In the year 1961 I spent my twelfth summer here on earth with my grandparents, Phoebe and Grandad Fine and Phoebe’s sister, my Great-Aunt, Rosalyn. The three lived in a small cinderblock house standing on North Kings Highway Street in the small southwest Missouri Ozark town of Noel. Phoebe and Rosalyn owned and operated a small greenhouse resting on a lot next to the house and my Grandad was the city marshal.
While Phoebe and Rosalyn worked in the greenhouse during the daylight hours growing, cutting and arranging flowers and plants, Grandad slept. He arose each afternoon around 3:00 P.M. and got dressed in, what at least it appeared to me to be, the same clothes; a neutral colored shirt with a badge pinned to the left breast pocket, brown pants, and as always, a wide brimmed hat.
Phoebe and Rosalyn wore cotton dresses of various designs each day as they made the short early morning walk to the greenhouse. There they stacked clay pots on wobbly wooden benches and while standing on an uneven dirt floor filled the pots with dark potting soil and assorted plants. Phoebe once told me that a young neighbor boy, Mike loved to come to the greenhouse, sit atop the rickety benches and play with the pots and soil.
My grandparents had a Siamese cat, Mamie, named after President Dwight Eisenhower’s wife, Mamie. Phoebe, Rosalyn and my grandfather were staunch Republicans and the outspoken Phoebe sometimes made disparaging comments about those “damned democrats.” It therefore seemed fitting that the cat would receive the name of a republican president’s wife. Mamie had a sadistic game she loved to play. When an unsuspecting dog wandered innocently onto her yard she would jump on their backs and while holding on with her front claws she furiously clawed at the dog’s back with her rear claws. Eventually the dog would run away yelping all the way in, what I was certain, excruciating pain.
The house had no air conditioning and window fans only seemed to move the already hot air from place to place. The hot afternoons passed without notice as Phoebe and Rosalyn were in the greenhouse and Grandad took a long cool soaking in the cinderblock shower. My grandfather’s room was next to the bathroom and I remember feeling as though some secret police items must have been in that room as the door was always closed. I once walked past the room when he was exiting and I vividly recall an odor that I always called, “The smell of old people.”
That summer I jumped into the cool waters of Elk River at the low-water bridge, went to Friday night movies at the Ozark Theatre, waited patiently on a Noel Pharmacy Store stool while Lorita created chocolate malts, ate hamburgers at Carl’s Café and played baseball at the field across the street from my grandparent’s house. People in town sat on the concrete bleachers as Noel played Pineville, Seneca, Southwest City, Goodman, Anderson and teams from other adjacent towns. Most of the games were played at night and very few lights offered barely enough illumination to see the baseball; but it was great fun.
Each night Phoebe laid her head on a small folding bed located in a screened-in room that had been added to one end of the house. Rosalyn’s room was small and had been added years ago when Rosalyn and her mother, Mary came to live in the small house. Rosalyn’s room had an unfinished concrete floor which Rosalyn often laid on at night to get some relief from the heat.
I slept on the sagging mattress of a metal framed bed in a small room next to my grandfathers’ sleeping quarters. The room had two windows which were always kept open in an effort to allow some air, although it was hot air, into the room. One window had a large old box window fan that, although it moved the air, had the sound of a jet engine. Was it better to try to sleep with the heat or the noise; I considered that question each night as I fell into bed.
On the hottest of nights and when the roar of the window fan kept me awake, I sometimes sat on a chair in the living room and watched television until it went off the air at midnight. I sat in an old chair with a lion’s head carved into the back as the Siamese cat, Mamie, lay sleeping on my lap. I always believed that Mamie was thinking sinister thoughts about me. I sometimes awoke in my bed late at night and found her quietly sitting alongside my resting torso just staring at me. What was she thinking; was she planning some sort of attack? I never slept with my back exposed to that cat.
One night, and after I had finally fallen asleep, I was awakened by Phoebe. While vigorously shaking me she said, “Gather up your pillow and two blankets, we’re going to sleep down on the beach at Mt. Shira tonight.” As I, still half asleep, walked out of the bedroom and into the living room, there stood Rosalyn holding a pillow and blankets. Obviously I had been the last to learn of the night’s plan. Phoebe was spontaneous and she and Rosalyn, at least it seemed to me, were the sorts with adventurous natures.
The three of us got into the old green Chevrolet station wagon and made the short drive north on Highway 59 to the Mt. Shira beach. I don’t know where the small area of rocks that touched the waters of Elk River got its name as I never noticed any mountains. As we exited the car Phoebe carried a small flashlight that provided some light while the night’s full moon provided even more illumination.
Without speaking, and expecting to lead by example, Phoebe and Rosalyn each placed a blanket on the rocks, dropped their pillows, and laid down while pulling the second blanket over them. Phoebe was a woman of robust proportions and I could only imagine how uncomfortable those sharp rocks must have been for her but she never made a sound. I followed the two’s examples and lay down. The beach was unoccupied and the sounds of the cricket’s chirps and the moving water could be heard. There were other noises coming from the woods which I attributed to a Mountain Lion or possibly a Grizzly Bear. I recall that, to my surprise and after only a moment or two, I fell asleep awaking hours later and only when the light from the morning sun bounced off the water and onto my face. Looking back on that night, it was a night of great and spontaneous fun.
Phoebe once told me that she and Rosalyn sometimes, and on the hottest of summer nights when the night offered no cooling breeze, slept on the stone floor of Bluff Dweller’s Cave located just south of Noel. Phoebe and Rosalyn would gather up their pillows and blankets and sleep on the cool stone floor near the quiet pool of still cold water, just the adventurous duo and the salamanders.