Growing Old in Narrow Spaces

I’m considering making a significant change in my life regarding my shopping habits.  I have a favorite place, a retail store if you will, which I frequent once or twice a month. This large store with thousands of nation-wide locations seems to have just about any and everything I, or anyone else for that matter, could possibly need or want.  Well, you probably guessed it; my favorite store is the local Walmart.

As the decades and odd number of years of my life continue to increase I find that my eyesight worsens but my insight becomes more astute; having said that I can now get to the crux of this bit of writing.  I found that my car was almost always parked crooked and straddling the white parking space lines. Walmart had obviously manipulated the size of the parking spaces on their lot in an effort to accommodate more vehicles which transport eager shoppers.  I knew there would be those who looked upon my assertion as ridiculous so I set out to validate my hypothesis.

I traveled that same familiar eighteen and six-tenth mile route which I had driven so many times on my way to that Wal-Mart store.  I was determined to get to the bottom of this conspiracy and I had devised a plan. However, my plan would require that I park in that same spot at the end of row number 9.

As usual the store’s parking lot, save for a handful of handicap parking spaces, was almost full but I was confident that nobody would want to park in that particular space that was such a great walking distance from the store’s entrance.  However, I was mistaken. There parked in that space which I needed for my experiment was a Toyota Camry. My will power would be tested but I was not to be deterred so I parked just across from that space and waited for the blue colored car’s owner to return.  After the passage of thirty or so minutes which seemed like more than twice that number an older appearing gentleman got into the car and drove away. I wondered if he had also noticed the unusually narrow parking space.

The parking spaces were seemingly all the same size but then the answer came to me.  The clever retailer must have purposely made the parking spaces farthest away from the store’s entrance smaller in order to create a greater number of spaces.  You know, so more shoppers could park their cars. I was obsessed with the prospect of measuring the width of that parking space.

I considered entering the large store with the purpose of buying a metal tape measure however I considered the possibility that if Walmart was clever enough to shrink the size of the parking spaces why would it not be possible that twelve foot tape measures would actually be eleven feet eight inches; after all, although the difference in length would be minimal at best if hundreds of thousands of the measuring devices were sold the savings in material needed to manufacture them could be substantial thusly resulting in greater profits.  How devilishly clever must those people be but I was on a mission and furthermore I had come prepared. I brought my green fuzzy blanket.

I stretched the fuzzy green blanket out a few feet and laid my 5 foot 10 inch frame on that parking space surface with my feet touching one of the white painted lines.  Ok, this might seem extreme to some of you but I calculated that it was the best means to avoid the use of any Wal-Mart sold, and tampered with, device. I would not allow that retailer and seller of altered tape measures or faulty rulers to outsmart me.

Placing my now shrinking body in a prone position I stretched those old bones out while resting directly in front of my car. Lying there with my back against that blanket and with my arms fully extended I first measured the width of my car.  After a moment or two and only when I believed I had a good comparison of how my prone position length compared to the width of my Huyndai did I move. That asphalt parking surface was surely hot but I surmised that the “fuzziness properties” of the blanket insulated my back from that heat.

Oh sure, there were stares and I overheard an occasional laugh as shoppers walked to and from their cars and pickup trucks but I was determined and would not be deterred.  One well-meaning woman stopped and for a moment gazed at me with a puzzled look. “Excuse me, are you alright? Do you want me to call the police or possibly an ambulance?”  “No thanks,” I replied. “This may appear somewhat odd but I’m conducting an experiment.” The kindly meaning lady had no way of understanding my actions and I was certain she thought me to be somewhat touched.  “Whatever makes you happy,” she said as she walked away without ever looking back.

Removing a slip of paper from my shirt pocket I scoured over the propaganda inspired writing which both Walmart and Hyundai disseminated to the unsuspecting public.  The parking space was reported to be 9 feet or 2.7432 meters wide while that black Hyundai was reported to be 6 feet 1 inch, or 1.8542 meters in length. I needed the measurement in both feet and meters after all, the Hyundai was of South Korean lineage.  

In the end I came to the only conclusion possible.  That Itsy-bitsy parking space was too narrow and the car was too wide.  My car’s manufacturer must have made a mistake, possibly by design. My Hyundai Sonata is quite obviously wider than other Sonatas like it.  This error in the manufacturing process must be very rare and it is quite possible that I own the one and only greater than stated width vehicle in existence.  The little Hyundai’s rareness might make it very valuable.

As I am such a predictable creature of habit I drove home from that Wal-Mart store taking the route I have taken so many times before.  I traveled north on that relatively new and boring stretch of highway until I reached the exit that reminded me to leave that four lane slab of concrete behind.

I made a right-hand turn onto the old Noel to Pineville Road where the winding two lanes offered much more of interest to me.  With the slow moving waters of Elk River on one side of the road and the tree covered bluffs on the other I almost always found a pastoral scene that captured my fancy.

However, I recall that I was getting more than a little annoyed with the lady that lives inside my car’s audio system.  I find that as I age I hear her voice more often than I care to. She scolds me when I forget to securely close my door, close my trunk or fasten my seatbelt.  And most annoying of all, she initiates the most teeth mashing chime when the tires of my car come into contact with either the road’s center line or shoulder.

I suppose I was already a little tired of painted stripes on parking lots and roads that afternoon but it seemed to me that she cautioned me about touching those white and yellow lines far too often on that hot summer’s afternoon.  I have recently become suspicious of everything and everyone and I believe that the lanes on that old road are far too narrow hence I have decided to determine their width.

I believe that the only true and accurate method of determining that expanse would be to lie on my green fuzzy blanket sprawled across each lane while comparing that length with my five foot ten inch frame.  I suppose that the best time to do that would be when the chances of traffic are somewhat lessened therefore I have decided to check the measurement at 4:00 a.m. on a weeknight, holidays excluded of course.

So, if you should find that your journey takes you on the Noel to Pineville Road at around 4:00 a.m. stay alert and should you observe someone lying in the roadway and cushioned only by a fuzzy blanket please slowly drive and carefully maneuver your vehicle around my outstretched body.

Meanwhile, my at rest Hyundai continues to straddle the white parking space lines at the local Walmart store.  You know, I just might have to shop somewhere else; a place where the white parking space lines are more generously separated.

parking space

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You Must Have Loved Her Very Much

robin5The class was comprised mainly of high school sophomores as I recall.  Young girls and boys who loved to talk and as I was a substitute, there was that challenge of seeing how much they could get away with.  I recall that it was an English class and the lesson plan left for me by the teacher called for each student to write a short, one page I believe, essay about anything they chose.

As was the custom I took the attendance after admonishing the class against talking while the roll was taken.  I must have seemed like a stern task-master to most, as I felt as though the students should behave and talk only when I recognized their raised hand.  I guess my reputation must have preceded me as the English class was well behaved.

There always seemed to be an inordinate amount of free time following the completion of the assignments left by each absent teacher’s lesson plan and that was the case that day.  What to do with the remaining time?  That was always a challenge for me but that day the decision was made for me.

One of the students, a young girl, had a question as her hand raised she spoke to garner my attention.  “Mr. Fine, did you write that story that was in the newspaper last week; the story about your wife.”  I was somewhat surprised that anyone had taken the time to read the article let alone remember it.  “Yes, I wrote the story.”  “Mr. Fine, since we have some free time will you read the story to the class?”

I thought for just a minute and without then, or now, knowing exactly why I tried to think of a good explanation which might be used to say, “No.”  I could have said that I hadn’t brought a copy of the story to school with me that day but instead I said, “Well I don’t have a copy of the story with me but I’m sure that I can tell the story.  After all, I know it by heart.”

I rose from the metal swivel chair that rested behind the teacher’s desk.  I suppose that the desk created a barrier of sorts between myself and the twenty-five or so students but if I were to tell the story, the first one I had written, I felt that I needed to also expose my vulnerability.

I came to rest seated on the corner of the desk and as I spoke the ordinary classroom noise gradually subsided and I became acutely aware of the almost haunting silence.  I continued to speak and as my eyes moved from face to face I wholeheartedly believed that the words were in some manner finding their way into those young minds.  Then, and quite unpredictably, and just as I finished the story, the end of class bell sounded.

The classroom emptied as all of the students left.  That is, all save one young lady.  I took a seat behind the teacher’s desk and upon glancing at the daily schedule realized, somewhat relieved I’ll admit, that there were no more classes that day.

As I glanced up from the papers strewn about the desktop I noticed that a young lady with yellow hair was still hovering over the top of her desk.  “Looking for something?” I asked thinking that she may have misplaced a book, pencil or who knew what.  “No, I have everything.  Mr. Fine,” not knowing what question she might ask I answered, “Yes, young lady.”  “I have a comment about the story you wrote.”

I didn’t want to say anything in front of the rest of the class because I thought it might embarrass you.”  “Well miss, what is your comment?”  “I think you must have loved your wife very much.  I think that’s what the story is all about.”

The naked innocence of our youth bestows upon us such clarity of vision that is completely devoid of even the slightest hint of prejudice; a gift that is not long enjoyed as we age into adulthood.

I thought for a brief moment then realized that she had summarized those hundreds of words in one sentence that so succinctly described what I was trying to say and captured the quintessence of the story and of my very thoughts.  “I’m sorry but I don’t remember your name miss.”  “It’s Sarah Mr. Fine.”  “Sarah, you are so correct.  I did love my wife so very, very much and thank you for seeing that in the words I wrote.”  “You must really miss her,” she remarked.  “Yes, now you better get to class and have a nice afternoon;”  “Same to you Mr. Fine.”

As the last school bell sounded and the students hurried towards the doors leading to the waiting busses I also left but I left that day with the grace of a young girl’s words in my mind; “You must have loved her very much.”

I saw the young girl many times at school and I was certain she always made a concerted effort to greet me; “Hi, Mr. Fine, how are you doing?”  Rather real or imagined I always felt as though her words were more than just words, more than just a polite greeting and she truly wanted to know how I was.  I always answered, “I’m alright, and how are you?”  You see, I was really concerned about her and my question was much more than just a casual remark; it was sincere and I always hoped that the girl with the yellow hair knew that.

That night, and after I had been asleep for what must have been some time, I awoke and thought about Sarah’s comment, “you must really miss her.”  I hadn’t before thought about the many reasons I missed Robin but then it came to me; I think that most of all I miss the way she could make me laugh; Oh how she could make me laugh.

Even after the passage of these many years without her and when I’m all alone just the thought of Robin brings a smile to my face and a tear to the very corner of my eye.



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Larry’s Go-Cart

Gokart2The year was 1951 and the place was the small Southwest Missouri Ozark town of Noel.  The town of 900 or so people was a quiet, sleepy hamlet during the cold winter months but when the warm summer days arrived the town came alive.  You see, there was the slow meandering waters of Elk River, the campgrounds and the multitude of tourists who flocked from all over the Midwest to Noel’s Main Street cafés and shops.

All manners of fun were available to twelve-year-old boys growing up in the town that gave birth to the inspiration which motivated the creators of picturesque postcards.  The options which would bring a smile to a young boy’s face were limited only by his own imagination.  And as for Larry, his imagination was boundless.  So it came to be that the boy who slept with dreams of engines and wheels coursing through his nighttime dreams built his go-cart.

Larry’s family lived four or so miles outside of Noel.  The family’s property was located alongside the dirt road known to everyone as the Noel to Pineville Road.  The hot Ozark summer months brought a respite from the days spent in the Noel school’s classroom, but Larry needed something to occupy his waking hours.  He needed a project; Larry required a project that involved nuts, bolts and an engine.  Larry wanted to build a go-cart.  But, like any worthwhile endeavor, the hardest part is always getting started.

The most important item needed was obvious.  The go-cart would need a motor; a gasoline-fueled exhaust emitting engine that would propel the vehicle to speeds that one could only dream of.  As Larry’s eyes gazed at that old dirt road he could hardly refrain from smiling as he imagined how much dirt and rock might be thrown skyward as the four-wheeled monster roared past the family home on its way to town.  It would almost assuredly be something others living alongside that rut filled road had never before see or even imagined.

Just behind the home stood a covered structure under which Larry’s father cut large pieces of wood.  The proceeds from the sawmill generated income for the family as folks from neighboring communities came to purchase boards of oak, pine and walnut.  The raw material for the mill, the trees that covered the surrounding hillsides were cut down using an old two-man chainsaw.  Larry’s father operated one end of the saw while the twelve-year-old supported the other.

As the blueprints for the project were being formulated in Larry’s mind it seemed as though everything needed for the construction was available other than the main component, the motor.  Then, and almost as if driven by divine intervention, something happened.  Larry’s father arrived home one hot and sultry afternoon carrying something the boy had never before laid eyes on.  It appeared to be some sort of saw, “well, how do you like my new one-man chainsaw?” Larry’s father asked; “No more lugging that old heavy two-man saw around for me.”

“Hey dad, if you don’t need the old saw anymore can I have the motor?”  To the father’s amazement, the question had nothing to do with the shiny new saw.  “Why do you want it?”  Larry’s answer was almost in the form of a question.  “I want to build a go-cart.”  Knowing his mechanically inclined son well he responded, “OK, but you be real careful, you hear.”

The time for planning had passed and the boy began gathering the materials needed for the machine.  He visited the local dump, which always contained indiscriminately discarded and useful items.  Why would anyone throw away perfectly good tires, wheels and steering wheels?  And as for all those rusted strips of metal, well the steel would be perfect for the cart’s frame.

Larry gathered up four tires with accompanying wheels, a broken steering wheel from an old Plymouth, a bundle of steel and an assortment of discarded automobile parts.  “There, that should just about do it,” the young mechanic thought to himself.   However, Larry knew that his knowledge and expertise in the go-cart construction field was somewhat limited so he would need to talk to someone who could help.  “Bub Morgan, that’s who I’ll talk to,” he said out loud.

Construction began in earnest after one or two conversations with Morgan.  Bub was a local welder and self-taught fabricator.  Everyone in the small town knew that if you needed metal welded, cut or transformed, well Bub was the person to talk to.  Luckily for Larry, Bub was also a patient and affable sort who didn’t mind sharing his expertise with a twelve-year-old would-be mechanic.

There were moments during the construction when things just didn’t fit together correctly.  It seemed as though just as one obstacle had been overcome, two more were created but Larry was determined, patient and unflappable.  If a part would not work as envisioned either he or Bub would make it work.

Then, and in the early afternoon hours of a beautiful summers day, Larry secured one-half of that old Plymouth’s steering when to the cart.  As the nut was fastened he looked around for another nut, bolt of part but none was to be found.  It appeared as though the vehicle was finished and it was time to step back a few paces and admire the young mechanic’s work.  “Not bad, not bad at all,” he said.  He had purposely chosen to forgo the attachment of a few nonessentials such as lights, a horn and brakes.  In the mind of a twelve-year-old, stopping just didn’t seem as important as speed.

With a couple of pulls on that wooden handled rope attached to the engine, the beast came to life.  Larry had attached a crude muffler to the motor but that old chainsaw engine was still loud, and that’s the way he wanted it: loud and scary.  If the sound of that monster frightened the bejeebers out of old ladies as they hung their laundry on clotheslines, so be it.

Larry often drove that cart to Noel where he and his friend Ross Snodgrass cruised the narrow and quiet streets.  The cart‘s seat would only accommodate one person but Ross’s family owned the local ice house and he followed the young driver from street to street while driving the ice delivery truck.

As Larry became more confident and as his driving skills improved he pushed that old cart to its limits.  With no speedometer to verify this, he claimed that the creation would reach speeds between forty and fifty miles per hour.  The image of the cart was often obscured by the cloud of dirt and dust as it passed farm houses on the Noel to Pineville Road causing some to wonder what prompted the cows to move away from the barbed wire fences.

Jim, Larry’s younger brother wanted to experience the excitement of riding in that lightning fast cart but there was the issue of that one and only seat.  Larry gave the problem some thought and after deciding that there was no room for a larger seat he decided to build a small cart.  From then on Larry could frequently be seen driving the cart while pulling a small home built trailer.  While seated in that trailer Jim laughed and raised his arms as if to catch the passing wind.  “Go faster,” he was heard to shout.  “Go faster, Larry!”

Noel had one law enforcement officer in 1951, my grandfather and City Marshal, Floyd Fine.  It seemed to most folks that he did a good job and one policeman was sufficient.  However, the enforcement of the law back then was much different than it is now.  There was more discretion granted, or possibly just assumed, by Marshal Fine.  It was if things that really didn’t hurt anyone were either overlooked or handled in a very casual and informal fashion, as Larry discovered one afternoon.

Larry had driven the cart to town and as usual, tried to break his unofficial speed record while on that old dusty road.  As Larry came into the city limits the cart slowed somewhat only because the hand throttle was moved downward.  The cart continued to gradually reduce its speed as the cart passed the funeral home and crossed over Main Street.

Larry drove down North Kings Highway Street; a road that eventually led to the school, the Low Water Bridge and ultimately out of the city limits.  Larry, as usual, was smiling as he passed the street lined homes with their small front yards.  He hadn’t seen anyone but then, on a weekday, people would most likely be at work at Harmon’s Hardware, Carl’s Café or possibly at the Diplomat Manufactured Home plant.

As Larry neared the school, some movement off to his right caught his attention.  There, parked alongside the road in his red 1959 Chevrolet was my grandfather, Marshal Fine.  There was no way he could not hear and see Larry and the loud machine he was driving.  Larry almost instinctively slowed the cart by placing the soles of his shoes against the rough street’s surface but slowing took time.  Expecting the worst, Larry was determined to bring the machine to a stop but he realized that the cart was going just too fast.

Then the most remarkable thing happened.  As Larry wondered how he would stop the cart when the Marshal directed him to pull the machine to the side of the road and as he silently rehearsed his excuse for his behavior there was a wave.

The marshal, with driver’s side window rolled down, waved.  It was as if everything was alright and Larry was allowed to operate the cart.  He thought for no more than a second or two then casually and matter of factly returned the wave.  Later that evening Larry thought about his encounter with the marshal and knew that he was given a pass because nobody was bothered and those were just the sorts of things that young boys did in small towns.  But he knew full well that the Marshal had noticed him and his loud home-built go-cart.

While others saw only nuts and bolts the young boy envisioned mechanical blueprints.  He saw moving parts of engines that turned wheels and pulleys which were suspended from brackets.  Larry’s imagination revealed belts that turned axels and wheels and all of those components, the whole kit and caboodle, propelled a go-cart along the side streets of Noel; the young precocious boy smiling and laughing all the while as he waved to Marshal Fine.

Seven and sixty years have passed since My grandfather and Larry exchanged waves but Larry still lives on property alongside the Noel to Pineville Road and, although in need of repair, he still has the go-cart.

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My Friend Rudy Died

Rudy MeltonPardon me, if you can spare just a moment I would like to introduce you to my very good friend, Rudy.  Oh yes, I know what you’re thinking.  You’re afraid to speak your mind fearing that those words might create an aura of awkwardness.  It’s true that Rudy and I are some years apart in age.  To be more to the point there are some seven and twenty years difference in our ages but both Rudy and I considered that no more than a number and found the difference in our ages to be most assuredly insignificant.

As I sat in that quite uncomfortable chair; that chair in room 214 of the impersonal and anesthetic nursing home room I thought about the last twelve years of my life and my friendship with Rudy.  I recalled that I first met Rudy at the local golf course shortly after moving to the area.  I can’t begin to explain it but I liked him from the first moment we spoke and I knew we were destined to become good friends.

I really only came to know the older gentleman from encounters at the golf course but the moments spent on the tee boxes, on the greens and in the clubhouse were time well spent and savored. During those well remembered moments Rudy shared with me the story of his life; and what a life it was.

Rudy talked about his childhood and his brother Walt.  He always referred to Walt as, “My Bud.”  I was captivated by the stories of Rudy riding the rails as a teenager.  For almost two years he crossed this great country in freight cars pulled by great locomotives.  He called it a carefree and adventurous time in his life and spoke as if every young boy should experience that undertaking prior to growing into manhood.

As Rudy aged, his eyesight began to fail and his hearing was poor at best.  Even the small amplifier that rested inside his ear often failed to enable him to understand my words.  I recall that, on occasion, I had to point to my ear which became the indication that the earpiece was emitting a low and annoying squeal.  Rudy recognized the gesture and adjusted the hearing aid.

Between stories about his military service during the Second World War Rudy hit golf balls from the tee boxes that landed in the centers of fairways.  I became used to assuming the unofficial role of his caddy and when Rudy asked, “Where did it go,” I pointed to the middle of the shortgrass.  I didn’t mind acting as his caddy.

There was a day which I will never forget; one that let me know just how good a friend Rudy was.  My wife died on a warm July morning several years ago.  I, as you might imagine, remember that morning and that day quite vividly.  A few days passed, or maybe even a week, but I returned to the golf course.

The first person to approach me was, well you guessed it, Rudy.  He put his hand on my shoulder then, without speaking a single word, removed his wallet from his back pocket.  Then, and only after opening the wallet did he speak.

“I have something to show you.”  He held open the wallet and removed a small photograph.  The photograph was of an attractive woman but I hadn’t yet understood the point he was trying to make or the reason for showing me that photo.  “She’s a nice looking woman.  Who is she?”  Rudy looked at me and as he returned the photo to his wallet he said, “This is a picture of my wife.  She died some years ago and I know how you feel.  Now, let’s play some golf.”  I didn’t say much but did manage to say, “Okay.”

As the years of golf with Rudy passed, his hearing became worse, he saw the flight of his golf ball less often and his memory began to suffer.  However those things didn’t matter to me and I still looked forward to days at the golf course and conversations with my good friend.

More time passed and with that passage of months and years I continued to go to the golf course but my days of receiving putting lessons from Rudy became fewer.  The aging man was most noticeably absent from more and more Friday and Saturday morning golf games.  Who would be there to tell me that he won the last hole and say, “I’ve got the box?”

I sat in that back ache birthing nursing home chair for some time while occasionally speaking a word or two but there was no response.  He just lay there sleeping.  I decided to read to Rudy thinking he might stir but after reading several passages there was no acknowledgement that he heard a single word.  I talked about my golf game, “I think my putting is getting better,” but still there were no words and not even one eyelid fluttered.

After the passage of a long quiet time I left, saying goodbye as I exited the room.  Goodbyes are important.  I asked the woman at the desk if I might leave a note for Rudy’s daughter, Judy.  “Sure thing, here is a piece of paper and a pen is in that cup on the counter.”  I left a note for Judy saying that I was sorry I missed her.

As I drove away from the nursing home and on my way home I was certain of one thing.  My friend’s life would surely come to an end very soon.  Rudy died two days later, never regaining alertness; never uttering another single word.

Far too often death comes to the young and the innocent without reason and far too soon; that car accident that takes the life of a small child or the slip and fall from a ladder as a young man helps his elderly neighbor patch that leaky roof.

However, death took its time when calling for Rudy.  The life taker waited until Rudy was ready and did not intervene in Rudy’s life path until that ninety five year old body was worn out.  I believe that the cause of Rudy’s demise was that of a worn out body.  He used that thin human frame every waking minute until it was no longer functional.  It was just plain used up and worn out.

I believe that life is loaned to each of us, not given and it is up to each and every one of us to make that life meaningful.  Well, Rudy certainly lived a purposeful and full life.  He gave to this world much more than he took and after his last word, his last breath and when he stood before his maker I believe I know what was said.

“Rudy, young man, I’m looking at the details of your life and thank you for taking such very good care of what I loaned you some five and ninety years ago.”  I only hope that the hearing deficient man could hear God’s words.

I have been told that the young of years lament the death of a friend or loved one more so than do the elderly.  It is said that those of advanced years have grown accustomed to death and the pain it often brings.  Maybe that’s so, nevertheless Rudy’s death diminishes me and the world I live in but it makes heaven a far better place.  As long as my life goes on so will my memories of my friend, Rudy Melton.

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Pointing the Finger of Guilt

screwdriver2I purposely haven’t shared many stories about one part of my life.  I don’t really know why; I’m not ashamed of that portion of my existence, in fact, I wholeheartedly believe that I did some good things and made a difference in the lives of some.  However, for fifteen years I saw how terribly evil humans can be and how they can at times be so cruel to one another.  I spent fifteen years as a police officer working for a metropolitan police department in the state of Missouri, leaving there with the rank of Detective Lieutenant.

I would like to share with you one, and only one, story regarding a crime and the ensuing investigation.  These series of events took place in the early 1980’s and the criminal act, although terrible in its nature, was not uncommon.  For the sake of argument, and for this story, I will refer to the perpetrator as Joe.

Joe was in his late twenties when this series of events first began.  He had been what most would refer to as a career criminal.  He came from a broken home and although his mother provided a house to live in, a bed to sleep in and food to eat she looked forward to the day that Joe was old enough to venture out on his own.

Joe spent time in and out of jail for all sorts of minor discrepancies but there came a night in the mid 1970’s when he committed a much more serious offense.  Joe, in a most hideous and vile attack, assaulted a young woman.  He broke into the innocent and unsuspecting woman’s home one night and changed her life forever.  The terrible events of that darkened summer night would surely live in her mind for all time.

After some time, Joe was identified as the suspect and following a brief trial he was convicted and sentenced to serve a term in the state penitentiary.  Joe’s only remorse was that he had been caught and would lose his freedom for several long years as he peered at the world through steel bars.

Joe presented himself before the parole board on several occasions.  He told the men and women of the board how sorry he was for the crime.  He lowered his head and said he wanted to apologize to his victim but knew she would not, and could not, accept his words of regret.  Joe exclaimed that he was then a devout Christian and a reformed man who would never again commit such a heinous act.  Each request for parole was swiftly followed by the board’s decision; “denied.”

Then, Joe once again appeared before the board and quite unexpectedly parole was unanimously approved.  After all, Joe was a rehabilitated human being worthy of re-entering society and he would never again be the person that had entered that prison.

I think it was sometime after midnight, a Monday I believe, when I initiated the investigation, a sequence of events if you will, which would ultimately bring Joe and me together.  I and another detective were called to a home on a street that looked like any other.  There were rows of houses and yards that looked much alike.  In fact, someone unfamiliar with the area might drive down the block without turning their head as there was nothing extraordinary whatsoever about the street or the home where a young divorced woman lived alone.

The examination of the crime scene, the house and surrounding area, led me to discover that someone had pried open a bedroom window on the side of the house.  There were no outside security lights and after examining the window itself I found that it was an older wooden framed window which just about anyone using any flat and pointed tool could have very easily pried open.  However, something out of place lay on the bedroom floor’s carpeting.  It was an old wooden handled screwdriver.  Upon closer examination I discovered that two letters had been scratched into the handle; the initials “R.F.”

The woman who lived there, the victim, had been taken to a local hospital for treatment and after spending several hours at the house another detective, who had been at that hospital, arrived and gave me the details of the event; the crime.

Someone had awoken the young woman as she slept in a bed located in the bedroom with the damaged window.  A man who concealed his identity with the aid of a black knit ski mask put his gloved hand over the frightened woman’s mouth and cautioned her against screaming lest he kill her.  The agony felt during the ensuing minutes would haunt the battered victim for the remainder of her life.

The following morning I and two other detectives did what detectives do.  We began the process of solving the crime.  I was determined to find the masked intruder and looked forward to saying to him, “you’re under arrest.”  I remember silently hoping that he would resist my attempt to arrest him but I shared that feeling with no one.

Several doors were knocked on and neighbors spoken to but little information was provided.  Those in the neighborhood said the woman was a good neighbor.  She led, at least to their knowledge, a quiet life and visitors were seldom seen.  No one had been observed skulking near that house on the night of the crime.  There was one thing though; everyone assumed that the woman must have been extremely proud of what God had done for her.  It seemed that she was known to spend time in her yard wearing a very small and tight fitting bikini.

Then there came a knock on one of those doors that would help bring the investigation to a successful conclusion.  I recall that an older man answered the door.  He looked as if he had been awoken and appeared somewhat annoyed as I produced my badge for his inspection.

I told him that I was investigating the previous night’s break-in of his neighbor’s house.  At first, I thought that he, as the others on the block had done, would tell me that they knew nothing, and had seen nothing out of the ordinary.  “How did they get in,” he asked.  “Through a bedroom window,” I replied.  Someone pried the window open; we believe with the use of a screwdriver.”

I could tell that the man in pajamas had something to tell me.  “Did you find the screwdriver?”  “Yeah, it’s an old wooden handled one with the initials R.F. etched into the wooden handle.”  “Please come in,” the man said as he pulled the door open.  “I think I might know something about the break-in.”

I sat quietly and listened as the man spoke.  I don’t recall interrupting him, well maybe just once, as he told his story.  The man said that several months ago his son, Joe had come to live with him and his wife, Joe’s mother.  Joe had been in and out of trouble and had recently been released from prison.  I do recall that there was one interruption as I asked, “Why was Joe in prison?”  “Well, he assaulted a young woman.”

It seemed as though Joe borrowed a wooden handled screwdriver from his father the day before; a screwdriver with the man’s initials etched into the handle; the initials “R.F.”

Joe was arrested without incident that afternoon and he freely and voluntarily confessed to the crime.  The case had been solved and I was certain that Joe would once again find his new home to be the state penitentiary.  But was Joe the only one responsible for the crime?

Surely the parole board must share some of the blame.  They granted his parole.  I later learned that on two occasions Joe had failed to report to his parole officer in a timely manner. What if he had reported the parole violation?  It was learned that Joe told several friends about the neighbor, her bikini and how he fantasized about her.  Shouldn’t they have told someone?

Suppose Joe’s father had not allowed him the use of that screwdriver.  At the very least that showed poor judgment.  How could the maker of that black knit cap that hid Joe’s face not be somewhat at fault?  And what about the victim, the woman herself; didn’t she contribute in some ways?  She walked in her yard wearing only a bikini, and let’s face it she was very attractive.  But, she was actually the loving and devoted mother who raised two children.  She was someone who merely wanted to tan her white and bleached winter skin as she nourished her flower-filled garden.

The woman allowed tall bushes to touch the sides of her house allowing easy concealment for anyone trying to force their way in.  There was no outside security lighting and she certainly hadn’t purchased an alarm system.  That window, that old window; surely a newer and more tamper-resistant replacement would have been prudent.  Maybe if she had a pistol in that nightstand that sat beside her bed she could have prevented the attack.

What must by now be blatantly apparent to you is the extreme culpability which must be assigned to that old wooden handled screwdriver.  For without that sinister tool no window could have been wrongfully opened.  However, that was the same screwdriver once used to assemble a small child’s Christmas tricycle.

As for the motive: well Joe’s only thoughts were of satisfying his sadistic urges.  He gave nary a thought for the innocent and unsuspecting young woman and was in no way concerned about the ensuing sleepless and frightful nights she would come to endure.

Looking back on that terrible crime; one that changed a young woman’s life forever, one could speculate about “what-if’s” until the end of time.  I don’t believe that we can ever truly know the evil that lives in the hearts and minds of some.  Maybe we must, although reluctantly, accept the truth that there are wicked people living among us and they commit evil and hideous acts.  And the vile actions by some, I truly believe, regardless of our best and most sincere efforts to avert the pain these actions inflict, will never cease to soil the world we live in.

Joe, that monstrous sociopath, returned to the place he belonged, prison.  There, three years later and on the exact date of the terrible crime, another inmate repeatedly plunged a pair of scissors into Joe’s chest causing him to expire.  A guard at the correctional facility found Joe lying on his blood-soaked mattress; His lifeless body so still and so alone.

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I Don’t Swim Anymore

no swiming sign

I don’t often eat at one of the much advertised fast food restaurants but not more than a week or so ago I found myself enticed by one of those better than life commercials.  How could one satisfy their appetite for only one dollar I wondered?  Well, I just had to put the advertisement to the test so I drove my Hyundai Sonata the eighteen miles to the restaurant.

It wasn’t quite lunchtime yet but the place was starting to fill with workers from nearby businesses who I’m certain appreciated the speedy preparation and serving of their meals.  I wasn’t in any particular hurry, and that seems to be the story of my humdrum existence, so I allowed several to enter the order line before me.

Once at the register a nice enough looking young lady asked if she could help me.  “Hi, I’d like something from that side of the menu board.  You know, over there where things cost one dollar.”  “Sure,” she said.  “What can I get for you?”  I selected two items and of course a drink from another side of the menu board and much to my surprise the total was, well she said, “That’ll be $5.43 please.”  Somehow my one dollar lunch had become a greater than five dollar meal; that darn sales tax I reckoned.

I gathered up my purchases and found a nice corner table near a window.  I like to peer out of the window as I eat but after all these years I don’t recall ever seeing anything astonishing. Well, there was that one fender bender back some twenty or so years ago but it wasn’t then or now much to talk about.  However, that day several weeks ago, and I can’t recall why, I scanned the inside of the restaurant paying particular notice to the people seated at the other tables.  Suddenly I came to the realization, and after some mental calculations, that I was most assuredly the oldest person in that eating establishment.

I find that I more often than not purposely avoid eating in restaurants.  Ill at ease with thoughts that pairs or groups of people find me worthy of some silent pity as I have no companion causes an uncomfortable feeling to come over me.  I recall feeling that sense of pity years ago as my friend and I enjoyed each other’s company while seated in one of our favorite restaurants.  My friend often expressed her sympathies for that sad old man or woman eating alone; how terribly lonely they must be.

I finished, although quite a bit more hurriedly than I preferred, my more than one dollar meal and left the restaurant feeling all the while as if the younger clientele were watching every step I took.  As I walked to my car I silently vowed never again to eat alone in any restaurant regardless of the enticing advertisements.

While driving home I couldn’t help but think of all the things I no longer choose to do as a result of my advanced years and the single lifestyle imposed upon me.  I here and now freely admit that the list was somewhat longer than I would normally care to acknowledge in public but after all, I started this discussion, therefore, I must afford to you all the pertinent facts.

With purpose and after careful deliberation I have concluded that I will avoid all soirees of any type for you see I find the unaccompanied attendance at my age to be quite awkward and uncomfortable.

I occasionally find that the release of a new film strikes my fancy.  I and my friend regularly visited the local cinema and relaxed as we enjoyed a newly released movie.   I now find the thought of attending the cinema alone distasteful.  After all, to whom would I express my displeasure with the cost of the stale concession stand popcorn?

I recall that some years ago my friend and I enjoyed swimming.  We laughed and splashed each other with the cool water and reassured ourselves that the exercise would keep us young.  Time has a way of setting things straight and so it has with me.  I am no longer young and the face that was once the target of my splashes has left my life.

I miss my younger days and the carefree attitude of youth.  I seem now unable to remember my childhood ways and that may be the cruelest and deepest cut of all; my gradually fading memory.  The years have stolen my youth and now those accumulating years and decades are pilfering my recollections of better and brighter times.

I suppose that, and for all to see, I am exposing my seemingly unreasonable fears, my paranoia if you will but each of us has our own fears, our own demons, now don’t we.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt once remarked, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” but then he didn’t dine or swim alone, Eleanor was by his side.

I fear that I will never cease to mournfully lament the untimely passing of my dear wife and, save finding myself in a drowning situation, I find no plausible justification which would cause me to ever again swim alone.  The once inviting water just doesn’t seem as clear and cool as it once did.  Hence, I don’t swim anymore.

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Earthquake Parties

earthquake party Marilyn Carnell playing guitarDid you hear the one about the “Earthquake Party?”  No, well until just recently neither had I.  Earthquake party, what in the world is an earthquake party you might ask.  Well, it just so happens that you’ve come to the right person to talk to when it comes to this unusual event.  This is how the story goes.

The purpose of any party is to recognize, and most often, celebrate an event.  There are graduation parties, birthday parties and, well if you are following my train of thought, earthquake parties.  However, before there can be an earthquake party there must be an earthquake and what an earthquake it was that started a Southwest, Missouri tradition.

At 2:15 a.m. on a cold and dark December night in 1811 the crew of a boat moored along the Mississippi River was rudely awakened.  Crew-member John Bradbury later reported that he awoke to the sound of tree trunks splitting and birds screaming as the small boat beneath him began to violently move.

The small crew aboard the shaken boat did their best to keep the vessel afloat as wooden bits and pieces fell into the dark churning river water.  The remainder of that sleepless night was spent gathering displaced parts of the boat in an attempt to keep her afloat.  The darkness passed slowly and as the crew stood on the deck of the still buoyant vessel they spoke of the first violent quake and of the following twenty-seven aftershocks.

John Reynolds, who later became the fourth Governor of Illinois, said that as his family slept in their small log cabin the log walls began to shake and his father immediately surmised that the cabin was under siege by hostile Indians.  All through that night, and as a series of aftershocks moved the earth, the family cringed at the sounds of trees falling and the cabin’s logs stretched to the brink of collapse.

Two subsequent magnitude 7.5 or greater earthquakes would follow over the next several weeks. Those three intraplate earthquakes birthed far below the dirt roads and grassy meadows shifted; one plate moving against and over the other, along a line known as the New Madrid Fault.  The resulting movement created a trio of 7.5 or greater magnitude earthquakes with an epicenter in Northeast Arkansas.

The ripples of the earth’s movement were felt in Boston, Massachusetts and the ringing of church bells caused by the vibrations caused some to peer from their windows seeking an explanation for the untimely chimes.

The undulations spread as far south as the Gulf of Mexico and tourists seeking to escape the cold northern winters looked at one another for answers to unasked questions as they sensed the gyrations in the earth beneath their feet.  No earthquake east of the Rockies before, or since, has been as powerful.

It was later reported by many that the swells in the muddy waters of the Mississippi River caused the river’s flow to change.  Those who witnessed the massive quakes said that the violence was so intense that the water churned as it flowed upstream.

The quake lasted for two minutes and eleven seconds.  The following day, and as the sun made its appearance bringing light to the devastation below, occasional tremors caused those searching through rubble to pause in their efforts as so too did their breath pause.  The tremors persisted throughout the morning and afternoon and, over the ensuing weeks, two more, and equally devastating earthquakes shook the ground along the New Madrid Fault Line.  One occurred at 9:00 a.m. on January 23rd and the other at 3:45 a.m. on February 7th.  The epicenter of the last two had moved from Northeast Arkansas to a point near what we today call New Madrid.

Fewer than one thousand settlers lived in the New Madrid area at that time and the total population living in the area most affected by the series of earthquakes was no more than four thousand.  Several months passed before it was determined that the epicenter of the quakes was near the area of New Madrid.

It had been 160 years since the great earthquake of 1811 when Neosho, Missouri resident Harlan Stark had an idea.  Harlan had a keen interest in Geology and was familiar with, almost to the most infinitesimal detail, the series of quakes.  But it wasn’t that knowledge that motivated his proposal.  It was the desire to have a party; a good ole fashioned shindig.

Harlan contacted several acquaintances and discussed his idea for a gathering of friends.  There would be food, music and of course a variety of alcohol-based libations.  As ideas were thrown about and as interest began to peak there were three important and crucial ingredients missing, at least to Harlan’s way of thinking; the location for the party, the date of the event and Harlan believed the party needed a theme; yes every party should have a theme.

Another series of calls to prospective attendees served to resolve all three issues.  Harlan suggested that the first bash be held at the Salt Peter Cave near Pineville, Missouri.  The party’s organizer had given some thought to the event’s theme and decided that it would be an “earthquake party” in recognition of the earthquake of 1811 and, of course, the party had to be held on the night of December 16th.  And so it was settled, the first of many earthquake parties would take place on the night of the 16th day of December in 1970.

The old Salt Peter Cave near Pineville welcomed more than twenty-first attendees to the inaugural earthquake party.  Harlan welcomed everyone and thanked those for their contributions of food and drink.  He reminded all of the cave’s motion picture appearance as it had been used in the making of the movie, “Jesse James.” It was then that movie makers flocked to the area during the late summer and early fall in the year 1928.

Zella and her sister Marilyn missed the first few events, but in 1975 they made their first of many to come appearances. Once again Harlan Starks welcomed everyone to the event and reminded those in attendance of the 1811 earthquake which one hundred and sixty-four years ago caused the earth to tremble.  Nothing more was mentioned about the quake but one could almost feel the floor shake as Marilyn Carnell played the guitar while others danced.

After the passage of several get-togethers, the venue was moved.  Harlan sent word that the parties would be held at Truitt’s Cave in Lanagan, Missouri.  The picturesque setting once owned by well-known John A. “Dad” Truitt, “The Cave Man of the Ozarks,” would become the home to many lively parties.  Surely anyone passing by would have overheard the music and the laughter.

As they seem to do, the years fell by the wayside but the parties; those grand celebratory parties, continued. The location for the parties, however, and once again, was changed.  Future parties would be held at the Shangri-La Restaurant near Anderson, Missouri.  Zella was no stranger to the restaurant.  She had on more than one occasion found herself seated near a window marveling at the beautiful Ozark hillside view as she enjoyed a large plate of homemade French fries.  Regardless of the meeting place, the people gathered each and every year on December 16th to talk, dance and share their laughter.  Marilyn continued to entertain on the guitar as revelers danced the night away.

When asked about the yearly earthquake parties, and even before she utters a word, a smile comes over Zella’s face.  One can see in her eyes that she recalls a time in her life of now eighty-seven years that was very special to her; a time spanning more than thirty some years when she and a group of friends gathered together each year on the 16th day of December for an earthquake party.

Zella Mae Carnell Collie now lives in Neosho, Missouri.  The former librarian loves to read and remains, even to this day, very independent and active.  The well-spoken woman freely admits that the parties had very little to do with commemorating the date of the earthquake.  The name, “earthquake party” where friends laughed and danced the night away was merely an excuse for good pals, and good people, to get together and have fun.

Harlan Stark passed away on the 21st day of August in the year 2009.  His longtime friend Dick Keezer organized one final earthquake party that took place at a Neosho venue on; well, it took place on the only possible date one might imagine appropriate, December 16th of 2009.

earthquake party sweatshirts 2003

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