PREFACE: Much of my childhood was spent on the road, but not in a Beatified, romantic sort of way. Instead, it was simply that we were forced to. Whether transferred, offered a better job or just simply fired, my dad’s job(s) kept the family moving from town to town and state to state, the only constant in our lives being each other and boxes marked Bekins.
When I was in the third grade, my sister and I attended three different schools in three different states thanks to three different moves. The following takes place during move #3 from Colorado to Washington.
It seemed as though my dad had become delusional, that he believed he could enact an honest to goodness miracle. How? By attempting to make a 1400-mile drive less oppressive and monotonous–daresay fun–to a 9-year old boy and 14-year old girl.
The suggestion was that my sister, Michele, and I begin collecting knickknacks from any points of interest we passed. We were assured that not only would we “get a kick out of” doing so, but that we would probably end up thanking my dad for helping us begin what could very well become a lifelong hobby. (SPOILER: We never had to thank him.)
“What kind of collection stuff do people collect as collectibles?” I asked.
My mom and dad threw out examples: decorative forks, salt and pepper shakers, snow globes, novelty pens and, finally, ashtrays. “Oh yeah,” my mom added, “lots of people collect ashtrays. They’re very poplar.”
While I was always up for doing something “poplar,” I just couldn’t get excited about small garbage receptacles. Relegated to sitting behind the driver’s seat, I had spent (and would continue to spend) days breathing in my dad’s habit of chain smoking Marlboro’s. So, while I was well on my way at earning the much-coveted Bloody Cough merit badge in my Junior Emphysema Club, a collection of ashtrays just didn’t strike me as fun.
Michele didn’t even pretend to acknowledge the hobby suggestion. At 14, her resistance to…well, everything, was evidenced by the Walkman she never took off and by the arsenal of daggers that shot from her eyes.
EX: There’s a rest stop ahead, does anyone need us to pull over? “Only if I can flush away this stupid family!”
In Wyoming, our wood paneled station wagon pulled over at an isolated shop called Buffalo Will’s Trading Post. The parking lot was littered with signs announcing Will’s great prices, claims of being world famous and, most importantly, alleviated what must have been a common concern with ‘Yes! We do have buffalo jerky!” *sigh*
Buffalo Will’s was decoarted with tin types, antique tools, horseshoes and a wagon wheel chandelier. Out from behind an ‘Employees Only’ curtain, a woman in a calico dress and bonnet greeted us with a ‘Howdy’ and an introduction. Mrs. Buffalo Will then said, “Please, feel free to browse the store an’ take your time. I’d be more than happy to answer any questions you folks’ve got.”
As Mrs. Buffalo Will congratulated my mom on having such a handsome son and beautiful daughter (It’s true! We’re stunning!), I hurried off to find my allotted one souvenir. I rummaged through the Korean-made Indian souvenirs marked ‘authentic,’ like: rubber tomahawks, plastic headbands, and headdresses for little chieftains. Meh.
Then, as I made my way past the t-shirts, books and ‘Jackalope X-ing’ signs, I saw It. It was the greatest souvenir ever forged in the depths of Mount Schlock by the gods and goddesses of the Land of Cheap Novelties.
Atop two pipe cleaners serving as legs and adorned with wings, googly eyes, a beak and a tiny cowboy hat, was a small, triangular-ish piece of shellacked manure. This was the Wyoming Turd Bird. A steal at only $4.99 (regularly $7.99 + tax). And, my being a red-blooded American tourist who was a sucker for impulse buying, I wanted one. Hell, I needed one!
I was rushing the Turd Bird to my parents when Michele spotted me and ran interference. “You realize that you’re holding poop, don’t you?”
“Its not real poop, it’s just man-you-er,” I argued.
“It’s poop, Michael. That’s what cow manure is.”
“But,…it’s dried up. It ain’t even stinky. See?” I ran it under my nose and smiled at the inoffensive lack of aroma.
“It’s disgusting. I am not spending the rest of the trip with poop in the car.”
“Why not? We have to ride with your face.”
“You’re mentally incompetent.”
Interrupting her discussion with Mrs. Buffalo Will, our mom came over and stood between us. “What the heck’s goin’ on, now?”
“Look what he’s trying to buy,” my sister pointed out.
I knew that the first thing to do was to get my sister in trouble, thereby deflecting any blame from my innocent, cherubic self. “She called me mentally incontinent.”
My mom looked for clarification. “You called him what?”
Michele shook her head. “I said ‘mentally incompetent’.”
The two of them laughed. At me? But I’m adorable…and innocent…and the good one…and with just a pinch of mischievousness to make me charming.
Okay, that’s it. No more Mr. Nice Guy, Jr. It was time to spin the laughter in my favor by showcasing my unparalleled wit. With a smile, I told my mom, “I said she had a poop face.” Check mate in 3…2….1
“No more talk like that, Michael,” she said. “You’re too big for that nonsense.” Before returning to Mrs. Buffalo Will’s monologue about the difficulties faced by frontier women in regards to sewing and home decor, I was told to “just get a coloring book or something.”
I left with a 32-page coloring book, Bucky Thompson and the Redskins. While camping with his Boy Scout troop in an indeterminate desert, Bucky, curious by nature, wanders off and gets lost in the Mystery Canyons. While filling his canteen at a stream, Bucky is befriended by a Native American boy, Little Eagle. Taken back to Little Eagle’s village, Bucky is immediately adopted by the elders (all of whom are named for a size and an animal) and adopted into the tribe. Bucky learns about the tribe’s traditions, their daily life (hunting, fishing, huddling together around small fires for warmth) and the overall good times experienced on a government-sanctioned reservation. In the end, Bucky, nicknamed Little Squirrel, is found by his troop leader and promises (because Native Americans put a lot of stock in the promises of someone in uniform) to visit Little Eagle next year.
Sure, it was just a coloring book, but Bucky Thompson gave my dad a renewed interest in our frontier heritage. Well, not our family’s frontier heritage, as no Calahan had stumbled into any of America’s bars until 1906, but our heritage as US citizens.
We were now determined to see a famous monument, one that stood as a symbol of America’s Manifest Destiny and Jacksonian lust for land. It would mean one more day of traveling, but as my dad said, “We owe it to the old west.”