Each May school would end and everything Timber Lake was at your beck and call all day every day. Too old now to remember exactly when it all started, the best I can do is wrap some tales of summer fun into a 3 year window that covers the summers of my 8, 9 and 10 year old years. Golden summers at an innocent age, I can’t remember ever being bored. I was too young to realize that there could possibly be something beyond Timber Lake other than the Ben Franklin in Mobridge. Each day, it was simply a matter of climbing out of the bottom bunk in our two bedroom 10 x 50 trailer residing in Paul and Emily Goins’ trailer court on the southeast corner of town and deciding where to start.
It often began with a little Captain Kangaroo on our black and white TV set that had all of two channels while I ate my traditional morning bowl of ice cream. Being the baby of the family and in a single parent household, it took little effort to get some ice cream for breakfast. It was all a matter of timing it right because mom couldn’t argue or she would be late for work. When she gave up trying, it became automatic to fill up the measuring cup with a little Cass Clay vanilla and to top it off with some Hershey’s syrup heated over a gas stove flame in its tin can container. A little stirring got you a chocolate desert to fill your belly while the rabbit once again tricked the Captain and Green Jeans out of the carrots.
Beth Kraft (Schweitzer) would show up to babysit those 8 and 9 year old years. It wasn’t possible to get too far from the house and definitely not out of the neighborhood. It really didn’t matter though. We had a supply of Tonka trucks, farm animals and army figures that required our attention outside. We would set up fences, farms and roads in the dirt around and under our trailer through one of the openings in the skirting. Other times we would get together some of the kids in the neighborhood such as Steve Thares, Kelvin Lawrence, David Lawrence, and Kelly Thompson and get some spoons out of the kitchen drawer to construct holes, caves and battlefields in the dirt bank next to the road at the end of the Thares driveway and just across from Paul Goins’ Quonset appliance warehouse. I am confident I could dig there today and come up with silverware and toys with little effort.
When confined in the house, there was always Johnny West and the gang. Johnny West was an 11 inch bendable western “action” figure. I emphasize action because Johnny was no Barbie Doll. He was hard “manly” plastic with a bull durham tag hanging from his pocket. He came with a six shooter that fit his hand like a glove yet could be separated and slid into the holster on his belt. Other accessories included a cowboy hat, neckerchief, vest, Winchester rifle, coffee pot, frying pan and a chest with three separate sacks of gold. Johnny’s horse was named Thunderbolt. Thunderbolt had a removable bridle, saddle blanket, saddle with cinch and saddle bags. The icing on the cake was the fact that there was also a rifle sheath you could attach to the saddle. On foot or horseback, Johnny was packin’ and ready for trouble. Trouble came in the form of Chief Cherokee, Geronimo and the evil gambler Sam Cobra. Cobra had a derringer hidden in his belt, a dagger that came out of his cane and dynamite in his carpet bag. Johnny West had to have one hand on his gun and an eye out for danger when this character was around. Friends Johnny could count on to watch his back included George Armstrong Custer and Captain Maddox. Alone with only my imagination, fist fights, gun battles and horse chases could go on for hours in the 8×10 entry way attached to our trailer. No “dolls” were allowed. If a figure could not bend an elbow or knee to sit a horse, they surely could not hold a gun to defend camp and thus were banished back to my sister’s room where the “dolls” belonged. It was “men” only in the entry way because my west was fraught with danger and only the toughest would survive.
The best part of the couple years that Beth babysat for us was going down to the #2 dam on the north edge of the Little Moreau Park to go swimming. Looking back, it seems like we were in the water virtually every day. She had to be the best babysitter in the world because we never had to beg her to go. I was too young to catch on to the fact that there were always kids her age in the water already when we arrived. Boys and girls included, I just assumed that everybody simply went to the dam all summer long. Many years later when I became interested in the opposite sex I had one of those light bulb moments and then understood why all the high school boys and girls ended up in the same place.
Whatever the reason, we were in the water and it was absolutely the best time of the summer. We would tiptoe barefoot down the hill on the hot sand trail and cross a rickety old walking bridge to what was then the grass beach to sit at. The drop off was quite a ways out and thus the area was safe for us small kids to dive for rocks or push each other off whatever tractor tire inner tube was available. There were the occasional dunking matches which helped you “train” to hold your breathe and appreciate a good pull of oxygen when you finally made it to the surface. Squirt gun fights and splashing water battles were other ways of keeping busy while turning that pale white school skin into a nice summer tan.
Beth and her older friends would swim over to the big tree on the opposite shoreline, climb up and dive off. The small kids were not allowed to go into water over our heads so we were forced to watch. I can testify as an eye witness to Beth breaking off the best diving branch on that tree. Luckily, she didn’t get hurt and only took some teasing from her friends. I can also remember the first time I took off and swam to the tree. Imagining the water below to be hundreds of feet deep, I swam for all I was worth until I reached the safety of the tree. Chest swelling with pride, it was a rite of passage as I had broken the boundaries of my old world and crossed to what had been a far and distant shore. In reality, it was probably a 30 second swim across 50 feet of water. It would be another year or two before I went up the tree and jumped off.
Another great swimming memory happened one early evening hanging out with Kelly Thompson down at his dad’s grocery store. It was 5 or 6 pm on a hot evening and we desperately wanted someone to take us for an evening swim. Boyd was busy and giving us all the reasons we really didn’t need to go. As luck would have it, Brad Ross, 15 or 16 years old at the time, was just finishing his day as a stock boy for Thompson. Brad volunteered to take us and Boyd gave him the keys to the trusty blue van that would become a TL icon over its many years around the grocery. How cool was that to a small kid? I not only got my first ever ride in the back of a van but some “big” kid I didn’t even know was willing to go out of his way for free no less. The magic continued because when we arrived nobody else was there and the water was calm and inviting. I think everybody won that day. Kelly and I got the water we were looking for, Brad got a relaxing swim after a day’s work and Boyd went home with no kids yipping at his heels. To this day when I hear someone say, “Ross”, I instantly am in the back of that blue van and walking down to the cool still water.
Because of all the swimming, I think my mother insisted that I take swimming lessons each summer. This involved meeting behind the high school early in the morning with swimming trunks and a snack wrapped into a beach towel waiting for the school bus that would take us to the Mobridge swimming pool. I remember that there were so many kids then that it required two buses. The drivers I recall were John Caswell and Linus Keller. While the ride down was often quiet due to the early hour, it was a wild melee on the return trip but they rarely said a word. They would deliver us before 8 am and return us back home around noon.
As hot as the summer days were, those early mornings jumping into the pool were bitter cold. I know there wasn’t any ice in the water but it had to be close. Even when you didn’t know how to swim, you wanted to get moving because partially drowning still kept you warmer than hanging on the edge. Yes, we did know ways to warm up the water and yes, they happened on a regular basis. At some point when I was older I read a sign that said, “Don’t pee in our pool, we don’t swim in your toilet.” Another light bulb moment as wide eyed it dawned on me what they meant.
Swimming lessons were a progression of learning the proper strokes and moving up into the higher classes. I loved the water but was not blessed with the coordination necessary to get the arms and legs in sync as fast as friends like Kelvin Lawrence, Keith (Speed) Scott, Steve Aberle and Wayne Aberle. Each year I would get stuck on the frog crawl which involved lying on your back sliding your hands up your sides to your armpits then straight out and back down to your side while keeping your thighs together and rotating your lower legs in a circular motion so as to propel yourself across the water without hardly breaking the surface. I got very good at the American crawl and side stroke while getting held back in the intermediate class for a couple of years perfecting the frog crawl which I swore not to do ever again when I left the Mobridge pool for the last time. I passed the intermediate level that last year finally conquering the dreaded frog crawl but too late to achieve the highly regarded life guard status. I had the best snicker bar and lukewarm Shasta cola ever on the bus ride home that day. I have been swimming to the tree and beyond with confidence ever since.
One day in those early 1970 years, Art Rehn, game warden and trailer court neighbor, and Paul Anderson, Grandpa Rusty’s brother, gave me the gift of mobility every kid achieves at some point. It was a used bike that they had put together with pieces from somebody’s junk yard of discarded bikes. I had no clue and didn’t care where it came from. Vividly, I can remember Art with his shirt sleeves rolled up above his forearms and Paul in his ever present bib overalls with chewing tobacco lodged in the hair on his face and painting a corner of his mouth. Both were smiling as they presented me with a classic banana bike with handle bars swooping upwards and the traditional long slender seat. The back tire was wider than normal and completely slick like a race car’s rear tire. It had no kickstand but picking it off the ground and jumping on was actually much quicker. No more walking around town, I had wheels and because of some earlier lessons on a borrowed bike with Uncle Adrian Crance I had the ability to use it. It wasn’t the three speed chopper style brand new bike like best friend Scott Cudmore got for a birthday but I had wheels and could at least keep him in eyesight. Plus, at that time, the younger Kelly Thompson only had a tricycle so there was at least one friend down the transportation ladder from me.
I can only imagine the miles I put on that bike crisscrossing town in search of the next summer adventure. A new baseball card and wooden clothespin added noise on occasion. My $5 Montgomery Ward baseball glove hung proudly from the handlebar while I rode around looking for the next baseball game holding onto the best wooden bat any kid ever had (that bat and glove reside in my office today). When the game or adventure was over, that bike always got me home again. Other than the occasional shoe lace or pant leg in the chain or random wreck from going too fast, it was a reliable companion for a good number of years. When I eventually outgrew it, I sold it to cousin, Shannon Dikoff, for the tidy sum of $8 which was enough to purchase a new George Armstrong Custer Johnny West “action” figure WITH his horse Comanche. Still one of the best deals I ever brokered.
My Grandma, Betsie Schaefer, was the Dewey County librarian and each summer she had a reading program for kids at the library. From her and this program, I gained a love for reading books. I no longer remember the prizes but I fondly remember the trips to the library to get new books. I would read at the library, at home and sometimes Kelvin Lawrence and I would fashion a tent out on the porch with a blanket and some string to read outside. Saturday story hour was always a great summer event. Grandma’s voice was classic and she didn’t allow for any messing around so you could always hear. After the stories, kids would gather at the library tables for an hour or two of building with the buckets of legos she had available. This time was a bit noisier but there wasn’t too much traffic in the library anyway. Trading stories while trying to beat your friends to the best available blocks, a kid could quickly burn a few summer hours.
A love for reading led me to the comic book rack at McNeely’s store downtown. They had a revolving rack and each month it was updated with the latest issues. I financed my addiction by collecting pop bottles on the street and selling them at the grocery store. Spiderman, Batman, Superman, Captain American and Sgt Fury & the Howling Commandoes were my favorites. It might take a few issues but the hero always won and the bad guy was always defeated although he would somehow come back several months later. The boundaries of Timber Lake became much larger when you let yourself go into the imaginary world of these comic book characters. How could you ever get bored when all you had to do is pick up a comic book?
One month, after the new issues came out, the pop bottle market was not the best and I found myself short 25 cents for the latest Spiderman issue. My brother had a coin collection of quarters and I figured that I had helped collect a few of them so I might as well pop one out and bike on down to McNeely’s to see what happened to Spidey that month. I did and can still see the look on young Jerry McNeely’s face as he checked the date (he was one of the town collectors too) and discovered he had a new addition to his collection. I didn’t like how I felt and never did that again. The lesson learned that summer day was that if it doesn’t feel right, it likely is not the right thing to do.
The other place for a kid to spend his money in Timber Lake was Thompson’s Grocery. Walk in the front door, turn right and you found an 8 year old’s treasure trove. Like McNeely’s, Thompson’s had a revolving four sided rack that carried what was then the greatest selection of toys I had ever seen. It was 5 or 6 feet high and held squirt guns, army figures, cowboy & Indian sets, farm animals, Hot Wheels, rubber balls and paddles, marbles, plastic sliding puzzle games, rubber band airplanes, and seemingly so much more. Sometimes I would spin that rack forever while clutching a dollar or a few coins. Other times, it would be straight to the airplanes or guns depending on what was the hot neighborhood activity at the time. No mall to walk, no internet to surf, I had only this wonderful rack of toys to spin in total awe and it was the whole world at the time. Even if in the store with mom for a quick half gallon of milk, I still had to take a quick spin of the rack in the event something new was added that I hadn’t seen before.
Gravitating back towards home at the end of the work day, it was always a treat when neighbor Coralyn Guffey would be outside exercising her dog after her day of work at Moreau-Grand Electric Cooperative. I was probably told where she worked a number of times but as a kid, it never did sink in(little did I know I would start my working career there). What was special then about Coralyn was her dog, Pooh. Pooh was a former circus dog. Coralyn could get Pooh to run circles while jumping sticks held in the air or hoops. It was a wonderful 3-4 minute circus that made a kid feel like he had a very special neighbor.
Paul Goins’ Quonset sat behind our trailer and he dealt in appliances. These appliances all came in large cardboard boxes that were even bigger to a small kid. I was mostly too bashful to ask Paul for a box but when mom got home from work I could get her to check his supply. Paul always came through. Armed with a steak knife from the kitchen, I carved many a cardboard washing machine box into shelters and forts with doors and windows. Sometimes I would squeeze one or two into the house for use with Johnny West and the boys. Mostly though, they were used outside in the summer. You haven’t lived until you have battled, ate and slept in a cardboard box structure you built all on your own. I know we killed some grass and I know we probably scattered cardboard all over the trailer court but I have no memory of Paul or Emily Goins ever complaining. It is also a mystery as to whoever disposed of the used and worn boxes. They would simply be there one day and gone later after we had ignored them for awhile.
Occasionally, Mom would come home from work and not want to cook for three hungry whining kids. This was always a rare and special treat because we would knock the day’s dirt off and drive down to Alf’s Café. Alf and Nora Stoick were the husband and wife team that ran this café for many years in the 1960s and 1970s in downtown Timber Lake. I never needed a menu. It was always a hamburger without the pickles and French fries. The bun had the slightest hint of butter on top and the fries were long and crinkly. I can almost taste them in the ketchup today. You could watch Alf put the orders up on the counter and sometimes stop for a few words with mom who had worked there some years earlier. Nora would bring out the Mountain Dew in glass bottles with the plastic cups upside down resting on the spout of the bottle. The bottle had the Hillbilly on the side with the cork shooting through his hat and the slogan on the bottle was “it’ll tickle your innards”. Sitting up straight and minding your manners was an easy task for a meal like that.
After supper, there was plenty more action as the sun went down. The yard games would then begin. Kick the can, hide and go seek, Annie-Annie over were all hotly contested with many kids from around town. Most often, they occurred in the Thares or Lawrence yards as they had lots of space and buildings to navigate not to mention close proximity to Guffey’s truck yard which offered the cornucopia of hiding places. We ran, laughed, fought and got mad at each other then did it all again the next night. I honed my early debating and negotiating skills on many a summer night as I wanted to win as badly as the next kid and wasn’t quite as bashful with a serious game of kick the can on the line.
Summer fun in my West River world of Timber Lake was simply the best in those early pre-teen years. There is not one activity or event to point to. It was a daily way of life that we simply didn’t question. You had family, friends and community. It was all a young kid needed and so much more. Life is what you make of it. I was lucky to have many ingredients that made for a great childhood.