300001: A Road Odyssey

300001
Should’ve planned it better. Some exotic background like Mt. Rushmore or the Golden Gate Bridge. After all, this car has been my steed for 17 years. But the milestone sneaked up on us, along a busy interstate.

You wouldn’t pick her for World’s Greatest Car.

Her headlamps have filmy cataracts. Her doors are dented, and she suffered the insult of a salvage title after her complexion was pocked by a hailstorm. She smells of antifreeze. Her transmission whines. Her brakes squeal.

But she’s a keeper.

I met her in a car lot 17 years ago. She was sleek and new and lipstick red, and even though I didn’t realize it at the time, she would set course on a journey no other car has made; she’s driven every mile of every road on Missouri’s highway map.

Her name reflects the auto company that built her, a company that folded and faded in the rearview mirror, leaving Erifnus Caitnop to fend for herself. Yet she remains strong, reaching an age when 99 percent of her peers have been pounded into refrigerator magnets.

With little planning, Erifnus and I began a string of shortcuts that lasted beyond a dozen years, a journey that left our tire tracks along every inch of state-maintained pavement, every county road from AA to ZZ, plus thousands of miles of gravel and dirt.

This 1999 Pontiac Sunfire became my Trigger, my Lassie, my Old Faithful. She’s dauntless on dirt roads and fearless beside 40-ton truckships. She’s crossed Skull Lick Creek and Rabbit Head Creek. She’s climbed Long Tater Hill, descended to Devil’s Well and the Little Grand Canyon and three Toad Sucks. Oh, and the Garden of Eden.

She’s witnessed OcToasterFest and the Testicle Festival, and a mineral springs with two iron pipes that deliver separate healing waters to Democrats and Republicans.

She’s outlived the company that made her. But I wouldn’t trade her for the Mona Lisa.

This car won an Emmy. Oh, I went along for the ride, but the car was the star of the show.

Erifnus doesn’t care. Even as she nurses a small patch of rust beneath her passenger door, she’s a workhorse, performing flawlessly, for the most part. Blame her brushes with danger on driver error.

I drove into danger because I was curious. Erifnus did it because she had no choice. But she’s a gymnast, handling like a thoroughbred through curves and mud, dodging texters and tweeters and road ragers and drunks and texters and squirrels, dogs, cats and deer and terrapins and texters. We’ve slid sideways in sleet, jumped curbs and low-water crossings. We’ve passed every pun on every roadside marquee, every time-and-temperature sign, every clip joint and carny barker and corn dog vendor, every barbecue shack and taco stand.

And we’ve stopped at most of ’em.

That’s why I should’ve planned better when her milestone sneaked up on us as we left hometown Columbia’s city limits. We pulled off I-70 and into a parking lot, where I made Erifnus Caitnop turn in circles until she reached 300,000 miles. It was an insensitive thing to do to an old horse who has served so well. But I wanted photos...and not on the shoulder of I-70.

During our short celebratory detour, I-70 had backed to a standstill. So Erifnus did what she does best: hit the backroads. Blacktops to Millersburg through Mark Twain’s deep forest past Tonanzio’s tables where in a different millennium we feasted like Bacchus. We passed white-fenced farms raising white-faced horses, followed a river that led past Dan’l Boone’s grave and a dozen vineyards. We reached our destination late, with more stories than a barrel o’ bards/troubadours.

Come to think of it, we got a good start on 400,000.

John Robinson is considering one of two titles for his upcoming book: 1) Pioneers Need Pants and Other Stories from the Road or 2) 300001: A Road Odyssey. Which do you like? Read more of the author’s stories at JohnDrakeRobinson.com.

Channeling Jack's Ghost

sunkencanoe
At the Ozark Orchard Restaurant in Eminence, between sumptuous bites of homemade onion rings and fish soup, I learned the legend of Captain Jack.

A young Shawnee Indian boy stowed away on a packet steamer headed down the Ohio River in 1811. As the boat reached the Mississippi and started south, the New Madrid Earthquake turned the waters backward and wrecked the steamer, pinning the captain in the wreckage. The boy, nicknamed Jack, freed the captain, and for the kid’s bravery, the skipper gave his captain’s cap to Jack.

After a career on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, Captain Jack settled along the river that eventually took his name: the Jacks Fork. Always wearing his cap, Jack became a fixture on the river. For decades, day and night, summer and winter, he poled his john boat up and down the river. He was a bit mysterious, but he looked official in his captain’s hat.

Today Jack’s spirit warns floaters, even experienced floaters, that this river—any river—can be tricky.

They’re about to become trickier.

Come mid-summer, floaters may lose a key river tool. The tool isn’t something you buy at the Jiffymart with beer and snacks.

It’s a gauge—one of 49 gauges that measure our rivers in key spots. These gauges—operated by the United States Geological Service—have saved countless lives by reporting water volume and river levels to your smart phone. Smart floaters use these gauges. Combined with weather forecasts, the gauges can help plan a safer experience on the river and help avoid high-water tragedy and low-water trudgery. Gauges inform floaters on the Current River, the Jacks Fork, Eleven Point, Meramec, Huzzah, Little Piney and the Big and Little Niangua Rivers.

Avoiding float trip tragedy is only one purpose for these stream gauges. Beyond these Ozark float streams, the same type gauges are on many rivers for a different reason. They provide data for managing drinking water and timing wastewater discharges and reservoir releases, irrigation, even power plants. They’re used to manage habitat. They help design bridges and levees and dams.

But current funding for these 49 USGS gauges in Missouri will end June 30. Unless other funding sources are identified, the information from these gauges will no longer be available.

If you’re a Navy Seal, you probably feel secure without these reports. If you’re a mother sending your kid into the unknown, you may not be so sure.

Figures from the USGS indicate that one gauge costs about $15,000 to operate for a year. If a gauge is removed a re-install would add about $15,000.

Writer, geologist and hydrology expert Jo Schaper compares “rivers without gauging stations to roads without traffic signals. You could still use the roads, but the risk would be much greater.”

Former Missouri Department of Natural Resources Environmental Specialist Sharon Clifford brings up another issue. As MDNR’s first coordinator to monitor our streams’ Total Daily Maximum Loads, Clifford recalls that “40 states were sued over this issue. It’s about fixing waterways that don’t meet standards after all permits are issued, and it’s part of the Clean Water Act. To calculate a TMDL, you must have good flow information to plug into the model. Without it, it isn’t possible to do it accurately. So what now? More lawsuits? Huge waste of tax payer dollars.”

It’s like driving a car without a gas gauge.

Your mechanic has a phrase for it: “You can pay me now, or you can pay me later.”

Listen to your mechanic. Contact your state and federal representatives and tell them to keep the river gauges.

It might save a soul from joining the ghost of Captain Jack.

Read more of the author’s stories at JohnDrakeRobinson.com. His previous books, Coastal Missouri and A Road Trip Into America’s Hidden Heart are available at independent bookstores and online booksellers everywhere.

Churchill, Church & Charm

KingsRow-3
They were the best sliders I ever ate. Smoked to a moist perfection, the brisket slices draped off the toasted bun, almost dripping the barbecue sauce onto my plate. And those sliders were on my mind as Erifnus, my car, rolled into Fulton.

No doubt about it, Beks knows how to serve up sumptuous fare inside the warm ambiance of this charming restaurant in the historic Brick District of Fulton. So Erifnus beat a path to the Brick District and let me graze. I’d had the sliders before, so today the black and blue tilapia jumped off the menu, blackened with bleu cheese crumbles.

Across the old brick street from Beks, the tailor to your brain beckons. Well Read Books, an independent bookstore, fills its 120-year-old space with book smells and good light, easychairs and cats.

Fulton tells a good story. It’s the setting for a pair of dramatic portrayals by the world’s two top conservative icons. Ronald Reagan calls King’s Row his best movie. Filmed in 1942, it’s a fictional story about folks in Fulton. Four years later, Winston Churchill delivered his Iron Curtain Speech on the campus of Fulton’s Westminster College and set in motion the American visual of the Cold War, which consumed the attention of an octet of presidents, including Reagan.

The Winston Churchill National Museum sits in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury. The old church gets around. It was built nearly 900 years ago in the middle of London. Sir Christopher Wren redesigned the chapel after the 1666 Great Fire of London gutted its interior. The blitzkriegs of 1941 destroyed the old church, again. But it survived enough that in the mother of all pilgrimages, loving hands picked up the church, jumped the pond and plopped it down in Fulton. They disassembled and reassembled it using a numbering system that’s part paint-by-number, part Rubik’s Cube. Having undergone a facelift worthy of Wren, the church houses a museum celebrating Churchill’s life and achievements. Outside sits just enough of the Berlin Wall to give you a creepy feel for the reality of the Cold War standoff.

In a way, this place has become the American Westminster Abbey—without all the dead bodies. But it’s real, and presented tastefully. Before the old church made its big leap, before the tragic fire and the awful bombs, it was the place where William Shakespeare prayed for good reviews and where John Milton got married. I think Milton talks about his marriage in his autobiography, Paradise Lost. Maybe not. During an earlier visit to Fulton, I searched in vain throughout the college for a Paradise Lost and Found. The Kingdom holds no such treasure.

The town also treasures its most famous resident that nobody talks about. Henry Bellamann was born and raised in Fulton, and when he moved away to teach music at Julliard and Vassar, he dabbled in psychology and poetry. But his lasting legacy is a dark description of psychological terror and taboo, the seed for the modern soap opera. It’s the novel, King’s Row–the same book that later boosted Ronald Reagan’s career—about a small town with whitewashed fences and whitewashed reputations hiding dirty little corners and the seamy underbelly of its residents’ obsessions with money and status, class and racism, sex and sadomasochism, profit and plunder, and a cornucopia of mental afflictions.

The novel begins by advising readers that the story is fictional and could be about any town anywhere. To be fair, that statement is true. But there’s little doubt that Bellamann’s setting is Fulton. In the acutely sanitized movie adaptation of the book, Ronald Reagan received accolades for his performance. But the movie bears little resemblance to the novel’s deep disturbing Dostoyevsky-like themes and subplots. Literary critics call this book the blueprint for Peyton Place—and every soap opera since.

The above is an excerpt from John Robinson’s third book, Pioneers Need Pants, to be published in 2017. Read more of the author’s stories at JohnDrakeRobinson.com. His previous books, Coastal Missouri and A Road Trip Into America’s Hidden Heart are available at independent bookstores and online booksellers everywhere.

Something Old, Something New

ridewiththedevil
Missourians can’t help it. They keep tearing Lawrence down.

Apologies to the good people of Lawrence, Kansas—both of them—but there’s bad blood between them and us. In fact, the Civil War really began along the border between Missouri and Kansas, long before the first shots rang out at Fort Sumter.

The first time Lawrence got torched was in 1856 during the Bleeding Kansas conflict. Jesse James was only eight years old, so it’s doubtful his mom let him make the trip. Seven years later, he likely missed the second burning of Lawrence, too. But brother Frank was there, along with William Quantrill, Bloody Bill Anderson, Archie Clement and a cadre of Bushwhackers.

Ang Lee’s movie, “Ride with the Devil,” wasn’t the first celluloid treatment of the 1863 burning of Lawrence. But Lee was the first to use an old abandoned Missouri town as the movie set. Lee found the perfect torchable town in Old Pattonsburg, Missouri, a town so ravaged by floods that the inhabitants moved out of the Grand River valley, up the hill and established a new Pattonsburg. Left behind, venerable old brick buildings—a church, a post office, mercantile stores—stood empty along Old Pattonsburg’s main street.

With Hollywood skill, Lee transformed the old ghost town, made it look like Lawrence, and torched it again. Ang Lee’s circus of actors and technicians and trailers added a cash infusion to the local economy. Motel rooms sold out for weeks as movie crews spent money in local stores on food and booze and gas and stuff.

After Lee’s movie, folks were excited that a burgeoning movie industry might take a foothold in this old ghost town, which could be dressed up to look like Anytown main street from the 1850s to the 1950s.

With low overhead that would compete with the Canadian film industry, the town was poised to nickname itself Movie Set, Missouri. Instead, local authorities finished off what Bushwhacker actors had left standing. After Ang Lee’s carnival left the old ghost town, locals razed the solid old buildings on Main Street. They just tore them down. According to more than one source, the county couldn’t afford liability insurance. Plus, law enforcement authorities worried that kids would party in the empty streets and buildings.

Legitimate concerns.

But with one big movie under its belt, Old Pattonsburg had street cred. It could have provided the small-town backdrop for movies about any era from Twain to Truman. Film a movie on the lot once every ten years, and you could reap enough income for liability insurance, two deputies to chase out the vagrants and enough money left over to pay a few teachers’ salaries.

It was a forfeiture of forward thinking.

Kansans had the last laugh. They rebuilt Lawrence. Old Pattonsburg bit the dust.

But if there’s ever a living testament to the phrase “Life goes on,” it’s new Pattonsburg. When the citizens of Old Pattonsburg got tired of the floods and planned their new shining city on a hill, they designed a new school in the shape of a geodesic dome. They built a modern business district, with artifacts from Old Pattonsburg.

In a new Pattonsburg at the Old Memorie Cafe I found a mural commemorating “Ride with the Devil.” The scene, painted by Elanor McMahall, is a reminder of Old Pattonsburg’s last days, when Ang Lee brought his Hollywood carnival to town, dressed her up like Lawrence and set her ablaze.

It’s a vivid story of a tragic time set in a Missouri ghost town that had endured her own turbulence.

The above is an excerpt from John Robinson’s third book, Pioneers Need Pants, to be published in 2017. Read more of the author’s stories at JohnDrakeRobinson.com. His previous books, Coastal Missouri and A Road Trip Into America’s Hidden Heart are available at independent bookstores and online booksellers everywhere.

The Tuscumbia/Beverly Hills Pipeline

beverlyhillbillies
On a hilltop overlooking the Osage River, a part of your history sleeps. And I’ll wager a fancy leather lunchbox full of Texas tea that most Americans probably have spent more hours absorbing this history than they did learning about Osage Chief James Bigheart or the slaughter of the bison in Missouri.

Most locals can tell you about this unique history, spawned by Tuscumbia’s most famous permanent residents. You might not know them, but you know their stories. On the edge of town, Paul and Ruth Henning sleep the eternal sleep. They’re in Tuscumbia Cemetery now, their unassuming gravestones in the shade of a giant cedar tree. There’s no pronouncement carved in granite that “Here lie the maw and paw of the Beverly Hillbillies.”

But their stories live on in celluloid. Although they made their mark in Hollywood, they made their final resting place in the land that produced the rich fabric of their stories, some of them only a stone’s throw from this plot.

Ruth grew up here, and when she got a job at a Kansas City radio station and met her city-boy beau Paul, she enriched his life with her rural stories.

As a fledgling songbird at KMBZ, Paul’s television hits were still over the horizon—and might not have happened at all if it weren’t for two important life choices.

His first key decision came after a brush with greatness. He was a child when his family moved from his Blue Ridge, Missouri, birthplace to nearby Independence. As a student at William Chrisman High School, Paul earned extra money as a soda jerk in the hours after school. There’s a legend around the Independence square that back in 1929, Harry Truman sat at the soda fountain at Pendleton’s Drugstore and offered advice to Henning: “Become a lawyer.”

Henning went to law school. But his heart followed another script, a path that led him to KMBZ, where he met the love of his life. Ruth Barth was a young singer who shared a microphone with Paul in those days of live radio theater.

That was Paul’s second important choice: He focused on Ruth. They eventually married, and like all good husbands, he listened to her stories and her advice. She became his inspiration and perhaps the biggest reason for his sitcom success. Many of Paul’s television scripts spring from the Miller County hills where Ruth spent much of her childhood.

Case in point: Hooterville sprouted from Paul’s mind, inspired by Ruth’s childhood memories.

If the Hooterville sisters’ names ring a bell—Billie Jo, Bobbie Jo and Betty Jo—you’re already familiar with my home town of Eldon, just down the road from Tuscumbia. The long-running TV tandem Petticoat Junction and Green Acres got much of their inspiration from a hotel in Eldon, where the old Rock Island railroad would deliver Ruth for summer visits. There, Ruth and her summer girlfriends engaged in the time-honored art of attracting boys.

Of course you can sing the words to Paul Henning’s most famous song, “The Ballad of Jed Clampett.”

Not only did Henning write “The Beverly Hillbillies” themesong and create the TV spinoffs “Petticoat Junction” and “Green Acres,” his very first TV hit has roots in Missouri, too. The Bob Cummings Show featured a trendy photographer who migrated to Hollywood from Joplin, Missouri.

Throughout his television career, Henning produced a gusher of scripts with more footprints in Missouri than a cement pond full o’ possums.

As I stood beside their graves, it struck me that more people have formed their impressions of Ozarks hill people from Ruth and Paul and their Beverly Hillbillies, than from any history of the region. That’s not surprising. Most people get their knowledge of classical music from Looney Tunes.

Read more of the author’s stories at
JohnDrakeRobinson.com. His books, Coastal Missouri and A Road Trip Into America’s Hidden Heart are available at independent bookstores and online booksellers everywhere.