Brian’s Column: Here Comes the Neighborhood

3: First steps into Brave New Homestead and Environs
Brian R. Wright

[Link to Episode 2]

Note: These columns are a series, I will make into a volume of my memoirs. You may follow the links at top and bottom of page to go to preceding or succeeding episodes. The series starts here. {If the [Link to Episode <next>] at the  bottom of the column does not show an active hyperlink, then the <next> column has yet to be written.}

From the staging flat in Kansas City, where brother Forrest’s abrupt, determined mission to to defy gravity ended badly, we moved into the new home in Overland Park in 1953ish. Understand that my dad was an early adopter in the vision for this particular development. You can see from the photo that our back yard ended at a stream behind which rose an open field on which you can still see the farm house. We’re looking eastward in the photo, so that whole area behind us hasn’t even been subdivided yet.

Now, thanks to Peeping Tom-worthy Google Maps, here’s what it looks like today:
A little more background on the parental units

Mom and Dad both were four-year graduates of Western Michigan University, which is where they met and fell in love—Dad from Chicago, only child, always loved flying, lied about his age (17) to get into the Air Force for WW2, rose to B24 bomber captain, several runs, shot down over Italy, parachuted, gathered his men, got to safety, thus a genuine war hero (though he NEVER talked about the war). Mom loved him lots more because he was one of the few men on campus with an actual car.

Hailing from the Danish-community of Greenville, Michigan, Mom and her two sisters spent a many of their pre-high-school days digging potatoes, doing chores, intermingled with kid stuff on a hardscrabble farm lacking running water and electricity. Their dad, John Andersen, was a WW1 veteran whose Purple Heart encompassed a couple of nasty gas dousings; he wasn’t the same afterward. After a few years, Grandma divorced him, taking the kids to Grand Rapids, where she worked, then married (an indepen-dent-minded water well driller named LD Barlow), and returned to the city of Greenville proper.

The girls adored their step dad, calling him simply Barlow. The picture is from 1934 when my mom is eight years old. From conversations with my grandmother, Barlow was sensitive to the environmental conservation ethic and other social issues, as well as being a strong-willed character who stood up to corrupt officials—even throwing a tax collector out of their home in a moment of pique. Reminds me of that saying from Lazarus Long in Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love:

“Be wary of strong drink; it can make you shoot at tax collectors… and MISS!

But Gram was the iron parent of most influence on the girls. Born in Denmark into a large family, she had to leave home at 9 1/2, taking on jobs for room and board. Her road was rough. She acquired enough learning to thoroughly appreciate it and was adamant that her daughters would go to college and earn degrees… which they all did. Gram was definitely a “where’s there the will there’s a way” kind of woman, and didn’t suffer shirkers gladly. In Portage (near Kalamazoo) while both of them were still going to WMU, Dad built a small house with his own hands for his young college-graduate bride. I was hatched shortly after the paint dried, July ’49. What all this is leading up to I suppose is that a lot of love and hard work went into bringing Forrest and me to life, not to mention our first homes.

Now for the growing up, and being a part of something right and true and rooted

Frankly, nobody could have written a better script for our days in the idyllic ‘culture’ of Overland Park in that little oasis of time—between 1953 and 1962— navigating yours truly from four to puberty. It was a combination of Leave it to Beaver and Ozzie and Harriet, truly a storybook childhood, personally speaking… musically, a blend of the first movements of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and his 5th Piano Concerto… full of promise in real time and unfolding as it should. What can I say, we were ‘blessed’ in the parlance of the Jesus folks, and if everyone were to have been so launched, the human race would be exploring adjacent galaxies by now with the top down, stellar winds in their hair, and wide grins on their faces.

Speaking of Jesus, or religion per se, my experience has been that most families take their cues from the lead woman in the family. My mom’s mom had a dim view of organized religion in general, but wound up attending the Greenville Congregational Church, probably because it was a few doors down the street and wouldn’t raise eyebrows. My dad’s mom was more old time Bible brandisher… but Dad was fine with whatever my mom wanted to do so long as it included a Christian God and wasn’t Beatnik or unmanly.

Neither wanted to force a rigid set of ideas on us kids or to scare us; they did want us to believe in a moral way of living. Thus started our belonging to the Overland Park Lutheran Church. Which is pretty clearly where we are being trundled off to, in Mama’s finest threads, in the photo above. So Sunday School, eventually catechism and confirmation, not too many rituals really. All in all, the Fire and Brimstone aspects kept below the threshold of discernible inner damage.

At home we connected routinely with the love aspects… at meals and then especially at night, before Forrest and I went to sleep, when the four of us would kneel at the bedside and, one by one, say our prayers. I tell you, with a little drop of mist in my eyes, in those brief, tender,  nightly moments I felt touched by whatever God may be. Just as I deeply feel the three of them, departed, in this room as I offer up these words.

We’ve (and I’ve) only just begun.

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