Thursday, January 24, 2019

Learning to Drive



My six-foot-two dad, Tom Coffey, knew how to drive. He had no choice. A professional truck driver, he hauled goods all over Nebraska and northern Kansas. He'd delivered corn and cattle from Harlan County, Nebraska, since 1929. He'd never had a wreck.

"Want me to teach you how to drive?" Dad asked in 1952 as I inched toward sixteen. I jumped at the chance. I envisioned him delivering lectures; after all, he had majored in education in college, but this is what he did:

Dad owned a car as big as a truck, his Buick. He took me, my younger sister, mother and aunt to Sunday church services, parking his car at an angle.

After services, I noticed that Dad, oddly, moved ahead of us and skittered down the long church steps. He piled in his car. I heard the motor and watched him back. He moved the Buick to a straight spot on the street, then shut it down and exited. He met me at the bottom of the stairs. 

"Here." He handed me his cluster of keys. "Why don't you drive us home?" 

Me? Who'd only driven my bike and my big red wagon. The thought terrorized but excited me. I grabbed the keys.

"I'm not riding with her!" My sister Margery skirted the car to walk home, two blocks away.

Mom and Aunt Faith slipped in the back, Dad in the passenger seat, and I, of course, prepared to drive. The hair stood up on the back of my neck. What if I caused an accident?

My feet didn't reach the pedals, but Dad showed me how to fix that. Then he selected the ignition key from my fist-full of keys and demonstrated where to put it. I inserted it.

"You'll want to have your foot on the brake," Dad noted, "before you turn that key." 

He explained how to shift the Buick into forward and move up the street. Dad seemed relaxed, but a glance in the rear-view mirror showed Mom and Faith glued in their places, speechless.

I turned the key, heard the familiar Buick roar, touched the accelerator and edged gently forward. I knew I could drive lickety-split by pressing down the accelerator, but with my priceless cargo, I dared not. I barely crept.

Still, it excited me to nose that big old Buick up the street, around the corner, along the block to our house, into the driveway and park it without having offed any of my family.

Margery, waiting for me, thumbed her nose. My backseat passengers clambered out, chattering like chickens.

But I could drive! Few experiences in my life would top that sensation.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

How did my surgery go?

The night before facing the knife, I lay down to sleep: Mantra boom boom boom, Mantra boom boom boom, but no sleep.

I got up and redid my wardrobe for surgery.  Tried on three different outfits: the somber all-black-and-gray one won. Went back to bed.

Couldn't think of a thing but my work-in-progress, ZACK'S LEFT HAND, a historical novel. Ideas for it drifted through my mind. Suddenly I saw a way to solve the part that had stumped me. A Good Idea. As I watched, I saw it was a Magnificent Idea, pulling together a major theme in the work. Wow!

I leapt out of bed and sat at my computer to write this marvelous revelation.

After, I opened FaceBook to read the—so many—comments about my surgery.  Many more than I expected. "Maybe a dozen," I'd thought, but FB said 174! I blushed. And every comment cheered me! I read all the way to the end, then tottered off to bed, and slept the remaining two hours.

Oh yes, and the surgery went well. I had practically no pain although my helpers insisted on picking up Oxycodone and making me take one. But six hours later, my pain was so slight I took a couple Tylenols instead. After that, nothing.

But here's the best part of the surgery: the doctor told me I have no cancer, none at all. So only my imagination had believed otherwise.

Imagination. The curse and the blessing of the writer.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

I Never Learn

A friend suggested I use a cane. He'd watched me fall flat as a pancake on the sidewalk and witnessed me stumbling over a rocky road. 

So I bought a cane and used it, hoping to offset my balance problem.

The cane seemed particularly useful out of doors. Somehow, with a walking stick in hand, I couldn't help but spot the cracks and curbs ahead of me.

However, walking with a cane felt cumbersome, so I turned to the Internet for help. There I learned how to select which hand to grip my cane and how to coordinate it with one leg.

Then came my meditation group where we sit and meditate for twenty minutes, then walk for ten minutes before we sit again.

During the ten-minute meditation walk, I followed proper cane etiquette. With my cane in my chosen right hand, I tapped it in sequence with my right leg; my left leg struck out alone.  

Tap, step; tap, step, it felt so good, almost like dancing. I really got into it. What fun! The ten minutes soon finished.

But later, I noticed that I'd drubbed my cane so vigorously that I'd injured my right shoulder. Four days later, I'm still wincing.

Unfortunately, I often march wide of the mark. Miscalculation seems to smolder in my brain, ever eager to influence my decisions.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Dear General Manu Manu,

Did you know that you are not the only general serving in Kabul, Afghanistan? Both you and the man who calls himself Star General appeared as Facebook friends in my chat room a short time ago.

Both soon showed me how awful serving in Afghanistan could be for a general. You counted the number of soldiers killed that day and clutched your heart, but Star General outdid you. He pulled up photos of desolate Kabul and showed me one of several impromptu burials of his soldiers. It was so sad, the soldier under Afghanistan dirt, and resting beside him his helmet and weapon. Star admitted he wept at the sight. 

What's a poor girl to do but offer heart-self sympathy to the poor weeping generals?

Sure enough, soon after, they professed sudden overwhelming eternal love for me. They wanted kisses. What an odd situation! They in Kabul wanting to kiss me in Nebraska. How will we do that, smack digital lips? Although Star General offered to send me a photo to kiss, a picture of his manhood, a splendid specimen, he assured me.

Here's what else the two of you Generals have in common: your retirement is coming up soon. That's a familiar topic. Of the two dozen or so military men in my earlier chat rooms coming up for retirement, all required someone like me to pay for their tickets home to my waiting arms in Nebraska. Just a loan, of course.

I was tempted, now and then, to pay a General's ticket home just to see if he would actually come to Nebraska, but I refrained.

Sometimes when I think about the generals, I wonder if they are scammers like so many Facebook "friends" who profess ever lasting love and then hit you up for money. I'd ask them, but I know they'd say, "No." What self-respecting scammer would admit it?

Thursday, October 25, 2018

A Railroad Party

July 1, 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Bill, which opened a line from Missouri River to California. 

Construction crawled, but by October, rails reached the 100th meridian, 247 miles west of Omaha.

Union Pacific celebrated. 

Two trains chugged down the track to the 100th meridian. Red, white, and blue streamers billowed alongside the cars, and festive antlers perched on top of locomotives. 

The first train lugged party supplies, Western style: tents, buffalo robes, cases of champagne. 

The second train brought 140 party goers—the guest list loaded with influential capitalists and Congressional dignitaries. 

They whooped it up for three days, dancing around a huge bonfire, peering at a prairie dog town, applauding Pawnee war dancers, and eating fresh-killed antelope for dinner. 

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Stagecoach King

Benjamin Holladay, the Stagecoach King, who owned the world's largest stagecoach line, hired William Parker Carr as a hunter.

"The Republican River valley," Holladay said, "is a world-class place for game."

So Carr headed west, riding for miles. The Republican River wiggled and jiggled but its path, as a whole, ran straight. 

Enormous flocks of birds cast shadows on Carr's path. Wild grasses undulated. Leaf-shedding trees hugged the river into a canopy that shimmered in the wind. 

When Carr stopped, bird calls crescendoed, chirps and chatter, trills and twitters, warbles, whistles, and hoots.

Finding game was easy. Carr could kill hundreds and fail to dent the enormous herds. Elk covered more than an acre; scads of black-tailed and white-tailed deer and antelope dotted the plains. 

Other game also flourished. Wild turkeys and rabbits, grouse and coyote had multiplied so that thinning seemed impossible. 

All these zillions of creatures had been drawn to the valley for the same reason: a profusion of tender grasses and clear spring-fed creeks.

This lush paradise would become Harlan County. Ninety years later, I lived there.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

“Wild Jim” Lane

Kansas folks got het up about "Wild Jim" Lane, a Free State leader.

His hair stood every which way; his mouth slashed across his face. When he spoke, he swore and worse. Laughter rippled his belly. His energy was amazing.

When the Topeka legislature elected "Wild Jim" to the U.S. Senate, he carried a Topeka Constitution to Washington, D.C. Before he could serve, Congress must accept that constitution. But it did not.

If he returned to Kansas, federal troops would imprison him for treason. So he toured. How he swayed an audience! Sometimes his voice wooed like a lullaby, sometimes stirred like a bugle. 

In Chicago, his speech created pandemonium. Gamblers threw pistols on the stage. Staid businessmen tossed in their wallets. Even newsboys cast up pennies. "Wild Jim" collected thousands of dollars, and a thousand men joined his army.

"Wild Jim" and his army ferried over the Missouri River, then cut across Nebraska Territory. Near Kansas, they dared not be seen on regular roads, so Free Staters marked a trail through the Kansas sea of grass with tall poles and piles of stone. "The Jim Lane Trail," they called it. 

On January 29, 1861, President Buchanan signed a free Kansas into the Union. At once, Kansas voters elected "Wild Jim" Lane, no longer wanted for treason, to the U.S. Senate.