Of Food and Puffer Bellies

Young Dad In 3rd grade I made my dad a card shaped like a necktie for Father’s Day. I covered it with colorful stripes, avoiding pink because Dad wouldn’t wear pink. Inside I wrote, “I’m glad you are my father and work so hard to make money for food so we can eat good.” As I aged, I recognized other fine qualities my father possessed—honesty and humility, humor and quirkiness, absolute love for his family—but at eight, I didn’t see far beyond my stomach.

Twice a month, Dad, with a flourish, presented his check from Geneva Steel to Mom. “You earned lots of overtime, old boy,” she’d comment, the pride and affection in her voice making him grin. The rest of us headed for the car, anticipating our payday trip.

Dad drove and sang, his smooth tenor accompanying our commotion, while Mom refereed. The two little ones crawled back and forth, trying out the comfort of different laps. Squeezed into the back, the rest of us bashed each other about and complained: “Mom, she’s touching me.” Our interest picked up as we approached Ironton where Dad worked on the blast furnace—sometimes worked too hard on searing summer days, so that he came home sunken-eyed, hollow-cheeked, and weak-voiced. On those days, we stopped our play and whispered a phrase we’d heard, but didn’t understand: heat exhaustion.

As the car climbed Ironton Hill, the plant’s smell engulfed us: an oily, metallic odor spewing from rusty smokestacks and hovering in a yellowish haze over stacks of windowless structures, dark and looming. Small railroad cars, filled with molten refuse from Dad’s furnace, traveled along the plant’s massive slagheap, dumping their contents. At night the slag glowed red as it poured like lava over the sides of the pile. To me, Ironton looked like the devil’s playground.

If we chanced to pass when the small engine and cars appeared, Dad would begin to sing, “Down by the station, early in the morning, see the little puffer bellies all in a row,” and the rest of us would join in, though sometimes a haughty teenager refused to participate.

Reaching Provo, we drove to Ream’s Discount Groceries, where we walked behind our parents like ants following a trail of crumbs as they piled our cart with staples: flour, sugar, beans, rice, oatmeal, fruits and vegetables not grown in our garden or canned in our kitchen. After collecting these necessities, if they had enough money, they added luxury items that made our stomachs dance: a bag of oranges, a brick of cheese, licorice, hotdogs.

We never asked for treats. We knew better. We also knew we’d go to the Dairy Queen next, where Dad’s announcement, “Let’s have at it, kids,” triggered a stampede that terrified the teenage workers.

A few years after the deaths of our parents, their seven children reunited for a van trip around Utah Valley, the mountain-protected home we had loved. When the van neared Ironton, abandoned and mostly dismantled, we spontaneously burst into Dad’s song about puffer bellies and stationmasters. And everybody participated. I wondered if I was the only one who heard Dad’s voice soaring above ours.

Advertisements

48 thoughts on “Of Food and Puffer Bellies

  1. You made me cry and you also helped me to remember Grandpa’s fun spirit. He always sang with all he had. I miss that!

    Like

  2. That’s a really nice tribute. Your father sounds like a wonderful man. The description of your trip reminded me of family and (believe it or not) church youth group trips to watch the railroad cars dump slag in the hills around the mills in Pittsburgh. The stuff we did to entertain ourselves on long rides would probably make today’s kids shake their heads but car rides were so much fun back then. Thanks for a great story and a nice memory jog.

    Like

    • I’m glad you liked it, Dan. Car rides were fun. Now on road trips we pass family vans and everybody but the driver is occupied with his/her choice of electronics. I think something important has been lost.
      PS Someday I’d like to hear more about those trips to watch slag being dumped. I’ll bet it was an impressive sight.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Funny, Rob. I don’t remember his work clothes being stained red, and am interested in why you asked. Could I have forgotten a detail? He was a good man. I don’t remember that he ever said, “I love you,” to me. But I grew up with the solid knowledge that he did.

      Liked by 1 person

      • A lot of guys show their love by doing impossibly hard jobs to feed the people they love; unfortunately, in today’s world, that’s seldom recognized.
        I just remember this stuff they called “red c” being everywhere and permanently staining everything it touched.

        Like

  3. It’s been awhile since I’ve sung the “little puffer belly” song!

    I love your rich descriptions of life in the Provo Valley in the days of Geneva Steel. This post filled my mind’s eye with imagery from those long-ago days.

    What a touching tribute to your father, Janet.

    Like

    • Thanks for you kind comment. Looking back, it was a delightful childhood. In the actuality, I suffered all the pangs of growing up, finding my place in the family, and sometimes chafing at the lack of money, but always there was laughter.

      Like

  4. This post brought Grandpa back! Everywhere he went, every task he accomplished was always accompanied by a song. How I miss that. Thank you for bringing him and his songs back to me today. I miss his presence.

    Like

    • Dawna, I so enjoy the way his grandchildren respond when I write about him, because all of you were the light of his life. Near the end of his life when he was living in the apartment Blaine made for him, he told me as long as there were babies around he was happy.

      Like

      • I can see him saying that 🙂 Family, to grandpa and grandma, is where it was at. It was very evident. They would be so proud of each of you and how you have stayed close without them here to promote that. Family is, and always will be, the center of life for me. I know this because of Grandpa and Grandma.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Though I never had children, Dawna, the way my nieces and nephews have continued to value family and work to remain close to their parents, aunts and uncles, siblings and cousins delights me, because I know how happy Mom and Dad would be about it.

        Like

      • Yes I agree, I don’t get very many responses yet but am am fairly new to this. I am thrilled to be making contacts around the world like yourself as it helps us expand our knowledge of other countries mmmm I feel a post coming on. 😉

        Like

      • The responses will come, Lynne; it takes time. I found that the more I consistently commented on blogs I enjoyed again and again, even when I didn’t hear anything back, the more those writers would go to my blog and respond, so that gradually my readership grew. But you probably already knew that. And I think you have a great post idea about how our knowledge of other countries grows through blogging.

        Liked by 1 person

      • We always lived in a rented place when I was a child in Berlin. After World War Two we were extremely poor. A lot of buildings were bombed out. People who still had some living space did ‘sublet’ a lot. Otherwise where would all the bombed out people have found somewhere to live. It took a while before new apartments could be built. Our apartment was not bombed out. We had four rooms plus a very small room for our live in help.

        After the war my mother always sublet two of the rooms. That way the rent she had to pay was reduced considerably.

        We often did not have proper food to eat, I mean we always could buy some food, but it was not the most healthy diet. A lot of things we just could not afford or were not yet available anyway after the war.

        My mother always said, to keep a roof over
        our heads was the most impotant thing.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Lucky are we, Utah,to have had parents who kept their eye on the important things and managed to get themselves and us through trying times. Your life after the war seems worthy of a book. It is beyond my imagining. I would also love to hear the story or your name someday.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks for responding to my query about your name. I find people’s names so interesting, especially unique ones like yours — at least unique to me. I will check out your website.

        Like

  5. Oh what a lovely post Janet, I never got to do Father’s Day. I dreaded making the card in school every year, our dour, though brilliant Grandpa got them all. when we went anyplace in the car, we passed a tawdry “Glass Castle” some dreamer made of beer bottles, we always begged, Ma always refused to stop. We to, passed scary slag heaps from the coal mines. Singing was forbidden, we also passed a big, fine old house outskirts of Nanaimo, Ma always muttered it was a “Health Spa” In fact, it was a notorious Bordello..I think for Ma having 3 in the car seemed like 7…Very cool writing, my dear.

    Liked by 1 person

    • What a glimpse into your life this is, Sheila. You manage to pack so much into such a few lines and always make me want more details like how old you were when you realized what the spa was.

      Like

      • Like most things, I learned at 15, when the old “Corner House” burned down, and Stella The Madam perished, running back inside to rescue her Bulldog. When Ma passed, I picked my sister up in a rental-car, and up Island we drove, both having lived away many years- passing “The Glass Castle” we looked at each, well, Ma is gone, we can stop now, we laughed, but did not stop. No one thought to tell us the old family church had been moved- we ended up in a Safeway parking lot, looking across a gully at what looked like people at funeral. Took us ages to get there, as Pammy refused to make left hand turns…we had to stroll in last past about 300 people. Such was my family- love to hear about yours, facnating time and place. Thank you.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Another great story. I look forward to your every post. There were only three of us kids, but being the youngest, I always got stuck in the middle of the back seat, on the hump. When we went on trips, we always traveled at night. There was something about driving at night that my father preferred. Part of the benefit of night travel was that it was not as hot outside – no air-conditioning in cars back then.Thanks again for sharing.

    Like

    • In our family, too, family position mattered when traveling, Troy. Mom, Dad, and babies in the front, oldest children next to the windows in the back, younger ones jammed in between. We rejoiced as each sibling married, not because they were in love and had found a life partner, but because our place in the car improved.

      Like

  7. This is a lovely tribute to your Father, but also to the enduring quality of family. I like the image of you and your grown siblings singing the puffer belly song as you passed the town. Isn’t it amazing how these small daily things, like the phrase of a song, or a type of candy, will trigger the strongest memories?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I like the phrase, “the enduring quality of family.” I think it sums up much of my writing, Joni. It is fascinating about the small daily things as well. Our memories seem to hold on to the sensory details of our experiences. Smell is another powerful catalyst for me.

      Like

  8. Janet, your wonderful tribute to your Dad brings memories of my own Dad. I also had a father who turned each hard earned paycheck over to his family and sang to his children on road trips. By just being their decent, loving selves, our lives were richer than anything money could buy. I know they would have enjoyed each other’s company and shared stories, as we do.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s