After three days of hard rain that turned shallow creeks into raging rivers, made cow pastures treacherous to man or beast, and flooded roads and byways, the morning of January 10, 1949 broke frigid, with a blustery west wind spitting BB-sized sleet pellets from a gunmetal gray sky, snapping off tree limbs and cutting through winter clothes like a needle.
Harry Truman is president. World War II is over. The hoped-for post-war boom is Missing in Action, and here in the Missouri Ozarks it’s hard-scrapple times as usual. The wind moans in the elm tree beside the house as I bundle up on the back porch for the three-mile trek to school. An Army surplus overcoat, three buckle rubber boots, a wool cap with ear muffs should keep me warm, if the rain stops.
My older brother, Forrest, up since four o’clock to run his trap line changes into dry clothes, bolts down bacon and oatmeal and crosses the yard in long strides, “Whatcha waitin’ on, Asshole, Christmas?”
His name’s on the board at W.A. Rootes Wool & Fur in Tebbetts, showing a payment of $45.00 for a mink pelt he trapped and sold them. That’s why we wear new winter clothes. He’ll turn fourteen in February.
Uncle Jim, Momma’s brother, who’s lived with us since before she died, taps my shoulder, “Johnston’s dead. Beauregard needs ya.” Family lore says he was seven when he held horses at the Civil War Battle of Shiloh, in April, 1862. That makes him ninety-four if my arithmetic is right. Years later, I learned General Johnston, the Confederate commander, was killed the first day of that long-ago combat, and General P.G.T. Beauregard replaced him. Uncle Jim’s memories of that famous fight will follow him to his grave, I reckon.
Bacon grease caught fire while Dad cooked breakfast. He snuffed it out with baking powder and salt, but breathed in blue smoke. His cough follows me as I chase after Forrest. The horses that graze the 80-acres Dad share crops, stand head-to-rear beside our ramshackle barn. Crows, black specks against the gray sky, their caws blown away by the wind, head for roost in the cottonwoods behind our pond. Snow birds and chickadees peck at seeds our boots kick free from the frozen grass.
Angry flood water has washed away the footbridge we use to cross Layer Creek. We jump from boulder to slippery rock to get on the other side, icy water sucking at our boots. “Don’t fall, Turd,” Forrest says; “You’ll kill the fish.”
* * *
At school, coats are spread behind the coal stove in back of the room to dry, the smell of wet wool heavy in the steamy air. Most desks are empty. Some parents kept their kids home today. Not Dad. He says, “School’s an everyday thing. Go every day.”
With nervous eyes we watch through the schoolhouse windows as the sleet turns to snow, plastering trees and bushes white. At first recess we stay inside and play “I Spy.” Lunch is corn bread and bacon at our desks.
An eighth grader braves the weather to bring water from the well. “Snow’s up to a cow’s tits,” he says. We laugh. The teacher, Mrs. Maddox, says, “The weather may be foul, but we need not use such language to describe it.”
During fourth grade arithmetic the big maple next to the girl’s privy crashes to the ground, spraying slush into the air. Mrs. Maddox steps out on the porch to survey black storm clouds. She says, “The weather’s bad and getting worse. I’ll dismiss you now. Go straight home. School will be closed until the storm’s over.”
Forrest and I bundle up and head out, necks bowed against the strong wind. At Lal Hord’s store, Dad’s whistle stops us. We didn’t expect him. He’s piled groceries, dog food and a pair of 2-gallon coal oil cans on the store porch.
“Get matches?” Forrest asks. Details. That’s why his traps catch muskrats and raccoons, while other trapper’s go home with empty sacks.
“Yeah,” Dad says; “Hard winter storm’s comin’. Creeks ‘up everywhere. We’ll go home by the hog barns.” He swings a grocery sack up on his back. Forrest shoulders the dog food. I grab the coal oil cans. We’re off.
The path is muddy and slick. Snow melts on my face and trickles down my neck. At the top of Huffmaster’s Hill, I set the coal oil cans down to rub life back in my hands. “Bring home any books?” Dad’s face is red, his voice hoarse.
“Wish ya had. I like to hear ya read.”
“Your cough stopped?” I’ve worried about him all day.
“Yeah. But, picked up a headache.” He takes an oil can.
“You can’t carry everything,” I say; “Gimme the groceries.”
I’m sure he won’t, since I’m only nine and he’s oak-tree strong; “Okay. But only to the fence. I’ll feel stronger then.” Did I hear right or did the wind jumble his words?
* * *
Our path skirts the ridge, dips down to a small creek – what we call a branch – then runs along the fence line to the hog barns some three miles away. From there, we’ll cut through a patch of ash and oaks, up a small hill to our house. Dad and I trudge too slow for Forrest. He disappears into the scrub oaks and persimmon sprouts far ahead. I struggle like an ant under a leaf with the heavy grocery sack.
The only sounds are Dad’s heavy breathing and mud sucking at our boots. Every so often, the wind carries the crash of a falling tree. The snow is heavier here. There’s gotta be a better way, I think; Can we stow some stuff and get it later?
At the branch, Dad wades in and scrambles out on the other side, his overalls soaked; Doesn’t he know we’ve still a long away from home?
I tiptoe across on a fallen log and join Dad on a small knoll. He says, “Think Jim will have a fire goin’? He’s daffy as a six-year old one minute, solid as a rock the next. Once a man, twice a child,” Dad says of Uncle Jim. He was a blacksmith before he got too old to work. I hope today’s his rock day.
If hard work fed a family, we’d eat beef steak and coconut cake because Dad pours out of bed before the sun’s up to fix fence, cut brush, feed hogs, re-shingle barn roofs, shovel corn, and do hundreds of other chores. This past spring, he planted five acres of corn. At harvest time, rain and an early snow made the field too wet for Jim and Jude, our mules, to work the field. To salvage what corn he could, when the ground froze at night, he picked the stubby ears by lantern light.
The landlord tallied the costs for seed, manure, mule and wagon rental, and any other expense he could conjure up, then counted out $14.00 for Dad. Two days before Christmas. When the Boss Man drove away in his new Buick, Dad shoved his hands at me. Blood oozed from a callus on his left hand. His right thumb was purple and swollen; “Work with these and they treat you like a S.O.B. Pay attention in school, boy.”
Summer time, things are a little easier. Dad grows a good garden; so our plates are filled with fresh sliced tomatoes, lettuce, radishes, green onions, potatoes and fish — perch, catfish and crappie pulled from Layer Creek or a neighbor’s farm pond. Add in the occasional acorn-fat squirrel that Forrest kills, and we get fat. The rest of the year its beans, bacon, Karo syrup, and oatmeal bought from money Dad earns with his axe, shovel, and back.
Dad usually feeds a pack of Walker fox hounds, but he’s down to only three now. He could sell every dog he breeds, but he gives most of them away. Neighbors come often to get him to doctor a cow, or sick hog. They pay in promises, and sometimes canned goods or chickens. The closest electricity line is four miles away. Our water comes from a spring carried in buckets or barrels to the house. When nature calls, there’s a 2-hole privy out past the wood lot.
Mom died Christmas, 1941. She left Dad with six kids, two in diapers. Forrest was eight. I was thirty months. The three older girls escaped to the shoe factory in Fulton when they turned fifteen. A married sister in Kansas took our little sister,13 months old, to raise as her own. So it’s just the Three Petes at home: Pete, Repete and Little Pete. We live four miles northwest of Tebbetts, in Callaway County, Missouri.
I’m about to ask Dad if I can stow the groceries, when he turns to me, his face buttermilk blue. He makes a strangling noise and flops face down in the snow. I almost faint myself, “Dad! Dad!”
What happened? Why won’t he answer me? The urge to pee, puke, and move my bowels hits at the same time. Then, like I’m watching a picture show, this kid who looks like me, strips off his overcoat and runs to a walnut tree fifty feet away. He grabs two tree limbs and pushes them through the arm holes of his coat, fastens the buttons and runs back to Dad. Using this as a stretcher, the idiot tugs, pulls and cusses until Dad’s on high ground, under the tree.
The movie stops and it’s me who runs slipping and sliding down the slick path to a stand of trees on a far ridge where I last saw Forrest. I follow his boot marks into a thicket of oak and hickories. There’s a bag of dog food on a stump. He’s checking the trap he set here last week, I think. He answers my whoop, but it seems hours before he runs up, “Dad’s down. Can’t walk. Or talk.”
Forrest frowns. “How’d he get drunk so fast?”
“He’s not. He’s sick. Dying. He’s under the walnut tree at the branch.”
He doesn’t call me turd or ass hole or Baby Sister, like usual. He grabs the dog food, “Go, boy.”
* * *
Using the overcoat stretcher, we drag Dad to the fence line where shrubs and undergrowth give some protection from the wind and snow. Forrest cuts sassafras and persimmon limbs with his pocket knife. I rake leaves into a heap next to the fence. Forrest spreads dry dog food on this. We pile on cedar boughs, roll Dad onto his jerry-rigged bed and cover him with our coats. Forrest weaves the cut sprouts through the fence wire to form a lean-to. I run for the other coal oil can and grocery sack. I ask, “The cough hurt Dad’s heart?”
“Worse. His brain probably.” Forrest has a bloody welt across his right cheek. He splashes coal oil on tree bark and gets a fire going. When it flares, I see Dad’s ice-gray face, “We orphans?”
“If he dies.”
I wipe snot off Dad’s face with my shirt. He stirs and mumbles something.
“I don’t wanna be an orphan.”
“Reckon no one does.” Forrest touches my arm. “You’ll have to run for help.” Then, he does something he’s never done before, or since. He kisses me.
* * *
I don’t think. I just run. Uphill and down. Past brooding cedars, through buck brush and dark scrub oaks like I’m chasing fly balls at Sportsman’s Park where my beloved Cardinals play. The branch Dad and I crossed earlier, is red as a scraping vat at hog-butchering time. Tree limbs bob like fishing corks in the boiling water. I have to cross it. Too scared to think, I breathe deep and jump, dog paddling as fast as I can. A log pulls me under. I kick and claw, surface and get dunked again. I’m hooked. I flail and kick. My feet touch something. A fence.
I grab a fence post, push free of the log, and pull myself along the fence to a shallow water, wade through a pasture in knee-deep slosh to an old logging road. I slip and slide down this to Hord’s store in Tebbetts, where two of America’s greatest generation buy storm supplies.
Polly Burre’s one of them. He’s a fox hunter. He listens to my scrabbled words, then hands me pencil and paper. “Show me where they are.”
My hand shakes, so I can’t draw a straight line. Somewhere, I lost my cap and one shoe. My overalls are rags. I can hardly stand. Polly looks at my drawing, “We’ll find them. Gotta get you down, c’mon.”
His house is behind the store. His wife Gertie, takes one look at me, and starts a bath on the back porch. Polly changes into duck hunting clothes and pulls the tarp off a jeep he’s been restoring in the garage. He gases up and bounces off.
Gertie wraps me in a blanket and feeds me fried ham and potato cakes. If I speak, she shushes me, sniffles into her handkerchief, and hands me a ginger snap. We listen to Beulah and Fibber McGee and Molly on the radio. I think only of Forrest and Dad, wet and cold, Dad unable to walk or talk, and no moon or North Star to mark their location, no red fox bark to mimic, no night birds rustling in the bushes, only the hiss of green wood smoldering on a flickering fire and sleet pelting the brush and trees falling all around.
Polly and his helper have to travel at least five miles over washed-out roads to the hog barns. There, they have to drive through a stand of junipers, dodge old brush piles, and find Forrest and Dad with only my map as a guide. Why didn’t I go with them? Does the Jeep have good tires? How will they get Dad in the jeep when they get there? Will Forrest see their head lights and wave them down, or will his feet be so cold he can’t walk?
Whatever he did, it was the right thing, because those WW II vets loaded Dad up and drove snow-choked roads to the hospital in Fulton, like they were liberating Europe, splashing through ice and mud for thirty miles in a Jeep with no windshield or heater and a west wind that snapped hair off at the scalp.
Ten days later, Dad, his right side paralyzed, his words jumbled by his stroke, left the hospital. He lived because a son stayed beside him during a blizzard, rubbed his feet and arms to keep blood circulating, spread hot ashes over him to keep him from freezing, and held him close when they jolted over rocks and ruts on the way to the hospital.
The only time Forrest and I ever spoke of that night, he said he dozed off once, and Dad rolled onto the fire, snuffing it out, “It was a bitch gettin’ it goin’ again with wet wood and damp matches. But I’ll tell you, Little Sister, baloney roasted over an open fire is good chow. If you’re starved.”
* * *
Our older brother, Russell, came home on emergency leave from the Army. He didn’t know Dad was in Fulton, so he braved snow banks and blocked roads to get home. There, he found Uncle Jim and the dogs, and brought them to safety. Two days before Dad was dismissed from the hospital, I went with him to the old homestead. Forrest stayed in Fulton, “I didn’t lose nothing there.”
Russ and I park at the hog barns and head through knee-deep snow to the house. Russ says, “You’ll have to move to town. The Ol’ Man can’t live here paralyzed.” Who will I live with? Where will I go to school? Will they play baseball there? I don’t ask, just walk.
Russ says, “Polly inquired about the dogs. I gave ’em to him. The least we can do, since he got Dad to the hospital.” That’s fine with me. His wife Gertie bakes good ginger snaps.
“Uncle Jim gonna live with a cousin,” Russ says; “He needs better care than we can give him.” I didn’t know Uncle Jim had other family. Will he have a wood stove to sleep behind, hunkered against the wall, the ghosts of Shiloh to talk with?
I ask, “Dad’s cough cause his stroke?”
“Docs say he had a blood clot on the left side of his brain. Nothing else.”
Inside, the house it’s cold. A window pane blew out and one room is half-filled with snow. Our furniture looks crippled. The ceiling wallpaper bulges like a nasty blister. The smell of mice and rats is strong.
I put Indian arrowheads into a box with my ball glove and Dad’s razor and shaving mug. Outside, the elm tree that shaded the front porch is shredded, limbs scattered across the yard. Dad’s cherry trees are black sticks in the snow, their branches buried along the fence line, but the cedar tree next to the smoke house stands green and regal against the blue sky.
Russ says, “When I was here the other day it almost touched the ground weighed down by snow and ice. Now, it stands straight.” I smile. It reminds me of Forrest. I head toward the car, carrying my cardboard box of belongings.
* * *
Some fifty years later, my son and I visited Forrest just before he died. He took us to the American Legion club, “Some of these old boys can’t afford three squares,” he said; “I buy ‘em breakfast and coffee. If one of ‘em puts a beer or a shot on my tab, who gives a shit?”
A former Marine himself, minus a leg that diabetes took, Forest is wheelchair-bound. He motions me to bend down, “Somethin’ I never told you about that night, Little Sister. At the hospital, a nurse brought me the Old Man’s overalls. A sack fell out. In it was two hundred and nine bucks. Cost $185 to get him out of the hospital. When I asked Dad why he had this money, the best I could make out he was goin’ to buy an acre of ground for $250.00 and start a dog kennel.”
Forest throws his head back and roars, “Hell, we almost went from share croppers to land owners. Won’t that’a been a hoot?”
After a career successfully writing sales literature and marketing materials, Pete Peterson turned to fiction and nonfiction writing. His articles have appeared, or will appear in NAID News, Shred Magazine, Tell Us A Story, Kansas City Star, Coast News and other publications. He was a finalist in the 2014 and 2015 Faulkner Foundation Writer’s Competition. He lives in Southern California.