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In the wake of the mayhem

13 Oct

Let me get this out of the way first: This is not a post about gun control.

Okay, now we can move on.

As I write this, the Mass Shooting Tracker has logged 373 mass shootings in America this year. Check here to see the current number. The tracker defines a mass shooting as any situation in which four or more people, including the shooter, are shot. Simple as that. The FBI defines a mass shooting as any situation in which four or more random victims are killed, not counting the shooter. In either definition, families are left in a world of hurt. Yet, the volume of mass shootings has caused many of us to become inured to stories of them.

That’s what my new novel, Come up a Cloud, is about. “Come up a Cloud” is an old expression that means it looks like rain. It can portend menace, or it can indicate hope. In Come up a Cloud, I cloudcover_fbimagine how a mass shooting in a small town affects its residents. Because the killer shot himself, where will the families of the victims direct their hurt and anger?  Will they seek revenge against someone else? Or can they forgive?

And what about the parents of the killer? How can they properly mourn? How can they forgive themselves and their son?

Here’s the prologue:

The bald tires whined on the bucket-of-bolts truck as it rattled past Sandstrum’s Machine Shop on Route 4. Out of the corner of his eye, the farmer behind the wheel glimpsed a plump figure in camouflage pants loitering near the back corner of the corrugated tin building. The old man would have assumed it was one of the machinists taking a smoke break, except the person wore an odd headpiece. It looked like a Viking helmet, like the ones you saw at Minnesota football games. The other odd thing: The Viking held a rifle canted downward. The gun looked like one of those fancy Bushmasters, which copied M-16s like the one the farmer had carried in the jungle.

The farmer rummaged his brain for any hunting season starting in early August. Squirrel season wouldn’t kick off for a few more weeks, not that a flimsy law stopped anyone who craved pan-fried rodent. He’d heard Bushmaster made a .22, which wasn’t much more than a peashooter dressed up like a serious piece of work. Anything more powerful would rip a squirrel to thunder. And wearing desert camo to hunt squirrels? That was even less necessary than an assault rifle, unless squirrels had gotten a lot smarter than they used to be.

The farmer decided the hunter was one of Sandstrum’s friends, a city fool who had come up to pretend-hunt. That didn’t explain the helmet, but lots of things city people did were hard to explain. He headed down the road to Snoots for a lunch of ham sandwich and PBR. He would give the camoed figure no more thought until he heard the sirens thirty minutes later.

The novel is not a basket of warm and fuzzies. Still, it is not without hope, and I hope you will find it worthwhile.

You can buy the book here.

Better yet, support your local independent book seller. Here’s mine.

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Jack, the horse

5 Mar

Jack1
This is Jack.
Jack is 30 years old.
Do not say, “Poor Jack.”
Jack has a good  life.
Jack lives with Harold and Joyce in North Missouri.
Jack has an entire pasture to himself, not counting deer and turkeys.
No ones tells Jack what to do. No, sir.

Jack taught a slew of grand kids how to ride.
He was almost always patient with them.
Even a patient horse has his limits.
He’ll slow down when he damn well feels like it.

Jack has a barn to go in when he’s cold.
He is seldom cold.
Jack is no wimp.

Jack’s old buddy Harold feeds him grain every evening.
Neither one talks much.
They prefer it that way.
They have an unspoken understanding.

When someone from the city visits, Jack gets lots of sugar cubes.
Harold is not entirely pleased about this.
Chill, Old Man.
Jack has earned the right to eat junk food.

In the summer, Jack gets fed corn husks and carrots.
This pleases him.
Jack deserves to be spoiled a little.
Good horse, Jack. Good horse.

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A River Adventure in Two Parts

30 Jun

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April 1979

River Outfitter Guy
The Current River (or maybe Jacks Fork)
Somewhere south of Jeff City

Dude,

Awesome weekend!

Hey man, I don’t know if I stayed at your camp, but I’m pretty sure I stayed someplace. I was the dude wearing the Springsteen shirt, and I had a can of Busch in each hand. Party! Oh, and sorry about all the dents in the canoe. I’ll bet you can find that lost oar down near the AR border. Good thing oars float.

Anyway, I’m pretty sure I lost my high school senior class ring in that place with all the weeds and trees. You know the place I’m talking about. It was already dark, and the buds and I were trying to find firewood so we wouldn’t have to pay for any. So yeah, I’d like to get that ring back if you come across it. Cost me close to $50, and it’s the second one I’ve lost. Most important ring I’ll ever own, right? It’s got green glass in the center, and the outside of it is real gold. I can’t afford to buy another one because I’m saving up for a pair of Bass Weejuns. They’re $50 easy, but the preppy girls love them. So, anyway, if you find the ring, mail it back to me here at college, dude.

Your pal,

Ron Smith

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June 30, 2014

Riverview Ranch
Meramec River
Bourbon, Missouri

Dear Camp Proprietor,

Thank you for providing such a wonderful venue for this past weekend’s float trip and camping adventure. After my old college friends and I visit our respective chiropractors and physical therapists, I am confident we will look back fondly on our time with you. Mentioning our various pains is not intended as an indictment of the fine accommodations you provided for our campsite. It’s simply that we are used to sleeping on thick memory foam mattresses rather than the hard ground. I presume your part of Missouri recently experienced a rock storm, which left sharp stones strewn everywhere?  I don’t recall the terra firma being so… firma  in my younger days.

In addition to thanking you for the wonderful time, however, I write to request a favor. Perhaps you will come across my custom-fitted mandibular advancement device, which prevents snoring, and return it to me at your earliest convenience. My dear spouse makes me sleep on the couch when I don’t have it.

I don’t remember the last time I saw the mandibular device, but I can provide some clues. I recall distinctly having it on my person when my chum Mark Z. requested I freshen up his cup of chamomile tea. I also can picture clearly setting down the device between Skip’s hemorrhoid cushion and Mark K.’s hernia truss when we all went to the aid of  Bob, whose back had seized up as he was putting a log on the fire. I am confident I still had the anti-snoring device later in the evening, because I threatened to hurl it at Mark K. when he spilled warm milk all over my linen/cotton blend Ralph Lauren slacks. (I believe the spillage was intentional, as Mark K. had earlier questioned the appropriateness of Ralph Lauren pants at a river campsite when “everyone knows Nautica is de rigueur on the Meramec.”).

After that, my memory becomes a little fuzzy. We really let our hair down Saturday night (those of us who have it), staying up nearly until nine-thirty. But when the young ruffians in the campsite next to ours were still making noise after ten o’clock, we felt we had to take action. I suspect those rascals had been imbibing something stronger than Mountain Dew. Had they no consideration for others? We strode over to their campfire and gave them a sturdy tongue-lashing, the likes of which they will not soon forget. After that exciting interlude, which required us to rescue Skip from the clutches of two scalawags who were holding him upside down over their fire, it took me a few minutes to calm down. With all the excitement, which included extinguishing the fire in Skip’s hair, I don’t recall if I still had the anti-snoring device.

Should you come across a mandibular device, it will surely be mine. The two Marks, Skip and Bob have confirmed that they made it home safely with theirs.

Warmest Regards,

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Twenty or so reasons we should celebrate May Day

1 May

My mother and her friend, Wilma Jean, celebrated May Day. No, they did not march through Red Square in Moscow endorsing eighty hour-work weeks for little pay. They kept alive the ancient rite of Northern European pagans welcoming the coming of summer. And really, what smalltown Missouri girl in the forties didn’t love a good pagan ritual?

Here’s how May Day worked:

  1. Pick wildflowers.
  2. Make a paper basket.
  3. Place flowers in the basket.
  4. Throw in some candy if available.
  5. Place the May baskets on the porches of neighbors.
  6. Knock on the door.
  7. Run like hell.

Number seven was very important. According to tradition, you would have to exchange kisses with the person answering the door if they caught you. This would seem to limit the houses where you would leave baskets. For example, you might skip the house of the track star with exceedingly bad halitosis.

download (1)“This was before pesticides,” Mom said, meaning there was a greater inventory of wildflowers back in the day. “We would fill the baskets with Sweet Williams and Gentlemen’s Breeches.”

This brings to mind two questions. First, why isn’t there a bluegrass band named Gentlemen’s Breeches? Second, why don’t we all celebrate May Day?

Reasons we should:

  1. May Day is about giving.
  2. It’s like Halloween Opposite Day
  3. If you’re lucky, you’ll return home after delivering baskets to find one left for you.
  4. Still, giving is much more fun.
  5. It’s also a good way to get exercise.
  6. As long as you don’t pull a hammy running away.
  7. It’s a way to kick off warm weather that does not require a weed eater.
  8. May Day involves the entire family.
  9. That four-year-old ain’t gonna drive himself to every house.
  10. He’s not going to make the baskets either.
  11. And he’ll quickly get bored picking flowers.
  12. Still, think of the memories he’ll make.
  13. Delivering May Day baskets requires sneakiness.
  14. The anonymity of it means you don’t have to worry about matching the quality of the other person’s gift.
  15. It’s cheap.
  16. Everything can be made with materials on hand.
  17. We need another good holiday.
  18. Hallmark needs to fill the gap between Easter and Mother’s Day.
  19. Chances are extremely slim you would be shot by a homeowner.
  20. Chances are also low that you would be attacked by a pit bull.
  21. Chances of being shot by a pit bull with an assault rifle are just short of nil.
  22. A pit bull might appreciate a good May basket, if you throw in a Milkbone.
  23. Upwards of three percent of the population does not suffer from wildflower allergies.

Mom passed on the May Day tradition to her children. I loved it. When it was just my older brother and me, we lived in Iowa surrounded by Andersons, Hendersons, Sigmunds and other farmers with Scandinavian sounding names. Many of them would have been familiar with May Day. Some of them may have danced around a maypole or two in their younger days. Finding May baskets on their porches wasn’t so strange. The May baskets we made were actually paper cones made from wrapping paper. It took a lot of flowers to fill the cones, so we filled them with popcorn, mixing in a few dandelions and violets. That’s right, we gave away our weeds. We made up for that by adding butterscotch and peppermint candy. download

When I was five, we moved to a small town in northwest Missouri. May Day came around, and we delivered May baskets again. That’s what everyone did on May 1, right?

A year later we moved to another small town. (I think Dad shot a man in Reno, and we were trying to stay ahead of the Law.) May 1 arrived. We delivered May baskets. So what if no one had brought May baskets to our house? That wasn’t the point. We loved giving and sneaking.

Two years later, we moved again. Hooray! It’s May Day again! By this time, I was a few weeks away from my ninth birthday. Jeff, my brother, was about to turn ten. We were on the cusp of getting too old for May Day, but not quite. Our younger sister was four—old enough now to enjoy the wonder of May Day. We now lived close to our grandparents. We would deliver baskets to them and to our neighbors. My brother also left a basket on the doorstep of a girl he was sweet on. “La la la la la, life is grand. Everybody loves May Day!”

No, they didn’t. Maybe they would have, it they had known about it. But they didn’t.

What in God’s good name are those strange Smith kids doing? Leaving popcorn and weeds on people’s porches?  Wrapped up in old Christmas wrapping paper, no less. Their garbage can must be full. They haven’t got the sense of a garden slug. Boy, I knew they were odd ducks the day they moved here. This proves it. Bunch of loonies.

That year was the last year we celebrated May Day. But I miss it, and I want to bring it back.

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$427.88 is burning a hole in my pocket

10 Jan

Many years ago, after my Grandma Brown died, a little cash remained from her estate. Mom distributed it to us grandchildren. My wife and I used our share to buy a cheap entertainment center, because nothing memorializes a deceased grandparent like pressed-wood furniture from K-Mart. Every time one of the kids rammed a Big Wheel into a corner of it, I smiled and thought of Grandma.

This week, I received a chance for a do-over of sorts. I came across a few U.S. savings bonds, which I had stashed in a safe. The discovery was like a super-charged version of finding dimes and nickels beneath couch cushions.  The savings bonds were gifts from the same side of the family, the Browns. “The Aunts,” as my mom called them, were Grandpa Brown’s three younger sisters. None of them had children, and two of them, Geneve and Imo, never married. Much of their affection, instead, trickled down to their nieces and nephews, even great nephews like me.

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Aunt Geneve on my right and Aunt Imo on my left, along with Uncle Gilbert, Aunt Eloise and their granddaughters Laurel and Allison.

The aunts attended every significant event in my young life that can be mentioned in polite company, from graduations to my only wedding so far. When I was a freshman in college, Aunt Geneve paid $75 for a savings bond in my name. As I thought of ways to hit three keggers in one night, my great aunt pondered my more distant future.

The savings bond would mature in thirty years, nearly ten years after Aunt Geneve’s death. I learned about the money only then. The $75 she paid would be equivalent to about $280 today. That was not pocket change when considering she had three generations of nieces and nephews. (When my daughter was born 19 years ago, Aunt Geneve bought one for her, too.)  Aunt Imo did the same. She bought a savings bond for me in 1985, which will mature in a couple of years; I did not know about that one either until her death. They did not need me to know about their gift while they were still alive. That was not important to them.

After many years, I still feel loved by the aunts, and I feel their pride, too, even though I haven’t always deserved it. You know when you do something you’re not proud of and someone comes to mind that would be disappointed in you? That’s never happened to me. If it did, however, I would picture the aunts.

When my girls were born, I wanted to name one of them Geneve. I chickened out for fear of hurting the feelings of the other aunts, who were still alive. (Maybe it’s not too late. Perhaps my fifteen-year-old isn’t completely sold on her name, yet.) Gifts and keepsakes from the aunts, such as ornaments, painted pottery, and a small linen dresser, decorate our house. Those items help keep the aunts fresh in my mind.

Every time The Sound of Music comes on television, I tell anyone in the room that Aunt Geneve and Aunt Imo took my brother and me to see the movie at a theater in St. Joe. I remember that I did not want to see some stupid old musical with that damn Julie Andrews. I kept that thought to myself, however, and, ten minutes into the movie, I loved it. And I loved Aunt Geneve and Aunt Imo even more for taking us. Two old women and two teenage boys at the movies.

I also remember the blue and green striped tie the aunts bought me at JC Penney’s in St. Joe. I had visited them one last time following college and before moving across three states to start my career. Aunt Imo and Aunt Geneve, true to their Midwestern upbringing, were economical with words during that last visit. But I felt their love then. I still do.

I don’t know what Aunt Geneve thought I would be doing 30 years after she bought that savings bond. I don’t know what she would want me to use the money for today. However, I believe she would say, “It is your money, Ronnie. Do what you think is best.” I was not a perfect kid. Perhaps the aunts thought thirty years would be enough time for me to mature a bit.

While my maturity is still in question, the savings bond from Aunt Geneve matured more than five years ago. (If the IRS is reading this, I’ll pay the back taxes right away.) I cashed it yesterday for $427.88. I have tried to think of something appropriate to do with the money. We have a few needs at home. For example the clothes dryer takes about an hour to dry a pair of nylon socks. More selfishly, I did not get the noise cancelling head phones Santa promised. And one of those GoPro cameras would really make my week.

I have an idea, though. Aunt Geneve was an educator and a devout Baptist. She loved kids, and she has countless former elementary school and Sunday school students all over the country who I’m sure remember and admire her. It’s time to pass it on. Four hundred dollars and change is not much, not even enough to buy a clothes dryer. But it can do a bit of good. Small children who never knew Aunt Geneve can still benefit from her generosity. I believe they will feel a special, comforting presence they won’t know by name. That would be fine with Aunt Geneve.

Here’s to all the aunts, uncle and other saints who loved and supported us despite our warts and foibles.

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