Little Goat Songs

Gene Bunch5Marilyn Carnell grew up in the small Southwest Missouri Ozark town of Pineville.  She and her sister Zella knew just about everyone in the town of seven hundred or so people and many of the residents were, in some way related.  There was grandad and grandma Bunch and all of the Carnell’s.  The homes, in many ways, reflected the views and personalities of those living there.  There were no streets lined with cookie-cutter houses. Each house was unique and so too were the people living in them.  Take Cousin Gene for instance.

Marilyn’s cousin, Gene Bunch loved quarter horses.  He owned twenty-five or so acres on Big Sugar Creek not far from town and loved to raise and ride the horses he so lovingly cared for.  However, Cousin Gene didn’t earn a living raising horses.  He had an office on the square just across from the courthouse in Pineville where he offered bail bond and real estate services.

Although Gene was not large in stature he was known as someone who was normally impeccably attired.  He was often seen waving to friends and relatives as he drove around town in his freshly washed Cadillac.  Gene viewed the Cadillac not only as a statement of his personality but also as a business necessity.  After all, in the real estate game image was important.

Some folks purposely kept their conversations with Gene brief.  You see, Gene was in the real estate selling business and at some point in the conversation, he would mention a nicely maintained house or a beautiful parcel of land that was for sale.  To put it succinctly, he had the “gift of gab.”

As Marilyn recalls it was in 1978 or maybe 1979 when Cousin Gene acquired the goat.  You see, Gene thought, for whatever reason, that his horses were lonely and he heard that goats made good companions for lonely horses.  So, Gene looked for, and found, a goat for sale.  After some negotiations, a price was agreed upon and the hairy grey colored goat was introduced to the horses roaming in the pasture on the Big Sugar Creek ranch.

Days and weeks and months passed and as Gene went about his daily chores at the ranch it became apparent that the goat found Gene’s company far more fetching than that of the horses.  It seemed that wherever Gene happened to go so too went that goat.  Gene, in no fashion, discouraged the goat’s attraction to him and may have even been somewhat flattered by the goat’s preference to be with him more so than the horses.

Gene’s shiny pea-green colored Cadillac was in need of service so an appointment was made at the local garage to have the car looked at.  A means of transportation was very important to Gene and he was assured by the repair shop’s owner that a “loaner car” would be provided.  “It won’t be no Cadillac but it’ll get you where you want to go,” the owner said.

Gene dropped off the Cadillac and as he stood outside the building awaiting the arrival of his car, and through a maze of smoke, he heard the sound of what must have been some sort of engine.  Then, and through the smoke and dust, a car came to rest just feet from him.  It may have been the most offensive looking and sounding car he had ever seen.  The paint was faded and peeling and the engine undoubtedly burned just about as much oil as gasoline creating a cloud of smoke that emanated from what was left of the tailpipe.  That may have been the sole saving grace as the cloud of blackened smoke at times hid the car from view.  No matter, Gene knew the inconvenience would last no longer than a day or so and he kept reminding himself of that as he drove away.

The jalopy was parked at the ranch while Gene completed his daily chores and all the while accompanied by that amorous goat.  As the early morning hours passed, the craving for a good and hot cup of coffee came over the rancher so he washed up and got behind the wheel of that old Chevy.

Glancing into the rearview mirror Gene almost laughed at the sight of the black smoke that seemed to follow the car.  But there, through that billowing black cloud, something was moving.  As the brakes squealed Gene brought the car to a stop and there, through all that smoke, he caught sight of the goat running toward him.

It was apparent that the goat wanted to be with him so Gene reached over the front seat and opened the rear passenger’s side door.  He really didn’t believe that the goat would get into the rear seat of the car but that’s exactly what that goat did.  He calmly, and with purpose, casually climbed onto the back seat.

“Ok, we’ll both go to Shangri-La and get a cup of coffee.”  Shangri-La was a local restaurant near the town of Anderson.  It was a place where people could find good food, especially homemade French fries, at reasonable prices and most of all it was a place where local residents could find good conversation while they enjoyed a hot cup of coffee.

Cousin Gene parked that wreck of a car in front of the café.   “Now, I suppose you think you’re going inside with me.  Well, why not?”  Gene exited the old car, opened the rear door and watched as the goat climbed out.  As the duo walked through the café’s front door and even before reaching a vacant chair Gene “matter of factly” said, “coffee please.” “Coming right up, and what about your friend there” the waitress answered.  “Nothing for him thanks.”

Now, people in this area of the Ozarks had seen just about everything there was to see but a goat riding in a car then coming into a restaurant, well that was something new.  “Say, Gene, do you know that a danged goat got out of your car and followed you inside?”  As the man seated by the café’s window waited for a response Gene calmly replied.  “Sure do.  He likes to go places with me and I sing little goat songs to him.”

Well sir, one might think that there was an abundance of obvious questions which might be asked but to the inquisitive man only one came to mind; “What in the heck is a little goat song?”  Gene only smiled as he raised the cup to his lips and took a sip.  “Just songs the goat likes to hear, that’s all.”  Much to Gene’s amazement not much more was made of the goat accompanying him into the café.

Gene didn’t stay long at the café and soon he and the back seat goat left on their way back to the ranch.  It was no more than a minute or so that the smoking heap of a car caught the attention of Missouri State Trooper Merle Graham who radioed in his observations.

The trooper advised that he was following a car of unknown make and color that was on fire.  The vehicle, at least as far as he could tell, was occupied by two men.  The trooper stated that he was going to pull the car over and provide assistance to the two occupants.

With flashing lights and siren wailing, Graham eventually convinced the driver of the car to pull to the side of the road.  The trooper hurriedly threw open his door and through the black smoke ran to the driver’s side door of the car fully expecting to pull two semi-conscious men to safety.  However, and to his great surprise, there rolling down the car door’s window sat a man known to him, Gene Bunch.  Graham glanced toward the rear seat and found that the object he believed to be a man with facial hair was indeed a hairy goat.

“What for God’s sake are you doing driving a car that looks like it’s on fire and why is there a goat sitting on the backseat of your car?”  “Well, Gene replied, my Cadillac’s in the shop and as for the goat; well, he likes to spend time with me and I sing little goat songs to him.”

Obviously annoyed the trooper said, “Listen here; you get this piece of junk off the road and get that goat out of this here car.”  With that being said Trooper Graham walked away from the window.  “Yes sir, Merle; right away.”

Gene drove to the ranch and, at least as far as anyone knows, that was the last time Gene and the goat ever rode together.  After all, Gene certainly would not have allowed the goat to sit on the rear seat of his Cadillac.  Or would he?

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Return to Me

Robin deadRobin loved birds so very much.  She seemed captivated by their colors and songs and she watched as they soared and flew above the grass filled fields.  I now shamefully admit and mournfully regret that I never bothered to ask what fascination she found in the lives of those soaring things of beauty.  I now painfully find that the time to speak to Robin has passed.

For years, Robin filled the yards of our homes with an array of unusual birdhouses.  Small structures built of wood, metal or anything else which she believed might provide a nesting place for her friends were placed on poles or hung from tree branches.  She spent countless hours cleaning the boxes and was peculiarly persnickety when selecting just the right food for the intended species of bird.

The bird lover has for some time now been gone but the birds and their strategically placed homes remain.  I sometimes watch as nesting materials are carried into the openings of the small boxes and wonder when the babies might be expected.  But, I far too often get distracted with the tugging of life at my sleeve and lose interest in the lives of the birds; that is until something most odd occurred over the span of three short days.

I find that when the spring sun lasts longer into the evening hours I enjoy sitting in the old metal glider.  The metal chair that rests on the balcony just outside my bedroom isn’t really old but looks just like the ones I remember as a child.  It really isn’t all that comfortable but the great memories I have of its ancestors far outweighs its practicality.

One particularly warm and bright evening found me nestled onto the glider’s seat while a glass of lemonade sat on a chairside table.  The glass was just within reach and I tried to estimate how long the liquid would last given the size of each sip.  I calculated that I would find the glass to be empty just as the darkness chased the light from the sky.

The balcony was built more than ten years ago, as was the house I now live in.  It has a white colored railing that spans the outside perimeter and the space is large enough for the glider, a metal loveseat and a single side table.  Enough unaccounted for space remains to allow for infrequent visitors to stand against that white vinyl railing and look out over the golf course and the tree-filled bluffs beyond.

As I rhythmically moved the seat on that glider forward and backward I heard a noise just off to my right.  Slowly turning my head, the sight of an American Robin came into view.  The orange-breasted bird seemed brazenly courageous as it had come to rest on the railing.  The Robin was easily within arm’s reach and I remember thinking that possibly the bird had miscalculated the length of my arm’s span.

The bird seemed quite comfortable there on that rail and appeared to have little or no fear of my presence.  I was careful to keep my movements to a minimum as I didn’t want to cause the bird to leave.  A feeling of quiet contentment came over me and the Robin and I enjoyed one another’s company for several minutes.  Then, and without as much as a nod or chirp, the Robin sprang from the rail and flew away.

The following evening was one of warmth as a moderate breeze seemed to cause the large oak tree’s branches to move to and fro as if in rhythm with all that is nature.  As I once again sat in that rust colored glider and recalled the previous evening’s visit by that beautiful auburn chested Turdus Migratorius, the sight of a bird in flight captured my attention.  I watched as the Robin softly came to rest on that same white rail.  I’ll admit that I spoke to the Robin, “hello.”  Maybe this was the beginning of a most unusual friendship and I desperately needed a friend.

The odd duo spent several minutes on that balcony together.  Now, I can’t speak for that bird but I once again felt an overwhelming sense of calm and serenity.  Several minutes passed and as if to say, “so long” the Robin chirped once then flew off into the darkening sky.  I said, “Goodbye, maybe I’ll see you tomorrow.”

I spent the following day waiting only for the evening to arrive all the while telling myself that I was being foolish.  What made me think that the Robin would again find its way to my balcony and that rail; But, I could only hope.

Following the previous two evenings spent with the Robin, I gave some consideration to the possibility of placing an old birdcage on a balcony table.  The door would be left ajar and food left there inside might entice the orange and grey bird into that impound.

I somehow thought that if I captured that bird I could discover why I felt such a close relationship with the Robin.  But, then I considered the reality; I had once before tried everything possible to keep my best friend Robin with me but I had failed.  There seemed something so very wrong with the idea of caging this Robin.

The Sun began to fall in the western sky and I filled a glass with lemonade.  I recall that I wasn’t at all thirsty but there was a routine that couldn’t be changed.  I walked through the French doors and onto the balcony, placed the liquid filled glass on that side table and lowered myself onto the seat of that familiar metal glider.

Then, and almost before I had settled my old aching bones onto that seat, the Robin came to rest on that rail.  “Hello, how are you this fine spring evening?  It’s been a mighty long time.”  There, of course, was no obvious translatable answer, just one, and only one, chirp.  But I’ll forever maintain that the Robin gazed at me when emitting that sound; that single sound.

We sat together for a time longer than that of either of the previous evenings.  “Why do you keep coming to this balcony each evening?”  Only one chirp was given in response.  After the passage of several minutes, the bird shook its feathers and several chirps were heard.  I can’t explain why I felt as I did but I somehow knew that the Robin would never again sit with me in the evenings.  Once more the Robin sprang from the rail and flew into the evening sky.  “Goodbye.”

I knew what I wanted to believe but I needed allies; others who believed an idea may, in fact, be plausible.  Reincarnation; I didn’t know much about the idea that a soul lived forever and could reappear in another form; another living entity.  But what if that were in fact possible?  After all, I believe that whatsoever the mind can imagine is possible.  There were documented instances of possible reincarnations.

Gus Taylor told his parents that he recalled a previous life.  He remembered details that only his grandfather, Augie could have known and at the age of four identified his grandfather in a group of photographs.  Taylor had never before seen his grandfather.  The boy recognized his grandfather’s car in a photograph and said it was, “his car.”

Finally, and most certainly most astonishing was the moment when, at the age of four, Gus told his parents that his sister had been murdered.  In fact, Augie’s sister had been murdered.  Gus Taylor’s knowledge of these facts has never been explained.

The Druze, a religious sect, believes that reincarnation is in fact possible.  The Druze believe that reincarnation occurs among everyone.  They deem that some, but not all, of the reincarnated souls bring with them memories of previous lives.

The Bible, yes the Bible; surely there would be accounts of souls living in another body.  However, the reassurance of a belief in reincarnation was nowhere to be found within the pages of that holy book.  Although the Bible speaks of resurrection and the rebirth of the soul it does not support the idea of reincarnation.  I knew what I wanted to believe but the book of the Christians offered no support.  What I wanted so desperately to believe came down to no more than my own abstract faith in an idea.  So, I made my decision.

Robin, I let you go, I let you fly with the angels above with the thought that I would never again feel your presence but could I have been mistaken.  What if the substance of whom you were, your very soul, had returned?  I challenged my own sanity with the question; am I so desperate for this small and beautiful creature to be the reincarnation of your soul that my feelings are born more of imagination than of fact.  It was certainly something to be considered.

I often find that evenings are the best time of the day.  The cool air comes over the land and the orange setting sun hints at the approach of darkness but “not just yet.”  The evening is a time when the Sun bids goodbye to yet another day’s passing.

I continue to spend warm evenings on the balcony but the Robin, that orange-breasted bird, was last seen flying into the darkening sky.  Maybe Robins are there for only a moment in time then they must leave but love certainly lasts far longer than just one lifetime.Robin bird

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The Lure of a Sunny Day

lewis burlesqueI had seen that old, paint faded Chevy El Camino driving around the streets of Noel on many occasions but never gave the car or its driver a second thought.  The small Southwest Missouri Ozark town of Noel was home to many such vehicles, in fact, I often considered the possibility that I was the only one living there who didn’t own an older, and one in need of fresh paint, pickup truck.

“You know, he’s the guy that drives that old El Camino” my friend rather matter-of-factly stated.  “Lewis Helt, dag-nabbit, is a handyman and a gal-darn good painter.  He’ll paint your doors.  Give him a call.”  You see I was looking for someone to paint a pair of French doors.  My wife, Robin and I moved from Tampa, Florida to the Noel area in 2006.  There, on a hill which overlooked the Elk River Golf Course, Joe Cook and his crew used meticulously prepared blueprints to build a house which Robin and I believed would be the last house we would ever call home.

Everything had gone relatively as planned; well as those of you who have built a house surely know no building project goes exactly as planned.  For some reason, and a reason not known by me even to this day, the exterior paint on two of the six French doors began to peel.  Now, as a child, I spent several summers at my grandparent’s house on the town’s  North Kings Highway street but I found that as an adult and homeowner, living in Noel was much different than my time spent there as a twelve-year-old working at the miniature golf course on Noel’s Main Street.

My friend guaranteed me that Lewis Helt was the man for the job.  I was assured that Louis was a competent man in many facets of home repairs but he was an especially proficient painter.  “Well, he does have a few quirks that you city people may not be used to but he’s honest and doesn’t charge an arm and a leg.”  That endorsement was good enough for me and I decided to give the man who came highly recommended a call.

Lewis seemed to be a hard man to get in touch with but after several unanswered phone calls, a woman finally answered the ringing telephone.  I asked to speak with Lewis but was told he wasn’t at home, however, I was given the option of leaving a call-back name and telephone number which I did.  “He’s out working somewhere but when I see him I’ll tell him to call you,” the woman stated.

For two long days I awaited that conspicuously silent telephone to ring but it never did.  Robin was not a patient person by nature and on the morning of the third day without a call from the painter she let her feelings be known.  “The heck with that Lewis guy, or whatever his name is.  Let’s get ahold of someone else and get those doors painted.”

As I opened the kitchen drawer that was home to the myriad of telephone books for the Southwest Missouri counties and towns a loud sound caught my attention.  The sound was coming from the driveway and I could only assume that some sort of vehicle, and one in need of a new muffler, had pulled into the driveway.  The sound of a slammed car door caused me to close the drawer and walk to the front door.

Opening the front door brought the sight of a man dressed in paint-stained white overalls into view.  This had to be Lewis I silently surmised as I approached him.  “Hi, you must be Lewis.”  “Yes sir, are you Stan,” he asked.  “Yeah,” and as Robin’s image came into the corner of my eye I introduced her, “and this is my wife, Robin.”  “Hi, Mrs. Fine.”  “Please, call me Robin.”  “Okay,” he said as he smiled.

Robin and I explained that we wanted two French doors painted.  “What color do you want them painted,” Lewis asked.  “The same color as they are now.”  “No problem,” Lewis replied.  It was agreed that Lewis would get the original color code from an old paint can which we conveniently retained.

“When can you do the job,” Robin bluntly asked.  After Lewis’ mind calculated time and as he maneuvered that bit of Copenhagen Long Cut Wintergreen tobacco in his cheek he had an answer to the inquiry. “First thing the day after tomorrow; that’ll give me time to get the paint.”  Robin was determined to obtain every detail regarding the project.  “And how long will it take?”  “No more than a day.”  Once more Robin spoke and this was the deciding question.  “How much will it cost?”  Lewis thought for a moment then said, almost as if asking permission.  “Well, would $50.00 plus the cost of the paint be too much?”  I knew that Robin couldn’t spit the answering words from her mouth quickly enough.  “That sounds like a fair price I guess.  You’ve got the job.”

As promised Lewis did appear two days later.  He parked his truck on the grass near the driveway; I assumed to allow our car to be removed from the garage if needed. “That’s smart and considerate,” Robin remarked.  Lewis had a plan which would cause little or no mess and expedite the job.  He would remove the two doors and place them on a pair of wooden saw horses in the front lawn near the Red Bud tree.  There he would apply the burgundy red paint and return the doors to their hinges once the paint had sufficient time to cure.  “That’s fine”, Robin said.  “We have hidden screens in each side of the door’s opening which can be brought together.  When closed the screens will keep the annoying bugs outside where they belong.”

Robin, and I’ll admit I as well, occasionally glanced through the living room window to check on Lewis’ progress.  He was as busy as the proverbial beaver.  It was somewhere around noon as I recall that Robin first commented about the painter’s absence.

“Lewis isn’t out there,” she said.  “The doors are still on the saw horses but his truck is gone.”  “He probably went to lunch.  After all, he has to eat doesn’t he?”

The hours and the afternoon passed without any sign of Lewis.  Robin frequently reminded me of his absence as the dark of night hours slipped by.  She must have forgotten that I was fully aware of the large and conspicuous opening where a duo of doors once hung.

Robin and I heard the sound of Lewis’ El Camino the next morning as he backed it into his grassy parking spot.  Robin stormed out of the house determined to make her dissatisfaction known.  “Where were you yesterday afternoon? We had a big hole in our living room.”  “Sorry Robin, but it was such a nice sunny day that I just had to go over to Opal Hatfield’s pond and fish.  She lets me fish there as long as I fry up a mess of fish for her.  I’ll have these here doors hung in a couple of hours.”

“I hope this paint lasts longer than that old paint did,” Robin, still seething, remarked.  Lewis smiled as he moved the paintbrush up and down in a large plastic turpentine filled cup; “That’s darn good paint.  It’ll outlive me.”  Robin soon absolved Lewis of any wrongdoing and laughed when she later told that story over and over again.

Noel is a small town and no one can hide from sight for long and so it was with Lewis.  I often saw him driving that old El Camino with saw horses and partially filled cans of paint rolling about in its bed.  I recall that when asked what he was up to Lewis would speak of several small projects that he needed to finish but without exception, he always talked about one client in particular.

Lewis always mentioned the work he was doing for Mary Jane Bright.  Mary Jane owned a home with some land on the outskirts of Noel and Louis was regularly in her employment.  He knocked down the grass and weeds around the pond, repaired whatever needed fixing and most important of all, fed the deer.  Lewis often told me that Mary Jane wanted to keep those wild deer fed.  I could tell by the way he talked about her that Lewis considered Mary Jane more than an employer, she was a good friend.  I’m told, however, that she found the missing floorboard in that old El Camino to be somewhat of a minor annoyance.

On a cold January day of this year, Louis fell asleep, but this sleep was like none before.  This sleep would have no awakening.  Louie, as he was known to his many friends, would fall into a sleep that would last for the rest of his life.

The medical experts said Louis lost his ability to think but I chose to believe that in that sleep; that final sleep, my friend Lewis dreamt of the old El Camino, feeding Mary Jane’s deer and he dreamed of Jeannie.  At least that’s the way I want to remember Lewis’ last few hours.

The paint on the French doors looks as good today as the day that Lewis splashed color on them.  Sadly though, Lewis was correct.  That paint did outlive him.  Lewis Ray Helt, the handyman who could fix almost anything, the master painter who used sweeping brush strokes to put new color to old wood; that is when the fish weren’t biting, died on January 26th of this year.

As Louie worked he often thought of worms on hooks and favorite fishing holes.  When the urge to tantalize a bass with that worm became too great Lewis often remarked, “Be back in a short.”

Thanks to Lewis’ best friend and companion of more than five and twenty years, Jeannie.

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Mary’s Journal; All About Our Baby

baby bookMy mother, Mary Louise Barr Fine, was a girl whose only view of life and the world was the one she had from the small Southwest Missouri Ozarks town of Pineville.  There she went to school, swam in the warm waters of the Little Sugar Creek and laughed with her best friend Maxine.  The two girls enjoyed lemon ice cream at the Havenhurst dam and speculated about how their lives might look following high school.  It was in that small town of 700 or so residents that she met her later to become husband, Floyd; Junior, as she called him.

As the years all too quickly passed Mary, her friend Maxine and Junior found that their time as carefree children dancing at Bonnibel Sweet’s store would come to an end.  It seemed as though Mary and Junior were destined to build a life together and after graduation caps were tossed into the air and the two became more than high school sweethearts, they became husband and wife.

Mary soon found that she was with child and she and Junior talked about how a baby would change their lives.  They talked about what kind of parents they would be and the two wondered; would the new child be a boy or a girl?  Mary knew little about being a mother and Junior struggled with the idea that he would become the growing family’s breadwinner.  Jobs were few and far between in Pineville but with the family’s addition on the way, money was desperately needed.

At 11:55 P.M. on Sunday, September 7, 1942, a healthy baby boy entered the world of Mary and Junior.  The blonde hair blue eyed infant would thereafter be known to all as Billy Joe Fine.  Mary and the newest resident of Pineville, that small bundle of joy, were resting inside Maggie Barr’s Main Street house.

Margret Maggie Barr’s house, the home my mother and her brothers grew up in, was a small house located on Main Street in Pineville.  The days that followed the birth of my brother found that small house crowded with visitors. T.O. Bradley, Vera Lou Myers and Ruth Oliver stopped by.  Jack Poyner and wife, Lynn Clark and Peggy Ann Bottles were among the well-wishers.  Mrs. Bill Carnell asked how Mary was feeling and through all the smiles and words of gratitude spoken by my mother that day the most sincere words of thanks were given to her best friend, Maxine Legore.

Friends and relatives anxious to get a glimpse of Billy arrived with words of felicitations.  Most not only expressed their feelings with words but, as was the custom, brought gifts for the new mother and child.  The first person to visit my mother and her new baby boy was Hazel Carnell.  Hazel brought with her a gift that would be part of Mary’s life for the next seven years.  Hazel brought Mary a book; a book entitled “All About Our Baby.”

I, now in my late and hard to come to terms with sixties, quite accidentally found the book once gifted to my mother by Hazel Carnell.  As I turned the faded and brittle pages of the book I wondered if Hazel, the wife of Martin, could have ever imagined that after 76 years the book would still exist.  I suppose that Hazel Carnell of Pineville, Missouri considered the book a thoughtful gift and possibly nothing more.

The cover page of the book is blank save for the ink scribed words, “Billy Joe Fine from Hazel Carnell, 1942.”  Two pages later I recognized my mother’s scribbling as she recorded birth details, “Born Sept. 7, 1942 at 5 min till 12:00 P.M. in Pineville, Missouri; delivered by R.E. Warmack, M.D.”

The writing on the following page, also written in my mother’s hand, described the newly born infant; Blue eyes, Blonde hair weighing 7 & ½ pounds and resembling the father, Junior or possibly my mother’s brother, Dallas.  I personally feel that newly birthed infants are little more than wrinkled, pink bed-wetter’s and I fail to see the resemblance between any baby and a fully grown adult.

My mother was not known, even then I suppose, as one given to describe objects, events or people in flowery or lengthy fashions.  For whatever reason, even to this day not known to me or my brother, next to the name Billy my mother wrote the name, “Pokey;” some sort of cutesy name she gave to my brother I suppose which did not, and thankfully so, follow him as he aged.

The baby book has a page dedicated to those Pineville residents and friends of the mother; it is the “Visitors” page.  There on the yellowed paper, my mother wrote the names of well-wishers and those who visited the new mother wanting to get a glimpse of the newest resident of Pineville.  That particular page also has a section dedicated to the gifting and acceptance of gifts for the newborn baby.

Rose Brown brought a hot water bottle; always a useful and much-appreciated item.  Nanette Faust smiled and said congratulations as she passed to the new mother a dress.  Ms. Etta Lines held out for all to see a shirt that the boy might soon wear.

Mrs. Tub Allman also considered a dress to be a useful item of clothing while Mrs. Cockrell was certain that a bathrobe for the mother would come in handy on those soon to come cold fall nights; those nights when Mary would need to respond to the needs of a sleepless child.

Mrs. Jackson brought a pair of booties, Jack Hopper presented Mary with a small cap and Mr. and Mrs. Jeffers came with a very practical and useful present, two one dollar bills.  The baby boy’s grandfather Fine, also a person with a practical nature, brought $10.00 and great-aunt Rosalyn Hagerman followed suit with an envelope containing $5.00.

The next few time-yellowed and worn pages document Billy’s growth.  Amazingly, at least to me and someone who might know Mary well, adjacent to each month during the first year of the baby’s life she scribed in number of pounds the baby’s weight.  I noticed that at the end of the twelfth month Billy weighed 26 pounds and by his fourth year he had grown into a 44-pound boy.

There are pages with the baby’s ink impressed foot and handprints, which once again, were traditional in those days.  If I might once more interject a personal observation; for whom would the darkened ink impressed image of the bottom of a baby’s foot be of interest?

There are pages with timetables indicating the first appearances of teeth.  The book identifies the first picture snapped of the baby as one taken in Joplin sixteen months following the child’s birth.

The first outings took the mother and child to Southwest City, Neosho and Noel.  In Noel, Billy’s paternal grandmother and grandfather held the child.  The baby’s great-grandmother, Mary Hagerman, gently held the child at the family’s farm near Checks Corner.

The baby’s first steps were taken at the age of ten months.  This milestone occurred at grandmother’s house as the attentive and doting relative looked on; laughing and uttering words of encouragement and praise.

Apparently, at least according to my mother’s writings, Billy was a very loud and finicky baby.  Mary noted that for the three months following his birth he, “cried most of the time.”  Several different types of milk were given to the infant, all of which were soundly rejected.  Eventually, “Carnation Can Cream,” became the nourishment of choice.

The always remembered first Cold Ozark Christmas found mother and child healthy.  Grandfather, and McDonald County Sheriff Floyd Fine, gave the baby boy six new dresses.  Annie Brown’s presents were an apron and spoon while Mary’s friend, Maxine surprised Mary with sox and mittens.  Uncle Dallas offered up a more masculine appropriate gift as he presented the baby with 2, good for bouncing, balls.

Mary identified the baby’s favorite story as being “Peter Rabbit,” and apparently the child enjoyed listening to country music as the book notes that Billy enjoyed the song, “Don’t Fence Me In.”  Now that’s understandable as at the age of 75 my brother still enjoys listening to many a good ole country singer.

The family of three would eventually move to San Pedro, California where the fifth, sixth and seventh birthdays were celebrated.  Billy’s best friends there were two sisters, Jackie and Barbara Ann Jeffers.  As fate would have it, these two were the children of Mary’s longtime friend, Maxine; How strangely wonderful that things worked out that way.

The story told in the baby book find’s its conclusion there in San Pedro, California as my brother reached the age of seven.  Oh, there are some ink scribbled notes here and there but I suppose that in 1949 my mother’s life once again dramatically changed.  You see, I was born in 1949.

I don’t recall that my mother often put pen to paper.  I don’t know if she just couldn’t find that there were enough leisurely hours in the day or possibly writing was something she had lost interest in.  She did, for years, write notes on postcards which were mailed to her high school friend Maxine Jeffers.

As a child, I sometimes watched while she scribbled a brief note on a scrap of paper as she explained to my grade school principal why I hadn’t attended school the previous day.  I don’t remember her handwriting being particularly stylish and as I turned the pages of the baby book there were words and names which I found difficult to decipher.  But then, I don’t suppose she was trying to show off her prolific handwriting stylings but rather merely wanted to record those special, and once in a lifetime, things about her firstborn child, Billy Joe Fine, Aka “Pokey.”

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Bloodline, Discovering Who I Am

George Marion Fine picture2The inspiration for this story came from a single piece of paper.  That sheet of paper with ink imprinted words placed there more than 150 years ago was thought to be so irreplaceable that it had been encased in glass and metal.  My brother who lives one, well maybe now that I have aged into my late sixties, two stone throws from my house recently asked that I come to his home.

I find it extraordinarily strange that the most seemingly insignificant sight, sound or word can become the birth of great curiosity within my mind.  My brother, Bill seems to understand what sparks my interest and his telephone call ignited that spark.  “Hey, you need to walk over here and take a look at something I came across in an old box.”  I could sense by the tone of his speech that he was excited as he spoke about the discovery of an old letter that would most assuredly be of interest to me.  His words seemed to flow so quickly that they fell atop one another and I knew that I had to learn more about this prized discovery.  “OK, I’ll be right over.”

As my eyes focused on a large cardboard box resting on the patio table’s glass top I, almost without thought, lowered myself onto a chair’s cushion.  It seemed as though he wanted me to share in his enthusiasm but I calmly maintained my reserve as he pulled from that box a letter encased in metal and glass.  “Here, take a look at this,” he said as he extended the hand that held the prized discovery.

I began to read the letter that was sandwiched between two slightly discolored pieces of old glass.  Dated January 5th, 1864 and written in beautiful ink penned script It began, “Dear wife, iseat myself down to rit you those few lines to inform you of my health.”  The writing continued from the front and onto the full length of the paper’s reverse side ending with the signature, “Levi Fine,” and the sentiment “fore this time to his wife and children.”

The author talked of his acceptable health; He asked about relatives Martha and Sarah Downing.  “Tell Sarah Downing that James is getting better.  He is talking about coming back to the company.”  Levi gave some mention to a recent battle.  In that engagement, his regiment had taken 115 prisoners and killed 35 enemy soldiers.  He had emerged from the action unscathed.

After the passage of some moments I posed a question to my brother, “who is Levi Fine?”  There was silence as my brother tried to compute the relationship details.  “He was our grandfather’s grandfather.  Yeah, that’s right, our father’s great-grandfather who served in a Union cavalry regiment during the Civil War.”

Well, I knew right then and there that I had to learn more about Levi Fine.  Little did I realize the surprises that lay ahead as I began my research into the lives of my relatives, both recent and distant.  The first unanticipated revelation came as I learned of the existence of Vinette Fine.

In 1775, and during the struggle to create this nation, Vinette Fine and his brother Peter served in the First Independent Company of Dunmore County, Virginia under the command of Captain Jacob Holeman.  The brothers called Shenandoah County, Virginia home but only Peter would return to his family there.

In 1783 Peter, Vinet and several other men gave pursuit to a band of Indians who had stolen several horses.  The search for the horse thieves led the group of men to Crystal Creek, North Carolina.  There the two groups engaged in a fight that resulted in the recovery of the stolen animals but left Vinet fatally wounded.  His body was left by the frozen waters with the intent to later retrieve the body, however, Vinette’s remains were never recovered.  The creek was renamed Fine’s Creek as was the township that stands there even to this day.

Vinet fathered Abraham Fine and to Abraham a son, Abraham Melier Fine was born.  The Fine family made their way west and found a home in Montgomery County Missouri.  Another war came upon this country and Abraham’s son, Levi enlisted the union army’s 3rd Missouri Cavalry Regiment under the command of Colonel John Montgomery Glover.

George Marion Fine was the son of Levi Fine.  Not much is known about this man, my great-grandfather.  He was thought to be someone who professed to be a holistic healer.  The husband of Martha Louise Johnson Fine, traveled between Benton County, Arkansas and McDonald County, Missouri offering for sale roots and herbs thought to cure those complaining of the grip or other maladies.  George Marion is buried in McDonald County’s Petty Cemetery.  Martha gave birth to Floyd Fine Sr.

My grandfather, Floyd Fine Sr., served one term as McDonald County Sheriff.  From 1940 through 1944 he and one lone deputy kept the peace in the then sparsely populated hills and valleys of the county nestled deep within the Southwest Missouri Ozarks.

I recall hearing the story about the sheriff and three moonshiners.  It came to my grandfather’s attention that three men were cooking illegal shine in a remote valley deep within the woods.  Hearing about the three lawbreakers, my grandfather decided to shut the operation down and deal with the three lawbreakers.

As the story goes my grandfather drove down a rarely used country dirt road until the road came to end.  From there he walked as quietly as possible through the woods until he came upon a man seated on the ground with his back resting against a tree.  The man appeared to be asleep and, as luck would have it, neither the crunch of the leaves nor snap of the twigs beneath the soles of my grandfather’s shoes caused him to awaken.  Possibly, he had been sampling some of his own mixture.  Lying conspicuously across the napper’s lap was a double-barreled shotgun.

Without disturbing his sleep my grandfather came upon the man and with pistol drawn cautioned him against making a sound.  The shotgun was removed from the man’s reach and the sheriff, using his one and only pair of handcuffs, secured the surprised man to the tree.

“I say by God, how many fellas are down there at that still?”  Staring at the business end of that Smith and Wesson .38 revolver the man was quick to answer, “Two, just two, I swear that’s all.”  “Well then, I’m gonna go on down there and see about those two shiners.”  “Wait,” the man once again spoke.  “What if something happens to you and I’m stuck here attached to this here tree.”  Without hesitation, my grandfather answered, “Well by God, you’re gonna be in these here woods a long time.”  Luckily for the restrained man, his two cohorts were captured without incident and the still was destroyed.

Not one to leave a perfectly good pair of handcuffs behind, my grandfather gathered up the man as he and his two friends walked out of the valley and to his car.  Following his term as County Sheriff, my grandfather served eighteen terms as Noel’s City Marshall.  Floyd and his wife Phoebe are buried in the Noel, Missouri Cemetery.

Floyd and his wife, Phoebe had one child, Floyd Jr.  My father, Floyd Fine Jr. continues, at the ripe old age of 93, to be counted among the living and resides on the outskirts of Noel.    My mother, Mary, left this world some years ago and rests quietly in the Noel Cemetery.

The women, the wives of these men played no small role in their lives and the character of those women also finds its way into my life.  Those women were by no means passive bystanders.  They did not stand behind their husbands, they stood alongside them.

Floyd senior’s wife Phoebe Cecil Hagerman Fine was a strong-willed outspoken and independent woman who owned her own business.  Abraham Fine’s wife, Cynthia Harper Fine, moved from Kentucky to Missouri in 1810.  She never tired of telling stories of the early development and growth of the “Show-me” state she came to love.  She was the mother of twelve children and loved life to the fullest.

Mary Louise Barr Fine, my mother, was, to say the least, a unique person.  She married early in life and bore three children, me being the middle one.  She spent her childhood in Pineville, Missouri and times were hard; but then so was she.  I recall a seemingly insignificant compliment once made about Mary Louise Fine; I was told she was a good swimmer.  Maybe so, but I remember her as a good mother.

Levi Fine survived the bullets, cannonballs and December 1863 War Between the States battle at Jacksonport, Arkansas but he never returned to his Montgomery County, Missouri home and to the loving arms of his wife, Martha A. Watkins Fine.  He died at a Kansas City, Missouri hospital on the eighth day of May in the year 1865.  The cause of death was listed as “Rheumatic Carditis.”  Levi is buried in the Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery, Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas.  There, a stone Civil War era marker identifies his resting place.

The title, “Discovering Who I Am,” was not the original name for this story.  My first choice of names dealt with the idea that I learned more about my descendants than was previously known.  However the more I learned the more I realized what I was really doing.  I was finding out more about myself.

I am, by all means, the descendant of Vinette, Levi, George Marion, Floyd Sr. and Floyd Jr. but there is much more there than the sharing of blood.  As I came to know these men I came to realize why I have come to be the person I now am.  I found a better understanding of myself.  I discovered who I really am.

Finding the irregular bits and pieces of the puzzle of one’s place in this world can be so very difficult but it’s best to begin by looking at the ones who came before you.


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Keeping It in the Family


I find it odd that some of the most bizarre events or objects that were once part of our childhood seem to be the ones we remember best.  That dog who followed us everywhere; well who among us could ever forget that furry friend.  What about that special Christmas present.  The image of that electric train, talking doll with eyes that opened and closed or a Hula Hoop as the wrapping paper and ribbon was torn away.  Those images are just as clear today as they were on those long ago Christmas mornings.

For Larry, memories of those long-ago cold Christmas mornings and thoughts of his younger brother remain, even to this day, embedded there in his mind.  He vividly recalls the years his family spent operating the Riverside Station resort just outside the small Southwest Missouri Ozarks town of Noel.  Larry can recite a detailed description of his father’s sawmill which sat behind the family home, and the wood he cut and shaped.  But it is the eventual use of some of that rough-hewn lumber which he remembers most; the outhouse that his father constructed using boards cut by that sawmill’s steel blade.

Larry was born in the year 1939.  His parents were hard working Ozarkians who oversaw the day-to-day operations of a summer retreat for those seeking relief from their hectic city life.  When the rainy spring days faded away and the hot summer months arrived the lodge and the cabins at Riverside Inn began to fill with tourists.

Doctors from Joplin brought their families to the resort located on the old Noel to Pineville Road.  Lawyers from Kansas City and Neosho took a brief respite from their law practices and walked the quiet rolling Ozark hills and valleys.  The Lodge, once a Butterfield Stage Coach Line stop, and the cabins scattered about the property had no vacancies during the restful summers.

The hilly property was home not only to the lodge itself but also to several cabins that had, and nobody remembered exactly how or when, acquired colorful names.  Vacationers might spend the lazy days relaxing in Walnut Hill, Elm Lodge or Sycamore Inn.  Some may prefer to sleep to the sound of the crickets and owls in Oak rest, Honey Locust or Maple Shade.  If none of those cabins were found to suit one’s taste there was always the Cricket.

The sleep-filled nights were lit only by the glow of an Ozark moon and the bright sunlit days were not interrupted by car horns or other noises common to the large cities.  However, there was one city convenience not available inside the cabins and one which proved to be a slight annoyance.  There was no inside plumbing; hence the need for a conveniently located and communal outhouse.

In the year 1948 Larry’s father used a shovel to puncture the rocky Ozark ground as he dug a shallow hole at Riverside Station.  That hole was then concealed when a small structure constructed of rough-hewn lumber was placed atop that depression in the earth.  All this took place under the watchful eyes of Nine-year-old Larry and his two-year-old brother Jim.  Although Larry and Jim were fully aware of the structure’s purpose the two always envisioned that someday the old metal-roofed shack might be repurposed as a clubhouse; and so it was to come that the small building later became a place for two brothers to hide from the world.

Years passed and times changed and so it was for the caretakers of Riverside Inn, R.J. and Eloise Burkholder.  The couple and their family, who lovingly cared for the property, greeted the summer visitors and waved goodbye to those who reluctantly returned to their lives and jobs in the cities also bid goodbye to the resort.  The Inn was sold and the resort closed in 1954.

R.J., Eloise and the five children knew that the closure of Riverside Inn signaled the remorseful end to a time in their lives.  Sure, the work was hard and the hours were long, but they loved the Inn and the property there.  What would become of Walnut Hall, Elm Lodge and Sycamore Inn, and what would be the fate of the old outhouse?

Larry and Jim had an idea.  What if they could convince their father to load the shack onto a trailer and relocate it to the family’s home in Blankenship Hollow?  Well, following several days of arguing the case to R.J. he finally agreed to relocate the building.  With the aid of R.J.’s home built trailer the soon to be clubhouse would follow the family to their home.

The two brothers had already selected the perfect spot for the outhouse.  There was a flat piece of ground on the other side of the creek that would be perfect.  There stood a small stand of trees but that presented little problem to the determined duo.  The two brothers spent several days clearing a spot in the grove of trees and a path was cleared allowing access to the old wooden shack.  That was, at least in the minds of Larry and Jim, the perfect spot for the new clubhouse.

Larry and Jim called their clubhouse meetings to order in the old shack, although the meeting’s agenda was rarely known.  Each of the brothers tried to frighten the other with moonless dark of night ghost stories.  The short walk from the clubhouse to their home occasionally found the two boys running, not walking.

There were times when the two became cowboys and courageously fought off Indian attacks.  Firing their make-believe rifles through the gaps where the old boards once came together it seemed as though the pair of crack shots couldn’t miss.  “There, I got another one,” Jim would exclaim; “POW, POW!”

After several years and many Indian attacks, the clubhouse would be returned to service as an outhouse.  Larry’s sister, Jean and her husband owned a beautiful tract of land not far from the old Riverside Inn site.  A small camper-trailer was relocated to the wooded property which would be used for weekend get-a-ways.  The land offered the peace and quiet that Jean was seeking but the trailer lacked one important feature.  It had no inside facilities hence the need for an outhouse.  Without more than a moment’s thought, Jean knew just where to find that building and the shack was once again placed on that homemade trailer often used by Larry’s father.

Larry never forgot about the old clubhouse and after a series of events the building once again lost its original purpose, that of an outhouse.  Larry hooked up the trailer, traveled the short distance to Jean’s property and gathered up the old clubhouse.  The wooden, metal-roofed shack with all its history and memories was to find a permanent home on Larry and wife, Nancy’s property located near Burkholder Hill on the Noel to Pineville Road.

After the passage of so very many years, the now rickety old clubhouse rests quietly on Larry’s property. You see, Larry discards very little; especially something as valuable as an old outhouse.

When we are both young of years and heart our imaginations can find many purposes for seemingly ordinary and unwanted objects. Fallen tree branches may be transformed into swords, sand can be fashioned into medieval castles and an old outhouse can become the clubhouse for two brothers.

When Larry looks at the clubhouse he relives the good times he and Jim had there.  He recalls those nighttime tales of ghoulish monsters and hobgoblins and how he and Jim tugged at each other’s shirts as they ran to the house laughing all the way.

Wood, and metal and yes, even childhood memories seem to live forever but not so little boys.  Larry’s younger brother and the teller of monster stories, Jim passed away on the 25th day of February in the year 2003 after spending only 56 years on this good Earth.

For Larry, childhood memories, his brother Jim and yes, even old outhouses that became clubhouses, are the things that dreams are made of.


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I Can See More Clearly

I feel as though I must talk to someone about a movie I recently watched.  It was a motion picture which, on the surface, seemed to hold little promise of capturing my interest and attention.  After watching but only several minutes of the film I was tempted to turn it off but for some reason, I continued to watch.  As the plot unfolded I realized that the main character and I were in many ways very similar.

The pained man in the story was suffering through the loss of his young daughter.  She had been brutally murdered and he was, as one might expect, having difficulty dealing with the loss.  His family, a wife, a son and a daughter, wanted to help but he had become so very distant from them; what was there for anyone to do?

The grief-stricken father believed that life was not worth living and all had been lost.  He cast the blame for his loss on the one person who he blamed the most, God.  Why had God been so cruel as to allow his innocent daughter to die?  In the young man’s mind, there could be no reason for an all-seeing deity to allow someone to murder his beautiful child.  I will freely admit that I empathized with the character and his opinion of the seemingly flawed almighty.

You see, I too have questioned God’s motives.  Why would a God who so very many people believe in allow the tragedies that have been a part of my life to occur?  I have questioned the existence of a higher power as a means to explain the lack of intervention in life’s events for if he exists, if he created everything I see before me, alas he doesn’t care about those who have suffered so much; and he doesn’t care about me.

With so many obvious sinners living among us, why had God allowed such good and loving people to die?  There were other questions to be answered as well.  If there is a God, why did he love some but not others; why didn’t he love me?

As the movie plot unfolded the murdered child’s father tells of his concerns over his perceived flaws with God; the flaws I have described as being mine as well.  He needed an explanation for the unfolding events in his life, for the death of his child and for God’s apparent apathy.

I continued to watch the movie.  There was no way I could look away from the screen as it seemed as if in many ways the character’s thoughts, opinions and questions mirrored those of mine.  I began to feel as though the story’s author could have written a story about me; A story which had been lived and told by me.

A series of lessons were presented to the father, all of which were designed to change his opinion of life, the death of his daughter and God.  However, I found it interesting and completely in line with my own thoughts, that he could at any time reject the ideas offered to him.  What was the meaning of God and why did he exist?

Some of the storyline dealt with the issue of forgiveness for those who have in some way wronged us.  I find that forgiveness is a quality which must be hidden deep within me.  I have, throughout my life, forgiven people just as I have myself been forgiven but it’s hard.  I guess that virtue lives so very deep within me that it rarely comes to the surface.  Forgiveness of God’s perceived inattention has been one of those things which has been buried deep inside me.

As the movie nears its end, the main character finds that he has had little understanding of the true nature of God.  He learns that life is, in fact, worth living and he can find a place in it for himself.  The father and husband finds that he can love his family and accept what has happened.  He can overcome his loss and live.

Most of all, the man discovers that God is incapable of not showing love to all the people of this earth.  He realizes that no matter what happens God still loves him and feels his pain but God doesn’t, and won’t, intervene in every facet of his, or any other persons, life.  The life given to him is his to live.

I find that I am often overly critical about many things, however I am not a movie critic and have no desire to become one.  I have never been a particularly religious minded individual and I guess the last time I attended a church service was as a small child.  I have often contended that passing through the doors of a building with a cross atop the roof would in no way make me a better person.  It is in no way my intent to offend those who count themselves among the worshippers of any particular church; I am merely stating my personal opinion and you are, of course, free to disagree with it.

When the movie came to its conclusion I found myself asking two questions; ones which I had not before considered.  Did God exist and if so did he suffer alongside me through my hardships?  Oh yes, did God love me no matter what I had done and regardless of who I was?  Was the true meaning of God so very simple as to be nothing more than the knowledge that when we are in pain there is someone who loves us so very much;  I hope that is the true meaning of God because that may be one I can eventually accept.

This story is somewhat less in length than others I have written.  I suppose, and quite sincerely hope, that I have come directly to the point.  I often conceal the real meaning of my writings deep within the words, sentences and pages of the works but not this time.

The movie was just that, a movie.  It didn’t give birth to an epiphany or provide substantive answers to questions I have but it did give me cause to think; a reason to reconsider my position.  Maybe that is all anyone can ask for in life.

The French have a phrase which I should remind myself of more often.  The words seem to most accurately and succinctly describe all that I have experienced.  “C’est la vie;” that’s life.

Oh yeah, the title of the movie is, “The Shack.”

shack story

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