Another Trail

February 4th, 2014 at 10:10 am

Today’s Flyover People column as seen in The Emporia Gazette:

wb county highway



Blue-violet clouds ride the northern horizon.

I am following Kansas Highway 99 toward Admire, Eskridge, and beyond.

While the clouds toward the north appear flat, perhaps that’s just because of distance. Clouds in the foreground are bulkier, boxier, and are in motion. I picture the nearer clouds to be covered wagons moving across sky just as wagons pounded this very earth 170 years ago.

Maybe the image of the wagons comes to mind because I am heading toward the Oregon Trail in Pottawatomie County.

Driving along out in the country, not too far from a residence, a cat zips across the road. “Be safe, kitty,” I say. I worry about pets and highways. And at those awful moments when I see a cat dead on the pavement, I’ll say out loud, “Opossum. Opossum. That was a opossum,” trying to clear the feline image from my mind.

Coming from a field of stubble, white wisps of dried corn leaves blow across the highway. Wind tries to gain control of the steering wheel. Haven’t we had an extraordinary number of windy days this winter? You don’t have to wait until spring, get your wind today.

Looking toward the horizon, in the center of those mulberry-colored clouds, I see a half-rainbow, and not a thin rainbow, but the widest, chunkiest rainbow I’ve ever come across. Sprinkles begin to hit my windshield.

In the pasture, cattle trails catch my eye. These thin trails, not even as wide as a cow, look more like the human paths worn down between buildings on a college campus, the shortcuts that sidewalks don’t take. Single file, cattle follow one another.

In a town along the way, I notice a bashed-in vehicle parked at a repair garage. In a small town, everyone sees the wrecked car, and everyone knows the driver and has heard about the accident. As a kid, I remember seeing wrecked cars that had been towed into Pawnee Rock. The cars were parked at the Pawnee Garage, as if on display, until they were later hauled to a salvage yard, or repaired if the damage wasn’t too great. The car told the story – of the dangerous curve, of the late-night partying, or of the icy highway. Each wrecked car is a lesson for us all.

In Wamego, I cross the Kansas River. Part of it is ice-covered, part of it runs free. The ice is a thin layer – opaque, white, cold.

On this trip, I will visit a friend, Lou Ann Thomas. Not too far from her residence, probably in the late 1850s, Louis Vieux charged a dollar per wagon for Oregon Trail travelers to cross his bridge over the Vermillion River. On U.S. Highway 24, I cross the Vermillion for free.

Lunch with Lou Ann is pork chops and sweet potato casserole, asparagus and applesauce. Windows look out onto the world from her home on a hill. In her front yard, the view is open to the west and the southwest, and each evening it is here that she photographs the moment that the sun takes leave of earth. She posts the photos on Facebook for those of us who are sunset-deprived.

The meal is nourishing in more ways than one. During our lunch, Lou Ann and I speak of writing and ideas and things that matter to us both. We share progress since our previous conversation. We talk about our writing paths, the possibilities before us, and the resistance we find along the way.

The sky is clear and blue for the drive home. As I wind my car around the curves, I think about the concepts and ideas we discussed. My mind is as full and happy as the Kansas sky.

Copyright 2014 ~ Cheryl Unruh

Follow Flyover People on Facebook.

Purchase Flyover People book online.

Purchase Flyover People book on Kindle.

columns, Flint Hills, life on the ground, writing

Emporia Main Street Photo Contest

January 29th, 2014 at 12:59 pm

To celebrate May as National Historic Preservation month, Emporia Main Street will hold a historic photo contest. Three winners will be chosen and receive Main Street gift certificates.

* Photographers must fill out entry form for each photo and attach to photo (limit of 3 photos per photographer).
* The deadline for the contest is April 25th. Submissions must be in the office at the end of the business day. This is not a date stamped deadline.
* Subject of image must be of an Emporia commercial or educational building and be at least 50 years old.
* Images can be black and white or color and should be current (taken within the last 2 years).
* Images must be 8×10 prints and printed on photo paper.
*Photo must be owned and taken by the individual who is entering it.

NOTE: Images will not be returned. Photos may be used for office displays and promotions for the photo contest, Historic Preservation Month and historic preservations, in general. Photographs will be judged by a panel consisting of representatives from Emporia Main Street’s design committee as well as the quantities of likes and shares as we post on our Facebook historic photos page. Selected photos from the photo contest will be displayed in several locations throughout Emporia during the month of May.


It’s Kansas Day

January 29th, 2014 at 4:51 am


Celebrate Kansas Day, buy a Kansas book!

May I suggest…

FOP small

A collection of 80 essays about the Kansas experience: Flyover People – Life on the Ground in a Rectangular State. I write about the wind and the weather and the seasons. I write about people and places, about growing up in a small town.

Also available on Kindle.

Dog small

Or how about a thriller written by my brother: Dog of the Afterworld. Leon Unruh begins his action novel in Anchorage with a Russian assassin ready to take out a dock worker. Nik, the assassin, fails, and is sent on another mission – to Kansas – to redeem himself.

Also available on Kindle.

Tiger Hunting

And here’s a fun book set in western Kansas: Tiger Hunting. Tracy Simmons, now of Emporia, writes about a young woman, Jeni Renzelmen, who returns to her hometown of Dodge City to figure out the mess she’s made of her life. The novel begins with a wreck involving circus animals. It’s an engaging story of loss, family expectations and finding one’s way.

Also available as an e-book.



Flyover Book, Kansans, other people's stuff, Uncategorized

Naming Names

January 28th, 2014 at 2:33 pm

Today’s Flyover People column as seen in The Emporia Gazette:

brownell po


Once upon a time in Kansas, there were towns called Milo, Mimosa and Moonlight.

Those towns have faded into history now, but they are three of the 4,281 post offices established in Kansas between 1828 and 1961.

In a book called “Kansas Post Offices,” Robert W. Baughman listed every office opened (and closed) during those years. Baughman writes that 1879 was the year with the highest number of post offices established: 254. The year with the most discontinued offices was 1887 when 225 offices closed.

It is simply a book of lists. It has an alphabetical chart of every post office, a list by county, and a territorial list of post offices before statehood.

These towns came to life, many of them briefly, and most have now been returned to dust.

This week, Kansas claims 153 years of statehood. And to celebrate, I’ve been reading the names of towns in this book. I just love the sound of them. Kalvesta, Kanopolis, Kalamazoo.

We’ve had a Topsy, Tonovay, Tonganoxie, Thrall, and even a Taos.

Cairo, Jerusalem, Jericho.

Vera, Verdi, Vassar. Hope and Hopewell.

Peacock, Bird City, Bird Nest, Birdton. And near Cheyenne Bottoms is a place called Redwing.

Skidmore and Skiddy. Prosper and Progress. And once upon a time, people picked up mail in Cowboy and in Plowboy.

Peru still stands in Chautauqua County. In Republic County, New Scandanavia is now Scandia

Novelty once existed. As did Nonchalanta and Neutral. Plano and Plato. And Radical City.

We’ve had a Quarry and Quincy, Quenemo, Quindaro and Quivera. There’s been a Zephyr and Zenith, Zoro, Zulu and Zyba.

I would like to have visited Mystic, but this Sheridan County post office was only open from 1887-1889.

What’s the story, I wonder, behind the town named Troublesome? And the one called Discord?

Kansas has had places called Neighborville, Paradise and Mt. Pleasant. We’ve had Love Joy, Valentine and Harmony. And Friendship, Good Intent and Free Will.

There was a Netherland once. Norway and Egypt. Denmark.

Golden Belt, Golden Gate, Golden City. Globe.

I’ve been to Susank and Schoenchen, Speed and Spearville, but not to Scipio or Spivey.

Grasshopper Falls was renamed Sautrell Falls which later became Valley Falls.

Delano is now a neighborhood in Wichita. We’ve had Dillwyn in Stafford County, Delavan in Morris. There was once a Dixie, a Cleveland, Key West and Brooklyn. And a California.

Comet and Coyote are long gone. In Marion County, Antelope once had a post office; Bison remains in Rush County. In Butler County, a town called Cloud became Andover.

Riley County, naturally, once had a place named Wild Cat, while Jay Hawk made an appearance in Chautauqua County.

Kansans have lived in Assaria, Argyle and Appomattox. Arcola, Aroma, Achilles. Long ago, residents picked up mail in Alfalfa and Wheatland and Cactus.

Over the years, we’ve used up a lot of post offices and towns in this state. The hardiest ones have survived. No matter which post office delivers your mail today, I send you joyous Kansas Day greetings.

Copyright 2014 ~ Cheryl Unruh



Follow Flyover People on Facebook.

Purchase Flyover People book online.

Purchase Flyover People book on Kindle.


cities, columns, history, small towns

Key to the Treasure

January 21st, 2014 at 3:47 pm


Today’s Flyover People column as seen in The Emporia Gazette:

Key to Treasure2


I hang onto books, especially my favorite ones.

As a youngster I must have read “Ribsy” by Beverly Cleary and “Key to the Treasure” by Peggy Parish at least 30 times each.

Last week, in my basement, I found those two novels and a dozen other childhood books. Holding “Key to the Treasure” in my hands again brought back memories of my Arkansas grandparents so I carried the book upstairs and reread it.

My maternal grandparents were Kansans, born and raised. However, before I came into this world, they moved from Larned to a place in the country southwest of Fayetteville, Ark. Once or twice a year, my family made an 8-hour drive to their house in the Ozarks.

For the final leg of the journey to their home, we left a paved road and drove past Dowell Cemetery, a shady rural graveyard filled with moss and old gray stones. A few miles later we arrived at their house, hidden from view of the road by a thick row of spiraea bushes.

Grandpa built the small, simple house in 1952.They lived there until I was about 7, so all I have are little-girl memories of the place.

Even though I was young, I clearly remember the colors of Fiestaware bowls into which my grandmother spooned sliced cling peaches. Whenever I come across that shade of dusty rose or soft yellow, I think of Grandma’s dishes.

The well on their property had gone dry so they hauled in water. Because water was a luxury, the outhouse was used. I ran to Grandpa one day when I found a snake on the outhouse floor. Spiders and webs were creepy also, but in a less dramatic way.

Behind the house, Grandma kept an ever-expanding flower garden. She pointed out new plantings, mostly wildflowers that she and Grandpa had dug up from the Arkansas ditches.
Further back in the yard, in a grove of hickory trees, brown and white bunnies lived in rabbit hutches.

These images remain vivid today, probably due to my repeated reading of “Key to the Treasure.”

The book was published in 1966, which was about the time my grandparents left the farm.
“Key to the Treasure” tells about three siblings who spend summers in the country with their grandparents. The kids investigate places on the property while trying to solve a family treasure hunt that dated back to Civil War days.

Naturally, as a young reader, my mind set “Key to the Treasure” at my grandparents’ house in the country. Even though the Fayetteville place didn’t have a stream, my imagination could easily add one behind the rabbit hutches.

When the kids in the book sat down to meals, in my mind they were eating off of the Fiestaware that my grandmother had. When those kids washed supper dishes, they were standing at my grandmother’s sink.

Over the past several decades, while reading all kinds of books, I’ve often resurrected the Fayetteville property and placed many characters in my grandparents’ home. When a novel includes a scene with a well-tended garden, my imagination defaults to Grandma’s patch of wildflowers.

If a poem mentions owls, I’ll recall sleeping in Grandma and Grandpa’s front bedroom. With windows wide open on summer nights, I heard the Arkansas owls hoot. And when a short story tells about a character that killed a snake, a photograph taken at my grandparents’ home comes to mind–Dad is standing near the house with a hoe in one hand, and from his other outstretched arm dangles a long, dead snake.

Familiar childhood locations serve us time after time; they resurface when we read. My grandparents’ property is the setting for dozens of stories—some that actually happened there and many that didn’t.

 Copyright 2014 ~ Cheryl Unruh


Flyover People: Life on the Ground in a Rectangular State by Cheryl Unruh is available in paperback from Quincy Press.FOP-blue-cover-front_4001-200x300

Flyover People is now also available on Kindle.

Follow Flyover People on Facebook.

columns, nostalgia, out of state

Maxwell Wildlife Refuge

January 14th, 2014 at 9:27 am


Today’s Flyover People column as seen in The Emporia Gazette:

Maxwell bison


A fragile white moon hung against a blue winter sky. Below that nearly-full moon a dozen bison grazed.

Atop a nearby ridge, seven head of elk, “the bachelors,” looked on.  The elk and the winter grasses were the same shade of tan. Two of the elk were sparring on the hill and I wondered how often an elk’s antlers get tangled up with another. Surely that happens, doesn’t it?

On a crisp December afternoon, seven of us and a driver were out on the Maxwell Wildlife Refuge in McPherson County. Jim and Cindy Griggs, who live in McPherson and are frequent visitors to the refuge, had arranged our photography tour.

We rode in a tram, a long trailer pulled by a pickup. Padded benches faced outward for viewing. Plexiglass windows provided some protection from the light breeze, but it was basically an open-air conveyance. On this 30-degree day, the air was cold enough to see our exhalations.

But we were on safari. In Kansas.

Maxwell Wildlife Refuge is located in McPherson County, six miles north of Canton along the Prairie Trail Scenic Byway. The Prairie Trail Scenic Byway is 56 miles long and goes from Canton to Lindsborg and Marquette. The byway takes travelers past the Maxwell Wildlife Refuge, Kanopolis State Park, and Mushroom Rock State Park.

This wildlife refuge got its start in 1943 when the Henry Maxwell Estate donated 4 square miles to the Kansas Forestry, Fish and Game Commission. A natural prairie preserve had been a dream of John Gault Maxwell (Henry’s father) who had settled in the area in 1859. Bison and elk were placed on the land in 1951.

The land is in the Smoky Hill region of Kansas, so the hills are rolling and the grass can grow knee-high, waist-high.

We didn’t get very close to the elk, and I guess that’s why long camera lenses were invented, but at one stop on the tour, a herd of about 25 bison came close to check us out.

The animals were in small groups, but overall there were 180 bison on the refuge and 80 head of elk.

Stan Stephenson, our driver, said the refuge held their annual sale in mid-November. They sell animals each year to keep the herds at a level that the land can support. Stephenson said that this year 66 bison were sold, which is about the number of calves born each year.

They sell the cows that haven’t calved as well as the ones who have late-season calves. “They’ll cull those out of the herd,” he said.

I asked Stephenson for his job title at the refuge, and he said he was “just a wrangler.” He’s retired he said, a volunteer. “I find every excuse I can to get out here.”

He said of the bison, “When we come out here in the morning to feed them, when it’s really cold out, they’re prancing and dancing.”

That I’d like to see. These heavy creatures don’t look like prancers and dancers.

As we drove, we saw a wallow here, a wallow there, everywhere a wallow. None of the bison were wallowing, but it wasn’t for lack of opportunity.

We were at the refuge in the late afternoon. The sun’s rays, cast at an angle, skipped across the grasses and turned them golden.

It was a cold day for the tour, but still a very enjoyable ride in the hills. I’d like to hit the refuge during the green months, the warm months. Maybe next time I’ll catch bison in their wallows.

Tours are available year-round by reservation. A tour takes about an hour and costs $8 for adults, $5 for children. No charge for children 4-years and under. For more information call (620)-628-4455, or visit their website:

Copyright 2014 ~ Cheryl Unruh

Follow Flyover People on Facebook.

And… the Flyover People book is now available on Kindle for your reading enjoyment. Click here.

columns, landscape, nature

Travelers to Tanzania

January 7th, 2014 at 9:24 am

Today’s Flyover People column as seen in The Emporia Gazette:

 Lion Jim Griggs photo - smLion in the wild, Tanzania – photo by Jim Griggs


“We got charged by an elephant, but it was a false charge. A couple guys asked me, ‘How do you know it’s not a real charge?’ And I said, ‘Because the vehicle is still upright.’”

Jim Griggs has a great sense of humor which comes through in his travel stories. On a Saturday in December, at the Griggs’ breakfast table in McPherson, Dave and I, and Tom and Lori Parker heard about some of Jim and Cindy’s adventures.

Jim and Cindy Griggs lead photography trips to mysterious places on other continents. They’ve made a number of trips to both Tanzania and Peru.

Evidence of their travels is mounted on the walls of their home. Large photographs of wildebeests, leopards, and other exotic creatures hang all over their house. Dave and I were honored to spend the night in their “Africa Room,” where photographs of zebras and an elephant and a lion guarded our sleep.

Tom Parker and I were in McPherson that Saturday to sign our books at The Bookshelf. Tom is the author of a collection of essays called “Dispatches from Kansas.” Because Dave and Tom and Jim are photographer-friends, the Griggs’ invited us all spend the night with them. After the book signing, Jim and Cindy took us on tours of the newly-renovated Opera House in downtown McPherson and the Maxwell Wildlife Refuge near Canton.

Ever since his college days, Jim, a semi-retired mechanical engineer who now works in sales, has been interested in wildlife photography. On one of those college backpacking adventures, he carefully packed all of the camera equipment that he’d need, but neglected to pack any food. Priorities.

They’ve gone to Tanzania four times now.  “I’ve never felt threatened,” Cindy said, even when they had lions go through their camp at four in the morning.

Their trips are two weeks long. Twelve 12-hour days are spent riding in the vehicle. In the evenings, they eat, sleep, and then start all over again.

“The animals have lived so long without hunting that the vehicles are neutral objects to them,” Cindy said. “And the driver-guides have the responsibility of making sure we don’t affect the animals. A lot of action goes on very close to us because the animals don’t care.”

“One of the advantages of going on a photographers’ trip is that we sit and wait and watch the action,” Cindy said. “Our driver-guides do what we want them to do, they don’t have an agenda. So if they get us into an interesting spot, we can spend two hours with a pride of lions – that’s 37 lions and over a dozen babies.”

“We had a lion come up and lie in the shade of our vehicle,” Jim said. “You could reach out and touch him if you wanted to, but you’re not allowed to.”

“You listen to your driver-guide and he keeps you safe. He keeps you from doing stupid things like sticking your hand out,” Cindy said.

Jim said, “On our first trip, one guy was a jogger and he asked the guide, ‘Is it OK to go for a run?’ The response he got was: ‘I don’t know, how fast can you run?’”

“You can stay in the vehicle or you can enter the food chain. And you enter the food chain really low,” Jim laughed.

The tours they lead are small groups and that allows photographers to move from one side to the other in the vehicles. “The biggest group we’ve had is eight,” Jim said. “Except the trip to Peru had 10.”

Jim and Cindy are planning a group tour in Scotland this year. In April, Bob Gress, another Kansas wildlife photographer, will co-lead their photo safari to Tanzania in April 2014.

Closer to home, Jim teaches a photography workshop with Boyd Norton each year in Wyoming.

Jim said they didn’t take their first trip to Tanzania until a friend from Colorado suggested it. “I took him to the tallgrass prairie and he kept asking, ‘Do you like this?’ and I said ‘I do.’ He said, ‘It looks just like Tanzania – the Serengeti.’”

“That was the deal-breaker for me,” Jim said. “I had to go then.”

For view Jim’s photographs or learn more about their trips, visit

Copyright 2014 ~ Cheryl Unruh


Follow Flyover People on Facebook!


columns, Kansans, other people's stuff, traveling

Grandma’s Ghost Chamber

January 6th, 2014 at 11:11 pm

Flyover People column for Dec. 31



Last week, on a cold winter’s night when the wind was scaring up noise outside, I pulled the blankets to my chin. At that moment, Grandma Unruh came to mind.

When my brother and cousins and I spent nights with her during the winter, Grandma would come upstairs to check on us. At breakfast she’d always report, “You looked cold, so I put another quilt on you girls in the middle of the night.”

With six quilts fastening us to the bed, we couldn’t roll over, but at least we were warm.

Grandma’s place, a mile or so northwest of Pawnee Rock, was like many Kansas farms. The two-story home was sheltered on the north by cedars. The farm had a handful of outbuildings and the place was guarded by a watchdog named Shep.

The upstairs was unheated in the winter, without air-conditioning in the summer, and a little bit creepy all year round. As we climbed the enclosed staircase, drafty air swirled about us, as if we were being hugged by ghosts.

Haunted? Probably not. I’m pretty sure the creepiness we felt was something we brought upon ourselves.

I’ll bet you had childhood sleepovers at which you did your best to frighten yourselves, succeeded, and then spent the night deciphering the sounds of monsters.

We grandkids spent many nights at Grandma’s house. And I considered my cousin, Mary, to be worldly and wise because she was six years older than me, and was from the big city of Great Bend.

During her junior high and high school years, Mary often brought along a friend. Mary, her friend, and I would sleep in the bedroom that had belonged to Mary’s mom. My brother, Leon, slept down the hall in Uncle Laramie’s room. And Brenda, Mary’s little sister, a few years younger than me, got stuck sleeping with Grandma.

In those years before “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” (1974), Mary and her friend regaled us with urban legends of the day which seemed to always be about a young couple parked out in the country and that couple encountered a human who, unfortunately, had met with some form of evil in the woods and had a missing arm, leg, or head.

Since I didn’t have access to fresh horror stories myself, when it came time for my turn at storytelling, I often relied on the classic “Golden Arm” tale.

We were in the perfect theatre for ghost stories, the upstairs of that old farmhouse. On winter nights, the window panes, loose in their frames, would rattle in the wind. During spring and summer, violent thunderstorms shook both the house and our nerves.

As a town kid growing up surrounded by occupied homes, I felt vulnerable on the farm at night. A lone house seemed like a lightning rod for storms and for trouble.

We were about ten miles from Larned State Hospital – where the criminally insane were housed. Once, during a high school basketball game, the principal announced over the loudspeaker that a patient had just escaped from Larned State Hospital. He warned everyone, “Before you get in your cars tonight, be sure to check the back seat.”

At Grandma’s house, the city lights of Larned were a visual backdrop to the southwest, and the threat of an escapee looking for food, shelter, or victims seemed very real.

Inevitably, as we told our ghost stories, Shep would start barking at the edge of the dark field. When Shep’s barking suddenly quit, we stopped breathing. Was she silenced? Our imaginations would fly like the wind.

I reasoned, as any 9-year-old might, that if Shep were disabled, all we had standing between us kids and the bad guy was my pacifist Mennonite grandmother and Grandpa’s shotgun that she kept behind the dining room door.

But, on a previous occasion, I had watched Grandma wring the neck of one of her chickens – to make us lunch. So during those wide-eyed moments in the night, I felt oddly comforted by Grandma’s seeming enjoyment of killing chickens.

Between the two of them, Shep and Grandma managed to keep us safe from storms and from intruders.

Like any other set of kids who tell stories in the dark, we would scare ourselves silly, realizing too late that we’d gone too far. But then, the next time we stayed at Grandma’s house, we’d tell those stories all over again.

Copyright 2013 ~ Cheryl Unruh


columns, life on the ground, nostalgia, seasons

And So This Is Christmas

December 24th, 2013 at 5:43 pm

This week’s Flyover People column as seen in The Emporia Gazette:


Tom Flick’s raspy voice erased all uncertainty. “Ho-ho-ho” was a dead giveaway when that man put on the red suit.

But the years that Santa wasn’t played by Tom, my friends and I had a dickens of a time guessing who was behind the white beard.

Every year on a Saturday in mid-December, Santa Claus (a Lions Club member) arrived in Pawnee Rock to deliver sacks of candy to kids who gathered around the fire truck.

Yeah, a fire truck. This was small-town Kansas in the ‘60s and it was one of those use-what-you-have situations; the town had no sleigh and the real Santa Claus was apparently otherwise occupied.

But the pseudo Santa was always punctual. At 10 a.m., he rode the fire truck down the hill from The Rock (i.e., the North Pole) with the wind-up siren blaring. The fire truck turned off Main, stopping on the side street between the grocery store and the post office.

Dozens of kids swarmed. We’d squeeze against each other, happy for the warm herd of bodies around us. With arms extended up, we’d wait for the offering, delivered one at a time.

After I grabbed my small brown paper bag, I went to the low concrete bench at the side of the grocery store to sit with friends where we’d trade and eat candy.

A good deal of the bag was filled with peanuts-in-the-shell and there was an apple. We might find Brach’s candy – Neapolitan pieces, candy orange slices and chocolate peanut clusters. And there was always a Snickers or a Hershey’s bar in our sack.

After the bags were handed out, Santa drew names for the turkeys. Before the event, residents could purchase tickets from the Lions Club for a chance to win. My dad always entered our names in the drawing, and one year I became the proud owner of a frozen turkey.

Santa’s visit to town was the event of the year for downtown Pawnee Rock. We didn’t have anything else. During the 18 years I lived there, I think there was only one parade. Our town had no festivals, no street dances. Santa Claus was it.

And it wouldn’t have seemed like Christmas to any of us without Santa’s arrival. It gave us a moment when we could all stand around together, as a community, on a Saturday morning.

The cold that rimmed the top of our ears and burned our cheeks helped make it feel like Christmas. And there was joy and excitement in that downtown intersection, an uplifting spirit in the air. Greetings among the adults were cheerful; partings were signaled by a bright “Merry Christmas.”

In my little hometown, Santa Claus riding into town on the fire truck was a prerequisite for the holiday. Once he showed up, Christmas seemed certain; at that point it was less than two weeks away.

The Christmas season has more traditions than a Douglas fir has needles – and those rituals vary from family to family, from church to church, from town to town. Whatever the traditions are, there’s a comfort in those familiar moments that we count on every year.

Not everyone participates in the holiday. There are those of different faiths, as well as those who put their faith in other things. But whether or not one celebrates Christmas, it is all around us: the music, the candy, the decorations.

Each December, we’ve come to expect certain things: holiday parades and programs, carols in the air, the ringing of the Salvation Army bell.

For some folks, it’s not Christmas until they put up the tree with the kids or until they hang their own childhood ornaments. Maybe Christmas doesn’t seem like it’s real until you watch “It’s a Wonderful Life.” For others, they know that it’s Christmas when they sit in a pew on a frosty evening and hear a lone voice read Luke 2:1-20.

The feeling of Christmas hits different people at different times.

I don’t know if Santa Claus still shows up in Pawnee Rock, but every December that hometown scene replays in my mind. When I recall the images of Santa riding in on the fire truck, well, that’s when I know that Christmas is here.

Copyright 2013 ~ Cheryl Unruh

(A similar version of this column ran in The Emporia Gazette in Dec. 2009.)


columns, nostalgia

Looking for Joy (Radio version)

December 24th, 2013 at 5:09 pm

“Looking for Joy” – Here’s my radio piece that aired this morning on Kansas Public Radio.

There are 2 “listen” buttons. The 2nd button includes the intro and outro – with fabulous music.

Listen here. 




columns, life on the ground, on the radio, seasons

The Sounds Around Us

December 18th, 2013 at 7:55 pm

Today’s Flyover People column as seen in The Emporia Gazette:

Tiger treat bottle


Last night I opened a bottle of cat treats and gave one to Tiger. Across the room, Zorro, who had appeared to be in a dead sleep on the couch, lifted his head and looked expectantly for a personal delivery.

Our cats are well-familiar with the sounds that a treat bottle makes. If you move a bottle, they hear it. They know what cap-removal sounds like and how the crunchy nuggets roll around inside the plastic container. However, I can pick up a bottle of vitamins from the same end table and neither cat will pay attention. And that’s good – I’d hate for them to be salivating every time I took a vitamin tablet.

Years ago, when Dave and I lived in a house about six blocks from where we are now, Sonny, our cat at the time, would greet Dave when he came home in his noisy old Land Cruiser. After we moved to our current house, Sonny ran away a few times, back to the old place. So we’d drive the Land Cruiser to the old house and Sonny would come running.

Like cats, we, too, become familiar with specific noises. There are many sounds that we love and know by heart, some even from childhood. And we carry those remembered sounds with us, like coins in a pocket.

The banging of the wooden screen door on my childhood home is something I can replay after all these years. I remember the loud click of the hallway light outside my bedroom door, and the thunder of my brother running down the wooden steps into the basement.

Certain sounds are embedded in our psyches. Every Christmas Eve, I relive the comforting sounds from my hometown church. I remember the low murmur of voices before the service, and how the chords from the organ filled the sanctuary. The chilly night air gave the organ a different tone than what it produced on a regular Sunday morning.

When we think of our five senses, sight usually seems like the most vital, the most urgent. Vision provides us with so much information so quickly. Our minds process and judge that information and that helps to keep us safe.

Sight is a fabulous thing; it offers us movement and color. However, it is sound that adds the music to our lives, whether it’s a song playing on the radio, summer cicadas, or the voice of a loved one.

A game of sound that I like to play is “name that actor.” When Dave is watching TV and I’m across the room in my reading chair where I can’t see the set, I’ll sometimes try to pick out the voices. I’ll ask Dave, “Is that Sandra Bullock?” Some voices are so familiar that it’s obvious, but with others I have to listen to for a moment to pull that person’s tone out of my memory file. Like fingerprints, we each have a unique voice.

I love silence, I really do. Silence is the place where I go to think, and where I can let go of thought. But I’m also fascinated with sound, unless it’s harsh and loud. So I’m not a big fan of fireworks. And I don’t care for barking dogs or loud music.

And ticking clocks, no thanks. One of my uncles made grandfather clocks and had a number of them in his house. When I’d visit that’s all I heard – the ticking. Each tick echoed like a loud metronome, measuring my life in seconds. Each tock shortened my life. That house made me antsy and I never stayed there very long.

The sound of a winter wind is different from the sound of other winds. In winter, wind seems to ride higher in the air; it makes a haunting sound as it gets tangled in the bony branches of trees. The winter wind rattles window panes, which have shrunk and loosened in the cold.

And now that it’s winter, we’ve all moved indoors. I don’t know about you, but during these cold months, my ears get a little lonely. Maybe I’ll take in a basketball game. Now that sounds great.

Copyright 2013 ~ Cheryl Unruh

catz, columns, life on the ground