We didn’t have much money when I was growing up, but never considered ourselves poor. Both sets of my grandparents came from small farms and grew up during the Great Depression. My grandfathers became businessmen in Midwest cities and my grandmothers worked as teachers for a spell. My father’s parents owned a home in Lincoln and my mother’s parents owned one in Denver. Given my family’s semi-nomadic existence, these would always be the two cornerstones of my life, the red house in Lincoln and the green house in Denver.
If my immediate family didn’t have much money, it was because my father was a free-lance preacher during my early childhood in Hawaii. Then, when he started working in the Lutheran church again, it was for a modest salary, with four kids. My mother didn’t start working as a special ed teacher until I’d already left home. We were taken care of, but never spoiled.
Back then it was a huge treat to go to the movies or eat fast food. If we got to go to Dairy Queen, it was like we’d won the lottery. We’d scrape together any change we could find, behind couch cushions and under car seats, to try to bump up our order, from a simple cone to a chocolate dip, from a buster bar to a peanut buster parfait. I doubt I ate a banana spilt more than a dozen times before getting out of high school.
Nowadays, we could watch movies any time we wanted, and although eating fast food wasn’t a daily routine, it wasn’t a special occurrence either. I knew about a Dairy Queen in Blair though, that was still a treat to revisit. After visiting my grandparents grave, I made it a point to swing by and pick up a vanilla milkshake.
The next stop was Lincoln, to track down the red house. I took the 133 south to the 80, continuing on through Omaha and Council Bluffs, without an address, thinking I’d just pull into Lincoln and recognize the neighborhood. In addition to visiting regularly throughout my life, I’d also spent four months with my grandma during a lost period in my early twenties. I should’ve had some sense of the town. Instead, as soon as I pulled into it, I was totally lost, driving through ethnic neighborhoods I’d had no idea even existed.
I managed to make my way downtown and find the capital building, remembering The Sower on top of it, and then found the Children’s Zoo. Now I was making some progress, but still drove around another half hour, feeling like I was close but not recognizing anything. In desperation I turned to Google Maps, searching for bowling alleys, as I knew there was one in the vicinity of where they’d lived. Parkway Lanes! That was it. As soon I located it, I could put things together. No wonder I’d gotten lost. The street had been taken over by corporate chains and fast-food restaurants.
Prairie Road. That was their street. About halfway down the block I came to the red house and parked in front of it. It looked the same, except now the big yard in back had been fenced off. The neighborhood didn’t look that different, the house remained, but the people that I’d known inside it all were gone. It was someone else’s cornerstone now. All that was left were the memories.
After dropping out of Dana College and taking some time off to find himself, my father had regrouped and enlisted at Peru State College. After getting married, my mother had joined him there for their senior year. That’s where the recruiter from a Hawaii had found them, looking for English teachers. It would be my next destination.
Peru is seventy miles east of Lincoln. I took the 2 to the 75 to the 67. It is a tiny town, with less than a thousand residents, but the Teachers College looked like it had grown and was doing well. It was established in 1867 and most of the buildings, like many of those in Lincoln, are made of red brick. I walked around the campus, stopping in front of a statue of a bobcat, and then a famous footballer, and then drove through town, thinking it might be a good time to look for a campsite.
Karen, from Google Maps, led me to a boat landing far from town on the Missouri River. There were no facilities. I returned to town and filled up on gas and got a few pieces of pizza at Casey’s. Then I tried Google Maps again and came up with the Duck Creek Campground. The way Karen took me there, down backroads, across an open field in one case, almost led me to believe she was conspiring against me. Were the agents of my doom out there lying there in wait, like the Butch Cavendish gang?
Incredibly, I arrived at the campground, on a road so ribbed that the whole car was vibrating, and it turned out to be just fine. No one else was staying there. The fee was only five dollars. I threw up the tent just as the sun setting. A short time later, either wolves or coyotes started kicking up a big ruckus all around. One lonesome cow stood mooing in a field. All the crickets chimed in. I’d lived to see another day.