Monthly Archives: July 2012

Memoir-in-progress: Stay out of the river

Welcome to part three of a four-part story from July 26-27, 1978, when my best friend, Mike, and I realized our lifelong dream to follow the creek behind his house to the Gasconade River. Look for the conclusion on Thursday. And keep the term “lifelong dream” in perspective. I wasn’t yet 15.

Our favorite spot of all was The Cave. It was really a limestone/sandstone overhang on the south-facing hill in Mike’s woods, but I never doubted that if we ever found an entrance big enough to squeeze through, we’d discover that the entire hillside was a network of caves or maybe even one enormous cavern.

We could sit comfortably under the overhang and there was just enough room for two sleeping bags side-by-side, with open air on the east and west sides. A small campfire a safe distance from our bedding illuminated the dark depression in the hill and the heat radiated off the sandstone “ceiling.” I’m not sure how we avoided carbon monoxide poisoning. We spent an entire summer selecting 2- and 3-inch diameter trees that we cut and leaned against the opening of The Cave.

Perfect camouflage.

We planned the hike to the river during one of our campouts in the cave. Based entirely on uncalculated speculation and wishful thinking, we made a list of the provisions we’d need and mapped out the journey. We figured that eight, maybe nine hours – easy – would get us to the Gasconade River. Somehow it made sense that if we had our plan written out and every possible detail checked, that would make it much easier to convince our parents to let us go.

My parents had been divorced nine months, so it was my mom’s call. Mike’s parents ran the Golden Rule Café’ on main street in Belle. His dad wouldn’t object, but his mom, Mabel, would resist. My Black Book of Great Adventures contains no written account of how we did it, and there’s nothing in my memory that I can draw on for evidence that what made sense to us apparently also made sense to our mothers.

“Stay out of the river” was the only stipulation I wrote down. Of course, it was the first condition that we broke, but at the time of negotiation, with our life-long dream of hiking to the river within our grasp, we agreed to the “stay out of the river” prohibition.

My mom would drive us to the hike-in point on  Turkey Creek on Wednesday morning, the 26th, and we’d stay at the Rollins Ferry Access until Mike’s dad, Raymond, picked us up on Saturday.

As planned, my mom drove us to the Turkey Creek bridge just after 8 a.m. She drove on to Linn where she was assistant principal at the middle school, which would begin the new school year a couple of weeks later. And so we began the trek to the river, already eliminating the long, winding stretch from the back of Mike’s house to the spot where we were starting. From the start it seemed somewhat anticlimactic, and it also seemed more difficult than it should have been. We’d never hauled that amount of stuff on a hike. No doubt we looked more like cross-country panhandlers than explorers. What didn’t fit in our backpacks we tied to our belts, looped around our necks or simply carried. Fishing equipment, hatchets, cooking utensils, food, sleeping bags, an assortment of extra clothes, rope, first aid kit – and it was blistering hot.

We followed the creek east from Highway 89 through several large farmsteads, armed with the very wrong impression that it wasn’t trespassing if you stayed in the creek or pretty close to the bank. Never mind that we climbed over fences, crawled under barbed-wire or encountered a few cows, we were on a “wild” hike through the hinterland of southern Osage County — until two hours into the hike when the creek wound right back to the highway, probably less a mile from where we started.

Tired, hot, hungry and literally weighed down, we made a joint executive decision: flag down a passing car and just get to the river. We hopped in the first car that came along and we were at the river in five minutes.

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Haunting image: Desperate for justice

This is a story that I covered on July 9, 1984, while working for the Belle Banner and the Bland Courier, sister papers of the three-newspaper Tri-County Publications. Because of the length, I’ve split this into two parts. Look for Part 2 on Wednesday.

Here’s the photo I took after police and volunteer firefighters allowed anyone else to get close to the scene.

“There’s been an explosion.”

That was the statement that I heard after the ringing phone woke me up just before 6 a.m. My publisher’s marching orders were clear: Get moving. There’s a story to cover.

In 30 years as a journalist, I’ve written more than 30,000 pieces for newspapers: photo captions, obituaries, rewriting news releases, news briefs, full-length, multi-page features, scores of articles about city council, school board, ambulance board, fire board and library board meetings, and stories about fishing derbies, homicides, chili cook-offs, fatal car crashes, floods, tornadoes … Well, you get the picture.

I’m not sure there’s any possibility I could list the Top 20 articles I’ve written, although I’ve kept fairly thorough records of my career as a scribe. Maybe someday I’ll try to make that list. But I’m sure that three events in 1984 would be on that list; perhaps even on a Top 10 list. Feb. 26-28 saw a 30-inch snowfall; less than nine weeks later, on April 29, a tornado destroyed most of a subdivision in Owensville, Mo. Those weather events – No. 2 and 3, respectively, on my Top 10 All-Time Weather Events of My Life – were personally notable because, at the time, Kelly and I were on-site caretakers for a 350-acre cattle farm off Elk Head Road in southern Gasconade County.

Long stories short: the huge snowfall caused myriad problems and they tornado first touched down in a field less than 500 feet from the old farm house that we called home. (FYI: The Flood of ’93 is the No. 1 weather event of my life).

The third big news event of 1984 was a man-made catastrophe that seemed both completely avoidable and inevitable. And six weeks to the day after Christial Veneda Branson blew up her house, she died.

Christial was 63. She worked 37 years to save enough money to pay cash for a new house. That’s how averse she was to being in debt. She refused to owe anyone. In 1980, she paid a contractor $1,200 to install a central air conditioning unit in her new $30,000 house. A divorcee, she worked for three decades at International Shoe Factory in Bland before it closed. She found work at Brown Shoe Company in Owensville and was a leather-cutter there.

Then she started getting bills from the central air unit supplier. The contractor hadn’t paid for the unit. Christial needed to pay – again.

She refused.

Christial and the A/C supplier both filed suit against the contractor, and they both won judgments, but the contractor – a guy that not even local police knew anything about – had vanished. The supplier placed a lien on Christial’s house, but she had the canceled checks to provide she’d already paid.

She consulted at least two attorneys. They both agreed that she’d paid the contractor, but they also advised her that the law required her to pay the supplier if she wanted to keep her house. The supplier offered to settle for $600. Christial could pay it off in monthly, $50 installments. Still, she refused.

The Gasconade County Sheriff eventually was forced to end the dispute by auctioning off Christial’s home to satisfy the debt. The auction was set for 1 p.m. Monday, July 9, 1984.

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Memoir in progress: Stay out of the river

Welcome to part two of a four-part story from July 27-28, 1978, when my best friend, Mike, and I realized our lifelong dream (I was not yet 15) to follow the creek behind his house to the Gasconade River. Look for Part 3 on Tuesday and the conclusion on Aug. 2.

My collection of Belle High School yearbooks from the mid-70’s to 1981 includes photos of classmates and schoolmates who never made it to graduation because they drowned. One classmate was horseback riding with her younger sister when her horse bucked, tossing her into a water-filled clay pit. The remnants of the clay pits in and around Belle were huge hills of dirt and gravel, the material removed during the extraction process to mine the clay that was used to make bricks and cement in by-gone years.

The clay piles made wonderful sledding hills and terrific fossil-hunting territory. My pal Jeff once found a trilobite fossil, making him president-for-life of our explorer’s and fossil-hunter’s club.

Besides the clay piles, what also remained from that long-dormant industry were deep, water-filled quarries, and many clay pits didn’t have safe entry points for swimming. A few adults warned me and my friends to stay clear of the deep holes, telling scary stories about deer that stepped into the water to drink, only to instantly disappear because the depth at the bank was the same as the depth in the middle – 40, 50 or even 90 feet deep. And once you were in the water, the wet clay banks were too slick for escape.


I avoided clay pits like the plague.

The other drownings that I recall or heard about all occurred in the Gasconade River, which moves a bit slower than most rivers, except that the Gasconade has a mysterious force called the “undertow,” a subsurface current that lurks near the river bottom – a force that grabs unwary swimmers, pulling them under. If the undertow stretched for miles, that’s how far away they’d find your body.

The warning was clear: no one escaped the undertow. It sounded a bit far-fetched, but some of the drowning victims from my school were athletes. Strong people.

No one escaped the undertow.

Most of my friends – in fact, I think all of my other friends – also liked to hike, splash around in the creek and even camp out under the stars, but they usually wanted to achieve some greater purpose. What was the point of the hike? What were we after? With that attitude – when the destination was more important than the journey – those friends got bored.

I never, ever got bored traipsing through the woods. And neither did Mike. I wrote about a night in August 1977, just a few days before my 14th birthday (Mike was a couple of years younger) when we stayed up all night on a clear hilltop in the forest, watching the Leonid meteor shower.

My other friends didn’t share my breathless fascination with nature and astronomical light shows. The night we watched that meteor shower, Mike and I brought a Bible and a flashlight, so we could take turns reading aloud the scriptures that mentioned stars, creation, the heavens, and the awesomeness of God. True, we were goofy nerds. But we were Christian nerds. I had other friends who would have read the Bible with me in the woods, but they wouldn’t have sat in silence for hours in the chilly night air to watch meteors and to hear owls hooting and night creatures scurrying.

I shared that connection only with Mike.

We wondered about the stars, about the deer that we could hear but couldn’t see. We watched a momma skunk waddle past with three little stinkers. We whispered about the Great-horned owl that stared at us from its perch just 20 feet away. We quietly talked about our next adventure.

We wondered what it would be like to follow the creek all the way to the river.

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A true story: Stay out of the river, Part 1

Join me for a four-part story about the summer my best friend and I realized our lifelong dream (I was not yet 15) to follow the creek behind his house to the Gasconade River.

A perfect assortment of driftwood practically begged to become a make-shift raft, and a few minutes and several feet of rope later, we had a raft. My best friend, Mike, and I weren’t exactly Tom and Huck – only one could ride on the rough, roughly four-foot-square river vessel, while the other held on to the side, floating and guiding our creation – but our sense of adventure knew no bounds.

So much for the one edict from our moms: “Just stay out of the river.”

Just stay out of the water? Right. After all, Mike and I were making our long-dreamed hike from a creek off Highway 89 in Osage County to the Rollins Ferry Access about 10 miles away – as a crow flies – on the banks of the Gasconade River. Our mothers, finally worn down from two straight summers of pleading, finally relented and reluctantly agreed to give us three days to have a hike and a campout at the river.

“Just stay out of the river.”

July 27, 1978 – From the Black Book of Great Adventures (a.k.a. the personal diary I kept as a kid) … “Our hike to the river was a success. Sort of. I’ll explain later.”

The next entry didn’t come until Aug. 30, 1978, and it referenced a separate essay, “What I did on my summer vacation,” which detailed one of the most terrifying experiences of my life.

Mike and I hiked every inch of the thick woods behind his house about a mile north of Belle, Mo., off Highway 89. One of the coolest hikes we ever took – until that trek to the river – was a route south from his house, through the woods, across a county road (and countless private properties, no doubt), to a little slice of childhood paradise we called Horseshoe Falls, on the northern border of my hometown. Horseshoe Falls was so named from the creek that spilled out from under a pile of boulders, then forked into separate arcs that formed a horseshoe.

I’m not sure who named it Horseshoe Falls. There was a tiny waterfall, a thin stream that poured off the side of a boulder before splashing onto rocks about four feet below. And I suppose the creek formed a horseshoe. I was told – again, can’t recall by whom – that aerial photos showed a horseshoe shape in the woods behind the elementary school.

I didn’t see the aerial view for myself until several years later – and still can’t swear it’s a horseshoe – but by then a lot had changed. Several locals called the creek a wet-weather stream, and yes, it was much slower and much lower during dry spells, but I knew Horseshoe Falls. I knew that it was spring-fed and I knew when a nearby farmer suddenly had a pond when he dammed the creek way upstream. There were small fish in the creek: shiner minnows, small sunfish, crawfish, tadpoles and frogs, mean water snakes and a wonderful assortment of bugs that, years later, I identified as excellent indicators of good water quality.

Horseshoe Falls was not a dry stream. At least not until the spring was dammed.

Lewis and Clark followed the Missouri River. Jodie and Mike followed the creek. How could we get lost? A U.S. Geological Survey map and microfilm details of the area – just the things a nerdy 14-year-old managed to get from the USGS office in Rolla ‑ showed that the creek that spilled through Horseshoe Falls was the same creek that ran at the bottom of a valley behind Mike’s house, about two miles from Horseshoe Falls. The stream also seemed to be connected to the larger, wider Turkey Creek that flowed under a bridge on Highway 89.

Turkey Creek snaked and meandered back toward the highway and then northeast until finally uniting with the Gasconade River.

Our creek exploring/hiking trips almost always included a pause for pondering the yearning of our hearts: Someday we should follow this creek all the way to the river.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of “Stay out of the river”

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A fine noon-time blood-letting

Ever had one of those “it’s-a-small-world” moments? My life is full of those, but few are as odd as what happened an hour ago at a Red Cross blood drive at the Columbia Daily Tribune. Co-workers Catherine Martin and Caroline Dohack raced out of the newsroom when the clock struck 11: sandwiches, cookies and other treats, all in exchange for a pint of blood.

I wasn’t far behind, though not racing by any stretch of the imagination.

Donna was the “collection specialist” who checked me in to get the blood-letting process started and when I showed her my ID, she repeated the address: 2013 Bridgewater Drive. She looked at me and announced, “I used to live there.”

Get out! What?

Sure enough, she described the huge living room, the hall leading to three bedrooms, the sliding glass door, the kitchen island — and remembered that the living room has no street- or side-facing windows.

How ’bout that?

(By the way, I had to be stuck in both arms. The right arm finally yielded a rich, red bounty of plasma-, platelet-, DNA-containing sanguine fluid. The spoils? Little slider sandwiches — one roast beef, another ham — a cold can of OJ, a cookie, another cookie, a little bag of cookies, bottle of water — and a T-shirt and an entry form for a chance to win one of six Gibson guitars. Overall, it was a fine blood-letting).


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Guest post: News that shakes my faith

JJ — The following column, posted with permission from my friend Bruce Wallace, appeared in the Wednesday, July 11, 2012, edition of the Boone County Journal. Bruce’s column was a response to the July 4 deaths of Ashland siblings Brayden and Alexandra Anderson, who were electrocuted while swimming at Lake of the Ozarks.

I have a special affinity for independent publishers of weekly newspapers. Bruce is cut from the same kind of newsprint that shaped me. And, as the scribe for southern Boone County, he is charged not only with chronicling the lives and events that shape the area’s history, but he’s also responsible for speaking into the collective hearts and minds of his community, even — and maybe especially — when words seem so inadequate.

This is all he wanted for a bio: “Bruce Wallace is the editor of the Boone County Journal in Ashland, Mo. He enjoys paddling his canoe on Missouri Rivers with his wife.”

News that shakes my faith


 I didn’t go to church on Sunday.

Sure, I should have; but to tell you the truth – I was a little upset with God last week.

OK, maybe “angry” would be a better word.

How about “outraged?”

This was no little snit. I got the worst of possible news on July 4 and I, like so many others in our community, was horrified.

“How could such a thing happen?” we asked.

“Why would Alex and Brayden be taken from us like that?”

No, this was no high school-like “I’m so mad at you I’m going to ‘Unfriend’ you Facebook fit.”

For me this was real live hostility.

Was I the only one?

Probably. It is a failing of mine. Getting truly ticked off at God is not likely the best reaction, the idea of a lightning bolt striking is humorous – but I haven’t been in the mood for humor.

I have been brought up to have strong faith in God and have been so fortunate, yet, when disaster strikes – I’m less than a strong Christian.

I can say the right words to everyone and share their grief appropriately, but when I’m all alone, I have a few choice words for Him.

The tragedy shook Southern Boone parents and youngsters to their very core last week. It is the kind of tragedy that you read about happening somewhere else. And it seems to always happen … somewhere else.

Regardless of where or how it happens, children should not be taken from us so soon.

And whom do I see about that?

Therefore – and I know it is wrong and I know my mother won’t appreciate reading this – I had some very unkind things to say to God.

Like so many through the ages, I just couldn’t help but wondering where was He when we needed Him on July 4?

And, of course, that is not the answer. Anger is not the answer.

For me, the true answer came when I saw where God really was in our community last week.

He was in the parents who organized efforts to help the Anderson family move forward, one day at a time.

He was in the voice of the mom who told me she and her sons would be working to help Garrett Anderson heal the void of losing two siblings.

He was in the grace and kindness of Mr. and Mrs. Anderson as they talked to kids at New Salem Church and tried to help them with their grief.

He was with the dozens of students who poured out their grief on a Facebook page, determined to never forget their classmate and to honor her memory.

He was in the hand of the friend I talked with at the grocery store. After exchanging a few words about our grief, that friend gave me a pat on the back and we agreed with each other that our community would be OK. It was a strong pat on the back, a hand of reassurance that I needed.

As I moved past being angry, I opened the Anglican Book of Common Prayer to these words:

“Most merciful God, whose wisdom is beyond our understanding: Graciously care for the Anderson family in their grief. Surround them with your love, that they may not be overwhelmed by their loss, but have confidence in your goodness, and strength to meet the days to come. Amen.”

What else can be said?

What we can really say is that there is no way to make any sense of all this.

I turn a few pages in the Prayer Book and read again a passage that has sustained so many:

“The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want …”

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Somebody’s 5 months old!

I’ve got a bevy of stories to share for another day, namely two water events that almost changed or ended my life forever, that occurred in July. (One in 1978, involving the Gasconade River, and the other in 1993, involving the Missouri River). One of the all-time most tragic news stories that I covered was in July 1984 in the little town of Bland, Mo.

I’ll let you know when those true tales are ready. (I also just wanted to use the word “bevy” today).

And our current heat wave of consecutive 90-plus degree days is already the fifth-longest such stretch ever. If it becomes an all-time record, which is becoming increasingly possible, it will probably crack my Top 10 Lifetime Weather Events. So I’ll keep you posted, with an eventual update on the futile effort to produce tomatoes, zucchini, cukes and other goodies in the back yard.

Those are stories for another day, because the topic of this day is granddaughter Princess Kianna!

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Baseball: my old buddy

National League 8, American League zip. Didn’t expect that, but I’ll sleep well. There was a time in the distant past when an A.L. skunking by the N.L. was cause for deep, extended grief. Back then I was an American League-only fan, despising all things National League and the Yankees.

Funny how things change. Oh, sure, I pulled for the A.L. in Tuesday night’s All-Star Game, pined for the Royals to become competitive again and pin-pointed the many places I’ve sat at Kauffman Stadium as the Fox Sports cameras panned the festive crowd. But I refuse to hate Derek Jeter even though he wears Yankee pinstripes and I cheer equally – maybe even more so – for the National League.

People I grew up with will have a jaw-dropping reaction to my confession that I’m now more a Cardinals fan than a Royals fan, but that has more to do with the passage of time and, until recently, multiple seasons of unfamiliarity with the boys in Royals blue. Those people will remember me as an avid fan of the game, splitting nearly every waking hour between watching and listening to games or playing the game.

Let’s fast-forward to present day Jodie. Here’s something most people don’t know about me: I got choked up and even a wee bit weepy during the all-star introductions; when George Brett – my No. 1, all-time favorite player – threw out the first pitch; the singing of the National Anthem. Not that long ago that reaction would have been based on some rueful rumination of days gone by, of nostalgic memories of my youth when I fell asleep to the sound of A.M. radio crackling out the play-by-play of my beloved Royals coming up short yet again in a late-night West Coast battle with the dreaded Oakland A’s.

When the A’s began to fade in the late-70s and the Yankees became the forever nemesis of my Royals, a new roster of foes to hate became part of my psyche, and one moment became ingrained into the foundation of my youth – a moment that still, to this day, fills my eyes with mist: October 14, 1976, when Chris Chambliss belted a home run off Mark Littell to lead off the bottom of the ninth in Game 5 of the American League playoffs, capping a royal Royals collapse and sending the Yankees to the World Series.

That was 36 years ago, but recalling it even now and looking at photos of the wild celebration at Yankee Stadium, I realize I’m not breathing because, just like back then, all the air has left the room. Such is the continued, perpetual power of that devastating memory.

But those weren’t the emotions that tied my eyes to the All-Star Game telecast on Tuesday. Instead of melancholy, what I had was deep, reverent appreciation for baseball as history, and as a friend that had dropped by for a short while, connecting me to that history. There was the image of Hank Aaron with Willie Mays, and I was able to appreciate seeing both of those men play at the very end of their careers. In 1973, the very first game I saw at Busch Stadium, the Cardinals hosted the New York Mets in what was part of the farewell tour for the Say Hey Kid, Willie Mays. In 1976, my brother, Robert, took me to Kansas City to see the Royals play the Milwaukee Brewers in Hank Aaron’s final season.

I can’t expect everyone to understand the emotions that well up inside me when I greet my old friend, Major League Baseball, because the history is both corporate and personal. During the height of my fanatic embrace of the game – when I was a young teenager ‑ baseball was one of the only predictable constants in my life, providing ready escape from my family’s mostly silent yet insidious dysfunction.

So there is that element of melancholy and pain, but like I said, the overriding emotions I now have are gratefulness and appreciation. So here’s my message to my old friend, Baseball:

“Thank you for being there. You got me through some of the toughest times. Your friend, Jodie.”


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Good, bad, better, best

Here’s how this works: I list something “good,” followed by something “bad,” then, recognizing that life has too many blessings to count, identify “better” and “best.” The list of four somethings may or may not be related.

Let’s begin.

Good: Started today with a good 5 mile bike ride. Bad: The central air unit was frozen this afternoon. Literally frozen. Ice on the tubing. Uh oh. Better: Lunch and afternoon get-together with our girls, Kishia (and hubby Darnell) and Natasha (and boyfriend Korey). Best: Granddaughter Kianna napping on Grandpa and Grammy’s bed, then waking up and smiling and looking for me when she hears my voice.

Good: Watering my parched plants just before sunset. Bad:Andy Griffith died yesterday.

Sheriff Andy Taylor
TV and entertainment pioneer Andy Griffith died Tuesday.

Better: Navigating the Creasy Springs roundabout on a bike creates an awesome buzz of adrenaline. Best: My nephew, Zeke, and his wife, Julie, had their first child on Monday, David Thomas Assel, weighing in at over 9 pounds. His daddy, Thomas Ezekiel, is one of my favorite people on the planet. (Just don’t tell him, ‘cause he has an inflated opinion of himself. Bazinga.)

Good: Preparing brats, chicken breast and my own on-the-grill scallop potatoes for grilling. Bad: Failure to pick up lighter fluid after the last grill-fest. I’m a briquets-only grill guy. Better: Natasha and Korey making a speedy trip to Moser’s to pick up lighter fluid. Best: Brats, chicken, potatoes were magnificent. Also grilled pineapple for the first time. Not a pineapple fan, but apparently it was okay.

Good: Two box fans and a borrowed window unit air conditioner getting the indoor temperature down to 80. At 11 p.m. Bad: Mediacom cable service. No complaints for eight months, but last four weeks or so? Grandpa’s very dissatisfied. Better: Our little dog, Bella, a Brussels griffon, is finally starting to like me. We’ve had her almost three years. Best:Spending most of Tuesday with Kelly enjoying Grandpa/Grammy time with Kianna.

Grammy and Grandpa with Princess Kianna

Good: The Fourth of July. Bad: Too much political and ideological polarization in the country. Better: Agreeing to disagree. Best: Living in the U.S. of A.

Good: Getting four free tickets to Monday night’s “Hot Summer Nights” chamber recital at Broadway Christian Church. Bad: No downside to this one. Better: Remembering Jerry Clower’s routine, “Public School Music Class.” Best: Enjoying the concert/recital/event with our friends Scott and Jane Williams.

Good: Writing a blog entry for the first time in too long. Bad: Going so long without keeping up with Jackson’s Journal, especially after building an audience with “Countdown to Kianna.” Better: Making a commitment to return to a 5-day-a-week blogging schedule. Best: Keeping that commitment.


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