(A novel by Susan Overturf Ingraham)
Hastings, Nebraska, September 1927
[Al Cullen is ten years old. He reflects on his busy summer and observes the difficulties his older brother has with his parents. For Al, though, life is good. He’s about to start 5th grade and a cute girl named Kate Jacobsen has joined their class.]
At least an hour of sunlight remained, but dinner came sooner than that and Al's mother would be calling him in shortly. He dribbled the ball down the driveway and went for the hoop his father had installed on the end of the garage. The ball went up and dropped straight through the basket.
“Super! How do you do that, Al?” George complained. “I can never get it in!”
Al grinned at his buddy. "Piece of cake."
The two boys continued to play, giving each other a turn. George missed most of the time, and Al missed rarely. They played for only a few more minutes.
“Let’s throw some rocks at the target in back,” George suggested.
“All right,” Al agreed, though he would rather shoot baskets than do anything else.
“Hey, Al,” George asked his friend as they walked around the house to the back. “Will you meet me in the schoolyard tomorrow morning?”
“Sure thing. I’ll be there, same time as always. I’ll be with the other guys, so you won’t be able to miss me.”
Al picked up a small rock and threw it at a target posted on the backyard fence. He would have preferred a stronger, bigger, and more dangerous missile, but this was against the rules. His dad had given him three guidelines: 1) Do not throw above the fence; 2) The rock can be no bigger than your thumb; and 3) No firing if anyone is near the target. Those rules seemed fair to Al, so he had obeyed them. If he didn’t, his father would take the target away.
Al threw another rock. “Hey, look,” he said, as he jumped up and down, “I hit the bulls-eye!”
“No, you didn’t,” George responded. “I didn’t see it.”
Al walked over to the target and pointed at a spot, among many others, that appeared to be slightly dented. He said, “See. There it is! Right there!”
George knew that Al was probably right because Al was smart, and he always seemed to win this game. When they raced together, Al always won. If they rode their bikes together, Al was always ahead of him. George admired Al immensely, and he would never dispute any claim he made. “Ok, so you hit it. I’ll get it the next time,” he said, leaving the way open for him to win a contest with Al some day, maybe.
The screen door opened and Al’s mother, Janie Cullen, stepped outside. Janie was expecting a baby, her third, and Al was not used to seeing his mother change in appearance. He thought she was a pretty person, but as she grew bigger, the waist of her apron kept getting tied higher. Al was not so sure he was happy that he would have a new brother or sister in a couple of months. He felt that he now had most of the love and attention of his mother, and he didn’t want to share that. Janie said, “Al? It’s time to come in for dinner.” She turned and looked at George and added, “Hi, George, it’s nice to see you. Your mother‘s probably waiting for you to come home, so you’d better move along now.”
“Yes, Mrs. Cullen,” George said, as he picked up his bike and rode down the driveway towards the street. “See you tomorrow, Al,” he said, as he disappeared around the corner.
Janie held the door open and let Al in. “You go and wash up now,” she said. “Supper’s going to be on the table in no time.”
“Yes, ma’am.“ In the living room, his father stared at the evening newspaper, and his brother glared at the wall. “What are you doing?” Al whispered to his brother. “You look like you're in trouble again. Are you?”
“I am,” James sneared, “and it’s none of your business. Leave me alone.”
Al considered that to be the wisest thing to do. His older brother was always getting into trouble, and he was unlikely to know what this situation was about because nobody ever told him anything. He went upstairs, washed his hands and face, and then looked at his rompers and shirt to see if they were clean. His parents didn’t expect him to change clothes for supper, but he was suppose to be clean. After a quick look, he decided he was clean enough. He headed back downstairs. When he arrived, the family sat at the table, waiting for him.
“Al, it’s your turn to say grace,” his father announced.
Everyone bowed their heads and Al spoke, softly but clearly, “Thank you, Lord, for this food we are about to eat. Amen.”
As the prayer ended, everyone grabbed a bowl or plate from the center of the table and helped themselves to whatever it contained. Then the bowl was handed to the right. In four exchanges, everyone had the food Al’s mother had prepared. Janie‘s family always ate her well-prepared meals enthusiastically.
At the dinner table, Simon Cullen usually controlled the conversation. At the very least, he usually began it. After taking a few bites, he paused and said, “Well, we had a good meeting today about the museum. We incorporate first. Hopefully, that will be done by December.”
“Simon, that’s wonderful,” Janie said.
“What's going to be in the museum, Dad?” Al asked.
“Well, we’re not sure of everything yet, son, but we hope to have things that reveal the history of Hastings and Nebraska: photographs, paintings, and objects that belonged to the pioneers. A lot of people settled in a place where many thought no one could survive. We want this museum to show the tenaciousness of those who stayed.”
“’Tenaciousness!’ What does that mean?”
“It means, Al, that the people who stayed here were stubborn and strong. Just like that old mule I almost killed that belonged to my dad.” Everyone in the family knew the story of Grandpa Cullen’s stubborn mule, and just the slightest mention of it made everyone smile. “I think you were a pretty tenacious boy this summer when you got that burn on your leg,” Simon added. “That’s tenaciousness.”
Al beamed, always happy when his dad was proud of him. On the previous Fourth of July, the family had taken a long drive to visit with Al’s Uncle Charley, Aunt May, and Al’s six cousins in the Sand Hills, a large and treeless section of northwest Nebraska. Al loved going there because he always saw interesting wildlife, and the wind could make the grass rattle. Late in the afternoon, as they had waited for the evening fireworks display, several of the older boys had begun to set off small firecrackers. Al had about six Lady Fingers and some matches in his pocket. Somehow, the Lady Fingers had gone off. One minute, Al was playing with the other boys, and the next minute, his pants and skin were on fire. The firecrackers exploded in bright red and blue flashes, and as the flames reached upward towards his arms, Al had panicked, running as fast as he could, hoping to out-run the flames. Despite his aimless and crazy flight, his older brother had grabbed him and thrown him to the ground. Together, they had rolled down the rest of the long hill in a meleé of feet and arms and legs and hands. By the time they had reached the bottom, the fire was out, but Al had no pant leg and his thigh screamed with pain. He could still smell it, two months later.
The rest of the summer had been taken over by the healing process. It had begun with a bad decision made by Doc Jones, the elderly country doctor who first treated him. He had smeared Vaseline on the wound and then covered it with cotton. When they had reached Hastings, the young doctor at the hospital had had to remove the cotton, pulling at the burnt flesh with every tug. Al had spent most of the summer unable to go outside because the wound needed to be left uncovered and kept clean. His mother had brought home for him many library books. He had read about how airplanes had been used in the Great War, and he had looked at a book of pictures from Tokyo’s 1923 earthquake. His mother had even come into his bedroom and read to him on many occasions, and she had always made sure he had a piece of crisp apple pie or a cool glass of lemonade. His parents had let him go once to see a movie, Ben Hur. Although it had been long, he had really liked it, especially the chariot race. He had read in the newspaper that a stunt man had been killed during the filming of that scene, but Al thought Judah Ben Hur was a brave man. At least the man had stuck to his principles — something his father had always taught Al to do.
Al liked the word ‘tenaciousness’, and he decided he would remember it and use it. Janie swallowed a bite of food and then asked Al, “How’s your leg feeling, dear?” It had been a long and worrisome summer for Janie, from the moment she had watched her son fly down the hill on fire.
Al didn’t hesitate to answer. “Oh, it’s fine, Mother. I’m anxious to go to school tomorrow.”
“Yes, Al, I know. But you had a very close call there and it will take time for it to be completely well again. So don’t do anything that might re-injure it.” Al nodded his head in agreement, but Janie knew that her young son could be reckless. The family still talked about the time Al had ridden his bike rapidly down the railroad platform and sailed off into emptiness. He had miscalculated where the ramp at the end was, and Al had been surprised to discover he was in mid-air. He and his bike had landed hard on the ground. Al had survived better than his bike had. His father had taken several days to help Al unbend the rims. So, Janie didn’t let things rest quite yet. “Al, now listen. I’m serious. You know the doctor has said that you must continue to be careful not to re-injure that wound, nor to get it dirty. You be careful. No bike riding. No running. Understand?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Al smiled because he knew his mother was always a sucker for his smile.
“Mom, Dad, I need to talk to both of you.” The conversation suddenly shifted to the Cullens’ oldest son, James, now fourteen years old and quite tall for his age. His words were a stark change from the lighthearted banter of just moments before. James waited to hear his parents respond. Al looked at his dad. Janie looked at her husband.
“Well, son, what is it?” Simon Cullen asked.
“I want to quit school. I don’t see why I have to keep going. I’m never going to do well, and I could get a job and make money for the family. Maybe in a couple of years I could save enough money to go to art school.” James knew his parents would not approve, but he thought if he got it out quickly, they’d agree to it.
Putting his elbows on the table and leaning on it, Simon Cullen looked straight at his son. “James Cullen, you‘re not quitting school at fourteen. This family does not need your financial support, and you need to finish your education. And being an artist is no career. You need to be thinking about what you’re going to do with your life. A man’s got to have a job that will support himself and a family.”
“But you quit at fourteen, Dad.”
Simon shook his head in annoyance. “First of all, I was sixteen, not fourteen. Secondly, I was asked to leave school because of my behaviour. To my great shame, I greatly displeased both of my parents. In the end, I had to work twice as hard to get an education and to find a good job. I learned the hard way how important it was to get an education. You will stay in school, and that is the end of the discussion.” Simon picked up his napkin and wiped his mouth.
James looked to his mother for support, but she was looking at her husband. As a former schoolteacher, she believed in the value of an education. As a wife, she agreed with her husband. As a mother, she felt unhappy for her son. “I agree with your father, James,” she said firmly. “You must finish your education.”
Everyone ate the rest of the meal in silence. James brooded and sulked, but he didn’t leave the table because he knew he did not have permission to do so. Janie and Simon tried to carry on as if things were normal. When everyone was finished with the main meal, Janie served apple pie. As they cut into their dessert, Al broke the silence. “George Peters has a brand new bike. He let me ride it today.”
“Al,” Al’s mother scolded, “I thought I told you that you still can’t ride your bike!”
“I know, Mother, but I didn’t go far. Promise.”
Janie shook her head. “Please remember to be careful.”
Although James remained quiet, Al continued to talk with his mother and father. Simon Cullen left the table first to make some phone calls regarding the museum committee. James and Al helped their mother pick up the dishes, and then James said, “Mother, you need to sit down. Go in the living room and read the newspaper or play the piano. Al and I will finish up here.”
Janie was grateful. She was getting tired. After she left, Al asked his older brother: “Do you really want to leave school?”
“Yes, I do, but it’s none of your business.” He poked his little brother’s chest with his finger.
Al pushed his brother’s finger away. “Yes it is!”
“Sh! Keep your voice down!“ James put away a plate. “I want to go to art school and become an artist.“ When Al made no response, James added: “Oh, you don’t understand any more than Mother and Dad do! Just wait until Mother has the new baby. Then you’ll know what it feels like to have a baby brother or sister. He or she will be just a pain in the neck, like you.”
They finished their chores in silence, James unwilling to discuss things with his little brother, and Al unsure of what to say. Afterwards, Al went up to his room and read some pages from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn while sitting up in bed. He eventually put the book down, changed into his pajamas, and tried to sleep, but he had a restless night, anxious for the first day of school.
Al awoke early and dressed. His mother, at long last, had given him permission to change from knickers with knee socks to long pants. He put on his navy corduroy pants, which his mother had made, and his long-sleeved light blue shirt. Over his shirt, he pulled a wool blue sweater. He ate his breakfast quickly and ran out the door with at least an hour to go yet before school. He had not gone even half a block when he ran into Todd Adams, a boy four years older, but someone Al knew from church. They walked together for about a block, while Al told Todd about his summer adventure with the firecrackers. “Dr. Peters told me I got third-degree burns in the center where the firecrackers went off in my pocket.”
“That must have really hurt!”
“It did, but Dr. Peters told me that the pain came from the second-degree burns on the edges. The doctor says I’ll have a scar for the rest of my life.”
“Can I see it?” Todd asked.
“Sure.” Al leaned over and grabbed the cuff of his pants. He pulled up his pant leg until the wounded area on his thigh showed. Todd whistled. “That is some mess!”
Al put his pant leg back down. “Yeah. And you should have seen it before!”
Todd said good-bye to Al at the corner as he headed for the junior high while Al headed for the elementary school. “Have a good day!” Todd yelled as he ran to meet some friends while Al continued on a straight path.
Al had attended Longfellow School since kindergarten. It had once been the high school and Al’s dad had told him that the school needed to be replaced, but Al liked it. It was a two-storey brick building with a large covered entrance on the east side. Attached to the building on the north side was a circular tower with a large bell at the top. In the early years, the bell had been rung four times a day: once in the morning, again to break for lunch and again to return students after lunch, and a fourth time at the close of the school day. They did not ring the bell any more, however, except on special occasions, because the tower was no longer stable. Al wished that just once he could climb up the tower and ring that bell. He and his friends often went into the main floor of the bell tower and gazed up the steps which led to the bell at the top. This was forbidden territory for students, but Al and his friends took opportunities to have a closer look when they could. So far, though, they had never reached more than half way up before worrying that they would get caught.
“Al! Hey, Al! Wait up!” someone shouted from behind, breaking Al from his reverie. Al knew who it was before he turned around because the voice was very familiar: it was his best friend, Roy, a tall boy who was already developing a deep voice. He towered over Al, who was small for his age, but Al and Roy had no problems with the height disparity. They both loved any activity that involved speed, agility, and strength. They could spend hours together riding their bikes, competing against each other in their own made-up races and competitions, or playing basketball using the hoop Al’s dad had installed near the driveway. This summer, unlike most others, the two friends had not seen each other because Roy had gone away with his parents to visit his grandparents in Illinois.
Al paused on the sidewalk and waited for his friend to catch up. “Hey, Roy, how’s it going? Did ya have a good summer?” Roy arrived at Al’s side and the first few minutes of their conversation were devoted to Al’s re-telling of his summer catastrophe. Even as he listened to the story, Roy sucked in his breath, trying to imagine what it had felt like. At the end of the story Roy observed: “Wow! That must have hurt!” Al only nodded and then Roy continued, “How’s your leg now? Can I see it?”
“Sure.“ And once again Al pulled up his pant leg to show off his summer scar.
Roy was dutifully impressed. “Wow. I’ll bet that hurt!”
“It did.” Al put his pant leg down. “How about your summer? How was Illinois?”
“Boring!” Roy replied without hesitation. “I spent every single day on my grandparents’ farm. It was really hot and there was no one to play with except my little brother, who was mainly a pain in the neck. Did you know that there is absolutely nothing to do on a farm? I was so glad when we headed home! I told my parents I don’t want to spend next summer there.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean. I had to spend some time on my grandparents’ farm once and it was the same. I’m sure glad I live in the city. There’s a lot more to do!”
Roy nodded his head in full agreement.
The two boys walked side by side down the final stretch towards the school. They could hear laughter and shouting as other students arrived. As they approached the playground, the usual distinct groups formed: older students with older students, younger students with younger students, boys with boys, girls with girls. Al and Roy immediately joined a group of boys with whom they had been friends since kindergarten — Harold, Rob, Pete, Steve, Jim, and Tom. George Trupp, though not a part of the major group, joined them as well. They told each other about their summer vacations — some had gone on trips, others had stayed home — but no one had a story like Al’s. And, better still, as they stood in a circle with Al in the middle, Al once again pulled up his pant leg to show everyone his scar.
Across the playground in a group of girls stood a little girl who Al knew was Katherine Jacobsen; most people called her Katy or Kate. She and her girlfriends buzzed with gossip, but during a quiet moment, Katy looked across the playground at Al and his group of friends. Al glanced her way and he saw her looking at him. As soon as she realized that he had seen her, she went back to talking to her friends, but Al knew she had looked.
Al liked Katy. She was cute and smart — really smart! She had even skipped a grade, and this year they were together in the same class. He sometimes saw her at church, too, but his dad had told him once that Katy’s dad was an unpleasant fellow. Al had met Katy’s mother once at church; she had seemed nice and she had smiled at him. Still, Al didn’t much care about Katy’s parents. He was looking forward to seeing Katy every day, and he thought that they could be friends. He wasn’t really into liking girls yet, but his brother sure talked about them. He didn’t know many girls, but he liked his mother, and she was a girl. He figured that maybe some day he would see what his brother saw in them. In the meantime, he was impressed that Katy Jacobsen had looked at him. The long painful summer seemed finally over. Al looked across the playground, made sure Katy was looking at him, and smiled again at her. This time, Katy smiled back. Al figured it was going to be a good year.
- Continue to Chapter 14.
- Refer to Family Tree to keep relationship of characters in mind.
- Return to Family Legacies Table of Contents.
Disclaimer: While it is true that my characters were inspired by my own genealogical study, I could not and did not know my ancestors with the same intimacy that I have created in my characters. Therefore, let it be said that these characters are fictional and created from my own imagination. Similarity to persons living or dead is unintentional and coincidental.