Night Long Ago Aches to Become a Painting

This part of this post is a reprise from 2015. It describes an unforgettable night, a compelling image that still holds my mind.


It’s a summer night in 1957 and I lie on the back seat of the 55 Ford with my three year old brother. My grandfather has died and my dad flew up that morning to be with his mother. On the very same plane, my Uncle Hank arrived from Billings. He’s going to drive us to Billings to be with our dad. My mom doesn’t know how to drive.

Together my little brother and I about fill the back seat with our sleeping bodies. The car stops. I wake up. “Where are we, mom?”

“Wheatland, honey.”

My Uncle Hank says, “I’ll go see if he’ll open up and sell me gas. The store lights are on. He can’t have been closed long.” The green neon Sinclair dinosaur in the window lights the parking stalls in front of the station. Pink and white neon lines the roof-line.

Once the car has stopped I sit up to look out the window at the Wyoming night. Beyond the gas station, the city park, soft, summer darkness, out across the plains forever.

Suddenly there is a burst of girls in long frothy dresses, running and laughing. They run past us, their dresses lit momentarily by the neon of the gas station lights.

“Rainbow girls,” says my mom, thoughtfully. “The Lodge must be nearby.”

“What are rainbow girls?” I ask.

“It’s a club for teenage girls, honey. Your Aunt Dickie was a member.”

“They’re wearing long dresses!” I am five and in love with long dresses.

“Those are formals. They wear formals at their meetings.” My Aunt Dickie — the youngest of the 7 sisters among whom my mom was third to last — reached high school when my Aunt Florence, Uncle David and Uncle Sherman were were working and sending money home, helping out enough that Aunt Dickie could do things none of her older sisters could.

Uncle Hank comes back with the service station owner who has turned on the lights over the pumps. He looks sleepy, but understanding as unlocks the pumps and fills the tank. I’m sure my uncle explained everything to the man. “Thank you kindly,” says my uncle, “Sorry for waking you.”

“You take care, sir,” says the man. “Safe travels.” We’ll make it to Billings.


I have been thinking of this night for the past few weeks as a subject for a painting. I haven’t figured it out yet, but it’s swirling around in my mind, trying to form itself. I’m a little stumped on point of view, how to put that little wonder-struck girl into the painting. Right now I’m leaning toward the girls being somewhere in the distance, just close enough to the gas station for their long dresses to catch the light.

Former Edward Hopperish Featured image ❤

A Day and Trains: Dad Wakes Us Up and We Go to the Depot

It was rare. To my brother and me it was always a shock. The lights would go on in our room and dad would say, “Come on kids. Get up. We’re going to the depot for pancakes.”

Then Kirk and I were rousted out, scramble-haired, pajamaed. They helped us into our coats, pulling our little arms through the sleeves. “Put on your shoes.” Shoes and PAJAMAS??? What had happened to the world?

We climbed half-sleeping into the back seat of a green Ford, a 49, then a 55, for a long drive all the way from the suburb of Englewood to the depot in downtown Denver.

“These are the best pancakes you’ll ever have, kids.”

We sat at a table in the green, black, chrome and white diner. People waiting for trains sat on the stools at the counter, reading their papers, drinking coffee, ears cocked to hear their trains called. The diner smelled of trains and maple syrup.

“What’ll it be?” asked a waitress in a green uniform and a white apron, pencil behind her ear, order tablet in her hand, fancy folded lacy handkerchief pinned to her bosom behind her name tag.

“I think I’ll have a short stack.”

“What’s that?” I asked. They spoke a strange language, these two grownups, a strange language I was constantly trying to figure out.

“Three pancakes, Martha Ann. Can you fix up plates with two pancakes for each of the kids?”

“Sure. Off the kiddie menu. What about you, sir?”

“Full order.”

“Oh, Bill!”

“I’m wearing my PJ’s,” announced my brother, revealing flannel printed with rockets and flying saucers.

“Kirk!”

“You want coffee?”

“Please.”

“Cream?”

“Sugar’s fine.”

More strange words. That meant, “No.”

The pancakes came.

“I think this is Log Cabin,” said my mom, “no better than home.”

“What?”

“The syrup. I think they’re just using Log Cabin. Used to have real maple syrup at the depot.”

“Best pancakes you’ll ever eat,” said my dad. “It doesn’t matter, Helen. They’re good.”

After the pancakes we went out to see the trains. My heart beat fast. Seeing them made me think of getting on one, of GOING somewhere, like MONTANA which was where I went on trains, sitting in big green cars on red velvet seats with white-painted wrought iron arm-rests and racks above the seats. Old cars, built in the ’20’s. It wasn’t a big seller, the trip from Denver to Billings. This was not the Denver Zephyr that went to Chicago or the California Zephyr that went to LA. It was a mail train that carried some passengers.

In 1959, when I was 7, and understood most of what the grownups said, we took that train to Billings. Up there my mom took me into the cellar of my grandma’s house where there was an old trunk. “I took this to college with me,” she said. “All my books are inside.” We opened it. It was truly filled with treasures, books, old lace, letters from people I had never heard of, old stamps, a musty smell. “I’ll ship this home, but lets take some books for the train.”

A few days later, a bright June morning, Hank took us to the depot in Billings. We got on the train that was nothing more than an engine and a car that was half mail/baggage and half passenger car, a kind of rail bus. Mom, Kirk and I took our seats. As the train pulled out of the station, our faces were pressed against the window. Hank, Jo and grandma waved goodbye. Later, the train would stop and let us out for dinner somewhere — probably Thermopolis — and a sleeper car would be attached.

I was looking out the window at a summer storm gathering slowly over the green Wyoming plain, when my mom handed me a book. “You’ll like this,” she said. It was Seven League Boots by Richard Halliburton. It became my first grown up book. I took it outside to the porch on the back of the train where someone had put a straight-backed chair. With my feet up on the railing, I opened the book as Wyoming moved around me. I read until it rained.

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