My brother Tim’s text message pinged my phone last Sunday morning. “Mark Allan died. His obit is in today’s Tribune.” I closed my eyes and a flood of distinct memories came rushing back. And a week later I’m still thinking about Mark, the Allan family, and the universe we shared in a window of time that spanned the late 60’s and early 70’s.
The Allan family lived around the corner from our house -- on Lincoln. Our homes shared McKinney sandpit, and that lake community included the Kings to our west, the Harold Jones family west of Allan’s on 19th, followed by Pat Keenan’s home. Further down 19th were the Degners. At various times the numbers might include friends, friends of friends and even strangers. Everyone was welcome.
Between our home and Allan’s was a vacant lot, owned by Frank Schartz. On the east end of the lot, near the street were bike trails and ant hills that seemed to get our attention around July 4th. At the west end of that the lot it sloped down to the water. The lot had large cottonwood trees still there today. On summer days their leaves would flutter a form nature’s own symphony. Along the shoreline were trails with well positioned fishing spots.
Those trees and surrounding brush were inviting. There the neighborhood kids would gather, create exclusive clubs, trade comic books, build and rebuild forts and debate our heroes like Evel Knievel and Billy Jack. We dug a tunnel with a large gathering room maybe ten feet below the ground. From time to time this venue invited company from the across the street to the south – the convent. Back then the Dominican convent had a high school. While some seventeen year olds hoped to someday serve the Lord, others hoped to get served at Dixons. Some of those not spending time in chapel wandered over to the lot and enjoyed a Virginia Slim. We would visit.
Tom Allan built his house in 1957, and Tom’s vision included an elevated porch off the shoreline, built around a large cottonwood tree. Someone threw a rope high into that tree, and tied a large knot at the bottom. It was a five star rope swing that was a siren to the latchkeys. Mark had a twin sister Marty, and two older sisters Kathie and Janet. On any given day the entourage might include them, Kelly and Carrie Keenan, my brothers Marty, Tim, and Burt Unruh, who lived a block to the east in a brown brick home across from Harrison Junior High.
One year the Allan’s strung a cable from the top of their tree to Pat Keenan’s dock. They invented the first zip line.
In the winter when the lake froze we played ice hockey with brooms and rocks as pucks. I remember Christmas day, 1971 when we spent all day on the ice and came into the house and hearing dad say “the Chiefs just lost to Miami in sudden death.”
Though I spent many days with Mark, I can honestly say in all those years I never once set foot in his house, and Mark never came in ours. Life inside had no appeal. He was fun and friendly and shared a curiosity with nature and the mysteries of the sandpit. He had a square jaw and hearty laugh and was muscle and bone. Today you’d say he was ripped.
We were the original free reign kids. The Allan’s were Protestants, which means hanging with them posed zero risk of discussions of the difference of mortal or venial sins, or whether Sister Mary Rose was mean or nice.
We were companions pretty much every day in the spring and summer in the late 60’s, early 70’s. The lake was rich with catfish, bass, carp, perch, bluegill and crappie and we fished it constantly. That water also offered us an inventory of minnows, frogs and crawdads which we needed to keep the lines in the water. What we couldn’t find we bought at Gibson’s Discount.
The five pound bass which earned a place in the May 31, 1968 Great Bend Tribune was just one of many. Three years later, on May 12, 1971 Tim caught a 34 pound Buffalo head fish, which also made the Tribune.
Mark had many talents, none greater than his ability to hold his breath for long periods under the water. This quality as also shared by Burt Unruh. Keep in mind that in this era McKinney was prone to stories of mysterious currents that could pull a swimmer down. This deterred none of us. For days at end Mark and I would gather on the beach of the King family and play a game called ‘ditch’em. The rules were simple. One player would submerge and attempt to lose the other player who would follow. You would go as deep as you could, where the water turned ice cold, and pitch black, and make quick turns to lose the other. With time we developed other techniques, like throwing mud and sand off the bottom to cover your tracks. If you lost your rival, you won.
Between turns we would sit on the King’s manicured beach and predict Evel’s next jump or discuss whether the Night Stalker was planning to break into the blood bank at CKMC. .
One time Harold Jones had lost an expensive snorkeling fin off his property. “My dad told Mark, in kind of an off-hand way, that he’d pay them $20 if he could find it,” Harold shared with me. “Mark said Ok. As we walked back to the house I remember Dad saying, ‘That’ll keep them busy for a while.’ Off and on, for the next hour or so, I watched Mark diving down and coming back up for air. Bert Unruh was either on the bank or mostly treading water watching Mark work. Hours later there was a knock on the door. There was Mark, dripping water on the back porch, holding the fin in his hands like it was the Holy Grail. Burt was standing behind him. Dad reached in his wallet and pulled out two ten dollar bills. Mark immediately turned around and split it with Burt.”
Mark got his driver’s license in April, 1973 and made new friends. We drifted apart with time but our connection with the lake endured. Allan’s house had a fire and they moved away.
Over the years when I would return to dad’s house on 17th, walk in the backyard and take a long look at the Allan’s porch and the shoreline between our homes and reminisce.
Mark died at age 61 in an assisted living center. He was preceded in death by his wife Christine, his parents, and two sisters, Marty Crone and Kathie Gregory. His sister Janet who recently moved back to Great Bend is the last living family member. She and her late sister Kathie served as Mark’s guardian angel in his later years.
Thanks for the memories friend.
Write to Matt at his website, matthewkeenan.com.