I Can See China

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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