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Across the Fence: Class of ’67, last remnants of home
May 09, 2013 M. Timothy Nolting   

Read more by M. Timothy Nolting

Courtesy photo - The abandoned Nortonville Public School

This past week I made an unplanned trip back home. I say home but actually, my home is no longer there. My home place was abandoned and burned down decades ago when the bank foreclosed on a family Ag business gone bad. Northeast Kansas is the region I call home and it is there that I spent my first 25 years. Anxious for new beginnings I jerked loose of my roots and transplanted myself ‘out west’ in the long evening shadows of the Rocky Mountains.

After high school I literally helped to pave my own future path when I worked building wash-checks and bridges on an unfinished section of Interstate 70 from Brewster, Kansas to the Colorado line. I gave college the proverbial ‘college try’ and failed miserably in the first go-round. It would take me a few more years of maturity and self-evaluation before I knew what direction I would take my life although I would still take a couple of wrong turns.

It seems that I always knew that I would not stay near Nortonville, Kansas. From the time I entered high school I made a conscious effort to lose the Kansas twang that pinpoints and stereotypes the country bumpkin’s of the Missouri River Valley. My wife Deb claims that when I’m somewhat tired, or perhaps a bit lazy and unaware, she can detect a little of the old Kansas-boy lingo in my voice. I’m not ashamed of my beginnings but neither am I ashamed of my hard-earned education.

But I’m getting off track, so back to the unplanned trip. My dad turned 90 years old this past October and his health has steadily declined since. Frequent dizzy spells and blackouts have left him bruised and confused since doctors had been unable to pinpoint the cause. A recent episode required an ambulance and well trained EMT’s quickly discovered the source of his problems. In less than 24 hours Dad was diagnosed, prepped and implanted with a life-changing pacemaker. His first week was a little on the rough side and antibiotics had left his immune system in shambles. It got to the point where he told my sister that he didn’t think he was going to pull through this one. That’s when I decided to make the trip.

I arrived at the nursing home in Nortonville in the late afternoon. Because of the bacterial infection that had invaded him, I had to suit up in a surgical gown, latex gloves and mask. The sanitary barrier made our greeting seem a bit cold and sterile. But Dad was in good spirits and I could tell right away that he planned to fight this setback. Being under quarantine we had supper together in his room and we visited until he was ready to turn in for the night.

The next morning I returned to the nursing home, went to his room and gave him a long, good-morning hug. (Without the gown, gloves and mask) We talked the morning away visiting about family, friends and memorable events. We covered the health and well being and current events of children and grandchildren. We talked of summer haying and winter feeding, calving, drought, fire, days gone by and progress. We talked of past, present, future and eternity. And he told me once again of his first and only love, the first and only girl he ever kissed, the girl that was my mother. This was the story that I had heard, for the first time, a little less than a year ago just after his first love was buried. He still loves her and I think he tells her so nearly every day.

After lunch Dad was scheduled for physical therapy, a bath and then a nap. I stayed until the nurses ran me out and promised to return later. With a couple of hours to spare I decided to take a walk around the town that I hadn’t truly looked at for over 45 years.
I walked up the alley behind the grocery store where I worked after school and weekends during my high school years. The store is closed now, just like all the other main street establishments. The bank, where I opened my first savings account, is gone. The drug store and soda shop is boarded up and empty. The café is dark and lifeless with windows painted over and a padlock on the door. The old tavern is still there, its neon ‘Miller on Tap’ sign fluttering an uncertain ‘OPEN’ although there were no lights on inside. The narrow, weather worn door looked downright unfriendly and I had no urge to go in.
At the city park I stopped at the recently built veterans memorial, an inlaid patchwork of engraved bricks honoring those Nortonville heroes’ that had served. I found my grandfather, ‘Fredrick Nolting Pvt. U.S. Cavalry WWI’, my uncle ‘E.R. Zeek Pharm. Mate U.S. Navy WWII’ and scores of other known and unknown names. I walked past the lot where the beautiful stone structure, that was the Union Pacific Depot, was torn down in the early seventies to make room for a tennis court and shook my head, once again, at the senseless sacrifices made in the name of progress. I would wager that the number of people in Nortonville that ever played tennis would fit comfortably in a VW Beetle.

I walked to the abandoned building that was Nortonville Public School. Built in 1936 it was, according to the brass plaque, an emergency project of the Conservation Corps. I don’t recall the exact year that it closed, but I think it was in the early seventies. After twelve years in that building, from first grade to senior year, I graduated with seventeen classmates in 1967. Of those seventeen classmates I was the only one that didn’t stay in Nortonville.

As I walked around the building, saddened by broken windows and crumbling stonework, I remembered the locations of every piece of missing playground equipment. I remembered the missing evergreens that lined the sidewalk and the globe-topped pillars that had stood guard at the sidewalks entrance. There was the towering slide, the giant-strides, the merry-go-round, swings and teeter-totter. I watched, in my memories, as my best friends Danny and Steve pushed the merry-go-round faster and faster until our girlfriends screamed, “Stop!”

In the back, by the wood shop, I was fortunate to find the owner at the door. After introductions and a brief explanation of why I was snooping around, I asked if I could go inside the building and was delighted to get permission and a flashlight.

Once inside I was filled with a constant bombardment of memories. My first grade room the place where, under Miss Greeley’s desk, I kissed Sherry Johnson and missed recess as punishment. The stairway where we always slid down the bannister, ignoring the warnings of, “Now stop it boys! Somebody’s going to get hurt.” I still carry the scar above my right eye.

There was the stage where the footlights illuminated my performances in school plays and chorus concerts. The hard maple basketball court floor still shone with the layers of varnish where team victories were celebrated, prom dances held and final graduation ceremonies conducted while the school band played Pomp and Circumstance. For the first time ever I stood in the principal’s office without having been called but still I heard Mr. Provost’s booming Boston accent as I stood in humble submission. I found my old locker where sometimes, in my dreams, I panic over having left something behind on that last day of classes. It was empty. And so was the trophy case that once held so many accomplishments made permanent on engraved brass chalices and silver, gold and bronze medallions.

I stood in the now empty library where dark oak bookshelves lined the walls and row after row of study tables were cluttered with homework and textbooks. I stared at the stub of wire above the door where the intercom speaker hung and remembered the solemn announcement that reduced our stoic English teacher, Miss Cordon, to a trembling shudder of tears, “Students, teachers, President Kennedy has been shot.”

I left the crumbling plaster walls, the scattered debris of insulation and suspended ceilings, the starkness of empty rooms and echoing memories and thanked the owner for his generosity. The old building is for sale. For $49,900 dollars one could own 23,000 square feet of storage space crammed full of memories. Empty hallways and classrooms where homecomings will never again be held.

I walked back to the nursing home and found Dad still napping. I watched him sleep and waited. When he woke we visited more and I prepared to leave.

“I won’t be going back out to the farm,” Dad said before I left, “When I get out of here I’ll go across the street to assisted living. I can’t cook and clean and do everything I need to do to take care of myself.”

“I’m okay with that.” He said matter-of-factly. “I want you to take those pictures and the other things we talked about. Okay? I’ll see you again sometime this summer.”
I drove back across Nebraska knowing that Dad was going to be fine. In the back seat was a box of pictures, mementoes and other things we had talked about. They were the last remnants of home.

M. Timothy Nolting is an award winning Nebraska columnist, freelance writer, poet and entertainer. To contact Tim, email; mtimn@aol.com
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