Hometown haiku

Raymond Ball with a 1940 Ford

Father, when you spoke
I believed you, for you spoke
with authority.


NOTES:  In many ways, my dad was a simple man.  Farmer.  Mechanic.  Forced to drop out of high school to work during the Great Depression, he never had the opportunity go back to school to pick up his education again.

He never travelled to Europe or learned a foreign language.  He never made a lot of money, or tasted the luxuries of life.

But he knew what he thought and what he believed.  And when he talked about his beliefs, his strength of conviction came through his voice.

Often he was expressing his belief in the products of the Ford Motor Company.  He was a confirmed Ford man.  He claimed he had seen the insides of enough cars and tractors to know how each one held up, and which ones were made out of cheap materials.

He would just utter a phrase like, “The Ford Model T …” and let it hang there and resonate in the air.  He said it with such reverence that those who heard it just knew that the Ford Model T had not only been a great automobile, but a miraculous product of a genius.

He could inspire similar feelings of reverence with exclamations like, “President Abraham Lincoln,” or “Old Thomas Edison.”  You just knew these were great men.

We  didn’t have pastors or full-time clergy in our tiny little Church of Christ congregation.   The leadership was handled by laymen like himself.  When he would stand up on Sunday mornings to “wait on the communion table,” he would recite the words by heart from the King James Version of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:

“That the Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed took bread, And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take it, eat: this is my body which is broken for you.  This do in remembrance of me.”

Hearing him say it, you had no doubt that this was just the way it had happened.

Perhaps the most convincing and poignant expression of his conviction came many years later, as his wife lay in a nursing home, long lost to dementia.  “Your mother,” he said, “was the best.  I never met another women like your mother. Never.”

And you just knew it was true.

Thanksgiving haiku

clothes-pin-bag
We may have been poor
but we always had clean clothes.
Our mother made sure.


Notes:

I hadn’t seen a clothes pin bag like this is decades.  But, recently, in Sonoma of all places, in the laundry room of a little house my family had rented, I found this item from the past.  It was identical to the one my mother used all through the 1960s.

It seemed to be just another part of the retro-nostalgia vibe of the décor.  It took me back in time.  Back to that little house on East Mitchell Street, where a Missouri farm family found their slice of the American Dream.

My mother used to wash our clothes in an electric wringer washing machine that was more wash tub than machine. I’m pretty sure my dad must have proudly ordered it back in the 1950s from the Montgomery Ward catalog to make life easier for his wife, our mother.

The modern feature was the wringer that squeezed the excess water out of the clothes to speed up the line drying.

I suppose it was a big step up from the washboard down by the stream, but it still required considerable manual labor.

One day, my mother absentmindedly fed some clothes through the wringer and got her left hand caught.  I remember blood and crying and a bent wedding ring.

But, all in all, that was a minor event in the grand scheme of things.  We knew more than one farmer who had lost a whole arm in a disagreement with a stubborn corn picker.

When it became apparent that the first location of the clothesline in the back yard was interfering with the natural layout of the whiffle ball diamond, my dad relocated the clothesline, even though uprooting and transplanting the poles amounted to considerable work.

Is it my imagination, but is there nothing like the smell of clothes dried on the line in the July Missouri sun?  It’s a fragrance Proctor & Gamble can only wish they could duplicate.

Bounce just doesn’t cut it.

Poem for my first poetic champion

My first poetic champion

Ice Age

Dear gentle woman grown so early old,
You’ve all but left us on our lonesome own.
Now after many years to spirit sown,
A creeping glacier scrapes your memory cold.

You, greener days ago, recited verse,
And planted hardy seeds of simple song
That rooted deep, perennial and strong,
To flourish in the shadow of the hearse.

Today your weathered hands no longer know
The jonquil from the mum, nor how to weed.
Today you prattle on without the seed
Of sense, that for so long you toiled to grow.

So now for you I pick this small bouquet
Out of the garden patch you used to tend,
Now choked with worldly weeds from end to end,
In need of hands to cultivate its clay.


Notes:  This month, my mother would have been 105 years old.  She died nearly 30 years ago, but she began to leave us several years before that as she fell under the spell of some unnamed type of dementia.

She was my first poetic champion, instilling a love for poetry from an early age.  This poem was written back when she was still alive, but unable to communicate with us.

Mother was forced to drop out of grade school when her mother died in a flu epidemic.  She was needed at home to care for her younger brothers and sister.

Her tastes were simple and traditional, with a leaning towards folksy American poets, like James Whitcomb Riley and Eugene Field.  But she also like Robert Frost and Wordsworth.

We really only had one book of poetry in the house, a leather-bound volume entitled One Hundred and One Famous Poems, published in 1929. It contained remarkably robust collection of poems, and she read them aloud to me often.

There were selections from Shakespeare, Emerson, Poe, Kipling, Byron, Keats, and even Whitman.  In the back of the book were some bonus classics of English prose including the Gettysburg Address, the Magna Charta, the Ten Commandments, and the Declaration of Independence.

I daresay, I got a better education from that one book than I received in four years attending a semi-prestigious liberal arts college during the self-absorbed 1970s.

 

 

Hometown Haiku

The gravestone of Jim the Wonder Dog.

My town’s motto states:
“Smart dog, nice folks ….” Pretty sure
the dog, too, was nice.


 

The most famous resident of my hometown was a dog

When I moved to the central Missouri town of Marshall in the late 1950s, I was six years old.  My father had literally sold the farm and was setting out on a bold attempt to pursue the American dream by going into the farm implement business. After spending the first six years of my life on a farm in northwest part of the state, Marshall, with its 12,000-plus inhabitants, seemed like a big city to me, full of potential and possibilities. For the first time in my life I had a room of my own and indoor plumbing.

One of the first things I heard about my new hometown was that it was that it had been the home of Jim the Wonder Dog.  It had been just a little over 20 years since Jim’s death, and many of my new neighbors had seen Jim while he was alive.  Someone gave us a book about Jim, which I eagerly devoured.  We were told to be sure and visit Jim’s grave out at the end of Yerby Street at Ridge Park Cemetery.  He was the only animal buried in the human graveyard, we were told, and he deserved to be there more than a lot of the people, one added.  We visited Jim’s grave with my mother, who brought flowers, because that’s what you did when you visited cemeteries in those days.

Everyone we talked to accepted the story of Jim at face value.  To them, Jim had been a true walking miracle.  He was a dog who could understand human speech, and follow instructions to the letter.  But more than that, he knew things that humans could not possibly know.  He was not only highly intelligent.  Jim was also clairvoyant, we were told.  Jim could predict the future.  He could accurately predict the gender of babies before they were born and he knew who would win elections and sporting events.

To a six-year-old boy with an active imagination, this was a fascinating story.  But I grew up and forgot about Jim.  I went away to college, and started a career and a family, and got involved with my life.

Years later, I returned to Marshall, and I discovered that Jim was enjoying a revival of popularity.  The Viking Hotel (formerly the Ruff Hotel) just off the town square, where Jim and his owner had lived, had burned down.  A civic group had raised some money, and convinced the city fathers allow a memorial park to be created on the site.

Jim was becoming a full-fledged tourist attraction.

Then someone (bless their hearts!), persuaded the city to adopt a town motto.  It reads, and I kid you not: “Smart dog, nice folks ….”

I admire the humility and sense of humor that animated that motto.  It is in the same spirit that I wrote this little haiku.

Rustic Free Verse

My brother Larry at about the time of the events in this poem. I'm the little one.
Brother Larry and I at the time of the events in this poem.

 

Wild Geese

I heard them long before I saw them
Like a cacophony of oncoming clown cars.
Rising up out of the valley
And breaking over the Douglas firs.
The biggest formation I’d ever seen,
A magnificent wedge of geese all headed somewhere fast.
There must have been a hundred of them
Flying so low they went by just-like-that
With two hundred wings pumping urgently in unison.
And then they were gone
With just a fading honking echo left behind.

Was it a flock like that, dear brother,
That enticed you to run out of the barn door
That evening so long ago, shotgun in hand,
Thinking you might have a chance at bagging one?

Mom and I were up at the house making cookies,
And I remember hearing eerie wails and noises
Coming from the dark outside
And laughing, thinking it must be some strange animal
Making its strange animal sounds.

But when the cries went on and on
Mom got worried and went to look.
It could have been worse, you know.
You could have blown your head off,
You big klutz.
As it was, you only tripped over the threshold
And broke your elbow, which was bad enough,
So bad you couldn’t wrangle open the barnyard gate,
And so bad it made you moan like a dying beast.

But we drove you all the way to Cameron that night
To find a doctor who could set the bone.
And you got a cast and it healed up mostly,
And though you’d live another 60 years or so,
You never would be able to straighten out that arm.

You did your best to teach me how to hunt
But I never was much for killing things,
Yet … any time I hear wild geese approaching
I still run to where I can get a clear line of sight,
If only to shoot them with my eyes.

Brother John in hunting mode
All my brothers were big hunters.

Farm Life Free Verse

My paternal grandparents trying to stay cool during a brutal Missouri summer.
My paternal grandparents trying to stay cool during a brutal Missouri summer. The handwritten note says, “100 degrees in shade..”

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 following 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 Day the Call Came

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’s eldest male,
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.