What’s That?

Several years ago, I underwent a hearing test at the VA Central Iowa Health Care Center, better known as the VA Hospital and Clinics.  The results of the test determined that my hearing was normal.  I know that’s a crock of crap, but I had a hearing test at Farmland Foods (now known as Smithfield Foods) in Denison, Iowa, back in the late 1980s.  At that time, my hearing was also normal.  I couldn’t hear well then; I can’t hear well now.

Our mother couldn’t hear very well.  Of course, the Ryan kids suspected that mom had selective hearing.  I may have inherited that trait.  However, now that I’m as old as I am, I’m going to defend her.  It’s my belief that mom was inflicted with ADD and OCD (not going to spell them out).  “What?” becomes a habit.

But really, I am having a difficult time hearing Stephanie, the television, and the dryer buzzer, and many other sounds I want to hear, many of them existing in nature.  Earlier this week, I thought of scheduling a new hearing test at the VA.  After a few minutes, I thought to myself: ‘I should wait.  Why would I want to hear firecrackers, fireworks, Harleys, and obnoxious music from people peddling bicycles on the trail?’

It’s that time of the year again in which the process of going to sleep becomes more labored than any other time of the year.

In Iowa, you can legally shoot off fireworks from 9:00 am until 10:00 pm from June 1st through July 8th.  The hours are extended on weekends to 11:00 pm.  That’s the legal limitations.  People in our neighborhood must be on a west coast time zone.

When fireworks were illegal in Iowa, residents of the apartments on the south end of the block seemed to be the only neighbors who set them off.  Now that it’s legal to blow your hand off, residents on all sides of us get into the action, especially on the nights of July 3rd and 4th.  The past two years have produced bad-air warnings in Des Moines.  You can see the thick fog of smoke early in the morning – and late in the morning.

My opinion on fireworks has vacillated throughout my life.  First, I like them; then, I didn’t.  When I was younger, if you gave me some firecrackers, cherry bombs, or M80s, I would explode them.  Mostly, placing one under a can, lighting a fuse, and running away to see how far the can would go in the air.

It seems to me that buying something that disappears immediately upon using it is a waste of money.  The older I get, the more I see that most of the fireworks around me are set off by those least able to afford them.  But that’s not the total case.  My neighbors to the north and to the west have the financial resources to purchase them and set them off and that’s what they do, it’s just not as consistent as the neighbors to the south.  I have no idea what it’s like in other neighborhoods, but I must assume that shooting off personal fireworks is not limited to the less fortunate neighborhoods.

As for Harleys, they come and go.  The full minute of listening to one-hundred decibels is no worse than the meat grinder I operated for ten to twelve hours a day when I was a sausage maker.  It ran constantly at ninety decibels.  In the final two years of operating that equipment, the company provided us with earplugs.  Then, they gave us a hearing test.  Everything was normal.

Bicyclists on the trail with the music turned up as loud as possible baffle me.  One day last week I heard a bicyclist go by listening to George Thurgood.  Actually, I heard him coming from over a quarter of a mile away.  Later, I saw a commercial with a guy riding a Harley, and he was listening to the worst 1960s teeny-bopper music – Build Me Up Buttercup.  Role reversal?

Stephanie and I walk every day we can, which is most days, including the winter.  Listening to the birds and watching wildlife move around the trail is one of our treats.  George Thurgood, Toby Keith, and Iron Maiden seem not to blend with nature.  I would like to say that in late fall, we’ll have the trail to ourselves and the eagles, turkey buzzards, cardinals, red-winged blackbirds, and deer.  However, at that time the buzzards have migrated, as well as the red-winged blackbirds.  The cardinals are sparse, and several other species are beginning hibernation.  The deer will be with us, and so will a pair of eagles and their young (if we ever get introduced to them).

That’s the time to make an appointment to get my hearing tested.  I’m willing to bet that my hearing is normal.

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America Loves . . .

Famed adman Ed Labunski penned the catchy, classic jingle that branded American culture as “We Love Baseball, Hotdogs, Apple Pie and Chevrolet.” Eating one at the ballpark just somehow tasted different from an ordinary hotdog, and dreams of sharing that first hotdog with your young son’s first trip to a ballgame brought wistful smiles to baseball fans throughout the country. Yes, American culture from the 70s was very different from our culture today. We focused on relating to each other, based on shared experiences and desires. My adult children tell me it comes across as rather narcissistic, but it really was just a 70s thing.

Alcoholics Anonymous reflected a different culture back then. Old-timers packed smoke-filled halls playing cribbage and drinking massive amounts of coffee. If you attended 12-step meetings regularly, you could quote what they’d say on each respective step. The first step, “we admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable,” was dubbed the drunkalogue. No matter how many decades you’d been sober, it was important to keep in the front of your mind what a miserable drunk you’d been. Tearing down statues from the past would have made no sense to these fellows. After all, AA is an honesty program. If you forget where you’ve been and who you’ve harmed, you’re on the road back to becoming that horrible excuse for a human being. “Once a drunk, always a drunk.” This approach worked for most members and as the AA Big Book teaches, don’t judge others; the key to life-long recovery is to focus on improving yourself.

That’s not to say that AA didn’t evolve over time. Nonsmokers decided they just couldn’t handle the immense amounts of second-hand smoke; others felt that meetings should be more targeted or selective in their membership. Groups formed restricting membership to gender, profession, sexual orientation, age…the list goes on. Old-timers thought that sharing the desire to quit drinking was the most important thing to have in common. Life had taught them that working together towards the lifesaving goal of sobriety should be the main focus. Listen with an open mind and you’ll discover that, although details of the stories may be different, it was the consequences of these stories, the same excruciating pain, that bonds those in recovery. Younger members didn’t understand, they felt their experiences and needs were different from those crotchety old men.

Cultures need to evolve over time. For example, back in the day an intervention for alcoholism wasn’t a friendly circle of friends and family trying to break through the alcoholic’s denial by gently sharing stories about the pain caused by the alcoholic’s behavior and guiding them into seeking treatment. No, original interventions were mobs of self-proclaimed loved ones ganging up and brutally attacking the alcoholic and his unwanted behavior. The goal was to break down these dastardly drunks to rebuild them into acceptable, sober people who share the same thoughts and beliefs as other sterling members of society. Eventually this practice stopped. Bullying and ostracism is powerful for those engaging in it, but leaves a destructive path for others to clean up.

AA meetings continued to happily segregate into specialized groups that shared accepted thoughts and values. But then some young members started to question why they should seek a new group. Shouldn’t the present group change for them? Why were the old-timers saying the Lord’s Prayer during meetings? Don’t they realize that this is offensive to other members who are atheists, agnostics or practice other religions? These old men should change for their own good. Their culture is outdated and insensitive. What these whippersnappers didn’t realize is that with culture, comes traditions.

Many people are familiar with 12-step programs, but are ignorant of the 12 traditions designed to address conflicts between members and to protect the purpose of AA. The first tradition stated: “Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon AA unity.” The belief that unity and common welfare is key to stability and sustainability has been lost to heated political discord that is brutally tearing this country apart with no leadership in sight for healing the divide.

Some corporations are tiptoeing through the consequences of violating another old AA tradition: holding “no opinion on outside issues; hence the AA name ought never be drawn into public controversy.” Chevrolet, long-time sponsor for Major League Baseball, has updated its commercial message from loving baseball, hotdogs and apple pie to baseball “reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again.” But when MLB decided to slide into a murky political cesspool by moving the All-Star Game from Georgia to Colorado to protest a new voting law, it lost sight of its purpose of unity and bringing people together. Baseball once was as American as apple pie.

Stephanie Fawkes-Lee is Senior Sports Correspondent for the Prairie Progressive, and a recovering lobbyist.

This article first appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of the Prairie Progressive.  Not available at newsstands, but you may subscribe to this quarterly publication, which is “Iowa’s oldest progressive newsletter,” by sending a check in the amount of $12 to:  Prairie Progressive, PO Box 1945, Iowa City, IA 52244.

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Mother’s Day Redux

Mother’s Day is behind us.  I never thought of writing about my mother, but I see that almost everyone I know posted a paragraph or two about their mothers on Facebook for Mother’s Day.

My mother deserves more than a paragraph on a social media site.  My mother was the best at everything she did, even if it was cussing, praising, protecting, criticizing, scolding, loving, embarrassing or any other attribute that might or might not be associated with raising seven children on her own.  Our father passed away early in life from natural causes.  He left mom with seven children; ages 15-years-old to two months old.

I was her favorite.  I was her favorite because I was going to be a priest.  That was mom’s automatic ticket to heaven.  Then, I became a teenager and the ticket became nonrefundable.  I’m sure she was pissed.

Rhea L. (Fritz) Ryan was a great cook.  Receiving commodities weekly did not guarantee gourmet meals every night, but she was creative with what she had.  Every day after school we were treated with something she whipped up during the day.  For instance, Monday might be doughnuts; Tuesday – oatmeal cookies; Wednesday – peanut butter cookies; Thursday – homemade bread; Friday – may have been buttermilk brownies.  There was always something.  I realized at a later time that feeding us something sweet after school may have spoiled our appetite for dinner.  In that way, mom didn’t have to worry about making huge nightly dinners (or suppers, as we called them).

Supper was at 5:30 pm.  If you showed up at 5:35 and there was nothing left, it was your problem.  Sunday noon we had fried chicken and potato salad on one Sunday followed by pot roast with mashed potatoes and carrots the next Sunday.  After that, the rotation started all over.  It was always appreciated, delicious and somehow, plentiful!

We had a good-sized backyard and it had no trees, except on the south side – for a while (they were American Elm trees with Dutch Elm disease).  Home plate was distinguishable from anything else in the yard.  First base was the trunk of an old apple tree.  Second base a smaller worn-down spot in the middle of the yard.  Third base was the easternmost clothes line pole.  One Good Friday, after being kicked off the altar boy team, I built a regulation basketball hoop on the far eastern end of our backyard.  I bought a fourteen-foot 4×4; nailed a few boards together and attached it to the 4×4; and hung a new hoop with netting on the backboard.  I dug a hole and placed the constructed hoop assembly into the ground.  I know I had help with the latter, but I don’t remember who.

So, between the baseball field and the basketball court, we had kids in our yard a lot.  On occasion, mom would come home and walk into the backyard and yell “what are all you kids doing here?  Don’t you have yards of your own?  Get the hell out!  Go home!”  It was sort of embarrassing, but what always seemed to happen next was ironic.

“Mom, can we go to [insert the name of any other Vail kid’s family here]?”  The answer was always, “no!  You have your own yard to play in.”  She didn’t understand that with over forty kids in the neighborhood, and possibly another forty throughout the rest of town, playing with your brothers just didn’t cut it.  “I don’t want you hanging out with the wrong crowd,” she would say.  I constantly had to remind her that “we (the Ryan boys) were the wrong crowd.”

Mom’s favorite cuss phrase was “son-of-a-bitch” (singular) or “sons-of-bitches” (plural).  However, my youngest brother swears that for the first ten years of his life he thought his name was “you no good dirty rotten sons of bitches.”  Now, Joe and I can make fun of this, but if anyone else would attempt to make fun of our mom for her unique language skills and embarrassing moments, we were ready to fight.

There were several times in which mom would call me a son-of-a-bitch and I would ask, “do you listen to yourself?  Do you understand what you just said?”  Irony was not a familiar word to mom, even though she watched Jeopardy every day.  She would get pissed at me for giving the question before the contestants.  I had to promise to shut up when we watched together.

Rhea had a way of pronouncing things incorrectly.  I had to explain to others that she had Norm Crosby Syndrome.  Irony: Mom couldn’t relate.  She loved Norm Crosby.  She used to tell everyone that I worked for the UCLA.  Hey, she got the letters correct; they were just in the wrong order.  I wonder how many people think I probably pushed a broom at a major Southern California university.

Mom provided us kids with many memorable moments, most of them unintentionally funny.  She also provided us with love that was difficult to express in words, but overwhelming in support and pride.

I love and miss my mom just as much as anyone else who posted on Facebook this week.  Probably more.  After all, she was the leader of the family who taught her kids by example how to fight for what they wanted.  She may have been one of the poorest women in town when it came to a financial position in the community, but she was the richest in talent – knowing how to stretch the simple into something abundant.

When one of her children got into trouble, and someone would criticize or ostracize that child – especially a sibling, mom would always stand behind that child.  I can’t count how many times I heard her say, “He needs whatever I can do for him, because he’s my son.”

Mom did not have an easy life.  When she was a teenager, her parents were divorced when she was a teenager in the 1930s.  Unfortunately, divorce is not as big a stigma in today’s world, but in the 1930s, yes, it was.  But she survived, as did her four sisters.  She learned to cook while working for her Aunt Fern, who owned a café in Manning, Iowa.  Mom never had a driver’s license until she was well into her forties.  As the last of her children left home, Mom began working as a breakfast cook at Cronk’s Café in Denison, and eventually became the cook at St. Ann’s Grade School in Vail.  The students loved her, as she loved them.

She was a single mom for years.  She traded powered milk to a baker in Denison for cash, which she used to buy milk delivered to our door.  She was a candy maker, and I don’t recall that she used a thermometer to know when the candy reached the soft ball or hard ball stage.  She knew by using the cold-water method.  Her divinity was divine; her caramels helped me win a blue ribbon at the Iowa State Fair; she made the best potato salad.  I am thankful for a wife who can replicate it – I can’t.

I learned not to visit mom on Sundays.  There was something about her that could lead me to take her to Bingo, or have the person with me take her.  She would find a way home – possibly.  If not, that Catholic guilt could make you stay.  She wasn’t even born a Catholic.  She became a convert to marry dad.  And she became one of the best Catholics I have ever known.  For much of her life, she attended Mass daily.  Mom had her faults, but don’t we all?

There are so many stories to tell about mom that would make you laugh, but I don’t want to give away comedic material that may be used by one of my siblings in a standup routine.


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Chuck’s House Party

Last week, I read in the Vail Observer that Rev. Victor Rehmaeker died at the age of 85.  I have a couple of memorable moments that involve both my mother and Father Rehmaeker (RAY-maker).

The last incident first.  When my half-brother Bobby Wulf died, mom made funeral arrangements with the assistance of the Pfannebeker Funeral Home in Denison, Iowa.  One of the decisions my mom made, which was unwavering, was that Susan Rosener would sing.  Sue has a great voice, and mom wanted this occasion to be special by hearing one of the greatest local vocalists.

Father Rehmaeker was the parish priest at St. Ann’s Church in Vail, Iowa.  When it was time for a hymn, Sue began singing, and so did Father Rehmaeker.  The only difference was that Father Rehmaeker was wearing a mic and his voice was drowning out Sue’s.  I am in the front pew with mom and she’s grabbing a hold of me, shaking me, and saying: “Make him stop, Marty!  He’s singing!  I don’t want him singing!  Please, Marty, make him stop!”  I suppose I could have made the six o’clock news, but I had no idea what to do to make him stop.

I realized that he heard mom’s pleas when he began the eulogy.  He explained that the Pope, or the bishop, or some other head of church, had written that everyone should sing and praise God jointly; that singing should not be a presentation.  It went in one ear of mom’s head and out the other.  Can you blame her?  She did not like Father Rehmaeker.

I tried to explain to her earlier in life that he wasn’t to be trusted.  When I was in high school at Kuemper in Carroll (1964-1968), Father Rehmaeker was the principal.  It was the policy of the school that the crime of skipping school required the student’s parents to come to the school and have a powwow with the principal, the student and the parents to allow the student to be re-admitted.  I was caught skipping school, so mom came with me for the inquisition.  My step-father was not considered to be a parent.

Mom and I are sitting on folding chairs in Room 207 – Rehmaeker’s office.  Father picks up a manilla folder off his desk and opens it.  He reaches in and pulls out a slip of paper.  He hands it to mom and says: “Mrs. Wulf, do you recognize this handwriting?”  Mom said, “yes, that is my handwriting.”  “Well, then,” Father Rehmaeker pumped his chest and pulled out the remaining stack of papers and asked, “whose handwriting is this?”  “Oh,” mom said, “that’s Carol’s handwriting.”  Carol, my innocent sister, was a year ahead of me at Kuemper.  Thanks, Mom!  Carol didn’t write all those excuses.  It was easier to forge her handwriting than that of my mom.  Carol never got in trouble for it.  I received another 3-day suspension.  I never did understand why they suspend a student for the student’s self-suspension.

I was reminded of one of those skipping moments when Chuck North sent me a friend request on Facebook.

One gray, cold winter day, several of us boys in Vail decided to skip school.  We all met at Chuck’s house.  Of course, it wasn’t his house; it belonged to his parents, Earl and Mary North.  We were having a blast, doing what is questionable, but I don’t think we were drinking, smoking or doing drugs.  That’s a plus, I suppose.

Close to midday, someone yelled, “Earl just pulled up outside.”  There must have been at least eight of us.  I remember Jim Devold, Chuck North, Ron McCoid, Laird Vergith, Jim Malloy, and possibly Russ McCoid and another Malloy, along with me all being there.  We all ran upstairs and hid in the master bedroom closet.  Bodies on bodies.

We heard Earl come in and prepare a lunch.  We tried not to move, but what are you going to do when you have that many male adolescents packed into a tiny space.  Then, the inevitable occurred.  Someone farted.  It wasn’t the silent kind, nor was it the fragrance of roses.  It was suffocating to say the least.  I just knew we would be caught by Earl.  A few began whispering.  They might just as well have talked aloud.  We were not quiet by any means.  The decibel level had to have floated down to the main floor, but Earl finished up his meal and headed out.

I wonder what he thought.  I wonder whose excuse I used for that day.  I’ll bet it was in that batch of excuses with my mom’s signature on it, with Carol’s handwriting, possibly forged by me.

Rest in peace, Father Rehmaeker.  After dealing with me and mom, you deserve it.

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The Tipsy Pine

I was talking to my sister on the phone Easter Monday, and for some reason, the Tipsy Pine came up in conversation.  Good God, what a dive!

We laughed and laughed at each other’s stories about that place.  The bar was on the east end of Denison.  I doubt it’s still there, and as a matter-of-fact, I know it has to be gone because at one time I lived a block away.  During that period in my life, if there was a bar within walking distance, I was in it.  Cockroaches eating it to the ground, a leaky roof caused from shotgun blasts, or maybe the broken windows in restrooms, led to the bar’s final demise.

Pat told me about throwing a beer in the face of someone there.  “Probably had too many beers,” she told me.  That was a given.  No one went into that particular bar unless they had far too many beers to begin with.  Nonetheless, in defense of my eldest sister, the recipient must have deserved it.  We agreed on that.

My story, based solely on my sometimes-faulty memory, is a bit more extensive.  I was under age, as were most people in there on a late winter or early spring Saturday night.  There was a local band playing that night.  They sucked, but what the hell, it was live music and the place was crowded and loud.  The bar had two doors, one on the south side facing Highway 30, and a back entrance to the north.  We parked in the parking lot in the back, facing the street so that we could roll right out if necessary.  It became necessary.

While the music was getting louder and the crowd was getting denser and drunker, someone broke a beer bottle against the bar.  A fight was about to erupt.  The bartender took a shotgun from behind the bar and fired a warning shot into the ceiling.  Well, you know what’s going to happen after that.  The police were called.  Things didn’t get much quieter until the police actually arrived.

People were running to the two exits to get out of the bar.  Being from Vail, John Devold (who was old enough to be in the bar but rode with me), Mike Ruch – also a minor, and I ran to the women’s restroom.  You don’t go running into the arms of police when they show up.  We must have used Plan B more than we ever thought of using Plan A.  We broke the window because it was stuck, and one of us went outside (it wasn’t me).  We began to help dozens of minor women out the window.  The last one was a hefty girl who almost got stuck in the window, and here I am, inside the women’s restroom, underage, and with a large woman stuck halfway through the window.  I locked the door.  We could hear the cops in the bar and at the two entrances.  Pushing and pulling, we finally got the woman through the window.  The two of us remaining, kept the bathroom door locked as we got through the window with no time to spare.

Outside the bar, by the window, the heavy woman was bleeding.  She cut her finger on the broken glass lying in the grass.  It was a superficial wound, but you wouldn’t have known it from her whining.  That’s when she tells us that she needed a ride home.

We crossed the street and waited for things to calm down.  We snuck up the other side of the street behind houses and came out of the darkness a block north.  The four of us strolled down the street as though we had been out for a pleasant walk on such a beautiful starry night.  I’m sure we fooled the police.

We piled into the Green Latrine and I slowly coasted it out of the parking lot.  It was a 3-speed manual transmission, but the 1st, 3rd, and reverse gears didn’t work.  Second gear was the only gear that worked in that wonderful car.  I did have overdrive, so I could get up to 50 or 60 mph in second gear without hearing the engine work hard.

I was driving and Mike was in the front passenger seat.  John and the woman were in the back, John directly behind me and the woman sitting behind Mike.  She lived on a farm with her parents between Denison and Vail, so we took the gravel back roads home.

Her parent’s farmstead was at the bottom of two very steep hills.  It was also on the vehicle’s right side, the side in which she was sitting.  When we were coming over the crest of the first hill, I told her that because the car had only second gear, I might not make it up the other hill if I have to stop, “so I’ll slow down so that you get out while we’re barely moving.”  BOOM!  The door opened and she jumped out.  “Not now!”  I yelled.  Too late.  John could see her rolling in the ditch.

John or Mike – maybe both – yelled for me to stop.  “I will at the top of the hill,” I assured them.  However, if I had stopped at the bottom or anywhere on the way up the next hill, we were going to have to spend the night between those two hills.

We did make it to the top of the next hill and I shut off the car.  Someone yelled down to her: “Are you all right?”  “Yes,” she answered.  We found out later that she made a perfect stunt woman roll into the ditch and wasn’t even stiff the following day.  I guess her finger was okay, as well.

We continued on the way back to Vail, and at some point, in the next few minutes, the story of The Green Latrine was born.

If you haven’t read my first blog in this 3-year series, this is a good time to read it, or refresh your memory if you have read it.

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The Vail Independent Basketball Tournament

The Vail Independent Basketball Tournament was a cornerstone of our youth in Vail, Iowa; a waymark in the passage of every year, for every kid growing up in Vail.  The Tourney was sponsored each January by the Knights of Columbus, and it was extremely popular in the region.

Growing up in the late 1950s and across the 1960s, the Tourney was simply a big deal, and in Vail, there were not a lot of big deals.  For us kids, it really came down to the Pony Show in July and the Tourney in late January.  That was pretty much it for big deals, the sort of events that would have out-of-town cars parked for blocks surrounding the main street where the Memorial Hall anchored one corner and the baseball field the other.  In my memory, not too many other events routinely packed our little town of 450 souls.

The Tourney was a money-maker for the Knights and the town.  Before the games, during the games, and after the games the taverns were packed, and the food available at the tournament location sold out.  The Tourney’s location was the Vail Memorial Hall, which had been a Work Progress Administration construction project during the Great Depression.  The Tourney started shortly after it was built, more than likely the brainchild of our parish priest, Fr. Denis Clark.  Father Clark loved sports, and had been a Golden Gloves boxer in his youth (he was a personal friend of Joe Lewis, and brought him to the parish school one day).  He especially loved basketball.  The Catholic High School, which folded up its tent in 1960, when graduating classes were lucky to have a dozen students, fielded more than one championship contender.  My oldest brother Jerry played for St. Ann’s, and went on to play for Creighton University and their legendary coach Red McManus.

The Tourney was not about high school or college basketball.  It was about town teams, bar teams, and a few Catholic parish teams from across western Iowa and eastern Nebraska.  The teams were made up of young adult men, and a few not as young.  The games were hard fought, and played in front of a packed house.

The venue was not the best, but the best we knew.  The Memorial Hall’s basketball floor was 6 feet short of full-sized, but a line three-feet from the middle line marked the over-and-back for a violation.  Also, there was maybe 3 feet between the out-of-bound line on either end and the solid brick wall.  A large mattress hanging on the wall was the only protection for a player who flew through a good layup or got slammed off the court.  Some games indeed had a level of body checks a good hockey player would admire.  It was loud!  The crowd was on top of the game in bleachers on the stage on the south side, and bleachers on the north floor side with a balcony above.  The Memorial Hall was brick, but the interior was filled with wood, the backboard steel, and that place rocked!

My dad, like Marty’s, had died too young.  A volunteer fireman who died in an accident on the way to a fire.  He had been a Grand Knight in the local Knights of Columbus, so his peers always took care of me when it came to the Tourney.  When I was young, in my earliest days of Tourney attendance, one of the Knights would make sure my mom and I had a “season ticket.” Later in my youth, I had to work for that pass helping clean up after the day, making popcorn, or the prime job…dust mopping the basketball court between quarters, after the game, and toweling up after a fall.  It meant a lot, and spared me from sneaking in through a back door opened by a fellow Vail boy…right Marty!

The teams came from all over, many from small towns nearby, but always a team or two out of Omaha, Sioux City, Ames, and Des Moines.  My favorite was a team out of Omaha, which for many years included the All-Star Pitcher, Bob Gibson.  To imagine a future hall-of-famer, and World Series Champion, playing basketball in Vail, Iowa, for a local team, is sort of amazing in this current era of multi-million-dollar professional contracts.  I imagine today, those contracts specifically forbid such amateur sport participation. Heck, they may have in the early to mid-1960s, but Bob Gibson played basketball in little old Vail, Iowa.  I was a big fan of the Cards, and would get his autograph on the Tourney program, a spare baseball, etc.  I know other kids did too, and I wonder if any survive.  Being a poor kid, I know for a fact I turned around and played baseball with that very same autographed ball!  Who knew?

The Memorial Hall was transformed into a hub of action, and I was in the center of it.  The games brought new faces and a level of excitement to town, something that wasn’t in ample supply most days.  While those teams were mostly composed of local players from the sponsoring town, business, or parish, they always brought a ringer or two.  Bob Gibson wasn’t the only real athlete to grace those floors, and it wasn’t only Omaha teams that knew how to stretch their talent pool.  I remember the year my brother came home from Creighton and brought his teammate Paul Silas, a future NBA great, to play for the St. Ann’s Parish Team.  They were freshman at the time, and drove up from Omaha to play in the game, feed up on home cooked meals at my mom’s, and then back to Omaha so they didn’t miss practice.  St. Ann’s won that year, but Jerry and Paul couldn’t play in the final game because they got caught by their coach, Red McManus.  St. Ann’s still won.

Another lasting memory from Tourney time was of our local perv.  I won’t name him, even though he’s dead now, but suffice it to say only in Vail would the City Council hire the guy as the town cop.  My big brothers warned me to stay away from him before I even hit Kindergarten.  My memory of him is how he volunteered (or maybe the KofC’s hired him) to mop the shower area.  I swear to God almighty this is true.  There he’d be after every game, busily mopping up the wet concrete floors, with a white-knuckle grip on the mop handle and lust in his eyes.  Crazy yes, but also so very Vail.

The tourney endured as an annual event from the 1940’s (at least) through the early 1970s.  I was too young to transition from spectator to player, but Marty did, as did other Vail boys.  A true MVP of the Tourney for several years was Larry Seibert, of Vail, he was not tall but an exceptional offensive shooting guard.  Larry had game!  Like other things the Tourney sort of slipped away, just like the Pony Show and many locally-owned businesses.  I suppose it was all part of the changing rural American landscape…but that’s a topic for another time.  The Tourney was a major happening in a small town with very few.  It was great sport, great fun, and something that brought people together.

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