About Penny Rush

(This is an excerpt of Chapter One of Rock & Roll Medicine©)

‘Born in the Fifties’The Police

A wall of clouds darkens the sky like a giant eagle of mythic proportion blanketing Kansas City. Heavy rains fill the river basin and the Kaw and Missouri spill over their banks in what will be remembered as the Flood of ’51. I am a year old. In the wake of the arrival of a new decade, the post-war generation is born and the rivers of the heartland are in flood.

I am the daughter of Peggy and Tod Stronach. My mother is a Paine of Welsh descent. I have discovered that her maiden name is rooted in the word pagan or country folk. The Stronach name is Scottish and refers to horse nose or strong nose, which might hint at the kind of intuitive power that I would use in later years to forge my way through seemingly insurmountable barriers, permeating membranes that separate the inner world from the outer, penetrating the veil that separates the audience from the mysterious world backstage.

Tod & Peggy, my brothers Gerry & Ronny, my sister Karen

I am the fourth and final child in a relatively broad span of years between siblings and have been proclaimed the apple of my father’s eye. My dad is quite a powerful social force, a well-loved guy with a small army of friends. His drinking buddies consume a fair portion of his evenings in the bar around the pool table, upon which his body will eventually come to rest, singing songs into the rafters, ballads like Danny Boy or Toora Loora Loora, songs that will fill up our happy home and memory; songs that make him wish he is Irish.

Our earth is a hill between two hollows in a blue-collar neighborhood skirting Kansas City, Kansas. We are nestled into the hillsides. The river valley below contains the large spread of the Santa Fe Railroad, which sustains our town in an economic sense. My father is employed there as a switchman. The town is Argentine, which means Silver City. The name comes from the smelter in which silver refining reached peak production in 1898, providing a stunning prosperity that is clouded literally with poisonous fumes that hang in the air for much of that year suffocating the town. With the establishment of the railroad culture as early as 1875 however, Argentine is a tough and wild frontier town with scores of saloons, only a handful of churches, and a strong spirit of survival.

The original Stronach homestead is just up the hill from the hollow that cradles Whitefeather Spring. Trickling out two dark holes, like a stream of tears, the artesian spring is a crack between the worlds in which I play as a child. In 1830, long before the first white settlement there, Whitefeather Spring is the sight of the last Prophetstown. It is then that she magnetizes into her sacred woods the final sanctuary of the Shawnee Prophet, Tenskwatawa. His remaining followers are spiritual refugees, outlaws among their own people, disenfranchised of land and culture as they hold out for religious autonomy. Drinking from her pool, beneath the shelter of the ancient rock shelf, her subterranean intimacy fosters a kind of sublime hopefulness, quietly refreshing, as if inspiration were derived merely from the constancy of her flow. She is unaffected by the local rainfall.

Music like water flows into my life from all directions. There is the radio. But records and movie musicals, Flower Drum Song, the Sound of Music, West Side Story, Camelot, consume us. I don’t fashion myself as a performer though with my older sister Karen, we sing “Sisters” from the movie White Christmas, for an old folks home, when we are quite young.

My father is a crooner, loves Bing Crosby, Perry Como, and Frank Sinatra. His favorite is Al Jolson. I remember my dad as a somewhat good-looking, slightly overweight man with a flattop. His severe tan lines depict a man baked in the sun both at work doing construction and at play on the tennis court. The courts are by the fire station. He bugs the parks department until, to his delight, they finally install lights for playing after dark. He insists that he will teach me how to play, but never does. He is toothless for much of my adolescence, which I assume is normal, until he gets dentures a few years before his death.

Tod rescues Peggy from her father, George Paine, a soppy-stern, tall, lean, and somewhat mean spirited man, embittered by the loss of his own wife, Katie, and two of his young daughters. When Peggy is only three, Katie gives birth to Minard, the only son in the family of seven sisters. Little Minard’s life only lasts through the day and Katie dies two days later from pneumonia and a broken heart. She and Minard are buried along side the sisters who’s young lives have been cut short by tragedy of one kind or another. Though her four remaining sisters buffer the loss of the matriarch, nothing can replace Katie’s motherly love.

Traumatized by a particular kind of insensitivity on the part of her father when she is in high school, Peggy is chosen for the girl’s chorus and needs a new dress. George has no use for such frivolity and conveniently ignores the request. Unable to face humiliation, she quits school. When the same episode repeats itself the following year, Peggy simply quits school altogether. Adding salt to the wound, George presumptuously expects she will be the one to take care of him in his old age and remain unmarried. Peggy has her own agenda, she is pretty and slender, with wavy hair and searching eyes that captures the heart of Tod Stronach, who in his early years with a full set of teeth, is quite dashing.

Peggy is very much a woman of the fifties, happily entrenched in the chauvinistic role definitions of the day in which the woman serves the man. Tod becomes a carpenter after being fired from the railroad for rescuing weathered lumber. Whenever he neglects to put his carpentry skills to work around the house, Peggy, after repeatedly asking for his help will hire a handyman for various projects that she herself cannot easily accomplish. She is quiet, passive, and accommodating, but just as still waters run deep, she will reveal her power when pushed to the brink. One evening after learning that Tod has gambled away a paycheck that was designated money for a new couch, Peggy slips into a knife wielding frenzy in which he returns home to find the existing couch slashed to shreds. Tod responds by promptly taking Peggy to the furniture store, where he buys her a new couch on credit.

The instinct to act out and slash the couch is isolated and a real contrast from the persistent madness of my crazy grandmother Florence, Tod’s mom, whose turn it is to make Peggy’s life miserable. Known for her manipulative tactics and animated fits when she doesn’t get her way, my Grandma is a piece of work, reportedly stopping traffic on one occasion by lying down in the middle of the road. Though she torments my Mother to no end, she has a soft spot for me. And in a strange episode of generosity after admiring the length of my fingers, orders a Baby Grand piano delivered to our house. She hasn’t the money to pay for it nor does my dad, who happens to be home when it arrives and orders it taken back to the store.

In retrospect, there might be a recollection of better times in the life of Florence Stronach than we are ever to know, primarily because, upon the burial of her fourteen year old son, she is never the same. Edmund is a strong boy, one of seven children, who goes to work across the tracks as a field hand. One night after getting paid, he does not return home and his body is found on the tracks, his death considered an accident. With his wallet and watch missing, Florence remains convinced that he is murdered and neighborhood elements are to blame. In the intimacy of the hill, flanked by the hollows, she does not escape the injustice and his vacancy defeats her.

Florence’s confusion weighs on Peggy, who without having experienced a nurturing mother in her own life, does not find an inkling of nurturance in her mother-in-law. However, Peggy exhibits the mothering force whole-heartedly to her kids, providing us with all our needs and indulging our wants to a point at which we might have been thought of as spoiled. But we as kids feel happy and loved. The house is immaculate and there is a sense of discipline. Though we are not rich, there is also a sense of richness in our lives. All is well until my sister discovers love at fifteen, becomes pregnant, and is married. I am six at the time and my mother tells me that if I ever do that to her, it will kill her.

As the decade ends, Barbie makes her first appearance. Even though I am a brown-eyed nine year old with dark brown hair, it is the blonde Barbie that I choose. Upon completing swimming lessons, my parents reward me with this goddess of materialism and popular culture starts to idealize the disproportionately skinny Barbie as the new standard for women. My mother observes that I am becoming increasingly chubby with the removal of my tonsils, a procedure that has now become common practice. Being chubby is part of growing out of your baby fat and isn’t considered a problem until the image of Barbie takes hold of the minds of little girls all over America. This change in thought is carried into the sixties and becomes an issue that will plague me for the rest of my life.

In sixth grade I am in a car accident while escaping a math assignment. My dad is behind the wheel and has a head-on collision with another car, luckily at a slow speed. No one else is hurt. An unusual fracture in my right thigh has me in traction for three months. Though initially devastated, I become accustomed to the hospital, charming the nurses and making the best of it. I have Barbie to keep me company and I avoid school for most of the year, though unlike my mother, I will return.

As the baby in my family I grow up with the music my family loves. I am happily lodged in my parent’s mental house and satisfied with all that surrounds me. Ritualistically, on Friday nights, my dad takes us out to dinner and a movie. Tod’s token night with the family. More often he is with his friends at Reich’s Bar. We frequent the Uptown Theatre for movies and the outdoor Starlight Theatre for stage productions. Tod takes me backstage and teaches me how to hang out long enough to connect with the stars who eventually surface.

In November of 1963, I am in band class when the assassination of JFK is announced. Overcome with emotions, the affect on me is profound, though I am only thirteen. I have seen the president when he stops in KC on his campaign tour and feel the same inspiration in his speech that the grown-ups do. I don’t know the politics, I just feel the energy. Something shifts in America. Beyond the despair and the shock, a shining symbol of hope is shattered. My eyes, like Whitefeather Spring, are a stream of tears.

Then it occurs. As if perfectly timed to heal the broken heart of the American dream, a powerful dose of rock and roll medicine is administered, propagating a sociological phenomenon. The Beatles take the stage on the Ed Sullivan Show and electricity permeates the airwaves across America entering into our individual homes, rescuing, my generation at least, from the lingering despair of the Kennedy assassination.

The girls of my generation are somehow at the crest of the wave. We are nine when Barbie first materializes and perfectly aged at the hormonally crazed juncture of fourteen for the Beatles’ emergence. It is an age in which we are given license to scream. In the hysterics of the day, a freedom of emotional release will purge the previous trauma, as if in a rain of screams we cleanse the country as a whole, like the Flood of ’51 washing away the trauma of the War so that something new can emerge. The new frontier has opened up, when the Beatles take the stage, a deeper wave is felt, as if the four horseman of the apocalypse have signaled a new era. Soon a higher vision will take root but initially, The Beatles have simply given us music that is unique to my generation, and though well packaged for popular consumption, there is a spirit of rebellion, a cleverness, in the bottomless melodies that transport us into a state of deep joy, and the uninhibited expression of the joy, which while held at bay for others like my siblings and parents, is unleashed for those of us born in the fifties.

Tod & Peggy


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