A sucker for memories

Tuesday, May 4, 2004

The other day I was in line at the grocery when a little kid in his mother's arms lost his grip on his sucker.

You know the ones - the big chocolate hummers that last an hour, with the Tootsie Roll center that gives your jaw muscle cramps.

The old instincts are still there. Caught it in mid-air. Left a sticky goo on my hand, but the kid didn't seem to mind. Popped it right back in his mouth with a gleeful squeal.

He probably didn't see the water well up in my eye for just a second, before it turned into a slow smile.

Pretty silly for a grown man to get emotional over a spilt sucker, isn't it? It took a second for me to figure out.

It's spring, and I miss my friend, Woody.

Hold on, I'll explain.

His name was Lewis Woodle, but he was "Woody" from the day I met him. Woody of that firm, warm handshake, Woody of the carrying bass voice that never failed to holler "Good morning, boy," across the road, Woody of the neverending battle against weeds, dandelions and any twig or leaf that attempted to fall on or near his beloved lawn.

Mostly, though, I'll remember Woody as the lollipop man.

He loved kids, and kids loved him. And inevitably, without fail, come hell or high water, no matter when or where you would run into him, he would find a Tootsie Pop sucker in his pocket for them. The man must have bought them by the case. Perhaps he was in cahoots with the Storm Lake dentists' retirement fund, but my children loved him, and they loved those suckers - not because of the candy, but because they came from a special man.

You don't fool kids. They recognize true kindness and good like moths recognize a flame. He would call them over in that sonic boom voice, and all else was forgotten as they went running. They might be shy around anyone else, but with Woody they would jabber on about the day's activities in school, their latest sports adventures, and the garter snakes they had captured in the yard, and he would beam back, as infinitely interested as if they were reciting to him the very universal meaning of life.

And, in a way, maybe they were.

He had a lot of the skills I admire in a person. Not wealth, but rich in the ability to find something good in every person to remark on. Not famous, but so loved that I gave up trying to explain where I lived with an address number - instead I just started saying "I'm 'cross from Woody," and 95 percent of the people I met would just nod understanding at that, and smile.

Woody was more than a neighbor, he was the neighborhood. He was it's spirit and its protector, its ears and its eyes, and in a very real way, its heart. He was the kind of neighbors people used to have, the kind that cared and made time, before TV and computer games imprisoned us all inside our own houses.

His was the place every kid wanted to go to first on Halloween. He was ready with advice on anything from backyard auto repair to child rearing to an uncanny ability to read a weather forecast off the lake that was his backyard for so many years.

He was the guy you liked to sit and watch the sun go down with.

For my kids, he was more of an adopted grandpa than he was a neighbor. He made a habit of showing up for sports, concerts and their church events. He enlarged the concept of "family" to include three-fourths of the St. Mary's school, I think, and supported that school, its sports and its kids doggedly. Heaven help anyone who would dare speak ill of any child in his presence.

I remember the day he came to the pew where my son had kneeled for his first communion. With a whole danged bundle of those suckers, big as your fist. Almost as if he somehow knew that memory needed to last those kids. One week later, we were at his funeral.

The new neighbors are nice. They sometimes pass a greeting across the road too.

But it's spring. Weeds and sunsets and kids, and Woody should be here.

The neighborhood doesn't feel the same without him this morning. They may have laid him to rest in the finely-manicured local cemetery, but there's a lot of him left out here in Lakeside, too.

Woody and his Mary took care of one another by turns, and held on to one another through the years with great joy and style. Old age crept up, but their souls stayed young, and that's really the trick, I imagine. Plenty of the humanity that this couple shared so freely still shines around here in their children and grandchildren - good people and good neighbors. I wouldn't even be surprised if the tradition of a pocketful of lollipops may live on one day in at least one of them.

We're still missing you, Woody. I'll keep an eye on the neighborhood sunsets for you, and curse the leaves and sticks that dare to come near in your absence. In my mind, I still hear your big voice ringing across the way, and the way it made my kids go running.

And as I hand a sticky, icky brown Tootsie Pop back to a little kid and ponder where to wipe my hand, I smile at an equally sweet set of memories it unexpectedly inspires. I'll never be able to look at one of those wonderful suckers again without thinking of my friend, the lollipop man.

* Dana Larsen is the editor of the Storm Lake Pilot-Tribune.