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  • May 4th, 2015

Taking Root

By Joel M. Vance

When I was 16 I began to write my autobiography on an antique Underwood typewriter that belonged to my parents. It had a worn-out ribbon that forced me to attack the keys as if I were killing noxious bugs. The period key punched tiny holes in the paper so that if you held it to the light it looked like a piano roll.
But had that code been played on an old player piano the tune would have been Bill Robinson’s famous song from the 1920s “Nobody.” (“I ain’t never done nothin’ to nobody, no how….”) After a few pages of family background, gleaned from a Chariton County history written in the late 1800s, I discovered that I had nothing more to write.
I was living with my parents in a 17-room former railroad hotel, dating to the 1800s, that had no running water and an outhouse up the hill. The only water was from a cistern, located directly downhill from the outhouse. You could almost see the virulent microbes doing the Australian crawl, shouting, “Come on in. The water’s lethal!”
Consequently my father bummed drinking water from his sharecropper farmers who no doubt wondered about the business acumen of someone who needed to beg water from his tenants.
This would appear to be the underpinnings for an autobiography in the Horatio Alger mode, perhaps titled “Up From Poverty.” (or maybe “Up The Hill From Poverty” if I were to write about the outhouse). If I were starved for writing material (and I was), you’d think I could bring a tear to the reader’s eye with an account of trudging up the hill in the dead of winter, the bitter wind biting through my thin hand-me-down, insufficient coat, my eyes stinging with tears, to relieve myself of a thin gruel of beans.
But I don’t recall ever eating bean gruel, thin or otherwise. We did have bean soup with home-made cornbread which, contrary to the description of gruel as it is known, is about as close to Heaven as you can get without dying. You chunk the beans full of chopped bacon and you slather the cornbread with butter and honey. Or we did, anyway.
We had plenty to eat and if our clothing looked as if it were direct ordered from the Sears & Roebuck catalog it’s because it was. My father was part owner of nearly 1,000 acres in Missouri and more than 600 in Kansas. The Kansas place, right out of an old Gunsmoke episode even had a couple of producing oil wells on it, creaking their endless metallic lullaby to the cruising coyotes and the prairie wind. So there was money coming in, occasionally a tad quicker than it went out.
The money mostly went into paying off the land debt, not into a modern toilet (although sometimes that amounts to the same thing). We were land poor in the classic sense. Our car was barely post-World War Two, bought when my parents were flush middle-class urbanites. But it gradually was rusting toward oblivion. Given that life in Dalton, Missouri, was as close to a rural backwater as you can get without becoming a hermit, I felt I was rusting toward oblivion, too.
My parents had uprooted themselves from a middle-class life in Chicago in 1947. My father, a perfume oils salesman, had been offered a promotion to the New York office of his firm which also had offices in France. My mother and I did not want to move even farther from our roots–hers in northern Wisconsin; mine on southside Chicago six blocks from a Lake Michigan beach and five blocks from a library. That covered every desire I had at age 12, not having discovered sex yet except in the academic sense
I don’t think my father was entirely happy about the promotion either, since he hailed from a hard rock farm in Missouri and since his major investment was in another Missouri farm. In New York he would be even farther from the nexus of his investment. Chicago was one thing—he’d been there since the 1920s–but New York was another planet and one that seemed, to Midwesterners, hostile and frightening.
So my father resigned the job he had held for more than 20 years and poured both himself and his accumulated resources into the farm he, his brother and a partner were struggling to buy. That partner, Larry Pillsbury, was a loose cannon who never met a bargain he could resist. He was held in check until he made a trip to Missouri to scope out their investment and couldn’t resist buying (1) a sawmill and; (2) a 17-room former railroad hotel in Dalton, Missouri, a town with an indifferent past and no obvious future.
Ultimately my father disposed of the sawmill, but no one in his right mind would have bought the Dalton Hotel. I’m sure my father looked for someone both insane and with money but failed to find one. So we moved into the hotel in 1947 and lived there through my high school years. I was 13 when we moved in and a college freshman when they moved outside of Macon, setting the stage for what would become the love of my life.
Aside from the dubious romance of living in a ramshackle hotel with two adults and a small dog, my life lacked Dickensian hardship. Instead of Angela’s ashes, I hauled clinkers from the rusty furnace in the hotel basement that most resembled something out of Friday the 13th. Freddie Kruger would have felt right at home in the dank catacomb that housed the furnace. The hotel, built from the timbers of a steamboat that sank on the Missouri River several miles south of Dalton in the 1800s, creaked and moaned day and night, perhaps reliving the moment when the boat it had been blew up and sank. The dog occasionally would stare at a corner of a room and growl.
My secret life was no more interesting than that of the most naive farm boy, of which there were many, and a whole lot less interesting than those few who dated ewes on the sly. Dalton, as a hotbed of vice, was on a par with a Sunday school picnic chaperoned by two dozen grim-faced members of the Daughters of the American Revolution. There were no bars and only a few girls past puberty, none of whom exhibited the loose morals of the Thorne Smith books I was fond of reading. Not that I would have known a loose girl if I saw one.
Once I invited the only girl in Dalton my age to come by and pick up some books my parents had finished.
I had stashed a copy of Mickey Spillane’s “My Gun Is Quick” which had, for the time, an erotic scene and the cover alone, showing a buxom blonde shedding her dress in front of Mike Hammer, was enough to make me break out with facial blemishes. I could have recited the smoking passages verbatim, so many times had I read them. I suspected my gun would be quicker than Hammer’s.
I planned to invite her in for a Coke and somehow work the conversation around to Spillane’s steamy prose and when she evinced an interest in reading it, open the book to a telling page, then lean over her shoulder, breathing hotly into her shell-like ear as she became increasingly aroused.
Then we would engage in…whatever it was Mike Hammer engaged in after that blonde finished disrobing (although as I remember he shot her in the stomach and she died with a look of disbelief on her face).
The time for my assignation came and went. The object of my lust didn’t show up, then or at any other time. I disgustedly threw my robe over a chair, hid the Spillane book again, put on a pair of cutoff blue jeans, and went down the street to shoot some basketball goals. It was the equivalent of what the Boy Scout manual once recommended for runaway libido—taking a cold hip bath, advice which may account for a decline in interest among teenagers for the Boy Scout movement.
While my peers were consorting with loose girls (or so I imagined, although I suspect most of them were slopping hogs and shoveling soybeans), I crouched over the venerable Underwood in my loft atelier (which was the former lobby of the former railroad) and adopted what I hoped was the look of a Left Bank expatriate from the Jazz Age, lacking only a trim mustache and Brilliantined hair (my whiskers were embarrassingly sparse and my hair stuck up oddly, cowlicked like that of a mixed parentage dog and was immune to Brilliantine or anything short of Super Glue which hadn’t yet been invented). I listened to scratchy 78 r.p.m. recordings of Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five and imagined myself to be Thorne Smith.
Smith was an alcoholic novelist of the Roaring Twenties whose heroes and heroines alternated between getting drunk and getting laid–two situations which, as a hormonally-supercharged teenager in Dalton, Missouri, I not only craved, but aspired to as Moses aspired to Heaven. Moses and I had differing views of what Heaven would be. I was equipped with a surfeit of pheromones. I wafted them on the Chariton County breezes like a barnstorming pilot scattering propaganda leaflets–but somehow they never settled upon the nubile objects of my thwarted lust or if they did they were dismissed as just more Chariton County bottomland dust.
Lack of success never seemed to blunt my lofty ambitions. I just knew that someday I would become the boulevardier of my daydreams, seducing voluptuous beauties, lionized in the literary salons. Meanwhile I detasseled seed corn for fifty cents an hour, 10 hours a day in searing summer heat, and wrote ripoffs of Robert Benchley’s humor and J.D. Salinger’s short stories.
I knew I would go to the University of Missouri Journalism School, one of the nation’s best and most respected. I would become a tough newspaperman like Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur and, even more pertinently, Hildy Johnson, the hero of their play “Front Page.” I would cover executions and maybe snap forbidden photos of the moment of death with a hidden camera, the way a New York Post photographer had done in the ribald Roaring Twenties.
The dream and the reality were quite different. A few years later, working as a reporter on the Montgomery Alabama Journal, the managing editor asked me if I wanted to cover an execution. By then I had realized that violent death, even that sanctioned by the state, wasn’t something I wanted to experience. “Jesus H. Christ, no!” I exclaimed, shuddering. I was doing business reporting and the most exciting stories I wrote were about new washing machines on sale at the local appliance store. It wasn’t exciting, but I didn’t have to watch someone writhing as they shot seven amps of electricity through his head. I had lost my enthusiasm for witnessing the final spasms of anyone, convicted killer or not. The childhood romance of blood and thunder had given way to the bloody realization of life and death.
When I was a 10-year-old in World War Two falling dead dramatically during our neighborhood war games was pure fun. You could gain peer admiration by sprawling recklessly under a hail of make-believe lead. We vaguely knew that older boys were dying around the globe from real bullets, but death was a fuzzy concept that meant nothing in our sunny Chicago neighborhood.
In memory the sun shines and the neighborhood gathered at the Victory Gardens adjacent to our apartment buildings on Prairie Avenue, and we had a picnic. Once, at one of those get-togethers, a teenage girl bent over for something and I looked down the gape of her blouse and saw my first female breasts, unfettered by a brassiere. It’s the kind of memory that sticks with you. War was pretty much fun.
By the time I graduated from high school, war play had been replaced by the reality of Korea and an almost certain 1-A draft status. Since visiting Korea never had been part of my career plan, even when the country was not at war, my choice was easy. I either went to college or Korea. College was scary, but Korea was even more so. Korea was a long way from Dalton and, as far as I could tell, no North Koreans or Chinese Communists were creeping up the Dalton Bottoms, intent on capturing Steiman’s Orchard.
I had drunk less than a case of beer and enjoyed it only because it was forbidden, not because I liked the taste. I was a virgin and the only titillating secret I could have revealed in a tell-all memoir was that I smoked–probably not much of a secret, since I was hopeless at evasion, along with most everything else. In fact I set fire to the family car with a cigarette and lied about it so unconvincingly that my parents merely shook their heads and hoped for the best.
I was sipping a Coke at a roadhouse in Keytesville (one of the few places in central Missouri where an underage kid couldn’t buy a beer) when a fellow came in and said, “Did you know your car is on fire?” It was said casually, as if he had accepted that I’d probably intentionally set the car on fire so it could smolder while I had a Coke with my buddies.
It took a moment to register that the car my father had, no doubt with serious misgivings, entrusted to me for the evening was at that moment being consumed by flames. Horror paralyzed me for a moment and then I sprinted out the door and beheld the family Ford filled with smoke. Someone, probably me, had flipped a cigarette out the window and it had blown back in and burned a baseball-sized hole in the rear seat.
I had a seven-mile drive to think of a believable lie. Unfortunately there were none. This was well before the days of international terrorism and, even had there been Middle Eastern arsonists, they wouldn’t have been at Bon’s Place in Keytesville, Missouri, looking to set fire to an automobile already well on its way to the salvage yard . The family dog, the usual passenger in the car, for all her faults, could not be blamed for incendiary indiscretion.
So I went home, reeking of cigarette smoke, to tell my parents that there was an inexplicable problem with the upholstery in the Ford. I explained that somehow the rear seat had caught on fire. I hoped vaguely that they would conclude that spontaneous combustion was more common in 1947 Fords than they had any reason to believe.
“Were you smoking?” my mother asked.
“No!” I quavered, lying as unconvincingly as a war criminal. They knew better, but my parents did not like confrontation and let me get away with it. The Ford was pretty well shot by then anyway. They covered the hole with an old blanket and the family dog snuggled in, as content as she had been when the seat was whole.
Given my paucity of imagination regarding the smoldering Ford, it’s a wonder I even considered being a writer, especially one of fiction, where imagination is a prerequisite.
I had it in mind that I either would go to New York and become a member of the Algonquin Round Table, nevermind that it had been dropkicked into history a couple of decades earlier, or I would emigrate to Paris to become part of the Left Bank counterculture, nevermind that it also had fragmented about the time I was born.
Yes, these were the ambitions of a Dalton, Missouri, youngster with a stockpile of imagination and nowhere to spend it. Reality was corn and beans endlessly roaring down the spouts of the Dalton Elevator across the street from the rickety hotel and dust swirling in the eddy of grain trucks going to and from the elevator and my father trying to be the seigneur of a thousand acres of Chariton County bottomland, while begging water from his tenant farmers.

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  1. Patricia "Trish" Pearman Elsberry

    May 4th, 2015 at 8:19 pm


    Really enjoyed your blog about growing up in Dalton and could really relate to your antics. I too, grew up in that area and spent time riding on the “Dalton ” bus route….remember being on the bus with you, however, you were older. I can remember going to the elevator with my Dad and to the hardware store. I was just there this past weekend to visit relatives in Brunswick and went to the Dalton Community Center for their monthly supper. On our way there, I noticed a road with your name…glad they have honored you in this way.

    • joelvance

      May 7th, 2015 at 4:08 pm


      Still not sure whose idea the road name was, but it was nice of someone. Glad you liked the Dalton memories. There’s muchmuchamore about Dalton and Keytesville in. My book “Down Home”.

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