The Great Storm


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Forgotten Storm

In a week when the news is full of terrible storms, I found myself reading this book in preparation for work on a future novel. The deadliest tornado (by far) in American history, this tornado killed at least 695 people as it raced through Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana for more than 200 miles, the longest tornado in history.

My family moved to Annapolis, Missouri, the first town destroyed by the Tri-State Tornado, in 1965, and at that time, forty years after the event, there were people around who had lived through it. I particularly remember hearing the story of the tornado from Mr. Vincent Sutton, a kindly gentleman who went to our church and had served as the mayor of the town for many years. His memory was of how fast the tornado arrived, and how little time anyone had to act.

In an era of satellite weather forecasting and instant telecommunication, it’s hard to recall what a tornado would have been like in 1925. This book (which, by the way, is written by a meteorologist and probably best appreciated by fellow meteorology fanatics) describes the arrival of the storm to the many towns it devastated. People going about their ordinary business, children at school, workers on the job, families at home; occasionally a sense of unease at the size of the gathering clouds; then the storm’s unimaginably swift onslaught.

Imagine an F5 tornado appearing over the horizon, traveling at seventy miles an hour, a path of devastation more than a mile wide, and no word of warning or sirens, because such a system had not yet been invented. No wonder the people who lived through this storm talked about it in tones of awe.


An Ozarks Eccentric Passes


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I’ve written about Chief Wana Dubie before, but this weekend came the news that he had died. You’re only an eccentric until everybody comes round to your way of thinking, and the gradual spread of legalized marijuana around the country might presage the movement of the Chief from crank to prophet.

A scholarly presentation I once attended made the point that the Ozarks’ “mind your own business” mentality allows truly scary people to flourish in its hollows. Witness the neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups that set up quarters in the region from time to time. But minding one’s own business also leaves room for the colorful personalities to inhabit. I prefer a lawn that has some dandelions to one that’s a uniform green.

The Humble PawPaw


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My friend Darren Osburn sent me this photo of some unripe pawpaws recently, which got me thinking. I remember eating pawpaws as a youngster; I liked the taste, which vaguely resembled that of a banana, but the seeds had to be worked around. A crude but reasonably effective way of telling when they’re ripe is to watch for raccoon scat—once you start to see pawpaw seeds in it, you know the pawpaws are ready. As with persimmons, eating an unripe one is a mistake made only once.

My mom used to sing “Way Down Yonder in the Paw Paw Patch,” which some of you may remember. It’s a children’s tune about poor little Susie (or Nellie in other versions), who is way down yonder, etc., picking up pawpaws and putting them in her pocket, accompanied by hand gestures to match. Poor little Nellie had the good sense to pick the pawpaws off the ground, which meant that they were ripe, rather than off the tree.

My reading tells me that the pawpaw is the largest indigenous native fruit in North America and that chilled pawpaws were one of George Washington’s favorite desserts. There is also a dinosaur called the Pawpawsaurus, so named not because it dined on pawpaws (although it was a herbivore), but because its fossils were found in a rock formation in Texas known as the Paw Paw Formation. Still, I like the idea of pawpawsauruses roaming the earth in bygone times.


Virgin Pine


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virgin pine postcard

Postcard from the Boston Public Library.

On a recent float trip, I drove down Highway 19 south of Salem, through the 41 acres known as Missouri’s Virgin Pine Forest. I remember being taken here as a kid, not really understanding what “virgin forest” meant—to me they just looked like regular pine trees.

Since then, I’ve visited the forest several times. There’s a two-mile drive that departs from the highway, passes through the grove, and goes a little way into the Pioneer Forest, the owner of the Virgin Pine Forest. (The highway is paved now, unlike in that historic postcard, although it still has the same stomach-wrenching twists and turns.)

For a time I doubted whether the forest had really remained uncut all these years; it’s not inaccessible, and it is located in the heart of timber country which was utterly decimated by pine loggers in the late 1880s. But this pamphlet from the L-A-D Foundation, which owns and manages the Pioneer Forest along with a lot of other Ozark land, cites research showing that some of the trees indeed predate the logging era, so I guess I’ll have to quiet my doubt, although the pamphlet is carefully worded. You’ll see considerable debate online as to whether the preservation of some old-growth trees means that the tract is truly “virgin,” i.e., uncut. It’s clear that a lot of the trees in the tract are recent growth, so I suppose it depends on what you mean by the word “virgin.” Never touched by human hands? No way. Having some trees that escaped the logging era? Looks like it.

I’d still like to know how those trees escaped the timber cutters. As far as I’m aware, the only other “virgin timber” in the state dating back to the 1700s is in cemeteries, private home lots, and other such areas where commercial lumbering was not possible.

Photo from



Civil War History Brought Home


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HistoryHere’s a marvelous story from the Quincy Herald-Whig about my friend Scott Giltner and how he brings home the Civil War to his students. I’ve seen both Scott and his colleague Patrick Hotle teach; they’re exceptionally gifted, and the history department at Culver-Stockton College has long been one of its jewels.

We in the history-novel game often speak despondently about the lack of interest in history among the young; in some ways, it’s a natural phenomenon, as people’s interest in history grows as they become more a part of it themselves. But a good history teacher can spark that interest, and this article shows one good way of doing it—by bringing history home, helping students discover that history is not just a distant recitation of kings and armies, but something that happened in their own home town as well.


Patriotic Songs – 4


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James Cagney as George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy

July 4 is about the only day most of us hear “The Yankee Doodle Boy,” which is more often called “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and our hearing it comes mainly from the 1942 film Yankee Doodle Dandy, in which James Cagney portrays George M. Cohan, the song’s author. It’s not high art, this song, but it’s worth reviewing if for no other reason than the mythology it incorporates. And besides, it’s irresistibly catchy!

The song comes from a 1904 Broadway musical written by Cohan, Little Johnny Jones. Very loosely based on the exploits of Tod Sloan, one of the most famous jockeys of the day, the musical tells the story of an American jockey who rises to fame and then travels to England, where he rides a horse named Yankee Doodle to victory in the English Derby. Thus the line in which “Yankee Doodle came to London just to ride the ponies” makes sense within the musical although most of us scratch our heads over it nowadays. (In real life, sadly, Sloan’s venture in the Derby ended in tragedy, when his horse inexplicably pulled up, broke its leg, and had to be put down.)

Today we only hear the chorus, which is oddly repetitious, repeating “Yankee Doodle” six times. Here are the lyrics of the verses, taken from Wikipedia:

Verse 1

I’m the kid that’s all the candy, 
I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy,
I’m glad I am,
So’s Uncle Sam.
I’m a real live Yankee Doodle,
Made my name and fame and boodle,
Just like Mister Doodle did, by riding on a pony.
I love to listen to the Dixie strain,
I long to see the girl I left behind me;
That ain’t a josh,
She’s a Yankee, by gosh.
Oh, say can you see,
Anything about a Yankee that’s a phony?

Verse 2

Father’s name was Hezikiah,
Mother’s name was Ann Maria, 
Yanks through and through.
Red, White and Blue
Father was so Yankee-hearted,
When the Spanish war was started,
He slipped on a uniform and hopped upon a pony.
My mother’s mother was a Yankee true,
My father’s father was a Yankee too:
That’s going some,
For the Yankees, by gum.
Oh, say can you see
Anything about my pedigree that’s phony?

In the first verse, Little Johnny Jones combines North and South; although he identifies as Southern by loving the strains of “Dixie,” his girl is a Yankee, i.e., a Northerner. In the second verse, he combines Jew and Gentile; his father’s name is distinctly Old Testament, while his mother’s “Ann Maria” is about as Catholic as they come. Thus Johnny Jones is a thoroughly mixed-blooded American, who travels to Old England to both charm and vanquish the stodgy Old-Worlders.

The somewhat naive braggadocio of Johnny Jones, who proclaims himself “all the candy” (that is, he’s hot stuff) lines up with American folk heroes from Paul Bunyan to Mike Fink to Muhammad Ali. But in identifying himself as the amalgam of geographies and cultures, he also reminds us of the American ideal of inclusiveness and incorporation. And the bouncy tune is as hummable as they come, like Cohan’s other great songs, such as “Harrigan,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” and “Over There.”

Here are links to my earlier appreciations of patriotic songs: “God Bless America,” “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and, less appreciatively, “God Bless the U.S.A.”

Favorite Ozarks People – 14


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Menne office

The former office of Dr. Marvin Menne in Ironton. Looks like it’s a Goodwill store now, or at least it was when this Google Street View image was taken.

Marvin Menne was my family doctor from the time I was about ten (I tried to find a photo of the good doctor himself, but was unsuccessful–who knew that someone could be that far off the grid these days?) I was a tolerably healthy kid, but had the usual number of youthful ailments and necessary check-ups, so I suppose my medical involvement was pretty typical.

Dr. Menne’s office, as you can tell from this photo, was modest. A small waiting room in front, a receptionist/appointment setter behind the counter, a couple of examining rooms, and then an office and a room for more involved procedures, which I rarely saw the inside of, thank goodness. It was the office of a small-town GP, not far removed from the Norman Rockwell illustrations.

Dr. Menne had a vaguely mournful expression much of the time, the expression of someone who’s seen too many broken limbs and lives. But I recall that even as a child, he would square himself up to me, sit, and listen, until I had told him everything I had to say. Only then would he prompt me with further questions or continue with his examination.

In today’s overheated discussions of health care, we romanticize the small-town doctor, who made house calls, accepted chickens as payment, or what have you. Let’s remember that the modern health care system has resulted in a high level of care, far beyond what my small-town doctor was capable of, and overall health has been improving. Instead of a chicken, today’s poor rural patient brings a Medicaid card. But the necessity of caring remains, and I have a feeling that doctors like Marvin Menne can be found all over rural areas just as in my childhood. With the election of a doctor from Mountain Grove to the presidency of the American Medical Association, this is a year to think seriously about the state of health care in rural America. Here’s a hint: It’s not good.


Queen Anne’s Lace


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David Stonner

Photo courtesy Missouri Department of Conservation

The roadside has sent me to my copy of Missouri Wildflowers quite a bit lately. Summer flowers tend to be more nondescript than spring ones–the delicate pinks and purples are replaced by rangy, white or yellow flowers whose names, unfortunately, I forget from one year to the next: feverfews and teasels, the sort of plant that often has “weed” in its name.


Hedge parsley – Photo from Pittsburg State University, Pittsburg, KS

These roadside plants rarely make anyone’s list of favorite wildflowers; we see them from our car windows as a blur. But as these close-up photos show, they have a delicacy of construction that rewards examination. Umbels within umbels, twining and wiry stems, curiously wrought flowers that often nest among brambles.

White snakeroot

White snakeroot in extreme closeup.

What to say about these plants besides the obvious? That there is beauty in the common, beauty that repays attention, and that you have to get out of your car and stomp into the weeds in order to find it. On my wall hangs a watercolor with the marvelous verse from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Inversnaid”:

What would the world be, once bereft

Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,

O let them be left, wildness and wet;

Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

Myths and Mythmakers


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Albino Farm

The Legend of the Albino Farm, by Steve Yates

I finished Steve Yates’ intriguing and inventive The Legend of the Albino Farm yesterday and have been pondering it since. Like all of Steve’s books, it brims with sentences that surprise and descriptions that engage. Its central character, Hettienne Sheehy, compels our attention with her multi-edged personality and lapses into premonitory trance. But at its heart, I think it’s a book about our propensity for mythmaking.

I’ve heard Steve describe this book as a horror story turned inside out, and that’s an apt description. Imagine a horror story in which the focus is on the presumed monster, and in which the “monster” turns out to be nothing of the sort. That’s the situation of the “Albino Farm,” which I am told is a long-standing Springfield ghost story/urban legend about a farm on the northern outskirts of the city. The only monsters in The Legend of the Albino Farm are the townsfolk and rowdies, snoopers and idle curious, who trespass on the farm to get a look at its inhabitants, deface its buildings, and terrorize the old folks.

We make up stories to entertain ourselves, and as a storyteller I honor that impulse. But there’s a dark side to this tendency, which we see in people’s stunning willingness to believe all sorts of wild nonsense without evidence (my Facebook news feed testifies to this) and to construct the worst possible explanation for something we don’t understand. Our love for story is also a love for gossip and ugliness sometimes, unfortunately, and we warp toward the tawdry all too often.