Red Wagon Writer, Diane, is pictured in the gray sweater.
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In rural Benton County, Iowa and inside the cream clapboard farmhouse with its brick-red trim, I came to some realization that I needed a break. How a nearly-six year old determines this, I do not know. Perhaps I initiated a disagreement with my four-year old sister, Charlene, who was my constant companion. Our newborn sister, Laurie, was likely dividing time between naps and cries. Or, very likely I had developed a “mood” as Mom called some bouts in behavior. Mom often referred to me as “Miss Independent.” Maybe so, but I learned from the best! Mom, who at the age of 23 drove from Los Angeles to New York City by herself, seemed fairly independent in her own right.
It was on that summer afternoon in 1961 that I announced to my mother that I wanted to run away! Calmly she said, “Okay dear.” Then she asked what I wanted to pack for my journey. I responded, “Graham crackers and milk.” Out from the tall cupboard came a full package of Honey Maid graham crackers wrapped in their traditional brown waxed paper. Next Mom reached for my pink Barbie thermos, which she filled with cold milk.
My typical attire could have been a pair of shorts with a gingham or seersucker, sleeveless blouse. White anklets and red Ked sneakers surely completed my outfit. We decided that I should wheel the red Radio Flyer wagon as my getaway vehicle. It was a hot summer day so I didn’t need a blanket, but Mom had me stow the plaid Amana-wool blanket into the wagon in case I needed it later.
A hug from Mom and a “Have a nice trip” reassured me that I had made the right decision. This big sister was running away from home to the 160 acres that surrounded our home! So it was that I left with a confident dimpled smile. Off I went with two long ponytails swinging side to side as if defiantly waving. I grabbed the cool metal handle to the wagon and walked down the farmhouse sidewalk, the squeaky wheels making a “ka-thud” with each sidewalk segment they crossed. I raised the lock on the big white yard gate to let myself free to the big world. I looked back to see Mom smiling. My sisters were inside the house. Dad was in town running errands. Lady, our collie mix, wagged her tail as if saying, “Have a good trip.”
I quickly went out of sight as my path took me past the garage where the green Pontiac station wagon was parked; the machine shop with the scent of oil and grease; the scale house with Dad’s weathered wooden wagon he used for harvests; and, the granary that housed the grind stone passed down from my great-great grandfather Plumb. Then I continued up the barnyard slope, past the corn crib with golden ears from the prior year peeking out at me, and to the well-worn farm lane that stretched clear to the eastern horizon some 1600 feet distant.
The lane had two tire tracks in the fine dust and a green strip of pigweed and choke weed down the middle. Welcoming me along my getaway were fat and wide-eyed grasshoppers. It seemed that each time I took a step they sprang into action with vibrating wings taking them for 10-yard leaps. The meadow larks parked themselves on the tree-limb fence posts, singing melodies in chorus. In contrast, nervous red-wing blackbirds scolded from the adjacent pasture, warning their counterparts of my impending approach.
I paused to look at the fence. Several lines of barbed wire were carefully stretched between the posts. How I loved to accompany Dad when he repaired fences. His heavy leather work gloves protecting his calloused hands when he stretched the wire and fixed it into place. He told me that the weathered fence posts had been there for years, having been created from fallen tree limbs by my great-great-grandfather Patterson, who was a sod-busting homesteader generations ago.
The late summer breeze rustled the tall corn and whipped the long leaves. The breeze made me think of the warm nights in the upstairs bedroom, windows open, and white Pricilla curtains billowing in the cross breeze that ushered in the sweet scent of corn and instilled sensory memories in our dreams. As I meandered down the lane, I passed row after tall row of stalks, ears were filling out with kernels hidden beneath their husks and silks were browning as the hint of kernels reached maturity. Peering into the rows, I heeded my parents’ warning about the prospect of getting lost in corn fields. After all, I was on my own so why venture into the corn and become lost forever, never to be found.
What seemed an eternity was probably all of 20 minutes! I finally reached the intersection of fence lines. On my left, three short trees, possibly crab apple or plum, ran north to south, their outstretched limbs filled with white webs and wiggly tent caterpillars. To get to this triplet of trees, I needed to turn north, meaning I was now out of the site of home and surrounded by nature. Feeling weary, I stopped my squeaky wagon in the shade of a tree. I carefully laid out the woolen blanket atop the tall grass, making a perfect place to picnic, despite the scratchy wool on my bare legs. My fingers pulled the cracker package open. My thermos had a cup for its lid into which I poured cold milk. Crunchy sweet crackers accompanied with rich whole milk…what a perfect snack!
I was engulfed in nature, being out of view of the homestead with only corn, caterpillars, and crabby birds. My snack was quickly devoured. Now thoughts replaced observations and memories. “I wonder if my family misses me?” and “Where will I spend the night?” and “Is my sister having fun without me?” and “Maybe I shouldn’t run away!” These thoughts tugged at my heart. Satisfied with my decision to return home rather than completely run away, I tucked the red plaid blanket into the wagon, graham cracker crumbs attached to the wool, and my empty thermos tossed inside.
From the east end of the lane, I looked ahead of me. The familiar pitches of the farmhouse roofline and tops of the pine trees seemed to beckon. Half way down the lane I was greeted by familiar sounds, the squeal of the feeder pigs, the bark of Lady, and the loud ding of the dinner bell. As I neared the house-yard gate, I noticed Dad’s turquoise International Harvester truck, meaning he was home. I realized that the dinner bell was rung for me as if anticipating my return. Perhaps an hour had passed since my brave departure, despite it seeming much longer. I opened the door. It was good to be home, to see my family, and to receive hugs of reassurance.
Since that day in 1961, I have savored many Red Wagon Days when I just needed to have some time to myself to help ground me and get away from a flurry of activity or expectations. They give me time to bring my five senses to life, to embrace God’s creation, and get lost in my thoughts. Frequently my camera joins me and a journal, except these days it is often my laptop. Unless I have an easy-to-reach path nearby, a trek on wheels typically takes place, maybe for just hours or sometimes a day.
I am writing this on a Red Wagon Day in early October of 2014, clicking away on my keys while sitting in the Rocky Mountain Roasters coffee shop in Frisco, Colorado. Instead of graham crackers and cold milk, I munched on a toasted sesame seed bagel and sipped fresh-roasted coffee. Now that I am finished with this lovely respite and having written of my first Red Wagon Day, it is time to return home. Instead of a quarter-mile lane, I will travel Interstate 70 some 70 miles until I reach our abode in Denver. No dinner bell is needed to encourage my return home, for instead I anticipate the warm embrace of Steve, the love-of-my-life, awaiting me at the front door.