Welcome to Voices
Spring 2007 issue:
Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear
As a child, I lived for several years with my grandparents in Northlake, Illinois. Their little ranch house was white with green trim, and my grandfather’s old gray Buick stood solidly in the gravel driveway. In summer, a solitary sunflower bloomed next to the front porch. At the back of the house, there was the unmistakable scent of marigolds and the mystery of four-o-clocks, whose multi-colored blossoms opened in late afternoon. There was a rosebush near the front door, a patch of mint close by, and a vegetable garden at the far end of the yard.
Every year, the garden produced tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, squash, and grapes. One year, my grandparents planted some catnip for our cat. Poor Mittens had enjoyed precious little of that crop before the catnip patch became the scene of a wild nighttime party attended by the local felines. By light of day the area looked like a war zone, and catnip was forever discontinued at 372 Lyndale.
My most vivid memories of that time are centered around my seventh summer. School let out at the beginning of June and resumed after Labor Day, so I enjoyed a glorious three months in the sun, occupied only by my own fantastic pursuits. I didn’t spend a lot of time watching TV — there wasn’t so much to watch then — but there were shows that I loved and followed faithfully. I was devoted to The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, German Shepherd extraordinaire. One terrible day, while watching the preview of next week’s show, I learned that Rinty was going to be court-martialed and executed by firing squad for committing some capital offense. I spent a good part of that week praying that God would spare Rinty’s life. Thankfully, my prayers were answered. Rinty was pardoned just as the firing squad was taking aim. By the time his pardon came through, my heart and head were pounding, my hands were clenched into fists, and I had almost stopped breathing. A very close call!
Most of all, I liked the cowboy shows — Roy Rogers, The Cisco Kid, and especially Annie Oakley. I loved the opening of The Lone Ranger. It was so exciting to see Silver rear up against the sky with the Lone Ranger in the saddle and hear that wonderful voice invite me to “return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear.” My very favorite was Hopalong Cassidy, the white-haired, sharp-shooting hero in black, astride his beautiful white horse. My Hopalong Cassidy milk glass was a treasured possession. Hopalong had a sidekick named Lucky. In many of my daydreams, Lucky got married or moved back East or something, creating a sidekick opening I could easily step into. In my mind, I was very smart, alert, and wise to the ways of bad guys — qualities that would be invaluable to Hopalong as we rode through the West righting all wrongs.
I was a cowgirl that summer. Each morning, my sister and I met with the neighborhood kids to set up the scenario du jour. Because I was the oldest and most fanatical, I could usually insist on being a good guy. The luckless bad guys grudgingly accepted their roles. I always dressed the part. I had a red cowboy hat, a double holster with guns, and a stick horse. I wore my blond hair in pigtails, just like Annie Oakley. The rest had to be improvised, however, because my shorts and sleeveless blouses were not appropriate western garb. Over them, I wore an old red-and-white-checked, long-sleeved blouse that had belonged to my mother and a short “skirt” made from a light blue doll blanket, safety-pinned at the waist. My red winter boots completed the ensemble. In this bizarre getup, I galloped tirelessly about in the blazing sun, yelling to my deputies, only vaguely aware of startled glances from passersby. Every moment was fraught with danger. There were shootouts around the corners of the house and snipers in the bushes. Sometimes I was ambushed and taken captive, or even wounded. When I captured a bad guy, I tied him up with my jump rope and delivered him to our makeshift jail under an old table in back of the house. My prisoners often escaped while awaiting trial. Frustrating, yes, but that was the Old West.
Even cowgirls need their quiet time. At the end of each tiring day on the trail, my grandmother cornered me and marched me back to civilization. I think she sometimes despaired that I would ever become a lady. After a warm bath and a good supper, I retired to my cowboy shows, which were often interrupted by my favorite commercial — a lively troupe of can-can dancers, who sang as they danced, “You can-can get a better deal at your Foreman Oldsmobile.” Turning off the TV, I became aware that the living room had grown dark. As I pushed open the creaking screen door and stepped into the cool summer twilight, I saw my grandmother in the distance, watering the garden. I plopped down on the steps and sat there, leaning against the house. Behind me, the dying sun cast an orange glow over my world. Invariably, I turned my eyes to the overgrown vacant lot at the corner of our block, home to the most gigantic cottonwood trees I have ever seen. The evening breeze ruffled their myriad leaves — I loved the sight and the sound. I always immersed myself in that experience, renewing my spirit by tapping into the pattern of life until the fireflies came out and I was called inside, where I would fall asleep listening to the crickets through open windows.
In 1998, I returned to 372 Lyndale after an absence of so many years. It was almost unrecognizable. My wide open spaces were confined by a chain-link fence and cluttered with religious icons. A garage at the end of the driveway blocked the horizon. Worst of all, the towering cottonwoods were gone without a trace.
Some things imprint themselves upon us when we are very young. Since childhood, I’ve found new ways to connect with the universe. Now I sit in my yard at sunset, watching my cats as they play in the wildflowers. Peaceful and content, I hear the wind play fluttering tunes on the leaves of nearby oaks. But only in golden memory do I return to those thrilling days of yesteryear and the musical, sun-dappled cottonwoods that once touched a cowgirl’s heart.