Sunday, September 09, 2012

XXIII. Are we there yet

       All night their sleep was punctuated by the shrill clatter of rails and the foghorn bellowing of trains blasting through Pierce City’s innards, the reverberant echoes rebounding off the rocky ridge at their backs so that the sounds fully and inescapably enveloped them before slowly trailing away down the Clear Creek Valley. By morning they were still weary and unrested but there was no help for it. The menfolk slipped away to town for a shave and groceries while the women tidied up, perhaps wondering why they weren’t allowed the same luxuries, though if Sadie harbored such thoughts she never set them to paper.

They followed the valley in its southeasterly course toward Monett where they turned south to parallel the tracks of the St. Louis and San Francisco. At the time it was a fairly sizable town with a population over 4,000, now twice that and disagreeably modern. Its lifeblood was the railroad which brought prosperity and growth especially in agricultural products such as livestock, tomatoes, apples and Ozark strawberries, the latter making it for a time the “Strawberry Capital of the Midwest.” Monett had a full-scale Harvey House and Hotel which operated at the depot, a magnificent YMCA and a darker past that would forever be known as the Trail of Tears, Manifest Destiny’s wretched excess in land planning that saw the forced removal of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee-Creek and Seminole tribes. 

We sidetracked into the city to size it up and found ourselves wanting nothing more than to follow Sadie toward what awaited her and the others. In most ways it could have been any burgeoning city in the United States whether north, south, east or west, a cardboard cutout of a cloned suburbia whose architecture and character could never rise above bland. 

The land itself was achingly beautiful, and changing rapidly. To the east no more than a handful of miles the land splintered in ridges and valleys spiderwebbed with clear cold springs and sluggish creeks, with rounded wooded knolls and rocky bluffs and shadowed hollows. Here and there caves offered a portal into the underworld. The Ozark Plateau and the South were upon them and the topography was one of verticality. 

For now Sadie and the others skirted its westernmost flanks. The road’s grade was fairly level as it followed the railroad tracks but it was hard and stony nevertheless. “We have gone over the rockiest road I ever saw, and we had it all day too,” Sadie wrote that evening while huddled under the canvas rigging. They rolled past a Waldensian Church and the aptly-named Goodnight Cemetery, the New Salem Church, churches seemingly on every corner and each with its own flavor of Christendom, and entered Purdy late in the afternoon. It had been a difficult slog and the number of miles covered were few. By then Sadie was limping after jumping out of the wagon and stumbling to her knees.

The town was the opposite of neighboring Monett. It had never amounted to much, never thrived or grown much past its original boundaries, but a modicum of town spirit remained in a new park and the beginning of an upscale downtown business block. The manager of a new coffee bar saw us taking photos of the water tower and invited us inside to view the historic photographs lining the walls. Due to generous investments from a prominent citizen, he said, businesses were expressing interest in the town. Indeed, the place appeared to be waking from a long deep slumber, but underneath it was a troubling (to me, at least) history of fundamentalism run amok. 

According to a New York Times article dated April 17, 1990, a group of students and parents lost a suit seeking to overturn a ban on school dances. The uproar followed the school board’s decision to allow a century-old ban to stand after a group of ministers fought to preserve the ban in the predominantly fundamentalist population. Though the suit went all the way to the Supreme Court, the Court refused to hear the challenge. A federal district judge in Missouri classified the ban as an unconstitutional establishment of religion. “This was a case about religious tyranny,” another judge said. No matter, the case went down in flames. A school board member was quoted saying “You better hope there’s never a separation of God and school.” 

That I find this so distasteful and frightening belies my roots when I used the selfsame argument as a means to remove myself from an equally distasteful school function. After learning that my fourth grade class was to take up square dancing lessons, I was excused from the activities by a note from our pastor which elaborated on our beliefs regarding the fervent dangers of adolescent contact with members of the opposite sex. Dancing was merely one of innumerable sins that would cartwheel scofflaws into the darkest depths of the flaming abyss, we were inculcated. Playing cards was another, though my parents dismissed the notion so long as we weren’t playing poker. I learned early on to manipulate fundamentalism when it served my ends and to ignore it when it didn’t, and finally gave up on it entirely as being stifling and neurotic.  

Two miles south of Purdy Sadie and the others made camp in a small stand of trees. Clouds that had been building all day burst as they were eating supper. 

“It rained and hailed real hard,” she wrote. “We are not wet yet but may all be drowned by morning. The water is running down the road like a creek.”

Sadie, Fred and Lucile managed to stay dry though the others weren’t so fortunate. “The rest of the folks are real wet,” she wrote. “They are not as well prepared for rain as we are.”  

Sitting there in the cramped closed quarters of the wagon, rain thundering on the canvas, Sadie nursed her bruised knees and rehashed the day’s journey. The pages of her diary were slightly sodden from the humidity and the lantern low, the little flame dancing as flames dance regardless of the strictures imposed by intolerance and fear, her pencil poised as a final thought unfolded through her weariness and pain. Behind her Fred softly snored and Lucile bundled in her blankets barely stirred while she alone remained alert to her own recollections, lost in an unremitting desire to leave something to posterity, a note to a future relative who might look back to find her there in a torrential darkness like none other on the edge of the Ozark Plateau, brow slightly furrowed, pencil raised in a long moment’s hesitation before dropping to scribble her deepest heart’s yearning.

“I will be glad when we get somewhere,” she wrote, and closing the covers of her diary snuffed the lantern.

(To be continued)

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