Baseball in the Shadow of the Kihlberg Hotel

Sulphur Springs Kihlberg Hotel3As an eleven-year-old boy living in Albuquerque, New Mexico the Memorial Day weekend ushered in the beginning of two somewhat related and important events, the start of the summer-long respite from teachers, math class and school and the beginning of baseball season.

I looked forward to that first pitch, the sound and feeling of the ball as it fell into my genuine leather Rawlings glove and the sight of the baseball as it soared into the air and over the right fielder’s head.  I was particularly anxious for the 1961 school year to die as that was the summer when I was going to spend three hot Missouri Ozark months in Noel, Missouri with my grandmother, Phoebe, my great-aunt, Rosalyn and my grandfather, City Marshal Floyd Fine.  The anticipation was almost more than I, or for that matter any young boy, could bear.

A Greyhound bus followed Route 66 as I was transported across New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri and finally onto and across the Main Street Bridge that spanned the Elk River and signaled the end of my journey.  The bus door opened and carrying one Samsonite suitcase, a genuine Lou Burdette model Rawlings leather baseball glove and a wooden Ken Boyer Adirondack bat I stepped from the bus and onto the Noel street.  There Phoebe and Rosalyn stood alongside a green Chevrolet station wagon all the while waving as if to say welcome or perhaps just to garner my attention.

The drive to the North Kings Highway house took no more than a matter of minutes and the conversation focused mainly on the Greyhound bus and my impressions of the trip to Noel.  As I exited the dull green station wagon, Phoebe seemed to only then take notice of the bat and glove.  “I have some bad news,” she stated.  “Noel isn’t going to have a ball team this summer, but maybe you can play on the Sulphur Springs team.  I’ll check on that tomorrow.”  I didn’t utter a single word as no relevant words came to mind; the sound of the baseball striking the leather suddenly seemed to be so faint.

As the evening hours passed that day I guess that Rosalyn, known by many as a fanatical history buff, saw the disappointment on my face and decided, at least in her own way, to cheer me up.  As I sat quietly, yet uncomfortably, in an old chair with a carved lion’s head on the backrest placed against a wall in the home’s small living room the noises created by running water and dishes rattling against one another resonated from the kitchen.  Phoebe was busy cleaning up the remains of our hamburger patty, mashed potatoes and steamed carrots dinner.

I didn’t immediately see her enter the room but I heard a soft rustling noise as Rosalyn eased herself into a chair across the room.  In her lap she held, and almost caressed, a large cardboard box.  I suppose the elderly yet spry woman must surely have discerned the somewhat forlorn although curious look on my face as my eyes became fixated on that cardboard box.  On the box, written in crudely scribbled letters, was the name, Sulphur Springs, Arkansas.

“What do you know about Sulphur Springs,” Rosalyn asked.  As I came to know Rosalyn better I realized that she was a very blunt and to the point person.  I responded, “Nothing, I guess.”  Rosalyn reached into that old box and pulled out some papers and what appeared to be photographs.  “Well let me enlighten you.” She said.  I recall wondering what this conversation and the contents of the box had to do with baseball.

I watched with mild curiosity as the curator of historical documents removed old newspaper clippings and yellowed bits of paper from the cardboard container.  “What’s that?” I asked as a photograph of a large building came into view.  “Well now that’s a photograph of an old Hotel,” Rosalyn replied.  “Let me tell you about Sulphur Springs in its heyday and the Kihlberg Hotel.”

In 1870 the area that is now Sulphur Springs was farmland owned by a family by the name of Whinnery.  The natural springs, particularly the presence of a Lithia spring, and their waters began to attract the attention of those seeking natural healing remedies.

In 1884 Charles H. Hibler came to the area and immediately recognized the natural beauty of the valley as well as the potential for financial profit if the area was developed as a location where those seeking benefits from the natural spring waters could come.  Mr. Hibler bought the property that is now Sulphur Springs, built the Park Hotel and encouraged investors to contribute to his plan.

Hibler and his group of investors spread the word that the spring waters had almost magical healing properties.  White Sulphur water would bring relief to those with liver ailments while black Sulphur water was a remedy for malaria.  Lithium was recommended for nervous system problems and the alkaline magnesium laced water provided some relief from intestinal maladies.

The small town realized modest growth and became a minor attraction to those seeking the potential healing benefits of the spring waters however a change was in the wind.  That change was carried on steel wheels that rolled on tracks which came to an end in Sulphur Springs.  In the year 1889 what came to be known as the Kansas City Railroad ran tracks from Goodman, Missouri to Sulphur Springs.  The trains from the north began carrying tourists and those with ailments to the now booming town.

The Sulphur Springs Speaker Newspaper, later renamed The Sulphur Springs Record, reported the local news and published ads which touted the health benefits of the waters which flowed from the local springs. Dr. A.H. Rowley could help those with back ailments and the Spring Street located Rexall Drug Store sold medications.  If visitors wanted entertainment they could go to the Electric Movie Theatre or shoot pool at Ed McCormick’s Park Front Pocket Billiard Parlor.

Lodging establishments sprang up throughout the town and all claimed to offer the finest accommodations.  For a good night’s sleep, visitors might choose to stay at The Park View Hotel, The Windsor Hotel, The Ozark Hotel or others including the five-story limestone constructed Kihlberg Hotel.

The Sulphur Springs Sanitarium Hotel and Bath Company built the once majestic Kihlberg Hotel, which opened in May of 1909.  It was a grand and stately building that, in its day, offered some of the finest accommodations one could expect to find in Northwest Arkansas.  The regal structure was emblematic of Sulphur Springs’ growth, prosperity and popularity.

In 1924 evangelist, publisher and educator John Brown bought the hotel and opened a four-year vocational college, John Brown University.  In 1926 the school was renamed John Brown College and Academy for Female Students and in 1930 the Julia A. Brown School for Children, named for the founder’s mother, opened.

The year 1937 saw the limestone building become home to a school designed for teacher candidates.  The new venture was named after John Brown Jr. and called Camp Buddy.  The next four years passed quietly at the campus as ambitious students walked through the doors and exited through those same doors and into the world outside as teachers.

On the second day of January in the year 1940 tragedy struck and fire consumed much of the old Kihlberg Hotel building.  A decision was made to rebuild only the first two floors of the structure and in 1951 the remnants of the once stately five-story building became the possession of the Wycliffe Bible Translators.

“Well, what do you think,” Rosalyn asked.  My somewhat disinterested response was, “interesting,” after all, her words contained little mention of baseball.  “I have a question,” she said.  “When a player arrives at the oddly shaped object in the dirt, home plate I believe it’s called, does the tapping of the baseball bat on that normally white colored object indicate that the prospective hitter is attempting to determine the appropriate distance with which to stand from the plate?”  I thought for a moment and attempted to decipher her question prior to answering; “Yes,” almost in the form of a question I answered.

If you ask anyone now living in Sulphur Springs, Arkansas about their town they will tell you about the beautiful park where on a summer’s afternoon one can listen to the sound made as the cool waters from the lake flow over the dam.  They will talk about the tree filled hills that overlook the town as it serenely rests in the valley below.  However, of the five hundred or so residents, primarily those of many years, there are those who will talk about the springs, the day Southern Baptist Minister Billy Graham came to town, and a time when on hot Summer afternoons children played baseball in the shadow of the Kihlberg Hotel.

The then two story limestone building that had once been a glorious hotel was sold to the Shiloh Community in 1968 and for a time it housed a bakery.  The deed to the structure is currently in the possession of a Northwest Arkansas business entrepreneur and its future remains uncertain.

Rosalyn, the would-be historian, passed away on the 6th day of July in the year 1994.  It was her wish that I receive $1500.00, some old and collectible glassware and a crudely repurposed repository for papers and photographs; a large cardboard box with the words Sulphur Springs, Arkansas written on its side.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention that I did play baseball in Sulphur Springs during the summer of 1961, and what a summer of baseball it was.Sulphur Springs3

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The Art of the Explosion

Blasting sign

Larry had a problem.  It wasn’t one of those problems that required his immediate attention but rather one of those nagging problems that just wouldn’t leave his mind.  Larry lived just outside of Noel, Missouri in an area known as Blankenship Hollow.  Noel was a small town with a population of approximately nine-hundred or so Ozarkians who called the town that rested alongside the Elk River home.

The bluffs that overhung the two lane road which ran alongside the river offered shade to the thousands of tourists that flocked to the campgrounds in 1965.  The rolling hills transformed into peaceful grassy meadows and valleys and what land that had not been cleared for farming was filled with rocks; that was the source of Larry’s nagging problem, rocks.

The narrow road that said goodbye to Noel as it made its way to Larry’s home was referred to as the Noel to Pineville Road.  The waters of the Elk River slowly flowed on one side of the road while the tree filled bluffs rose up on the other.  Several small, some unnamed, roads branched off from the road that routinely carried travelers to the county seat, Pineville, however one in particular always caught the attention of the man on a mission.  That dirt road was known as Blankenship road.

The intersection of the two roads was not far from Larry’s parent’s house in Blankenship Hollow where Larry and his wife, Nancy lived.  It was at the junction of those two roads that a rocky outcrop left the shoulder of the road and slightly, and only slightly, crossed onto and above the road itself; and that annoyed Larry.

The day came when Larry could no longer tolerate the rocky outcropping; something had to be done if for no other reason than to free the obsession from his mind.  With a large pry bar in hand he walked to the source of his concern and for some time jabbed the pointed end of the steel rod into the rocks.

Larry eventually grew weary and stepped away to examine his efforts.  He had to admit, at least to himself, that this method would take weeks, or possibly months, to achieve any results.  He thought for a moment then remembered that his father once told him a story about a similar problem and the ultimate solution, dynamite.  There was only one place in Noel to get the explosive and that was from Forest Harmon.

If you lived in Noel in 1965 it’s very likely that some of your spent money found its way into the pockets of Forest Harmon.  Forest was the owner of the lumber yard, the water company and Harmon’s Hardware.  At the Main Street situated hardware store buyers could buy a screwdriver, a hammer or various sizes and shapes of nuts and bolts.

The hardware store was however, so much more than merely a place to buy a saw.  Children could be seen swinging a Louisville Slugger baseball bat or stroking the horsehide covering of a new baseball while their fathers looked down the sights of a Winchester model 94 30-30 lever action rifle that had been taken down from the wall for closer examination.

Customers were greeted by Forest or possibly his son Dan.  When not walking the store, the two might be found standing inside an island of counters in the center of the store where the old cash register was located.  Dan’s wife Rose Ann spent countless hours poring over the books and their hand-written entries.  She created invoices for those who asked that necessary purchases be put on their accounts.

On that mild springtime morning Larry entered the hardware store and as had been the case many times before Forest greeted him.  “Afternoon Larry, how are you doing?”  “Fine Forest, how are you,” Larry replied.  “Hi Larry,” Dan chimed in.  “OK, Dan how’s Rose Ann?”  “She’s fine; busy as always with those darned books.”  “What can we do for you?” Forest asked.  “I need some dynamite,” Larry bluntly responded.

With little or no pause Forest said, “We keep that stuff at the lumber yard just down the street.  Dean Isham’s over there.  He’ll take care of you.”  “Oh, I guess I’ll mosey over there then, thanks.”  “No problem, just don’t go and blow yourself up,” Forest said with a straight face.

Larry walked through the door of the lumber yard’s office where he saw Forest’s lumber yard employee, Dean Isham.  “What can I do for you, Larry?” Dean asked.  “I need two sticks of dynamite, some blasting caps and a length of fuse cord.”  “Gonna blow something up are you?” asked Dean.  “Yeah, a rock that’s been bothering me,” Larry replied.

Dean walked to a storeroom located in the rear of the building and returned carrying the requested items which included two sticks of Hercules dynamite. There were no promises asked for or forms to be signed absolving the seller from liability nor were there questions regarding the possible use of the explosives which might cause a calamity.  “Don’t blow yourself up now,” Dean cautioned as Larry paid for the explosives.

As Larry drove his truck down the bumpy Noel to Pineville road he couldn’t refrain from giving an occasional glance to his right.  There in a small box that rested beside him on the seat were the volatile but necessary tools needed to remove the portion of that rock that rudely touched the road.

Upon entering the house the would-be demolitions expert found Nancy quietly seated on a high backed living room chair.  “Did you get it?” she asked.  “Yep, let’s go blow up that rock,” Larry said.  Nancy slowly rose up from the worn chair cushion and the two made the short walk to the intersection of Blankenship Road and the Noel to Pineville Road.

With a steel “Spud bar” Larry created a small hole in the rock.  Larry remembered that his father once told him that with the use of a pocket knife small slices of dynamite could be removed from the original stick.  From his pants pocket Larry removed his worn Case Trapper folding knife and opened the blade.

He looked at the rock, the stick of dynamite and the knife.  “Maybe two or so inches,” he said as he made his cut.  Larry placed the dynamite in the small crevice he created and attached the blasting cap and the fuse cord.  He had, at least he hoped, properly calculated the amount of time that the chord would burn.

“Do you have the matches?” Larry asked.  He didn’t look at Nancy as he scanned the area for a place that might be safe once the rock blew apart.  Larry felt the box of wooden matches fall into the palm of his hand as he saw a good venue just across the dirt road.  He struck one match and lit the fuse.

The couple crossed the road and with index fingers placed in their ears waited for the explosion.  “Puff,” the sound of the blast was no more than a muffled thud followed by a small amount of smoke and a strange odor that was reminiscent of that of bananas.  “Well, we need more dynamite I guess,” commented the unimpressed Larry.  The process was repeated with four inches of the explosive but the result was far from impressive.  “It’s time to use the rest of the stick,” Larry commented.  “Maybe so, but be careful,” Nancy solemnly replied.

Larry placed the rest of the stick in the hole, lit the fuse and the two returned to the place considered to be safe.  Suddenly there was a huge explosion and both Larry and Nancy looked skyward. Larry was speechless as his upward-turned head followed the flight of the basketball sized dislodged chunk of rock.  Nancy was aghast; well maybe she wasn’t really aghast but I’ve been waiting for the moment when I could use the word “aghast” in a story.  However, she was to say the very least moderately surprised. The large chunk finally came to rest across the road as it splashed into the waters of Blankenship creek.

“Gosh,” Larry commented as the smoke began to dissipate.  “Yeah, gosh,” Nancy said.  The two examined the remaining stone and found that it had been sufficiently loosened allowing it to be broken apart using only the long steel pry bar.

After some time, the two walked back to the house on the Noel to Pineville Road.  “That might have been too much dynamite,” Nancy casually commented.  “Maybe so, maybe so,” Larry had to admit.

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What The Wind May Bring

WindowI believe that the wind brings with it bits and pieces of once whole things.  It is for us to reassemble these fragments into complete thoughts which fit into our world.  Those works of our mind may reflect past recollections or they may be premonitions of things yet to come.

It was on one of those late nights, or more succinctly put a very early morning, and while darkness covered the land like a heavy woolen blanket that I felt a breeze.  As I sat in front of the computer keyboard with words in my head that were having a difficult time finding their way onto the computer’s keyboard I felt that whisk of wind.

I was tired but I wanted to believe that I would find the inspiration that would bring a story to life; a story, which when read, would create a sense of accomplishment within me.  I searched for words not yet dreamt of and, as I lowered my head, hoping almost beyond hope that my brain would find that elusive story, I felt a cool breeze.

The window to my left, which always seems to beckon my sight and tends to coerce me away from the keyboard, was open that quiet night.   I usually paid little attention to the movement of air, that soft puff of wind which touched my face like invisible fingers, but that night the draft garnered my attention.

The air that moved gently over me caused the white laced curtains to move as if they were in a choreographed dance.  The wind pushed them away from the wall and, upon passing the patches of cloth, and as the night’s breath moved my hair the curtains were allowed to return to their original positions.  I thought about that orchestrated routine and realized that I had never before taken much notice of the beautiful serenade created as the air currents moved around and through the thin fabric of the curtains.  It was as if the two had lives of their own and each spoke to the other birthing the creation of a wondrous ballet.  I wondered how this could be nothing more than mere happenstance.

I can’t explain why thoughts come to me but that morning, and in the quiet darkness of night, the wind passing through that open window brought back memories which I believed were forever lost.  It was if that faint breeze, that gentle movement of air with an indescribable aura of familiarity, whispered to me and beseeched me to recall a time in my life many years ago.  The wind which was born I knew not where was hinting at something that I wanted desperately to remember; a memory which would bring a breath of gladness to my melancholy heart.

I never did come to understand what it was about that breath of air that brought with it a sense of intimacy and I honestly don’t believe I care to understand it as I find that too much scrutiny can often be ill-advised.  I only know that it was as if an old friend, one I had not seen or touched for oh so many ages but greatly missed, had returned if only for one night; a night that brought a smile to my face and assuaged the terrible hurt in my heart.

I don’t know if it was just the uniqueness of that night, the exact amount of wind passing through the open window or the precise movement of the curtains but no such breeze has since touched me prompting that special feeling.

This story isn’t about the open window or lace curtains.  The subject matter does not deal with the slight movement of air or even the way it felt as it draped around me.  I do believe that some other set of circumstances may also invite a fond memory to come to mind but those special moments don’t seem to occur often enough.  I find it quite odd that a seemingly innocuous event can often inspire the thought of a special time, a memorable place or perhaps someone special.

My window remains open and occasionally, and very late at night, the movement of air, that seemingly innocuous puff of wind, causes the curtains to stir but it occurs to me that it’s merely the wind and nothing more.  I sometimes close my eyes and wonder if the soft caress of the air can in fact be truly nothing more than a slight gust of wind?  Who can really say for sure?

There was a time when the world was beautiful and filled with laughter but that was before, not after.

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I Don’t Want to Be a Cowgirl

RethaThere are many things which can prevent six-year-old girls from falling asleep at night; monsters under the bed, thunderstorms and of course the first day of school.  Retha, a six-year-old girl living on a spot of land in Southwest Missouri called Coy, couldn’t sleep that warm September night and wondered why the darkness seemed to linger so long.  Why wouldn’t daybreak make its appearance so she could jump from bed and get ready for her first day of school at the Anderson Elementary School?

Retha, her three brothers and her mother had come to live with Retha’s grandmother, Alma Robinson, and great aunt, Vesta in the small brown sided house in July of that year.  Tragedy came in pairs for the family that summer as within weeks both Retha’s father and grandfather passed away.  Her grandmother once told her that she knew her husband would die as it was prophesized by the change in the rooster’s crowing.  A train accident took the then family of five’s husband, father and provider leaving Retha’s mother, Leona, to care for the children.

The house on Patterson Creek Road in Coy was owned by William Frank Talley, known to everyone as Frank, who had for some time allowed the family to live there rent free.  Mr. Talley owned several milk cows and, with no expectation of compensation, milk for the family was left at the house each day.  The small home had a living room with a wood burning fireplace which was the only thing that kept the cold winter night’s air from entering the home.  The kitchen had a wood-burning stove where grandma cooked the meals for the always hungry kids.

An addition had been added to the rear of the house creating a long narrow room with bedrooms on opposite ends.  Retha, Grandma Robinson and great aunt Vesta slumbered together in a full sized bed at one end of the addition while mom and the three boys slept in a bed at the opposite end.

Everyone living in the small house with brown colored siding, and without exception, had chores.  Retha and her brother Roger were tasked with, among other things, bringing water into the home from a well located behind the house.  The well had a hand pump and neither the cold of winter nor heat of summer could deter Retha and her one year older brother from their chore.

As Retha moved the well’s pump handle up and down on that warm September morning the anticipation was almost more than she could stand.  The six-year-old had waited for that day, that start of school day, for so very long.  The inquisitive little girl loved to read and relished the chance to learn about the world that existed outside of Coy.

That normally heavy bucket of water seemed unusually light that morning and the pace of her walk was extraordinarily swift as she walked through the back door.  Retha tugged at her hair as she placed the bucket near the kitchen sink.  She preferred that her brunette hair remain straight but her mother had decided that she would receive a perm in anticipation of the start of school.  No matter how many tugs Retha gave to the hair it just wouldn’t straighten out.

“Here, put this dress on,” Leona said as she held out a beautiful black calico dress.  “Your cousin Hazel spent a lot of time making this especially for you and just for the first day of school”  Retha didn’t say a word but thought to herself that the dress had to be the most beautiful one ever worn by a first grader; even a first grader with curly hair.

As Retha reached for the dress, her mother again spoke.  “After you get it on put those boots on.”  Boots, what boots could her mother be talking about?  Retha must have given her mother a look of confusion, “those boots over there,” she said while pointing to the corner of the bedroom.

Suddenly the overwhelming anticipation Retha once felt transformed into a feeling of dread as she saw them; those tall, horrendous looking cowboy boots.  Had Leona forgotten about the black and white saddle shoes that would look so perfect with that calico dress?

“I want to wear these shoes,” Retha said as she reached for, then held up for all to see, the saddle shoes.  “No, you’re going to wear the boots and I don’t want to hear any more about it.  Retha Ann, go outside and cut me a switch and make it a long one.  Hurry up, and don’t you dare bring me a short switch.”  Leona called the little girl with the quivering lips and reddened eyes “Retha Ann” when she was annoyed with her and, as all the Deaver children knew, the cutting of a switch was the prelude to a spanking.

Retha’s mother, Leona was a country girl at heart.  She loved the songs of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Gene Autry and she was fond of wearing western themed attire; she was particularly fond of cowboy boots;  boots just like the ones she wanted Retha to wear.  The little girl, now in tears, didn’t share her mother’s affinity for the cowboy look, in fact, she hated it.

Retha put the dress on and slowly squeezed each foot into a boot while all the while hoping the sounds of her crying would garner some sympathy and convince her mother to change her mind about both the boots and the switch.  It appeared that Leona was going to maintain her position on both matters and nothing could change her mind.

Retha gave a glance in the direction of grandma, possibly to look for support or even an ally.  “Leona,” the old woman said as she maneuvered the ever-present pinch of W.E. Garrett White Snuff which was firmly entrenched in her cheek, “why are you making her wear those old cowboy boots, and don’t give her a whipping right before her first day of school.”

Just when it appeared that Leona might reverse her opinions about the boots and the cutting of a switch the sound of a vehicle’s brakes could be heard.  The sound was coming from the road outside the home and could be caused by only one thing, the school bus.  “That’s the bus.  It’s too late to change your shoes so you better get going or the school bus will leave without you.”

Retha walked through the doorway leading to the front yard as her mother held the screen door open.  “See you later and be good,” her mother said.  Retha didn’t respond as she was still mad over the forced wearing of the boots.  As the young girl wiped the tears from her cheeks she could see that yellow school bus stopped just beyond the stone wall that separated the home’s front yard from Patterson Creek Road.

“Why are you crying, don’t you want to go to school?” Kenny Roark the bus driver asked.  “My mother made me wear these ugly cowboy boots,” Retha answered.  “Well, I think they look just fine.  Here, sit with me I’ve got a job for you.  See this handle, well when I tell you to, turn it so the stop sign will come out.  Will you do that for me?”  “Ok,” Retha replied.

Once Retha arrived at the Anderson Elementary School any and all thought of the boots vanished.  There were other first graders, books and, oh yes, her teacher Mrs. Pauline Mitchell.  Retha couldn’t wait to start learning and she wanted to know what words were nestled between the covers of all those books.

That first year of school passed far too quickly in Retha’s mind.  Mrs. Mitchell played the song, “Ten Little Indians” on the piano, Retha was always the first to raise her hand when a volunteer was sought to read a passage from one of those many books and there was so much to learn.

Retha liked her classmates while one, a six-year-old named Ray, was smitten with the cute little girl.  Ray gave Retha his mother’s diamond wedding ring and said, “I want to marry you.”  When Leona saw the ring and heard the account of how it came into Retha’s possession she arranged for its immediate return.

Although Retha wore the calico dress many times that year, she never again wore the cowboy boots.  She wondered why her mother no longer insisted that she wear them, perhaps Grandma Robinson had softened her but she never dared to ask why her mother had a change of heart.

The second year of school came and Retha and her brother Roger once again rode the yellow school bus driven by Kenny Roark.  As the bus made its way down Patterson Creek Road the then second grader gave Roger a nudge.  “Hey, you see those two little boys?”  Roger looked through the window, “Yeah,” he replied as the image of two twin boys waiting for the bus came into focus.  “Well, someday I’m going to marry one of them.”

Retha is now grown and works for the McDonald County Library in Southwest City.  She is the branch manager and loves her job and the comforting idea that as she walks down each aisle she is surrounded by all of those wonderful, wonderful books.  There is something about the library that captivates her.  Maybe it’s the quiet and tranquility, the volumes of unread ideas and thoughts or maybe it’s the smell, yes the odor of the pages of printed paper.

Retha married Ronnie Mitchell and they will celebrate their 40th anniversary on the 28th day of September this year.  Ronnie and his twin brother Donnie rode with Retha on the yellow bus to the Anderson Elementary School but he only later learned of her claim that she would someday become his wife.

Retha has on only one occasion slid her toes into a pair of cowboy boots and that was on her very first day of school.Pauline Nan Roark Mitchell

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Only a Slight Miscalculation

Miami OklahomaThe Cessna 172 airplane is a single engine aircraft designed to accommodate a pilot and three passengers.  The 160 horsepower single piston engine allows the aircraft to comfortably cruise at a speed of 148 miles per hour.  The plane has a maximum takeoff weight of 2454 pounds and has a cruising range of 791 miles.  The Cessna 172 made its inaugural flight in the year 1955, after which more than 43000 units have been produced.

There was absolutely no reason that Larry would have reason to believe that this information was in any way important to him.  In 1970 he lived near the small Southwest Missouri town of Noel.  He worked for a nearby builder of manufactured homes and, when not working, his attention was focused on his wife and children.

The then 31 year old man had lived in the area since the age of four when his parents moved to the area from Pittsburg, Kansas.  He knew practically everyone living in or near the town of approximately 950 people and most of those Ozark inhabitants were considered friends.

Many of the locals passed their leisure hours floating on or swimming in the Elk River.  Anyone driving along County Road DD would have a difficult time counting the number of fishing rods that hovered above the calm warm summer water.

The evenings might find local residents strolling along the Main Street sidewalks exchanging greetings as they passed one another.

If you were in the mood for a good burger and fries, there was Carl’s Café located just the other side of the small bridge which the throngs of summer tourists crossed over as they drove into town.

Life at that time was, for the most part, very predictable and that’s the way most people, Larry included, preferred it.  But, every so often the opportunity to break out of that life of predictability presented itself and that chance came to Larry on a warm July day in 1970.

After working more than his usual ten hour day Larry walked through the front door of his Blankenship Hollow home just in time to hear the ring of the telephone.  The folders containing work-related papers that filled his hands were dropped onto a chair cushion as he made his way to the ringing phone.  “Hello,” he answered in a low and tired voice.

“Larry, it’s Tommy.”  Larry recognized the voice of his friend Tommy Kilmer.  Larry had known Tommy for most of his life.  Tommy worked for his father, Homer, at Kilmer’s Grocery on Main Street when he was a boy and the two often talked when Larry’s mother shopped there.  Larry was certain his mother only took him with her because she disliked carrying the bags of groceries.

“Hi Tommy, what’s up?” Larry replied.  “Me and Larry Largent are going to fly to Colorado Springs, Colorado tomorrow and I wondered if you wanted to tag along.  We’re going to fly out of the Neosho airport tomorrow morning and come back that evening.  We’re taking a young kid from Pineville there because he needs to report to the army’s induction center there and start boot camp.”

“How many people does the plane seat,” Larry asked.  “It’s a Cessna 172 and it seats four.  Largent will be the pilot and I’m going to be the co-pilot.  I just got my license.”  “Why not,” without much thought Larry responded.  Maybe that stack of work papers and the folder resting on the chair made his decision come more quickly.

Larry and the others met at the small Neosho airport early the next clear and sunny morning.  As Larry climbed into the plane and nestled into one of the two rear seats he looked to his left and saw a young man he did not recognize.  “Hi, my name is Larry,” he remarked.  “Hi, Tommy and Larry are flying me to Colorado Springs so I can report for boot camp.”  The boy’s name was Billy, or Johnny or something like that; “That’s nice,” Larry remarked in a sort off-handed tone.

Following an uneventful takeoff, Largent announced that prior to leaving he learned that storms were likely across the middle and southern portion of Kansas.  “I think we’ll fly north to Kansas City, then go west across the upper part of Kansas to miss the bad weather.  The flight will take longer but we’ll miss the storms.”  No objections or concerns were voiced.

The flight followed the paths of the main highways and everyone seemed relieved when towns and cities were seen.  Largent’s pilot’s license only allowed him to fly using Visual Flight Rules, VFR, meaning he could not fly in bad weather or at night.  Largent used a compass and landmarks as his guide.  The four stopped only once, that being for a brief lunch, at an old military airbase near Salina, Kansas.  The plane was refueled as the four talked and ate.

The plane made a perfect landing in Colorado Springs and not much more than a brief, “goodbye and good luck,” was said as the young man stepped from the airplane.  He offered one last gesture, a wave, as Largent asked for, and received permission to take off.

The distance, by plane, from Colorado Springs, Colorado to Neosho, Missouri is 587 miles.  As Largent turned the plane and headed East Larry asked, “How fast does this plane go?”  “It cruises at about 148 miles per hour Tommy replied.”  Larry glanced at his watch, and then the sky and the calculator in his brain which was processing data seemed to indicate that the sun might set before the three got safely to Neosho.

The hours passed and the three continued to call out landmarks, “there’s Garden City, there’s Wichita” and Largent often remarked, “The compass says we’re heading due east, we should be right on course.”  But that setting sun had its own timetable and that schedule would soon find the sun falling in the western sky behind them.

Almost at once the three cried out, “Look, there are some lights below us.”  “According to the compass and the time that must be the Neosho Airport,” Largent said, almost as if he had planned it that way.  The note of confidence in his words gave some relief to the somewhat concerned rear seat passenger.

The small plane began its descent when suddenly Larry spoke up, “that’s not the airport, it’s downtown Miami, Oklahoma.”  The plane had fallen low enough to allow the startled passenger to make out the Main Street lights, the name on the Coleman Theatre marquis and the sign on the KuKu Burger restaurant.

With no more than an “Okey-Dokey,” Largent brought the small craft up and, with a strange tone almost reflecting pride announced, “I know exactly where we are and how to get to Neosho.”  Sure enough, a few minutes later the lights of the Neosho Airport were visible and the plane, and its occupants landed safely.

That was Larry’s one, and only, flight in a Cessna 172 aircraft and it was the last time he ever flew with Largent and Tommy.  He could never quite remember the name of that young Pineville boy but he seems to, even to this day, recall the sight of downtown Miami very well.

The Cessna 172 requires a minimum unobstructed runway length of 1500 feet for a safe landing.  Larry looked up that information some days later.

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Coming of Age

Sarah@fiveI unequivocally and readily acknowledge that I am old.  I fear that if the present trend persists I will continue to age until the one and only final solution to the aging process presents itself. There are moments when I tell myself that I am only as old as I feel but then I experience the soreness that originates from my lower back and my arthritic hands and fingers as I clumsily struggle to manipulate my shoelaces.

Like many of us, I tend to associate primarily with people who have experienced approximately the same number of years as I.  Although I regrettably attend more funeral services than I care to, I attempt to rationalize those losses attributing the deaths to sudden illnesses rather that old age; after all, I am approximately the same age as many of the dearly departed.

I have a granddaughter, Sarah.  She is now twenty-two years of age and, like many of that number of years, she is convinced that she knows more than I, or many of the elderly, do.  I will admit that she is a very bright girl as evidenced by her academic accomplishments.  She graduated with honors from high school and gained acceptance to the highly regarded University of Missouri’s School of Journalism.

With the assistance of scholarship and grant monies she spent four years at what is widely recognized as the top journalism school in the nation.  Sarah held several part-time jobs while in college yet managed to maintain a ridiculously high grade point average.  When the end of her studies at “Mizzou” was announced via an invitation to the university’s commencement ceremony Sarah was informed that she would graduate with honors, Cum Laude.  Her parents and I were so very proud of her accomplishments and accolades and we looked forward to attending the graduation ceremony which would be held at the campus’ Hearnes Center.

A young woman who announced her nationality as Argentinian gave a commencement speech.  The speaker spoke in broken English as she stated that she worked for an international news service which sought out, and reported on, human rights violations.  The journalist spoke words encouraging the graduates to seek out and expose injustice as she referenced the volume of such injustice in the United States, a country she was admittedly not a citizen of.  I found her comments and opinions to be somewhat ironic and I felt that I was not alone in that opinion as the applause following her words was sparse at best.

The commencement ceremony ended with the traditional throwing of oddly shaped caps and the thunderous roar of celebratory cheers.  The diploma recipients hugged and laughed as they celebrated their accomplishment which signaled the end of their college years.

Rob, Chris and I made our way from the upper section of the large arena and outside where the throngs of young at heart and years continued their embraces.  It appeared to me that in only a mere matter of moments the celebrations had transitioned into sad and heartfelt goodbyes.  It was as if the 452 young men and women had suddenly come to the realization that they were leaving not only their alma mater but the friends with whom they shared the past four years of their lives; friends whom they may never again see.

I found an out-of-the-way spot to stand which somewhat protected me from the bumping and inadvertent shoving.  As I stood there I looked up and noticed that the day was a particularly nice one and the sky itself seemed to be painted in soft pastels.  “Excuse me sir, can you tell me what time it is,” a young man still wearing his graduation cap asked.  “Sure, it’s 12:51,” I replied.  I recall wondering how the recent graduate ever got to his classes on time with so little knowledge regarding the time of day, but perhaps I was being a little too critical.

For quite some time I stood and silently observed the movements of and the words spoken by those around me.  I was certain that this scenario had been played out many times and the emotions displayed were ones which had been repeated over and over again throughout the years.  The parents of the young men and women must have, in some way, suddenly realized that the children they so lovingly raised from infancy were now all grown up.

Following the passage of many minutes and after the taking of countless photographs I was reunited with Sarah, Rob and Chris.  Unknown to me a post-graduation tradition involved the consumption of a meal and the three had devised a plan to partake of that meal at a well thought of restaurant which served Mexican cuisine.

The drive to the eatery took no more than ten minutes and, at least to my way of thinking, the establishment was much less crowded than one might expect given the day’s goings-on.  I had little actual concern over the restaurant’s lack of patronage but couldn’t help wondering where the other hundreds of families had gone.

We found our meals to be quite satisfactory and the conversation was enjoyable.  There were comments about the graduation ceremony, the size of the audience and the invited speakers.  For the most part I just listened as I felt the words spoken between Sarah and her parents were of far more importance than any I could offer.

As both the amount of food and volume of conversation dwindled the time had come to leave.  Sarah said she was expected at a post-graduation party so we drove to her nearby apartment.  Once there, goodbyes were exchanged and hugs were given all around.  Sarah thanked me for my attendance and said, “We’ll stay in touch, for sure.”  After a brief moment of silence I replied, “Just like always.”

As Sarah walked away and toward the stairs which lead to her cramped second floor apartment she stopped and for a moment looked skyward.  “What a beautiful bright blue sky and just look at those white clouds.”

I recall thinking that my differing interpretation of the sky was probably indicative of my advanced years and one’s vision most certainly changes with age.  My granddaughter, Sarah came of age that day in Columbia, Missouri but she wasn’t the only one; so did I.

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A Call To Arms in The Ozarks

Executive Order

81-20

escapees1WHEREAS, there are escaped prisoners threatening and engaging in public disorder which represents a present threat to the lives, safety and protection of the citizens of McDonald County, Missouri, and;

WHEREAS, such circumstances create a condition of distress and hazard to the public health and safety to the citizens of McDonald County recognized to be beyond the capabilities of local and State authorities;

NOW, THEREFORE, I, CHRISTOPHER S. BOND, GOVERNOR OF THE STATE OF MISSOURI, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and Statutes of this State and pursuant to Section 41.480 RSMo, 1978, do hereby declare that an emergency exists in McDonald County, Missouri, and I order and direct the Adjutant General of the State, or his designee, to forthwith call and order into active service such portions of the organized militia as he deems necessary to aid the local law enforcement officials to perform law enforcement functions, and it is further ordered and directed that the Adjutant General or his designee, and through him the Commanding Officer of any unit or other organization of such organized militia so called into active service to take such action and employ such equipment and weapons as may be deemed necessary in support of civilian authorities, and to provide such other assistance as may be authorized and directed by the Governor of this State.

In September of 1981 Governor Christopher, Kit, Bond was the highest ranking governmental figure in the state of Missouri, however, he obviously had little familiarity with his constituents residing in the rural southwest area of the state known as McDonald County.  Almost every resident there owned at least one firearm and needed no special invitation what-so-ever to display their rifle, shotgun or pistol.  The rearview mirrors found inside pick-up trucks were rendered relatively useless as the owners of the trucks covered the rear windows with gun racks which were home to several rifles and shotguns.

The issuance of Governor Bond’s executive order was prompted by the theft of a Lansing, Kansas State penitentiary guard’s uniform and found its conclusion alongside a set of railroad tracks in the small town of Goodman, Missouri.  Seven dangerous inmates escaped from the Kansas correctional facility on Sunday, September 7, 1981 and for seven anxious days and six sleepless nights the group, five of which were convicted murderers, avoided capture.

Shortly following the escape, three of the fugitives broke into a farmhouse located a mere fifteen miles from the prison.  The Bonner Springs, Kansas farm was owned by an elderly couple, Robert and Roseline Seymour.  Robert said that the trio could take whatsoever they wanted but he beseeched the intruders to show mercy and asked that no harm come to Roeseline.  Lengths of rope were used to restrain the Seymours and as one of the intruders fastened the knots around Roseline’s hands he said, “Don’t be scared lady, I’ve got a mother too.”

That group of wanted men, John Kitchell, Robert Bentley and Everett Cameron stole the couple’s car and drove to Springfield, Missouri where they absconded with yet another vehicle.  That car belonged to a college student who was also bound with lengths of rope.

Three of the fugitives, Terry McClain, Marvin Thornton and Larry Miller were spotted by a Bonner Springs police officer only hours after the escape.  After a car chase and the exchange of gunfire, the three were apprehended but not before four bullets fired from the guns of the outlaws penetrated the body of the officer.

escapees4The seventh escapee, James Murray was spotted near Aurora, Missouri the following Tuesday and following a brief, and relatively uneventful, foot chase he was taken into custody.  That left only Kitchell, Bentley and Cameron still out there and on the lamb.    Kitchell and Bentley were convicted murderers while Cameron had been found guilty of rape. These were desperate, dangerous men and nobody knew where they were headed, but that uncertainty quickly came to an end.

A car occupied by three unrecognized and rough looking men was stopped by a Noel, Missouri police officer.  Before the lawman could determine the identity of the men the trio leapt from the vehicle and fled into the woods and out of sight.  Accounts of the men’s sightings soon began to be reported by residents of McDonald County.  The news media provided the men’s descriptions and three strangers fitting those descriptions were seen walking in the wooded rolling hills and low lying pastures of the sparsely populated area of the Ozarks.

Men gathered up their weapons and groups of shotgun wielding volunteers dressed in blue-jeans or bib-overalls, some wearing their favorite John Deere caps, stopped cars on dusty and desolate dirt roads.  As cars and pick-up trucks were flagged down apologies were offered to friends and neighbors for the inconveniences but it didn’t seem as though the vehicle’s occupants minded the delays one bit; many found the whole experience somewhat exhilarating.

On the afternoon of Saturday, September 12th a keen-eyed man who resided just west of Ginger Blue, an area located between the towns of Noel and Lanagan, reported the sighting of three suspicious men near a secluded house.  The sighting prompted two law enforcement officers, State Troopers Walters and Ferguson, to drive to the house where they, with the benefit of the patrol car’s loudspeaker, ordered anyone inside to come out with hands raised above their heads.  Cameron and Kitchell later stated that they were not inside the home at the time but saw and overheard the proceedings.

Bentley came outside with his hands raised skyward and from the porch asked, “What do you want.”  The officers were certain that Bentley was indeed one of the fugitives and soon had him in handcuffs.  Bentley was allowed to use the loud speaker and asked the two remaining fugitives to give themselves up.  He attempted to entice the two when he said, “They have treated me kindly and have not threatened to shoot me.”  The officers later learned that Cameron and Kitchell had indeed been there but Bentley’s words had not convinced them to surrender.  Bentley had apparently discovered a bottle of wine while hiding in the house and was found to be inebriated when arrested.

In an attempt to leave McDonald County, Cameron and Kitchell climbed into the boxcar of a northbound Kansas City Southern train.  Kent Grigsby, a Lanagan resident saw the two and called the sheriff’s office.  He reported seeing the two fugitives inside the boxcar and gave the train’s direction of travel.

McDonald County Sheriff Lou Keeling arranged to have the getaway freight train stopped near the small town of Goodman, Missouri.  There Cameron and Kitchell, the last remnants of the elusive band of scoundrels, were taken into custody.  Following a brief foot pursuit, the short-lived freedom enjoyed by the last of the escapees came to an end.

Cameron and Bentley later told authorities that the week in the Southwest Missouri woods had been a terrible experience.  The men had eaten very little and fresh drinking water was hard to find.  Bentley, Cameron and Kitchell were covered head-to-toe with ticks and chiggers.  In many ways the three men of bad temperament were glad the ordeal was over.

While on the run the escaped convicts had stolen six cars, threatened six families, broken into two homes and taken three hostages.  It was estimated that the cost of the resources expended in their capture exceeded $65,000.00.

Sheriff Lou Keeling had only two full-time deputies at his disposal, however, law enforcement officers from Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas, the U.S. Border Patrol and the F.B.I. as well as many Missouri National Guardsmen were involved in the search for the three runaways.  The fugitive’s short-lived freedom lasted only seven days ending on Sunday, September 13th.

Shortly following the capture of the last two inmates Betty Bray and Ralph Pogue used their cameras to capture the moment thus preserving the event for future newspaper perusers.  As Noel resident John Greer read subsequent newspaper accounts of the seven days in September he came to realize how near in proximity to his hilltop home the path taken by the bad men had come.

Greer hadn’t taken the potential threat posed by the convicts that seriously as he leisurely barbecued on one cool Ozark evening prior to their capture.  He did, however, rest his best locked and loaded shotgun against a nearby pecan tree while he turned the steaks on the charcoal-fueled fire; just in case.

For McDonald Countians the week in September of 1981, later touted as Missouri’s most extensive manhunt ever, was interesting but not earth shattering.  After all, these were the same people who twenty years prior gave nary the slightest thought to seceding, albeit for only a brief period of time, from the State of Missouri while adopting the name, McDonald Territory.

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