August in small town Iowa, the late 1930s. Hot, humid, still and stifling. Boring, boring, boring. Three weeks to go before school started, and nothing to do. What was a houseful of rowdy kids supposed to do? The beaches at the lake were closed because of the annual polio scare, we’d exhausted the meager supply of books at the nearest branch library and the heat was too oppressive for games, either outdoors or in. Air-conditioning was a dream for the future.
We girls, my sister and I, were kept busy helping Mother with the myriad jobs necessary to maintain a large household. I was 12 or 13 years old and had a few babysitting jobs, but the boys, especially the young teens in the neighborhood needing summer jobs, had no hope of finding anything to do. Able-bodied men with families were having a hard time getting jobs, and there was nothing left for the boys. Even the most menial chores at the gas stations were held by grown men. Paper routes were treasured and handed down to brothers and friends. Most families had their own home grown mowers of lawns and doers of chores. The few proud owners of cars spent week-ends lovingly washing and waxing their pride-and-joy with no need of outside help.
There was one optimistic note; a local entrepreneur was even then in California studying up on the newest phenomenon, Self-Service Grocery Stores, and would soon be opening the first one in the Midwest, right in our neighborhood. However, this plan, which would eventually employ all my brothers in turn, was still in the future. The problem was the here and now, without much to be done about it.
My oldest brother, Bob, about 14 or so, was a strong, handsome kid, chafing over the idle boring days. He solved the problem for himself in the time-honored way. He ran away from home, declaring to one and all his intentions of heading for Texas to become a cowboy. In actuality he never got farther from home than his buddy’s back yard across town, with bulletins being secretly phoned back and forth between the mothers, so no one was very worried. We’d harbored a few backyard refugees ourselves. The novelty would wear off and the truant would find his way home in a few days, dirty and homesick.
My second brother, Phil, a sturdy, quiet 10 year old, was young enough that the hot boring summer wasn’t bothering him. He was a boy with a mission, yearning to become a farmer. He’d been begging to raise rabbits for months. The chance of this happening was very remote but just in case, he was getting ready. Week after week he trudged back and forth between a nearby vacant lot and the derelict old garage on the back of our property, sort of flying under the radar, pulling his rusty little RADIO FLYER filled with long bunches of dried grass he’d harvested. Not only would this grass provide food for his rabbits, but also bedding, and he was going to be ready, piling mounds of dry hay in every corner of the garage.
Our third brother, Dean, was about 5, our blue-eyed pet with blond curly hair. He was just old enough to play around the immediate neighborhood alone or with his friends without constant watching, or so it was thought. His specialty was charming everyone, meanwhile keeping himself busy and out of trouble.
Our youngest brother, the toddler with the big boy name, Gordon, was at an age where he required almost constant attention; however, he was an easy boy to entertain, sweet and eager to learn. Books made him happy, hot chocolate and long naps made him happy, and sister Carole and I took turns keeping him safe. Four brothers, four personalities.
The days dragged on, everyone in limbo as though waiting for something to happen, anything to liven up a boring time. And so the old saying, “be careful what you wish for,” was suddenly proven true.
The cries, “Fire!” “Fire!” rang out sharply, startling and frightening everyone. Our old garage was in full flame, blazing and crackling before anyone realized what was happening. The dried hay was perfect tinder. It was fully engulfed by the time a fire truck arrived, and nearby neighbors began hosing down their own properties. A police car roared up, siren blaring. The entire area was a whirling scene of flames, smoke, noise and confusion, with little kids on bikes and stray dogs adding to the furor.
Suddenly a voice screamed out over the din, “Dean! Where is Dean?” The blue-eyed charmer was nowhere to be found! By now our Dad was home, and parents, neighbors, firemen and the policeman ransacked the house from the rafters to the coal-bin in the basement with no trace of him. The dread of the obvious sent everyone into a panic when it was learned he’d last been seen playing near the garage. The smoldering ruins were still too white hot to be searched. I was pulled from babysitting duty to help with the hunt, leaving my young sister with the toddler and strict orders to keep him safe inside, away from the action. I can still remember the deep, heavy fear I felt as I searched.
Finally someone noticed a few boards out of place around the crawl space under the front porch. A very frightened, filthy little boy was pulled out, terrified that he was Really Going To Get It This Time. Our parents were far too relieved and grateful to dream of punishment, even when he confessed his crime, admitting to playing in the garage with matches.
It took hours for the excitement to die down. The fire truck finally drove off, the neighbors returned home and the police car patrolled past all evening. Our family hadn’t known such excitement since our Aunt Dorothy’s picture appeared on the front page of the local paper, showing her nursing one of the casualties after John Dillinger shot up the First National Bank.
But the payoff came the next day when our runaway strolled nonchalantly down the street, pretending a cool indifference as he returned home from his escapade. The look on his face when he saw the burned out garage and listened to our excited stories was priceless. He stood stock still in the middle of the street, mouth hanging open, totally unable to react. He had run away out of sheer boredom and the only excitement of the summer happened the day he was gone.
Four brothers: Phil’s dream of raising rabbits had gone up in smoke, Dean was cured of playing with matches, Gordon, the only one unaffected by the drama, went on with his business of growing up, and Bob, restless, ambitious Bob, well, he never ran away from home again.