No way we could know
at this playful reunion,
it would be our last.
Notes: While there may be a later photo of my brothers and I all together, I do not know of it. Less than four years after this shot, Bill (third from the bottom) would perish in a scuba diving accident in San Diego bay.
John (second from the bottom) was an electrician who would touch the wrong wire in a Colorado coal mine many years later.
Larry (at the bottom) would die after a stroke in 2010.
The day the call came
We had just dished up the ice cream.
A special treat for a Friday farm dinner,
(Not to be confused with supper.)
Mother had made it early that morning in ice cube trays.
“Freezer ice cream,” she called it,
Vanilla, made with Junket tablets to keep it creamy,
Even as it froze.
Not as good as the real, homemade ice cream cranked by hand,
But a whole lot easier.
And America was just starting its long affair with convenience.
The call came over the telephone
Mounted on the farmhouse wall.
With two bells for eyes,
You spoke into its honking, beaklike nose.
The earpiece cradled appropriately
Where the right ear should be,
While a hand crank made a poor excuse
For a drooping left ear.
It was a party line,
So the snoopy widow woman down the road
Knew as soon as we did.
The call came, and the man on the phone
Said Grandpa had just keeled over dead
At the auction over in Poosey.
So, we all got up—Mom, Dad, Big Brother and me,
And climbed into the ’50 Ford sedan
Dad was so proud to own.
The first car he’d ever bought brand new.
By the time we got to the auction –
It was a farm sale, really —
Where the worldly possessions of one farm family
Were being sold off.
One at a time.
By the hypnotically fast-talking auctioneer.
Not as depressing as the foreclosure sales
That were all too common
Just a few years before in the Depression.
This was a voluntary sale,
But a little sad nonetheless.
Some farmer was getting too old to run the place,
And didn’t have kids—or leastwise kids who wanted to farm.
A lot of boys joined the service in those days,
Or headed to Kansas City to find work, and a little excitement,
Rather than stay and try to coax a living
Out of that hilly, rocky dirt.
The man at the auction told us
Grandpa had been standing there in the sun with everybody else.
They were just about to start the bidding on the John Deere hay rake
When he grabbed his chest and fell right over.
Years later, they told me when he was a grown man
Grandpa had gone down to the river,
And been baptized, and filled with the Holy Ghost,
With the evidence of no longer speaking in profane tongues.
For, it was well known Grandpa had been gifted
In the art of colorful language.
“He used to could cuss by note,” was how Mother put it.
But after the washing with water and the Word,
Grandpa was never heard to swear again.
I only knew him as a white-haired old man
With a merry smile, and infinite patience
With Grandma, who required it.
And that was it, really.
Nothing more to say,
Except for the understated condolences
Of the country folk.
Nothing more to do,
Except for my father,
Now lately promoted to the role of the family elder,
Who assumed the duties and made the necessary arrangements.
Although I didn’t know quite what had happened,
I felt a lurch … as something shifted beneath me …
And I was yanked one more notch forward.
By the time we got back to the house,
The ice cream had long since melted
And now was returning back to solid state,
As it curdled in the September heat.
NOTES: I got the news this week that a friend’s grandfather had passed away. This death was expected, and from all reports, merciful in coming. But there is still grieving to be done and respects to be paid. You can be happy your loved one is no longer suffering, but terribly sad that they’re gone.
This all got me thinking about my own grandfather, and day close to 60 years ago, and a bit of a poem I wrote about that day as best as I could recall it. It seemed fitting to haul this out of the vault, dust it off and publish it again.
Back in the 1950s on the farm, we didn’t have air conditioning. Shoot, we had just gotten electricity a few years before.
So when the long Missouri summers dragged on and the humidity rose, folks headed outdoors to keep cool. When the nights were really hot, we’d sleep outdoors.
The poem is about a day pretty much like the one documented in this photo. In fact, the events took place not too many days after this photo was shot.
The old hometown seems
smaller than I remember.
Once, it was magic.
For Van Morrison, it was Cyprus Avenue in his hometown of Belfast. The fancy, tree-lined street where the upper class lived. Where a working-class boy went to dream and catch glimpses of aspirational girlfriends.
In my hometown, that street was Eastwood. It was a shady, tree-lined street with what passed for mansions in my little Missouri farm town of Marshall. And there here were even a couple honest-to-Pete mansions among them. Reminders of old money abounded.
To a Johnny-come-lately, working-class kid like myself, it seemed like the coolest place on earth. I lived on the other side of town. Not in the poorest section, but definitely in a different layer. My house was brand new, but it was a plain 1950s ranch house. Utilitarian and homely. Decorated in the finest Late Depression.
At first I didn’t have any friends among the Eastwood society. Unattainable, I thought. But when all of the grade school kids graduated to junior high, we were suddenly thrown together.
I became buddies with an Eastwood kid, Clyde, who, while he didn’t live right on Eastwood, lived close enough — a long block off of it.
His home was a demonstration of exquisite interior decorating, and his family a wonder of graciousness and hospitality. I felt lucky to have such a cool friend.
We played football, we raced slot cars, and talked about our growing interest in girls. I heard Sgt. Pepper’sfor the first time in his basement.
When my cat didn’t come home and was eventually found struck to death by a car, I went to Clyde’s to play basketball. I played so furiously that I eventually egged him into our only physical fight.
Because that’s how 12 year old boys grieve.
In those days of flower power and Vietnam, we did find ways to wage a few political protests, and fight against what we saw was hidebound traditions at our high school.
We eventually began to drift our separate ways, spending more time with girls than with our old guy friends.
One evening, late in our high school years, we sat around a campfire out at the park, vaguely aware that our sheltered years in our old hometown were drawing to a close. Our oh-so-enlightened conversation including a one-through-10 ranking of our female classmates.
If I remember, we did try to maintain a sense of irony about it.
The photo atop this little poem is a recent shot of Clyde’s old house.