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It all began on a Saturday morning in November, 1947. I was up early, and it was one of the few mornings of my life that I managed to get out of the house before breakfast. My grandmother had the idea that, if you didn't eat breakfast before you left the house in the morning, your whole body would fall apart by noon. I had visions of my bones going soft and my fingernails turning black and all of my long, brown hair dropping off on the ground behind me as I ran—all because I didn't eat my oatmeal before I went outside.
The only reason Grandma let me out that morning was that I had promised to be back in ten minutes. I wanted to run uptown to the post office and see if the special mail I was expecting had come. I ran the three blocks, burst through the post office door and stood gasping in front of our box, hoping to get the combination right the first time.
We had an old post office in Clear River, and the boxes were finicky. If you didn't get the dial turned to the exact place where the number clicked in, the box wouldn't open, and you'd have to start over again. Our combination was 3 to the right, 6½ to the left and 8½ to the right. I missed twice, and finally took off my gloves. I rubbed my hands together vigorously and tried to think of myself as a safecracker. I turned the dial delicately right, then left, then right again, and it finally clicked open.
There, with the other mail, was the pink "package" slip I had been waiting for. I ran to the window with it and asked Mrs. Dillon, the postmistress, if I could please have my package. She handed me a big manila envelope addressed to me, "Miss Adelaide Mills." Up in the corner was the return address, "Hollywood, USA." I ripped it open, and stood there looking at the photograph with an ecstatic expression on my face.
"Looks like something good," Mrs. Dillon said, smiling.
"It's terrific!" I said, and turned the photo so she could see it.
"My!" she said. "That's something!"
"I gotta go," I said, and tore out the door so I could get home within the promised ten minutes. Otherwise Grandma would be ready to send out the county sheriff to look for the starving child who hadn't eaten her oatmeal before leaving the house.
I barreled through the kitchen and dumped the other mail on the table in front of Dad and Grandma.
"It came, it came, it came!" I shouted.
"My Glory! What a racket!" said Grandma. "What came?"
"From Roy Rogers!"
"That all?" said Dad, going through the other mail. "Thought somebody left you a million dollars."
"This is worth more than money to me," I said. "Look at it!" I held it up for them to see.
"Sure looks like Roy Rogers," Dad said sarcastically. For some reason he was not thrilled by Roy Rogers.
"All dressed up in his fancy duds," said Grandma, admiring the photo. She understood because she had loved horses too, when she was a girl.
"And look at Trigger, Dad. Isn't he nifty?"
Dad looked skeptically at the photo. He was always hearing hints about horses from me, and he did his best to ignore them.
"It's autographed!" I said.
Dad squinted at it and read, "Keep smilin', Roy Rogers. Trigger, Smartest horse in the movies."
"Sit down and eat, Addie," said Grandma, giving me the quick once-over to see if I had suffered any ill effects from traveling six blocks without breakfast.
I propped the photo against the sugar bowl so I could look at it as I ate. "I'm going to put this on my bedroom wall where I can look at it first thing in the morning, when I wake up."
"It's your Grandmother's bedroom too," said Dad. "She might not like that cowboy on her wall."
"I don't mind," Grandma smiled. "I like Roy Rogers movies. They always have happy endings."
"Yeah," I said, "but Roy and Dale always spoil it at the end by acting icky with each other."
"That's a happy ending!" said Grandma.
"Yuck!" I replied emphatically, and finished my oatmeal in a hurry. Dad was putting on his coat and getting ready to go uptown for some gas.
"Dad, can you take my bike in the back of the pickup? I need air in my tires."
"Can't you just ride up and get it yourself? I've got a lot of errands to run."
"Dad, you told me never to ride on flat tires. It'll ruin them! And new bike tires are very expensive!" I could always get to Dad by mentioning money. It was the thing he seemed to think about most.
"OK, OK," he said, and I grabbed my coat and went out with him.
Dad was always acting irritated about one thing or another, but I knew that was just his nature. Actually I believed he enjoyed my company, even if he wouldn't admit it. Of course I did have quite a talent for annoying him, and sometimes it would flare up into a real battle. Grandma usually played referee and kept things from getting out of hand, and I was learning to watch my step around Dad and not provoke him.
Dad was the quiet type, and didn't talk much. He was tall and slender, and his dark hair was just beginning to gray at the temples, around his stern face. My mother had died more than ten years ago, just after I was born, and Grandma had come to live with us then. I knew Dad missed my mother a lot, and he hardly ever talked about her to me. Dad, Grandma and I had been a family ever since, and somehow our three generations managed to get along with each other.
I always enjoyed going for a ride with Dad in his old, red pickup truck. He kept it well tuned, doing all the work himself. He didn't think much of men who couldn't tune their own cars, and besides, he hated spending any money that wasn't absolutely necessary. He had owned the truck for a long time, but he was so careful with it that it was in better shape than many newer ones on the road.
It had been tractor-red when he first bought it, and he had taken it in for a paint job when it began to look shabby. The body shop had run out of red paint and had mixed in a bit of yellow and the truck had come out a bright, orangey red flame color, almost sporty looking. Dad was furious with them, but he wasn't about to pay for another coat of paint, so he drove around in our bright red truck, looking embarrassed and hoping the color would fade quickly.
Neither of us was very good at talking about personal things with each other, and a rattling along the back roads gave us something to talk about ... how high Olson's corn was or how low the Platte River was or whether those were Holsteins or Guernseys in the Allens' pasture or whether it looked like rain over to the West. It was always pleasant for both of us, chugging along in the old red truck.
We pulled in at Tony's Texaco Station, and Dad got the truck filled up while Tony checked my tires. I told him they had to be in good shape that day because Carla Mae Carter and I were going to ride out in the country to get fall bouquets, and it would be quite a trip. Tony said it was a good time for milkweed pods because all the fuzz hadn't blown out of them yet. I asked if he had seen any particularly good ones anywhere, and he said he thought there were some over toward the river. He put my bike into the back of the truck, and I hopped in, and Dad started to back out.
Just then a beat-up Model T was pulling in, and it bumped into the back of our pickup with a big bang. Dad got out, hopping mad, and so did the other driver, a gnarled, grubby old man who looked to be in his eighties. They seemed to recognize each other.
"Why the hell don't you watch where you're going?" Dad yelled.
"You backed into me!" shouted the old man. "You can't drive any better than you can dig a pond."
"I never dug a bad pond in my life," yelled my dad. "I ought to sue you for the money you owe me on it."
"That money will just about pay for the damage you done my car!" shouted the old man.
"Damage!" yelled my dad. "Hell, it looks better now than it did before you hit me." With that, he got back in and started to pull away.
I was embarrassed because Tony and all the guys in the station were watching and grinning their heads off.
"I'll get that money out of you one of these days!" Dad shouted at him as we drove off.
"Not in this life, you won't!" the old man shouted back.
"Is that old man Rehnquist?" I asked, as we drove off.
"Yeah," said Dad, angrily. "Stinking old goat."
I had guessed as much, because I had heard the story of Dad's feud with Rehnquist more than once around home. He was considered an archenemy of my family. He had once hired my father to dig a pond in his far pasture. My father went with his backhoe machine to do the job, and after it was finished, Rehnquist had only paid for half the job because the pond leaked.
My dad said it leaked because Rehnquist had insisted it be dug in the wrong place, and Rehnquist said it leaked because my father had done a bad job. Dad and Rehnquist never spoke again, until that morning at Tony's Texaco. The mere mention of Rehnquist in our house was a guarantee of name-calling by my father—something in which he seldom indulged. I, of course, believing my father to be right in all matters of business and tests of honesty, had no doubt that Rehnquist was the villain.
"Where does he live?" I asked, as we drove toward home.
"Way over on the other side of the Platte River bridge," said Dad. "End of nowhere. He lives like a hermit."
"A hermit? You mean he lives in a cave or a hut?"
"No, a run-down old farm. He won't let anyone come near the place. Doesn't talk to anyone."
"Oh," I said, thoughtfully. "Then he's a misanthrope."
"Misanthrope. We learned it in vocabulary a few days ago. That's a word for a person who hates people." I was always very good in vocabulary and tried to remember to use the new words we learned.
"Well, he hates people all right," said Dad. "I hear he keeps a shotgun to chase them away."
"Do you think he'd really shoot anybody?"
"Huh!" said Dad disgustedly. "He's just the type!"
Archenemy or not, I was more intrigued than ever with old man Rehnquist now that I had actually seen him.CHAPTER 2
As soon as I got home I started getting dressed for the day's ride. First, long underwear, wool socks and heavy wool pants; then a carefully planned combination of shirts and sweaters that would fit under my warm, blue wool jacket.
By this time in November, the Nebraska weather was getting snapping cold. The leaves were down off the trees, the sky was bright, fall blue, and the wind came whipping across the plains, carrying hints of snow from the tops of the Rockies to the West. It was no time to go out biking unprepared.
I had struggled into almost everything when Carla Mae arrived. She was so bundled up that my Grandmother hardly recognized her when she came in the front door.
"Zattie rettie?" Carla Mae asked.
"My land, Carla Mae," Grandma laughed. "Can't understand a word you're saying. Take off that muffler."
Grandma helped Carla Mae unwind part of the long, wool scarf that covered her chin and mouth.
"Is Addie ready?" Carla Mae repeated.
"I'm coming!" I screamed from the bedroom, and waddled out to the living room, dragging my boots and jacket with me.
Carla Mae and I giggled at the sight of each other.
"You look like a penguin," she snorted.
"Well, you look like a fat pig," I laughed back at her.
We both hopped and staggered around the living room, making horrible animal noises, while Grandma stood by shaking her head in amusement.
Carla Mae and I were best friends. She was eleven years old too, and lived in the house next door to me. Her family had moved there three years ago, in 1944, and we had been pals ever since. We were always at each other's houses, having lunch or dinner together and playing cards or building snowmen or just sitting around and giggling a lot. I loved going to Carla Mae's house because she had six younger brothers and sisters, and the place was always in a happy uproar.
My house was just the opposite: very quiet and orderly, with just Dad, Grandma and me. I think Carla Mae kind of liked the contrast at my house too. It was small, only a little four-room bungalow, but at our house we could play Monopoly without having a couple of babies crawling across the board upsetting the hotels and trying to eat all the money.
Our house seemed almost threadbare, compared to some others, but I knew it wasn't because we were poor. It was just that Dad believed in getting his money's worth out of everything. We had had the same kitchen linoleum and the old maple table and chairs since I could remember. And Grandma still cooked on an old, black, wood-burning range, while most other people in town had modern gas stoves. Our kitchen hadn't been modernized in any way. We still kept dishes in an old, brown hutch and had the kind of refrigerator with a motor chugging away on top.
The living room was spare too, with just one prickly brown horsehair sofa, Grandma's rocker, Dad's big easy chair and a little writing desk where we each had private drawers of belongings. A braided rag rug covered the living room linoleum, and lace curtains hung at the windows. Grandma was in charge of the "decorating," which consisted of a fancy cake plate propped up on the mantel, a cut-glass vase and a conch shell brought from Florida by a well-traveled aunt of mine. There were a few pictures on the wall: some New England snow scenes, a print of "The Angelus," and a fat baby picture of me which I found very embarrassing.
Our house was always neat as a pin, because Dad couldn't stand disorder, and no one was allowed to leave any personal belonging lying about out of place. I was glad no one was allowed to look in my private drawers in the writing desk, because they were a real jumble. That was how I did my part in keeping the rest of the house neat.
Carla Mae and I went over our check list one more time before we prepared for departure. We had newspapers and string for wrapping all the things up and tying them to the baskets of our bikes. My grandmother loaned us an old pair of scissors to cut with, and I took along my Girl Scout camping knife just in case. We would be gone most of the morning, so Grandma gave us oatmeal-raisin cookies tied up in wax paper for an energy snack.
I could always depend on Grandma to come up with something like cookies at the right time. She may have been a good sixty years older than I, but she understood me very well, and seemed to take pleasure in a lot of the things I found exciting. Since she was home all day, I actually spent more time with her than with Dad, and she influenced me in ways that I never realized until years later. She would sometimes disagree with me, but I never fought with her the way I did with Dad, and she was always there to help me over the rough spots. It was much easier for her to show affection than it was for Dad, and when she knew I was having a hard time getting through to him, she was always there to make up for it. Of course, that didn't mean that she let me get away with much. On the contrary.
"Now don't go riding too far out of town," said Grandma. "And stay off the highway. You remember what your dad told you."
"Yes, Grandma." I had heard it all before, and knew it by heart.
"And don't get into any poison ivy or poison sumac," she said.
"And be sure and stay bundled up good."
I knew very well I wasn't supposed to ride too far out of town, but Carla Mae and I always did it anyway when there was something really important at stake, and our fall bouquets were really important. This was an annual adventure for us, and we would bring back cattails, milkweed pods, bittersweet, thistles and red and gold leaves to make our special artistic arrangements. The most artistic bouquet would go to our sixth grade teacher, Miss Thompson, and the other two we would keep—one for my grandmother and one for Carla Mae's mother.
We took one last look at page 253 in our Girl Scout handbooks to make sure we could spot poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac, and we were ready.
We pulled on our wool gloves, buttoned up our jackets, wrapped our mufflers around our faces and mumbled unintelligible good-byes to Grandma. I pulled a wool stocking cap down over my pigtails, made sure my glasses were on snugly, and we were off, clattering down the road toward the edge of town on our bicycles.
Excerpted from The Thanksgiving Treasure by Gail Rock. Copyright © 1974 Gail Rock. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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