The Blue Bowl

Mom didn’t have much worldly wealth.  One of the few things she had that she treasured was a china bowl.  I have no idea where she got it, if it was something her mother or another relative had, or if she acquired it at yard sale for a nickel.  It was a  heavy bowl, blue on the outside, white on the inside, straight up and down sides, no rim, hard for little girl hands to handle with confidence.  Maybe there were some flowers somewhere on it but I’m too lazy right now to call one of the sisters and ask.

One of the things we did not have growing up was a dishwasher.  I take that back.  We had three — us.  The bowl must have been just the right size for mixing or serving, therefore she used it frequently and she was proud of it.  So much so that we just knew we were unforgiven and out of the will if we so much as cracked it.  When it was time to wash The Blue Bowl, life became slo-mo, sound faded into a background hum, tension increased when one of us had to handle it out of the rinse water.  You drop it, you die on the spot, the parents get off without questions, no arrests, no time served.  Life was bad enough when anything was spilled or something broken — “we just can’t keep anything!!” or “another mess to clean up!!”– it was a feeling in the pit of the stomach….

On other occasions in my life, I’ve felt that same lurch deep in the gut.  We all know the feeling when thoughtless words add another brick to a wall, when an email can’t be pulled back, when the person you’re talking about is standing behind you, when “sorry” can’t erase the disappointment, when Humpty Dumpty is swept into the dustpan.

Once that bowl or another treasure is smashed, it’s never the same.  If it can be glued, the cracks forever tell the story of what you did. When it’s people that are damaged, Holy Spirit can make it like new.  When my little girl broke a chunk out of an oval bowl that was part of my wedding china set, the look on her face broke my heart.  “It’s just a thing, Honey.  Don’t worry, I think we can glue it.”  And we did.  You should have seen the look on Eric Barrows’ face when years later he picked it up by the glued piece and it snapped off.  Where’s the camera when you need it?

Mom was not a screech or an unforgiving shrew.  She had other sorrows that caused her to attach too much to a few things.  Over The Blue Bowl, there would have been disappointment but nothing permanent.  Okay, years later she might have mentioned it out of the blue, pardon the word play.  But she always knew people trumped things.  Again, I have no idea why she valued it to the point that she did.  However, a big however —

When we moved them from the house to a nursing home and disbursed their belongings, keeping some things, sending some off to auction, none of us girls wanted The Blue Bowl.  You would think there would be names drawn, an argument, some sentiment over it.  For me, I didn’t want the phone call in 40 years asking me if I still had it.

I have no clue what happened to it but I pity the person who ever breaks it.


Here’s Mom

Doris SmartSorry Mom. You were right. The haircut was not the best you ever had. We have to remember that cutting hair at all was a new thing in the 20’s — not a lot of professional training. But you were pretty. Continue reading


It was clear to me what I was going to post today until I came home.  I wrote a brief intro and emailed it to my gmail account since I can’t call up either my blog site admin screen or my gmail at work.  We were sent home an hour early and I was anxious to write.  Supper was fast and simple, hamburgers, onions, buttered corn and I’m ready to hit the keyboard.  After I checked the email it became obvious my posting plans were changed.

The weather is mild today, low 60’s, overnights are wonderfully chilly.  We have vowed to keep the heat at 60 and supplement with firewood throughout the winter just to see how low we can keep the electric bill, so Honey borrowed the company truck and loaded it with free wood from a coworker’s unused wooded lot.  The fire is happily roaring as we speak.

I checked my gmail, waded through the forwards and newsletters, and saw one from my sister’s kids in El Paso.  They had purchased a headstone for a brother’s grave and gathered to place it properly, to photograph and remember.

The longer I live, the more I am made aware of my family’s abject poverty when I was growing up.  We were po’, not being able to afford the o and r.  Since Mom sewed, knitted, shopped the resale shop, and harvested an unreasonably large garden, we had clothes and food.  Since Dad worked on the house after work until it was too dark to see, we had shelter.  Since the three of us shared body heat under a mountain of whatever quilts and blankets could be piled on, we didn’t freeze.  I don’t remember when we acquired a phone, but it wasn’t November of 1957.

Mary was the first child.  “Oldest” is currently too sensitive, so I politely dub her the first of the five.  She turned 18 two months after I arrived.  My brother Ralph, also known as Buddy, joined the Air Force and went to Korea the following summer.   Both of them married and had children by the time I was 3.  Mary had a girl, then a boy, and Ralph & Betty had Dean.  I remember feeling very generous toward little Dean and gave him my teddy bear.  I immediately wanted it back.  Too late.  Gone.  Dean’s bear.  That was a long ride home.

Mary’s third was Tony, born November 30, 1955.  He was amazingly pretty.  They were amazingly poor, living in a section house, one of several in a row next to the Santa Fe railroad for which Isidro worked.  I don’t know how she fed them, or kept them away from the rattlers.  The short description is sand, some of which Tony ate, yucca plants, heat, loneliness, and two unpainted rooms.  Showers were outside and so was the water pump.  Does all that tell you the kids didn’t have a mound of toys, or a TV, or a phone?

Our town’s telephone system was from the wayback machine of the day, probably equipment from the 20’s or before.  Blanche Utzinger had the switchboard in her home.  It was the classic plug and play.  Crank the phone, she answers, tell her who you want, she pulls up what had to look like a spark plug and she literally plugged your phone into someone else’s.  Before we signed up, if someone needed to reach us, they would find the Cameron operator and lo, Mr. Utzinger or someone Blanche could contact, drove to our house and gave a ride to the switchboard to take the call.

Dad was still a hired hand when my anticipated arrival was announced.  I think it was that news that spurred him to look for better work and he hired on with Butler Mfg as a welder.  He was 6’2″, big shoulders and long arms, unusually large hands and size 12 work boots.  When I was very little I was scared of him.  One day in the kitchen when I ran from him and headed for Mom’s skirt, she told me I was hurting Daddy’s feelings.  I ran to Daddy to say I was sorry and he was my new favorite from that day.  When he wasn’t around, I was again an inconvenient attachment to Mom’s wardrobe.  At one point in time, Dad worked second shift and I begged to stay up for him.  There was no TV, only Mom’s constantly growing collection of books.  She held me on her lap that one night I remember and we rocked until he drove up.

One night in November of ’57 someone hurriedly pulled into the driveway, spoke with urgency, and Mom ran.  I don’t remember the time of day, I don’t remember if Dad was working evenings or was just late getting home from his day shift.  I had been sleeping in the bedroom that adjoined the living room and woke to fragmented hysteria.  I remember Mom crying, Margaret and Sharon were crying, I remember hearing the words “dead” and “railroad tracks” and “train killed him.”  I put 2 and 2 together and came up with Daddy getting hit by a train on the way home.  “DADDY!!?”  Almost as soon as I cried out, I saw him run into the room and grab Mom.  Now I was confused and really, really glad he was ok.  It took a few minutes to learn that Tony, 3 weeks shy of 2, was gone.

Rose Marie was 4, Jaime, 3.  The two rooms were small, Jaime had a habit of wandering off to visit the neighbors in the adjoining apartments, generally wandering around but sometimes playing on the tracks.  Tony followed him everywhere.  They were babies, both of them — innocent, just little kids playing.

Update from September of 2017. We gathered in Denver for Mary’s funeral. While we reminisced, we were unsure of the details surrounding Tony’s death. “I was an eye witness” interrupted Rose, now in her 60s. She recalled that Mary was inside changing the new baby’s diaper. Rose was outside and saw it all. The boys were playing on the tracks. The train whistle got their attention. Jaime was able to clear the tracks but Tony, only 2, didn’t. The foot step on one of the cars clipped off the back of his head. Rose had gone to the house to get Mary but the train was too close. I’m trying to imagine the scene, the horror and anguish. No. No sound, please.

There was no crushing, no tearing, and no movement —- no life.  He looked peacefully asleep as if that could in any way comfort a mother who couldn’t save her child.

Somehow she found a way to call the Cameron switchboard and a car was sent to fetch Mom.  The church board met and gave Mom money to go to New Mexico.  Somehow, she managed to comfort her broken daughter.  The 3 year old did and didn’t know what was going on.  How could he and at 3, why should he?  Mama, where’s Tony?

Mom told us that the priest was unsympathetic and refused to preside over a funeral for a child that hadn’t been baptized into the Catholic church.  Mary told him off and took her baby.  His grave remained unmarked until 2007, when his siblings, all but two of whom never knew him, placed the stone, laid roses, and paid tribute.


First Corn

One of Honey’s co-workers is the annual source of Ambrosia sweet corn, the white and yellow brand.  It’s the sweetest.  Having grown up in west central Illinois, definitive corn country, home of the blackest, thickest and richest top soil, a place where farmers have to be really stupid to fail, it takes a superior ear of corn to impress me.  The Tennessee version of corn has consistently disappointed me for nine years.  Until yesterday.  It was eyeroll wonderful.

“How come I cooked only 3 each?  What was I thinking?  I could have eaten the whole dozen by myself.”

“Pig, pig, piggy. Oink, oink.”

That coming from a man who puts a tablespoon of token vegatables on his plate, a man who is convinced that God did not intend for a little sweet green pea to be eaten by humans, I can only be briefly insulted before I wave his comment away into insignificance with a swish of my hand.

I have been known to consume several ears of corn and then attack one to three helpings of green beans that had been warming in the sun in our back yard a short hour before they passed through the pressure cooker and onto my plate, swiftly and generously salted and buttered.

Of course, that was back in the day when I was a growing teenager and ate standing up in hopes that my legs would fill out wider than a bird’s. 

“Why, you should have seen it when Grampa Smart and Aunt Honey made the trip to Illinois during corn season.  Aunt Honey swore she would eat only two ears from the two platters mounded with hot sweetcorn and ended up stowing significantly more cobs than two under her chair before she was caught corn-handed.”

Wanting to get my facts straight concerning their visit, I called my sister, my senior by 6 years in hopes that she remembered more than I did.  “You had to be only three!”  About all I can recall is being small enough to ride on Daddy’s shoulders from the garden to the house while they all carried armloads of yellow treasure.  I thought I remembered sitting in a high chair and crying over Mom cutting the corn off the cob because my front teeth were under a pillow somewhere.

Sister did remember that due to the deadened nerves in Grampa’s chin after having melanoma cancer excised, said chin was covered in butter and traces of corn.

How much of that meal is firsthand memory and how much is from the retelling is anyone’s guess.  I tried contacting the sister in California but she wasn’t answering. If I was 3 and a half, she would be 7.  The sister who was 9 supplied the part about Grandpa’s chin coverage, but not much else.

I clearly remember the ride on Daddy’s shoulders, green grass, the late afternoon light, laughter and anticipation.

I should have cooked the whole dozen and le the butter drip down my chin.

Does your chewing gum lose its flavor

on the bedpost overnight

If you know even part of the tune, you may as well go to the link, print out the lyrics, and keep them on the nightstand ’cause this song could keep you awake for hours and wake you up in the morning.

My manager stopped at my cubie one day last week and offered my neighbor and me our choice of peppermint or spearmint gum. Her daughter’s science project is experimenting with various brands of chewing gum testing the flavors’ individual longevity. Since she and her husband are developing speech difficulites along with jaw pain, would we please participate? Please, pretty please? I decided after approximately a half hour that the flavor was going rather flat and noted it as such on paper for the sake of science.

Then it occured to me that if it were stuck on something like a bedpost or underneath a shelf, the side of the monitor, or under a chair seat and left there overnight or for several days, the flavor would be revived. How, I don’t know exactly, but it would.

I called my sister last night and asked her what was our first trip to see the oldest sister Mary in New Mexico. I was pretty little at the time and couldn’t remember exactly. The first was 1953, Christmas.  That puts me at 2 months shy of 4.  According to her, we traveled the 2000 mile round trip at least once a year, making the one in ’53 and at least 2 of the subsequent trips somewhat of a blur of memories for me.

I remember high rock walls on either side of the highway, yucca plants, cacti, scenic desert overlooks which are documented in tiny black and white snapshots, and sand. Lots of sand. One memory was eating in a diner, the kind with the long counter and swivel seats trimmed in chrome mounted on a step up from the floor away from the ordinary tables where we, the lowly rabble, were confined.

The swivel stools fascinated me. Every chance I had I would find an empty one, lay on it on my tummy and spin. Mom being Mom, I imagine this didn’t last long. Something about my feet hitting people trying to walk by. (Mean mommy) When it was time to pay the bill, the rest of the family dashed to the car to establish the standard seating arrangement, one sister got one window, the other sister the other and the short one had to sit in the middle with a comic book. (Mean sisters) So I stayed back with the mommy who had given me strict orders not to spin on the stools anymore. I turned to look at them one more time and noticed that underneath every stool was a treasure of free chewing gum. Bubble gum, juicy fruit, doublemint, Beemans, all reclassified as ABC, it was all there for the taking, but I had to work fast.

I don’t know how many miles we were down the road before someone noticed how fat my cheeks were. But I can tell you for sure that it takes more than one person to use up the flavor completely.

I used to drink out of the ditches around Cameron too. Maybe that’s why I don’t need a flu shot.

Conscientious objector

So how did Dad avoid overseas duty in WWII? He didn’t go AWOL, he didn’t protest and land in the brig, neither did he talk anyone into giving him a transfer or special treatment. Military service in his day wasn’t big on individualism let alone political correctness. They put on the uniforms and followed orders. Period. And Dad had already made up his mind he would go Against the Flow (Across the Flow is second generation) of standard procedures during wartime, which is to shoot the enemy, and instead try to make friends one enemy at a time. His sarge said if he were facing an enemy who was about to kill him, he’d shoot.  Nope.  Dad would have laid down his gun just like he said he would, and not only would I, and my children and grandchildren not be here but neither would my sister Margaret, and all of her family.

Twice he was scheduled for deployment to Europe, twice the Army screwed up.

From what little I remember, Dad was a truck driver. His experience and talent in the world of auto mechanics made him a natural. I do remember him saying he was a driver in the convoy that rolled into The Soo in early 1942. I  vaguely remember him saying that he spent a large portion of his Army career stationed there.

Dad grew up in Cameron, Illinois, a tiny rural community barely qualified for the word village. If there was a doctor ever living there, I don’t know. I can assume that in those days, especially in a town like Cameron, doctors serviced a large area and accepted payments in chickens, eggs, and garden produce as well as money once in a while. I know as fact that my widowed grandmother didn’t have much to trade for medical services. Taking in ironing didn’t pay well. Osteopaths were the Murphys’ physician of choice on most occasions, things like a bad back, sore neck, and maybe more. They also could have been significanly cheaper as they weren’t and still aren’t the widely accepted medical authority that MDs are. So while stationed in The Soo , Dad slipped off the curb, twisted his back, headed straight for the osteopath, had his back treated and then told the sergeant about his injury. He immediately popped Dad into the Army hospital where they put him to bed and according to Dad, pretty much ignored him. In the meantime his company of men was shipped out without him.

He had another opportunity to see action soon enough. This time he shipped to New York to await orders for Europe, apparently close to the end of the war.

When his company arrived at the barracks, the guys rushed to claim a bunk. Dad and another soldier, being a little older and more patient waited until the “kids” calmed down, intending to settle for what bunks were left over. There were none. The sargeant placed them in a barracks just the other side of a small hill that had some bunks available. Dad said he would walk over to his company every morning to visit his buddies during the time they were there. One morning they were gone. Evidently, there were two Muphys in the group. When they shipped out, the guy checking off the names must have thought it was an error and crossed off both of them. Before Dad was reassigned for deployment, the war ended and he was sent home.

And his worn out guardian angel slumped in a chair and said “Whew!”

Daddy, what did you do in the war?

"Russel! She’s too young to watch that and it’s time for bed! Russel!!"
"Mom, I’m ok.  It’s ok."  I always wanted the details, still do.

Q: Where have we heard the phrase "The Greatest Generation" lately?
A: Like, all over the place?

My dad was one of the Greatest Generation.  And he was, in 60’s terminology, a "Peacenik." Unlike the demonstrators of the 60’s, he was in total support of staying the course to victory.

Born in 1907,  he was 34 when he signed up with the Army.  It was peace time and The Depression was still going so money could have been the motivator.  At any rate, he was pretty proud of himself, having been an amateur body builder of sorts, that he left "those kids" in the dust during basic training.  When Pearl Harbor was attacked, it didn’t take him long to approach the sarge and ask for a desk job.  He didn’t qualify without a high school diploma.  He then informed the sergeant that he would not kill the enemy but instead lay down his weapon and extend his right hand in friendship.  "Murph, if you come face to face with the enemy, you’ll shoot."

I think that if my dad had killed a man, even an armed enemy, he would have been messed up beyond repair if he indeed decided to continue living with it. You only have one chance to experiment with a statement like that, and if he’d kept his word, I believe my sister Sharon would have been his only child.  The circumstances that kept him out of combat are another story.

Despite his personal moral convictions, he supported the war and supported the concept that "totalitarian, anti-Western ideologies that cannot be appeased" had to be dealt with.  Winning was an absolute.  Japan’s extreme ideologies were why the extreme bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were required to shake down Emporer Hirohito , a man his people considered to be a god.

Looking back in 20/20 hindsight, there were clear indications of Japan’s intentions.  At the time, they were not that clear.  It would have been impossible to present those cloudy hints to the US Congress and Senate and prepare for war.  We’ve been demoralized by a 10 year depression, what are you talking about?!?  Pearl Harbor was a brutal sneak attack.  Instead of cowering or negotiating … again, (Japan’s diplomat was on his way home from a peace agreement when his country hit us!) or whining; instead of discussing anything, we declared war with only one dissenting vote and stepped up to the plate.  You want to play?  Bring it on.  That attitude is the America the Greatest Generation protected with their lives.

Guadacanal :  1942. A bloody fight to control an airfield in the Pacific, pivotal, crucial to the outcome.  Through 6 long months we lost over 6000 of  60,000.  Japan lost 24,000 of 36,000.  The fierce tenacity and continued losses indicates to me that the enemies’ ideologies mattered more than a 65% loss of life.  These numbers only reinforced America’s efforts to continue to prevent a culture like that from taking over.  Our men on that little jungle island were also spurred on to fight harder rather than be intimidated into quitting by seeing their fallen comrades’ heads on posts.

Does any of this sound the least bit familiar? US was attacked first, no negotiation, ideology, heads? When you hear of an average of 1,000 dead young men per month in only one of the two theatres of global war, do you think "quit"?  Of course.  We all do until we analyze the consequences of laying down our weapon and extending a hand in friendship.  It’s then logical that we pull out all the stops and charge.  When you refuse to defend yourself, you’ve surrendered.

Mom was afraid I’d have nightmares.  Dad knew I needed to know what the previous generation did to make sure I lived, and that I lived as an American with all the freedoms.  Sometimes you have to fight and fight dirty when it’s required to win.  Be the nice guy after the enemy surrenders.  Try war criminals as war criminals, not vandals, in a military tribunal setting, not civil courts, after a winner is declared and not before. America was the nice guy.  We didn’t devastate their landscape and go home.  We cleaned up after ourselves and everybody else.

America won through sacrifice, publicity, unity.  Oh sure, there were dissenters.  There were also laws against sedition.  Even the dissenters understood that any discouragement of our troops caused more losses by encouraging the enemy, enabling them with more incentive to destroy us.  Ever hear of Tokyo Rose?  She was an American of Japanese descent, and was convicted of treason.  Ever hear the phrase Loose Lips Sink Ships?  It’s true again.

Like it or not, we are at war.  Like it or not, the enemy will not negotiate.  Like it or not, they intend to destroy us leaving us few choices but to thwart their plans with every means possible.  In the movie Independence Day the president asked the alien "What do you want us to do?"  The answer was "Die."  The alien was immediately eliminated.  After we absorb that, what’s our next move?

Maybe this will clarify our situation:

(1) You are driving at approximately 60 miles per hour.  An oncoming
vehicle has crossed the center line and a collision appears imminent.
Your response is:
A. Discuss it with a friend on your cell phone
B. Change radio stations
C. Apply fresh lipstick
D. Attempt to avoid a collision

(2) Your house is on fire.  Big time.  Do you:
A. Balance the checkbook
B. Take a shower
C. Look for the hammer so you can rehang that pesky picture straight this time.
D. Run out and dial the fire department

Don’t let the Greatest Generation of the 1940’s be the last great generation.