It Happened One Night in Poplar Bluff

The Not-So-Great Missouri Robbery

Clipping of the newspaper article from The Daily American Republic in Poplar Bluff, MO.

Poplar Bluff, Missouri, is the kind of small town that rural America is made of. P.B. (what the locals call it) is just past the Bootheel after you drive out of Arkansas. There is one high school—the Home of the Mules—so generations of children grow up together. It is the kind of place where the names in the newspaper mean something to you. If you didn’t run into someone you knew, you’d run into someone who knew someone you knew. Violent crime is out-of-character for this town that isn’t on every map, and is often mispronounced by city slicking anchors as “Popular Bluff.”

A lot of the outdoorsy residents like to go to Black River to hang out, and Wal-Mart is the biggest non-wild game in town. The newspaper, The Daily American Republic, comes out in the evenings, and is more of a large pamphlet than a newspaper; there’s very little breaking news in this hilly region of the heartland. This area of Butler County is where life has an ebb and flow to it like Pensacola Bay at low tide.

If you want a good barbecue, you have to go to Dexter Queen in Dexter, Missouri, where they put shredded cabbage on the sandwiches and the inside looks like a throwback from a teenage hangout in The Fifties.

P.B. is all built up now, but in the early eighties, it was home to my parents. Dad had grown up there, and Mom had moved in and out several times. Their first place was an apartment on Fairmont Street where my dad’s tenth grade Spanish teacher would bang a broom handle on the ceiling to let them know they were being too loud.

I remember when I became a nanny in Sidney, Montana—eastern and hilly, rather than western and mountainous—I called my aunt Cheryll that first night after my mom left to board the Greyhound bus cross country. Those first few days I was on my own in a strange house with two little girls who were my responsibility, I was rereading my favorite book, Small Town Girl by LaVyrle Spencer, set in Wintergreen, Missouri, where Poplar Bluff is mentioned once.

I was never homesick for Pensacola but for my summer place, for I hadn’t yet established a presence there.

Poplar Bluff was like my Disney World, for so many kids I knew saw their grandmas every day, whereas we had no ties to this touristy, military town on the Gulf Coast.

It often seemed like the only memories of which my parents were fond or nostalgic for were the ones that hadn’t been made in Pensacola; I suppose that made me nostalgic, too.

Maybe that was why the first episode of Bewitched resonated, for when Samantha tells Darrin (played by Dick York, and the only actor I acknowledge as being the true Darrin Stephens, whose name I always thought should’ve been spelled Darren Stevens—much cleaner) that she’s a witch, and he says something like, “I’m from Missouri. You’re just going to have to show me.”

Being from the “Show Me State,” I suppose that’s why we’re all as stubborn as mules and have to prove we’re right about everything (often via Google).

Grandma and Grandpa Booker’s house was like going back in time—from televisions that were a giant block of wood with convex screens in them to the library-orange, hardcover Childcraft books (which included the politically-incorrect legend of “Little Black Sambo”) to vinyl records of The Andrews Sisters. Grandma and Grandma still had the seventies-style paneling in their downstairs basement that was as big as a private bowling alley, with furniture in forest-green and burnt orange, and carpet that looked like autumn leaves after a rain.

I would play away the hours going through Grandma’s Better Homes and Gardens magazines, tearing out all the pictures of the porcelain dolls and writing their autobiographies or just exploring, though I never went in the closet under the stairwell, for it smelled like rubber from all of Grandpa’s boots.

Their house seemed ginormous, with Grandpa’s desk that looked like it belonged to a judge and Grandma’s double closet stuffed with hatboxes and fur coats—relics of women in her time.

The smell of coffee and bacon permeating the air brings me back to Grandma’s downstairs kitchen that is as clear to me as if I were sitting there with her, eating cold cereal late at night. That kitchen was where I had my first scoop of peanut butter with Karo syrup (still the only way I can eat p.b. that isn’t drenched in chocolate). Their house seemed like the land of plenty, for whereas our cupboards were sometimes bare (like Old Mother Hubbard’s), their pantries and deep freezer were always stocked like a famine was coming.

Grandma and Grandpa would sit on their porch swings outside the kitchen door, and I’d be way down the hill, sometimes barefoot, laying in the clover and soft grass while the martens and wrens built their nests in the Jetson-like birdhouse apartments.

Even at twilight, when the lightning bugs would come out with their lime-green glow, my grandparents never worried if I was out of their sight.

As for me, just looking back and seeing the patio light on was all the reassurance I needed.

I didn’t know fear then, but I would learn it.

Now I know I could never live without it, for it is that thing that becomes a part of you— like your shadow; I would go so far as to say it’s like a guardian angel—a gift. My fear of forgetting to be aware of my daughter’s location and surroundings has been with me so long, I don’t even think about it. It’s just the price I pay for living in the modern world.

Times were different then, and Poplar Bluff seemed like the kind of place where nothing bad would ever happen, but it did.

It was the last day of May in 1981, when my parents were robbed at gunpoint at the Mansion Mall Cinema where they worked as night managers. I was there, gestating, hovering between conception and birth. Even though I wasn’t cognizant of what was going on, that experience changed my mother, thus changing me. My mom became more aware, and thus taught me to be more aware.

I grew up as one of the most observant teenagers in America.

That night of the robbery, my mother had tried telling my father that something wasn’t right; throughout the day, a car kept changing places in the parking lot, containing Stackhouse and Patterson (both named James)—two men who had worked for them. These ex-employees had records, and one, my parents had even given rides home to. (“The one with the personality,” Mom told me.)

They were changing the marquee when “the nicer one” approached them with a gun, demanding money. (The other was parked in the alley, serving as the getaway.) He settled for my mom’s purse, containing less than twenty bucks (the story of my parents’ lives), and a Cross pen and pencil set that Mom’s parents had given her for graduation. The nice guy wanted to take them off somewhere, but Mom refused; her grandfather had taught her never to go off with anyone—that to do so would mean certain death—and so she taught that to me.

The robbers were caught at the local Broadway Cafe, eating off the money they had stolen. They’d worn masks, but my dad had been able to identify their voices.

Mom, always wanting to make a point, wore a tee shirt that said “Baby” with an arrow pointing down when she testified. (It’s interesting to note that every time my parents turned on the lights when I was a baby, I’d hold up my arms like I was part of a “stick up”).

My mother would tell me years later that she made sure Grandma Booker knew that the robbers had been white, what with her being an old-fashioned Southern Democrat. (She even had funny ideas about “The Italian” who sold tamales, of all things, from the back of his truck—tamales she’d insisted were made of cats.)

From that night on, my parents had the local sheriff escort them to the bank for the night drop, just as now, I call a security guard to escort me to my vehicle after a night class (unless I am surrounded by classmates).

Because of that robbery, I grew up, always aware of when a car followed me after more than two turns, after which I would take an abrupt or unusual turn. I’ve grown up, appreciating the beauty of the world on its surface but also being mindful of the dark net below—that if I’m not careful, I could be caught in it.

I rarely talk on the cell phone while walking, and I don’t own a pair of earbuds. I have unilateral hearing loss, so I never use anything that further cuts me off from the world. I do nothing to make myself more vulnerable to those who would do me harm. Because of my mother standing her ground, I am walking on it today.

When my mom taught me to be observant, I believe she helped me save my own life more than once—in ways I will never know.

Navy mom

Since this was written in October 2017, my mom, the lady you see here, passed away, but she left behind a legacy of love.  One thing she always told me (and showed me) is that no matter how old your children get, they always have a place to come home to if they need it.

Updated 1/17/2020

Every Little Thing: A Mother’s Valentine

Hannah's rattle and brush

I was about five months along when I slipped an ultrasound picture into a Mary Higgins Clark book, and handed it to my mom. When she opened it, she looked at the picture for a second, sort of turning it around, and I said, “So, what do you think?”

“I think it’s a baby,” she said, wonderstruck. When she found out I was having a girl and naming her Hannah, she was thrilled. Hannah was unplanned, but like many unplanned things, they turn out to be good things that lead to more good things. Hannah got Brian and me speed up the marriage date (we’d put it off for months for financial reasons) and move into our own home (we had thus far been living with my parents).

It was after we knew she was going to be a girl (we were hoping for fraternal twins—I, contemplating Lucy and Ricky for the names) when my OB/GYN told us something about our baby’s nuchal fold measurements, and how they were an indicator of Down’s syndrome. We were devastated. It took me an entire day to realize that it had nothing to do with my not taking prenatal vitamins the first three months of gestation (I was three months along before I knew I was expecting).

Although I knew if my lovely baby was already affected, there was nothing more that could be done. I had never heard of anyone being cured of Down’s syndrome, but I could pray for a way to handle the challenges that would come from raising a special needs child. “Somehow, it makes me love her even more,” Brian said, and I knew he said it because he felt she would need it more.

I was working overnights at Walgreens at the time, and all night, I agonized over how I was going to be good enough; I didn’t even feel ready for mothering a normal baby. Even as my husband said he felt he loved her even more, I felt I wanted to protect her even more, for the world isn’t always kind to those who are different.

However, once I prayed that I would be able to deal with whatever came, and knew I would love my baby the same, peace replaced fear. By the time we got the more advanced ultrasound done (during which the doctor told us our child was perfectly fine), I wept with relief and joy, knowing this scare had taught me that we are never prepared for what may happen till it happens.

Had Brian and I already had other children, Hannah’s prediagnosis might not have affected me as much, because I knew our children would look after their new sibling, but what if this was the only one we had? Who would love our daughter after we were gone?

When I gave birth, worrying about her welfare didn’t end there. When Hannah was born till she was about three months, I rode in the backseat with her; her crib was also in our room. I didn’t like to take her anywhere (at least alone), but preferred to keep her at home. However, as time went on, I began to relax, but her safety and health was always a part of my consciousness. It was the new me that was born when she was, and it would never die as long as she lived. I had to learn how to co-exist with this heightened awareness that was, at times, exhausting.

Hannah would fail the hearing test twice before passing the third, and always, until she passed, I wondered if perhaps those nuchal fold measurements had been indicators of something else.

When she didn’t walk at a year old, I didn’t think much about it. However, as time went on, especially after a visit to her pediatrician, who said she was developmentally delayed (a term which always made my husband bristle and me want to cry), I began to wonder. When she started walking at twenty months, I was relieved, but I wondered, would it always be this way—her playing catch-up? Would I always be jogging backwards in front of her, trying to make her run faster than she was ready?

When it came time to put her in preschool, I was as excited for her as my husband was nervous. When the administrator of the school told me she was in the one to one-and-a-half-year-old range, I cried. (She had just turned two, two months ago.) When I told my dad about some of her quirks, like staring off into space, doing repetitive things, and her lack of interest in other children, he mentioned autism, but I told him autistic people usually didn’t have a personality.

I know I don’t see Hannah as being anything but perfect because I am her mother, and so I have to see her sometimes as others see her—with a critical, but still caring eye. It is only when I have done all I can do that I can let it go, because I know, as my husband does, that she will get there (as much as is possible) with our help and the others we allow to help. I know and accept there will never be a moment in my life when I will never have to worry about her again—that I will still worry in my own way, about every little thing.

However, I regret I allowed the deep disappointment of not being able to breastfeed to be the thief of joy during the moments when I should have been luxuriating in first-time motherhood. I blamed myself for her delay for a long time, because of all I’d heard about the I.Q. points of breastfed children being higher. I’d tried every kind of pump and every kind of way to get her to take to it. Then one of my best friends told me she hadn’t been able to breastfeed at all; that child is now a gifted student. Hannah is almost three now, and I’ve stopped comparing her to other children her age, and delight in who she is. She isn’t perfect, but is perfect to me and to those who love her. She doesn’t know everything, but she knows we love her. She is healthy and happy, filled with curiosity and wonder, laughter and joy. I teach with love and the rest will come. We are blessed to have a multitude of resources where we can get help for her; we are not alone.

All of us are at different stages in our lives—we all progress in different ways, at different times. I look in the mirror and see what I should have been ten years ago, but am just now getting around to—becoming a college graduate.

The moment I found out I might have a baby with special needs revealed myself to me, and I liked what I saw. When I look at Hannah now, and think back to where she was even a year ago, I see her blossoming into the rose she will someday become.

Published as “Every Little Thing” in The Kilgore Review (2016), having placed second in the nonfiction category of Pensacola State College’s annual Walter F. Spara Writing Contest.

Mr. Wonderful Full of Himself, Wordsmith Stars, and Perfect Sense

I happened to catch an article (wish I had kept the link) that suggested a book doesn’t sell as well if it won an award.  My theory is that when people see a book won a prestigious award, they assume it’s boring (or overrated, like some classics).  Most people don’t like highbrow stuff.  They don’t want to think, they want to be entertained.  At least one out of every ten books I read is for pleasure, though I am challenging myself to read at least one nonfiction book a month (which I am 99% sure will be about writing, though the last nonfiction book I read was a biography of Marilyn Monroe, which read like creative nonfiction).  As you can see, I am not an egghead, nor will I ever pretend to be, but I am educated and do believe in lifelong learning, whether it be taking a class (I am hoping English composition will be one of the first classes I have to take when I go back to school) or teaching ourselves something new (I am getting ready to make my first batch of handmade soap).

Though an award would be an honor, I’d prefer to have the sales (unless the award came with a big payout).  I’m like Mr. Wonderful (Kevin O’Leary) from “Shark Tank” in that way, though only in that way.  I will forever care about the quality of the writing that will be published under my name, whether I write for Harlequin Romance or a scholarly journal.

I’ve been on a “Little Women” kick lately.  I tried watching the 1933 version, but I just can’t stand Katharine Hepburn, so after about fifteen minutes, I had to pass on it.  I’ve always liked the 1949 version, even though I’ve never been a fan of June Allyson, who plays Jo, and then I watched the 1994 version with Winona Ryder, who made a less annoying Jo.  Her spouting “Christopher Columbus” all the time in the earlier versions was annoying, and seemed put-on to make her more of a tomboy (though I realize this was probably how she was portrayed in the book which I read a VERY long time ago).  Though the cinematography was far more realistic in ’94 version, I still prefer the ’49 movie.  The ’94 version just didn’t have the charm its predecessor did.

I like “Little Women” because the protagonist is a writer, but I relate to her because she is a female writer.  However, one of my favorite films of all time is “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”.  I fell in love with it as a little girl; Francie Nolan was just like me.  She had what her teacher called imagination.  My third grade teacher, Ms. Cahoon, was the first person outside my family who recognized my talent, and will be one of the first people who will receive a copy of my book.  Every morning, we had to write in our journals, and I would always write about my summers up in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, when I stayed with my grandparents.  My aunt, uncle and cousins lived right next door to them.

I wrote about what I knew and loved.  I still do that today.  Oh, I’ve fancied myself writing some nonfiction piece about a subject I know nothing about (writing creative nonfiction is a great way to learn something new through research), but personal essays are one of my favorite mediums to write in because it is a story no one else can write.

That teacher scene with Francie after class still brings a tear to my eye.

Now though I am not a fan of Stephen King’s books (or even most of his movies), I did enjoy his novel, “On Writing”, and I like his personal story of how he got where he is today.  It is very inspirational.  I’ve noticed he likes to make authors his main characters, as in “Secret Window”, “Misery”, and “The Shining”.  (I liked those.)

Cuba Gooding Jr. played a struggling writer in “A Murder of Crows”.  I don’t think it was a hit, but it drew me in like a Lisa Jackson novel.

While I’m on the subject of movies, there is one that I believe everyone must see for the experience, if nothing else, and that is “Perfect Sense” with Eva Green and Ewan MacGregor.  It’s like poetry on celluloid.  I will say nothing more.

A publisher’s market, not a writer’s market

Writers Market

So I ordered the 2013 edition of “The Writer’s Market” on amazon.com, at a third of the price of this year’s.  I’d wanted to get the e-edition (since I’m always on my computer when I’m editing), but I’d heard it was hard to navigate, so I settled for the print edition.

I go through phases with my writing–for awhile, I was tailoring all my work for submission to Harlequin romance (working on my Great American novel all the while, whatever that means), then I got into personal essays/creative nonfiction, and now I’m on a poetry kick, mainly because it works my brain in a different way, and I can dash it off and submit it pretty fast.

I just finished editing my collection of children’s nursery rhymes, which include fractured fairy tales (blended with Biblical allegories), fractured nursery rhymes, and my original “Just-So” stories (in the spirit of Rudyard Kipling), to name a few.  I’ve even included a “Shaggy God” story (“Allison’s Mirror:  A Twisted Retelling”) that combines the story of “Alice in Wonderland” with a Sci-Fi (or Scientology) point-of-view explaining how Adam and Eve hooked up.

I have taken a hiatus from entering fee-based contests for awhile.  Though I never lived them, I miss the days when publishers paid to print your work, rather than writers having to pay publishers just to read it.  Some of them are a racket, but others, I believe, just don’t make anything off subscriptions (I know plenty of people who write poetry, but read it?).  That’s why magazines like “Ladies Home Journal” and “Real Simple” can offer free contests with a big prize attached.  “The Writer’s Digest” offers several contests, but you have to pay (and pay big) to win.  However, there is hope in getting published with them and not having to pay (but neither do you get paid):   http://www.writersdigest.com/submission-guidelines.  You can also submit to “The Huffington Post” here:  https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLScrz0kcSTcl6MrGJF-13l2MMSZJ3BBZtt6_znfxb4FwMLQiSQ/viewform, where you will get exposure, but again, no cash.  If you don’t mind writing for free for awhile (what is most blogging, after all?), then these will simply serve as publication credits to add to your “clip file”.

Though I realize it’s important to invest in ourselves (sometimes that means moneywise), and that when we buy a lottery ticket, it’s a gamble, I am still leery of shelling out too much money at one time for an entry/reading fee.  I’m going to exhaust all other options first, which is why I bought “The Writer’s Market”.

One exception I made was paying ten dollars to enter the Saturday Evening Post’s “Great American Short Story Contest”.  See:  https://sarahleastories.com/2015/12/06/more-good-news/.  Receiving an honorable mention (to me) in a magazine like that was like winning first place in a magazine no one has ever heard of.  The only disappointment was that my story was not in print, but rather in an online anthology.  (Print is just far more prestigious.)

That said, the absolute best, up-to-date source I’ve found for finding submission opportunities that don’t charge is http://writingcareer.com/.

Moreover, it can pay to be a college student, as there is a plethora of scholarships which require a written essay.  Scholarships are great because the pool of possible winners is much smaller (at least half of them require you to be a full-time student), so you have a better chance of winning.  Beware, however, as some are based on how many “votes” you get, but if you’re a social media butterfly, those might be the ones for you:

http://www.varsitytutors.com/college-scholarship
https://www.coursehero.com/scholarships/1000012/tier-3k-aug/
http://www.fastweb.com/
https://www.scholarships.com/
https://www.chegg.com/
https://www.cappex.com/
https://www.unigo.com/
http://myscholly.com/#scholly
(this costs $2.99, but it’s worth it)
https://scholarshipowl.com/my-account
(just get the list, but don’t pay; rather google the name of the scholarship)

So there are still a multitude of ways to make money at writing without breaking the bank.  Hope this helps!

Sarah Lea, a fellow undernourished blogger