Fifty Years Later

This column was published Tuesday, November 20, 2018 in The Manhattan Mercury.


I was a little hesitant to just drive up, ring the doorbell and introduce myself, but in the end, that’s exactly what I did.

“Hi, you don’t know me, but my father built this house in which you’re living.”

Pop helped design and build the house in 1959-60, just across an oil lease road and bluegrass pasture from my mother’s parents’ home, the one in which she was raised, five miles north of the Saline River on the northern incline of the river bluffs, five miles southwest of Plainville.

When he graduated from K-State with an agronomy degree, earned on the G.I. Bill after four years in the Navy, my father cut a deal with his father-in-law. Come back to Rooks County and farm.

My father was not a farmer or even a native Kansan. He grew up west of the continental divide and landed here when his mother married a guy from Rooks County. My parents met in study hall at Plainville High. Khaki chinos meet pleated skirt and bobby socks. They married halfway through his Navy hitch.

The current owner of the house was as hospitable as could be and invited me in. We entered through the garage, and I swear I walked right by my Mom’s ’65 metallic blue Pontiac Bonneville station wagon.

 Pop fell in love with limestone at K-State.

Pop fell in love with limestone at K-State.

As we stood in the dining area, I glance down and pretty sure I saw my father bolt from the dinner table, uh… supper table (we were not yet city folk) fetch his rifle, stand on the back porch and take dead aim at a thirteen-lined ground squirrel standing upright, surveying what he only thought was his domain. Ground squirrel splattered across the prairie. Now get back to your minute steak and green beans, kids.

The house had a basement, and a damp, musty sub-basement with four bunks. When Dorothy Gale needed protection from severe Kansas weather, none was available, and look what happened to her. The house was built at the apex of the Cold War, so draw your own conclusions about the old man’s sub-basement motivations.

When it was built, the house was a cutting-edge, state-of-the-art rancher. It had these touch-plate light switches and a couple of master panels from which you could control any light in the house. As I wandered around the house for the first time in more than 50 years, I felt a distinct mid-century retro vibe.

The current occupant showed me to the living room. I look north and can hear the hailstorm. I’m four years old, half asleep, walking down the hallway in my jammies. On the north wall of the living room, my father struggles with a tarp to cover what is now a picture window-sized hole in the wall.

A golf-ball sized hailstone zooms toward me on the hardwood floor. I stop and pick it up. Cold to the touch. Mom is holding my baby brother in her arms. She’s rousted the baby, my 6-year old sister and we are bound for the musty sub-basement.

Over on the east wall is the limestone fireplace with a smooth concrete slab hearth. Nothing’s changed. Pop fell in love with limestone at K-State. After I cracked my skull on that hearth, Mom measured, cut and whipped up some hearth-sized vinyl and foam rubber pads.

The man who owns the house my father built moved us into the kitchen. I can hear our party line ring (three longs, one short) from the flesh-colored rotary dial wall phone. Mom struggles to contain her enthusiasm as she learns of the birth of her younger sister’s firstborn.

At the end of the hallway, I see myself dropping my little brother through the laundry chute, making certain there was a big pile of laundry upon which he would land, though it likely would not have mattered. The kid was indestructible.

In the 1960s, Pop struggled with the debt involved with farming and preferred a steady paycheck. Our departure from that house became imminent when he and Mom decided to sell the farm. That transaction financed a graduate degree in education from nearby Fort Hays State and my father took a job teaching high school physics and geology in Wichita.

When I travel to or through Rooks County, invariably I'll get off the highway and drive past the house my father built. Just to see if it’s still there and reminisce, wondering if I’ll ever screw up the courage to drive up, knock on the door, and introduce myself.