Musings on a Road Trip

Musings on a Road Trip

Way back in the early part of this century Judi and I used to make holiday pilgrimages to family gatherings in St. Louis, “Gateway to the West.” On one such trip I got to thinking about the even earlier days of earlier centuries, and some of the things we take for granted as the miles smoothly whiz by in our sleek metal-and-glass stagecoaches. 

By Harry Puncec

Three days after Christmas and it’s time to pack up for our drive back to Denver from St. Louis. Interstate 70 beckons and cannot be ignored. So an event of historical destiny must be re-enacted – migration westward with its manifest difficulties and triumphs relived.

The 850 or so miles from St. Louis to Denver reminds me of life itself; first there is the fertile countryside of youth as you travel the rolling hills and lush fields of Missouri, then you encounter the long, mind-numbing middle-ages stretch across Kansas and eastern Colorado, bringing you, at long last, to the happy view of the eons-old mountains of our fulfillment.

Nah, that won’t work, too simple and doesn’t take long enough. It’s just the kind of thinking your mind engages in when you are deprived of any visual sensory input. Driving the empty miles provides the brain with far too much time to think, leading to fantasies not experienced since the days of magic mushrooms and LSD. My own hallucination took the form of comparing pioneers of the 1860s to the traveler of 2005.

Wagon trainTraveling at 80 mph lets you cover within minutes the distance traveled by a wagon train in one day. They would walk – and the trip from St. Louis to any destination in the West was a walking trip – beside their wagon as it covered 15 to 20 miles on a really good day. The only sound they heard was the squeaking of wagon wheels, the soft murmur of other human voices muffled by the cathedral sky and windswept prairie grass, and the cry of circling birds waiting to feast on those who fell away. I, in turn, was listening to Fat Bottomed Girls by Queen on a CD turned up high to drown out the sound of wind buffeting the van.

The last view of St. Charles, Mo., seen by the departing pioneers may have been their last contact with family, friends and the land of their life forever. Years later, should they survive the trip and should the mail find them, they might receive a letter telling of the death of a beloved parent, the fire that consumed the barn where they used to play, and the factory going up over in Springfield that was rumored to be hiring 100 young girls to operate the spinning jennies. Communication was slow and unreliable if it made it across the miles at all. My reflections on this were interrupted by the ringing of my cell phone. It was our daughter back in St. Louis saying our grandson’s favorite toy had turned up missing and asking if we had seen it.

Back to dreamland, and waiting for me was the thought of death. If you ever walk the old pioneer trails leading west you encounter graves off to the side; most are unmarked and you can’t even be sure that bones still lie beneath the stacked stones.

Others may have a note affixed telling of a 3-day-old baby, a young mother taken in childbirth, or a father dying from gangrene after a fall. It wasn’t just old buckles and ribbons or used containers littering the trails; sometimes it was the remains of those too frail or too unlucky to make it. The modern equivalent is the shattered remains of blown tires on the shoulders of the highway and the occasional wreath propped up along the road to mark the site of a fatal accident. At least those deaths were known to family and marked by services. The pioneers could only pause the train for a brief time while words were spoken from an old family Bible. Perhaps they wondered what would befall the far-too-inadequate grave when they left, but they had to turn away and try to make a couple more miles before night fell.

We spent the night at the Comfort Inn in Hays, Kan., enjoyed a tasty breakfast the next morning, and rejoined the flow heading west. At the end of the road that afternoon stood home. The electric garage door opener operated to let us into our house where I found a full refrigerator and freezer, a VHS recorder that had saved all the missed Dr. Phil shows, and a toasty temperature assured by a computer-driven thermostat. But before I started to drag in the suitcases I paused to think one last time about those people who first came to create a fledgling Denver, and to silently salute.

—  This article was previously published in the Rocky Mountain News on January 2, 2006. 

Harry Puncec is a resident of Lakewood and a founding member of not only the Southern Gables Neighborhood Association but the Southern Gables neighborhood itself. Story: Memories of Early Southern Gables.


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The Big Bird

The Big Bird

Happy Thanksgiving!  Our neighbor Harry Puncec is as much a proponent of the traditional turkey dinner as anyone, but the season brings memories of one year when there was not a turkey to be had. An alternative was walking around nearby… 

By Harry Puncec

It must have been in 1945 right after VJ Day, the day in August when Japan decided to surrender and the war ended. Things were recovering from the austere war rationing rules as the soldiers came back home and tried to fit back into their old jobs. Some did, some never would, and most families just kept on getting by. We were living at the corner of Sherman Street and 8th Avenue in Denver in a duplex with a tiny enclosed back yard. My folks brought a live goose home to live with us. My brothers and I fell in love with it, it was our first family pet after all, and we embraced taking care of it. That’s something of an overstatement as all we did was feed it and chase it around the enclosure.

Any farmer will tell you a big no-no is to name a farm animal. Regardless we named the goose Billy as I recall and he – or was it a she? – became family. Things went along swimmingly with Billy, even despite him/her always trying to escape our hugs.

The people who occupied the other unit were a childless couple named Crane. Mr. Crane worked as an engineer on the railroad which made him a hero to us kids. We later learned that he had grown up on a farm and that explains how he became part of this story.

One day in November we were playing with Billy when Mr. Crane came in with a wooden milk carton and an axe. We, of course, had no clue. He sat us kids on the stoop then he grabbed Billy, laid him over the carton and with one swing of the axe cut off poor Billy’s head. Billy, with blood squirting from his now truncated neck, ran around the yard for a brief time bumping into things until he fell over. Wow!

Later in the day we in incomprehension watched Mom pluck the feathers from Billy.

Finally Thursday came around and it was Thanksgiving. As we sat around the table when mom with obvious pride brought out a perfectly cooked and stuffed Thanksgiving bird. While the bird was being carved a vague notion entered my head and I asked if that was Billy?  Yes it was!  I began bawling instantly, followed by Joe and Paul. Needless to say, we refused to partake.

We weren’t cannibals you know.

Harry Puncec, whose friend Billy is still sadly remembered, was a founding member of not only the Southern Gables Neighborhood Association but the Southern Gables neighborhood itself. Story: Memories of Early Southern Gables.


A Brush With History

A Brush With History

By Harry Puncec

There is a group of men that I meet with on a regular basis, called the ROMEO Club. In case you’re not familiar with the term, it’s “Retired Old Men Eating Out.” The purpose of the group is often described as exchanging “war stories,” and that term means anything that happened in the past and can be embellished with a little polish for a more agreeable perspective. We have found that, through this process, the older we get the better we were.

The other day over at the Valley Inn we had a brush with real history. We were joined by James Harvey III, one of the few remaining Tuskegee Airmen.  He’s the old guy in the photo, a Lakewood resident who at 98 years old is mentally sharp, surprisingly mobile (only used a cane), and has a sharp sense of humor. We ended up speaking a bit louder than usual for James’ sake and that had a surprising result: a couple firemen at a nearby table bought all our breakfasts.  They came over and we all chatted with one of them pulling up a chair next to me.

One of the young firefighters is at the head of the table in the photo above (the other one took the photo) and Lt Col Harvey is on the right. I am the one between them and was telling a joke. It’s a great group of guys.

On the other side of the table are “The Guys” from my old outfit: Bill Burrows, Ray Milhollin, and Jim Dillie obviously enjoying my brilliant joke!

Photo from interview published on YouTube, referenced below.

Back to the fireman who picked up the tab and who we were conversing with.  He was deeply impressed to meet Mr. Harvey.  Nice guy who had, of all things, worked for Mr. Harvey’s daughter 24 years ago.  Talk about coincidences.

Photo credit: American Veterans Center Oral Histories

I was also deeply impressed with meeting Lt Col Harvey. Of course he is proud of his Tuskegee Airman affiliation, but justifiably he is even prouder of winning the Air Force’s very first “Top Gun” competition in 1949. That is a world-class accomplishment. You can read about James’ history in this article on Wikipedia: James H. Harvey. We didn’t talk about it at the ROMEO meeting, but I found out later that the Top Gun win was not officially recognized for many years. It has been recognized now, and having met the nation’s first “Top Gun” seems all the more special.

In his own words, on YouTube: The True and Untold Story of the First Top Gun Winner – Tuskegee Airman James H. Harvey III.