Mrs. Brown and the Walk Uptown

Hits: 68
April 1, 2018 · Posted in Commentary 

Ralls County Courthouse, New London, Missouri

Baylis Glascock

Mrs. Brown was my seventh-grade teacher, a single mother of two, who dressed in the straight skirts of the day with matching jackets. It was 1953. She occasionally spoke of her late husband. He had died unexpectedly of a heart attack. She drove a ’49 Ford, lived in Hannibal, and drove the ten miles to New London and back each day, bringing the two children with her. While having little occasion to discuss politics in the classroom, she did make known, more than once during the year, her profound dislike of Harry S. Truman for having fired General MacArthur, whom she regarded as a true American hero and patriot. I had no opinion about MacArthur, but my father, having taken the train to Washington, D.C., for Truman’s inauguration, and having had seating within about 75 feet of the ceremony, quite a bit closer than county assessor Jack Briscoe, who perceived himself to be well connected in Democratic political circles, made Dad speak of Truman with great respect. Also, Truman, like George Washington, was a Mason: Dad was a 32nd degree Mason and Grand Master of the local Masonic Lodge. So, I did have a generally positive feeling about the 33rd president, but I never made a point of making my preferences in the matter known.

These were the years in which the new grade school was being built at the edge of town, next to the Cerf Bros. bag factory and the water tower. The new gymnasium having been completed before the classrooms, P.E. classes were being shuttled from the old school to the new gym by school bus, usually operated by Merle Winnaker, the vocational ag teacher. This is not a matter of great importance, except to say that things were in flux. The new building would be an exciting place. Opulent by comparison to the old red brick thing right across the street from a blacksmith, whose trip hammer we could hear from time to time, as he shaped a piece of red-hot iron. The old building, containing all eight grades and high school, was only a long block from the Ralls County Court House, and two blocks from Highway 19, which bisected New London.

For some reason Mrs. Brown decided that the seventh grade would make a brief walking tour of the business district, to gain, perhaps, an insight into the workings of the community. It was only a short walk, and honestly, we already knew where things were, because we lived here, but she was from out of town. For me the only really new experience was seeing the linotype machine with which John Porter Fisher, Sr., set type for each weekly issue of the Ralls County Record, for which he was editor, publisher, manager, and sales clerk. This is important because my first published work appeared in the December 1946 Letters to Santa column.

We did stop in at the Co-Op, where you could get all kinds of feed, seed, fuel, farm supplies of all kinds. You could bring in a load of grain and have it milled and mixed with supplements. There were assorted agricultural chemicals like DDT and d-CON to kill rats. Stuff like that. Cousin Roberta was the bookkeeper. It turned out that an outside audit revealed that she had embezzled slightly over four thousand dollars, quite a sum of money. To save our family name, Uncle Rec was called upon to reimburse the Co-Op, so no charges were filed. In a small town, things get worked out. Uncle Rec was a bachelor, still had every dollar he ever earned. I always wondered why he only gave me a quarter for Christmas: I thought it should have been a dollar.

We walked past the movie theater. I had gone there one recent afternoon with my brother Stevie and Bob German, the projectionist. We went upstairs to the projection booth. I was shocked to discover that the balcony where black people sat had wooden benches instead of individual theater seats.

We visited the post office, old hat for me, because Dad was the postmaster. I often went there after school if Mom was in town to do some shopping. A few months previously, as I sat in back where mail was sorted reading Popular Science magazine, of which there always seemed to be several recent copies, I observed my younger brother John, a second grader, to be very focused and busy writing on a sheet paper, then folding, followed by a flurry of stapling. I watched as he placed the completed document where it would be noticed. Drawn to it by the sheer energy of its creation I read the cover: Top Secret – Do Not Open, stapled on all edges. I dutifully tore it open as he watched with a sly smile on his face. The message read:

“Fuck Shit Damn Hell.” All the bad words he knew how to spell. I was impressed by his audacity and imagination.

Next door to the post office was the Made Rite Potato Chip factory, run by Slim Williams, whose jaw had been broken three years earlier by Arlen German, proprietor of the dry cleaners, for taking in clothes for a competing dry cleaner from Hannibal, but that’s another story. Slim went from one of his several skills to another. He had built the room that became my bedroom onto the west side of our house in 1947, laid new oak flooring, and installed our life-changing first ever indoor toilet with bathtub and shower. Slim’s wife was our route’s school bus driver. She had slapped the twelve-year-old son of Uncle Rec’s hired hand for uttering words of disrespect in response a perceived insult. The next morning the hired hand was waiting for the bus holding a shotgun. He told her to keep her goddamned hand off his kids. Of course, the sheriff had to drop by and have a chat with the hired hand. That was the end of it. The potato chip factory was astonishingly small. Twelve by thirty feet, two people worked scooping chips into small Made Rite labeled bags and stapling them closed. No mystery there. We were in and out in five minutes. No samples were given: business wasn’t all that good.

Next door was Doreman’s Harness Shop closed on account of Mr. Doreman having been knocked down by an intoxicated dolt across the street in front of Pinefetty’s Bar on a Sunday afternoon the year before. Mr. Doreman fell backward into the street. Died of a concussion on the spot. There was a coroner’s inquest but no charges filed. I should have seen the whole thing, it happened right in front of where I was sitting in our ’49 Hudson, but I was unawares, listening to the Sunday New York Philharmonic broadcast on the radio. Mr. Doreman had made a full set off harness for Dad’s team of dapple-gray mares about the time I was in the first grade. One of the tugs broke in the horse-pulling contest at Center, and Nelly, Dad’s favorite fell to her knees. Dad was terribly upset, his team looked like it would take first place. Mr. Dorman was terribly upset about it. He remade the tugs at no cost. But, the horse-pulling contest was over.

Further down the street was the Kroger store, but everybody already knew about that, too. The coffee grinder was near the front of the store so the place was often permeated with the agreeable smell of fresh ground coffee. And Naylor’s Fountain and Drugstore, where Dad had coffee and toast every morning after getting the mail out. Then there was Thomas Hardware where they sold plumbing supplies and tools, Youngstown brand steel kitchen cabinets, toilets and sinks, copper pipe, various kinds of cable, wire, rope, all manner of electrical fuse boxes, circuit breakers and such, shovels, picks, axes, corn knives, assorted pocket knives, all manner of woodworking tools and sharpening stones, bolts and screws. A couple of years later I would work the entire summer at Thomas Hardware, as Bud Stroud’s helper. Bud was a plumber, electrician, and what have you. He could do most anything. I enjoyed working with him. He had a few interesting things to tell me about his time in the U.S. Navy during WWII. He worked in the confined space of the torpedo room of a submarine. It made me think I would have suffered from claustrophobia, but he handled it just fine. He told me that the torpedo fuel was one hundred percent pure grain alcohol. He and his mates would cut the stuff with water and get loaded from time to time. Bud was a pretty straightforward guy. Honest hardworking family man. We installed a toilet, Youngstown enameled steel kitchen cabinets, and new sink at a home in Center; installed an indoor bathroom out southwest of town for a World War One vet who seemed to live on tobacco juice. Spat into a can all the time. The old guy seemed pretty spent to me, but kind of lively at the same time: given his condition, a real talker. We also delivered bottles of propane gas to customers: remove the empty tank and attach a full one. We delivered gas south of town one afternoon where the kitchen was a lean-to on the back of the house. These were poor people, like I didn’t know existed in Ralls County. I couldn’t quite believe it. We didn’t go inside the house: Bud said there was an inch of dirt on top of the wood floors, that’s how ignorant these folks were.

Thomas Hardware had been operated by Mr. Thomas and his wife, Idella. I only had one occasion to meet Mr. Thomas. He had been asked to coach a local little league team on the grounds behind the new school. I showed up like a dozen and a half others, vaguely my age. While pitching part of an inning I was hit in the chest by a line drive: a painful, disorienting, and humiliating experience. Mr. Thomas then assigned me to play first base. The very next play was ordinary enough: a bouncing ball inside the third base line, caught by the third baseman, thrown to me at first. I missed the throw: it hit me in the mouth. I was a mess. Bleeding, bruised, dazed, and twice humiliated as I was, Mr. Thomas drove me home, just those two miles west of town on Highway 19. He pulled into the driveway and stopped. As I got out he told me to take it easy and rest for a while. That was the end of my baseball career. My life options were being whittled down right before my eyes. Mr. Thomas had a heart attack and died a few months later. So, it was Idella Thomas for whom I was working, a hardnosed store manager, who promptly rejected my request for a raise, midway through the summer of my apprenticeship. “You’re not learning fast enough where things are,” she said. “People come in and you can’t tell them where fuses are. You have a ways to go.” She was paying me sixty-five cents an hour and I was trying to put together enough money to buy a Bozak speaker for the hi-fi I was building.

A manufacturers’ rep for plumbing supplies came through every few weeks. Bud Stroud said the man slept over in Idella’s apartment upstairs above the store. I asked how he knew. He said when it snowed overnight, there wouldn’t be any snow under the Cadillac parked in front of the store.

Further down the street was Lonnie Nichols’ Liquor store, where Dad bought his whiskey: mostly Old Crow. Dad kept a bottle in the post office bathroom medicine cabinet, one under the kitchen sink at home, one in the smoke house, and one on the back porch. Probably kept Lonnie in business. We didn’t go in there.

We did stop in at the Ralls County State Bank. Aunt Sue, Mom’s sister, was the head cashier. She pretty much managed the bank, except for making loans. She ran a tight ship with never a slipup. Dad had introduced her to the banker right after she finished high school in 1945. Dad was, after all, on the bank’s board of directors, and had been one of the dozen initial investors, which is not to suggest that there was any favoritism involved or that we were rich. Aunt Sue had a bit of luck, but so did the bank. She stayed there her whole working life, never had a single other job. Many years later, long after I had fled for other places, and Aunt Sue retired, her daughter came to work for the bank as a teller. She began secretly making weekend loans to herself from the cash drawer for her vocation as a riverboat gambler. That worked for her until her winning streak ended and she couldn’t replenish the borrowed cash before business opened on Monday morning. It turns out that I come from a family of embezzlers.

We didn’t visit Hunter Hulse’s feed store opposite the Court House either. Not much to Hunter’s place: the south wall was lined with stacks of various kinds of ground feed and feed supplements. Hunter’s was sort of an unofficial Democratic Headquarters, an institution, where matters large and small were endlessly discussed. There was an American Flag and the flag for the State of Missouri, pictures on the wall of assorted Democratic senators, congressmen, and governors, and, of course, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman. All signed, some with personal best wishes to Hunter. In the back of the store were several old round oak dining tables, the kind with claw feet around a center column. Old men came here every day to play pinochle, or cribbage. My Grandfather had played here. Dad would stop in to say hello. There were always six or eight old timers. They swapped stories, commented on the world passing by, enjoying each other’s company. Once in a while somebody would come in and buy some feed.

At the end of the block, also facing the Court House was Bob Bonnell’s Garage and Ford dealership, with its inventory of three new Ford cars. Several of the employees were black men. I was with Dad one evening, near Christmas time. The garage was closed, and the men were shooting craps. Dad had been drinking that evening and had a half pint of Old Crow in his pocket. He took out his bottle and passed it around. Dad was a man ahead of his time in certain ways. The class didn’t visit Bonnell’s either. Everybody knew what a garage was about.

We went through the Court House. Looked into the assessor’s office, and the County Registrar’s Office where we said hello to Virgil McGowan: Mom said it was Virgil who was in bed with Dad’s first when Dad unexpectedly returned home one afternoon. Of course, I didn’t learn about that until fifty years later. Upstairs we stepped into the grand courtroom, which looked pretty much as it must have the first time a gavel called a court into session almost a century before. It was rather stately in a modest way, the white walls, the American Flag, and the State of Missouri Flag at either side of the bench. A large bookcase full of ancient law books stood against the south wall. I wondered if anyone ever consulted them. I can’t imagine why, but I can recall attending a community sing in this room, in the mid 1940s.

Down the hall, directly in back of the courtroom, was the Selective Service Office, run by Mrs. Hoffmyer, Becky Shelburn’s grandmother. For some reason, never known to me, Becky, who was in my class, had always lived with her grandmother, a smart and funny woman who seemed to like me, and who stamped my draft card some years later, extending my draft liability to age thirty-five. There must have been some brief moment in the second or third grade when I had a crush on Becky. I did ask her out on a date when I was in high school. It was a triple date, with Jim and Sandra Sue Lemon: odd and strange. We stopped off at the Lemon residence on the way home from the movie. Their home was at the end of a long driveway, and the car mysteriously ran out of gas halfway there. I was unaccustomed to such ruses and it took a while for me to pick up on the theme. It didn’t matter. As unaggressive as I was, my cordiality was sternly rejected. Soon enough, the car miraculously started and we all had apple pie in the Lemon’s kitchen.

We exited the Court House through the back door and walked as a group to the Sheriff’s Office across the street. Next to the Methodist Church. The sheriff greeted us warmly, spoke to us for a couple of minutes, then showed us through a steel door into the jail. One medium sized room with two cells to the left side. I was the last one to the door, and for some reason, utterly without forethought or malice, as a joke, stepped back and closed the door to the jail. It was a solid steel door with a small window. The door clicked when it closed and I ran out the front door, thinking it was a funny thing to have done. But the door was locked and the Sherriff was inside with the entire seventh grade class and Mrs. Brown. And although the Sheriff had a key, he could not reach the latch. I had stepped outside into the lawn to bask in the sunlight of my cleverness. Pretty soon there was yelling for me to come back and set everyone free. The Sheriff was pretty embarrassed. Since nobody was injured or anything, I thought it was kind of a cool thing to have done. But Mrs. Brown was really pissed off. The walk back to the schoolhouse was very quiet, and the incident was never mentioned or spoken of again.

 

Baylis Glascock was  born 1941 to a childhood of servitude on a Missouri farm.  Was interested in radio and television in his youth.  In 1957 he talked his way into a personal tour of the Walt Disney Studio, later worked there on TRON and other projects.  In 1961 while a student at University of Missouri made an extra-curricular three minute silent film which he describes as “a montage of sophomoric sexual metaphors.” Screened at the Columbia Mo. Public Library Cinema Club, it was perceived by one member of the audience as pornographic (it wasn’t) and it had to be shown to the chief of police.  His essay for a University of Missouri Philosophy Class assignment was described by the teacher  as “clever” and asked him to read it to the class.  June of 1961 he headed for LA to study cinema.   He made a several documentaries about artist Sister Corita Kent, two of which are in the Collection of Centre Pompidou; photographed documentaries on Henry Miller, Anais Nin,  R. Buckminster Fuller, and Willem de Kooning. He Is a Lifetime Member of the Motion Picture Editors Guild. 

Comments

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.