I’ve read dozens of autobiographies. Most are bad. A few stand out: 1) John Huston’s amazed me because it said absolutely nothing of value in 444 pages; and, 2) Eddy Rickenbacker’s, who survived being lost at sea for twenty-four days when a seagull landed on his head.
He caught it, disemboweled the poor beast, and used the guts for fish bait.
People would be bored to death with a play-by-play droning of insignificant details, I reckon.
My Earliest Memory
Brilliant sunshine, a universe of suns reflected in limitless swirling flakes. Booted black feet churn knee-deep snow, short legs writhing, body staggering up the slow incline of Mill Road on the south edge of Sheffield, Illinois, a tiny speck of a coal town centered on the ocean-wide prairie.
A black-gloved hand sits in Aunt JoAnn’s tan leather mitt, and as I lift my head to look at her, the forty-month-old brain dances with sensory input, yellow sun sitting on her shoulder opposite her dark auburn head.
Yin and yang, though I have no words for any of this.
I trudge uphill wrapped tightly in a brown Michelin Man snow suit, mimicking the wandering geezer I will become, legs thrashing initial steps into the expansive life-experience ahead.
On the Farm
The winter walk up Mill Road is my only memory of town life as my folks – Darrell Eugene and Kaye Cogger Scott – soon moved a quarter mile northwest of their little green house on the south edge of town due to a work disruption.
Unfortunately, Dad’s friend and employer, Jack Weber, came down with polio, rampant in the 1950s.
Jack spent the rest of his life in a wheel chair creating spectacular artwork: clocks, shotguns, sport rifles, pottery, paintings, decoys, furniture. Fought the Yin deliberately while squeezing out some precious Yang. Showed little boys the concept of choice without saying a word.
Jack’s Chicago family owned the local brick and cement plant – their Second City factories beside the stockyards are described poignantly at the beginning of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle — and Dad hauled and finished cement for several years until Jack became disabled.
Beyond this dump there stood a great brickyard, with smoking chimneys. First they took out the soil to make bricks, and then they filled it up again with garbage, which seemed to Jurgis and Ona a felicitous arrangement, characteristic of an enterprising country like America. A little way beyond was another great hole, which they had emptied and not yet filled up. This held water, and all summer it stood there, with the near-by soil draining into it, festering and stewing in the sun; and then, when winter came, somebody cut the ice on it, and sold it to the people of the city. This, too, seemed to the newcomers an economical arrangement; for they did not read the newspapers, and their heads were not full of troublesome thoughts about “germs.” The Jungle
The farm next to the factory supplied the clay for bricks, but there were one-hundred-sixty acres of tillable land, ninety acres of timber, and an old house to boot so they negotiated a 50/50 deal and my parents tenant farmed for the next twenty-two years.
The old shack of a house – early pictures reflect Steinbeck Oakies sprawled on wooden steps, back-dropped by peeling stucco, chickens milling in the foreground – absorbed ten thousand stories mustered around its kitchen table.
The house I remember from those days (1960-1982) was originally a weigh-station in the middle of a coal yard beside the Village of Sheffield, whose name is on the title of Sheffield Mining and Transportation Company.
A hundred years later, Mr. Peabody’s coal train done hauled it away in giant green Euclid trucks (1950’s-60’s), tires rising six feet off the ground, Star Wars-like contraptions widening my elementary-school eyes as they zipped down gravel service roads like futuristic drones laden with stardust.
Another early memory involves a wandering hike across the working strip mine west of the farm, a 30,000 acre wasteland that became dirt bike heaven later on. I don’t remember being alone or with someone, but I walked over this mounded hill of dirt to eyeball the spectacle of the [supposedly] world’s largest shovel, strewn with drag-line lights and burying rich black invaluable topsoil two hundred feet under rocky clay in search of sulfurous coal. Here’s a similar brute for perspective.
Euclids scurried around it like green pissants toting scraps from a monstrous picnic basket.
Our farmhouse, heated with coal, required a stoker man to fill the stoker (a metal box with a rotating chain at the bottom that slowly dragged coal into the furnace) where it burned and congealed into nasty amorphous brown clinkers — hunks of molten coal remains that I spread onto the driveway for extra traction in the winter, extra road rash in the summer when we spilled our bicycles or motorcycles – a job I carried until graduating from high school.
Dad knew enough carpentry that he refurbished the old shack over the years, reworking most of the inside (people notoriously neglected the outside of their homes in Illinois, and some still do today, as it negatively affects property tax), planting fruit trees, raising a quarter-acre garden where I loved to graze, and fixing the barns before moving back to town in the early 80’s, next door to their original little green house. Upgraded, the farm, barns, and adjoining house and yard were beautiful.
But it wasn’t theirs — and when the Weber family sold the brickyard — my parents moved back to town. Mom was in the middle of her teaching career, and Dad found a job on the Hennepin Canal after he became a registered Republican, a desperate act after two years of looking for sustenance, but one that earned immediate results.
He hoped they didn’t follow him into the ballot booth.
The Midwest was a snowy place in the 1960’s, ice storms frequenting our winters, the cracks of breaking branches sounding from the woods. One year we were able to jump on our sleds off the back porch and schuss all the way to the creek on the foot trail, a quarter mile of slow descent on pure ice, so we’d walk back through the crusty snow in the corn field.
A third memory stands out: I’m young, maybe eight, sitting in the winter woods next to Coal Creek east of the barns, and the sun pops out of the dark grey clouds, beaming through surrounding trees – every branch and twig holding a quarter-inch of ice.
The kaleidoscopic effect is well-beyond words to describe, but it was the first time God reached out silently to say:
“This is who I am”.
Indescribably light and beauty.
Twenty years ago I was talking to Matthew Haemsch, the grandson of Margaret Haemsch, our neighbor. Margaret was one of the first truly professional women in Johnson City, a bank director, then widowed, but her son Buddy and daughter-in-law Charlotte visited often from Chattanooga, bringing their son Matthew, a year younger than our Andrew.
Around the age of five Matthew developed pain in his abdomen, which worsened over time. When cancer was finally discovered, it had spread throughout his body. After two years of painful treatments, his church assembled to pray in wholehearted effort.
At his darkest hour, physicians in California called with an experimental treatment Matthew could attempt for free.
Despite the need for hearing aids and a lost kidney due to radiation, he’s now a prosperous adult with a ton of energy, playing rounds of golf each week for fitness. One day he was over at the house talking to Andrew, and I asked about his time in the hospital.
Did you ever talk to Jesus? I asked, thinking about those darkest of days Matthew suffered.
Oh, yeah, he said.
What’s he look like?
Much more Jewish than in the paintings, but there’s a whole lot more light around Him, said Matthew.
The light is what you’re left with, what you remember most, he said.
Gabriel García Márquez, author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, leveraged a wonderful literary technique – some say it’s a genre now – called magical realism. His grandmother used to tell him stories that mixed “fabulous realities” with ordinary events, which he believed was normal. There’s a character in the novel who’s constantly followed by clouds of butterflies, for example.
Which is the kind of childhood I experienced, not so much because of my beautiful grandmother — who did tell me shocking tales of Indian massacres at her native Spirit Lake, Iowa — but because my everyday experience was full of Euclids, Snake Women, broken-wiener-hogs, squirrel hogs, paper-wall-penis-holes, radioactive mine shafts, prescient border collies, and more … so I quickly fell in love with Garcia’s worlds.
I’ve shared and some of these fabulous realities with friends, and they’ve admitted their own, but we don’t talk about it. We just exchange a certain look.
Pleasantville must be maintained at all costs.
For example, a friend spent the day with his mom and two siblings swimming at the local country club. On the way home, a flying saucer hovered, followed them a while, then took off. Everyone in the car was aghast. When they arrived home, my buddy asked:
“Mom, what did you think of that flying saucer?”
“What flying saucer?” she replied.
The farm held long underground mine shafts – the town and nearby fields were undermined in the 1860’s while the priceless loam west of the farm was strip-mined in the 1950’s-60’s – running parallel east-west to its surface, thirty-to-forty feet below, and sometimes filled with groundwater.
Normally, the mineshafts affected neither tillage, planting, nor harvest.
But one extremely dry fall, ears of corn fell to the ground at the slightest touch of the combine, so we fenced in the fields and turned out our herd of hogs to vacuum up the lost bushels.
All worked well until we rounded them up the following spring.
One was missing.
“Maybe it grew wings,” said Jim.
Two weeks later, Dad was pulling a disk in the field south of the house, and our border-collie Princess ran underneath the tractor, so he slammed the brakes.
This wasn’t the first time she’d done that.
A couple of years earlier, he stopped when she’d run under the tractor and wouldn’t move. So he carried her off. But she kept running back under the diesel.
Angry, he tried to force her from the field, but she snapped at him, highly unusual. As they wrestled, a giant black cloud formed and soon hail nearly beat them bloody before they found shelter.
So this time, he expected weather.
When it didn’t come, he took a short walk in front of the tractor and discovered a thirty-foot-diameter hole dropping twenty feet to the darkness below. Without Princess sounding the alarm, the sharpened disk would have followed Dad and the tractor down into the mine shaft.
After peering into the hole and giving his eyes time to dilate, Dad spied the missing hog, a sow standing next to pooled water, sustaining her. So we looped a hog chain around her chest and used a hydraulic bucket on the front of another tractor to pull her out.
Six feet long and ten inches wide – her body fat vanished during five months of solitary confinement – she danced and sprang around more like a squirrel jumping out of her nest on the first day of spring than a hog sprung from a hole. Shaped like a gigantic hot dog, she healed slowly in a special stall as we coaxed her back to health with tiny portions slowly building to sow size servings, and she eventually rejoined the herd and bred more squealers.
Sitting in the local tavern enjoying a beer a month later, Dad chatted with a stranger seated next to him.
“Did you hear about that farmer west of town?” he asked.
“What happened?” asked Dad.
“He found one of his sows down in an exposed coal mine shaft. That sow sported a litter of twelve pigs, and they were old enough to castrate!”
Here’s the Stephen King kicker.
At the end of that mine shaft, a half-mile southwest of the farm, lay a nuclear dump site. One of my brother’s early jobs – at the age of sixteen – was burying nuclear waste with a D-6 Caterpillar.
You can’t make that up.
The buried nuclear waste underneath Sheffield’s “US Ecology” site originated at Argonne National Laboratory in Lamont, Illinois (near Chicago), a two hour drive east on I-80. This “low level” nuke waste was supposedly composed of lab clothes, accouterments, and laboratory junk.
That’s what we’d been told, of course. Along with the premise that this wonderful nuclear waste dump site would host dozens of shiny new jobs.
In reality, my sixteen-year-old brother and a couple of grown flunkies comprised the only living humans out there.
One day Jim came home early, right after lunch.
“What’s up?” we asked.
“I was sitting on the Cat, waiting for the next load to show up, and when I saw the puff of dust rise as the semi left the state highway and hit the gravel service road, my Geiger counter went off,” he said.
“Sounded like a tomcat with his balls caught in a barbed wire fence.”
“Well, you ain’t going back,” said Dad, who often made extra cash by hauling containers from Argonne to Sheffield. Once he asked an official what happens when a nuclear waste container truck turns over.
“There will be several hundred folk wearing HAZMAT suits on the scene scrubbing a four-acre periphery with cleaning fluid and tooth brushes,” he said.
Looking back, I can see that protagonist sow wandering down the mine, soaking up radiation all the way, transforming into the antagonistic pig, morphing into Super Sow, growing to Godzilla proportions, devouring poor Sheffield in a couple of evil chomps. Only Euclids stuffed with TNT and aimed at her ferocious jowls can stop her now.
Pets were legion, but since we lived next to State Route 34, their high death rate narrows my memory to two: Princess, and a large tomcat called No Ears due to losing the fleshy parts to frostbite.
And the only time my butt experienced the hot leather belt was the day I drove my motorized go-cart down that highway. A victim of past parental physical abuse – my alcoholic grandfather didn’t often practice restraint – Dad loathed to spank. This time it was justified.
But he actually cried much more than I did, the cliché budding out in this case.
Three years younger, Jim countered my constant bullying (introducing him to his first lung full of ammonia straight out of the bottle, running over him and his bicycle with my go cart, putting him on the back of a 300 pound sow, slapping her butt and laughing as she dumped him in a pond of brown half-liquid manure) by throwing a piece of broken tile – the brickyard produced tile and there were broken pieces all around – into the back of my head as I stood a few feet in front of him, unaware.
The tile stuck.
To this day, the hole where it entered is a soft spot in my skull, and future embolisms may give testimony to a bully’s fate.
Not that we didn’t love each other. This was a male thing, a Darwin thing, we hadn’t set limits yet. He complained about it once, and then I asked him how he treated the younger kids in the neighborhood.
“Oops!” he said, and never brought it up again.
We were pretty close over the years, a few nasty spats aside, and enjoyed a week together in Sheffield visiting family upon the tragic death of our Uncle Bill, a novel in itself.
Probably starting atop the D-6 Caterpillar, Jim was a two-pack-a-day Camel smoker you could synchronize a watch by: on one interstate drive I timed him flicking a Bic exactly twenty minutes from the last stub out. For eight-hundred-miles. If you stayed overnight at his place, he’d spook you in the middle of the night, sitting in the dark smoking a cigarette at 3 AM while you stumbled past heading for the toilet.
Asked his profession, Jim would say: “I’m employed by a major utility.”
Later, we’d laughingly ask him why he didn’t just say he was a telephone lineman.
“Don’t ever do that,” he explained. “People know you’re a telephone man, they start bitching about everything that ever went wrong with their telephone service, like it’s your fault.”
Jim loved kids despite his big defective heart – doctors shot some dye into it once to get a picture, but his head blew up to basketball size in an allergic reaction, only one in two-hundred-fifty-thousand reacting that way – so we never knew the extent of his affliction.
The problem with loving kids these days? They’re often attached to less-than-team-playing females. Jim suffered a long streak of such, each with a seeming endless itch between their legs, and after three rounds of trying he soured on domesticity, and eventually perished from a heart attack one hot June day in swampy Southern Illinois (2002). Forty-two years old.
Feeling sick at mid-day, he drove to his doctor’s office in the company truck, falling to the floor with a heart attack. A gentleman in the waiting room told us later he thought Jim died at the scene; doctors kept him “alive” for a few days as they harvested his donated organs. The boy who would save and skin a single bass – if that’s all we’d caught – now shed his skin for other fisherman to live. Such is the way of the world, if you’re a giver.
A certain memory revolves around the large oak table in the center of the kitchen, a table my dad sanded and finished to a glassy shine, where neighbors, friends, salesmen, farmers, corn-shellers, corn-haulers, gas truck drivers, fertilizer delivery men, and the occasional brave Jehovah’s Witness drank coffee, discussed events, debated religion, politics, worried about the weather, and of course practiced storytelling.
Now I can’t hold a candle to my Tennessee friends when it comes to running out a stretcher, but I sure heard a few.
Those tales germinated seeds of storytelling in my schema-building brain, little flashes of magical realism mixing in with the flat line mono-drone of life, sometimes illuminating more than a boy should see. Perhaps. I don’t remember how old I was when I heard this.
One of Dad’s buddies remained in Japan during the Occupation, and he recalled at the oak table that soon after General MacArthur issued an ultimatum to US troops to leave Japanese women alone, he happened to be sitting in a restaurant with his staff.
A Japanese restaurant with typical paper walls.
As they sat cross-legged on the floor chop-sticking noodles into their mouths before a low table, they began hearing loud noises. Pop. Pop. Then the popping accelerating, popcorn coming to a head at once.
Looking up from their low positions, they sat amazed at the sight of two dozen US Marine penises poking at arching angles through holes in the paper walls, Cyclops’ eyes blindly scanning for Japanese women.
Stories like these may have upset the townsfolk back in the day, but farm life is surrounded by sex. Hog farmers aren’t alarmed by hermaphrodites, homosexuals, or whatever genetic flavor of the day comes calling: they’ve already seen it all.
Oddly, my father refused to talk about it.
At four or five, I asked: “Why does that rooster keep sitting on that hen, riding her like a horse?”
“They’ll explain that in school,” he said.
Which was true, but in the form of half-baked information from other students, and Playboys that my best friend Deems and I pondered after filching them from his brother Richard.
Years later, I told my son straight out — the whole deal — when he was five.
“Naw, you didn’t do that, did you?” he pleaded.
“You’re standing there, aren’t you?” I said.
“Aaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhaaaaaa!” he screamed.
Broken Weiner Hog
Dad was pretty tight-fisted, welding for International Harvester over the winter to make ends meet, but one year for some reason he decided to purchase a new boar and in early May most of the neighbors and what seemed like half the town showed up to watch him prance down the chute and professionally service his new herd.
We cheered as he successfully mounted his inaugural sow and brought her to fruition, but the second one tossed him off, and he somehow broke his pecker landing awkwardly on the edge of the concrete feeding platform.
An audible sigh arose from the crowd.
Filling the Squirrel Hog’s hospital suite, Broken Wiener Hog lived a few weeks, but slowly wasted away and perished from a lost libido. Duality never rests, methinks.
The oak table overheard a thousand tales, but it also hosted one.
Early one summer morning I stumbled downstairs into the kitchen only to find several carnival workers seated around their boss, Snake Woman, drinking coffee and eating a breakfast mom had fixed.
She tried to explain: “Remember the carnival in town for Homecoming? Well, they were all packed up and heading down the highway to their next stop when their lead driver, this lady’s husband, suffered a heart-attack and drove off into the south field.”
“Is he okay?”
Snake Woman’s face clouded, and the python rippling around her neck and torso swirled in a figure eight as she stared blank-eyed out the window toward the field.
Dad pulled the stock truck out of the mud with the bucket tractor, and we housed their twelve blind ponies – the wrecked truck imprisoned these poor beasts whose simple existence equaled eating, sleeping, transporting to the next gig, and walking endless circles while toddlers peed upon their backs — in the barn.
I always felt sorry for townies paying a dollar to ride blind ponies in circles while my brother and I rode lightning-fast sows who flipped us off into manure ponds, go-carts with five horse Briggs & Stratton four strokes that slid sideways in gravel, and upon the mature age of fourteen, motorcycles.
My mother – growing up in a functional family with respectable role models – was the glue that held us together. Dad emigrated from Missouri, near Florida, famous for being Mark Twain’s birthplace, the original home cabin now housed at a wonderful state park that used to be Grandpa Scott’s land full of caves, possums, and raccoons, which we hunted under moonlight alongside howling blue tick hounds. You haven’t truly lived as a kid – I was pretty good at impersonating Huckleberry Finn at high school speech contests — until you’ve experienced a Missouri coon hunt under a full moon at two A.M. with a gaggle of drunk rifle wielding Missouri farmers spitting tobacco juice and wiping their mouths on their sleeves.
Lawrence Canham Scott – nicknamed Goofy in high school due to his prolific facial contortions especially after being slapped in the head by a teacher, and an incident where he brought a quart of skunk juice to school and “accidentally” dropped it in the main foyer.
Grandpa Lawrence was a skilled mechanic retained in the states during WWII to build tanks for Letourneau’s, a Peoria manufacturer that later built half of the Alcan Highway and supplied heavy equipment for the Hoover Dam.
The oldest child of a prosperous farm family once owning 1,500 acres of prime Illinois loam next to the Illinois Central (his patriarchal grandfather Sidney Scott ran cattle from Texas to Canada, sorting them in the Chicago stockyards), Lawrence grew up a little spoiled, and left behind in Peoria during the war in his twenties, he began drinking heavily, beating grandma at regular intervals, and supposedly pursuing the factory-trapped legions of unattended females.
After the war they moved to Missouri and purchased a farm. When Dad reached high school Grandpa presented him with a barn full of Jersey milk cows to attend – ten cows to be milked twice a day, the milk carried to the house where Grandma and Aunt Janet (two years younger than Dad) pasteurized it. Then dad delivered the milk in bottles around town before going to school. The process repeated after sports practice late in the afternoon, though the milk bottles were stored for the morning run.
Dad wasn’t a scholar. But nobody could take a basketball away from him, he could chin himself on the rim in grade school, and pick a field of corn by hand. I still have his leather corn husker hanging in my writing room, a testament to perseverance.
Family friend Mick DeFauw, Jack Weber (before his polio attack) and Dad routinely unloaded an entire rail car of cement bags – 90 pounds each, one bag hoisted upon each shoulder and carried down a ramp – between 5-6 each morning before firing up the brick / cement factory. They bought a fork lift when they could afford it.
Sixty years later I caught Mick visiting Dad on the back porch — reminiscing about those 90 pound cement sacks — and even though I hate this word, I stooped to use it because I knew it would transport them to the 1950’s.
“Didn’t they have niggers back then?” I asked.
“You’re looking at ’em,” growled Mick through his laryngectomized throat magnified by a hand-held speaker. Coal mines finished what the brick yard started.
For a while after his death I blamed Dad for not being more physically active in his late life, but in reflection, I know he was simply broken down, way before he turned fifty.
As Dad prepared to graduate from high school, he confronted the fact that Grandpa spent more time juicing than farming. Knowing they were barely scratching by hurt because as a team they could have purchased the whole Rawls County and farmed it admirably. Sticky-blue-clay Missouri farmland and was $.35 an acre back when Grandpa bought the original place in the late 40’s.
Packed up and ready to leave for Sheffield, Illinois (where Lawrence’s sister Aunt Helen and Uncle Irvan lived), Dad asked his mom if she’d like to escape the misery as well.
Sadly, she hung on until Lawrence divorced her twenty-some years later; then he married a succession of women who never equaled her in any way. At the end of the alcohol rope, he asked her back. My pride in her stems from the response: take a hike.
Grandma Scott spent her remaining years either working at a local children’s home, or babysitting, and her funeral overflowed with appreciative adults she’d nourished as kids.
Grandpa died drunk and alone, driving himself to the hospital in Columbia where he was treated for some bizarre form of cancer that they promised would dissipate … if he’d only turned his back on the juice.
To his credit, Jim used to visit Grandpa in his nasty late stages, driving all the way out there with his girlfriend – the first of his itchy crotch women – and they’d have a nice visit until Grandpa got into the party mood and got up to fetch the Southern Comfort.
“Well, I guess we’ll be going,” said Jim. Then Grandpa would put the liquor back in the fridge. This dance lasted all afternoon, but Grandpa remained sober during their visits.
Like most alcoholics, Grandpa wasn’t all bad. Sober, he was highly intelligent, well-read, and humorous. Played saxophone and motorcycled cross-country with Grandma. We all wished Dr. Jekyll could keep Mr. Hyde locked up in the closet.
But he had his own key.
Mark Twain Nexus, Redux
Grandma Mary Scott paid her way through beauty school after Dad and Janet left home, then opened a shop in nearby Hannibal. Whenever Grandpa ran out of juice money, he’d drive to the shop and rifle the cash box.
But he also had some hillbilly friends living in a couple of rooms inside this gigantic house outside town where I rambled and played with their unwashed brood eating straight out of the ice cream container, no spoon required. I remember many fireplaces, and a huge front porch.
Fifteen years later I passed by Hannibal after attending the farm sale with Jim after Grandpa’s death. We blew a radiator hose on the way down and pulled in just as the sale concluded.
The few valuables had been scooped up in our absence, so my default inheritance became a leftover double mattress still in the plastic, something Grandpa must have purchased right before he died.
That mattress fit into the covered bed of our 1990 Ford F-150, so we slept on it for the next twenty years on camping trips across the US and Canada.
One is allowed to brew lemonade with life-lemons.
As I drove toward Hannibal on the way home after the sale, I passed that big old house of yore. But instead of the dilapidated shack that my memory recalled, I witnessed a refurbished miracle.
Pulling over and taking the tour, I learned that Mark Twain’s friends John and Helen Garth actually owned the place back in the day:
Two of Samuel Clemens’ childhood friends remained close to him all his life: John and Helen Kercheval Garth. They entertained Clemens on visits to Hannibal and corresponded with him many times. Samuel Clemens, John Garth, and Helen Kercheval were all students at Mrs. Elizabeth Horr’s school and later at that of J. D. Dawson. John is probably one of the boys who provided Clemens with inspiration for the character Tom Sawyer.
Here’s the Mark Twain kicker.
He used to smoke cigars sitting on the same porch we played under. One day he was smoking a stogie on the porch while visiting the Garths when the Barnum and Bailey Circus passed by on the gravel road.
When a circus came and went, it left us all burning to become clowns; the first negro minstrel show that came to our section left us all suffering to try that kind of life; now and then we had a hope that if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates. These ambitions faded out, each in its turn; but the ambition to be a steam-boatman always remained. - Life on the Mississippi
Mom’ first sight of Dad occurred when she spied him walking down the road to a service station with an inner tube around his neck. They “blind” dated a few days later – set up by mutual friends – and married in June 1955. The first time she took him home to meet the family, Grandpa Cogger lay on the couch taking a nap with a newspaper over his head. Mom introduced Dad, and Grandpa harrumphed under the newspaper, never taking it off his face. Despite the strange introduction, the two were life-long buddies. The wedding was forty-five minutes late because Grandpa Cogger’s new shoes ended up in the refrigerator along with all the ham sandwiches … stored in shoe boxes.
Providing literal cold feet for the matrimony to follow.
And I believe Mom saved Dad’s life, or at minimum extended it by thirty years.
He was intrinsically good, worried about the abuse his mother suffered, and asked her to come to Illinois, and later took care of her for the last thirty years of her life.
But he flinched at hugs in those early Sheffield days. Didn’t know what they were, really. A lifetime spent dodging curses and fists — working slavishly for a selfish juicer had toughened his emotions — but Mom’s family became the loving functional refuge he’d never known, and therefore, our own family received a pattern based on love, giving, mutual respect, and frequent attendance at the First Congregational Church, surrounded by like-minded townsfolk. Sinners indeed, but trying to get a handle on it.
Lawrence hurled in and out of our lives for several decades, usually feeling sorry for himself during lonesome holidays, telling us about friends who treated him better, Dad sitting there absorbing the final insults in silence.
One day Jim and I were home alone and Grandpa drove down the lane, opened the driver’s door, and fell out into the driveway. Collecting himself, he dragged his body to a stand, took three wobbly steps toward me, and attempted a slow-motion roadhouse punch to my head, which I simply sidestepped as he fell back to the ground.
That was the last memory of my patriarchal Grandfather, except for his nose sticking out of the casket a few years later after he died alone, the Southern Comfort gaining a head-start on the embalming fluid.
I say all this in praise of my parents, one who overcame parental abuse, and the other, who modeled normalcy and gave us goals by going off to college at age 36, graduating with honors at Bradley University. And though she traveled 100 miles to school and back three days a week, studied, and kept the farm books, we never missed a meal or wore dirty clothes.
Perhaps the need to succeed is genetic.
Her mother Esther Plum – my maternal grandmother – grew up one of ten children on a small Minnesota farm which they lost during the Great Depression after moving from another rough situation in Iowa. One year her daddy supposedly shot off his shotgun and declared:
“No Christmas this year!”
“Why?” the kids wailed.
“Accidentally shot Santa,” he answered, walking off into the woods in search of supper deer.
But Esther’s brother Bill joined the Navy before WWII, worked his way up to Captain, earned a PhD in physics at the University of Missouri on the GI Bill, and was later chosen to be on the team that built the first lunar rover.
I have no proof that it was named after Dr. Plum, but here’s a picture of astronaut Charles Duke, Jr. standing in front of Plum Crater – lunar rover in the background – along with shiny Earth.
On the Scott side, Sidney married Elizabeth Batdorf, a smart, practical woman who enabled them to parlay their small farm into a little empire, 1,500 acres and a purchase of the town’s grain elevator. The small park in the middle of Neponset is named after Sidney, who fought in the Spanish American War before returning to raise cattle, corn, kids, run a business, serve the community on the school board, then lose most of it when Elizabeth died and he married a financial black hole floozy named Ruby.
Happily, cousin Alan Scott and his diligent wife Deborah subsequently expanded the original 80 acres to nearly its original 1,500 with elbow grease and frugality.
Elizabeth’s father Michael and uncle Jonathan joined the Union Army, fought with Sherman through his plunge into the South, faced capture at Missionary Ridge, and were imprisoned in Andersonville. History buffs recall that earlier in the war escaped prisoners from Andersonville – bony ghosts with ribs and hip bones sticking out through their skin – wandered through Sherman’s camp one moonlit evening, which incensed and drove him to destroy railroads and lay waste to the countryside in order to take food away from foraging Confederate armies and bring a quicker end to the horror.
Michael suffered a severe face wound in Tennessee, but lived a year in that raging hell hole before dying the next spring.
One of my earliest memories of being entirely enthralled in a story was my junior high perusal of Andersonville, by MacKinlay Kantor. The horror surpassed the gas chambers, which I’d studied in countless WWII recollections.
Admittedly, the corn crib prisons on Rock Island, Illinois – sitting in the wind smack in the middle of the Mississippi River in the dead of Midwestern winters — was a special hell to Confederate prisoners.
Jonathon somehow survived, mustered out, and spent his final days farming in Iowa.
Lana and I were married on her family farm – on the front porch of the oldest residence in Hancock County — in the Chinquapin Valley near Sneedville, Tennessee, one hot August Saturday. Her ancestor John Mills fought for the South, perhaps opposite the Batdorfs at Chickamauga, and is buried in the Democrat cemetery off the north pasture, next to the woods.
Perhaps fifteen years after the ceremony and lively party where willing Chicagoans introduced to white lightning kicked up their heels – at one point the square dancing resembled a Grateful Dead bacchanal – we found ourselves at dusk standing on the hill east of the homestead, under a large dogwood, looking at family markers in the Ferguson family plot.
“Looks like we’ll end up here someday,” I said.
“I will,” answered Lana.
“You’ll be down there with the rest of the Democrats,” she laughed, pointing down to the dark edge of the woods where a cow was shaking, working out a plopper.