Below, I’ve transcribed a letter from my grandmother’s brother, Warren Kerns, 17, who was killed in an airplane accident with his brother Nelson, 15, on July 24, 1930. You can read about the accident here. He wrote this letter to his mother, Caroline (called Callie) who was visiting her parents in California at the time. Some of the handwriting is indecipherable. I just transcribed the letters as best I could, leaving out editing marks to avoid distraction. For example, I’m not sure that the first word in the last sentence is “Play.”
It’s eye-opening to read how life was so vastly different back then in southwest Missouri. My ancestors worked hard. Their days were consumed with difficult, laborious, time-consuming, hot, sweaty work. This will be even more evident in other letters I have and will eventually post. True, we work hard today, but with much less exertion. My ancestors also enjoyed relief from their work-filled days in the simple joys of ice cream and socializing.
June 10, 1930
How are you getting along. We are all getting along fine. Charlie and I have been plowing corn most of the time since school was out. I sure was glad when the last day of school came. It rained today and is rather cool now. I s’pose it is nice and warm where you are. We went to two children’s day exercises Sunday. We went down home Sunday and had all the ice cream we could eat. You don’t know what your missing. I have to wear an overcoat to plow corn in. Where are going to spend the forth of July. It is not very far away. I don’t know where we will go. Most any place rather than in the corn field. Things sure are cheap here. Eggs are $.16 and cream $.25 in Hume. I am going to a community sale tomorrow, which they are starting in Hume. It is now nine o’clock about my bedtime (sometimes). Well, this is all I can think of to tell you. Answer my letter soon and send me a good measure of California summer. Play like you are receiving kisses through this letter also.
According to NBC’s Rossen Reports, if someone sells their iPhone or any smartphone, for that matter, without erasing their data, the next owner (or hacker) is able to access text messages, apps, shopping activity, banking information, you name it.
Jeff Rossen, NBC investigative reporter, even found some previous owners who had sold their phones online to let them know that their information is still “out there” on their old phones. They were all surprised. Why? Because Apple doesn’t quickly/easily/freely tell you anything.
If I need to know how to fully use my iPhone, why must I instead search for the online owner’s manual, or find an online forum or go to the FAQs? Wouldn’t a nifty printed manual be easier? It would. Of course, it would.
Maybe my idea is old-fashioned (yes, it definitely is), but I would really appreciate a printed manual with my $600 iPhone. True, Apple might have to reconfigure the packaging to modify the clean, edgy minimalist look we all know and love, but Apple should do it anyway. I shouldn’t have to scour the Internet — or rely on Jeff Rossen — when I need to learn how to protect, of all things, my privacy.
My daughter gave me a Kit-Cat clock two years ago. Y’know, the black cat clocks with the moving tail and eyes? It’s one of my favorite things and looks great in the kitchen. About two months ago, I noticed it had stopped moving. It still kept time, but the tail and eyes were stationary. A Kit-Cat clock that doesn’t move looks sad and stifled. Stagnant.
I figured that there was probably a trouble shooter’s guide online, so I googled and found videos and said guide. I viewed all the videos, read the instructions, replaced the two “C” batteries exactly as shown in the diagram, balanced the clock on the table, gave the tail a nudge, and it still didn’t work. Kept time, but no moving tail and eyes. Bummer. I couldn’t get the magnetic forces and batteries coordinated, apparently, to power the animation.
So I went after the eyes. They must be the problem, I thought. The website said that any dust or grease on the eyeballs might cause friction in the magnetism, so I cleaned them off. Prowling (sorry) around inside the clock, I thought how this bit of 1930s-era Americana kitchen decor is an engineering marvel. There are J-clips, a platform, a lever, eyeball pins, eye stems and loops that rotate and hold the stems. There’s a magnet, two batteries, that tail and the back panel. So I put it all back together, and still no cat show.
I hung it back up, deciding to tackle the problem another day… which brings me to today. I pulled the clock back down and removed the back panel of the clock. Actually, sliding-snapping-scootching (in that order) the back panel off is probably the hardest part of the whole ordeal.
I’ll put brand new batteries in it again, I thought, clinging to the hope that it could be that simple. I pulled out the left battery and caught a glimpse of the battery placement diagram embossed in the shiny black plastic. Positive up. Whoa. Positive was down. How did I screw that up, I wondered? I thought I had replaced them earlier exactly as shown. All this toil, head-scratching, opening, closing, and scootching and an upside down battery is to blame? I flipped the battery around, nudged the tail, and my Kit-Cat clock was back in business. Problem solved. Order restored. You may now resume your Christmas festivities.
I learned to like ugly stuff in the 1970s. Didn’t everyone? Did we have a choice? For example, Freakies Cereal came out in the early 1970s and it was ugly. However, it was also yellow and crunchy and okay-tasting. Cap’n Crunch without the peanut butter flavor, if I remember correctly.
The Freakies were a gang of seven monsters that remind me now of the blobby ghosts in 1984’s Ghostbusters movie. The gang included BossMoss, Snorkeldorf, Cowmumble, Hamhose, Grumble, Goody-Goody and Gargle.
The Freakies plied their namesake cereal in TV commercials whose length would rival today’s never-ending pharmaceutical ads.The Freakies were always searching for the Freakies tree, which is where the cereal grew. Naturally.
For a while, Freakie fans could collect colored flexible Freakies magnets.I remember arranging the magnets on our white refrigerator. I would usually put one in the middle, as if it were onstage, and the others would encircle it. Or sometimes I would arrange them in rows.
I remember having a disproportionate number of Boss Moss magnets. He was green and bumpy, and held up one index finger as if to say, Please don’t forget us after we’re gone! I didn’t. Even though they were all friendly creatures, they were also a little bit odd and other-worldly, sorta like E.T.
The Freakies were always on a quest to find the Freakies tree so they could eat Freakies cereal. The best one, for a nine-year-old girl anyway, was the pink female Freakie named Goody-Goody. I only pulled one of those from the box. Ever.
I should have asked my grandparents more questions when I was younger. Now it’s too late to ask them, and there are some things I will never know. And I’m not only referring to “big issues” like politics, careers, or religious beliefs. I’m also referring to the smallest of details. Small details that may, in the end, not matter one whit, but still leave me wondering, reminding me that I should have asked my grandparents more questions.
My father’s mother, Edith Douglas, was known in our family as Granny. It always seemed a less appealing name for a grandmother, but we called her that anyway because she wanted us to. My father’s mother was elegantly tall and thin-shouldered. She wore snug gray curls and had a tan complexion from time spent out of doors. She always wore cotton housedresses as most women did then. Her silver-rimmed eyeglasses with ornamental corners and temple pieces framed her light blue eyes. When she was lost in thought or just working in the kitchen, she could look stern, but she wasn’t. Her broad, friendly smile flashed often and revealed an easy-going yet industrious personality. I had known her to butcher chickens and feed kittens buttermilk from the carton all within the passing of ten minutes’ time.
I never asked her about the one thing I noticed every time I was near her: the nail on one of her index fingers had a crease, a break, down the center. I always wondered what caused the crease. I’m sure she would have told me had I asked. It appeared to have been caused by a painful experience. But then again, perhaps not. Maybe it had always been there. Maybe it had just grown that way. I remember that nail simply because I never asked about it, and I still wonder.
I spent many weekend afternoons as a kid finding something to do while the adults visited (usually my parents and grandparents on either my mom’s or dad’s sides). Their conversations would interest me for about four minutes, and then I would leave to find something else to do: walk around outside, play with the dog, look through photo albums, pet the cats. Watching TV was out of the question since both sets of grandparents had only one set, and turning it on would have interrupted their conversations. As a result, I became quite adept at keeping busy until it was time to go.
So, one afternoon at my father’s parents’ house west of Rich Hill, Missouri, I improvised by playing school in a small passageway just off the main living area. This room contained a door to the backyard, a deep freezer on one wall and a large, faded National Geographic Map of the World tacked to the opposite wall. I would stand in the narrow walkway and pretend to be an esteemed teacher of world geography.
I would lecture my imaginary students about China, Argentina, Australia, pointing out those locations with a ball point pen I had retrieved from my mother’s purse before the bell. I would show my attentive students how Kansas really was in the middle of the United States. I would show them that Hawaii is way, way over there.
Eventually, I became distracted from my playing and my mind would wander off into the map and wonder about the big world beyond. Staring at that map, I would study the locations of countries and oceans. I would marvel at how the Soviet Union covered twelve time zones. I remember looking at Greenland and thinking it must be a beautiful place, with expansive, verdant pastures and backyards dotted with kids bundled up in coats and hats and gloves, chasing each other with icicles. I was certain it was a magical, mysterious place.
After contemplating the map for a short while, I would return to my imaginary class and quiz my students with questions. As I called on someone in the back row to locate Namibia, I would overhear my parents and grandparents talking in the front room about chances of rain, when the corn would top out, the recently spread asphalt on the main road, and other such news.
Occasionally, one of the grownups on the other side of the door would laugh, set down a glass, or rise from a recliner by pulling on the noisy side lever. That sound would mean the adults were finally winding up their conversations. In my mind, I would announce to the little room, “Class is over, everyone.” Then I would quietly exit the passageway and rejoin the family for the drive home.
Back in 1928, he and Grandma went to California for their honeymoon. A Ford Model T transported them on dirt roads all the way from tiny and rural Foster, Missouri to San Diego. During the years to come, he would drive combines, tractors, trucks, wagons, horses, and mules.
And then one summer afternoon in 1986, Grandpa decided to take a ride on my sister’s ten-speed bike. He had never ridden a ten-speed before, but wanted to ride it down the driveway and around the cul-de-sac in front of our house. In his pastel blue and white plaid shirt, he churned his legs and slowly headed down the driveway.
My sister, her boyfriend, my dad and I went back to washing my sister’s car. Two minutes passed and I could hear the crunch of the bike’s tires on the chat in the driveway become louder and louder. Grandpa swiftly rounded the corner, gliding gracefully toward my sister’s car with a confused look on his face. It was then we realized we had forgotten to show him the brakes were on the handlebars, instead of the foot pedals as he was accustomed to.
To avoid the collision, Grandpa suddenly somersaulted off one side of the bike and tumbled into the cool, green grass. His oiled gray hair frayed and flew about as he rolled to a stop, ending with his brown leather dress shoes high in the air and a big smile across his face. He laughed so hard he couldn’t make a sound.
Grandma and my mother came through the screened door from the kitchen, wondering what all the excitement was about. We told them Grandpa was merely adding to his list of vehicles he could operate. Two years later, when he was 82, he flew in an airplane for the first time, albeit as a passenger. I don’t think operating an airplane was on his list. He preferred to keep his feet on the ground. Or at least on the pedals.
When I was about ten years old, I received a Mod Hair Ken doll for Christmas. Mod Hair Ken, Barbie’s macho boyfriend and one of the 1970’s most-hyped dolls, came with stick-on facial hair. There were mustaches, beards, sideburns, mutton chops, Fu Manchus.
The little — and I mean little — hairpieces could be applied, removed, and reapplied only once or twice before the adhesive became less sticky. Then the pieces fell off Ken’s face onto the carpet as I carried him around. Then my mother accidentally vacuumed up the tiny pieces of fake hair because she thought they were tufts of cat fur or brownie crumbs. With his hair hopelessly lost in the vacuum cleaner, my Mod Hair Ken suddenly became just a regular Ken.
I had really wanted a Mod Hair Ken, but without those little pieces of hair, what was the point? Exactly two hours after unwrapping the doll, I threw him into my Barbie box and moved on to other things.
Part of growing up is learning to think, to remember, to pay attention when it counts. Once when I was sixteen, I left my car at a friend’s house one night. I had driven to her house after school, and then we had gone “cruisin'” in her car. When that ended, she simply dropped me off at my house.
Later that night, my father noticed my car wasn’t in the garage and asked me where it was. It was then that I realized: oh, I left it at Sonya’s. He then had to drive me to her house at 10 p.m. to get my car. Boy, did I feel dumb. Even though I felt foolish, nothing serious happened as a result of my forgetfulness. I learned about responsibility. That it’s important to double-check, rethink, make a conscious effort to finish a job or, in this case, an afternoon out with a friend, to completion. I never left my car anywhere after that and I learned to be more mindful of myself and my possessions. I learned this lesson the easy way. That was not the case for a friend of mine named Tad, who lived across the road.
Tad liked to play with matches and fire. He enjoyed other boyish pursuits, such as baseball and fishing, but he definitely had a peculiar attraction for fire. I always assumed that fires and the red-tipped sticks that started them attracted Tad chiefly because his parents had forbidden him to use them inside their modest ranch home. On the other hand, maybe his parents banned these items precisely because they knew Tad was so enamored with them in the first place. Then again, maybe they knew something I didn’t about their son.
Eventually, Tad found a way around his parents’ rule: he played with matches outside the house when they weren’t around. Whenever his parents pulled their burgundy Chevelle onto the main road to leave, he would wave to them from the driveway and they would wave back. As soon as he could see the dust rising from the gravel road through the tree row, he would gather his supplies. I didn’t understand why Tad hid this activity from his parents. After all, he wasn’t breaking the “no matches in the house” rule. Maybe he waited for them to go because he didn’t want them to worry. Maybe he waited because his father was six-and-a-half feet tall. Or maybe he knew, deep down beneath his worn flannel shirt, that he was courting danger.
When he played with fire outside, he would use the stray lid of a 55-gallon rusted steel barrel, the type of barrel that people who live beyond the city limits use to burn trash. He would light little fires on the lid, watching the sparks, feeding them tinder, twigs, and a few handfuls of hay he had gathered from the barn.
Gently and with great care, he would watch in wonder as his newborn fire developed into a child. With precisely timed puffs of breath and prodding, Tad would coach, “There you go, you can do it!” As his creation rolled over and then sat up, he would use his hands to shield the flames from the breeze and whisper, “You got it! You got it! Go!” Finally, his baby fire would stand to the height of a toddler.
At that point, Tad had won and he would stand, hands on hips to block the wind, and stare at the flames, just stare, mesmerized by the miracle on the rusty barrel top. His eyes would fixate then, and enlarge to show his mind wandering off. I never knew where his thoughts drifted, but I suspected they went to Jennifer and the trip to Wyoming he had taken with her family a year before. He had told me several times on the way home from school about that trip.
“I wish we could go back, and that I could stand with her again on the boardwalk over those geysers,” he said. “I wish we could do that again.” Their relationship had ended after that trip, and even though I was friends with both Jennifer and Tad, I never was able to discover what exactly had gone wrong. As he stood next to the fire, staring, he would lilt to one side and the toddler fire would keep growing to the size of a kindergartner until I snapped him back to earth. All I had to say was, “Tad.”
Building a fire in the open on a barrel lid was often hard to do for one reason: the Kansas wind. Time and again, when Tad had just nursed a flame into existence, the wind, which never really stopped blowing, would gust suddenly and snuff out the growing flame. If one wasn’t prepared for this, and hadn’t readied sufficient tinder off to the side of the barrel lid, any fledgling flame would have a slim chance. If you could just get out of the wind, things would change, and that fire might prosper. On a Kansas farm, the best place to get out of the wind — but still be considered, technically, outside the house — was the barn.
So one steamy July day at Tad’s place, the afternoon soap operas came on, and his cousin Mike, who was visiting from Nebraska, suggested we make a fire in the gravel driveway. Apparently, the two of them had already made some fires during Mike’s week-long stay. Perhaps Mike, however, did not understand Tad’s fascination with fire.
Tad felt it was safe since his parents were gone. They had driven to town to pay the assorted bills that accumulate over the course of a month. It would be a while before they returned.
In the driveway sheltered by towering catalpa trees, Tad hovered over his supplies as Mike and I sat off to the side, drinking root beer from sweaty bottles of Mr. Frostie. Tad sparked and lit miniature flames on the barrel lid, fighting with the wind to start his fire, coaxing the flames into small blazes barely stable enough to roast a marshmallow. He directed the flame paths with his hands, then used the side of an old cardboard box to fan some more. His eyes lit up as a meager blaze leapt into the air. The wind came up again and extinguished it. He then knelt, leaned forward, and blew again on the pile of sticks and straw at just the right moment, only to see the ensuing flame wither and die in another unexpected breeze. After thirty minutes of this, Tad gave up on the driveway setting. “Let’s do this in the barn . . . get outta the wind,” he suggested.
“That’s a bad idea, Tad,” I said. “It could catch fire.”
“It’ll be all right. I’ll watch it like I always do,” he countered.
“Let’s do it,” Mike said and that was all that Tad needed. He knelt and lifted the barrel lid from the driveway with both hands, and then, like a waiter in a fine restaurant, elevated the loaded tray above his right shoulder and walked hurriedly to the barn, leaving Mike and I to finish our root beers.
“I’m goin’ home,” I said, knowing where this could lead. Tad nodded his head, but never slowed down. Mike followed after him.
An hour later, from my bedroom, I heard the sirens. I bolted upright, tied my shoes and ran from our house, through the yard, across the county road. I stopped at the mailbox at the end of Tad’s driveway. I watched the black clouds of smoke billow against the royal blue sky, then headed toward what had been the barn. Tad, Mike, and now a small crowd of neighbors stood, open-mouthed, wiping their brows, shaking their heads.
Mike told me that by the time the fire department had arrived, there had been nothing much to put out. “I wish I had thought to set up the hose or at least get a bucket of water ready,” he mumbled. Standing in the hot sun, we watched the huge heap of charred timber smolder and smoke. Piles of ash diminished with each gust of hot wind.
Mr. Ivy, whiskered and old, from the next section over walked up to Tad. “What were you thinkin’, Tad?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I didn’t think it would burn like that.”
“They always say, ‘Don’t play with fire.’ You ever heard that one before, Tad?” Mr. Ivy pressed.
“Yeah, Mr. Ivy, I’ve heard that one before,” Tad said, smearing his forehead with his sweaty, dirty hand. He stood, angry and embarrassed, studying the sputtering coals. He didn’t have that far-off look in his eyes this time. Instead, he appeared to hold fast to this one horrifying moment and the worse one to come when he would face his father returning from town.
When his parents did show up a little later, I backed away from the crowd. His father parked the Chevelle by the house and ran to the crowd and the smoky remnants of the blaze. His mother stayed at the car, put her face in her hands, turned, and walked steadily back to the house.
His father approached him, looked in shock at the fire’s remains, then turned to Tad. “What happened?”
“It got out of hand, Dad,” Tad replied.
His father looked for a long while at Tad. He said nothing, but stared deep into his son’s eyes, down to to his cheeks, chin, and back to his eyes, inspecting the product he had created. Then, with both of his long arms, he shoved all his weight against his son’s shoulders, and the boy crashed to the dusty ground. The neighbors and remaining firemen hushed their quiet conversations.
Tad, lying in the dirt, looked up at his dad, and wiped ashen tears from his eyes. His father shook his head and walked away, thrusting his hands the size of snapping turtle shells into the back pockets of his Levis. Twenty feet further, he stopped and studied the ground for a short while, and then turned and strode back to Tad.
Gazing down at him, he sighed and then said quietly, “Well, it could have been worse.” He pulled his hands from his pockets, hitched up his jeans, and knelt down, looking squarely into his son’s eyes. “Do you get it now, Tad? Does it make sense? Why you can’t just drift off to her?” Tad nodded.
His dad held out one hand. Tad took hold, and with a heave, his father pulled him up and into his chest. Most of the neighbors had quietly slinked away, allowing a family in turmoil to right itself without their oversight. Tad and his father embraced and I realized that perhaps Tad’s father remembered what it was like to be young. To be figuring out how to keep your feet on the ground, even though your heart is a million miles away. Many naturally learn this lesson without notice; it comes easily. Others absorb it reluctantly, as the carefree days of youth give way to adult deliberation and practicality.
In the end, Tad and Mike each had to work off $8,000 to pay for the loss of the barn, the burned hay, and the hay the cattle would need for the upcoming fall and winter. At five dollars an hour, Tad kept busy for the next year and a half learning his lesson the hard way. There weren’t many opportunities to think about Jennifer during that time.
One day in 1992, my husband and I were invited to visit an acquaintance who happened to be occupying a house designed by the world-renowned architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. We had seen the house from a distance and had admired its unusual appearance with its exterior winding walkways, circular windows, and austere concrete masonry. It was intriguing and beckoned a closer look.
Wright originally designed the 2,200 square foot structure for his son, David, and his wife, Gladys. It was built in 1952. We’re not sure about the arrangement between the homeowners and our acquaintance. We can’t even recall her name now. Maybe she was renting it or acting as caretakers while the owners were away temporarily. We accepted our acquaintance’s invitation to visit the historic home and stopped by one sunny afternoon for a tour.
Perched near Camelback Mountain, the spiral home was indeed stunning and modern and magical. It was also trashed. Our acquaintance, who was fortunate to occupy Wright’s last residential masterpiece named ironically, “How to Live in the Southwest,” was, in short, a slob.
Bedroom floors held oceans of wadded-up loads of laundry. Dirty dishes lined the kitchen counters. Smudges and stains sullied the bathroom mirrors and floors. Crumpled junk mail littered the hallways. We were dumbfounded. All this disappointment obscured the home’s jaw-dropping features: an entrance preceded by a winding walkway ramp; Philippine mahogany ceilings, cabinetry, and furniture; ubiquitous concealed built-ins; custom carpets; a rooftop deck; panoramic views of the rocky desert terrain. Without a doubt, we had seen it at its worst and even then, it was beautiful.
As we roamed through the home, with its desert views, calming circular structure, and ingenious use of space, our acquaintance apologized for her poor housekeeping habits. “Oh, well… yeah,” we answered, laughing nervously, embarrassed for her — and the house.
Not too long ago, I was curious as to the status of the home and wanted to see what had become of it since our move to Missouri about a year later. So I googled the house while my husband and I reminisced about our Phoenix experiences. Yes, the house did survive that messy time.
And somebody, many people in fact, care about the house’s existence and condition today. After their deaths, the Wrights passed on the house to a granddaughter, who later sold it to a developer who wanted to demolish it. Concerned citizens stepped in, and the house was eventually saved. In fact, another developer is now devising a strategy to preserve and operate the home and grounds for tours, weddings, and cultural performances. It seems a fitting purpose for the architectural gem now known as the David & Gladys Wright House. Still, there is controversy surrounding the whole ordeal, which I likely don’t fully appreciate or understand, since I no longer live in the area. To find out more, go here. As I understand it, the developer wants to expand his concept and residents of the surrounding neighborhood are upset about the increased traffic and congestion they expect to occur.
I hope, even though they disagree on a number of points, that the developers, area residents and preservationists are united in their gratitude that the house previously survived a greater controversy: the disrepair and poor treatment it received when it was in the care of our acquaintance.