancestors on both sides of our family are buried, including our parents.

We came to leave at that cemetery the urn containing my husband’s ashes as well as those of his favorite cat, who pined for him and died a few months after he did. Her ashes were in a sweet container – a small gold canister with black kitty footprints painted on it.

Ken, who grew up in another tiny community, that one in Ozark County, Missouri, wanted half of his ashes taken to Sweeten Pond at Dora, Missouri, to be buried on his parents’ gravesite. The others he wanted put at my parents’ gravesite. Our relatives still at Norcatur found that very touching, as did I. We stayed the night, chatting away about all things family. The next morning we got to visit with two other cousins, one of which happens to be manager of the city cemetery.

The day we went to the cemetery happened to be one of those not unusual High Plains days when the wind coming off those treeless plains was about 40 mph, higher in gusts. We were doing well to stand up to it as we roamed the cemetery, looking for family grave markers. The only trees at the cemetery are aging cedars.

This trip north and west reinforced once again what the High Plains are to me, the terrain, the climate, the towns and cities, the people, my family and friends. I saw once again the great differences in all those factors from those of the South, especially the Deep South, where I’ve now lived for 35 years,

Whether you live on the High Plains all of your life or part of it, you don’t forget, just as you don’t forget living in the Deep South. So different, but the same in that each region makes a deep imprint on those who reside there.

‘We are Fam-i-ly-y’

We are Fam-i-ly-y!’

Mom in Rockies 1996-7

Marian Marguerite Ward Albin 1996

Is there anything quite like family? Not to us, the descendants of Walt and Florence Ward of Norcatur, Kansas, whose parents were homesteaders in Northwestern Kansas in the late 1860s. Large family gatherings have been a tradition since that time.

That is why it was such a joy in July to be together again. We held our gathering (arranged by my sister the travel agent aka No. 1 Organizer) at Murphy’s Resort in Estes Park. The resort facilities have undergone major work since the Big Thompson River that goes through Estes went on a horrific rampage about a year ago.

The highways to Estes have recently reopened with extensive work along the river, quietly rippling along now, but a raging torrent last year that ripped away bridges and roads and houses.

In Denver, it was blistering hot (100), as we headed for cooler temperatures at Estes. At the park the days were bright and cooler by 20 degrees or so, especially at night.

Many family members arrived when my sister, son and I did on Thursday, settling into their rooms, ready to begin gathering and catching up – siblings, sons and daughters, sons and daughters-in-law, first and second cousins. There are no aunts and uncles now: somewhat frightening but true: My siblings, I and three first cousins are now the eldest. Our last surviving Ward aunt died earlier this year.

More family came on Friday and even more on Saturday morning. My daughter, son-in-law and I had traveled from Mississippi and Alabama, and my son and a second cousin from Texas. One nephew came with his family from New York and another from California,. One of the first cousins came with her husband and a few of his family from Oklahoma and Wyoming.

In the evenings we gathered under the sheltering roof outside our room. In the day many of the adults took the kids on excursions or they kept busy at the recreation facilities, swimming, playing corn hole, shuffleboard, ping pong and more. The kids also dreamed up their own activities as kids will do.

These kids, the newest Ward generations, were definitely dreamers and innovators, creating special activities, led by the ones who possessed organizational skills evidently inherited from their great aunt.

Rarely have I seen such a group of kids, mostly ages 6 to13, so busy and engaging, so smart and yes, good-looking. Okay, they ARE my family. The very youngest of this generation couldn’t make it: twin boys, my great-great nephews, were still in the newborn unit of a Denver hospital, while the soon-to-be youngest was still in his mother’s womb, ready to pop out! The youngest on site was 5-month old Sawyer from El Paso.

We watched and laughed as a great-niece set up her own version of the Ward Olympics set to take place on Saturday, the last day, the day of the big picnic and cookout. She designated categories and made certificates for the winners. In the meantime, her cohorts blew up balloons and filled up the Jacuzzi in our room since no one was using it. They lined up to have their photos taken, lounging in the balloon-filled tub!

Again, as night came, everyone gathered at our room where all the snacks were and lots of potables, too. We sat outside, talking and remembering past gatherings, some in the mountains or at Norcatur for Memorial Day.

Even though we don’t see many of these relatives very often, we all feel close once we come together. We regretted that my youngest sister and her husband didn’t get there from New York with two of their youngest grandchildren. Our oldest niece didn’t make it at the last minute as well. Her younger sister and one daughter were there, though.

All who could make it had gathered by Saturday, and preparations for the picnic moved forward around the barbecue grills available in one of the picnic areas. As it turned out, it was lucky our No. 1 Organizer had arranged to reserve an inside space for the afternoon, because the summer monsoons hit.

Yes, Colorado has monsoons and yes, they are the ones that had swept in off the Pacific Ocean earlier in July. The rain and wind came in very much like the torrential “gully washers” we have along the Gulf Coast – blinding, driving rain that swept mud down the slopes and soaked everything. We’d rushed inside and set out all the food, etc. again. Luckily the cooks had finished the ‘burgers and dogs.

The picnic went on, the rain stopped and time came to gather for one last time under the porches, exchanging last minute news and information to those we wouldn’t see face to face again for some time. My daughter and I had to say our goodbyes then as we were headed to the Denver airport very early the next morning for our morning flight to New Orleans. Her husband had flown the day before to Alaska to hunt.

Saying goodbye to my siblings gets more difficult these days – our eldest sister has been gone for several years. We have the memories and photos from our last time together, however, just as we do from the last time with our mother, the eldest daughter of Florence and Walt. In the intervening years ahead, the youngest ones, the babies and toddlers, will continue changing and growing quickly as they do. Some of those near 1-year-old are already walking!

These days, however, unlike the days long ago at those Norcatur reunions, we have smart phones, iPads and computers, which have face-to-face phone options and photo capability. And, now of course, there’s Facebook to exchange instant information and photos of growing babies like the new twins and little Zachery in South Caroline and the newest – baby Zac in Colorado.

So until we meet again on the High Plains or in the mountains – or on Facebook – au revoir.

 

Some Things We Just Don’t Get Over

There are some things one just can’t get past, and I experienced one of them again recently: not being able to dance anymore. I just hate it – not being old – but struggling with severe arthritis. My knees and back will scream at me if I try to dance. They just won’t do it.

And that’s what hurts mentally and emotionally, because I love to dance and have done so as long as I can remember. I guess I was born this way – wanting to move with the rhythms I hear. It made playing bass viol seem natural; it made growing up among people who loved to dance fun; it made going through adolescence in the age of the birth of rock ‘n roll a near miracle.

 I learned to dance from my parents. We lived in small, mostly Czech or German oriented communities from the year after I was born until I finished school. I first danced when I was 7 or so standing on my Dad’s feet while he did the polka around the American Legion or other dance hall where they lived in southern Nebraska. Going to Saturday night dances was what people did in those towns, and us kids got to go along many times.

 We learned to do the polka, two-step and the schottische. As we got older, we picked up the boogie from our aunts and uncles who were younger than our parents and dancing their way through the big-band era and going to dance halls and roadhouses.

 When we moved to Kearney, I was starting junior high school and started playing bass in orchestra, concert band and also the high school dance band. Kearney happens to be located on U.S. Hwy. 30, which stretches across the country from Philadelphia to San Francisco. Kearney is at the halfway mark, and consequently, for many years, was the site of the 1776 (miles east to Philadelphia and west to San Francisco) Ballroom, where many big bands and big name entertainers stopped while touring.

 Playing there were the top musicians of the time, including Louis Armstrong. Singing with him on one tour was Bessie Smith, blues singing legend. Stan Kenton stopped there, and the Glen Miller’s Band, still touring.

 Was it Duane Eddy in person? I don’t really remember, but I do remember hitting the dance floor at 1776 one time, rocking out to his version of “Raunchy” and his big hit of 1958 “Rebel Rouser.” It didn’t matter at the time because that night of dancing on that big dance floor was a bit of heaven to me.

 We – the Class of ’59 — were that small group of pre-war babies, who grew up in the age of Eisenhower and the birth of rock ‘n roll with Bill Haley and the Comets, L’il Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Four Seasons, The Platters, Everly Brothers and on and on. If the generation before had the big bands, we had rock ‘n roll, which incorporated all the elements of the true American music that came earlier and later gave birth to the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Allman Brothers and ZZ Top. It continues.

 (I know, I know – Elvis – but I was never a fan.)

 Going on to the University of Nebraska at Lincoln (more road houses and dance opportunities), then California, South Carolina and Europe, the beat went on. Eventually I landed in Texas, home of Western swing and the Texas Two-Step, where roadhouses and dance halls abound.

 My dancing days were still going on in 1980 when we moved to Mississippi, where there is lots of blues and in nearby Louisiana, zydeco – THE dance music. In fact, in Hattiesburg music and dancing seem to be a big part of what it’s all about. If only I could still do it!

 Here I am, going on 35 years in Hattiesburg, and there I was the other night at one of our great downtown music venues, The Thirsty Hippo, hanging out and listening to a great duo (Southern Merchants) working through a boogie woogie and blues play list. From Big Bill Broonzy to Fats Domino to their own compositions, Paul Linden on piano with Brad Newton on drums, laid down a line so powerful, so compelling, so calling my name to the dance floor that I wanted to holler. 

Instead, I swayed, clapped, twitched and moved best I could in my chair. And, I watched a 4-year-old girl moving to the beat and then out onto the dance floor, holding her dad’s hands as she began to dance.

 You go, Girl!

Lest We Forget……

Monday, May 26, 2014, was the officially designated national Memorial Day. Ceremonies were held everywhere — in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, a city settled after the Civic War in a Deep South state, and In Norcatur, my ancestral home on the High Plains of northwestern Kansas, settled by Yankees and Southerners, after the Civil War.

 At those ceremonies, as well as others across the country, citizens honored veterans of all wars and remembered those who gave their lives.

 U.S. citizens do very well at bestowing these honors and remembrances. Year after year, since Memorial Day was first observed, those conducting such ceremonies have done a fantastic job if it. If you watched the National Memorial Day Concert on public television, you saw a ceremony with noted public servants, actors and musicians making moving tributes, both musical and spoken.

 The current Atlantic Magazine has an article recalling what was perhaps the original Memorial Day, an observance started by a few women in Columbus, Mississippi. Those women decorated the graves of both Confederate and Union soldiers as a means of promoting reconciliation. Decorating the graves, then, was a means to an end.

 Now, however, it all seems to be about honoring veterans of all wars. In my family, the traditional Memorial Day observance at Norcatur, is about honoring veterans, but it is also about remembering our predecessors and about maintaining strong ties with current members of the extended family, wherever they live – Deep South, northeast, west or Plains states. (Those traditions, I hope, are closer to the original intent of the founders of Memorial Day.)

 Honoring veterans who have given so much – and those who have given everything – is very important. We need to do that, but we also need to do more to address the goal of those who started this.

 At Memorial Day, it might be more appropriate to address reconciling with veterans by helping them get what they’ve been promised – medical care and assistance with assimilation back into society. Those very veterans we honor at the ceremonies are all too often forgotten the next day at the VA treatment centers. There also is the question of decent paying jobs for veterans.

 Other groups also are looking for their rightful place in this country. Folks in the LGBT group, for example, are just now starting to acquire rights to marry and be recognized as married in the eyes of the law. Unfortunately, this acquired status is happening through court action primarily, not through legislative process. And, in the very recent history of this country, the outbreak of HIV/Aids virus and the death of thousands of vulnerable citizens was neither recognized nor addressed with appropriate resources in a timely way by local, state or federal governments.

 In addition, this country has been extremely reluctant to deal intelligently with the question of undocumented residents. Many think that this group is comprised totally of those who’ve entered the United States by sneaking across the border with Mexico. The fact is that thousands of them are Europeans, Asians, Africans, etc. etc., many students or family members who came to study or visit and never left.

 And what about women in the military, business and public organizations and in politics? We must not have addressed reconciling with that group or otherwise they would get equal treatment, i.e., wages, advancement and justice.

 Society as a whole needs to reconcile with women and who they are and make sure they receive equal opportunity and compensation for the positions they hold. In addition, the vast majority of Americans of every size, shape and color needs to be paid a decent wage for the work they do and the jobs they hold, one that allows them to provide decent housing, food and other necessities for themselves and their families. We can’t continue to allow major companies to pay pitiful wages instead of decent wages.

 At this time in our history, there is a gulf between national government and the citizens. Representative government – Congress — is not willing to address any of the serious issues facing us all nor are they willing to work toward narrowing any of the gulfs that separate them from us and us from each other.

 On Memorial Day we should remember what its goal is. We should be honoring those who’ve served our country by working toward reconciliation among all groups and within groups. The national government should be leading that effort.

 Reconciliation requires tolerance and acceptance. It requires each of us to accept the fact that every one of us is entitled to enjoy the same basic rights and privileges. It is not a matter for governments, religions or other institutions to decide. Rather, it is for them to support basic rights for all.

 Let’s truly honor those who’ve served or given their lives for the country – let us step up, reach out and say to each other, “Yes, I accept you as a human and citizen who has the same rights as I do.”

Remembering Memorial Day Magic

When you grow up going every year to the longest, continuous Memorial Day celebration in the United States, the observance of this holiday becomes more than a tradition: it becomes part of you.

Image

Great Grandma and Grandpa Venrick

 All my ancestors settled on the High Plains, northwestern Kansas in particular, after the Civil War. It has never been clear exactly why they chose Norton and Decatur counties in the northwest corner, but both my mother and father’s grandparents did. One set of my mother’s grandparents did so in part because when they headed west, they first went to southeast Nebraska where some friends were.

 From there they headed on west, taking the train to southwestern Nebraska. They got off the train at Wilsonville, where they bought a wagon and team and some supplies (which were stolen while they ate lunch.) They went straight south into Kansas to the land they’d chosen, north of Norcatur.

 Once there they went about settling in, first digging a well, a very deep one, then building their sod and dugout home. As they established their farm and became part of the community, their kids went to school in a sod structure, and they all attended church in a sod building.

 In case you haven’t figured it out, there were no trees in that area.

 That first Memorial Day service was held at Norcatur Cenetery. The settlers in the area who participated included veterans from the Civil War. Kansas became a state in 1861, passed by Congress January 29 and signed by the President in February. It had not become a state earlier because of the Congressional battles over slavery – letting it be extended or not. Kansas and its statehood were a key element in that battle.

 One of the activities of the Norcatur Memorial Day was the parade from the center of town to the cemetery on the northeast edge. Participating veterans found their old uniforms, and if they no longer fit, they’d at least wear their hats. Vets from the Confederate and Northern armies marched in that first parade, and all the children who could walk the distance.

 Walking in the parade with our tiny American flags was what we always did. I marched the first time when I was 3. That parade had one or two Spanish American War vets, plus vets from WW I and II.

 That first 19th century event was when the tradition of gathering afterwards for a meal started. That first time, a picnic was held in the park for all who wanted to attend. Well, while the day’s events had gone very well, from decorating the graves with flags and flowers on the previous evening or early that morning, to marching to the cemetery to firing the 21-gun salute.

 As the picnic concluded and horseshoe pitching and other games began, the drinking was well under way. The result was that some heated discussions between Yankees and Southerners took place, followed by some scuffling and finally brawling.

 As the day wound down, the folks went off to their homes, but only after agreeing that it was all good, and they would certainly do it all again the next year. And so they did, year after year, every year since.

  heard all this from my great-grandparents, of course, when I became one of those Memorial Day participants, helping Grandma cut flowers and taking them to the cemetery the evening before, and then marching in the parade.

 After the ceremonies and the mulling, mingling and visiting at the cemetery, my extended family would gather in the basement at City Hall for a family reunion dinner. The memories of these times with extended family are as embedded in me as any family experiences could be. I miss it.