Monthly Archives: September 2014

Jeff AtkinsonYesterday, I attended the funeral of Casper firefighter, Captain Jeffrey Atkinson. The service was beautiful and filled with all the pomp and circumstance befitting a hero. The ceremony included bag pipes, the Shriner’s Calliope Band, the sounding of the last bell, and the presentation of the helmet, badge, and flag to his widow, Kristen and his sons Eddie and Christopf. There were tributes about his bravery, his humor, and his caring ways. He was a firefighter, but more than that he was a husband, father, son, brother, nephew, uncle, cousin, and friend. His family loved him so much, and now cancer had taken him from them. It was a terribly sad time for a lot of people, in the firefighting community and the entire city too.

As I sat there listening to the ceremony, my mind drifted back over the last nine years, and my own encounters with Jeff and the other firefighters. As a caregiver for my parents and my in-laws over the past nine years, there have been more occasions than I care to think about when I would have to call for an ambulance for my loved ones. As most of you know, the fire department is often the first responder on those occasions. Since my husband Bob had been the fire department mechanic for many years, the firefighters knew me, but it wouldn’t have mattered. They weren’t just there because they knew Bob and me, they were there because they care about the people of Casper…or anyone in need.

Jeff and a number of other firefighters came to my rescue on more occasions than I want to think back on. In nine years of caregiving, there have been dozens of times when I had no other choice but to seek help in emergency situations. The firefighters and ambulance personnel were always professional, caring, and gentle with my parents and in-laws, but the firemen always seemed to look beyond just the patient. They saw me…standing there in the middle of it all, trying desperately to stay in control of my emotions long enough to be able to give them the information they needed in order to help their patient…my loved one.

At the time of those calls, I didn’t know if my loved one was going to make it through this. I felt like I was falling into a bottomless pit. Those were the worst moments of my life, and they saw me at my absolute worst. It didn’t matter to them. They saw that I was scared and trying desperately to hold myself together. It was at that point, as the EMTs were taking my loved one out to the ambulance that the firefighters turned their attention to me, asking if I was ok. Of course, that was the breaking point for me, and the tears flowed. Several of the firefighters, including Jeff took it upon themselves to give me the hug I really needed, and the encouragement to go forward and make my way to the hospital to give the information needed to the hospital staff too. I don’t think I could have made it without that hug. A hug might seem like such a small thing, but when your parents are sick and you have to be the one to make all the decisions about their care, it can feel so overwhelming. I felt lost and alone. They showed me that I wasn’t alone after all. With Jeff’s passing, the city of Casper has lost a great firefighter.

Great Great Grandpa Allen SpencerMy great great grandfather, Allen Spencer and my great great grandmother, Lydia Quackenbush Potts Spencer were married on February 22, 1850 in Canastota, New York. It didn’t take them too many years to decide that New York was not where they wanted to be. So, in the spring of 1855, after the birth of their second child, Ida, who was born June 11, 1854, they packed up their belongings and their two children, and headed west. They had their hearts set on Iowa. It would be a long journey, traveling on dirt roads, camping underneath the stars, cooking over a campfire, and often going for days without seeing other people. They would have had to cross rivers with no bridges, traveling for miles sometimes before finding a place where it was safe to take the covered wagon across. Then traveling back to where they had been before. They would have most likely crossed the Mississippi at Prairie Du Chien, which was the only place north of Saint Louis to have a ferry at that time. I imagine that it seemed very odd to be around what seemed like so many people again. Then, probably after a few days, they set off again for their dream home…Iowa. It is unsure if they arrived in Iowa in 1855, or if they wintered in Prairie Du Chien before going on in the spring of 1856, but apparently Iowa was not quite what they expected, because it was not long before the family would again move…this time to Wisconsin. My great grandfather, William was born in Iowa on August 27, 1857, but by the time their next child, Luther was born on May 18, 1858, the family was living in Wisconsin.

Having driven through Iowa recently, I can say that it is pretty flat, and at least to me, not very interesting. I suppose it was a matter of what you were looking for. Farming country wasn’t exactly what this city girl had in mind for life, which is probably why I chose to stay in Wyoming…country enough to be small and city enough to have things to do. Still, Iowa does appeal to a lot of people and in the end, it must have appealed to my great great grandparents again, because Webster City, Iowa would be where my great great grandfather, Allen Spencer would pass away, and where he is buried. My great great grandmother, Lydia Quackenbush Potts Lydia Quackenbush Potts SpencerSpencer would again move on, this time to Fay, Oklahoma, where her sons lived and would pass away there twenty three years after the passing of her husband, Allen Spencer, and after seeing her many grandchildren.

I don’t know if they found the winters in Wisconsin too harsh, the growing season too short, or exactly what drew them back to Iowa, but I guess it was their dream in the beginning and their dream in the end…or at least until Allen’s death. Then maybe Lydia could no longer bear to stay, or maybe she only left because of her sons. I’ll probably never know for sure, but I can relate to being near family…especially after a loss, so that is my guess as to what my great great grandmother would have wanted.

Uncle Bill and BillyLaurie Carlson SteppKids seem to think that they are invincible. I don’t know where they got such an idea, but they often take chances without giving a second thought to how dangerous something might be and whether or not they will get hurt…or worse, killed. It has been the same way throughout time, I think. Recently, while visiting my Uncle Bill Spencer, his son Bill asked him if, while walking across a railroad trestle, they had ever encountered a train. Uncle Bill confirmed that they had, and when asked what they did, he said, “We dropped under the trestle and hung on until the train had gone over.” He said that it really shook. Well, I don’t mind saying that my uncle’s revelation made my blood run cold, but when I later mentioned that to my cousin Laurie Carlson Stepp, she told me that she had done that too, and that I shouldn’t tell her mother about it. Well, Laurie, I don’t think your mom gats to read my stories, so I have kept my promise, I think. Laurie told me that all the kids she knew did that, and never gave a thought to whether or not it might be dangerous. Yes, I’m sure that’s right. Kids don’t think about stuff like that. They are invincible…right?

My dad and Uncle Bill, and possibly even my Aunt Ruth, did the same thing. They never gave it a thought…or not that they would admit. When I think about the trestle they were on when the trains came over, the distance to the ground from there, and the fact that there was only a creek at the bottom of that trestle…I cringe. It might be my extreme dislike of heights, or it could be that hanging under a railroad trestle while a train is going over is…seriously crazy!! Nevertheless, you can’t tell kids how dangerous or crazy something is, because they know everything…right! My dad and my Uncle Bill, I have learned over the years, were certain that they were invincible. They messed around with dynamite, walked on railroad trestles, jumped on the trains even though they had a pass, and countless other stunts that make me cringe, but somehow both lived to tell about it…but I’m quite sure they didn’t tell their mother either.

A lot of the chances kids take in driving their cars can be pretty dangerous too. Things like four wheeling up a scan0011 (3)Railroad Trestle in Holyokesteep hill. I have seen video after video of people rolling their vehicle trying that one. I’ve never tried that, but I can say that I’ve driven my car much faster than I should have. I think I’ll decline to say how fast, because my mother does read my stories every day, and since I have to see her pretty often, I don’t really want her to shoot me. I can say, Mom, that it was only one time, I was 18, and even my friends told me to slow down. After that, I decided that taking that kind of stupid chance with my life and the lives of my friends wasn’t worth any thrill it might have given. Like most kids, I’m wiser now.

Jean Gracy Knox WillWhen I think of my husband, Bob’s 6th great grandmother, Jean Gracy Knox, I always think of Ellen O’Hara…Scarlett O’Hara’s mother, in Gone With The Wind. They lived in different eras, but in many ways, their lives were much the same. I can’t say, for certain, that Jean Knox lived on a plantation, but I do know that like many people in the 1700’s she owned slaves. With that in mind, I have to assume that she ran their home or plantation in much the way that Ellen O’Hara had. I don’t know much about her, of course, but her will seemed to be written by a woman who was used to being in charge. I know that she was a slave owner, because in her will, she mentions what is to be done with a young slave boy and a female slave that she owned. That and the extensive collection of clothing that she left her daughter, Mary indicates that she was a woman of wealth.

It’s possible that her “take charge” attitude came from the fact that her husband passed away fourteen years before she did, and six months before their youngest child was born. She had no choice but to take charge of things. She still had five children under the age of sixteen in her home. I’m certain that her older sons helped her out too, but from what I have gathered from her will, she was very much in control of her life, children, and property. I wish I had a picture of her, but in my mind, she probably looked much like Ellen O’Hara did, in Gone With The Wind. Beautiful, and very ladylike, and yet, she ran the household and even helped out the neighbors when necessary. Of course, I could be wrong on all that, but from what I have read of her will, she knew exactly what she wanted done after her passing. The will appears to have been written just days before her death. They assumed this from the fact that she made her mark on it, and not her signature, even though she could read and write. In looking at the will, of which I only have a word for word copy of the wording as it was written…including all the spelling errors, I at first thought that maybe she couldn’t read and write, but later discovered that it was not written by her. She just dictated it to someone else to write up and then signed it in front of witnesses, much like we would do today in front of a attorney. This could also have been an indication of wealth, and the power that one assumes to have because of it.
John & Jean Gracy Knox
I also know, that Jean was a woman of strong faith. She was a Presbyterian, and most likely left her native Ireland because of disputes between the Presbyterians, also known as Covenanters, and the Church of England. The Knox family is among those who were persecuted because of their religion, and that some had to leave their homes in the middle of the night to escape death. They came to America seeking religious freedom. That in itself would take a person of strong character, and may have been part of what made Jean Gracy Knox into a woman who was well able to handle the things that came her way. Jean’s life was not long, by today’s standards anyway, but in that day and age, she did live a long time, and it is my opinion that she also did a lot of living during her lifetime. I’m sure that I will never really know the whole story of her life, but I will always believe that she was quite a lady.

I just love herWhen I think about how long my son-in-law, Travis Royce has been married to my daughter, Amy…I have to say it is hard to believe. Not that they have stayed together, but rather that it has been that long already. It seems like just yesterday that we were planning their wedding, and now their kids are grown, or close, since Shai graduated this past year, and Caalab graduates this spring. Where have all the years gone? So many things have changed for Amy and Travis. Their children are almost grown, and they are probably looking at being empty nesters before long.
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After all these years, I can honesty say that Travis has made Amy’s life interesting…and fun. He is so quick witted that you never know what he might say. That doesn’t seem to matter to Amy though. She takes all his jokes in stride, and laughs right along with him. To hear Travis talk, Amy is an ultra-abuser…of course, the truth is that Amy is a peacemaker, and wouldn’t hurt a fly. But then, what spouse hasn’t joked that his wife will beat him if he doesn’t get home on time. As long as it’s all in fun…no harm, no foul. As I said, you never know what jokes might come out of Travis’ mouth, but then Amy can go back and forth with the best of then too, so she just shoots it right back at him.

A house filled with laughter is a great place to be, and I have no doubt that the laughter is a large part of what keeps them together. Laughter can be like glue. Of course, you also need love, and love is alive and well in their house too. Amy and Still togetherTravis complete each other. I can’t imagine one without the other anymore. After a while, some people just seem to have been made for each other, and of course, that is exactly what I believe to be the case. I believe that the Lord made them to be each other’s soul mate and other half. There is so much love between them, and it is so obvious that it is there. It shows up in the little things they do for each other, and just the quite touch in passing, but there is also the very demonstrative way that they have with each other. Travis might spontaneously kiss Amy on the cheek or just put his arm around her, simple because she is beside him, and Amy is the same way with him. It is a show of the never ending love they have for each other. Happy anniversary Amy and Travis!! Have a great day!! We love you both!!

Lake Superior MapCaryn Sue Spencer abt June 1956 editedI always liked the fact that I was born in Superior, Wisconsin. It was where my dad was born, and I suppose that could have been part of its charm, but I really think it just seemed exotic or romantic to me. I know that sounds funny, but there is so much history in the area, with a bit of mystery mixed in. The mystery comes from all the shipwrecks in Lake Superior, in my mind anyway. When I think of Lake Superior, my mind always wanders to the shipwrecks that have occurred there, and the fact that Lake Superior, while beautiful, has a dark and dangerous side for any ship caught out on her in a storm…especially a November gale, and especially an early November gale, such as in 1975. When the Edmond Fitzgerald was caught out there in an early gale on November 10th, she sank with all hands lost because it. I remember my Uncle Bill telling me about that storm, years later, and the fact that he was driving around the lake at the time of the sinking. He told me that it was a horrific storm, and he was not surprised to hear of the loss of a ship.

Of course, the shipwrecks are not the only things I find to be exotic and romantic about the Lake Superior area. Smelting at Lake SuperiorThe fact that ships come into the Duluth-Superior Harbor from all over the world and that things that are shipped out of that harbor go all over the world, makes it feel more connected to the world somehow. My cousin, Pam’s husband, Mike Wendling, who worked for the railroad for many years, before retiring, told us that the trains would bring in coal from Gillette, Wyoming and Montana. It is strange to think that the coal we see in railroad cars here is headed for an ore boat on Lake Superior…and then places all over the world.

When I look at some of the pictures of me as a baby, I almost feel a bit like I missed out on some parts of my own babyhood. My sister, Cheryl remembers living there, playing with our cousin, Pam and the neighbor kids…including the last name of her favorites, the Lawlers. I don’t remember them. I was too young. With movies and pictures, I have been able to get a picture in my mind of what my life there must have been like. Most of it was likely spent being a third wheel to my sister and cousin, but it doesn’t look like they minded me too much. I was probably too little to be very bratty then. There were also trips to the lake with the family, which I didn’t know about really until my cousin, Pam produced a picture in her baby album during our visit. It was such a great family moment, at the lake when the smelt were running. Smelt are a type of fish who, like the salmon swim against the current to lay their eggs. People went out and gathered lots of them. It was a big deal on the lake.
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I probably get most of my memories of Superior, Wisconsin from our many visits back there when we were kids. Even then, I felt like it was a special thing to be born there. Maybe it was just about not being born in Casper, Wyoming. Don’t get me wrong, I love Casper, but when you are born somewhere other than the place you grew up, it just has a different feel. I’m sure most smaller city or small town kids think that their little corner of the world it the most dull and boring place ever. It tends to make any other place take on an exotic feel. Nevertheless, I will always feel like there is something exotic and romantic about being born on the tip of Lake Superior.

Caryn, Caryl, and CherylimageAs I was leaving Albertson’s Grocery Store yesterday afternoon, I happened to glance at the side of one of the buildings in the Hilltop Shopping Center. It had a sidewalk ran from almost the top of the building in back, to the bottom of the building in front. It was a sidewalk I knew very well. I was reminded of how my sisters, our friends, and I used to walk over there every time our parents gave us a nickel. That sidewalk was steep enough that we could run down it with little or no effort. That was a game in itself. I have no idea why looking at a sidewalk that I had seen hundreds of times over the years, suddenly took me back to my childhood this time, but it did.

You see, just around the corner at the bottom of that sidewalk, was the Ben Franklin Store. The Ben Franklin Store had penny candy…and back then, you could get something much better than a simple gum ball for your penny. Having a nickel meant a bunch of candy. Even the candy itself was special. It wasn’t just a candy bar or a little piece of hard candy, but candy lipstick, and candy cigarettes, which may not have been the greatest thing, but we liked them. There were the candy necklace, bracelet, and ring. And, do you remember the wax pop bottles and wax lips, not to mention the old stand by favorites…jaw breakers and licorice cables. It seemed like there was something new every time we went to the Ben Franklin store. We never got tired of going as kids. It was the in thing to do, I suppose.

Of course, time marches on, and penny candy soon loses it’s appeal, as kids move on to other things in life. Bigger stores came into town, and soon the Ben Franklin store couldn’t really make a profit anymore. They closed years and years ago, but for me, the memory of that walk to the Hilltop Shopping Center to go to the Ben Franklin store will live on. Those were special times, when we were young and unencumbered with responsibility. Times when candy was all the treat we needed and a nickel bought enough of it to satisfy you for at least a day.

I can’t say I would want to go back to those days, because there are too many of today’s blessings that I would Alena and AllynCandy-Necklaces-Small-Jarshave to give up to go back there. Nevertheless, those memories are precious, because just thinking about them can take me back to a special time in my life. Every experience in life shapes who we are and who we will become as time goes by. For me, those sweet days of childhood were such a blessing. My childhood was all I could have hoped for, and I wouldn’t change a day of it. Sometimes, I miss those days, but mostly I just like to run through my memory files once in a while to spend just a little but of time in my past, before moving back into the present with a renewed sense of just how blessed my life has been.

I Want To Go To School TooThere is nothing worse, for the youngest sibling, than to be left at home while the rest of the kids get to go to school. They just don’t understand why they can’t go along. I’m sure that after a while they forget some and go find something to occupy themselves until the rest of the kids come home, but that just doesn’t really alleviate that lonely feeling. They love their siblings and they miss them, and that is all there is to it. So every morning they hurry to get ready, hoping that maybe today will be the day when they finally get to go along…even putting on their own backpack to show their mom that they are ready…but to no avail.

My grand niece, Aleesia Spethman is the youngest of my niece, Jenny and her husband, Steve’s kids. She has three older brothers, and she thinks they are the greatest. They feel the same way about her too. When the boys go outside to play, Aleesia thinks she should get to go outside The Big Brothers too. When they go to school, she wants to go too. It doesn’t really matter what the boys are doing, because if they are doing it, Aleesia wants to do it too. Her brothers are the coolest…after all.

Still, like it or not, Fall happens, and the boys have to go back to school, because that is what kids do in the Fall. And that leaves Miss Aleesia standing at the front door, in her Jammys and her boots, with her Little Mermaid backpack, feeling a little bit like she is on the outside looking in. She wants to go where her brothers are, but she is not allowed to do so. It’s simply against the rules. And that leaves a sad look on our smiley girl’s little face.

It’s such a sad little scene…a little girl looking longingly out the door, wishing she could go with her brothers, and do all the cool things they get to do. There she is wondering why she is the baby of the family. It just isn’t fair. Her mommy looks on with her own heart breaking just a little bit for this tiny girl of hers who is already Smiley Girllearning that life isn’t always fair. It is a moment that will stay in her memory files, like it will for anyone who sees this picture. There is no way to explain to Aleesia that it has to be this way…for now. No way to explain that before she knows it, she will be in school too, and then she will wish she could stay home with mommy and have girl time. So, Jenny does the only thing she can do. She goes to her girl, and invites her to play some little game, or asks her if she wants to go to the mall, or maybe watch her favorite movie. Before she can shed too many tears, her mommy has her mind focused on other things, and the sad moment is over. She will miss her brothers several more times before they get home, but then…when school is done for the day…she puts on her smiley face again. Her brothers are home…and all is right in her world.

Yellow Fever VirusWhen I come across a husband and wife, who both died on the same day, my curiosity kicks into overdrive. That just seems so unusual. Nevertheless, such was the case for my husband, Bob’s 4th great grandparents, Cloudsbury and Elizabeth Kirby, both of whom died on August 29, 1878 in Mount Ayr, Ringgold County, Iowa. At first, I wondered if it was an error, and I suppose it could be, but that is the information I have at this point, so that is what I have to go with.

My first thought was to check for disasters in the area, like tornados, fires, or floods, but I was unable to find anything that specifically happened in Mount Ayr, Iowa on August 29, 1878. Looking for these kinds of specific things can be a long and frustrating process, but I just can’t imagine too many situations where both halves of a couple would pass on the same day. I searched and found that there were tornadoes during that year, but nothing specifically on that day, so I doubt that a tornado is the culprit here.

When the possibility of a disaster was removed, I began to think about illness, so I looked up and epidemics in the area. That is when I came across a definite possibility…the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1876 to 1878, which took many lives in the southern United States. Yellow fever, known historically as yellow jack or yellow plague is an acute viral disease, that is usually spread by the female mosquito. Symptoms include fever, chills, loss of appetite, nausea, muscle pains particularly in the back, and headaches. Many people improve after a few days, but when the symptoms return, they can cause kidney damage, liver failure (causing yellow skin, probably the reason for the name Yellow Fever), bleeding, and ultimately death. These days there is a vaccine against Yellow Fever and some countries require it for travelers. Other countries try to control the virus by killing off as many mosquitoes as possible. Nevertheless, Yellow Fever causes 200,000 infections and 30,000 deaths every year with nearly 90% of those occurring in Africa, these days. Since the 17th century, several major outbreaks have occurred in America, Africa, and Europe. In the 18th and 19th centuries yellow fever was seen as the most dangerous of infectious diseases.

I can’t say for sure that Yellow Fever is what took the lives of Bob’s 4th great grandparents, but with the epidemic that occurred during that time, I have to think that it is a possibility. I have looked at the lists of people know to have died of Yellow Fever during that epidemic, and did not see Cloudsbury and Elizabeth Kirby on the list, but the list was incomplete, with many people only listed as a number. At this time, unless more information somehow surfaces, I will probably never know for sure, but the epidemic, which apparently came in from Cuba caused 100,000 people to become ill, and killed 20,000 people, so it is likely that they were too busy, trying to help people get better, to keep really great records as to the names of the dead. I have to feel really sorry for people of that time. They didn’t really know what was causing the epidemic and would not have had a way to do much about it anyway, so many lives were lost. Thankfully for the people of this century, Yellow Fever can be prevented by vaccination, and it is usually found in Africa, so we don’t really see much of it here.

IMG_6109For most children, their first friends are their siblings or cousins. Their families get together, so the kids get to see each other often. The days flow from one to another, and for a time, everyone expects that nothing will change. I suppose that is why change always hits us so hard. We have convinced ourselves that it will never happen. Then comes the day when one of those first friends moves away. For some people it doesn’t happen until a sibling moves out of the house for the first time, but for others, as was the case for my sister, Cheryl Spencer Masterson and our cousin, Pam Spencer Wendling, it can come at a very young age, and it can feel quite devastating, for everyone involved.

So often, the two friends only hear one side of how the two of them are feeling. I know that my sister missed Pam a lot. I don’t recall my own feelings concerning the matter, but then I was only two and a half, so that isn’t surprising. In reality, it was Cheryl and Pam who played together every day, and who were so close. They IMG_6115did everything together. It didn’t matter if the day was warm or cold. They were outside playing in the snow or taking care of their baby dolls in the warm sun. It was so cute.

Recently, on our visit to Wisconsin, Pam was telling us about a baby album she had with lots of those early childhood pictures in it. They included Pam and Cheryl, and me too, but there were several of the two little friends going about their daily play. It was so obvious that these two cousins loved each other very much. Our two families lived just across the yard from each other, and since the alley ran along the side of the house, the two yards shared a common fence. In those days, you could let your kids go outside to play with a lot less supervision and worry, so Cheryl and Pam were outside playing together all the time. It was the perfect setup…until all that changed.

In November of 1958, our family moved from Superior, Wisconsin back to my mom’s hometown of Casper, Wyoming. As I said, I was really too little to understand how much Cheryl missed Pam, and until this trip, we IMG_6119hadn’t heard just how much Pam missed Cheryl. Apparently, Pam must have asked her mom why she couldn’t go play with Cheryl, and was told that the family had moved to Wyoming. I’m not really sure where the discussion about trees came into the whole thing, but somehow Pam associated the move with trees. That is odd, because I would have to say that there are a lot more trees in Wisconsin than in Wyoming, but Pam didn’t understand that. She just knew that the move made her sad, and there had to be a reason…in her mind anyway. When that subject came up, Pam cried and said, “Cheryl’s Wyoming has trees!!” Maybe she thought that was why we moved, or maybe she just thought that everything must be better in Wyoming, but whatever the reason, she knew in her heart that Cheryl’s Wyoming had trees.

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