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

Book Review: Let the Children March

March

As part of my Post-K Summer Reading Boot Camp:
https://sarahleastories.com/2019/06/08/post-k-summer-reading-boot-camp-2019

What I liked about this book is that it uses all of its real estate (a historical timeline with children holding up cards like protest signs is printed inside the cover; it was clever and visually appealing).

The illustrations capture that time period perfectly with its retro colors.  Let the Children March opens with a child’s-eye view of a chain link fence supporting a White Only sign.

Even though it is stated that Dr. King is in a church, a Bible passage that Dr. King also used should have been included (though I can understand the author wanting this book to appeal to more than just Christians, as equality is an issue that should transcend religion).  The page of Dr. King in profile behind the microphone with his Bible on the pulpit was a powerful image and a wonderful likeness. 

This book contains some of the best children’s illustrations I’ve seen, as so much depth of emotion is conveyed in the faces of the main characters.  

I can understand why the adults feel like they don’t have the freedom to march–as exercising that freedom would come with consequences⁠—out of fear of losing their livelihoods.  You’re told you have these rights, but if you exercise them, there are dire consequences.  No one should have to choose between their jobs and their freedom.  

March showed the fearlessness of children⁠—children who were able to do what their parents could not.  They represented an almost innocent sacrifice, though it is stated that Dr. King did not like children being put in harm’s way.  It is heartbreaking that children had to fight for what adults should have been able to fight for them rather than just be children, learning to read and playing with their friends.  How frightening it must have been to march towards the unknown, knowing only that it was filled with angry people who were much bigger than you.  

The aerial shot of the children surrounded by hate in the form of angry dogs and rushing water made my throat catch.  The policeman with the hat over his eyes, pulling the curtain on the windows to his soul as he pushed a little girl by the neck and locked these young children into a jail cell was chilling. 

Children need to see that Dr. King promoted non-violence as the news prefers to cover only violent protesters.  It would’ve been nice to include the song lyrics to the songs of freedom.

“For they are doing a job for not only themselves, but for all of America and for all mankind,” Dr. King says.  I think this was an important quote to include because what is not good for a certain group of citizens cannot be good for any citizen, as it promotes feelings of disenfranchisement and stirs unrest.  

The juxtaposition of the white parents whose children sat safely between them in the comfort of their own home, watching the television where this ugliness was not a part of their world but something they saw on TV with the black parents being separated from theirs, not knowing what might happen to them, struck a chord.  I could just feel love and relief emanating from the black parents who held their children in their arms as if they never wanted to let them go, contrasting this tableau with the white parents who didn’t have to hold onto their children so tightly, knowing that they would never be targeted because of their racial make-up.

I greatly admire these (fictitious but based on truth) followers of Dr. King, for it must have taken an amazing amount of grace for them not to become violent back; they gave their enemies no ammunition for treating them like non-persons.   

The last picture shows children in the park (bringing it back to the beginning), black and white, playing together; it was never the children who minded⁠—it was only some (not all) adults who wished for the races to remain separate.  

Let the Children March is a beautiful book that will help any child “walk in another’s shoes.”

Suggested activity: Read Dr. King’s most famous speech, but if you can, listen to it in his own voice. It’s all the difference between reading someone else’s poem to yourself and listening to the poet who wrote it, speak it.

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/32510367-let-the-children-march

Writer’s Digest Wednesday Poetry Prompt #489: Death

tombstone.jpg

Cocoa Beach, FL – Chocolate, the delight of the world, passed away in her adopted hometown of Cocoa Beach on Sunday, September 4, 2050, to global warming/cooling on what would’ve been National Chocolate Day.

Born in Mesoamerica in 450 B.C., she went through many men, where she was mixed and molded to fit their flavor and image, and, at any given time, has been Belgian, Dutch, and Swiss (among others), and been known as Dove, Godiva, and Ghirardelli (among others).

Chocolate was beloved by the world; even those who were allergic often longed for her.  She enjoyed a variety of forms and fillings–ranging from bars and truffles to caramel and nuts.  She loved being wrapped and boxed and paired with strawberries and red wine; her favorite, however, was being melted and running through fountains at special events and fondue nights where she covered a variety of subjects.

Sometimes she was naughty, serving as the third component of a ménage à trois; sometimes she was nice, surprising children as a chocolate bunny in their Easter baskets.

She was every girl’s best friend during PMS and was often the peacemaker after a domestic spat.  She was the muse of numerous culinary artists and women authors.

Most of all, she was the only form of guaranteed pleasure for women.

She will be remembered for her versatility and ability to make every get-together better.  Though she felt overexposed at times, especially when it came to breakfast cereals, she was happy to make life sweeter wherever she could.

Chocolate is survived by White Chocolate, her frenemy of many years with whom she has not known to have collaborated with on any candy bar, though they have, much to their chagrin, been lumped into the same batch of cookies.  Chocolate is also survived by her numerous aficionados, many of whom will be turning to cheap alcohol and mediocre sex in her absence.

Visitation will be at 2:00 p.m. on Tuesday, September 6, 2050, with a celebration of life memorial service immediately following the visitation at 3:00 p.m. at Divinity Chapel, 6969 Heaven Hwy., Cocoa Beach, FL.

In lieu of edible flowers, memorial donations may be made to the Warhol Campbell Soup Kitchen.

Wednesday Poetry Prompts: 489

Poem-a-Day Writer’s Digest Challenge #30. Theme: Let the Moment Begin

So I’ve completed the Writer’s Digest 30 poems in 30 days challenge, and the 25K words required by my Creative Writing professor for NaNoWriMo.  A fifty-thousand word novel in a month, on top of all the other writing I do (scholarship essays, class assignments, etc.), it just wasn’t a possibility, but I am very proud of what I accomplished.  Now I can shift focus a bit this next month to other things–the things that make life worth writing about.

the-eleventh-hour-1254213_960_720

Let the Moment Begin

Let the moment begin,
to remember when,
and not let it happen again.

 

Writer’s Digest Wednesday Poetry Prompt #324, Theme: Spectacular

phone-802125_960_720

This Spectacular Age

We are the Age of the New Millennium—
the New Age of Identity,
where you can be anything you want to be,
even if you aren’t and can never be.
We are the Age of Information Technology
that flows at the speed of sound,
depending upon the connection.
We are at the Spectacular Age,
for never before has mankind
seen such leaps and bounds.

The spectacular camera
captures images
that would have been lost in the haze of memory.

The spectacular camcorder
captures a shot of a birthday,
a child’s particular laugh,
a political gaffe.
The camera holder is the apostle
who records the story from his or her perspective.

All is recorded for posterity,
for herstory,
for history.

The electric light drowns out the darkness,
keeping us awake,
aware,
so that we can have pizza
in a brightly lit parlor at four a.m.
Candles are now a novelty—
like a flame of the past.

Books can be downloaded,
uploaded,
and never go out of print—
the words of the authors living long
after they have gone.

I can Skype someone across the globe,
and I don’t even have to wait for a plane,
for I’m already there—
the sights and sounds come through loud and clear.

The feel of newsprint between my fingers
has become a fleeting memory.

Like a Luddite, I go to the bookstore
to open a book the old-fashioned way.
I savor the feel of the slick, embossed cover,
admire the gilt-edged pages,
and delight in the crisp black-and-white.

The clatter of flatware at the dinner table
is drowned out by the clicking of buttons—
the furious sounds of texting.
Conversation is a casualty.

The information superhighway is becoming faster,
like a New York minute—
with so many stops along the way.

I log onto Facebook,
where I go to hang out with friends,
where only those I want can become part of my world.

Then I log on to Twitter—
sending and receiving open telegrams
in 140 characters or less.
I am blitzed by information
that would have taken hours to look up before.

LinkedIn is where my qualifications outshine my shyness.

YouTube is where I watch and listen—
where I can learn everything
and nothing at the same time.

But WordPress—
that is where I tell the world my story,
so that to my descendants,
I will not be a mystery.

I look up from my phone
to find you standing right in front of me,
only to see you looking down at yours.
You do not even know I am there.