Beware of Wild Donkeys in the Septic: The Danger is Real

On this blog journey, I’ve focused mainly on Dad’s influence on our family, and I figure there will be lots more along that vein since the gist is “disfunction with a twist.” 

However, this blog is called “Somewhere Along the Way;” the way was long, and there were many other factors in our childhood that were as prominent, if not more so than dear old Dad. I discovered the most important factor this week when I had a virtual discussion with my siblings while preparing for this installment.

Sidebar: This will be a little incomplete because, as I’ve mentioned before, Rhonda (AKA Nonnie & “Sister”), our eldest, died of cancer in 2008. It was a bitter loss because we were so close. As this blog is devoted to the fun times, I’ll hear her contagious giggle throughout and try to weave her spirit into the stories. Although to be fair, she’d argue with us on every point because, inexplicably, her recollection of our childhood was always about 20-180 degrees off from the rest of us. Hear that up there, Nonnie? I promise we’ve got our stories straight!

So, when I asked my sibs what they remembered as far as the good times, our ensuing Messenger discussion was not only fun but pretty revealing.

I have a fond memory of when we moved into a house in Leavenworth, KS (same house mentioned in the “flagpole” blog). Using the boxes and packing materials as props, we created and performed plays for each other. The four of us played for hours. Might sound a little hokey, but as it stands out among hundreds of lost memories, it has significance to me. Make-believe is powerful and holds much grace. Besides, I’m sure Sandi was the director, i.e. boss of everyone (which is her thing), and Rick probably got all the boy roles, which explains why he still sees himself as the center of the universe. As sibling in charge, Rhonda just wanted us all in one place. And finally, even as a preschooler, I was way more interested in alternate realities; my early stage career must have scratched that itch. Sadly, there were no Oscar nominations, but make no mistake, there was magic, just for a while, in our little front room.

That was also the house where we learned to turn off the lights and hide from bill collectors (that was back when they actually came to your doorstep). You might wonder why I’d mention this in a blog devoted to kid fun? Because that sh*t was fun! It was so scary that we’d undoubtedly giggle as we dove behind chairs and held our breath till the knocking stopped. Ignorance was not only bliss; it was downright delightful.

That was also around the same era when my brother flicked the lid off a tin can, and I somehow intercepted it with my eye. Wait. That wasn’t fun. So, anyway…

A big-ticket item around that same time frame was our first and only real family vacation from Kansas to Colorado to see “real mountains.” I was not in school yet, but I remember it well. There were roadside outhouses a-plenty (see a former blog as to how that phenomenon traumatized me with a fear of falling in), hills that led to mountains which were incomprehensible to we Kansas kids, and legions of bologna sandwiches. We loved every minute. There were things even more memorable than the big ol’ We’re-Not-in-Kansas-Anymore Rocky Mountains. Things like my brother getting locked in a gas station restroom (I’m pretty sure we girls would have left him there had it been our choice). And later, he hammed it up by coming out of a campground outhouse with a toilet seat wrapped around his neck. We laughed outrageously at that one, and there is a black and white photo somewhere capturing the moment. Now all I can imagine is wanting to douse him in Clorox. I mean, really. A public toilet seat? AROUND HIS NECK? Kind of makes me wonder how he later ended up contracting cancer and COVID-19 (yes, those things happened, and fortunately he’s still here to tell the stories); that early experience should have made him immune to anything. We also have a black and white pic of our sweet Nonnie sitting in an outhouse doing her business as Sandi (the evilest – yes, that’s a word – Seley child by far) held the door open for someone unnamed to take the shot. No mercy when you have four kids with camera access for the first time in their lives! Just noticed the overt bathroom theme…that would probably mean something to Freud, but let’s find more fun!

After we moved to New Mexico, we discovered a kind of freedom we’d never known before. I think we lived in three homes over the course of a couple of years, two of which were trailers, one was a fall-apart adobe home (yep, that’s the place I learned to tell time on the backwards bar clock, remember?), all of which were on the Navajo reservation. We were still in the clutches of our in-home Darth Vader, but when he was gone, as long as our chores were accomplished, we were OUT OF THERE! 

We ran, jumped, hiked, dodged rattlesnakes (no kidding), rode bikes, climbed shear rock faces (as Sandi recalls we sometimes carried our probably-terrified cocker spaniel, Puppy, right up the cliffs), caught lizards, and often made it home seconds before our parents returned from work.

Then there were the incidents of Sandi nearly drowning in a freezing mudhole, a donkey getting stuck in our septic tank, and our questionable stint as cowgirls and cowboy during our one summer with horses no one else wanted.

Allow me to elaborate: 1) Sandi tried (“tried” is the keyword here) to jump a “puddle,” which, as she sunk in, was discovered to be a cold, deep mudhole. She remembers freezing as she waited for help; Rick recalls the incident as “hilarious.” 2) Dad, being about as adept at home improvements as Tim the Toolman Taylor, decided to do some work on the septic (AKA, cesspool) behind our rented trailer. As the story goes, he had someone put a couple of old VW van frames in the hole to keep it from caving in on itself, then loosely covered it with dirt. No one counted on the entrance of the wild donkey which appeared out of the desert and promptly fell in the hole (yes, you read that correctly). My brother says the donkey screamed like a little girl (as a guy with three sisters, he was familiar with the sound). After being led out with a rope, it ran off, so we assume its trauma was mostly emotional. 3) Same trailer, different day, Dad decided to become a horse owner with no experience, no training, and no saddles. But he had four kids to figure it out, so that made sense, right? I remember riding “Jughead” bareback with no clue how to ride. The other horse liked to run, and Jughead only understood hardcore trotting. 

We had no idea that when they decided it was time to go home, they’d go home – at the speed of their choice – and we just hung on for dear life. Pretty sure I jarred some teeth out, lost a chunk of my tongue, and had to change my underwear after a particularly tough “ride” home one day. Thank God Dad realized we actually had to spend time and money on those beasts. Thus, he re-homed them; otherwise, we all might have ended up in traction at some point. Fun stuff!

We did so much, we four, and almost always together. What I learned this week as I chatted with my sibs and jotted things down was this: my most meaningful and endearing childhood memories were those with just the four of us. 

That was our safe place, and it was good. 

Oh…and I learned that when your brother opens a can, duck! And always lock the bathroom door because you never know who’s outside with a camera. And when doing home maintenance, for God’s sake, keep your eyes peeled for wild donkeys!

Life is a Highway (with no pee-stops)

There are upsides to being reared by an unstable, often brilliant, funny, dark, incestuous, egomaniac. 

OK, strike the “i” word, but the rest stands true. Imagine being a little kid and having a dad who would say, “We’re going for a ride!”– and the translation of said statement could mean a Sunday drive, OR a multiday journey to parts unknown; money, school attendance, and potty stops not included!

Nope, not kidding. I was there, so I know. While I can’t remember many geographical specifics because most of these adventures happened when I was really small, I can remember other stuff, like all four of us kids being crammed into the back seat. Yes, it was very crowded, but besides the fact that complaining was strictly prohibited, even in matters of life or death, it was all we knew. And sometimes the alternative to these gallivants was going to school, so, I, for one, was in!

The other kids were older, so I’m sure they weren’t as enthusiastic about these jaunts since we were packed like sardines into whatever given heap we called the family car at the time. After all, we had to be touching each other from shoulders to feet for hours on end. I know that was preferable to being touched by the guy driving the car, but that’s an element of this blog that will continue to be alluded to, yet never allowed out to play.

Most of our “drives” were actually cover for the fact Dad was an on-again, off-again, traveling salesman. I’m guessing he only brought us along when he didn’t have a prospect for a little between-the-sheets extra-curricular activity on the route; I can fully understand how his wife and kids could have been an impediment in that area. However, when summoned, we piled in and often drove miles, if not days, so he could follow a “lead” in hopes of selling a set of encyclopedias. [For our younger readers out there, “encyclopedias” were the book equivalent of Google; took up lots more space, were heavier, and way more expensive, not to mention you had to actually apply yourself and put in some effort during your “search.”] 

The less exciting element of the trips was the four-pack-a-day smoker behind the wheel who didn’t believe in pee-stops, wife and four children notwithstanding. 

Here’s how it went: as we left town, we were in somewhat good spirits, and those spirits lowered as the amount of smoke in the car increased. God forbid we should complain or want to roll down a window, verboten! Even as a young ‘un, I remember knowing when the smoke filled the car enough to get down to my face level, I would start to get queasy. I also knew there’d be hell to pay if I complained. So, I guess during the drives, we were a four-pack-a-day family.

Dad’s solution to the pee issue was (are you ready for this?) a three-pound aluminum coffee can, fortunately, with the lid. And no stops meant no stops, therefore, dig this: we had to find room among the other six legs in the back seat floor to cop squats (in the girls’ cases) and pee right there in the car at sixty-miles-per hour. I’m sure it was easier for my brother, stupid boy; just doesn’t seem fair, does it? But for all, spillage was also verboten; thus, we were excellent aims.

I remember the time my late sister was doing her thing there on the floor of the car, and Dad, being the sensitive and thoughtful soul he was, passed a semi truck…the driver must have gotten a quick glimpse, because he blew his air horn so loud she probably squeezed out an extra pint or two. (Of course, I only share this because she is not here to read it; I’d rather still have her here, but just the thought of her frowning and smacking me across the head makes it worth it.) My other sister remembers the pee-can doubled as a puke-can. We were often in the car for hours – including the time he was in the “lead’s” home selling his wares – and my sisters frequently got sick (geez, I hope you weren’t, like, eating while reading this…). My brother says the sales trips were the best kind because we had a chance of actually going to a drive-thru or restaurant. Otherwise, our fare was white bread and a pack of baloney. If we were lucky enough to stop, we ate our plain sandwiches at picnic tables within a stone’s throw of outhouses (rest area sanitation, back in the day). No one can say the Seley clan didn’t know how to have a good time!

On a side note, I was terrified of outhouses because I was afraid I’d fall in. Dad told me I’d better not, because it would be easier to “make” another kid than to clean me up! Those loving words still make me a little misty.

So, there you have it. 

Between the many moves and the “drives” in between, we were like modern-day gypsies. I sometimes wonder if Dad wrote that song, “Life is a Highway,” because he had no trouble riding it all night long, as long as we had a pee-can.