Janet Sheridan: Of food and puffer bellies
June 16, 2011
In third 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're 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 8, 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 smiled, too — straight from our stomachs. My siblings and I rated the grandness of any occasion by its food. A road trip to Provo on payday was a five-star event.
We headed for the car.
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Dad drove and sang, his smooth tenor soaring above our commotion. Mom refereed. The two little ones crawled back and forth over the seats, trying out different laps. The rest of us squeezed into the back, 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 worried, whispering a phrase we'd heard, but didn't understand: "heat exhaustion."
As our 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, threatening in their darkness and enormity.
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.
I thought Ironton looked like the devil's playground.
If we chanced to pass when the small engine and cars appeared, Dad would sing, “Down by the station, early in the morning, see the little puffer bellies all in a row.” The rest of us joined in, though sometimes a haughty teenager refused to participate.
Next we reached Provo, which looked like it had slipped down the Wasatch Mountains and come to a stop on the valley's edge, still partially sprawled up the foothills.
Our destination, Ream’s Discount Groceries, squatted a few blocks off Main Street. Inside the poorly lit store, we walked behind our parents like ants following a trail of crumbs as they piled our cart with staples: flour, sugar, beans, rice, oatmeal, and fruits and vegetables not grown in our garden or canned in our kitchen.
After collecting the necessities, if they had enough money, they added luxury items that made our stomachs dance: a bag of oranges, a brick of cheese, licorice, and hotdogs.
We never asked for treats. We knew better, and we knew what came next: the Dairy Queen.
We smiled in anticipation as Dad parked at the small red-and-white building which leaked cool, sweet-smelling air from its screened service window. His grand announcement, “Let’s go, kids. You can order anything you want under 50 cents,” triggered a stampede that terrified the high school help.
A few years after the deaths of our parents, the seven of us reunited to ride in a van around Utah Valley, the mountain-protected home we loved.
We drove by Ream's Discount Store. “It looks so little,” Carolyn commented.
We visited the Dairy Queen, spent more than 50 cents each, and frightened the workers — they weren't sure we'd all make it to the window.
When the van neared Ironton, abandoned and mostly dismantled, we spontaneously burst into Dad's song about puffer bellies and stationmasters.
As we sang, I wondered if I was the only one who heard his voice soaring above ours.