Saturday, May 05, 2007

Down on the Farm 5

In the last ten years since Grandma and Grandpa Bob died, I have been down there only once; and that ever so brief and painful. I was raised on that farm. It was my home. It gave me life. It was the place I always wanted to be. 

Grandma was my Mom for the first years of my existence and I loved her more than anyone else on earth. But now strangers own the farm and with no relatives in the area there is no excuse to return. To go down and see but be unable to stop would be just too painful.

It's come to me in later years that most of my richest memories are down there. Perhaps this is because the images were so strong. I remember the train that passed early each day-–from the time I was a baby in the crib until they eventually tore up the tracks fifty years later, that pathetically slow train which had fewer and fewer box cars each year was my wake up call every morning on the farm. So fascinated by the trains was I that Grandpa Bob swore that I would become an engineer some day. Even now, whenever I see a train, I still have to stop and watch. I remember Grandma combing and parting my hair whenever we went to town--not because messed up hair embarrassed her like it did my Mom but because she was so proud of me. I remember sitting in the metal lawn chair under the rustling cottonwood shelling peas for Grandma and watching as the hens quietly preened the ground for food-–studying those old hens as they slowly drifted about on a hot summer afternoon were some of the most restful moments I have ever known. I remember fishing, swimming and rowing the beat up boat on the big pond. Had that perpetually muddy Missouri water been a crystal clear swimming pool in Beverly Hills it could not have meant more to me. There were big bass in that pond and catfish, blue gills, painted turtles, and of course, snakes, which Taffy kept well in check. When I think back on it, that pond was the pivot around which I turned. I even saved a little girl's life in that pond once.

Looking back, I now realize how pathetic was that little girl's life in the first place; it was the only one she had though, and I'm sure she was grateful to have it back.

The Williams family lived just over the track on the north edge of Hannon. I could easily see their low, one-story shack from the farm a quarter of a mile away. There may have been a dozen or more kids in the family but I doubt if anyone, including the mother, knew how many there were since they were never in the same place long enough to tabulate. The children generally fanned out over the countryside each morning to play or hunt food, then at night they would return to the roost like chickens. There were doubtless lots of fathers scattered about the county but the only visible men on the place were those who visited the mother periodically to drink beer and make more babies. I remember several of the waifs begging for food at our place. Being a soft touch, Grandma could never resist but Grandpa Bob soon forbid any of the brood to set foot on the place. Although the kids never did come to the house again that I recall, our pasture and the big pond, which were just across the track from the Williams' home, was another matter. One day one of the smaller children got up a tree in that pasture and choked to death on a green apple.

In the summer, the pond was naturally a great draw for the Williams kids and Grandma would clandestinely furnish us with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of old inner tubes to float on. One day, in the deepest part of the pond, a little girl about my age slipped out of her tube and could not recover the slippery thing. She tried to tread water but it was obvious she didn't know how. The child had the silliest look on her face as she went down. It was not panic or even fear; she was trying to smile. And not a word or sound did she utter. I slid out of my own tube and dove down. The water was so brown and murky that seeing was out of the question but I finally caught the girl a few feet below the surface. She was not thrashing about or hard to help in the least. I easily lifted her head above the surface, then worked her toward the dam. As she sat in the mud, the kid stared at me with wide eyes. Her faint smile suggested that she was a bit embarrassed. Except for coughing up brown water, she said nothing. Grandma mentioned later that the little girl was "touched in the head" and I suppose she was right.

Despite the tacit taboo about straying over to the Williams' shack, one day I did. Since there were any number of kids in the family, it was a given that there would be several in my age group. Jimmy Williams and I had been throwing rocks down at the railroad bridge that morning and he invited me back to his house for pancakes. I could see for myself that the place was a hovel whenever I walked along the tracks, but even as a child I was shocked by what I saw upon coming closer. Boards, iron, old bed springs, and other sundry debris littered the weed-infested "lawn." Cots and an old sofa sat on the porch as did a junked ice box. The porch itself had collapsed in several places. Only a broken and ripped screen door separated the outer world from the inner. At the entry way was a collection of nondescript garbage so thick that one had to navigate rather than walk. Blankets and feed sacks on the floor and a sofa with all the stuffing sticking out filled another room. Throughout the place, and despite the lack of windows or doors, there was a horrible stench of stale urine. When we got to the fly-infested kitchen, Jimmy's mother was seated at the cluttered table in her robe. A man was also sitting there (I recognized him as a neighbor who lived a mile up the track) and both were drinking beer. They were smiling and seemed in the best of spirits. Above them, where the ceiling should have been, there was nothing but blue sky and daylight. Even at that age, I was glad there would be no pancakes that day.

Going through Grandma's old scrap album, I discovered two small articles relating to the Williams family. The first was by the editor of the Lamar (MO) Democrat. She had received a letter from someone complaining about the Williams and their living conditions. Since the letter was unsigned, the editor had failed to print it. As was evident by her comments, the editor desperately wanted to print the letter, "but," she wrote, "when the writers fail to sign their names, hiding behind some such signature as ‘Hannon Neighbors'," her hands were tied. Several days later, another letter arrived at the Democrat office and the editor eagerly rushed to press:


Hannon, Mo. March 1, 1955.

Dear Madeleine:

Yes, I will sign my name to the letter you received Saturday, February 26, as I want you to print it, also want you to come out with the Health Officer . . . and see for yourselves. This case needs something done about it, and soon. . . . I can't describe just how really bad it is. You'll have to see for yourself.

Mrs. B. F. Durrick

Below is the original letter to the Lamar Democrat

Dear Madeleine:

I know you print the true facts in your paper, so I want you to print this. It's fine to help poor needy families, but some familys (sic) just won't help themselves and expect other people to feed and clothe them all the time. The Hannon Family you wrote about are this kind. The wife of this family is so lazy and filthy dirty all she does is sat (sic), or lay around and read magazines and smoke cigarettes, while the children are out begging for her books and magazines to read, or for something to eat. They wear their clothes until they're so filthy and dirty then they're thrown out in the yard. Their bedding and everything's done the same way. When the "father" makes any money, him and her goes straight to Liberal and spends it all on beer, cig's, and magazisne (sic) instead of food for them to eat. They have a bunch of old hound dogs around. They have tied up starving them to death.

Why does the county make people feed and take care of their livestock, and yet do nothing about these children, who's home is worse and more filthy than most people's barn or outside building? We the people of Hannon and community, think this family should be investigated and something done about it now.

You can't help them by just giving them food and clothing, cause in a very short time, the clothes will be thrown out in the yard like all the rest of the nice clothing that has been given them. People around here has carried in big boxes of clothing to them now for years and in no time, they don't have a thing to wear, and are out begging again. I think the people who don't know about the Williams should know whom they are giving to.

Investigate this family and you will find this is all true and a lot more even worse.

Hannon Neighbors

P.S. Madeleine, if you have any doubt about this all being true, drive out and visit. . . . Stop and talk to any neighbor close to Hannon or in Hannon. You will really get a story. The children are to be pitied. The way they have to live and do. I think they should be took away and put in homes. Then let her do the best she can or starve. The county can help that way lots better than just giving them food, etc. Another thing. If food is given them uncooked the children eat it raw, cause she's too lazy to cook it.

As it turned out, there was no need for "Madeleine" and her neighbors to travel over Hannon way to investigate the situation since the situation soon traveled to them. A year or so after the above article, the entire Williams herd moved, appropriately, to Lamar. And when they did, the relieved population of Hannon was reduced by roughly half. Without any kids to hold it up, the old hovel itself soon collapsed into a heap.

 (continued tomorrow)