small town

‘Nothing much ever happens in Medaryville …’

Marshal Lowry

Grandpa served Medaryville, Indiana, as its marshal and jack-of-all-trades for 20 years. Before that, he’d been a farmer and had worked in area factories, including an ordnance plant during World War II. I was 3 years old when he retired in 1965, so the only occupation I remember him having was as a full-time grandpa. But being married to Grandma meant he was often on the receiving end of her many practical jokes. Therefore, “Victim” was another job title he frequently found thrust on him.

Although Grandpa was also a prankster, he couldn’t match Grandma’s outsized efforts. For him, these Grandma-engineered practical jokes sound especially impractical:

  • After a hard day at work, Grandpa asked Grandma whether she’d massage his back and shoulders with a hot liniment. She agreed, so he stripped to his underpants, laid on the bed, and Grandma started working the liniment into his aching muscles. Just as she was finishing, she pulled down the back of his shorts and slapped a handful of the fiery product on “his boys.” Grandpa got to know an ice bag intimately the rest of the night.
  • For a short time, when Grandpa was working a late shift, he would come home and sneak into the bedroom without waking Grandma, quietly change his clothes, jump as high as he could and belly flop on the bed, startling Grandma out of a deep sleep. It didn’t take her long to fix this behavior. A few nights later, Grandpa came home and began his routine: He tiptoed into the dark bedroom, slipped out of his clothes and into his pajamas, leaped into the air … and landed face first on the bedroom floor. Grandma had moved the bed over a few feet before she’d turned in for the night.
  • On one of the first pleasant spring days in the late 1930s, Grandma and Grandpa decided to take the family on a picnic. Grandpa had to run some errands in town before they left, but he promised he’d be back in a few minutes. So Grandma got the kids dressed and ready to go, filled the picnic baskets with food and waited for his return. Nearly two hours later, Grandpa stumbled through the front door, took a quick look at his furious wife and, without saying a word, plopped onto the couch and passed out. While in town, some friends had intercepted Grandpa and, with little effort, persuaded him to have a couple quick drinks with them at the tavern before he headed back home. A couple of drinks became several, and they hadn’t been very quick. Grandma’s response? She found some rope and hogtied a still-passed-out Grandpa to the couch. She took the kids on the picnic and left him tied up for the rest of the day.

Yes, Grandma usually had the advantage with Grandpa, but perhaps he was just born to be an easy target. Some evidence for this was there well before he and Grandma married. As a youth, Grandpa once fell for the old snipe-hunting ruse. In this case, the quest was for “ring-tailed” snipe. After ditching him out in the country holding a burlap bag under a tree, Grandpa’s tormentors sneaked back to town and waited for his return. Their wait was longer than usual for this gag, but eventually they spotted him trudging back with his empty burlap bag – no ring-tailed snipes. His “friends” got a good laugh at Grandpa’s expense, but they also were impressed with his snipe-hunting determination. They quickly christened him “Ring,” and that nickname stuck for the rest of his life.

Grandpa apparently learned a thing or two from his snipe-hunting experience and years of Grandma keeping him on his toes: As town marshal, he once earned another nickname and some notoriety for being diligent and as determined of a lawman as he was a snipe hunter. People began referring to him as “the pajama-wearing policeman” after this story hit the newsstands:

Chicago Sun-Times, Monday, June 10, 1957

A town marshal catches two after 70-mile chase

Nothing much ever happens in Medaryville, a hamlet in Pulaski County, Indiana, 70 miles southeast of Hammond. But Ogle Lowry, the town marshal, proved yesterday his alertness during a disturbance of the peace.

His peace was disturbed at 2 a.m. by a telephone call from Dewey Wayne, owner of a garage and filling station. Suspicious hammering had awakened Wayne in his home next door to the garage.

The marshal rushes

Lowry pulled on a pair of pants over his pajamas, leaped into a motor truck, and reached the garage in time to see two men emerge and drive away.

Lowry raced after them. The night chase – at 80 miles an hour – led through Gary, Indiana Harbor, East Chicago and finally into Hammond.

There the fugitives stopped for a traffic light and Lowry, pulling up alongside, drew his gun on them.

Ex-vets charged

At the police station, his captives identified themselves as former servicemen, both from Hammond. Earlier in the day, they had held up a rural movie theater and obtained $165. Police found this and $126 taken from Wayne’s safe in a paper bag under a seat of their car. They also found a loaded gun.

Over the years, family lore has varied the amount of non-pajama clothing Grandpa was really wearing at the time of the arrest, and I doubt the long-lost letter from Grandma that accompanied the newspaper clipping added much verifiable clarity. But I am sure that when Grandpa returned home that night, he didn’t request a hot liniment massage.

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‘Worse than a disease that’s incurable’

1970s, Grandma

As for most of us, getting old was one of Grandma’s archenemies. She accepted its inevitability, but that didn’t mean she cared for it one bit. In her letters, she took every opportunity to express her disgust with everything that came with advanced age. She also had little sympathy for everyone growing old right along with her – their getting old was their problem, not hers. And in her final year, she took Dylan Thomas‘ advice and showed no intention of going “gentle into that good night.”

After Grandpa died in 1974, Grandma and their youngest child Ellie, who had Down syndrome, continued to live in their home in Medaryville, Indiana. After Aunt Ellie died in 1977, Grandma would come to Iowa and stay part of most years with us. With Grandma around, my mom often complained about having another ornery kid in the house – although this “kid” was a sharp-tongued, practical-joking senior citizen who saw the opportunity for dirty play in every card game, even if it meant cheating her grandkids. We caught her most times … she was a determined but poor card cheat.

Grandma described living with us in a letter to my Aunt Mae:

“This family is the goingest family I ever saw. Carol works in the mornings, plays bridge Thursday afternoons, gets the boys to ballgames, runs to the store, gets meals ready, tonight there’s a party here for Howard’s customers, supper out another night for his employees, Monday afternoon is her PEO Christmas party here and what else is coming up, I don’t know. The world just buzzes around me, and I do as I please.”

During Grandma’s last stay with us, her heart landed her in the hospital twice. Her first “spell” happened on a Christmastime evening. It started with Mom asking me to help her in Grandma’s room. Grandma was a plus-sized woman and, as she got older, she occasionally needed some help getting out of her chair. Sometimes it took two of us pulling on both sides with Grandma huffin’ and puffin’ and cussin’ the whole way up. But when I got to her room this time, Grandma was in her chair with her head slumped to her chest, unconscious and panting for air. My mom, a registered nurse, was kneeling next to her with her stethoscope to Grandma’s chest. She calmly told me to call 911. A great thing about living in a small rural town: A paramedic heard the call on her scanner, grabbed her medic bag, ran down the street and was at our front door almost before I’d hung up with the 911 operator. It took the ambulance another 60 seconds to arrive. Slow pokes.

The next evening, while my brother and I were visiting Grandma in the hospital, she mentioned how annoyed she was with the monitor beeping out her every heartbeat. She had an idea: “Let’s see if I can get that infernal racket to stop.” She took a big gulp of air and held her breath. At first, we thought she’d just hold her breath for a few seconds and let it out … joke over. But she continued, and the beeps from the heart monitor were indeed slowing! Only after we yelled at her to knock it off did she finally take another breath and start cackling. Besides practical jokes, gallows humor was another of her specialties.

A second heart episode followed three months later. Grandma was in her room knitting while my parents and some friends were playing cards in the kitchen (yeah, we play a lot of cards). Suddenly, a loud “THUD!” came from the direction of Grandma’s room. Everyone rushed back to find her on the floor, flat on her back and seemingly unconscious. Someone said, “Call 911!” My dad knelt next to her, and noticed she wasn’t breathing and her complexion changing quickly to a very dark shade of purple.

“Forget the ambulance,” he said. “I’m afraid we need to call the funeral home this time.”

No sooner had he said this than Grandma gasped loudly, opened her eyes and, like that, she was back among the living. After another short stay in the hospital, she was back at our home, knittin’ afghans and mittens, and cheatin’ death and card players.

Early that summer, Grandma had recovered enough to make the return trip to Indiana. She died a few months later. The news of her death was something I was prepared to hear. After her heart episodes with us, it seemed just a matter of time before she’d have an unrecoverable event. Still, when Mom told me she’d died, the first thought that crossed my suddenly numbed mind was, “Are you sure?”

Here are a few of her written opinions and observations about getting old, death and proper denture care:

“Those old farts from the center took two buses and went to the state fair Sunday. They were in wheelchairs and using canes. I could just see someone pushing me around in a wheelchair. They’d say, ‘Mary, give it up!’ Old age is worse than a disease that’s incurable.”

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“The strawberry patch is loaded, but I can’t pick them. I tried hoeing around the tomatoes, and now I’m pooped. I also tried pulling some weeds, and I see I can’t do that either. I guess I’d just as well give up and sit the rest of my life out. But I’m like an old bull … I keep trying.”

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“I must of caught Lynn’s cold, and I’ve really had a siege of it. Can’t get my breath and at times I cough so hard, I began writing my obit. Now today, I have an appointment to have my head put back in place.”

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“Everyone’s going to Indy this weekend and seems like they think I could go too, but taking two Lasix a day and with the pot in the basement there, I’d never make it and I don’t think my heart would take it either. So if anyone wants to see me, they know where I live.”

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“Well, I must stop now. I have to find a couple flashlights and help your dad in the garden. He was bent over pulling weeds and his teeth must a fell out of his shirt pocket without his noticing. Now it’s dark out and he can’t find them. The old fool needs to keep them in his mouth where they belong!”


Besides not wearing his dentures, Grandpa also had a hearing aid that spent more time out of his ear than in it. I assume the low audio quality, discomfort and bulkiness of hearing aids from that era affected how often Grandpa used his. I also suspect that not using it was a convenient way to amplify his selective listening with Grandma.

By picking out the few words he thought he heard, he could fake his way through many conversations with well-timed nods of the head and grunts of understanding. That approach also left him open to some spectacular misunderstandings: One summer day when my cousin Rhonda was at their house, Grandma asked her to tell Grandpa that an alert on TV just said a funnel cloud was heading in their direction. Grandpa was outside admiring the garden, so Rhonda went out on the front steps and yelled, “Grandpa! There’s a tornado coming here!” Grandpa looked up at her and yelled back, “Oh, I think the tomatoes are doing great this year!”

Grandpa, Charley and the vagaries of health insurance

Charley wasn’t a deputy, but he was Grandpa’s right-hand man. I never met him but from what I’ve heard, he was a combination of Barney Fife and Gomer Pyle with a healthy dose of Goober thrown in. Here’s Grandma’s description (words and spelling) of life on the job for Grandpa and Charley:

“Your dad’s out reading the meters. He ought to wind that up today. He has such a time with Charley. He can’t remember where the meters are from one time to the next. Charley’s not back on the job fulltime yet. He went to lift a barrel of cans up on the truck and in some manner he got his peenis caught between the can and the truck and mashed the end of it. Then when it healed up, he couldn’t make water, so they had to operate and correct it. Anyway, he was showing everyone his operation and by the way they talk, he must be built like a stud horse. They said they could cut half off then he’d still have more than the ordinary man. Anyway, the doctor won’t release him to go to work until he stops passing blood on account of the insurance.”

I’m not sure how his insurance was controlling his blood passing … and “a barrel of cans”? Maybe she meant “a can of barrels”? Is there even a difference? Regardless, it was always best not to overthink a crazy letter from Grandma.

‘Who garped in the pot?’

My family spends an inordinate amount of time talking about their “bowels.” Always have and always will. Whenever a group of the Indiana kinsfolk gathers, the discussion invariably heads in that direction … usually sooner than later. All it takes is for someone to blurt, “Oh, what a time I’ve had with my bowels!” and suddenly it’s an Activia commercial on steroids. These days, the bowel-fixated standard-bearers are my parents and my Uncle Bernie and Aunt Mae. These are all well-educated people … sitting around talking about their bowels for hours at a time. It’s grotesquely fascinating. But what’s truly scary is that as I get older, I’m beginning to feel I could add something meaningful to the discussion.

If an outsider or two happens into one of these conversations either by choice (their fault) or not (still their fault), it helps to have a working knowledge of the lingo before wading into the conversational cesspool. For example, “pot” is not something you smoke: It’s a universal term for any sort of toilet bowl fixture or a bathroom itself, and you can use it as a noun, verb, adjective, adverb … you name it: “He went to the pot.” “I hav’ta go pot.” “All they had were them porta-potty pots.” A “winder” is an unproductive fart (usually, but not always, a good thing). A “crack” is a loud fart with more treble than bass. “The shoots” is projectile diarrhea. And although “bowels” technically refers to the plumbing south of the stomach, my family uses the word loosely to refer to any (dys)function of the digestive system. So “garp” – a favored word for “puke” or “vomit” – is a bowel issue. Once, at a family gathering, I actually heard the phrase, “All right, who garped in the pot?!!” announced loudly. Thank you, Aunt Mae.

As I mentioned, the family’s current generations are doing a fine job of keeping the bowel-discussion “movement” going. Although they’ve had moments of pure genius – “garped in the pot” was a real pole-raiser – the undisputed potty-mouth champion was Grandma. Here are a few of her many bowel updates. In a previous post, I noted that Grandma’s letters often contained material unsuitable for the dinner table. Well, the following falls firmly into that category – consider yourselves warned. I guess I also should remind you that Grandma was a large woman … she didn’t move very fast. That might help explain a couple of these … maybe.

“Hello Iowa! Mammy want to write so much and take up all your extra time reading, but you know me – I’m loose on both ends.”

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 “I had that pork from Jean’s last night, and I think that’s the darn stuff that gives me the shoots. I woke up this morning with such a headache and after I got up, I started with loose bowels and what a mess. I didn’t make it to the bathroom once in time, and now I’ve got such a backache from cleaning it up.”

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“I got my stomach in a heck of a mess. My mouth is so sore from garping, I can’t wear my lowers.”

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“Yesterday was my weigh-in day and I lost 6 pounds this time. I told the doctor that wouldn’t of happened if I hadn’t been like a goose for over a week. The doctor said it was a virus, but where in the heck did I pick up a bug like that and why don’t anyone catch it from me? It’s been 10 days and I still can’t trust a winder.”

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“I had to get medicine yesterday for my bowels. I’ve had a shitting good time. What a mess. Ran clear down in my shoes.”

Like I said … maybe.

Odd stories and odder observations

My maternal grandmother died Aug. 25, 1984. She was 83. She lived most of her life in a small town in northwest Indiana that was, and probably still is, much like Mayberry from “The Andy Griffith Show.” The Mayberry comparison extended to my grandpa, the town marshal. He was also the fire chief, garbage man, meter reader, mailman and anything else that needed done. Like Sheriff Taylor, he was an affable and polite guy. Grandma was a different story: nothing like any Mayberry character. More like Mama from “The Carol Burnett Show” and “Mama’s Family,” only larger and sassier.

After my parents married in 1954, they settled in northwest Iowa. From then until Grandma died, my mom and my grandma wrote to each other at least monthly. That’s a lot of letters, and Grandma always had an interesting way of putting things.

The day a letter from Grandma arrived was an event in our household. Mom or Dad would often read the letter to us over dinner, which was occasionally a bad idea: In Grandma’s world, no topic was off limits and she delighted in including every stomach-churning detail with certain subjects (usually something to do with her “bowels”).

Fortunately, my dad had the foresight to keep some of her more entertaining letters. “Crazy Letters From Grandma” is a collection of her odd stories and even odder insights over those 30 years.