(An American Tragedy)

Donald K. Muschany


[Letter 2, undated]

Dear Cousin, “Doc”:

     I truly believe that I have successfully passed through the Age of Wisdom into the Age of Appreciation. How’s that for an erudite thought?
     True, Henry David Thoreau had his Walden, FDR had Shangri La; J.F.K. his Hyannisport; H.S.T., Key West, and What’s-his-Name has San Clemente, not to mention Jerry’s Vail, Colorado. Well, I’ve had Howell, Missouri. True, it only exists in the mind, but this way it can always remain the same beautiful, exciting, refreshing, memorable place.
     At the tender and somewhat innocent age of six, I began the long and tedious process known as education. For the next eight years, I would be getting my Three R’s, plus a fourth R for Responsibility, in a one-room school house, complete with an outside facility for plumbing and basic nature study. All of this realm was presided over by one teacher; her specialty was everything.
     It’s true. All eight grades were taught in one room by one teacher. When we think of a teacher being proficient today—we had it then and didn’t know it.
     That long bench in front of the school room was a magic place because it was the spot where recitations were expected—not excuses, written or otherwise. Near the center of the room, a Charter Oak wood stove stood rather majestically, as if it knew it was in command of comfort. (Who needed thermostats?) That stove needn’t have been so proud as it only provided surface warmth; friendship, mutual interest, and appreciation for another gave off a glow that made up the difference.
     My teachers cannot be forgotten. My very first teacher was Elsie Knippenberg, 1921-1923; then Hazel Worley, 1924; Eugenia Nahm, 1925; Viola Mades, 1926; and, last but not least, was Martha Cunningham, 1927-1929. The people were not only teachers, but friends, counselors, confessors, nurses, and you name it. Each of these people left a carbon copy of their characters indelibly stamped on me in my tiny world of Howell.
     Recess meant competition; tag, marbles, jumping—even pole vaulting, if someone had brought a pole from a new roll of linoleum, or even a tree branch. Whoever said, “Necessity is the mother of invention” must have visited Howell. Incidentally, I caught it from my father for appropriating a few bamboo poles from his linoleum rolls at the family store.
     Basketball was a big sport; mainly because we were too small a community to staff sports calling for multitudes and for equipment, and there also was a factor called “money.” We worked on Zero-budget, long before the economists thought up the idea, though we didn’t know it. We had no gym, but the old ground basketball court worked just fine, rain or shine. Rusty Cunningham and Clyde Koelling, Landon “Fats” Schlueter, Ralph Portwood, and Ralph Sutton were our hot-shot players. The games never lacked spirit, especially if we were losing. We were playing the Augusta High School team, with six men on their side (the referee was from Augusta) and when it became obvious that we couldn’t win, some of our rooters took the opposing team’s clothing and dumped them into tubs of water. The rhubarb that followed was better by far than the game. Again Mother Invention created Fun.
     Baseball was always played, and maybe Grantland Rice was right when he said, “It matters not who won or lost but how you played the game.” No truer words have been spoken. What really counts is how you play the game.
     Remember the four-room Francis Howell High School? We didn’t know it at the time, but this was college prep. I happily realized this fact in Central Methodist College at Fayette, Missouri as I’m sure you did in college, at Westminster at Fulton, Missouri and Med School. Today, Doc, schools have to have this or that credential or association sponsorship, but are rated lower academically than was Old Francis Howell High School. Our counselors were called teachers and parents in those happy days. Remember?
     I referred to a few leprechauns in my last letter, but now I want to add another possibility, the Welsh background of the Howells. Doc, Mary Jayne and I have done a lot of traveling in the last number of years, and I can say without the slightest hesitation that I am not aware of a happier, more congenial, humorous group than the people in Wales. They have little earthly goods, save for their open pit mines, but they’ll offer you some of everything, especially themselves. This is the spirit the Howells brought to the town of Mechanicsville. The name “Mechanicsville” was changed at a later date to “Howell.” The reason for the change was more than justified.
     Strength, bravery, and fortitude were prime essentials, of course, but without the ability to laugh a bit at adversity, I feel they would have moved on to less dangerous and more fruitful locations. They stayed and taught the French “farmers” what real farming was all about.
     All Americans are familiar with Daniel Boone, but how many know that the Howells were set up pretty well before Dan’l became our most famous resident? It certainly isn’t my purpose to downgrade such a man as Old Dan’l, nor to rewrite Missouri history, but only to allow as how there were other hardy folks out Howell-way.
     Doc, you are truly living out the most obvious tradition, by being a medical doctor, as the Howell story tells it. The Howell men went to what is now Mizzou for medical school, while the women learned to make and keep a household after their men constructed it. They had to have 36-hour days in those times for the women to do what they did. Women’s Lib would have had everyone in court or jail . . . every man, that is.
     The young unmarried women seemed to do one main thing; think about getting married. I have read some of the letters of the day (and felt guilty, but convinced myself that this was research), and I must say I now know what Emily Dickinson was talking about. Each letter was a lone poem, an outpouring of natural young womanhood. In those days, out our way, a psychiatrist would have starved to death in a week or less. Every girl had a cousin/correspondent on whom she could unburden herself, and it was mutual. A lovely time of life! . . .  it makes me feel like writing a poem, but I’ll subjugate that desire in order to keep your valued friendship.
     I am about to get into the doings and undoings of our boyhood days and if I get you into any malpractice suits, I’m sorry. Of course, when you were about five years old you were practicing medicine with the stethoscope on man and beast with or without their permission.
More later, Doc,
[signed: Don K.]

Special Note to Keith and Donna:

     My dear son and daughter, please don’t feel that these meanderings pertain only to “Doc” and me. I am only trying to give you a feeling of what it was like in what you call “the olden days” (I wince every time you use that geriatric term).
     I have said to Norman that Howell, Missouri, of late memory, was my Walden Pond, etc., and I want to show you that kids did have fun without being called “teenagers” in a derogatory tone by some tight-lipped “older” person. Sure, we had Christmas, but the accent was on the religiosity of the festival. We did have one “BIG’’ present plus a lot of stocking-stuffers, such as candy, fruit and maybe a harmonica or a bubble pipe. Occasionally, a miniature Stutz Bearcat car would be there. You see, we used to see such things on their way to California on the Boonslick Road, the daddy of Highway 40 in our area. As you know, Dan’l Boone’s house was nearby as were many relics of his handiwork, not to mention descendants.
     We looked forward to Hallowe’en, and we did do those crazy things mentioned in the great book about our neighbor, Ralph Sutton, in “Piano Man.” Taking apart a surrey, or a spring wagon, only to reconstruct them on top of the grade school or Francis Howell High School, or making sure every outhouse was turned over was Hallowe’en fun. This was, by the way, a national rural pastime, indigenous to no particular geographical locale. And was it work!!! A boy usually only spent a year or two in this phase of his skullduggery life.
     (I think that nostalgia is like a Grammar lesson: We find the present tense and the past perfect.)
     So, bear with me as we brave the wilds of Howell.

Dad (Old)