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The big brown sleeping bags

tcr! · Nov 29, 2018 at 7:00 pm

Four at Lake Wapello

My grandma Mildred bought sleeping bags for all of us when I was a kid. They were big enough for more than four people. So big you may have been able to roll one out and cover the east side of the Grand Canyon. Maybe even throw it up over the moon if said moon was too bright for you on your summer night.

Being a smaller kid I had to tie a rope to one end and drag it around with a bulldozer to get to wherever I was going with it. Well, it was more like playing tug-of-war with an oversized, irradiated cocoa burrito from the 1950s Mars. Because it regularly refused to cooperate. I’d be exhausted after finally moving the bastard only a couple feet.

The woolen, triple lined sleeping bags were hotter than the last day of hell, too. Sleeping inside one would bake you just right for the Lake Wapello cannibals over on the northern side of said man-made lake. Local field guides said the cannibals had already eaten all the Boy Scouts so the campers could only be next.

And then said portable sleeping gear would suffocate you if you feel asleep. So you didn’t. One time in the middle of the night my mom literally kicked me outta the tent and then I rolled down the campground hill in the pouring rain. I almost fell in the lake. She said she didn’t care if there were thunderstorms soaking most of Iowa, she couldn’t stand my snoring another minute. I was two years old.

Anyways, the next morning coming out of the human hot pocket, you’d be drenched in sweat like you’d been sleeping in that Steamboat Geyser at Yellowstone. You basically had to swim the dog paddle to break free of ye woolen sack and the 550°F fuzzy oven.

And trust me, the sleeping bag would not let you go without a fight. The inner textile bowels were slick as Christmas ice and you were constantly slipping and sliding farther back down into the gaping void of sheep fleece and cotton. The loose threads a tourniquet for your toes, the steel zipper piranha teeth for your fingers.

If you were lucky there may have been a stray tree root you could grab on to for leverage. So long as it was anchored in that hard camper dirt.

I rolled one of the brown human tote bags down to the basement once and it splintered each and every stair as it bounced down those wooden steps of Allison Avenue. Cracked the foundation of the house, too, when it finally came to a stop against the western wall. I left the fabric Ho Ho where it was as a warning to the next soul should they be enticed by the innocent comforts of a monster in disguise as a friendly, cozy, snug sleeping bag.

Grandma Mildred was a beautiful, caring woman. No blame lay with her for this and I fault her not. She was barely 4 foot 12 but her heart was big enough to power a Mount Juneau grizzly.

And then back to them gargantuan sleeping bags. There was one time that our dog went into one and was lost for over 7 hours. We’d throw in pieces of ham in hopes the smell would lead him back out. We’d call but our voices only bounced around like distant, fading echos.

Every now and then we’d hear a faraway whimper, a doggie moan for help. There was nothing we could do though. You’d be a fool to venture inside without a safety line and a troop of reindeer to pull you free.

So when our little dog did finally find his way back to us he was a changed man. He looked at the world differently. Like he’d seen toe jams mutated and cheesy, corrupted by the cocoon of sweaty death. Like he’d been to places no other dog should go, heard sounds no other canine should hear. I can’t imagine what horrible, atrocious acts he smelled with his little dog nose but I assume they were foul, satanic stenches straight from the browned Netherworlds.

I plundered and pillaged photo album after photo album (two really) and couldn’t turn up any pictures of the sleeping bags. I did find a one from summer of 1975 at Lake Wapello though. That’s me with the dump truck, one of my sisters with the shovel, one of my brothers in the 55 shirt, and Grandma Mildred in the back. I imagine my mom took the photo.

Who knows where the bags are now. One’s still probably down in the Allison basement. Waiting. A cylinder of cloth, a chamber of nuclear fission.

#thestruggleisreal

6 comments

Momma J Momma J · Nov 29, 2018 at 7:33 pm

We had some fun times camping at Lake Wapello! One time, in a pop up camper, you (@ age 3 or so) rolled from the camper - between the canvas and the camper itself out onto the grass. I woke up with the sound of your crying, ran outside to find you pla…See More

tcr! tcr! · Nov 29, 2018 at 7:48 pm

I think the raccoon story is real 🤔

glenn.cremer glenn.cremer · Dec 2, 2018 at 7:26 pm

I remember telling your mother there’s a kid crying outside and she said “that’s ours”.

Momma J Momma J · Dec 2, 2018 at 7:38 pm

That’s right!

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Kelly K · Nov 29, 2018 at 10:39 pm

I was so drawn in, I nearly suffocated in the sleeping bag. Poor, poor dog.

tcr! tcr! · Nov 30, 2018 at 8:42 am

It was a suffocater for sure! 🌯

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So then I rewrote parts

tcr! · Jun 6, 2018 at 9:30 am

Audio (MP3): 20180606 - So then I rewrote parts

Because they hurt our feelings draft 5

One time when I was eight or so I was out in the front yard washing my bike with the hose. I especially liked spraying the pedals and watching them spin out of control. My bikes have been near and dear to me ever since I learned how to ride and I took great pride in washing this one since it was my first main bike.

My oldest brother, who is eight years older, came home during my wash cycle with a carload of his friends. They were all teenagers and way cool in their rock band t-shirts and long hair.

I always wanted to be around them but that never happened much during the Allison Avenue era. I was still playing with my Star Wars guys and they out were out driving around, smoking cigarettes, and whatever. But just having an older brother part of the fight club was good enough to make me feel part of something cool.

While my six foot tall brother was walking up the driveway he said to me and my bike, “you can’t polish a turd.”

Nice 🙄

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On the perimeter

tcr! · Apr 8, 2018 at 9:33 am

A few years back I started writing a book. Well, I don’t know if you could call a book but it was similar to how I write now with one-off stories and the like. It did have a somewhat linear flow between the stories though.

It was mostly bullshit, too.

But I was thinking about one of the stories last night, one that was about the Allison Avenue era.

I haven’t felt much like writing anything new this month so here you go.


—Monday; morning

Frank was thinking of a conversation he and Nine had the night before as she started the kettle boiling for that morning’s coffee.

> FRANK: What’s your password again?
> NINE: Crater…regular.

That was such a minor conversation but sometimes something minor was all it took to start his cognitive trains a rolling.

“Regular” was a word that Nine used often enough that it always caught Frank’s attention. She was still in her single digits and Frank could tell that “fitting in” already had a place in her life.

“That should never be on a child’s mind,” he thought. It was still on his too much. Part of his job as a parent was to try and make it just not that important to Nine.

Frank was in his ninth year, just as Nine was now, when all social hell broke loose. His parents had bought a new house on the other side of town. The old home sat in the middle of an old block and this new house sat at the end of a new block.

At the old home he didn’t feel separate from the neighbors or their kids. He had known everybody since the proverbial “before he could remember.” He knew which yards to cut through and which yards to stay out of. He knew the cars, the cracks in the street, and the animals and the trees. He knew when people came and went. The telephone pole in the back corner had memories of he and Queen Penelope climbing the left-right rungs. The garage’s backside had memories of him busted for playing with matches.

Going outside from the old front door he could look left, he could look right, and everything was familiar. It wasn’t safe, maybe a little sketchy now and then, but it was all home…as far as his eyes could see.

Sometimes he would drive through that old neighborhood on Google Maps Street View and just feel stuff. The houses were different and he thought there were less trees. His old home in particular had different colored siding and the concrete front landing had been replaced by steps atop lattice. The garage was also gone, the garage that had kept his dad’s hotrod Plymouth that he and Penelope played on and in.

He wished he could see the backyard from the map. Frank shifted his head to try and look around the digital picture of the house.

After a few months at the new house Frank expected to find a Poltergeist graveyard around somewhere. The new houses on the new block were freshly built and the yards were freshly sodded. He knew most of the grownups’ first names on this new street but he didn’t feel a thing about them other than unwelcome. He felt looked down on but he couldn’t verbalize or even understand that. They were obviously “better” than him. That’s how he remembered that set of neighbors.

“We don’t want your kind around here,” one of moms had said to him while he was playing on her back patio with her boy. Frank didn’t know what to do with this surprise shame…so he just left.

Those times when you’re a kid and just want to run away? That was one of his.

Had Frank done something to offend her? No crimes came to mind. Maybe somebody in his new house had done something and he was guilty by that association. Who knows. Kids don’t think about big things like this. They only internalize.

It made him sad to think of when he had said his goodbyes to his old neighborhood peeps, folk he had spent his whole nine year life getting to know. Traded them in for a new set of everyday friends. He bonded with maybe ten percent of his new classmates and another twenty percent, well…he came to avoid them at all cost. They weren’t boy bullies, they were girls. With claws and teeth and words that beat him up. Words that squeezed him so hard internally that he had a social, spiritual collapse.

Most of the people in that area seemed to need an electrical outlet and Frank had arrived just in time for their shock therapy. Just in time for their voltage voice dial that was cranking up to eleven. He was the youngest with that set of siblings and wasn’t strong like King Leon or Queen Penelope. He couldn’t repel all the electric mosquitoes, he never stood a chance.

Deeply engrossed in thought while exploring this territory, he remembered what it felt like to be “one of” with his old friends, felt like he belonged, because he’d been there since day one.

“This shit’s fucking important.” his thoughts demanded from the keyboard that morning.

Never again did he really feel that group inclusion…with all the new houses he’d move to and with all the new schools he’d go to. When you join a group, you have no credibility, you start at zero by default. You will always be on the perimeter, you will always be excluded. You get to the point where you prefer it that way.

His sentimental thermometer started to return to normal. Maybe those William Street kids had only initially excluded him. Maybe there were some good seagulls in that second flock. He didn’t get to stay long enough to find out. His parents would soon divorce and that would usher in a whole new era for therapy.

Frank glanced at the clock and scoffed. It was almost 7AM. “Dammit, I have to get ready for work just as I was really digging into something.”

“Get in the same truck, drive the same route, to the same office, to sit in the same chair, to do the same job, to eat the same apple…” that he had for the past nine years.

As he was driving to work, his truck antenna hit the same pair of branches they hit everyday and he thought, “‘Regular’ — I sneer at social norms and regularity.” Like it or not, he was a comfortable outcast, often self-imposed, and he felt deeply guided (pulled) into instability and upheaval. That was his regular.

He didn’t like using the word in that way because “regular” was Nine’s word and he didn’t want to associate his own childhood with her. He wanted much more for her.

#confessional #ekwyd

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Memories are what make places feel like home

tcr! · Mar 22, 2018 at 8:57 pm

Audio (MP3): 20180322 - Memories are what make places feel like home

Allison Ave satellite map


When I was a kid living in a little town in Iowa, our neighborhood, our street, our house they all felt like home to me. I always felt secure, always felt like I belonged. My life was feature complete on that block.

I’m sure it was because that house on Allison Avenue in Ottumwa was the only place I’d ever lived, the only home I’d ever known. That street just a single block long was the center of my whole universe.

A group of us kids would ride our bikes over to Mowery, maybe around McKinley, always down the Johnson ramp, and across Albia Road to Dairy Queen. Sometimes Pamida instead. If that name doesn’t ring a bell, think department store akin to K-mart.

And my mom made dinner every night and when I sat down to eat with her, my dad, and sister nothing was ever missing. The dinner table always felt full.

Since then I’ve lived in more places than I can count. Lived on both coasts and in plenty of places in between. The only time I feel that same sense of home I did as a kid is when Maggie and I are out riding our bikes.

I don’t know what it is about fixed-gears and neighborhood streets but they ring a bicycle bell with my emotions. I’m taken back to Allison, taken back to something much more than simple deja-vu. It sounds corny but it feels as if my spirit transcends space and time and part of me is there on the avenue again.

And yes, I absolutely feel a sense of family when Maggie and I are eating dinner but then again something is always missing. I feel a separation, a loss. I feel incomplete. Because my mom, dad, and sister aren’t there.

On Allison we always ate in the kitchen because we didn’t have a dining room. Maggie and I have a dining room now but we always eat in the kitchen. Because kitchens feel more like home.

I wonder if my mom felt the same way, missing her mom and dad, longing for her brothers when she was making us dinner in Ottumwa. Remembering the times around her kitchen table with her childhood family out on the farm just south of town.

I wonder if I feel like my dad did when he was making dinner for Angie and I. When we were a little bit older and the three of us lived together on Casper.

And I also wonder if Maggie will feel the same after she grows up, when she’s making dinner for her kids. Remember that one year she and I watched every episode of Lost while we ate the dinner I made for us.

“You can’t go home” the book title famously says. I’ve driven down Allison Avenue a few times as an adult, wanting to revisit the old neighborhood and all. I was hoping to feel something each time I went, recapture a little childhood magic but I only felt a distant connection to a fading past. And what’s more, I felt out of place. That neighborhood isn’t mine anymore.

My memories from the 70s are so much more powerful than actually being there. Part of me wishes I could go back but I’d have to time travel I suppose.


[…school night interlude, including showers and homework…]


I had a minor revelation after getting my earlier thoughts out in the open and letting them simmer for a bit. I almost always write to process something and what I’ve found tonight is that memories are what make places feel like home.

Maggie learned to ride her bike behind our garage in the alley. We were out there for a couple of hours and she was so close. So close, so many times but it just wasn’t happening. She was wearing down and I wanted her to keep trying. She and I both knew she almost had it. There’ll be a certain electricity when you’re on the verge of becoming more than what you have been. When you’re on the verge of flying to greater heights.

And then she got enough momentum. She let go and trusted her body. She found her balance. And then she was off riding two wheels by herself.

Fixed-gear bike, too. Because they’re bad ass.


Mom and I in the Allison kitchen
Mom and I in the Allison kitchen, July 1978. Coors all the way.


Me with my bike in front of the Allison house
Me with my bike in front of the Allison house, June 1980. Fixed-gear and banana seat. Yeah man.


#photos #mommaj #bikes #diariespodcast support the show →

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