Smiling on a Cloudy Day

I saw comic AJ Finny at Stanford’s Comedy Club in Overland Park last night.

I first met AJ at the Uptown Arts Bar during their 2nd or 3rd commemoration of the Berkley Human Be-In. It had to be the Be-In because I was wearing my Hippie Clothes, meaning for sure the tie-dyed jeans I got from some parking lot vendor at a Grateful Dead show when I did the Southern States Tour in 1988, the Steal Your Face t-shirt my most recent wife bought me because she knew I was a Dead Head though she never really “got” it—Big Red Flag, fellas—and a purple silken scarf I wear on my head bandana-like. There was a time when all my clothes came from parking lot vendors and I had a pile of tie-dyed tees stacked, folded, to my waist. I’m a short guy, but that’s still a lot of colors.

AJ complemented those jeans as I passed which—being half-bard and all—I could not let pass without pausing to reminisce about the Tour while trying to remember at which venue I bought them. I am not usually talkative amongst people I don’t know. But get me started about one of the topics which have caught my fancy for more than a minute and you’ll never get me to shut up. It’s embarrassing.

AJ and I fell to talking about all things psychedelic and I asked how many shows he saw. He regretted he had been too young when Jerry’s death parked the bus, but he really dug the culture. We hit it off immediately, both being what some call Sixties Freaks, and not always in a complimentary fashion. The biggest difference was AJ started a generation after I did. That makes him something of my spiritual … not son … but nephew. Or much younger cousin.

I first saw AJ perform the previous New Years, also at the Arts Bar. His exuberant performance sprinkled stories from his 12-Step experiences and the road that brought him there. “I’m part Irish, part Native American,” he confided to his audience, “Or, as my AA sponsor calls it: a Natural.” His manic pattern wove a tapestry of yarns seamlessly from anecdote to anecdote that kept us all in stitches. Every comic fabricates his own, unique perspective and AJ’s trippy perspective on incidents common to us all draped around his stage presence with shimmering synergy. I don’t know his influences—any artists incorporate everything we experience either consciously or un into our work—but aspects of his act reminded me of Cheech & Chong, of Gallagher, of Carlin in his Toledo Window Box Period.

At the Be-In it took a minute talking with him before some synapse connected and I exclaimed, “You’re a comic!” He smiled. “You played here New Years’ Eve.” He confessed it was so and with promises to connect on social media we each returned to the circles we were running before my loud psychedelic jeans that people tell me men my age should hide made tangential connection. Dead Heads won’t need an explanation of the experience—everyone else should willingly suspend disbelief. In the interest of narrative.

Since that chance meeting AJ has generously blest me with tickets to his shows when he is in town. My work schedule sometimes makes it impossible to take advantage of the tickets, but I always make the effort. I enjoy his show that much. When I do avail myself of his generosity I feel it’s the least I can do to patronize the venue, to do my part to make it worth their while to book him. From each according to his Ability. I’ve got this down pat.

In principle I hate buying liquor in bars. That’s because bars use alcohol sales to cover every other expense, so mark-ups verge on obscene. By the time I buy two drinks I’ve bought the bottle. I know how long I had to work to pay that tab. I remind myself bars are selling a social experience. It’s not my natural habitat, but if I remain calm I should make it out alive…

Beyond my miserly attitude toward money in general, in particular I hate spending money in Kansas. Because Brownback. Kansas is the toxic petri dish of Sam Brownback’s Great Conservative Experiment of giving businesses the farm—so to speak—eliminating all their taxes and regulations that they might flood the state with thousands of new low-wage jobs thus invigorating the economy. Since Supply-Side Economics has never, will never, and can never work the Legislature balanced the budget piling regressive sales taxes on the backs of the Working Class. I hate there being any possibility I might contribute to the success of such an oppressive economic program.

I eschew spending money in Kansas. I’ll work there all day but wait until I’m back in Missouri to buy anything. Gas. Food. Anything. But I was willing to make an exception to support AJ’s work. It takes cajones for any performance artist to work without a net. It deserves encouragement.

AJ enjoys a special relationship with Stanford & Sons Comedy Club in all of its many incarnations, taking the plunge as a comic at a Stanford’s Open Mic and returning to them like Disaster Area to Milliways.

I saw him at the Wyandotte County Stanford’s once. That was at the Legends Outlet Mall, up by the Kansas Speedway. Or, as I like to call it, BFE. Up in the northwest tentacles of Kansas City, Kansas reaching the Legends from my home in eastern Jackson County, Missouri, feels arduous to me. It’s only 37 miles but geography conspires to funnel westward traffic through a concrete Gordian’s Knot called the Downtown Loop. Cars have been known to disappear never to emerge again.

With no traffic it’s a 50 minute drive at posted speeds. In theory. During stretches when every employed person in the Metro jams onto the highway it can take well over an hour. I’ve driven in much worse traffic than Kansas City but it’s maddening. Particularly during high-density periods.

I remind myself in 1928 the drive just from Blue Springs to neighboring Independence along RD Mize Road took an hour each way. All day, by horse and wagon. Perspective.

When I went to the Legends I invited my cousin and his wife to join me. Griz is my only local relative. His mother, my aunt, is only a couple years older than me. She was always more like a big sister than an aunt when we were growing up. That means Griz is my daughter’s age and when I hang out with him I really feel my age! I was relieved they both laughed enough I didn’t feel like I was recommending Henny Youngman.

I also caught his act when Stanford’s operated out of the Uptown Theater’s Conspiracy Room on Broadway. But this newest Overland Park location was the best yet. It’s near where I’ve been working the past few months. It feels much more accessible.

Last night AJ’s show was all new material. New to me. He’s broken out of the regional confines, toured nationally, done television and film and kept that sharp, twisted perspective that drowns his audience with laughter. I laughed so hard I sounded like a stranded heffalump.

It’s been a rough two weeks and I didn’t know until the last minute if I’d be able to use the tickets, but I needed a laugh. And AJ delivered.

Thanks a million.

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Cries From the Ground

Beaver Cleaver he don’t live here anymore.

He used to. Back before my time. Back before Ed Sanders moved to New York City and formed the Fugs. Back when people of color kept to their own neighborhoods and their own schools and made themselves as inconspicuous as possible whenever they ventured to the homogeneous, milk white world, when working class white neighborhoods never noticed any disparity and liked it that way.

In the booming post-War economy, unchallenged by the smoldering ruined factories of Europe and Asia, selling the world the things needed to rebuild, ordinary Americans were making money hand over fist. The general prosperity erased all memory of two centuries of Boom & Bust and to the young ambitious it really looked like the American Dream of each successive generation achieving better than the one before was gospel.

Dozens of servicemen, sons of local farmers and merchants, chiseled by years of war into triumphant warriors, came home and took good-paying factory jobs in the Ford plants or Lake City Munitions and leveraged their service into college degrees or loans for one of the scores of homes springing up in the green hills of south of the Missouri. Whites bought near whites and blacks settled near blacks—and nobody told their white brothers-in-arms that Negro soldiers couldn’t buy outside certain prescribed areas. Or maybe they did tell. A Whites Only neighborhood was a selling point for many couples in those days. Everyone accepted Like sticks with like.

With soldiers returning to good-paying jobs, young couples bought homes developers built on rolling acres of H.S. Mills’ estate south of Walnut and west of Shepherd. These weren’t yet the cookie-cutter homes suburbs came to symbolize. These are each different from its neighbor. Over the years some of the original homes disappeared—burned or otherwise damaged past repair—being replaced by a newer model. Others have had room additions, patios, garages built onto the original structure. The original owners still abide in some. These are fewer every year. A 20-year-old soldier discharged in 1945 is over 90 today.

In the late ‘40s and early ‘50s these neighborhoods in the hills southwest of the railroad thrived as hermetic petri dishes of cultural homogeneity. What people knew of the outside world came in books or newspapers or the newfangled technology of television. The TV families looked just like the families in the petri dishes. Maybe Mother didn’t wear heels and pearls in the kitchen, but other than that the houses pulsed with a collective hope that tomorrow would be better than yesterday.

That was a generation ago.

On a summer Sunday morning I sat and watched the sky transform from purple to pink to pale blue eyes as the second cup lingered on my palate— massaging aroma memories—and unseen birds serenaded to woodpecker percussion on perches hid in canopies of foliage of shapes and size and all shades dancing between blue and yellow.

It was that Magic hour film directors covet, when resurrecting sun rays highlight leaves and curly peels of birch and the pocked complexions of all the branches sheltering all the rooftops all in a line along my street with a warm otherworldly glow.

The homes across the street sat silent. No lights. No stir behind the shades. No ripples on the windowpanes.

In hours to come they will awake, their doors will open, cars will come and go. People I barely know or know by sight to nod or wave. People who have complex lives and jobs and family members hanging invisibly about them as they move about their starring roles in lives where I am but a background extra. People who have thoughts like mine and emotions like mine and concerns like mine.

We tell ourselves that once upon a time neighborhoods were Sesame Street or Mayberry, where everyone knew their neighbors by name and occupation or avocation and Mrs. Jones felt free to scold Johnny Green for throwing kittens down the well. We idealize those times and choke on cheap sentiment we cut into our bitter cups of rue and regret.

We remember times that never were. Or, at best, gild the lilies we pick for maximum contrast and effect.

Without so much as a knock from me the drawbridge of my memory palace slams down and crowds who lived in the neighborhoods of my youth come flooding through the gates. With pitchforks and torches. No. That’s something else. Damn memories. So fickle. Grabbing elements from other times and places, things that happened, other peoples’ anecdotes, some made-for-TV movie, a scrap read in a book somewhere.

These are the ghosts of neighbors past, not aged a day from the moment I last saw them. Some are now dead. All others are much, much older. Many I would not recognize were they to bump into me on the street.

They tell me when I was younger Everybody knew All their neighbors.

They tell me I should know all of mine. If I were just less antisocial. If I were just more extroverted. And would it hurt you maybe just to try?

That’s not fair. I do know some of my neighbors, at least to wave.

A kid named Philip lives in the house on the corner with his mom. I say kid; he’s my stepson’s age, a teenager when I arrived in the neighborhood. He’s in his 30s, now, with a daughter he’s raising with his mother’s help. He picks up day labor and hustles scrap metal for cash.

A couple lives in the cottage beside Philip’s place. He’s a commercial painter named Paul. He’s my age. His partner is a younger woman, Christine, the neighborhood gossip, from whom I can get an earful of more information than I really want about all the soap opera swirling around us. My preferred strategy is smile and nod and remember something pressing I must do.

Then there’s Billy, a widower, a retired civil servant staying active in his waning years. He leaves early for his social club and sometimes entertains some gray-haired lady in his home. Billy might be an original owner, though he doesn’t look that old.

There’s a couple on the other corner, the second or third to live there since I arrived. They have each had children, and dogs which yap around their fenced back yard, and I’ve never known a one of them by name. Or even to recognize so I could identify them in a line-up. The house seems a starter home for starter families.

Straight across the street a young single woman, Kati, has put her fingerprints all over a tall-roofed white, wooden house. Only a window in a gable on the roof reveals the second story. A porch stretches across the front of the house where Kati rearranges a growing collection of quaint, folksy furnishings—like the pieces for an Appalachia dollhouse—antique wooden bureaus and rockers, wicker headboards, a tall terra cotta fire pit, a wrought iron log rack, a bellows.

The previous owner was an older Vietnam vet, his big-boned, much younger Ol’ Lady, and their tow-headed kid. Turned out he was a mean drunk and spent some time in jail behind it. She took their kid to parts unknown before he finished his time and he could never keep up the payments on his own so this young professional woman bought her first home on the Jackson County Courthouse steps.

The first month after she moved in I wondered what kind of job she had where she could wear yoga pants every day. Then I realized she stopped at the gym. I forgot people do that.

Kati has her Gentlemen Callers: clean cut young men in khakis & polos. For all I know it might just be one guy. God knows they all look alike.

A US flag hangs flaccid from a pole on Kati’s front porch column, affirming for any strangers lost wandering the sleepy streets of Blue Springs that this is the United States of America, by damn, that we are the land of the free and the home of the brave, and no politically correct elitist liberal media is going to dissuade us from letting our free flag fly. Maybe I’m reading too much into it.

For an instant in my imagination Kati becomes old Barbara Frietchie, waiting in defiance for the Stonewall Brigade to pass before her veranda—Shoot if you must this old, gray head—though her hair is far from gray, and I can’t imagine her in flannel nightie and stocking cap shouting out the gable window.

Mrs. Frietchie’s defiance played out in Maryland when the Army of Northern Virginia made its first of two unsuccessful invasions of the North.

Around these parts the officer involved would more likely be Quantrill. And few farmhouses in the Blue Springs of yore were unfurling the Stars & Stripes.

Sometimes, in the grayish gloom of dawn or dusk, if you squint just right, you can tear the veil of the Temporal all the way from Now to Then and peek behind at shades and shadows of what used to be. You may even see the shade of Captain William Clarke Quantrill.

You’ve read of Quantrill. Quantrill’s Raiders are the most famous pro-Confederate guerilla “army” of the War Between the States. Civil War buffs surely know him. So will aficionados of the James Gang. Frank & Jesse, not Joe Walsh.

Capt. Quantrill led an irregular collection of deserters, local Rebel sympathizers, and renegades in hampering raids on Federal logistics. That may be a charitable interpretation. History is written by the victors and Yankee History remembers William Quantrill as a war criminal, operating independent of any command, robbing banks, murdering civilians, and destroying infrastructure.

Federal forces hanged several captured members of Quantrill’s band.

Technically all Rebel soldiers were committing treason against the Constitutional Government and subject to execution. Lincoln insisted on magnanimity. Partisans invited less nuanced approaches.

Partisans always enjoy fewer protections under whatever Rules of War are in current operation.

It was Quantrill who led the bloody raid on Lawrence, Kansas, in 1863. Whether or not one calls it the Lawrence Massacre still, 150 years later, depends on sympathies. I have heard neo-Confederates describe it, with a straight face, as “a great day in History.”

History remembers Quantrill’s Raiders as it would the French Resistance—had Hitler won. There are still scholars, mostly amateur, arguing the Confederacy was the true protector of the constitutional government—that the Federal government of the mid-19th Century was corrupt—that activist judges were betraying the original contract of the Union.

People can justify anything.

What many people don’t realize is William Quantrill was a Yankee, by birth if not allegiance. Once again the American Civil War proves more complex than just South bad; North good.

Quantrill was Ohio born and raised. Ohio was a Free State from its admission to the Union, and there’s no indication the young Quantrill gave the issue of slavery any thought at all.

The eldest of a dozen children, young Billy took a teaching job at 16. A year later his father died of consumption; the family fell into crippling debt.

Teachers’ wages were worse than meager on the frontier, so Billy drifted between menial jobs to help feed the family. He was often on the wrong side of the Law, implicated in thefts, run out of town for killing a man. To protect him, his mother persuaded a couple neighbors relocating to the Kansas Territory to take the youth with them. In Kansas he met vociferously pro-slavery southerners who converted the youth to their views. He joined groups of bushwhackers long before the war began. His comrades took him to the Indian Territories (Oklahoma).

After the election of 1860 set in motion the War Between the States, Quantrill and a companion joined the Confederate 1st Cherokee Regiment, which marched to Missouri to join forces attached to Sterling Price, a former Missouri governor who raised rebel troops after Federals put the state under martial law. In August, 1861, Private Quantrill fought under General Price at Wilson’s Creek. In September he was at Lexington—known as the Battle of the Hemp Bales—where Price’s troops soaked bundles of harvested hemp in the Missouri overnight, then used them in a Birnam Wood gambit, advancing on Federals, pushing the bales ahead of themselves. The hemp absorbed Federal ball & shot, the damp bales never catching fire from the heat, though the smoldering haze may have left both victorious rebels and captured federals a bit dazed and confused.

Shortly after Lexington, Quantrill—frustrated with Price’s timidity—slipped out of camp with seven companions. They made their way west to Jackson County where pro- and anti-slavery forces on both sides of the Kansas state line had been murdering each other since before the war. They rendezvoused on the Widda Crump’s farm, alongside the road connecting Independence with Blue Springs. Three more men joined them on Christmas Day, 1861, and the band swore a blood oath to oppose the Union.

Quantrill considered himself a Southern patriot. He traveled to Richmond, seeking a colonel’s commission and permission to raise troops. The Confederate government denied both. He returned to Mrs. Crump’s and recruited disaffected locals. The counties surrounding the Missouri River were settled by slaveholding Virginians, Carolinians, and Georgians. Federal authorities burned out rebel sympathies with an iron fist. There was plenty of resistance to the Occupation. Jim and Cole Younger from Lee Summit joined him. So did Frank and Jesse James of Clay county. Several hundred other men rode with Quantrill at various times. During the 1862 Battle of Independence, Quantrill received a Captain‘s commission. In his mind this legitimized his command.

That command bivouacked in the Sni-A-Bar environs: Blue Springs, Lone Jack, Pink Hill. All the farmers knew him. Unionists bit their tongues. Rebels gave him supplies and horses and sons. Capt. Quantrill and his men became local fixtures. And Billy Quantrill found himself trotting into Blue Springs to visit Miss Katie.

Sarah Katherine King, to be precise, but everyone called her Katie or Kate.

Kate was 13 when Captain Quantrill first spied her, hauling water from the well on her daddy’s farm. Robert King appreciated what the Marauders were doing, but he was none too pleased to see that man come a’courtin’ his daughter.

It wasn’t Kate’s age. Thirteen was not an unusual age for a young woman to marry in mid-19th Century rural America. But nothing good could happen if the Union garrison in Independence got wind of the dashing young guerilla’s visits to the King Place. When King discouraged the visits, Kate sneaked out of the house and made her way to Quantrill’s camp.

She lived with him as his wife for the duration of the war, calling herself Kate Clarke (from his middle name) for anonymity. As the war was winding down Quantrill headed east to Kentucky. Kate accompanied him as far as St. Louis, where she took shelter and awaited his return.

He never did. Captain Quantrill and his closest associates, spreading mayhem through western Kentucky in Union-blue uniforms, rode into a Federal ambush. Two minie-balls hit him, one severing his spine. Union troops captured him. He died a short time later.

In a sense, he hasn’t died yet. Reenactors portray Quantrill and his Raiders in carefully choreographed echoes of those 19th Century skirmishes. The William Clarke Quantrill Society still meets, though all the original members have long since died. Years after the War ended survivors of the old band met to toast the old days and remember their dashing young leader—forever young, astride a pale horse.

There’s a yellowed clipping, mounted under glass, announcing the reunion of 1888 in Blue Springs. That year Frank James arranged the presence of Caroline Quantrill, their leader’s mother, at a reception in her honor at the Chicago & Alton House, a stone’s throw from my porch.

I recall my daughter’s Pampaw, her maternal great-grandfather, met Frank James. Pamp was just a boy and Frank an old farmer by then. They were kin somehow. Though neither of us are from here there are headstones in the Blue Springs Cemetery I know are Pamp’s relatives. He had an unusual surname.

There’s my six degrees of separation.

The Universe is funny like that.

* In the earlier version of this I mentioned Caroline Quantrill without making clear I meant the mother, who I had never mentioned before by name. That could have led to some confusion with Catherine, and I fixed it. 8/14/16

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Ballad of a Mean Man

“We are billion year old carbon … and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden.”

I try to take my pleasure where I can find it. I find it in the sunsets and lightning storms. In butterflies that land on tombstones and hummingbirds darting at the blossoms of the Buddleja. In all the creatures bustling about the neighborhood, living their lives, singing in the trees, chattering in the lawns, puttering in the gardens. In the undulating lush-green verdancy of Jackson County hills.

Remember in grade school art when we took green Crayola’s and drew hills? Those hills were simple. One hill was a 180° arc, a green semi-circle like a croquet wicket on our blank newsprint. Multiple hills were a green sine wave rolling across the paper’s surface.

Actual hills are much less symmetrical. They bulge and wrinkle in response to the environment, the growth of plants, the imperceptible creep of rocks beneath the soil moved by whatever far-off tectonic plate. No two are alike. Very few are symmetrical. Topography is Mother Earth’s phrenology.

I had never given hills much thought before I began walking them.

I grew up at sea level where we were more concerned with marsh than hills. There were bluffs at Yorktown, sure, and overlooking them the redoubts on the Battlefield which is a park now where cannon sit behind artificial berms. We tell tourists these are the redoubts where Washington and Lafayette choked off Lord Cornwallis’s supply line and besieged that tiny river port. But those hills are really remnants of trench lines retreating Rebels threw up to stall McClellan—like three orangutans with a dressmakers’ dummy couldn’t have accomplished that task—during the general’s stage managed Peninsular Campaign. Little Mac, as some reporters called the self-styled Young Napoleon, made sure his pets sent off a string of dispatches titillating the Yankee public with tales of the young general’s exploits against overwhelming odds and little to no support from the Commander-in-Chief. McClellan was never much of a general, but he deftly maneuvered into the Democratic nomination for the election of ’64.

The Confederate trenches sat more or less where the redoubts had been some four score and blah-blah-blah before so a little spit & polish and Voila! A National Park. The “redoubts” were close enough for government work.

But I had never given hills much thought before I began walking them.

I am not a hiker by any stretch of anyone’s imagination. It is Leon who got me walking. Leon is the dog who lives with me. I hesitate using terms like pet or my or owner referencing him. They seem a little too Patriarchal. Too Anthropocentric. It may look for all the world like I provide Leon with all the necessities of Life … but that is no reason to assume the human is “in charge”.

My point is we walk together through the neighborhood. Our strolls cover about a kilometer.

We live in the Old Town neighborhood of the small city of Blue Springs in Jackson County, Missouri. It’s on the wispiest fringe of the Greater Kansas City Metro and justifies me telling folks I’m from KC in the same way my drivers’ license says I’m 5’7” even though a paper in my doctor’s office indicates five-six and change.

Old Town is that section of the city that was the town of Blue Springs at the turn of the last century. At that time it radiated outward from the Chicago & Alton Railroad depot on Main Street.

Before the Late Great Unpleasantness Blue Springs had been nearly a mile west of the depot, at a spot where a fresh brook bubbled up from the hillside and a settler named James Burrus built a grist mill. Like most of the newcomers staking claims to this fertile earth Burrus hailed from Virginia’s Piedmont. He was a farmer. His people were farmers. His neighbors were farmers. Burrus built the mill to turn their wheat into flour.

The spring driving Burrus’ water wheel had been known by travelers for generations. Spanish and French traders trekking the route to Santa Fe replenished stores here. Long before Europeans arrived the indigenous people knew where fresh water was to be had.

It wasn’t that Burrus rushed in to steal the best spot before anyone else could. After President Jefferson bought the land from France he commissioned Lewis & Clark’s Voyage of Discovery to poke the newly-purchased pig. Agents from Washington, DC, spent years negotiating with the tribes who lived on the land, then sent surveyors to plot it for development. Burrus laid down hard-earned gold to get a deed for his land from the government office in Independence.

Buying his own plot within shouting distance of Burrus’ mill and farm, another Virginia Ulsterman, name of Frank Smith, set up a dry goods store, and then petitioned Washington for a post office. He called the post office Blue Springs, after the brook on Burrus’ farm, and operated it from his store.

Farmers, merchants, postmasters—none were exempt from General Order 11 and the residents of tumultuous Jackson County spent most of the War barred from their homes, ejected from their farms, and forced to swear allegiance to the Union before given a spot in one of the relocation areas under the Army’s watchful eye. Those refusing the Loyalty Oath found themselves persona non grata, driven into exile. Their sons and grandsons often took up arms with secesh forces. Some of them are still doing it.

It was in the decades after the war when America was bypassing the unreconstructed South in favor of the dime novel West that Chicago & Alton Railroad established a depot on their Jackson County line, several miles short of Independence. They called it their Blue Springs Depot. But it wasn’t. The village of Blue Springs was a mile away. Engineers calculated a locomotive at a dead stop could never pick up enough speed to crest the hills near Old Blue Springs. So they picked a more navigable spot and appropriated the village’s name and moved it east and slightly south.

Main Street runs perpendicular to the railroad. At the turn of the 20th Century Blue Springs epitomized Middle America. In 1879 J.K. Parr opened the Chicago & Alton House near the depot. This was a rooming house for travelers: what we call a hotel. It was one of Blue Springs’ earliest businesses.

“Eastern Jack” as some call it, has always been rural, the town of Blue Springs and its dozen or more merchants are more an exception than a rule. There were successive Dry Goods stores and Hardware stores where folks might buy the few things they could not produce themselves but at the turn of the Century there were not but a handful of these business houses in town. Mr. Parr ran his C&A House and a mysterious Mrs. Alexander opened Denver House nearby, also servicing weary railroad travelers with a bed for the night and a table spread with Supper between the hours of 6 and 9. Any implication Mrs. A— provided any other type of service is strictly the product of my own lurid imagination.

Even today Blue Springs is only a city by virtue of lax definitions and a lamentable neglect of linguistics. But nobody’s asking me. It’s a suburb. A bedroom community. Franchises, a smattering of petit bourgeois stores and more car dealerships than you can shake a stick at.

But Leon and I are tucked away from all that bustle, back off the main drives, nestled within the shady, tree-lined streets that gently slope over undulating hillsides. We live near the top of one hillock so our route naturally leads us downhill from where we started. Climbing the incline home can be an aerobic workout.

Our habitual route walks west on Moore Street as far as we can go, then south to MacArthur. It’s downhill all the way. Literally.

It’s flat on a map. Moore is a straight line connecting 15th with 18th. The road runs along what used to be the southern property line of J.H. Moore’s estate.

Expanding the map’s two dimensions up to three finds the road cresting a gentle hill. The top of the hill is slightly before 17th Street. Once Moore crests the hilltop it descends to a low spot just before 18th.

I call this low spot The Holler. It seemed appropriate. It felt Faulknerian. I call it The Holler but you might spell it H-O-L-L-O-W. A hollow point in the topography. It’s so hollow I don’t even pronounce the ‘r’.

For some time I’ve been aware of a small, yellow house sitting unfinished to one side of The Holler. A chain-link kennel space, maybe thirty foot square, sits forlorn at the northwest corner of the lot, surrounded by hints of a split-rail fence that passed here long ago. A ramshackle shed at the back of the lot couldn’t decide which way to fall. The property is a tub catching all the runoff from the rest of the neighborhood. An old overgrown tree line borders the western edge of the property and a small copse in the center of the north side serve as breakwaters, though around them there are rivulet gullies where heavy rains have worn through the topsoil. A small culvert channels water from the north side of Moore beneath that road and pours it out into the hollow spot. It looks like it would have a drainage problem. But, again, no one is asking me.

Leon likes visiting The Holler to sniff around. I think it’s because all the odors of the hillsides radiating out from this point rush down the asphalt and sullies to swirl and pool in a great Charybdis of olfactory delights.

Sometimes he adds his own scent to the mix. “Know what I’m doing?”

“I’m afraid to ask.”

“Mark-ing my territory!”

“You did not just say that.”

“Hey, I didn’t invent the language …”

I never saw anyone live in the yellow house. Even from the street tell-tale signs of a home under construction were visible through windows still bearing faded manufacturer’s stickers on random panes, but no construction ever took place. Bare studs stood naked of drywall. A loose extension cord dangled bare bulbs from rafters. A small pile of galvanized pipe behind the house sat long enough saplings sprouted. A ghost house whose owner started a fixer-upper back in the real estate boom then got upside down when the bubble burst and never finished.

The Holler is one of the vacant lots along our route. Bunnyfield is the other. I’m still looking for the Hundred Acre Woods. Like AA Milne, I make my life a little more bearable by superimposing my own reality over the one the Universe offers. Billion year old carbon, indeed.

Vacant lots are important to Leon and me.

Vacant lots are important to Leon because, more than the daily exercise, and more than the contemplative moments spent experiencing our Now, Leon is out attending the calls of Nature. This is where the reader cringes and passes judgment on the author for being one of those dog owners who leaves little land mines all over the neighborhood. That is only partially true.

I carry a plastic grocery sack in my back pocket and if Leon makes a deposit at an inhabited home I will bag it. Which is why vacant lots are important to me. Vacant lots, ditches, utility easements, all are fair game. I realized a long time ago there’s scarcely a square inch of earth where something hasn’t screwed, shit, or died on; it’s the natural way of things and every animal on the planet defecated on the same ground until the sheer volume of human feces made that untenable. But I’d never leave Leon’s fewmets in some homeowner’s yard.

Recently there have been signs of change at The Holler. Someone painted the house. The shed got a facelift. Workers removed two large trees, uprooted the stumps, and built a garage. Things were coming together.

“We’re going to have to find a new spot,” I told Leon. I made a mental note.

Leon carried on with his business. He sniffed all the good parts of The Holler, turned a couple poochie pirouettes, and finished what he had been waiting hours to do.

Suddenly gravel skidded and crunched as a red jeep whipped around the corner and locked its brakes, stopping even where I stood. A blonde woman drove. A bald man rode shotgun. He was already opening the door and stepping out as his the jeep stopped. “I hope you’re going to pick that up!” he bellowed—a bellicose bellow—determined I’d leave with a piece of his mind as well as the aforementioned fewmets.

I whipped my plastic sack from my pocket.

“Yes, sir,” I said. It’s how I was raised. “I brought a bag to pick it up.”

Leon, he say nothin’.

“Well, I’ve seen you leave it—“ determined to see his script to the end.

“Yes, sir. When the house was vacant. If you’re moving in I’ll remove it.” I bent and bagged the offending poop. Nodding toward the house I said, “I like what you’ve done.”

“Yes, we just bought the place,” the Missus explained past her man, relieved, perhaps, I had not greeted his bluster in kind. “Do you live around here?” Her smooth-domed companion glowered at me.

“Sorry about the misunderstanding,” I said, taking the sack, giving Leon’s leash a slight tug. “I’ll steer him away from your yard.”

We walked south away from the house, away from the jeep. Leon couldn’t resist one last lift of his leg on a leafy ornamental at the edge of the yard. I could feel the angry man steaming up his windshield.

You have a problem with pee? I thought. That’s funny. Because where this house sits all the waste from every animal in the neighborhood is going to end up in a pool at the bottom of the property.

But nobody’s asking me.

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Plucking the Apple

In my earliest memory I am floating above the ground, my arms spread wide, my fingers splayed to grasp a shiny red apple wreathed in lush green leaves clutching gnarly boughs. My face bursts with laughter as I pluck the fruit. Strong, firm hands wrap beneath my armpits, holding me aloft, gliding me gently down to earth where I scamper to show my mother this wonderful thing that grew wild in nature instead of a bin at the commissary.

That’s it. A snippet. Fifteen frames of celluloid found lost beneath the splicer where someone compiled a short film to be shown at my Oscar presentation or flash before my eyes when I melt into Death’s embrace.

My imagination decodes the image. This was … This was … This was behind our quarters in Bad Kissingen. West Germany. 1963/64. I would have been about four. What I remember is that Mother used the apples I picked to make dumplings. That may be a story I heard or a detail I invented; I have no memory of eating those dumplings.

I can see Dad pull a deep drag from the cigarette gripped between his bronze fingers and exhale a Magic Dragon billow into the sky above his head. A severe crew cut—still rich brown at the end of his twenties—crowned his face, laugh lines cut around the blue glint of his eyes and the corners of his lips. That face, his arms, and those hands that lifted me into the apple tree were deep, coppery bronze. Dad always looked tan, even in deepest winter.

I see that because it was a constant. The image. Dad always looked like that. As he got older his hair got grayer and his face more leathered. For a brief time after he returned from his Vietnam he wore a mustache, and after he retired he allowed the crew cut to grow out. A little. But his ramrod martial bearing never wavered.

Typical of soldiers in the 1960s and 70s, with high alert Cold War scares and proxy wars, Dad was in and out of our lives as the Pentagon shipped him wherever they needed an officer of his rank and specialties. Time for father-son bonding had to be stolen from other activities in both our lives.

When we lived in Ft. Knox Dad bought me a set of child-sized golf clubs and brought me to the golf course. He always joked I was more interested in chasing squirrels than golfing. Over the years he spent all the time I could stand working with me on my golf swing or the placement of my hands on a bat or playing catch in the back yard. My sense is my lack of enthusiasm for sports frustrated him. Not because he wanted me to be different but because it was something we couldn’t share.

He never stopped trying to find that thing we could share.

A handful of snippets echo that awareness to me. Distinct memories of Dad and me. A fishing trip. Riding in his Fiat convertible. A soapbox derby. Rolling my eyes at his corny quips when I play my new Sgt. Pepper’s album.

Later, when I had graduated from college, and lived with or around him, we discovered something we shared, which was a love of Classical music. But that was long after we had stretched the bonds of our relationship into some floppy, saggy strands that only clung to living with mutual disappointment. Long after my teens and early twenties when I would have little to nothing to do with my father. Most of my memories with Dad come from the time before I gained a second digit in my age.

Today I’m remembering the trip we took to Washington DC, just him and me. We had a hotel room and he took me to see the Orioles play the Senators, to the top of the Washington Monument and the image of Lincoln on his Olympian throne.

We had come for a battery of allergy tests at Walter Reed. But it was the fun sights of Washington we saw together that stretch before me—long seconds, hundreds of frames, reels—the pinnacle of the father interacting with the son.

There is a long, lingering pan of the sea of white tombstones standing alike, shoulder to shoulder, rank and file, in the green lawns of Arlington Cemetery. “When I die,” my father reminded me for the umpteenth time with an umpteen to go, “you don’t have to worry where to put me. There’s a spot for me right here.” And I fell silent, still not familiar with death as anything more than an abstract principle that happened to people I didn’t know or who had been born long before me.

Bobby Kennedy was recently slain and the muddy turned turf over where his coffin temporarily rested screamed some kind of tangent about Death but it was still an abstract like the eternal flame. Like the Tomb of the Unknown.

We caught the Tomb at the Changing of the Guard when the sharp Marine ritual stepped out in liturgy of camaraderie and respect that the outside world was just starting to question in light of Vietnam and Civil Rights and that psychedelic whirlwind people consider the Sixties when everyone I knew was either military or middle America. I was too young to comprehend that whole Brother-in-Arms mystique, but Dad had been through boot camp with boys who didn’t come back from Korea and knew other men whose names were being etched in silver bracelets and would later grace The Wall. And his solemnity impacted me.

“Soldiers are the men who want war the least,” my father used to tell me, “we’re the ones who have to fight it.”

I thought of Arlington today. My Virginia siblings were in Arlington today. They were visiting Dad’s grave. Today is the anniversary of his death. He rests in Death as he stood in life: surrounded by his brothers-in-arms. His identity as a soldier provided him a precious sense of meaning. Calendar vagaries will rotate this anniversary back to Fathers’ Day every decade or so.

Today I find it focusing my reflection. I salute my father for everything he was to us.

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Ola Mae’s Figs

We lived in a one bedroom flat nestled in the rafters of a three-car garage behind a boxy duplex near the university. We could catch a bus at Hildebrand or San Pedro to take us most of the places we needed to go, though the grocery and the laundry and the original Taco Cabana were all within walking distance. Even in my early twenties the furthest I wanted to carry groceries or a duffle of laundry was about a quarter mile. Four to six blocks.

Bus trips were mostly to church or job hunting. Church was St. Mark’s Episcopal, Downtown—a hundred and fifty year old stone structure where Robert E. Lee had sat on the vestry back before he chose Virginia over the Republic—back in the waning days of the Mexican War when the future Confederate officer corps made their bones manifesting the Republic’s Destiny. Job hunting was code for wandering around downtown San Antonio, ducking in some matinee. I don’t think I ever told my wife that.

Legend had it the convoluted arteries radiating outward from the old Mission district followed the meanderings of an inebriated rancher making his way back from the saloons of the frontier town cobbled together around the old Spanish Misión San Antonio de Valero, desacralized, then used as barracks for the Mexican Army’s Alamo de Parras cavalry company.

Who cares if it’s true? It’s a fun story. Streets Laid Out by a Drunk is a fairly common urban legend used to explain the vagaries of civil engineers.

A fig tree grew between the garage and the duplex, its twisted, gnarly limbs pirouetting toward the sunlight. It was old enough to arc up over the driveway, though none of its boughs were thick. The fig’s wood is soft, weak. It tends to grow counter to its own interests—limbs shooting off at odd angles that weaken the secondary branches and yield poor fruit.

Lucky for the fig humans have been pruning them for over 11,000 years.

There is a Neolithic site on the West Bank of the Jordan, a couple miles north of where Jericho has guarded palm-shaded springs since the dawn of History. The site is older than Jericho. It is called Gilgal I. In the excavation of a late Stone Age house archeologists found evidence of several genetically distinct, sterile hybrid figs. The implication is people developed strands of figs with high yields of infertile fruit. These strands could only propagate through grafting. The culture predates metallurgy; they used stone tools to prune. There are enough varieties to suggest the cultivation was deliberate. This was a thousand years before domestication of wheat or rye.

The tell at Gilgal I has traditionally been associated with the Hebrew occupation of Canaan. The story is recounted in Joshua chapter five. It’s one of the funniest stories in the Hebrew Scriptures, though I’ve never heard anyone give a homily or preach a sermon on the text.

It does show up, in the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, 4th Sunday of Lent. It’s a severely truncated version that misses the whole joke of the story. They leave out the best parts:

As the somehow ethnically-related “tribes” of Hebrew nomads moved into the hills of Canaan, so the story goes, they had been camping for forty years out in the Sinai. Popular misconception has them wandering all over hell’s half acre, but the text has them camped in two or three sites throughout much of that period. The salient point is they had not held bris in over a generation.

Since they wanted to be ritually pure when they moved in and took the homes and property of the current inhabitants they held one big bris, occupying the mohalim for hours. They threw several hundred thousand foreskins into a big pile.

This is where the folk etymology takes over. There are several places in Hebrew Scriptures called gilgal. The root gll carries connotations of circle, round, or roll. So roundish mounds acquired this label.

When the writer of this story was telling about his people coming into the land and conquering it he crafted a story about re-instituting the lost rite of circumcision, equating it with moral superiority. “This day I have rolled away (gilgal) the reproach from you!” the Deity tells Joshua, punning on rolling back the foreskin and the otherwise inexplicable round mound dominating the landscape.

That place. That’s where gardeners first cultivated that luscious pink pulp that has been blessing us with vitamins and fiber for 5000 years longer than Bishop Usher thought the whole Universe had existed. Perhaps it was the fig and not the apple—which is a fairly late addition to the story—that was the Tree of Knowledge. The Knowledge of Agriculture. The Tree of Life, that taught human beings we could control our food sources and not live at the whims of hunting and gathering.

Whichever tree it was, it was there, already cultivated in that Eden when the man of spit & dirt and his rib-cloned bookend found it necessary to sew together leaves to hide their genitals.

It was there 11,000 years later, in San Antonio, squeezed in a sleepy neighborhood off campus where my newlywed bride and I lived poor as church mice and irrationally in love.

It was Anna who told me of the tree, recognized what it was, delightedly brought some sweet specimens upstairs to our flat and persuaded me to try this strange fruit I had never previously eaten. I sunk my teeth into its fat, round bottom. The skin surrendered with a soft give. Sweet nectar exploded in my mouth, trickled down my chin, moistened my beard.

Only the first taste is free.

Anna made it clear, in the way wives have of communicating their fondest wishes without ever using actual words—or at least the words which mean the thing they want to communicate—how delighted figgy gifts would make her. I made a note. I kept my eye on those plumpening orbs of purple-green perfection. There was an art. There was a skill.

A man will do a lot for that succulent fruit—gently splitting it open, revealing the pink within, the darker flesh ringing the innermost cavity dissolving from puce to red to pink, the nectar warm and sweet past all limits of sensual perception—he will endure toil & sweat and thistle & thorn to achieve that object of his desire. (It’s a metaphor. Go with me, here.)

Two competitors raced me to harvest the luscious fruit.

Figs are favorites of our avian friends. I rarely caught them in the act, but stragglers from migratory movements or even small flocks of birds found our figs as tempting as Hawwa, mistress of Eden, did lo those many pages ago.

The birds cared not a fig for how ripe the fruit was. They ruined them before I would ever consider picking them. Nor were they content to pick one fruit and finish it. No. They were wont to sample every point where blossom had given way to the soft belly of luscious flavor squeezed beneath livid purple skin.

But a more tenacious rival for the fruit than the birds was our landlady, Miss Ola Mae. Ola Mae was old school Texan. She had inherited her attitude from the 19th Century and had never really reconciled herself to Lyndon Baines signing that Civil Rights Act. Nor Juneteenth. Nor even the Annexation of ’45.

Ola Mae was from San Antonio but lived with her husband—whom I never met—in Houston, which is a totally different culture. Houston in the early 80s was all steel and mirrors springing out of the east Texas bayous through a thick oil-money mulch. For a time it had the largest gay community per capita in the United States. And a national headquarters for one of the many splintered factions of the Ku Klux Klan.

Before I married Anna, when she was still in Virginia, I rented the flat from Ola Mae’s aged mother, a bony, gingham-clad woman with a shrunken-apple countenance. She lived in San Antonio, and managed her daughter’s properties. We never met Ola Mae before moving into the unit.

When we did she nursed an instant and intense dislike for Anna.

She liked me, though, which was odd. Because between Anna and myself I’m definitely the more obnoxious one. Ola Mae projected a matriarchal attitude: the stereotypical Southern matron. A real Rosa Coldfield. Ola Mae thought I was too young to be married. She was right, but it was none of her business.

Miss Ola Mae acted like the figs belonged to her. Technically, they did, but driving in from Houston to harvest them when I was in class and Anna was at work felt … underhanded. She never said a word about it, but sometimes I saw her looking at me, then glancing quizzically at the fig tree.

“I swear,” she’d sigh, “If this darned tree isn’t going to put out any more fruit than that I ought to have it cut out of here.”

“Give it another year,” I’d say.

And she glared at me. As if she knew I was plucking the fruit.

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Outside It’s America

A modest, unassuming house snuggles into a green hillside in a land once called Little Dixie, back when memories of that War shaped the minds of adults who remembered sitting on the knees of its vets.

In the inaugural decades of the 19th Century, Scots-Irish hill folk had pushed stock-laden wagons through fords and over muddy roads from Appalachia to these rolling wooded hills rippling outward from the Missouri. It was rich earth, good farmland, plenty of timber to construct homes and barns. And fences.

These were the latest in a long line of peasants and artisans so despairing of their lot they abandoned family and friends, home, and roots to pluck a plot of land—dangling like Hesperidean apples—from the not-quite virgin wilderness and pressed a livelihood from it. Their forebears had done so, leaving the Old World for the misty promises of a New. Their parents had done so, severing the umbilical cord to their Motherland.

Some of these hardy wagoners were fleeing property squabbles back east. Some were escaping minor warrants. Some were packing resentment that the fledgling Republic reneged on certain carrots dangled over militia enlistment for the war of independence. “Elbow room!” said Daniel Boone and these families rolling their rickety wagons through the wilderness were Boone’s spiritual cousins, escaping the scents of neighbors’ hearths wafting over the horizon. The Boone Himself, feeling constrained in Kentucky, set cornerstones down the Missouri a piece, just beyond St. Louis’ metropolitan bustle.

A succession of European kingdoms had laid claim to this expanse of the western hemisphere. First Spain, then France, then Great Britain saw the seemingly endless supply of lumber and ores and pelts as ripe for the plucking. First come, first serve. The land practically begged them to fold it into their Imperial ambitions. The fact people were already living here doesn’t seem to have bothered anyone. There are multiple and complex reasons the sudden clash of two cultures was such a disaster for one of them and no purpose is served judging the 15th Century by 21st Century standards. If humankind manages to survive that long some future culture will judge us pretty harshly.

At the dawn of the 19th Century the hill where the house sits was under the aegis of the US government. Stretching the Constitution to lengths that vexed him when Justice Marshall did it, President Jefferson bought most of the land between the Mississippi River and the Rockies: two landmarks most US citizens could barely imagine, though some in the new states west of the Blue Ridge had actually seen the former.

The collective American consciousness assembled its sense of the Westward expansion—of the fulfillment of Manifest Destiny—from a couple paragraphs in the middle of high school history books and the fanciful imaginations of Hollywood scriptwriters. Which is to say it’s mostly wrong.

The Myth is that rugged individuals, seeking a piece of land to call their own, set across the plains to stake out a homestead, braving natural obstacles, untamed beasts, and indigenous peoples. We tell ourselves a story of Here is land no one is using. I can use it. I’m not hurting anyone. Freedom. The History is more complex. Book-length complexity.

For one thing the federal government exercised much more control over westward migration than any of us remember. Pursuant to the Land Ordinance Act of 1785 surveyors platted out the lands west of the Alleghenies in townships of six miles squared making grids of thirty-six 1-square mile sections, 640 acres apiece. After the Voyage of Discovery—Lewis & Clark exploring the Louisiana Purchase—surveyors began platting land west of the Mississippi.

It was all called Missouri in those days. The Missouri Territory, the watershed of the Big Muddy.

The War of 1812 had put a hiatus on the government activities but backwoods settlers still straggled into wilderness areas where they were protected by no one but themselves. After the Battle of New Orleans, Congress fast-tracked Louisiana statehood, securing the Mississippi delta. The new state took the name of the territory and areas of the Purchase above the 33rd parallel became Missouri Territory. Surveyors drew the western edge of what would be the state of Missouri with a longitudinal line bisecting Kaw Point, where the Kansas River flows into the Missouri. The federal government opened Missouri to settlement, but at $1.25/acre owning land was out of reach for most families.

Congress admitted Missouri to the Union in 1821. Up and down the Atlantic coast potential pioneers waited to learn if the new territory would permit slavery or not. The politics of Slavery drove everything at the cusp of the 19th Century. The Union itself was a precarious house of cards balanced on the will of Southern aristocrats. To maintain a balance in the Senate they demanded one new state that sanctioned slavery for each which banned it. When Massachusetts ceded her Maine provinces as a new Free State, Congress permitted slavery in Missouri. This brought more settlers from south of Mason-Dixon. Hence Little Dixie.

Many of these families brought slaves with them. These were not the legions of slaves in fields picking cotton, not our ordinary image of antebellum slavery. In Missouri they were house slaves, maybe one or two per household. It was not uncommon to find slaveholders toiling shoulder-to-shoulder with the women and men they called servants. It was a model carried over from the hills and hollers of Appalachia. The slavery brought to Missouri had marked differences from slavery in the Deep South, though nothing mitigates involuntary servitude. There is no point where slavery becomes zippity-doo-dah “not so bad”. Missouri was the last state in the Union to outlaw slavery. Both sets of Harry Truman’s grandparents were slaveholders. That’s just a fact of history, though not one Truman had any control over.

In 1825 the government cajoled/persuaded/forced the Osage Peoples into surrendering a strip of land twenty-four miles wide along the territory’s western border from the Missouri south to the Arkansas River. In 1826 the legislature in Jefferson City established Jackson County and the Blue Country—that region where the Blue River and Little Blue River flowed into the Missouri—was opened for business.

South of where the Blue River emptied into the Missouri a cluster of cabins emerged. The currents at Kaw Point prevented steamboats proceeding up river, so for some time this was the furthest travelers could travel the Missouri before disembarking. For some, it was a good place to settle. In addition to the farmers, merchants and traders opened shop near the river landing, smiths, coopers, wainwrights. In the spring of 1827 the settlers met and adopted the name Independence. The government in Jeff City accepted Independence as county seat and it became a both a destination, a way station, and a launching point for trains of pioneers headed for the west coast or traders importing from the Spanish post at Santa Fe.

Some of the settlers arriving in Independence from western Virginia gravitated south and east to the Sni-A-Bar Township. (No one really knows what Sni-A-Bar means. There is speculation it has something to do with an early French designation for a peculiar feature of a local creek. It’s an enduring mystery hardly anyone cares about.) The house on the hill sits in Sni-A-Bar Township.

Here in Sni-A-Bar Old Man Burrus built his grist mill where the springs burbled up from a hillside en route to the Little Blue. Here Effie Harris and her boy Jessie planted the walnut and black locust saplings she had transplanted from Virginia. Here Doc Smith opened a post office and called it Blue Springs. The settlers clung to their Southern way of life, clung to their peculiar institution, and when Lincoln sent an army to arrest the Missouri legislature lest they secede, the women of Little Dixie sent husbands and sons to wield the Stars & Bars.

The house was built a century later, in the wake of a different psyche-jarring war that shaped a generation suckled on grapes of wrath to quench their dust bowl parch. The center of town had moved closer, by then, and the undulating hills were wrapped within acres of split-log fences behind stately Victorian homes. Some developer got his hands on those hills, bulldozed streets into the slopes, and put returning vets to work building homes between the roads. The entire world changed in the wake of the Second World War and we in the United States shifted unalterably from an economy 80% rural and agrarian to one where 80% clustered around urban centers working industrial, manufacturing jobs. Those jobs let young vets buy the homes on the hills, marry their high school sweethearts, raise families, and retire with pensions. It was a good time to be part of the working class.

Now the Greatest Generation is dying and their grandchildren don’t want their little pink houses.

The neighborhood is about 70 years old, now. Fewer and fewer of the original owners still live here—or anywhere for that matter. Many of the other homes are rental properties, judging by the frequency they change inhabitants. Others house couples or small families. It’s a constantly changing organism. Upwardly mobile families and those who outgrow the small houses might move into larger, newer homes and resell to a younger couple ready for a starter home. Others might hunker down as their house decays around them. A certain number are always over their heads.

On Tuesday a half-ton pickup parked in front of the house. The truck dragged a long, flatbed trailer behind it, the trailer sided with removable meshed sections of gating. It was a custom assembly, nothing from a factory, something someone had done himself or hired out to a buddy with a welding machine when he needed special equipment for a small business venture. The frame had been painted a generic bright yellow, after sections of three-inch square steel were welded to secure the gate sections. These had been painted black at one time, though it was long enough ago the black was faded and dirty and chipped. That and an LLC logo custom-painted on the truck’s door suggests the driver has been doing this a while.

“This” is removing personal property from real property sites. Acme Property Removal & Salvage. Cartoon drawing of a coyote driving off a truckload of roadrunners. There are dozens of reasons someone might abandon possessions. They are all tinged with tragedy.

For months the house has set empty. From time to time a new notice appears on the door. Foreclosure. Eviction. Posted. No trespassing. Auction, steps of the Jackson County Courthouse.

This particular afternoon couple of workers moved through the open garage into the house carrying out cribs and chairs and dryers and wardrobes and chests-of-drawers and headboards and tables, a bag of hopes, a box of dreams, and a squeaky rocking horse that seemed to quiver forever inside its new corral of faded black steel mesh as the thirty-something man and woman somberly dragged the detritus of another couple’s life and packed it on their trailer. It’s a living. Scavengers sweeping in to pick the scraps of flesh from off dead bones. There’s no more blame than there is in maggots and turkey buzzards clearing away the world’s rot. Somebody has to do it. Callin’ it your job don’t make it right, Boss.

Somebody’s got to do it. Profiting off the misery of others. It’s not like Mr. Acme sold the last homeowner a mortgage he couldn’t afford or fired him or caused the illness that cost so much he couldn’t pay his other bills. Any more than I’m forcing some campesino to sell his beans at an unsustainable price so I can enjoy a cheap cup of coffee … Everything’s connected, and there’s blood on all our hands.

I read recently about a study that determined close to half of us in the United States could not scrape together $400 in an emergency. We’ve come a long way from that worker with a high school diploma supporting a family on a single income.

Outside it’s America.

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Spring Musings

That Stumpy is kind of a bad-ass.

Stumpy is the name I call one of the neighborhood squirrels.

My neighborhood is in the Olde Town section of Blue Springs, Missouri, that spreads mostly westward from where late 19th Century residents laid out their Main Street across the fresh-laid Chicago & Alton RR tracks, where J.K. Parr built a fancy Victorian hotel overlooking the depot, where local shoguns of industry and rogue knights questing baronies built fashionable homes on lolling hillsides.

Stumpy’s neighborhood ranges between a handful of large, old-growth trees standing in seven yards at the south end of my block. When I spy him scampering between the trees I call out, “Hey, Stumpy!” and wave. Sometimes he chatters back at me.

I am the only person who calls this squirrel Stumpy. Leon may or may not know who I mean when I tell him Stumpy is up some tree we pass on the block. Leon knows more than he lets on.

I am not in the habit of naming squirrels. In the first place, what would be the point? At a distance they all look alike. Some are gray and some are a burnt sienna brown. Other than that, they’re squirrels. Like gerbils in a HabiTrail they’re fun to watch. But how can you tell them apart?

Stumpy acquired his name in the same way men once acquired names like Small, and Gray, and Armstrong: from a defining physical characteristic. The name of the species, in fact, derives from the fact it has a bushy tail. The arduous etymological path which brought us squirrel began as the ancient Greek skiouros: shadow-tailed.

Stumpy has survived some trauma. More than half his tail is missing—the entire fluffy puffiness that shadows his kind was untimely ripped away leaving the wounded creature with just a stub of tail. A stump. Stumpy.

I have been following Stumpy’s antics for close to a year.

Most squirrels die before their first birthday. (Not that they celebrate birthdays.) When long spells pass without a glimpse of him I wonder if the resident red-tailed hawk has scooped him into the sky or if one of the immigrant tabbies made the short& brutal of him.

Then I’ll spot him perched in one of his favorite spots or darting between one and another and breathe relief. “Oh, there you are! I’d been wondering where you got off to.”

We had gone weeks again without seeing each other and I had started wondering if the little fellow had fallen prey to the statistics and gone to that big nuthouse in the sky when he caught my eye from beneath the suet cakes.

He was scampering beneath it, gathering up cast-off bits of suet and seed fallen from above, scurrying under the feeder full of mixed seed hanging from a hook near the patio. Whenever another squirrel approached he reared up on his hind legs, making threatening gestures with front paws spread wide. If the other squirrel did not flee Stumpy made a quick feint in its direction and the other turned tail and ran.

That Stumpy is kind of a bad-ass. And why shouldn’t he be? He’s a survivor. Something tried to kill him and made him stronger, instead. Gave him a Name.

Lao-Tzu observed Naming is the beginning of all particular things. (Tao te Ching, Chapter 1. Stephen Mitchell’s translation.) Particular as opposed to general. But there is a deeper meaning. A mythic meaning. I have always heard this passage as signifying that point in the evolution of consciousness where human beings began perceiving themselves as separate and distinct from the rest of Nature. It is the same concept illustrated by the Creation story in Genesis where the first human named the animals he encountered as he looked for a mate.

It is a powerful act of Binding and control to give a Being a name. That’s the subject for another essay.

The noble Stumpy stands against all comers in an Amphitheatre ringed by severed limbs.

A huge maple tree dominates the landscape, its thick trunk a stately pillar at the southwest corner of the house, its canopy a dense firmament overhanging both roof and lawn. The maple drops branches with every high wind. We have plenty of winds out on the fringe of the prairie. Boreas and his mates are not at all bashful about shaking our rafters.

Last summer my stepson and a childhood chum did yeoman’s work gathering dead leaves and branches and the accumulated natural detritus of a season from the lawn, stuffing them into the back of a pickup, and driving them to the dump. As far as I know. It was a massive undertaking and I appreciated it.

The maple wasted no time replenishing its lost trove of pick-up sticks. Some land on my roof where I have to climb a ladder and clean them away. Some get wedged among the still-living limbs, catching in crooks where old, thick boughs branched off from the trunk dozens of springs ago.

Even now a huge limb balances precariously high above my house, looking like a high wind would launch it through shingles & rafters to give me a brand new tiny skylight I really don’t need. It’s wedged more securely than it looks. It’s weathered a succession of serious winter blasts. A matter of time.

The maple drops away its old dead parts and makes way for new bud and growth. There’s a lesson there. The old passes away; all things become new.

It’s the other side of the Stumpy coin. The maple loses its appendages, scars the broken spots with bark, maybe twists a new direction. Entirely natural. Some of the shedding comes through the violence of weather, but that, too, is Natural. Stumpy’s own scarred-over appendage distinguishes him as a scrappy survivor.

That’s why I like him. He’s got his scars. He’s not the biggest squirrel. He’s not the prettiest squirrel. He hasn’t got the biggest stash of seeds and nuts. But he’s a scrapper. He’s a survivor. He’s like me.

I’m kind of a bad-ass, too, sometimes.

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