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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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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