Tales From the Diggins Part 2 – Rock Creek, Rattlesnakes, and Uncle Ronnie

This is the second in a series of three posts – the first can be found here.

The Rock Creek Landslide

After our first summer at the mine we moved our camp to Rock Creek, about 5 miles from the Diggins. Giving up so much flat ground to build camp on made it hard to navigate the big machinery. Camp was still made up of zones – my folks and another couple, the Laughlins stayed in our GMC Jimmy with a cab over camper. The Laughlin kids,  my brothers, and I stayed in a large tent nearby. Grandma, Grandpa , and Uncle Ronnie had a tent next to ours.

This is not our camper or our camp or our flag or our lake - but we did have a huge cabover camper on top of an old Jimmy.

This is not our camper or our camp or our flag or our lake – but we did have a huge cab over camper on top of an old Jimmy.

Camping at the creek kept us close to water and away from the dust at the mine and it was a short drive over to the mine each morning. We had some high sage that created a break from the clearing at the creek side.

For bathroom facilities we had a fold up stool with a toilet seat on it – the idea was that you could attach a plastic bag to capture your droppings, but we were out in the wilds where lots of animals pooped – so what was a little people poop in the mix?  When you needed to go you would take the stool and hike up the hill beyond the sage thicket. The hillside beyond the thicket was pretty steep but their was plenty of privacy.

I can't believe they still make these - better than squatting in the sagebrush!

I can’t believe they still make these – better than squatting in the sagebrush! This style potty is best used on flat terrain.

One morning we were all asleep in the tent early in the morning. We were awakened by the sound of my mom screaming and the sounds of breaking tree limbs. She had taken the little stool up the hill and found a spot on the hill. Mom was very private and camping was something it took her a while to get comfortable with – all that togetherness could be a bit overwhelming . She faced uphill and settled in. Unfortunately the stool gave way and flew out from under her. She crashed to the ground and slid downhill backwards through the stool and her own stool. For me it was a cautionary tale about being on solid ground before you let loose.

Does a Barbi poop in the woods? Yes, but it took some practice to get it right.

Does a Barbie poop in the woods? Yes, but it took some practice to get it right.

Lorri the Snake Spotter

One day I was playing in the creek – catching minnows in a bucket. I carried the bucket up towards a shady spot just past the tent. As I walked along the side of the tent I spotted it – the last 8 inches of a rattlesnake as it turned the corner around the tent ahead of me. I yelled, “Snake!!” and Pops and Kenny came running. They had already finished the day’s assay work and had been enjoying a couple of Buds in the shade on the other side of the creek. They heard my call and came running.

This is what I saw as it slithered around the tent in front of me - Yikes!!

This is what I saw as it slithered around the tent in front of me – Yikes!!

Kenny got there first and saw the snake going under the tent – to stop it he did the logical thing. He stepped on it’s tail. He yelled to Pops to grab a gun. Pops came literally with guns a-blazing, his 45 and extra clips in hand. The snake turned back towards Kenny and Pops fired into the ground missing both the snake and Kenny’s foot. The snake turned back towards the tent and darted head first underneath the floor of the tent.

Pops ran inside the tent and started shooting into the floor wherever he thought he might see snake movement. Amazingly on the second clip he managed to hit the snake. Kenny pulled the lifeless serpent out from under the tent by it’s crushed tail. Just to be sure Pops emptied another clip into the thing. Through all that gunfire Kenny never flinched – the bloody rattles were his trophy, a reward for his bravery. After all this the two men decided a shovel was the right tool to decapitate it – I wonder why they didn’t start with a shovel in the first place.

This is the right tool for killing a snake - it keeps you at a reasonable distance and saves ammo.

This is the right tool for killing a snake – it keeps you at a reasonable distance and saves ammo.

The rest of the time we camped there I was paranoid about a snake getting into our tent through one of the ten bullet holes in the floor. I used a whole roll of duct tape to seal up that mess so that I could sleep at night.

Snake Sealer for a bullet riddled tent.

Snake Sealer for a bullet riddled tent can make you rest a little easier

Poor Uncle Ronnie

My Uncle Ronnie was born without a suspicious bone in his body. This made him an easy mark for my Grandma. She loved to play tricks on her favorite nephew. Ronnie was not actually our uncle – he was Pop’s cousin and since Pops was an only child he was about as close to an uncle as we had in our everyday life. When Mom was pregnant for the last time her and Pops decided to name the last baby for either Uncle Ronnie or his wife Aunt Sharon. Ronnie was a boy so the honor went to Uncle Ronnie.

Uncle Ronnie with my brother Ronnie as a newborn - he was so proud.

Uncle Ronnie with my baby brother Ronnie as a newborn – he was so proud.

I guess when a family names a kid after you, you expect that you have a certain level of trust. Ron was so unsuspecting that he never saw anything coming. That summer at the Diggins Grandma managed to get him almost every day. First, she made a lemon meringue pie for his birthday – she knew it was his favorite. She presented it to him after dinner and told him the whole thing was just for him. He smiled from ear to ear. He took a fork and tried to cut into it but he just couldn’t get the fork to go through. He tried a knife – it seemed like a very tough pie. Now he was trying to be polite – smiling and trying not to show that this was one tough pie. He continued to struggle for about 20 minutes before Grandma confessed that it wasn’t a pie at all. It was a piece of foam rubber from the upholstery shop that she had baked a meringue on top of.

It may look tasty, but it's tough as nails.

It may look tasty, but it’s tough as nails.

The next day Grandma made breaded steak for dinner, one of Ronnie’s favorites. As we all dug into our steak Ron noticed that his was kind of stringy. Again, he was trying to be polite until he discovered that he had been served a breaded dish rag.

Is that a dishrag inside that golden breading?

Is that a dishrag inside that golden breading?

This was followed by dish soap in his coffee, open sardines under the seat of his truck – it went on and on. I honestly think that Ronnie enjoyed someone putting that much into getting one over on him.

Aroma for the drive home.

Aroma for the drive home.

The night before we left I saw Grandma leave the sleeping tent with a flashlight and a screwdriver. I followed but kept my distance as I saw her remove Ron’s hubcaps and put rocks inside before replacing them. The noise must have been terrible once he hit the pavement. He thought his wheels were actually coming off. He pulled over to check the wheels and found a note from Grandma taped to the inside of the hubcap – “Gotcha! From Aunt Minnie Haha”

This is Grandma with Uncle Ronnie's son Michael - she never pulled any tricks on Mike.

This is Grandma with Uncle Ronnie’s son Michael – she never pulled any tricks on Mike.

Their tete a tete was one that was good-natured fun, but was mostly at poor Ron’s expense. If she could pull off that many gags in the wilds of the desert you have to know that they happened non-stop when they were back in civilization. But they had genuine affection for each other. She never stopped coming up with new ways to get him and he never stopped trusting that he would be eating real food. Occasionally he was right.

Aunt Sharon with the three of us - she was a lot of fun even if none of us were named for her. One time she taught Max all the wrong names for the silverware while mom was away for the day. Mom was not impressed.

Aunt Sharon with the three of us – she was a lot of fun even if none of us were named for her. One time she taught Max all the wrong names for the silverware while mom was away for the day. Mom was not impressed.

That summer was one of discovery. I discovered that pooping in the woods took planning. I discovered that there really could be snakes under my bed. I discovered that Duct Tape can buy you a little piece of mind. I learned that there is a sucker born every minute and one of them was named Uncle Ronnie.

Tales from the Diggins Part 1 – Camp at Toejam and Minnie-haha

Grandma and Grandpa - at about the time they became Grandparents.

Grandma and Grandpa – at about the time they became Grandparents.

Our grandparents set out to really enjoy their 40s and 50s. Grandpa had been with the Union Pacific Railroad since his early 20s and had a bent towards entrepreneurism. He was always talking about opening a combination restaurant/laundromat in Bullhead City, Arizona. He was looking to fill a need in place where there was opportunity. He was so serious that at one point we planned to pack up our stock on Isabelle and head to the Arizona desert. Later he took an upholstery class along with my Grandma and my Pop who used his GI benefits. He really dreamed of building a family business that he could leave behind. Carter’s Custom Upholstery was a great success. They did furniture,  airplanes, custom hot rods, Wayne Newton’s horse trailers – just about anything you could think of. At one time Grandpa had a contract to recover all the Eames lounge chairs in municipal airports on the west coast. Even while he was succeeding in business he was still looking for the next big opportunity.

Grandma and Grandpa working in the upholstery shop.

Grandma and Grandpa working in the upholstery shop. Grandma is ready to pitch in with the tack hammer.

Opportunity knocked in the form of his nephew Ronald Owens. “Uncle” Ronnie, as we called him, had been researching mining claims in northern Nevada. He needed funding to file papers, Grandpa anted up, and Cartron Mining was born. To maintain the claim they would have to do annual assay work in the wilds of the high desert.

Grandpa purchased this Jeep Gladiator pickup to haul gear up to the Diggins. Uncle Ronnie took this shot on their first scouting trip.

Grandpa purchased this Jeep Gladiator pickup to haul gear up to the Diggins. Uncle Ronnie took this shot on their first scouting trip.

What started as a business venture quickly became a family affair. The mining claim was our summer home. We would bug out of our Isabelle Avenue home base with enough rations to last a month if necessary. We would take fresh provisions for the first week and brought canned goods, dried fruits, and powdered milk and eggs to last beyond.

One of the sleeping tents at camp on the creek.

One of the sleeping tents at camp on the creek. I love that we used Samsonite suitcases to pack for the trip.

The trip to the mine was an elaborate caravan. A Jeep pickup with a canvas camper shell lead the pack with a little Willy’s Jeep in tow. My parents, brothers and I rode in this rig along with the bulk of our supplies. Next my grandparents drove a 1940s era semi tractor with a flat-bed trailer that hauled our Caterpillar bulldozer.  We held this formation until we left the pavement. At that point Grandma and I would take the Willy’s off of the tow bar and we took the lead as we headed into the mountains. Grandma had outfits for us – goggles, bandanas, and wind breakers kept us warm and allowed us to breath through all that dust. Next came the semi followed by the Jeep pickup. About 5 miles from the claim we took the Caterpillar off the trailer and left the semi behind. My pop brought up the rear in the Cat and we worked out way deep into the hills.

Mom and Pop on the Caterpillar Tractor, heading into camp.

Mom and Pop on the Caterpillar Tractor, heading into camp.

The claim was a mere 60 miles from the nearest paved road. It was 25 miles to the nearest town of any kind. Midas Nevada was a living ghost town. Once home to 10,000 miners, by 1966 only 17 people remained. Midas had few amenities, a saloon, a one-room schoolhouse, and a telephone. When Pops and Grandpa went up alone to do assay work we would hear from them once a week when they made the trek into town. When the whole family was at the mine Grandma would make a run about once a week to get ice. We would stop by the saloon for a cold creme soda. One time while we were in town Grandma convinced a resident to let her take an old license plate off of his shop. It dated from 1922 and it still hangs in my living room today.

Grandma did everything at the mine - she drove the Jeep, operated the sluice, and drove the dozer. She also made mean pancakes every morning.

Grandma did everything at the mine – she drove the Jeep, operated the sluice, and drove the dozer. She also made mean pancakes every morning.

Our claim was on Toejam Creek – as a child I thought this was one of my Grandma’s imaginative nicknames, a couple of years ago I learned that Toejam is a real place on a map. My grandfather created two ponds by diverting the creek. The first he lovingly named after Grandma, Lake Minnie-haha – it was the pond where we worked the sluice boxes. The second pond was one he made for us to swim in.

Grandma swimming in Lake Minnie-haha. It seemed like a real lake to me at the time.

Grandma swimming in Lake Minnie-haha. It seemed like a real lake to me at the time.

I was relentlessly trying to swim in Lake Minnie-Haha while they were processing dirt. The sluice pond made for a muddy swimming hole. One day Grandma and I took a hike to look for arrowheads – when we came back my grandfather showed me his latest creation – Lake Lorri – our very own swimming hole. Grandpa built a welcoming arch out of timbers – “Welcome to Lake Minnie-haha – Minnie the Moocher, Proprietor.

Grandpa erected this sign to let everyone know who was boss at the Diggins.

Grandpa erected this sign to let everyone know who was boss at the Diggins. Next lodging about a bazillion miles.

Life at the mine reminded me a lot of life at my grandparents house, structured, organized and fun. There were 3 large tents. One for sleeping, one for cooking, one for just hanging out in – like a living room. In the sleeping tent we were all up on army cots to avoid the dangers of scorpions and rattle snakes. The cooking tent had long folding picnic tables inside holding up multiple camp stoves. Ice chests were stored inside under blankets. Just like at home we were urged to get what we needed out of the ice chests quickly – it was just like the fridge at home, without a light. Dried foodstuffs were housed in wooden boxes or metal chests to keep out animals and pests – just like the kitchen cabinets at home. The third tent had folding tables and chairs inside for playing cards and board games inside, out of the dust and the weather.

Just like the ancients that once inhabited Toe Jam, we had a vinyl dinette to play cards at.

Just like the ancients that once inhabited Toe Jam, we had a vinyl dinette to play cards at.  Seated are Uncle Ronnie, Herb the geologist, Pops, and Grandpa. The shadowy photographer is Minnie the Moocher.

Each day we woke up and had a hot breakfast. My grandparents even had an old dinette set outside for us to eat on. We did dishes in the creek and they started the assay work. If there was heavy machinery moving Grandma would take the kids on an adventure away from the chaos. We would all pile in the Jeep and go someplace to hike or explore. We would pack a lunch and explore all day.

Lake Minnie-haha was so vast that we had a raft used to cross it - it was actually more work that walking the 25 feet around to the other side, but we were adventurers.

Lake Minnie-haha was so vast that we had a raft used to cross it – it was actually more work that walking the 25 feet around to the other side, but we were adventurers. The field beyond the lake was where Grandma and I found treasures – rocks, arrowheads, fossils – it was paradise.

It was a time of wonder for me. I saw wildflowers and developed a lifelong interest in rocks. Grandma encouraged me in my rock collecting much to the chagrin of my mom who didn’t see why anyone would ever need more than a handful of rocks. Each time we went to the mine I brought home about a hundred pounds of rocks – my mom made me keep them in the backyard and she did her best to dispose of them little by little thinking I would never notice. Of course I did notice, just like I noticed when she made my favorite jeans, or t-shirt, or pet turtle disappear.

Grandma working the sluice box - she was at her best when she was doing new things.

Grandma working the sluice box – she was at her best when she was doing new things. There’s gold in that there mud!

In the evening after dinner we would all pile in the Willys Jeep and go to a spring where my grandpa had built a tin shower. We would bathe and we would get fresh water for the next day from the spring. All clean in our jammies we would head back to camp by way of a large open field full of jack rabbits. The local ranchers encouraged us to shoot them. They were there in such huge numbers that there was no end to them and they damaged the grazing land. So the evening was made for entertainment. Instead of watching TV we hunted down jackrabbits from a moving Jeep. Grandma was a crack shot and loved to stand up in the passenger side and shoot over the windshield. In the back seat my brothers and I would watch her with our ears covered. She was like Annie Oakley to me – it seemed that she never missed.

My brothers and I at camp - we found a patch of shade. I never could figure out how to work that lounge chair.

My brothers and I at camp – we found a patch of shade. I never could figure out how to work that lounge chair. Note the ammo can – shooting jackrabbits was on the menu.

One night we took the Jeep pickup instead of the Willys open Jeep when we went for the run to the spring. As always on the way back to camp Grandma was in the passenger seat with her eyes peeled for jacks. I was seated on the Jockey Box in between the seats with my grandpa in the driver’s seat. Grandma spotted one and took aim. KaBoooom!

Jackrabbits beware - Minnie's got a gun and she's gunning for you!

Jackrabbits beware – Minnie’s got a gun and she’s gunning for you!

Unfortunately she forgot to roll down the window first and it broke into a million pieces. The sound of her 45 inside a closed cab of a pickup was the loudest sound I have ever heard. My ears rang for days and the 500 mile journey home to Las Vegas in the pickup was a windy one.

In case you were wondering, she made the shot, and the windy and dusty drive home was worth it – that busted window was the mark of a great adventure.

The Candle Shoot – from Isabelle Avenue to the Ozarks

I mentioned in my post The Candle Shoot that I host a memorial Candle Shoot in Pop’s honor every year on the Saturday closest to his birthday. This year as in the two previous we were blessed with wonderful and unseasonably warm weather, almost like Pops was watching over us.

The Stone House Shooting Gallery – by candlelight

This year, my God-brother Jot (I don’t even know if that is a real term or not, but we have used it since Jot was born) joined us – it was great to have someone else there who knew Pops. When Jot talks about the old days he refers to Bruce, his father, as “Dad’ – my  father, his Godfather, is “Pops”. Pops gave Jot his very first gun, a Remington .22 rifle, when he was a youngster. They were fixtures in each other’s lives even though they lived in different states. When Jot’s father passed away, Pops hopped in the Jeep and drove to Winslow to be there for Jot and his younger brother, they were just 10 and 13. Pops made a promise to be there for Jot on the day he was baptized and he never imagined that he would need to keep that promise – but he did. Over they years they stayed in touch even as they lived on different sides of the country. When Pops learned that Jot was living just a few hours from me he even gave me treasures to bring home to him.

This is our family a couple years before Jot came along - my baby brother Ronnie is the bun in the oven. Mom sure looks like she likes Max - she really did.

This is our family a couple of years before Jot came along – my baby brother Ronnie is the bun in the oven. If Mom sure looks like she likes Max – it’s because she did. Why did she let me out of the house wearing those sox?

Bruce and Pops had been friends since I was a toddler – they both worked at the Nevada Test Site, or the Proving Grounds, as it was called in the 1960s. Bruce is a part of my earliest memories – vague ones of him playing chess with pops while I played in the living room on Isabelle Avenue. Bruce was pretty stylish – tapered slacks and a pompadour. I remember thinking he might be that man from the TV with the guitar who wiggled a lot.

This is not Bruce. I often got people in my real life confused with those inside the televisions set when I was a child - heck, I thought Jackie Kennedy was my Mom.

This is not Bruce. I often got people in my real life confused with those inside the television set when I was a child – heck, I thought Jackie Kennedy and my Mom were the same person.

Bruce got married and moved away to Winslow, Arizona – you know the place with the street corner with girl in the flat-bed Ford (Jot hates that song). When Jot was born we made the trip to see his baptism – it was the first time we were ever in a church. I was eight and my brothers were 3 and 5. When the congregation started singing Max sang the only song he knew by heart – Old MacDonald – he sang it loud and proud. I couldn’t sing because I was giggling so hard.

Bruce and Jot - spiffy sideburns.

Bruce and Jot – Bruce was way cooler than Elvis. Jot is a bit taller than this now – otherwise he looks pretty much the same.

Growing up the family came for visits – Bruce, his wife Penny, Jot, and his little brother Jed. The adults would go out for a night on the town and I would get the job of babysitting them along with my little brothers – me and 4 boys. Yikes!

When we drove east to see Mom’s family a stop to spend time in Winslow was always on the itinerary coming and going. I think Jot and Jed looked at the house on Isabelle Avenue as a place of strange wonders. A place where you might find a small parrot peeking out of Pops’ beard, where there might be a 20 foot teepee in the yard, or where you might see a cannon fired in the middle of the street. Talking to both of them as grown men, it was clearly a special place and we weren’t almost like family, we were family.

Mom and Pops among the muskets in our front room on Isabelle Street.

Mom and Pops among the muskets and skins in our front room on Isabelle Street.

Back to the Candle Shoot. It was great to have good friends and family there. My friend Candy helped me set up and was out running errands when she called to see if I needed anything. I asked her to pick up a few emergency candles and she showed up with a full case of those wedding candles that they use in candelabras – they burned slow and I have enough candles to last at least a decade.

Caleb takes a shot.

Caleb takes a shot.

I had a fire pit out in the yard near the shooting table and Jot would tell stories while we took turns shooting. I think young Caleb was inspired by Pops just a bit. After shooting candles for a couple of hours he suggested we try something more difficult than shooting through the wick of a candle. First it was 3 inch black targets by candle light with open sights – very tough and he kicked my butt. Next 1.5″ targets on an optic green background in the dark. I didn’t even bother. I had shown him a pile of coins that had been shot including a nickel that Pop shot and he was excited by that idea – let’s shoot quarters in the dark! Caleb, my friend Judy, and I all decided to give it a try. We placed a flashlight 30 feet from the target as our only light source. Judy hit a dollar coin and then folded a quarter. I was three for three – two of which I put clean holes in – Caleb matched me and added one for his girlfriend as a souvenir, but he was just getting started. Before the night was over he would put a hole clean through a dime!

This is exactly the type of shooting Pops loved. He had an idea once that it might be possible to split a bullet in two by shooting at the blade of an axe and hit two targets at the same time – he built the target and pulled it off. Finding a more difficult challenge was a part of his DNA – the more difficult and outrageous the better.

Pops sported a mountain man look long before the teepee went up in the front lawn.

Pops sported a mountain man look long before the teepee went up in the front lawn.

Pop seemed to have been born without the usual sense of caution that keeps us from doing crazy things. Linda his cousin always talked about their adventures with BB guns. She says, “When we were kids he would have me hold a wooden match in my fingers and he would shoot it with the BB gun. It never occurred to me that he might miss and hit me. He never missed. I always trusted him.” Funny thing, when we were kids and desperately wanted that Red Ryder BB Gun, Pops told us they were more dangerous than a real gun because kids treated them like toys – wonder where he got that idea?

Pops used little Linda for target practice - she was happy to help out.

Pops asked little Linda for help with his target practice – she was happy to oblige.

This year’s Candle Shoot was just the right mix of nostalgia, challenge, and fun – it was missing only one thing, and that was Pops – but he was certainly there in spirit.

I think we did the old man proud.

Pops and the Grass Cutting Machine – A Story of Hope

I hadn’t planned on writing a post about race, but as I perused Facebook this morning and saw all the MLK quotes and memes. It made me think about what my experiences in the 60s and 70s, the attitudes I heard growing up, and how things changed over the years.

Remember the show “All in the Family”? That was our house – my Pop was a younger version of Archie Bunker. He also had a ridiculous chair that no one else was permitted to sit in.

Pops Chair was almost this ugly.

Pops Chair was almost this ugly.

When first I started school I remember picking up that he did not care for me to have friends who looked different from me. My very first school friend was a girl named Frances who was from Mexico and spoke no English. We communicated by drawing pictures and walked home from school together every day. She lived on the next block over. Pops made it clear that she was not welcome at our house and that he was glad to live on a block completely composed of people who were white like us. I remember thinking that if he got to know Frances that he would like her so much that he would love for her to live next door! It made me feel a little sick inside to know that he did not feel the same way. Mostly I felt sad for Pop – Frances was a wonderful person and he would never know that.

This was about as much diversity as Pops was willing to tolerate in the 1960's

This was about as much diversity as Pops was willing to tolerate in the 1960’s

In 4th grade – about 1970-71 – I was asked to write a report on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I went to the encyclopedia to look him up and he wasn’t listed anywhere. Our Britannica set was from 1948, so that was understandable. I asked Pop about him – and he was not happy to discuss the subject. He spit our a string of epithets and curses in regards to Dr. King, it angered him that I would even be asked to write about King. He told me a crazy conspiracy story about a n****r who planned to fake his own death and come back from the dead on Easter. The plan went wrong and now he was a martyr. I knew I would get nothing useful from Pop.

I vaguely recall listening to him talking to a pollster on the phone about who he was planning to vote for in a presidential race – I cannot recall the year. I only recall him saying that he had no idea, now that someone had shot his choice – I have always hoped he was talking about Bobby Kennedy and not George Wallace, but to be honest I’d bet it was Wallace that inspired that reaction out of him.

In 1972 forced busing was instituted in Las Vegas to finally fully integrate public schools. Schools in African-American neighborhoods were converted to “Sixth Grade Centers” and the students in that neighborhood would be bused every year except sixth grade. White kids were only bused in sixth grade. Some committee somewhere thought this hair-brained arrangement was equitable.

This was Boston - but it happened in Las Vegas too.

This was Boston – but it happened in Las Vegas too.

My Pop was not on board with the idea either, but for other reasons. He could hide his Archie Bunker-ian tendencies by saying that busing made no sense – we lived three blocks away from a perfectly fine elementary school. Behind closed doors his language was somewhat more colorful. His solution to the problem of having his kids bused to “N-town” was to place us into a Christian school for the duration of the year that we would be bused. The irony of this was totally lost on Pops. He also declared about this time that if any black family (my words, not his) moved onto Isabelle Avenue, that the neighborhood would be ruined, unsafe, and that we would have to move.

That day finally came in the mid 80’s, long after Archie Bunker was consigned to syndication. The house across the street was purchased by a family of four relocating from Zaire. Isabelle Avenue was to be their very first address in the United States. They were totally unfamiliar with American culture, American cuisine, and American lawn maintenance. They cut down the shady elms in the front and back yards and built a huge fire pit off the back patio. The did not cut their front lawn at all – in fact they seemed to revel in it’s lush depth. I’m not talking about grass four or five inches deep, I’m talking about grass grown tall like wheat ready to harvest. It came up over their knees and was waist deep in places. The back yard did not require any mowing or harvesting because they brought in a young goat and kept it back there.

Grass this tall was too deep for Isabelle Avenue

Grass this tall was too deep for Isabelle Avenue

Lawn maintenance aside, they were a lovely family. Each Sunday they wore bright white clothing to church. Mom, Dad, son, and daughter looked like something out of another time as they walked to the car. They all were very polite, uncommonly so. The young boy wandered over to our yard one day when mom was picking the strawberries out of her garden. He was completely fascinated by their bright color. Mom picked a basketful and sent them home with him. Anyone who talked gardening was a friend to mom.

At Easter time they butchered the goat and roasted it in the pit in the back yard. They walked across the street to invite Mom and Pops, but they politely declined. Pops could talk a big game, but when it came down to it he could not be rude to someone face-to-face when he was sober. As summer started it became clear to the family that letting the lawn grow like a crop was not the accepted method of landscaping in their new neighborhood and the dad came across the street and knocked on our door. Pops answered and the gentleman asked, “Mr. Carter, could we kindly borrow your grass cutting machine?” Pops replied, “No.” The neighbor said, “But we need to cut the grass, it is far too long.” Pops responded, “No, you can’t use the mower because it is too tall, it will bog down the blades.” The man left and returned to his house with a puzzled look.

Pops came out of the backyard and headed across the street with the weed-eater and showed his neighbor how to use it to shorten the lawn enough to mow it. Together they weed-eated, mowed, edged, and watered the lawn. It was a thing of beauty to see the neighborhood finally fully integrated.

They lived on Isabelle Avenue for many years. They were so very kind to Pops when mom died. In the early part of this century housing values went through the roof. Houses that sold originally for twenty or thirty thousand were selling for ten times that. The family from Zaire cashed out and moved on. Pops stayed put even though I urged him to think about selling and buying some thing closer to me. Those worries about integration taking down housing values seem pretty silly now. I think America is a great country and love the idea that the first black family on the block made a killing in real estate!

In 2008, Nevada changed its presidential primary to the caucus format. My pop and his wife volunteered to be delegates to the state convention. Initially they had supported Hillary Clinton (Democrat or not this shocked me – that Archie Bunker could support even the idea of a female president) but as delegates they were obligated to cast their votes for the candidates that won from their local caucus. They were Obama delegates. Not only did they cast their delegate votes for Obama, they started volunteering for his campaign. This was the first time my Pop had ever participated in the process beyond casting a vote or accepting a yard sign. The man who wouldn’t permit me to attend a school in a black neighborhood was now supporting the man who would become our first black president!

Maybe there is hope after all - people really can change.

Maybe there is hope after all – people really can change.

I recall during that election that Pop spoke so excitedly about Obama and even mentioned the monumentality of electing a black president. He seemed proud of his country as he watched it come to pass. It was like I was listening to a different man.

I can’t say how this change happened, it probably was a process. I’m sure that time had a lot to do with it, but I also think a sweet family with an overgrown yard might just have been a catalyst for change.

Almost Like Part of the Family – From the Ozarks to Isabelle Avenue

As a photographer, sometimes I like to look at photos and sort them in non-linear ways, I think you can learn more about how you see the world by breaking them up in sets that have atypical things like color or objects in common.

A few years ago I started going through my Grandma’s old Cox family photos. I started sorting them by family members and began to notice a pattern. I noticed an awful lot of snapshots that included an important part of the family – the family car. The history and migration of my family can be traced through those photos of the Coxes and their cars.

1920’s

My Great Grandfather Charlie Cox and his boys pose in their work clothes by the car.

My Great Grandfather Charlie Cox and his boys pose in their work clothes by the car.

This photo was taken in the late 20’s in the Ozarks. It looks like the boys were coming in from working in the fields north of Branson, Missouri. Charlie started his life on a farm in Missouri and this looks to have been taken in the area where he grew up.

This is the earliest image I can find with family members posing on a vehicle.

These lovely Cox ladies are dressed up and posing on a railroad hand truck - I have some other railroad shots with a similar look that were taken in Branson, Missouri.

These well dressed Cox ladies are dressed up and posing on a railroad hand truck – I have some other railroad shots with a similar look that were taken in Branson, Missouri sometime around the turn of the 20th century.

My ancestors were mostly farmers but they also worked on building the railroads in Missouri and Arkansas. This family heritage would be carried on by my Great Grandfather Charlie Cox during the Great Depression when he packed up his family and left the farm to follow the work made possible by the building of the US Highway system. Charlie started life on a farm with horse-drawn implements – his children would be the first generation to live their whole lives in the automobile age. Cars were becoming less and less of a novelty and more of a staple of everyday life in America. Even so, the car was a point of pride to them. Rather than gather around the mantle or on the porch, the Coxes were more likely to gather around something with wheels and a motor.

Here my Grandma and her brother pose on the back of a tractor.

Here my Grandma and her brother pose on the back of a motorized tractor. The dress for this occasion was casual.

Grandma was one of 8 siblings and I have always wondered just how a family of 10 moved around the country. I recall stories about a caravan of a couple of cars and all their possessions on the open road. When the siblings were together I often heard them argue about where they lived in a particular year. Grandma told me she went to 17 schools before she called it quits in after her freshman year. It seemed that only the 3 sets of twins had a sibling born in the same town.
Grandma at about 14 sits on the bumper of the car in a summer dress.

Grandma at about 14 sits on the bumper of the car in a summer dress.

This looks to be a different car but the background still looks like the old homestead. I recall grandma talking about an old Model T, but apparently it was not beloved enough to share the spotlight in family photos. Her life seemed to be lived on the bumper of a Chevy. It makes sense – if they didn’t have a permanent home to gather around maybe the family car was a bit like a home on wheels – it was a constant in their life, like the TV was to my generation.

1930’s

Minnie on the running board - circa 1933

Minnie on the running board – circa 1933. This seems to be more of a shot of the car with Grandma as an accent or afterthought.

Yet another sedan – with Grandma in a gingham dress surrounded by palm trees – definitely a California shot. She would have been about 16 or 17 in this shot and had already quit school to go to work to help support the family. It seems as though they went through cars fairly quickly traveling back and forth across the country.

This next car must have been something special – everyone seems to want to have their photo taken with it. It seems to have been a car that the family obtained while they were all still together in Van Nuys, California.

Granny on the trunk of the family Chevy - circa 1932

Granny on the trunk of the family Chevy – circa 1932 or 1933. She often jotted down her age on snapshots.

I wish I had taken the opportunity to ask about this group of photos, so all I really have are my own impressions. This first shot looks like Grandma got dressed up to climb up on the trunk – she looks like she’s in her Sunday best.

Grandma's brother and Ernie Foltz on the back of the same Chevy

Grandma’s brother Leonard and Ernie Foltz on the back of the same Chevy.

Same road, same car – different people. These two shots almost look like they took turns taking each other’s photos on the back of that Chevrolet. On this particular day the car was the star. Was it new to the family?

Grandma and two siblings on the running board of the Chevy

Grandma and her brother Leonard and her sister Muriel on the running board of the Chevy.

Same Chevy, different time and place – but still an occasion to dress up for the photo-op. Thinking of the year – this was in the depths of the depression and I know that this was a period of time when Grandma’s family traveled as her father followed the work. The one constant in their lives were the relationships they had with their siblings. They changed schools, addresses, states, churches, jobs – but they all went through it together.

Grandma and her cousin and best friend Noni - dressed for the occasion.

Grandma and her cousin and best friend Noni – dressed more formally for this occasion. The Chevy looks pretty nice too.

If I were to tally up all the appearances of each member of the family in the old photos to see who was pictured the most, the family car beats out any single family member by a pretty wide margin.

Grandma and her Mother at the Auto Laundry with the Chevy

Grandma and her Mother at the Auto Laundry in Van Nuys, California with a slightly nicer car in 1934 – again they dressed very nice to be at the car wash.

My Grandma and her Cherokee Indian mother all decked out with the new car at the Auto Laundry.

Here Grandma checks out her makeup in the rearview mirror.

Here Grandma checks out her makeup in the rearview mirror.

Same car, different outfit – perhaps in front of their home in California. Grandma was 19 and would make only one more cross-country trip with the family before she settled in Hollywood to start a family of her own.

Grandma in her bathing suit with...a car

Grandma in her bathing suit with…a car – it looks like a 1938 model.

Grandma married Grandpa in 1938 and settled in California. She told me that her mother was a very strict Pentecostal who never permitted her to wear heels or to dance. For her, this time right after she married after the Depression was one of the freest times she had ever experienced. She never was very modest and I remember her gardening in shorts and a bathing suit top. Seeing this shot of her surprised me because of how conservative her upbringing was. She was completely comfortable in her own skin.

1940’s

Twins Eula and Beula pose with their niece Doris Jean in front of a snazzy convertible.

Twins Eula and Beula pose with their first niece Doris Jean in front of a snazzy convertible.

The car was the key to mobility for families making the trek west and it was integral to my family and their connections. Charlie literally built the roads his children would travel to stay connected throughout their lives. All but one sibling would settle in the west in either Nevada or California. This shot is one from a road trip to visit family.

The Cox siblings managed to see each other pretty often – hop in the family car and head down the highway. As their families grew they would often swap kids for the summer. None of the Coxes ever knocked on a door when they came for a visit – their home was your home and visa-versa. Just come on in and make yourself at home. Maybe their nomadic childhoods made a change of scenery almost natural for them.

Eula and Beula take a shot together with the convertible.

Eula and Beula take a shot together with the convertible.

I don’t know who’s car this was but I do know that my Great Aunt Beula loved her a fancy car. I bet it was hers – she liked to have the fanciest of the lot.

Grandma poses with my Pop in front of the family car in Las Vegas.

Grandma poses with my Pop in front of the family car in Northern California

Here Grandma and Pop pose in front of their sedan at a family gathering in California in the early 1940’s. Her family made the drive from Nevada to spend the holidays together.

Eula and her husband Bob strike a pose.

Eula and her husband Bob strike a pose.

Same car, same day – It makes me think that Grandma and her sister Eula took turns with the camera. The sign behind the car says “Missouri Mule” – wonder what that was about?

My Great Uncle Newt on base in Washington State before he shipped out to Europe.

My Great Uncle Newt and a buddy on base in Washington State before he shipped out to Europe.

My Great Uncle was a real live war hero. He landed in Normandy and drove a tank destroyer during World War II in Europe. He sent my grandmother this photo before he shipped out – a memento of a soldier, his buddy, and a car.

Here's a shot Newt had taken with his vehicle in Normandy - even in wartime it was rare to see a Cox without a vehicle of some type.

Here’s a shot Newt had taken with his vehicle in Normandy – even in wartime it was rare to see a Cox without a vehicle of some type.

After the War Newt moved into the railroad shack my grandparents rented in Las Vegas – it was about 400 square feet with a garage in back. He worked with my Grandma for a couple of years before making his way to Northern California where he settled down. He made the trip to Vegas often – he would stay at Grandma’s and take us out to the Showboat for strawberry shortcake. Well into his 70’s Newt would show up on my doorstep in Oregon as he made the drive north to Pendleton to reconnect with his army buddies. I loved driving that highway with him and hearing tales of his travels along that same highway with his siblings.

1950’s

My Pop and our cousin Randa in Las Vegas.

My Pop and our cousin Randa in Las Vegas in about 1951.

Some of the siblings came to Vegas for Easter in the early 1950’s – photos were taken to mark the occasion in the front yard – of course the cars were in the frame. Baby Randa was the 4th generation in the family to have her photo taken with the family car.

Beula, her husband Tommy, and my Pop in the  lawn on that same day.

Beula, her husband Tommy, and my Pop in the lawn on that same day.

Same car, same day, same Pop – with his aunt and uncle in the lawn in small town Las Vegas.

Grandma and Grandpa with his sister Olive in front of their beloved '49 Chevy

Grandma and Grandpa with his sister Olive in front of their beloved ’49 Chevy

In 1949 Grandma and Grandpa bought their very first brand new car. It was a Chevy. Grandpa waxed it every week, Grandma loved to drive it. They had left behind the tiny railroad shack they started their lives in Las Vegas in and soon would be living in a brand new custom home on Isabelle Avenue. The girl who moved 17 times in 9 years had resolved to settle down and put down deep roots. This child of the Depression was experiencing real prosperity.

Grandma and Grandpa take a drive in the Chevy in the desert outside of town.

Grandma and Grandpa take a drive in the Chevy in the desert outside of town.

The ’49 Chevy is the car they would drive to visit family in Missouri, Nebraska, and California. It’s the car my Pop would learn to drive in. It’s the car they would park in the driveway of that brand new house that they had both worked so hard for.

Grandma takes a break at the butcher shop and leans on her favorite Chevy.

Grandma takes a break at the butcher shop and leans on her favorite Chevy.

Here’s Grandma – on the trunk of her Chevy – a quarter century after that first trunk shot on another Chevy.

Here’s that Chevy in 1957 after my Pop decided to “customize” it while his folks were out-of-town. That’s Isabelle Avenue in the mid 50’s

When Pop got his license Grandma and Grandpa bought a new Chevy and they became a 2-car family. One weekend while Grandma and Grandpa were in California visiting siblings Pops decided he wanted the ’49 to have a bit more of a “custom” look. He chopped the cab, frenched the headlights, and removed almost all the chrome and door handles. He never finished the conversion but spoke about that car like a long-lost love for the rest of his life.

1960’s

Grandma's 1963 Impala Super Sport

Grandma’s first great nieces with Max and…Grandma’s 1963 Impala Super Sport

In 1963 Grandma and Grandpa celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary. Grandpa bought her a stunning metallic blue Impala as an anniversary gift. When visitors came to the house they were almost always photographed in front of it. Here’s Randa and her sisters Janice and Dara, along with my brother Max in 1965. They are sitting in my little red wagon.

The drives to Nebraska ended after Grandma’s brother Clyde passed away. Grandpa’s family was from Nebraska, but they preferred to fly in for visits. All the siblings were now in the west and could be near each other with just a day’s drive.

Grandma drives a Bulldozer and poses for a photo - circa 1968

Grandma drives a Bulldozer and poses for a photo – circa 1968

This is Grandma at her most vital – working the Caterpillar Tractor at their mining claim in 1968. She was eager to learn to operate it and rarely let anyone else behind the wheel. She could drive just about anything short of a tank. Driving was something she enjoyed, even if she was driving a bulldozer.

1970’s

1976 - Grandma and Grandpa's first new car since 1963 - a lime green Ford LTD.

1976 – Grandma and Grandpa’s first new car since 1963 – a lime green Ford LTD.

By 1976 Grandma was starting to losing her mobility. Grandpa chose this land yacht because it was easy for her to get in and out of. It was their first Ford and the first car they would own that Grandma would never drive. They took this photo the day they brought it home from the dealership.

The last LTD - 1977. It had a 460 and got about 8 miles per gallon.

Eula, Grandma, and Beula during a visit in Las Vegas. The last LTD – 1977. It had a 460 and got about 8 miles per gallon.

The very next year Ford announced that they would be reducing the engine sizes in cars beginning in 1978. Grandpa decided that he had to get a car with a big block before they were gone forever. Grandma and Grandpa had a dream of retiring and getting a travel trailer. They hoped to camp and fish for weeks and months on end – but that was not to be. Grandma’s illness made it impossible for her to do the simplest things. By 1980 she would only leave the house to go to the doctor. This 1977 LTD was the last car she ever rode in. This is the last time she was photographed with a car.

Grandma’s siblings continued to make the treks up and down the highway with great frequency well into the 90’s. My Great Uncle Claude would pop up at almost any important occasion – he looked like he wasn’t steady enough to walk, but he still drove cross-country. The last time they were all together was for my Grandma’s 80th birthday in 1995. She had dementia and hadn’t recognized me in some time – but when her brothers and sisters walked into the room she beamed. She could no longer articulate what she was feeling, but her face glowed. Her sister Beula had passed away a couple of years earlier – but everyone else was there. It would be the last time I saw any of them except for Grandma. Their zeal for the open road was not shared by the generations that followed. I lived in Oregon for about a decade and my Uncle Newt made that drive more than any other family member – it was in his DNA to hit the road and go see his family.

My Pop became accustomed to family making their way to his door and I think a lot of his cousins probably shared that experience. Their vagabond parents had done enough driving to last for their lifetimes too.

I’ve rarely had my photo taken with an automobile. I suppose that the family car is more of an ordinary appliance these days. It’s basic transportation – not the vehicle that opens up the world and all its opportunities before you.

These days I live in the Ozarks less than an hour from the place where my Grandmother was born, the rest of my family remains in Las Vegas in the west. My siblings and I see each other a couple of times a year and I usually fly out to see them. I made the drive once after my Pops death and I cannot imagine making that drive without a lot of company ever again, and I think that may be the key. The Coxes made those treks together. They were not lonely drives across the desert, they were sedans filled with family and all that goes with that.

I think that we stand on the shoulders of those who endured the Depression and the War and built the roads that connected us as a nation. Even in this tough economy, things are easier for us. We stay in touch online. We share photos on Facebook. We talk and text without worrying about long distance charges.

Looking at these photos has me waxing nostalgic. Maybe I should put on my best dress and hop on the hood of my Jeep – I could post it on Instagram.

Midge, GI Joe, Nuns, & Tonsils

As a child of the 60s, I had a front row seat to the changing roles of gender in society. Sometimes they were about serious stuff like Moms working – sometimes they were about things that didn’t really matter at all.

Mom in the living room, between bouts of tonsillitis

Mom in the living room, between bouts of tonsillitis

My mom had terrible problems with tonsilitis when we were young. Max and I got sick pretty often, we would give it to mom. We bounced back but she didn’t.  One of us would get sick and pass it on, about the time we all got well one of us would get sick again. It was a constant recurring cycle that only got worse once I started school. Our family doctor told her that a tonsilectomy was pretty serious for an adult, but was simple and safe for children. Max and I could have ours taken out at the same time, all we had to do was wait until Max was old enough and we could break the cycle.

I'm sure I was asked to show the photographer my tonsils in this shot

Here I am showing off my huge tonsils

I was in Kindergarten when the time came. I was at an age where I was all about playing with Barbie. I loved all the accessories. The first Barbie I had was a hand-me-down from the neighbor across the street. It was a Midge doll. I didn’t really care for her. She had brown hair and freckles, I thought she looked too much like me, I hated my freckles. My mom loved her for the same reason I hated her. My mom’s name was Barbie and she loved the idea of a fashion doll, so she was thrilled when Midge came our way.

Freckle-faced Midge - I couldn't wait to trade her in on a newer model

Freckle-faced Midge – I couldn’t wait to trade her in on a newer model

Skagg’s Drug Store rand a trade-in promotion when the new Barbies with the twisting waist came out. Bring in your old Barbie, and get the new one for a buck and a half. I knew mom liked Midge too much to let me trade her in so I managed to get Grandma to take me to trade her in for the newfangled twisty Barbie. Mom saw me with the new Barbie and I could tell she wasn’t happy that I made the trade, not because Midge was a wonderful doll that might be worth more than a discounted Barbie, mostly because she hoped having a beautiful doll with my features would be good for me. Me – I wanted the twisty waist and was glad to see the freckles gone.

Who wouldn't dump Midge for this new Twist-and-turn Barbie?

Who wouldn’t dump Midge for this new Twist-and-turn Barbie? Real eyelashes! Bending legs! 

Max had just gotten a GI Joe and I was smitten – I mean Joe came with all kinds of cool accessories. Guns, knives, goggles, scuba gear – you name it Joe had it. Next to Joe, Ken was a wimp. The thing that put him over the top for me was that Joe could do one thing Ken couldn’t – he could ride a horse. I guess Ken could as long as he rode sided-saddle with his legs sticking straight out, but how much fun was that? I was wishing that Skagg’s would have a Ken trade-in. I wanted a Joe! I asked my mom for one and she told me that GI Joes were only for boys. I just didn’t get that, after all why would it matter. I could play with Ken and he was a boy. Eventually I just started playing with one of Max’s Joes.

Not much of a manly man - Ken couldn't even ride a horse.

Not much of a manly man – Ken couldn’t even ride a horse.

What does all this have to do with tonsils? I’m getting there, I promise.

My brother and I went into the hospital together. It was a Catholic hospital and many of the nurses were nuns. I had never seen a nun before and my first impression was that they were kind of scary. As soon as we were admitted to the hospital they wanted a blood sample. I had never had anyone take blood before, and having a tall nun in a black habit come at with a huge needle freaked me out. She grabbed my arm so I pulled it away and locked my fingers together behind my head so that she could not get at the inside of my elbow. She called for help. Two more nuns, a doctor, and my mother came and forced my arm open while I kicked and screamed bloody murder. Max sat on the stool next to me wide-eyed watching this all play out. I think I was upside down facing the floor when they finally got my elbow open. Things had not started well.

Max and I - That's my new Twist-and-Turn Barbie

Max and I about tonsil time – That’s my new Twist-and-Turn Barbie

That night my Grandma came to see us after work. She would stay with us until we fell asleep. She brought some things to keep us occupied with her. She brought Max’s favorite GI Joe along with a new accessory kit. For me she brought me my very own Joe sailor with a scuba diving kit. I was ecstatic – so far it had all been worth it.

I traded in my tonsils for my very own GI Joe

I traded in my tonsils for my very own GI Joe

I could hardly sleep that night, not because I was having surgery in the morning, but because I couldn’t wait to wake up and play with my very own Joe. Sister Helen came in to get us ready to go to the operating room. I asked if Joe could go with me and she told me that he was a boys toy, I should be playing with a girls doll. I know I shot her a look, no nun was going to tell me what to play with. I hugged Joe close in case she decided to take him from me. Max and I both had our Joes as the wheeled us to the operating room. They told me to count backwards from a hundred and I think I might have gotten to 96 before I was out.

When I woke up I had the worst sore throat of my life. It hurt to even try to talk. Worse yet, Max had his Joe, but mine was nowhere to be found. The nuns asked me how I felt, but had no interest hearing about my missing Joe. They offered ice cream as a distraction – at least that’s what I thought at the time. No one thought that finding my Joe was a priority.

Have you seen me? I may have been kidnapped by nuns!

Have you seen me? I may have been abducted by nuns!

Grandma came by again to spend the evening with us, finally someone who understood the urgency of my situation! She hunted down that nun and got my Joe back for me. I think she may have given her a piece of her protestant mind while she was at it. I ate some ice cream and tucked Joe under my pillow for safe keeping. Grandma made sure all my accessories were safe – now I could go to sleep. Late that night Max woke up and needed to go to the restroom. I pushed the call button and a male nurse came into the room. Max insisted that a man couldn’t be a nurse, only girls were nurses. He would wait until morning when a proper nurse could be found.

"No - I want a real nurse!"

“No – I want a real nurse!”

In the morning Max, Joe, Joe, and I were discharged with sore throats and lots of accessories. Mom’s throat issues got a lot better, I developed a healthy skepticism of nuns, and I got my very own GI Joe.

The Candle Shoot

Our backyard was not an urban oasis. It was not a landscaped sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of life. It was a crazy obstacle course surrounded by a 6 foot cinderblock wall.

Our backyard was rarely pretty enough to photograph - a couple inches of snow dressed it up nicely.

Our backyard was rarely pretty enough to photograph – a couple inches of snow  and – Viola! it’s dressed up nicely.

You entered through a 12 foot wide sliding glass door off of our living room – the three panel wide door was partially obscured by the worlds largest fake mediterranean couch. The slider opened onto a large concrete patio. It had an awning cover salvaged from Grandpa’s house. In addition to the standard issue BBQ grill there were a number of other items on the patio, under the awning protected from the desert sun. Dog food bowls, a giant sewing machine cabinet, a home-made metal forge, mini bike parts, and huge assortment of tools – actually anything that you might need to tinker with at a moment’s notice.

Our covered patio housed a variety of essential items - one never knows when they will need a sewing machine or a pottery wheel.

Our covered patio housed a variety of essential items – one never knows when they will need a sewing machine, a shop vac, or a pottery wheel.

There were always a variety of dogs and other pets. Rabbits, birds, a skunk, quail, ducks – Mom was an easy touch, she rarely said no to a new pet.

Amazing creatures abounded in the great outdoors that lay behind our house on Isabelle Avenue

Amazing creatures abounded in the great outdoors that lay behind our house on Isabelle Avenue – this is Faux Pas playing in the scrap wood pile.

Off to the left there was an old clothes line. After we upgraded to that new-fangled clothes dryer Mom used this area to grow a vegetable garden in. Mom loved to garden, prior to getting the new dryer this farmer’s daughter managed to squeeze strawberry plants or artichokes into the flower beds, so a six-foot-wide patch of the earth was the equivalent of inheriting the family farm. She tilled and weeded everyday until the fall harvest was over.

To the right there the washroom/workshop/storage room/metal shaving museum tucked into the side of the house. Along the fence line there was a barn-shaped metal storage shed – it housed the lawn tools, welding equipment, and possibly all the missing Philips screwdrivers and end wrenches. It was like a vortex. Tools went there to die. On the roof you might find the hide of last year’s deer as Pop experimented with methods for tanning leather.

This is a tanning experiment in the front yard - more successful than the hides left to dry on the roof of the shed.

This is a tanning experiment in the front yard – more successful than the hides left to dry on the roof of the shed. This also served as an impromptu educational exhibit for children walking past our house to the elementary school at the end of our block. Yes, Virginia, that was Bambi. Ahhh the circle of life.

My pop had a foot thick slice from a large pine tree on a stand in the middle of it all. It was a target for us to practice throwing tomahawks at. I know that the tomahawk target is practically standard issue in most backyards – right up there with the BBQ grill. I’m sure there was one in your backyard too.

Tomahawk Target - one of the backyard essentials

Tomahawk Target – one of the backyard essentials

We threw tomahawks and knives several times a week and visited the emergency room at least once or twice a year.

This is not our backyard, but we did this back there. Note Max's way cool waffle stompers.

This is not our backyard, but we did do this back there. Note Ronnie’s form and Max’s awesome waffle stompers.

We always had a dog or three back there so there was always poop to scoop. The dogs back here were “outside” dogs and they included the very creatively named “Goldie.” She  came to our house when I was six and died peacefully under the old clothes line when I was in my early twenties, having lived a full and exciting life. In her prime she had stopped and cornered a burglar who had broken into the house next door. She was a sweet dog as long as you came into the yard through the house. Over the fence or through the gate meant that you were an intruder. This didn’t bode well for the unfortunate meter man who happened to come when no one was home.

This is not Goldie, this is Minka - she spent her formative years in our backyard on Isabelle Avenue.

This is not Goldie, this is Minka – she spent her formative years in our backyard on Isabelle Avenue. A caffeine addict from puppyhood she drank several Big Gulps each day.

All in all it was place of utility and chaos. After a long day of car repair, Budweiser, and New York strips it was the place where many a Saturday night took an interesting turn.

One autumn Saturday we had the whole crew there. Poore Boy, Red, TJ, Tiny – I think they had attempted to repair a car earlier in the day – they may or may not have been successful, I can’t recall. Pops fired up the grill and sent us all out into the backyard with shovels to scoop up the dog poop. He had something different in mind for the evening, and it required a clean yard. After dinner he had us arrange lawn chairs out in the middle of the yard facing the brick wall behind the clothesline. My brothers and I threw a few tomahawks – Pops and the guys had a few more Buds.

Right about dusk Pops showed us what he had up his sleeve. He brought out a 2X4 with 3/4” holes drilled about 12 inches apart. He set up on the ground and placed an emergency candle in each hole. You know, those candles you keep in the pantry in case the power goes out. He lit the candles and announced that we were going to have a candle shoot. We used .22 caliber rifles to attempt to shoot out the flames on the candles. The idea was not to hit the candle and knock it over – the idea was to snip the wick with the bullet, snuffing out the flame.

The idea is to shoot at that little gap between the candle and the flame - poof!

The idea is to shoot at that little gap between the candle and the flame – poof! It’s dark!

Remember – we were not on a farm or out in the country – this is downtown Las Vegas. Oddly, location was not one of the considerations that Pops contemplated when he devised his little spectacle.

Isabelle Avenue is on the left hand side about half way up - perfect spot for a shooting range.

Isabelle Avenue is on the left hand side about half way up – perfect spot for a shooting range.

Everyone, kids included took turns and with a bit of practice, everyone could snip the wick. I know I felt like Annie Oakley the first time I did it. As the evening wore on the guys would shoot a bit, drink a bit, shoot some more. Round by round the snipping became tougher and tougher. By about 9:00 the only ones able to make the shot were me and my brothers. The excitement was wearing off with each miss. Something was needed to liven this party back up and Poore Boy had an idea.

Nothing like a little amplified music to add ambiance to the sound of gunfire.

Nothing compliments the sound of gunfire like amplified music.

He took Red inside and they brought out my brother’s electric guitar and amplifier. Red plugged in the guitar and started playing – he turned the volume up to the max and started playing the Star Spangled Banner – Hendrix style. Poore Boy emerged from the sliding glass door with a 12 gauge. Everyone laughed – you can’t shoot a shotgun in your backyard in downtown Las Vegas! Steve didn’t seem to care. He loaded it up, leveled it at those candles and fired – BOOM! Flames, wax, buckshot – all spattered against the brick wall, with the sound of the shotgun only barely modulated by the national anthem. Their eyes went wide, the guitar went silent – then without speaking they grabbed their guns and ran into the house giggling like little girls. They all sat silently in the living room waiting to hear the sirens that never came.

Here's a shot of a candle shoot in my yard - a safe and legal 4 miles from the city.

Here’s a shot of a candle shoot in my yard – a safe and legal 4 miles from the city.

A family tradition was born that Saturday. At my place there’s a Memorial Candle Shoot every year on or near January 29. There will be grilling, good friends, candles, and gunfire. Guitars of all calibers are welcome. Shotguns are prohibited.

Stop by if you’re in my neck of the woods.