Category Archives: Nature & Animals
Half-way through December, when it came time for me to resume my NaNoWriMo novel, to catch up on roughly 873 unread emails and blogs that I follow, and to breathe new, consistent life into Jackson’s Journal, I had a high-level meeting with myself and decided to extend my “down” time another 16 days.
Enough. I’m breaking the huddle, getting back in the game, shaking the dust off any other cliches that refer to getting the rust out of my routine. I’m pumped. In fact, I’m going to blog every single day of 2013. Or not.
First, I’m taking stock of the greatest blessing of my life. My bride (Kelly) and I did some calculating tonight and determined that since 1974, we’ve been together every single New Year’s Eve except one. Folks, that’s 38 NY Eves.
I love the story of Dec. 31, 1974. Kelly and her family and 36 other people — 41 in all — were at the green duplex in Belle, Mo., at Eighth and Shockley, a place that I prefer to remember as “Little Fenway,” on account of the house was the left field fence for the greatest Wiffle ball field ever known.
But it wasn’t wintertime Wiffle ball that drew a crowd.
It was a fish fry.
Dad was the pastor of the fledgling Faith Baptist Church, and as best I can remember, the evening started with a fine Southern Baptist tradition, the New Year’s Eve Watch-Night Service. Or maybe the evening didn’t start at the church, which was located in the former but brown recluse spider-infested Dahms Hardware Store in Main Street/Alvarado Avenue/Highway 28 in downtown Belle.
My Little Black Book of Great Adventures — aka, my childhood diary — recounts the important details, including the reference to brown recluse spider-infestation, but also the party in the house at Little Fenway. At one point earlier in the evening, someone — either my dad, Robert Thompson or Clifford McDaniel — had a wild-hair idea about having a fish fry. Robert had a freezer full of gigged Gasconade River fish and Clifford possessed the world’s all-time greatest hush puppy recipe. (It might have been the other way around; the Little Black Book of Great Adventures doesn’t provide clarification).
Someone brought a massive iron kettle and a grand fire was sparked on the bare spot normally reserved for second base. There was fish, hush puppies, drinks (absolutely non-intoxicating beverages, of course), pie, slaw, and, for the younger set, an unofficial yet also traditional activity of Southern Baptist teens and pre-teens: spin-the-bottle. (Not sure if it was this event or a future gathering where the spin-the-bottle experience came to an abrupt end when the bottle pointed to me and my sister, Kathy).
At the height of the NY Eve Fish Fry of ’74, we had 55 people in our house. At one point I retreated to my room — a chemistry lab and railroad-killed mammal dissection facility — to jot down my thoughts. I refer now to the Little Black Book of Great Adventures:
“It is 10:40 PM, Dec. 31, 1974. New Year’s Eve. It was a good year to me and I especially wan to thank God for leading me to a good year in science. He led me to all my specimens and stuff.” (Ed. note: living less than 100 feet from the Rock Island rail line also provided me an ample supply of biological diversity).
More about the year, recapping my thanks to my parents for letting me collect so much “stuff” and thanking my friends for helping me collec the “stuff.” (Ed. note: we had most of an entire but unassembled adult deer skeleton hauled into my room/lab before my mom drew a line on the amount of “stuff” I could have in my room/lab).
“I joined a taxidermy school and I have come to a greater scientific knowledge. I am going out now to join the rest of the party. There are still 41 people hear at our house.” (Ed. note: Correctly spelled “knowledge,” but misspelled “hear.”)
Now let me fast-forward three years to New Year’s Eve 1977, back in the green duplex at Eighth and Shockley after moving back from Jefferson City, where I spent THE loneliest, saddest year of my life the previous year. My year-end recap included, “In mid-October, my parents got a divorce” and my sister, Sharon, visiting from Japan where she and bro-in-law Navy man Michael were stationed, had lost her babies (twin boys). And then this: “I am very much in love with Kelly Drewel, who I’ve been going with for 13 months.”
Finally, follow me back to (or is it “forward to?”) NY Eve 2012, where I’m making the resolution to finish the novels “Dixieland” and “Chasing the Devil” in 2013, with at least one of them published by year’s end.
And then I laugh as I glance again at the Little Black Book of Great Adventures and find this:
“Lately, I’ve been writing quite a bit. In the past I’ve started a few books that I never have finished, and I’ve got several ideas for books, stories and songs. I have written about 25 stories, 15 songs and started about 5 books. It takes time to write, so I think I’ll put aside more time to write.”
And then I listed some belated resolutions for getting that done: limit television; get my homework done at school; stick with something.
The date: Feb. 8, 1978.
The more things change …
Here’s another excerpt from “Dixieland,” my National Novel Writing Month project that has reached 14,676 words. Tonight I wrote a scene that is, so far, the most difficult scene I’ve ever written. Unfortunately, that’s both a confession and a tease, because I can’t reveal that scene until the novel is finished.
I followed that challenging effort with something more light-hearted, and I have to admit that I’m having a blast making light of Sondra Ramsey’s pretentiousness. Sondra is Edna Mae Ferguson’s mother, and after Edna Mae’s hubby, Alvie, goes off to war, Edna Mae begins taking in strays. Her mother is present when the menagerie of cats and children begins.
In this excerpt, three of the children living in sharecropper shacks on the Ferguson Homestead have shown up at Edna Mae’s front door with a momma cat and two kittens. I realize I’ve referred to her mother as Sondra Ramsey AND Mrs. Ramsey. These inconsistencies will live at least until Dec. 1. (Inner editor, bound and gagged with duct tape, is going mad). Keep in mind: it’s an unedited work-in-progress. Comments, critiques, questions are not only welcomed but encouraged.
Dixieland, from Chapter 3 …
The raggedy little children kept their heads down but their eyes raised toward Mrs. Ramsey, who had called on her daughter in a in a tightly-wrapped, floor-length white dress. She wore a cream-colored hat – sort of resembled a nurse’s cap – on her head and two-inch high heels on her feet.
“I’m sure you were expecting guests, Edna Mae, because, I declare, it would be positively rude –indeed – to just show up uninvited.” She crossed her arms and looked down at the children. The momma cat was trying to get free. “Positively rude.” Mrs. Ramsey raised her eyebrows with the last “rude.”
Gertie Leeper, the middle child, finally spoke, never taking her eyes off Mrs. Ramsey.
“Miss Ellie, who is this lady?”
Edna Mae grinned to herself.
“I’m going to look at these poor felines,” she injected, completely dismissing her mother’s lesson in Southern etiquette and disarming her unapproving gaze.
“But, dear, you must give a reply to the invitation.” Mrs. Ramsey sidestepped the Leeper children and handed Edna Mae a press-printed, personally signed invitation to the Natchez Garden Club’s spring pilgrimage tour planning social. In addition to the where, when and what time neatly arranged on a pink-tinted card, it also bore the signature: “Dear Edna Mae, please come. Respectfully, Sondra (Mrs. G.E.) Ferguson.”
The momma cat jumped from the oldest child’s arms and dashed up the stairs.
“What impudence, Edna Mae. Really!”
Edna Mae just shook her head. “Really, mother? You couldn’t have just signed it, ‘Mom?’”
“Well it’s quite the social event, and requires …” Mrs. Ramsey sidestepped again to avoid stepping on a kitten. “It requires a formal request and a formal response.”
Edna Mae patted the youngest child’s head and thumbed the invitation. She gently directed the oldest child to go retrieve the momma cat.
“Well, they’ll just meddle in your bedroom, I just know it …” Mrs. Ramsey’s indignation grew. Edna Mae whispered to Gertie, “Go and help your sister find the momma cat,” again dismissing her mother’s haughty words.
“Mother, could you be a dear and help me make some lemonade for these children?” Edna Mae reached down and scooped up one of the scrawny kittens. She held its nose to her nose then handed it to the youngest Leeper lad.
Sondra Ramsey stomped her foot, barely making a “clink” with a high heel on the hardwood floor.
“Do you not detect the slightest bit of boorish, disrespectful incivility?” She stomped the other foot. “All this carrying on.” Edna Mae headed toward the kitchen.
“Come on, mother, let’s squeeze some lemons.”
“Well, I declare!” Mrs. Ramsey was shouting. “I don’t know how to tell your father how you’ve let this get so out of hand. Wild animals in the house – IN the house! – and colored children coming and going …”
In a flash, Edna Mae turned and was nose to nose with her mother.
“They are children, mother. Children.” She wanted so badly to put a finger in her mother’s face, in the same way she’d been raised. Edna Mae stepped back and Sondra Ramsey began to speak.
“Ah!” Edna Mae raised one hand, just above waist-level. “You, mother, are the only one who has crossed a line here today.”
Incidentally, I realize I’ve now made reference to “sidestepping” at least a half-dozen times. I take that as a sign that I’m not subconsciously making sure that my theme of racial tension is included in the fabric of the story. (The white folks in “Dixieland” sure do a lot of sidestepping.)
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.
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.
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.
I learned a lot this week from the tiny house wrens that are raising a brood of even tinier wrens in a backyard bird house. Funny, too, because the bird house is shaped like a cat’s head and the opening is the “mouth.”
I ate breakfast a few mornings on the patio this past week, watching the mom and dad wrens performing an almost non-stop feeding schedule for their babies that I can hear but have not yet seen. Momma Wren darts off to the north and returns with a moth. Not sure why she has to fly so far, unless maybe she’s found a moth “honey hole.” (I’ll explain more about honey holes when we go fishing someday). Daddy Wren flits away to the west and apparently doesn’t go as far as his mate, and he’s more prone to bring a variety of bugs for his hungry offspring.
Kianna, I watched the carefully orchestrated, orderly feeding, and realized the same thing is occurring in thousands – tens of thousands? – backyards, bird houses and trees all around Columbia. And that’s just house wrens. Our backyard is also a day-long feeding site for Frank and Frankie, the mourning doves that we’ve been watching since March, and a variety of finches, sparrows, red birds, robins, blue jays, chickadees and even cow birds, which your Grammy absolutely despises. There’s also a scrawny squirrel and just today a brown bunny hopped onto the patio.
Grandpa won’t be happy if the bunny helps itself to the new green beans and other garden goodies that add color and character to our beautiful back yard.
When I see all the activity of our natural world, I see a grand design and feel a deep appreciation for creation. Kianna, there are some who say (actually, a LOT who say) that the pulse of nature – the tiny birds that build intricate nests and raise their young, the proud call of the red bird, the finch family’s splash of color – is basically the result of a great cosmic accident. Some say that even the feeling of awe that sweeps over me as I watch those wrens – or the flood of emotion that comes from seeing your smile – is really just an accident, a random result of chemical reactions and biological processes.
Don’t believe it.
Someday you’ll hear about The Big Bang, the process that supposedly led to the wrens, the curious bunny rabbit, and your smile. In fact, I recently read that some scientists believe there were maybe a million billion big bangs until there was one that finally brought about creation. You will grow up in a world that is increasingly accepting of this “theory” and exceedingly mocking of those of us who dare believe that God spoke it all into existence. (As if a million billion – or even one – Big Bang is easier to “prove?”)
Someday, Kianna, you and I will have this discussion, but I’m thinking that will be a few years down the road. After all, you turn 4 months old on Friday the 15th.
Grammy and I were off work all last week. We spent a couple of days out of town and celebrated our 30th anniversary. Aside from that relaxing trip and watching the wrens, I can’t remember much else about the week except spending so much time with you. We came to your house Wednesday and Thursday while your mommy and daddy went to work. Then you came to our house Saturday night while your proud parents went on a date.
Grammy and I were with you maybe a little more than 16 hours, but it seemed like much, much longer. You know why? Time stands still when we’re with you. And something else I noticed. At first I thought that you couldn’t keep your eyes off me. Then I realized it’s actually the other way around. The reason I see you following me with your eyes is because I don’t take my eyes off YOU.
Kianna, you are a smart and beautiful little girl: Brown eyes that literally sparkle, a smile that fills everything in the room with joy, and skin that is as smooth and sweet as butter cream and cocoa.
When Grammy and I talked today about all that we did during our week off together, we laughed and talked about you. When we talked about what our work schedules looked like for the coming week, we still talked about you.
Yep, we’re crazy about our granddaughter.