Jeff Hammer: Memories of summer and other things

Growing up, I don’t remember much about the nine months of the calendar year during which I and every other kid my age attended one of the two elementary schools in Lander. With one school located on the north side of town and the other on the south side, the leaders of our school district back them must have been the most practical of people because the names of each school, rightly enough, were North Elementary and South Elementary. 

In the early 1960s, North Elementary was hauled in and put together on a concrete slab in relatively little time. I’m pretty sure when the time came for the school board to decide upon a name for the new school, they did not ask for any input from parents or students, as would happen now, nor did they search for a name of a former president, a local historical personality, or geographical feature. You were either a North kid or a South kid. 

With Main Street being the appropriate boundary between the two districts, I was a North kid, and then I was a South kid and remained so until I entered Lander Junior High School in the fall of 1970.

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As many of our longtime residents of our fair city will recall, Lander at the time was experiencing a huge influx of young families moving to town to take advantage of jobs available at the uranium mines near Jeffery City and at U.S. Steel Corporation’s iron ore mine near Atlantic City, and a school was needed in short order to accommodate all of those future members of the baby boomer generation who followed their parents to Lander in search of a better life.

My parents were no different. We moved to Lander in August of 1962 when my father (and especially my mother) was hopeful of him obtaining employment at the newly opened Atlantic City iron mine about 25 miles south of town. Both of my parents grew up in the small town of Encampment, Wyoming about 60 miles south of Rawlins, and when the chaos of World War II settled down, both were happy to resume the life they expected to live before the war in their own little slice of small-town idyllic Americana…except that it wasn’t.

My oldest sister, Dennis, was born when my father was in England. His task, as a mechanic, was to keep trucks called half-tracks operational for the inevitable invasion of France. My father and Dennis did not meet until she was nearly three years old. At that time, one’s enlistment, or as in my father’s case, his conscription was for the duration of the war, which was much better than the alternative of not surviving the war. Otherwise, my oldest sister would most likely have been stuck with a bunch of half-siblings, my wife would be married to someone else, I would not have had the exquisite pleasure of knowing my daughters, and I would have never had the satisfaction of listening to Chris Stapleton’s voice…bad outcomes all around, if you ask me.

My father returned from Europe without any wounds, but his experience did provide for him an injured back as a result of a truck accident in France after D-Day. Back in Encampment, he did whatever to provide for his family. During her child bearing years, my mother and he produced a half dozen kids which no doubt explains one reason why whatever wasn’t enough. 

Relatives jokingly accused my parents of having two families. My oldest three siblings were spaced about three years apart. Mom and Dad waited seven years after their third child made her appearance and then produced three more boys in about five years. The result of this phenomena is that I have little memory of growing up with my three oldest siblings, but my parent’s “second family” of which I was the middle brother, were nearly inseparable.

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My mother eventually had had enough of “robbing Peter to pay Paul” every month. (She didn’t know an idiom from a metaphor, but she was chock full of little figurative sayings like that, which were shared with me in nearly every conversation we ever had. One of my minor regrets in life is that when I was younger, I didn’t write them down to use with my own children, kind of like passing the torch, if you will, of using colorful language that exactly describes in wonderful phases what one is trying to convey.) 

In any event, they left Encampment early one summer morning to drive the nearly two hundred miles to Lander in search of more lucrative employment, only to find out that his back injury from the war, unfortunately, prevented him from being hired at the iron ore mine. Knowing that returning to Encampment without a job was conceding defeat, and like most folks of his generation, he didn’t give up. Later that day he secured a job as a carpenter building houses in the Sunset Addition.

In my mother’s estimation, it was the best decision for our family they ever made. We continued to scrape by, but at least the bills were paid each month. By 1965, my oldest sister and my oldest brother were out of the house, with my oldest sister transitioning into a marriage doomed from the start and my oldest brother, ironically, after working at U.S. Steel for a year after graduating high school, enlisted in the United States Marines and eventually found himself in Southeast Asia, along with millions of other young American men and women. He never returned to live in Wyoming, instead choosing a military career that took him abroad for much of the twenty-one years he served his country.

My mother returned to work after my younger brother entered the first grade, and contributed even more to the family finances, so much so that in the late 1960’s, after my second sister also married, my parents could afford to buy a small used camper trailer, which finally brings me back around to the first sentence of this column…sort of.

I don’t mean my comment about the nine months of school. The subject of this column was originally meant to be summertime in general and July 4th in particular, but sometime after I started writing, setting the stage for the main topic seemed to become the main topic, and now I’m left with limited space in which to make my point, if there is one.

Growing up, my parents took only one extended vacation that I recall, and that was a driving trip to Minnesota, Iowa, and Nebraska to visit a few of my mother’s twelve siblings, but in the few years our family owned that trailer before my father was injured in a construction accident, we traveled throughout our state fairly extensively by pulling our own motel room behind our 1967 Ford Bronco. My most cherished memories of our use of that little trailer are the days during the July 4th holiday camping at Fiddlers Lake Campground above Lander.

Most always we shared a campsite with cousins from Riverton, but one year my oldest brother, Jim, drove the one thousand miles from Camp Pendleton, near San Diego to spend the holiday with us. He only came to Lander only about every third year, so that year was especially sweet. 

Initially, he brought the Marines with him and spoke to my brothers and me in a tone he used with his colleagues of lesser rank, which bothered me not in the least. Finally, my mother had had enough and chided him in a voice she most often used with me after I heard the words, “Jeffrey Alan Hammer!”

“Knock it off!” she chided him. “Those boys are your brothers, not your recruits. If they need to be ordered around, I’ll do it!” He knocked it off.

Some of my most vivid memories of those times are the days we hiked into and fished a few of the lakes in the Silas Creek drainage. One day at Upper Silas Lake, I spied what looked like a full can of Pepsi someone had previously placed at the water’s edge to keep cool, but had obviously forgotten. Over time, waves caused by the nearly constant wind had pushed it deeper into the lake where it had become lodged between two large rocks just close enough that if I laid on my stomach on one of the boulders that slanted down into the lake and scooched down, I could reach it.

For a ten-year-old nonswimmer, easing the upper half of my body into the icy waters of a high country lake, at the risk of unintentionally sliding down to become completely submerged was a risk that previously I had been unwilling to take. But the day was especially warm and the sweet coolness of a can of soda looked oh so inviting. When I finally was able to fish the darn thing out, the same  little voice that kept pestering me when I was faced with the conundrums of being a kid kept urging me to ask my father’s permission before I used my pocket knife to poke a couple of holes in its top and savor its tasty flavor. (Few readers will probably remember the days when soda came in tin cans, and one needed a can opener to puncture a couple of holes shaped like pizza slices in its top in order to consume its contents.)

This particular day occurred when I was young enough that I sometimes listened to that voice. About two years later, puberty arrived and somehow that voice went conveniently away.

“Dad,” I shouted down the shoreline, “I found a full can of Pepsi that someone forgot. Can I drink it?”

“Does it look like it was left recently?” he wanted to know.

“Well, no. It’s got a little rust around the top and bottom.”

“Better not,” he advised. “Just put a couple of holes in it and drain the can and we’ll take it back to the garbage at the campground.”

“Okay.”

That day was probably the first time I intentionally defied my dad. I put a couple of holes in the can but the soda did not go on the ground. Of course, immediately after consuming the contents of the can, I experienced the onset of guilt because I went against my father’s request, but worse was the expectation that the liquid was somehow tainted and as a result, my blood would soon turn as brown as the rust on the can and shortly thereafter my bone structure would completely seize up. In less than forty-eight hours I would surely be dead.

That night, as I laid beside my older brother, Bob, in the twin bed we shared in the trailer, I kept waiting for the worst to happen. The next morning, after a restless night, I woke up feeling as normal as I ever had. After a week, with no ill effects, I knew I was going to be alright. Secretly, however, I vowed to never disobey my father ever again, the man on Earth I admired most. The stress was just too much.

Two years later, I entered puberty, and my parents, whom I previously felt knew all the answers, became suddenly clueless. Luckily, like most young men throughout history, I survived that confusing period of time, and after a few years, I realized my parents didn’t know all the answers, nor did they pretend to. They, like all good parents, just wanted to transfer the knowledge they had gained through experience to their children just to keep them safe.

Since that day, however, Pepsi has never been my favorite drink.

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