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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An Uncle’s Empty Chair

An Uncle’s Empty Chair

The Rocky Mountain News was a force in Colorado journalism dating back to the pioneer days. For old-timers and the waves of newcomers alike, it brought communities together and told the things people needed to know. When it went out of business in 2009, our neighbor Harry Puncec wrote about how it would be missed. His article was featured in the very last issue of the “Rocky.” With a thought for the people and institutions that have made us who we are today, It’s good every now and then to give a nod to “the empty chair.” 

By Harry Puncec, Special to the Rocky
Thursday, February 26, 2009

If you are reading this then you know that a member of the family has died. It’s OK to cry.

The passing of the Rocky Mountain News is like the death of a cranky, opinionated, blunt-talking live-in uncle. Every morning over breakfast he would wade in on matters of the day; first came a briefing of news that he felt I should know about, then he gave me his opinion of what it all meant, but he always ended up with a joke or two to soften the lesson.

He spoke sternly about what’s right and wrong with our world, but when I objected I knew he liked my resistance. He was genuinely pleased that I had ideas of my own.

We talked of great issues and minor matters. He tried to explain how society, government and business worked, and wasn’t above damning them when he felt they were off base. He tried to be detached but it never worked. You knew he really cared.

He spent a lot of time worrying about sports – both the big things like the Broncos and the stuff closer to home like high school leagues – and you got the sense that they weren’t just a pastime for him. Win or lose, he faithfully attended the games and gave me an accurate description of what happened. He always mentioned the heroes by name and spoke with regret about the goats. And he let you know that they would do better next year.

He was a shameless homer for sure. He couldn’t say enough about Denver, Colorado and the whole mountain West. He even made it his name. He would talk of things – the price of wheat on the commodities market or city council meetings about trash removal, for instance – that bored me to tears. I imagine he hoped I’d pay more attention and be a better citizen for it. I think I let him down a lot.

In him resided the history of our family. That was important because so many were new to it and wanted to become a part of it. He – and I keep using the word “he” but know very well that “she” made him great – embraced us all. He reported about the small towns with the same affection he used with the large. Cowboys and bankers, miners and scientists, students and retirees were all welcome brothers and sisters at the breakfast table. Through him – his stories and prodding and caring – our family grew closer as it grew larger.

His passing is just plain wrong. One of the great lessons he pounded into my head all these many years was that good guys finish first and the slacker ultimately fails. He ended up disproving his great lesson.

The Rocky was as good and smart in its last days as it ever was, and a whole lot better than when it began in 1859. It improved along with Denver.

I’m sure The Denver Post will try to fill the role and I wish them well. If they are smart they will hire the whole Rocky, kit and caboodle. But whatever happens, the honored chair where my uncle reigned will remain his alone.

Harry Puncec is a resident of Lakewood and a long-time-ago Rocky paperboy. He is a writer, a neighbor, 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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Growing up in Great Times

Growing up in Great Times

The years following WWII saw unprecedented growth all around the country, with the countryside around urban centers sprouting new housing developments. Our neighbor Judi tells of her growing-up days in the booming new 1950s suburbs of  southwest Denver. The days of such great freedom… 

By Judi Puncec

My parents moved us to Denver in 1953, and the following year they found the perfect place to live. It was a brand new development called Mar Lee. The majority of the homes were already occupied. However, at the time my parents were looking at homes a builder in the development had gone bankrupt. The remaining, unoccupied, homes were then sold at a reduced price. My parents were lucky enough to purchase one of those homes. It was on South Newton Street.

The house on South Newton Street. I lived there until I got married.

The neighborhood was mostly occupied by young families. It was what you would call a blue collar neighborhood. Because everyone was basically a new buyer it was a very friendly area with everyone eager to meet each other. The street we lived on had many children, some younger than me, some older and a few my age. There wasn’t an elementary school nearby so we were bused to a school out of the area.

First day of school, 1953

An elementary school did open a year after we moved in and it was within walking distance of our home. This is when I met and became friends with three other girls in my class. It was nice to have girls my age living nearby. On our street there was only one boy who was in my grade at school so I was very grateful for the girls!

By the time summer arrived that first year, because it was a new housing area there were no big trees and many houses still were in the process of planting lawns. Kids playing outside were restricted from new lawns so we mostly rode bikes or played jacks and hopscotch on the driveways. There was always something fun to do.

We did have an indoor swimming pool, Progress Plunge, about 8 blocks away and by the time I was ten I was allowed to ride my bike and go swimming without a parent accompanying me. It was great freedom during the summer months. Also by then a strip mall shopping center had been built four blocks from our house. I was allowed to go there by myself or with a neighbor girl. We eagerly looked forward to trips to Hested’s dime store to buy 10 cents worth of candy or going to the drug store to buy a milkshake at the soda fountain.

By the time I went to junior high our neighborhood was showing the signs of permanency with the trees and shrubs getting bigger and change of ownership in many of the homes. Also, the undeveloped land to the south of us was now all homes and growing fast with new builders coming in every year. When we first moved to Mar Lee we were on the very outskirts of the city. Now we were well within the city and developing suburbs to our west. We even had bus service to downtown. The bus stop was two blocks north of us and one had to change buses at Broadway to get to downtown Denver. I was allowed to take the bus downtown when I turned 12 years old. The girl next door was 14 then and my parents trusted us to venture alone into the big city! Oh, how we loved to shop by ourselves. We felt so grown up. We now also had the first McDonald’s in southwest Denver and were thrilled to be able to buy hamburgers and cheeseburgers. The hamburgers were 15 cents and the cheeseburgers were 19 cents! It wasn’t quite close enough to walk or bike to so we depended on a parent to take us.

When I was in high school (10th grade) we had a new school that had only been open one year. I was in the second graduating class from the school. It was really too far to walk to and there was no bus service so we had to take a public bus or depend on a parent or older student of driving age to take us. By 11th grade I had a driver’s license and my Grandma Rosie had bought us a second family car which was mainly for my use, getting to and from school.

The house now. My parents planted the elm tree.

I lived with my parents in that home until I got married in 1966. My parents lived there the rest of their lives. My father died in 1975 and my mother in 1996. A lot changed in the neighborhood during those years. Houses were added onto or remodeled, the trees grew to majestic heights, and families from all over the world became our neighbors. When I go by there now, the neighborhood of my growing-up years is recognizable only in my memory.

Judi Puncec was born in Rockford, Illinois and lived there until the summer she turned 7 (1953) when her parents moved to Denver. They lived in an apartment until February of 1954 when they bought the house in Mar Lee. Now she lives in Southern Gables with her husband Harry, who told us about their move to a different new development, Memories of Early Southern Gables.

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