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Remembering Childhood Days in Papillion, Nebraska: A Response to Billybuc's Challenge

I’ve enjoyed writing for many years. I'm dedicating more time to the craft in my retirement days.

There are a couple of stories they tell, my mom and dad. Stories they used to tell, I guess I should say. I’m an orphan now; lost my dad in 2003 and my mom in 2013. I miss them dearly and every day. They both talked on numerous occasions about things that happened when we used to live in Papillion, Nebraska back in the early- to mid-60s. I was born in the United Kingdom in 1961, so when we lived in Nebraska, I was a pretty young guy, and there aren't a great number of personal memories from that era resident in the old nugget. As a point of reference, though, I had two attempts at kindergarten while we lived in Nebraska, then went to first grade in Alaska. Anyway, over the years my parents would tell me and my sisters stories about those days, things we maybe didn’t remember for one reason or another. I’ve heard the tales so many times they’ve almost turned into my own memories.

My older sister, Rhonda and I shared a room in Papillion. We had a bunk bed in that room, but I don’t remember much else about the space beyond that. I do remember drawing the short straw, or not drawing straws at all and simply being told I’d sleep on the top bunk, and that was that. It wasn’t like I was disappointed about it, or anything. I didn’t learn until much later in life, long after I never had a bunk bed again, that the bottom bunk is where it’s at.

Anyway, on to the story: One night I moved an awful lot in my sleep. My cotton pajamas must have been warm or I must have been restless for some reason or other. I tossed and turned, turned and tossed. In the wee hours of the night, I tossed and turned and rolled myself right out of the bed and onto the floor from however high up the second story is in a bunk bed. Plop and boom and probably some scared shrieks and a little boy crying. Frantic running parents, snapping light switches, bright white interrupting the pitch-black night. Hugs, red hair pushed back from sweaty brow, forehead kisses and it’s ok. You’re ok. There there. Now on back to bed. Get some sleep, my child.

Sleep My Child Sleep

When my mom talked about that night, she always focused on her horror the following morning when she discovered my pajama shirt stuck to my back, a big dried blood stain visible in the cotton there. When she pulled it free, the cotton didn’t want to let go of the scab. It hurt me she said, and I cried. I don’t remember that, I never did remember that. Not the fall, not the injury, not the anything. I can talk about it like my own memory now, but mainly because of the way my mom would become racked with guilt whenever she talked about it. Her heartbreaking account was so very memorable. And heartbreaking. And heart-filling, too. All at the same time. It was always patently and completely evident she loved me dearly, as she loved all of us, her offspring. I never held her responsible for that day, certainly not the way she held herself responsible. And in any case, I didn’t remember it except inasmuch as it was just another one of those days I felt her love for me.

There is an endearing tenderness in the love of a mother to a son that transcends all other affections of the heart

— Washington Irving

My dad told of another time when we lived in Papillion when I had a tremendous fever. Apparently, I was hit by ear infections accompanied by fevers quite a bit when I was young. These did some amount of damage to my hearing, leaving scar tissue in my ears that is still to this day an object of interest for doctors during my annual health and wellness checkups. I was hot, Dad said, super super hot, burning up with fever and my dad called the hospital in the night to see if there were measures he and my mom could take to cool me off, keep me out of danger. I guess there’d been discussion over the years that uncontrolled fevers might take my hearing away completely, burn up my auditory nerve or something of the sort.

On the doctor’s advice, my mom and dad filled the bathtub with cold water straight from the tap marked ‘C’. Then they stripped me naked and put me directly into the icy bath. It was bitter, biting cold. My teeth chattered and I can see my lips turning blue all the way from here in 2020. My dad was sitting on the closed toilet seat lid next to me, probably crying because he knew I was so miserable.

“Please, Daddy, I’ll be a good boy. I promise,” I pleaded with him.

I don’t have any idea what happened next on that day because my memory ends there…or I think a better way of saying it is that nobody who ever told me that story—neither my mom nor my dad—was able to continue talking after that point. They both were always so heartbroken, so crushed to think that I believed I was being punished for some reason by being put into an ice-cold bathtub full of water…the account was never completed beyond that. Though I suppose it’s safe to say I did not lose my hearing, so the affection, the care I received was effective as far as that goes. It was never meant to be punishment, quite obviously. And it hurts my heart and stomach to this day to remember how much that memory tortured my father and my mother. They were such good, caring people. Telling that story waters my eyes and tingles my upper spine.

So, no, the things about me, the memories about me while living in Papillion, those don’t belong to me or didn’t originate with me. They certainly reside within me, and perhaps only within me since the two main witnesses to those days are gone, and my sisters would and will have their own memories of those days. Though I’d guess my younger sister probably has nothing to remember, as she was born in 1965 and was far too small to have conscious thoughts about that place, I would think. We moved away from there, off to Alaska, when she was but three.

Circa 1967 picture of me with my sisters Rhonda (L) and Karen (C).

Circa 1967 picture of me with my sisters Rhonda (L) and Karen (C).

One memory I think I and my siblings share, though, is one I remember like a video in my mind. It’s my own memory, not manufactured from a collage of other family members’, of that I am certain. I’m certain because if I concentrate, close my eyes, I can see it play again in Technicolor up to the point of impact. I don’t remember anything beyond that except the scar that remained forever after.

Our house in Papillion was a country home, smallish, located on a lot that was probably an acre or slightly larger. We had ample roaming space, a gravel drive that led down a hill from the highway that passed out front of the lot. The parking area was perpendicular to and somewhat detached from the front of the house, the massive yard was completely surrounded on all sides by a barbed-wire fence.

One summer day, my dad had a friend over to the house. I don’t remember the guy, couldn’t tell you what he looked like or his name or anything like that. I can tell you he had a motorcycle, though; he arrived on a motorcycle. We probably had dinner, a little visit with my dad and mom and so forth. Then, perhaps inevitably, he offered to my dad an opportunity to ride the motorcycle.

I remember seeing my dad seated atop the bike, his hands on each of the handlebar grips, receiving instructions. This one’s the gas, you shift this way with your foot, here’s the brake, and so on and so on. I think it’d be a good guess to say my dad had never ridden a motorcycle before.

When he took off down the hill into the yard there was at first this kind of exciting feeling, this sort of “Wow, look at him go!” feeling. Then the feeling changed suddenly into confusion and questioning: “Is he going to turn? He’s headed right for the fence!” And he ran headlong without slowing into the fence down in the corner near where we kept our burn barrel, didn’t turn and the bike fell over and so did my dad, blood streaming from his neck.

I know I was scared in that moment, scared enough that I don’t remember anything else from that day beyond that incident. I’m sure my dad went to the hospital, got his neck stitched where it was bleeding pretty badly. He had a scar there for the rest of his life, I do know that. I saw it all the time, a permanent reminder like an indelible tattoo.

I didn’t become horrified about all that until much later in life when I lived in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and heard about snowmobilers getting decapitated by barbed wire fences. I now hear the term 'barbed wire' and my mind’s movie camera starts rolling the film from Papillion, Nebraska. It could have ended differently, and I’m so very glad I can’t see that different ending in my head, didn’t see that different ending in real life.

I don’t think we lived in Papillion very long. As I said, my mom and dad aren’t around to ask for clarification. I never thought to ask before, of course, too busy living my own life to think I’d ever want to know that detail, or any of a million others. I know we moved into base housing at Offutt AFB once it became available, and we lived there until we left Nebraska in 1968. Offutt is where I learned to ride a bike. Around the neighborhood cul-de-sac, round and round and round and round. My dad taught me to stay upright on two wheels, took the training wheels off the little red bike, pushed me down the road and let it go. I know exactly how he felt when he released that little bike seat and slowed himself down to a walk, watching, holding his breath. I felt exactly the opposite as I scooted away with tiny legs churning at breakneck speed.

It makes me shudder when I think how close we came to not having that moment together…

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