Excerpt for Leaving Juneau County by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


Dan Linssen

Published by Foremost Press at Smashwords

Copyright 2018 Dan Linssen

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The Fair

The major chapters of our lives are bookmarked by turning pointsthresholds across which our world changes into something new and previously unimagined. The process of becoming an adult is one such turning point. Passage from the relatively carefree, live-for-today chapter of youth, to the responsibility-laden, forward-focused chapter of adulthood often begins inconspicuously. But the transition can only be completed once we’ve acknowledged and adapted to the new realities that define adulthood. Sometimes a turning point passes swiftly. But other times, as in the case of this story, the transition can consume an entire school year.

In the late summer of 1958, in small towns all across the Midwest, local county fairs heralded the onset of harvest season. In Juneau County, Wisconsin, the fair took place the end of August in the town of Mauston. For the largely rural population of the county, the annual fair provided opportunities to exhibit their very best in livestock, crops, crafts, and cooking, as well as engage in competitive skills such as horse racing or tractor pulling. The “townies”—those living in the small communities like Mauston—enjoyed the midway of arcades, thrill rides, musical entertainment, and grandstand shows. Juneau County’s fair, which had originated long ago in 1866, had grown over time to become the county’s premier annual event, eagerly anticipated and drawing thousands of participants. Unfortunately, for youth who had acclimated themselves to summer’s freedom from the classroom, the annual fair also meant the imminent approach to another school year.

For Jack Barton and his three friends, their senior year of high school loomed only a few days away. Somewhere inside, they all knew that the comfortable, predictable life they enjoyed up until now was running out of time. In nine months things would be very different. But on this Friday evening other stimuli diverted their attention as they strolled along the midway at the fairgrounds. Garish lighting dangled and flashed from every conceivable mounting point on the arcade booths and carnival rides. Blaring horns, ringing bells, and the incessant calls of the barkers trying to seduce young gamers to their “win a giant teddy bear” contests filled their ears. Aromas wafting across the fairgrounds, including popcorn, cotton candy, hot dogs, and, unfortunately, the hog barn, all mixed to challenge the olfactory senses. Most of the old folks and children who dominated the fairgrounds during the day had gone home to bed, and the crowds now pulsating in this carnival atmosphere were mostly under the age of thirty.

Jack, Betty, Eddie, and Tony had been inseparable friends since meeting as children at a park playground. And despite diverse personalities, over time a chemistry formed among the foursome that exceeded the strength of any covalent bond found in the molecular world. Thus “going to the fair” would have been unthinkable in any fashion other than together as a gang of four.

“Come on, guys! Win your lady a prize!” shouted a carnie from his mechanical duck-shoot booth.

“You really ought to try that, Tony,” said Jack. “Ever since Boy Scout camp, you’ve been the crack shot of our gang.”

“If we were shootin’ tin cans with a .22, I would. But you know darn well those guns are messed up so they don’t shoot straight. And besides, even if I won something, who’d I give it to?”

Betty glared at him. “What about giving it to the girl of the group?”

Eddie laughed at her uncharacteristic response. “Betty, you know you’d only value the prize if you won it yourself.”

Jack and Tony winked at each other as Eddie took a blow to his arm from Betty’s fist. They all walked on a little farther down the midway, but the warm, humid summer night brought them all to a stop in front of the snow-cone stand. After each had purchased their red or blue or green snowball in a paper cone, they took over a vacant picnic table.

Jack unwrapped one end of his straw and blew the paper cover at Eddie’s head. “Is your go-cart all ready for the big race tomorrow?”

“Ran like a banshee this afternoon when I drove it around Pa’s car lot.”

“I hope so. You know we’d all hate to be associated with a loser!”

Eddie stared at Jack for a moment trying to determine if he was serious. “Hey, you don’t have to put any more pressure on. I’m stressed enough about making sure I win this thing.”

The premier grandstand event at this year’s fair was a Saturday night automotive thrill show featuring The Cavalcade of Canadian Hell Drivers. The internationally touring daredevils would perform a variety of stunts with their specially prepared, Canadian-built Meteor Rideau automobiles. But the opening act, new for the first time this year, would be a go-cart race of local builders-drivers. Eddie had built and entered a cart for the event. The gang of friends planned to serve as “pit crew” even though Tony and Betty had almost no mechanical aptitude. Nonetheless, like Alex Dumas’ famous band of musketeers, any challenge facing one would be embraced by all.

As they finished their snow cones Betty threw down the gauntlet. “All right, who’s up for hitting the rides?”

Jack and Eddie readily accepted the challenge. Tony appeared a little more reticent, but capitulated nonetheless. Soon all four were loaded into a single cart on the Tilt-a-Whirl and spinning erratically. Jack, Eddie, and Betty all laughed and shouted enthusiastically as they spun round and round and round. Tony clung to the safety bar and tried to present a smiling face. But by the time the ride ended, his expression had changed to apparent discomfort.

As the gang exited the Tilt-a-Whirl, Eddie urged everyone over to the Octopus. Eddie and Betty raced each other to the waiting line. Jack, however, read Tony’s expression and decided to provide some cover for his friend by suggesting that he himself was queasy and wanted to sit this one out. So the two boys sat and watched as their friends boarded the Octopus. Once in motion, not only did the riders spin endlessly, but the Octopus added rapid up-and-down movements to the fun.

By the time Betty and Eddie exited the Octopus, Tony’s stomach had recovered sufficiently to continue wandering the grounds. To avoid another ride, he suggested going back to the duck-shoot gallery so he could see how badly the guns performed. As it turned out, all five of his shots leveled mechanical ducks, and he won a large, pink teddy bear, which he immediately gifted to Betty. She smiled and then overtly kissed him on the cheek, knowing that would make him uncomfortable. Awkwardly shy of romantic gestures, Tony blushed noticeably. Eddie then suggested that the group call it a night, as he had to get an early start tomorrow finishing up his go-cart for the race.

In the parking lot, the gang all climbed aboard Jack’s recent acquisition—a 1952 Chevy Business Coupe. Robin-egg blue with a white roof, the car was his pride and joy. The one-owner vehicle had needed brakes and a tune-up, but was otherwise in good shape, and the price fit what Jack had saved working on his neighbor’s farm. With the mechanical assistance of his friend, Eddie, and several hours of hand cleaning and waxing, it now proved quite a respectable ride for a high school senior in a town where most of his peers didn’t own a car. As he hit the starter button, the stout 6-cylinder fired to life. Jack turned on the AM radio, and with Bobby Darin’s “Splish Splash” blaring from the speaker, the gang pulled out of the parking lot, singing along to the ridiculous tune.

After dropping off his three “townie” friends, Jack continued on his ten-minute drive down the dark country road leading to his home. Jack and his parents, Ron and Sue Barton, lived on a small farmstead built over sixty years ago. They meticulously maintained the two-story, white clapboard-sided house with bright blue window shutters. Upstairs, a full bathroom with a cast-iron, ceramic tub separated two large, hardwood-floored bedrooms. At the top of the stairwell, a door led out to the roof of the one-stall attached garage, which housed the family automobile. On warm summer nights like this, before retiring to bed, Jack would sometimes lie on that roof and contemplate life as written in the stars. The first floor contained a large farm-style kitchen walled with walnut-stained, glass-paneled cupboards, a spacious living room with bright south-facing windows, Ron and Sue’s bedroom, and a small, half-bathroom by the entrance door. An old red cattle barn had disappeared long before the Bartons bought the property, having submitted to years of abandonment followed by a terminal windstorm. The only remaining legacy of the former dairy operation consisted of a stone foundation wall, now overgrown with native grasses and wildflowers, plus a large cast-iron weather vane from the barn’s roof, now perched on top a ten-foot cedar pole in the front yard. However, a sturdy, but weathered, wooden implement shed continued to provide harbor for Jack’s car, a small gray Ford tractor, and some assorted tools and equipment. The home presided over an eighty-acre parcel. The Bartons rented forty-five tillable acres to the next door neighbor, Joe Dankert, who continued to operate a dairy farm. The other thirty-five acres were mostly wooded, with a small creek running through a shallow ravine.

Jack pulled into the driveway and up to the old shed. The Chevy’s headlights illuminated the doors to his stall. As Jack swung the old wooden shed doors open, the cast iron hinges creaked loudly. He tried not to make too much noise and awaken his parents, who probably had their windows open on a night like this. His beagle, Bowser, stood at attention outside its doghouse in front of the shed waiting for Jack to stow his car. But a quick scratch between Bowser’s ears was the only recompense tonight for the loyal dog’s late night welcome. Jack snuck silently into the house and up the stairs to his room. He opened the bedroom window to let in the night breeze, got undressed, and flopped onto his bed. A chorus of late summer crickets quickly serenaded him off to dream land.

* * *

The sunrise shining in his window brought Jack back to the real world. As he collected his consciousness, he recalled that he needed to help Eddie finish his go-cart today. He rolled out of bed, got dressed, and ambled down the stairs to the kitchen. His mom and dad were seated at the table sharing the local newspaper. He exchanged quick greetings with them, then reached a box of corn flakes and a large bowl from the cupboard. Opening the refrigerator, he grabbed the glass milk jug.

“In a rush today?” Ron inquired from behind the newspaper.

“Sorta.” Jack sat down with his cereal and prepared to dig in. “I told Eddie I’d give him a hand finishing up his go-cart for tonight’s race at the fair. He’s still got a little welding to do on the frame, and then we want to paint it up special so it looks good under the lights.”

Ron lowered his paper. “I thought it was all about winning, not appearance.”

“Nothing wrong with having both!”

Jack’s dad resumed reading. At one point he paused and announced to anyone who might be listening, “Says here in the paper that the link in Ike’s new interstate highway system from Chicago to Minneapolis is gonna run right through Juneau County. That’ll make for some interesting stuff in the next year or so.”

Jack wasn’t too interested in new highways at the moment. He gulped down the last of his cereal, put the bowl and spoon in the sink, and grabbed his car key from the countertop as he headed for the door.

A warm and breezy morning greeted Jack as he stepped out the door and trekked across the yard to the old shed. Jack had lived here since he was five years old and he loved the place. From an early age he’d wander and explore the woods, first with Blackie, a Black Labrador that died when Jack was ten, but soon thereafter with a young beagle pup named Bowser. For the past eight years, Bowser and Jack developed an affinity for chasing rabbits and squirrels in the woods or hunting partridge and pheasants in the open field. Bowser now emerged from his doghouse and jumped at the end of his chain in anticipation of a Saturday morning romp in the woods.

“Top of the morning to you, ol’ chap!” Jack rubbed the dog’s face between his hands. “Maybe tomorrow we can chase down a rabbit or two if I have time. But now I’ve got to scoot.”

The beagle’s tail drooped as Jack got in his car and backed out of the shed.

* * *

Eddie Larson stood scratching his head and looking at a two-wheeled handcart as Jack drove into Larson’s Garage. Dressed in black jeans and a white tee shirt, and sporting a jet-black flattop haircut, Eddie could easily have been mistaken for a hoodlum. And he often tried to portray himself as something of a hell-raiser. But his friends knew him as a generous and loyal person with a great sense of humor. His one notable shortfall was difficulty attending to any single subject for long, except for baseball or cars. When it came to things automotive, Eddie was a mechanical whiz. His dad ran a gas station and auto repair shop located on Mauston’s main drag, and Eddie had been turning wrenches since he was old enough to hold one.

“Whatcha lookin’ at?” yelled Jack as he got out of his Chevy.


Jack walked over and Eddie pointed to the tires on the handcart.

“Most of the guys are gonna be running solid rubber tires on their go-carts. But I was just looking at this handcart with the nobby inflatable tires and thinking they might provide a helluva lot more traction on that ol’ dusty race track.”

Jack thought about that a minute. “Ya know, you might have something there. But you’ll need four of them, won’t you?”

“Yep. But they carry ’em over at the farm implement dealership. If I borrow these two off the handcart, I’ll just need to buy two more.”

The two boys jumped in Eddie’s ’35 Ford pickup and dashed over to the farm implement store. In a jiffy they were back, and Eddie got busy welding the two new wheels to the drive axle while Jack fitted the “borrowed” handcart wheels to the front spindles of the go-cart. By noon they had completed their modifications to the little racer and got busy sanding the frame in preparation for painting. Eddie had scrounged some bright red paint he found lying around the shop, and by three o’clock the little go-cart looked like a real competition racer.

As they admired the spiffy little racer, Jack asked, “Is your girlfriend joining you in the pits tonight?”

“Naw. Jean’s not very happy that I’m doing this at all. You’ve met her a couple times—pretty straight-laced. If it wasn’t for her ‘certain other qualities’ I’m not sure why I’d be going out with her in the first place. I’m supposed to go to church with her and her family on Sunday. Gotta figure a way around that!”

Jack glanced at his watch. “Hey, Eddie, I’ve got to go home, get something to eat, and head over to Dankerts for chores. But I’ll be back in time to help you load up and haul this baby over to the fair.”

Eddie waved as Jack drove out of the lot and headed toward home.

After eating some leftovers from the refrigerator and changing into barn clothes, Jack walked across the recently harvested oats field to Dankerts’ farm. At age twelve, Jack began working for Joe Dankert on the farm next door. Every afternoon Jack would help with milking and feeding, and he worked many hours as needed over the summer with all the fieldwork. Jack enjoyed the variety of tasks and the sense of accomplishment that followed a day’s work. Operating the farm machinery seemed more like fun than work. And as seasons changed, he found the annual cycle of duties predictable and reassuring. On those occasions when Jack peered into the future, he could see himself owning and operating a successful farm.

Jack noticed how the path of the afternoon sun had begun to shift southward already. And a few of the trees started to show signs of turning. He always liked the fall season, and it wasn’t far off now.

As Jack approached the Dankert house, their dog Rufus slowly got up and waddled off the front porch to greet him. The old, overweight, reddish-colored golden retriever now spent most his time lying in a sunny spot or eating, and consequently reminded Jack of a furry sumo wrestler. While he had once been a great bird dog, and could even assist in herding cattle in a pinch, those days were long gone.

Mrs. Dankert, or “Gertie” as she preferred to be called, sat on the porch swing mending clothes. A dedicated farmwife, Gertie and her husband Joe had operated the small dairy farm for nearly thirty-five years. Now plump and rosy-cheeked, she always seemed to be wearing an old dress with an apron tied at the waist. Gertie’s family had immigrated from Germany when she was eight years old, and she still spoke with a distinctive accent. She and Joe never had children of their own. But she would readily have adopted Jack.

“Good afternoon, Jack,” she called as he stepped up onto the porch. “There’s fresh oatmeal cookies on the kitchen cupboard.”

“Don’t mind if I do! Thanks.” Jack zipped in and out of the house, emerging with three large cookies.

“Joe’s out in the barn. He was checking on the gal who’s about to drop her calf.”

“I’ll go see if I can give a hand and get the milking started.”

Joe Dankert was a tall, muscular, but weathered man with long gray hair that always fell out of place. He often wore a pair of blue denim bib overalls and a Milwaukee Braves baseball hat, whether working in the barn or going into town for supplies. While he never attended high school, Joe seemed to possess more wisdom about how the world worked than anyone else Jack knew. He could be gruff at times, but he also respected the views of others, and could be extremely generous when the spirit moved him. Joe managed to handle the morning routine chores on his own, but his arthritis began to take its toll as the day progressed. So every day, Jack helped with the afternoon chores. Once the cows were milked, and the milk cans placed in the cooler for pickup by the local dairy, Jack would scramble up to the haymow. There he’d unstack enough bales of hay to feed the small herd, drop them down through an opening to the first floor, then bust them up and place the right amount of hay in front of each cow’s stanchion.

“Hi, Joe. She didn’t deliver yet, eh?”

“No, and I don’t think she will tonight. At least I hope she holds off till morning.”

“Anything special you need done today?”

“Not today. But are you available next Saturday for baling if I get that thirty acres cut and dried by then?”

“I’ve planned on it. And I’ll ask my buddies Eddie and Tony if they’d be willing to help as well. But you know city kids—can’t plan on ’em until the last minute.”

“Is Eddie still gonna be racing one of them go-carts tonight?”

“Sure is. I’ll be heading over to help him as soon as we’re done.”

“Well, Gertie and I will be there to watch. Wish him luck for me.”

“Will do,” Jack yelled as he walked away to get the milking equipment.

After chores Jack rushed home, changed into clothes that didn’t smell like cows, and jumped in his car to head back to town. Just before pulling out of the driveway, he remembered that he needed to feed and water Bowser. He put the car in reverse, backed up to the shed, jumped out, and quickly tended to his beagle. Jack knew his dog well enough to know that the disappointed look on Bowser’s face meant something like, “Another night without a walk in the woods?” So Jack reassured the dog, and perhaps himself, that they’d get to that tomorrow. Then it was back in the car and off to Larson’s Garage.

Driving in, he found Eddie pacing nervously back and forth. “I was beginning to think you forgot.” The go-cart sat behind Eddie’s pickup waiting for Jack to help lift it into the truck bed.

“No worries!” Jack took one side of the cart and helped Eddie place it securely in the pickup. “It’s not even six o’clock yet, and the race doesn’t start until 7:30. We got plenty of time to get over there and set up.”

“Yeah, probably. I just never done anything like this before . . . you know . . . in front of a whole grandstand full of people. So I just want to make sure I’ve got all my ducks in a row.”

They tied the go-cart down, then Eddie ran into the gas station and came out carrying an old motorcycle helmet that he’d painted red to match the cart, along with a two-gallon gas can.

“Got tools?” asked Jack.

“They’re up front.”

The boys each jumped in their respective vehicles and pulled out for the fairgrounds.

When they arrived at the gate to the grandstand, the attendant saw the go-cart, flashed a thumbs-up sign, and waved them through into the pits. About a dozen other participants were already parked and getting their carts ready. Eddie recognized a classmate from shop class at high school and pulled up next to him. As Jack and Eddie lifted out the bright red cart and set it down, Eddie’s classmate looked inquisitively at the inflatable handcart tires.

“What the heck you doin’ with these?”

Eddie grinned a sly smile. “Traction!”

The classmate just shook his head and got back to work on his own cart.

Eddie turned to Jack. “We’ll see what he thinks when I’m huggin’ the corners while he’s skidding all over the place.”

Jack looked over at the other carts. “Looks like they’ve all got Briggs & Stratton 5-horse motors. So it should be a tight race, huh?”

“The motor had to be a 5-horse, but they didn’t say we couldn’t tweak ’em! With the head milled, ports opened up, a carburetor from an 8-horse, and runnin’ on 100 octane, we’ll see how tight it is.”

Jack chuckled. “These other guys should just throw in the towel right now.”

Just then Betty and Tony showed up. They were both impressed how nice Eddie’s cart looked. For the next twenty minutes, Eddie showed and explained all the features of his go-cart and discussed his strategy for winning the race. Betty, Jack, and Tony all listened attentively knowing their friend was wound pretty tight this evening.

Then a voice boomed over the loudspeaker, “Go-cart drivers, time to start ’em up and drive ’em over to the staging area!”

Eddie pulled on his helmet. “Gotta go!”

He walked to the back of his cart and gave a firm pull on the starter rope. Nothing happened. So he pulled a second time. Still nothing. A third pull produced nothing. Other carts were now starting and revving.

“Dammit! What’s wrong with this thing?”

He pulled a couple more times in vain and then started to panic. He pulled the spark plug wire off and held it next to the cart frame.

“Jack, give it another yank or two!”

As Jack pulled the cord, a spark jumped from the wire to the frame.

“Got gas?” asked Jack.

Eddie spun off the cap and looked in the tank. “Yeah, it’s full!”

The other carts were now starting to leave the pits for the staging area. Jack stared at the cart trying to think of something. Then it dawned on him. “Eddie . . . the fuel shut-off valve.”

Eddie looked under the gas tank and swore some kind of obscenity as he reached under and opened the valve. Then he quickly got back on the starter rope and yanked a couple times. The engine fired to life. Eddie jumped in the seat, and he zipped away, last in the line of carts being staged.

“Whew, that was tense!” said Tony. “I thought he wasn’t gonna make it there for a minute.”

Betty watched the cart drive away. “Let’s go get some seats where we can see better.”

The three friends dashed over and took a seat on the closest end of the grandstand. About twenty carts were in position ready to race. Eddie was second from last. A tight dirt oval had been graded in front of the grandstand. The cars would race much like full-size stock cars. A large trophy awaited the lead driver at the end of the fifteenth lap.

The fleet of lawn-mower engines buzzed angrily as the flagman dropped the green flag launching the race. They rounded the first corner in a tight pack and stayed clustered down the backstretch. Then one of the carts in the second row appeared to have engine trouble and coasted to a stop. That caused general disruption to everyone behind as they jockeyed to get around the disabled cart. Workers quickly pulled the disabled cart from the track. But two leaders had now opened a gap from the rest of the pack. Meanwhile, Eddie was making headway. His engine modifications boosted his speed on the straightaways, while his nobby, inflatable tires seemed to be holding better in the corners. With each lap, he passed another cart or two. By the thirteenth lap he had pulled up to third place and closed to within two feet of the second-place cart. On the first corner of the fourteenth lap Eddie started to pass on the outside. But as he got alongside the second-place cart, that driver nudged Eddie’s cart. When their wheels bumped together, Eddie’s inflatable front tire popped off the rim. The front of his cart dropped to the ground and dug-in, flipping the cart up onto its side. Eddie fell out onto the track. A collective gasp rose from the audience in the grandstand as the remaining carts all zipped past Eddie. Track workers dashed out and hauled Eddie and his cart off the track before the remaining racers came by on their final lap. Eddie stood up and waved his helmet to show that he was okay. Jack, Betty, and Tony all ran back to the pits as the carts completed the final lap. They got to Eddie’s location just as a tow truck pulled up with Eddie’s cart dangling from its boom on the back. Eddie got out of the passenger’s seat looking surprisingly happy.

“Man, that was fun!”

Jack and Tony helped the tow truck driver release the cart and then pushed it over next to Eddie’s pickup.

“Aren’t you hurt?” asked Betty. “That looked awful!”

“Eh . . . a few scratches is all.” He joined Jack and Tony by the cart. “Boy, I hope they do this again next year. What a blast!”

Betty, ever the competitor, persisted. “Aren’t you disappointed you didn’t finish?”

“Nah, not really. The big ol’ trophy would have been kinda neat, but I lasted fourteen of fifteen laps passing everybody in sight. They all know I was dominating. That’s good enough for me. Let’s get everything loaded up, grab some hot dogs, and find a seat for the Canadian Hell Drivers. I really wanna see what kind of stunts they manage to pull off.”

After the auto thrill show had concluded, the gang of friends decided to hang out on the midway again for awhile. As if a grueling go-cart race wasn’t enough excitement for one evening, Eddie wanted to ride the Octopus again. Betty eagerly accepted the suggestion, but Tony wanted nothing to do with it. Jack once again decided to keep Tony company, so the two sat at a picnic table and watched while the other two spun themselves silly.

“You could have gone with them, you know,” said Tony.

“I know,” replied Jack. “But it’s also fun just people-watching.”

Jack had gotten to know Tony McCann well their first year at Boy Scout summer camp. Overcome by homesickness on the second day, the quiet and introspective boy with curly red hair didn’t want to come out of his tent. When the troop leader ordered Tony to come out and fall in with the rest of the group, he complied, but in tears. That, of course, led to a great deal of teasing by many of the boys who perceived a week away from home as a great delight. Moreover, a dark, rust-colored birthmark covered much of Tony’s right cheek, which, combined with the nature of young boys, led to mockery and ridicule by some of the meanest of the boys at camp. Initially, out of pity, Jack invited the tormented Tony to stick with him as they participated in the various camp activities and worked on merit badges together. But it didn’t take long for Jack to realize that Tony was not only kind and helpful, but quite gifted at almost everything he tried. Show him a complex rope knot one time and he could replicate it. Need to start a campfire in the woods without matches? Leave it to Tony. Who was the best shot with a .22 caliber rifle on the range? You guessed it. By the end of the week of camp, Tony had helped Jack earn three different merit badges, and the two had become best buddies. Through the subsequent years Tony had proved himself a reliable friend in sharing both good times and bad. Nonetheless, Tony remained a bit introverted and was perceptibly shy around most girls.

The one exception to Tony’s shyness of the opposite sex was Betty Petersen, who now flew wildly around on the Octopus with Eddie. Betty had long been the female partner in the group of friends. For most of their grade school years she lived on the same block as Eddie and Tony, and would often be found playing (or fighting) with them at the park. A bit of a tomboy, Betty loved anything active and exciting. As far as she was concerned, the more adrenaline produced, the better. Whether playing ice hockey on the frozen river in winter, or pedaling fast down the steep hill at Mile Bluff on their bicycles, Betty could always hold her own with the three boys. With her strawberry-blond ponytail, inquisitive blue eyes, and slim athletic build, Betty possessed a certain girl-next-door appeal, but always dressed boyishly and rarely wore makeup. From young on, she held a repressed crush on Jack, but managed to keep it cleverly concealed. Jack, for his part, had always thought of her as one of the guys, so he never really noticed any special attention Betty paid to him.

Waiting for the Octopus ride to wind down, Jack spotted a stunningly attractive girl walking the midway with a dapper-looking young man. They seemed to be with an older couple. He speculated that the older couple must be the young man’s parents from the way they interacted. But the girl also seemed very friendly with them as well. Maybe it was her parents, not his. In any case they must have come to the fair from out of town because he certainly would have noticed her around Mauston High School.

Betty and Eddie now exited the Octopus and walked over to Jack and Tony.

“How about some popcorn?” suggested Eddie. “I think that ride kinda did me in tonight. I could use something to settle my gut.”

The foursome walked down the corridor of carnival games and food trailers.

Tony seemed introspective. “Can you believe we start our senior year of high school on Tuesday?”

Betty was concentrating on finding the popcorn stand. “Yeah, it seems like summer just got started.”

“That’s true, but what I meant was . . . we’re already going to be seniors. It doesn’t seem that long ago that we were just starting out as freshmen.”

Jack glanced at Tony. “Interesting you’d say that. I was just thinking about how much we’ve all grown up in the past couple years.”

“Well, let’s not be in too big a hurry here,” Eddie said as they approached the popcorn stand. “I still have plenty of fun stuff I want to do before I get too grown up.”

Everyone laughed. And for the next hour they all enjoyed the “fun stuff” of the carnival atmosphere before departing for home.

Walking to the parking lot Jack once again noticed the attractive girl and the mystery family getting into a shiny black Cadillac.


First Day of School

As one of the few students with his own car, Jack elected not to endure the hour-long bus ride to school this year. So on this first morning, he packed a brown-bag lunch and drove leisurely into town, arriving nearly a half-hour early. With lunch in one hand, and time to kill, Jack walked the hallways. The orderly rows of metal lockers, the reverberating noise of a few other early-birds talking and laughing, the smell of the freshly waxed floors, all contributed to a sense of familiarity and comfort. Passing the history classroom Jack noticed Mr. Corrigan sitting at his desk preparing notes. Jack enjoyed history, and consequently had become somewhat of a teacher’s pet to Mr. Corrigan.

Jack stepped inside the room. “Good morning, Mr. Corrigan. Ready for another year?”

“Well, hi, Jack. In fact, yes, I am. Preparation is a big part of this job. And you’re embarking on your senior year, are you not?”

“Yep. I guess that means I’m almost an adult.”

“Ahh. Adulthood is not that arbitrarily determined.” Mr. Corrigan continued sorting and stacking class handouts. “A lot of personal attributes must come together just right to define one as an adult. But it seems to me that in your case, that process may be well underway already. Have you given any thought to what you might be doing next year at this time?”

Jack looked around the classroom and noted the desk where he sat last year. “Not too much. I like working for my neighbor, Joe Dankert. So far that’s just been part-time, but he’s getting older, and I think he might want me full-time by next year. My dad also says he could easily get me in at the lumberyard if I wanted to work there. The pay would be okay. Not really sure yet, I guess.”

“Listen. I’m pretty busy this week. But once things get settled this semester, why don’t you stop by and we’ll set up a time to talk more about your future. There may be some options you haven’t yet considered.”

“Thanks, Mr. Corrigan. I will do that. Good luck with this year’s crop of sophomores and juniors!”

Jack walked out of the room and continued down the hallway, trying to envision life beyond high school. Maybe I should begin giving that some serious thought, he advised himself.

“Let’s see, 131, 129, . . . ah, there it is—127.” Jack spoke to himself out loud as he approached his assigned locker. For four years in a row now, Jack had secured this same spot. In his freshman year he had requested this locker number because it corresponded to his birthday, December 7th, or 12/7, so it would be easy for him to remember. His parents often told the story of getting ready to celebrate his first birthday on a Sunday morning, when news broke on the radio of the infamous attack of Pearl Harbor. What should have been a day of joy became a day of worry and uncertainty. He often wondered if there was any cosmic influence to that connection, or if it was simply one of those interesting, but meaningless, coincidences of life. He placed his lunch bag on the top shelf, pulled the Master combination lock from his pocket, secured the latch, and continued down the hallway toward his assigned homeroom.

Midmorning, as Jack walked into second period chemistry class, the teacher, Mr. Olmstead, stood near the doorway repeating his chant. “Assigned seats. Alphabetically by last name. Please take a seat at your assigned table. Assigned seats . . .”

Black laminate workstations dominated the chemistry classroom with two high-top stools at each table. Taped on each table, a small piece of paper identified the names of the assigned students.

Oh great! Jack thought. Barton will be right up front. Mr. Olmstead carried a reputation as an ornery curmudgeon with little patience for students. Jack had hoped to nab a seat toward the rear and avoid too high a profile in this class. But there it was: Barton, Bergman taped on the first workstation. Jack reluctantly took his seat and plopped his spiral notebook down on the tabletop.

Hmm. I wonder who Bergman is? He knew most of the students—many since grade school. But the name Bergman didn’t ring a bell. Must be someone new to the school. He watched the doorway as students filed in. A red-haired, freckle-faced guy walked in that Jack didn’t know. Looks kind of like a brainy Howdy Doody. Might be a good partner for chemistry class. But “Howdy” walked right past Jack’s table.

Suddenly Jack caught his breath. A new girl walked into the room. Her well-styled, dark brunette hair tumbled almost to her shoulders. Her graceful arching eyebrows, high cheekbones, perfectly sculpted nose, and soft, cream-colored complexion differentiated her from most of the other girls at school. Jack made an instant association. She looks like a seventeen-year-old Liz Taylor! Her short-sleeved, button-down knit blouse revealed a voluptuous figure. She carried herself with poise and determination. Then Jack realized: this was the girl he had seen at the fair on Saturday night! He had assumed she must have been from out of town. But her presence walking into this class meant that she surely lived here in Mauston.

Upon hearing the “assigned seats” chant, the young debutante looked toward Jack’s table. She gazed directly at Jack for a few piercing seconds, seemingly assessing her pairing, then she walked over and sat down.

“Hi. I’m Linda.”

“I’m Jack. Welcome to Mr. Olmstead’s dreaded chemistry class.”

She smiled. “If we’re being teamed up, I hope you’re a smart one!”

Her deep, dark eyes, combined with the faint scent of an alluring perfume quickened Jack’s pulse, and for a moment words eluded him. Then he regained control. “Well, I’m kind of smart about some things, but chemistry is a new one for me. Um, you’re new here, aren’t you?”

“That’s certainly true. My family just moved here a couple weeks ago. I’m still trying to get my bearings.”

“Where from?” Jack studied the shape of her lips.

“Chicago,” she sighed. “Needless to say, I wasn’t thrilled about moving up here, but Daddy had an offer he just couldn’t pass up.”

Jack felt a little slighted by the comment. “I don’t know. I’ve lived here all my life, and it’s not so bad if you’re used to it.” But he instantly realized his defensive tone and adjusted course. “I guess what I mean is, Mauston might lack some things Chicago probably offers, but there’s also stuff to do here that you could never do in the big city.”

“Oh really? I’d love to know more about that.”

Jack detected a perceptible hint of sarcasm in her voice.

Just then Mr. Olmstead chimed in, “All right, class, let’s get down to business.”

For the next fifty minutes Jack struggled to concentrate on the class rules, the expectations, and Mr. Olmstead’s introduction to the wonderful world of chemistry. Sitting next to this stunning girl diverted his attention.

When the bell rang, Linda turned and said, ever so politely, “Pleased to meet you, Jack. I look forward to working with you as we get into lab projects.” Then she smiled and hurried out of the room.

Jack could only nod and wave goodbye. The raw, instinctive attraction and close proximity for the past hour put Jack in unfamiliar territory, as did the challenge to his own views of Juneau County as a great place to live. He picked up his notebook and the textbook distributed in class and walked out toward his next class.

Walking into the cafeteria at lunch break, Jack easily spotted the head of curly red hair already claiming an empty table in the far corner. It was “their” corner. The gang of friends had convened for lunch at this spot almost every day since freshman year. Jack with his brown paper bag and Betty with her tray of “daily special” arrived at the table simultaneously. A moment later, Eddie arrived toting a gigantic lunch bag.

For several minutes they rehashed the excitement of Saturday night at the fair. Then Eddie switched topics to his other obsession—baseball.

“What do you think about those Braves, eh? Hank Aaron is so cool under pressure. And with Bruton back from last year’s injury, who knows? Do you think they’ll make the World Series again?”

“Maybe,” said Jack. “But the Pirates are gonna be tough to beat.”

“Hey, maybe if they do make the Series we could skip out from school one day and drive to Milwaukee to see the game!”

Betty interrupted, trying to change the topic off baseball before it got too deep. “How was your first morning, Jack?”

“Well, chemistry class was interesting.”

“Ohhh, you’ve got Mr. Olmstead, don’t you?” said Betty. “I’ve heard he can be a real beast.”

Jack dug a sandwich from his bag. “It’s not that. We’ve got assigned lab partners, and I’m paired up with this gal who’s new to the area . . . from Chicago.”

“So what’s so bad about that? Maybe you’ll pick up some big-city sophistication along the way. What’s her name? Do we know her?”

“Linda Bergman.”

Eddie and Tony stopped chewing and looked at each other wide-eyed.

“You’re paired up with Linda Bergman?” asked Tony.

Eddie half-choked on a mouthful of sandwich. “You’re shitting me, right?”

Betty suddenly felt out of the loop. “Who’s Linda Bergman?”

Eddie turned toward her. “Linda Bergman is just the hottest number in all of Mauston High School, that’s all. She just moved to town last month. Some guys have already placed bets on who will score with her first. It would be pretty funny if Jack was that guy!”

Jack wished they had continued talking baseball.

Betty wanted to know more. “Well, how come I haven’t heard about her?”

Eddie and Tony looked at each other again and broke out laughing.

Eddie decided to explain. “Betty, I don’t think you have the same interest in the subject.”

Jack tried to avoid further speculation. “Give it a rest, guys. We’re just talking lab partners here.”

“That’s right,” said Betty. “Maybe she’s smart and will be helpful with chemistry.”

Eddie poked Jack in the side. “Maybe there will be chemistry happening at that lab table, eh?”

Jack wanted a new subject. “Look, why are we sitting in here? It’s beautiful out. Let’s go hang outside until the bell rings.”

Eddie rewrapped the rest of his sandwich and they all moved outdoors. Under the shade of a large oak tree, the foursome plopped down on the grass.

Tony started singing a rough parody of Gershwin’s classic from the play Porgy and Bess. “Summerti-ime . . . and the livin’ is easy.”

“That reminds me,” said Betty. “I heard that a movie version of Porgy and Bess is coming out this winter. Since learning some of those tunes in grade school, I’ve always wanted to see the play. Maybe one of you boys will go with me to see it when it comes around.”

“Oh sure, I’d be all over that!” said Eddie.

Tony laughed. “Jean will probably make you go see it anyway.”

Suddenly a loud BOOM interrupted their rambling conversation.

Betty jumped. “What was that?”

Jack looked skyward shielding his eyes from the sun with his hand. “Sonic boom. I’ll bet it’s one of the new jet fighters stationed at Truax Field in Madison. F-102 Delta Daggers. Man, I’ve love to hitch a ride in one of those!”

Jack knew more about airplanes, especially military ones, than anyone at Mauston High. As a kid he’d page through the picture books at the library absorbing every fact and facet of the silvery flying machines.

All four searched the skies but failed to locate the speck of airplane among the puffy, white, cumulus clouds. For a few minutes they all sat there on the lawn, soaking in the late summer sunshine. Then the bell rang summoning everyone back for afternoon classes. Tony suggested meeting for an after-school ice cream soda at the local Rexall drug store.

Betty shook her head. “I’ve got to babysit for the Paulson kids tonight so I’m out.”

“And I’ve got to get over to Dankerts for chores,” said Jack. “By the way, I’ll be helping bale hay on Saturday. If any of you want to come and stack bales, help is always welcome.”

By six o’clock that evening, Jack had finished chores, returned home, and washed up for supper. His mom was working late today, so his dad had pulled yesterday’s leftover beef stew from the refrigerator and heated it on the stove.

“Hi, Pops. Smells pretty good in here.”

“I think stew is always better after it sits for a day. How are Joe and Gertie?”

“Joe’s waiting for one of the cows to deliver. She looks like a bloated whale. Makes me glad I’m a guy. Pregnancy would not be for me!”

“Oh, you’ll probably have to deal with the side effects at some point.”

“Gee, thanks. Anything new at work?”

“A lot of talk about Ike’s new interstate system. Folks are wondering what the exact route will be. It’s surely got to bypass town on one side or the other. Some think it’ll be built alongside the railroad. But I guess we’ll all know sooner or later.”

“So, that will mean we’ll have a four-lane highway from here all the way to Chicago, right? How long would it take to drive there once it’s done?”

“Well, probably about three and a half hours. Why? You planning to get a job in Chicago?”

“No. Just wondering. That’s even faster than taking the train.”

“That would be the good part.”

Jack was puzzled. “What’s the bad part?”

“They gotta put it somewhere. Can you think of somewhere you wouldn’t want it put?”

Jack thought for a moment before getting the picture. “Oh. I see what you mean. Yeah, I can think of somewhere I wouldn’t want it.”

Ron went back to the stove for seconds. “How was your first day back at school?”

Jack cut a slice of bread off the loaf his mom baked yesterday. “Oh, pretty routine. Some new classes, some new faces. Hopefully I’ll learn something,”

“What are you going to do next year at this time?”

“Geez, Mr. Corrigan asked me the same thing when I saw him at school today. I’m not really sure—it seems like a long way off. You know, Joe’s arthritis keeps growing worse. I’ll bet I could work full-time for him. He might even be interested in selling out to me someday. But, you also said I could probably work at the lumberyard. What do you think I should do?”

“Well, that’s going to be up to you, but it would be a shame to waste your talents.”

Jack ate silently for a few moments. “I guess I better start thinking about that.”

After they finished supper, Jack started clearing the dishes from the table. His dad scooped the remaining stew into a small dish that he put back in the refrigerator for his wife when she came home.

“Tell you what. I’ll take care of the dishes. You go take Bowser out and run him a bit before dark.”

“Thanks. He does love to run.”

As Jack exited the house and started for the shed, Bowser sprang to life, running back and forth at the end of his chain and barking in anticipation of his release.

“Okay, ol’ chum. Let’s go find some adventure.” Jack unleashed his beloved dog from its chain. The two set off at a sprint around the side of the shed and toward the woods and creek. The low angle of the sun combined with the high humidity of the day cast an orange tint over the fields and trees. Jack made note of the light warm breeze against his face. He thought he should lock the moment away for recollection a few months from now when the bitter cold would change the character of that breeze. Bowser investigated every interesting scent as they walked under the oaks and pines that dominated the woods. A squirrel darted across their path catching Bowser off guard. But he quickly took chase, baying as he ran, and soon had the squirrel back up into the treetops where he belonged. As they approached the creek, Bowser scared up a couple of wood ducks feeding in the shallows, then splashed up and down the creek bed in the trickle of water that flowed in late summer. Finally it was time to head back. Jack whistled between his fingers and Bowser came running. Jack smiled. The beagle always had a way of lifting Jack’s spirits. Walking back toward the farmstead, Jack wondered about his future a year from now. Life was just about perfect at the moment. Why would anyone want to change things?

Long shadows from the trees lay across the front yard as Jack connected Bowser back to his chain. As he walked toward the house, a car pulled in the driveway. Mom’s co-worker, Audrey, had given Sue a ride home from the truckstop where they worked. Jack waited by the front door to hold it open for her.

As they entered the kitchen, Jack said, “We saved you some stew in case you’re hungry.”

“Thanks, dear, but after waiting tables all day I don’t really want to look at any more food.”

Ron greeted his wife with a kiss on her cheek. Jack took the opportunity to dismiss himself to his room.

Jack’s room always felt welcoming to him. An old ornate inlaid wood headboard and footboard capped his twin bed. A matching chest of drawers contained most of his daily clothes. In front of a large window facing the backyard stood a small desk with a lamp. And on an adjacent table, a large AM radio kept Jack up to date on the latest hit songs. In the middle of the room, a small circular braided rug adorned the shiny hardwood floor. A pull-chain ceiling light illuminated a small walk-in closet where he kept not only his Sunday clothes and some winter coats, but his collection of personal effects that had, now or in the past, leant meaning to his life. Inventory included his ice skates and hockey stick, a weathered, but comfortable baseball glove and Louisville Slugger bat, a Monopoly game, a box containing a complete Lionel electric train set, a wooden airplane he had carved from a block of wood and his prized possessions—a Mossberg .410 gauge bolt-action shotgun, and a Remington .22 caliber rifle.

He turned on the radio and seated himself at the desk. The new song from Buddy Holly and the Crickets was playing: “It’s so easy to fall in love . . .” It reminded Jack of his encounter in chemistry class today. Trying to block images of Linda Bergman from his head, he opened one of his new books and dove into his homework.

An hour later Jack closed his books, shut off the radio and desk light, stripped to his underwear, and flopped down on his bed. A warm breeze blew in through the open window, and the crickets (the natural kind) sang loudly again tonight. Jack wondered briefly what he’d be doing next year at this time, but what he’d be doing tomorrow seemed of greater interest.


Baling hay

Faced with excess cash, some people spend freely, seeking gratification today. Others, worried more about future calamity, salt away discretionary funds as a hedge against hard times. Sue Barton belonged firmly in the latter category. Ron Barton, who leaned toward the former category, normally acquiesced to his wife on financial matters. But today he decided to plead his case.

Jack’s mom poured her morning cup of coffee from the stove-top pot. “I don’t know, Ron. Do you really think we can afford it?”

Ron stood leaning against the counter. “We have the money, Sue. We haven’t taken a real vacation in years. Jack’s old enough to stay by himself for a couple weeks. Don’t you think we owe it to ourselves?”

“I guess I always like to have something put aside for a rainy day. What if we have an emergency? Or what if Jack decides to go off to college? Or . . .who knows?”

“What if we pass up the opportunity now, then health or finances prevent us from doing something like this in the future?”

“I suppose you’re right about that.” Sue walked over and faced her husband. “I really wish we could have had the kind of family vacations in the past that so many people get to enjoy. But the past is behind us.” She paused momentarily, looking past Ron out the window. “You know, I would love to go somewhere warm in winter.”

“Well then, let’s do it!” Ron took her hand. “We can make it as romantic as the summer of ’34.”

“Oh, don’t get your hopes up too high, Mr. Casanova. That’s a pretty high hurdle!” She flashed him a flirtatious smile.

Susan and Ronald Barton met at a Civilian Conservation Corps camp in the summer of 1934. Ron, an unemployed nineteen-year-old from Tomah, cherished the opportunity to get away from home and do something productive. Sixteen-year-old Sue and her eighteen-year-old sister Helen worked as camp cooks. The thirty-five-mile trek to their home in La Crosse meant they needed to live at camp in order to handle meal preparation from dawn till dusk. Although Helen was supposed to act as a chaperone for her younger sister, a handsome camp supervisor named Gary soon occupied Helen’s interests, leaving Sue unattended. Ron Barton frequently brought wildflowers in from the woods and offered them to Sue as she served the meals. By late summer, casual walks in the woods during free times had escalated into steamy escapades.

Just then, Jack came bounding down the stairs and into the kitchen.

“Hi, Mom. Hi, Pops. Watcha’ talking about?”

“Oh, just stuff,” said Ron.

Jack grabbed a banana and a couple cookies from the cupboard. “I gotta run. Promised Ol’ Man Dankert that I’d help bale hay today. Tony and Eddie are gonna help, so we should get lots done. Betty may even stop out for a bit.”

Jack flew out the door. Sue smiled at her husband. “He reminds me of you when you were younger.”

Sue emptied her coffee cup. “Where would we go?”

“Why don’t we set up an appointment at the travel agency downtown and see what kind of ideas they can come up with?”

* * *

Joe Dankert stood on the frame of the old green and yellow John Deere Model A, holding the hose nozzle into the tractor’s gas tank. “Okay, Jack.”

Jack began turning the crank on the manually-operated gas pump. “Just say when.”

The thirty acres of hay cut earlier in the week had dried sufficiently to harvest, and mild, sunny weather graced the September Saturday, lending urgency to the old saying, “make hay while the sun shines.” Once fueled, the tractor would be hitched to the baler and a flatbed wagon. If all went well, they’d be done with the entire field by dark.

“That’s good,” shouted Joe, and he carefully let the last trickle of gasoline drip into the tractor’s tank. Then he handed the hose to Jack who hung it back on the gas pump. Joe shifted himself from the engine frame over into the driver’s seat and shoved his foot down onto the starter pedal while advancing the throttle. After a few seconds of groaning as the starter spun, the big two-cylinder engine fired to life with the distinctive John Deere sound: Ka-puck, ka-puck, ka-puck. Joe drove the tractor over to the baler, then carefully backed up as Jack got ready to make the connections.

Jack prepared to slide the baler’s drive shaft onto the splined tractor PTO shaft. “Whoa! Okay, it’s on. Now just a little more.” The holes in the draw bar and baler lined up and Jack dropped in the hitch pin. Clink. “Got it!” Jack hopped up next to Joe and sat on the tractor fender as they drove around behind the barn and hooked up an empty hay wagon.

As they came back around front, Eddie’s ’35 Ford pulled in the driveway and spun a single “Cheerio.” Eddie couldn’t resist a little Aah-ooo-gaa salute on the horn. Tony hung out the passenger window waving his hat.

Joe wasn’t impressed. “We’ll see if they have that much energy by day’s end.”

Jack just laughed.

The game plan for the day placed Mr. Dankert in charge, driving the tractor and baler. Jack would bring the other two empty wagons to the field using Joe’s war surplus Willys Jeep. Then he’d shuttle the full wagons back to the barn where the bales would later be unloaded and stacked in the barn’s haymow. When not moving wagons, Jack would supervise the efforts of Eddie and Tony stacking the bales ejected from the baler. Once everyone understood their assignments, the caravan pulled out of the driveway and down the road toward the field of dried hay.

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