First Person: The Trip to Wahoo | Essay | Chicago Reader

First Person: The Trip to Wahoo 

From the age of five I was dispatched to Nebraska each summer with a huge corsage pinned to my dress. My life meshed with my odd relatives and I became part of their web of intrigue.

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West of Omaha about 40 miles, past the "AK-SAR-BEN" racetrack and amusement park and the ever-flourishing hills of Boys Town, and across the Platte River, sits the amiable little town of Wahoo, Nebraska. Famous for being the birthplace of producer Darryl F. Zanuck, the town has a billboard on the outskirts that proclaims:

WAHOO
HOME OF GOOD INDIANS
AND WE SAY THAT WITHOUT A RESERVATION.

I always thought that billboard was conceived by my Aunt Libby Smersh, who lived and prospered in Wahoo, winning blue ribbons for primitive paintings of pastoral scenes and honorable mentions for castles built out of junk jewelry. Aunt Libby's only daughter, Nadine, still lives in the little white house on First Street and still works at the cafe, the only job she's ever had.

My cousin Nadine has two adult children, Bill and Nancy. Upon graduation from a local college they walked the few blocks home to their mother's house and never left again. Not to work, not to marry, not to anything. Nadine continued working at the cafe to support her little brood, which by then included her ex-husband George, who unexpectedly returned home after contracting "French polio."

It darn near broke Aunt Libby's heart when Nadine married George. Everyone had been pulling for John the bus driver, who took his lunch hour on the run from Omaha to Lincoln at the cafe where Nadine worked and courted her there, where Wahoo could see what was going on. George was looked upon with suspicion. Mysterious and quiet, he ran the projector in Wahoo's only movie house. That was respectable enough, in an artsy sort of way, except that he, to everyone's horror, had been a conscientious objector during World War II. What young girl could resist a romance so sure to provoke the wrath of Wahoo?

In those years I was very much involved with my Wahoo relatives. From the age of five, I was dispatched to Nebraska each June. With a huge corsage pinned to my dress, I was taken with my older sisters for a grown-up lunch at an expensive restaurant, where I sat drinking Shirley Temples like some surly midget. Thereafter my mother and sisters gave responsibility for me to a hostess on the Rocky Mountain Rocket, who was admonished to keep a watchful eye on me until the train arrived in Omaha, where I would be met by relatives. Minutes after departure, corsage abandoned, I was in the club car sipping cokes and regaling fellow passengers with the perils facing an orphan traveling alone.

By the time the train pulled into Omaha I was not so cocky, for the relative who was to meet me was Aunt Tilly, never at her best when the middle of the night found her in a train station and not a cabaret. "Where's your corsage," she would roar, looming at the top of the escalator stairs. "Pull up your socks. I hope you ate on the train because there's nothing in the icebox but vegetables. Ha, ha. Look at your hair. Push that mop out of your face and don't slouch--you'll slide right into the escalator and be flattened like a pancake. That really happens you know." It was a long ride up those stairs.

My mother had two sisters, a good one and a bad one. To get to the good one I first had to go through the bad one. Aunt Tilly and Aunt Libby were considerably older than their sister and assumed all the prerogatives of age. Nothing mother did would ever gain their approval, and it was with smug satisfaction that they took over my life each summer. Aunt Tilly was a gravel-voiced tough cookie--snappy dresser, never without a hat, a highball, and a cigarette. Ida Lupino. Aunt Libby was a tiny ball of butter, flour, and sugar held together with an apron. She overflowed with warmth for anyone who wasn't a Republican.

Tilly, Libby, and my mother were born and raised in Nebraska, daughters of a prosperous Czechoslovakian farmer and saloon keeper with strong feelings about education. They were teachers before they succumbed to the charms of their various husbands. In Aunt Libby's case she had to succumb twice, since on the occasion of her and Aunt Tilly's double wedding she was left at the altar. The reluctant bridegroom relented the following year, and despite objections from nervous relatives, Aunt Libby chose to allow him to spend the rest of his life paying for his indiscretion. My mother shocked her family by running away to New York to pursue a career that eventually ground to a halt with her marriage to the vagabond who became my father. The sisters remained close, partly out of familial devotion, mostly to meddle in each other's lives.

Omaha was simply a stopping-off place on my way to Wahoo, but the night spent at Aunt Tilly's apartment was not without appeal, chiefly that of Uncle Kenny. His fear of Aunt Tilly was comparable to mine, but he gained courage when I was there. He chain drank Coke and read detective magazines, and he delighted in recapping for me the fulsome details of his favorite murders. It was in this congenial atmosphere I spent the night, wide awake, watching the reflection of headlights from the traffic cast ominous shadows on the walls of my bedroom. In the morning Aunt Tilly braided my hair tight and took me to the bus station. A few hours later John the bus driver pulled up to the cafe in Wahoo where Nadine worked, and my summer officially began.

Those were golden summers. I was Anne of Green Gables and Rose of the Wildwood, lying in the alfalfa field squinting at the sun, hiding in the mulberry tree with forbidden books ever after blurred with purple stains. My life meshed with these odd relatives, and I became part of their web of intrigue. This was a family with secrets. Subjects of importance were discussed only in Bohemian. A smarter girl would have picked up a few key words, but mystery fed my imagination. Pedaling my tricycle happily around town, I repeated all I knew and a lot I didn't to anyone who would listen--until the noon whistle called me home to dinner.

Aunt Libby's friends were my friends, and we were all old. The Dodd sisters dressed me in their grown-up clothes and paraded me from house to house like a pet monkey. Old Mrs. Turnwall exchanged cookies for gossip on her front-porch swing. The widow Hodak tried endlessly to teach me Parcheesi. All summer long they took pictures for me to send to my mother--of the ladies and me lined up in someone's yard, clutching our purses, smiling at nothing. When there was a social event at the legion hall, I sang "God Bless America" in a tiny Wac uniform one of the ladies had made for me. On Founder's Day we all wore matching pioneer dresses. None of this seemed strange to me.

These were the last years of World War II. Aunt Tilly had seen one son shot down over the Philippines, and Aunt Libby had lost one in the Pacific. In Aunt Libby's huge backyard, hanging from a tree like some bizarre birdhouse, was a replica of the USS Langley, the ship my cousin Randy had gone down on. Aunt Libby had made it herself, a testimonial to the son she was sure was "shacked up with some native girl on an island" and would return home "once he came to his senses." It was said my cousin Junior was shot parachuting out of his plane over the Philippines and landed in a tree. That picture has never left my mind. A bright blue sky, warm sun, and Junior's lifeless body twisting in the breeze. Junior was my favorite cousin because he had promised to marry me when I grew up, and I had been able to think of no better life than living in Wahoo and talking in Bohemian.

When I became a teenager, the trips to Wahoo ended and I joined the world of my snotty little friends. I was far too urbane by then to consider spending the summer in some hick town and, though she never said so, I think my mother was relieved. There had been some concern that the less-than-thought-out opinions of my relatives had become my credo, resulting in moments of amusement and embarrassment for my mother and sisters. That my relatives had convinced me the pope meant to take over the United States amused my family, that these newfound convictions were announced in jargon rife with bad grammar and sloppy speech patterns was embarrassing. Nowhere was adolescence and its attendant snobbism more welcome than in my own home--until the prima donna became more insufferable than the country bumpkin.

The Wahoo relatives were not about to be dismissed easily. They kept in constant touch with letters written on flowery stationery and birthday cards weighted down by taped quarters. Nadine even came for a brief visit, which ended abruptly the first night of her stay when lightning struck our house. As this seemed to support everything she had ever heard about her mother's sister, she boarded the first bus back to Omaha. Many concerned letters came after that, suggesting strongly that little Mikey would be safer in Wahoo. But little Mikey didn't go back.

The letters from Aunt Libby continued through the years. Letters filled with odd details: "Howard fell down the back stairs Saturday and fractured his ovaries." And "Nadine washes clothes every day because Geo. won't cooperate, she bathes him & I feed him, he's bedfast now, and starting to get bored with being paralyzed." Letters replete with mysterious diseases and failed marriages. Graphic descriptions of funerals and births, and snapshots of strange babies we would never see. Years later, responding to a letter in which I had enclosed pictures of my children and a story I wrote about going to the racetrack with Nelson Algren, Aunt Libby replied: "Dear All of You. What a lovely family you have Mickey & thanks for the pictures, they are hanging in the hall of relatives over the stairway. We all liked your story about the races, Nadine never wins when she goes but Madge, Kate and I went together on one bet & we won $650.00 & I also won $27 on another bet. That was 4 yrs ago. Your daughter looks a little like Sharon's oldest girl Caprice. Sharon has a professor (English) in Uni. at Ft. Collins, he has his doctorate & does a little writing. They have a lovely home with a large fenced in back yard--she is a dentist's receptionist but works with garden & flowers, he builds around the place, plans on a family room, if weather clears up--he'll do most of it himself, his folks are wealthy, but Jim makes enuf on his own--they're Scotch--Caprice is oldest, a blond, Stephanie is a brunette & Robbi looks like a Scot, girls play violin & tuba."

In one short letter I knew my cousin Sharon's whole life. I could see her puttering around in her garden, the sounds of a tuba and violin wafting out the windows of the new family room, mingling with the clack of typewriter keys, as her in-law's limousine pulled up in the driveway.

On Aunt Libby's 80th birthday my sisters and I drove to Wahoo for the celebration. Since we seldom saw each other, much less Aunt Libby, a break from our combined 16 children was cause for great merrymaking--which was a source of wonder to the Wahoo relatives who had never seen the three of us together. At first they tried to control how much beer we drank by keeping it locked in the trunk of Uncle Kenny's car. But when they realized frequent runs out to the garage bothered us not at all, they relented.

More puzzling to them than anything was that once routed upstairs to our bedroom we laughed and talked all night. "What do you find to talk about all night long?" Aunt Libby wanted to know at breakfast. It would have been beyond her to understand our hysteria remembering the night before, when my sister Pat, in a rare moment of passion, threw her arms around poor George, the conscientious objector, and professed her admiration for his lifelong courage and ideals, only to have him pale and rigidly remove her arms from his neck. We parlayed that little rejection scene into a comedy of enormous proportions; Pat the seductress became the butt of private jokes for the rest of our stay--indeed the rest of her life.

I still have many of Aunt Libby's letters and occasionally pull one out to read to friends. Nobody writes letters anymore, certainly not letters like hers. They serve as a history lesson not only about her family but about the nation. No Republican presidential hopeful ever escaped her wrath; "him and all his millions" was applied to each and every one of them.

My mother and her sisters are long gone. Aunt Libby died peacefully in her sleep; Aunt Tilly, died, appropriately, on a train going west. As often happens when a connecting link is gone, I was remiss in keeping up correspondence with my cousins. So on the occasion of my sister Pat's death I wrote long letters to them all, vowing anew to stay in touch. A year later when my sister Barb died, I knew Nadine would be devastated upon hearing the news. Nadine's best friends growing up had been her cousins "Patsy" and "Barbie," names they detested but endured because Mom said Nadine was nervous and they had to be nice to her. These three played paper dolls together for years, and it says something about Nadine that she still has all of hers. I put off making the phone call as long as I could.

"Ohmygod, I can't believe it--you're the only cousin I have left," Nadine shouted into the phone. The Wahoo relatives had never become comfortable with the telephone and always felt it necessary to scream into the mouthpiece to be heard.

"I know how hard this is on you Nadine," I said. "It's so sad, but please don't feel bad. I haven't written much, but I promise I will come out and see you as soon as I can--and we'll have a good long talk."

There was a long pause, and I could hear a parakeet squawking somewhere in the background.

"Oh gosh, I don't know, Mikey. The house is awful small, Nancy's having that terrible pain in her back again, and George's iron lung takes up so much space, and . . ."

She still sends me birthday cards. And there's always a dollar inside.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/John Figler.

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