(An American Tragedy)

Donald K. Muschany


[Letter 3]

September 14, 1976

Dear “Doc”:

     I have continued to research this project until my eyeballs are in need of a transplant, but it’s worth it. It looks so simple once you have it on paper, but before you reach that point you can look a solid week for just one date.
     I have just reread “Piano Man,” about our illustrious boyhood companion, famous jazz pianist Ralph Sutton. You and he made quite a pair, especially as “embalmers” at my father’s funeral home. I wince when I think about Dad sending one of you for sandwiches and Pepsis, and expecting you to eat them in front of the “embalmee” as he did. I think that it is nothing short of a miracle that, today, I am a funeral director. I also shudder to think what the unions and state health people would say to that today. They’d have us in jail and throw away the key.
     The thought of the threshing season revives memories that bless and burn. To think of all the farm wives trying to outdo each other in cooking for the threshers boggles the mind, especially since most of us are now losing the battle of the bulge—around the middle, that is. Fried chicken, country ham and lunch meats, mashed potatoes (mashed with cream), candied yams, and fifteen kinds of pie and cake were brought out three times a day, with a midmorning snack and a midafternoon pick-me-up. Naturally, fresh lemonade was the drink of the day. That beats the tomato and cottage cheese I had for lunch today by a million miles and forty-five years.
     Martin Grieve and Bill Toedebush ran the threshing rigs, but I got that most important job of all, Water Boy, mainly because I had an Indian Pinto Pony and advertised all year long that I would be more than available for the job. I would do it for the “eats” alone as anyone whoever attended a threshing knows.
     But my pony, Teddy, had a weakness and farmhands are practical jokers. Teddy couldn’t stand loud noises, and Martin Grieve knew it. When I got within range of the rig, old Martin would let go with the steam whistle and old Teddy rose up and took off, without me as I lay there staring at the sky, trying to avoid hearing the laughing threshers. I would have my day . . . maybe a little Epsom salts in the water for Martin Grieve.
     We did not worry about the atomic or nuclear bomb or wonder what Russia or China was doing. A sport was simply a sport and not managed by professionals for money. I am sure we have come a long way but we have lost somethings of value that can never be replaced. We had to entertain ourselves and did so by playing horseshoes. Roy Blize, Bill Bates and Glen Yahn were the best. Croquet was played by our family. Things just moved at a slowed pace and everyone was the better for it.
     And hunting and fishing? Sure, this was fun, BUT they also provided food as well as our trophies. Instead of Shakespeare reels, we had a hook and line. For bait, we had a ton of fat worms and grasshoppers free. If I mentioned fried squirrel to my kids, they’d throw up. Norm, what did we use in place of peanut butter? Was it sorghum, homemade jelly or preserves? There were no hand guns, just hunting rifles and single-barrel shotguns. You could find a pump gun if you looked hard enough.
     (Pardon a moment while I brush away a tear.) We didn’t know what a “Saturday Night Special” was.
     Elton Pitman and his boys were experts at clay-bird shooting. Now they call that trap or skeet shooting. Anyway, we always knew who excelled in every sport. The towns of Hamburg and Howell were so small that no one could keep a secret—they didn’t even want to.
     It’s a good thing we didn’t have money or we would have missed all this free or near-free entertainment. And Christmas trees were live and eye-picked about August in the woods. After Christmas, remember the big bonfire and Twelfth Night supper? Doc, we got some mileage out of every feast or festival; about 90% efficiency. A youngster who goes through life without riding one time in a horse-drawn sleigh has missed a unique treat never to be duplicated.
     I am not trying to convince young folks that they haven’t lived but, more so, that we can look back on our times and enjoy them all over again. That means they must have been great! I hope the young folks of today may be privileged to do the same. Many things are worth preserving.
     However, all was not gold in the country. We simply did not miss what we did not know about. There was an old song made popular in World War I, “How You Gonna Keep Him Down On The Farm, After He’s Seen Paree?” There was some truth in this, and many farm boys did not return to the farm . . . but later most regretted it. We had our usual children’s diseases and no wonder-drugs to combat them. We had make-shift steamers for croup and catarrh (sinus today); socks full of hot salt for earaches; herbal teas which tasted awful; castor oil, usually served with anise cookies, which I thought were worse than the oil; we had “green apple two-step” (no explanation is necessary). Surgery was a very final procedure, and generally called for a trip to St. Louis, some thirty-five miles distant, or to St. Joseph Hospital in St. Charles. Childbirth required many hands; some amateur, some professional, but all were ready to help when there was a need. It was the lot of country doctors to treat man and beast, if necessary. True, we had some very good vets, but invariably, when the M.D. made his visit, someone asked him to look at this or that animal and he did. Imagine that in our present society; even try to imagine the house call. I was born in our family home and Dr. L. E. Belding was the man in charge. If there were doctors who were specialists, they were rare. I am inclined to believe those doctors knew a little about a lot of things that made your anatomy tick.
     Different times for different rimes!

P.S.      Doc, I got into bed after writing my last letter, and I might as well have eaten lobster and drank coffee for all the sleep I got.
     I began thinking about our early aims and ambitions. You know, these are kind of nebulous and yet they’re there. I finally came to the conclusion that we were subtly trained to:

         a) Believe and trust in God,
         b) Revere family life, honor thy father and mother,
         c) Learn to be self-sufficient within that family,
         d) Get all the schooling we could,
         e) Work at what seemed to be our talent and desire,
         f) Have a place and family of our own,
         g) Give them the same happiness and counsel we received.

     Do these priorities make sense to you? At least after I drew these conclusions, it allowed me to sleep peacefully that night. It caused me to do an introspective number on myself the next day, moreover. I have been analyzing my adolescent and adult lives to see how closely I have followed this code, or formula, if you prefer.
     Being as objective as possible, I find that (a), (b), and (c) came naturally to me. I don’t recall a sense of being instructed or shaped. Rather, it was like putting on my clothes. Monday through Friday it was school clothes until chore time in late afternoon. Saturday it was all chore clothes, with Sunday being church dress-up attire day! It was all so simple in those days with very little choice being available from day to day. It was as if each garment had a meaning of its own; much in the same way as those of yours and my professions. I have always been conscious of wanting to be the man my dad was, but not of following in his work-a-day footsteps, possibly because I was thinking of (d) in a much broader sense: college, grad school, professional school, or whatever. And yet, oddly enough, I have followed Dad’s profession and, what’s more, have my son, Keith, doing the same thing.
     And then there is the recollection of having the “travel bug” as I was growing up. It was not a restless feeling or one of discontent; but, rather, one of curiosity. We had many catalogues dealing with the products my dad (and yours) carried. Ads and display material came by the mail load. Geography, too, grabbed my imagination and, Oh! yes, the radio piqued my thoughts and fantasies.
     I remember the first crystal radio set we had. What a thrill to hear a voice come through that simple contraption, and tell of happenings in other parts of the country. How could a voice travel through the airways? It was beyond my comprehension, but it certainly increased my curiosity about people and events. I must confess, I have that same bug today and it is a further stroke of good fortune that Mary Jayne shares my globe-trotting tendencies.
     I thought this odd, at first, until I read some old correspondence of my mother and my aunt, Leora, who talked of trips to take, not of a world-wide nature but of county to county, or state to state. Nonetheless, there was a sign of earlier “itchy feet” in my family, so nothing is out of place in my inherited characteristics. With all of this, I always thought of coming home with romantic tales of exotic places. Now I have many colored Kodak pictures to back up my stories.
     In Howell, we had a reading library called The Deserted Village Library. In 1924, when this library was organized, a total of $21.40 was spent for books that year. The members were Hodgen Bates, Mabel Castlio, Dwight Castlio, Juanita Dickson, Aretha Ebert, Gladys Grosce, Elvira Howell, Arch Howell, Marvin Howell, Elsie Howell, Cora Howell, Jimmy Howell, Orland Keithly, Emma Keithly, Claude Muschany, Karl Muschany, Hester Muschany, Nell Muschany, Maydell Pitman, Myrtle Snyder, Marie Stevenson, Dora Schneider, Fay Stewart, Ethelbert Stewart, Ralph Uhlmanseik, Hazel Worley, Erela Zeyen, Gordon Dickson, Harry Nienschwander, Nellie Perry, Roy Blize, Tom Doughty, Eugene Nahm, Lee Yahn, Johnnie Bine. In 1932, these names were added: Helen Zeyen, Thomas Zeyen, Donald Muschany, Rudolph Ebert, Lonnie Cunningham, William Palmer, Ruth Clark, Mabel Knysmeyer, Doris Thomas. You would never guess what they read in 1924 and in 1936. Here is a list of some of the books for both years. Remember?

     In the winter months, reading was a thrilling pastime. On a snowy day or night with a big pan of fresh-buttered popcorn, a good book and a nice hot fire, you could allow your imagination to roam in an endless fashion. Mine always did.
     I do remember that I always wanted to please my folks and others, not in any goodie-goodie fashion, but one in which they would think I had done a good job. I understand this is one of the “Only Child” syndromes, but I can’t say that I disapprove of it for all kids. I realize that we spend so much time in our lives trying to be liked rather than to be right, and I’m not advocating enlarging on that fallacy. But, so much of the world of business and profession is service-oriented that one should try to find out what pleases and have the wisdom to put it to work. Am I making sense?
     While in that one-room schoolhouse, I forgot to tell you what really gave me a burning ambition for success. It simply was those lovely hard-hitting stories of Horatio Alger. Each book had the same theme . . . anyone who really tried could succeed. I believe I read every book that he ever wrote. There was another moving factor in my young life besides a mother’s loving care and that moving spirit was Grandmother Emily Keithly. Every Sunday, after hearing a Bible lesson, she would tell a story that held a great moral. She had one secret—she never finished a story in one Sunday. You always had to come back the next Sunday to learn how the story ended. It was a clever way to assure good attendance. In every true sense, she was a scholar of the Bible and I always admired her ability to quote the chapter and verse of Scripture. Arthritis crippled her body in  later years, but her spirit was always bright and her faith in God never faltered, even as she became blind. Truly a great person.
     Really, Norm, in going back over the notes, papers, letters, etc., as I have been doing these many months has caused me to know myself better, I’m certain. In your workday and mine, there are hardly enough hours to handle the incidental things let alone time for reflection. This has been something of a spiritual retreat for me in which I temporarily forget the Federal Trade Commission, the I.R.S., my C.P.A., The Alamo, plus Pearl Harbor, and lose myself in the P A S T. What a welcome relief!
     I can conclude that parents in those days knew how to construct God-fearing, ambitious, and hopeful boys and girls. If any of those products fell apart it was not the fault of the manufacturers.

More soon,
[signed: Don]