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March 12, 2017
by John Shouse

I’m an ear man

In the era in which I grew up, most high schools had an annual “Sadie Hawkins” day dance.  Yours too?   This was the one dance in the school year in which the GIRL asked the BOY for the date.   A recipe for mayhem and merriment all wrapped in one. These days, of course, I think anyone asks anyone else out.  All good.   Back then it was different.

The dance was named after a character and event in the comic strip Lil’ Abner, which was about a bunch of hillbillies living in a fictional town called Dogpatch.

So my Senior year in High School, and I’m sitting at home one evening and the phone rings.  The one phone (most all of us ONLY had one phone) that sat on the little built-in shelf in the hallway. So that when you stand there and talk, everyone else in the house can hear.   I picked it up, and after just a moment’s hesitation, heard a voice on the other end of the line.  A GIRL’S voice.

“Hello, is this John?”
“Hi John, this is  ——“  (her name is redacted to protect the innocent).
“I was wondering if you don’t already have a date, would you go to Sadie Hawkins with me?”
“Uh….. sure!  Sounds like fun.”

I hung up the phone and thought … “Whoa.  What just happened?”

Now…. This was not a girl I had ever thought of dating.  Not because there was anything “wrong” with her.  Truthfully, it was probably because there was something wrong with me!   I was too blind to see what a terrific person she was.   We had a number of classes together, and I knew she was smart ….. even VERY smart.  She was cute.  And although she was mighty quiet, I knew from being in a group with her and hearing her laugh that she had a great sense of humor.   So … even though I probably SHOULD have noticed her in that way, I just simply hadn’t.   I had my eye on someone else.  You know, high school.

So on the big night, we doubled with her best friend (who happened to be a very, very good friend of mine) and HER date.   The four of us, decked out in our finest overalls, ragged flannels, rope belts, bandanas, work boots, etc….  (Hillbillies, remember?).  We joined the crowd of other similarly dressed teenagers at the National Guard Armory next to the school.   The big floor at “The Armory” was the scene of the many of our dances.

There was the usual live band, playing the radio hits of the day, and together we entered the throng on the floor and jumped and swayed, writhed and wiggled our way through the songs, pretending that we knew how to “dance”.   It was all just a pretense to wait for the (too seldom played) “slow song”.    With the playing of the “slow song”, you had license to wrap your arms around each other and sway in place to the music.  Turning in circles whilst swaying was also encouraged.  You know…. “dancing”.

Part of the annual ritual of Sadie Hawkins, was the appearance of “Marryin’ Sam” (also lifted from the comics).    An itinerant preacher …. Or possibly Justice of the Peace …. Who could, (for a small donation to charity), assist any of the young couples who just HAD to seize the moment to “get hitched”.    Tbe “marriage” was entirely legal and binding ….. for the duration of the dance anyway.

When in Rome…..

So this very sweet young lady and I joined the line to have Marryin’ Sam  (aka Mr. Green….. Coach Green … one of our teachers, who EVERYONE called “Bucky”), all decked out in his finest hitching attire, perform the deed.

When it was our turn, Bucky said the obligatory words… “Do you take this woman……”   and “Do you take this man …..”

We said our “I do’s”.

Bucky said, “I now pronounce you man and wife”.

Then….. something completely unforeseen by me …… Marryin’ Sam gave a little hand-wave of a gesture that clearly meant: “You may now kiss the bride”.   Or whatever it is that you are going to do.

It was the mid 70’s.  We were kids.  This was high school.   Awkward, socially inept, clumsy while trying to look cool High School.

I’d been on dates before.  I was not a stranger to dating norms.  I knew that kissing is not a big deal.  But on the other hand, I ALSO knew that it was not an INSIGNIFICANT deal either.   A kiss means something.  At least, it did back then.  To me anyway.  And probably to her too.

There are girls who kiss on the first date.   There are girls who do NOT kiss on the first date.  Nothing wrong with either stance.  But in the moment, full of indecision and teen angst, and the desire to not be a dork, this seemed like a pivotal moment in time…… what to do?

Had I THOUGHT about it, I would have known beyond any doubt that my fabulous date was NOT a “kiss on the first date” kind of girl.  Not by any measure.

And yet here we were.

A more experienced me, a cooler, much more suave me, a “wish I knew then what I know now” me would have simply taken her and given her a warm hug … maybe a hint of peck on the cheek …. Taken her by the hand and said, “Come on Mrs. Shouse, let’s go dance!”     And who knows what might have ensued from there?   We may have become even closer friends.  Lifelong friends.

But Bucky had gestured, and there we were.

I leaned in to give her an antiseptic and relatively chaste buss on the lips.    There was a look in her eyes.  Not exactly terror, but certainly not enthusiasm.  Let’s call it her own version of WTF??   Even well over four decades later, I can see that look.  I know (now) that the same sorts of thoughts that had raced through MY mind in the last few milliseconds had likely also raced through hers.  What to do??

As I got closer to my target, she apparently decided (possibly in a panic) at the very last moment to turn her head quickly to the side.  Because such behavior ….. this “kiss”, even in this cartoon “ceremony”….. amounted to kissing on the first date, which was unacceptable.

So rather than her lips, I landed somewhere in the vicinity of her ear.

Ok …. Actually, it WAS her ear.

So I kissed her ear.

I kissed her ear.  Not exactly passionately.   But perhaps not as antiseptic and chaste as I had hoped, either.  Let’s call it a 6 on a scale of 10.   If “1” is how you would kiss your grandma because you HAD to, and if “10” is one of those life altering, foundation shaking, toe-curling, I-think-I’m-going-to-pass-out kisses that take a full minute or more to recover from ….. this was a solid 6. A warm kiss.  A slightly … um…. WET kiss.

I have to admit, I’ve been an ear man ever since.

We walked back to the dance floor in silence.  An awkward, somewhat stunned, silence.

Shortly, she excused herself to go to the bathroom with the other girl, my good friend with whom we had doubled.   I can just imagine their conversation in there.   My date, still in shock.  My friend, aghast.    “And then, OH MY GOD, and I’m not even kidding, he kissed my EAR!!”   “He WHAT???”   When they came out, I think they were both looking at me just a little funny.

The rest of the night was fun.  More dancing, punch, a couple more “grip and sway” slow dances.   But I seem to remember it ended rather quickly after the dance.  No extended hanging out, no telling stories and laughing, no going to “the Hut” for pizza, no cruising the square.   No slow drives on dark country roads with music playing and wondering if the moment was “right” for whatever.

And, well, the marriage didn’t last anyway.

Of course, she and I saw each other a lot the rest of our senior year of high school. She even went to college at Mizzou, same as me, and I saw her on campus a lot.  We probably even had some classes together there, having similar majors.   We always exchanged a pleasant word, but I always had the feeling that somewhere deep inside, she was thinking …. “There’s the guy who kissed my ear.”

Here we are in 2017, I’m going on 60 years old, and I awoke this morning thinking about that night and that date, and that awkward kiss on the ear.    Don’t know why.  It just sorta spilled into my consciousness.

In this day of social media and enhanced connectedness, I know that “Marryin’ Sam” …. Bucky….. very well might read this.  If so, Buck, I will just say, “No worries, man.  It all worked out fine.”

My short-lived “bride” might even read this.   If so, I just want to say this:   I wish I’d been a better date.  I really do.  I had fun that night, and I’m glad you asked me.  It was high school, it was a very weird time for all of us.  I wish I wasn’t so awkward.  I wish we’d been closer friends. I’m sure I missed out on a whole lot by not taking time to get to know you better.  I truly mean that.

If I see you at a future class reunion, I may give you that peck on the cheek.

But I promise to steer clear of your ear.


January 31, 2017
by John Shouse

shouting at my shoes

This story is almost entirely true.  The parts that aren’t literal are, well, close enough …..

Unless you’ve been in a Turkish prison or a hermit’s cave, you know that cigar smoking as a (primarily male)  “fad-du-jour” has come and pretty much gone once again. Like wearing a hat, donning a bow tie, or sipping a well-mixed cocktail, the practice of firing up a fine hand-rolled Corona, Churchill, or Rothschild occasionally rises up to the forefront for certain guys as an outward sign that one is not just a man, but also well-practiced in the manful arts. In fact, there was a time just a few short years ago that the “cigar boom” was king.  Much of it was fueled (at least initially) by Marvin Shanken’s very slick publication “Cigar Aficionado”.  Catering not only to all things “cigar”, but also to all things that a well-heeled gent might engage in whilst enjoying said smoke.  Fine drinks, fine clothes, fine watches, fine golf destinations, racing, gambling, …. well, if it is considered “gentlemanly”, the magazine touched on it in at least some sort of way.    Even so, that most recent popularity of placing a rolled wad of leaves in your mouth and setting fire to it seems to be going away again, to lie dormant until some new generation of manly men decides … “it’s time”.

Just for some perspective though, all you recent cigar aficionados take note: I had you ALL beat by almost five decades. ……

As I pulled my bike into Larry’s yard that crisp autumn day back in the late 60’s, I saw him sitting on the steps of the side porch with one of those “cat-that-ate-the-canary” looks on his face.  I knew something must be up.   “So, what’s up with you?” I asked. Without a word he reached into his jacket pocket and produced the biggest, meanest, GREENEST cigar I had ever seen.

Well, that’s not exactly true.

I mean, I actually HAD seen them before…I’d seen them nearly every time I went to Larry’s house. Larry’s dad almost always had one of these babies, half burned down, dangling from a corner of his mouth. Reading the paper, mowing the yard, washing the cars…. now that I think about it, I actually have a hard time visualizing Larry’s dad without a cigar.

This baby was was typical of the stogies that Larry’s dad smoked.  One of those “double tapered” torpedoes that are pointed on both ends. Larry had no doubt pilfered this one out of the cigar box while his old man wasn’t looking.

“Cool.” I said. “Let’s smoke it NOW!”

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this wasn’t *just* a cigar. It was a CEE-GAR, and it was GREEN.

Pearlescent Green.

Glowing green.

Other-worldly green.

If it had been a Crayola crayon, the label would have said  “Creature-from-the-Black-Lagoon Green”.

Cigar wrappers have names.  From Oscuro (so dark it’s nearly black), to Maduro (a rich chocolately brown), to Colorado (a medium reddish brown) and so forth.    The official cigar term for Larry’s dad’s color of cigar wrapper is “Double Claro”, or “Candela”.

It probably came from a dirty machine in a back alley in Tampa that churned out a thousand or more an hour.  But to our young minds,  it was easy to imagine instead that a sultry, dark-skinned, raven-haired Cuban beauty in a low cut blouse in a sweaty Havana emporium had been just so, so  busy putting the finishing loving touches on this work of art after having rolled it with skilled, powerful hands.  Then she would offer it up with an inquisitive and sexy, thick accented voice to an unwary stranger, “Candela??”


In my memory, this baby was CHARTREUSE, and it looked DANGEROUS.

Now, it would have been easy to hop on our bikes and ride the half-mile to a vacant lot down by the railroad depot to fire up this prize in relative seclusion, as we had done with a pack of Pall Malls or Lucky Strikes or Camels from time to time.

However…. and I can’t even begin to explain it now … there is a logic that is an innate part of being a young boy who is up to no good. And that logic, on that day, with the prospect of smoking that cigar, led us to down into Larry’s basement, and straight to his mom’s closet-sized laundry room to accomplish the dirty deed.

Go figure.

Larry produced a box of wooden matches and began to slather up this chartreuse torpedo with saliva the way he’d seen his dad do it a hundred times before.  He pulled out a match to light the other end…  I stopped him.

“WHOA!!! Wait a minute,” I said, “I’m not sticking that thing in MY mouth after you’ve slobbered all over it!”

Ever being the resourceful one, and with that same flawless 12-year old logic, Larry produced a pocket knife with a sharp blade, and proceeded to surgically bisect the stogie into relatively equal parts.

“There. One for you, one for me” he said.

“Cool”, I said.

So we each slathered our individual green pointed half-stogie, lit up,  and began to puff away there in the confined space of the laundry room.

An hour or so later, …… (ok, so maybe it was more like 5 minutes) ….. we were both standing there in a fog so dense we could barely see one another.kid_smoking_cigar

“Larry, I’m not feeling all that great” I said.

“It’s OK, it’ll be fine,” he said bravely, “don’t worry. Just smoke.”

Nevertheless, through the smoke and my own tears, I could see that Larry’s own eyes were beginning to look a bit watery too. I wasn’t completely sure, but he may have been swaying back and forth a bit, like a willow in the wind.  Not at all steady on his feet.

As for me, my world was beginning to spin like a circus merry-go-round, and the painted pony … the CHARTREUSE pony … obviously had no intention of stopping to let me off. I was only vaguely aware of it just then, but there was something reminiscent of a volcano starting to gurgle and bubble down in my little tummy.

Just then, Larry’s mom, an unusually chipper and joy-filled woman, came strolling down the stairs with a load of laundry.  She may have been singing, “On the sunny side of the street! … ”   But at the bottom of the stairs as she turned and took in the scene….  the soon to be TRAGIC scene….. she stopped short.  No singing. No chipper. No joy.

There was nothing at all we could do. We were caught red-handed. CHARTREUESE –handed. With a look of utter shock and horror on her face she peered through the dense clouds and yelled “What in the HELL is going on down here?” Almost simultaneously with her (obviously rhetorical) question, and perhaps BECAUSE of it, the volcano in my stomach reached a Vesuvius-like point of no return. I felt the lava beginning to rise … ERUPTION!!!!

I puked all over a basket load of freshly washed sheets and towels sitting on the floor beside me.

Did I say “all over it”?   Splattering on it, around it, dripping off of it, off the walls, slicking the floor and I can’t be certain but *maybe* even the exposed beam ceiling …..   THAT kind of “all over it”.

Projectile hurling. The folks of Pompeii could not have been more surprised in their own moment of horror than I was, than Larry’s mom was, and as you will soon see… as Larry himself was.

Now, I’m sure that Larry would have LIKED to respond to his mom’s question with a reasonable VERBAL explanation.

Responded with maybe something out of the Official Eddie Haskell playbook.

Something such as “Well, hello there mother! Young John and I, well we’re just down here trying to see what all the fuss about this *smoking* thing is.   Guess what mom?  Funny thing is, as it turns out, (and Mom, I think you’ll enjoy this realization on our part), you’ve got nothing to worry about mom!  Because…well … mom, this smoking…. we’ve decided it’s just not for us!!!”

That soliloquy didn’t happen.

Instead, the sight (and perhaps the sound and smell) of me puking ….. combined with his own inexperience with cee-gars …. was just too much for the lad.

So, in a remarkable show of solidarity which sealed the bonds of our manful friendship forever, HE puked right on his own new sneakers. The ones on his feet.

And, not coincidentally… he puked on mine too.   Not just ON them, but somehow INTO them.  He puked INTO my shoes.  With my feet still in them.   Ruined a perfectly good pair of socks.

If you don’t want to call it “puke” or “vomit”, try one of the alternative and more colorful names or phrases for the very normal biological process known in medical texts as “reverse peristalsis”.  For example, “blow your cookies”, “stomach overflow error”, “looking for Ralph”, “sell the Buick”, or my personal favorite and the one that actually seems to fit best here … to “shout at your shoes”.

I had not known this before, but Larry’s mom, bless her soul, was a very, very wise woman.

She made the two of us clean up the mess, air out the space with fans and air-freshener, and re-wash the whole load of soiled laundry. We scrubbed floors and walls with a very fresh-smelling green cleaner.  A cleaner that only marginally masked the terrible smells.

But here’s the thing.  Bless her heart, she never told my mom.   I was sure when I got home, I’d get a lecture.  Or worse.  But it never came.

When I finally told my mom about the incident, over 30 years later, sitting around after dinner one night with coffee and pie,  I thought she was going to bust a seam she laughed so hard.

Motherly love is an amazing thing to see in action, you know.

Now, I’ll admit that these days I’ve been known to indulge in a fine, dark chocolate-brown Maduro cigar from time to time.  In fact, being a manly man myself, I was a charter subscriber to the aforementioned Cigar Aficionado magazine.   But on those relatively rare occasions when I light one up,  no, it’s not in a downstairs closet,  but rather out in the wide open spaces of the golf-course, or kicked back while fishing, or out on the back porch just gazing at the glory of the firmament.

Still, that early experience with the green torpedo, and the wisdom of Larry’s mom in making two adolescent boys clean up that horrific bio-hazard of a mess means that even today, all I have to do is LOOK at green cigar, and my stomach starts to churn anew….

later …  gotta run.   The tobacconist is closing in a bit.

April 21, 2016
by John Shouse

fried fish, Frank, and Frank’s mom

Seen and overheard at lunch.

I went to that “Fish Place” the other day. That’s what we call it at our house. That fast-food fried-fish chain that gets a bad rap for being a little overly greasy sometimes.  I went because I was in a hurry. I’m not usually a fan of their food, but it’s close to my office, and it’s fast and I actually like the “Nashville Hot Fish” they have on the menu now. I do wonder why the “Captain” doesn’t have a real last name. Only an initial. Oh well. hotfish

Right after I ordered, a young-fellow who was maybe in his late 60’s or early 70’s came in, accompanying an elderly gent who was (I’d later learn) 91 years old. The elderly fellow was using a well-traveled walker (beat-up, dented, paint chipped). He was wearing dress slacks, and a long-loved light blue polyester sport-coat, and a jazzy plaid necktie (nicely matching the coat, with some light-blue in it) that had likely also seen decades of wear. I don’t know for sure, but I think rather than a son, the younger fellow may have just been a church friend. Either way, despite the fact that he was dressed more like a farmer, temperamentally compared to the old guy he was a chip off the old block. So I’ll call him Chip. They placed their order and took a table just in front of mine, both sitting on the same side. (I think this was so the older guy could hear better).   I learned here that the older fellow was named Frank, when Chip asked “Frank, do you want to sit there on your walker, or one of these chairs?”   Frank chose the seat on the walker, so Chip moved the chair out away from the table.

When their food was ready, the manager brought it out and put the tray on their table, and headed back to the front of the store.   The two of them arranged their plates a bit and Chip said to Frank, “I’ll return thanks.”  He reached out, took the old man’s hand, and they bowed their heads in close.  Chip’s words were a little on the loud side so that Frank could hear, but not so loud as to create a spectacle in the restaurant.

It was an endearing and sweet sight, the way Chip leaned over close to Frank’s ear when praying so that Frank could easily hear the prayer.  So could I.  It was a nice, relatively short, garden-variety saying of “grace”.   You know, “Thank you for this food, and the chance to spend some time together over a meal,” Etc.     As Chip ended his prayer and started to let Frank’s hand go, Frank clutched Chip’s hand a little tighter, pulled Chip in a little, almost imperceptibly, and continued praying….. silently letting Chip know that he wasn’t done just yet with talking to “the man upstairs”.    “Thank you for a long life.  Thank you for blessing us more than we deserve.  Thank you for family and friends.  Thank you for our country and bless our leaders. Thank you for Jesus.”

They made small talk as they dug in to their food and I wasn’t really paying any particular attention to the conversation.  But I did hear Chip ask Frank, “How’s your fish?”   “Pretty good, pretty good” he answered.

But when the manager came up a couple minutes later to check on them and asked the same question, Frank looked at him with a bit of a mischievous look in his eye and said, “Well, it’s not as good as my momma used to make!”     The manager grinned and said, “Really?  Not as good as your momma’s?   Well, I guess that’s OK.  We wouldn’t want to outdo your momma!”.   Frank went on and asked the manager, “How old do you think I am?”  The manager said, “I don’t know… hard to say. You look like a young fella to me.”    Frank said, “I’m 91.  But I still remember my momma’s cooking.  Nobody ever cooked better than her.  Nobody could fry fish as good as her. And she always sang when she cooked.”  At this point Frank wasn’t really talking to the manager anymore.  “Not a day goes by when I don’t miss her.” he said, to nobody in particular.

I got a lump in my throat.

I’m with Frank.   I hope the day never comes when I’m too old or too jaded by this world to miss my mom.    Not just her fried fish and other delectable delights, but definitely that.

So here I am, just as I am so many times, missing mom and her pretty smile and her stories.  And yes, her singing as she went about her housework.   Thanks Frank.


December 17, 2015
by John Shouse

not your usual Christmas memories

In my hometown of Mexico, Missouri, the large tree of lights is up again at the old AP Green brick plant.  I think they’ve done it again for several years now, even though AP Green company is long-gone from the old town.  There was no tree for many of those years after “the plant” shut down.

The fact that it’s back up again just makes me happy, and I smile from the inside out thinking about it.  It brings back so many personal memories. AP Green Tree of LightsIt is comforting to know that some traditions can come back, especially when they occupy a place in the collective memory of a town. The photo here (by Amy Munford) is from this year’s version of the tree, but it’s just the way I remember it from almost fifty years ago.  The star at the top is mounted on top of the very tall flagpole, and the lights all cascade from there.  It’s a striking sight for drivers on Green Boulevard, and for many of us who grew up there, it’s just not Christmas without it.  I can remember exactly what it looked like and felt like and sounded like to be UNDER that tree, laying flat on my back on the cold ground, bundled up in a warm coat to cut the chill in the air, and looking up at the lights.  What it felt like to stand on the steps of the “Main Office” and throw the switch to illuminate it.

You see, as I have previously written elsewhere, my dad was supervisor of the “Electric Shop” at AP Green when the tree was first erected, and his department was responsible for putting up that tree every year, right out in front of the big main-office building.  Once it was up and lit,  I would  go “down to the plant” at night with him often during Christmas Season to check on the tree and the music that played through the PA speakers they’d mounted on the top of the columns on the front entrance to the main office building.  Many times, he’d let me flip the switch to light the tree.  I even got to do it once during the “official lighting” ceremony…  quite the thrill for a youngster.    I also well remember making the trip downtown with dad to Peck’s, our local “record store” to buy that Christmas music.  Elvis, the Mitch Miller Singers, Eddie Arnold, Bing, Perry Como, Patty Page, The New Christy Minstrels, Andy Williams, and so on … we picked out quite the selection.  The lights were on an automatic timer, as was the music, so it didn’t continue to play into the wee hours.

The “tree” was always such a great part of Christmas for many of us who grew up there in Mexico.

However, another of my favorite holiday memories from growing up were the downtown Christmas lights, and once again those have a very special personal connection for me. Dad’s guys at AP Green also put up all the downtown Mexico Christmas lights for many years.  Johnny_firetruckFor some reason, (probably because dad found it convenient to do so), ALL of the lights, tinsel stringers, decorations, etc. were stored in our basement.  This included big plastic bells and stars that hung on the light poles and around the courthouse. We lived in a big older house on South Clark Street, next to the Cities Service gas station, which would later become the “Chat ‘n Chu”.  That old house had a very large basement; including a big storage area that I think originally HAD been a coal storage area when the house was heated that way. That “coal bin” area was large enough to hold the many boxes that were used for storing those lights, Santa Claus heads, Bells, etc.

So, each year on the day AFTER Thanksgiving (my how times have changed!), dad’s crew would come over to the house, and begin the job of hauling out all those tinsel stringers of lights, Santa Claus heads, Stars, Candles, Bells, etc.   Bill Parks, Dick Henage, Elwood Crum, Jim Doyle, Walter Wright, Ed Dubbert, so many others. They’d string them all up to test out the bulbs, replace any dead ones, and repair any frayed wiring, etc.  Right there in OUR back yard.   So along about dark on that Friday after turkey day, my entire back yard would light up with the entire town’s Christmas lights and decorations, all jammed into one spot.   I’m sure that planes flying overhead could see it from miles and miles away… this one little blip of silver tinsel illuminated by thousands of red and blue and green lights.  Kids would come from all over the surrounding neighborhood to see what all the fuss was about.   (Maybe some of you reading this were there?).   Memories are triggered by so many things, and one of the most powerful triggers is the sense of smell. I find that even today, when I smell electrical tape, hot transformers, and warm light bulbs, I think of Christmas.

After getting everything operational, they’d pack up the stuff on trucks, and the next morning his crews would be downtown, stringing the lights one more time all over downtown.
Of course, once everything was up, there was the night of the big Christmas parade downtown. I loved watching that parade and hearing the bands play. The MMA Band, the 9th Grade MHS Band under Bob Murta, and of course the Marching Dixie Grey Band under the direction of John Willer. In later years, like so many others, I got to march and play with the last two of those bands. And then, as culmination to the parade, there was the appearance of Santa Claus. I think at least a couple of years, he would show up by descending a firetruck’s ladder from the roof of the courthouse.Santa_House Usually though, he just rode on a float in the parade, ending up at his little “Santa House” down on the courthouse square. All us kids would line up, go in one at a time, tell Santa our fondest desires, and get a candy cane, then exit the other side of the house.

The controls for the Christmas lights on the court house itself were in the basement there. One year (when I was still a little fella) I was down in that basement with my dad ahead of the big event, to make sure that all was ready to go.  I had to use the bathroom, so I went into the one down there in the courthouse basement. As I walked in, what do I see? …..    Some DUDE in “Long Johns” getting dressed in a SANTA suit!!!   He hurriedly turned around away from me and said, “Ho, Ho, Ho. Hey there little guy! Can you give old Santa a few minutes please?”  Ha!

Well….   you might think I would be bewildered and shocked and disillusioned forever. Scarred for life? Oh no. See, I knew already THAT guy was just a “poser” hired by the REAL Santa.  All us kids knew that.  Our “Santa” was hired by the REAL Santa as sort of a messenger/ambassador, just like he did over in Fulton, in Centralia and Moberly, etc. Not in Auxvasse though. Never in Auxvasse.  Auxvasse kids had to come to Mexico if they wanted to see Santa.

So no, I wasn’t upset at all. As we kids ALL knew, the REAL Santa appeared on “Showtime” every afternoon on Channel 13, straight from his workshop at the North Pole, reading our letters!

 “Here’s a letter from Little Johnny Shouse in Mexico.   Johnny writes,  Dear Santa, this year for Christmas, I’d like a Duffy’s Daredevil set, a Matchbox Garage, and a Disney filmstrip projector, and anything else you’d like to bring me.  I’ll be listening for you Santa, and you try to stay warm, and be sure to look for the cookies and milk I’ll be leaving for you by the tree, and some carrots for the reindeer.  And Santa, when you fly over our town, be sure and look for the giant Christmas Tree of Lights at the AP Green brick plant, my dad’s guys put that up!!   And all those lights downtown?  Don’t worry Santa, after Christmas we’ll pack them away in boxes, move them to my basement, and take good care of them so they’ll be ready for you NEXT year.”   

I know it’s been said many times, many ways, but I wouldn’t trade the time and place in which I grew up for anything in the world.

Peace & Love and Warm Christmas Memories,

August 21, 2015
by John Shouse

the half dollar

I grew up in Mexico, Missouri. Mexico is a small town just a bit northeast of the center of the state. The two houses that I called “home” for my first 18 years were near to the campus of a former college for women, called “Hardin College and Conservatory of Music”. HardinHardin, as a college for young women, was open from 1873 to 1931. The campus from 1858 to 1873 was the location of the Audrain County Female Seminary. In fact, the street onto which my family moved when I was 10 was called “Seminary”.  In the 1870’s, with a substantial donation from Charles Henry Hardin, a State Senator from Mexico and who would shortly be governor of Missouri, Hardin College and Conservatory of Music was founded.  The Hardin campus was located on South Jefferson street, perpendicular to Seminary.

Jefferson Street had been paved in vitrified brick in the early 1900’s, was largely tree-lined, and included broad sidewalks. It was the location of many of the finest old homes from the early years of the town. Jefferson ran north from the college campus to the railroad depot area, and then right into the downtown central business district, or “the square” as we all knew it.

The Hardin campus and Jefferson Street were central to many of the adventures I remember as a boy. Those who grew up in Mexico when I did remember the Hardin campus as consisting primarily of three buildings, Presser Hall … still in use today as a performing arts center for the community; Richardson Hall which had been converted to classrooms for the Junior High School there in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s; and the old gymnasium building. This is the campus where I went to Junior High, or what the kids today call “Middle School”. There was a large grand expanse of lawn and ball fields out in front of Richardson and the gym. But in the early years of Hardin College, there were other buildings out in front of Richardson Hall and the gymnasium. These buildings were classrooms, the main administration building and dormitories.

Some time around 1970, my parents got a metal detector. This was when we lived on Seminary. They had this idea that since they knew of many, many places in Callaway and Boone counties where they’d each lived growing up where there were old abandoned farm houses or country stores, that it might be fun to “prospect” around there for buried stuff…. I would sometimes take the metal detector over to a grassy area on the Hardin campus, or one of the baseball fields there (which would have included part of the “front lawn” of the college, and the area where some of the long-gone buildings had been) to try to see what I could find. I think I found a few coins from recent years. Probably lunch money dropped by some student as they reached in their pocket while cutting across the lawn.

But the prize, by far, was finding a pristine “Walking Liberty” half dollar from 1923. 1923-S_Walker_MergedIt’s not rare enough to be worth a tremendous amount of money, but it’s gorgeous. The walking liberty half-dollar is truly one of the prettiest coins ever minted in the United States. Lady Liberty, draped in the Stars and Stripes, walking towards the rising sun. Because of the delicate features of its design, the Walking Liberty halves found in circulation are often quite worn. This one however, as mentioned was found in rather pristine condition.

And I decided long ago that I would never, ever part with it.

Here’s why.

I always imagined that some father gave his pretty little girl who was headed off to college that half-dollar. Perhaps he was a respected physician with a well-trimmed beard, someone who passionately believed in the power of public education. Or perhaps he was a simple laborer who had scrimped and saved his whole life to be able send his daughter to college where she might learn the skills necessary to build a life for herself better than the one he himself had. In any case, she was born to be a part of the unfolding “American Dream” of the new century, when the pace of progress was staggering, and the world was changing in ways that could scarcely have been imagined even a couple of decades before. I imagine that father as he winked and handed the shiny coin to her and told her to “get something nice” for herself.

But instead, while crossing the Hardin campus to the administration building, she dropped it unnoticed, and it got scuffed underfoot and eventually sank into the soil until I found it decades later.

Upon realizing her loss, and not having enough spending money, she wasn’t able to walk with her classmates up Jefferson Street to the square to enjoy a phosphate or an egg-creme at the fountain counter in the drugstore. By missing that trip, she also missed the opportunity to meet a dapper young man from Mexico with a bow tie, suspenders, seersucker suit and a stiff boater, who just happened to be in town looking for the girl of his dreams. Seeing her stylish tresses and beautiful laughing eyes, he would have approached her, and with nothing more than that winning smile of his, he would have made an awkward introduction because he’s not particularly good at small-talk. Soon though, with her heart beating nervously, she would have impressed HIM with her boldness in unexpectedly offering to use the half-dollar to treat him to a fountain drink. 20140721-eddies-egg-cream-thumb-625xauto-407853He would have insisted it wasn’t necessary for her to pay, and she would have produced the half-dollar, smiled, and said “Don’t worry, it’s not really mine, this one’s on my daddy.” He would have given her a quizzical look, but she would have only given him a coy sideways glance, and offered no further explanation. In the ensuing conversation whilst they sipped their sodas, they would have come to realize that the hopes and dreams they each had for their own lives were truly parallel, and they would have begun to fall for each other, even before the rattling sound made by the straw at the bottom of an empty phosphate glass reached their ears.

Love at first sight? Some are skeptical. Some may even choose to deny such a thing exists. But those who are truly in the know can assure you it happens, and when it does, it is once and for all time.

Marrying shortly after her graduation from her beloved Hardin College, they would have left Mexico to seek fame and fortune in some large city with bright lights, wide streets and efficient public transportation. Bolstered daily by her beauty and her sparkling personality, and nightly by the selfless love they lavished upon one another, he would have quickly risen through the ranks of commerce, to become a wealthy industrialist. In later years, inspired by her kindness and generous spirit, together they would have used their amassed fortune in the service of others, to help end world hunger and eradicate horrid diseases.

Alas, ‘twas not to be.

Instead, she dropped the half-dollar coin on campus that day, and never made that trip downtown. The young man ended up marrying Gertrude, one of her classmates. Gertrude, who though nice enough, was not his soul-mate. He and Gertrude lost their meager savings in the Great Depression, moved west looking for work, and were never heard from again.

As for the young woman with the milky skin, sweet smile and no half-dollar, she never married, and spent her final years living on a meager fixed-income in public housing in a distant city … noisy, dark, and dank. Her music degree from Hardin was useful for her bored pastime of writing beautiful songs of longing, songs of hope and unrealized love. Songs which she played on a tinny sounding out-of-tune piano, heard by only her own ears and those of her three cats.  Also by the cockroaches and rats which inhabited her dismal days.

She played those songs in loneliness each afternoon, right up to the point where the drunken Romanian immigrant upstairs would pound on the floor with his cane and yell for her to “SHUT THE HELL UP!!!”, after which she’d take her chair, sit by the window and look out on the grime and grit of the city with wistful eyes, and random thoughts of happy people.

Happy people who lived ….. elsewhere.


As for the Walking Liberty half, I found it some forty years later…. and to this day it languishes in my curio box, a testament to lost opportunities and the randomness of life.

When I see it, it speaks to me. No, it doesn’t speak to me in such a way so as to suggest a need for my institutionalization. But rather, it whispers to me of everything lost, and it makes me wonder about possibilities, and about second chances.

If I could, I would travel back to that day on the lawn of Hardin College and Conservatory of Music, wearing a stiff boater hat of my own, and a bow tie on a clean white shirt with a freshly starched collar, and my best seersucker suit and I would be there, nearby, at precisely the moment the coin slipped unnoticed from the grasp of her delicate and milky white fingers.

Acting quickly, I would step in and reach down to pick it up. I’d say “Oh, Miss!!… I believe you have dropped this coin.” And then I’d gently press it into her oh so soft palm, and in so doing would hold her hand a scant moment too long.  As she blushed pink at her own carelessness, I would see the beginning of a smile at the corners of her mouth.  She would thank me, and I’d say…. “That’s quite alright…. just take it now and go downtown. Go downtown with your friends. But first, will you promise me you’ll be open to possibilities?”

She would give me a curious look. I’d say, “This may seem bold, but if a nice looking young man in a stiff boater and a bow tie … similar to these that I’m wearing … should smile at you, and if that smile makes your heart jump in your chest, as surely it must … just consider for a moment that what you see in his eyes is real. And know that boldness has rewards of its own. You just never know whether what you might dare to do in a bold moment without hesitation may reap rewards you can scarcely imagine. Someday. Miss, will you promise me you’ll believe in “someday”?  Please?”

Because you just never know.


August 20, 2015
by John Shouse
1 Comment

on the porch, with peaches

Jon held the door for the old man as he stepped out onto the back porch. Carl carried a couple of glasses of sweet tea and Jon followed with a small plate with sliced fresh peaches. He had stopped at a roadside produce stand sitting just off the blacktop on his way down earlier in the day. Spur of the moment. Something about it reminded him of his childhood, with the shelves and bins piled with tomatoes, corn, and melons. Fresh produce of all kinds. His mother loved the abundance of these stands on the back roads near their Pennsylvania home, and Jon had fond memories of stopping with her many times, though it had been too long now since he’d been to one. It wasn’t like him, but he made the unplanned stop. Jon was beginning to learn, these last few months, that unplanned stops are often the best kinds of stops when out on the road. He had bought a jar of honey, the kind with a section of the honey-comb packed right in the jar. He also found a small brown paper bag and put a couple of peaches in it for himself, and a cold drink for the road. Then, sort of as an afterthought, he figured Carl would enjoy some peaches as well. So he put the two from the bag back on the shelf, and instead bought a basket of the peaches for the old man.

At Carl’s request, Jon had peeled and sliced a couple of the ripe freestones in the kitchen while the old man poured up the ice tea, and as they made small talk about Jon’s trip down from Easton. How early did he get on the road? Where did he stop for lunch? … that sort of thing. Out on the porch Jon noticed once more, as he did almost every time he visited Carl, how well the old man got around given that he had just turned 87. Carl sat in the rocking chair by the rail, and Jon took a seat on the porch swing with a few weathered and tattered cushions, and sipped his tea.

As they settled in, Carl reached over, took a peach slice from the plate basket-of-peacheson the table beside him and bit into it, motioning for Jon to take a slice as well. “These are good. Gonna be even better in a few days. Ain’t much in this world as tasty as a Georgia peach in peak season.”

Carl looked a Jon and asked, “So how you doing, son?”

Jon loved how he called him “son”. He called him “son” in a way that Jon had never heard his own father say that word. In a way full of respect and love and admiration. It was just a word, but it meant so much to him. He started to say, “I’m doing okay”, but then he stopped.

Jon looked at the old man, sitting there on the porch in the sideways light of the North Carolina summer evening. Even though they’d really only been together a handful of times, Carl was easy to talk to, and they had gotten close very quickly.

Still, Jon surprised himself when he heard the words come out of his own mouth. “Carl, I’m lost and lonely and afraid.”

Immediately Jon wondered why he had said it. He hadn’t planned for this visit to be a confessional. But Carl sat there, waiting. Jon didn’t know what to say next. How do you follow something like that anyway? But the words came from somewhere.

“Don’t get me wrong. I’m ok. … but not really all THAT ok. Oh hell, I don’t know. I guess I’m smart enough to know that everybody probably feels this way from time to time. To deny that would be a lie, right? And yet, we go on pretending to everyone around us that everything is okay.”

Carl was still looking at him, but didn’t speak. So Jon continued, “I don’t know. It’s like, I stopped for coffee when I got on the road first thing this morning, and the girl at the counter asks, “How are you this morning?” I said “Fine”, but she’s not really listening. Or, I go into work most days and people say, ‘Hey Jon! How’s it going?’ I say “fine” and then, “How ‘bout you?” and we nod and smile and talk for a few minutes about nothing at all, and then we each go on our merry way.” Jon was getting wound up now. “I’ll come home most evenings and Ellen says, “Hey, how was your day?” I say “fine” and she never even looks at me. But it’s okay, because I’m not looking at her either and I’m not sure I care anymore. I don’t have the guts to ever say to people, I’m damn-well NOT “fine”. MOST days I’m not “fine.” Carl, I can’t even put my finger on exactly what it is …. But things aren’t ok.”

Carl sat there rocking, thinking. Jon was quiet now. He could hear the creaking of his porch swing swaying back and forth, the breeze in the trees, and the sound of some young kids playing somewhere in the distance. It was a full minute before either spoke. Carl broke the silence. “How long have you felt this way, Jon?”

“A long time.” Jon took a breath. “And it’s getting worse. I mean, it’s not like I’m on the verge of a breakdown or anything. I don’t know. Like I said, I know everybody has times where the world just seems to close in. The problem comes when those days start to pile up, one on top of the other. Trust me when I say that is no way to live.” A moment’s hesitation and then, “No damn way to live.” Jon wasn’t looking at Carl, so he couldn’t see the loving care in the old man’s eyes.

“Nope.” Carl said as he leaned back his head and looked up at the ceiling fan slowly circulating the evening air on the porch. “No way to live, that’s for sure.” When he looked back at Jon, Carl was surprised to see that the young man was close to tears.

Carl stopped rocking and leaned forward a bit. He spoke again. His voice was full of love, and very, very quiet. “Here’s the thing, son. Being lost doesn’t mean you’ll never find your way. And being lonely doesn’t mean you’ll always be alone. And there is no reason to fear being afraid.”

Jon listened. Suddenly, out of nowhere, he remembered his grandma telling him one time when he was a kid how important it was to sometimes just shut up and listen. Of course, she said it nicer than that. Something about how being a good listener is a gift you give to others.

Carl asked, “Jon, where’s all this coming from? Did something happen? Something with you and Ellen? Or the kids?”

“No,” Jon said. “Things are just always so out of whack. There’s no balance in my life. At work it’s rush, rush, rush on this project then that one. At home I feel like a stranger in my own house. I’m losing perspective on what it all means. I don’t like my job. I’m irritable. I snap at the kids. I’m short and sarcastic with Ellen. Even when they’re not doing anything wrong. That’s not me. I’m not ‘that’ guy. I’m not.” Jon sipped his tea. “I mean, I love my wife… or I think I do…. And I know I have people who love me, and yet I don’t feel loved. I just want to live a peaceful life.” As an afterthought, Jon made a vague motion with his hand and added, “Peaceful like this right here, right now on your porch.” He forced a smile.

Carl sat his iced tea glass down on the table beside the rocker, and touched the tips of his fingers together in thought. When he spoke, there was something in his voice that Jon had never heard before. Not authority exactly. Maybe certainty? Yes, that was it. A certainty that only comes with age and experience. And not always even then.

“Jon, listen to me. Finding balance, order, and peace is possible. It is. There is no shame in being vulnerable enough to admit you can’t always find them easily. Son, we’ve talked enough these last few months for me to know you’re a very intelligent and passionate young man.” Carl smiled to himself as if he’d just thought of something. Then, “You’re your grandma’s boy for sure Jon. You’re clever and quick and bright as they come. Grace was like that. Always was. But intelligence and passion aren’t always enough to see you through. The problem with being clever, is you fool yourself into believing that you should always be able to think your way through your troubles. Not gonna happen, son. Sometimes, the troubles we face are caused by how hard it is for us to simply BE present right here in the present moment. Nothing else. Just to BE here right now, wherever you are. And to know that you have it in your power ….each of us does …. to elevate the quality of THIS moment by practicing gratitude, love, and compassion. Not much else matters” Carl stopped and looked out across the yard. “Your grandma knew that, and she lived her life that way every day.”

Jon had never heard Carl talk like this. Carl hesitated a bit, and then looked back at Jon, “Or at least, she lived her life like that every day that I knew her. Hell, Grace was the one that taught me to believe it. Believe me when I say that she put up with more crap than any person I’ve ever known.”

Carl looked away for a moment, but not before Jon could see that the old man’s eyes were at that place where they haven’t yet started to water…. but almost. Then he said even more quietly still, as if he wasn’t really talking to anyone in particular, “and I don’t know anybody less deserving of that crap. She was the most peaceful and gracious and kind person I ever knew.” Jon could tell Carl was trying to will his emotions back into control. Not entirely successfully.

“Jon, Grace told me something once, and I’ve never forgotten the words. It was just after I joined the army. But before I shipped out. She said, Carl the choices you make in THIS moment (and every moment) lead you closer to peace … or, further away from it. Choose peace, she said.” Carl was looking lovingly at Jon now. “I was never as good at it as I should have been. Never as good at it as she was. But son, you’ve got enough of her in you that I’m sure you can do that. The only way you’ll get rid of the fear and the uncertainty and the loneliness is by living as fully as you can … one day, one moment at a time. Choose peace, son.” Carl reached over and put his hand on Jon’s shoulder. His eyes were beyond moist now. “Choose love. When you’ve got the chance …. And you’ve always got the chance……choose love.”

Carl’s hand was still on Jon’s shoulder. He gave a little squeeze, then leaned back and ate another slice of peach.

They sat there in silence, listening to the tree frogs in the fading light. Several minutes passed and Jon could tell that Carl’s mind was far away.

This time it was Jon’s turn to break the silence. “We’ve only got a little bit of daylight left and it’s a nice night. Would you go with me out to the cemetery to see grandma’s grave? I think I have a few things I want to tell her.”

Carl smiled. “Sure, son. Let’s go. Bring the peaches.  Grace always loved peaches.”

April 1, 2015
by John Shouse

one kind of gravy

When I was a kid, I’d often travel with my folks through Kingdom City, Missouri. It was just 17 miles down the road from my hometown.   There really was no “city” at the junction of US Hwy 54 and old Hwy 40, later Interstate 70.   And no “Kingdom” either, though the name does harken back to the days of “the Kingdom of Callaway”.  That’s another story.

So there was no real city, but there was a bus stop, several gas stations, and a souvenir shop or two (Ozarkland!).  The busiest and probably best restaurant/truck stop at that junction for many years was Gasper’s. Not the “new” Gasper’s with the giant Shell station, and a cookie-cutter restaurant, but the “Old” Gasper’s.  The “Old” Gasper’s was really top-notch restaurant/diner/truck-stop.  They had the counter up front, with the stools where truck drivers sat and sipped coffee and ate a hot meal. They had the main restaurant with booths, bright lights, tile floor, and a lot of hubbub, hustle & bustle. But if you wanted something a bit more upscale (though there was no such word as “upscale” in the 50’s and 60’s), they had the “back room”…  or as I thought of it, the “fancy” dining room. Tables, no booths. And with tablecloths! Lower lighting. Limited seating.  Just a little bit quieter.  Curtains on the windows, not the blinds like out front. Carpet. Wood paneling. This was a place where on Sundays you’d see families still in their church clothes.

One trucker, writing about Gasper’s said this:

“Old school” was Gasper’s Truck Stop in Kingdom City, MO. The driver’s section was just what the name implied, drivers only. There could be a line out the door waiting to be served. People would point to an empty table and Mrs. Gasper would say, “One of MY drivers will be here shortly needing a place to eat.”

Many years ago I fueled at Gasper’s, parked and went inside. Enjoyed a great supper – those carrots cooked in cherry juice – superartabumfistical. Filled old Stanley, paid for my meal and hit the road. I got way into Illinois and realized I didn’t pay my fuel bill. Could not find a phone fast enough – no cell phones in those days. Called Gasper’s and told them what happened. “Not to worry” was the reply. “Your ticket is on the board; we’ll see you next week.” Try that today.

So as a kid, yes, I went through Kingdom City with my folks a lot. And I mean a LOT. There was a time when it seemed like we stopped at Gasper’s once a week. Whether going to “Jeff” (Jefferson City, our state capitol), or Fulton or Columbia, or to visit my Aunt and Uncle, or my Pa Pa Shouse, the road South (and back home again) took us through Kingdom City.

It got to be a ritual that if we were close to Kingdom City ANYWHERE close to meal time, my mom and dad would look at each other, and one of them would ask, “Gasper’s?” And more often than not, the answer was an enthusiastic “Sure!”

If we ate out front (which was seldom), I’d get a burger and fries, or a bowl of chili.  However, we often ate in the back, in the “fancy” dining room.  In there,  nothing would do but to turn to the “grown-up” section of the menu where you could choose your entree, and three “vegetables” from a long list. I put “vegetables” in quotes, because there was a LOT of stuff on that list that didn’t really qualify as vegetable. Jello salad. Mac ‘n Cheese. Fruit Cocktail. Banana Pudding. You know… “vegetables”.

And on each table was one of these baskets.  cracker-basketA woven wire basket, black and gold, filled to overflowing with individually wrapped cellophane packages of crackers. I’d dig in that basket, right past the “ordinary” saltines and club crackers, and make my way to three delicacies…. Melba Toasts, Euphrates Sesame Crackers, or Bread Sticks.  Melba was easily my favorite.   mmmmmmm.

As we sat waiting to order or for our food, many times somebody that my parents knew, either from Mexico or from Callaway County or even Boone would stop by the table to have a little chat.  At some point they would look at me, as if surprised by my sudden appearance, and ask, “Now who’s THIS young man? My goodness he’s grown!” The adults would all chuckle.  Yep, that’s me, the amazing growing Shouse boy.

Perusing the menu as a formality, when the waitress came around, I always… ALWAYS … chose the same thing. Breaded & Fried Pork Tenderloin with mashed potatoes and gravy, corn, and cottage cheese. Cottage cheese!  Another of the non-vegetable vegetables. The waitress wold always ask, not looking up from her pad where she was jotting down the orders in her own special shorthand, “Gravy on your Tenderloin?” “Yes please, brown gravy, same as on the potatoes.” I had learned to be very specific, because of that one trip where the brought it out and I found brown gravy on my potatoes, but WHITE gravy on my tenderloin. HELLO???? Who the hell worked back there in the kitchen that day?  Where the travesty of TWO kinds of gravy on one plate seemed like a good idea? Ack.   ONE kind of gravy at a time, please.

Then, in addition to that usual order I’d ALSO order a side salad with no dressing. Hearing my order, the waitress would look up from her pad for the first time …. just to make sure she’d heard me right.  She’d look a bit surprised and ask “no dressing?”.  I’d say, “That’s right, no dressing.”

After a bit of a wait, she would bring out my salad, and usually one for my mom too.  Dad was not much of a salad guy.  It was mostly just lettuce, but with some purple cabbage, maybe a radish slice or two, and a tomato wedge as garnish.  But I wouldn’t touch it. Except for the tomato. I always ate the tomato first. But I saved the rest.

When the rest of the food came, first order of business was to take my little bowl of cottage cheese (vegetable) and dump it in with my salad. Then I’d proceed to eat that mixture, alongside the rest of the meal, with my beloved Melba Toast! mmmmm. I’m not sure why, but somehow this made me feel pretty Cosmopolitan.   At those rare places today that have fully-stocked salad bars, I actually STILL make a pretty simple salad, no dressing, and put a healthy scoop or two of cottage cheese on top.

After the meal was over, the waitress would come around and ask, sort of as a formality, “Anybody up for dessert?” My folks would often decline, although dad would sometimes  order a piece of pie or cobbler.  They would all look at me though, and I’d say, “Yes please.  Coconut Cream Pie”.    When I ordered a piece of Coconut Cream Pie, it was the secret code signal for my dad to say, “And next time you’re coming back this way, how about warming up my coffee?”.   Not,  “I’ll have more coffee.”   but “How about warming up my coffee.”  I guess it must have stuck with me.  I still ask waitresses in diners and breakfast places to “warm up my coffee.”    Back at Gasper’s …. if by chance it was one of those rare occasions they were OUT of Coconut Cream Pie, I’d just say…”In that case, I won’t have any dessert, thank you.”.

Yes, I was a peculiar boy. I think I may have grown out of it though.  The peculiarities.   You know, I am (after all) the amazing growing Shouse boy.

So here I am, wishing for one of those black and gold wire-woven baskets to dig through. For Melba Toast, and cottage cheese in my salad. Tenderloin and potatoes with ONE kind of gravy. And a big slice of Coconut Cream Pie.

Mostly though, I’m wishing I had one more chance to have my mom and dad look at each other and ask, “Gasper’s?”. Mom_and_DadAnd for the blissful hour spent with them at one of the best truck stops ever.

In the FANCY dining room.


December 23, 2014
by John Shouse

Decoration Day

Fried chicken at a picnic table beside the highway on the last weekend in May, same table as last year and the year before.  Cold Cucumber salad with onion and vinegar.  Peeled and sliced tomatoes, slaw, yeast rolls, homemade of course. A plate with sliced country ham and biscuits.

Dad’s sister, my aunt, fussing over getting each dish set out on the table as mom spreads the well-worn red and white checked tablecloth, making sure things don’t blow away in the wind. The weight of the syrupy sweet iced tea poured into the tall, blue and pink and green colored Tupperware cups helps.

My dad and his dad, along with my uncle, all staying out of the way, talking the way grown-ups do. So much on and on and on about nothing in particular. Conversation that didn’t need a reason, and didn’t accomplish much as far as I could tell.

My cousin, one year older, and always one step ahead. One step ahead in everything. Whatever he tells me, I believe. If he had told me the picnic area on the side of the road where we were now eating had once been a major stop on the Pony Express, and there had been a famous Indian massacre there in the 1872, I’d have believed him unconditionally. Unconditionally, and together we would have cursed the damn Indians, but not within earshot of his mom or mine so as not to draw their wrath for using language as salty as the country ham from my grandfather’s smokehouse that had been served on the biscuits his mom had made from scratch that morning.

Millersburg Baptist Church

Millersburg Baptist Church

They were Baptists, we were Methodists, and neither group condoned that kind of language. Especially the Baptists. Not even about heathen Indians scalping innocent white boys delivering the mail on horseback.

One thing was certain. He and I would find time to talk about lizards. We always talked about lizards on Decoration Day. He knew all there was to know about lizards. What they ate (flies and wilted lettuce …. though I would come to doubt the lettuce part), where they lived (cool dry places, but where they could easily get plenty of sun whenever they wanted). How to tell by their color and skin patterns which ones it was okay to touch, and which ones would secrete a sticky goo onto your skin that might leave painful boils or red welts. I’d never had a lizard-produced boil or red welt, but my cousin told me it might happen and that he’d read it in a book, and I believed him unconditionally.

After lunch, trash and chicken bones and scraps went in the barrel. Then, all of us back in the cars and on down the highway until we pull off onto a blacktop. Motoring past farms and fields, anticipation growing. Many houses we pass elicit comments from the grown-ups about who lived there and what they suffered with or who their kids married or what they died from. “There’s old Eli Carter’s house. Is he still alive?” “Yep, he and the missus still live there. Probably just sitting in there on the couch with the TV on.” “He’s gotta be eighty-something” “We should stop on the way back and say hello”. “Yep, we’ll stop and say hello. But we won’t stay long.”   That was always the plan.  Stop and say hello, but don’t stay long. I think to myself that if the grown-ups do decide to stop, I hope it’s not close enough to meal time that they’ll feel too awkward to refuse the inevitable invitation to “dinner”.   If there’s one thing I hate, it’s when we get stuck unable to refuse an invitation to dinner in a stranger’s house.   I’m quite sure these old people eat icky food, maybe even pickled okra or creamed corn that they grew in their own gardens or God forbid Jello with STUFF in it.  Some of these folks make Jello and put carrots in it.  Who DOES that?  I mean seriously.  Vegetables in Jello?   I’m pretty sure that old people with liver spots have kitchens that aren’t very clean, because the old lady’s eyesight is failing and and anyway she shops in dirty unfamiliar stores and keeps stuff like all of that on hand just for torturing the kids of barely-known old friends and acquaintances who might perchance stop by with the intention to say hello but not stay.  People who do’t really intend to stay, but who then decide to stay anyway because they’ve been asked and they’re afraid that to leave now would be rude.  What’s worse, having stopped at plenty of these sorts of places through the years, I also know that their houses will smell funny and their black and white TV’s will only get snowy reception on weird programs, and they won’t have Pepsi to offer us so we’ll have to either drink cloudy, dangerous tea or water from a well that tastes very peculiar.   I also know that my mom and dad love some of these people like family, but I surely don’t know why.

Then, after several miles of blacktop, just as the road forks and changes from asphalt to gravel, there are five or six buildings all together, the most we’ve seen in one place in miles. Dad says on cue, but yet almost as a casual aside, just as he says every year: “This is the town where I was born”.  My Pa Pa says, “Yep”, and points and says,  “Right over there”, but I can’t tell exactly where he’s pointed.   Me, snapping to attention, looking around, and wondering why dad used the word “town” when clearly there was no town there and it didn’t look like there ever had been a town there.

Englewood Store as it is 1/2/2015

Englewood Store as it is 1/2/2015

There was one building that might have been a store at one time, judging by the wide porch and windows and an old gas sign even though there aren’t any pumps anymore and probably haven’t been any pumps in decades.  Still, he says it’s a town, so I look at the house that I suppose he was born in though I don’t know why I think that’s the exact one, since Pa Pa had only pointed in the general direction. I marvel that babies were born in houses like that and not in big shiny hospitals with bright lights and mysterious rooms that smell all hospitally. My aunt, two years older than dad, never says anything about where she was born, and I wonder why.

After this place, the land gets a bit more rolling, and the hills a bit higher and closer together.   Soon we turn left onto a road that is smaller yet, and far more bumpy.  Shortly we make sharp turn to the right past a very smelly hog lot with ramshackle barn.  A few hundred yards more, with woods closing in on both sides of the road we make a sharp turn left, and then within a quarter mile or so we pull up to the clearing with the cemetery with the old fence and the newly painted gate.   Johnson_Cemetery_gate The gate that has a wrought iron setting sun, only back then I never thought of it as a setting sun, but a rising one, and it gave me some comfort that this might somehow be not such an unhappy place for the souls of those who were buried there. I’m not sure exactly when in my mind the shift in perception happened that changed it from a rising sun to a setting one, but I’d like to know. I’d like to know, because I think maybe that shift is important in some way that I almost understand but not quite.  Like one of those optical illusions that when you first look at it is a young woman in a fancy hat, but the longer you look at, you suddenly see that it’s ALSO an old lady in a shawl.  Once seen, can never be unseen. Maybe that point where the gate became also a setting sun is the precise moment at which I no longer was the innocent kid who dreamed of being an astronaut, and suddenly became the adolescent who realized he really was going to grow up someday and that life has a lot of setting suns.  Maybe I’m over-thinking it.

In any case, pulling up to that cemetery each year is something of a magical moment, regardless of which way I saw the gate.  We stand there for a minute out of our cars, suddenly stunned by the silence after the noisy rumbling of the car wheels on the gravel road.  Hard to say if the silence is more reverent or eerie.  Probably a little of both.  Either way, the silence is a sharp contrast, and it’s probably the reason nobody yet has ventured in through the gate and into the area with all the headstones.  Maybe the others feel, as I do, that maybe just maybe we’re intruders here and the slumbering souls beyond the gate could have gotten along just as well without us.  I can hear birds.  Nobody is saying much until one of the adults will make a remark about how nice they’ve got the place looking, grass cut and weeds trimmed. Swinging that sunrise/sunset gate open, all of us walking through as one, we maintain our relative silence. Whatever comments are made are made in hushed tones. “There’s George Anderson over there.” Somebody nods to a stone with a small flag planted by it. I realize anew, as I do each year, that there were several of these similarly flag-marked stones scattered around the grounds.  “He passed in France in the war, didn’t he?”  “Yes.  His mama never got over it. He was her only boy. She died of a broken heart shortly after the war”    And, “There’s Miss Botts” “Didn’t she get the consumption?” “Mmm hmmm, poor thing … so young.”

There were a few newer stones, but only a very few.  This was an old cemetery, 1840.  There were civil war dead buried there, and folks whose names time had forgotten and the elements had erased from view.  I’d sometimes stand for a while in front of a worn down stone with absolutely no identifiable markings, and wonder if maybe there was somebody still living that knew who was buried there and would come at a different hour to pay their respects.  And if so, why did they let the gravestone deteriorate so badly?  Maybe they simply couldn’t afford a new marker.   But then I’d think that no, probably nobody knows who is there, and whatever the person beneath my feet did in life is now gone forever.

Still, I liked how the adults talked about those people buried there as if they weren’t necessarily dead, but maybe had just stepped out of our field of view for a bit, and might be coming back with stories to tell and their families would laugh and clap them on the shoulder and give them a hug all would be well.  I liked the idea that even though it had been years, these people had been friends and neighbors and had breathed deep of the air in these hills, and felt the warmth of the sun and heard the birds the way I did.

We made our way through the stones, and our destination was clear. A couple of small headstones in pretty much the center of the cemetery. Not the big flashy kind that stand up tall, and include a bit of scripture or some bright encouragement about rejoicing in the land beyond the skies. No, these were the kind that were low to the ground, and had names and dates. And those names were OUR names, but the people were people I’d never known.

Minnie Teel Shouse, August 25, 1892 – October 1, 1921.   My grandmother. I was good enough at arithmetic to see that she was just 29 years old when she died. My dad, who was born in 1918 was just three when his mom died, and realizing that all over again always made me a little sad. I wondered if he remembered her at all. I looked at my mom and told myself I’d never ever in a million years forget her pretty face and her smile.

Next to my grandmother’s stone was an identical one that said Ora Elwood Shouse, March 15, 1921 – April 12, 1932.   My dad and my aunt’s little brother. Only it wasn’t until many, many years later that I realized the second date was actually 1932. Somehow in my memory it was 1923, a bit of dyslexic confusion.   I had assumed for years that dad’s little brother had died just after his second birthday. I was wrong, and it was for that reason that I never asked my dad what his little brother was like. Dad wasn’t five when Elwood died. Instead, he would have been fourteen when Elwood died. I wish I’d known that and asked dad about Elwood. In Missouri, the state has now filed electronic copies of death certificates online, and Elwood’s certificate confirms the 1932 date, and lists the cause of death as “Aortic Insufficiency”. A leaky heart valve. Something that today would be easily treated either medically or with routine surgery. In 1932, it killed the 11 year-old boy who might have grown to become my uncle.  Or maybe he would have fought and possibly died in WWII.

I wondered what thoughts went through my Pa-Pa’s mind as he stood there and looked down on the graves of his young wife and son. He had never remarried, but had raised two kids on his own, supporting them with his trade as a blacksmith and by doing some small amount of subsistence farming.

It never occurred to me then that in a few short years, there would be a third identical stone to join those other two, and it would have Pa Pa’s name on it and his birthdate of November 28, 1888 and a second date after the dash.  I never gave a thought to when that second date might come.  I wonder if he did?   I didn’t know then, and had no reason to even suspect that within the next ten years or so, I would have literally dozens of unofficial “Decoration Days” where I drove those same roads by myself, and would stand in silence at the stone of the man I knew, whose body lay there beneath the ground and next to his young bride and their son.

Back on that particular day though, my mom and my aunt are bending down pulling what few weeds there are around the graves and the two markers, and they’re placing the flowers brought fresh from my aunt’s garden ….. this is the “Decoration” part of Decoration Day.  Were they trying to make it cheery for the dead?  Or to brighten it all for the few moments we would be there that day?   The men start to drift around the cemetery looking at the other headstones scattered there, and still occasionally making a random comment here and there about the folks buried just under their feet. The stones are not laid out in orderly rows like the other cemetery we’d visit later.  Instead, they seem to me to be laid out with no sort of rhyme or reason for the placement.    Whether they’re looking at the ones in the front that were somewhat newer and out in the open under the springtime sunshine, or the ones in the back under the tall cedars, they’d still occasionally stop for a second in silence.  Those in the back were mostly far older and more worn down making them hard to read. There was one that I recall, and I don’t know the dates or the name, but maybe she was somebody else’s young wife or maybe a daughter. The verse on it was faded, but you could just make it out. It said “The sun shone brighter because she was here.”   I’d read that verse every year and was always surprised that it made me smile and want to cry all at the same time. I remember wondering if Pa-Pa felt that way about his young wife Minnie. I hoped so then, and I still hope so now.

Before long my cousin and I would tire of wandering the gravestones. After all, even including our grandmother and young uncle, there was nobody buried there we had actually known when they were alive. So we turned our attention to the grave-digger’s shed. I suspect the man, whoever he was, would have preferred to be known as the caretaker of the cemetery, but the shed WAS full of shovels and picks, after all. So to us, he was the gravedigger.

Gravediggers Shack & Outhouse

Gravediggers Shack & Outhouse

The shed was a very rustic little structure made out of VERY weather-worn lumber, with a single door, a couple of windows, and a dirt floor. Immediately adjacent to the shed was an outhouse.  From the smell wafting about as you got near the outhouse, and the presence of a new supply of Sears Roebuck catalogs, it was indeed occasionally used. Our attention however was on the shed. Somewhere, either on the inside walls of the shed or lounging around on the outside sunning themselves, we could be certain of finding a number of lizards. That shed was lizard-central. A veritable lizard Mecca.

With enough stealth and no sudden movements, and by slowly moving a hand up behind them, we would capture a lizard or two apiece. Year-in and year-out, the last weekend in May was when I looked forward to replenishing my stock of lizards. Of course, I’d bring the lizard (or lizards) home, often over mom’s protests, and they’d invariably escape or die. Escape was NOT okay with mom. She didn’t seem to care if they died. How somebody so sweet in every other aspect of her life could be so callous when it came to lizards is a mystery that I never understood. Sometimes their tails would fall off from my over-exuberance in playing with them in toy cars or trains. My cousin had told me that if that happened, not to worry, because the tails would grow back. He told me, and I of course believed him. But I never had a lizard long enough to actually have one grow a tail, so I never really knew how long that took.   Maybe I’ll find out next year.

Maybe I’ll find out, come Decoration Day.

If I could only ride along one more time on one of those trips.  To eat the fried chicken at the table beside the highway, to marvel at the tales my cousin made up to tell me, see the town where dad was born and be able to ask him all the questions I wish I could ask him.  To see my PaPa’s face as he gazed on the graves of his beloved bride and young son.  To give him a moment to himself, but then to put my arm around him and ask him to tell me about her, and about him.   To see the old stones in that old graveyard and hear the stories about the people buried there from the ones who actually knew some of them.  To catch me a lizard, and maybe even let it go, with or without a tail,  in some old person’s home after we stop to say hello without planning on staying.  I might even eat the orange Jello with shaved carrots.  On Decoration Day.

I’d love me some of that.



Postscript 1/4/2015 –

“Time stands still best in moments that look suspiciously like ordinary life.”

I took a short trip back to Missouri from my home in Tennessee on New Year’s weekend.    My son Brendan, who is now 19 accompanied me.  On Friday, Jan 2,  it occurred to me that it would be good to drive those roads with him, to visit the cemetery one more time, and to have the chance to talk about some long-gone members of his family and tell him what I recollect about the places and people from the days I wrote about in this piece.   Brendan_lizard centralI also took some pictures, which I’ve inserted here and into the story above.    One of the things we did many times on those Decoration Day trips was to visit an area known as “The Devil’s Backbone”.   The main feature of the Backbone was a narrow ridge of limestone running straight down into a broad valley with a winding creek.  Years and years before my memory, there had been a road down that ridge and into the valley.  The remnants of the road were still there back when I was a kid, but it was not drivable, meaning the only access down into the valley was on foot. When I was in college, that area became sort of a refuge for me, and there were countless times when in search of solitude, or some place to find my balance, my center, I’d travel those roads to the cemetery, and then to the Backbone.  Parking at the top, sometimes I’d simply sit on a bluff up there overlooking the valley below and just enjoy the sunshine and relative isolation from the hubbub of daily life back on campus.   Other times I’d hike down the ridge and walk the valley, wade the creek, and just find a sunny spot on a rock to sit and make sense of the world.  In those days, the only sound of civilzation was likely to be a jet overhead, or possibly the far-off sound of a farmer’s tractor.  But usually the only sounds at all were the wind, the rippling water in the shallows, and the birds.  It was and remains a very special place in my memory.

The old bridge at the bottom of the Backbone ridge was not, in my memory, ever passable by car. Devils Backbone bridge - 2015-01-02Back then, there were a few rotten  boards present, but it had been many years since they had even been suitable for crossing the bridge on foot. I do remember being brave enough to walk part way out on the bridge, barely over the water, but that was as far as one could go.  In this trip this past weekend, the rusty frame of the old bridge was still there, but not a single sign of anything resembling a board.

Hiking down the ridge to the bottom this weekend with my son, the sensory experience it triggered in my mind and in my heart was identical to what I remember from those trips back then.  This is, for me, a reverential place.  A place of wonder and silence and retreat. It was and is a kind of unexpected wild-place, the kind that is increasingly difficult to find these days.  I told my son much about the trips I’d make down into that valley, and I encouraged him to try an find a place for himself that fills that role in his life.  I think that is important.  His school up on the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee should be close enough to a lot of places that might work perfectly.

Devil's Backbone

Devil’s Backbone

This was a magical trip to a very special place.

In years to come, there are many things I will forget.

This trip with my son is not one of them.


July 12, 2014
by John Shouse

gradually and then suddenly

note:  this is not a happy story. if you’ve read and liked other things I’ve written, let me just say this is unlike the other items I’ve written and posted here before.

One of my best friends committed suicide almost eighteen months ago, and I don’t know why. After all this time, one of the hardest things is the certainty that I will never know all the reasons why.

I miss him.

It happened again yesterday. I was sifting through some old stuff in a forgotten outback of my computer hard drive, looking for a lost document, and I found something he’d scanned and sent to me. It was an “over-the-top” mail appeal from an organization in the disability community in which he and I were both active. At the moment he sent it, he was in a mild outrage at the arrogance and misrepresentation of the truth that he perceived in the mail piece.   And seeing it again yesterday, I had to chuckle inside, imagining the reaction he must have had to the piece, and I can just see him thinking, “I’ll scan it and send it to John. It’s sure to get him ticked-off too.”  (For the record, back then it did exactly that).   But yesterday, at the reminder of seeing it with his handwriting on it, the old familiar pangs of my pain at his death … and his absence … ran through my heart and my mind again.   I’ve come to realize that there are ten thousand reminders out there, some tangible like that scanned document or an old email, some only existing as hidden memories. All of them lying barely concealed beneath the surface, as in a minefield ready to snap me violently and unexpectedly back to the reality of his absence.

I need to say right here at the outset that what follows is not his story. It is mine. Or rather, it is a story about how I have come to understand (or maybe more accurately, failed to come to understand) his death. I don’t know all the reasons why he made the decision to end his life, and even if I did, I would surely make a very deliberate choice to NOT share those reasons publicly here.

There has hardly been a day gone by since his death that I haven’t thought about him, either spontaneously, or due to some triggering factor as mentioned above. It is for that reason, that I do*think* I want to write about the difficulties I had in processing it all. Difficulties that time has made less constant, but no less real.  I’ll admit that I wrote the initial version of this some time ago. Then I set it aside.  I’ve waffled on whether to post it or not. Like I said, I think of him nearly every day, and I miss him terribly. It may seem odd to write about this after this much time has passed, and it may seem even odder to post it here. But at this moment, right now, writing about it feels like a true step. That’s important to me.

I need that sense of having the feeling that any piece I write and post here is in some way “a true step”. In fact, as I’ve written here before, that is sort of my main test for whether to post anything here to my blog or not. That means that a lot of what I write doesn’t “pass the test” for being made public here in this place. But sometimes it does. In this case, I’m less certain … but deciding to post anyway.

Many of my friends who read this will know immediately who I am writing about. But I have chosen not to use his name, or to give any directly identifying information.   Again, that may seem odd… but that is also a deliberate choice I have made for the writing, and it feels right. I don’t want to dredge up awful memories for those of us who loved him. Yet, I do wonder if others in what was our mutual friend group think of him as much as I do?   I wonder if they also have their little reminders, and if they also share the same ongoing ….. grief …. that I do.   Grief.   Yeah, I guess even after a year-and-a-half, that’s the right word.

My friend lived in another state, and though we only saw each other face to face a few times per year, at conferences and meetings, we spoke on the phone regularly… at least every other week or so (sometimes a lot more often than that), and we had done so for a number of years. I’d call him, and seeing my name on his Caller ID, he always answered the phone the same way. “Hello, John! How are things with you?” I can hear his voice now. Writing those words, his voice is in my head. It’s kind of chilling actually. I’d say, “Well, you know. All good. I can’t complain.” Then I’d proceed to vent about the problems du jour.

Through the years, he’d worked for or with me on a few committees and work-initiatives. We had presented together at conferences several times. Together we were part of a small group of “usual suspects” working to bring empowerment, knowledge, support, and a sense of community to the broader grass-roots community of advocates that we all loved to serve.

After my friend’s death, as the horrible news spread, many mutual friends reached out first to me for answers … and also to comfort me… as they knew and were aware of our ongoing and very close friendship.

I had no answers for them.

Over the next few weeks, I was often amused and found myself smiling very frequently at the number of pictures, some of which were quite silly, that surfaced of the two of us together at events.   And then I’d look at each picture, look at his face, and realize in sadness that I’d never again be able to pick up the phone and give him a call, laugh together, bounce ideas around together, or bitch and moan together about something frustrating both of us. I’d realize we would never again be at one of those conferences where we would be the first two to get up and meet for breakfast, AND the last two to tell everyone else goodnight at the bar and wearily head off to our own hotel rooms.

In the last few days before he took his life, I believe that I may have been one of the last people to have a conversation with him about his depression and the things that were bothering him. Maybe the very last. One of the last to try to bolster his spirits about coping with a number of difficulties. Possibly the very last one with whom he confided his growing despairs.

Since his death, part of my ongoing grief has been the idea that my words, my expressions of love and support, my “advice” to him … that NONE of that was sufficient to stay his hand at the critical moment as he contemplated his options. It’s a hard realization. Intellectually, I know his decision was his alone… and that absolutely no one saw it coming. And yet, in private moments, I sometimes still weep at what I see, in the “perfect light of retrospect”, as my failure to reach him. And then I feel guilty in the knowledge that my tears are less for the tragedy of his death, and the idea of his family’s loss of a father, his wife’s loss of a spouse … than they are selfish tears for me. Selfish tears, for the loss of a friend and confidant. And they are tears of guilt as I second guess myself …. should I have seen this coming, even when nobody else did? Were there clues he may have revealed to me in his words that he was nearing the point of taking his own life? Were there clues that what was going on with him was anything more than what we all go through from time-to-time as we try to cope with the difficulties “life” throws at us?

I confess I just don’t know.

When I spoke with him on a Friday early last year, we talked about some significant difficulties that he was dealing with in several arenas in his life… both personal and professional. I offered him support and love and some practical and concrete suggestions about how to handle some of his personal decisions … and some ideas on things he could do to “get out of his own head” and gain some big-picture perspective and focus on all the good things he had going on. A suggestion to approach some of his looming big choices in the optimism of the certainty of better days to come.

We also had talked about plans we had to get together with another dear friend in a couple of months for a “guys weekend”, as we’d done before. We talked about how that would be good for all three of us.   As my friend and I were getting off the phone that afternoon, I told him how much he meant to me (he already knew this, we had talked about the depth of our friendship through the years from time-to-time).

I asked him to please check in with me “sometime next week” and let me know how a difficult personal conversation he was anticipating had gone.   The last thing I told him was to remember that he could call on me any time of the day or night, don’t worry about the hour. I told him, “I’m serious. Any time at all.” And I told him that while I may not have any particular answers, “I will always be here for you.”    I believe those may have been our last words.

“I will always be here for you.”     Only now I can’t make good on that promise.

The awful news came early the next week.

I drove to his town, a solo road trip that gave me a lot of time to think about things, including the night in the hotel before his service the next morning. I went to his memorial service in a daze, and barely spoke to anyone. When I got back in my car I drove a few blocks and suddenly pulled over to the curb. I sat there in my car and started to cry.  Cry hard.  I pounded the steering wheel and I screamed and cursed. Then I wiped my tears and drove back to Tennessee.

I was surprised in the ensuing days and weeks to occasionally find myself angry at him for robbing me of the ability to “Be here for you”. Angry at him for not calling me when he was really in deep despair and pain. Angry for his cheating me out of what I expected to be our life-long friendship. I know enough about what have been called “the stages of grief” to recognize that the anger is merely one of the phases.

As a parent of a child with a disability, I have lived many of those stages in another context, and even spoken numerous times to parent groups about those stages… about how they are “normal” and how we “must” let ourselves go through them and process them before we can see light on the other side. And yet, when I could feel myself going through those stages of grief with regard to the death of my friend, they truly surprised me and completely caught me off guard.

I felt almost like an outside observer of my own state of mind as I worked to come to terms with his death. And in that process, I’ve seen every single one of those stages wash over and through me. In no particular order: Shock & Disbelief. Denial. Profound Sadness. Guilt, Bargaining. Anger. Etc.

“I will always be here for you.”

And in the aftermath of my friend’s death, all I could feel was a giant hole in my soul and in my heart.   Not only could I not “be here” for him, but he would never ever be here for me. “What the HELL were you thinking??”   I caught myself actually saying that out loud a few weeks after I got home from his memorial service. “How DARE you write yourself so completely out of my life?”   And the thoughts born of that selfish anger led to guilt all over again. As I write and think about those words I’ve just written, it seems incredibly petty and selfish of me to have felt that way.

Back then, I could not conceive of a depression so utterly gripping that it would drive someone to end their life. I still can’t. And yet, I have struggled through the years with depression myself, and I know that it is insidious. And I know that it is a liar. I know how through the lens of depression, it can seem like “things” will NEVER get better. I have written frankly about my own depression before, and spoken about it in public as I’ve led workshops. It’s not something to be taken lightly. I have had my share of “dark nights of the soul”, and sought help.   I have allowed myself to be vulnerable enough with others ( I hope), and honest enough with myself (I think) to get to the root of the things that were creating the cognitive impairments I was suffering. I know first-hand that depression can undermine your ability to function normally. Your ability to even to get out of bed in the morning. I know it can make you wonder if the world would be better off without you. In my own case, I was lucky enough and diligently self-aware enough to find the way through.

But despite my own experience, in my friend’s greatest hour of need, is it possible that I did I not see or feel the clues to his despair powerfully enough to intervene?  Was that his failure or mine?   Was it even a failure at all? I don’t know.

At the risk of over-generalizing and simplifying something that is really in all likelihood very complicated, when someone contemplates and then carries through with suicide, I just do not want to believe that in most cases it is a totally impulsive act. Surely one builds to that decision over time, right? So in the case of my friend, the question I have asked myself is, when I talked to him a few days before he did this, was he already coming to the conclusion that he was going to take his own life? Had he already made plans?   If so, how did I not hear this in his voice?   Was I too smug in assuming that our talk that night, and my promise that “I will always be here for you” would help him put things in proper perspective? Were those just empty words? Or is all of that questioning on my part merely an attempt at rationalizing something which can NEVER be rationalized?   Maybe there WAS nothing to hear in his voice.

I don’t know. No matter how much I attempt to replay that last conversation my head, I just don’t know.

Or, alternately, maybe sometimes really bad shit happens and it’s nobody’s fault and there is absolutely nothing that would have changed it.

However, that’s not an explanation. And almost a year and a half later, there is nothing about his death that has worked in my own mind and heart to invite any true clarity. Not really. He lived, he was one of the most honorable and ethical men I’ve ever known, we made each other laugh, we trusted each other with our honesty, and he was as good a friend as I’ve ever had. And he died tragically by his own hand.

In “The Sun Also Rises”, one of Hemingway’s characters is asked how he went bankrupt. He replies, “Gradually, and then suddenly.”   I think for my friend, he must have concluded “gradually and then suddenly” that he could not go on living.   And there is no more to say about it. In my own attempt to understand it, I’ve lived with the” gradual” part for over a year.   I’m still waiting on the “suddenly” to happen.

As I have said, I will never and can never know the depths of despair he must have been in to have done this.   But I DO know that each of us at times has low points.  Even VERY low points when the world seems to be caving in on us. That’s just part of living life head-on, as so many of us do.

The work that I and so many of my friends do in the disability arena, whether for the greater good of the community, or only for the health and well-being of our own families and loved ones, is something that can take a toll.   It takes a toll when we see our efforts for change hitting a brick wall. Sometimes, hitting the same brick wall again and again and again.

Those efforts often take huge amounts of passion, energy, and time. It’s not that “The work” isn’t rewarding.

It is.

But it can also be depleting in so many ways. Staying healthy physically, mentally, and emotionally isn’t always easy.

So, regarding my friend, I still have no answers.

But I do know that there is this one thing I can say, and I can say it sincerely from the depths of my soul with every ounce of authenticity I can manage.

If you found your way here to this blog post, and have hung in there and read this far, the chances are pretty good that you are someone I care about. Maybe someone I care very, very deeply about.

I want you to know that “I am always here for you.”

If you will let me, “I am always here for you”.

If you need to get another person’s perspective on something, if you need to decompress, to cry, to vent, to curse the bastards, or just to howl at the moon, never EVER hesitate to reach out. Reach out. If not to me, find someone else who you love and trust, and reach out for help.

As for me, I can only promise that to the best of my ability, I will always hold you dear, and never forsake or abandon your friendship, even if we haven’t been in touch or close in some time.   And even if there are no immediate solutions to whatever problem or problems you are facing or think you are facing, you need to know that there are people who love you and need you and are willing to get down in the mud with you and stay there until it gets better.

And it can and will get better.

I only wish my friend had believed it. I wish I could have made him believe it.

I miss him.

“We are not here to see through each other.  We’re here to see each other through.”    






November 23, 2013
by John Shouse

one of the ponied few

“Hey Johnny, your parents are looking for you!”  My friend’s mother leaned over the railing, calling to me from her front porch, as a group of us were playing out on the sidewalk in front of her house.  I didn’t think much about what they might be wanting me for, as I said goodbye to my buddies and started to run home, cutting through their side yard, and the back yard of the house that was next-door to mine.  As I came around the neighbor’s big garage, I noticed an unfamiliar pick-up truck in my driveway, parked back behind our house.  There was a trailer attached to the truck, and my parents were standing there.  I think I probably slowed down a little.

It was the summer of 1965, between my third and fourth grade years at Eugene Field School, and I was 8 or 9 years old.   I say “8 or 9”, because my birthday is on August 2nd, and I really don’t recall if this was before or after my birthday.

What I do know for sure is there sat that truck and trailer.  Not just any trailer, but a horse trailer.

As I walked up to where my parents were standing, dad gave a nod towards the trailer and said, “Go on, take a look”.

Climbing up, standing on the running board of the horse trailer, I peered in.  Not surprisingly, there was a horse inside.

Only I WAS surprised.  Why was there a horse in our driveway?

Okay, to those in-the-know, it wasn’t a “horse” in the strictest sense of the word.  It was a pony.  A Shetland pony.  An American Shetland to be precise, with a dark brown coat and a much lighter mane.

“What do you think?” dad asked.  He paused just a few wordless seconds, and then said, “He’s yours”.

And just like that, I was in the club.  One of the few.

The ponied few.

“What?” I remember clearly that I was both confused and surprised by this revelation.  Dad said, “He’s yours.  What do you think?”

“He’s really nice!”  (Even then, I had a way with words)

There were probably a million questions that should have crossed my mind, though none of them did.  Questions like, “Where did he come from?” “Where’s he going to stay?”    “What’s he going to eat?” “Am I supposed to RIDE him?” (duh)  “Does he have a saddle?” And perhaps most importantly, “Why?”

Now, looking back on all of this through the lens of over four decades, I don’t think I’d ever told my parents I wanted a pony.  I’m pretty sure I hadn’t ever expressed much of an interest in ponies.  I’d never really been around horses or ponies that much.  Despite the fact that my hometown, Mexico, Missouri was known (quite proudly, by school kids all over town, and for generations) as “The Saddle-Horse Capital of the World.”, I’d never really had much to do with horses.  Oh, like everyone else I watched the finely-bred horses at the county fair each summer.  And when we’d visit my Pa-Pa Shouse on the farm, I sometimes rode old “Blaze”, his aged, sway-back work horse.    But did I have even a hint of a desire to become a horseman myself?  Nah, not really.  Not so much.

So, in hindsight, I can answer at least some of those questions I might have posed that day, though for some of them I still can’t.

  • Where did he come from?   I have no idea. Not a clue. For all I know, dad may have won him in a crap game.  The pony may have been ill-gotten booty.  (Not as far-fetched as you might think!)
  • Where was he going to stay?   At my brother-in-law Ron’s farm. I presume that may have been worked out in advance?  I’d hate to think he was as much of a surprise to Ron as he was to me!
  • What’s he going to eat?   The occasional bucket of oats, and lots of grazing on high-quality fescue.
  • Am I supposed to RIDE him?   Duh. (Though as we shall see, that proved to be more difficult than one might imagine).
  • Does he have a saddle?   No.  But there were some people who lived down the road from my brother-in-law who had a VERY snappy saddle (as you can see from the picture), and parents bought THAT for me too.
  • Most importantly, “Why?”

So yes …. WHY was I gifted a pony?   I’m not really sure.  That’s something I still wonder about from time-to-time. Sometimes I wonder about it a lot. Well, to be honest, it doesn’t keep me up nights, but I do wonder.  IF there’s an answer to that question, I AM pretty sure, “it’s complicated.”

I need to deal with this right here.  I was NOT a “spoiled” child.   I did not get everything I wanted.  I didn’t.   My siblings might disagree.   I am the “baby” in the family by a good margin.  When I was born, my siblings were 12, 14, and 16 years older than me.  So by my pony years, they were grown and for the most part out of the house, so at times it almost SEEMED like I was an only child.  But I was not that sort of a whiny spoiled brat that jumps to mind when you think of the kind of kid that gets a surprise pony.   If anything, I was really pretty much a “low-maintenance” kid.   Give me a Woolworths to browse in for a Matchbox car (or later a bookstore for the latest sci-fi paperback or Mad Magazine) and I was a happy camper of a kid.

So we headed out to Janet and Ron’s farm halfway between Mexico, MO and Paris, MO to unload the pony and get down to the business of being a horseman.  But first, that saddle.  I remember we stopped at a farm somewhere on the way out to Janet and Ron’s place, went to the barn with the man who lived there, and my folks bought a really snazzy saddle for my pony.  I remember how it looked, how it smelled, and how excited I was beginning to feel about the prospect of sitting in that saddle, high astride my steed as he thundered across the prairie.   (Do Shetlands thunder?  Does a fallow field beside the house count as “prairie?”)     We also got the rest of the tack… bridle, reins, etc.   And the various combs, brushes and grooming tools that one needs to keep your noble steed in tip-top shape.

Johnny_CowboyWe arrived at the farm, and got the pony out of the trailer. Dad and Ron went about showing me how to put on the saddle and tack, and it was time to ride.  As I put my foot in the stirrup, and mounted up, I did indeed feel like a cowboy.  Yes I did.  Sitting up there, looking down on the world around me, I could have been Roy Rogers on Trigger.  Or, Matt Dillon on his big bay horse.  Or, Woody on Bullseye, though I wouldn’t know that for another forty years. I was a cowboy.  I was a cowboy right up to the time that I nudged the pony in the flanks with my heels and said “Giddyup!” …. Startled, he bolted like he’d been shocked with a cattle prod and took off at whatever his top speed was.  It was fast enough.  Though I held on best I could, it was just a matter of seconds until THUD, I found myself lying on my back, staring up at the clouds.  Dad and Ron came running, but I was ok.  Just had the wind knocked out of me.  I tried again and again that day, but somehow that little pony just did NOT like to be ridden.

There was nothing to do, but to give up and try another day.  A day or so later, back out at the farm, we saddled him up, and I got up on the pony.  Same result.   Dad and Ron had the idea that one of THEM would ride the pony … you know … to “break” it so to speak. (snickering, chortling, or even a guffaw or two is OK here.)  I don’t know if they flipped a coin or what, but dad climbed on the Wild stallion of the Cimarron ….er, pony… and ZOOOM… it took off across the field.    Now, dad ALWAYS had on a white dress shirt with a necktie.  In his shirt pocket, there was always a pocket protector with a slide-rule, various pens, mechanical pencils, magnifying glasses, small screwdrivers (flat AND Philips), engineering reference books, used toothpicks, etc.  You know … regular “dad” stuff.  Sort of like I carry now.  Dressed thusly, astride and all-too-small Shetland Pony, he was quite a vision.

Somewhere mid-field the pocket protector decided it had enough of this wild ride and vacated dad’s pocket.  Not long after that, dad performed an “emergency high-speed dismount” himself.  I took no comfort in the fact that he didn’t seem to land any more gracefully than I had.

Eventually, we found most of the stuff from dad’s pocket protector, including ALL the important toothpicks.  But we NEVER found his prized, personalized, engraved Sheaffer pen, despite hours of looking. (As an aside, Janet just recently sold the farm, and I must admit there was a little bit of me that wanted to give that damn field ONE more scouring looking for that 47 year-old pen).

And that was basically the end of my cowboy days.  I tried a few more times, but the pony never caught on to how the game was played.   It was clearly the pony’s fault.

I never gave my pony a name.  Several years later, a movie came out called “The Culpepper Cattle Company”.   It was a pretty unremarkable film, a “coming of age” tale about a kid who wanted to be a cowboy, and who ends up on a cattle drive with a bunch of crusty old cow-hands.  There’s a wonderful line from the movie where the kid says to one of the cowboys, “Sure is a nice horse.  What’s his name?”  To which the cowboy replies, “Kid you don’t put a name on something you might have to eat.”   I’m pretty certain I never expected to have to eat my pony.  Still, I never gave it a name.   I had a dog with a name.  “Jumbo.”   He was a Chihuahua.    He got run over in traffic. Before long I got another Chihuahua, and gave him a perfectly logical name:  “Jumbo.”   I was nothing if not creative.   Unlike the singer in the band America, I never rode through the desert.  But just like him, my horse had no name.

Gifts given by fathers to their sons can be a tricky and complicated thing.   Sometimes it’s as much about dad and HIS hopes and dreams and private motives as it is about the sons and their desires and needs.  As a dad, I know this.   I’m self-aware enough to know that when I think about a gift for one of my boys, especially the random and spontaneous gifts, there’s a fair amount of “dad’s needs” in the mix.

So I have to wonder, did the gift pony meet some unspoken need for my dad?  Did he feel like he had wronged me in some way that a large unexpected gift would make up for?  (I sure hope not).  Did he just feel particularly generous?  Did some guy at “the plant” happen to offer, “Hey Shouse! I’ve got a pony for sale.  Bet that kid of yours would really like it”, and then dad thought “What the heck, why not?”   Or maybe (and this seems likely) we’d just been to the county fair, and perhaps he saw something in my eye as I gazed at the assembled stallions and mares and thought about cowboys.

But here’s the thing.   Given that the pony was not particularly enamored of being ridden, and that I did not have the patience or temperament to master the skills anyway, and given that he was 15 miles out of town and took a special effort to get to ride anyway, I soon lost interest in being part of the ponied crowd.

I don’t know how much longer I had that pony.  Not long.  I don’t remember the exact circumstances of how we came to rid ourselves of it.  One day we went to the farm to go fishing or something, and the pony was gone.  Just like that.  Now that I think about it, I don’t really want to know.

So now that I’m a dad myself, I can wonder this and understand the implications a bit of the sudden and unexpected gift of the pony, even if I don’t really know my dad’s exact motives.  Did the fact that I never really made it as a horseman disappoint my father?  Did he somehow see this all as a failure of mine?  Or of his?   Gosh I hope not.

In a fourth or fifth grade English Class, I was assigned to write a creative essay.  My mother kept that essay and laughed about it from time-to-time right up until she passed away.  It was entitled, “The Meanest Pony that Ever Lived”.   I don’t know what happened to it, but I sure wish I had a copy of that essay now.  Even though mom always laughed at my essay, (and about dad being thrown and losing his fancy Sheaffer pen), I don’t remember HIM laughing all that much.

However, I’ve said this before, and I have to say it again here.  He was the kindest, most generous and loving father a kid could hope for.  He had an amazingly quick wit, a sharp sense of the silly and sublime, and could always tell you a story to make you laugh.  He was so amazingly attentive to both mom and to me.   He always, always, always made time for me to make me feel special.

In Gary Chapman’s “The Five Love Languages”, the two modes of giving and receiving love that resonate most deeply with me are Quality Time, and Words of Affirmation.  When I think about my father, I guess I’m kind of amazed at how deeply he knew this about me, and that he was very intentional and intuitive about how he showed that love every day.  So, I can forgive him if sometimes on the spur of the moment, he ventured over into the “Gifts Given” realm.  And maybe I can forgive myself if I wasn’t as appreciative of the rather surprising gift of a pony as I might have been.

Still, there’s a little boy somewhere down deep inside struggling to channel my inner cowboy for the entire world to see.  Every time that little boy gets a hankerin’ to put on his chaps, the geeks that live a little higher up the food chain of my psyche are right there to give him a good beat-down.  Can’t help but think a pony might help.

 Ride like the wind, Bullseye!



August 5, 2013
by John Shouse

monkey lust at the county fair

The boy just stood there transfixed, watching.  The little monkey danced up and down, moving gracefully back and forth along the smooth wooden railing.  The monkey gave a little hop, then sort of a pirouette.  Then he skipped back to the far edge of the counter from where he had started.  The boy followed his every move.  The monkey spun around, paused for a second to look at the boy, and he jumped and seemed to cock his head a little to one side. Then he started the whole choreographed routine all over again. With his tiny red vest, green and white striped pants and tasseled fez he seemed like he might actually start chattering in conversation with the boy at any moment.

“Come on kid, take me home” the monkey said, “You know you want to”.   The boy was mesmerized by the monkey’s gaze,  looking RIGHT at him.  Only the monkey’s words weren’t meant as friendly conversation. They were taunting, a challenge to the boy’s willpower.  “Take me home.  Bet you can’t!  Just TRY to take me home.  Bet you can’t!  I could dance for you at home!   Take me home, if you can!”

The monkey wasn’t REALLY saying anything of course.  He wasn’t even actually looking at the boy. He wasn’t looking at anything.  I know that for a fact.

I know it because it wasn’t even a real monkey.

And I know it because the boy was me.

It was just a small stuffed toy monkey with a plastic face.  About eight inches tall.  A toy monkey with an elastic string holding him to a thin bamboo stick about two and a half feet long.

A monkey on a stick.

And I wanted it.  Bad.

The bamboo stick was in the hand of the carnival midway ring-toss barker.  He’d twitch and flick that bamboo, masterfully making the toy monkey dance like it really was alive.

“Come on folks, step right up!  Ring the bottle and win a prize!”

The barker’s words, combined with the monkey’s imagined taunts were getting to me. I did want to take him home.  I was beginning to want to take him home more than I’d ever wanted anything before.    I was probably about 8 or 9 years old.  It was the Audrain County Fair in Mexico, Missouri, and my home town.   Family, friends, and pretty much everyone in town simply referred to it as “The Fair”.

As I write these words, it’s a hot, sticky, and humid August night in 2013, decades removed from my experiences at “The Fair”, but a night so similar to what those nights were like back then.  The poster for the 1954 fair states that it was the 65th Audrain County Fair.  Presumably they’d been holding the fair since the late 1880’s.    But times change, and the Audrain County Fair is no more.  The old fairgrounds of my youth are long gone.  I have to admit the fact that the fairgrounds and grandstand, and “The Fair” itself  are gone, makes me a bit sad now as I look back on those memories.   But back then, the Audrain County Fair was an annual late-summer ritual, and very few people in our town didn’t attend at least one night of the fair.   A last hurrah in August, before the kids all headed back to school a few weeks later.

Audrain County Fair poster - 1954

Audrain County Fair poster – 1954

It was a big deal.  A very, very big deal indeed.  It was always such a great bunch of fun, and though my memory may be wrong, it seemed like it went on for a whole week.  It was several consecutive nights anyway.  I got to go every single night, because my dad was always there helping with the lights, sound, and all the electric service to the whole fairgrounds.  Because Mexico Missouri was known as “The Saddle Horse Capitol of the World”, the horse shows and harness races were always a central part of what we watched from the grandstand. And what a grand old place too, the grandstand. To a child like me, it seemed absolutely huge, like it must have held thousands upon thousands of fair-goers. In reality this was unlikely, as the whole town’s population was about eleven thousand, give or take a little.  The old grandstand was partially made up of box seats which sat under the night sky, and partially comprised of bleachers that extended back and up under a broad, high roof.

Even though the horse events were central to the whole fair experience, my favorite of the main events were the nights that Aut Swensen’s Thrillcade of stunt drivers and roaring new Ford cars would come to the fair.  Up they’d go, on two wheels, or jumping ramps, or skidding to a sliding sideways stop right in front of the crowd.  DANG!  All the while, my heart was pounding; mind racing wondering if there was going to be an unexpected rollover.  All leading up to the big finale, when the grandstand lights would dim a bit, and an old car with all windows busted out would speed around the track at a breakneck speed with engine roaring loud, as the announcer asked people to PLEASE REMAIN SILENT for the sake of the driver … (but actually just for dramatic effect of course), and eventually that old car would hit the ramp and sail into the night, passing through a hoop of fire as the whole grandstand would rise as one to their feet, as the old car would “T-Bone” into a pile of other old cars they’d lined up some hundred yards away.  Ok, so it was probably more like 50 feet, but it SEEMED like a hundred yards. Then moments after the old car crashed, all the other Swensen support staff would come racing out to the crash site to see if the driver was ok. There would be a moment’s hesitation …. The announcer would ask, “Is he OK boys?  Is he ok???  Everyone please remain where you are!”  and you thought maybe, just maybe TONIGHT it had all gone horribly wrong and the driver was seriously hurt… maybe even dead!   But then, he’d come sliding out of the car’s side window, leap up with arms raised to a thunderous ovation.  DANG!  It was all as much showmanship as skilled precision driving, but I loved the stunt show most of all. And I would replay that final T-Bone jump thousands of times in the days immediately after the fair with my matchbox cars, with my imaginary driver ALWAYS escaping unharmed.   What I wouldn’t give to be there again, smelling the gasoline and oil, the burning rubber, the cigarette smoke in the grandstands, and hearing the roar of the engines AND the crowd, watching those amazing ramp jumps, and wondering if the driver was safe.

But the fair was much more than just the main grandstand headline events. There were the arts & crafts under the grandstand, quilts and paintings and of course the homemade jams, jellies, and preserves.  Then there was a full array of concessions with the sno-cones, the sodas, the corn-dogs, cotton candy, the peanuts in the shell, popcorn… etc.  Cotton Candy was always a sticky disappointment. Peanuts in the shell … eh, so what?  Not a big fan of the sno-cones, they always ended up melting and dripping all over me.  I might get a little daring and sample a few of those things, but mostly I was a corn-dog man. Still am.   (Ok, side note.  True Mexicoans know that the corn-dog at the fair was only a sad, sad imitation of the Kwiki from the Dairy Pride.  This is a post for another day, but here just let me point out that to say a Kwiki is just a Corn Dog is to say the Sistine Chapel ceiling is just a “mural”)

At the east end of the grandstand, there was a beer concession.  I think it was run by the Lion’s Club.  I loved hanging out around there where the older guys would stand around and drink beer in longneck bottles, shooting the breeze with one another, laughing loud at the latest story or dirty joke that someone had to tell.  And that SMELL….the smell of beer soaked wet sawdust on the ground.   I can remember exactly what it smelled like even today, almost five decades later.

Even though I was a “townie”, and was never in 4-H or any agriculture activities, I had friends and relatives who were farmers, so it was always a big deal to go back behind the grandstand to the livestock tents and pens to see the prize cows, hogs, sheep, etc…    There was a smell there too, mostly manure and urine-soaked straw, but believe it or not, I remember that smell fondly as well.

Then there was the Carnival.  Of course it had the usual rides:  the Octopus (which I had regular nightmares about along with the evil teacher that made us ride it to our deaths, but that’s also story for another day), the Tilt-A-Whirl, the Merry-go-round with music blaring, the Ferris wheel.  My favorite, though, was always the Scrambler.  And I could ride that one until I myself was quite scrambled. There were the sideshows with “Freda the Frog Girl” and so many more.  Of course there was the “fun house” with its mild frights, crooked floors, wavy mirrors and flashing lights.  And finally, the games of “skill”…  heavy bottles you could try to knock over with baseballs, dart-throw to pop balloons, the shooting gallery, the cranes with which you would turn a hand crank to attempt to snag “fabulous prizes”, and the floating ducks to grab that had numbers printed on the bottom which corresponded to some unnecessary and highly disposable plastic prize.   And then, rounding it all out, complete with that taunting monkey on a stick, there was ring toss.

RingTossHere’s the deal.  There were Coke bottles with brightly painted necks on a tiered platform in the center of the tent, which was open to the public (except for that railing) on three sides.  The worker behind the rail would give you your small plastic rings, 3 for a quarter, 7 for fifty cents, or 15 for a dollar.  All you had to do was throw a ring over the neck of the bottle, and you were a winner.  Sounds easy.  The ring *did* fit over the bottle neck, but only just.

Along the back wall was an array of prizes you could choose from, based on the color of the bottle you’d ringed, ranging from trinkets (small prize) up to transistor radios (large prize!).   Somewhere in the middle of the “spectrum” of potential prizes was my monkey on a stick.

And I wanted one.  Bad.

At that age, my money came from dad just handing me over a few bucks to spend that night on rides, food, and the games.

I don’t know how many bucks I spent to win that monkey, but it might have involved additional trips back to dad to scrounge another buck or so.  It might have involved multiple nights of attempting to ring the right bottle.  Multiple nights, which just caused my Monkey Lust to grow even stronger and more all-consuming.

Eventually I won the monkey.  I rushed to find my parents back in the grandstand to make the big revelation of my heroics, but for some reason they weren’t nearly as impressed as I thought they should be.  “Mom, dad!  I won the monkey!!”  Mom probably smiled, and Dad probably said something like, “Hey, that’s keen!”  But I knew they were just patronizing me. Still, I was undaunted.  I knew this was no small accomplishment.  So I sat there beside them for the rest of the night, bouncing that monkey up and down on its elastic string while they watched the night’s horse events.  In my hands, the monkey didn’t actually “dance” so much as just spring up and down.  Not as lifelike as it had seemed while taunting me earlier in the evening.  Even after I took it home and tried to make it dance over the next few days, it still never really looked life-like at all.  And it had completely given up on taunting me.  Instead, pretty quickly it began to look like exactly what it was.  A stupid plastic-faced  monkey on a stupid elastic string stapled to a stupid bamboo stick.

Somehow it never occurred to me that the carnival barker had been bouncing that monkey up and down on that string every night of each summer in towns all throughout the Midwest.  Maybe for years. He had undoubtedly logged hundreds, maybe THOUSANDS of hours of Monkey Bouncing.  No wonder he’d made it seem so easy.

He was an expert monkey-bouncer, and I wasn’t ever going to be as good at it as he was.

Pretty soon the elastic string broke.  The monkey got relegated to the bottom of the toy-box and mostly just forgotten.    I took the bamboo stick outside, and used it to whack plastic army men off their feet during “explosions” in the heat of battle against an unseen enemy.   Before long, the bamboo stick splintered, and it got thrown away.

That was almost fifty years ago.

But I’ve had lots of monkeys taunt me the through the years.

I find that despite my best intentions, and all my “grown-up” wisdom and the sage advice I’m capable of imparting to my kids, I still occasionally find myself lusting after some new monkey on stick.  Through the years, those monkeys on sticks take the form of maybe a faster more powerful computer.  Or a new iPad.  Or a mountain bike.  Or a new set of golf-clubs, or a new guitar or ….. well, you know.   Despite how all that might read,  I’m not really a particularly materialistic person.  Really, I’m not.    However, sometimes that little boy in me raises his head and starts to look around when he starts to hear the sounds of some new monkey dancing.  (A Tesla!!  Hey!!  I need a new Tesla!!)   I know in my head that  just like that first monkey on a stick, the having never equals the wanting.    But the heart is not the head.

Some kids never learn.

But here’s the thing.  I can close my eyes and before you know it, I’m back at the fair.  The Audrain County Fair.  The sounds, the smells, the tastes, the flashing lights, the ramp-jumping cars, the feel of the wooden seats in the Grandstand, worn-down smooth by years and years of crowds watching the Saddle-Horse events.  The dancing monkeys.   I’m nine years old again, and there’s no place else that I’d rather be on this hot and sticky August night.


I knew if I had my chance
I could make that monkey dance

And maybe I’d be happy for a while.
But not really.
(with apologies to Don McLean)

June 10, 2013
by John Shouse

no idea back then

A slightly shorter version of this piece appeared in the April 2013 newsletter of the Autism Society of Wisconsin for Autism Awareness Month, and just ahead of my appearance at their annual leadership conference.   Written for an audience of  individuals, family members, and professionals who are in some way connected to autism, and encouraging them to “get involved” with their local non-profit autism group.  It also applies more broadly to getting involved in ANY worthy cause.   Because I believe that stepping up and making a difference in this world by giving of yourself is a vital part of what it means to truly live.   – jms

“We have a spot opening up on our Board of Directors,” she said, “and we think you would be a great addition.  Would you have any interest in serving on the board?”    The question came as a surprise to me, as I’d never served on a Board of Directors, and wasn’t even sure what the job entailed.   I’d been serving as the volunteer webmaster of our local Autism Society in Tennessee since very shortly after my son Evan had been diagnosed with autism.  Marcy, the woman who asked me that question was, in addition to being a board member, one of the therapists working with our son.  My wife and I were regulars at the monthly workshops and had made a number of friends in the organization by attending a few support group meetings and a “Family Fun Day” picnic.   In those workshops and fun events, one thing I learned from the beginning was how much I really enjoyed getting to know our local “autism families” and their kids.  I’d come to view this group as a trusted source of information and experience-based wisdom about “Autism”.  Information that was helping my wife and I to be better parents to Evan, who was then not yet three years old.   But the idea of serving in a more formal leadership role hadn’t really been on my radar screen.   I wasn’t  sure about that “great addition” part at all.

Still, I pondered the question, took a deep breath and said “Yes”.

I remember thinking at my first couple of board meetings, “I have no idea what I’m doing here.”  But, because of my work with the website, and because I was a voracious reader of every book on autism I could get my hands on… especially those compelling first-person narratives written by parents …. I became chair of the “I&R Committee” soon after joining the board.

Eventually, I became president of the board, a position I held for six years, eventually term limiting out.     I also became a regular contributor to our organization’s bi-monthly newsletter, writing a “President’s Corner” column about our experiences with Evan, his twin brother, and their older sister.  I loved writing those columns, and the challenge of coming up with something that was both personal, and yet somehow universal, was a joy for me with each new issue.   After I stepped down as president, I continued to serve as “Immediate Past President” … sort of the “elder statesman” on the board.  Cast in the role of  (I hope) bringing the perspective of experience to our meetings.     I’m not currently on our local organization’s board, and I haven’t written for them or worked on the website for years.  But I am still quite involved, serving as their representative on a state-wide Autism Summit Team, and also in a number of other similar capacities.

And I still LOVE to meet new families, talk with them, and get to know their kids.  It’s hard for me to believe I’ve been on this journey now going on sixteen years.

I remember one conversation I had back in those early days with Laura, who was then the organization’s Executive Director.  Laura was the one who’d recruited me (in our very first face-to-face meeting) to work on the website.  As a parent herself, Laura cared deeply about our families in the Middle Tennessee Autism Community.  With the help of a few dedicated “autism moms”,  she had created our local organization out of the scant remnants  of a former group, and had begun to grow it into a local force for change.   But on this day, she’d had a particularly hard day, fielding phone calls from a couple of parents whose children had just been diagnosed,  parents who were still needing to “process” it all, and to come to an understanding of this “autism” thing that had entered their lives.  She’d had a call from an emotional and angry mom who was desperate to find someone to attend an IEP meeting with her to help advocate for better school services for her child. And another from a mom with a child with a brand-new autism diagnosis, who (as often happens) ended up crying on the other end of the line, quite emotional out of fear, frustration.  This raw emotion is a natural part of the grieving that we all do when confronted with such life-altering news …. but “being there” over and over and over for folks who have such profound needs is wearing.  Laura dutifully had spoken with each and every one of these folks, because that’s what she did.   But it also meant that all those things she had PLANNED to accomplish that day (grant writing, working on workshop presentations, etc.) had to be put on the back burner, and some of them had deadlines.

Laura, a little frustrated,  told me, “Damn it, we can’t be the compassionate shoulder for every family in Middle Tennessee with a kid with autism!” I looked at her and said, “No, probably not. But sometimes we’re all they’ve got.  So I think we to try be there for them as best we can, and especially in that moment when they need us most.  The need to do that probably trumps just about everything else we do.  And then we have to help them find and learn to support one another.  We have to connect them with more experienced parents and trusted professionals who can help them on their journey. Yes, it’s a frustrating job sometimes.  But if not us, then who’s going to do it?”   And I told her that though I knew she  didn’t have any need to hear this from me, that I found her example to be inspiring and profoundly moving.

Here’s what I’ve come to know.   For families affected by autism, positive changes come most often as a result of family-to-family, person-to-person local connection and through the passion and dedication of local volunteers, local organizations, and local professionals.

Though “the work”  can often be frustrating and sap our energies, we also know that it is incredibly, amazingly, and unexpectedly fulfilling.  And what we know in our heart of hearts beyond any doubt whatsoever is that the best organizations, whether small or large, don’t measure success by how much money they raise.  Nor by how many “members” they have, how many conferences they organize, work-groups or task-forces they are appointed to, or how many “position papers” they author.  It’s not measured by how much research they fund, how many legislative initiatives they support, how many walks they organize, or by how often they’re in the media.  Those things ARE a part of the work, and I’m proud that our local organization has been involved in all these arenas.  But they’re not THE work.  They’re not WHY we exist or how we measure our success.  We know that success can ONLY be counted by how many lives you see changed as a result of the caring communities you create.    And truly changed lives ALWAYS and by necessity come about one at a time.

There is certainly a need for and a valid purpose for the large national autism advocacy organizations.  And we all applaud the grand dreams of those groups for sweeping systems change and share the vision that such big changes may someday become reality for our loved ones with autism.   We joyfully join them in advocating for those same things here in Tennessee.  But the biggest “hidden secret” in the autism world lies in the day-to-day work of one-on-one support, education, and advocacy that goes on in local communities every day across the country, and around the world.  It lies in the knowing glances and smiles we share with one another as we joyfully acknowledge how amazing the kids and adults we serve really are. It lies in the paradox that while we grieve the challenges our kids face, we also celebrate with joy the good things they bring us.   It lies in the strength we give one another through mutual support, shared wisdom, and yes…. compassionate shoulders.

It lies in the heart and soul of local organizations and the dedicated, knowledgeable, and tender-hearted people who do “the work,” quietly and powerfully helping to change the life of one individual and one family at a time.  When they share their stories with you, and you share yours with them, it’s a sacred trust, not to be taken lightly.   Our responsibility is to honor that trust, first by loving the people you encounter in “the work” as completely and genuinely as possible.  And then, we further honor that trust by using those stories to bring about even more changed lives.

THAT is the work that matters.

In the ensuing years since I gave that first uncertain “Yes” to Marcy’s question, I’ve served on the boards of numerous non-profit organizations at the national, state, and local levels.  In looking back on that work, I’m not entirely certain what it is that I’ve brought to the table, except maybe a relentless drive to keep folks focused on the big picture:   The importance of heart and passion and authenticity in helping to see lives changed for the better.

In terms of that service, I know that  I’ve not always gotten it right, and sometimes I’ve said yes too quickly.  But the idea of genuine connection, of sharing time and love in ordinary moments in seemingly small and inconsequential ways,  that idea has never failed me.

Above all, I know this one thing to be true:   If you want to impact YOUR community, it’s going to come from the hard work and dedication of local folks just like you.   Get involved.  Volunteer.  todo_2013Worthy non profit organizations abound in the disability community right in your town, who could surely use people with a passion for their cause.   You don’t have to be a board member or the president.  Maybe your strength is helping organize events.  Or talking to new families.  Or helping someone strategize for an IEP meeting.  Maybe it’s simply sitting at table and signing people in for a workshop or handing out information packets at a community fair.  Maybe your calling  lies in being that voice on the other end of the phone when someone new to your community just needs to talk.   Whatever your passion or your particular strength, just volunteer, even if you’re not sure WHAT you have to contribute.  And don’t be surprised when you find that giving of yourself in this way will also change YOUR life forever for the better.

I had no idea of that truth back then.  But because I’ve seen it over and over, I now know it is true.

I know it because it has changed mine.

We are not here to see through each other.  We are here to see each other through.


p.s.  If you’re involved with a group that works to better the lives of any of our most vulnerable folks (whatever that means to you) or their communities, I’d love to hear about it!   Especially about how it’s changed your own life.  Doesn’t matter if it’s the disability community or some other arena entirely.   Email me at, or just post your story as a comment here.


May 16, 2013
by John Shouse

Night of the Chickens

“John, do you like fried chickens?”

Not “chicken”.  Chickens.  With an “s”.

Even though it was almost 28 years ago I can still hear those words, spoken with a slight German accent by Bob, whom I had just met two days before.  He was probably in his mid-fifty’s,  powerfully built, with hair starting to gray around the edges.  Eyes that just came alive when he smiled.   Which was often.  I was a young project engineer, working on a remote job site in Batesville, Indiana overseeing the installation of a rather state-of-the-art industrial control system on a custom-built machine for a metalworking production line. Nothing exactly like it had ever been done before, and if it worked, it would open up interesting new markets for the company I was working for.

My customer, the largest employer in the area, had a skilled electrical and mechanical staff in-house, so rather than take a crew of our own, we’d arranged to work with their own personnel. The supervisor of the shop, Bob, was of German descent, like so many folks in that area of Indiana. A real “salt-of-the-earth” guy with the aforementioned broad smile and a monstrously big and firm handshake that nearly shut down circulation to your fingers. I immediately liked him, due in no small part to the fact that my own dad had a similar job as supervisor of the electric shop at the plant that was the largest employer in MY small hometown in Missouri. Though Bob was younger than my father, I could quite easily imagine that had the two of them ever met, they would have hit it off and had a lot to talk about.

On the day I met Bob, I was 27 years old, still a wet behind the ears kid, and not feeling terribly confident about what I was doing there.  Oh, the “techie” part of it was no problem.  But the responsibility to perform under pressure and on deadline, while supervising people who were older and more experienced than me was something new.  I’d done other automation projects previously but this was my first time on a remote site as a project manager, expected to take charge and just get it done.   I was feeling more than a little out-of-place in a town where I knew no one other than the handful of folks I’d just met on the job site. As I mentioned above, there are a lot of people of German descent in the area, and their German heritage is important to them. Just north of Batesville there’s a small village named Oldenburg, with fascinating old-world architecture and a heritage all it’s own.

In addition to Bob, there were a couple of guys working on the project pretty much full time with me. Bob, even though he had other duties, was checking in from time to time just to make sure they weren’t running rough-shod over this kid. They weren’t. They were great guys, and we were getting along fine. On the first day of the project, when the whistle blew for their lunch break, the two guys with whom I was working most closely asked me if I had lunch plans. “No, I think I’ll just run out and grab a sandwich” I told them. I was thinking of heading out towards the Interstate junction and finding some Golden Arches or something similar. “Nonsense! We going to The Brau Haus in Oldenburg! Come on” “Okay, sure” I said and we headed out.

Not Bob though, he stayed behind and ate cabbage soup. The two other guys laughed and explained that Bob ALWAYS had cabbage soup for lunch. So the three of us drove over to Oldenburg. The Brau Haus was a great little German bar/restaurant with a mix of traditional German fare and “down-home” cooking. I had a big heavy plate of German food. The guys were apparently at least semi-regulars because they were on a first-name basis with the waitress and nearly everyone who happened by our table. Though I didn’t know it just yet, I’d be eating lunch there for about the next ten days in a row, and would savor each day’s choice better than the one from the day before.  Oldenburg, as of this writing, has a population of less than 700.   Back then it was surely about the same.   I learned that Oldenburg had been founded by German Settlers in the early 1800’s,  and is known as the “Village of Spires” because of its churches and religious educational institutions.   The “Sisters of St. Francis of Oldenburg” was founded here by Mother Theresa Hackelmeier, and went on to start Catholic schools all across the Midwest.   One of the schools they founded was for orphaned black children in segregated Indianapolis, one of the first such schools in the country.  Oldenburg still has many old stone and brick structures, clapboard houses, buildings with tin facades, cornices and ornamental stonework.  It also has many bilingual (English and German)  street signs.

At the end of the first day on the job site, I bid them goodbye for the day and made my way over to my downtown Batesville hotel. I was staying at the Sherman House in downtown Batesville, which first opened it’s doors to guests in November of 1852. The hotel looked like a Bavarian Lodge, and was owned in the 1980’s by the same company that owned the factory where I was working.   I enjoyed reading some of the things posted in hotel about it’s history, and looking at the old photographs.  From the hotel’s website: “Originally the hotel bore another name, believed to have been The Brinkman House. During many changes of ownership in the early years, someone renamed the hotel at the time of General Sherman’s contributions to victory in the War Between the States” There is basically nothing to do in Batesville (or so I thought) on weeknight, so I stayed in the hotel, ate at the in-house hotel restaurant (more excellent German Food).  Afterward, I walked around town, and admired the architecture of some of the old buildings downtown, and the churches that were just a block or so off of the town’s main business district.  Then I went back to the hotel, read for a while and turned in early. Next day was pretty much the same, but I ventured a little further afield in my after-dinner explorations.

At the end of the third work day, as I was packing up to leave the factory to head back to the hotel, Bob asked me that question that opened this narrative ….

“John, do you like fried chickens?”

I was fairly certain he MUST have said “fried chicken”, but I didn’t think much of it.

“Sure, I like fried chicken”.

“Good then. Batesville is famous for its fried chickens!” he laughed. “Come on, supper’s on me tonight.”

We went out to the parking lot, and he led the way over to his truck. He headed out of the parking lot, and off in a direction I hadn’t been yet, out of town, and made his way out onto a blacktop road. As we drove along, we made small talk. He told me he liked to fish, and asked if I fished. I assured him I’d grown up fishing from the time I was a kid, and he wanted to know what we fished for (and how we went about it) in Tennessee. He asked if I’d been “… in the service?” I explained that I hadn’t, and he told me he was a former Marine. I had no problem visualizing that at all. Even with the slight accent, I found him to be very easy to talk to, and an extraordinarily nice man. He drove for probably twenty minutes then, we pulled into the parking lot of a little cinder-block building painted white, with a big sign in front that simply said “Red’s”. Bob announced our arrival. “Red’s. Great chicken.” Something about the way he said it made me think he might have said exactly the same thing even if he’d been alone in the truck.

We got out of the truck and walked in, and were instantly met with a chorus of folks hollering out, “Bob!” Think “Norm!” on Cheers. Obviously, he’d been there before. I looked around. Neon beer signs abundantly scattered on the walls. A juke box, a couple of pinball machines, and a pool table. Several tables with patrons in various states of getting unwound from the work day. Though there were several tables available, he took a seat at the bar and motioned me to sit down. The waitress came over and greeted Bob and he said, “This is my friend, John, bring us a pitcher” She said, “Hi John. What are you doing hanging out with this old coot?” He smiled, and she started filling a pitcher of beer from a tap. No question about whether I wanted beer or not, it was just assumed. Of course, of COURSE you drink beer at Red’s. Beer and chickens. Sheesh. What ELSE would you have at a place where they’re “famous for fried chickens” and where they had that much neon hanging on the walls?

Then he turns to me and asked a question that actually surprised me, again in that thick German accent.

“John, how many chickens can you eat?”

I was pretty hungry, so, “Um…. uh, I guess probably half a chicken”

Half a chicken. That’s a wing, a thigh, a leg, and a breast, right? Four pieces.  If there were a couple of side dishes, a decent meal for hungry guy.

He roared in laughter as if I’d said something hilarious as the waitress came over to where we were sitting again, and asked, “So what’ll it be?”

“Start us off with two fried chickens.” That’s right, he said “START US OFF” with TWO fried chickens. That’s all he said.  No “And we’ll have a side orders of fries, slaw, some hush-puppies”, etc.

One chicken for him, one for me. I chuckled and thought, ok, so I’ll have left overs.

We sipped our beers and talked a little bit about the project I was working on. Pretty soon the waitress comes out of the kitchen in the back, and sat down a platter that made my eyes bulge out. Despite no mention of the sides, there was a mound of fries, a big bowl of slaw, some white beans, and basket of hush-puppies.   And the biggest pile of fried chicken chickensparts I’d ever seen stacked on a plate.  Biology wasn’t my best subject in school, but my math is pretty good.  So that would be FOUR breasts, FOUR thighs, FOUR legs, FOUR wings. She gave us each a plate and some silverware, and hurried off to tend to something else.

Bob reached in a grabbed a wing. Then he spooned up some beans and coleslaw, and a few fries. Starting slow I figured. Then he said something that nearly floored me AGAIN.

“I only eat the wings. The rest is yours.”


I sort of laughed a bit, until I realized he was dead serious.  Only the wings.   Ok, whatever. I grabbed a breast and some fries and beans, and a couple of the hush-puppies, and went to work.

Maybe it was that I was tired of two days of German Food back in town. Maybe I was just extra hungry. Maybe it was all the neon.

All I know is that with the very first bite …. OMG.   It only took one bite, and I’m ruined …. RUINED ….. for ordinary fried chicken. It was hot, juicy, tender, and SO flavorful. Before long I was through the first piece, and grabbed a leg. There was an empty bucket for bones, and we started filling it up. Him with wing bones gnawed completely clean, and me with whatever was left of the piece I had just been eating. With each new addition, the bucket would give out a muffled little “ding”, and pile inside grew and grew.

The chickens were perfectly seasoned … spicy but not TOO spicy. Just a hint of heat. The pieces were all perfectly breaded Enough to be enjoyable, not enough so that the breading took precedence over the bird. Remarkably, though the meat was moist and juicy, the breading didn’t seen particularly greasy. And it was all oh so good. Especially with the ice cold beer working it’s amazing counterpoint to the hot chicken.

Whoever was back there in the kitchen … maybe “Red”?  … didn’t just know how to cook chicken. He (or she) was Michelangelo at the hen-house version of the Sistine Chapel. DaVinci with a feathered Mona Lisa. Ben Hogan with a clucking 1 Iron. Muhammad Ali standing over a downed Sonny Liston, but with a shaker of special seasoning rather than a circling boxing glove.  This was not just fried chicken. Er.., “chickens”.  These were ICONIC fried chickens. Chickens that had been bent to the will of their master.   I imagined a line of plump pullets at Red’s back door.  “Pick me!”  “No, ME!”  “No, cook ME next!!”     Surely any group of chickens would gladly give their all for this honor.  Old man Sanders from Kentucky could go over Niagara in a big red and white bucket for all I cared. THIS was fried chicken done right.

I was well beyond the point of being utterly stuffed, NEVER having eaten so much chicken in my life. We were near the bottom of our second pitcher of beer, and the pile of food was down to something that looked like it could still serve a small family, when Bob says to the waitress. “Bring us another chicken and one more pitcher.”

I just looked at him. I’m quite sure the look on my face said it all.

What. The. Hell ??

He leaned back and roared with laughter again and said, ” They don’t allow leftovers in here. We can’t leave until it’s all gone.  Eat up.”  So I did.

By the time we left, probably two and a half hours after we’d arrived, the pile of bones was nothing less than epic. Despite his admonition that they didn’t allow leftovers, we still had fries and some slaw on the platter.

But no chickens.

Bob had eaten six wings.

I’d eaten the rest.    That’s the honest truth.

Bob paid up and we headed out. I was more than a little wobbly, though I’m not sure if it was more from the beer or the added weight of three (wingless) fried chickens. Bob was steady as a rock.

When he dropped me back at the parking lot of the factory to get my car, he said he’d enjoyed it and then, “See you bright and early!”.  And he did.

I was on that project there for about ten days. My last night in town, we headed once again out to Red’s and did the same thing all over again.

I’ve thought back on that first night at Red’s with Bob several times through the years, and I love to tell the story of the night we bested the chickens.

I don’t remember that much about the specifics of the actual engineering job we did that week.  I only worked for that company a couple of years.  But what  I do remember about that trip was the town, the food, and the people I met and worked with.  And I remember how they made me feel welcome and at ease.

More than that though, I learned three really important lessons.

First, ALWAYS eat “local” whenever you can as you travel from town to town.   If not, you’re going to miss some of the best part of what “the road” has to offer.

Second,  even when the “goal” may be to get to the end of the project, the trip, or the job … to accomplish that thing you’ve set out to do, take time to experience the riches of the places you encounter along the way.   Here is a verifiable truth:  Each town has its own unique “sense of place”.   If you open your eyes, you’ll find amazing stories in every town you visit, small and large.

And last, I learned that the very richest part of ANY journey is without a doubt the “ordinary” people you meet.  Take time to connect with people.  Engage them in conversation.   Authenticity in relationships … even the most casual and fleeting of relationships …. is priceless.   What an amazing gift when people share their stories with you.  What an amazing gift when they are present as new stories are being written.

“Sharing of ourselves and allowing others to do the same is ultimately our most valuable gift to one another.”  – Dan Wilkins.


P.S.   The answer to “How many chickens can you eat” is apparently 3, though I would not presume there is any way that I could hit that mark today.    I’ve looked online for “Red’s” and can find no mention of it whatsoever.   I did however find Bob’s obituary.  He died in 2012 at the age of 76.   And that makes me a little sad.  I never saw him again after that trip, but I wish I would have had the opportunity to tell him how much that trip to Southeast Indiana had meant to me.  It’s doubtful he would have remembered me or the “Night of the Chickens”.   But I remember.



May 3, 2013
by John Shouse

seeing the future, seeing the past

The following piece is something I wrote for a Facebook Group of which I am a part.  The group is called “Memories of Growing Up in Mexico, Missouri”.    And I did. (grow up in Mexico).     Much of the conversation in that group has to do with folks sharing memories about things they did as kids, what the town was like back then, remembering individuals who were a part of our collective childhoods.  At least a few of us on there also talk about interesting parts of Mexico history.

We were discussing on that group some of the history of the Fire Brick industry in Missouri, and specifically why there was an OLD refractories products company in Mexico called the “salamander works”.  And noting that according to old newspaper clippings at the Library of Congress website, the Vandalia fire brick plant around the turn of the last century was actually formally named the Vandalia Salamander Works.   (It’s not important here, but a “salamander ” in this usage is apparently both the iron slug that collects at the bottom of a blast furnace, and later it actually came to refer to the brick piece at the bottom of the furnace that collects that slug.) 

In researching all of this, I started thinking about A.P. Green, the man, and his legacy in Mexico.   The AP Green Company was for many, many years the biggest employer in Mexico, and for those of us who grew up there, “The Plant” impacted our lives in so very many ways.    

Hope you enjoy this, even if you’re not from Mexico, Missouri.  

All this talk about Fire Brick companies, Salamanders, etc has gotten me thinking about “Mr. Green” and his legacy in Mexico.  As the new century turned, Allen Percival Green was working in Pittsburgh, PA for the Harbison-Walker Company in sales.  He was a mere 25 years old.   In 1904 he was offered and seized the opportunity to move back to Missouri from Pennsylvania, to accept the job as Vice President and General Manager of the Evens & Howard – Cheltenham plant in St. Louis, pictured here. (below). He was all of 29 years old!  He had been married for just one year to the former Sara Josephine Brown.  At that time, Evens & Howard was one of the top refractories operations in the country. 133 acres, over 30 downdraft kilns, and a reputation for making some of the finest refractory products on the market.Evens_Howard_Cheltenham


In 1910, Mr. Green visited Mexico on a business trip for Evens and Howard. He saw the Mexico Fire Brick plant.  By contrast to E&H, this Mexico plant was a TINY operation. With relatively few kilns, on a MUCH smaller property and just a fraction of the workforce of E&H.  Additionally, the Mexico plant apparently had a reputation in the industry that wasn’t all that great. An article published inthe Missouri Geological Survey of 1896, outlining the refractories industry across the state of Missouri said that the machine-made bricks from the Mexico plant “didn’t inspire confidence”.

So my question is this:   What was it that Allen Percival Green actually SAW in the Mexico Plant that made him go back to the owners at Evens & Howard and suggest they immediately buy the small Mexico operation? And even MORE remarkably, when they refused to take that advice, what was it that made him at the age of 35, with a young wife and family, take nearly every penny he’d saved, and leave a “Cadillac” operation in St. Louis to buy this small factory and move to Mexico to take over the plant?  A plant that within just a few years would bear his name.

Certainly it must have been due in part the stellar quality of the local clay, and the fact that it could so (relatively) easily and cheaply be excavated by surface operations. It is difficult to believe though, that the quality and availability of the clay was ALL of his reasoning behind such a bold move.   Perhaps I’m wrong, but given the evidence of the first few years after he’d relocated to Mexico, I’d also like to think it had to do with what he saw in our town itself, and in the character of her people.

Why else would he take the lion’s share of his profits and dividends from the company in those early years and pour them back into the development and expansion of the local plant? And not just the plant, but also into the town itself.  Why would he become an active and engaged civic leader in arenas far beyond the brick-yard?  He was, within a year or two of relocating here, a leader in the Mexico Commercial Club.  In that role he actively helped other local business leaders learn to expect excellence in their own operations. He was a member of the school board. He was an early and instrumental advocate for getting a “Farm Agent” in Mexico, a man who was a paid representative of the Department of Agriculture. A man whose  job was to help local farmers run better, more profitable and productive farms, in order to raise the overall quality of farm operations in the county.  Why else does Mr. Green’s name appear over and over and over in the papers in those early years after his acquisition of “the plant” whenever some initiative to make Mexico a better town was afoot. He obviously loved his new town, and did all he could to help her grow and succeed.

No doubt he had his faults.  We all do.  But at least through the lens of history, his contributions to making Mexico what it was in its heyday of the last century are nothing less than utterly remarkable. By taking a small and unremarkable factory, and growing it into a world leader in its industry, and one that employed or otherwise supported so many of us or our friends and family, truly was a success story the likes of which is not often seen. It’s the quintessential American success story. He was obviously a visionary of extraordinary measure.

Certainly there were other civic leaders of note in Mexico, both before and after Mr. Green, and those of you who live or grew up there could no doubt name several of them.  A stroll through the more historic sections of Elmwood Cemetery reading names on the gravestones would quickly remind you.   We owe ALL of them a debt of gratitude.

None of us can know what Mexico might have been like if Mr. Green had taken to heart the “no” answer from the owners back at Evens & Howard when he proposed they purchase the Mexico Fire Brick Company, and just quietly gone about doing his job back in St. Louis. But to his great credit, and to our good fortune, he saw something better in a remarkable little town in the middle of a sea of farmland. He saw something better, and worked to make that vision a reality.

Mr. Green died the year before I was born. I never met him, but I surely have felt his legacy over and over and over again through the years. I felt it each morning when my dad headed off to “the plant”, and I could feel the pride he took in a “job well done.” I felt it on late night trips to the plant with my dad to check on something his department was working on.  I felt it as I wandered the Green Estate on my bike, or by foot late at night (shhhhh!).   I felt it when I’d go swimming or fishing at “the pits”.  I felt it in later years, each time I’d smile and say that Mexico was the “Fire Brick & Saddle Horse Capital of the World”. (wink, wink … the “Mexico Mantra”).  And I still feel it today when I think back on how lucky I was to grow up in a small town that embodied so many notions we have of the perfect and idyllic childhood.  It wasn’t Mayberry.  But it was darn close in a lot of ways.

I live 450 miles away these days in TN, and have lived here now for longer than I lived in Mexico. But Mexico IS and always WILL be “home”, and for that I am truly proud. Thinking back to those 18 formative years that I lived in Mexico and remembering the good times with smiles and laughter is a truly joyful thing.  Maybe I’m just being wistful for days gone by, but I’d sure like to believe that a little of whatever spark, whatever potential, whatever intriguing and enticing draw that Mr. Green felt 103 years ago back in 1910 still lives in our town.  I believe that spark lives in each of you. I can feel it when you write here about your childhood. I can feel it when we think about “the square” or “the fair” or Kwikis or Bellos or the Soybean Festival or …. on and on and on. I think maybe it’s why we have this group, and why we have named it as we have.

I travel through a lot of small towns.   One thing is obvious.  The world is a difficult place for small towns these days.  It’s not *just* that the “Walmarts” of the world have led to the decline of the town square, and business districts all across our country, though that is certainly true.  It’s not just that large chain supermarkets have led to the extinction of the Mom & Pop neighborhood grocery stores, though sadly, those small stores are almost completely gone.    It’s also that in some very profound and fundamental way, young people these days seem to have much less desire to stay in our small towns.  So seldom do you see examples of the sort of drive and vision that Mr. Green and people like him had to help make their communities (and by extension, our country) thrive.   At the very least, it’s safe to say the world in 2013 is a completely different place for small towns than it was back in 1910.   Even so, I’d like to think that places like Mexico still have their best days ahead of them.  You see it in the new merchants, specialty shops, and restaurants that are slowly starting to repopulate the storefronts around the Mexico square and in towns like it around the country.  I’m thankful for the progressive and bold leadership of merchants, business owners and citizens who try to have a vision of something better for their communities.  My prayer is that their vision continues to gather steam, and to bring back a little of what was nearly lost.   If you try real hard, I think you can see glimpses that such a reality just might be possible.

If you’re still reading along, thanks for indulging me. Hope to see you “on the square” one of these days …. all revitalized and thriving once again. Maybe we’ll stop in one of those new businesses to get a cup and coffee and a piece of pie, and to chat about what an amazing little town Mexico is.  Again.

I think that would make Mr. Green and those who have shared in his legacy really happy.

April 22, 2013
by John Shouse

the rescue

I had a dream last night about my dear friend Craig who died tragically a couple of months ago.   I don’t put a lot of stock in the mystical interpretation of dreams.   But I do  think that dreams are your brain’s attempt to make sense of things in your life.    I don’t know if this one helps in that regard or not.   All I know is that his death shook me to the core of my soul,  and I still miss him terribly.

In the dream, Craig was riding a motorcycle down a country road, and I was riding along behind him as his passenger.  It was a lovely ride.   The road was dappled with sunlight, and flanked by woods on either side.  However, the farther we ride, the darker the road became.  At some point on the ride, the road begins to narrow quite a bit, and Craig stopped the bike.   I looked over into the edge of the woods and there were two very young deer standing there, within a few yards of where we were parked.  They looked at me with eyes that were sad, frightened and lost.  I could tell they needed help, but not really sure why or how.

I got off the bike and walked over to where they were standing, and they didn’t make any attempt to run.   I saw that they were stuck somehow in a fallen fence row, and couldn’t move.   I reached down to try to untangle their legs so they could get free.  Just then I heard the growl of a big predatory cat of some kind.     “I’m taking the deer with us” I told Craig.   He said, “No, leave them.  We can’t take them on the bike.”     Not paying any attention, I picked up first one deer and then the other in a sort of a fireman’s carry.   I got on the bike and told him “Get us out of here.”   So, with me on back of the bike, holding two deer across my shoulders, he gunned the throttle and we sped off.   I suddenly became aware that we were being chased.  I looked around and saw there were three cheetahs, fangs bared, racing after us.    I told him, “Step on it!!”    “Going as fast as we can!”, he yelled.   Then he said, “Drop the deer!!  I can’t out-run them!”    “NO WAY” I hollered back at him.   Meanwhile, the cheetahs were indeed gaining on us.   I keep looking back, and every time I do, the three cheetahs are closer.  Soon they are so close I can hear them panting, full of blood-lust for fresh deer meat.    I shouted to Craig, “Where are you going??”   “Trust me, we’re almost there!!” he yelled back.   Next thing I know, the unfamiliar country road we’re riding on morphs into one that I know.  It’s the gravel road that goes up the hill to my grandfather’s old house from decades ago.   A house I knew so well as a child, and loved to visit.  My grandfather’s house was basically just a little two-room shack without running water, at the end of a gravel road in Missouri.    Except in this dream wasn’t my PaPa’s house, it was CRAIG’s house.   I can see the house up ahead, but the deer are starting to get really heavy.

We’re getting closer and closer to the gate and the fence around the yard, the cheetahs are starting to nip at the back tire on the bike, and at me too.    Just as the lead cheetah makes his killing pounce toward his prey, we speed through the gate.  At that very instant the cheetah is suddenly struck-down out of mid- air by some sort of invisible force–field around the perimeter of the yard.  Then a second later the next two cats also slam full-speed into the force field and are struck down.

We pull up to the little shack and I let the deer down, they scamper off.    Craig and I walk up on the front porch and sit down in a couple of well-worn rocking chairs, and each take a deep breath.  I look over at him, and he’s smiling so contentedly.   Then he magically produces a tray with a big pitcher of fresh lemonade and two glasses with ice, and we start to sip the lemonade.

Just then I look up and I notice that his yard is full of dozens of deer. Maybe hundreds.  They’re all just carelessly grazing, with a few of the younger ones frolicking around the sunny yard.    It’s so beautiful that tears start to well up in my eyes.   Just then, two deer walk up and stand there a second in front of the porch and stare at me.  Such beautiful eyes.  Somehow I know it’s the two we just rescued.  And I knew they were thanking us.

I turned to ask Craig a question.    “What……”    but I stopped short, because he’s gone and his now-empty rocking chair is gently rocking to a stop.

That’s when I woke up.   With tears in my eyes.   It was still the middle of the night.   I didn’t know it was even possible to cry when you’re asleep.

Turns out, it is.