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

Summer in Spring: Love in the Afternoon

summer fun.JPG

Though I love the holiday season with all its glitz and glam, it is the warm season I long for, with its relaxing vibes.  I like to say eighty-two degrees with a breeze is my ideal.  I spend at least three hours a day outside during the summer.  If I could, I would live in a bikini, cover-up, and flip-flops year round, with my hair thrown up into a messy bun (the other kind makes me look bald).  I like not having to warm up the car, or bundle up before going outside, or having to worry about blow-drying my hair after a shower.  Summer is low-maintenance.

I guess you could say I have spring break fever.  I spent the late afternoon sunbathing on a sand-colored fleece blanket on our weedy grass, my neighbor playing “I Hope You Dance” by Lee Ann Womack on the radio.  The late afternoon sun waned as I waxed philosophical, thinking about life’s unanswered questions (like “What exactly is a peanut-butter haircut?” and “If the whole world was naked, would we be skinnier?”), while my  three-year-old daughter fed sticks and leaves to the A/C fan unit.  It was the ultimate relaxation, saturated with sunshine that turned my creamy skin into brown butter.

So often, I’m doing, and I forget to just be.  I didn’t even bring a book to the blanket.  I don’t need constant stimulation.  I was letting myself have some quiet time and my daughter, some unstructured play.  I delight in the way she loves the outdoors, though she still turns into a glassy-eyed zombie with a hearing problem when she plays with our old cell phones.

I suppose that’s why I love the warm so much, because when it’s cold, I don’t spend any more time outside than I have to.  Even bundled up, it’s not comfortable to be wearing so many layers, and fun in the water is out of the question.  I love the season of chocolate bars melting before you get to the car, of ceiling fans cutting through our thick, humid air, and stroller walks at twilight, the smell of meat grilling on the back porch.  As I walk through our neighborhood and pass each house with a lighted window, I think of them as their own separate universes–our neighborhood a solar system.  It’s like walking in space.

While I walk (today, it was while I sprawled), I thought about a butterscotch milkshake I had once.  It was at Spencer’s Drive-In in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, but the place is just a memory now.

 

When my daughter and I went back inside, I take a cooler shower than usual.  When I dry off, the smell of bleach from my white towel makes my nostrils smart.  (Bleaching whites are part of my spring cleaning routine.) My face feels deliciously tight, and I am ready to make my kitchen cabinet casserole (what I call spring cleaning the fridge) while my daughter, freshly-bathed and smelling of lavender and innocence, jumps on my grandmother’s love seat with the cushions out.

All is calm, all is right, until she sneezes, and I am running from the next room, scrambling around to find a wipe while begging her not to touch “it.”

 

Micropoetry Monday: The Lighter Side

Facebook: Family scrapbook
Twitter: Bathroom wall
LinkedIn: Business casual
Pinterest: How to waste time without really trying

When Ellipsis missed a period,
she birthed a typo,
& readers didn’t know whether to stop
or keep going.
It was literary purgatory.

Deciding to peel off some pounds,
Apple, Banana, & Pear Shapely
went to the gym, only to have Hourglass
pour them into smoothies.

Mart Tini went to bed with Ginny,
& he was rather shaken
(not stirred) awake,
for Apple was staring him in the eye.

Guarding her grandfather’s casket
all the way to Malden, Missouri,
was quite an undertaking.

Creative Writing Prompt: The Object of the Story (or the story behind the object)

One thing I wanted to do on this blog (at least for the month of January) was to share some of the creative writing prompts I participated in last semester’s creative writing course.

That said, the following prompt was inspired by a scholarship essay contest.  I had to write about scanners (of all things), and I thought, as I wrote, one could take any object and write a story about that object.  I could write about the remote control (and how my husband always manages to be in charge of it; I finally had to say something about him skipping over all the contestant interviews on “Wheel of Fortune”).  I could write about my car, and all the freedom it affords me .  I could write about my Michelle, the red-headed Cabbage Patch of my childhood, who I would drag around by the hair (my parents said I liked to “cuff around” all my dolls and stuffed animals, lining them up and yelling at them).  The possibilities are endless, for an object has little meaning, except for the meanings we attach to it.

So, when I had to write about scanners, I got creative, and ended up telling a true story about a childhood memory.

I would also like to hear from you–what objects (maybe in 140 characters or less) you would write a story about, and why.  (Looking at old photos can help with this.)

Scanners:  Reality in Real Time

The sometimes staticky crackle of police scanners brings back memories.  When I was a little girl, I spent every summer with my Grandpa and Grandma Booker in Poplar Bluff, Missouri.  Every night, my grandfather, who slept downstairs in the basement, would have the police scanner on—
what I like to call “blue noise”.

Poplar Bluff was a relatively small town back then (it still has only one high school).  I would sometimes open the door at the top of the stairs and listen to the sounds that made me think of walkie-talkies.  Sometimes, his snoring that was loud enough to wake undead would drown out the dialogue, or the cuckoo clock would pop out like an angry bird, scrambling my ability to decipher what was going on in the wee hours in P.B.  Listening to the scanner was like trying to see past the snow that clouded the premium channels.  It was a small source of fascination for me.

Turning the scanner on before bedtime was Grandpa’s nighttime ritual, like boxing and St. Louis Cardinal games were his entertainment during the waking hours; like watching the lightning bugs with their greenish-yellow glow in the evening, and noting the goings-on at the Slinkard house across the street in the afternoons.

Scanners are like an inconspicuous way of snooping one one’s neighbors—a gift for the lazy Gladys Kravitzes of the world; for ambulance chasers, and for those who like true reality, rather than the manufactured fluff, the alternate realities, made up for television.  What we hear on scanners is gritty, raw—like listening to a 911 tape.

My dad still remembers some of the stuff he heard.  There was a woman in Poplar Bluff who always spoke in a monotone and said, “Won’t start”, whenever a car had to be towed.  She would recite the address and that would be the end of it.  Sometimes there would be a weather alert.  There was also woman named Miss Wiley who was known at the time for always contacting the police about a prowler, the cops saying sarcastically, “Someone’s out there.”

Dad and Grandpa would listen to the Missouri Highway Patrol give license tags, always saying “B-as-in-boy” (I guess B-as-in-badass wasn’t acceptable), and, once in awhile, they’d hear the paramedics in ambulances give blood pressure readings (which seems like an invasion of privacy now).  Most of the time, scanners were a comforting background noise that didn’t distract like a television, flickering red and green instead of black and white.

Sometimes Dad would be lying in bed and the scanner would be completely silent, and then suddenly a BOLO alert would jolt them, startling them out of sleep or hurtling them out of semi-consciousness.

I remember when I came upon my grandpa’s old scanner with the silver antennae, and how I could make it go quiet when I pinched it between my fingers—that eerie sound of silence, like a blackout.  Scanners were as much a part of my childhood as Nick-at-Nite block party summers and the Hits Countdown with Casey Kasem.  Maybe someday, in my advanced age, they will become my white noise, lulling me to sleep.

Me and Michelle

Me and Michelle

 

Picnic at Hanging Garden

It isn’t quite Labor Day—
women are still wearing white,
though many wear dresses that
compete with the flowers,
perfume that commingles with
the clover that sweetens the air.

There is merry to be made,
lemonade to be drank—
tart as the cherry pies that sit cooling
on Miss Bennion’s booth.

There are games of horseshoes,
old pillowcase races,
and cupcake eating contests—
each vying for the most participants.

The young mayor—
all of thirty-one—
sweats in his Sunday suit,
as he shakes hands with the good people
of Poplarville, Missouri.
The scene is reminiscent of
A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,
except these are simpler people,
placed in modern times.

The atmosphere is charged,
kinetic.
Music from time gone by
floats on the air from
four men in red and white,
crisscrossing with the American Flag in the background—
like an optical illusion.

A pile of shoes are heaped at the foot of a tree—
the tree where half the town has carved their initials.
The children go barefoot in the muddy creek,
the boys rolling up their jeans,
the girls raising the hemlines of their dresses,
the boys trying to splash the girls,
the girls trying to run away.

Rows of tables are arrayed like the lilies of the field—
fried chicken, corn on the cob, watermelon,
and fudge that melts in the hot, hot sun.
Not the finest banquet halls in Cape Girardeau
are arrayed such as these.

The smaller children pile into the hayride,
and men raffle for picnic dates with the ladies…
and their baskets.
Miss Lilly White fetches the highest bid
for her turkey sandwiches and lukewarm coffee,
for there is always Tapper’s Drug Store
or Alice’s Diner,
whose coffeepot never sleeps.

There is no tent but the leafy shade of the poplar trees,
and the clouds that float across the blue of heaven unseen.
The cemetery is just back apiece,
yonder, towards the rock garden built by the first settlers.

The mayor’s wife rings the triangle;
it is like a cattle call.
All the little lambs come running
with their rosy, dirty cheeks,
the women like wilted flowers,
their petals sagging like wet handkerchiefs,
the men with their shirts that have darkened with sweat.

The bandstand is reconfigured,
and the final star of the night appears—
like the last blast of fireworks.
He is accompanied by two men,
his guards,
one shoe off,
one shoe on,
like Diddle Diddle Dumpling.
Nothing must happen to him,
for his appearance is why they’ve come.

Everyone gathers round,
the waning sun warring with the waxing moon
making the faces of the people glow like halos.

The children are suddenly quiet,
and everyone is instructed to hold their applause.
Introductions are made,
and silence falls over the sheep.

All that build-up,
and it is over in a second.
There is a pregnant pause
that gives birth to life and animation,
to clapping,
to making a joyous noise.

The Devil had come into their garden,
and now sways from three neckties
strung together,
boneless as a snake.
His second shoe drops just then,
but no one was listening.
No one hears.

Travel Tips (for those who don’t travel much)

downtown pb

My husband, daughter, parents and I just took a Christmastide trip to Poplar Bluff, Missouri, to visit our extended family–some of whom we hadn’t seen in over ten years.

P.B. is about 600 miles from Pensacola, and the thought of being cooped up in a car for twelve hours has always discouraged me, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more content.  Though I can spend hours reading, unless there is absolutely nothing out there, I can spend hours just watching the scenery.

It was an interesting ride, what with my mother yelling at my father most of the way (my dad calls her “high-octane”), but he is quite a skitzy driver who freaks out whenever he’s trying to make a turn and someone is behind him.

I say, I learned quite a lot about what NOT to do concerning travel.

  1. If you have a baby and are making hotel (or motel) reservations, always inquire about the availability of a crib.  Even if they say one is available, pack up the playyard just in case.  Three out of the three places we stayed in (two there, two along the way) did not have a crib.  We had to use our suitcase.
  2. It is NEVER worth getting up early for the continental breakfast.  In America, they are all !@#$.  The only decent (and by decent, I mean delicious) continental breakfast I’ve ever had was at a Ramada Inn in Saskatchewan.  It was a breakfast buffet with actual meat and fresh squeezed tangerine juice.  It’s been over ten years since I ate there, and I still remember it.  It was that good.
  3. Check the hotel room before checking it, and don’t forget to check the bathroom.
  4. Don’t bother bringing a cooler filled with sandwiches (no matter how great they are).  Everyone will prefer a hot meal at a fast food joint.  However, a cooler filled with beverages (especially water) is a good idea.  And don’t bother with a coffee thermos.  You can’t get away from a McDonald’s.
  5. Try not to eat at places you can eat at at home.  Make the most of where you are.  I (along with my parents) was quite upset when Spencer’s Barbecue (a local joint in P.B.) was taken over by some sport’s bar, so we went to Dexter Queen (Dexter is a smaller town just outside P.B.).  One of the major differences between Missouri barbecue and barbecue down South is that they put dry slaw/cabbage on the sandwich, which is delicious.
  6. Get an early start.  It’s no use getting to your hotel room at one in the morning and having to leave at eleven.  You need time to unwind after driving or wishing you were driving.
  7. Don’t forget to bring a book.  Being the cherry-picking Luddite I am, I’ve fought against e-books for years, but I’ve finally found a love for them as you can read them in the dark.
  8. If you don’t own a portable music device and will be borrowing someone else’s, test-try the earbuds.  My husband’s felt like tampons shoved in my ears.  Quite uncomfortable.
  9. Rent a car.  Don’t put all that wear and tear on your own car.
  10. Rent a big enough car.  Better yet, rent a minivan.
  11. Try to have as many drivers as possible.  My parents (because my husband and I didn’t have a credit card) were the only ones who could drive the rental.  I don’t get it, because it seems the more drivers there are, the better rested each driver will be.  It’s way too easy to go on auto-pilot.  However, most places will charge you for a third driver and so on.
  12. Don’t forget the camera and bring all the cell phones (just in case the battery dies in one).  Best thing about bringing your own camera is that you don’t have to worry about being tagged in a “fat pic” in a Facebook status.
  13. Don’t forget to put the DO NOT DISTURB sign on your door.
  14. Maximize your stops.  Whenever you stop for gas, use the restroom.  When you stop for food, use the restroom.  Whether you have to go or not.
  15. Eat a big breakfast before you go.  You will last longer.
  16. Bring a pillow.  I ended up balling up my sweater, which worked, but left behind more hair than a long-haired cat.  My husband said when we brought it back home, he’d take it out and shoot it.  I just put it in it’s cage, er, drawer, upon returning.
  17. Don’t take advantage of the computer facilities.  It feels SO much more like a vacation when you don’t.
  18. And if you have a baby, don’t forget to bring the paccie, blankie and favorite stuffed animal.  Keep snacks and a bottle and/or sippy cup up front.  Keep baby as comfortable as possible.  Comfy baby=sane parents.