Churning Butter in the Old Maytag

“Larry, come on we gotta get going.”  Like most eight-year-old boys Larry always allowed an appreciable amount of time to pass before answering his mother.  “Larry, hurry up or I’m going to leave without you.”  “Leave without you,” were the words that always prompted Larry to extricate himself from his secret hiding place, “where are we going,” he asked.  “We’re gonna pick up the butter,” she answered.  “Dust off your pants and get yourself in the car.”

Before the pair could open the doors of the newly purchased Mariner Blue 1949 Buick Super equipped with the inline eight-cylinder engine and Dynaflow automatic transmission the sound of Larry’s father’s voice could be heard coming from the sawmill located just behind the house.  “Wait a minute; I might need some help cutting this tough old oak lumber and someone needs to sweep up this sawdust.”  That oak came from the trees Larry and his father felled on the family’s 160 acres of land.

That was exhausting and back-breaking work.  The father and son used a two-man chainsaw with a fifty-inch blade.  As Larry tightly supported the rear of the saw his father worked the controls and if there were any miscalculations the saw would fly out of the young boy’s hands sending Larry crashing to the ground.

The mill’s saw blade was huge; every bit of fifty-two inches in diameter and the gasoline-fueled engine which turned the toothed monster had been removed from an old tractor that Larry’s father once used to move houses.  That cutting wheel sometimes grabbed a piece of lumber and tossed it up and against the roof.  It happened so frequently that Larry and his father usually paid little attention to the pieces of air born wood.

The mill, if one could call it that, was no more than a roof supported by several posts.  Larry often helped his father fashion the oak lumber into flooring that was sold to local residents.  The money generated from the operation supported the family but the new Buick was purchased with some of the $5000.00 that Larry’s father received when he sold his Ford Tractor dealership located on Park Street in Noel.

The dealership sold tractors and farm implements to farmers throughout the southwest Missouri Ozark region which surrounded the summer tourist-dependent town of Noel, Missouri.  Although some in the area earned a living accommodating the summer influx of people coming from all over the Midwest to swim in and float on the Elk River others grew crops on rolling hills and grassy meadows that had been in their families for generations.

“The boy needs a break from all that sawdust,” Larry’s mom spoke as she opened the driver’s side door to the Buick.  “Hurry up, Mattie Scott is expecting us.”  Larry’s pace quickened as he didn’t want his father to overrule his mother’s decision; after all, anything was better than dodging the chunks of wood that flew through the air as that saw blade tore into the oak boards.

As the new Buick drove away Larry gave a departing wave to his father.  Larry was certain his father saw the gesture but busy pushing a piece of oak lumber into that blade he offered no reciprocating wave; just the slightest turn of his head and a hurried glance.  “Is Mrs. Scott the lady that lives on highway 90?”  Larry knew very well the answer to the question but he thought some conversation was in order.  “Yes, you know she lives across the road from Martha Hatfield.”  “Oh yeah,” Larry replied.  “Isn’t Mr. Scott a school teacher?”  Once again Larry knew full well that he taught classes at the Noel School.  “Larry, why are you talking so silly today; you know very well that A. Dean Scott teaches school.”  Larry considered that to be a sufficient amount of conversation and the remainder of the fifteen-minute drive to the Scott house was made in relative silence save only the sound of that 120 horsepower eight cylinder Buick engine.

As the Buick drove past the Hatfield home the conversation between the two occupants of the Buick resumed.  “Do you know Darlene Hatfield, you know Martha’s daughter?”  “She’s in a higher grade than I am, but I know who she is,” Larry answered.  “I’ve heard that Mr. Scott lets some of the kids in his classes spend the night at his house.  One of the older kids told me that the girls sleep on the upper level while the boys sleep in the barn.  “Is that so,” replied Larry’s mom as the car came to a stop in front of the stone house that was home to the Scotts.

Larry waited in the car and watched as Mrs. Scott opened the front door and ushered his mother inside.  Larry couldn’t see what lay behind the stone structure but he knew there was a small body of water, a pond, not far from the house.  Just beyond the pond, the woods offered shade to any angler who cast his favorite spinner into the calm water with the hope of catching a large smallmouth bass.

After the passage of several minutes, the front door to the house swung open and although he couldn’t hear the words spoken by the two women he imagined that cordial goodbyes were being exchanged.  The close friends often spoke and it wasn’t the first time Larry’s mom would go to the old stone house for butter; nor would it be the last.

As Larry’s mother walked toward the driver’s side of the car he could see that both hands were holding a large object.  At first, he thought it might be bread as he knew that Mrs. Scott’s reputation for baking six loaves at a time of the best homemade white yeast bread around was well known but as his mother came closer he saw that the object was a large bowl; a very large bowl.

Larry’s mother held the bowl against her chest with one hand while the other opened the door.  The door had not fully opened when she said, “Open your hands and take this bowl.”  The bowl was passed to the curious youngster and as he grasped it he asked, “What’s in the bowl;”  “Butter, home-made butter.”

As the boy looked at the hardened substance in the bowl his mother, and with a slight grin on her face said, “Mattie makes the butter in a washing machine.”  “A real washing machine,” Larry asked.”  “Yes, a real washing machine.  She has a Maytag wringer washer on the lower level.  Mattie pours the cream and salt into the Maytag, turns it on and after a little while, voila, you have butter; and a whole lot of butter at that.”  It took some time for Larry’s family to finish off that bowl of homemade butter, but the vision of the bowl’s bottom eventually came into view.

A few uneventful and humdrum weeks passed in Blankenship hollow.  The oak lumber was cut and transformed into flooring and Larry’s father spent the cool evenings washing and gazing at the Buick Super.  Larry hadn’t given Mrs. Scott much thought that is until an afternoon when Larry answered the ringing living room telephone. “Hello,” he said.  “Larry, this is Mattie Scott, is your mother around, “Sure, just a minute.”  Larry called for his mother but he hovered near the phone as he was curious about the reason for the call.  After a brief conversation Larry’s mother ended the call, “OK Mattie, Larry and I will be over tomorrow afternoon.”

Larry could wait no longer and even before the receiver was returned to the phone’s base he blurted out, “Why are we going back to Mrs. Scott’s?”  “Well, it seems as though she knows where there are some blackberries and we’re going to pick some.  Mattie thinks they would be just perfect for preserves.”  Larry didn’t voice his question but he couldn’t help wondering what type of container Mrs. Scott would use to hold the mixture of sugar, lemon juice and blackberries.

Nothing remains the same and people don’t live forever.  It’s been more than six decades since Larry held that bowl of butter on his lap and only the memory remains.  His parents have long since passed away, the Buick is gone and the sawmill stands no more.  Only a few of the old-timers know where the area between Noel and Pineville once known as Blankenship Hollow is located.

Mattie Scott’s stone house on Highway 90 is still there as is the barn and the small pond but Mattie passed away in December of 1980.  She and Amandus Dean Scott, who died in January of 1974, lived in the stone built home for 31 years.  Larry’s father, Robert J. Burkholder, R.J. to his friends, passed away in 1997 while his lovely wife, Margaret Eloise Burkholder, died in 1984.  Larry and his wife Nancy continue to enjoy the Ozark life and live on the outskirts of Noel.  Betty Darlene Hatfield, known to everyone as Darlene, acquired the last name of Mitchell and if asked about Mattie she will talk about a cool Ozark summer evening, a cold glass of ice tea and a slice of Mattie’s homemade buttered white yeast bread.

Larry Burkholder2

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I Am an Addict

grief4

Now in my late sixties, I find that there were very few things which I looked forward to. However, the daily walk to the mailbox was one experience that I found worthwhile.  Those sealed envelopes seemed to offer the possibility that something new and interesting rested inside.  I opened and carefully read each item of postage without prejudice and with total disregard for the addressee’s identity.

The short walk across the grass-covered yard and to the mailbox that day was the prelude to a meeting I would not forget.  As I thumbed through the white envelopes, one, in particular, caught my attention more so than the others.  The addressee was a hospice service that I was sadly familiar with.

“Family Care Hospice” the printed name on the envelope read and it was familiar to me.  As my best friend, my wife, Robin lie dying in a hospice supplied medical bed some years ago I recall reading the metal tag on the foot of the bed, “Family Care Hospice.”  Two young men delivered the white painted sterile looking bed one afternoon some years ago.

The unwelcome piece of furniture to be used by the dying was placed in the dining room of my home.  I knew then that my friend and I would never again share a bed.  I was sadly aware that after 46 years of marriage and love Robin’s time with me was coming to an end; an end that I could not prevent.

The morning of the bright sunshine and singing birds came and went and on that July morning Robin left with only the sound of angels’ wings and a softly whispered, “goodbye.”  Her mortal remains were taken away by some men from a funeral home but that bed, that metal framed monster remained until the afternoon.

In the weeks and months that followed that never to be forgotten day in July I opened the mailbox to find envelopes with the sender’s name printed in the upper left-hand corner;  “Family Care Hospice.”  I opened some but after a time I thought that discarding the unopened envelopes would keep the reminders of death inside and out of sight.

There are those who would advise that I should forget about Robin’s death and move on but I wholeheartedly disagree.  I remember her death and to suggest otherwise would be the advice of a fool.  However, I understand that I must learn to live a different life; one without her in it.  Neither I nor anyone else can say if that life will be better or worse, only time can determine that.

There came a time when the envelopes stopped finding their way into my mailbox and although I didn’t give it much consideration, I was relieved when I opened that mailbox door each day.  Then, and quite unexpectedly, there inside the holder of mail was an envelope, “Family Care Hospice.”

Overcoming my feelings of dread and putting aside my fears I slid the tip of my index finger into the slightly open corner of the envelope and sliding that finger across the top portion I opened the plain white envelope.  I began to read.

The correspondence was probably a form letter but regardless I continued to read.  It appeared to the company that I had not taken advantage of their counseling services.  Although Robin’s death was now four years ago the services were still available to me and I was urged to meet with a company employed and experienced, counselor.  I placed the letter in a large bowl on my kitchen counter where it remained for several weeks, out of sight but not out of mind.  Then a day came when I thought, “why not, what do I have to lose.”

The plaque on the office door read, “Christine Robertson, Licensed Professional Counselor, ATR-BC, LPC, ACHT.”  The office receptionist smiled as she lifted the telephone’s receiver and announced my presence.  “Go on in Ms. Robertson will see you now.”  I wondered how many times that seemingly overused smile had been offered to people like me.

“Hello, Mr. Fine.  Please have a seat.  Can I offer you something to drink, coffee, juice or water perhaps.”  “Hi, no, nothing thanks,” I replied as I looked around the room.  “Please call me Christine, and may I call you Stan?”  “Sure,” I replied.  Christine spoke while I continued to almost systematically examine the room’s décor.  My attention was particularly drawn to a wall plaque that read;

“We find a place for what we lose. Although we know that after such a loss the acute stage of mourning will subside, we also know that we shall remain inconsolable and will never find a substitute. No matter what may fill the gap, even if it be filled completely, it nevertheless remains something else.”
~Sigmund Freud (1961)

“I’m sorry to learn of the loss of your wife, Robin some four years ago.  Are you having difficulty coping with the grief?”  Grief, that sounded like a strange way to describe my feelings but I assumed she had to, at least for her purposes, give my feelings a name.  “I’m not sure how to answer that question and as to the length of time since her passing, I can tell you it has been 218 weeks, 3 days and 3 hours, give or take a few minutes.”

“Sorry,” she replied.  “The hospice service can offer you several methods designed to assist you in dealing with your feelings regarding Robin’s passing.”  Disinterested I asked, “such as?”  “Well if I may read from our pamphlet; you might benefit from counseling services designed specifically with coping skills, depression and grief.

‘You may be interested in ‘Reality Therapy’ and such techniques including the ‘Gottman Method’ and ‘Mindfulness-Based’ (MBCT) methods.  Now, these are methods designed to help with grief, not necessarily trauma.  Do you think you have any trauma issues?”  “Do you believe that holding your wife’s frail hand as she died could be considered trauma?”  I calmly asked.  Christine looked away and as her head slightly lowered she replied, “Absolutely.”

Christine and I talked for a while and I realized she had a job to do and she may have even cared about me and my wellbeing but I suppose the whole experience felt very impersonal and rehearsed.  How could anyone know anything about me, my life together with Robin and how I was feeling?

“Would you like to take some pamphlets with you and possibly get back with hospice regarding any interest you might have in any of our offered services?”  “I suppose so,” I answered.  As I began to get up from the very uncomfortable chair something came to mind.  “Do you offer addiction services as well?”  “We sure do.  Why, do you believe you have an addiction problem?”  “I most certainly do.”  As I stood next to the chair I continued with my self-diagnosis.

“Please don’t misunderstand me I’m not addicted to alcohol, drugs or any other substance.  I’m addicted to a person.  I miss the sound of her voice, the sight of her as she moved and even the fragrance of her perfume when she came close.

‘I must admit that I found her docile unassuming nature to be strikingly intoxicating and one that captivated me more and more the longer I found myself in her presence.  I was, to be succinct, in every way possible enamored with her subtle grace.  I soon found that I had no wish to free myself from that sublime intoxication but I rather wished to continue to imbibe; but to what end.

‘I remember that sometimes, and very late at night, she whispered words only the two of us could hear.  I miss those quiet nights spent with her and I miss the whispers.  Nobody whispers to me anymore.  I now understand that my happiness was in her keeping.

‘I’m addicted to my wife of 46 years, Robin and if there is a treatment for that addiction I prefer not to partake of it.  Goodbye, and thank you for your time, and oh yes, the nice pamphlets.”

The cool night breeze that floats across the darkness passes quietly through my open window while thoughts of you steal my sleep.

My name is Stan and I am an addict.

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Speedy’s Burger Shack, Dale McKim Prop.

There were no hamburgers warmed by heat lamps at Speedy’s Burger Shack. It wasn’t anything fancy but then neither was the proprietor, Dale McKim, known to everyone as Speedy.  The building was just a small rickety structure with a top-hinged window on the front that, when opened, remained that way as long as no careless customer’s elbow clumsily came into contact with the wooden stick.

No fans pushed the aroma of broiled meat through vents and onto Noel’s Main Street.  The evening breezes that began to cool the sidewalks, earlier baked by the hot summer sun, didn’t carry the aroma of french-fries; at least not from Dale McKim’s griddle.  No sir, Speedy’s hamburgers were not just made to order, the ingredients were purchased upon ordering.

Hungry patrons need not expect a menu with French fries, chicken tenders or nachos, either with or without meat.  There was no need to ask for a list of deserts, there were none.  Customers needn’t waste the proprietor’s time requesting that a burger be cooked to a condition of medium-rare. The ground beef was only cooked one way, well done.

There was much to look at on Noel’s Main Street in 1950.  The small Southwest Missouri town was a destination for tourists who wanted to enjoy the shops, cafes and most of all, Elk River.  Canoes could be rented at the local campgrounds while those visitors with greater expectations and larger wallets might opt to rent a motor-powered boat at Shadow Lake, a favorite place to dance and wet one’s whistle.

“I believe me and the misses will take a couple of hamburgers.”  The man and his wife were obviously tourists, as Speedy didn’t recognize either of the two and after all, he knew everyone in town.  “Ok,” Speedy replied out of one corner of his mouth while in the other corner a small portion of a cigarette dangled between his lips.  It always seemed as though there was more burnt ash than unsmoked cigarette drooping from his lips.  “Say there, any chance we can get a mess of French fries to go along with those burgers?”  “All I got here is hamburgers.  I don’t have time to make anything else, just hamburgers,” Speedy abruptly replied.

As Speedy walked to the rear of the shack he looked back over his shoulder to see if the stranger was still standing at the window that had been propped open with a stick.  When no sign of the man could be detected he quietly opened the rear door of the shack, walked through the opening and carefully closed the door behind him.

Speedy quickly scampered around the rear of the Ozark Theatre moving with that conspicuous and signature forward lean of his body.  As each foot quickly struck the ground of the narrow alleyway he rounded the corner of the theatre and crossed over Main Street barely pausing to check for traffic.  He turned several times looking back at the shack hoping that his trip would go unnoticed by the customer and when it appeared that his journey had been unobserved he opened the front door of Wyatt’s 7 Day Market, a building once home to “Happy’s Garage.”

He knew where the store’s owner and butcher, Claude D. “Butch” Wyatt, could be found; at the meat counter.  “Butch, I need enough hamburger meat for two hamburgers and I need four hamburger buns.”  This wasn’t the first time Speedy had made such a request of Butch so the butcher didn’t believe the statement to be anything particularly unusual.  “Yes sir, Speedy, coming right up.”  Butch knew that once Speedy received payment for the cooked burgers, he would also be paid.

As Butch rolled the ground beef into two round balls he smiled and asked; “Hey Speedy do you know what time it is?”  Although Speedy always wore a wristwatch, Butch knew full well that he couldn’t tell time.  Apparently, the watch was purely a fashion statement, as was the white shirt, tie, sport coat and wide-brimmed hat.  “I’m too busy to check the time,” Speedy replied.  “I’ll settle up with you later.”  “Sure thing, go on now,” Butch said as he waved his hand in the direction of the front door.

Speedy scampered across the street narrowly avoiding a hay-laden flatbed farm truck.  “Hey Speedy, where you going?”  The driver yelled out.  “Don’t have time to talk.  I’m in a hurry.”  Unnoticed to the ever patient customer Speedy snuck back into the shack through the rear door and cooked those two well-done meat patties.

“That’ll be eighty cents,” Speedy said as he held out the two burgers each wrapped in thin white butcher’s paper.  “Here you go,” the man replied as he took possession of the freshly made food.  As the couple walked away Speedy used a soiled cloth rag to wipe away any loose food from the ledge of the shack’s opening.  He had to stay busy.  That was his nature.

The local entrepreneur’s food service venture didn’t last long and after only a couple of months Speedy returned to what he knew best;  Walking the Main Street sidewalks selling candy, gum or anything else that local merchants like Gerald Bomgaars, owner of the Ben Franklin Five and Dime, would give him on consignment.

I recall a day many years ago when my grandmother, Phoebe and I went to Wyatt’s 7 Day Market.  Phoebe had a Siamese cat named Mamie.  The cat was named after the wife of President Dwight Eisenhower, Mamie Eisenhower.  Phoebe would routinely walk directly to the meat counter where Butch would greet her, “Afternoon Ms. Fine, do you need a piece of liver for Mamie.”  “I sure do,” would always be the answer.  I guess that cat was smarter than I gave her credit for as when Phoebe walked into her Kings Highway house Mamie could be found sitting next to her food bowl in the kitchen.  There she sat meowing all the while until the uncooked slice of liver was placed at her feet.

There were those who said some youngsters laughed as they hurled rocks at Speedy while he walked on the frozen water of Elk River that fateful 1st day of January in 1984.  It was rumored that those stones cast in his direction caused Dale McKim to venture farther from the bank and onto a thinner patch of ice; a patch of ice that gave way.  To this day some say that the children’s laughter stopped as Speedy descended into the cold, cold water.  All agreed that Speedy’s demise was an untimely death that could have, and should have, been avoided.  The man with no time to rest now does so in Delaware County, Oklahoma’s Mount Hermon Cemetery.

Speedy once ran for the office of Mayor of Noel.  Some local men encouraged him to throw his hat into the ring thinking the event would be “good for a laugh.”  As it turned out, Speedy was not victorious and his bid for mayor was unsuccessful.  He lost by the smallest of margins to the eventual winner, and new mayor, Martin Stauber.  Speedy did, however, offer some conciliatory and eloquent words following the counting of the votes; “I don’t have time to be the mayor.”

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The 6th Great Extinction

The young man’s father had been ill for some time.  The cancer that was deemed to be the cause of his death came upon the old man rather suddenly and progressed much faster than anyone, even the doctors, had anticipated.  Robert lived some distance from his father, Earl, and made the five-hour drive as often as his work schedule permitted, but the old man died alone one night in the home he shared with no one.

Robert’s father was a planner and one never known to allow loose ends to exist.  The son knew every post-death step to follow and details of his father’s wishes had been provided to him.  One such detail was the combination to a safe that rested against a garage wall of the then solitary house.  As the man’s son turned the dial stopping precisely at each digit listed on a piece of paper he could only imagine what might lay inside.

It was a root beer colored accordion folder held loosely shut with one large rubber band.  A yellow sticky note affixed to the folder had the name Rob printed on it and the handwritten words, “Well, this represents six years of my life, what do you think?”

Rob removed the old yellowed rubber band and pulled apart the top of the folder.  There inside were papers; papers that when removed were bound together with a large paperclip.  On the first piece of paper were the typewritten words, “The Five Great Extinctions” however a red colored line had been used to cross out the words.  Written under those crossed out words and scribed in red were the words, “The Sixth Great Extinction.”  Rob correctly surmised that this material represented some sort of manuscript written by his father, but for what purpose.

He remembered his father once telling him about the five great extinctions which had occurred throughout the history of the planet we refer to as Earth, our home.  It appeared that the old man had taken the ideas from his mind and transformed them into written words that eventually fell upon the white paper pages.

As Rob read through the first few pages he recognized his father’s words so easily and as the author talked about the cataclysmic events he saw the logic and detail that was always a part of the old man.  Robert’s father would not tolerate mistakes or inaccuracy.

When Earl began writing some six odd years ago the work’s premise, which he had considered on many a late night, was to be very straight forward.  He had researched the subject matter for more than three years and as the would-be author began to strike the keys on the keyboard the letters transformed into sentences and the sentences into paragraphs and then into pages, and pages and more.

The curious son of the late Earl carried the papers to the sofa and sat precisely on the same worn-out cushion his father had found so very comfortable.  With only mild interest the young man read what constituted the first two-thirds of the manuscript.  The author discussed in depth the first and oldest event, The Ordovician-Silurian Extinction, which occurred some 450 million years ago.

The writing dealt with the other four major events, The Late Devonian Extinction, The Permian-Triassic Extinction, The Triassic-Jurassic Extinction, and finally The Cretaceous Extinction, which took place approximately 66 million years ago and resulted in the eradication of 75% of the species living on the earth including the dinosaurs.

Rob continued to read through each page and accepted the work as a research paper.  He read the bland words as the turning of each page became tedious until he reached what seemed like the latter third of the gathering of the white sheets of paper.  There the theme of the writing took a noticeable and dramatic turn.  A turn that renewed the reader’s interest and drew him in and eagerly took him toward each following page.

The name of Robert’s mother and his father’s wife, Robin appeared.  The old man wrote of her unexpected diagnoses of cancer and the two years of life as that illness took the energy, life and hope from both she and her husband.  The final one-third of the papers told the story of a couple who lived so many years together and their excruciating wait for death to bring an end to their marriage and an end to Robin’s life.

The manuscript’s final few pages talked about their love and the final few days and hours and minutes of Robin’s life which the author termed, “The Sixth Great Extinction” for in his world that accurately described her death.  He explained that not only do species become extinct but individuals also succumb to tragic events and for him, at least within his life and world, Robin’s death was no less than a tragic event; a great extinction.  The final two paragraphs of the manuscript made clear Earl’s purpose in creating the written document.

“I believe that within each and every one of us lives some measure of greatness.  The loss of one single person, a seemingly insignificant individual, changes the world for all time and that world can never be recreated.  We sometimes don’t shed a tear over the extinction of a species or a person but we rather remember those bits of life that once occupied a place in this world.  Individual lives and the lives of entire species have beginnings and ends and that’s just part of the cycle of this universe.  The sounds made by the once beating hearts are gone but the custodians of such hearts shall never be forgotten.

‘Somehow, life seems to find a way to continue on and after those five great extinctions, the living world refused to come to an end.  It continued to exist and life found new ways to adapt to the changes. I may have been a small cog in this world’s wheel but that world did not own me.  I was someone who once lived life to its fullest.  I had a name.

‘The life forms that survived did not forget the long lost ones yet continued on and I am quite certain that it will be that way after my passing.  This terrible affliction that continues to ravage my body and even my soul itself will surely be the cause of my demise, my extinction.  Regardless of its volume, no assemblage of words can begin to describe the life and death of an entire species or even that of one very special person like Robin.  Therefore, this manuscript should be considered to be no more than a synoptic document at best.”

Robert packaged the root beer colored accordion folder and the manuscript contained within and mailed it to a small publishing company.  Several months passed and, as seems to always be the case when any and all thoughts of a return correspondence had faded there was a telephone call.

The ringing of the telephone was silenced as Robert lifted the phone and spoke, “Hello.”  It was then that a voice, a woman’s voice, was heard.  “Hi, my name is Sarah Joseph.  I’m with the Sullivan Publishing Company and I’d like to speak with Robert Lee.”  “This is Robert Lee, can I help you.”  “I hope so.  I’m calling about the receipt of a manuscript authored by Earl Lee which I believe you sent to our office.”

“That’s right I sent the manuscript,” Robert replied.  “Well, I’m calling to tell you that we would like to publish the book.  I found the story’s premise quite original and I loved the writing.  I must say that when I first began to read the manuscript I assumed it was going to be a non-fiction scientific based work based on the history of the earth but, as I’m sure you know, it isn’t.  It’s a story about life, heartbreak and love, isn’t it?  However, I suppose it’s really a bit of all of those.  I believe it’s about the natural order of things, man’s inability to change that order and the tragedy associated with the loss of even one life form.  I might even go so far as to call the manuscript a love story.

‘I’m so very sorry that your father couldn’t have lived long enough to see his work published.  We here at the publishing company have discussed the title, ‘The Sixth Great Extinction,’ and we wonder if a change to that title might not be appropriate.  With the passing of your father, the book’s author, might not a better title be ‘The Seventh Great Extinction?”

“I also gave that some thought,” Robert quickly replied.  “My dad was not a person to leave loose ends and if it appeared to some that he had left something unexplained I know without question that he had a purpose to that end.  I believe he would have considered a title change but knowing him as I did I feel as though he didn’t consider his passing to be anything extraordinary; therefore not in any way a great extinction.  I ask that the title remain as stated.”  “Robert”, Sarah Joseph replied, “I now clearly have a better understanding of your father and the title shall remain, “The Sixth Great Extinction.”

Robin grave marker

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I Can See China

Carl's Cafe NoelThere was absolutely no question in Mike’s mind that any fair-minded mother of a four-year-old would overlook her previous admonishment for crossing the street if there was an opportunity to see China.  In fact, when Mike’s older brother, Gary later told the boy’s mother about the hole, its depth and the sight of the country on the other side of the Earth she would almost certainly take Mike’s hand and walk him across the street to get a look at such a miraculous sight.  Therefore, in crossing Noel’s Main Street the young boy would be saving his mother the time and effort it would take to look into that deepest of holes.

Mike, his brother Gary and their mother Donna Lee Hill lived in the small Southwest Missouri Ozarks town of Noel.  Mike’s father, Idas Waddie (Jack) Poynor, ceased to be a part of the family when he and Donna divorced four years earlier. In 1959 Jack was struck and killed by a car while walking across a Wichita, Kansas street. The two young boys, one four and the other nine years of age lived in a small white sided house on Gratz Street.  The house owned by Donna’s parents, Roy and Ottis Hill, sat on a small lot just across the street from the city’s old cinderblock jail.

Roy and Ottis owned and operated the Main Street café known as Roy’s Café.  The couple made ends meet serving home cooked meals to the local residents in the winter and fall seasons while the spring and summer influx of tourists always created a lack of empty tables and chairs in the café.  Ottis oversaw the café’s daily operations while Donna carried white china plates filled with hamburgers, chicken fried steaks, and mashed potatoes to the hungry patrons.  Donna had but a short walk to work each day as the busy cafe was located just around the corner from the family’s Gratz Street house.

Ottis spent the warm evenings in the home’s small kitchen baking pies for the following day’s hungry patrons.  Mike remembers that his grandmother would often bake ten or more pies each evening and the aroma of hot blueberries, strawberries, apples and peaches filled each room of the three bedroom home.

For children growing up in Noel, the summers were a time for fun.  Mike and Gary often walked across Gratz Street and down the hill that sloped away from the jail to Butler Creek and its shallow, cool waters.  There Gary and his two best friends, Clark Lee Wylie and Byron Lee Huitt, talked about the heat, the sharp rocks that formed the creeks bed and the mischief they might get into that day.  Mike’s name was sometimes mentioned as the three young conspirators conceived their mischievous plans.  As the devious plots were discussed Gary would sometimes give a glance and a wry smile in Mike’s direction.

Mike heard the same stern spoken warning from his mother each and every morning; “Don’t cross the street.  Do you hear me?  Stay on this side of that road.”  It was as if these directions had been included in a book written specifically for the mothers of small children.  “I’m not kidding don’t let me catch you crossing that street.”

Mother’s instructions are difficult to rationalize for four-year-old boys.  The part about the street and its crossing seemed clear enough but what about the time Mike walked to the hobo camp.  Vagabonds regularly gathered on the gravelly banks of Butler Creek just south of Noel.  The men cooked and told stories and to a curious boy of four the men wearing large hats and tattered clothing seemed harmless enough.

There came a day when Mike just had to walk to the camp for a better look at these constant travelers of the roads and rails.  A small gathering of men were sitting around an open fire talking, laughing and eating.  One of the men became aware of Mike’s presence, “hey kid, you hungry?”  “Yes sir,” Mike answered.  “Well then come on over and have a seat on this here log.  I’ll fix you a plate of hobo stew.”  Mike saw nothing inappropriate in the offer so he took a seat and with an old metal spoon enjoyed the meat and potatoes that covered the metal plate.

Somehow, possibly through his informant brother, Mike’s mother found out about his meal and tanned his bottom.  Apparently eating hobo stew with the men at the hobo camp was as serious a transgression as crossing Main Street.  There were so many things to remember when you were young.

Mike now recalls that it was a hot July day in the Ozarks when Gary coaxed him into breaking the rule of all rules, that of crossing the street.  While Mike stood on the sidewalk in front of Roy’s Café his head turned slowly from side to side.  The discerning eyes of a four-year-old can detect the minutest detail of anything which is out of place.  There, across the street and in front of the Ozark Theatre, the boy’s eyes became fixated on his brother.

Gary was bent over at the waist and appeared to be fascinated with a dark patch on the sidewalk. “Hey, what are you looking at?”  “China,” Gary almost casually replied.  “That’s not China,” Mike said as he scoffed at his brother’s claim.  “It is too.  You better come and take a look for yourself.”  “How do you know it’s China,” Mike asked.  “You’ve never even been to China.”  “I saw a picture of it in a school book one time.  That’s China alright.”

Well, that was good enough for Mike.  After all, if a picture of the land of the dragon was in one of his brother’s school books than the hole most certainly must puncture the globe finally ending in China.  Mike had to catch a glimpse for himself so he gave an over the shoulder look back at the café and, once assured that his mother was inside serving lunch to the tourists, he crossed the street.

Now admittedly Mike had never really seen China so he had no point of reference as to what the country of strange speaking people actually looked like.  The image seen at the bottom of that hole might be China or it could merely be some dirt which lay beneath a patch of the Main Street concrete sidewalk in need of repair.  Who was to say?

If only he could catch a glimpse of an oriental looking person wearing a large pointed bamboo hat with a chin strap.  That would unequivocally be proof that this hole was a very deep one and opened up on the other side of the world.

The staring and squinting of eyes was suddenly interrupted by the sensation of something coming into contact with the loosely worn Tuff Nut jeans which covered Mike’s buttocks.  Mike had experienced this sensation several times in the past and instantly recognized the feeling as that of a willow switch forcibly striking his buttocks.  “I thought I told you not to cross the street,” Mike’s mother yelled.  As she continued to rapidly slap the piece of wood against his derriere she said; “Suppose you were hit by a truck or a tractor, how would you feel then, huh?”  Grabbing the sobbing youngster by the arm the mother of two pulled Mike across the street and into the café.  “Now you sit in this chair and don’t you dare move a muscle,” she said.

Later that night Mike looked back on the incident and his mother’s question, “how would you feel then?” He thought to himself, how silly the question actually was.  If he were run over by a large hay bale laden farm truck the tires would almost certainly crush him to death leaving him without the ability to reconsider his decision to cross Main Street.  He never, however, mentioned the irony of the question to his mother.

Mike’s mother was a great mom and an accomplished multi-tasker.  She frequently scolded him while continuing to wallop his behind with the assistance of a handy willow twig.  There were rare occasions when she not only continued to scold him but switched hands.  He now painfully recalls that she was very adroit with either hand and never missed a beat as she paddled his behind with the aid of that stinging willow tree shoot.  Donna Lee died in 1987.

For many years Roy’s Café was a place where people could enjoy a home cooked meal and a slice of hot apple pie.  The old café changed hands several times over the ensuing years and was known by many names; The Sail Inn, Evans Café and Carl’s Café.  Roy Hill entered local politics and in 1951 he became Noel’s mayor.  Roy died in 1954 and in his honor the newly completed Noel Main Street lights were named Roy Hill White Way.  Ottis passed away in November of 1987.

To this day, Mike sometimes feels a twinge in the seat of his pants when he crosses to the other side of Noel’s Main Street and the hole to China; well, that hole was filled in long ago but if he squints his eyes really hard and uses all of his imagination he can sometimes see big brother Gary staring into that crevice.  Gary passed away on the fifth day of January in the year 2016 and life without a big brother just isn’t the same.Ozark Theatre Noel

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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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