Thursday, September 10, 2015

Trail's End

  The weather was cold and getting colder. The sun was low and getting lower. The December winds were gusting over the long grasses of the prairie as the clouds herded each other across the low sky, like the vanished buffalo of the plains.
The old trail lay barely discernible through the waving stems, unused for decades. Twin ruts, paralleling each other across the rolling land, sometimes they ran straight toward the horizon but often staggering over steeper rougher terrain. It was a trail that had lain silent for so long, forgotten by a faster, noisier world of which it was no longer a part.
  It was up this forgotten path the lone rider traveled, slowly coaxing his mount through waist high waves of the grey green grass. Occasionally he passed the skeleton of a wagon, broken and dry rotted or possessions abandoned and long forgotten, by people long gone and forgotten as well.
  The old man pulled the collar of his slicker tighter as he searched the horizon for his goal. It took a few moments as the old adobe ruin blended well with the brown grass and the walls were no longer as high as they once had been. But he had remembered the trail and ridden unerringly to this lonely point on the high plains.
  For days he had ridden the silent trail, thinking of the time he had come this way as a youngster. Of a time before he had grown old, before the world had left him behind as it had this vacant track.
  It wasn’t that he thought he belonged here, no one belonged here anymore. But as he rode the empty wind swept plains, he felt less alone with the ghosts of the past, than he had surrounded by a bustling world that no longer had time for a simple old man.
  As he rode he remembered the wild times, when as a fifteen-year-old lad, he had stepped out from his peers and joined the Pony Express. Looking for excitement, he had traveled to St. Joe back in the Missouri country, and answered the call to ride these same barren lands.
  Lands swept then by the same harsh winds, but swept also by dangers and Indians, and promises of adventure. He had ridden those days in a swirl of dust and sweat, riding a wave of energy and youth. And then suddenly that time was past. He hadn’t seen the changes until they were beyond him. He’d not realized his youth was gone until he was already old. And the excitement was in the hands of men younger, swifter and bolder.
  Now with little hope of  adventure ahead, he had taken to riding the old trails, where memories were real and the real world was over the horizon and out of mind.
  He remembered friends, some dead along this very path. Some, like him, were old and slow and waiting for the adventure that would never return. He thought back to times when he’d carried a gun and swaggered before the young ladies and turned their heads and held their hands.
  Good times when he had been on top of the world and not carrying it on his shoulders.
  He remembered watching Custer’s cavalry ride past and admiring the flash and show. And he remembered as well reading the headlines with shock when that magnificent troop had failed to return.
   He halted his mount and surveyed the plain and felt the ghosts of the Indians and the express riders and the cavalry riding in league with him. And he knew that soon enough he would join their ranks. After all, he was one of them. He didn’t know what plan had kept him here after the glory was gone. But he felt their presence on the trail beside him.
  Darkness was soaking up the prairie filling the hollows and draws as he reached the adobe ruins.  He stepped stiffly from the saddle and tied off his mount to a single rotting post where a hitching rail once stood.  The old trading post had died with the caravans, killed by the singing wires of the telegraph and the iron tracks of the railroad and the trader had moved on.  But it had been at this post, in its heyday, that the old man had met the girl who would become his wife.
  And the grey and sorry thoughts of the afternoon were replaced by joyful memories of a family, happy and filled with hope. He remembered courting that girl as he unsaddled the horse and carried his gear into walled enclosure. The roof was long gone but the walls would shelter him and his fire from the relentless wind.
  The sight of the first of the evening stars through the open roof brought back memories of that girl who stole his heart and the times they shared beneath these same stars.
  She was gone now and so were the children. A daughter, lost to the fever carried into his house by a stranger had been the first to go. And a son now buried who had grown strong and handsome and had worn a uniform as grand as those of Custer’s cavalry.  He had died on an island called Cuba in the war with Spain. Until he received the telegram from the War Department the old man had never heard of Cuba, and to this day he didn’t understand why the Army had had to fight the Spanish on soil so far away.
  The Lord had given and the Lord had taken away and the old man was left confused.
  He and his wife had lived a quiet life from that point on, as though to raise their heads too high, would catch the attention of the Lord again and something else might be taken from them. And then a year ago she too, had crossed over and left him alone.
  He had spent the time since, hurting and wondering why he was left behind, but no answers had come.
  So he had saddled the old horse and taken up this pilgrimage into his past, because the present had become to empty to face.
  Here at the ruined post he nursed his small fire, sheltered by walls abandoned, and felt at ease for the first time since his wife’s passing. As he listened to a coyote on a low ridge not far away and the call of an owl, the companions of his youth stood in the shadows cast by the flames. Tossing memories out of the darkness like night birds flitting through the vacant window openings.
  There had been a lad named Rollie, his best friend in fact, who had charged into the yard with all the √©lan of the best of the express riders. He’d sailed from his mount, mail bag in hand and leapt for the saddled horse awaiting him. But as he landed astride the fresh mount, the cinch had given way, dumping him squarely on his nose in the dust in front of a stagecoach full of watchers.
  Never had Rollie believed it was truly an accident, and to his dying days he had blamed the old man for that prank. He chuckled in the darkness remembering the twin trails of blood from his nose, running down Rollie’s dust covered face. And the humiliated look of bewilderment as the stage passengers laughed.
  He remembered the tender times in the small cabin over on the Yellowstone River with his new wife, and felt a warmth in the night, as though she was at his shoulder now.
  He thought with joy of the beautiful little girl he had bounced on his knee, and raced round the tree in the yard. And then remembered with tears in his eyes, the marker he had carved for her grave beneath that same small tree.
  And then the boy took over his thoughts as he saw him grow up tall and strong and proud. And he had watched him march off to a useless war and never return.
  And a hollowness filled him and the ghosts of the past tightened their grip.
  As the moon rose over the empty plains and the night wind finally died, the coyote on the ridge spun round as a single shot echoed over the low rolling hills.
  And like a night bird escaping the ruined adobe walls, another ghost rose to join the legions of spirits that haunted the tall grass prairie.


Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Growing Up Slowly, All at Once

  It was a dusty little junction of two dusty little roads.
  On the north side of Highway P, across from the point where the graveled Union road joined the little two lane blacktopped highway, sat a single story, wooden framed, general store of the sort common in those days. It was covered with simple, peeling clapboard siding and had a set of three steps that led up to the long covered porch that spanned the front of the building.
  A second porch ran across the rear of the building and served as a loading dock of sorts for rolls of barbed wire and what common odds and ends of farm supplies the little store provided.
  The front wall was all windows from a level about knee high to a point about two feet from the ten foot high ceiling. A doorway in the center split the front wall evenly and a worn screen door that always banged shut with an extra little bounce announced the comings and goings of the occasional patrons of the Maple Junction Mercantile Store.
  Miss Minnie Cooper ran the store alone as she had for thirty years. And she lived in a couple of rooms towards the rear. Miss Minnie also acted as the unofficial mayor of Maple Junction.
  It wasn’t really a town of course. Besides the weathered old store Maple Junction consisted of the Highland Southern Baptist Church, it sat kind of catty-cornered across the highway from the store and just to the east of the Union road. There were also a couple of houses. One, next door to the church, was where the preacher Clark and his wife lived.
  The other, diagonally across Highway P, from the store and just to the west of Union road was my home. It was where Ma and Pop and I lived.
  The farmstead proper that my folks owned was a quarter mile down Union road and so the only things next to our house were a small chicken house, a large garden and the old wood shed that doubled as a garage with the addition of a lean-to roof off of one side. That’s if’n you didn’t count the outhouse of course.
  Thus was Maple Junction. With only a pair of houses and a thriving population of just six hardy inhabitants.
  It was, and still is, what I think of as my home town to this day.
  And it was pretty much my whole world as a ten year old boy in those days. Not even a real school intruded into that world.
  Preacher Clark’s wife had been a school teacher before she married him and settled at the junction. And my folks had worked out a swap whereby the preacher and his wife gained access to my mother’s ample garden and I, though not too excitedly, gained the benefits of Mrs. Clark’s competent tutoring.
  On most days there was one more soul occupying the junction. Seth Miller was an old man with no family, at least none close by. He showed up regularly and parked his old ’32 Ford sedan and took up residence in an ancient rocking chair on the porch near the flopping screen door of Miss Minnie’s store. If the weather was sour or the wind was foul, he had a second rocker near the huge wood stove inside the store.
  Seth was the only black man I’d ever seen up to that point in my life, and as kind and gentlemanly a sort as I’ve seen to this day.
  On those days when I could steal away from helping Pa down the road on the farm or get away from hoeing weeds in my Ma’s garden, I was often found sitting on a little stool nearby and sometimes whittling a stick while listening to Seth’s colorful greetings of the patrons of the store.
  On this day though, I was saddled with a seat in Mrs. Clark’s kitchen, and not at all that happy with what she was telling me.
  She had been teaching me arithmetic and reading all along. Though it flustered her somewhat that I continued to call the second class reading.
  “Boy,” she exclaimed, “you know how to read, what you are learning now is grammar. And the proper use of grammar at that.”
  What I didn’t like was the addition of yet another subject. Along with history she was telling me that we’d now be studying geography. And at that I’d voiced my displeasure.
  “It just seems like too much to keep track of.” I complained, thinking mostly about another round of homework.
  “Boy,” she told me, “the world doesn’t begin or end with Maple Junction. Even you should know that and be aware of what’s beyond.”
  “Well yeah,” I exclaimed, “Pa took me down the Union road all the way to the county seat.” I then continued, “And Seth says if’n you know where all to turn, Hwy P can get you all the way to St. Louis.” I said proudly showing off my knowledge.
  “We’ve already learned “if’n” isn’t a word. Haven’t we?” She demanded sternly. “And yes, between them, Hwy P and Union road can lead you anywhere in the world. What you need to learn is how large and wonderful that world is.”
  “That sure seems like a lot to bite off.” I mumbled doubtfully as I stared at the floor. I was still worrying about this new expansion of my studies as the teacher handed me the geography book. History had been bad enough I thought, at least in the beginning. Learning about the pilgrims and Jamestown Colony and the Quakers in Pennsylvania had dragged me down. Though I had to admit, now that we had progressed to the Revolutionary War and the redcoats and General Washington, things were getting a lot more interesting.
  I slowly began to thumb through the new book and noted with interest it was filled with pictures and maps. I liked that. No child of ten is interested in a book on grammar, one with no pictures, that is. But the geography might not be as bad I decided as I tried to understand just what the new subject would be like.
  “We will start the new class tomorrow.” Mrs. Clark informed me. “Tonight you can look through the book and get used to it. And don’t forget the work I’ve assigned in arithmetic and grammar for tomorrow as well.”
  I groaned as she hid a smile from me. I shouldered my cotton book bag and retrieved the garden pail with which I’d delivered a dozen ears of sweet corn and a passel of tomatoes that morning.
  “My Ma says she’ll be sending over some snap beans and green peppers tomorrow. And maybe a watermelon on Saturday if’n she finds a ripe one.” I informed her. For which I received a thump on the top of my head. With a hurt look I spun around.
  “If’n?” She questioned sternly yet again. And with that I beat a hasty retreat toward the door.
  Outside I breathed the free air that only a boy leaving school can feel and headed home to return the pail and my books to the house before heading out for whatever adventure I could find. But Ma caught me and I soon found myself, hoe in hand, in the garden again.
  “Life just ain’t fair.” I thought as I grubbed out a few weeds in the asparagus patch. I didn’t mind the work in the sweet corn or tomatoes quite as much because I enjoyed eating them. But I just hated asparagus I thought as I chopped with a vengeance.
  While working my way down the row I looked across the yard to see Seth pull his Ford into his customary spot beside the store and I redoubled my efforts to finish my allotted section of the garden for the day. Ma had come out and began picking the beans from the trellis that we’d have for supper as well as what I’d take to school tomorrow. As I finished with the hoe she asked me to dig a few new potatoes and my mouth watered with the thought of the roast and fresh vegetables that would grace our table this evening.
  Though to a boy, it seemed forever, I was soon sprinting across the road and hailing Seth with a happy smile.
  But just as I bounded up the steps onto the porch, a large shining car with more chrome than I had ever seen on one, rolled smoothly off the road and up to the single gas pump near the corner of the store.
  A man dressed neatly in clean slacks and polished shoes and a white shirt, open at the collar, climbed from the beautiful new Buick and hailed us as he stepped towards the gas pump.
  But then he paused and turned and asked, “Boy? Would you care to earn yourself a cold pop?”
  “Why yes sir! I surely would sir.” was my anxious answer.
  “Here you go then.” The fellow replied. “I need to collect a few items for the missus inside the store. So if you could pump five gallons of gas into my car I’d be obliged.” He concluded.
  I jumped from the porch and began to push and pull the long iron handle on the side of the pump. The brownish tinted liquid began to bubble into the large glass cylinder at the top of the pump.
  As I worked away at the pump handle the fellow turned and greeted Seth warmly as he passed into the store. When the gas reached the five gallon medallion inside the globe I stopped pumping and placed the hose into the cap on the car. I then opened the valve that let the fuel gravity into the gas tank on the Buick.
  Seth chuckled as he commented, “You do know boy, you just happen to live across the road from what must be the last manual gas pump in all of Henderson county? I reckon Miss Minnie will never get around to running electricity out here to that pump.”
  “Do you see that car?” I asked Seth with more than a little wonder.
  “It’d be mighty hard for me to miss it, settin’ right there and shinin’ in the sun that way.” Seth answered chuckling again.
  “Do you know him?” I asked remembering their greetings as the fellow entered the store.
  “Why I sure do.” Seth answered. “That’s Mr. Harper, the druggist from over Smithton way. As kindly a gentleman as ever you’ll see.”
And at just that moment Mr. Harper, the druggist, came carrying a brown paper sack out the door. Just as he reached the top of the steps he stopped and turned. “Thank you for your service boy.” He said as he tossed a shining nickel my direction.
  With a smile I caught the coin and uttered a quick “Thanks mister” and spun toward the door myself. But I paused just long enough to watch him start the big Buick and rumble east down Hwy P as he pulled away from the store.
  I quickly entered the store and felt the breeze from the row of huge, slowly turning fans spaced down the center of the ceiling.
  I headed directly for the large, chest type cooler that held Miss Minnie’s assortment of cold pop. I slid the shiny lid open to reveal the tops of the glistening bottles.
  As I stood looking over my possible choices, Miss Minnie returned from somewhere in the back and called out to me.
  “Now make your pick and close the lid boy. Are you trying to cool the whole building holding the door open like that?” She proclaimed.
  I quickly looked past the bottles of Pepsi Cola and 7Up. I paused at the root beer and grape flavors and then made my choice. I pulled from the case an icy cold bottle of Nesbitt’s “Imitation Orange Flavored Soda” and headed for the counter with my nickel.
  “Mr. Harper has already paid for your soda pop boy.” Miss Minnie informed me.
  Confused I stood before her with the coin in my hand. “But he gave me a nickel for pumping his gas.” I informed her.
  “Mr. Harper is a kind and generous man.” She proclaimed. “The world would be a better place with more men like him.”
  Pocketing the coin, I turned and happily retreated to the porch, where taking a big slug from the neck of the bottle, I then settled again on my stool to ponder the druggist, Mr. Harper.
  I was nursing the remainder of the bottle slowly when Seth asked, “Boy, why is it you’re settin’ here with me when you could be off fishin’ or whatever it is you young folks like to do now a days?”
  “I went fishing down to Cherry creek not too long ago.” I told him. “But it’s a long walk down to the best fishing hole. I caught two perch and a drum that day, but the perch both died when I pulled the hooks from their mouths.”
  “Anyway,” I continued, “by the time I carried them home they weren’t smelling too good and Ma wouldn’t cook ‘em.”
  Seth chuckled at my misfortune.
  “I ended up feeding them to Mrs. Clark’s cat. But that dang fool animal just drug ‘em under her porch. By then they were really smelling bad and she made me crawl under there and drag them back out. I couldn’t wash that smell off my hands ‘till I used kerosene. Even then my supper tasted terrible.”
  Seth laughed a lot harder now.
  “You know, you could come over Sunday after services and we could take your car to the creek.” I plotted aloud. “That way we’d get back while the fish were still fresh.” I told him.
  Seth looked at me with a smile. “Well there’s a heap of reasons why that won’t work boy. The first is that Reverend Clark,” Seth was the only fellow I knew that called him Reverend.”
 “He just gets way too ambitious on Sundays. He’d let you all out of services and then beat a path over here to me and preach his sermon all over again.”
  “Yeah, he does get windy.” I agreed. “Last week he preached a sermon that started out with the apostle Paul getting martyred by the Romans and ended up by telling us how that somehow meant we needed to all pitch in and put a new coat of paint on the parsonage. When I asked Pa about that he allowed as how he didn’t really catch the switch either.”
And with that Seth nearly tipped his rocker over laughing loudly.
  We laughed and joked for a while after that and then Ma called from across the road. I had to get back for one last chore before supper she said. So rising I placed the now empty pop bottle in the wooden case near the door and headed for home.
  When I arrived at the house my Ma looked at me with her hands on her hips.
  “And just how did you swindle Minnie out of a pop?” she questioned.
  “But how did you know?” I asked with surprise.
  “Well,” Ma began, “even if you could grow a mustache, I doubt it would be an orange one.”
  Still surprised at being caught out, I told her about Mr. Harper and his offer.
  “He is such a nice man.” Ma agreed. Then she continued, “I think he stops at Minnie’s store just because he knows she can use the business. Not because he needs to buy things there.”
  “But Miss Minnie always has money.” I stated.
  And Ma looked my way. “Think about it. Everything in her store, she has to buy somewhere. And then she must wait for someone else to buy them from her.” Ma paused.
  “Coins in the cash register isn’t the same thing as money in your pocket.” She concluded.
  And though I didn’t know it, I had just received my first lesson in finance.
  Ma and I had supper without Pa that evening. He’d been working at the quarry that day, she told me. And he would still have to go by the farm for evening chores.
  “It would probably be dark before he sat down to eat.” I thought.
  Pa sometimes drove a loader tractor or a dump truck for the rock quarry over towards Pineville, just to make a little hard cash to supplement what our small farm brought in. “And,” I thought, “he kind of liked to drive the type of equipment over there that we’d probably never be able to afford.
  All we had was an old Ford pickup truck, the kind with a wooden flat bed on it, and a Farmall tractor that was well used already when Pa bought it.
  After we got the tractor, Pa and everyone else had to sit through two sermons in a row from the preacher Clark about not spending money you don’t have.
  “Sometimes it ain’t all that easy living across the road from a preacher.” Was all Pa had said. But he paid off the banknote just as he’d promised. And things around the farm had gotten a lot easier after that.
  After supper I worked on my arithmetic and then dug out the new geography book, compliments of Mrs. Clark. I was thumbing my way through it when I guess I dozed off. Anyway, I almost woke up as I remembered Pa steering me to bed that night. But not quite, I guess.
  On Saturday I awoke and was just finishing with feeding the chickens and collecting the eggs as Pa pulled the truck into the yard. He climbed out and called when he saw me.
  “Are you and your mother ready for a road trip today?” he asked as we headed to the house and a breakfast of fresh eggs and fried potatoes and our own thickly sliced, sugar cured bacon.
  As we ate Pa allowed as how we needed to make a trip to the exchange with the load of corn he’d shoveled from the crib already this morning.
  Any reason for a trip to town was a good one for me. And I suspect Ma felt the same as she seemed extra happy today as well.
  The three of us filled the cab as we chatted our way to town. Pa let Ma off at Lester’s Dry Goods store. Then he and I continued down to the Farmer’s Exchange.
  The man at the exchange used a hoist slung under the wheels to lift the front of the truck into the air and the whole load that had probably taken Pa thirty minutes of hard work to load, slid into a pit in the floor.
  After moving through the machinery of the mill the corn was ground into feed, cobs and all, and sacked up in big heavy burlap bags which we stacked against the back of the truck cab. Pa went inside to take care of some sort of business while I stood in the lot and threw rocks at the large flock of pigeons that darted and whirled around the grainery. And then we left to pick Ma up with her new bundle of cloth.
  Ma was happily telling us about the new shirts she planned to sew for Pa when we rounded the curve on Highway P.
  That’s when we saw the car on its side in the ditch.
  The brakes on the old truck groaned mightily, laboring to stop the heavy load we hauled, as Pa halted before the wreck.
  An old black sedan had somehow missed the curve and lay crumpled on its side against an oak tree.
  Pa leaped from the truck and was bent over with his head inside the wreckage looking at the driver as I rounded the front of the car.
  He stood and yelled at me like he never did, demanding I return to our truck. But I had already seen what he was worried about.
  There, through the smashed windshield, I saw my friend Seth. His head was broken bad and bleeding and his neck was turned oddly. And by then Pa had me by the shoulder and half dragged and half pushed and half carried me back to where Ma stood near the back of the truck in the center of the roadway.
  She gently took my arm and guided me towards the cab but halfway there I stopped and puked in the middle of the pavement.
  I sat shaking in the cab and began to tear up as the vision of Seth Miller remained locked in my mind. I was shocked and in shock by what I’d just seen as Ma and I sat mostly silent in the cab in the hot noonday sun.
  Another car had stopped by now and I heard pieces of what Pa and the other man said.
I remembered later Pa had pointed out a groove in the pavement and I heard the word “blowout” and I remembered Pa was telling the other man how he knew Seth and that the old man just couldn’t hold it.
  I didn’t know it back then, but in the days before power steering and radial tires, a blown tire on the front of a car was a very dangerous problem.
  It was about then the other man turned his car around to return to Pineville and get more help. Pa soon returned to our truck too.
  “We’ll wait.” He said softly as he climbed into the cab. “It don’t seem right to just leave Seth here alone.”
  I was nearly sick again and sobbing softly as Pa finally drove us home. I couldn’t stomach any of Ma’s fine cooking come supper time. And I lay in bed a long time that night before a troubled sleep finally claimed me.
  The next day was the only occasion I ever remembered my folks skipping a church service in the whole time I was growing up.
And even in the warm summer sun, Miss Minnie’s porch became a cold and empty place.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

River Angels

  I paddled gently onto the sandbar and stepped out into water just above ankle deep near the back of my canoe. As I waded past the bow I lifted it a bit farther onto the sand and grasped the anchor line.
  Stretching the rope to its full length I placed the anchors as far from shore as possible. Then busied myself unloading what seemed to be half the gear in the boat, sorting what I would need for the coming night’s camp. As I placed the small camp chair facing the west, the better to enjoy the pending sunset, I paused.
  At the far end of the bar, some three hundred yards upstream of the point I had chosen, another paddler seemed to be setting up his camp as well.
  Puzzled, I considered his presence. For three days I had traveled the great river without encountering another paddler. I’d seen sand dredges and fishermen in outboard powered Jon boats. I’d been passed by a towboat pushing barges headed for St. Louis no doubt. And once a family had waved from a park on the shoreline. That was at Glasgow I remembered.
  But in the three days on the water my own had been the only canoe I’d seen.
 Curious about the other boat and how he’d slipped up on me, I decided that I just hadn’t noticed him easing up from behind as I sought an acceptable camp for the evening.
  I busied myself setting my tent and building a small fire with driftwood gathered nearby. As I placed my bed roll and the possibles bag that held odds and ends of items I might want easy access to into the tent, I stood and glanced again at the stranger now silhouetted by the lowering sun. 
  He seemed for the first time to notice me and waved a hand in a neighborly fashion.
After one last chore of mixing a concoction of a sort of camp stew and setting the small Dutch oven in coals raked from the fire. I washed my hands and began a leisurely stroll back up the bar toward the other fellow’s camp.
  As I approached I let out the customary greeting, “Hello the camp” in my best imitation of a boatman of old.
  The stranger waved and smiled and continued to piece together a small fire of his own.
  At my approach he looked up and asked, “Don’t mind if I share your sandbar do you?”
  “After three days on the river, I’m glad for the company friend.” Was my reply.
  “Three days.” He repeated with a distant look to his eyes. “I’ve been out here a bit more than that.” But he didn’t elaborate.
  I surveyed the fellow and liked what I saw. His boat was secure, his campsite tidy and clean. He obviously was no stranger to river travel and just had a competent air about him that told me I might enjoy an evening in his presence.
  He grasped a small pot from the edge of his fire and offered it in my direction.
  “It’s real coffee and you’re welcome to a cup if you care. I just don’t cotton to the instant, if you know what I mean.” He offered.
  “Yes, if it’s no trouble.” I accepted. “And I’m pretty much of the same opinion on the instant stuff. Though for the sake of simplicity, it’s what I carry in the boat.” I informed my new companion.
  He stepped around the fire and offered me a steaming cup. As we stood face to face he then offered his hand and said, “Bill is my name. Bill Dayton.” And we shook.
  I introduced myself and thanked him as I took a sip of what might have been the best coffee I had ever tasted.
  Bill was recovering a second cup from his pack and settling in to enjoy it himself.
“You might want to slow your life a little.” he surmised. “A fellow who can’t take the time to brew real coffee might want to re-access his priorities. Few things deserve their allotment of time more than a good leisurely cup of coffee.” He said with a slow smile.
  And my liking for Bill’s gentlemanly manner deepened just a bit more.
  “Oh, it’s a small thing. But as you get older you’ll find that some things, though small, are no less important.” He related.
  In the darkening twilight and by the jaded light of the small fire, I tried to judge Bill’s age. Somewhat older than I, though better preserved I guessed.  My best estimate put him in his late sixties or early seventies. He appeared a bit older than the usual river traveler, but certainly not one handicapped by his age.
  We made small talk for another two cups of coffee as I told him the basics of my situation. Recently retired I was taking a week to travel the river from Kansas City back to my home near Chamois.
  I’d played on the river all my life, but it had been spent an afternoon here and a weekend there. This trip was the fulfillment of a long held desire to actually retrace a portion of the steps of the explorers and trappers of old. To float at my own speed was my intent and remember the history of the valley as I followed their trail.
  Bill, for his part, told me he was doing somewhat the same thing. Though the trail he followed was retracing a portion of a trip he had taken some years earlier with his wife. He had been a widower for half a dozen years now and he was seeking to reconnect with memories of happier times.
  Talking to Bill turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable way to pass the evening. We sat and shared a glorious sunset. And as we chatted long after the sun was gone we continued to relate tales of our various times on the river. And far too soon it was time to return to my own camp.
  I found my little oven of stew warm and much better tasting than most of my cooking. The 'hands off' culinary approach was a good thing I decided as I cleaned the pot and my bowl before turning in.
  I lay in the tent that night reminiscing about the evening. Bill had warned me he intended to leave early the next morning and promised he’d try to break camp without disturbing me. I had told him I would happily rise early and paddle with him the following day but he declined saying he had a few people to meet and he doubted I would want to maintain his pace for the thirty odd miles we had before reaching Jefferson City.
I had planned to take all day to reach the park, but he seemed to be determined to meet someone there earlier in the day.
  Ah well, I thought as I dozed off, He’ll wake me on his way out anyway.
  The next morning just after dawn, I rolled out of my bedroll and exited the tent. I was mildly surprised to see Bill had, true to his word, packed up and gone without rousing me.
  I was even more surprised to see my fire had been freshly banked and there balanced on a pair of stones was a small tin of steaming hot, fresh and unusually good coffee,
  I thought back over the evening and realized that I considered Bill Dayton a true friend. This surprised me as I seldom took to anyone so much as I had him after a single evening together. But I felt the warmth and camaraderie when I thought of him that I usually reserved for much longer acquaintances.
  I wanted to pack up camp and get back on the river, but true to Bill’s advice I sat for a while and savored both my new friendship and his gift of great coffee.
  Something like six or seven miles down river that morning I paddled to the left-hand bank and pulled my canoe onto the bottom of the boat ramp at a small resort called Cooper’s Landing. It was a well-known resort/campground and watering hole and considered by many to be the best stop along the whole length of the Missouri river.
  My only regret here was that I hadn’t landed at meal time. Cooper’s is renown for the food they serve but neither did I wish to waste too much time. I still harbored a hope I would catch up with Bill at the ramp at Jefferson City.
  So I renewed my acquaintance with Mike Cooper and bought a few items to replenish my supplies. I iced down my cooler and was back on the water again by late morning.
  It was a twenty six mile paddle on down to Jeff, but an easy trip with the current carrying my little craft along. I delighted in the fact that the headwinds so dreaded by paddlers on this stretch of river were absent this day and I relaxed and gloried in the trip.
  On a normal day I would have stopped at a sandbar or two and explored the river a bit more closely. But today I continued to think of Bill and hoped I’d connect with him again at Jeff. So some six hours later I paddled up to the boat ramp at Jefferson City.
  There at the ramp I met a good friend of mine. Joe Wilson was a little bit of a Midwestern legend to folks familiar with the river. He was one of a group of so called
‘River Angels’. People who volunteered to help paddlers coming down the river. They might help with supply replenishments or even a simple fresh water drop. But the biggest services provided by these people were often just connecting with paddlers who by now had sometimes spent a few months on the river and just craved a good conversation or meal with a friend.
  As I landed my canoe I watched Joe back his trailer into the water and load his Jon boat.
  “Walt!” he called as he recognized me and came forward to shake my hand. We caught ourselves up on news and happenings and then I related my meeting the night before on the river with Bill Dayton.
  I told Joe I had hoped to catch Bill here because he had meant to meet someone at this park today.
  As I told Joe of our meeting on the sandbar he grew very quiet. “Walt, come on over here, have a seat.” He said as he led me to a nearby park bench. “We need to talk.” He stated softly.
  And then Joe related his tale.
    “Walt” he began, “Every word I’m about to tell you is the gospel truth. What you think when I’ve finished is up to you but never doubt what I have to say.”
  Then he fell silent for a time as if to gather his thoughts. Finally he began.
  “It was right at a year ago that I had put my boat in and ran upriver a couple of miles to catch what catfish I could find. I’d spent a couple of hours with only a little luck when I noticed a speck far upstream in the center of the channel.
  I watched it off and on as I fished and finally decided I was looking at a canoe, adrift on the water.  I packed up my lines and started the boat and idled toward what was now clearly a loaded canoe. Pulling along side I found the paddler lying in the bottom of the boat and he was dead.” Joe paused again.
  “Of course I towed the whole rig back here to the ramp and called emergency services. And well, it turned out the poor fellow had had a heart attack and died alone on the river. That fellow Walt, his name was Bill Dayton. We had talked by phone and I’d intended to meet him here for a supply run. But I never met him in person until I towed him in.”
With that Joe fell silent and I was speechless.
  “He was real, I know he was. I shared his coffee, Joe.” I said softly. And Joe remained quiet looking at the ground in front of our feet.
  Then he asked “You said he told you he had to meet someone here today?”
  “Yes.” I replied, “He mentioned it a couple of times last night.”
  “Bill had a son and a daughter,” Joe related. “They had arraigned to meet me here this morning and we went up river about mile, maybe two, in my boat. That’s why I was loading it when you arrived.”
Joe looked me in the eye and continued. “Just an hour or so ago his kids spread Bill’s ashes across the river he loved.”
  I sat silent as the lowering sun left a red trail up the river to the west. I thought of Bill Dayton and his concern to make today’s meeting. And I wondered.


Saturday, February 7, 2015

Death of a Steamboat

 As I look across the massive Missouri River I admire its intimidating power, so silently easing past.
I appreciate its ability to reflect a sunrise as inspiring, and its sunsets so relaxing. It is a beautiful giant in our midst. The river and its environs are home to fish and fishermen, birds and mammals and hunters and paddlers. And sometimes I wonder if other unseen inhabitants reside there as well.
 My mind wanders to other contents of the waterway as I think of the wrecks of hundreds of riverboats and the ghosts of their passengers and crews. And I sometimes wonder if the river is a haunted place or just haunting.
 The boats found many ways to die on this river. But explosion and fire was what truly terrified the early travelers.
 Sometimes silt from the river clogged the boilers. Or captains and crews distracted by current or maybe the wind and weather they faced would overlook the pressure gages for a moment too long.
 The ensuing explosions were deadly on the huge wooden boats. The design of the boats normally had those boilers beneath and very near the pilot house. This tended to insure the loss of a crew’s most experienced members and leave those surviving the initial blast without guidance or instruction as the shattered hulk drifted and burned and sank beneath them.
The concussion of the explosion tearing apart the superstructure, flying flaming splinters and metal shrapnel would be what assailed those not already blown away. But even if one were lucky enough to survive the blast he wouldn’t be likely to see what happened as clouds of smoke and scalding steam enveloped what remained of the vessel.
 For many of those blown clear or forced to abandon the wreck, a cold wet trial might still await as they fought for life in the powerful current. And a swim across a wide wild river may be the only escape.
 It was a lucky soul indeed that survived the death of a steamboat. But even for those fortunate enough to gain the shore they sometimes found themselves stranded in an isolated wilderness. Maybe burned or bleeding, likely cold and alone, almost certainly in shock and confused.
 Between 1819 and 1890 the official tally of sunken boats on the Missouri is placed by some at 289 boats lost to all causes. But other estimates run as high as 400. At best it seems that on average maybe four or five boats a year would succumb to the river’s power.  
 One of those unfortunate vessels met its fate only some 30 feet from the wharf at Lexington, Missouri on April 9, 1852. This boat, the Saluda, has the dubious distinction of being perhaps the most deadly of all such incidents on the Missouri.
 As steamers went she was an older boat, but only by a few years, having been built in 1846. She was a mid sized packet at 179 feet long by 26 feet wide. Plus another ten feet on each side for her 20 foot diameter side wheels. She carried 10 officers and approximately a dozen crew members and on that fateful day about 150 to 175 passengers. By mid morning even though she had just cast off the wharf more than half of that compliment would be dead or dying.
 The Saluda had left St. Louis on March 30, enroute to Kanesville (today known as Council Bluffs), Iowa. Her primary cargo was a large group of Mormon pioneers hoping to travel from Kanesville to Utah by wagon caravans that summer. She arrived at Lexington, at the time the third largest city in the state (after St. Louis and Hannibal), and laid over to allow the passengers to collect additional supplies.
On April 7th she attempted to battle her way around a sharp bend just above the town but high water and heavy ice descending the the river did severe damage to her paddlewheels. Returning to the Lexington dock she spent that day and the next repairing her damage and preparing to resume her assault on the icy river.
   On the morning of the 9th the Saluda left the dock for the last time. Capt. Francis Belt, her Master, was a 35 year old half owner of the boat and had spent his entire adult life on the river. He was considered by his peers an experienced and capable Master. On this morning he and both of the ship’s Pilots Charles LaBarge and Louis Guerrette were in the pilot house. The Engineers, Josiah Clancy and John Evans were on duty near the engines and boilers.
 Of the ten officers on board only the 1st clerk, F.C. Brockman and half owner Peter Conrad were to survive.
 Capt. Belt ordered maximum steam and then gave the signal to cast off and the Saluda drifted into the current. Witnesses agree that before the huge paddlewheels had made two revolutions the blast occurred.
 The entire superstructure of the boat, from the wheels forward disintegrated in a cloud of steam and fire, and witnesses in the town claimed the pilothouse was blown as high as the bluff top.
 Debris from the boilers and the ships bell were later found nearly a quarter of a mile away. The wharf and surrounding area was covered with parts of the boat and numerous bodies and two men who had been watching from shore were killed as well. Just as many were thrown into the icy river and the bow of the now drifting hulk began to settle into the water.
 The ship’s stern grounded on shore as the shattered front half sank, anchoring her in place. This allowed those lucky enough to have been at the rear of the boat to begin to exit onto land.
  The citizens of Lexington sprang to work to save as many of the injured as they could. But the toll was high even with help readily available. Throughout the morning the injured were moved to makeshift wards wherever available. Though many of the buildings in town had been damaged as well.
 Before he died of his wounds one of the Engineers took responsibility saying he had let the boilers run dry in response to the Captains orders for maximum steam. When the engines were engaged and cold water was pumped into the now red hot boilers the explosion ensued.
 The Mormon contingent had been hardest hit and many of those who survived were forced into long stays in Lexington to convalesce before continuing their journey. Many orphaned children from the wreck were adopted by local families and a cemetery was established in Lexington for those lost in the blast.
 No accurate count was possible but best estimates were that 90 to 100 lives were lost. Whether consumed in the explosion or lost to the river some bodies were never accounted for. Had the blast not occurred so near the town the casualties would most certainly have much higher.
 The vision of a classic white steamboat trailing plumes of smoke and churning the river’s surface as it
grandly paraded upstream is an accurate one.
 But so too is a vision of a flaming shattered wreck drifting downstream surrounded in the water by litter and debris and bodies.
 Life in the golden age of the riverboats could be every bit as harsh as it also was grand.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Guy Downstream

The first man to look on the great river may well have stood high on a hill and surveyed the valley. He might have seen an obstacle to his trek. Or he might have recognized a home. Regardless, I think he must have looked with wonder at the woven threads of channels and sandy islands lined with willow breaks teaming with prey. For he was above all else a hunter.
This man must have looked with favor on this chance to feed his people. That is how I think he would have seen the river. As an opportunity. For the game on its banks and the fish in its waters would allow him to bear his responsibilities to his own.
Whether he crossed the river and continued to wander or whether he settled on its banks we cannot know. But either he or his descendants colonized the valley and did make it a home. For hundreds of generations these people hunted and later farmed the land around the river.
And it had cost no one anything but their labor.
Then our own forefathers, Europeans and descendants of Europeans, like that first hunter ‘discovered’ the Missouri River for themselves. They first saw it not as a home but a path. To new lands. To trade and only later to colonies of their own.
At first the trade was sufficient. But soon moving the native peoples away was a priority. To take the river and to exploit this path to the west. Then to settle and harvest the timber to feed the steamboats and later the trains that became the chosen tool of expansion. For hundreds of miles the valley was taken and cleared and then farmed by our fathers.
And it cost little. Only the Indians had to pay. With their culture, their land and their lives.
That is the legacy of our fathers.
Now settled, the river valley feeds a large part of the country. Even the world. But at a cost as yet unknown. Levees hem it in and protect the fields as the now channeled river carries away our waste.
Our sewage is dumped in the water at one town only to be taken up and filtered out for the drinking water of the next. Nitrates and phosphates and pesticides are carried to the sea. And areas the size of states are laid waste in the oceans by our practices here in the valley.
Refuse and plastics and all manner of trash is deposited, always downstream. It’s always the next guys problem. And that is correct. Except the next guy is your son. Or daughter. Or grandchild.
For that is who lives downstream.
It will cost nothing. Not to us anyway. Only our children will pay.
The legacy we are leaving is as ugly as the one we inherited. We have changed but not learned.
Will the largess of the valley still feed the gulf fishermen when their livelihood is gone? Or will our practices render the river itself one day useless. Choked by our refuse, polluted by our hand and clogged by our greed.
The valley encompasses more than 529,000 square miles. None of it untouched, none of it exempt.
It is a barometer of our world. It shows more clearly than anything else which way we are headed.
That first man looked on the river as an opportunity, It is still an opportunity. But is it one we will save?

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Please accept this as the first post in what I hope will become a series about the towns along the river.

Rivertowns: New Haven, Missouri

This small town lies on the southern bank of the Missouri river some 81 miles above the confluence of that great stream with the Mississippi. It’s a picturesque place built on the bluffs and hills and extending back from the river and intermingling with the rich farm lands that surround the community.
 Peopled by industrious, hard working folks of mostly German descent, this area has prospered by the applied efforts of their hands.
 Mostly agricultural, at first glance the entire area has a well tended and carefully maintained air about it. But it is also a vibrant community, with excellent schools and friendly merchants and congenial, hardworking people. Even a talented and growing artistic culture is ingrained into this little town.
 It’s past is gone now and the grand riverboats that were it’s first reason for being are gone as well. The trains fly through without stopping. Industries that sustained it in the past, hat and tent factories, a large flour mill and what was once the largest nursery in the country have come and gone and are replaced by ever newer industries.
 But the first business conducted here was that of a simple woodlot. To fuel the boats that plied the as yet untamed Missouri river.
 At that time, it was called simply ‘Miller’s Landing’. After the industrious man who sold cord wood to the pilots of those river vessels.
 In the early part of the 19th century, the heavily forested hills stretched right down to the waters edge. No real roads other than dirt tracks connected it at first to the area around. And no rails carried trains along the riverbank. Miller’s Landing was an isolated outpost in the center of an American nation that at that time still barely existed west of the riverport of St. Louis.
 But small communities were widely scattered along the river upstream and down and all needed the supplies that could only come from the east. And the boats that carried those supplies had a ravenous appetite for the cordwood Mr. Miller supplied.
 Even a smallish boat would consume as much as ten cords a day. And the largest could burn three times that as they fought their way past snags and sand bars and sawyers and currents trying again to conquer the river with each new passage.
I’ve found no description of what those first labors might have been like providing feed to the fuel bunkers of the boats. But having grown up on a farm in the area, I here propose to use my own imagination to paint a picture with words of this community as it once might have been. A picture constructed without historical verification, and with only what I perceive it might have been.
 Now a cord of wood is a stack four feet wide and four feet high and eight feet long. In today’s world it sells for about $35 to $75 dollars depending on the local markets. $35 dollars today would have equaled about $1.70 in 1835 so at least ten times that is what it might have cost in fuel alone to operate one of the smaller boats of the day. Or about $17.00 a day, a somewhat considerable sum in the 1830’s. Not only was the cost of the wood a burden on the operators but a full load of such fuel could easily consume half the deck space that might be needed for saleable supplies.
 And the supplies of the day were nothing like what you see on store shelves today. Basics were what was needed by the new farms and villages to the west. Nails and horse shoes were not loaded on the boats for trade or sale. Small iron ingots from mines and mills on the Meramec river were delivered to the blacksmiths of the day and pounded into whatever items and tools were needed. Hardware was what was needed to the west. Cloth and glass and manufactured goods were expensive and rare commodities delivered via the river.
 The only foodstuffs carried were the luxuries that could not be grown or raised locally. Hams and steaks and vegetables the pioneers could produce.
 Coffee and salt, sugar and the ever valuable whiskey were, for the most part, imported from the east and the south until the industrious locals could contrive to manufacture their own. Wheels were carried on the boats for wagons built on site, until carriage makers arrived. Gun powder and lead from the mines and mills in southeastern Missouri was brought north to the river and loaded on the westbound steamers.
 All of these products relied on the boats and the boats relied on the woodlots such as Philip Miller’s on the riverbank where New Haven sits today.
 The boats came and went and needed seasoned wood for their boilers so it must have been cut and stacked and cured far ahead of use. Only so much green wood could be burned and still produce the heat to boil the water to power the basic steam engines of the day.
 The trees would have been felled with double cut saws as one would imagine the lumberjacks of the north would use. Limbs were trimmed with axes and cut to length again with the saws. The trunks would be skidded to the woodlot by slow powerful teams of oxen and the trimmed limbs hauled in on the crude oxcarts of the day. Additional labor was of course required to tend these animals. Nothing was either fast or easy.
 The trunks would have to be split with wedges and hammers most likely made on site by Miller’s own smith.  And then sawed to a useable length by saws kept sharp, again by the busy blacksmith.
 Mr. Miller had a huge family but would have required the help of hired crews or contractors to maintain his supply. These men would have stacked the level area that is now downtown New Haven full of ranks of wood and just the labor needed to load the boats would seem daunting to us today.
 Was it passed hand to hand like a bucket line aboard the boats? Were two gangways employed to enter and exit the boats in a circle? Or was it hoisted aboard with steam powered capstains and then stacked by hand? These are questions I cannot answer though none seem easy to me.
 In many areas men who owned slaves often hired them out when they had free time to load wood onto the boats. I do not know how many slaves were in this area but I do know the german heritage would lend one to believe the slave population might have been small.
 These immigrants remembered too only well the servitude of the feudal system they had left Europe to escape. For that reason alone the majority of the settlers to this area prefered to rely on their own labor and not the toil of slaves. That type of sterling self reliance is evident even today as a  hallmark of the community.
 Gardens and livestock, in my imagination, would have been tended by the wives and children of the busy woodcutters and teamsters. Free time would have been slim and valued by all. Fishing lines would line the riverbank above and below the woodlot and been checked daily. The odd hours might have been consumed in the pursuit of small game to supplement the standard table fare. And Missouri river catfish would have been a delicacy.
 The small creeks and streams in the area would have been trapped for the occasional pelt. And the hearths and fires of the work force would have been fueled by that wood too small to feed to the boats.
 The clearcut areas, I envision would have rapidly become fields for corn and pastures for cattle as the area moved steadily toward an agricultural economy. And the export of feed and cured meats might have soon added to the boat’s cargo on their downstream runs. St. Louis was a hungry and growing town.
 Within only a couple of generations the easily accessible wood would have been gone. But so too was the heyday of the boats on the river. They continued to steam up and down the river but in ever decreasing numbers after the railroad arrived in the 1850’s and the railroads soon moved beyond the use of wood and utilized coal as a more efficient fuel. And coal as well, became another product to deliver to these now developing industrial communities along the river.
 And that brings us to the community of today. Passing through on Highway 100 one sees little of the town. The often seen quick shops and groceries, cafes and and bars line the highway in a typical midwestern spread out sort of fashion. Newer Industry and shops are there as well.
 But unless one takes the narrower town streets and heads north toward the river, the origins and history of the town are missed. The older architecture and flavor of the community is overlooked.
 The beauty of the town remains hidden. And the charming natures of the citizens are missed if only you stop for gas.
 The little valley where Olive street now runs on the west side of town was once filled with stockyards. The remains of the old mill also on the west end of the downtown area was once one of the largest flour mills in the country and at one time housed as well, an immense stationary diesel engine that provided electricity to power the whole town.
 A cemetery on the bluff to the east of the old town is reputed by some to be the final resting place of the original mountain man, John Colter, a valued member of the Lewis and Clark expedition.
 A restored hotel and charming B&Bs, artisans, a theater and even a distillery occupy the older town nearer the river where once the ranks of wood once were stacked.

 An access for boaters and a riverwalk atop the levee along the riverbank offer the visitor the opportunity to stroll and view both the river and the town, which continue to embrace each other as they have for generations.