The Pink Sky

Dave Fishing4Life is like a patchwork quilt.  As each event in our life unfolds, as every swath of colored cloth is sewn together, one touching the other, our lives and the quilt begin to take shape. The overall theme and picture becomes clearer.  I do believe that as I look back on that afternoon some years ago spent on the white sandy Florida beach it was one of those patches; a pink colored scrap of cloth at that.

The cancer that grew within my son, David had been discovered quite by accident some fourteen months ago.  David, who lived in St. Louis, Missouri hadn’t been feeling well but couldn’t really put his finger on how the new feelings affected him.  He didn’t have a cold or the flu but the absence of energy his thirty-six-year-old body usually possessed was cause for concern.

A Physician’s examination left only more questions yet to be answered.  There were blood tests, CT scans and MRI’s followed by a week or so of uneasy anticipation waiting for the results.  Then there came a call from the doctor’s office asking that David see the physician the following day when the results of all the prodding and probing would be revealed.

David and his wife Kim left the house and, although they tried to avoid talking about the purpose of the drive, it was on both of their minds.  As the pair tried to push the thoughts of doom from their minds they talked about work, their two children and the hot August day.

The time seated in the waiting room was much less than normal and every action taken by the nurse who took David’s blood pressure, temperature and pulse was scrutinized by David and Kim.  They were looking for some unspoken clue which would indicate the seriousness of the illness.

The couple sat on uncomfortable chairs in an inhospitable room and listened as the doctor spoke.  “You have stage 4 colon cancer.  It has spread to your liver and the treatment options are somewhat limited.  I suggest that you have surgery as soon as possible followed by radiation and chemotherapy.”  Through Kim’s tears and soft murmuring cries, David responded as only he could, “OK, let’s get started.”

The next fourteen months found David in hospital surgery rooms and treatment rooms with comfortable chairs with televisions hung on the walls where needles punctured the skin on his arms.  Through it all David remained, at least outwardly, the same person he had always been.  There were few, if any, complaints and he was often overheard saying, “it is what it is.”

My wife Robin and I lived in the Tampa, Florida area during the time of David’s treatments.  Robin became very ill during our stay there and most of my time was spent either at work or caring for her but I did manage to make numerous trips to St. Louis to be with David before and after his surgical procedures.  I could see the changes in him as the treatments took their toll on his mind and body.

Then there came the day in August of 2006.  The telephone in my Tampa home rang and the call was from David.  No more than a few words were spoken when David stated the reason for the call.  “I’d like to see you and mom and spend a few days with the two of you; would that be OK?”  “Yeah, that would be great,” I answered.

David and his teenaged daughter, Samantha arrived the next day and spent four days with Robin and me.  Three days passed and not one word regarding the cancer was mentioned.  On the morning of the fourth and last day of the visit, David asked if the four of us could go to the beach.  That afternoon was spent on the white sands of a Florida beach.

David sat in a folding chair and didn’t say much.  He occasionally walked to the water’s edge and seemed to enjoy the feeling of the salty waves as they crawled up his feet and legs.  As the sun began to set I walked with David in the gulf coast waters when suddenly he stopped and stared off to the west.

“You see that pink sky.  I’d like to walk out into the water and into that pink sky and never come back but I can’t.  I need to go home tomorrow and finish this.”  I knew what he meant and I knew he was right but I could find no words of comfort to offer so I tightly hugged him and said, “I love you and I have always loved you.”  “I know,” he said, “I know.”

David left the following morning.  Robin and I went to St. Louis a month later and spent the next and last few weeks of David’s life with him.  With his family near his side, David died in the early morning hours of the 29th day of September in the year 2006.

That morning and the ensuing afternoon hours were parts of a sad day; A day when family members and friends cried and talked about memories of David.  I think that everyone coming in and out of the house found it hard to imagine that he was gone.

That evening, and all alone, I sat on the back porch chair that David had rested on so very many times before.  I guess I wanted to somehow believe that I was a part of him.

There the most quiet and serene sensation came over me.  It was as if something or someone was asking me to look out over the treetops and beyond the small pond.  There, in the western part of the world I could see the Sun dying on the horizon; and yes, the sky was painted pink.  The soft white and pink clouds merged into the pastel-colored pink and blue sky with little reminder of the once mournful day that had passed before its coming.

Many memories came to mind as I watched that western sky and there, and for only a moment, I could have sworn that I saw a shape.  It was a shape reminiscent of a face that I could clearly recall.  It was the face of David.  Maybe, and I hoped so very much, he had gone to live in the pink sky.

I’m certain there had been many pink skies prior to that evening spent on that sandy Florida beach but that was the first one I recall paying much notice of.  Since then I find that as the evening Sun begins to die in the western sky I give a look in that direction hoping that the painted sky will be pink.

When I am fortunate enough to find that pink sky it invariably brings a sense of calmness into my life. I imagine that David is free of pain and no longer has a fear of dying as he may have found peace there in the pink sky.

Much like a book containing a collection of short essays I believe my life has been a compilation of stories; at first glance a random grouping of unrelated events.  But when the selections are examined in their entirety; well they compose what can best be thought of as my life.  I now consider the story of David’s pink sky to be one of the saddest yet one of the most often remembered stories.

As the previous year recently slipped away and on the eve of a new one I listened to words that Scottish poet Robert Burns first penned to parchment in the year 1788.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and auld Lang Syne?

There will never come a time when I will forget old acquaintances.

After David left my Florida home I discovered a note left by him and addressed to Robin and I.  “I love you both. Thank you for everything. I had a great life.”  The note was signed using David’s old soccer team number, “#9.”

That note is now encased in a metal frame and rests inconspicuously on my fireplace mantle.David note1

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Throwing Dice at the Fuzzy Duck

Dice2The gentleman, the stranger, seemed to be unusually lucky at the game of craps.  The man shaking the pair of Bakelite butterscotch colored dice in his left hand seemed to be able to convince the inanimate objects to perform just as he instructed them to.  ”C’mon give me a 7,” he spoke to the dice as he rolled the duo against the wall of the “Fuzzy Duck.”  “A seven,” an onlooker and then loser angrily said.  “How ‘bout an eleven?” the man whispered to the dice as he again rattled them in his closed hand; “Eleven,” another loser cried out.

Several successful points were made when one of the less fortunate gamblers spoke out.  “Say, fella, where you from?”  It was obvious to the locals that this stranger was not only extremely lucky, but someone not known to others standing and kneeling about on the service station’s garage floor.  “I’m an Okie from Claremore,” the lucky gambler said with pride.  Another winning toss of the dice prompted one of the men to grab the pair of dice.  “Say, these aren’t our dice.”

One of the others, and one who had lost several dollars, grabbed the dice.  After some examination, the man exclaimed, “Mister, you been cheating us poor Missouri boys.  These here are loaded dice.”  With that, the men gathered around the man from Claremore, relieved him of his winnings and roughly escorted him outside and rudely deposited him into his truck.  “And don’t never show your face around here never again,” one man shouted as the truck from Oklahoma drove away.

In 1959 Harmon Landon and friend and mechanic, Frank Boyd believed the time had come to go into business together.  There wasn’t much discussion about the type of business or location as those minor details had already been decided.  The two would purchase the Rhoten’s Bargain Center.

Harmon knew the owners of the thriving enterprise very well as Orville and Eunice Rhoten were his wife, Margurette’s father and mother.  After some discussion regarding the conditions of the sale, Harmon and Frank took over the ownership of the business.  The only immediate change considered was an obvious one; what would the new business be called?  Well, that decision proved to be an easy one.  The new business would be called Landon and Boyd’s Bargain Center.

If one were to leave the small Ozark town of Noel, Missouri and travel south on the old highway 59 two-lane road motorists would pass Bluff Dweller’s Cave, the Red Top Tavern and just prior to crossing the Missouri-Arkansas state line the motorist would see the Landon-Boyd service station and liquor store.

Three gas pumps, two dispensed regular grade gasoline while the other offered premium, rested in front of the building and rarely was there a time when they were not in use.  When customers entered the store the sight of bottles and bottles of various brands of liquor greeted them.  If a bottle of beer was more to their liking, several brands were available and the store offered for sale something to suit almost everyone’s tastes.

If one was to walk out of the building’s back door and pace off no more than ten short feet the building which housed a garage would be found.  Inside the garage, tires were sold and mounted and repairs were made to cars and trucks.  A lift raised cars and was used primarily for oil changes.  These services, especially tire sales, contributed to the store’s bottom line and every little bit helped.  It was the garage area of the business where locals gathered to talk, drink and shoot craps.  The garage came to be known as the “Fuzzy Duck.”

Upon entering the garage, some were taken aback by the lack of expected car repair odors.  The smell of grease, oil and gasoline was replaced by the odors of cigar and cigarette smoke.  If one got near enough to the wood-burning potbelly stove and the cast iron pot resting atop it the subtle fragrance of stew could be detected; a mixture that seemed to change as passers-by dropped chunks of meat and vegetables into the small hot cauldron.  Anyone brave enough, and with a strong enough stomach, was welcome to help themselves to the mixture of undescribed origin.

Landon and Boyd’s Bargain Center, at least on the outside, was much like other service station/liquor stores in the area.  Customers could buy gasoline, a bottle of whiskey or a bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer.  The rut-filled dirt roads created a constant need for tires and mechanic Frank Boyd was always glad to sell a set of “Double Eagle” tires.  The business did, however, offer something unique; games of chance based on a roll of the dice.

Those regular customers with a sporting nature sometimes proposed an alternative to paying for that premium gas fill-up.  “Say, Harmon, I’ll try my luck at ‘High Dice;’ double or nothing.”  “I’ll take that chance,” Harmon replied.  The customer rolled the two cubes; nine was the number of spots shown.  Harmon then tossed the dice.  “Ten,” Harmon called out.  You owe me two times the price of that gas.  That’ll be $11.00.”  “Seems like I never win,” the man said as he took some wadded up paper bills from the pocket of his overalls.

The garage area, known as the “Fuzzy Duck,” although even to this day nobody knows why, was where the real action took place.  It seemed like there were always men gathered there watching as the dice ricocheted off one of the walls.  The lucky gamblers left with hundreds, and even thousands of dollars, while those with less luck left with empty pockets.

“Boys, I’m leaving lessen I give you scoundrels all my money.  Marshal, there ought to be a law agin shooting dice,” the man said as he looked in the direction of the man wearing the brown wide-brimmed hat.  “I say by God there is,” answered Floyd, Noel’s city marshal.  “But this here garage ain’t in the city limits of Noel now is it?”  When the marshal felt lucky he too could be heard calling for that hard eight as he rolled the pair of spotted dice against the wall.

Not everyone called out a bet on the possibility that the spots on the dice might make a point or even come up seven or eleven.  “Five to two odds he doesn’t make his point; I’m giving five to two odds he doesn’t toss a six,” rang out a voice from the corner of the crowd of men.  The man from Gravette, Arkansas found a unique way of fleecing the gamblers and at the end of the evening, he usually counted his winnings as he walked to his pick-up.

The man from Arkansas was shrewd and realized that the craps games created many more losers than winners.  He did occasionally talk the city marshal into wagering on a game of high dice.  The first roller would dare the second man to beat his point, and as for the stakes.  Well, the loser had to buy the winner a cold beer.

Those not rolling the dice or betting on the outcome found ways to pass the time.  On one occasion a bystander pulled the dangling cord on the overhead light plunging the garage into darkness.  The lights were out for no more than a few seconds but when the darkness left, the light brought into view several pistols which had been removed from pockets and waistbands.  “Don’t never touch that cord again,” one man said as he returned a pistol to his pocket.  “Now, who’s the next shooter?”

Forty years passed, times changed and with those changes the store and garage were sold to Neal Sumers and Mutt Morgan.  The crap games ended and the man from Claremore with the loaded dice was never again seen.  Margurette passed away some years ago and is buried near her parents in Sulphur Springs’ Butler Creek Cemetery.  Frank Boyd, now in the eighty-second year of his life, lives in Jay, Oklahoma.  Harmon still lives in the area and if prodded he will tell you the story of the John Deere tractor he once bought following a night’s run of luck at the Fuzzy Duck.

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Wyndy’s Christmas Surprise

Butch7Nothing, not even the long and warm sunlit days of summer, lasts forever.  The warm months in the Ozarks were now only a memory in the mind of Wyndy and there were more important, and more immediate, issues which occupied the thoughts of the five-year-old girl.  “Wyndy, let’s get going.”  Wyndy was perusing the racks of candy, especially the small stack of Hershey’s Chocolate bars but she heard her grandfather’s words; at least to the extent that any small child listens to their parents or grandparents.

“Come on, it’s Christmas eve and we need to take this stuff over to Caddo and Mildred’s before it gets too late;  Quit staring at that candy.”  Caddo Gann, was a local house painter who frequently brushed color on many of the houses in the small southwest town of Noel, Missouri.  He and his wife, Mildred owned a house on property that was also home to the local refuse dump.  A small wooden box nailed to a pole asked that waste depositors put some money inside after depositing their refuge.  Collections were completely based on an honor system which not all patrons of the dump adhered to.  Caddo and Mildred had been blessed with ten children.  Wyndy’s grandfather, Claude “Butch” Wyatt owned Wyatt’s 7 Day Market and without solicitation took a box of food to the Gann family each and every cold Christmas Eve evening.

“Why do you have two boxes?” Wyndy asked.  “Well, because we also need to stop by Speedy’s place and drop off a box of food.”  Speedy was a well-known local charismatic figure whom, to say the very least, was unique in every way and lived his life at a frantic pace.  Regardless of the season or outside temperature, Speedy was known to gather up his small but cherished collection of dolls prior to hosing down the interior of his home using only the garden hose.  Dale McKim, Speedy, was known to everyone as someone who was in constant motion.  Speedy lived alone in a small apartment and Butch knew the gift of food would be appreciated by someone spending that most special of all nights alone.

Wyatt’s 7 Day Market opened its doors in 1948.  Claude D. Wyatt, “Butch” to everyone he knew, and his wife Ruth decided to start a business selling what the townsfolk of Noel would always need, food.  The store was situated on Noel’s Main Street and Butch, who had been selling meat from his vehicle, was the butcher and cut meat at the worktop near the back of the business while Ruth rang up sales at the front counter’s register.

Butch and his wife, Ruth were determined to make the business a success and hard work was nothing new to the couple.  Butch’s family moved to the area in 1923 traveling from Oklahoma in a mule-drawn wagon.  The families of Butch and Ruth Coultas were neighbors during Butch and Ruth’s high school years, and as is often the case, the two youngsters became more than just friends.  They became man and wife.

From 7:00 a.m. until midnight each and every day of the week the couple greeted customers with smiles and “hello’s” while helping them find that special item.  When the Wyatt children were old enough, and that arbitrary age was indeed a very young one, all three children Phillip, James and Elaine became employees at the store.  The store was truly a family owned and operated business.

Butch loved his family and he enjoyed talking to his friends and customers at Wyatt’s 7 Day Market but when there was a spare moment he could be found fishing in Elk River or playing dominos with friends in Les Porter’s Main Street basement pool hall.

Noel was known by mid-westerners as a summer playground.  Tourists flocked to the small town where they enjoyed the cool waters of Elk River, danced on Shadow Lake’s dance floor and enjoyed a hot meal at one of the many cafés or restaurants.  Some tourists could be seen playing miniature golf, driving a go-cart around the oval track or just looking for that Ozark themed gift at The Noel Gift Shop.

However, Noel was also known for something else.  It was called “The Christmas City.”  When winter came, the tourists returned to their cities and jobs and winter lives while the people living in the small town of Noel stayed and waited for that special day of the year, Christmas.

The placing of the city’s decorations began several weeks prior to the special day as bows were hung from the Main Street light poles, store windows were painted in green and red colors and ribbon was draped on the Main Street Bridge’s railings.  All preparations were completed just days prior to the annual Christmas parade.

The parade was widely anticipated by all the local residents, especially those of fewer years, as the star of the parade, Santa Claus would surely make his appearance.  Wyndy had no doubt that the man in red, he who epitomized Christmas, was real but it was always reassuring to see him in the flesh thus leaving no doubt in the small child’s mind that he had undoubtedly received her Christmas list.

Wyndy was as confused as any five-year-old girl could possibly be.  She thought she knew everything there was to know about Christmas but just a week earlier all that had changed and in the mind of the five-year-old that event gave birth to a puzzlement.  It started with that traditional City of Noel parade.

The morning clouds had given way to a bright afternoon sunlit day as Wyndy, her mother and her two cousins stood alongside Noel’s Main Street.  “Wyndy it’s cold put those gloves on.”  Without acknowledging her mother’s directions with a word or even a nod of the head Wyndy put her fingers into each of the cloth gloves.  She purposely hadn’t made use of the ten finger warmers because she found it difficult to clap as each brightly decorated car or truck passed.

Finally, there he was; the reason why all the children had braved the cold day.  There was Santa himself.  He looked just as he had the year before with his red and white suit of clothes, his white beard and his glasses.  Wyndy, and without questioning, accepted the fact that Santa must have had poor eyesight and required the aid of glasses.

Suddenly the car with Santa in it stopped and the young of years and small of stature admirers flocked to his side.  As he passed out candy to the smiling children he repeated the seasonal words over and over, “Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas.”  Then and in a tone only to be heard by Wyndy he spoke, “Here Wyndy, here is some candy and I hope you’ve been a good little girl, Merry Christmas.”  As Wyndy held out her hand she realized that the bearded man’s voice was very familiar.  It was a voice she had heard for as long as she could remember.  It was the voice of Grandpa Wyatt.

Later that afternoon and into the nighttime hours the little girl tried to make sense of the experience.  There was the possibility that Grandpa Wyatt led a double life; that of a mild-mannered butcher and also one as the jolly Kris Kringle, aka Santa Claus.  Or maybe, and this was hurtful to think of, just maybe men dressed in red and white garb during the holiday season posing as a fictitious, and real only in Wyndy’s mind, Santa.

Wyndy didn’t talk to her mother or grandfather, or anyone else for that matter, about her concerns.  At some point, she just accepted the realization that the Santa in the parade was Grandpa Wyatt and that was all there was to it.  As for the real Santa, well as it is with all of us as we leave our childhood years, that issue seems to resolve itself.

Christmas day came and went for the Wyatt family.  Wyndy looked at her grandfather differently that cold December morning but she smiled as he gave her his traditional gift.  It was the gift of a handful of shiny silver dollars.  As always, the quantity of coins was equal to the number years of her life and that Christmas that number was five.

Butch Wyatt not only sold food, he sold fun and that product was dispensed at the Dairyette.  The Dairyette stood adjacent to the grocery store and was a place where the young in years could shoot pool, play arcade games, listen to music and on Friday and Saturday nights, dance.

Butch was known to mark some of the quarters with pink nail polish.  Those quarters were given to Wyndy, her two cousins, Mitch and Linda and Noel’s smallest and most needy ones who used the pink coins to play arcade games.  As the profits from the machines were collected each month the man who serviced those games returned the pink stained coins to Butch.

Grandpa Butch and Grandma Ruth have passed on to their reward and now peacefully rest in Noel’s Petty Cemetery.  Wendy’s mother, Virginia Ruth Wyatt, passed away in 2016 at the age of 88.

As for Wyndy; she lives on the outskirts of Noel in the house where Butch, Ruth and their three children Elaine, James and, Wyndy’s father Phillip once called home.  Wendy regrets the loss of the countless hours she and her father could have shared as Phillip passed away at the age of 27 on July 14, 1959.  Phillip rests with his parents in Petty Cemetery.  The little girl who once held a handful of silver dollars is no longer a child but Wyndy still loves Christmas and smiles when she talks about Grandpa Butch, Wyatt’s 7 Day Market and the Noel Christmas Parade.

Thanks to Wyndy

Butch8

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The Aluminum Christmas Tree

Aluminum treeI have some advice for those among you who may be considering a holiday vacation and embrace the Norman Rockwell inspired images of Christmas.  Cross Yuma, Arizona off your list of possible destinations.  I was ten years of age in 1959 and my family resided in the land of dry baron deserts and sand dunes where the excruciating heat of summer routinely smashed record high temperatures.  The winter months, on the other hand, were mild and comfortable; and therein lays the rub.  I wanted a traditional Christmas consisting of cold snowy days, the wearing of coats and mittens and oh yes; a full, green and beautiful Fraser Fir Christmas tree.

I don’t recall why, but I do remember that a few weeks before the day of all days, Christmas day, my mother sent my father out to buy a Christmas tree.  Looking back on it, I now find it odd that she would not have accompanied him as she was widely recognized as a Christmas fanatic.  She left no decorating detail un-decorated and as for cooking, well her white divinity candy and dark chocolate fudge is, even to this day, talked about during the holiday season.

I tried to occupy the minutes that passed into more than two hours as I anxiously awaited the return of my father and that glorious tree.  My mother had removed a chair from the corner of the living room and vacuumed just that small piece of carpeting.  I was certain that no more dirt could have found a resting place there than on the other areas of living room carpeting but possibly she knew more about the habitats of dirt than did I.

Quietly resting with knees on the sofa cushion and elbows on the picture window’s sill I anxiously waited for my father’s return; that moment when the family car would pull into the driveway with a perfect fir tree tied to the roof.  I wondered how large the tree would be.  Could it be so large as to hang over the front of the car’s roof thus obstructing my father’s vision?  Maybe that’s why it was taking so long; he had been forced to extend his neck and head out through the driver’s side open window so he could see well enough to successfully navigate the return trip.

There were other unthinkable possibilities which may explain his extended absence.  Maybe the tree lot had already sold its last tree.  Possibly some desert dwelling fungus had decimated the Fraser Fir tree population.  What if my father had stopped at a grocery store after purchasing the last great tree and a highly organized gang of unscrupulous thugs specializing in the theft of Christmas trees had absconded with the green beauty.  The possibilities were too numerous and hideous to contemplate.

I gave, at least for a moment, some thought to abandoning my perch.  What if by chance my father would also deliver some boxes wrapped in paper with pictures of Santa, snow and candy canes on them?  How would it look if I became aware of the presents’ existence prior to their traditional appearance on Christmas Eve night?  There was much to consider.

My older brother and I had long since come to the sad realization that Santa lived only in the minds of the young.  On the other hand, my younger sister, who was a mere four years of age, firmly believed that the jolly red and white clad zealous fat man came down the chimney of our Yuma, Arizona house.  I often wondered why she hadn’t considered the obvious contradiction with her belief and the stark reality as our desert home had neither chimney nor fireplace.

The new Monte Carlo Red Ford Ranch Wagon pulled into the driveway and I was speechless.  Where was that classic symbol that embodied the spirit of Christmas, the Christmas tree? I watched as my father walked to the rear of the station wagon, opened the hatch then as he glanced in my direction, he waived his hand motioning for me to come outside.

“Here, grab this box,” he said as the rear cargo door of the wagon slowly raised.  I was handed a rectangular shaped box with a rather odd looking picture on its front.  “Go on, take it into the house.”  As I walked toward the open front door I read the name on the box; “Spartus 12&1/2 inch Rotating Color Wheel.”  What in the world was a rotating color wheel?  I placed the box on the sofa and read further.

“For aluminum Christmas Trees; the light splashes beautiful red, blue, green and white colors over the aluminum tree as it gently rotates enhancing the beauty of any sized aluminum Christmas tree.”  I was still somewhat confused as I pondered the question, “What aluminum Christmas tree,” my father placed on the carpeted floor a large box marked “Fairyland seven foot aluminum Christmas tree.”

That evening, and with no help offered or interest shown by me, my father erected the metal monster and placed the rotating light not far from it.  I considered expressing my displeasure with the anti-Christmas devices but I firmly considered my father to be the reincarnation of Ebenezer Scrooge himself.  Although he never uttered the phrase, bah-humbug, I was thoroughly convinced the words were often in his thoughts.

Just when I thought the tree couldn’t morph into anything more grotesque my father opened a small bag which contained three boxes of silver colored tinsel.  What could he be thinking; silver colored tinsel on a silver colored aluminum tree.  That would certainly be the most egregious yuletide faux pas of all time.  When would the horror ever end?

My mother did, however, insist on placing a red cloth cover on the tree’s stand as she subtly assumed the role of Christmas intermediary between my father, my brother, my sister and me.  She tried but even with the addition of fifty or so colorful ornaments and oodles of presents piled high around the hideous metal beast that tree was still a monster that would surely reappear as a nightmare in my dreams later that night.

Christmas came and went just as it had always done and my family got back to our normal lives; school for me and my brother and work for my father.  My mother, however, seemed to have the most remarkable memory and her mind worked in the most devious way.

Several months following the day of gifts, and as I opened the front door preparing to make the short walk to school, she called out to me; “Don’t forget to take out the trash can.  It’s trash day.”  I answered, “OK” and walked to the side of the house, picked up the rusty metal can and carried it to the curb.  I began my unhurried walk along the sidewalk when a sound from my house aroused my suspicion.  Turning my head I saw my mother dragging a box from the garage and in the direction of the curbside trash.

I quietly watched as she, still in her pajamas, returned to the garage closing the door behind her.  Curiosity outweighed my need to arrive at school on time so I walked back to the metal can and the box.  There I saw the box which once contained the aluminum atrocity.

At first, I rationalized its presence as being no more than the empty box that once housed the metal monster but as I opened the top and peered inside there I saw the aluminum tree.  I immediately scanned the area for that whirling four colored and motorized light but it was nowhere to be found.  Strange, I thought but I gave the incident no further consideration until December of that year and the days leading up to Christmas.

A new decorating season arrived and my mother asked my father to get the boxed tree from the garage and assemble it in the usual place, in front of the living room picture window.  No more than a minute or so passed when he came back into the house carrying only the rotating light.  “Hey, I can’t find the tree.  Do you know where it is?”  “How would I know,” she abruptly replied.  “You’re the one that put it away last year.”

After some time, some searching in the garage and the hurling of some subtle accusations, my father left the house.  An hour or so passed and as I heard the car pull into the driveway I looked out through that large picture window.  This Christmas would be better than the last as I saw a large green Fraser Fir tree tied with rope to the roof of my father’s car.

I always wondered why my mother hadn’t discarded the rotating light as well but I was certain that it somehow didn’t fit into her plan.  Perhaps she thought that the absence of both the tree and the light would cast an undue amount of suspicion on her.  After all, my mother was a very clever person.

I suppose there are those who would accuse me of being somewhat complicit in the disappearance of the aluminum Christmas tree and assign guilt to both my mother and I but I vehemently disagree.  I, then and now, consider myself to be a yuletide patriot and one who helped keep the traditions of Christmas alive.

That Christmas morning in 1959 I received the gift of an Aurora AFX HO scale slot car set with two cars; one Mercedes Benz 300 SL and one 1959 Corvette.  That was a great gift for a ten-year-old boy, however, I recall that my older brother would never allow me to operate the Corvette.  At least that’s how I remember the Christmas of 1959.

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The Day the Circus Came to Town

In 1947 the new school year was nearing the end of its first month but Larry had other things on his mind.  Oh, he was bright enough but reading, writing and arithmetic didn’t hold the allure and fascination for the boy of nine that did his father’s business.  Larry’s family lived on the outskirts of the small Southwest Missouri town of Noel and it was there on Park Street that farmers could buy implements or parts for their tractors or for that matter they could buy a brand new Ford 2N tractor.  You see, Larry’s family owned the Ford Tractor and Implement Dealership.

The young boy’s weekdays were spent inside the small classroom at the Noel school but on weekends; well, when his chores at home were finished he could be found at the store.  He was fascinated with the tractors and pieces of equipment and studied every lever, gear and part of those 2N tractors trying to figure out what their purpose was.  For as long as Larry could remember he held a fascination for anything mechanical and he had to figure out what made machines work.

There came a cool early autumn afternoon when a stranger came into the tractor store.  “Hey kid, do you know who owns this place?”  As Larry tried and tried to recall if he had ever before laid eyes on the man he answered his question.  “Yes sir, my father owns it.”  It was at that moment when Larry’s father opened the front door and entered the room.  “Something I can do for you, mister?”  Larry was then convinced that he didn’t know the stranger as his father knew practically everyone living in Noel and on the surrounding farms and it was obvious that he didn’t know this man.

“Well, I was wondering if I could put one of these posters on your front window.”  The man handed Larry’s father a brightly decorated poster adorned with colorful pictures and writing.  “Oh, a circus is coming to town,” Larry’s father commented.  “Well, the circus will really be in Southwest City but that’s only seven or eight miles from here.”  The young boy’s curiosity must have been obvious as another poster was removed from the stack.  “Here kid, take one for yourself.”  “I had an interesting experience with a circus in Southwest City last year,” replied Larry’s father.  “Why not, sure go ahead and stick the thing on the window.”

Larry really didn’t even hear the stranger leave the store as he was fully engulfed in the poster which announced the October 7th arrival of the Al G. Kelly and Miller Brothers Circus.  There were pictures of lions, camels and best of all, elephants.  Larry knew something of the large Indian Elephant as a result of an event that took place in October of the previous year.  That event also involved a circus and Southwest City.

In late September of 1946, the Ford Tractor business was steady but that time was a mere year removed from the end of the war.  Those who had served their country were returning to their homes and farms with plans for the future and memories they wanted to forget.

The business needed a means to advertise the grey painted Ford 2N tractors but advertising dollars were hard to come by.  It was on a day like any other that Larry’s father received a telephone call.  The man on the phone introduced himself as a representative of a circus that would soon make its appearance in Southwest City.  He told Larry’s father that he would like to make a proposition to the Ford tractor dealer that would give him some free advertising.

As Larry’s father hung up the phone he had something between a grin and a full-blown smile on his face.  He could see that Larry was waiting to hear about the cause of his odd smile as the boy stood with a “what’s going on” look in his eyes.  “That was a man with a circus.  He wants to know if I’d like to have a tug of war with an elephant.”  Before Larry could ask the obvious question, “Well, not me of course but with one of our tractors.”

Once again and before the boy could ask another predictable question, “I told him why not, what could it hurt.”  Larry could think of a thousand questions but it appeared that his father had answered the most obvious and after all his father wasn’t known as someone who engaged in long conversations.  The boy would save the multitude of other questions for later.

The afternoon of the tug of war came and Larry’s father loaded one of the new tractors on a trailer.  The tractor was freshly washed and could best be described as “running like a top.”  There wasn’t much conversation during the short drive to Southwest City as Larry’s thoughts were of the circus, cotton candy, roasted peanuts, the elephant and lions and tigers and; well you know the rest.

As the truck pulled onto the grounds, the circus tent seemed to be taller than any tree that surrounded the small town’s grassy park.  A clearing near the big top had been left vacant as that was to be the site where the tractor and elephant would compete against one another.  A crowd had already begun to gather in anticipation of the event.

The 119.7 cubic inch four cylinder motor roared to life and the three-speed transmission was shifted into reverse.  Larry’s father slowly drove the tractor away from the trailer and the crowd was treated to the sound of the 3070-pound machine’s eighty-four pound-feet of torque.  This was an impressive machine in its day.

Then there was a moment of silence as all those in attendance looked on in awe as the giant came from behind the tent.  The Asian elephant, Elephas Maximus for you scholars, stood every bit of nine feet tall at the shoulders and weighed some 8000 or so pounds.  The enormous beast trumpeted as it was led into the clearing by one lone brave man.

How ridiculous thought the young, and somewhat naïve, boy that an oddly dressed man could, with the aid of nothing more than a thin piece of wood, control the movements of the large animal.  However, it was quite clear to Larry and all the bystanders that the elephant would turn, move forward or backward and even rise up with its massive front legs reaching skyward after only a few words spoken by the trainer and the accompanying soft touch of the piece of wood.

A large length of cable was attached to a harness worn by the beast while the other end of the cable was secured to the tractor’s rear drawbar.  The crowd roared as the mighty engine came to life and once again the elephant let out an ear-shattering trumpet thus quieting the onlookers.  With a signal from the handler, the two opponents began to pull and it seemed as though the taut length of cable must have been strained to its breaking point.

As for who bested the other that day, beast or machine, the victory and well-deserved accolades went to the pachyderm.  With seemingly little effort the champion pulled the tractor across that field of dirt and grass.  Larry’s father later commented that “the tractor couldn’t get any traction.”  Now admittedly Larry didn’t know much about traction but, at least on that cool October afternoon in Southwest City, the Asian circus elephant had more of it then did the grey Ford 2N tractor.

Larry did go to the circus in October of 1947 and there was cotton candy, roasted peanuts and lions and tigers and so on and so on.  There were also elephants but the youngster seemed to look at them differently than he had the previous year.

Time passed and Larry’s father eventually sold the Ford Tractor and Implement Store.  The cool and windy autumns continued to each year signal the soon to follow cold Ozark winters and as Larry grew older the circuses stopped coming to Southwest City.  However, Larry has never forgotten the sound of that great beast as it trumpeted in the park so many, many years ago.

Ford 2N tractor2

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Morphine

Morphine2

These are Earl’s words not mine and what follows is the story of an ailing soul in search of the end of life.  Earl will speak to you thus hopefully amputating one of the tormentors from the body of his dark list.

I have a list.  This short list cannot be found on a piece of paper nor on the hard drive of a computer; never the less it is a list.  A register of sorts, I suppose and albeit that I have not previously spoken of this assortment of items the list is real.  These torturous thoughts live only in my mind and I must sort out each and every one of them less they take me to the edge of complete darkness and ultimately the intolerable suffering of hopelessness will surely plunge me into the black hole of madness: a madness that will most assuredly be the end of me.

There is no easier or more compassionate way to say it; my wife of many years was dying.  As hard and difficult as the last eighteen months of the visits to the doctor’s office had been, the last one had surely been the most daunting.  The doctor and nurse entered the small room and with solemn faces uttered the words both I and my wife had feared so much; “I’m sorry,” the doctor said.  “There is nothing more that can be done.  It’s time for you to go home and get your affairs in order.  I’m so very sorry.”

Lark created an uneasy partnership with the ravenous disease that was slowly consuming her life.  It’s hard to say how and when this occurred but she got used to being sick and I got used to the new person who had over the years seamlessly transitioned into an old woman.  This new person was someone who had surrendered to the disease and found that she must reluctantly accept the inevitable; that inevitable being the death of her.

Heeding the doctor’s words and advice Lark and I went home and, as the physician suggested, Lark began to get her affairs in order.  There wasn’t much to do; organize some pictures in family photo albums, write goodbye letters to close friends and watch the red and orange sunsets as they painted the warm evening skies.

We talked more about our children and the lives we had been so fortunate to spend with one another but Lark never talked about her impending death.  I always believed that her wish was to spare me the thoughts of that event but the idea of a life without her never seemed to be far from my thoughts.

As the days passed Lark became weaker and she could no longer care for herself.  Even with my assistance, her care was tasking both our limits and the time had come to reluctantly bring hospice into the equation.

I had come to dread Eva’s visits.  The hospice nurse came one or two times a week and delivered various bottles and boxes of medicines.  She examined Lark and afterward the two of us would walk outside to talk.  The conversations always ended with her opinion about when the end of Lark, my wife, would come.

Then there came that day when Eva brought the white paper sack.  I didn’t say much as I opened the front door.  “Hi,” were the only words I cared to speak.  “Hi, how are you doing?”  I didn’t answer as she walked into the Livingroom.  “How’s Lark doing,” she asked. “Ok, I guess but to be honest, much worse.”

Eva carried the white sack into the kitchen and placed in on the granite countertop, leaving it there without speaking of its contents.  Eva conducted a cursory examination of Lark which included an attempt to engage the dying woman in conversation but that attempt was strictly one-sided.  Lark lay motionless with closed eyes and did not, or maybe could not, respond to the nurse’s words.

The nurse sighed as she returned to the kitchen, “I need to talk to you about the contents of the sack.  I brought you vials of morphine and some pipets, or droppers.  Now morphine is an extremely potent pain reliever and it will alleviate the pain Lark must surely feel.”  “How often should I give the drug to her and in what dosage?”

“Well, that depends.  If she appears to be in pain give her a few drops but if you feel that amount didn’t help, well that’s up to you.  If I were in your position I wouldn’t want Lark to suffer.  I can tell you, as I am required to do, that too much morphine might cause her to expire but again, if it was me I wouldn’t want my loved one to suffer.  Lark has no more than a day or two left.Morphine

‘Nature provides a final path for each of us to take and a pace at which we get there.  I have been a hospice nurse for some twenty-five odd years now and I have seen a lot.  Without any evidence, but with the utmost confidence, I can say that there have been times when human intervention has altered that path provided by nature and the pace getting to the final destination has been manipulated and quickened.  Please don’t forget about the bottles of morphine in that bag.”

After Eva left, and only after listening to the sound of her car as it drove away did I begin to understand the message hidden within her words.  I knew in my heart what Lark wanted; at least I tried to convince myself of that.  I told myself that none of us can fully understand the thoughts of a dying person without speaking to them but in this case Lark hadn’t spoken a single word in days nor had she made the slightest of movement.

I moved across the room and for a moment silently sat beside my wife, the love of my life, Lark.  As I sat with my head resting in my hands Lark raised her frail hand so slowly and using only her index finger motioned for me to come closer.  I leaned over and as my eyes looked into hers she softly spoke to me.  “It’s Ok.  I know about the morphine and I’ll love you forever.  It’s Ok and it’s what I want.”  I softly placed a kiss on her forehead and I want to believe that I saw a smile, but maybe I just wanted to see one as I hadn’t seen her smile in such a very long time.

Within us there dwells the innate will to live but for some that need to survive, that most basic of instincts which has been passed on for eons and eons, has been replaced; replaced with the will, and even the desire, to die.  Lark died sometime during that darkest of summer nights.

There are moments when life can seem so very unfair.  These defining moments present us with conundrums that present us with two seemingly impossible choices neither of which is completely right or wrong.  The most terrible part about the choice we make is that we are forced to live with that decision for the rest of our lives.

Some decisions are hard to make and I was once compelled to make the hardest and most difficult decision one human being could ever be forced to make.  I now find that guilt, rather real or imagined, is a terrible thing to live with.

I have now spoken of this and I will remove the item from my list.

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The Family Business

Mike liquor ten high whiskey“You see that man over there.  Whatever you do don’t talk to, bother or even get near that guy.”  Although Mike was no more than eleven years old he could tell that his step-father, who he called Kenneth, was deadly serious.  As Kenneth nodded his head from side-to-side and in the direction of a one-armed man standing near a flatbed truck his softly spoken whispers further explained his original cautioning.  “His name is Jack and he’s killed at least two people that I know of in Oklahoma.”  Mike stared at the man but didn’t utter a word or even the slightest of sounds as Kenneth walked toward the man with the missing arm.  “Hey Jack, how’s it going?”  “OK Ace, let’s do some business.”

Mike’s step-father married Donna Lee Poyner when Mike was five years old.  Kenneth Asa Meador, known to most as “Ace” came by his middle name naturally as his father was named Asa.  The family lived in the small Southwest Missouri Ozark town of Noel, where employment opportunities were few and far between therefore Ace and Donna Lee decided to go into business with another couple, Olen and Mary Lou Ritter.

The foursome negotiated a deal with Guy Cox and purchased a business located on the outskirts of Noel.  The liquor store, smoke shop and gas station was called “Elk River Tobacco.”  The business prospered and not long after its opening, a liquor company salesman told Ace that the business was thought to be the largest liquor store, at least in terms of square footage, in the state of Missouri.  The store sold several varieties of liquor, beer and tobacco products.  Four gas pumps stood in front of the building and while paying for the gasoline that filled up their pickup trucks locals could buy a candy bar, a pack of Pall Mall smokes or a few cans of Edelweiss beer; seven cans for a dollar.

The one-armed man had driven his modified 1950 Mercury to the liquor store and, like so many others from Oklahoma, came to McDonald County, Missouri to buy liquor.  The buyers came in flat-bed trucks and pick-ups and cars that had been modified to support heavy loads.

The town of Noel was a welcome retreat for summer tourists who basked in the hot Ozark Sun while swimming in and floating on the waters of Elk River.  While the tourist’s dollars were welcome, some in the Noel area found another and far more profitable means to support their families.  Those entrepreneurs sold liquor to enterprising men who covertly transported the whiskey and gin to Oklahoma where the sale of such intoxicating beverages was illegal.

The illegality of liquor sales in Oklahoma did not, however, dampen the thirst and demand for the alcoholic beverages.  Men like jack found the profits from the sales to thirsty Oklahomans made the risks acceptable.  Flatbed farm trucks laden with bales of hay routinely came to the rear of the store.  There older gentlemen dressed in coveralls shook Ace’s hand and smiled as helpers removed the bales from the wooden plank constructed truck beds.

Men climbed onto the beds of the trucks and pulled handles revealing trap doors that, when opened, uncovered secret compartments.  Ace and others loaded box after box onto the trucks after which the overall-clad men carefully placed the boxes of Ten High Bourbon and Gilbey’s gin into the secreted storage areas.  Prior to leaving, hands full of cash were exchanged followed by handshakes.  “See you next time,” Ace called out as the trucks pulled away making way for the next customer.

In the year 1959 Noel was a great place for children to grow up in.  On weekends and after school kids could be found playing near the river’s edge, meeting and talking with school friends on the sidewalks of Main Street or on Friday nights catching a movie at the Ozark Theatre.  However, the residents of Noel were hard working people and every family member had chores and the Meador family was no exception.

Ace and Donna Lee worked in the Liquor store as did Olen and Mary Lou Ritter.  In 1959 the foursome built the “Dairy Land” ice cream business which was located directly across the road, rural Highway 59, from Elk River Tobacco.  While the Meadors worked at one of the two businesses the Ritters worked at the other, switching job locations every other week or so.

Although Dairy Land was moderately profitable its revenue could in no way compete with that of the liquor store and the money coming in from those making the relatively short drive from Oklahoma.  Help was needed with the Oklahoma sales and that need created a job for an eleven-year-old boy, Mike.

Mike waived to his friends and schoolmates each day as the yellow school bus pulled away.  When the hours of class time came to an end Mike would exit the bus in front of his family’s business, Elk River Tobacco.  Mike knew the routine very well and as he entered the store each afternoon his mother’s voice was heard asking the same question, “How was school?”  “OK,” Mike answered, often without offering even the slightest of glance in her direction.

Mike grabbed a Hershey chocolate bar from the candy display and walked to the storeroom in the back of the store.  It was common to find men standing in the storeroom or just outside the door talking.  Mike recalls that the conversations were about farming, the price of whiskey and hiding places and new and stealthy techniques used by revenuers in their attempts to catch the men from Oklahoma.  Some of those seemingly feeble attempts often brought forth a chorus of laughter from the rough men.

Mike’s job was a simple one.  He would remove the bottles of whiskey and gin from the original boxes and, using sheets of thin brown paper, wrap each and every bottle.  The eleven-year-old boy carefully, carefully because broken bottles were worthless, wrapped each fifth of Ten High whiskey and returned the bottles to their original cases.

The wrapping paper was thought to be an insulator of sorts minimizing the chances of breakage during the trip back to Oklahoma.  After all, the cases of liquor were tightly packed within the false compartments of those flatbed trucks and the pothole-filled dirt back roads were rough.  Mike thought very little about the whiskey sales and those endless bottles.  He instead found the men and the conversations fascinating and, like most of his friends, he was helping out at the family-owned business.

Working at the family business did have benefits.  There were the free Hershey chocolate bars, complimentary soft drinks and there was the ice cream business located just across the street.  Although Mike didn’t work at the Dairy Land he did have access to the inside of the store and the inventory within.  The youngster made himself at home while he experimented with various ice cream flavors and the assortment of toppings.

There came a time when the Meadors and Ritters decided to dissolve their partnership.  When the dust settled the Ritters assumed ownership of the Dairy Land business while Ace and Donna Lee kept the Elk River Tobacco shop.  Over time the federal government became increasingly more interested in the business of transporting liquor to Oklahoma and eventually those transactions became much more difficult.  In May of 1959 the people of Oklahoma eliminated the need to buy Missouri Liquor as they voted to end the era of prohibition in the state of Oklahoma.

When Mike talks about wrapping those bottles of whiskey, those men with the hidden compartments in their trucks and the ice cream sundaes he smiles.  It’s a smile born of memories about Kenneth, Donna Lee, and a different time.  It seems like ice cream was thicker and creamier back then and Hershey bars had more chocolate in them.  That smile remains while Mike recalls his mother working at the cash register, her afternoon week-day question, and above all, he remembers his brother, Gary who passed away on the 5th day of January in the year 2016.

All the cast members of this story, save one, have passed on.  Kenneth and Donna Lee are buried in the Noel Cemetery while Olen and Mary Lou were laid to rest in Benton County Arkansas’ Lee Cemetery.  But what about the one-armed man named Jack?  Our memories of seemingly insignificant events and people seem to defy explanation as is the case of Mike’s recollections of Jack.

How clever Mike thought of Jack’s head patting.   Jack, the homicidal maniac, was making nothing more than a shallow attempt to conceal his true diabolical nature.  At least that’s the way an eleven-year-old boy perceived the actions of the one-armed man from Oklahoma.

Mike and his wife Linda now live in Grove, Oklahoma.

 

Thanks to Mike and Gary

Mike Liquor Kenneth and Donna Lee

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