Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Gene Meyer Remembers

Our family lived at 773 Columbia Ave from the time I was four until I was 12. We then moved to an entirely different neighborhood…about three blocks away. Nonetheless, it was clear we weren’t part of the Faculty Lane / Columbia Ave scene after 1963. Our family was originated in Seward, that is, my siblings and I were born in Seward and each graduated from local high schools, unlike many faculty kids who came and went. There were few of us -- Hardts, Curtis, Uhlig, Schuleter -- but we were the regulars.

How does one go through organizing the recollections of the past? Perhaps by season, by topic or my fail-safe method, by year.

Gene Meyer pictured as a member of the eighth grade in the 1965-1966 yearbook of St John Elementary School in Seward, Nebraska

During the summer of 1955 or 1956, the “new school” was being constructed. As a three- or four-year-old, I was injured because I ran into a bundle of wire at the construction site while a bunch of kids were playing catch Donn. Donn Kaiser was probably 11 or 12 at the time, but he and Danny Juergensen were the oldest in the neighborhood. His younger brother, Roger, was about eight, and his younger sister Karen was a year older than me. For some reason, after supper, kids would congregate near the school playground, which was only two houses away for me. Those kids included the Curtises (Steve, Susan), the Kaisers (Donn, Roger, Karen), my older sister and brother (Lois,Alan) and others. One night, the group of younger kids played sort of a hide-and-go-seek game, but it transformed into a game of trying to catch Donn. He woud loop around the school, and the rest of us would run to catch him. At some point, I ran too close to a bundle of wire. The next thing I know, Donn was carrying me back to my house, and shortly thereafter I was carried to the hospital for several stitches. Pretty traumatic for a four-year-old.

During the years before kindergarten, I recall playing in the sandpile in our backyard, playing in the “draw”, which was an area west of the school between 2nd Street and Hillcrest. There were large weeping willows and several large trees that had been felled, but not carted away. The area was field grass and we could lie down in the field grass and be completely hidden from anyone looking at the field. You could pull up cane stalks and pretend they were spears. You could pick milk weed pods and blow the fluff in the wind. You could ask mom to pack a lunch (with milk in a glass ketsup bottle) to have supper in the “fort” which consisted of sticks leaning on one of the felled trees.

My most consistent playmate in those years was Karen Kaiser, our next-door neighbor. Once and a while, Bill Schwich would comeover and we’d play cops and robbers by beating up pillows on our sofa. Playing outside until the street lights came on, catching lightening bugs and running after the City of Seward bug sprayer were all part of normal life.

In Kindergarten, Miss Maehr was our teacher. We went for ½ days in the afternoon. We were one of the first classes in the new school. Ken Uhlig was a classmate who could step over the back of the chair to sit down, so we immediately nicknamed him “daddy long legs”. Miss Maehr had a practice of identifying one child as the leader for each day. That child got to 1) blow the candle out after morning devotion, 2) do special errands for Miss Maehr like find her book for the day, and most importantly 3) be first in line to exit to gym, recess or anything else we had to line up for. Being leader for the day was a big deal. During that year, a classmate of mine, Susan Wilbert, died, though I can recall little of it except that later our class got a special star-shaped wooden altar. The Wilberts lived on Faculty Lane -- I think where the Hackmanns eventually lived.

Miss Maehr loved art and tried to plant the seeds of creativity in her troops. She used to have each class make a plaster-of-paris life-size animal, she tried to get us to use water colors or crayons to express ourselves on a blank sheet of paper. Those seeds may have been planted, but they didn’t bloom in me.

The Christmas Eve service, held in the Seward Jr High, kintergardeners traditionally sang Jesus Loves Me while dressed as angels. I can remember our family always ate clear red and jello and whipped cream prior to the service. Then afterwards, our family would drive around town to look at the lights, driving us all a little nuts, since it was post-poning the time to open presents.

In first grade, my teacher was Miss Grotelueschen. She tried to inspire the logical, scientific, mathmetical approach. I recall she showed us how rain formed by taking us to the cafeteria and holding a glass pan with ice water in it above a steaming pot of water. We could see the three forms of water -- liquid, gas, solid -- and also evaporation and condensation. She also showed us how when water freezes the ice expands, by placing a glass of water outside the window in January. The next day, the glass was broken. This was also the first year I was part of an Operetta. Ours was today’s non-politically correct Little Black Sambo in which Jim Hardt, Bill Schwich and I played monkeys, complete with home-made costumes.

My second-grade teacher was Miss Mielke. She was emotional about her faith and drew her kids into her emotion when she explained the Bible verses and stories. She also taught us cursive writing and had a selected person read from a book of their choosing during the period after lunch. She was my favorite teacher in grade school. Another memory of that time was that on most kids' birthdays, the kid’s mom would bring a treat (cupcake) for the entire class at the end of the day. Each class also had a Room Mother, whose duties seemed mysterious, yet up there with the principal.

The only principal I remember was Mr Lemke. He had a mustache, a loud laugh and just as loud of a voice if something was wrong. He taught some classes of the 8th grade. We all liked and respected and were scared of Mr Lemke. His wife was the school secretary and she was really nice.

When I was about seven or eight years old, my older sister Lois took me to see Sinbad the Sailor at the Rivoli with several of her friends. Back then, you could get a discount from the grocery store, so the admission was $0.25, rather than the $0.35 it normally was. For a nickel, you could get a Slo Poke or a box of Milk Duds and be in hog heaven. While watching the movie, it became apparent to me that this movie was not for a seven year old. Recalling a one-eyed Cyclops, roasting a sailor on a spit over a fire was enough to make me head to the lobby, where I stayed until the movie was over.

When you’re eight years old, the best way to determine who’s king of the hill, was 1) determine who could run the fastest or 2) who was best at tetherball. For group games, such as kick ball, sides were determined by picking two captains. Someone would think of a number between one and ten and the two captains would guess. The captain who was closest to the secret number got to select first. Bill Schwich and I always wanted to be on the same team. Another classmate, Richard Copps, was always one of the captains because he was the fastest runner. Either Bill or I would be the other captain. Now the diabolical part was that if Bill was a captain, I’d be the number picker. Bill and Richard would guess the number, and it always worked that Bill got first pick (because he knew the number, because I told him the number ahead of time) and picked me. This went on for weeks or months, until Richard finally figured it out.

Another way to determine who got to pick first was use the rhyme: Eenee, meenee, mynee, mo ... catch a N----- by the toe. Yes, we used the N word, but we didn’t know what the word meant,nor did we think it was derogatory. None of us had ever seen a black person, except on TV. This rhyme was discarded, because it was an even cadence, so that the second person of two that you pointed to (the person pointed to when the word “meenee, was said out loud) always was picked.

The final way used to allow a captain to pick first was to throw a bat up in the air and have one of the captains catch it so that the handle of the bat was up. The other captain would place his hand on the bat just above where the second captain placed his hand. This continued until there was no bat left and the captain who had last placed his hand on the bat would get first pick or in the parlance of our neighborhood “first dibs”.

The school playground served as a daily place for great fun. There was a set of swings, only the seat of the swings were made of 18”-long 2x6s, not the pliable synthetic seats that are used today. On recess we would have two kids to a swing, one would stand on the seat and the other would sit on the seat, in between the other kid, facing in the opposite direction. We quickly learned that two people “pumping” on the swings could get higher than one alone, which of course was what we aimed for. We also had a metal slide, which was great fun to use, especially if one snuck some waxed paper from the kitchen and sat on the paper just prior to descending. A jungle gym was usually off-limits to girls, because of the old adage ”I see England, I see France, I see Susie’s underpants.”

But the item on the playground that attracted most attention, was the tetherball poles. I won’t have time to explain the fouls “ropes”, “carrying” “dribbles”, but the game was one-on-one, normally boys only. The winner advanced and a new opponent tried to meet the challenge.

The other thing about the playground is that it was segregated by grade. We played with each other in the neighborhood after school or on weekends, but a 3rd grader could no more play with a 5th grader at recess than ... well, you get the idea.

In third grade, our teacher was Mrs. Baake. She was only at St John for a few years. We had an operetta that year called The King and the Nightingale. I do remember that Jim Hardt taught me how to ride a bicycle that year and can still recall it as a thrill. And, because I could ride a bike, I could venture by myself across a street. Previously, my domain was limited to Columbia Ave, Hillcrest, the train tracks and Lincoln Street, which seemed fine to me at the time.

On the southwest corner of Hillcrest and Columbia was a softball field. (St John church sits there today). We used our bikes to cover the imaginary home runs we hit. Down Hillcrest towards the railroad tracks was a fairly large mulberry tree, from which we picked fruit. The train tracks crossed Hillcrest, and nearby was the area called “the fort”. There was a bridge on 2nd street that crossed over the railroad tracks. On the south end of the bridge, the slope was steep enough to provide great sledding during the winter. On the edges of our neighborhood stood the Hughes mansion, a house whose yard was an entire block (1st Street, 2nd Street, Lincon and Moffitt). Just past the Hughes mansion near 3rd Street and Moffitt was Hand’s grocery, home of baseball cards and around the end of June, where everyone bought fireworks. The Middendorfs and Lemkes lived nearby.

Summers during these years consisted of play: catchingbugs/grasshoppers, building forts in the sandpile, collecting baseball cards, shooting off bottle rockets, going to the swimming pool, playing “find the chalk”, working in the garden with mom and dad and playing pick-up baseball on Faculty Lane.

One summer, Mr. Schwich took me with Bill and Jody to play baseball at the Seward egg plant -- that’s what we called it. It was a field next to an Egg Plant. Anyway, the thing that I remember is that there were dozens of kids I’d never seen before -- town kids. I was not feeling very comfortable, since I was just learning about baseball and didn’t know these seemingly rather loud kids. Someone said that when I swung the bat I was “stepping in the bucket”, a phrase that made no sense to me but seemed to make sense to everyone else. In later years, I played ball with the town kids each summer until I was 16.

The swimming pool was a destination most afternoons, via car or bike down the brick street and past the familiar but odd smells and sounds coming out of the Hughes Brothers factory. Normally there would be a game of tag, sometimes there would be a diving contest off of Top Tower. When anyone in our family passed a Red Cross Swimming test (Beginners, Intermediate, Advanced, Jr Life Savers etc), our family would celebrate with an ice cream cone from Rolfmier’s Dairy after supper.

As hot as Seward can be in the summer, our home was cooled by opening windows or by a window fan. Our parents' bedroom had a window air conditioner, but the rest of the house was cooled naturally. In August each year came the Seward County Fair. Ferris wheel, salt and pepper shaker, roller coaster and carnival games all occupied three to four days of goofing around.

A note on the general groups of kids in our lives: 1) faculty/college kids, 2) St John kids who were not faculty/college kids, 3) town kids and 4) farm kids. For me, the first group was preferred and generally more familiar. The second group were just a bit outside the lines. The third group, the town kids, seemed louder, more vulgar, more exciting and at times more fun. They used expressions not used by us. The farm kids got pitied as “not cool” when they showed up at the pool with the dreaded “farmer tans” after FFF or FHA. In addition, there were other demarcations: Catholics, Bohemians and Pollacks, each with the special kind of pox.

Our fourth grade teacher was Miss Bartels. She loved music and would have us sing traditional non-religious songs. She had a hand held harp, where she could press several buttons to produce a chord and lead us in singing. She was also the leader of the “Tonettes”. A tonette was a plastic flute with eight holes in the body of the flute, much like a cheap recorder. We created music by blowing into the flute and covering or uncovering each of the holes. This was a neat way to learn about cadence and music. Miss Bartels was pretty strict too; she definitely had control of the class. She also tried to take away our morning recess and do organized aerobics (we didn’t call it that back then) to music in the gym. After a few months, I think she gave up.

Mr. Peter was our fifth-grade teacher, who loved to laugh and have a good time with his classes. He was also our congregation’s organist, so he was pretty good at the piano. He encouraged those of us who could play piano to play in front of the class, say lead the hymn for morning devotions. Now I happened to be taking piano lessons at the time and had memorized the hymn Hark the Herald Angels Sing, so one day I asked Mr Peter to let me lead the hymn. As I sat down on the piano bench, in front of my class, I immediately realized this was a BIG mistake. I could remember the first phrase, but little else. A large embarrassment.

Our house was two doors down from the school, so that each noon, I went home for lunch, ate quickly so that I would be the first person on the playground for recess after lunch. It was during these “at home lunches” that I begin to revolt against soup and toast for lunch each day.

During the fall and winter months, our family attended whatever basketball or football game was going on. Until the 1960s, Concordia played its games at Seward High’s gym. At the gym, at the very top of the stands, were large windows that would condense fog in the winter. While at one of those games, I was writing my name in the condensation, when a security guard approached me and told me not to do that. I thought he was going to send me to jail, so I stopped quickly. Football games allowed us kids to play “tackle the man with the ball” in the area behind the end zone. My brother Lee would spend football games under the bleachers collecting discarded waxed-paper cups -- eventually over 1,0000. He’d bring them home, clean them and stack them. Then, he’d use those cups to make buildings, castles or walls by stacking them on top of each other. The most fun was stacking them around George, our dog, while he slept and waiting for him to wake up and break down the walls. In all those years I don’t think our family ever went to a Seward High event, except that one time my Pee Wee basketball team was to play a three-minute game at half time at a Seward High basket ball game.

There was a period of time when constructing model airplanes seemed to be the thing to do. A model kit cost $1 at Ben Franklin, and my brother Alan and his friends Roger Kaiser and Steve Curtis all were advocates of the coolness of model airplanes. Steve also had a large collection of comic books, in which our family never indulged. There was also a great degree of interest in Cub Scouts during that period (Wolf, Bear and Lion badges with arrow heads for achievements), Dens and uniforms with yellow handkerchief worn on the neck.

In addition to college activities, it seemed we were also involved in a lot of church activities, including church picnics at the Seward Park. Lots of pot-luck dinners. St John’s new church was at the intersection of Seward and 4th Street, and the old church was on 3rd street between Seward and Main. Sunday School was either in the basement of the old church or the basement of the new church. I recall that Mr Kirch could sing two octaves below the regular melody and thought that neat.

During the winter, each Sunday afternoon from 4-6 was open swimming for faculty and their families at the Concordia Pool. Somebody had fins and goggles, so at times we pretended to be Lloyd Bridges from the TV show Sea Hunt. We also tried to catch balls thrown to us by a lifeguard as we ran off the diving boards. Then, Mike Slywester and I would hit the showers and drain the hot water heaters soaking in the glow of red eyes, loose muscles and pruned up fingers. Some Sundays, Mr Schwich would open the Old Gym and let us jump on the trampolines.

Our sixth grade teacher, Mr Schmieding was much older than any other teacher. It appeared to me he didn’t like his job, as a very rarely smiled and often yelled at us. He once picked up Steve Roettjer by his neck, but Steve had his legs intertwined in the legs of his chair, so that he was picked up chair and all. He had an enraging habit of telling us to prepare for lunch by standing up…and then making us wait until he was ready to say a prayer “The eyes of all wait upon Thee, O Lord, and Thou givest them their meat in due season ...” And when he prayed, he folded his hands in a strange way, one hand in a fist while the other engulfed the fisted hand, both held near his stomach.

Sixth grade was also when we got to play organized basketball for the school, which was great. Mr Giessleman was our coach. I recall that when President Kennedy was killed, we were coming back from lunch in sixth grade. I recall shock, but really didn’t get all that worried or upset until I learned that our basketball practice was cancelled.

I’m certain there are many other stories that will come to me, but wanted to share these in this stream of consciousness.

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