We knew mom's house wouldn't hold us all, so my siblings and I decided to camp out in the back yard. We came from hither and yon, bearing tents. Sue and Steve and Willa and Billy drove in from the Carolinas, North and South. Michele came in from Seattle, by way of Denver. Steve put up a sign he had made from driftwood and palmetto wood, that read: "Topeka Ave. Campground." He placed sea shells and driftwood around the base of the sign.
Roger and the girls and I drove all the way from Kansas City with the windows down, after discovering a few miles down the road that we had no AC. Our car was crammed with a tent, air mattress, suitcases, outdoor chairs, duffel bag, and guitar. The girls sat on top of the sleeping bags, which had been unzipped to lay flat, and nestled between them in the back seat were two tiki torches for our campsite.
On the way out west, we stopped near Junction City and ate a picnic lunch I had packed. We climbed up the hill overlooking Fort Riley and Interstate 70, and ate our turkey sandwiches sitting on top of the atomic cannon. One of only three atomic cannons in the world.
We stayed on I-70 until we got to the Ogallah Interchange and then turned south, and drove past Cedar Bluff Dam on the way out to mom's. The Sports Haven snack shop is still there, an ancient primevial place that harkens back to my childhood. I associate it with driving to the lake and feeling carsick.
When we got to Ness, I drove through town and saw the new Stan Herd mural on top of the old auto parts store. The Cozy beer joint had a shiny fresh coat of paint. The new Oil and Agriculture Museum had just opened, and on its front lawn stood a life-size fiberglass buffalo. The buffalo was the kicker. This town was going all out.
Shortly after we arrived, mom served up a delicious Oriental casserole, with crunchy chow mein noodles on the side. Then Steve and Billy helped Roger put up our tent.
I placed our tiki torches at the entrance, tied together with a banner that read "Camp Kerouac." Inspired by the spirited writings of Kerouac, who wrote of many wanderings across this land, and wanderings of the soul, I wanted us to have a "beat" tent. Of course, there is no easy way to translate true beatness into camp decor, so I settled for a few superficial effects. I set out incense, a copy of "On the Road" and two bongos I had made the night before. (Cover two cookie dough tubs with strips of colored construction paper, scrunch up a paper bag until it becomes leathery, and cut out a circle of that for the skin, and attach it to the top of the tub with a rubberband. I made the bongos while watching an old Jackie Gleason movie called "Don't drink the water," which is a surreal, zany, cold war 1960's movie.) To complete our tent, I also played some be-bop jazz quietly on my cell phone. I wanted to attach strips of paper to our tent, with passages from "On the road" or "Dharma bums," but I didn't have time to go that crazy.
After our camp was set up, and the supper dishes were cleared, Billy and Willa took their two girls, Aubrey and Alyssa, and our girls to the Frigid Creme. The rest of us trekked downtown to hear an acoustic trio perform. An old man sat nearby with a fiddle, waiting to be called up. The trio finally let him sit in for just a minute--then they politely dismissed him and the old dude shuffled back to his seat reluctantly. Mom says that anywhere there are people gathered, up ol' Leonard pops with his fiddle. When the BAK (Bike Across Kansas) bikers camped out at the school, there he was, approaching their tents, ready to play for them.
Back at our campsite, we yearned to have a fire. Having a fire in town was illegal. So we burned twigs in a minature grill, as if we were on the verge of roasting marshmallows. Then we thought, "Why not roast some marshmallows?" So Aubrey and Alyssa and my girls and I ran downtown to Butterfields convenience store, and bought their last two bags of jumbo marshmallows, and a bag of pickled-flavored sunflower seeds. So indeed, we roasted marshmallows and drank red wine from paper cups. Michele arrived, bringing more wine, but she insisted on drinking her wine out of a glass.
That morning, Mom scared the bejesus out of us when she walked out of her bedroom dressed as a nun. She was going to be riding on the Catholic Church's "Sister Act" float, and was adorned in full nun attire. For those of us who had suffered the nuns at Sacred Heart Elementary, it was a bit unsettling.
We walked downtown at 10:00 to watch the parade. The theme was "There's no place like home, " which meant a lot of floats with wicked witches and tin men and even an occasional flying monkey. They were really generous this year. They threw out gobs of candy, frisbees, cozies, pens, and keychains, which bore business names like "S & S Trailer Sales," "D & S Machine & Welding" , "J & D Pump & Supply," "S & W Supply", "G & L Pharmacy," etc. The nuns on the Sister Act float handed out "holy water." There were tractors. Lots of tractors. There is apparently no limit to the number of tractors that can be entered in one parade.
After the parade, the Leiker reunion convened under Mom's car port. The back yard was full of aunts, uncles, and cousins from my mom's German Catholic side. Until a cousin from the Briand side slipped through the barricade and crashed the reunion! Go Hal Maurice! I was glad he kicked back and hung out with us, and I had a very good time visiting with him--my cousin from Michigan whom I'd never met before.
Mom got out her keyboard, and set it up in the carport, where it was shady, and regaled us with her repertoire. A couple of women got up and started polka dancing on the concrete slab. Eventually, Laura and Marc arrived, separately, and started setting up their tents.
When it was suppertime, we went downtown, in search of grub. I ate a Polish sausage and a cherry snowcone. Billy and Willa took the girls back to the Frigid Creme.
That night back at the house, Laura and Marc sang and played guitars, and our cousin Shelle Anna brought out her keyboard and joined in. I tried to pick out some notes on my fiddle, but it had been a long time since I'd played, and I was rusty.
That night, Laura and I stayed up later than anybody, talking and drinking under the night sky until the wee hours, and irritating our fellow campers. We howled remembering how mom used to come out of her bedroom and catch us staying up late, and she'd bark at us in her sleepy voice, "Are you still up?!! Get to bed!!" We wondered if she was about to come out the back porch and reprimand us.
On Friday, there was to be free barbecue for the first 1500 people who showed up. I elbowed aside 1499 people and got me some. It was okay. I sat and ate it under the tent of the beer garden, which hadn't quite beered up yet, with my brother Marc (and Michele?) and my godfather and cousin Stan and his sister Shelle Anna and Marlene, another cousin. We watched an acoustic group perform, then registered at the Old Settler's office, receiving a name tag and a silky ribbon showing the range of years we had lived in Ness County.
That afternoon it got beastly hot, so we took the girls to the swimming pool. The Ness pool is a pretty decent pool for a town that size, but it's buggy. Little bugs floating around the edges of the water and cotton off the cottonwood trees was just a fact of life when I was a kid.
At 5:00, Laura performed on the stage across from the beer garden. She sounded great. I was plowing through the sea of humanity inside the beer garden to get some waters when I ran into two old neighborhood chums, who grew up on our street. Two guys who used to tramp around with me and Deana when we were roaming the town in our youth. I could tell you stories....but I won't.And so the gaiety continued. Willa and Sue put together an awesome taco bar, and Michele made a rockin' salsa with fresh cilantro. Willa had a cute habit of tying tea towels around her waist for an apron. That night, we took our girls to the carnival and met up with Willa and Billy and their girls. Back at Camp Topeka, Michele and I were the night owls, staying up and drinking wine and talking until the wee. The street dance downtown was still going strong, and as they passed the midnight hour, they got louder. Like they were turning up their amps to eleven. The whole town must have been lying awake in their beds. Our little campsite was naked and vulnerable to every guitar chord. They played until 1:30 in the morning. Mich and I ended up inside the house at one point, and we were sitting in the livingroom when Mom came out of her bedroom, stopped in the doorway, squinting, and said, "Are you still up? Are you ever going to bed?" Or something to that effect.
On Saturday Lilah and Annabelle were nursing sunburns and so stayed home from the pool. Michele and I went alone, and she reminded me that the trick to swimming underwater was to blow air out through my nose, which I had totally forgotten about.
In the late afternoon, Mich and Marc and Sue all had their class reunions downtown, at the old auto parts store. I saw Marc trudge off into the heat on foot, as I stood in front the house, witness to an unfolding drama involving my aunt Mildred's car, which needed a new battery. How many Leiker relations and inlaws does it take to replace a car battery? Apparently, six or seven. Wace was summoned from the beer garden to bring his tool kit.
The Carolinans packed up their stuff, and started their 1300 mile journey back east. We were sad to see them go. I drowned my sorrows in more beer. Fortunately, Tim was on hand and grilled a delicious feast of burgers and corn.
The polka dance for that evening had been cancelled, so we tried to go to the demolition derby at the fairgrounds, but it was $10 a head, and the line was long, and it was hot, and it was doubtful we 'd get a place to sit. Who needs to watch a bunch of junk cars spinning around and getting stuck in the mud anyway? We gave up and came back home.
Annabelle was really scared to ride the ferris wheel. She didn't want to do it. But then part of her did want to do it. She went into the house to think about it. I sat under the carport with some uncles and aunts and siblings, and I drank some wine to steel myself. I was acting all brave around her, but truth be told, ferris wheels scare the crap out of me too. Finally, she came out of the house and said, "Let's go." So off we went.
The first trip around the wheel, Annabelle wanted to get off. She yelled at the guy to stop the wheel, and he did. But I coaxed her into staying on the ride. I could tell she wasn't sure about getting off, and I knew she'd regret it. Up and around we went again. I said soothing things to her in a serene voice, "You're fine. You're just fine. You're okay. Everything is okay. We're just going around, nice and easy, and everything's fine and we can see everything up here and it's absolutely fine. It's okay, it's okay. This is good." I was really saying this to calm myself.
Annabelle stuck it out. And we stepped off the ride with a feeling of victory. She went on the swings, and then, she announced that she wanted to go on the ferris wheel again. But this time, she wanted to go ALONE. I was amazed. She got stuck on the top like three or four times, but she was okay. And I have to say that Lilah also conquered her fear of the ferris wheel and rode it the night before, which was no small thing for her. So I'd say it was a successful Old Settler's all the way around.
For me, this was the best Old Settler's ever. And just hanging out for hours and chewing the fat with friends and relatives was the best part. I got to hear Willa's husband Billy tell us all about their asian-style, chemical-free garden. I got to hear Steve tell about an alligator attack on Fripp island. I got to hear Carol talk about her studies in sacred art. I got to hear about the time Shelle Anna got picked up by a tornado. I got to hear the familiar voices of aunts and uncles and cousins that I have often taken for granted, but that can't be duplicated anywhere.
I like to think that that's what heaven will be like. Hearing all those familiar voices again, and hearing some that will seem strangely familiar, though I hadn't actually heard them in my lifetime.