Each spring a torrent of muddy water raced through the deep ditch in front of my school. Only the bravest boys attempted to walk across the sideless four-plank bridge when the water surged over its top. Ismay School’s four teachers detoured a block downstream and entered at the corner of the schoolyard. There, a culvert took the rushing waters under the gravel road down to Fallon Creek. The rest of the year, the trench was bone dry.
On a sunny April Saturday, when I was seven, I put on my white rubber overboots and the teddy bear coat with the red trim Mom made me. I climbed through the barbed wire fence across the road from our house determined to find the origin of the angry, churning waters. I clambered up the hill through ankle-high grass, stepping around mud puddles and through piles of snow the size of anthills. I jumped over streams that raced around limestone boulders and emptied into gullies. Water snaked from every direction on the hill as if an imaginary faucet was open behind each sagebrush. My face was hot under the sun’s rays in the clear Montana sky when I reached the top.
I took off my coat, perched on a rock and gazed in amazement at the liquid moving around me. The hilltop had no dirty rushing waters like that I’d witnesses surging over the school’s bridge. Quiet rivulets flowed into streams fed by the melting snow. I jumped down from the rock. Calm waters gurgled beneath my boots. I smiled. I had discovered something new.
The streaming forces of nature were like those that shaped my life. The emotional eddies that flowed through the hills and gullies of my Montana childhood began as silent streams of religious reverence and family protection. My desires developed at a creek’s pace when I was a teen, then erupted like a storm-stirred ocean as I entered my twenties. When I was twenty-two the waters gathered together and a tsunami of emotion swept me away.
From six to sixteen I lived in Ismay, a small cow town of two hundred, tucked into the southeastern corner of Montana. I was the eldest of three sisters and a brother. Our ’46 Ford carried us along Highway 12 to and from doctors’ appointments and shopping in Miles City, seventy miles away. At mile fifty-nine going home, we had to chose which road to take. Should we take the six-mile or the eleven-mile road? The roads formed a triangle with the highway. Each thoroughfare had its advantages.
The eleven-mile was narrow with ruts that ran deep in the hard packed gumbo dirt. But, it was more direct, so we could get home quicker. The six-mile was straight, wide, and graveled and so had few grooves. If we chose it, we’d have to drive two sides of the triangle, and the trip took longer.
If Dad was in a hurry to get home to milk the cow before dark, he turned the car off the highway at the eleven-mile road. Then, we would choke on the powdery dust as the car bumped over the deep gashes in the road. We didn’t chose this road in rain or snow for fear of getting stuck. Taking the six-mile was longer because we turned onto it farther down Highway 12. However, there, the car kicked up less dust and we wouldn’t get delayed if we encountered bad weather. The six-mile and the eleven-mile roads were like the behaviors we faced in Ismay: rough, fast and short versus safe, slow, and long.
Whichever route we took, the scenery was the same. Grain fields spread out beyond barbed wired fences. Farms and ranches poked up suddenly behind low rolling hills. The colors of the fields changed with the seasons. In summer some were yellow, pregnant with ripened wheat and others white with feathery frostings of seedlings blowing down from cottonwood trees. In fall, the fields lay brown and fallow, resting. In winter, they were white with snow. In spring, they were carpeted with the green of new shoots of grain.
The six-mile and the eleven-mile roads joined at Fallon Creek flowing fifteen feet below the Big Red Bridge, named for it’s rusting iron sides. All vehicles crossed the bridge’s one-lane with care. For city folk, getting their car to straddle the two elevated planks, that rose a few inches above the wooden platform, was unnerving. Locals didn’t worry about staying on the boards spread six inches apart or about a truck headed towards them. They knew the rules. Never turn the steering wheel when on the bridge. The first vehicle to the bridge has the right of way.
For the mile after the bridge, cottonwood trees peered down from thirty-foot tops and waved all comers into town along a gravel road. We bumped over two sets of Milwaukee Railroad tracks, took the second street to the right, and were on Main Street.
The town looked like those in the Wild West movies I saw Sundays in the Ismay school auditorium. We had cowboys on horses trotting down Main Street past false fronted buildings. In Ismay dogs ran free and neighbors’ pigs rooted among weeds in vacant lots. My family’s pig, like us, didn’t roam the streets. Mom and Dad corralled us safely on our three-acre property along with a cow, a few pigs and chickens and a garden. We were sheltered from the wildness of the bars—and the town’s other vulgarities, like cursing.
Kids wouldn’t swear in front of us. If one said, “Damn” or worse, “Goddamn,” the other children were quick to correct the blasphemer. “Oh, you can’t say that when the Kohl kids are here,” they said. The offender would apologize and change his choice of words.
My parents expected us to be well behaved and adhere to the Ten Commandments and the Catholic rules taught in Sunday school and summer catechism classes. Since I was the eldest, I had to set a good example. But, I wasn’t always the angel they wanted, especially when sweets were involved. Once, when I was four, Mom noted my sticky hands and confronted me about the missing “juicy roll” she had made for the following morning’s breakfast. “I didn’t eat the roll,” I said before we sat down for supper.
“Evelyn, if you disobey me or lie,” Mom said with a stern look, “you won’t go to heaven.” I thought for a bit. Mom stood over me her hands on her hips. “Oh yes I will,” I said, looking into Mom’s accusing eyes, “I’ll just hang onto your hand to get there.” Her anger disappeared. At least I could count on returning to angelic status in summer catechism classes.
“Who thinks they have a religious vocation to become a priest or a sister?” asked Father Hanrahan the summer before I turned nine. The handful of Catholic children perspiring in the sweltering classroom at Ismay school looked longingly at the crystal rosary dangling from the seminarian’s hand. Shining like a diamond necklace, I knew it would be the reward for anyone who answered positively.
My arm shot up high, “I do, Father,” I said, “I am going to become a nun.” The prize, once again, was mine.
That afternoon, feeling pleased with my growing collection. I placed the crystal rosary in the dresser drawer next to my stack of holy cards and pile of religious medals. I’ d been awarded a white rosary that glowed in the dark the week before by my positive answer to Father’s other question: “Who has never committed a mortal sin?” I’d committed plenty of venial sins like talking about others, teasing my sisters and sassing my mother but never one of those big ones like stealing, killing, taking God’s name in vain or adultery, whatever that was.
This newest rosary was bigger and shinier than the one with pea-sized beads. I prayed with one of my prizes every Saturday evening when the family knelt in the living room around the sofa my parents built and another on Sundays when we drove eighteen miles to Mass at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in Plevna.
Mom read to us every weeknight from a Catholic children’s newsletter and The Lives of the Saints. I pictured St. Catherine of Sienna starving or St. Sebastian with scores of swords stuck into his chest as I jumped into bed and huddled under the covers. I feared they, or the Blessed Virgin, would appear. More than my imagination made me ill with fright when I was in sixth grade and my protective bubble burst.