Nostalgia – it’s delicate, but potent. Teddy told me that in Greek, “nostalgia” literally means “the pain from an old wound.” It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone.—Don Draper, “Mad Men”
If I could have only one memory of Hastings as a town it would be of Fisher Fountain. When I describe Hastings to people as a Norman Rockwell picture done in the Midwest, I think of Fisher Fountain and how he would have been envious he didn’t have it for his New England towns.
It was originally built for the 1932 county fair, but it was loved so much in those hard dust bowl times it was moved to a permanent location in front of the Public Utilities building. (For those gentle readers who are not from Nebraska: Nebraska is a socialist state with all power plants publicly owned. This has caused electric rates to be so low that an economist specializing in this area recently told me getting wind power in this windy state has been a tough economic sell.)
History records that this was a “sign of hope” for the citizens of the town during these depression and dust bowl days. My folks had a different take on it. They told me they remembered those incredibly hot dust bowl nights, when people would lay out blankets and sleep around the fountain to enjoy the cooling mist.
My father’s parents lived on the east side of town near 7th St and the railroad tracks. We would go over to their apartment two or three times a week. It looked like a large two story Victorian era house, but it had two apartments on the first floor and steep narrow stars to the second floor apartments. Cora and Ed Losee, my grandparents, moved into town after they gave up running the farm they owned.
I found the place interesting. There was always cans of “Fruit Juicy Hawaiian Punch” in the refrigerator along with Hershey’s chocolate bars for my diabetic grandfather. Go figure. He claimed it was for the grand kids but we all knew he had them too. There was a large porch with metal chairs for the residents to sit on and watch the cars go by or thunderstorms flash. There was also mystery to the place in the form of the neighbors, friends of my grandparents, Glen and his wife. Glen wouldn’t eat his wife’s cooking believing she was out to poison him. The mystery was why he wasn’t dead (maybe because he openly talked about this threat) or why he stuck around if he believed it.
There was fun there too. Often times I’d find my other cousins there, Vicki, Gayle, Rodney, and Barbara. After a raid of the refrigerator we might go out and play a game with no name (now I might call it road kill). We’d go out to the curb and wait for a car to come down the street, then run as fast as we could to reach the steps of the porch before the car was directly in front of those steps. If you waited too long and got caught away from the safety of the porch you’d be “dead”. Last one alive won. Think my sons of the profound differences from your electronic more sedentary growing up years.
At other times I’d be dropped off by my parents, my dad in his fez so they could go to a Shriners dance, or in his suit so they could go to the church’s annual meeting, or other odd adult events. I’d play Chinese checkers with my granddad, who would inevitably win. Wearing his usual suspenders and with hardly a hair on his head he would often kid me asking, “So Bobtail do you have a girlfriend yet?” I’d be so embarrassed. There were no girls of any note in my neighborhood and being a friend with one was an uncomfortable thought.
The most comfortable memory I have there is sitting in front of the black and white TV watching the shadows and lights revealing Nat King Cole singing, Bonanza cowboys winning in the West, wrestler Mad Dog Vachon once again showing his evil eye, or the Lawrence Welk Show doing yet one more polka. Many TV’s in this era were topped by a light, the thinking being having only a TV in a dark room would give you head aches or ruin your vision. Frequently these lights were in a black ceramic panther, slinking low along the top of the TV. We had one of those. But my grandparents rarely had the room lights off and had something better. A picture above the TV that I would drift off into when the commercials were on or there was one more polka that Lawrence was starting with, “A one an a two-a!”
Years later I was visiting the grandparents’ old farm-house where aunt Dorothy and uncle Allen had lived since the grandparents moved away. There I saw the picture hanging on the wall of a deserted room. Maybe I gasped. I certainly said I loved that picture. Dorothy reached up, took it off the wall, and gave it to me, one of the best gifts I’ve ever gotten. The Brach Thompson department store sack (Hastings’ answer to Macy’s) used to cover the back gave me a smile. The twinge in my heart came from the image. The best word for it is “ethereal”. I found myself wondering once again if those shapes on the left were people or elves, and what was that ghostly apparition to the right of the moon, clouds or something more ominous? What of those glowing orbs on the left and right? Street lights or some sort of magic? And of course the fountain in a park; I could almost hear the water splash. These are the same thoughts I have now as it hangs over my HDTV. (For a closeup of the picture check out this page.
Later mom and dad would come by to take me home. If I was asleep on the couch dad would pick me up and I’d be enveloped in his smell, mostly Old Spice. If it was mom’s turn I might have the treat of laying my face against the wonderful feel of her mink stole. If I had any wakefulness at all I’d try to rouse myself to influence the decision to drive through the fountain loop.
On the drive home, if it was an especially good night, we’d go up 9th street to stop at Bob Garey’s Ice Cream. You can’t picture this store in the modern context of a Dairy Queen. Instead it was more like entering a small room in the corner of someone’s nondescript ranch house along a residential street. [Does anyone have a picture of this place I could get a copy of?] Half the space was taken up with freezers and racks filled with deliciousness. They called the ice cream homemade and it was indeed different than anything else one could buy, soft serve or grocery store. It was also different than our homemade ice cream, but still very good. And for a time he’d sell Spudnuts, potato flour based doughnuts. The mixture of dairy and bakery smells made this one of the best olfactory places to be in Hastings. Bob would scoop out the ice cream and fill coated cardboard cartons to take home.
Even with the anticipation of soon eating ice cream we would almost always pull into the circle drive around the fountain, partly because my folks didn’t want me to beg. As soon as we entered, the car lights were set to park or turned off entirely. We’d pull up to the east side and stop, maybe even turning off the engine a few minutes if it wasn’t busy. There we’d watch the ever-changing water patterns: sprays, short streams, and the big stream in the middle. And we’d watch the colors change: blue, blues and greens (that reminded me of lime and raspberry sherbert), purple, scarlet. My favorite was the tall 65′ red stream shooting alone in the middle, the water making ever-changing thudding sounds as it fell on the top of the fountain, or splashing into the water surrounding the fountain with the slightest breeze. I might be allowed to get out and lean against the fence where I was likely to get misted, usually a delight on a warm summer evening, but occasionally very chilling. With a full moon there would be moon shadows from the trees surrounding and overhanging the fountain, hiding lovers on park benches nearby. I might try to steal a glance of them, but would quickly give them their privacy and turn back to the fountain. After a few minutes we’d go around a little further, stopping more briefly on the west side, and then drive home.
The fountain provoked mystery and debate among the boys in my neighborhood. Steve and Tim Jacobi; Tim Deal; and I would consider how the water got those colors. One neighborhood theory was that it was colored lights illuminating the sprays. But another seemingly possible theory was that it was some colored dye like Kool-Aid. Parents occasionally promoted this theory or wouldn’t dispute it. Kool-Aid was colored and amazing, almost as amazing as those Fizzie tablets you could plunk in water and get a drink vaguely like pop (as we called it), more fun to make than drink. Rumor had it that Kool-Aid was invented by some guy from Hastings, but the idea that someone from Hastings could invent a national drink seemed more far fetched than Kool-Aid coloring the water. It wasn’t until I was at Elitch Gardens in Denver and looked down on a two foot tall fountain, a miniature Fisher Fountain, and seeing lights illuminating the sprays that I had the indisputable proof I needed. The Kool-Aid theory entered the dustbin of history, in my eleven year old mind, with this triumph of observation and luck. 1
Arriving home I probably looked up to see the constellation Scorpio to the south, just like the planetarium described it, looking like a scorpion with the super giant star Antares at its heart. They said this star was so big that if it was put where our sun was, the Earth and Mars would be engulfed by it. I was happy I had our sun and ice cream. And I remember being amazed more than once at seeing these new things called satellites coursing through the heavens near Antares, like a moving star. I’d shout with delight to the parents and we’d spend a few moment watching. The heavens were no longer as immutable.
There were other amazing lights in summer nights in Hastings. They flew around by the hundreds in our lawn, bushes and trees—lightning bugs! My first paying job (something I’ve forgotten to mention on my résumés) was getting a nickle for a jar of fireflies for my neighbor and his gal as they sat on the steps to their porch. Makes me smile to think my working life started with bringing a bottle of fireflies and smiles to them.
Collecting jars of fireflies is a science. Get a big enough jar, punch an air hole in the lid, put a handful of grass in, run around the lawn toward the flashing lights. Lightning bugs are tricky, taking advantage of the escape opportunities while you are trying to open the jar lid. They are Houdinis in the hand, tickling the palm and quickly crawling out the smallest opening to fly away flashing like a plane. A quick hand might capture them again but they have better than even odds. One has to quickly open the lid and put them in the jar. This is were children learn another economic principle: when the marginal cost (loss) becomes greater than the marginal gain, stop. In the case of lightning bugs, when more escape from the jar than get into the jar when you open the lid, it’s time to quit. Take jar to your bedroom, get pajamas on, brush the teeth, and go to sleep enjoying the company of bugs and their light show. In the morning take the jar out back and open the lid. Repeat often.
In the interest of full disclosure I must confess an occasional childhood cruelty. It was common knowledge among the gang of boys that if you ripped the flashing part off of lightning bugs and put it on your finger they just glowed and made an interesting illuminated “ring”. I found this practice mostly distasteful, though I did it a time or two. It seemed so unfair to an animal that gave such pleasure and fun for the humans, as they went about the hard work of trying to find a mate.
But my greatest lightning bug experience happened when I was nearly old enough to drive. I was at Camp Augustine, 15 minutes north of Hastings, and old enough to be able to explore the camp with just a best friend or two that night. We were in a hot humid campsite next to the Platte River. That year the riverbed was dry and it was easier to walk back to camp on it than on the road; it had less poison ivy, dust, and was a new experience. On this particular evening, with the smells of weeds and grass in the still air, the cottonwoods hung low over the riverbed, and dusk was so deep there was an urge to use a flashlight just to see what the darknesses were on the path. Instead we watched the tens of thousand of flashing yellow lights in the overhanging branches, on the tips of every grass blade, and flying through the air. As we walked, it seemed as though we were swimming through star fields. There are moments in my life where I tell myself this is so precious a time and place in the universe that I want to bear witness to it by simply never forgetting it. This was one of those times. There were many things I didn’t enjoy about summer camping in Nebraska but this one night redeemed much of it.
Just lights. Making water magical. Moving on a screen to tell a story. Flying through the heavens, or flashing in a bush. My breathing slows and a peace comes to me as I think of it. The pleasure this gives me is a wonderful thing that I’ve wanted to give you, my sons, like an inheritance. So we would stop by the fountain when we were in Hastings on summer nights, and we laid in the grass to watch the stars. I hope in some small way these moments in time give you treasures in your memory too. And someday, hopefully not too many years from now, let’s get a jar and catch lightning bugs together.
- Driving into my hometown in 1984 my first stop was to see Fisher Fountain. Instead I found a pile of bricks. It was dynamited a few days earlier by dirty mean people (may they spend significant time in Purgatory). By next Mothers Day it was rebuilt with funds quickly collected by the community. ↩