The Small Town Bar at the Edge of My Childhood

In the south east corner of South Dakota sits a dwindling town called Wakonda. I wonder what the town is like these days. In my mind, in my memory, it is an echo, a ghost of days long gone. Wakonda no longer has a presence in my life but it played a major role in my childhood.

When I was kid my paternal grandparents owned a bar in Wakonda. It was called the Sundown Lounge. My brother (half-brother, same dad) and I would visit our dad every other weekend and we would usually go visit our grandparents at the bar. If we visited in the morning it would be just us in the bar and my grandma would make us breakfast. If we visited at night we’d be treated to the usual bar crowd, second hand smoke (this was before smoking bans), and the country music juke box.

It was best visiting the bar at night. Our grandparents would serve us chicken drummies, my favorite. I developed this habit of chewing through the bones. I was told to stop that because it’s bad for your teeth. There was this large rack that hung above the bar where various bags of chips and snack mixes would hang. As a real treat, after climbing up on the barstool with all four limbs, our grandpa would let us pick a bag to have. I always choose Gardetto’s.

The Sundown Lounge also had a pinball machine and pool table. My brother and I would grab a stool for the pinball machine. If it was a slow night, sometimes our grandpa would drop the balls in the pool table so we could just hit the balls around.

My brother and I could entertain ourselves the entire night in the Sundown Lounge. Never mind the fact children have no business being in a smoke filled bar. Never mind the fact the only reason we were there was so our dad could feed his alcoholism. Never mind the fact our grandparents had to watch over us because our dad’s addiction wouldn’t let him. Never mind the fact our dad would often drink and drive. Never mind, one night, he hit a pothole and lost control of the car, crashing through a fence and into a ditch. Where we had to spend the night at a stranger’s home in the middle of nowhere, while he spent the night in jail.

But the Sundown Lounge wasn’t the only thing for me in Wakonda. Just outside its doors was an entire town of memories.

My maternal great grandmother also lived in Wakonda. She was a stern old religious woman who lost her husband young. She also lived through burying two of her children, one to multiple sclerosis (my maternal grandpa) and another to cancer. But before she had to bury her children and before she passed herself there were the Fourth of Julys.

Every Fourth of July we would gather behind my great grandmother’s house and we would set off fireworks under the night sky. I miss that view, never take for granted a night sky untouched by city lights. My mom’s friends would come along with their own children. My childhood friends. It was an event filled with shenanigans and Midwestern summer foods. We’d run around the summer night setting off fireworks, throwing snappers and doodling in the air with sparklers. And the night ended with my great grandmother setting off a roman candle.

There was this kid that lived next door to my great grandma and sometimes when we were visiting my great grandma I’d hang out with him. We’d mostly play video games, I remember playing some wrestling games. But we also got really intense about trying to solve the puzzles in The Neverhood. Scribbled notes all over the place.

My dad lived in Wakonda for a little bit, giving me a chance to make more friends there when I visited. We played Pokémon cards and Pokémon Stadium. We would run around on summer days getting up to all kinds of trouble. Going to the pool. Getting yelled at by the life guard. I think that was the first time I jumped off a diving board. My dad got a dog named Jack. He was some sort Great Dane mix I think. He was this lovable energetic dog that didn’t like old people because his previous owner was an abusive old man. I tried to bike alongside him with his leash attached to my bike. After the one time I did that, I thought maybe that wasn’t the greatest idea. He ran really fast.

My dad was never much of a hands on parent. I know he loved my brother and I but the truly nice moments between us were few and far between. One weekend it was just him and I. He had to take me back to my mom’s. We got up early in the morning. And it was a perfect spring morning. The temperature was just right, a nice cool crisp morning but not cold enough to need a jacket. That intoxicating dew smell hung in the air as the sun slowly rose to the songs of the birds. The drive was peaceful and quite. It was just nice.

But why am I here? Why am I in Wakonda? It’s because it’s a nostalgic escape. Buried in my mind is this landscape of memories, from before the boundless optimism that can only exist in childhood faded. From before the cruelties of the world and the weight of lived experiences started to drag more and more on me. We should never lose the childhood wonder that drives us to make a better world. But with age it gets harder and harder. It’s this balancing act on a knife’s edge, oscillating between nihilism and trying to maintain hope.

It’s easy for me to get lost in the bitterness and cynicism. But I know there is kindness out there, kindness constantly trying to make the world a better place. I try to surround myself with kind people. The friends I choose are the ones that regardless of their life experiences are still kind. I believe in their limitless potential to make the world a better place wherever they go. They are my reminders to be kind. They are my reminders kindness always exists in the world and we should always be striving to make the world a better place however we can.

I have this sheet from kindergarten, it has prompts you’re supposed to fill out so others can get to know you better. Like “When I grow up I…will be a policeman” (that one hasn’t aged well), or “I hate to eat…peas” (I still don’t like peas). But at the very bottom of the sheet it says “One of the best things about me is…” to which I answered “I’m teaching people to be good.” It seems silly but I keep this sheet around as a reminder. A reminder of what it’s supposed to be about. People choose how to live their lives. Some choose to be cruel, others choose to be apathetic, and others choose to just survive. But we chose this! We chose that our mission in life should be to help people be good. Help make them better. Help make the world better. With no plan or inkling of how to do it! Is this an ambition only a child can have?

Eventually my grandparents sold the Sundown Lounge and shortly after it burnt down. Years later my grandma passed away and my grandpa now lives on a nice farm with my aunt. As the years went on those Fourth of July extravaganzas faded. My great grandmother buried her children and years later suffered a stroke. It’s not easy seeing the cognitive decline in someone that was always so sharp. Not long after she passed too. My dad eventually moved to a nearby city. Jack would be put down because my dad ended up in a place that didn’t allow pets and no one would adopt Jack. I miss him sometimes and I’ll always have a soft spot for big energetic dogs. As the years went on my relationship with my dad deteriorated because we would always end up fighting about his alcoholism. I haven’t spoken to him in years. My brother and I drifted apart as we became very different people. I never stayed in touch with any of the friends I had in Wakonda. So bit by bit my connections to Wakonda were severed until none were left. No reason to ever return. Now, for me, it only exists as a childhood memory.

I sit alone in the bar now. With a warm glass of beer as the light from the setting sun filters through the cheap colored window. It’s silent. I see my younger self run past on their way to play the pinball machine. They turn to look at me. What do I say? Do I say I’m sorry we weren’t always as kind as we should have been? Do I say I’m sorry we cut ourselves off from the world more than we should have? I’m sorry we didn’t do right by you. I’m sorry we failed to live in your spirit. What would my younger self say? Would they even care? Or would they say, the kind of child I was, say it’s okay? That it’s okay to forgive yourself. That it’s never too late to be better. It’s never too late to make the world better. It’s never too late to help teach people to be good. And like that they’re off to play pinball.

I need to leave now. I can’t stay here. It’s nice but it isn’t real, it’s only a memory. It does no good to stay here. It doesn’t hurt here, here in this blissful ignorant childhood. But there is real hurt out there in the world. Real pain we could ignore, real pain we could not care about. But that’s not what they chose. They chose for us so long ago, in the spirit of kindness, what we were going to do with our life. We were going to dig our hands into the messy world and try to make it better. On my way out I turn to look at my younger self one last time, watching them in their focused joy with that pinball machine. This time I’ll do better. This time I’ll make you proud.

I’m Old and I Can’t Stand Cold Weather Anymore

As you get older you find you can no longer do things you could when you were younger. When I was in high school I could eat an entire pack of cheap hot dogs, buns and all, in one go. I could even scarf down a box of mac and cheese with those hot dogs. These days I barely get three hot dogs in before feeling over stuffed. This isn’t a bad thing though, I don’t need to be eating whole packs of hot dogs in one sitting. Reflecting on my childhood winters I’m amazed how much of a beating I could take from the cold and snow. Now when I go out in the winter, I chill much easier. Just like I can’t eat whole packs of hot dogs anymore, I can’t play in the Winter cold like I used to.

I grew up in a place called Sergeant Bluff. It’s a small city in the north-west corner of Iowa. It’s right next to Sioux City, which is where I usually tell people I’m from because there’s a higher chance you’ve heard of Sioux City than Sergeant Bluff.

The winters of my youth were consistent with some variation. Some years would have heavier snowfalls than others. But on the whole, Winter was that old reliable friend that visited every year.

Sergeant Bluff is technically a city but it’s weird to call it one. I could probably bike from one end to the other within an hour or less. I was raised by a single mom who needed to leave for work before I needed to leave for school, and apparently I was too close to the school to use the bus system, even though I lived on the other side of town. So I would either bike or walk to school. Obviously I would walk in the winter.

Winter molded me during those walks. We became close companions, Winter and I. I grew to weather Winter’s fierce cold. I rarely walked to school wearing more than jeans, a cheap winter coat, and a pair of gloves. If it was a particularly windy or cold day I might have a hat and face covering. On the coldest of days I would arrive with thighs like icicles that would take time to thaw once I reached my destination.

But my relationship with Winter didn’t end with me freezing my ass off walking to and from school. What childhood is complete in the MidWest without snow ball fights, building snowmen, and building snow forts?

And this is where my true hubris with Winter really shines. Rarely did I ever wear things like snow pants. I played in the snow with nothing more than a trusty pair of jeans. This was mostly down to the randomness of youth. Most of the time my winter fun would come about while walking home from school with friends or if I was hanging out at someone’s house.

If I was walking home with friends there was always the chance of a snowball fight. Especially if the snow was just right. That right combination of fluff and stickiness. These were spontaneous events and often enough I didn’t have the right gloves. About half the time I would just throw snowballs without gloves.

And do you think a no school day would keep me safe from Winter’s embrace? It didn’t. Even when school was canceled I would venture out and walk to hang out with my friends and the mischiefs of youth would follow.

I don’t remember if what followed was from a walk home or if I was already hanging out at my friend’s house. There was plenty of snow already on the ground and some more had started to come down. With nothing but jeans and a standard pair of gloves I went out to play in the snow, we built a little fort and crawled around in it. It was late afternoon and we were out there for about an hour or so. The sun was almost completely set before we stopped. I then walked home. I don’t remember feeling the cold. But when I got home my jeans were soaked in melted snow. I was very comfortable with Winter.

Ah, to frolic in the winter season as I used to. But things change, I grew up. I stopped having the time and space to play in the winter like I used to. I learned to drive, got a car. I was no longer forced to endure the cold. I became unaccustomed to the cold. Now whenever I go out into the cold of Winter I can’t stand it so much. Gone are those days when I could spend time outside and not be bothered by the cold passing through my laughably inadequate outfit for the season. I laugh now in my old age of thirty-one and think about how times have changed. I’ve grown old and can’t stand the cold no more.

But as I think about these changes I also think about how, oddly, Winter has changed too. It’s hard to describe, Winter as we know it is still there. Every year there is some snow, some ice, and some cold. And there are still blizzards. Just a feeling though, a feeling in my bones, that Winter has slowly changed. Winter’s reliable ebb and flow has wobbled a bit.

Winter I’m the mortal here! I’m the one that’s supposed to wither and die in the blink of an eye! Whole generations pass before you! Winter, my old friend, why do you look so tired? I never know when you’re coming or going anymore. And you never stay as long you used to. I know there were epochs on this world when you ruled it all and others when you just slept and let it be. Is this what it’s like before you go to sleep again? We get slow and tired too before we enter our eternal sleep. But you get to wake up again. Will any of our children be there when you wake up? Will anything of this world be around or will it all be new? The land I belong to has always known you. I should not be awake while you sleep.

Winter has changed, is changing, we know it is. Climate change is changing the world around us faster and faster each day. Every year we are seeing new record high temperatures. And global temperatures continue to rise. Winter will be with us for the foreseeable future but it will be become more chaotic. Our failure to tackle climate change is and will continue to sow chaos into every aspect of our world.

As I’ve grown older, environmentalism and tackling the challenges climate change brings has become more and more important to me. It isn’t easy any day. It’s become a balancing act of cynicism and hopelessness against trying to maintain optimism and fighting for the future.

When I remember the Winter of my youth it is coupled with a sense of carefreeness and boundless optimism that can only come from youth. The cold didn’t bother me because I was having too much fun! Every kid should have that. But as the negative effects of climate change creep ever more into our world, the chances for children to experience that lessens.

Famine due to the destruction of food sources, loss of home due to natural disasters, dealing with being a climate refuge, experiencing the violence around you as desperation leads to fighting over resources, experiencing extreme weather conditions. The list could go on and on. But it all leads to the loss of childhood that all should get to experience.

The loss of Winter. Nothing more than a memory moving further and further away. The loss of childhood glee, becoming harder and harder to pass on.

Winter I’m sad to see you go and I don’t like what’s coming over the horizon.

My Life With Food – Growing Up

I love food. Not just stuffing my face with it. Food and food culture are a foundational part of the human experience. Sit two groups of people down, who don’t speak the same language or know anything about the other. Have them trade meals and they would gain just as much as having a conversation. Food is a language in of itself. Over the years I have developed a better understanding of food and food culture and what it means to people and their identity. How they live and their relationship to the rest of the world. From time to time I’ll do an article about my experiences, thoughts, or philosophy of food. Here I’ll start at the beginning of my relationship with food.

I grew up in a family that knew its food. My grandparents on my dad’s side ran a farm. My grandpa raised cows and chickens. Once in a while he would bring my dad those big blocks of cheese. Or pounds of meat from a slaughter. My dad moved into the city and I really only ever ended up on the farm during the holidays. But I always got to experience the fruits of their labor.

My dad’s family always did these traditional mid-western family meals for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Thanksgiving belonged to my aunt and Christmas belonged to my grandparents. I’m going to focus on Christmas because my emotions involving food are more associated with Christmas than Thanksgiving. The main dish for Thanksgiving and Christmas had always been turkey. But at some point I said we should have fried chicken for Christmas. I don’t remember how old or how serious I was but my grandma obliged. Every Christmas forward we would have fried chicken.

When I got the chance I enjoyed watching my grandma cook. One year she showed me you could keep a pot of boiling water from boiling over with a wooden spoon. It’s a simple piece of knowledge but it’s one that means so much because it’s wrapped in an emotional blanket.

My grandma passed away a few years ago. I still miss her. I wasn’t there the last couple of Christmases she hosted. I had moved further away and retail is a bitch when it comes to taking time off for the holidays. But she carried on making that fried chicken. I’m a bit stoic with my emotions and I don’t know if I ever let her know how much a simple Christmas dinner meant to me. She changed the way we ate simply because her grandson asked her to. She didn’t have to. I don’t know why but that meant a lot to me. Christmas for me the last few years has had a melancholy aftertaste. I think about the days we sat around the table digging into the food she made. Pouring out the candy in our stockings stuck to the wall.

I still haven’t joined my dad’s family for Christmas. Things move forward, things change. I have had the pleasure of joining them for Thanksgiving but the last couple of Christmases I’ve spent with my fiancé’s family. Christmas isn’t the same but it doesn’t need to be. Thanksgiving dinner isn’t even the same. That too has evolved over the years. But there is still great tasting food all around so it’s all good.

As I write this I realize just how much I associate food with my grandparents. When I was young my grandparents owned a bar. Apparently I called it the “free food place”. If my brother and I came in the morning my grandma would be in the kitchen making us breakfast. Sometimes grandpa would let us have a bag chips from the selection hanging over the bar. If we came at night I would always get chicken drummies. Days weren’t always easy. My parents struggled for financial survival and their own personal demons. Things that flew over my head at that age. But there were always these moments food could comfort.

One final note on this set of grandparents and food. I don’t remember when it became a ritual but every time my brother and I visited our dad, my grandparents would come on Sundays with a box of doughnuts. We would sit there chowing down on doughnuts while they drank coffee. We would catch up. My brother and I would be ourselves. These days too disappeared. I stopped visiting my dad during high school. The only times when I would see my grandparents after this would be during holidays or if they decided to visit the local Perkins where I lived.

I generally think of my mom’s side of the family more as sweet makers. My grandma made cakes for a living. She can cook other things too, but cakes or other baked sweets is what I’ve always associated with her. I think the other food thing I associate with my grandma, besides cake, is the family reunions she would take me to. Her extended family would gather every year at a lake. There would be food and summer activities. There was a lake to swim in. One year I got a tick that refused to drink my blood or drop off. The food was your standard mid-western potluck food. Various forms of fruit salads. Noodle or slow cooker dishes.

I don’t remember much about the food my great-grandmother made but there are a couple of food related things that have stuck with me. She lived in a small mid-western town. She canned a lot of her own vegetables. She also had a rhubarb patch. And I love rhubarb. And apples. She also had an apple tree.

Now for the food I grew up with day to day. I don’t remember much about the food my mom would regularly make. I have memories of hamburger helper and tuna noodle casserole. We were lower middle-class and didn’t have the money for anything too expensive. But we had what we needed.

One food ritual I remember fondly is every two weeks we would order Godfathers pizza. These were the weeks my mom got paid and we would treat ourselves. Godfathers has always remained my favorite fast food pizza. I also worked there my senior year of high school. I say it’s because I think it really does taste better than all the others but maybe it’s just an emotional attachment to those moments. Nothing beats chowing down on pizza and watching Red Dwarf and Doctor Who on Iowa Public Television.

Another food ritual we had might explain my preference for Burger King over McDonalds. Every other weekend my mom would take me to spend the weekend with my dad. On the way there we would drive through Burger King. It became a ritual treat in the same way Godfathers was.

Until my senior year in college it was just my mom and I. She tried dating and had a partner or two but they never worked out. It’s not easy being a single mother, especially in your 20s. But she worked hard to make sure I had a roof over my head and food in my belly. She was usually gone in the morning before I left for school and didn’t get home until a couple hours after I did. I learned to fend for myself food wise as early as I could.

And my mom gave me the freedom to experiment with food, even when it resulted in a destroyed kitchen. In one of my earliest attempts at fried chicken I coated the chicken in powdered sugar instead of flour. I thought the flour was a little funny but didn’t think too much about it. My mom got home as I was frying and pointed out my mistake. We finished frying what we had, with uneven results. Some of the pieces we were able to cook all the way through. The skin ended up with a nice BBQ taste but sometimes the meat wouldn’t cook all the way before the skin started getting burnt crispy.

In high school I stopped eating school lunch. I played it off with others as not needing it but it wasn’t something we couldn’t afford at the time. I could have probably gone back on school lunch at some point but I had gotten used to not eating lunch. Instead when I got home from school I would load up on sandwiches. Or other foods I could readily make. Like hot dogs or macaroni and cheese.

My dad would almost always make the food when I went to visit him. He would make fried chicken a lot, much to annoyance of my brother who grew to hate it for a while. My dad would make other staples, like sloppy joes. I do have one negative memory when it comes to my dad and food.

I wanted to make something for the pastor of the church we went to. I decided I wanted to serve tuna noodle casserole. My mom had prepped some stuff so I could just combine things and put it in the oven. But I didn’t get the chance. I was off doing something else and my dad took it upon himself to make the tuna noodle casserole. He didn’t think it was a big deal. I was pissed and upset. I tried holding it in. I’m still annoyed about it to this day.

It’s hard to recount my entire journey with food. I think most people would struggle to. I’ve tried to cover the major beats I had with food while growing up. My ties with food were deeply personal and familial but I didn’t associate food with a cultural aspect. It wouldn’t be until later in life I would understand the cultural dimension food. I recognize the food I grew up with was part of a particular culture. And while I have branched out there is a certain comfort in those foods I grew up with.

What I Learned From Ghost Hunting

When I was a freshman in high school Ghost Hunters premiered on SyFy. Until then I had not been exposed to the more methodical approach to the paranormal. I grew up on ghost stories and some of those stories included people who would chase them down. Ghost Hunters introduced me to what at the time I considered a more realistic and logical approach to the paranormal. I couldn’t resist the urge to try and be a part of that world.

haunted house with Ghost Hunters logo

Throughout high school and my early college years there were sporadic attempts to integrate ghost hunting into my life. There were two attempts to form a ghost hunting group with some of my friends. Neither attempt went very far. Cases and investigations were few and far between. After the first couple of investigations my first lesson was ghost hunting is actually quite boring. Working to keep yourself under control, not freaking out over every little thing your nights become less being chased by scary ghosts and more like this:

“Dude what was that?”

Friend looks around.

“Car just drove by. Its lights came through the window.”

“Oh, I’ll make a note of it so we know what it is on our cameras. Want some more coffee?”

Not to say there weren’t fun and exciting times. There were experiences that I would say were legitimate paranormal experiences. Unfortunately these experiences are barely supported by pictures, video, and audio. They are even less supported by the other supposed evidences of ghost hunting. As I thought more and more about this conflict between my own experiences and legitimate evidence I learned my second lesson.

I came to realize that in ghost hunting/paranormal investigating there are an unbelievable amount of assumptions made. A lot of ghost hunters can be hesitant about commenting on the exact nature of ghosts but they will have no issue with saying EMF fluctuations, radiation, temperature drops, etc. are evidence of ghosts. But why? When did anyone ever capture a ghost and discover that they affect the environment this way? And even if some did, by what mechanism and why? At the same time I was asking myself these questions I also learned there was a lack of knowledge in how to properly measure and interpret these various pieces of evidence in the community. Even more so there was frighteningly lack of knowledge on how various elements of the environment influenced the readings. Ghost hunting teams were inadequately trained to tackle the subject of their research. I learned and decided I should approach the paranormal more like psychology, trying to understand the paranormal as a living relationship with human beings. I become less concerned with finding hard evidence to prove the existence of ghosts and more with how the dead affected the living.

I still believe in ghosts and all manner of strange things. I just don’t think we are at a point conceptually and technologically to approach the supernatural world the way ghost hunters attempt to. About half way through college due to various factors the ghost hunting group my friends and I tried to form fell apart. Since then I have had little desire to try and form such a group again. The closest I came was shortly after I graduated college I was approached by someone I had gone on a hunt with. He wanted my help in putting together a more rigorous and scientific ghost hunting group. Unfortunately he got laid off from his job shortly after approaching me and had to back out to deal with his employment and financial issues.

Does this mean I’ll never ghost hunt again? I’m not done. If anyone were to ever ask me to go on a ghost hunt I’d be there right away with a camera and an audio recorder. I’m never too far from the supernatural. I still experience it regularly through private spiritual/occult practices. Through ghost hunting I learned to be less concerned with finding hard scientific evidence for such things and more how the subjective experiences affect and influence the living. I realized we didn’t know enough about what were researching and we probably didn’t have the technology to properly investigate it. But that doesn’t mean such things aren’t still affecting people. Some hauntings cause people to live in dread. I learned that what is really important is how the living and the dead relate to each other.