Channeling Jack's Ghost

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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

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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.