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