Growing up Vail meant fending for ourselves when it came to recreation. As Marty has shared, often the fending for fun could edge toward activities parents today would find horrifying. Hell, for all I know, our parents were horrified too. We didn’t have a pool, as has been told, and our efforts to cool off with water in the hot Iowa summers ran the gamut from finding a swimming hole in the Boyer River, to hiking out to Tracy North’s pond, or hitchhiking 8 miles to Denison. I, for one, knew Dr. Flood left his small primary care office in Vail shortly after noon, for his much more profitable practice in Denison, so being at the edge of town around that time was an easy ride. Thumb out, and trunks rolled up in my towel, was a sure bet ride with Dr. Flood. He also was a car nut, so it also meant copping a ride in a pretty new Camaro or Mustang. Usually, a Camaro…Johnson’s Ford must not have like the care. He’d always ask, “does your mom know you’re hitchhiking?”…”you bet Doc…”
We flirted with danger routinely, the Boyer was also the spot where all the town sewage for miles flowed in. Until the sewage treatment lagoons went in during the 1970s, raw sewage flowed into the Boyer. Vail’s flowed in about a mile west of town, we knew that from ice skating the same river during the winter. I guess we figured the cholera risk from Westside, 5 miles to the east, was no big thing. That river was filled with crap, both literally and figuratively. Hell, the agricultural runoff alone was likely enough to cause skin to peel! Tracy’s pond, as Marty has mentioned, had plenty of cattle dung in it’s shallows, as well as enough leeches to drain a small kid’s blood. So yeah, we roamed the area looking for anything to break the monotony.
You’ll recall Marty mentioning we’d trespass across a few places on the way to Tracy’s Pond. I don’t think anyone of us ever considered it trespassing, but perhaps some of the owners did. We owned Vail, and the older generation was keenly aware that their actual control was shaky. On the way to the pond, there was a mostly abandoned farmstead called the Doogan Forty. There were the government grain storage bins just inside the property, then a long low machine shed stacked full of old lumber, and finally an abandoned farmhouse. The machine shed filled with lumber was our own personal hobby shop. I think Tracy North, who owned damn near every abandoned place in town, also owned the machine shed of lumber. As he’d demolish some of the abandoned buildings, he’s salvage usable lumber and store it in the machine shed.
The lumber, old full dimension planks, became the chassis for our go-carts. Not motorized, we let gravity and the same Presbyterian Church hill take care of the speed. There was a blacksmith in town, I can’t remember his name, but his shop was out behind this house a block north of our house and the Ryan’s. He’d help us craft axles from scrap pieces of iron bar. The wheels would usually come from the dump, where we’d salvage from discarded wagon wheels, rear wheels from kid’s trikes, and my best score ever, wheels from a hand truck! They were a larger diameter, put them on back, and had hubs with ball bearings. Because they were larger, I put them on back and it gave my cart a jacked-up look!
So picture this. We were not sneaking around scavenging for our lumber. These planks we about 1” x 12” siding planks and ran 10 foot long or so. Doogan’s-Forty was on the southwest edge of town, and small scrums of us kids would trek on over, pick out our desired piece of lumber, and then carry these for blocks across town to our backyards where we would construct our racing machines. As if that wasn’t blatant enough, we’d then buy our necessary nails and bolts from the local hardware, have our axles made (usually for penny’s or free) by the blacksmith, and even get some design suggestions from an adult or two who’d stop to check out our projects. This was soap-box derby racing season, Vail Style, fueled by boredom, stolen lumber, and trespassing! To top it off, the local town maintenance worker would install the signage at the intersections along Church Street used during sledding season, STOP CHILDREN SLEDDING!!! I kid you not, our racing season would go for a few weeks until we busted all our go-carts up or just moved on to a new larceny fueled activity, and the adults would actually come out and cheer us on! Growing up Vail had some flexible rules!