We were always on Twelve coming into Eau Claire, watching for the bend where Truax Boulevard ends and US12 follows Third Street. At that bend we turned into my grandparents’ driveway. Had Truax continued straight, it would have gone through the house and into the Chippewa River. Grandpa told us that more than one drunk motorist had missed the turn and tried to drive up the steps onto their front porch.
Grandpa and I were sitting together in the ragged old wicker bench on that porch. I had been answering his questions, as best I could, about our trip from Walla Walla. We’d already heard Dad regale the family, including Uncle Howie and Aunt Eileen who joined us for the previous evening, with the story about the rainstorm that dumped on us every night and let us catch up and drive through it every afternoon until Mom had had enough and we stayed at a motel somewhere in one of the Dakotas. The storm got angry at us for chickening out on camping, so it blew its rain under the door to get at us in the motel. Dad told the story with real passion and most of it was true.
Anyway, back to my story, some of which is true. Grandpa and I had run out of questions and answers and were sitting in silence just watching the cars coming toward us and around the bend or picking up speed as they hit Truax heading out of town. Uncle Dick, with grunts and effort, pried his 300 pound self out of his deep broken-down easy chair and went into the house. He came back out with two sticks of Juicy Fruit gum, handed one to me and folded the other into his mouth.
“Thanks, Uncle Dick,” I chewed.
He plopped back into the chair, and asked, “Pop? How ‘bout I take Kent and we go downtown, tomorrow? Just us.” He’d apparently been considering this for some time.
“I don’t know, Dick. We’ll have to see,” by which Grandpa meant that this would take some discussion among the other adults. Who would be guiding whom? The ten- year-old or the thirty something man with a ten-year-old’s mental maturity. Dick and I thought it was a great idea, regardless.
We sat quietly again. When I started to get up, Grandpa suggested, “Let’s count red convertibles.”
As if this afternoon hadn’t been slow enough. Then I spotted one coming toward us. While I was congratulating myself, Grandpa pointed to another. “It’s a red and white two tone, Grampa. Does that count?”
“OK. Half a point then. You’re ahead by half.” Within twenty minutes we had counted at least a dozen and had quit keeping score. From our front porch back home in Walla Walla that would take a week and we’d be counting the same Chevy twice a day.
Grandma called us in to supper then. She had made Jell-O again, which I had to eat because it was especially for me. Grandma had decided that I love Jell-O because I ate a lot of it at our first meal after arriving. If only I’d quenched my thirst with water before that first supper, I wouldn’t have had to take two helpings of red or green or orange gelatin every meal. Sheesh.
When I came into the kitchen next morning Grandpa was sitting with a deep bowl between his knees, mashing something yellow into some white, stiff goo. “What’s that, Grampa?” I asked.
“Well, good morning, Kent. You’re the early bird this morning,” he said.
Grandma, at the old wall-hung kitchen sink, answered my question. “He’s mixing color into the oleo, Kent.”
“Huh? Why don’tcha buy the yellow kind?”
Dad came from the dining room, chuckling under his breath. “You’re in Wisconsin, Son. In the Dairy State they don’t sell margarine that looks like butter.” That seemed kind of dumb to me, but I didn’t say anything. Anyway, why not just eat it white? It wouldn’t taste any different, I didn’t think. Well, you know how grown-ups are. Probably thinking they can fool the kids or something.
Grandpa put the bowl of his mixture in the ice box and pulled out a bottle of milk. While he poured Post Toasties Corn Flakes and milk into a soup plate for my breakfast, he turned to Dad with a worried expression. Before he could speak, Dad grabbed the cereal box and, while pouring some for himself, said, “After all these years, you still eat these every day, don’tcha Pop.”
Grandpa looked over at Grandma shaking her head before he replied. Grandma’s single long braid of gray hair swayed with her head movements. I hadn’t ever noticed that she had such long hair. She always kept it wrapped tight against her head, as it would be again soon after breakfast time.
I was noticing her hair and at the same time hearing about the cereal. Grandpa was saying to Dad, “Your Mother tried to fool me with some Kellogg’s the other day, Hank. When it was on sale, I guess. She put it in the Toasties box and all. Set out to prove I wouldn’t know the difference.”
He and Grandma were both smiling and almost laughing, but not quite. She said, “Every morning he’d take that first spoonful and tell me there’s something off about the corn flakes and ask if they’re really Post Toasties. He ate them, though.”
“I gave the game away with the next box. She had it opened and all, but I looked inside the box before I ate any and my satisfaction must’ve shown. Then she knew. The waxed paper bags inside are different.” He turned to Grandma and said a little louder, “But, don’t you try to pull that stunt ever again, Nell.”
“So, you admit they taste as good then, huh Pop?”
Grandpa shrugged and wouldn’t answer. He just mumbled something about how the man has to be right, which made Dad’s face turn red like he was about to scream at Grandpa. I think that made it harder for the next part of their conversation that morning.
Grandpa picked up the milk bottle and was about to put it in the ice box when my sisters, Lynn and Susan, came in from the back bedroom. Mom arrived soon after. It was guy shift first and then the girls at the kitchen table that morning.
I was headed for the back door when Uncle Dick saw me going by. He was coming up from the basement, struggling as he lifted his weight up the steps. He’d give up his room to the out-of-town family visitors. He called my name, stopped to catch his breath, and said, “We’re going downtown today. Just me and you.”
“Grandma heard him, and hollered, “After lunch, Dick. Don’t be in too big a hurry. And you remember to keep enough money for two bus fares back home, you hear?”
Dick plodded on up the stairs. I grinned and said to him, “OK,” and went out to the back yard, thinking about going on down to the river. The Chippewa River was just beyond First Street that followed alongside the river. The yard went all the way to that street near the Y junction at the end of Third Street.
I sat on the back steps with my thoughts. I was beginning to figure out that there was something about Uncle Dick that gave them reason to worry about him. I stood up when Dad and Grandpa came through the screen door. They were talking about the ice box.
“They won’t be delivering ice any more in two weeks, Franklin. I’ll have to cart a block from the market and hope they keep selling it.” Grandpa used Dad’s full name that time. He was Frank to everyone at home. Here he was Hank because that’s what Dick called him when they were kids, or so I was told.
Dad took a deep breath and with an exasperated expression, said, “I know, Pop. Howie told me.”
“I don’t know what he said, but if Howie thinks he’s gonna come clear from Chippewa Falls with ice…” He shook his head. “That’ll end before school starts and he’s getting his marching band ready for those half-time shows. Besides, Dick and I can get it, but I worry about the day we can’t.”
“Don’t worry about it, Pop.” Dad knew that his Pop believed the man had to be right, always in charge. He knew Grandpa also believed the man must be provider for his wife and handicapped son and not recipient of charity, even a gift from his other sons. Dad expected an angry response, so he blurted out the news in a rush of words. “We worked it out. In fact, the refrigerator is being delivered this afternoon.”
Grandpa nodded and started up the back steps, stooped a little lower than before. He went through the screen door into the enclosed porch and started moving boxes and tools that had collected there. “We better clear this out, then, Hank. The ice box will fit in here just fine. Good for dry storage, I guess.” Grandpa was always practical, and it practically covered up his emotions. I didn’t know all the reasons at the time. I figured it out later and I still could be wrong.
Highway 12 was not only a speed-up and slow-down-for-towns route across the prairie. It was also our city bus route into Eau Claire’s business district. Grandma said it again while we were eating sandwiches at the dining table. “Don’t forget, Richard. Keep some change for two fares back. If you spend all your money on things you aren’t supposed to eat, you’ll be stuck.”
Mom took me aside and gave me seventy-five cents in small change with the warning, “You keep that for fare in case Dick loses his money.” And we were off down the block to the bus stop along the 12 business route, chewing our Juicy Fruits and talking about ways that Walla Walla and Eau Claire are different and not so different. I think Uncle Dick had trouble imagining any place beyond his town but he wanted to know all about it. It was hard to walk slowly enough for him keep up, but the bus stop was only at the other end of the block and across the street. Crossing that busy street alongside a fat man with weak legs was the hardest part.
At the bus stop he reached in a pocket, pulled out two bus tokens and handed one to me. “Mom, er, your Gramma, she don’t know I got these. She likes to worry. They’re only good for the bus ride, nothing else.”
“Do you have more of these things for the ride back?”
He winked and said, “Maybe.”
When we got off the bus downtown, a man walking along the sidewalk called out, “Hello there, Dick. Who’s your friend?”
Dick talked to the man and we went our way. That’s when I asked, “Are you friends with everybody in Eau Claire?” The same introduction had taken place about twenty times on the bus ride. Everyone who got on the bus had greeted Dick by name and he knew theirs. That’s the way I remember it.
We walked along and the greetings continued—not everyone now, but still some. Dick steered us into a dime store with a lunch counter. This was his purpose for the trip. I was his excuse. The gratification would be delayed no longer. We each had a chocolate sundae with a cherry on top. Grandma had said he shouldn’t, but she knew he would. On the way out of the five-and-dime he bought two packs of his favorite chewing gum and a little plastic puzzle for me.
We slowly walked a block or two. At a news stand I bought a Superman comic book. At a small park we sat on a bench so Dick could rest. I wanted to play on the swings, but I also wanted to pretend I was too old for that stuff, so I fidgeted and read my comic book. Uncle Dick sat and greeted more friends. When he started to fall asleep, I tickled him—that was payback for visiting times when I was little.
Pretty soon we were at a stop waiting for the Truax bus to take us back out to the north end of Third Street, where US12 turns toward Minnesota and the Great Plains. Uncle Dick fished in his pocket for bus tokens; then he dug in another pocket, where he might have put them. He had kept them separate from his coins and the tokens we’d already spent. That’s when he discovered the hole. His other pocket held one nickel. The tokens were gone. Before he admitted the problem he was shaking all over. That got me panicky, like he was about to die or something horrible.
“The bus tokens are lost,” he cried. I mean for real; he was sobbing. He pulled the pocket lining out and stuck his finger through the hole, so I saw what happened. I was having trouble keeping it together to remember and offer the solution. Finally I managed to say, “I still have some money, Uncle Dick. How much do we need?” I pulled the coins from my pocket and counted sixty-four cents.
Through his sobs he managed to answer, “Dime. Dime apiece.”
“We have plenty. We won’t tell Gramma. Mom can sew your pocket back up.” Dick was still shaking a little bit after we were seated on the bus. None of the other passengers said anything until he was more calm. Then they started asking if he was OK, and is there anything they can do, and like that. Except for the panic, it had been a pretty good adventure with my special uncle. No one asked about our afternoon, what with all the excitement of the refrigerator’s arrival. The next couple days I was happy to go for walks with Dad into the low hills where he had his adventures with his friends way back when and down by the river where he’d take big whiffs of the stink from the paper mill on the other side. Oh, Grandpa and I counted more red convertibles—extra points if the top was down. Since it was July, most were.
Then it was time to Elliott-pack (That’s a thing, by the way. I’ll tell about it sometime.) the car and one-wheel trailer, ready to head down US Highway 12. Next stop, Chicago and the Elk Mound side of the family.