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Desperate for justice: conclusion

This is the conclusion of 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. (Part 1 appeared on Monday).

Police, neighbors and a distant relative put together the following narrative: Seven hours before the auction was scheduled to begin, Christial – who actually went by her middle name, Veneda ‑ dumped 30 gallons of gasoline and 30 quarts of motor oil throughout her wood frame house. The tinder box that was once her paid-in-full haven included piles of old newspapers, a cord of wood, some old tires and $30 worth of fireworks. She was apparently sitting in a recliner in the living room at 5:30 a.m. when she struck the match.

 

The explosion immediately flattened the house, blew out windows at Bland High School just a block away and dozens of other windows through the little town of about 600 people. The explosion blew Veneda right out of the house. A step-cousin raced to the scene and found Veneda – conscious but badly burned and incoherent – laying on the side of the road. An ambulance took her to the University of Missouri hospital in Columbia (called the MU Medical Center back then).

Local police got a call from the Bland Post Office at 8:30 a.m. Someone found a letter taped to the wall inside the lobby, along with copies of the canceled and endorsed check that Veneda had written to the contractor, the signed agreement with the contractor, and the legal notice of the sheriff’s auction. The next day a duplicate of the letter arrived at the Gasconade County Republican, the 3,500-circulation weekly newspaper in Owensville where, incidentally, I would go to work in April the following year.

There’s really no way to end this story on a positive note, although the lien laws were changed a year later to provide greater protection for homeowners.

The image of the smoldering ruins of the house is still haunting. And so are the words of her letter:

“The hassle of living just isn’t worth it anymore. Nothing is worth living for. I can’t have anything no matter how hard I work I work for it and somebody else enjoys it … Just because there is a crooked law on the books for you to hide behind to win the easy way, you don’t any of you care about justice. I am a woman alone with no knowledge of the stupid laws. So that leaves me helpless in their hands.

 “I can’t have anything no matter how hard I work … But this is the time I’m not going to hand it over. I’ll burn all and go in the fire myself. Then you bastards can sift the ashes or look elsewhere for the money you want. I signed a contract and I honored it. I paid once for what I got. I don’t intend to pay again … This house and car is all I have to show for 44 years of work. I can’t enjoy it and I don’t intend anyone else shall.”

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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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Birthday girl! Natasha turns 25 today …

Grace.

That’s the one word I think of when I think of my family: Kelly, Kishia and Natasha. Next to my saved soul, the three most powerful, visible signs of grace in my life are my girls.

Kishia turned 27 on Feb. 26, just 11 days after giving birth to Kianna. Natasha hits the quarter-century mark today. Putting together a photo montage of Natasha verified a few things I already knew — it’s hard to find a picture of her without an animal somewhere in the frame, without a musical instrument, without a smile … and with her mouth closed. It’s true.

Here’s a short stream of consciousness describing our youngest daughter …

Pure; laughter; Fiji. The Music of the Night, Veggie Tales and cello. (And Mrs. Manulik said you’d never do anything with that cello. Hah!) Then Sings My Soul! “I just called to say hi, I’m on my way to class, and … oh, look, SQUIRREL!” How Great Is Our God. Cameroon, Nutella, Cindy Lou, and Kory; The Application Trail; Short Bus (the name of her car); guitar, drums, bass and piano; Sweet Hour of Prayer; Sweet Pea; The Boys; brand-new niece Kianna! Butterfly. Sister, daughter … friend. Soul-winner. Destined for the mission field, very likely a long, long way from her mom and dad. Campus Crusade. Tapped into Living Water. More laughter. Endless music, eternal sense of wonder and awe, and always ready to eat Double Stuff Oreos at midnight with her dad.

Love you, Tash. 

The following is from my sports column, “Sports of Sorts,” in the Wednesday, March 11, 1992, edition of the Gasconade County Republican:

“My littlest girl, Natasha, who will be 5 on Friday (the 13th), was stuffing herself with spaghetti Sunday evening when my wife warned her not to take such big bites.

“‘Don’t worry, Mommy,’ she reassured, mumbling with a mouthful of noodles and sauce. ‘I’ve got a pretty big mouth.’

Just like her Daddy.”

Happy birthday, Pokey.

 

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The written record, etched in time

Countdown to Kianna

Eighteen days, 17, 16, 15, 14 — two weeks until Feb. 19, the date that Kianna Allene Brown is set to arrive.

Kelly — Grammy — finished sewing two mattress covers for Baby Kianna on Saturday, so it’s time. After we attend church with Kishia and Darnell this morning at One in Christ Baptist Church in Jefferson City, maybe we can have a little lunch and then drive to Boone Hospital to get little Kianna delivered.

Sure. Good plan.

The written record(s)

I love my job as a news reporter for the Columbia Daily Tribune. Thirty years ago when I started in this profession, I reacted to my byline with a reaction of, “How cool! My name’s in the paper. I wrote that article.”

The ego-boosting property of one or more daily bylines isn’t what it used to be, but I’m still amazed that I get to go to work every day as a reporter. I barely have two years of college on my resume’ and it’s that lack of formal education, among other things, that often leaves me feeling like I don’t belong. I still smile almost every time I walk through the Tribune doors. I can’t believe I get to make a living doing what I hoped I’d be doing when I was 13.

Before that I was planning to attend college at Arizona State University – probably on a baseball scholarship (of course) – and pursue the love of the first decade and three years of my life: Reptiles. ASU is the college Reggie Jackson attended before embarking on a Hall of Fame baseball career, but more than that, ASU at the time had the nation’s preeminent herpetology program.

Seriously. I was sure I was born to be a herpetologist – a reptile scientist. (Not “reptilian” scientist, like the aliens in “V.” But that would have been cool, too). I’d probably specialize in snakes and lizards. Besides, I was already on my way to “expert” status with all the snakes and/or lizards I’d already captured, studied, fed and been bitten by.

Eventually, though, I realized there was one problem.

Math.

The prerequisites for admission to the Arizona State herpetology program included all the advanced math and science that was available on the planet, which meant that most of those courses weren’t available at Maries County R-2 High School in Belle, Mo. I was a “B” student in algebra 1 and 2, and geometry, but I had to absolutely bust my hump to get that grade.

Nothing else in high school – with the exception of my principal – gave me as much grief as math. Time for trig and calculus?

See ya.

And that’s basically how I ended up a journalist. I figured I wouldn’t need advanced math for this profession and – sorry, Mr. Fann – I was right. Anyway, it worked out pretty well. Not that many jobs out there for herpetologists, I suppose.

Last night I shuffled through a Rubbermaid tub of old newspapers and clips with my byline. I’ve been a reporter, stringer, sports writer or editor for: The Belle Banner (my hometown newspaper, including sister papers The Bland Courier and the Maries County Gazette-Advisor in Vienna); The Muleskinner (campus paper at Central Missouri State University in Warrensburg); the Gasconade County Republican weekly newspaper in Owensville; the Post-Tribune and Daily Capital News, evening and morning editions of the Jefferson City News Tribune; South Callaway Courier weekly newspaper in Holts Summit, which eventually became the twice-weekly Callaway Courier and then the daily Callaway Courier, and then back to the weekly Courier – mostly with a three-person staff; the Fulton Sun; Hannibal Courier-Post; Mexico Ledger; Quincy Herald-Whig; California Democrat; Centralia Fireside Guard; my own Northern Boone County Bullseye, which published 202 editions before “expiring” in September 2008; and the Columbia Daily Tribune. Countless bylines attached to articles picked up by The Associated Press have appeared from coast to coast.

That makes me almost laugh out loud with glee. I can’t believe I’ve been able to do this for a living. It makes me think of the Seinfeld episode where Kramer is mistaken for an employee at a big company until finally he writes a business report and the boss says something like, “This stinks. It’s as if you have no business training at all.”

I keep waiting for someone (besides an angry reader) to tell me that.

Grandpa’s message to Kianna #23

The birds have been singing a little more loudly the past few mornings. I keep bird seed available in a couple of feeders, one of which gets raided by the squirrels. I can’t wait for you to discover things like squirrels and birds and earthworms and crickets and the hidden world of creatures that lives in the grass in your own backyard.

We’ll look through a telescope into the cosmos. We’ll grow our own paramecium and look at them under a microscope.

There’s so much to hear, see, feel, taste and smell. (Note to Grandpa: there’s another story entirely about “smell.” Maybe later. Right, Kishia?)

It’s gonna be GREAT!

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Countdown to Kianna: Lullabye

Countdown to Kianna: 38, 37, 36 days …

I got fired from my job as editor of my hometown newspaper, The Belle Banner, just a few days after Kishia was born in 1985. It was a blessing in disguise, though, because a week before she turned 2-months-old, the Gasconade County Republican in Owensville hired me as sports editor. I quit college before earning a degree, but the education I got in seven years at The Republican was phenomenal.

Kelly was a stay-at-home mom for a couple of years and Kishia was the center of our universe. This morning when Kishia stopped by to print off an online gift certificate for a baby shower she was headed to, I kissed the top of her head. I didn’t linger, so my tears didn’t fall on her hair. But that scent and the obvious sign of her being eight months pregnant simply flooded my entire being with emotion.

My little girl, my first-born, just a few weeks (maybe days?) away from delivering her first-born, her little girl: Kianna. Our first grandchild. I honestly don’t think about anything else right now.

And I think back to the evenings when I came home from The Republican, sometimes to leave again to go cover a football, basketball or volleyball game. I always tried to get bath-time duties to sign with, wash and talk to beautiful little Kishia. She grew up fast — way too fast — and was 6 months old when our little dog, Buffy, playfully nipped her. Kishia was astonished and announced, “Buppy bit me.”

Talking at 6 months old. And she never crawled. In fact, her first steps, at 9 months, were more like first sprints. She was a fun, fun and expressive baby/toddler.

My play time and dad time was in the evening, with bath time, more play time and a wonderful bedtime ritual that had locks of rocking in the Bentwood rocker, reading (very fond of Dr. Seuss) and then lights out and our song. Sometimes there were deviations in the bedtime ritual — maybe a different book, and eventually a bedside prayer — but the song was the same. Always.

Don Francisco’s “Lullabye.” Don Francisco’s music is probably not at the top of the list for most people, but it has resonated in my heart and lifted my spirit for years. He takes Bible stories — many of them obscure or certainly not as popular as most — and turns them into ballads that can pierce or comfort the coldest of hearts. His songs are arrows of grace that are real, not preachy.

“Lullabye” is short and simple, and something even a toddler can sing. Here are the lyrics.

(You Tube audio here: http://youtu.be/238jV2AzWxM)

Lullabye, by Don Francisco …

Darkness covers all the land — sounds of day are gone;
But love is all around you now and will be ’till the dawn.

Stars shine on the window sill, the moon shines through the trees;
Angels by your bed tonight — shine where no one sees.

So there’s no need to be afraid — all the whole night through.
‘Cause God has made a promise child, that He’ll take care of you.

Stars shine on the window sill, the moon shines through the trees;
Angels by your bed tonight — shine where no one sees.

All that you’ve been dreamin’ of — awaits you when you rise;
So with the peace that Jesus brings — close your sleepy eyes.

Stars shine on the window sill, the moon shines through the trees;
Angels by your bed tonight — shine where no one sees.

All that you’ve been dreamin’ of — awaits you when you rise;
So with the peace that Jesus brings — close your sleepy eyes.

There you have it.

If I live a thousand years I’ll never forget the best way for that song to end: Before the final line began, with the house full of peace and quiet, Kishia raised her head from my chest and looked into my eyes, her bed-time breath the sweetest scent ever created. And we’d sing the final line — maybe in total darkness, maybe with star light on our faces — and look into each others’ eyes.

“So with the peace that Jesus brings, close your sleepy eyes.” Before the final note disappeared into the night, Kishia added, “Love you Daddy,” still looking into my eyes.

I’d ask you to pardon my tears right now, but I think you understand a little better now.

Grandpa’s message to Kianna, #3:

If I ever manage to wrestle you out of your mom and dad’s arms, I’ll do my best to send you off to sleep with “Lullabye.” Maybe you’ll learn it, too?

In the meantime, I’ll change the words just a bit, and it won’t rhyme, but here goes, my sweet Kianna:

“All that you are dreamin’ of … awaits you when you’re born;
So with the peace that Jesus brings … close your sleepy eyes.”

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