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

Seven Wonders in Every Wonder

Me and Kel.jpg

Through my child eyes,
the ordinary was made extraordinary—
the ivory delicacy of snow in a Florida winter,
the heat that made roads shimmer like infinity pools,
the chocolate milk that came from “How Now Brown Cow,”
the kaleidoscopic rainbow of a pepper mélange under a microscope;

stargazing in the backseat on the way to
Poplar Bluff, Missouri, counting the diamonds,
collecting seashells that washed up like
mermaid Christmas ornaments,
blowing the dandelion seeds
to twirl like tiny pinwheels,
the fascination of lying under a Christmas tree,
the candy lights sprinkling me like a cupcake;

spinning in a chair ‘til I got dizzy,
sliding down the hall in fuzzy winter socks,
swinging in the air, head back, flying with eyes closed,
jumping up and down on the bed
‘till the box springs broke,
falling back on a pile of pillows,
taking the breath from me;

singing songs through the fan on the floor,
my words rippling like music notes on a page,
the feel of bubbles, like glassy mother-of-pearls,
popping like a raindrop rainbow on my sunburned face,
blowing on the window and drawing swirls and smileys
and hearts with names inside them;

the feel of the wheels rumbling up my legs during a hayride,
standing on a stepladder and seeing things as my father did,
running through the sprinklers in bare feet on freshly mown grass,
sitting on the screened-in porch swing with Grandma and Grandpa,
watching the lightning merge day and night in 30 microseconds,
feeling like I was inside-out and outside-in all at once;

watching a helium balloon float to the moon while I imagined it
landing on Mars with my name on it for an astronaut to find,
the underwater ballets at Weeki Wachee Springs,
butterflies, hummingbirds, and things that glowed in the dark.

As a child, there were Seven Wonders in every wonder,
and through my child’s eyes, I live the magic all over again.

as published in the Dec/Jan/Feb 2017 issue of Bella Grace Magazine.

On Journalism: My College Writing Experience

20180113_124926

“The Bluffer” staff (Poplar Bluff High’s high school newspaper). My dad is the one with the glasses in the back of the room.

There’ve been times I’ve wondered if I’d gotten on the newspaper staff in high school (rather than the yearbook) if I would’ve decided to major in journalism (rather than the culinary arts, which was a colossal waste of time). I don’t even remember seeing our high school newspaper around, except once (for fifty cents or a quarter), and I thought, We have a newspaper?

Even though there was a permanence about the yearbook (encased in hardcover, like a coffee-table book), the staff meetings were just another class to me. What’s more, I don’t even have any of my old yearbooks. I’m a nostalgic, sentimental kind of girl, but not for my high school days.

Maybe it was because I was shy and didn’t have any school spirit (I always begged my dad to check me out of the pep rallies, because why should I cheer for a bunch of misogynistic athletes?). Though I was involved in the Art Club and “The M.O.B.” (Ministry of Believers), I often found myself feeling like I was stuck in hell for seven hours a day.

I remember writing stories for the yearbook, but I don’t remember what any of them were about. Because my creativity wasn’t nurtured or appreciated, I thought any writing career other than being a poet or novelist wasn’t for me.

My dad was the sports editor of the Poplar Bluff high school newspaper staff (see above photo) from the fall of 1968 to the spring of 1969. I asked him what it was like back then. He remembered the girls far outnumbered the boys, and that one of the girls was what they called a “morgue editor,” meaning she cut out articles and pasted them into a book. Then, for the Christmas issue, the whole paper was printed in red

Being the family historian, I record not only my memories, but the memories of others. I love to document, and newspaper article writing does just that. Through writing features, I record other people’s experiences, but in writing a humor column, I’d be documenting my own in a way that would resonate, or connect, with people.

A couple of days ago, I texted the Editor-in-Chief on The Corsair (our college newspaper) that the only way I’d ever become a journalist would be as a humor columnist, reason being that I’d never get accused of disseminating fake news. (Advice columnist would be second best, and I wouldn’t go all “Judge Judy on people. That is one rage-filled lady.)

Through my run (so far) of being on the paper staff, I’ve found what I not only love to write the most, but what I’m good at, too. (Books by Dave Barry or Erma Bombeck are next on my library list.)

Ernest Hemingway and Margaret Mitchell started off writing for newspapers—maybe writing for one of them (a newspaper) one day is in my future. (I’m trying greeting cards, as well, even though most English professors think they’re %@#$.)

Though I don’t love interviewing people (people are like a box of chocolates—some are Roman nougat, and some are orange cream, which are slightly less horrendous as peanut butter kisses), I enjoy talking to them, and have learned a lot from doing so, whether it be other opportunities or good life advice. I wouldn’t have met many of the people I have if it hadn’t been for interviewing them for The Corsair.

Though I’m not majoring in journalism (and you don’t have to, to write for a newspaper), my journalism experience has helped me become a better writer, for all writing experience is valuable experience. I’ve learned, through analyzing my blog statistics, that my non-fiction posts far outpace my fiction ones, which is why I’m going to pursue the technical writing program at University before the creative writing one.

But what I’ve learned the most is that every time I think I have it all figured out, I learn something new that changes the trajectory of my life. I guess that’s what makes life interesting.

~

For more articles on what I’ve learned through my journalism experience:

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/tuning-up-volumehow-ive-fine-tuned-my-ear-editor-sarah-richards/?trackingId=OoPJ6YprK%2F93UtZ3XVQ3TQ%3D%3D

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/editing-my-way-through-collegeone-less-word-time-sarah-richards/?trackingId=1OTyfkzaGFdb%2FwMiSk95oQ%3D%3D

https://sarahleastories.com/2017/02/04/feature-story-ideas-for-a-college-newspaper/

https://sarahleastories.com/2017/10/27/journalism-101/

https://sarahleastories.com/2017/10/29/journalism-conference-notes-my-conclusion/

 

Journalism Conference Notes

The Not-So-Great Missouri Robbery

So I’m in Dallas at a journalism conference (being not just the copy editor, but also an article writer for the student newspaper); I’ve always believed that a news story lasts a day, but a book lasts long after the writer’s body and soul have separated.  I remember in one of my English composition classes, my professor asked us to name a news story that changed our life; no one spoke up.  He then asked us if we could name a book that did, for which several had answers.

That said, I like to believe some newspaper articles mean something to someone (besides the writer), so I try to write them with that in mind.

My parents saved every article I was ever mentioned in, which I’ve scrapbooked.  Some articles do stand the test of time, if for no other reason than a person’s name is mentioned.

*

The above article, written in May of 1981, for the Daily American Republic of Poplar Bluff, Missouri, wasn’t very well-written.  But, like a snapshot, it captured a memory (one my parents would rather forget, I’m sure); I have an interest in it, because my mom was pregnant with me when she and my dad were robbed at gunpoint.  (But that’s another story for another day.)

I’m glad my parents kept this little write-up, for thirty-six years later, it gave me the idea I needed for the personal essay/narrative category I entered in this year’s college writing contest, entitled, “It Happened One Night in Poplar Bluff.”

*

So I’ve been poring over college newspapers from all over the country, and it’s amazing how much I learn from them.  My head is so full of ideas, it’s hard to take it all in.  I’ve also been attending different speaker sessions, and am supposed to leave with ten takeaways.  (I already have quadruple that because I pay attention and take notes–it’s as easy as that.)  What’s interesting isn’t so much what they say, but how what they say sparks ideas.  I’ve been outputting so much lately, it was time to get some sauce for my noodle.

I’m learning about layout and design (not my strong point because I’m already in front of a screen enough), photography (again, not my forte, unless it’s taking pictures of my daughter or pretty things I’ve baked), and that’s because I don’t have a very good camera; I don’t have the proper tools.  It’s like trying to bake with a crappy oven.

For now, I really like being a copy editor.  I feel like I’m the finishing touch fairy, and one great piece of advice I got when we got our paper critiqued was that with copy editing, “the eye is good for catching grammar, the ear, for content.”  Read everything you write out loud, because your eyes will fill in the blanks.

*

I was in Dallas with one of my fellow journalists yesterday when President Trump came to town.  Downtown Dallas is like the city of rose gold, a veritable concrete jungle; I stood out there in the dry, Texas heat for almost two hours among protesters and beating drums, with cops surrounding us (that I don’t mind–I felt much safer), as well as the local news gal in her royal blue dress and flip-flops.  All this we did, just to catch a flash of what we thought to be the car President Trump was in disappear into what we assumed to be an underground garage.  I was thinking, I am so not this kind of reporter.  I am such a columnist!

Being a weekly humor columnist would be my dream job.  It’s hard to know what you want, not knowing quite how to get it, but I know I will always be doing what I love, and that is writing, no matter what job I get (whether it be copy-editing or medical whatever).

*

Even though I’m not cut out to be an editor-in-chief (I don’t want it badly enough) or a hard news journalist (I prefer a little more creativity and not “just the facts, ma’am”), I am learning how to become a better writer by writing all kinds of stories–from volunteer columns to book and restaurant reviews to human interest stories.  That said, the only type of article I’ve yet to write is a sports piece–the thought of which makes me cringe, because I loathe sports.

However, if ever there’s another Intramural Archery session I can cover, I’ll make that the one sports story of my life.

Once, and done.

The Processes of Seed and Clay

medal2

In the process of moving and going through old boxes, I found a medal I’d won my eighth grade year for “Excellence in English,” and I thought, Just when was it I knew I wanted to be a writer?

Paper had always been such a part of my life.  Before I was old enough to draw, I spent hours cutting it up.  (I believe snowflakes were my favorite creation.)  Once, while my dad was asleep, I cut up every paper in the house, causing him to throw my red Roger Rabbit scissors against the Butano heater in our Spanish apartment, breaking them.

As my brain developed, I began to illustrate the stories in my imagination, my fascination centering around the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (especially the Hanging Gardens of Babylon).  Then, my third grade teacher, Ms. Cahoon, had us keep journals.  I always wrote about my summers in Poplar Bluff; I was never interested in keeping a diary (I preferred to write creative nonfiction without the gushy stuff.)  I didn’t like writing about my feelings, save through the medium of poetry, so that no one could read this or that and say for sure, “That’s Sarah.”

Through poetry, I could reveal everything in plain sight.

I don’t know when it is that we know what we want to be–whether it’ll be in athletics, academics, or the arts.  I only remember my parents’ encouragement, never their pressuring me to be interested in any one thing (though my dad would only help me with history homework because it interested in him; if it was math or science, I was on my own).  Mom and Dad simply exposed me to what they could afford to; lucky for them, I was always drawn to books, such as the Berenstain Bears, Encyclopedia Brown, The Baby-Sitters Club series, and any books by Roald Dahl, as well as all the Newbery Medal award winners.  Books were my way out of poverty (literally and figuratively).  For years, I fancied myself as Francie Nolan from the movie, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; I could write lies that weren’t lies because they were stories.

I am so grateful that my parents just let me be (I call it the Libertarian approach), which is why most of my daughter’s playtime is unstructured.  I see how she ignores the television (thank God) unless there’s music, during which she is immediately transfixed.  Maybe that’s why I enjoy singing to her so much (though it does get a bit daunting trying to come up with a different melody for every nursery rhyme).

When she starts kindergarten, I’ll enroll her in piano lessons (as music works every part of the brain).  My husband prefers classic instrumental, though I always balk a bit at that, because I’m a writer, so of course, lyrics matter (though I wanted only “Canon” played at my wedding).  I see lyrics as telling a story, the melody, making you feel that story.  With classical music, there is no story–you just feel. 

Poetry, for me, is the flip side of instrumentals.

Everyone should have something–something that encourages mindfulness, something that draws them outside themselves.  My craft does that for me; I will lose myself in it, yet I will find more of myself I hadn’t known was there.

Because I know how much fuller my life is with writing, I want my daughter to have an outlet (so far, it’s ripping up paper).  Children come to us a blank slate, and it’s our job, as parents, to shape them as if they were clay–to mold them into good human beings–but they’re also seeds that need to be watered with nurture so they can reveal what they are meant to become.

medal1

The Magic of Childhood

Me

So I’ve been working on a piece to enter in this year’s college writing contest (which I plan for a year in advance, except for the nonfiction portion, just in case it had a theme). I’d already had a piece picked out–a personal narrative about my childhood summers in Poplar Bluff; however, it was too long, so I wrote a new piece, built, in part, from secondhand memories.  Writing it made me think of this foreword I’d written a few months ago for that too-long piece–a foreword which I’d like to share now.

Childhood memories are some of the strongest, for we don’t have other memories competing with them.  Everything is new, magical, and exciting.  It is why I am often nostalgic when I smell bacon grease or when I hear the “Bewitched” theme song.  I’ll never forget the day my husband was cooking bacon in the oven and I walked back in from the patio and I was hit extremely hard and incredibly close with walking into Grandma’s kitchen with the white porcelain and white-painted cabinets.  Sometimes, I imagine when I smell a smell like that, it’s almost like the spirit of a loved one, letting me know they aren’t really gone.

There have been times I’ve talked to a stranger longer than necessary, because they remind me of them.  My husband laughs like my granddad sometimes—a cross between a chortle and a snicker—and it gives me a chill.  

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that memories such as these become more real, my short-term memory becoming an unreliable narrator.  Memories help shape us into the person we become, and I believe those summers I spent in P.B. showed me that contentment—that spending a summer afternoon on a screened-in porch, chatting away the day—was its own sort of magic.

Writer’s Digest Wednesday Poetry Prompt #397: Land of (Blank)

If a New York minute is thirty seconds, then a Southern minute is ninety.
–from “Poplar Bluff: A Memoir”

Church sine.png

The Land of Dixie

Selling their messages on street corners are
Bible-bashers, cardboard-carrying hobos,
and dancing people wearing sandwich signs,
while cars plastered with Bible quotes
or slapped with a COEXIST bumper sticker,
coexist on the streets,
passing the temples of capitalism,
the cross-bearing churches that
capitalize on the guilty man’s soul,
seeking deep, silver-lined pockets.

The rapture’s coming soon for some
in this land of Deep South Protestantism,
where hearts are blest,
where everyone’s either saved or going to hell,
or just plain don’t know what the hell’s going on.

Pensacola Beach is the jewel,
set in fool’s gold turning green,
with its sand like ground pearls,
water vacillating between
emeralds and sapphires,
and homes the color of Jordan almonds.
The flip-flap-flopping of their footwear is their answer
to Australia’s slip-slap-slopping,
beating a rapid tattoo on the boardwalk.

Such paradise is everyone’s playground,
home to the earthly blest,
where few transplants are rejected,
their organs pumping the lifeblood
into the economy,
for which the tourists are both
donors and recipients.

I look around at my side of town,
at the heat waves shimmering off the asphalt,
the mud-filled potholes,
the never-ending road work;
I still see conflict and war,
deconstruction alongside reconstruction—
a rebirth of conservative nationalism.

I am home.

Note: Slip-slap-slop is a real thing: http://www.sunsmart.com.au/tools/videos/past-tv-campaigns/slip-slop-slap-original-sunsmart-campaign.html

Wednesday Poetry Prompts: 397

For more on Pensacola:

https://sarahleastories.com/2014/02/19/daily-prompt-west-end-girls-2/
https://sarahleastories.com/2015/04/10/poem-a-day-writers-digest-challenge-9-theme-work/
https://sarahleastories.com/2016/11/23/poem-a-day-writers-digest-challenge-23-theme-when-blank/