Sunday, May 06, 2007

Down on the Farm 6

When I was about twelve, a family named Budd moved in to the old Hoover place a mile north of our farm. I first realized there was a kid about my age when the BB gun was stolen. 

Grandma and I were fishing down on the creek at the rock hole not far from the family's home. When we walked back up the meadow to the car, I discovered that my BB gun was no where in sight. Grandma drove right over to the Budd's place. She and the mother, Naomi, were already good friends.

"Hey, Goldie!" a pert ten-year-old said when she came out to the car.

"Norma," asked Grandma, "have you seen Mikie's BB gun?"

The child didn't even blink.

"Well, we got your gun. Albert said he found it in the creek."

We did indeed get the gun back. Norma couldn't tell a lie if her life depended on it; it just never entered her pretty head to lie about anything. A few days later I met her brother, the thief. Albert was a rather long, lanky, hound-dog sort of kid, about a year older than me. He fit the perfect profile of a lazy hillbilly. Unlike Norma, Albert couldn't tell the truth if he saw any edge in the lie (which was just fine with me since I was sort of that way myself). Fishing, swimming, smoking-–we got along just capital.

Albert's six-year-old brother, Jimmy, followed us around wherever we went and because of his laughing good nature and willingness to act as our slave, he generally avoided our kicks in the butt. Little Elmer Budd, four, was too small to serve and was always left behind.

The Budds had been migrant farm workers. They must have spent much of their time in the Ozarks or Arkansas since their accents were a bit more nasally than most folks in that section of southern Missouri. With six mouths to feed and one on the way, the father, Wanda ("Wan-dee," in the vernacular), and the mother, Naomi ("Nay-o-muh," in the vernacular), decided to abandon the nomad life and settle down. The place they picked had to be the hardest of hard-scrabble farms. Several cows, a pig or two, an old tractor that broke down on cue, a barn, and a small patch of rocky, pitiless earth. But what was lacking in cash flow, Naomi made up for with her bounteous garden. Despite adversity, the family got along.

Wanda was a little rooster of a man, thin and wiry with a face that indicated he had made much "history." He probably drank too much, but who down there didn't? He always had a laugh and kind word for me. Naomi was a large, dark-headed woman with one eye that shot off at an angle as she looked at you. She was a good, ever-laughing lady and when she and Grandma got together it was like two geese trying to communicate, so liquid and varied were the range of their warbles.

Wanda had a younger brother that would visit from time to time. Bobby Budd was somewhere between twenty and forty and deeply retarded. He was what might be called a howling lunatic. Bobby always wore old coveralls, clod hopper boots and an engineer's cap. According to little Norma, he ate only peanut butter sandwiches and chocolate pudding. Since Grandma had been kind to him, Bobby was in the habit of riding his bike down the long gravel road once a day. He would ring his bell furiously the moment he hit the driveway, then stand outside hollering "GOLDEEEEEE!" until Grandma appeared.

"Whatcha want Bobby?" Grandma would yell when she finally stuck her head out the door.

"NUTHIN'," he would holler back while straddling his bike. "Whatcha doin'?"

"Oh nuthin' much . . . just gettin' ready to do some wash."

Bobby would stand there in the driveway, under the big elm, silently staring about for a minute or more, a hideous red grimace carved permanently on his face.

"Well, I got to get to work, Bobby . . . you best go on home."

Our visitor might stand there staring for another ten or fifteen seconds, trying to register what was just said. Then the light bulb: "Okay, Goooldeeee. . . . I BE SEEIN' YA."

Bobby would get furious at Albert and me for some reason or another as we played around their place. When his limit was reached, he would suddenly and unexpectedly charge after us. This was truly a horrifying experience and we certainly never let him catch us for as everyone back then knew, crazy people had superhuman strength. Sometimes we would shoot him in the legs with the BB gun, which only made him angrier.

The following July, 1961, Naomi looked out the window and saw smoke billowing from the barn. In a panic, she called the township fire department. She then phoned the garage in Liberal where Wanda had taken Albert and Norma to get the tractor repaired. Farmers in the area soon arrived but by the time a fire truck pulled in followed by Wanda and the kids, the old straw in the barn had created an inferno too intense to extinguish. A bull, cow and calf, which Wanda had just sold and was to deliver that day, were tied up inside. Their cries to escape were horrible. When the tin roof exploded upwards, the rickety building began to collapse.

And then, the parents realized that one of their children was missing-–seven-year-old Jimmy. Desperately, the two ran around the fire calling his name. Ominously, the boy's bike was found leaning against the back of the barn. Refusing to believe what they feared, the mother and father ran through the pasture and timber surrounding the home, screaming the little boy's name. When the blaze finally cooled, firemen moved closer. Near the front of the barn, just inside what was once the door, lay the charred remains of Jimmy. His hands and feet were burned off, as was the top of his head. The mother and father broke down completely. There were theories–-matches, cigarettes, spontaneous combustion--but the cause of the fire was never determined.

I do not know what their luck was like before they moved to the Hannon area, but from my perspective, Jimmy's death seemed to set in motion a series of misfortunes that all but destroyed the family during the coming years.

In 1968, the Budd home burned to the ground. Naomi was inside at the time but the fire spread so rapidly that she was unable to save much of anything. Clothes, food, appliances, toys, keepsakes, photos–-all were consumed. Worse, their insurance covered only a fraction of the loss. For awhile, the family lived with neighbors but they eventually moved a trailer onto the place. At about this same time, Albert lost an eye. He and some other young idiots were horsing around and got into an egg fight.

Ten years later, Wanda killed himself. He had been deeply depressed and was drinking heavily. Several times he had warned Naomi that he was going to take his life, but had never followed through. One evening in late June, Wanda grabbed a large can of gasoline and doused the inside of an old junk car that was sitting in the barn lot. The troubled man carried the can back to the fence and set it down. He walked back to the car, got in, closed the door, rolled up the windows, then paused for one final glimpse at his life. He then struck a match. There was a terrific explosion, followed by a fire that burned everything that would burn, including all the pain and heartbreak that this poor man had endured for most of his existence. Wanda was sixty-three.

Soon after high school Norma married. Two or three children later she divorced and moved a trailer in next to her mother's. One day, her teenage son was out behind the place doing stunts with his bicycle on the dry pond bed. The ground had been baked as hard as rock. There was a mishap, the boy struck his head, and another Budd was dead.

To make ends meet, Naomi had taken a job as cook at the Blue Top Cafe just outside Lamar. As Norma was driving her home one evening a car T-boned them at the Liberal junction. Norma was okay, but her mama was no more. And so on.

Several years ago, I was in St. Joseph, Missouri, and needed to kill some time. I walked into a pub and sat down to nurse a slow one. Since we were the only two in the place, the bar maid and I began to chit-chat. When the woman mentioned that she was originally from Lamar, my interest picked up and we began talking about old times in Barton County. I asked her if she knew the Williams family (see "Down on the Farm 5," 5.5.07).

"Not only did I know them," she said, "but I went to school with several of them."

This was the first I had heard of the family since their abrupt departure from Hannon.

When the bar maid added, "And would you believe that Jimmy is now a doctor in Chicago," I was incredulous. I asked the woman if we were talking about the same Williams family. She assured me that indeed, we were. I was, and to this very day, am, stunned. If that young man, given his wretched background, can make it in the world, then anyone can.

I also asked the lady if she had ever heard of one Bobby Dean Miller (see "Down on the Farm 4," 5.4.07). She had not. Being related in some way, I felt a sense of relief. A few years back, for some reason, Mom had received a call from the Pittsburg, Kansas, hospital with word that Bobby Dean had died of cancer. Mom did not even know him and may have never met the boy; but apparently, as "next of kin," officials there had gotten her phone number. A prisoner to nature and nurture, he was someone who, like Jimmy Williams, never had a chance in life. Unlike Jimmy though, who overcame overwhelming odds and rose, Bobby succumbed to them and fell. I'm sure he spent more time in "homes" and jails than he did out of them. I'm also sure that wherever Bobby Dean is now he's better off; I know the world is.

Twice in the past ten years, I have seen Norma Budd. Once, a friend and myself had stopped at her tavern in Liberal prior to a talk I was delivering in nearby Fort Scott. A few years later, as Deb and I were driving back from talks in Florida, we were on a small country road near her old home when I spotted Norma passing in a car. We stopped and talked for a few minutes. She had lost the lease on her tavern and was now doing manual labor in a factory somewhere. On both occasions when I spoke with Norma, I noticed either a black eye or a missing tooth. I have no doubt how she got them. Despite misfortune enough to crush other mortals to the ground, Norma remains herself, bright, positive and determined to do the best she can with what she's got.

Not all my memories down on the farm are sad. In fact, most are happy. But all my memories, the good and the bad, are important to me because, for better or worse, they are who I am. Not being able to reconnect with my old life down there has been painful and at times I often feel like a ship that sails the sea but never reaches port. I still have the memories though, and for this I am grateful.