TRUE STORIES — Small town privileges

J.T. Knoll
J.T. Knoll

I’m a happy guy. Largely because I grew up in a small Kansas town around people who lived frugal lives but knew how to be happy nevertheless. Kidding, pranks, droll observations and jokes abounded.

My friends and I happily roamed the streets and rode our bikes across the highway out to Cow Creek to explore. Also to the strip pits to fish and swim. All back before cellphones had apps that allowed our parents to track our every move.

I my case, the last thing my mother wanted to know was where I was and what I was doing. She was just glad I was out of our little bungalow causing mischief somewhere else. The only requirement was to head home when the Sacred Heart Church bell tolled at noon and 6 p.m.

Dad was an engineer on the KCS railroad, we were seven kids, so though we weren’t poor, we certainly weren’t financially privileged. Which is to say, we wore hand me downs, got haircuts on the cheap, ate baloney sandwiches for lunch and a variety hamburger dishes for supper.

But I had a bike and it gave me the means to ride out to Delmez Gardens on 69 Highway, get paid to pick cucumbers, and take my cash up to Fedell’s Drug Store for a Snickers, which I would take it up to my tree house to savor as I read comic books.

Dad contracted with me one summer to supply potatoes to the family, saying he’d pay me the going rate. Grandpa turned the ground behind his old barn with his long handled shovel and spread a little manure. Grandma showed me how to set a plumb line, hoe a groove along it, and plant red potatoes (eyes up).

When the plants came up, I rode my bike to their house and hoed weeds and watered. Eventually, I sold my crop to dad for 10 cents a pound.

I didn’t see it as a job as much as a privilege. One denied to kids these days who spend most of their time looking at pixels.

It was good training for me as a writer as, years later, I contracted with this newspaper to supply weekly columns. Column writing requires breaking new ground, planting ideas, and allowing them time to grow. Weeding is akin to editing. Of course, a certain amount of fertilizer is required as well. I prefer to call it the ‘manure of experience.’

My bike also made it possible to become a paperboy, another privilege denied to kids these days as the newspaper comes by mail or over the internet rather than tossed on a porch by an 11-year-old.

There’s no better way to get to know a town than watching how it wakes up in the morning – who goes to early Mass, who hangs out at the gas stations, who heads out with cane poles to fish, who works the early shift at the hospital, etc.

Being a paperboy also offered an early education in the ways of the world — in the form of collecting every two weeks. There were people who paid a month ahead and tipped me a quarter, some who had the money waiting on the kitchen table when I arrived, and some who routinely stiffed me for the 60 cents (sometimes not answering the door even though I could see them through the window). Once I had to take my dad along to get paid.

I also grew up cutting grass (we didn’t call it mowing). After dad moved beyond the rotary mower and bought a Briggs & Stratton, I got a couple of neighborhood customers and grandma found me one on her street as well. (“Go counterclockwise, J.T., so you don’t clog the mower.”)

I got an atta’ boy from dad and buck a lawn from the others; good money when a Pepsi was dime and a hamburger two bits. Both of which were only a short bike ride away at Dairyland on McKay Street.

Of course having a bike also offered some challenges, like if the chain guard fell off (which mine did), you could get your jeans wound in the sprocket. And if your foot slipped off the pedal you could ‘rack’ yourself on the center bar.

Then, of course, there were flat tires. If your tires got too bald (as mine did) you had lots of flats. Lucky for me Ernie Hebenstreit, who ran the one of the two service stations in town, was also a paper customer and friend of my dad’s. He taught me how to fix flats myself and let me use his patches, glue and tools to do it.

I also rode my bike the two blocks up to Sacred Heart to serve Mass, which brings to mind a humorous story of the sort told in my little town: A boy going to serve as altar boy at Mass hops off his bike in front of the priest on the rectory porch and the chain comes off the sprocket.

“Damn,” the boy says. “Don’t say damn,” the priest tells him. Say, “God help me.”

Next day the boy shows up and the chain comes off again. “Damn,” he says. “Don’t say damn,” the priest admonishes again. Say, “God help me.”

On the third day the chain comes off again. This time the boy sighs and says, “God help me.” After which the chain levitates and wraps itself perfectly around the sprocket. “Damn!” the priest says.

J.T. Knoll is a writer, speaker and eulogist. He also operates Knoll Training & Consulting in Pittsburg. He can be reached at 620-704-1309 or jtknoll@swbell.net